By BRIANA MILLER
This past February, when studio visits were still viable, I spent several hours with the last class of students to graduate from the Oregon College of Art and Craft’s MFA in Craft program. Seeing their work, I was impressed by their deeply centered, introspective thesis projects, all very different, but with a common thread of self-reflection. I wrote in a note that it was quiet work for unquiet times, and I was looking forward to what I anticipated would be a coherent, cohesive exhibition of their work at Upfor in April. Then, in March, galleries around Portland closed due to COVID-19 and the thesis exhibition was cancelled. At the end of May, Upfor itself closed, as its owner, Theo LeGuin, had been planning since early this year.
It was not the culmination that Karl Burkheimer, the program chair, had hoped for for his students. “This ending was such not an ending and can be equated to reading a good book and not wanting to get to the end or watching a good movie and not wanting it to be over,” he said when we spoke in May.
Burkheimer arrived at OCAC in early 2006 as the school was in discussion with the Pacific Northwest College of Art to start a joint MFA program in applied craft and design, the only such program run between two institutions in the country. He was assigned to the committee to develop the new degree program and helped hire its first director. When OCAC decided to create its own MFA to parallel the structure of its BFA in Craft program, Burkheimer was tapped to help develop the program and was subsequently made the program chair, a role he held from 2013 until this year. When the OCAC closed in the spring of 2019, the sixth MFA class was just one year into its two-year program. Its five students transitioned from studio spaces on the OCAC campus to PNCA, which had agreed to provide instruction and studio space for OCAC’s MFA and BFA students to finish their degrees.
Thus, Rachael Clark Hendel, who works in a cross of mixed-media painting, sculpture, and installation, moved her studio to an upstairs space in PNCA’s Glass Building in North Portland. Her classmates Patrick Martin, working on a spare installation, and Andrea Simon, whose pink found object work is the antithesis of spare, both had studios tucked into the art-school clamor of the PNCA studios on the floor below. Sol Lee’s studio was back in the PNCA’s 511 Building in Northwest Portland. Cortney McConnell, the cohort’s fifth member, continued working from her family home in Oklahoma.
With the in-person thesis show cancelled, Burkeimer and LeGuin discussed making the show virtual but soon realized, as Burkheimer explained, “most everybody’s work deals with some sort of reflectivity and transparency. It would come out as blobs.”
“What was going to be interesting in the show was the juxtaposition of the work,” Burkheimer added, “What they attempted with their inquiry made for dynamic work that needs to be engaged and not just looked at.”
Rachael Clarke Hendel’s earthy Wayfinder series includes moody acrylic and graphite canvases both stretched and heavily draped. Small “stones” fabricated from plaster, ground stone, dirt, and ash are mounded like a cairn; and a molded length of “fabric” woven from cotton and steel wire seems almost like a living thing.
Tiny slips of paper–words cut out of a journal–form whispery piles in Sol Lee’s work, which explores memory and forgetting. In other pieces, words strung on thread are laced in and around delicate cups of handmade paper.
“Silence” is one of the materials listed in Patrick Martin’s installation piece, Gossamer, a long loop of meticulously woven fishing line that hangs between two small speakers. They play a recording of silence that paradoxically rustles and buzzes the thin plastic bags they’re encased in.
Cortney McConnell’s performative work incorporates rubbings of the house in Oklahoma she inherited from her grandparents. A diptych of videos pairs a recording of McConnell laboring with thin paper over wood paneling in a rustic bathroom pairs with a looped recording of her trying to roll a massive cut tree trunk over the fluttering paper in a field. The work is stark, in the same vein as a Wyeth landscape, at once soulful and fierce.
Andrea Simon’s work is an amalgam of things and materials, collected and arranged to create fragments of a real or remembered past. A girlish pink figures prominently, as in Target Practice, a piece that’s like a clothesline post or a telephone pole with a painted pink can perched on top.
In late April, Burkheimer arranged for the students to install and photograph their work at Disjecta Contemporary Art Center in a series of intense half-day sessions to document the work for a planned print catalogue and for a simple, elegant website that he envisions will serve as the program’s archive. He also continued to discuss a possible in-person show with LeGuin.
The two men have known each other for many years, and the gallery and the MFA program share something of a history. Both the gallery and the MFA started in 2013, and, in 2015, LeGuin hosted the inaugural MFA in Craft thesis exhibition along with the neighboring PDX Contemporary Art. Later, LeGuin gave one of that shows artist’s, the painter Morgan Buck, a solo show in his gallery’s backroom space.
As the city prepared to reopen in mid-June, Burkheimer arranged with LeGuin for the students’ show to go up as LeGuin dismantled the gallery side of his business. But as protests around the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis continued, Burkheimer’s students requested that the show be delayed in deference to events happening in Portland and around the country.
“Re|solve,” the hard-won final thesis show of the final class of the OCAC MFA in Craft program opened in the now-emptied Upfor space on July 10. It didn’t have an opening reception and won’t have a closing one due to COVID-19, but it will have a week-long run before it closes on July 16. That may give it the added distinction of being the only thesis show that gets an in-person exhibition in Portland this year.
“I wish that as many people as is prudently possible can come and see the show,” said LeGuin. Measured words for uncertain times. I for one can’t wait to see it.
Re/solve is on view at Upfor Gallery (929 NW Flanders St.) through Thursday, July 16th. The gallery is open from 12pm – 5pm.