If not for the grand entryway of sidony o’neal’s exhibition “ENCHIRIDION: aisle, spline, resort” (“E:ASR”), I would be unsure of where to begin this story. And though I have decided to start at the physical threshold, a giant corridor, I do so knowing that all of o’neal’s contributions resist linear summary in the best way: through intentionality and intuition. I follow their lead, writing intuitively in an attempt to engage different points of entry—among them poetics and gaming—while unsettling my notions of what these entry points entail and where they might lead me.
At the threshold of the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, two giant panels of polyethylene stretch between floor and ceiling, creating an aisle I must pass through to begin my journey. This takes me a long while, as I am waylaid by my visceral reactions to its material qualities. It is crinkled and gouged with markings that look like skeletal bones or symbols of a language. This work, entitled TANP D’ÆR/SPLINE + ELEGY, feels like a hallway but looks like an archaeological site but reads like a giant book with no binding. I begin to detect a poetics of sculpture that breaks with representation. Similes abound as my frames of reference begin to falter.
Earlier in the day, before arriving at this threshold, I met with o’neal over coffee and asked them about the title “ENCHIRIDION.” They explained the word refers to a kind of maintenance manual, with “aisle, spline, resort” acting as its chapters or sections.
“I come to visual art from poetry,” o’neal added.
For them, “ENCHIRIDION” becomes a “poem to fly by” rather than a manual of instruction. And synthetic language abets this flight, prompting expansive word-based associations that upend my relationship to the materials and aesthetics at hand. I find myself redirected over and over by the many possible meanings of o’neal’s titling and sculpture.
As I pass through the aisle, I hear gentle synth tones of a score created by Adee Roberson in collaboration with o’neal. These tones feel transitory, like a kind of elevator music that cuts deep, soothes, and carries me along at once. In an exhibition pamphlet, I read that the whole of TANP D’ÆR/SPLINE + ELEGY, sound score included, acts an elegy across two events: the Natchez Rhythm Club fire and France’s ecocide in the Caribbean. Both involved use of insecticides that contributed to harm and/or tragic death of Black folks.
The tender score and new historical context draws my attention to the presence of grief—that mysterious thing that slips through time and lineage—as I transit the aisle.
A sculpture catches my eye in the distance, calling me forward. I exit the aisle and approach what turns out to be a pool ladder (an object found by o’neal), adorned with little figures lined up like sentinels. Each of these abstract figures is made of patinated steel and different from the next. They sit in formation on pointy bronze pedestals lining the ladder’s a-frame.
I wonder, could this pool ladder be the entrance to the “resort” element? If so, then the figures preside over it with an air of militance; the ladder itself is closed and inaccessible for many bodies. I get the impression that this conduit is not for everyone. The whole of the work, entitled LÉSKALYÉ A LADISTANS KOSMIK, makes me think of other passageways to spaces of respite and asylum that are never as tranquil as they appear. Who and what do these spaces exclude? What forms of violence allows for their semblance of peace?
As I walk around, I also notice that the pool ladder is imprinted with a caution sign by its original manufacturer: “DANGER” I read in large print near an illustration of a figure hitting their head as they dive into shallow water.
I turn back toward o’neals steely figures with renewed appreciation for their role here. After all, sometimes it takes an illustration on a placard or a character in a storybook to broach truths that are unfathomable or distressing. These figures obviously reference gaming culture, but they are not simply pawns on a chessboard—they read as alive and imbued with knowledge about the environment I am moving through. I imagine them saying to me, “Ok, let’s get into it.”
And I do, pressing further into “E:ASR” toward a spot on the floor covered with a snaking spill of silicone. This goo glimmers opalescent blue, cut through with a splash of neon lime. However, as I draw near, its iridescence grows pink, then purple, then green. I keep moving, tracing this transfiguration of color with each step. After several rotations, I suspect that the goo—entitled SHMIN FÆRMÉ ENDAN LISOGENI/POST QUANT SECURITY WON’T SAVE US—is actually turning me, revealing and obfuscating its nature as I change positions.
Maybe I am dancing with a “spline”—a term with various practical applications. A quick internet search tells me that spline might refer to a tool for drawing smooth curves; and, in mathematics, spline relates to the interpolation of curvature. Both these definitions speak to my encounter with this work, the arching pathways and circular rotations it elicited from my being. The word “spline” conjures others as well, “spine, splice, split,” evolving my relationship with it.
According to o’neal, the study of relationships and nearness permeates “E:ASR”. In the exhibition pamphlet, o’neal foregrounds their offerings with reference to their descendance from Black and Afri-Indigenous/Creole people. They cite “double and triple diasporic experiences marked by migration,” correlating this with mathematical analysis. They employ terminology and languaging that compels me to look up words, to follow threads of inquiry, and to integrate what I learn. This brings me into contact with new information that shifts my relationships to what has been.
And, perhaps most urgently, o’neal’s works touch my senses. If only I had room here to write my spectrum of reactions to each piece, each environment—the parenthetical tables, the playground of moss-covered asphalt, the luxurious graphic plateaus. “E:ASR” contains worlds.
I look up. On the wall, I catch sight of a set of soft gray objects, a work titled Den + Gut. It looks like two sides of an ergonomic gaming keyboard, crafted from modeling clay. The keys are beset with playful rubber flies, which appear to have some affinity with this object. Its roughly hewn edges remind me of a time in childhood when I created paper or cardboard versions of technologies I did not have access to yet. Unburdened by my current technical know-how, I imagined these communication devices to be magical and intuitive.
In this moment, grown as I am, I find myself confronted by the limitations of my current frames of reference and all that I still do not know. But “E:ASR” pulls me back into my imagination. It asks me to have patience with myself as I synthesize meaning and to trust that knowing will follow—for, as o’neal puts it, “some of the most special insights take a while to hit.”
“ENCHIRIDION: aisle, spline, resort” is open Thursday-Friday, 12-6 PM, and Saturday-Sunday, 12-4 PM, through August 14 at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art.
A closing event and book launch for sidony o’neals new publication, M:ASR, will take place on August 14 from 12-2pm with a reading by o’neal at 1pm.