Patrick Collier

 

Patrick Collier: Not another pretty picture

The artist, quarantining at home, sings the blues about art and the fire outside

The last art review I wrote for ArtsWatch was about an exhibit I saw the day before I went on lockdown. In that essay I wrote about the difference seeing art in person makes, as opposed to seeing its digital representation, as there were subtleties I would have missed had I just seen the work online. And if one holds to the rule that art needs to be seen in situ in order to be properly reviewed, I don’t foresee getting much art writing done for quite a while, given the risk factors for myself plus the mounting drive to make genocide by default the national coronavirus policy.  

Keith Haring, Ignorance = Fear (1989)

Not that there is a dearth of art online worthy of review. Not that there wasn’t an overabundance on social media before the pandemic, and in the last two months it has increased exponentially. As a response to the stay at home orders and closing of brick and mortar venues, artists are doing virtual studio visits or posting mini-retrospectives. Galleries do video tours of their exhibits, and museums are opening up their collections to view on their websites. Dance ensembles, chorales, and other musicians of all sorts are performing remotely, all gathered together in frames on Zoom. Indicative of various needs that may or not be obvious, and may or may not be met, I find it both a bit tragic and heartening (although I have to work at any positives that come out of this crisis) at the same time. 

Continues…

Celebrating mundane interiors

Leslie Hickey's photographs capture the enigmatic appeal of the everyday

Those familiar with photography over the last sixty years or so will recognize the genre of Leslie Hickey’s photographs at Holding Contemporary. The work harkens back to the minimal interior shots of William Eggleston — a style emulated by a slew of photographers ever since. The primary goal of such photography, simply put, is to find something special about the mundane. Hickey’s photographs manage to celebrate the mundane and, at least in one case, convey a mood as well. (The lighting in the gallery may have been a factor, for each piece was dimly lit, not so dim as to lose details of the work, but enough to encourage only soft-toned conversations opening night.) 

When photographing mundane subject matter, that to which we typically are oblivious or wouldn’t otherwise think to document, the goal is not to have the final image appear as a manipulated/staged vignette, but instead use framing and technical abilities of the camera to elevate that which is seen. Success comes in how well one illuminates the extraordinary that lingers within empirical reality. The hope is that mediation by the photographer, and then contemplation by the viewer of the scene somehow replaces the superficiality with something more complex, perhaps even sublime, even as it remains matter of fact. And as in many other art forms, visual irony and/or paradox play a role in determining success.

rotary phone with note cards and wite-out
Leslie Hickey, Grandma’s Phone (Tacoma) (2019/2020). Pigmented inkjet print. 19.2×24. Edition of 3. Image courtesy of Holding Contemporary.

Notably, Hickey’s photographs do not contain people, and therefore narrative qualities are subdued. Nevertheless, we can read a story in Grandma’s Phone (Tacoma). A rotary phone (the image was taken in 2019) hangs on the wall above a corkboard full of index cards held with push pins.  A bottle of Wite-Out sits on a small ledge, and an electrical cord neatly runs along that ledge to a point out of frame. We recognize the old plastic wall tiles as something from our own grandma’s house. Based on this corner of her room, we get a good sense that while still in an analog world, she is as sharp as one of those push pins. Yet it is significant that Grandma is nowhere to be seen. We have no idea if she is still alive, which may answer why I feel a certain melancholy when I look at the image.

flowers leaning against glass on a plinth with sandpaper
Leslie Hickey, SACI still life, angle (2018/2020). Pigmented inkjet print. 11×14. Edition of 3. Image Courtesy of Holding Contemporary.

Hickey’s photo, SACI Still Life, Angle, while narrative in that it has a sense of place, is less specific than Grandma’s Phone (Tacoma). It could be a scene from any art school.. (SACI stands for Studio Arts College International in Florence, Italy. Hickey attended the school in 2004 and had an exhibit there in 2017.) The configuration of flowers and glass set up on an old, beat-up plinthe is likely for a painting class, yet Hickey has usurped it with her camera. To what end? While the flowers arranged against the light green glass is pretty enough, and we presume that it is the focus of a painting exercise, its arrangement strongly contrasts with other elements in the photo.The piece of easel, the used sandpaper, and most significantly, a foreground emphasizing the textures of the ragged plinthe, bring contrast and friction to the image. (Sandpaper!) 

A similar contrariness exists in Wire (Rockaway). The wire and its shadow presents as a simple drawing, largely due to the texture of the paper or whatever the wire rests on.Then again, in that we know this is a photograph, the raised bumps make the photo appear to be printed on rough handmade paper. Hotel Alla Salute bed (diptych) employs the same illusion, only this time it looks as though the walls in the photos have been hand colored, when in actuality, whoever painted the walls did a fairly uneven job. One can get a sense of these illusions from the images posted with this essay, yet seeing the work in person will bring another degree of appreciation, and the close engagement will find the viewer getting inches away and at an angle to see if there is indeed a manipulated surface. 

wire on a white background
Leslie Hickey, Wire (Rockaway) (2019/2020). Pigmented inkjet print. 11×14. Edition of 3. Image courtesy of Holding Contemporary.

Holding Contemporary is a small gallery and Hickey shares the space this month with Erin Murrray’s drawings as part of a two-person show, What We See and What We Know. With limited exhibition space, we can assume that Hickey’s six photographs in this exhibit were carefully chosen (especially given that the dates for the work span a four-year time period, and a photographer generally takes a lot of photos). I commend the gallery and artist in their curation.

Finally, I cannot resist relating these photos to this particular moment, our life in the time of Covid-19. Perhaps by nature and profession, visual artists are figuratively and literally some of the most self-isolating people one will know. If not lost in thoughts primed by the eye, they are in the studio realizing those ideas through a medium of choice. A day or two, a week or three, distraction-free and confined to the studio or house, is a blessing not often afforded. (However, this “free” time may come with great financial loss, so please, if you can, buy some art and support your local art institutions now.)  We might all do well to adopt this attitude and not only slow down to appreciate the simple things around us, but attend to what is important that has until now been put aside.


Holding Contemporary is open by appointment only. The gallery will also be amplifying its digital presence by having artists “take over” the gallery’s Instagram feed (@holdingcontemporary) and tag photos of interior architecture/still life.

The brain of the beholder

David Eckard's sculptures at North View Gallery leave room for many interpretations

I saw David Eckard’s exhibit, Placards and Placeholders, at the North View Gallery on PCC’s Sylvania Campus just before and after a scheduled artist Q & A with sizable crowd of PCC students and faculty. For nearly an hour, Eckard took questions from the audience about the meaning of the title, his use of materials in his craft, and his biography as a midwestern farm boy and art teacher. Oddly, the art seemed to be the proverbial elephant in the room; no one wanted to ask how to read or understand it.

Front and center in the large, square space of the galley is the floor piece, Cornucopia (theatrics of worth). Facing slightly askew from the gallery entrance, yet readily visible, the piece first presents what appears to be a round, brown, open anus. Even as I write this description, my mind’s ear anticipates the same responses toward the piece as to my description: cue the uncomfortable twittering, perhaps even umbrage.

David Eckard, Cornucopia (theatrics of worth). (2020) painted wood, turned wood, steel, mirror, fabric, wool, leather, sand.
Image courtesy of the artist.

However, to imagine the discomfort some viewers might experience gives this writer a little thrill — not only viewing Cornucopia — as I remind myself that acting as an art critic, this delight I feel is itself a fulfillment of a particular desire. Such is the personal implication that comes with my proximity to the object. 

Your experience may vary.

Whether we are conscious of it or not, as we look at a piece of art, the piece has in a sense fixed its gaze on us as well, It’s a phenomenon as old as the paintings of religious icons and then the burning of those images during the Reformation. (And likely before that.)  We make associations with the works of art via recognition of and relations with representations of elements already in the world. In Eckard’s art, references to anatomy are the first thing we lock onto, and what follows is either an implication or indictment nevertheless internalized.

Now, put fifty people in the gallery and the gaze gets more complicated. Not only do we have the work to contend with, we are also aware of the group’s potential to gauge our relationship with the art. My speculation that the subject of sex never arose during the conversation is because a private conversation with the art is displaced.

David Eckard, Pedagog (my mastadons). (2017) Painted wood, steel. Image courtesy of the artist.

This is not to say that some viewers may see this orifice as an iris or aperture. After all, one can see other parts of the sculpture through the opening. Additionally, its presence is not necessarily an indication of practice but is, as an art object/image, a bit fantastical, neither good nor bad, a fulfillment or denial. Indeed, my own immediate response shortchanges the complex generosity that resides in Eckard’s paintings and sculpture.

For instance, the shift to iris or aperture allows us to think about sight, and with that, new associations open up for his other sculptures. Several of his works include small mirrors. Placed in a manner that prevents us from readily seeing our reflection, we are afforded less implication than in the former reading. We are somewhat freed of the harsh gaze. Furthermore, this expanded reading may seem a bit contrived, it is supported by the amount of repeated motifs and elements of fabrication in Eckard’s sculpture that in turn allow the viewer see the group as a whole.

As the title of the exhibit suggests, there are placards — a good number of them — in several pieces: Pedagog (my mastodons), Origin (scholar plank), Emblem (revisionist model), New Regime (jewels of paste), Dowser’s Faith, and Fossil Whispers Revolution) all incorporate tablets that have illustrations that look as if they could be illustrations an ancient encyclopedia of objects and fauna that have been long lost to the world. Yet, they are nevertheless suggestive. We almost recognize the representations, as distant memories from our limbic brains.

Other parts of his sculpture are similarly primal. Painted mostly in earth tones, we are reminded of rocks and dirt as much as we are of muscles, tendons and adipose tissue. These might very well be placeholders of a sort, stand-ins for our bodies and our place in nature. 

David Eckard, Origin (scholar prank) (2017). painted wood, steel, rope. Image courtesy of the artist.

Yet we must add another element to round out the examination of these sculptures. Origin (scholar prank) has the only placards that are not directly attached to the rest of the sculpture, plus they are the only ones that look like little handheld chalkboards. Attached to the primary structure is an armature with a ring at the end, and inserted into that ring is what might best be described as a prosthetic device, at the end of which is a large, pointed piece of chalk. The shape of the device wonderfully echoes the painted form from which it hangs, and while it apparently has been used to make initial marks on the placards underneath, retrieving it from its holder to finish the drawings would clearly be an impossible task without a ladder.

Dowser’s Faith tells a similar story: an intricate contraption is affixed to an organic form, from which hang six placards, one of which is blank. Mounted at the extreme end of an armature on the piece is a candle that at some point has been lit. Light it and finish the story?

I must remark on the craft of Eckard’s work. His fabrication of metal, leather and other materials is deft. His painted surfaces are refined with an almost classical blending of color and tone. The metalwork often adds a linear counterpoint to the more amorphous painted shapes yet also imply a utility, as do the various hitches, straps, pegs and blades. Within all of his work, he walks a fine line between abstraction and figuration, which allows the viewer a wide interpretative path. 

David Eckard. I Said Rock (homo faber) (2017). painted wood, steel, canvas, mirror, cord. Image courtesy of the artist.

Eckard’s I Said Rock (homo faber) may offer a bit of commentary on his craft. We can clearly see the rocks. They are at the top of the piece like a formation we might see in the mountains, and below there is a pile as we might see as a barrier for a campfire. Curiously, the rocks above and the wood for the fire are the same color, which is enough of a visual distraction to make their abrupt lower edge of the rocks above, along with what looks like underpainting for more of them, make an odd sense. And  how can there be a shadow cast behind the campfire when the yellow lightsource is behind the shadow? Perhaps the artist as the titular “homo faber” (faber is Latin for “maker” or “artisan”) has another agenda. As it certainly is for abstract artists, the viewer’s process is to follow where the art leads.

If the yellow paint does not represent the light source, what causes the shadow? Something stronger and brighter within the gallery itself? Perhaps this is a sly nod to the gallery lights above, or something equally meta as “highlighting”  the dynamic of viewership. More likely it reminds us that it is the artist himself that illuminates. 

Or, it’s just me overthinking in order to thwart a fixation on what may seem like the readily apparent sexual and sensual aspects of a lot of the work, because I know this does not do full justice to Eckard’s art. No, there is something more elusive at work here, and not only in I Said Rock (homo faber). Eckard has let us into his world, yet despite his intimate generosity that pulls us in, the work retains a mystery, thereby putting us in an odd space within ourselves. (Dare I say that he queers the space?) It feels like those emotions one feels yet can’t quite name, the types that eventually leak through as a facial tic.

And I would have it no other way.


Placards and Placeholders is on view at the North View Gallery at PCC Sylvania through February 15, 2020. The gallery is open Monday through Friday from 8 A.M. to 4 P.M. and Saturday from 11 A.M. to 4 P.M.

Amina Ross at Ditch Projects: a meander nevertheless flows

Amina Ross inaugurates the 11th year of Ditch Projects with a multimedia installation, 'When the water comes to light out of the well of my self'

Ditch Project, now in its 11th season of exhibitions in Springfield, Oregon, has kicked off this year with Amina Ross’ When the water comes to light out of the well of my self. The multimedia installation is curated by the Director of Black Embodiments Studio, Kemi Adeyemi, and continues through November 2. As the title of the exhibit indicates, to come to an understanding of the artist’s intent, full immersion is required. Yet, if one looks for a starting point for the narrative that occurs, one might find oneself lost in metaphors for and about water.

That is to say the exhibit can be a little difficult to navigate at first, at least if one tries to follow the list of pieces on the information card. The animation Refracted Rituals, for example, is first on the list, yet the piece itself, a single monitor partially draped with a blanket, is in the far back corner of the gallery. The information card then becomes something to be put aside as a guide for anything but knowing the title of a piece. And so the viewer meanders as though following a flatland stream, its bends and eddys eventually revealing the scope of the work. 

Amina Ross, Untitled (watering is a type of releasing)/photo by Mike Bray, courtesy of Ditch Projects

Two multi-colored pillows suspended from the ceiling, Hold (1) and Hold (2), are the first things one sees, although a scaffolded bed-like platform to their left and a stack of four monitors on the right side of the gallery, compete for attention. The bed, Etheric Bridge (Winter’s Grief), has two people lying on it, so I move over to the monitors. The card lists this piece as Untitled (watering is a type of releasing) with a note that reads “on top of the monitors there is water from 3 baths and a tincture made of Hawthorne and rose.” In that the contents of these jars looks more like decaying sludge, I wonder what sort of bath they are from. Certainly not the relaxing, bubbly kind. Some sort of trauma is afoot, and perhaps the multiple segments of the video will provide some clue. 

All four monitors simultaneously play a progression of shifting images: a drawing of a motherly figure with love and compassion in her expression; then someone (the artist) washes their hands with a stone that generates suds; a drain appears yet is so harshly lit that most of what we see is just white light; next, a lengthy abstract and shifting pattern that looks a bit like the bottom of a stream bed covered with freshly fallen leaves (I begin to make color associations with the jars); then, a hand (presumably the artist’s) running fingers through a white fur-like material; and finally, a still image of a hand alongside what looks like it might be river rocks, both partially obscured yet bridged by a brilliant light. Aha! The same image that covers the cushion portion of the bed piece!

I wait for my turn to lay myself down on the bed and take in the images on the four monitors above it. The thin cushion/mattress is uncomfortable for this old guy’s bones and I wish I had one of the pillows for my head. It is unclear at first what I’m looking at. Three of the four monitors show very little, except I can tell I am looking at water. The fourth monitor has a rock in the same water, and I realize the camera is inside a tub. I begin to see leaves floating, then a body, or rather parts of a body, as the monitors fragment the rather chaotic scene. Eventually, the tub drains leaving the detritus behind, and the jars sitting on the stack of four monitors of Untitled (watering is a type of release) now have a context for their contents. An emotional cleansing has occurred. 

Amina Ross, Etheric Bridge (Winter’s Grief)/Photo by Mike Bray, courtesy of Ditch Projects

Normal hygiene practices would not necessarily be an indication, yet a ritualized cleansing of the skin is another matter. The repetition of this act in various videos suggests a persistent intention on the part of the artist. I would hesitate to speculate—if I didn’t know from reading Adeyemi’s accompanying essay—that the work is significantly about race, gender and sexuality. The installation avoids a literalness or a didacticism, and that allows others to access universal symbologies that may offer a more general perspective.

The 29th hexagram of the I Ching, for example, is The Abysmal (Water).(1) It is one of the I Ching’s eight double hexagrams, meaning that in this particular instance the water trigram is on both the top and bottom. Despite the negative inference in the title, Water is considered auspicious. Think “plunging in.” Not surprisingly, then, the heart is involved as well. Danger still lingers (The Abysmal), and the I Ching cautions that one might do well to be strategic when following a passion.

Commentary for the hexagram states, “Water sets the example for the right conduct under such circumstances [danger]. It  flows on an on, and merely fills up all the places through which it flows; it does not shrink from any dangerous spot nor from any plunge, and nothing can make it lose its own essential nature.”

Water’s nature is multifarious. It is ice and steam; it drains and bubbles up; it soaks, erodes, fills and falls. We find evidence of some of these characteristics in the two remaining videos, Refracted Rituals and Onyx at sunset. As somewhat abstract single-monitor pieces, neither has the strong narrative qualities of the four-channel pieces, yet they do act as culminating vignettes, especially Refracted Rituals, as it incorporates images that we have already seen. In each, water flows in and out or up and down. It is not constrained by rules of physics, and so can also represent that for the artist, convention is also put aside. 

As the title for the exhibit subtly suggests, light plays a role in much of this work as well. Both Refracted Rituals and Onyx at sunset have changing light in the sky. The blinding white-out of a drain in Untitled (watering is a type of releasing) is quite off-putting, as if the artist does not want us to see what has been washed away (although in another scene the drain is filled with dirt that must be ushered down and away). The recurrent image of the brilliant light that bridges the hand and rocks is perhaps the most obvious, and while it does create a sense of wonder for this viewer (how was the image created?), it also may be key to why I walk away from this exhibit with a good feeling. Whether by their own doing or with the help of some outside force, the artist has managed some degree of resolve.

Amina Ross, Film Still from
Untitled (watering is a type of releasing)/Courtesy of Ditch Projects

Indeed, the coherence of the exhibit comes through the interplay of motifs and repetition of images between the various pieces, all of which becomes more apparent after patiently wandering around the room a couple times. The initial sense of melancholy that comes from Untitled (water is a type of releasing) and Etheric Bridge (Winter’s Grief) is relieved when images from the two works are incorporated in Refracted Rituals. We become aware of a new dynamic simply because this latter work (and Onyx at sun set) remove the narrative and become more of a culmination…a resolve.

It’s as if acceptance is itself a force to be reckoned with.

(1) I Ching/The Richard Wilhelm Translation, rendered into English by Cary F. Baynes, Princeton University Press. 1977.

Art review: Through the pinhole, vastly

Julia Bradshaw’s "Survey" at Truckenbrod Pop-Up Gallery imagines new planets from a long way up

In 1920 Marcel Duchamp invited his friend Man Ray over to his studio to practice documenting artwork with his large format camera. Instead, Man Ray photographed dust that had accumulated on the glass backside of Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) (1915-23). To look at the image, one doesn’t immediately think of a dusty surface but of a barren landscape photographed from miles above. In fact, Man Ray said as much after he published the image two years later, describing it as a “view from an aeroplane.” Eventually given the title, Dust Breeding (1), the photograph has been a residual inspiration for generations of artists thereafter.

Not that Dust Breeding is a starting point for Julia Bradshaw’s exhibition, Survey, at Truckenbrod Pop-Up Gallery in Corvallis through September 29. It is merely my unavoidable point of reference. Instead, Bradshaw credits an oversight—not unlike Duchamp’s neglect in keeping a clean studio—for this series of photographs. Discovering an underused darkroom at a residency she was attending, Bradshaw regretted not bringing an analog 35mm camera along. Fortuitously, she had brought along her pinhole camera. She started a project by taking her own advice to students when teaching the use of a pinhole camera: take an image of a concrete sidewalk.

Still, one can readily see a direct link to Man Ray’s photograph. The grittiness of the concrete taken out of its original context suggests a larger landscape, and perhaps one that is otherworldly. For Bradshaw, she found herself thinking about the long history that photography has with astronomy, particularly James Nasmyth’s 19th century photographs of the moon’s topography. At the time, photographs of the night skies did not work well with telescopes because of an inability to track the movement of planets. Instead, Nasmyth built and photographed models of the moon’s surface. It was this fiction that brought Bradshaw to create her own silver-gelatin prints of interstellar and planetary surface fictions.(2)

Julia Bradshaw, Sinuous Rille from 2671 Altitude Kilometers

Continues…

Bruce Conkle at Nine Gallery: Gone but not forgotten

Conceptual artist Bruce Conkle offers a ray of imaginary sunshine to creatures who "do stupid shit"

I believe it is standard practice for online arts magazines to publish reviews of an event while it is still accessible to a potential audience. This is certainly the case for month-long fine art exhibitions, and a practice I have adhered to in the past. And although I thought Bruce Conkle’s exhibit, Alternate Sunsets at Portland’s Nine Gallery, was an exhibit I wanted to write about, it came and went before I had the chance. Yet, the exhibit followed me around for the next few weeks, asking me questions about things that were already bothering me, both personal and about art criticism. So, here I am, many weeks past a deadline.

Conkle lives in Portland yet has a national and international exhibition record. He has one of the coolest sleeve tattoos I have ever seen. It looks like wood grain, which may be seen as an extension, if you will, of Conkle’s long-standing theme of bringing attention to the environmental crisis that we have brought upon ourselves. (It is also indicative of his wit.)

There were two sculptures and 19 paintings of various sizes in this exhibit, all of which are a continuation of his concerns of our impact on this planet. The work operates at a visceral level (sometimes literally), and his artist’s statement reinforces this: “We are simple creatures. We worry about stupid shit. We do stupid shit. We do not know why we are here.”

"Love Luck Money Spells" is part of conceptual artist Bruce Conkle's show at Nine Gallery.
Bruce Conkle, “Love Luck Money Spells”, 2019, oil on wood, 24″ by 18″

Despite this apparent fatalism, he persists, and if his prodigious effort in the small Nine Gallery space is any indicator, it is a matter of urgency, if not the last vestige of hope. 

Conkle’s sculpture, Maybe In An Alternate Universe We Live Through This Shit (version II),  speaks to that little ray of sunshine by relying on fantasy. The fancifully decorated stump, the crystal ball, the dice made of sugar cubes, and the pink tea cup filled with Pepto Bismol are absurdist in content, and as such, they elicit a chuckle. However, the way the ball, dice and cup are displayed/arranged, suggests an action or ritual, and therefore a purpose. Magic is afoot! Or not quite, for Conkle knows that pink bismuth is not so much restorative as temporarily neutralizing. It provides the illusion of a cure.

The other sculpture, Master These And Control The World, acts as a sort of counterpoint. Instead of a tree trunk, it includes a more traditional pedestal/stanchion accompanied by a traffic cone (made of paper).Together they suggest an indictment of Western civilization.

As in Maybe In An Alternate Universe, Conkle has included dice made of sugar cubes. On the former, two dice both show three dots up (6), and on the latter, three dice show five dots up (15). Even though I am on my way to filling my Yahtzee score card, the dice will dissolve with the least bit of moisture, leaving no evidence of the fortuitous throws. 

Bruce Conkle, Maybe In An Alternate Universe We Live Through This Shit, Crystal ball, wood, lead, sugar, carbon, ceramic, pepto bismol, paint
26 x 13 x 13”, 2019

These meanings I have gleaned are just guesses, constructed in part by my own history of associations. However, Conkle does guide me along the way, primarily through similarities in materials and content. His repetition of oddities nevertheless provides consistency—and an assurance that meaning and relevance can be found in what otherwise would in its singularity, remain enigmatic. No longer a contrivance, repetition becomes an indicator of intentionally constructed metaphors and a generous act of encouragement. 

In no way does this mean that Conkle’s artworks are instructive, at least not in the traditional sense. Although he uses the Big Dipper constellation in many of his paintings, why he includes it in a diagrammatic painting of a car muffler (Sail On The Steel Breeze) or alongside an image of an ice vending machine (Conversion) may elude us. It is almost as if alchemical systems are at work in this art. 

Yet, isn’t the Big Dipper the easiest constellation to get a fix on in the night sky? So, what is equally apparent about car exhaust systems? The exhaust! The ice machine (a trope for Conkle, as he has utilized similar freezers in the past) in the painting, Conversion, has a small alpine village sitting atop the machine. Cute, right? So, what is one to make of the fiery-red cellular structures that mimic the Big Dipper floating alongside the machine? Imagine the amount of energy—all the heat—that machine throws off to keep the bags of ice frozen. Time and again, Conkle lays out his thesis, and does so with cosmic and biospheric signifiers. What may initially appear as an oblique or absurdist juxtaposition works to amplify his advocacy.

In a series of paintings of altered cigarette ads, Conkle does take a more direct approach to worldly ills. The smoke from a lit tobacco pipe (Pipes Honour) takes the form of a gray, dead tree. Smokers themselves are portrayed as skeletal and decimated. Direct and dire, I identify myself as just such a pariah, yet these paintings do not have the same lingering allure of other works. They do become emblematic of a larger issue, and that is how we go about our days without directly addressing an impending demise that will come by our own hands.

Bruce Conkle, Pipes Honour, Oil on wood
22 x 16”, 2019

Our vices are many, and we overlook a lot to get what we want/need. His painting, Primal Foundations, shows us a cut down, blue-hued tree, along with a severed large vine. Both have exposed vibrant circulatory systems with colors similar to what one might find on a psychedelic black light poster. I assume the coloration is meant to suggest a heightened awareness of the reality in which we live, and that, indeed, all living things have an autonomous and dynamic lifeblood. 

This portrayal leads me down a path that may not be the takeaway that Conkle is looking for. I wonder if there is not a sentimental appeal to these and similar bright-shiny aspects of his art. But not only Conkle’s art; art in general. Are we drawn to such feel-good distractions, whenever we are looking at, or, in my case, thinking and writing about art? Is the inspiration we find in art more akin to the final act of the proverbial moth, with the flame more like nostalgia? 

It is here that I am tempted to leave this essay unfinished (at the same conceptual place that kept me thinking about Conkle’s work since the exhibit and then procrastinating over it) because more and more questions arise, and none of them promise any comfort with their answers. 

I am more than willing to get in my truck, stogie clinched between my teeth, and make the hour-and-a-half drive to see art exhibits in Portland. I’ve been doing it for 10 years, and the traffic is almost always heavy. Given that viewing art is a large part of being an artist, and that I am also on a mission to potentially bring light to a member of my community of artists (and even though I try to do errands while in town), am I forgiven my carbon emissions? Are the thousands of people on their individual missions making the same trek also forgiven? Do we excuse artists for shipping their work to and fro? And at the risk of pissing off powers-that-be, are the curators of international biennials or gallerists and attendees of art fairs in far-flung countries given the same latitude for their environmental footprint? How do we compartmentalize our environmental impact, especially in light of the fact that we are unlikely to stop participating in these activities? Surely, to allow for such trade-offs, we must convince ourselves that art, or for that matter, arts writing, are more than just a response to matters critical to our survival and can affect real change. Surely.

Bruce Conkle, The Flame Went Up Toward Heaven
Oil on wood, 22 x 16”, 2019

Or rather, surreally in the face of what might be a hopeless situation? I cannot think of anything more appropriate. 

Pepto Bismol is my constant companion.

Ryan Kitson: Caution, artist at play

The Schneider Museum of Art exhibition is marked by flights of whimsy and free association

The first words of the wall text for Ryan Kitson’s exhibit, “Suds Ur Duds/Fermentation Elastic”—at the Schneider Museum of Art in Ashland, Oregon, through Saturday—ask the audience to take in the show before reading the didactics. The same placard has a numbered diagram of the art in the gallery along with the title and material list for each piece. This puts compliant viewers at the mercy of their eyes only. Granted, the average viewer is likely to experience the work before any reading takes place (at least that is how I go about it), so, in keeping with the spirit of the artist’s request, I will return to this matter at a later point.

It might be similarly fitting to address the one Kitson sculpture in a separate exhibit, “From Ignorance to Wisdom,” curated by Blake Shell, which is also at the museum but in a different gallery. Shell selected works by the Southern Oregon University (home to the Schneider) Art and Creative Writing faculty, and has included Kitson, as he was a visiting artist during the 2018 fall term. In that the piece, Fermentation Elastic, is included in the main title for his exhibit, one wonders whether it should be considered a stand-alone or as integral to the rest of his work. Exhibition title notwithstanding, in that this piece is seen before one can see the entrance to “Suds Ur Duds,” one might assume it’s a stand-alone. But in that Kitson is not actual faculty, there may be other machinations at work as well.

Ryan Kitson, "Fermentation Elastic", 12x35x24 inches, resin, glass,t-shirt, plaster, fidget balls, slime, lavender scented bath salt/Schneider Museum of Art

Ryan Kitson, “Fermentation Elastic”, 12x35x24 inches, resin, glass,t-shirt, plaster, fidget balls, slime, lavender scented bath salt/Schneider Museum of Art

Fermentation Elastic distinguishes itself with its whimsy. Mounted on a low plinth, four kombucha bottles filled with liquid prop up a tie-dyed t-shirt like a miniature, four-cornered shelter, out of which flows an orange, sparkly mass with two equally decorative balls stuck in the hardened effluence. The piece is abundantly orange and also color-coordinated in a manner that might be true to a person who would imbibe in the drink while wearing that style of shirt. It should also be noted that in past iterations, the artist has added an additional level of process by filling the bottles with homemade kombucha, which, intentionally or not, puns the word “culture.”

Continues…