Before I even entered the exhibit space for the group art show “Biomass,” at the circa-1906 Maddox Building in the Northwest 13th Avenue Historic District, the past seemed to come to life.
Curator Jeff Jahn cautioned that, because I was wearing flipflops on this hot July day, I should beware of nails protruding from the exhibit floor. “We’re calling this space The Oyster,” he joked, as if to acknowledge a rawer, early-Pearl District warehouse vibe.
The Maddox — originally known as the Prael, Hegele Building and home to a glass and crockery manufacturer — certainly looked the part, with its exposed rafters and voluminous square footage. The building also comes with its own art-past: Blue Sky Gallery was for many years located within its walls. What’s more, one block south is the Pearl Building, where the pioneering Jamison Thomas Gallery was located; gallerist William Jamison coined the term “Pearl District.”
The neighborhood as an arts destination began right here. The Maddox Building’s owner, Al Solheim, who made the ground-floor space available to Jahn for “Biomass,” is even sometimes called the father of the Pearl District, having been among the first to have redeveloped heretofore-industrial enclaves into condos some four decades ago.
Works by Eva Lake (left) and Kendra Larson in “Biomass.” Photos: Brian Libby
Over the ensuing four decades, the Pearl has retained its identity as a visual arts Mecca, with today just over half of the Portland Art Dealers Association member galleries locating within the district. Yet the district’s popularity might seem to have peaked: First Thursdays, which used to bring large crowds here one evening a month for evening exhibit openings, are not such an event anymore, which was arguably true even before the pandemic. And the Pearl District’s artistic center of gravity has moved east, around the North Park Blocks.
If the location evoked the Pearl’s beginnings, the show was refreshing in another way: Jahn and this community of contemporary artists coming together again after a few years’ absence. “Biomass,” on view through August 27 (but open only 12:30-5 p.m. Saturdays plus 5:30-8 p.m. Aug. 3 for the First Thursday artwalk), bills itself as the first large-scale art warehouse exhibition since before Covid began. Jahn, a nearly ubiquitous presence in the city’s visual art scene for more than two decades, as a critic via the PORT blog and as curator of several group shows, had not put together an exhibit or written a review in some three years. And the “Biomass” roster features more than 30 local and regional artists who have together weathered the past half-decade’s storm.
The exhibit fills the double-height warehouse space with a mix of flora- and fauna-inspired works, making “Biomass” feel a little bit like a watering hole in nature: that spot where nearly every animal comes to drink.
Beyond that theme, many of the chosen artists seemed to share work they had created during Covid lockdowns, without the usual necessary consideration of how it would fare in the market.
At a July 22 talk featuring three “Biomass” artists, for example, Morgan Buck discussed his airbrush painting “Cats in the Bag,” which is just that. If the subject matter seemed meant for a Hallmark card or Internet meme, Buck nevertheless spoke sincerely of finding the right flat-black background from which these feline eyes, isolated against it, could stare out from the sack they’d climbed into. As if to tip the scale into silliness, Buck took the extra step of adding a Garfield figure to the foreground.
In an odd way, my favorite moment that afternoon was when Buck momentarily struggled to remember the fictional name of Garfield’s owner, and the assembled audience, like some pop-cultural Greek chorus, answered in unison: “Jon!”
If classic Generation-X irony was on display, so too was its opposite. Buck was followed by artist Sean Healy, who explained that his two “Biomass” pieces were prompted by a personal milestone. Fighting back tears, Healy, an adoptee back in 1971, told of finding his birth parents during the pandemic, including his father, a former security man for the Hell’s Angels. The artist, who most recently has worked in sculpture, also spoke of returning to an artistic first love: representational drawing.
Hence his two contributed pieces, part of an upcoming solo show this fall at Elizabeth Leach Gallery: drawings of a nest (“Eggs Nest”) and of a primate (“Dionysus”). There was no mistaking that Healy had been inspired by finding where he came from, and thinking about what it means to be a human animal.
Entering the exhibit, straight ahead in the middle are three relatively large-scale works anchoring the 3,000-square-foot, double-height space. Most prominent, almost like a disco ball for the exhibit, is a hanging sculpture by Wendy Given called “Cauda Pavonis” (translated as “tail of the peacock,” a reference to alchemy) with feathers radiating out from a dark orb. Next to it is a floor-mounted black tiger sculpture by Crystal Schenk & Shelby Davis. Then there’s a multifaceted piece by Renée Zangara called “Revelation.” On its front is a triptych painting and drawing hanging curtain- or clothing-like from a steel frame, and a small sculptural installation is on the other side, taking advantage of the white backside of the canvass.
Zangara, the third and final artist speaking about her work, first acted as a kind of cartographical tour guide, pointing out a combination of landscape and map-like elements including a wetlands, railroad tracks, and her own house. By combining drawing and colorful paints, Zangara rendered not just a kind of double-exposure but also a sense of erasure and re-making, like the Impressionist painter-protagonist in Emile Zola’s 1886 novel The Masterpiece, repeatedly painting over what he’d done. Only in Zangara’s work, the intent was deliberate, creating a work that felt both primal and playful, not unlike the collective identity of the show.
(A second artists’ talk, featuring Eva Lake, Epiphany Couch and Kendra Larson, is scheduled for 3 p.m. Saturday, July 29.)
Of course, with a group show of this size and especially given its theme, touring “Biomass” is not about individual works so much as an ecosystem, in this case featuring mostly established mid-career artists and a few emerging voices, and a mix of media.
In many cases, there were natural pairings. Near the entry door, for example, are two depictions of passages, with entirely different tones. A Corey Arnold photograph of a bear emerging nocturnally from a decaying house’s basement, “House Bear,” faces an Eva Lake collage, “The Torso No. 10,” with a headless woman’s torso coming out of a curvy antique Egyptian vase. Primal freedom meets cultured oppression.
Around the corner, the V. Maldonado painting “Sister Earth Shares Her Secrets: Owl Encounter,” striking in its monochromatic sweet-spot between representational imagery and abstract pattern-making, hangs frameless from the wall just below Kendra Larson’s “Owl” sculpture, and next to two Matthew Dennison drawings to the left, one called “Each Bird Knew,” and to the right a tiny Brian Borrello neon sculpture called “Consumer Capture,” which spells out in all caps, “EAT,” and which is attached to an animal trap.
Across the room, Buck’s cat-eyes painting hangs next to two mixed-media works by Laura Fritz, each a sculpture in simple black geometry (a rectangular block, an obelisk) with a video-based projection of moving animal silhouettes: an older piece featuring a cat (“Transposition”) and a newer piece featuring bees fighting off hive collapse syndrome (“Alvarium 3”).
Other captivating moments came from juxtapositions. So many works were in black and white that pieces with color stood out, be they the Erik Geschke sculptures “Vanitas” and “Cleaved,” the Jeremy LeGrand hanging sculpture “a new landscape’s skin” beside it, the Gabriel Liston painting “When the season’s over,” or the two Tia Factor paintings “Sun Web” and “Web Rising.”
Works by Buck Corvidae-Schulte (left) and Sandy Roumagaux represent a younger and older generation of artists, respectively. Photos: Brian Libby
While Generation X may have been the best represented, there were also younger (the youngest being Buck Corvidae-Schulte) and older artists (like Newport painter and former mayor Sandy Roumagoux), too. And there were juxtapositions of time, with many artists pairing one older and one newer work.
In an email this week, Jahn called “Biomass” both a class reunion and a survivor’s show. While both labels apply, maybe given the exhibit’s theme, the latter is more appropriate. It’s not to say “Biomass” evokes a cold Darwinian calculus, but rather a celebration: of having hacked our way through the thickets into a clearing of sorts, pausing momentarily to drink from the spring and take in the view.
“Biomass” is on view through August 27 at the Maddox Building, 608 NW 13th #192. Hours are 12:30-5 p.m. Saturdays only, plus 5:30-8 p.m. Aug. 3 for Portland’s First Thursday gallery walk.