Have you ever wondered what Sasquatch does in their free time? Granted, it’s a strange question, but then again, we are living in strange times. Physically distanced from one another with all of the usual structures and routines of daily life suspended, fluid uncertainty reigns. We are navigating life in a liminal space. The question I keep hearing—on social media, from activists and politicians, from artists, curators, and institutions—is what will the world be like once this is over? Could this be a watershed moment in which we imagine and bring about a new kind of future?
This month Antler, one of two galleries on Northeast Alberta St. co-owned by artists Susannah Kelly and Neil Perry, offers exhibitions that explore the collision between reality as it is and as it could be, even if only in the farthest corners of our minds or parallel dimensions. During the isolation period the gallery is only open by appointment, but the works can be viewed on the gallery’s website through April 25th or via virtual tour on Antler’s Instagram account (@antlerpdx). Atypically for Antler, both of the exhibitions this month feature works by Portland-based artists: Tripper Dungan and Lori Damiano in the joint exhibition Psychic Cinema and Kim Slate in the solo show All Around the World. Collectively, the works in these exhibitions got me thinking about the value of both the quotidian and the absurd, and the dynamic, generative spaces where they merge.
The artwork offers rich phantasmagoria—vibrant colors, quirky characters, unusual spaces, and improbable scenarios. The strangeness of the works invites us to explain them, not in the conventional sense of analysis and interpretation but in the sense of, well, play. Their whimsy invites us to concoct preposterous narratives to explain what we see, imagine what else might happen beyond the frame, or even project ourselves into the works. The works elicit a sort of playful, curious engagement that is not only fun and refreshing but that, according to researchers, enhances our creative and adaptive capacities and is part of our wellbeing.
Psychic Cinema and All Around the World brim with color, movement, and fun. The larger exhibition, Psychic Cinema, features Dungan’s painted wood wall hangings and sculptures as well as Lori Damiano’s gouache on paper paintings. In Dungan’s work, fantastical creatures are not fantastical at all, but rather going about their ordinary lives. A pipe-smoking gnome rides atop a running bear in Gnome Getaway. Snow Globe Powers depicts a figure with a snow globe for a head conjuring lightning between its outstretched hands. In Chicken Songs, Sasquatch sunbathes outside a camper while serenaded by an enormous rooster. This is no retelling of a myth or debate about the existence of the giant forest dweller. Here the world of mythology is a given; Dungan simply pulls back the veil so we can see it in its technicolor brilliance. In Dungan’s world, it simultaneously makes no sense and perfect sense for an octopus and a whale to smoke underwater (Bubble Smoke), for a hot dog to have a face and legs (Hot Dog), and for a hat-doffing crow to hold a suitcase full of bones (Bone Collection).
Dungan’s Magic Carpet Vacuum Ride is particularly striking, distilling several elements of the artist’s style into a wacky yet cohesive work. At the top of the image, the head of a woman wearing rose-colored glasses acts as a kind of finial. Her brown and rainbow striped hair is parted down the center and cascades down the sides, framing the rest of the scene. A gridded, 3-D head with generic features, like one from a rendering program, floats in the sky amid stylized, tricolor clouds. Also afloat is a woman in purple and green vacuuming a bright red, tasseled rug. This is the Magic Carpet Vacuum Ride of the title, a riff on the classic Steppenwolf song. While the protagonist in Steppenwolf’s Magic Carpet Ride goes on a fantastic journey, telling us, “on a cloud of sound I drift in the night,” Dungan’s figure floats to the imagined droning of the vacuum. Lips slightly parted, one arm posed awkwardly behind her, perhaps she’s lost in a private fantasy that is nonetheless rooted in the reality of singing and dancing her way through the housework. Beneath these floating figures, a cowboy with salt and pepper hair rides a bicycle, his arms outstretched in the classic balancing pose children strike just before yelling, “look ma, no hands!” He rides over bands of undulating color, through a desert populated by saguaros, a geometric turtle, and a series of jungle gyms. The overall effect is of a psychedelic playground: a Neverland in which people have aged but not forgotten the joys of acting like children. We can see in the painting what the character in the Steppenwolf song tells us: “fantasy will set you free.”
It’s no accident that Dungan’s and Lori Damiano’s paintings go together so well; it was Dungan’s suggestion to pair the two. Damiano’s paintings are brightly colored and have a similar playfulness to Dungan’s but employ more patterning and a higher degree of abstraction. Damiano describes her work as joining references to her life with “lo-fi utopian visions.” The results are strangely charming. In Supercross, five motorcycle riders await the start gun, poised to enter a snaking track filled with yellow and green hills, pink and green plateaus, and accordion-folded ridges. These colorful obstacles create eye-catching, but impossible geometries to navigate on the quest for glory. This idea becomes more literal in Snake Skate Break, in which two cowboys skateboard across the rippling back of an enormous black-and-white rattlesnake.
French Fry Park-n- Ride feels like another variation on this same theme and features a cowboy skateboarding in a parking lot while his dog and steed look on. There’s no dramatic or dangerous course here, but the title of the piece imaginatively transforms the yellow parking space markers into salty fried foods and lends an extraordinary twist to a relatively ordinary moment. In Snake Skate Break and French Fry Park-n-Ride, Damiano creates striking borders around the central imagery, filling the spaces with larger-than-life flora. The patterns of towering cacti that frame the central image in Snake Skate Break and the looming palms that have the same effect in French Fry Park-n-Ride enhance the otherworldliness of the scenes, distorting the scale and the space in which these tall tales unfold.
The smaller exhibition in Antler’s second room is All Around the World, which features painted clay and epoxy animal sculptures by Kim Slate. In addition to sculpture, Slate is an animator and illustrator who has worked on many LAIKA studio films (Coraline, ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls, Kubo and the Two Strings and Missing Link). For this exhibition, Slate sculpted a pair of animals from six of the world’s continents, plus a grouping of three penguins to represent Antarctica and a pair of Central American sloths. Slate’s animals all have narrow, oblong eyes and extremely thin, elongated grins that stretch almost the full length of their heads. These grins waver between mischievous and unsettling, as they reveal rows of sharp, pointy teeth. The impishness of Slate’s Raccoons, whose poses suggest greater movement than any of the other animals on view, infuses the figures with character and reminds us that there are very good reasons why the internet has given these North American mammals monikers such as “trash panda” and “furry bandit.” Like Dungan’s and Damiano’s work, Slate’s animals seem to invite viewers to craft stories about their imagined adventures.
The work at Antler this month is fun, and I think we all need a bit of that these days. Psychic Cinema and All Around the World invite us to take a playful leap into works that are compelling and inventive without being simplistic. Dr. Stuart Brown, the psychiatrist who founded the National Institute for Play, argues that his decades of research have taught him that “play may be pretty important for our survival.” In the context of Dungan’s, Damiano’s, and Slate’s art, Brown’s contention is a reminder that there is value in the suspension of disbelief, and in the kind of playfulness that allows for different characters, ideas, and references to converge in unlikely ways and in strange places. Works that do not appear to be serious still inspire. Dungan’s, Damiano’s, and Slate’s work—especially shown together—has tremendous capacity to evoke joy, creativity, and expansive thinking.
As you embark on your journey through Dungan’s, Damiano’s, and Slate’s work, I recommend beginning with the virtual tour on Instagram. Viewers can see how the works are arranged, hear some of Perry’s thoughts on specific pieces, and then go to the gallery’s website to look at the work more closely. Kelly and Perry, with whom I communicated via email, said, “The virtual tour was nerve-wracking to do as we aren’t experts in the technical side of things, nor are we particularly confident about being on camera.” It’s true that the virtual tours are a bit rough and tumble. There’s no music, graphics, or editing. There are moments when the camera is a bit shaky, or when we see the reflection of Perry as she filmed, or other works, or the overhead lighting in the glass of the featured painting. Still, something of the character of the gallery comes through in the tour, and the focus is emphatically on the work rather than slick institutional branding.
Just as the work on view contemplates life– however surreal–without being purely escapist, the virtual tour reads as an adaptation to our current, collective predicament. It doesn’t need to be seamless to have appeal. In fact, Antler’s virtual tour got over 7,000 views in just two days. Citing “extremely positive” feedback, Kelly and Perry are now thinking about how the virtual tours could become a consistent part of their work, and a way to improve accessibility across geographic boundaries and mobility barriers. It’s a perfect example of how being put in an isolation period can lead to a creative expansion of business as usual. I think Dr. Stuart Brown would say this looks like a playful way of surviving, perhaps even thriving. Kelly and Perry have created an opportunity to delve, virtually, into works that ask us to suspend the strictures of reality and wonder, “what if?” The exhibitions remind us that, in the words of Carl Sagan, “Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were, but without it we go nowhere.” Who knows what we might collectively dream up next?
Shannon M. Lieberman is an art historian whose research focuses on art and gender, exhibition histories, and intersections between art and social justice. She holds a PhD from the University of California, Santa Barbara and teaches art history and visual culture at Pacific Northwest College of Art. In addition to her love of visual art, Shannon is an avid reader and passionate audiophile.
This article was made possible with support from The Ford Family Foundation’s Visual Arts Program.