My phone told me to turn right, then left. I drove down a quiet east-county street that couldn’t decide if it was rural or suburban. I glanced around, hoping to see something that looked like an art gallery. Confused, I pulled over on the gravel shoulder. Exploring on foot, I saw a man in a baseball cap walking toward me who was either about to order me off his property or welcome me to visit SE Cooper Contemporary. That is how I met Derek Franklin, artist, curator, and community arts organizer. This is a look at those three sides of a generous and creative spirit who, far more than most of us, is self-invented.
My timing was better than I could have hoped. As Franklin welcomed me into the gallery—and I found myself surrounded by a two-walled, tangerine-supported finger painting by Mexican artist Adrián S. Bará—he shared that he was getting ready for the opening on June 8 of his debut show, Grief is on my calendar every day at 2:00 p.m., at Elizabeth Leach Gallery. While finishing and crating his paintings and sculptures, he has also been juggling his responsibilities as artistic director of Converge 45, the Portland arts nonprofit whose citywide biennial kicks off in late August.
A couple of weeks later, as we sat down to chat over seltzers and a bowl of almonds, Franklin repeatedly used “theater” to define his “framework for looking at the world.” The metaphor helps explain his life-long juggling act. Making art is an exercise of self-expression: The playwright. Curating creatively channels the artistic vision of others: The director. Organizing city-wide art events melds the two, birthing a personal vision of an organic art world through a community of complementary creations: The impresario. For Franklin, the roles he plays—artist, curator, community arts organizer—share a common denominator: “Three ways I get to make magic out of dust.”
All three can also be seen as acts in what Franklin calls his “theater of survival.” The drama, beginning with his rough-hewed childhood in Scappoose, follows a winding path through dead-end jobs, a bogus felony conviction, a degree from PNCA, an MFA from Rutgers, a sojourn deeply immersed in the New York City art world, and a career teaching.
Act I: floral moons and everyday artifacts
As Franklin welcomed me into his studio TOS #12, a massive painting on the back wall, jumped my senses. I saw moons or, perhaps, sister planets with shared moons. One clearly barren globe, death on a celestial scale, was balanced by an equal mass, molten and inflamed, while a third, much smaller world, was a verdant Eden bouquet. I was both pulled in and off-balanced by the work’s orbital momentum and gravitational—and compositional—energy.
But that was my imagination—and a quite literal impression at that (I may have been influenced by too many recent images from the James Webb Space Telescope). When I asked Franklin about it, he circled back to the theater metaphor. I began to see the spheres as characters on the stage of his life, the dark and the light in their respective roles, loaded with the vivid dramatic tension of his climb from a world of closed-in barriers to one of imagined possibilities at least partially realized. As we talked, the parallels between the painting and Franklin’s life became more and more obvious. Where I had, at first, seen other worlds, I now saw an artist’s world.
The other paintings I was able to see (some had already been crated up) were similarly autobiographical, sharing much of the dark/light dichotomy of TOS #12 while continuing its theme, often subtly, of orbiting spheres. Many of Franklin’s paintings have an interloper, an image from some another world, much as he may have felt navigating college and grad school. Likewise, a sense of precariousness is often present; delicately balanced survival in an alien environment, as in TOS # 14 (below).
Quotidian objects frequently make an appearance in Franklin’s work, items from everyday life like garden flora, household utensils . . . and baguettes. These are the things, Franklin said, that we take for granted “that silently witness us.” Franklin emphasized the healing properties of these concrete symbols of domestic sanctuary, community, and love. The ordinary and the extraordinary, the expected and the unexpected, coexisting alongside the can’t be and the if-only. This is art as metaphor for life—one artist’s life in particular—all done with compelling composition and meticulous craft.
I failed to pay much attention to Franklin’s sculptures, several of which were standing around his studio waiting for transport. I had no sense then of the smiles that a whimsical grove of his convoluted sticks could generate. That changed as soon as I entered Leach’s gallery for the opening night reception of Grief is on my Calendar. It was magical forest time. My favorite moment of the evening was watching a small boy peer intently through a fisheye lens that Franklin had playfully placed in one of the sculptures at a child’s eye level. It was one of those moments when it is hard to imagine the art without the audience, much as Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate transforms into “crowd gate” in a downtown Chicago park. This is art to be part of, theater that gives hope.
Franklin’s exhibit at Elizabeth Leach Gallery opened June 8 and runs through July 29, 2023.
Act II: mirage in a shed
SE Cooper Contemporary is in an old shed; actually, two old sheds tied together. The property had been a biker hangout with a violent history before Franklin and his wife purchased it to build their home and restore what could be saved. The gallery is a rare asset in Portland’s art world, neither wholly commercial nor academic, where Franklin can fulfill his goal of “making space for others.” The only place I know in town with a similar mission is the Lumber Room on the floor above Leach’s gallery. But Franklin adds another dimension:
It is a place for artists that don’t totally fit in the marketplace, but are critically recognized, to not just exhibit but to form two-way connections with the Portland art community. I want to get to know the artists I am showing, ask what I can do for them, and share that connection with others. They stay a week or two so I can introduce them to local art writers, educators, curators, and other artists.
On the day I visited SE Cooper, the gallery was showing work by Mexican/New York artist Adrián S. Bará. The title of the show, Fata Morgana, refers to a complex mirage of stacked images, an inverted continent, an Atlantis. More to the point, it suggests the illusion of our human-centric, inverted view of reality, our false sense of importance. Bará created the work on-site, installing two adjoining walls of a cochineal dyed finger painting.
The encompassing effect is both unsettling and calming at the same time. It is like being surrounded by the surface of a puddle without its context. It is hard not to touch, not to test whether it is real or illusionary. Don’t try to make sense out of it. Sense is not the point any more than it is with a Beckett play. This is existential theater: Theater of the absurd, theater without a plot, theater of illusion.
Act III: converging messages
One more ball in the air. As Franklin readies his show at Elizabeth Leach, his attention is also on his responsibilities as artistic director of Converge 45, whose 2023 biennial opens this summer. Over several months, the biennial will feature more than fifteen exhibits, screenings, and events in venues (including SE Cooper) across the Portland area. This will be public art with an explicitly political message. Titled Social Forms: Art as Global Citizenship, the biennial aims to “examine themes of ecological degradation, indigeneity, displacement, race and representation, migration, and intergenerational dialogues.”
Among the featured artists is Portland-based, Seneca Nation artist Marie Watt, who will be showing a monumental neon sculpture at the Center for Native Arts and Culture. Known for her textile wall hangings, Watt is a storyteller, integrating in her work history, biography, and indigenous teachings.
Another high-profile participant will be Guggenheim Fellow Richard Mosse, who will debut a new film, Broken Spectre. Filmed in remote parts of the Brazilian Amazon, the work charts the ongoing degradation of “the world’s lungs.”
Mosse’s films and photos promise controversy. Almost always conveying a political and deeply personal message, Mosse’s artistry has sometimes been accused of overwhelming the narrative and transforming profound ugliness into beauty. As I read of that criticism, I could only wonder if Picasso’s Guernica was similarly disparaged as the Western world of the 1930s was dragged into war. As far as I can tell, the commentary and the drama have both survived well.
The Converge 45 biennial program opens August 24 and will run through mid-October. This is just the stimulus Portland needs as it digs out from its post-COVID rut.