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Art review: Juan Santiago at Gambrel Gallery

71 porcelain princesses grace Juan Santiago's exhibition "No Mirrors in this House" at Gambrel Gallery in Ashland. Though cast from a single mold, each figure's appearance varies due to the mold's inevitable degradation.


To enter the white space of the Gambrel Gallery is to leave the Southern Oregon mountains behind and to instead become an observer of royalty. The princesses of No Mirrors in this House inhabit a hallowed elevation. Viewers are left to observe without agency from below. In another realm, unaware of intrusions, the porcelain figures are  immune to supplication for external engagement. They belong not to the sweeping mountains and golden grass of a winter afternoon in the valley, but rather to the morning fog that obscures and isolates and turns one to internal dialogues.

Installation view of No Mirrors in this House (2022). Image courtesy of Gambrel Gallery.

On the eastern walls pairs of figures commune in private. Mirrors that could reflect the concerns of the real world are disavowed and turned to face the wall. These princesses are covered in drips and gobs, perhaps wearing their inner turmoil on their gowns? The duality of a surface that both obfuscates and symbolizes evokes a Sam Gilliam painting, Butterflies-Butterflies (2021), currently on loan to the Jordan Schnitzer Museum in Eugene. In both works, the energy of the mottled surface suggests that the reserved calm is but external – and that beneath the flowing robes or sedate colors, all is not so serene. 

Artist Juan Miguel Santiago sees both stoicism and contentedness is the face of his porcelain figures. As the current artist-in-residence at the Gambrel Gallery, he’s often available to walk through the exhibition with visitors. These conversations begin the “enriching dialogue” that the Gambrel Gallery, founded in June 2021, seeks to build. Santiago and Gambrel director Emily Santiago ran an underground art gallery in Oakland CA from 2001-2003. Emily Santiago recalls their Oakland gallery Salbabida (“lifesaver” in Tagalong) as a joyful experience which inspired her to create the Gambrel Gallery in Ashland as a space of resilience in challenging times. The gallery intends to have 5-6 shows per year in addition to artists residencies and musical events. 

Installation view of No Mirrors in this House (2022). Image courtesy of Gambrel Gallery.

The quiet and secluded Gambrel space gives viewers the opportunity to decompress and find calm, mirroring the intention of the princess herself. Santiago found the mold for the princess at a warehouse sale in New Jersey – the romantic beginning of a relationship in which he cast more than 200 of the figures. By using the same mold for both works shown at the Gambrel Gallery (a total of 71 figures) Santiago presents a three-dimensional time-lapse of a solo walk. Or perhaps it is a manifestation of the multiple positions of an inner dialogue. 

In Porcelain Meditation (2013), Santiago subtly changed the placement of the head on the lower body, causing the princess to mimic the natural head motions that the artist noticed himself making during contemplative walks. Over the stretch of 65 figures, the figure opens and closes her eyes, acknowledging and perhaps refusing the intrusion of the viewer while also reinforcing the narrative and slow passage of time that is inherent to the work. 

Juan Santiago, Porcelain Meditation (2013). Image courtesy of Gambrel Gallery.

The vicissitudes of time are evident in the details of the princesses’ draped clothing: patterns on the fabric melt away as the mold naturally degraded with each figure made. Santiago foregrounds the materiality of the princess in his refusal to fettle the seams, which grow bigger as the mold is used to completion. The figure becomes less ethereal, more tangible, more present.

The raw wood of a fallen Chinquapin oak, milled by Yorgen Kvinsland in Mendocino, supports the princesses in their pensive walk and silent interactions. Looking slightly up to the 18-inch figures places the viewer in a removed position of adoration – again, the gallery seems to contain another world within it. During our conversation Santiago (gently) touched one of the princesses and a boundary between realities seemed to be transgressed. Similarly, noticing the imperfections and Santiago’s choice not to use strictly sequential works in the procession breaks the boundary between ours and this floating world. The blurry edges are the most memorable part of the work: imagining the figure forever pondering within the white cube is not nearly as relatable as it is to think of her decline, her awakening, or maybe her escape.


MYS Oregon to Iberia

Exterior view of Gambrel Gallery.

Named for the barn’s style of roof, the Gambrel Gallery walks the fine line between the studio and the living room, adding the façade of the red barn as a uniquely Southern Oregon twist. Installed in the neutral indoor space of the gallery, Juan Santiago’s No Mirrors in this House successfully claims a liminal space between earth and sky, which leaves the viewer to wonder where the figures will eventually arrive.

“No Mirrors in this House” is on view at the Gambrel Gallery through March 12, 2022. The gallery is located at 1980 E Main St., Ashland and is open by appointment Thursday-Saturday 12-6.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Georgina Ruff is an art historian of modern and contemporary art and technology. Her interests in the conservation of obsolescing media and immersive installations have led her on explorations of 60's era light shows, Bauhaus illuminations, histories of fluorescent light bulbs, and contemporary spatial politics of object-less art works. Georgina earned her PhD in Art History from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2020.


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