What is the point of an art exhibition that contains no actual artworks? In the case of Being Present (on view at the Portland Art Museum through June 14, 2020), the point is to provide an unsparing analysis of Portland’s art world of the not-too-distant past. Being Present offers an eccentric tribute to and critique of the Portland Center for the Visual Arts, an organization that played a formidable role in the formation of Portland’s creative landscape. Triple Candie, a Washington, D.C.-based curatorial duo (Shelly Bancroft and Peter Nesbett), has put together this retrospective in accordance with their mission to “explore the possibilities of exhibition-making as a truly alternative, critical practice.” The show’s subtitle, Revisiting, Somewhat Unfaithfully, Portland’s Most Experimental Art Experiment, hints at their unusual approach to unpacking Portland’s recent art history.
In their opening statement, Triple Candie admit they “never experienced PCVA in person,” having arrived in the Pacific Northwest as students at the University of Washington a year after the group folded. They go on to explain that they “curate exhibitions about art, but devoid of it.” This is an oblique reference to the fact that Triple Candie themselves are the authors of the objects on display, which apparently do not qualify as art, but as tools for interpreting art that no longer exists. They are quirky reconstructions of artworks commissioned by PCVA in the 70s and 80s that diverge from the originals in ways that reflect the curators’ research and critical stance. This may sound confusing, but each piece is accompanied by a detailed explanation that renders the conceptual connections between the physical works and their historical counterparts surprisingly clear and sometimes almost literal in their directness. Furthermore, there is a sense of irreverence here that makes sifting through this conceptually dense show a fun and engaging experience.
PCVA was an artist-run venue and curatorial outfit that organized shows featuring work by regional artists, and brought influential artists from around the country to Portland to create site-specific installations and performances (current, roughly analogous organizations would be Disjecta or Portland Institute of Contemporary Art). From 1972 until 1988, PCVA enjoyed enough funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and other donors to support a robust program of events including almost monthly performances by the likes of Laurie Anderson and Trisha Brown and ambitious exhibitions and commissions by artists ranging from Alice Neel to Chris Burden. A steep decline in funding from the NEA and other sources contributed to the group’s dissolution just as the Portland Art Museum’s contemporary art program was coming into being.
I found Triple Candie’s rejection of conventional curatorial strategies surprisingly effective in provoking critical reflection, especially considering the well-established narratives that they mean to challenge. Perhaps theirs is not the tone Portland is accustomed to when discussing our contemporary art organizations. Bancroft and Nesbett are clearly skeptical of PCVA’s embrace of Minimalism, specifically, its embedded whiteness and masculinity. In comparison, Yale Union’s 2011 PCVA retrospective, which was part of PAM curator Sara Krajewski’s inspiration for the show, was far more traditional, presenting selections from the group’s archive in large display cases. But genuine criticality often challenges simple celebrations of culture past and present, not in order to condemn, but to fully engage as viewers and, in the best case, to promote the continued creative growth of our community.
There are plenty of parallels to be drawn between PCVA-era Portland and the city we inhabit today. Amidst the archival research and historical timelines in Being Present, a 1977 quote from art historian Lucy Lippard stands out. Lippard notes that “there is plenty of energy, plenty of visual intelligence, and plenty of up-to-date art knowledge in the Northwest. The real problem, here as in other places isolated from art markets of the world, will be how to survive, how to maintain that energy, how to set up situations which nourish and focus it.” Indeed, this question has been an ongoing concern for artists and administrators in the Northwest and other cities across the country. But according to this show, the concerns facing Portland’s nascent art scene at the time of PCVA’s activities were more complex.
The show is split between two gallery rooms, with a hallway connecting them. In the first room is a boxy façade made from pale plywood and composite board that stretches from the entrance, around a corner, and along the entire length of one wall. An orange-yellow fluorescent light fixture is propped upright in the construction’s corner, and two logs lie in a chevron formation before a square mirror that has been affixed to the far wall. An identical arrangement of logs and mirror sits across the gallery. An assortment of small rocks and other detritus (including crushed soda cans and discarded plastic toys and cups) are neatly arrayed in a grid between the logs. A third iteration of the log-and-mirror tableau frames a smooth, rounded silver box with a silver-painted gourd perched on top. A matching box gazes at its twin and its reflection from across the room.
The second room in the exhibition is painted in bright oranges and reds, and contains a multitude of ragged blanket-like banners hanging on the walls and above a spotlit dais. Each banner is appliquéd with a name and decorative elements in an assortment of clashing, ragged textiles, some are delicately pretty while others appear to still harbor stowaway dust bunnies. Interspersed are several screens playing looped stop-motion animations of musicians and dancers jerking around on tiny stages, like fluttering paper dolls.
Without the copious wall texts and the historical timeline posted in the hallway, the show would make little sense, so it’s worth the time it takes in order to slow down and read the supplemental materials the curators have interspersed throughout the gallery.
The plywood construction is revealed to be a reinterpretation of Donald Judd’s Untitled (1974), which PCVA commissioned and installed in their space on the third floor of 117 NW Fifth Ave. The dimensions of Triple Candie’s version differ significantly from the original, and the reincarnation of Untitled is constructed in salvaged materials as opposed to the spotless new boards used for Judd’s work. This is meant to evoke the artifacts of time and experience on our perception of art history. The curators explain that “Untitled is a classic of Minimalism but it is also emblematic of the type of installations PCVA was commissioning in the 1970s. And it spoke volumes about PCVA’s ambitions during a time of social turbulence.” Citing art historian Anna Chave, they criticize the sculpture for standing mute in the face of such turbulence, and for helping to “maintain a patriarchal society by aping its glorifications of aggression, industry, and power.” This unsparing critique of PCVA’s most celebrated achievements is echoed throughout the rest of the show.
Robert Morris’ Portland Mirrors (1977) are diminished in size and form, reimagined using small mirrors and unfinished local Doug Fir timbers. The curators take a Morris quote regarding illusion and fraudulence and throw it back in the artist’s face, proudly proclaiming their own work a fellow fraud.
The grid of small rocks and garbage? They were inspired by Carl Andre’s 144 Blocks and Stones (1973), which PCVA director Mary Beebe once compared to a garden. Triple Candie thinks of Ana Mendieta’s death (the artist fell from the 33rd-story window of the apartment she and Andre shared; many still suspect foul play on Andre’s part), and sees a graveyard. The humble silver boxes are a backhanded homage to Richard Serra’s Unequal Elevations, a 1975 work consisting of two massive steel monoliths that were originally installed on opposite sides of PCVA’s cavernous warehouse space. The accompanying text observes that the work “must have seemed profoundly arrogant to some. …taking over 5000 spare feet of the city’s most prized art real estate and keeping it largely empty for a month,” and considering the dearth of affordable art real estate (prized or not) in today’s Portland, it’s easy to appreciate this perspective. (The curators will return to Portland on May 30 for a “summit” titled Precarious Places: Alternative Spaces in PDX, which will offer a more in-depth discussion of this issue.)
As for the gourd perched atop the mini-Serras, Triple Candie says it is meant “to acknowledge Serra’s macho reputation.” Unfortunately, this gesture comes across as a throwaway joke, especially since the veritable “manspreading” of Unequal Elevations already offers a ready visual metaphor. But overall, this creative re-interpretation of installations by Minimalist art celebrities succeeds in deflating their heroic masculine mystique, and having a good time along the way. It’s like seeing the stuffy idols of the past warped and revealed in a wiggly funhouse mirror.
The banners and videos in the second room commemorate PCVA’s program of performance art, dance, and music. These objects and their companion texts are far less critical of their artist subjects than those in the preceding room, and perhaps reveal Triple Candie’s own bias. The banners are beautifully crafted, and reveal a level of care and seriousness from the curators that might not be immediately obvious in the slapdash, irreverent assemblage that kicks off the exhibition. They pay tribute to singular performances, and with them, moments in time, in a way that gives them an almost folkloric aura. The stop-motion animations evoke puppet shows and other popular storytelling traditions. Triple Candie provides ample historical context and description of performances like dancer Barbara Dilley’s Cassiopeia’s Chair (1976) and Eiko & Koma’s Trilogy: Cell, Fission, Entropy (1981), but adopts a respectful, journalistic tone regarding this diverse set of artists, contrasting sharply with their biting critiques of the (all white, all male) artists in the first group.
This is a retrospective that regards history as a malleable, slippery fiction composed of selected facts. The notion of curators who make objects about art instead showing the art itself acknowledges the inherent subjectivity of historical documents and narratives. Whether you enjoy the show or not, Triple Candie makes a strong case for their methods. In their words, “the past is rarely remembered as it unfolded. Recollections overlap and intermingle… Archival materials can further distort memory. Such growing gaps in consciousness are what make historical exhibitions so misleading.”
Some aspects of Being Present were less successful, namely the generic design of the historical timeline in the gallery hall. Furthermore, while the PCVA-specific timeline was an enlightening addition, several posters on the facing wall blared facts about contemporaneous social and political developments. These facts aren’t irrelevant to the historical context surrounding the show’s subject, but the posters’ design and placement made them feel like afterthoughts, which undermines the point of including them in the first place.
In contrast, the curators’ inclusion of a select few archival documents in a small display case was important and chilling. PCVA held several iterations of a juried group show featuring regional artists that they regrettably titled A Public Hanging. Promotional materials from these shows, which include unsettling graphic design that trivializes the historical traumas inflicted upon Oregon’s communities of color, are on view alongside dismal statistics regarding gender disparity in PCVA’s exhibitions. It is true that hindsight makes it easy to criticize the morality of the past, but these upsetting details of Portland’s art history need to be seen if we intend to keep moving forward in a healthy, progressive way. Krajewski describes the show as an opportunity to “think about what’s been accomplished and what still needs to be addressed, not only at the Museum but in the city’s greater art communities too.”
Even if Being Present doesn’t win you over, it is likely to inspire opinions and conversation. It’s hard to figure out exactly how to react to a show that has been so extensively curated while containing no actual art objects to speak of. The exhibition sometimes felt a bit like an art school project, but that’s a good thing – this exploratory, vulnerable mode of curiosity is what makes the show exciting. In explaining her motivations for focusing on PCVA, Krajewski said, “The Museum’s contemporary programming, in many ways, grew out of this organization, so it gave me a chance to dig into that history… to ground an older generation’s memories of the place with some specificity rather than nostalgia.” Whereas most retrospectives rely on original artworks and historical documentation for the viewer to interpret independently, the curators have taken the liberty of digesting the evidence for us in an eccentric, polemical manner, lest we mistakenly assume our own perspective to be unbiased. It is encouraging to see the museum taking a chance on something so weird and challenging, and the experimental spirit of Being Present is its own kind of tribute to the legacy of avant gardism that made PCVA so important to our city’s art scene.
This article was made possible with support from The Ford Family Foundation’s Visual Arts Program.
- Also see Friderike Heuer’s ArtsWatch story Our place in the fabric of the world, which discusses Trip Candie’s Being Present in addition to work by fabric artists Diane Jacobs and Amanda Triplett.