VISUAL ART

Jordan Clark: The painter’s spaces, inside and out

A new set of paintings by Jordan Clark reflect the painter's deep sense of space

By PAUL MAZIAR

There are eight new Jordan Clark paintings in oil and flashe on view at Stumptown on Southeast Belmont. The exhibition, titled abridge, a breeze, comprises all abstract works — seven on paper and one on unprimed canvas. All of Clark’s pictures are full of life—especially this show of new, brightly-colored work—but they don’t bear any of the typical realism that you might expect from something inspired by life.

Jordan Clark, “breeze”,
16×20”, acrylic, flashe, spray paint on paper

I talked with Jordan about his artistic practice and some of his affinities over a couple of pints at a local watering hole. The conversation lasted a couple of hours and, after being transcribed, took up nine typewritten pages. You could say our meeting was congenial, a good time. Having talked with Jordan, it seems clear that despite the supreme effort it apparently takes an artist to cultivate and keep up such prolific work, these things are a byproduct of lived experience. They occur in a continuously balanced cycle of work and play, thought and action, solitude and interaction.

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Jef Gunn on the coming and going of his art

The Augen Gallery show reflects Gunn's process, creative and spiritual

Jef Gunn moved to Portland in the late 1990s. Over the past 30 years he has participated in numerous exhibitions in the Northwest and has wide ranging teaching experience. Gunn paints in a wide variety of nominal styles. He enjoys using encaustic (pigments in beeswax) because, as he says on his website (www.jefgunn.com): “With encaustic, I can bring together all of my other methods: oils, papers and inks, fabric, tar, and gold. My work draws on multiple lineages of art, culture and spiritual meaning.”

Jef Gunn in his studio, August 2017/Photo by Paul Sutinen

An exhibition of recent paintings is at Augen Gallery through September.

When did you decide that you wanted to be an artist?

I was 13 years old. I remember it. I had always been drawing, but in our house there was no talk about art. We didn’t have a whole lot of books—not that we were poor, but nobody read. Then my mom remarried and on my stepfather’s shelves was everything that Time-Life published. I just started looking at books and I pulled up a volume of Rembrandt from the Time-Life series and I just knew—I just saw—‘oh I get it!’

I want to do that?

No, it’s more like, ‘That’s what I’m doing. Oh, I see what I am now!’

That’s really cool. How did you pursue that?

I drew all the time. I didn’t know they were etchings. I wasn’t reading very well, so I just saw drawings. I could relate to drawings, but they were etchings. So I copied his etchings out of the book.

Then did you move on to other artists after Rembrandt?

Velasquez and Goya. They were in the same series.

Did you take art in high school?

Yeah, I took art in high school. That was like all I could do. I did very poorly in everything else, even gym.

So art was the thing where you thought, ‘This is me and I this is what I do and I’m good at it.’

Actually, in my senior year in high school they said, ‘You’re not doing very well in high school. How about how about you take the last half of your senior year and go up to Pasadena City College and take art classes?’ I said, ‘Yup.’ I went and took color and design and drawing and found out that I wasn’t the only artist in the school. In high school I was the artist in the school. I spent a year not knowing what the hell to do and went back to PCC and then transferred to Cabrillo College. Before Marylhurst [BFA 2005] that was the only college I had—junior college painting classes, and I did a building technology program at the same time.

During your time in high school and college were there teachers or important experiences for you?

I learned most from this one fellow at Cabrillo in Santa Cruz named Tom Allen. I remember him saying the most important people he looked up too were Hans Hofmann (I didn’t know who that was at the time) and Paul Klee. One time he took us on a field trip to the museum at UC Berkeley. There were a lot of Hofmanns.

Jef Gunn, “Ranch Next Over I”, 2015, oil on panel,
12 x 24 inches

What did you think of the Hofmanns at that point?

By the time I started painting I was really interested in Monet and Matisse. I hadn’t gotten into Cézanne yet. I didn’t know what to make of Hofmann because when I was drawing as a teenager it had to be tight. It had to be real. It had to be believable. I was drawing fantasy stuff like people riding dinosaurs.

I took my first painting class in 1975 when I was 20. It was in the mid-’80s—I was in Seattle then—I started looking at Picasso, and I had what I called ‘my cubist epiphany.’ I kind of went to it by way of [Lyonel] Feininger actually.

Yes, I liked Feininger early on, too. There’s something about those lines that describe something that’s there, but not quite there. What do you think about paint? What is your relationship with paint? There are painters who have a relationship with paint itself and there are painters who just want to make an image with paint.

I love everything about it. I love color and form, but also material—I don’t only use oil paint and encaustic—primarily I do that. It’s material, the thing itself. Oil paint can be a lot of different things. It can be dry and wispy or it can be scratchy or wet and gooey. And it reveals your hand. It reveals a momentary gesture. It’s like your mind thinks something, your hand does it, and—something about the springiness of the brush, the viscosity of the paint—it appears as your thought.

When you’re talking that way it makes me think of a violinist with the relationship of their bow and a string on the violin and the thought through the hand.

It’s direct.

Jef Gunn, “Ranch Next Over II”, 2017, oil on panel,
37-1/2 x 61-1/2 inches

Do you have an idea of when you first had that feeling about paint?

I think it took a number of years after I started. In the first five years I had a few kind of interesting paintings. I could create an image that was believable, might have some realism to it, but it becomes really about the paint in the early ‘80s landscapes and portraits and things.

Someone asked Tom Allen how important a likeness is in a portrait painting. He said the first duty of a portrait is to be a good painting and if it’s got a likeness, so much the better. The point is don’t sacrifice good painting for a likeness.

Do you feel there are any painters or painters’ works that that have had a particular influence on you?

Well, all those people we’ve talked about. Picasso and Motherwell, at one point after I started looking at Picasso. Monet previously. But when I got to Barcelona in 1986 (I was there for a year and a quarter), I kept seeing this fellow named [Antoni] Tàpies. So that year was huge because of looking at Tàpies, and he was like something you had to deal with. Every painter in Barcelona has to deal with Tàpies.

He was very prolific.

Outrageously prolific. I used to say the Zen of it just made me stop in my tracks, totally arrested. It was like, ‘What am I going to do? How am I going to address this guy?’ On the other hand I was dealing with all that stuff up on the hill—that Romanesque stuff from the 700s, the 900s, was there.

Was there something about Tàpies’s materiality that affected you or something else do you think? It’s very much about thick stuff and other kinds of collage elements.

It was also his marks—marks you could tell carried metaphor—and everything about them. The metaphor that’s often talked about with him is the wall and what a wall could be. And the walls in Barcelona are highly textured, there’s graffiti, sometimes going all the way back to Roman times. And Tàpies used that to create these huge spaces with strange marks that looked like honey, or straw—the Dada of it was a huge force in it as well.

Dada, meaning?

The absurdity of it.

The feeling of chance?

There’s a great deal of chance, but there was always some sense of spiritual import behind it all that I could feel when I first saw it. I couldn’t make sense of it, but I could feel sort of like—if I say this it’s going to sound really ridiculous—a Zen master stands right in front of you. You’ve got to get around him. How are you going to get around him? It really feels like a challenge.

I realized all the things I carried around with me, what made art important—color, design, fine lines, technical dexterity and all these damn things—that’s not really what carries the power of a piece of art. All that’s fine and good and it might have all that, but if it doesn’t have this sort of gravity then maybe it’s just nice, but I got really got interested in stuff that had gravity.

When you say gravity you mean some sort of seriousness and meaning?

Like life and death. Like being and non-being. That’s what Zen is all about, what Buddhism is all about. I wasn’t a Buddhist at that time. I’d done meditation practice, but it felt like those sort of very primal human practices.

Are you Buddhist now?

Yeah.

Does that have anything to do with your painting?

More and more and more, actually.

There are a couple ways to think about that. One is your approach when you’re making the painting and the other is the artwork and what the viewer receives.

For instance I had a show in May of this year at Traver Gallery [in Seattle]. It’s entirely different from oil painting—mostly prints of small objects on Chinese papers mounted onto panels. Very very serene. Very very very very methodical. The same print from a nut shell over and over and over, and each time I printed there’s no thinking about it. There is no deliberation. There’s no philosophy behind it. It’s simply this moment, press, this moment, press, this moment, press— it goes on in a mantra so it’s like a whole visual field of mantra. No one needs to know what the mantra is, but I made it more explicit in my statement for the show. The act of painting is very much like that of meditating.

Do you begin a painting with an idea of what you’re going to do?

Sometimes I do that. Sometimes I see something. I still go out and paint landscapes. Then I come home and I’m dwelling on that landscape.

You paint landscapes on site?

Sometimes they’re finished right there just like classic landscape painting, but more often they’re better if I they cook in the studio and I keep puttering with them and looking at them. Sometimes I’ll look at them for a year. There’s one on the wall there—I thought, “Oh I know what to do,” so I kept it.

The classic abstract expressionist question is how do you know the painting is finished?

It just feels that it’s done. You know Chagall’s answer? I always liked Chagall’s answer: My wife tells me.

You talked about doing drawing from Rembrandt and things like that. Do you still do drawing?

Not as much and I feel guilty about that.

Drawing guilt?

It still feels to me true that it’s the foundation. I used to draw incessantly. I’ve got boxes and boxes of old stuff.

Why do you think that dwindled away?

The more I started painting and the more I started going into the sort of repetition pieces on paper. The more I paint I think more like painting than I think like drawing. There’s an interesting correspondence between Matisse and Bonnard. When Matisse was feeling depressed about his painting, he said that a colorist who is a drawer is not the same thing as a painter, and that made me look at those two painters differently. And even in Bonnard’s drawings he draws like a painter. He draws shapes and textures and squiggles because he’s working the shape and texture in the field of the shape whereas Matisse draws and then puts big flats of color around to the drawing more or less.

The painter Robert Ryman said, “It seems that the main focus of painting is to give pleasure: if someone can receive pleasure from looking at paintings, then that’s the best thing that can happen.” Is there more than pleasure that you want someone to get when looking at your work? Is there an emotional aspect that you seek?

Nowadays what I’m looking for in the work, and maybe it relates to how I know it’s done, is when I start feeling—even if we don’t want state it as drastically as life and death—but is it coming or is it going? That’s a Zen phrase. It’s a Buddhist phrase, but Zen uses that more than others. Is it there or is it not there? Is it somewhere between useless and useful or alive or dead? It’s got to be alive. Painting has to be alive for that to happen, but it should have this—I don’t know if I want to call it at tension because it’s too common a word—no one really knows what it means—but it’s got to arrest me and make me consider my existence for a few minutes. But then again I don’t want to it to be unjoyful. I’m really I’m really interested in joy right now.

How long have you been interested in joy? Was there a time you were interested in something else other than joy?

No, I enjoy painting especially in the landscape paintings, especially the ones I do outside. I have a real joy in painting them even if I am screaming at them and it’s all falling apart because I really enjoy that tussle.

A couple years ago I did something in painting that I’ve never done before. I just had a big canvas and started filling it up randomly, just putting paint on with no design in mind. Over time the painting started looking like a landscape I’d seen a couple years ago, obviously subconsciously showing up on the painting, so I developed it. And it was a really good painting. It had a joyful feel, strong colors and crazy, ludicrous, really free. So I’ve been trying to do more of those.

Be more wild and crazy and joyful?

Really spontaneous. Spontaneity is one of those qualities that comes with joy and Zen.

Do you visit the Portland Art Museum much?

No. I have a membership, but I don’t go very often. I’m a busy person. I work for a living so I don’t end up with a lot of time.

Jef Gunn, “Ranch Next Over III”, 2017, oil on panel,
24 x 40 inches

I was just wondering if there are any particular things you like to look at the art museum, something that you can revisit, that connects for you.

There’s one little Monet that I’m really fond of, the brushwork on it. It’s little, looks like the bank of the river with some trees, big sky. I usually go up to the C.S. Price room and those old Portland people. I always go to the Asian section. Asian art is really been a huge influence on me for two decades at least.

What do you think about being a painter in the age of video and computer generated art?

There’s a part of me that feels like one day the electricity is going to go out and everyone’s going to not know how to sharpen a pencil. Some of my hobbies include edge tools—chisels and gouges, saws and things like that. I’m a carpenter, so I’ve got a huge collection of chisels and planes and things. I like to know how to keep them sharp. There are a lot of things you can do just as fast with hand tools. I love hand tools. I love tools of all kinds. So I’m very interested in non-electric and non-digital things—not just to preserve them in a museum. But, I have a feeling that it connects one to the moment in a way that screens don’t. Screens can’t actually.

You paint landscapes as landscapes and you paint other paintings that are paintings as paintings.

Sometimes they are paintings as paintings and hidden in there is a landscape. Or I paint paintings just as marks.

What are the similarities or differences between those approaches? Do you approach a landscape painting differently from one that is just marks?

They’re similar in that they’re all about materials and marks, the materiality of the thing, and the marking and the shapes are all very important as themselves. But, in a landscape painting they will reference a landform like metaphor, like it’s a hill, or it’s a river or it’s a lake, or it’s a sky. Those all can have metaphorical significance. I used to say the landscapes come from walking and these other pieces come from sitting.

Governor’s Arts Awards, revived

After a 10-year hiatus, the governor's awards return with five honorees. Plus: some highlights from September's gallery shows.

With school in session and Labor Day in the rear view mirror, Thursday is the first First Thursday of the fall season (even if autumn doesn’t officially arrive until Sept. 22), and art galleries across the city are busily installing new exhibits.

We’ll get to that. But first, some good news from the state capitol in Salem: After a 10-year hiatus that began when the state and national economies cratered, the Governor’s Arts Awards have returned. Gov. Kate Brown’s office announced Tuesday morning that the revived awards, which also coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Oregon Arts Commission, will go to two individual artists and three organizations.

Governor’s Arts Award winner Arvie Smith’s “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” (2015, oil on canvas, 48 x 48 inches, collection of Nancy Ogilvie) was part of his APEX retrospective exhibition at the Portland Art Museum in 2016/17.

Portland painter Arvie Smith and Yoncalla storyteller Esther Stutzman are being honored with lifetime achievement awards. Pendleton’s innovative Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts, Portland Opera, and the James F. and Marion Miller Foundation are also being honored.

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Artists Who Fly Like Rocks

The Self-Taught Artist Fair opens Thursday at PNCA, expanding definitions and identities

September 7 is a big day in Portland arts and culture. Along with First Thursday festivities, which herald exhibition openings for many a gallery in the Pearl District, the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art kicks off the 15th annual Time-Based Arts Festival with multiple (yes, multiple) performances and parties jam-packed into one evening. What a time to be in Portland! As the floodgates prepare to open with a barrage of visual art and performative offerings on Thursday evening, keep in mind a unique exhibition afoot at Pacific Northwest College of Art’s Commons Gallery: the Self-Taught Artist Fair: Flying Like a Rock.

The title of the exhibition, produced by The Center for Contemporary Art & Culture at PNCA and Public Annex, begs plenty of questions—for starters, what qualifies someone as a self-taught artist?

“Britney Spears,” by Dawn Westover, colored pencil and pen on paper, in the Self-Taught Artist Fair.

While, on the surface, it seems safe to assume that a self-taught artist is someone without any formal training, Public Annex’s Lara Ohland, the lead organizer on this exhibition, explains: “There have been a lot of questions, and I am continually trying to re-clarify for myself what this does mean.” As an artist with a level of formal training, Ohland emphasizes that she does not wish to be the “keeper to the definition,” noting instead, “I want to leave lots of space for people to choose their own identity in that.”

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The Washed Ashore Project: Saving the Seas with Art

Bandon-based nonprofit works to change attitudes by transforming ocean-killing garbage into sculptures

By DAVID GOLDSTEIN

Last month, as my wife and I entered Oregon on a cross-country journey, we wandered into what initially looked to be an unassuming art gallery in a little southern Oregon coast town. Huge sculptures filled the space. We looked at them closely — and suddenly realized that each was made from thousands of pieces of trash.

We had stumbled upon the Washed Ashore Project gallery in Old Town Bandon-by-the-Sea.

Flowering from the debris. Photo: The Washed Ashore Project

When Bandon artist Angela Haseltine Pozzi noticed the huge amount of plastic pollution on southern Oregon’s beaches, she wondered where all that garbage was coming from. So she did some research. Pozzi learned that plastic pollution has spread to every ocean and marine habitat in the world, and has entered every level of the ocean food chain, from whales to plankton. Turtles, fish, and other sea life ingest floating plastic bags, mistaking them for jellyfish. More than half the world’s sea turtles have eaten plastic, and partly as a result, almost all of their species are threatened or endangered. Other sea animals become ensnared in discarded fishing line, six-pack can holders, and other debris — more than 300 billion pounds of it, clogging Earth’s oceans and killing its creatures.

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“We cannot fight old power in old power terms only. The way we can do it is by creating another whole structure that touches every aspect of our existence, at the same time as we are resisting.” — Audre Lorde in an “An Interview: Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich” (1979)

What are the literary works that have defined the educational experiences in the U.S.? Which authors continue to shape the thinking and writing of those entrenched in this country’s educational systems and academic institutions? De-Canon, a newly launched project in Portland started by literary artists and educators Dao Strom and Neil Aitken, is turning a critical eye on popular understanding of this country’s literary canon—bridging the idea of a site-specific “library” with digital resources, visual art, and performative practices, all centered on literary artists of color.  

De-Canon at UNA Gallery

Questions of educational pedagogy have fueled the organizer’s drive to offer an alternative to the hierarchy of western literature. “Courses, and even workshops (practice-oriented workshops), are consciously or unconsciously built around the assumption that there’s only a western canon to have a conversation around,” explains Aitken. Gesturing to his and many of his fellow writers’ shared experience, he notes, “When we sit in an MFA workshop or someone teaches us the craft of writing, the texts that they reference are almost always exclusively white male writers, with a handful of white female writers. And it ignores generations, hundreds of years, even millennia of other aesthetic work that’s out there. And it also ignores contemporary writers of color.”

With aspirations to “create a forum in which many voices contribute to the defining–or un-defining–of the literary canon,” De-Canon was launched with funding from Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s granting program, the Precipice Fund. In addition to a website of literary resources and an archive of dialogue between writers of color, De-Canon is also taking physical shape this August in the form of a pop-up library at UNA Gallery that will host a slew of cultural programming. Library open hours are 12-5 pm Saturdays and Sundays through August 26th.  

According to Aitken, the foundation for De-Canon began to emerge in 2015 after Wordstock, Portland’s major book festival. “Portland’s literary spaces can be very, very white,” notes Aitken, nodding to the lack of local POC writers at the festival that year. Shortly afterward, a group of writers of color began meeting and found that a common theme surfaced.

“In those home-based conversations, this type of a conversation would come up often, about both people sharing their experiences in university programs and writing workshops, and frequently feeling silenced or excluded from a discussion about literature, or being told that their experiences or their stories didn’t fit within what other people were writing about,” says Aitken. “So the question then becomes, well where are those stories? Why are we not exposed to other people who write from a world of experience that’s more in line with ours?”

A deeper dive into the field reveals that there are plenty of writers with other modes of sharing their stories and with a range of lived experiences—more than could ever fit in one syllabus, or even multiple syllabi—and many working on a local level in Portland. The idea of multiplicity emerges as a recurring theme in the organizers’ efforts to put together an entire library. This self-made space for building community is not trying to “replace” the Western canon, but instead, it offers numerous canons for people to interact with and think about on their own terms.

It is important for the organizers not to assume a position of authority in presenting de-canon(s), and this is reflected in the setup of texts within the library. “We’re not dictating ‘this is exclusively for this type of thing; This is exclusively for that’,” shares Aitken. “That part of the exhibit is an invitation to anyone there to move things around, to reform what goes into a box or a canon, and think about it differently. What fits together, what doesn’t fit together, for them?”

Art by Sam Roxas-Chua, featured as part of De-Canon’s pop-up library exhibition at UNA Gallery

While plenty of books can be found in De-Canon’s pop-up library exhibit, Strom explains, “We’re loosely interpreting ‘literary arts’ or ‘literary expression’ as something that can happen not just through words on the page or through books but also through other forms, like oral, or image text, or music, or visual [forms].” As a practitioner of hybrid literary forms herself, Strom also elaborates on the hybrid focus, remarking, “You know, that square with text on the page is not necessarily the only shape that we can receive stories or experience through.”

De-Canon’s inclusion of hybrid forms of literary art also reflects an effort to unlearn or subvert the authority of language, particularly the English language, which Strom describes as a “language of colonization, war, and dominance”—a language that many writers of color use, but that is not always the primary language of their culture. Aitken explains that one’s relationship to a language might differ, “whether they’ve grown up in a household where English is not the only language, or maybe it’s the second or third language, or [maybe] they’ve grown up where English, for multiple generations, has been the language, even though everyone around you assumes that it’s not.”

This critical lens on the English language is coupled with an impetus to move away from the tropes and narratives it perpetuates—a societal consciousness of categorization. For Strom, this includes tropes in Asian American “ethnic” literature, such as “food and family, immigrant stories that herald triumph of the spirit or redemptive themes, assimilation narratives…the unacknowledged expectation of gratitude that is wanted of the immigrant tale, which silently reinforces white savior/America as land of rescue complexes.”

“I think that all of us are trying to write beyond that,” Strom continues, “if you speak to any writer of color, most of them are reaching beyond particular tropes.”

But even as the organizers work to move away from tropes, they find themselves having to confront categories as a way to deepen and grow their understanding of the intersecting, overlapping, and expanding canons within the project. Aitken describes “the tension between the project goals of being very flexible with terms and definitions…and then the very practical side of bookkeeping, of trying to track what we’ve actually ordered, and whether or not we’re representing genres, representing different populations of people. It’s like they run at odds with each other, and yet they’re both necessary.”

Strom follows this with her own insightful interpretation of this organizing work. “I guess it develops empathy between people, like to be able to admit that you don’t know something, so you can open yourself up to listening, which, especially right now, seems like a practice to try to engage in,” she says. “And I think it’s hard because then, yes, things aren’t definite…you come in contact with your own discomfort.”

In terms of De-Canon’s aspirations into 2018, both organizers dream of a space where De-Canon can be housed permanently, something well overdue as a local cultural resource. However, for now, the act of coming together to create spaces for the POC literary community in Portland and, as Strom puts it, “a context for the work that we’re doing”—this is vital, and it includes an investment of work in the virtual world as well. “If we profile Portland as part of the website, we were thinking that could be something that could happen in other places,” she continues.

“We don’t have the power to change everything that happens out there,” muses Aitken, “but what we do have is the power to call attention to different things that we see.” This includes a host of literary artists of color in Portland, many of whom are highlighted by De-Canon in their programming at UNA Gallery this month.  

For more unlearning and de-canonization, please see the numerous resources and full schedule of remaining events on De-Canon’s website—the next event, De-Canon {Music+Poetry}, is August 19th; the Unlearning Podcast by Béalleka, one of De-Canon’s presenters; and Strom’s upcoming performance with Samiya Bashir, in collaboration with Shayla Lawson, as part of Time-Based Arts Festival. To take a deeper dive, join Physical Education for Reading Group August 26th, 3-5 pm at UNA Gallery (remember to do your reading beforehand!).

Portland artists create space for galleries

Portland artists fight the rental crunch with Williamson Knight, Chicken Coop Contemporary and Grapefruit Juice

The changes in Portland’s population, zoning, and real estate have rippled through every aspect of our local culture. There’s more to come for sure, but as the dust settles on our nation-leading rental increases the arts community has been finding new places and new methods to carve out a space for their projects and their people. What follows is a brief overview of three of the more interesting spaces to emerge in the past year.

Chicken Coop Contemporary

As the name might suggest, Chicken Coop Contemporary is housed in a spacious, white chicken coop that stands next to the studio of painter Srijon Chowdhury in his backyard in deep Southeast Portland. An accomplished artist, Chowdhury splits his time between Portland and Los Angeles. In the tradition of apartment galleries and can-we-fit-a-gallery-heregalleries, Chowdhury used the space he has as an opportunity to engage the sometimes-diffuse art community of Portland, and as a place to have a dialogue with some of the artists he’s interested in. As his show at Upfor last year proves, he’s able to bring the rich and considered touch he shows in his paintings to curation and collaboration as well.

The Chicken Coop Contemporary stands next to the studio of painter Srijon Chowdhury in Southeast Portland.

Most of the shows so far have featured small, intense paintings such as the haunting work of Dustin Metz, but the last two shows have included multimedia and site-specific work. The current show directly addresses the venue with text and sculptural pieces reflecting on the lives and ways of chickens and other animals. “Collection Sites by Jesse Stecklow draws on writing about livestock handling, including the work of Temple Grandin, to focus consideration on the lives of the gallery residents—the chickens.

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