VISUAL ART

Unwound and unbound

Ko Kirk Yamahira's intriguing painting/sculptural/fiber hybrids at Russo Lee Gallery defy easy categorization and interpretation

By RACHEL ROSENFIELD LAFO

In the 1970s and 1980s, fiber arts—weaving, textiles, tapestry, embroidery, knitting, crocheting, sewing, quilting, etc.—along with other “craft” media such as ceramics, glass, and wood—were usually classified as a separate category of art and were shown primarily in craft and design museums. As a result, artists who worked exclusively in fiber, such as Lenore Tawney, Claire Zeisler, and Sheila Hicks were often excluded from the critical discourse within the “mainstream” contemporary art world.

There were notable exceptions to this exclusion. Artists such as Faith Ringgold, Magdalena Abakanowicz, and Alan Shields, among others, despite their embrace of fiber as an artistic material, achieved critical attention and inclusion in “fine art” exhibitions during those decades. By the 1990s, however, the wall that separated “art” from “craft” had begun to crumble. By the time the Whitney Museum of American Art exhibited The Quilts of Gee’s Bend in 2002, the show’s critical success and popularity further erased any remaining boundaries. Today there has been a dramatic increase in the number of artists working either exclusively in fiber or incorporating it into their work in other media. 

One such artist is Seattle-based Ko Kirk Yamahira whose exhibition Fractions is on view at Russo Lee Gallery through February 1. A self-taught artist who moved to Seattle from New York City in 2015, he is a founder of the artist collective Art Beasties and a member of the Seattle collective SOIL. His elegant, reductive, and tactile artworks hover somewhere between paintings, fiber art, and sculptural installation and reflect modernist principles in their emphasis on materials, techniques, and processes.

During a recent gallery talk the artist described his works as paintings while acknowledging that they could also be considered drawings or sculptures. Yet they also present as fiber art, due to the artist’s unusual technique of deconstructing the canvas support into individual strands of fiber. Ultimately what is important is not how we categorize Yamahira’s artworks but how we perceive them. As the artist Alan Shields once said in an interview about his own hybrid artworks, “It doesn’t really matter what you call them. It’s the experience you’re looking for.”

Ko Kirk Yamahira. Untitled (Pink and Blue Intersection) (2019). acrylic, graphite, partially unwoven canvas, wood.

Yamahira begins by applying a coat of acrylic paint, graphite or transferring a silkscreen image to the surface of the canvas. Then, with a process that is the obverse of weaving, he deconstructs all or part of the canvas, meticulously and painstakingly removing individual threads from the weave of the canvas using an X-Acto knife, unweaving and exposing the warp (vertical) and weft (horizontal) components, so that the strands of cotton fiber drape loosely or stretch tautly across the wood stretcher bars. He then progressively disrupts the rectangularity of the grid by dividing the canvas into sections, deconstructing all or part of the canvas, hanging panels off kilter on a diagonal, allowing loose fibers to drape towards the floor, projecting part of an artwork off the wall, or suspending one piece from the ceiling. 

The artworks are all untitled, distinguished by their formal properties of shape, color, and surface treatment. The viewers are left to deduce their own interpretations. The exhibition title, Fractions, refers to the relational measurements of one part of each painting to another. With the exception of one work that has an image silkscreened on the canvas, the paintings are non-referential and elude specific meaning, focusing attention instead on material and process. 

Ko Kirk Yamahira, Untitled (Silkscreen Sculpture) (2019) acrylic, silkscreen, unwoven canvas, wood

The varied permutations of these conceptually based artworks range from formal, geometrically centered compositions to those with skewed edges and draping fibers. For an off-white square painting hanging over the gallery desk Yamahira unwove the fibers of the canvas, tightly stretching them horizontally and vertically to form a cross with arms of equal length. In another square painting the geometry is relaxed so that the unraveled cotton threads sag organically across the surface, resembling a belly with a slight bulge. There are many variations on this theme, as each artwork assumes a different shape, color, relationship to the wall, and level of surface deconstruction. Motion is both implied and actual – implied by the hanging fibers, tilted panels, and resulting shadows cast on the wall, actual when air currents activate the loosened threads. This sense of motion is notable in a large black-gray painting in which approximately three-quarters of the middle section has been unwoven resulting in a sweeping swoosh of fibers that move from left to right. 

Ko Kirk Yamahira, Untitled (Black Horizontal) (2019). acrylic, graphite, partially unwoven canvas, wood.

The most sculptural piece in the exhibition hangs suspended from the ceiling. Originally a triangular canvas painted pink, it has been completely deconstructed and then folded so that the fibers descend in straight vertical lines from the wood support, causing them to sway gently as visitors pass.

Yamahira poetically alludes to the characteristics of the unwoven fibers in an accompanying wall text:  

Vibrations.
They are just purely captivating.
Wavering and trembling.
Continuous, sustained, and momentary.
Sensual and Sensory.
Ripples that are static or dynamic.
Sound and voice.

Ko Kirk Yamahira

For Yamahira the meaning of his art comes from the process of making: “There is no specific aim to find a meaning,” he writes on his website, “neither in the creative act itself, nor through the creative process. The totality of the meaning can be found in the continuation of the process.” 

The artist begins with small geometric drawings made in his sketchbook. Since the process is more important to him than the final outcome, he is not fixed on a specific configuration for each work. Instead he is open to working with art installers to arrive at the appropriate hanging arrangement for each piece depending on the exhibition space. He also encourages collectors who purchase his artworks to find an installation arrangement that is most to their liking. Adhering to the premise from conceptual art that the artwork isn’t finished until the viewer completes it, he writes:  “The moment of Now that exists as the Artist creates their work looks toward the future when it will be encountered by the viewer, at which point that future becomes the Past, producing a sort of index of time in the work.”

Ko Kirk Yamahira, Untitled (Suspended Pink Triangle) (2019) graphite, partially unwoven canvas, wood

Ko Kirk Yamahira’s intriguing painting/sculptural/fiber hybrids defy easy categorization and interpretation. One progresses from wondering how they are made to realizing that for the artist the canvas is not only a support, but a material that can be manipulated like any other. Through a process of deconstruction and reconstruction he transforms flat monochromatic surfaces into areas that are organic and textured. Intellectually and formally satisfying, Yamahira’s artworks retain a sense of mystery and a meditative quality that is deeply engaging.


Fractions by Ko Kirk Yamahira is at Russo Lee Gallery until February 1, 2020. The gallery is located at 805 NW 21st Ave in Portland is open Tuesday through Friday from 11-5:30, Saturday 11-5:00 and by appointment.

Rachel Rosenfield Lafo is an independent curator and arts writer.

‘Nothing at all of this is fixed’

"It struck me as joyful": A visit to Dorothy Goode's studio reveals a merging, overlapping, playful kinship with Calder and Modersohn-Becker


STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY FRIDERIKE HEUER


Was glänzt, ist für den Augenblick geboren, 
Das Echte bleibt der Nachwelt unverloren.

That which glitters is born for the moment;
The genuine remains intact for future days.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust eine Tragödie, Kapitel 2: Vorspiel auf dem Theater (1808)

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I WAS SO COLD WHEN I LEFT Dorothy Goode‘s studio after a visit last week that I could barely get the key into the car ignition. During our first-ever encounter we had huddled, both in down jackets and hats, in front of a little electric stove in her unheated warehouse abode. The space had beautiful views, brilliant light, and a damp iciness that crept into my arthritic bones. I could not help but think of Frans Hals, that radical observer of humanity, who was so impoverished at the end of his life that in the Dutch winter of 1664 he accepted three loads of peat on public charity, otherwise he would have frozen to death. (Of course, he then had to portray the administrators of said charity, the Governesses of an Alms House in 17th century Haarlem – those faces all-telling.)

Dorothy Goode, painter.

Not that Goode would accept alms. Ever. Fiercely independent, proud, accomplished and not at all risk-averse, she’ll probably persuade you that rheumatism is the price you pay for pursuing your art. Or so I wager. After all, I have to run on the impressions of two hours of conversation with an artist intensely protective of her inner life.

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Vision 2020: Kristin Shauck

The Clatsop Community College teacher and artist loves Astoria’s grittiness and diverse arts scene, but sees gentrification putting the squeeze on her students

Kristin Shauck teaches drawing, painting, design, watercolor, and art history at Clatsop Community College, where she also oversees the Royal Nebeker Art Gallery. Originally from Texas, Shauck grew up expecting to pursue a career in music, but while studying at Baylor University, she shifted gears and instead received her bachelor’s degree in fine art.

Early influences include an artist mother, who made sure Shauck always had art supplies available, and a mathematician father, who made history as the first pilot to make a transatlantic flight using ethanol fuel. He followed Charles Lindberg’s original flight.


VISION 2020: TWENTY VIEWS ON OREGON ARTS


“I have always been very proud of my dad,” Shauck said. “He is brilliant and charismatic, and I admire him so much for all he has achieved throughout his lifetime.  I developed passionate love of learning from his example, and particularly of cross-disciplinary learning. He taught me that math and science are connected to everything in life, including visual art and music. ”

Kristin Schauk, shown here with self-portrait, says she cannot  imagine being an educator without being an artist, and vice versa. Photo courtesy: Clatsop Community College
Kristin Schauck, shown here with self-portrait, says she cannot imagine being an educator without being an artist, and vice versa. Photo courtesy: Clatsop Community College

After college, Shauck taught in several arts programs before answering an ad for a teacher at Clatsop Community College in 2004.  “I got to Astoria and I fell in love with the community. The campus and the faculty here are amazing.”

What, good or bad, has had the biggest impact on arts and culture in your area in the past few years?

The fact that we have such a vibrant arts community is really attracting people to this area, and that’s a mixed bag. It does kind of price out local artists and locals in terms of living spaces and studio spaces, because we see that kind of gentrification happening. I’ve seen a lot of that since I first came in 2004. What I love about Astoria is it’s never lost its grittiness. It’s not too slick and too cool. Everyone here respects everyone else’s eccentricities. Especially, coming from Texas — it’s not like that. People conform. They don’t accept the individualities of people. People are much more open-minded here.

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Art review: Beneath the surface seductions

Disjecta and Upfor dive into difficult and dark waters with work by Arvie Smith, Pinar Yoldas, and Iyvone Khoo

 January is named for Janus, the double-faced Roman god who was able to look simultaneously at the past and the future. Given this etymological foundation, it seems appropriate that two stand-out shows in Portland this month grapple with the legacy of the past and the possibilities for the future: Disjecta has works by Arvie Smith in 2 Up and 2 Back and Upfor Gallery has works by Pinar Yoldas and Iyvone Khoo in The Absence of Myth.

At first blush, the shows are so different that the juxtaposition seems bizarre: Smith’s large, warm-toned paintings at Disjecta are chock-full of identifiable figures and symbols while the sculptures, prints, and video works at Upfor are captivating but less immediately familiar. Khoo’s materials include bioluminescent algae, fluorescent coral, and marine debris. Yoldas makes two- and three-dimensional prints of a cast of deities inspired by Greek mythology but that she describes as “designer babies.” What the works of the three artists have in common, however, is a visual seduction that gives way to repulsion that then transitions to big questions about humanity and complicity and responsibility.

What meets the eye is one thing, the “more” is cavernous.

***

Turkish-born Yoldas boasts an impressive list of academic credentials. Currently a professor in the Visual Arts department at the University of California, San Diego, her research interests exceed the confines of art and design and blur into the biological sciences. The sculpted figures she makes don’t advertise this expertise at first glance. I was far too taken in by the glossy resin surfaces, undulating forms, and delicate filigree to consider any scientific underpinnings. But as I continued to look and looked closer at the figures themselves, it emerged that something was off: the faces are too contoured, the eyes too almond-shaped, the limbs turn into paddles or the shoulders into armored spikes. Several reminded me of sculptures from Amarna-period Egypt when the canon of representation that had been in place for thousands of years was discarded to accommodate a new religion. 

Pinar Yoldas, Aegeria the river goddess (2019) 3D printed Vero resin. Photo: Adam Simmons, courtesy of Upfor

Prints on the walls on black gridded or tessellated backgrounds show variations of the same figures. The backgrounds emphasize the “design” component of the figures; these forms aren’t meant to appear organic but instead painstakingly fashioned according to a master program. This, it turns out, is the influence of Yoldas’ scientific background. A booklet available in the gallery gives data and backstory for each figure, and flipping through the ethical implications begin to multiply.

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Vision 2020: Yaelle Amir

A promising curator makes her mark and then her job disappears. She rolls up her sleeves and begins to make her mark again.

After twelve years of curating and writing in New York, Yaelle Amir arrived in Portland in March of 2015 to be the curator of exhibitions and public programs at Newspace Center for Photography. The beloved Southeast Portland space had always provided classes, darkrooms, and studio space. Amir was hired to reenergize the exhibition programming, to make shows that people could engage with and be excited about. 

Amir organized several well-received exhibitions at Newspace, including Hidden Assembly, which considered the role of labor in contemporary culture, and In Response: Revisiting the DOCUMERICA Photography Project, which was an open call for artists to submit work based on an Environmental Protection Agency program from the 1970s.


VISION 2020: TWENTY VIEWS ON OREGON ARTS


And then, 28 months later, in July of 2017, Newspace abruptly closed. Like many arts nonprofits, the financial situation had never been especially rosy. Amir mentions that there had been “restructuring” and “tightening up” but that it was “never on the table, from the staff perspective, that we were going to close.” It was an immediate closure. Amir was out of town and returned to find her email shut down, the organization dissolved, and herself without a job. 

This could be a terrible story: A promising young curator comes to Portland and has her ambition shaken out of her. But Amir is resourceful and has continued to enmesh herself in and endear herself to Portland art communities. She started teaching contemporary art practices in the Art + Social Practice MFA program at Portland State University in 2018. In 2019, she curated a show of Dan Paz’s work at HOLDING Contemporary and started teaching curatorial practice at Lewis & Clark College. Along with Ashley Stull Meyers and Elisheba Johnson, she curated the 2019 Biennial at Disjecta. She does not have a full-time job, but she is always working. 

Yaelle S. Amir. Photo: Kaitlin Bodiroga

I spoke with Amir about her views on curating, Newspace, and the Portland art scene. 

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McMinnville gallery showcases young at art

A student show at The Gallery at Ten Oaks provides an encouraging snapshot of arts education in Yamhill County

Conventional wisdom — to the extent that there still is such a thing in our highly mediated, hyper-compartmentalized, and socially fractured world — is that arts in the public schools have taken a beating over the years. New football stadiums and practice facilities seem to get built with no problem or objection, but teachers and parents often are forced to scrape together resources on the fundraising circuit just to bring in a professional artist for a week.

“The Look” by Gemma Bell, age 17, Delphian School (acrylic, 16 by 16 inches)

In actuality, the picture obviously varies — from district to district, from school to school — but the show that opened last week in The Gallery at Ten Oaks in McMinnville provides a snapshot of the state of arts education in Yamhill County, and it’s encouraging.

For the second year, owners Dan and Nancy Morrow have opened the premium first-floor display space in their gallery to students. Last March, they invited McMinnville High School students to submit work, and they felt the show was successful enough to merit bringing in all Yamhill County high schools this year. “The students who came to the reception last year were so jazzed,” Dan said. “Nancy had name badges for every student. It’s those little things. It’s like, ‘Look, you’re here at a reception and people are coming to see your work on the wall.’”

Paintings, drawings, and ceramics by artists who attend high schools in Yamhill-Carlton, Amity, and Sheridan (as well as the private Delphian School) will greet visitors to the gallery through Feb. 2, and a reception will be held at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 15. Art by McMinnville and Newberg students will be showcased starting Feb. 4, with the reception set for 6 p.m. Feb. 12.

“Girl Falling” by Abby Renee Hornsby, Sheridan Middle School Grade 8 (digital art, 11 by 14 inches)

I recall being impressed with the overall quality at last year’s show, and the same holds true this time. Several portraits of young women by Delphian students stand out. My eye kept drifting back to a couple of delightful acrylics by 15-year-old Chloe Latch. Another acrylic, by 17-year-old Delphian Gemma Bell titled The Look, seems to challenge the viewer to come up with a word that describes just what that look (the girl’s expression) actually means, what sort of emotional and cognitive state is going on there. It’s nuanced, complex, and contradictory. This piece, along with several others, could easily be relocated upstairs with the pros.

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Vision 2020: Ka’ila Farrell-Smith

The Southern Oregon artist, mentor, and anti-fracking activist creates visual art “rooted in Indigenous aesthetics and abstract formalism”

On her website, Ka’ila Farrell-Smith, a Klamath Modoc visual artist, describes her artistic practice as “channeling research through a creative flow of experimentation and artistic playfulness rooted in Indigenous aesthetics and abstract formalism.” Through painting, traditional Indigenous art practices, and self-curated installations, Farrell-Smith explores the “space in-between the Indigenous and western paradigms.”


VISION 2020: TWENTY VIEWS ON OREGON ARTS


Farrell-Smith, who lives in Modoc Point in Southern Oregon, received a BFA in painting from Pacific Northwest College of Art and an MFA in contemporary art practices studio from Portland State University. Her work has been exhibited around the Pacific Northwest and is in the permanent collections of the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art on the University of Oregon campus and the Portland Art Museum. As a co-director of the Signal Fire residency program, she helps connect artists to wild places.

“The Modoc are a resilient, fierce, passionate people,” says Ka’ila Farrell-Smith, “whose warrior ancestors inspire us in our current fight against the fossil-fuel industry” and the fracked gas pipeline that threatens ancestral homelands and waterways in Southern Oregon. Photo by Sam Gehrke Photography Studio, courtesy Ka’ila Farrell-Smith

Recently, Farrell-Smith was selected to attend artist residencies at Djerassi, UCROSS, Institute of American Indian Arts, and Crow’s Shadow. In 2020, she will have work on display in the Nine Gallery in Portland and Ditch Projects in Springfield. Her comments have been edited for length and clarity.

What should Oregonians know about the Modoc? What is the story we need to hear?

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