January is named for Janus, the double-faced Roman god who was able to look simultaneously at the past and the future. Given this etymological foundation, it seems appropriate that two stand-out shows in Portland this month grapple with the legacy of the past and the possibilities for the future: Disjecta has works by Arvie Smith in 2 Up and 2 Back and Upfor Gallery has works by Pinar Yoldas and Iyvone Khoo in The Absence of Myth.
At first blush, the shows are so different that the juxtaposition seems bizarre: Smith’s large, warm-toned paintings at Disjecta are chock-full of identifiable figures and symbols while the sculptures, prints, and video works at Upfor are captivating but less immediately familiar. Khoo’s materials include bioluminescent algae, fluorescent coral, and marine debris. Yoldas makes two- and three-dimensional prints of a cast of deities inspired by Greek mythology but that she describes as “designer babies.” What the works of the three artists have in common, however, is a visual seduction that gives way to repulsion that then transitions to big questions about humanity and complicity and responsibility.
What meets the eye is one thing, the “more” is cavernous.
Turkish-born Yoldas boasts an impressive list of academic credentials. Currently a professor in the Visual Arts department at the University of California, San Diego, her research interests exceed the confines of art and design and blur into the biological sciences. The sculpted figures she makes don’t advertise this expertise at first glance. I was far too taken in by the glossy resin surfaces, undulating forms, and delicate filigree to consider any scientific underpinnings. But as I continued to look and looked closer at the figures themselves, it emerged that something was off: the faces are too contoured, the eyes too almond-shaped, the limbs turn into paddles or the shoulders into armored spikes. Several reminded me of sculptures from Amarna-period Egypt when the canon of representation that had been in place for thousands of years was discarded to accommodate a new religion.
Prints on the walls on black gridded or tessellated backgrounds show variations of the same figures. The backgrounds emphasize the “design” component of the figures; these forms aren’t meant to appear organic but instead painstakingly fashioned according to a master program. This, it turns out, is the influence of Yoldas’ scientific background. A booklet available in the gallery gives data and backstory for each figure, and flipping through the ethical implications begin to multiply.
Yoldas’ deities aren’t born of severed heads, seafoam, or semen as their mythical predecessors but instead were created by entities with particular agendas, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) or the Nike Corporation. The “designer babies” have been edited to perfectly conform to the “parents’” desires yet the morality of the manipulations is unclear. Yoldas’ narratives are ripe with cultural and historical references and enormously complex. They’re so rich that it is hard to read and appreciate them in the gallery space on a casual viewing. Yet the narratives are vital background and the work’s ethical complexity doesn’t fully come through without them.
The ethical quagmire of genetic engineering is one that humans will no doubt need to grapple with in this century and the characterization slippery slope seems far too quaint. Maybe if we add “that plunges into an abyss”? The balance between the known, immediate needs in the present and, as of yet, unknown repercussions in the future is enormously complicated and, in Yoldas’ estimation, as unfathomable as the capriciousness of the gods.
Khoo shares Yoldas’ scientific grounding; the artists were introduced via their mutual connection to Upfor. In Absence of Myth, Khoo’s work includes a projection of five short videos, one hanging sculptural work (Awakening from a deep dream), one video titled The Moth Catcher, and a large print (Transient Sentience). Though the themes interrelate, the works fall into two categories: Transient Sentience takes its imagery from the five projected videos and the hanging sculpture is fashioned from the materials used in The Moth Catcher.
The Moth Catcher is an older project of Khoo’s from 2009 that animates a white-faced puppet’s quest to fly, which involves plucking wings off of a moth and making an exoskeleton. The film, a very watchable 3 minutes in length, is an Icarus story without the fall. The physical appeal of the story is underscored by the puppet hanging opposite it in a large hanging cocoon made of rough, fibrous rope. While this was worth viewing, the artist’s other set of work is more compelling.
Khoo has long been interested in marine biology. Two of the short videos stem from her research in bioluminescent algae, which apparently respond to sound waves and move accordingly. The mesmerizing video, Universe in a Microverse (2020), shows a constellation of swelling and swirling forms. Silent Sentient (Lifeforms 0.1) captures a globe of fluorescent coral with rhythmically popping tentacles. The meditation on the wonder of the natural universe is interrupted, however, in the other three videos which are minimal animations of arranged, found objects from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Scientists from multiple countries sent these dubious treasures to Khoo: water bottles fragments, a half-decomposed teddy bear, or cookie cutters become part of the menacing tableau.
In the print Transcient Sentience, Khoo takes the microorganisms of marine biology and combines them with the plastic fragments and fashions a form reminiscent of a mandala, a geometric figure representing the universe. Coral joins with algae merged with fraying plastic water bottles and pieces of plastic horses. In many mandalas, the divine is at the center and the balance of the universe radiates outward. Here, the plot is beautiful but sinister: the human-made material threatens the natural world; the possibility of balance, the raison d’etre of the mandala, seems questionable.
Both Yoldas and Khoo consider humanity’s fraught future and potential peril. In contrast, Arvie Smith’s paintings delve into the recent past to consider the present. The brightly colored compositions draw viewers in and it is only by continuing to look that it becomes clear that not all is as innocent as it initially seems.
Smith says his paintings are intended to “agitate” the viewer, to spur us to critically consider race and race relations, topics that many would rather avoid. The 15 (large!) paintings in this show are all recent; the bulk were made in 2019, and though he is in his eighties, Smith shows no signs of slowing. The artist will have a retrospective, also curated by Linda Tesner, at the new Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at PSU beginning in March.
I was fortunate to sit down with Smith and talk about his work and career in Portland. Smith is a story-teller, both in his paintings and in person. His mother wanted him to be a preacher. He declined because religion wasn’t his thing, but it’s hard not to see parallels between the career path that he’s taken and that vocation in its most idealistic form. He wants us to be better—to examine our world view and understand our historical and present sins.
Smith’s imagery is pulled from western visual culture. Many of the paintings at Disjecta suggest a circus or honky-tonk performance of some sort. Several of the scenes unfold on a planked, stage floor or feature fringed stage curtains or stage lighting. The performance on display varies, but it always is a performance of race relations in some fashion. The viewers’ forced consumption of the spectacle makes us complicit participants.
In Little Strong Man, a blond, bearded figure in striped pants and a vest holds a whip and puts his arm around a shacked Black nude figure. A clergyman brandishes a crucifix. Stage lights indicate that this central action is on the “main stage,” but visible on an upper level, directly above and behind the enslaved figure, is a veiled white woman holds a bouquet. A Black figure carries a white child up another set of stairs—a framed image of Donald Trump is just under the stairs. Stage right reveals another pair of figures: a Black woman wearing an apron and kerchief and a white man in a top hat Given his outstretched finger and open book, he appears to be pontificating about something.
The interrelationships between all of the characters give a sense of meaning but not necessarily a clear one. Smith wants his works to be ambiguous and for viewers to wrestle with creating meanings on their own. Here, the virginal white figure, literally on a throne, seems central. She remains untouched by the complications of the rest of the scene—all of which conspire to maintain her innocence. She doesn’t see the dehumanization of the Black woman or the way religion or the law rationalizes and underpins the conceptualization of racial difference. The framed image of Trump either establishes the contemporaneity of the scene or argues that this obsession with virginal white women is not part of the distant past—maybe both.
The spectre of Trump features in several paintings. In Circus Circus on Fifth Avenue, a clown-outfit-clad Trump brandishes a pistol standing on a horse pulled by Pinocchio with a tiki torch. Hooded klansmen and a helmeted figure with arm raised in a Nazi salute follow close behind. The work was inspired by Trump’s 2016 comment that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and nothing would happen.
In Fact Checker, he is a trapeze-swinging caricature with a whistle. In Eclipse of the Sun, he is a phallus in a white hat reading “USA 45.” Smith explained that Trump features so prominently in this show because his attitudes are emblematic of the “steps back” that are happening in the contemporary moment. He sees Trump’s election and the ways that “the guise of political correctness in this country has gone out the window” as a reaction to the election of Obama: “I know, having grown up in the South, that there is going to be a backlash and we’re seeing that backlash.”
Trump is an outlier in Smith’s work as a contemporary political figure. The majority of Smith’s identifiable figures are ever so slightly removed from the current moment, pulled from art history or pop culture. Caricatures with exaggerated racial features are frequent, but I also found Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, Pinocchio, and Orphan Annie. Abraham Lincoln’s gaunt frame looms in the corner of Fact Checker, a burst of light emanating from one hand as he “frees” a kneeling slave. Smith noted that the historical formulation “Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves” not only grants no agency to the slaves (they’re still at the mercy of white men) but also equally ignores the possibility that Lincoln himself had African heritage.
The volume of references in these works is dizzying. Equally deserving of note are components that link to mass incarceration, minstrelsy, Nazis, the Confederate flag, skin-lightening bodysuits, Adam and Eve, and capitalism. There are many more visual quotations that remain veiled to me: a Sambo-style floating head, a walking mother and child, several figures on horseback aiming bows. I think I’ve seen them before and I’m sure they connect to something, but identification remains just out of my reach.
A figure from Francisco Goya’s The Third of May 1808 from 1814 features in two of Smith’s work (Circus Circus on Fifth Avenue and Eclipse of the Sun). The man wears a white shirt and yellow pants, his arms are outstretched in a pose often likened to the crucifixion of Christ. Smith has used the “hands up” posture several times in previous work (referencing the phrase “hands up, don’t shoot” made infamous in the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014). In this show, Scare Crow makes use of this imagery. The posture in Circus Circus on Fifth Avenue and Eclipse of the Sun, however, is more specific. The man’s clothing, curly hair, round face, and expression of incredulity are unmistakable.
In Goya’s painting, the figure is about to be executed by a phalanx of French soldiers. The execution took place as part of the war between Spanish citizens and the puppet government backed by Napoleon. Initially, Goya welcomed the French invasion. He anticipated that the French would bring a new liberalism and Enlightenment values with them, thereby freeing Spain from the suffocating grip of religion, tradition, and conservatism. His enthusiasm waned as the brutality of the conflict became apparent. By the time Goya painted his commemoration of the massacre of Spanish citizens in 1814, “light,” in the painting a lantern, becomes the mechanism by which an innocent man is martyred.
In Circus Circus on Fifth Avenue, the Goya figure is Trump’s target. In Eclipse of the Sun the borrowing from Goya is more extensive and includes not only the isolated figure but the line of gendarmery aiming rifles at him. A tiki torch held by a hand attached to the blond-coiffed phallus in a white “USA 45” hat subs in for the lantern. What remains is the man’s innocence, his resignation, and the sense that his assailants have forgotten—or just failed to understand—their common human identity. It’s a theme that applies to so many of Smith’s works: the weight of historical missteps and efforts to establish racial difference obscure the reality that we’re all human.
The title of the show, 2 Up and 2 Back, seems pessimistic—we’re exactly where we started and looking at the cacophony of Smith’s images, it certainly doesn’t seem like we’re ready to change; there are too many layers and too many conspiring forces. But nestled amongst those competing forces and all the historical baggage, is the possibility that if we can, in Smith’s words, “see other people in ourselves” we’ll move beyond the trajectory we’ve been on. Beneath the caricatures and stereotypes, we’re all human and we’re responsible to each other to recognize that.
Smith, Yoldas, and Khoo tackle subjects that can signal impending doom: genetic modification, environmental collapse, racially-motivated violence—none of these inspire sunshine and rainbows optimism. Yet art making is inherently hopeful, and rather than sink into despair, the works of all three artists also capture that optimistic spark. Our responsibility is to see and acknowledge our common humanity and interconnectedness. It is an entirely appropriate message for the start of a new year.
2 Up and 2 Back: Arvie Smith is on view at Disjecta (8371 N Interstate Ave) through February 2, 2020. The gallery is open noon to 5 pm Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Smith will be speaking at the gallery on Sunday, January 26 at 2pm.
The Absence of Myth is on view at Upfor Gallery (929 NW Flanders Street) through February 29, 2020.
This article was made possible with support from The Ford Family Foundation’s Visual Arts Program.