As I biked downtown to visit a few galleries for First Thursday, I wondered if the news of pandemic would keep local audiences at home. I was happy to see that I wasn’t the only one willing to throw caution to the wind in order to support Portland’s art community — the Pearl District was full of small groups of all ages bouncing between shows.
Much of the artwork on view was hushed and intimate, though the crowds were chatty and restless as usual. It felt almost as though artists and curators were unwittingly building virtual shelters, providing protection, if not comfort, from the increasingly chaotic world outside.
My first stop was Holding Contemporary, where a show-scheduling snafu had serendipitously resulted in the last-minute pairing of Philadelphia-based Erin Murray and Portland’s own Leslie Hickey in a show titled What We See and What We Know. The gallery was mostly dark as I approached, and I wasn’t even sure it was open since I couldn’t see anybody inside. But the door wasn’t locked, so I went in and realized the sleepy lighting scheme was intentional, and lovely.
The other visitors were in the back, hovering near an alcove that contained a sort of side exhibition by André Filipek Magaña. There, the small pencil drawings of children’s cartoon character Dora the Explorer in various surreal situations and seemingly uncomfortable positions were funny in their way, but were a bit of a non sequitur in the context of the feature show.
Hickey’s photographs capture small moments of beauty in domestic spaces, bestowing inanimate objects with curious personalities and hinting at narratives beyond the picture plane. They reminded me of staying home from school sick as a child, when the boredom of deeply familiar surroundings eventually gives way to an imaginative form of close looking, and mundane tableaux suddenly take on a magical quality.
Murray used graphite and ink to create stylized compositions that looked candlelit in their delicate gradations, from velvety black to incandescent white. Symmetrical motifs evoked chain links and trellises, sheer curtains, and window panes. The works had a mystical quality, as though they were views of different places in time seen through an otherworldly ether.
Gallery co-owner Iris Williamson echoed my initial impression of the sick-day doldrums. She told me that as she and her team installed the show, they began to see parallels between the scenes of quotidian interiors and angular, glowing interplays of light and dark to recent news stories of quarantined coronavirus patients, stuck at home or in hotels and cruise ships for weeks on end. The connection wasn’t intentional, she insisted, but once you see it, it becomes impossible to ignore. The beauty of the works didn’t exactly erase the looming claustrophobia of the news cycle, but at least they inspired a different, less panic-stricken angle.
Across the street, Upfor was showing works by New York artist Danielle Roney. The objects, which included 3D printed sculptures, utilitarian-looking surveillance apparati, and looping tubes of blinking white LEDs, appeared cryptic and almost cold at first, and I wasn’t sure I would be able to connect with them in the context of the First Thursday scene. But gallery manager Heather Lee Birdsong came to my rescue (as she has many times in the past) with a generous and insightful walkthrough of the show, titled Frequencies of Opacity, that revealed the emotional intensity of Roney’s practice.
Roney’s work in this show was produced in collaboration with several unnamed migrant artists (their anonymity is a safety measure, as all are undocumented residents in the US). The artist aims to provide a sort of platform for the voices of people caught up in the political tumult and cruelty surrounding immigration, while carefully avoiding the pitfall of exploiting personal tragedy or forcing individual experiences to fit into generalized narrative structures. The cool abstraction of Roney’s work is part of her strategy: She wants to make viewers slow down and engage with the experiences and perspectives she highlights in a way they might not if her work was straightforwardly representational.
The 3D printed objects—less than twelve inches across and resembling folded foam netting of the kind that is sometimes found on fancy produce in the supermarket—were digital visualizations of texts that had been composed and read aloud by undocumented collaborators. The LED-filled tubes, made of perforated steel, were representations of individual biofeedback data like heartbeats and breathing rates. The pulsing rhythms of the lights evoked hospital monitoring equipment, or an old-fashioned oscilloscope, in an eerie contrast to the thought of the real human whose body had provided the data they displayed.
The most moving work in Frequencies of Opacity was the most aesthetically humble. A group of five steel tripods stood on one side of the gallery in a V-formation, each with a small surveillance camera attached to its hinged armature. The cameras were not recording, but were sending a live feed to one of Roney’s migrant collaborators, who could tune in at will from their undisclosed location. The work flipped the typical power dynamic, wherein migrants’ every move is monitored by unseen authorities.
Birdsong told me that when the show was first installed, the cameras all faced forward. The effect was so intimidating for viewers that Roney and gallery staff decided to face each camera a different direction (this also made the live feed more interesting for the collaborator on the other end). Looking into the camera’s tiny lenses and wondering who was watching me (or if they were even bothering to watch at that moment) was a fascinating feeling. I still have questions about how effectively works like these can ever live up to the good intentions that inspire them, but at the very least this piece successfully complicated ideas of safety, subjectivity, and control in ways that I am still thinking about.
Next door at PDX Contemporary, the mood was much lighter. Barbara Stafford’s airy landscape paintings in her show, Falling Green, were fresh and charming and plentiful. They were a curious follow-up to Roney’s somber contemplations, and I wish I had seen them first so that I might have enjoyed them a bit more. The sweetest of the bunch, a small picture of Mount St. Helens, had already sold before the end of the reception.
The Window Project at PDX Contemporary this month features works by Heather Lee Birdsong, Upfor’s gallery manager. The gouache paintings depict ambiguous geometric forms in stylized landscape settings in muted shades of taupe, rose, and sage. Birdsong sees the forms as stand-ins for human subjects, surreal objects that she can infuse with emotion and subjectivity. The particular emotions contained within the four pictures on display weren’t obvious to me, and perhaps are only truly accessible to the artist. But the paintings have a mysterious aura that I appreciated, and that reminded me a bit of the mid-century Surrealist painter Kay Sage. Birdsong’s work echoed the interiority that was on view at Holding Contemporary, with its folding angles and maquette-like mini landscapes.
Elizabeth Leach Gallery attracted a decent-sized crowd for the second month of its ongoing group exhibition, The Quiet Show. There are beautiful works by some internationally recognized artists in this show, including Robert Ryman and Anne Hamilton, but it felt a bit impersonal after the intimate shows at Holding and Upfor. If you visit this block of galleries this month, I suggest you do so in the opposite order that I did!
Still, it was wonderful to see so many Portlanders coming out for art. With the various closures and reorganizations around town (including Upfor, which will present its last show in June), it is heartening to feel the city’s genuine appreciation for the arts. Things are changing, and change is always unsettling, but I am hopeful that the changes underway now will make space for new voices and initiatives in the near future. In the meantime, there is a lot of exciting work and curation to go see, so get out there! And don’t forget to wash your hands.
This article was made possible with support from The Ford Family Foundation’s Visual Arts Program.