Laurel Reed Pavic

 

Hank Willis Thomas: How to unmake race

The Portland Art Museum has staged the first retrospective of Hank Willis Thomas, who addresses the complexity of race in America in "All Things Being Equal..."

The neon above the main entrance of the Portland Art Museum reads “LOVERULES.” Illuminated in different combinations, it reads both “love overules” and “love over rules.” The neon work, loaned by Jordan Schnitzer, sets the tone for Hank Willis Thomas’s show All Things Being Equal… that opened October 12 and will run through January 12, 2020. 

Hank Willis Thomas (American, born 1976), Loverules, 2019. Neon. Courtesy of Jordan D. Schnitzer. © Hank Willis Thomas, photo courtesy of Portland Art Museum

Thomas is a photographer and conceptual artist whose work explores race, the language of advertising, and the power of images to shape culture and historical narrative. All Things Being Equal… is his first major retrospective. It brings together 15 years of the artist’s work and cements Thomas’s role as an artist who asks questions and poses answers about American history and the American present.

The show is a big moment for the Portland Art Museum and co-curators Julia Dolan and Sara Krajewski. To host this sort of retrospective for an artist of this status establishes the museum as an important venue for contemporary art. The show has been written up in the New York Times, Artnet, and the Observer, which stated “this show unequivocally places the Portland Art Museum in Oregon on the contemporary art map.” It is the culmination of several years of work for Dolan and Krajewski, who, in addition to curating the show, secured funding from multiple prestigious sources and co-authored a handsome catalog with Aperture. It is equally an opportunity for viewers to consider images and race in a different way.

Though his work deals with race and Thomas contends that there is no stronger power in the universe than Black joy, he is equally adamant that race is an invention or myth designed to justify inequality and to propel stereotypes into widespread assumptions about how people are. Thomas says of race, “it is only real because we were taught to make it real.”

Continues…

The view from Portland2019

The fifth Biennial at Disjecta embraces politically and socially engaged art

Jess Perlitz’s Onward totters at the center of the Portland2019 Biennial at Disjecta Contemporary Art Center. The artist describes it as a “drunk tower…a fire tower that has survived, a surveillance tower that is skeletal, and a monument that is flaccid.” The object that crowns the structure she calls a  “ghost and shell of a weather vane,” but this seems a rhetorical overreach for the hollow sack with it lazily listing arrow. A weather vane confidently indicates a direction. This limp arrow points to confusion and indicates disarray.

Jess Perlitz, Onward (2019) Burnt wood, abaca pulp.
Photo credit: Mario Gallucci – Courtesy of Disjecta

Cultural disorientation runs rampant in 2019. Whether one attributes it to the protracted death throes of white patriarchal hegemony, (late) late capitalism, global warming or some unruly amalgamation—the world is a mess and certitude is in short supply. Artists and intellectuals everywhere feel an urgency to make art about pressing social and political issues. Ignorance is a bliss to which art is no longer entitled. The Portland2019 artists turn their attentions on Portland and Oregon and adroitly examine, disassemble, and remake our shared home through their art. The art offers viewers a multifaceted understanding of our microcosm. 

When Disjecta took over the Oregon Biennial from the Portland Art Museum in 2010 it made it clear that each incarnation of the Biennial would be determined by the selected curator. So each Biennial has been its own thing: 2010 curated by Cris Moss, 2012 curated by Prudence Roberts, 2014 curated by Amanda Hunt, 2016 curated by Michelle Grabner and now 2019 curated by a trio of young curators: Yaelle S. Amir, Elisheba Johnson, and Ashley Stull Meyers. The 2019 curators describe their focus as “work by Oregon based artists whose practices are rooted in a rigorous approach to socio-political commentary, presenting diverse perspectives on historical and contemporary narratives unique to the Pacific Northwest.” 

The Biennial concept often garners angst. Lisa Radon’s post for ArtsWatch from 2012 “A few questions concerning Portland2012 Biennial” rings relevant. What is a Biennial other than something that happens every two years? The 2016 Biennial was an expansive affair with the work of 34 artists at 25 venues across the state. The 2019 Biennial features the work of 17 artists plus the Harriet Tubman Center for Expanded Curatorial Practice all in the Disjecta Building on North Interstate Avenue. Half the number of artists, one twenty-fifth of the venues and three years after the last Biennial instead of two? Can it still be a Biennial if it is three years after the last installment? 

Amir, Johnson, and Stull Meyers appear to be unfazed by such handwringing. Portland2019, if you dispense with all the Biennial hoopla, is a show of work by Oregon artists grappling with pressing issues, most prominently racism, community identity, and change. 

Jovencio de la Paz, Options for a Racist (2019) Handwoven natural and synthetic fibers, Historic Textile attributed to the collection of Peter Hardeman Burnett, color laser prints on foamcore.
Photo credit: Mario Gallucci – Courtesy of Disjecta

Jovencio de la Paz uses a colonial-era weaving once owned by the writer of the Oregon black exclusion laws of 1844 (Peter Hardeman Burnett) as a point of departure for his work Options for a Racist. De la Paz offers various “weave drafts” of this textile and recombines them to make new schematics that highlight the letters “A Racist.” The new schematics are extractions, recombinations of the warp and weft pattern of the historic textile—present but not evident unless one strips away other layers of design. 

Sara Siestreem’s project deals with a contemporary variant of racism against Oregon’s Indigenous community as it unfolds in Coos Bay with the Jordan Cove LNG controversy (a proposed liquefied natural gas terminal and pipeline). There are multiple environmental issues with the project and The Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians filed a petition to protect the Jordan Cove estuary by making it Tribal Culture Property. In Siestreem’s installation, a photograph of a lawn sign against this petition reading “Stop TCP (Traditional Cultural Property) Historic District” is captioned “Overt Racism.” Siestreem’s accompanying work includes two figures, Matriarch and Tycen, composed of dance caps, skirts, and dance shoes balanced atop large wooden desks. The materials list for the composite figures is long and includes beads, leather, hide, found beadwork, and fibers executed by Siestreem and collaborators. Traditional crafts and desks as indices of bureaucracy bump together in symbiotic unease. It was the imposition of colonial bureaucracy that resulted in Indigenous expulsion, and yet now it is also bureaucracy (in the filing of the TCP petition or, on a more abstract level, the “approval” of Indigenous identity) that provides a means of protection.

Sara Siestreem, Installation at Portland2019 (2019)
Photo credit: Mario Gallucci – Courtesy of Disjecta

Also linked to issues of Indigenous cultural patrimony is Garrick Imatani’s film Drift, part of his larger project centered on Tamanowas (also known as the Willamette Meteorite). Tamanowas, a 15.5 ton sacred object for the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, was removed and sold ultimately to end up at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Efforts to return Tamanowas to Oregon have been in vain, but in 2001, an agreement was reached so that the Grand Ronde tribal members have private access once a year.

In a previous iteration of the project, Imatani accompanied the tribe on this visit and created a 3-D model of Tamanowas. The film at Disjecta was made with virtual reality software that shows Tamanowas taking leave of its pedestal in the National History Museum and returning home to Oregon and the Grand Ronde. On its journey, Tamanowas enters other institutions with items belonging to the Grand Ronde to create a record of dispersion. The film’s screen is encased in a large, foam iceberg. This helps to monumentalize the smaller screen but it is equally thematic. It is hypothesized that Tamanowas was brought to Oregon on a glacier; its return is facilitated by a theme-park-ready facsimile.

Garrick Imatani, The Drift (2019)
Photo credit: Mario Gallucci – Courtesy of Disjecta

Imatani’s work tempers outrage with poignant whimsy, but Demian DinéYazhí’s work provides no such balance and instead uses stark text to raise awareness and shake viewers out of long-cultivated complacency. There are two seemingly separate components to DinéYazhí’s A Nation is a Massacre at Portland2019: a series of prints with yellow text against blue-toned photographic images and then a series of statements in red on a glass door. While the prints are effective and affecting, DinéYazhí’s work reaches its full and devastating potential with the installation on the glass door. The door establishes the title (“A Nation is a massacre”)  and then continues with smaller font statements, including “Oregon was founded through incalculable attempts by settlers to exterminate Indigenous peoples” or “You are a product of indigenous genocide & environmental racism.” The all-caps font and use of aphorisms recall Barbara Kruger or Jenny Holzer, but DinéYazhí’s work favors even more pointed confrontation. The discomfort is the point, the forced awareness of facts that, if presented at all, have been cast more palatably so as not to offend. 

While artists exploring issues related to Oregon’s Indigenous groups have dominated the discussion here, many other Biennial artists consider the Oregon experience of other communities. Sharita Towne’s contributions include a book, mixed-process print, and video exploring what she describes as “Black geographies and imaginaries.” Lynn Yarne made a shrine that celebrates the community memory of Portland’s Chinese and Japanese inhabitants. Sabina Haque’s video installation focuses on communities of color east of Portland’s 82nd Avenue in neighborhoods known as The Numbers. rubén garcía marrufo’s work focuses on border crossings and the Latinx community (in the United States). Anthony Hudson (also known as the drag clown, Carla Rossi) considers the gentrification of Portland’s “Vaseline Alley” and the erasure of LGBTQ history that the sanitized “Harvey Milk Street” represents.

Dru Donovan, Untitled (2019)
Photo credit: Mario Gallucci – Courtesy of Disjecta

Amir, Johnson, and Stull Meyers selected some artists whose work approaches related issues in a more abstract fashion. Dru Donovan’s untitled photographs center on roofing shingles to consider construction, labor, and shelter. Ka’ila Farrell-Smith’s collage painting No Man Camps: Missing Her uses stencils and wildfire charcoal to draw attention to the issues of “man camps” erected adjacent to Indigenous lands to house laborers for LNG (liquefied natural gas) pipelines. The pipelines threaten Indigenous lands; the “man camps” further threaten the safety and health of Indigenous communities. Farrell-Smith’s gestural, looped pipeline is topped with an x-ed out LNG.

While Farrell-Smith’s paintings approach a similar subject to other works in the show from a more oblique angle, the other painter in the show is a more curious inclusion. Adam Bateman’s Field Study #12 and Field Study #14, both from 2016, are large, light-toned abstract works. They are pleasing to look at but out of sync with the rest of the more insistently messaged works in the show. Bateman’s artist statement references farming and the wall tag invokes Manifest Destiny, but the connection is tangential to the more formal paintings. They seem out of place and leagues away from “A nation is a massacre,” “The children are in cages” (from Vanessa Renwick’s you remember, you forget), or “SW Dead Faggot Street” (Anthony Hudson). It seems telling that Bateman’s paintings are from 2016, the same year as the last Portland Biennial and, for 10 months of the year at least, prior to the election of Donald Trump. Michelle Grabner, herself an abstract painter, curated the 2016 Biennial at Disjecta. Bateman’s paintings would have fit more comfortably in that show than this one.

I would be remiss not to mention outstanding contributions of the Harriet Tubman Center for Expanded Curatorial Practice. The project, shepherded by Lisa Jarrett and Harrell Fletcher of Portland State University, facilitates contributions by students from Harriet Tubman Middle School to the arts community. For the Biennial, a group of six seventh graders (Bea, Elliot, Esperanza, Joyce, Nora, and Syncier) interviewed artists, wrote wall tags, and will conduct a panel discussion about their experiences. The students’ wall tags aren’t always directly related to the works they accompany and the students clearly found some artists’ work more compelling than others, but the insight they offer demonstrates engagement and enthusiasm. 

Perlitz’s weather vane doesn’t inspire confidence that the Portland art scene has a good sense of where it is going and that trepidation seems only justified. This is the first Biennial since Blake Shell took over at Disjecta after Bryan Suereth’s ousting on New Year’s Eve, 2016. Two of the three curators are most recently from shuttered institutions and there have been a rash of venue closings in recent years. But the young(ish) set of artists assembled by Amir, Johnson, and Stull Meyers showcases a visual arts community willing to grapple with a fraught past and complicated present. The art can’t be described as pretty nor escapist nor timeless. Perhaps timeful is a better characterization—a snapshot of where we are in 2019 in all its messiness—and that does seem appropriate for a Biennial. Throw in engagement and enthusiasm from some seventh graders, and while the Portland art scene may not know exactly where it’s headed, it seems we’ll be alright. 

Portland2019
Open through November 3
Disjecta Contemporary Art Center
8371 N Interstate Avenue
Open Friday through Sunday 12-5
Free Admission

Parisian glamour at the Portland Art Museum

All glitz and no grit at the summer show Paris 1900: City of Entertainment

Paris 1900: City of Entertainment, which runs at the Portland Art Museum through September 8, is a confection, a pastel-shaded macaron that looks great on display and encourages fantasies of sunny afternoons frequenting chic patisseries and warm evenings spent promenade strolling. The exhibition focuses on visual culture in the Belle Époque, the era in France that runs from the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 until the beginning of World War I in 1914.

Gaston Roux. Nighttime festivities at the International Exposition of 1889 under the Eiffel Tower, 1889. Oil on canvas, 25 5/8 x 37 3/8 in., Musée Carnavalet. © Musée Carnavalet / Roger-Viollet

The stories we choose to tell about the past reveal our present interests and fascinations. Paris, especially during the Belle Époque, is a subject that generates great enthusiasm: everyone loves Paris. A focus on the glamour, glitz, fashion of the French capital is bound to be well received by museum audiences in Portland. Portland Art Museum Curator of Prints and Drawings Mary Weaver Chapin delivered the opening lecture about Paris 1900 to a packed house, and the Museum held a Paris 1900 Gala at the end of June.

The objects in the show tell an alluring story introduced in several themes that together lend a richer understanding of the period in question. However, the picture presented is incomplete. In part, this is due to the exhibition’s origins as a packaged exhibition from the Paris Musées consortium. The Portland Art Museum has acknowledged some lapses, including mounting the companion exhibition Color Line: Black Excellence on the World Stage, but the overall presentation is inconsistent with the Museum’s stated mission to “reveal the beauty and complexities of the world.” Paris during the Belle Époque was more complex than Paris 1900 suggests.

Continues…

“the map is not the territory”: Whose border is it?

The Portland Art Museum starts a discussion that involves regionalism, authority, and curatorial process.

Appropriately, there is no transition to ease one into the Portland Art Museum’s exhibition the map is not the territory. The viewer is thrown directly into Fernanda D’Agostino’s video installation, Borderline.

The central sculpture court of the museum is often used as a gathering or transitional space to help prepare the viewer for what is to come inside the galleries. Here it is a gallery itself. Multiple projections flash simultaneously on walls, the floor, and suspended screens: entangled bodies and graceful forms present as peaceful or pleasing but then are overshadowed by columns of of trudging figures, showers of red dots, and engulfing flames. Attention is then divided between the rotating bodies and the encroaching calamities—identified as mass migration, government surveillance, and climate change. D’Agostino’s installation sets the tone for the show and confirms that while compelling, it doesn’t shy away from difficult topics.

Fernanda D'Agostino Borderline

Fernanda D’Agostino, Borderline. (2018) video projection, 2 projectors, 13 scenes set up in a software to combine imagery in a 169 combinations.

The title of the show, the map is not the territory, was inspired by a remark by the philosopher Alfred Korzybski and addresses the idea that what is “solidified” in a word or a map is never the full expression of the thing. This may not be the most poetic application of the theory but in the interest of a succinct explanation: you—with your personal history, your anxieties, hopes, and dreams for the present and future—you are more than your driver’s license. Identity is more complex than that, and in the same way, a region is more complicated than its borders and topographic elevations.

Installation View of the map is not the territory, Portland Art Museum (2019)

Continues…

Visual Arts 2018: The big picture

2018 in Review, Part 7: From museums to studios to brave new spaces, a recap of some of ArtsWatch's views and reviews from a year in art

The visual arts stories at ArtsWatch this year ranged far and wide and – as usual – didn’t even come close to covering all that went on in the world of Oregon art. While some may see that as a failure, we choose to see it as a windfall. We are fortunate to live in such an active arts community. If we could cover everything, it would mean a much smaller everything, and that doesn’t benefit anyone. Here is a neat (and incomplete) encapsulation of visual vrts stories in 2018.

We took you behind the scenes with interviews with Oregon artists that explored origins, processes, interests, and other machinations of established and emerging artists. Paul Sutinen interviewed, among others, Judy Cooke on the occasion of her fall show at Elizabeth Leach and Tom Prochaska on the occasion of his spring show at Froelick. Hannah Krafcik interviewed kiki nicole, and ariella tai about their work with the first and the last, an experimental film/video and new media arts project in Portland. Krafcik was then able to follow up in another interview with Jaleesa Johnston about her screening and workshop at the first and the last.

Judy Cooke, “Pink”, 2018, oil, aluminum, 14” x 10” x 1.5”

Continues…

Processing Loss at Lewis & Clark

Mark R. Smith and Maria T.D. Inocencio's Loss of Material Evidence

Mark R. Smith and Maria T.D. Inocencio’s exhibition, Loss of Material Evidence, closed on Sunday, December 9th. The works in the show successfully take on one of art’s highest callings: to make visible the unspeakable, here an exploration of grief. The irony of course is that this exhibition about loss also marks the end of an era for the Ronna and Eric Hoffman Gallery of Contemporary Art at Lewis & Clark. Only a few days prior to the closing of this exhibition, it was announced that the long-time gallery director and curator, Linda Tesner, had been let go. So the end of the show coincides with the end of the gallery, one loss merging with the other.

It would be a mistake, however, to let sadness over the loss of Tesner and concern over the future fate of the Hoffman Gallery to overshadow the achievements of Smith and Inocencio. The show was beautiful in concept and in execution. Inspired by the aging and inevitable loss of the artists’ parents, the works in the show are a meditation on death and the accumulation of things. The lament is tempered by a hopeful note of celebration of the power of family and community. Grief is felt and processed and then, ultimately, transformative.

Maria T.D. Inocencio and Mark R. Smith, “Time Tunnel” (2017). Reclaimed textiles, thread, glue, canvas.

Continues…

A new curator of Native American Art named by the Portland Art Museum

Kathleen Ash-Milby joins the museum's staff in a role that's become increasingly important

The Portland Art Museum has just announced the hiring of a new curator of Native American Art, Kathleen Ash-Milby. Ash-Milby comes to Portland from New York where she has been an associate curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) for nearly 20 years. She is a member of the Navajo Nation and replaces previous curator Deana Darrt, who stepped down in 2016.

At NMAI, Ash-Milby organized, curated, and co-curated many important exhibitions including: Transformer: Native Art in Light and Sound (2017), Kay WalkingStick: An American Artist (2015), C. Maxx Stevens: House of Memory (2012), HIDE: Skin as Material and Metaphor (2010), and Off the Map: Landscape in the Native Imagination (2007). In addition to her work at NMAI, Ash-Milby has curated projects internationally and served on the boards of the Aboriginal Curatorial Collective (2007-2012) and the American Indian Community House (2005-2007).

Kathleen Ash-Milby, the new curator of Native American Art at the Portland Art Museum

Ash-Milby was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and received her M.A. in Native American art history from the University of New Mexico. However, she does have connections to the Northwest as her undergraduate degree is from the University of Washington. She says she is “thrilled to be returning to the Northwest and joining the Portland Art Museum at such an important time in its growth. Portland has such a vibrant community of Native artists and community members, and I’m looking forward to being part of it.”

The Portland community is equally thrilled. Portland artist Lillian Pitt and member of the Native Advisory Board says, “I have known Kathleen since she started working at the National Museum of the American Indian…while the hiring process was lengthy, I am so pleased that Kathleen accepted the job. She will make us all proud.”

The position of curator for Native American Art has been vacant since Deana Dartt left the position in 2016, but the department has remained active. It has received several important grants from, among others, the Mellon Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and has continued to add new works to its collection. And it recently opened CCNA: Not Fragile, a show of glass art by contemporary Native artists.

Ash-Milby will start at the Portland Art Museum in July 2019.