Filing the first report, the first journalistic act, of a new year ought to feel like a fresh start. But of course it doesn’t. Not after all that. Not when this global trauma has yet to resolve itself in a definitive way.
But as the pandemic plays itself out, artists continue to detect and translate the roil of life, and even anticipate it. So it’s not surprising that an exhibition at the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg feels perfect for this moment. It’s not the first time. Last fall, as 1 million acres of Oregon went up in flames, a show on the anthropocene featured startling images of fire. And now, as many of us remain hunkered down at home, we have Domestic Landscapes, curated by Carissa Burkett, bringing together four artists and their meditations on spaces they have lived in.
Burkett schedules exhibitions as much as a year in advance, so this one was conceived before COVID-19, but it clearly resonates now. It opened Dec. 1, shortly before Yamhill County went into a partial lockdown. The show runs through Jan. 29, and as of this writing, the building was closed except by appointment. The work may be seen on the center’s website, with unavoidably mixed results. Some pieces, such as Zemula Barr’s digital photography, work better online than others — for instance, the sprawling watercolors by Bethany Hays. Although it’s better to see the work and be physically present with it rather than look at it on a screen, it’s worth taking time to visit each artist’s website and check out their other work.
“This has been a long time in the planning,” Burkett said last month during a Zoom artists’ reception, adding, “Many artists that I’m really interested in make work about domestic spaces.” The show’s origins apparently lay in a pre-pandemic Christmas party, where Burkett saw one of Hays’ watercolors. “I was like ‘Wow, this is a beautiful landscape piece.’ That was where I first got the idea of a show that explored domestic landscapes.”
Hays’ watercolors depicting towering piles of textiles — linen, laundry, bedsheets, etc. — were inspired by her early years as a mother.
“It started with a photo shoot inside my house years ago, right after I’d moved in,” Hays said. “It was a struggle to get unpacked while still living my life, and I started taking these pictures inside my house, just thinking about my house as a landscape and also trying to make some kind of peace with the fact that there was constant clutter that I was fighting against.” The mounds and piles of folded clothes began to resemble, for Hays, an odd amalgam of sculpture, still lifes, and portraits. “That’s where this body of work started.”
Because they are so large, the watercolors of Domestic Spaces perhaps lose the most online, but they’re impressive regardless.
Hays used the grid format to create the pieces, opting for watercolors to give herself a more rigid deadline than oils would require. As she painted, she ruminated on the history of drapery painting, and how the ability to realistically depict the folds of fabric was considered one mark of artistic mastery during the Renaissance.
“A lot of what I do and am interested in is challenging these culturally held ideals of beauty,” she said. “And also with the watercolor, there’s an association with craft, rather than the ‘high’ painting of oil.”
“I realized that I really wanted to make something that felt monumental,” she said. “I wanted to push against this history of grand landscape painting that exists in this country, the ‘Manifest Destiny’ of these heroic painters doing these majestic landscapes, which we learned later are not actually landscapes that even existed. It was kind of an early version of Photoshop in a way, the way that [those] works came together. I liked the idea of making these landscapes with a feminist lens.”
Another artist, Colin Kippen, has a little one at home right now, but he was already comfortable with home being a ramble of clutter. “At heart, I’m a sloppy person,” he said. “I like to have freedom with materials.” Trained as a metalsmith with a nine-year apprenticeship with a jeweler, Kippen saw the work on display in Newberg as a way to leave behind the precision and “seriousness” required by that craft. He’s been developing processes and an artistic practice at home that is “out of my control” using a variety of materials for sculpture: cement and found objects that have domesticity written all over them, including a mop, a fast-food container, and an IKEA highchair.
The other half of the show’s sculpture component is by Rachael Zur. Her free-standing and hanging pieces use the imagery of furniture as a starting point but also incorporate poetry. In her short presentation, she talked about how domestic spaces hold “the residue of a life lived,” and how memory “becomes an abstraction of the actual events.” For Zur, the memories simmering in her work are from her grandparents’ living room, a space she recalls visiting over a period of nearly two decades.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about this, with COVID and so many months at home,” she said. “A lot of people are talking about missing going out, but I think one of the things that we’re missing that we’re not talking about is being at home, having other people in our home, and how our home communicates for us or is this intimate little universe that we have control over.”
The home depicted in Barr’s Letter From the Front Porch, a display of images and text, is that of her late stepfather, Peter. Her memory of domestic space is of his old cottage, “a really magical place on the shores of Lake Superior” in Wisconsin. It had running water and plumbing, but no electricity, which made for some spooky nights, particularly because Lake Superior has an astonishing capacity for unexpectedly transforming a tranquil evening into a Lear-like storm. The images (one depicting a summer storm through the lens of what appears to be a window or door screen) are accompanied by Barr’s hand-written notes, a collection of intimate recollections of and tributes to a domestic space.
“A tradition for Peter was that at the end of each summer he’d sit on the porch with a sheet of copy paper and write down all the repairs and projects he’d worked on, took it home, photocopied, and sent it to everyone,” she said. “These are my letters from the front porch, a little bit late.”
Chehalem is hoping to reopen this month, so check the website for the latest. In the meantime, Burkett is preparing a new slate of shows. First up is Transformations: A to Z Wineworks’ Artist in Residence – A Year in Review, featuring work by Adrian Chitty and scheduled for Jan. 5-Feb. 28. You can register for a Jan. 8 Zoom reception with the artist here. That’s followed by What Does it Mean to Be an American? by Alicia Decker and Ellen Knutson, Jan. 12-Feb. 27, with Understanding Ourselves: Narrative Paintings, curated by Jen Brown, on deck for Feb. 2-April 2.