By LUSI LUKOVA
The Work Continues, at PCC Sylvania’s North View Gallery (the exhibition closed on Saturday), emerged from a unanimous functional depression felt by its six artists and two curators. We may easily guess the source of this unrest, even without curator Sam Hopple’s explanation that this artistic survey first took form in 2016 as a direct response to a numbness following the Presidential election.
However, the manner in which these six artists chose to further engage with this unsettling environment—through a complex exploration of identity—gives this show its place in contemporary art activism. Each of these artists, through their own respective processes and mediums, toggles the question of “Who are we?”—as artists, as advocates, and as humans. Tapping into something deeply personal, each piece in this show is a vulnerable and raw demonstration of art that does not compromise.
At North View, gallery-goers are meant to meander through the space in a clockwise direction, beginning with Jiseon Lee Isbara’s textile work, Stare, to the left of the entrance. Isbara is a fiber artist, exhibiting both nationally and internationally, and an educator at Oregon College of Art and Craft. For The Work Continues she plays the roles of artist and co-curator with Hopple.
Stare measures roughly 2.5 x 2.5 feet and at first glance may invoke a quizzical turn of the head. The googly eyes affixed to the cream-colored cloth, tucked around embroidered circles of various neutral tones, give the impression that a double voyeurism is occuring between the work and the viewer. Unsurprisingly, the colored circles are meant to symbolize a variety of skin tones, and this particular work of fiber art was inspired by a real event in Isbara’s life.
As a woman of color and a first generation immigrant, Isbara shares in her Artist Statement that her identity and her the sense of displacement that results from often being stared at, is deeply embedded in her work. In this sense, the cloth becomes symbolic of her body and is here elevated to the vulnerable place of the gallery wall for all to see. The inclusion of the (somewhat comical) eyes allow for her own agency in the visual exchange.
The exhibition also features another of Isbara’s works, Who Am I?—an installation of stacked cards that form a pillar in the far right corner of the viewing room. Each card is first printed with her English name in black ink and then stamped over with her Korean name in red. Subtly representing a sort of cultural erasure that occurs through assimilation, this work purposefully confuses how visitors may choose to engage with Isbara’s identity, and is another example of how she herself seeks to command the space.
The title of the exhibition works as a double entendre: it exists as both a literal display of how individuals can continue to produce artistically in times of trial, as well as a more subtle call-to-action aimed at a larger general consciousness. This pressure, felt by each artist, has the potential to perpetuate a hyper-awareness of how we observe ourselves and how we in turn are observed by others. Undoubtedly, the labels we receive and give ourselves in such times abound endlessly.
Samantha Wall’s three monochromatic ink figure drawings enter a place of quiet introspection that explore identity through a diasporic lens. Wall, an artist originally from Seoul, South Korea, and now based in Portland, works primarily in ink to create sinewy and mysterious renditions of the female form. The interconnectedness of Gatekeeper, Initiate, and Grace, in their execution and their thematics, embody the artist’s interest in what it means to navigate multiculturalism, a notion of constant flux. The three works appear to have a black-marbled texture, interspersed with a careful dotwork that serves to highlight certain features such as a chest or a neck. Done in this style, it is as if the profiles and full-body forms are rendered in water, in a state of flowing motion and change, despite being affixed behind glass. Easily recognizable as female forms, the question of whose forms they are is still open to interpretation. At once, these meticulously crafted bodies have everything to do with the artist, perhaps as a mirror of her own experience, and maybe nothing at all, promoting a greater, universal interpretation.
Sharing a similar hyperawareness, Sean Healy’s Sugar Pill, Blue is unflinching in its openness. Healy, a sculptor and multimedia artist, creates work that is inextricably linked to his life as a father, husband, and friend. In molding art practice to everyday life, Sugar Pill, Blue tells a humbling narrative of self-medication and self-care. The piece is molded out of hundreds of gel caps suffused together with resin on plexi and hoisted up onto the gallery wall. Healy’s visible inclusion of sugar to some of the gel cap halves resembles what may have once filled the interior of the pill capsule and adds a confessionary tone to the piece. The inch of space between the wall and work creates the illusion that Sugar Pill, Blue is floating freely in air. The opacity of the gel caps reflecting the stark blue of the wall painted behind the work further augments this distance and imbues it with a reverent tone. While the piece may appear light enough to float, it is heavy with significance for the artist. What Healy seems to be communicating the very real successes and failures of both an artist and a human being; one could not exist without the other.
Duality and pluralism are the forefront of this exhibition, but exist most palpably in that of Hiro Toyo and Ricardo Nagaoka. Toyo and Nagaoka are in fact one individual: he resides in the liminal between-space of his Japanese-Latino identity while living and working in the context of his current American residence. His fractured artistic self, he writes, stems from his growing up as an outsider in his own homes. Toyo’s sculptural practice, seen here in his site-specific installation Arranged Space, 1, is an exploration of the body in a tangible format. In working with concrete, brick, gravel, steel and clay to create this domicile, Toyo is responding not only to the viewing space but to a more inherent desire for stability and structure. The use of these concrete materials provide a bridge into a more conjectural and philosophical arena for discussing space and place. The interlocking forms made of disparate materials have the appearance of a whole structure, but one that retains distance even within itself. What is at stake is a sense of belonging.
Toyo’s own trace as maker weighs more heavily in his sculptural than his photographic practice, where he takes a more reserved approach, choosing to remain behind the lens. The subject of Kevin is set in a bare, pink bedroom, wearing house clothes. The intimacy of this portrait lies in its surfaces—there is little to hide in this setting. Yet, Nagaoka blurs this invasion of privacy by negating access to the figure itself, posing Kevin with his hand over his face. Viewers can get a sense of the intimacy of this image, but the true nature remains hidden. With his photography, Nagaoka does not shy away from topics such as gender, expression, vulnerability and the self, but without including himself in the frame. Instead, he conveys his own wrestling with identity and existence through his poignantly staged subjects.
For “The Work Continues”, painter Jeremy Okai Davis has included four paintings done in his distinctive, vaguely pointlistic style. While highly figural, the dotted approach and, at times, inclusion of non-traditional colors, adds a certain level of abstraction to the paintings. One can recognize the shape of the hands in Hand I (White) and Hand II (Black), as well as the muscled, lower body of a man in Untitled (I Won’t Leave), yet they are far from depicting how one may encounter a body in real life.
All four paintings are shown together on the right side of the gallery, where a square portion of the wall has been purposefully painted black. Creating a mini-installation, the themes Davis navigates are ones that serve as a retrospective of the artist’s background and history, while also looking ahead towards the future. Davis writes in his statement, “It is important for me to express myself, but to do that I must investigate and know myself.” In this near future he he considers what legacy he may one day leave behind.
As a result, Family Dollar (Legacy), situated prominently in the center of the installation, holds the weight of familial and personal responsibility. The piece depicts a headshot of a black man in a suit, an unreadable expression on his face, with everything from the nose up painted over with black acrylic. The intentional exclusion of the eyes seems to be playing on matters of seeing and being seen, of what is public knowledge and what is kept from us. Knowing oneself and expressing oneself are inextricably tied together, and Davis poses here a question that is pointed as much to himself as to any other father, maker, and son: Is what I am leaving behind truly emblematic of me, and what will its effect be? As an audience, we in turn are left to wonder if this work is reflective of Davis’ own musings and frustrations, that of a larger community’s, or both?
Lisa Jarrett, multimedia artist and educator, works in a medium that exists primarily in the form of questions. Her pieces on view for “The Work Continues” are part of a larger series entitled Reconciliations. The three digital collages (On Truth), (On Love), and V(On Beauty) meld together two images each, of black individuals, young and old alike, posing by cars, holding babies, or engaged in other daily activities. These are framed with the inclusion of tufts of black hair on the lip of each frame. The grander themes of truth, love and beauty are instantaneously and universally recognizable.
Jarrett suggests her own trace and questioning by calling into examination how exactly truth, beauty, and love may come to be exemplified and understood by varying histories and existences. The bodies and the type of hair on display in these socially engaged works are distinct to the artist and the African-American community she wishes to address. Three other words that are printed on these collages, respectively, are “Motherland”, “Mother Water”, and “Mother Tongues.” Whereas “Mother” may be a universally recognizable word, Jarrett is pinpointing a mother and a nurturing experience exclusive to the African diaspora. Therefore, depending on the individual observing these collages, each viewing experience will be inherently unique. Jarrett’s social practice resonates here as a result of the open-endedness of the three collages; they provide an ambiguous outline for thought and discourse that has the potential to diverge in a multitude of directions.
The themes of introspection and protest expressed by the six artists in The Work Continues are still resonant even as current events have continued developing and, unfortunately, devolving. Despite the multitude of mediums and themes explored in these works, what visitors are meant to take away is the kindred and powerful desire to question a state of self and that self’s external impact on a fluctuating world. What these individuals also share is the overarching desire to continue producing work, be it as a form of meditation or as a response to fear and immobilization.
In highlighting the very intimate nature of each individual’s personal practice, a cohesive portrait of a multifaceted selfhood becomes common knowledge in the gallery, particularly as it exists in our divisive and pluralized politics. Ultimately, in times of uncertainty and unrest, all we may hope to find is an accessible emotional ground within our own cultural communities. Now, more than ever, there is an urgency within the arts and within our society to continue the work that promotes intercultural dialogue and addresses issues that may be more resistant to change.