Willie Little’s installation at Oregon Contemporary, In My Own Little Corner, consists of a series of portals that whisk the viewer out of the four walls of the gallery and into other times, places, and corners of the artist’s memory.
The moment I walked into Oregon Contemporary, I was immediately interrupted by a recreated facade of`Little’s childhood home on a tobacco farm in North Carolina. The light green paint on the wooden shingles is chipped as though beaten by sun and weather for decades. The porch swing is missing one of its slats, rendering it unsittable. A corrugated metal roof seems to rust in real time as I imagined the open screen door slamming shut during a thunderstorm.
When I stepped onto the wooden porch, the boards creaked under foot. I could feel the give of the planks as much as I could hear the sound, and it was the first of many sensory experiences that transported me to the rural South of fifty years ago. Beyond the screen door portal, Little divides the cavernous main gallery into multiple room-sized vignettes, each representing a formative memory in his life.
Little’s boyhood bedroom greeted me first, with every detail offering insight into Little’s childhood in a Black religious family in the late 1960s. A photo of Diahann Carroll—dressed as her character in the groundbreaking sitcom Julia—hangs between a cardboard fan bearing an image of the Madonna and a blaxploitation movie poster featuring Pam Grier. Caroll, the Virgin Mary, and Grier act as a holy trinity, presiding over a collection of McCall’s sewing patterns, various magazines, and scattered miniature toy soldiers and tanks: Little’s first allusion to the expectations of gender and identity placed on a young boy.
A pilled and stained baby blue coverlet, not too heavy for the North Carolina summers, is neatly tucked into the bed frame with a threadbare quilt folded at its foot. The pillowcases don’t match. A black-and-white television plays on a loop in the corner, flashing images of The Brady Bunch and Captain Kangaroo. Stacked on top of a wardrobe, two suitcases and a hat box hint at a desire to cast off into a bigger life somewhere else.
The bedroom functions like a time machine. As soon as you enter into it, the world of Portland in the year 2022 ceases to exist. I had to physically stop myself, many times, from sitting on the bed or from picking up the magazines, so fully was I immersed in Little’s constructed world (except for one distraction, but more on that later). My friend and I did sit cross-legged in front of the TV set, for what felt like an eternity, as though we had been invited over for a playdate.
The next vignette is a recreation of a room attached to Little’s grandmother’s house where he spent Sundays after church playing a game he called “girl.” The space is filled with gendered toys like a blonde Barbie (clad in a leopard coat and missing one of her fur-trimmed boots) and a naked six-packed Ken. A fur stole waits to be thrown over shoulders while white dress gloves peek out from a box on a sewing table. It was in this room that Little could safely explore parts of his identity that he couldn’t yet speak of. In a recent artist talk, Little recounted hearing members of his family talk about an “effeminate” piano player at a time when he was reckoning with being gay. “They lambasted him. They flayed him,” he remembered. “I knew in that moment I would have to shut down anything about my personal life and I knew home would never be the same.” The installation chronicles the span between this realization and Little’s current reality.
Little’s careful and virtuosic attention to detail makes these spaces, which in someone else’s hands could easily register as staged set pieces, feel real and fully inhabited by people we cannot see.
The journey through Little’s past ends in the far corner of the gallery where a collection of glittered objects—among them a gold rifle, a Spiderman doll, a gay pride flag, and a dump truck with a bedazzled tailgate—hang from the ceiling in an explosion of queer joy. It is a defiant embrace of the parts of himself that he once had to secret away, and a triumphant ending to the story. Tonally and aesthetically, this last space isn’t cohesive with the rest of the show. This may have been by design, to highlight the difference between the past that the artist wanted to escape and present reality. This distinction would have been more effective if the bedroom vignette had been rotated 90 degrees clockwise so the wall obscured the final corner’s glittering objects. As a neurodivergent person, the light glinting off of them from across the gallery kept calling my attention away, taking me out what would have otherwise been a fully immersive experience.
During Little’s artist talk at the The Museum of the African Diaspora on August 16th, he shared a story that confirmed everything I know to be good and true about artmaking. He knew early on that he wanted the siding for the house to represent asbestos shingles. “I couldn’t find green anywhere,” he said. He went to one of the businesses in town that specializes in selling reclaimed materials and asked if they could keep their eyes peeled. In the meantime, he started the search for a porch swing, which he had an exact picture of in his mind. A friend said she saw a free porch swing in her neighborhood that might be perfect, though it turned out not to be. He decided he would leave it to the universe.
Months later, he visited another business that salvages reclaimed materials and found boxes upon boxes of the green shingles he was looking for. After loading them into his car, he did another lap around the space. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a swing—the swing—which someone had dropped off while he was there and which he would’ve missed had he come even an hour earlier or a day later.
I don’t follow an organized religion, but I do place my faith in the art gods—the benevolent forces that conspire with artists who are in the flow of their practice to help make seemingly impossible things happen. Little’s In My Own Little Corner feels like an inspired collaboration between the past and the present, the South and the Pacific Northwest, the art gods and an artist whose masterful eye for detail allows him to bridge time and space.