Patrick Collier

 

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

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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.”

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A bit cheeky but for the tongue to a sore tooth

Ashley Miller's Sweet Things at Blue Sky Gallery

Given the title of Ashley Miller’s exhibition, Sweet Things, one might expect her photographs to contain a certain amount of eye candy, perhaps something gooey, or on a conceptual level, saccharine and cloying. Not so much. Instead, the confection on view through Feb. 3 at Blue Sky Gallery has been lost to the sidewalk where the ants have found it. Innocence has been replaced by repulsion, and one gets the feeling that Miller finds this rather sweet in and of itself.

However, this may not be the takeaway for every viewer, left wondering why the artist created such grotesqueries. Yet, in that wondering, if one then bothered to read the PR for the show, one would understand that Miller is interested in “the subtexts of desire, consumerism, and overabundance present in product and food photography,” adding, “modern society is built on overabundance and addiction.” Plus, she would have us all implicated, our revulsion springing from recognizing our own state of corruption. Indeed, she confesses that she is just as much a victim as well; only she has an outlet, because “this state of anxiety is the starting point for my work…peddling the fetish.”

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The Best of a Bad Situation

Elizabeth Malaska's paintings at Nationale use the canon for their own purposes

The desire to express a deep appreciation for an artist’s work while knowing that when it comes to writing about that work one feels somewhat out of one’s league… This may be the highest praise an arts writer can give an artist. And while attempting an essay may not do the artist any favors, such it is for me with painter Elizabeth Malaska’s When We Dead Awaken II at Nationale.

First of all, the title has a curious phrasing and demands extra effort to decipher its meaning. It has the flavor of an echo, as if it could be attributed to some older text, a poem perhaps. Sure enough, a quick check of Google brings me to Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. It’s the title of his last play, which is about a male sculptor and his long-lost, female model/muse. One day she reappears and, as it turns out, she has been driven mad by his fame and the loss of her role as his dedicated model. Furthermore, she feels as though her soul has been taken in the experience, and from that moment on she has considered herself dead. Somewhat paralleling her disposition, the artist considers her largely responsible for his masterpiece, the work that put him in the spotlight, yet he has felt empty ever since. No surprise (this is Ibsen, after all) they both die tragically in the end.

Having found a context for the title by reading the play, I could have let my research end there had I not then had a similar intuition about the title of one painting in the exhibit, “Not to Pass on Tradition, but to Break Its Hold over Us (the Archive and Its Shadow).” The phrase cannot be random, and in fact, the non-parenthetical part comes from a 1972 essay by Adrienne Rich, the title of which is “When We Dead Awaken – Writing as Re-vision.” I believe it is from here Malaska draws her most direct reference. In short, Rich makes the argument that women need to find a way to write with their own voices, unburdened by the male-dominant narrative that is embedded in the canon. If we consider that this is also Malaska’s goal in painting, then we might do well to take a closer look at this particular painting as perhaps being most directly related to this effort.

Not to Pass on Tradition, but to Break its Hold Over Us (the Archive and Its Shadow)/Elizabeth Malaska

Not to Pass on Tradition, but to Break its Hold Over Us (the Archive and Its Shadow)/Elizabeth Malaska

Here my feeling of ineptitude arises. First of all, as with many of Malaska’s paintings, I find myself wishing I had a deeper knowledge of art history, for the references in her pictorials are many, and presumably full of meanings I will likely fail to grasp. I can, however, hope to provide the reader with a descriptive gist of it all, and in the doing, perhaps come upon some insights.

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Busy Bodies

MK Guth’s "This Fable Is Intended for You: A Work Energy Principle: Final" at Elizabeth Leach Gallery

It’s a bit sad, really, writing this review for MK Guth’s This Fable Is Intended for You: A Work Energy Principle: Final at Elizabeth Leach Gallery. I know I’ve missed something significant—something prior to the making of the sculptures presented. After all, it is Final, and indeed the last iteration of a body of work, the bulk of which exists only as documentation. It also seems to be the last of a decade’s worth of projects she has done that involve braiding. I regret I’ve missed them all except this one.

MK Guth, Installation View/Elizabeth Leach Gallery

MK Guth, Installation View/Elizabeth Leach Gallery

The progenitor of this current work, This Fable Is Intended for You: A Work Energy Principle, occurred in 2009 and 2010. Here is part of the description from the extensive catalogue created for Guth’s 2012 exhibit at Marylhurst’s The Art Gym: “…a public project at One New York Plaza… Guth invited New Yorkers to bring unusable fabric (old clothes, sheets, rags) to a storefront transformed into an artist studio. Over a five-week period, Guth worked with volunteers to take the materials apart…and weave the fabric into large ropes and sculptural shapes. Guth then choreographed a series of performances for the Under the Radar Festival, in which 24 participants used the ropes to create complex and evolving geometric shapes and patterns.” But this is all by way of providing background more than context for Final.

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