Portland Opera The Snowy Day Newmark Theatre Portland Oregon

Owen Premore and Johnny Beaver at Gretchen Schuette Gallery

The exhibition "RingrIngriNrinG" explores technology and the human condition. Definitive answers are not part of the exploration.

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Owen Premore, Heavy Time 2 (2023). Photo courtesy of the artist.

RingrIngriNgrinG is the title of the current two-person exhibition at Gretchen Schuette Gallery on the campus of Chemeketa Community College in Salem, Oregon. It takes a minute to decipher the title, yet eventually the four-time repetition of the word “ring” emerges. Staggered capitalization offers an additional “RING.” The similarity between the capital “I” and the lower-case “l” suggests ring-a-ling-a-ling. “Ding dong” is another short hop and could be a door bell or a goofy person. And at first glance, this last connection seems to echo the spirit of this exhibition. I find myself chuckling as I walk around the gallery, yet, all is not smiles.

If I may, I’ll linger on the doorbell in order to actually address the art in the gallery. Pressing on a doorbell creates an electrical connection that in turn activates a chime that lets one know someone is at the door. Of course, today, doorbells are often equipped with a camera, microphone and speaker that allows the occupant to see the guest and speak to them, even if the homeowner is away. The traditional doorbell alerts one that someone is at the door, while more contemporary ones have the same function yet are also a security feature, a warning system even, for the home.

For this exhibit, Owen Premore’s State of the World’s Tallest Empire provides a similar function at the entrance of the gallery. Mounted on springs that may keep it from toppling over, the piece is designed to detect the visitor’s movement and responds with flashing lights while two white flags waving up and down like arm, which makes a large number of white flags at the top of the piece jitter about. There’s a rather “danger Will Robinson” frenzy to the piece. There is also a replica of the Empire State Building attached to the base (where the “Empire” in the title comes from), which could be a stand-in for “empire-building” or imperialism, making the piece less of a greeter and more of a sentinel. This may seem like a leap, yet social critique does tend to inform Premore’s sculpture, even though it may take a little work to get there. 

It may be that the kinetic elements of Premore’s sculptures initially distract one from the embedded yet subtle social commentary, primarily because the “bells and whistles” aspects are so intriguing to watch and/or listen to. 

Centroidal Terminal of Metropolitan Transference is a case in point. (I went to the dictionary and scientific papers for insight to this title. I wish I could say I understood much of what I read.) Two parts of a grate used for covering a fire pit have been assembled in a manner that looks like it might reference an astronomical event, except one part rotates while the other remains stationary. The pieces of grate are mounted to a small, somewhat antique-looking end table into which windows have been installed. Changing colored lights emanate from the interior through those windows, and if one bends down for a closer examination one sees that the lights not only project outward but also illuminate a massive, cloudy white crystal inside the structure. 

Owen Premore, Centroidal Terminal of Metropolitan Transference (2013). Photo courtesy of the artist.

Now, I know a lot of people believe that crystals have a healing effect, despite a lack of scientific evidence. I am not here to refute that. There have also been many studies that demonstrate the efficacy of a placebo effect, which is certainly a belief-based phenomenon, even though the psychosomatic mechanics of such is elusive. Still, the elaborate contraption (he calls his pieces “sculptraptions”) that Premore has built makes one think that magic might be afoot. Premore has mentioned that if his builds make him chuckle during construction, he knows he is on the right track. In light of that, I suspect Premore may be having a bit of fun with the notion of wishful thinking as well. 

Centroidal Terminal of Metropolitan Transference was made nine to ten years before his other works in the exhibit. Yet it perfectly aligns with his latest work, specifically two works from his latest series, Heavy Time

Sponsor

Portland Area Theatre Alliance Fertile Ground Portland Oregon

Heavy Time 1: Necronome is a pedal-activated recording device that captures one’s voice and spits it back out as loud static. It is a commentary on the paraphernalia that ghost hunters use to detect paranormal activity in an environment.  If you have watched any of those television shows, you’ll know that the belief in the signals is more significant and “conclusive” than the actual readouts or playbacks. More wishful thinking.

Premore’s constructions are certainly over-built, which only enhances the mystery of their functions. Reminiscent of Rube Goldberg machines or 19th-century quack cure-alls developed when electrical current became more available to the general public, Premore’s works are mechanical parodies of the notion that technology will necessarily save us from ourselves. While one cannot say that they serve a practical function, or even understand how they function, they do elicit a sense of wonder, which stays true to the metaphysical and paranormal subjects he addresses.

Johnny Beaver’s work intersects with Premore’s in that he also relies on electronics for some of his work. Yet Beaver takes a more visceral approach, and the interaction that he asks from the audience in some pieces is more of an attempt to make an emotional connection by recognizing that the human condition, which includes to a large degree, pain, grief, suffering, anxiety, and other pressures upon the psyche which all call for amelioration. In short, Beaver’s work represents the maladies for which people might seek out the questionable solutions featured in Premore’s works. 

For Beaver, relief is sought through the act of artmaking, just as it does for innumerable artists. And while some of his work suggests a narrative around specific issues, the overall outcome of the work gathered here shows the depth and difficulty of the struggle in general. For Beaver, this is intentional as it works to demonstrate the fait incompli (sic) of there always being more questions than answers in life. Understanding, as always, tends to be elusive. 

Yet we persist. 

Johnny Beaver, Sandbox 2, (2022). Photo courtesy of the artist.

Beaver kicks this resilience into overdrive and he wants to bring us along for the ride. He does so via works with which the audience can interact. His Sandbox series allows the audience to rearrange the magnetic tiles set in a grid upon old cookie sheets. For Wavetable, he invites the viewer to pluck away at springs that activate noise-making circuits built into what Beaver calls the “abdomen” of the piece. His choice to associate this region of this piece with a part of the anatomy automatically makes the sculpture figurative, and perhaps for a good reason. From the label next to the work we learn that his father built the easel that functions as an armature for the electronics. He considers the piece incomplete without our interaction, which while fun, begins to establish an intimacy between the viewer and the artist. This connection  is also needed to build a relationship with the viewer that allows for empathy and compassion. The more graphic works in the show rely on this connection.

That Beaver saw fit to mention the easel was built by his father —and may indeed be a stand-in for his father— is given a bit more color by the piece to Wavetable’s immediate right. Set on a pedestal, Carrion Pt. III, is a digital frame, the margins of which have been partially obscured with red paint, though not enough to hide the series of photos uploaded into the device. Some of the photos depict somewhere outdoors; yet nothing in the images seem specific to a place. What captures one’s attention is a photo of a fresh amputation of a limb, and another showing some sort of cystic activity. Neither is for the squeamish, and may confuse a viewer as to the purpose of adding such images. Yet through a careful reading of wall labels, one learns that Beaver’s father has passed and context emerges, not only for the two pieces discussed so far, but also from the overall tenor of his work. 

Sponsor

Portland Columbia Symphony Realm of Nature Beaverton and Gresham Oregon

Beaver wants us to know his pain, yet he also wants us to empathize enough to follow along on this artistic journey he has set for himself. From his artist statement: “Despite being littered with turmoil and creative fragmentation, the connective tissues of different projects, interests, and methodologies have been presented with an opportunity in RingrIngriNgrinG to grow together.” 

Johnny Beaver, Wavetable (2023), Photo courtesy of the artist.

What appears to be a body of work that lacks the thematic cohesion to which we have become accustomed is embedded with a faith that a narrative will emerge with a reward for both the artist and the viewer. This is as much true for Beaver as it is for Premore. What may seem haphazard is true to form: Is it not expected that struggle will lead to a new understanding? Newness initially confuses but continued consideration eventually brings resolve. 

It’s not that the work itself is incomplete as much as it is open-ended when considered in total. For Beaver, this allows for meta-narratives that would otherwise “get choked out the conversation by trying to sew things up too tightly.” And to quote Premore: “I intentionally pursue ideas with large unknowns and a hazy path to the finish line.  This embrace of risk and unknowing keeps me in service, and on edge, to the objects.”

In the gallery talk for this exhibit both Premore and Beaver referenced Dada, and I cannot say that I was surprised. It has long been established that Dada was a reaction to the horrors of World War One (not unlike, perhaps, Abstract Expressionism after World War Two). And don’t we now live in a world that is constantly at war or under the threat of yet more wars? Add to this the absurdities that spring forth from Q-Anon or the anti-science of the flat-earthers and anti-vaxxers. We have entered an age of New Barbarism, and in that, a little artistic chaos seems justified.

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Gretchen Schuette Gallery is located on the campus of Chemeketa Community College in Building 3, Room 122. The gallery hours hours are Monday – Thursday – 10:00 – 3:00. RingrIngriNgrinG closes February 9.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Patrick Collier is an artist who has written for the Midwest journal “The New Art Examiner,” plus for the online journals UltraPDX and PORT. He holds a BA in Philosophy and an MA in English Literature from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, plus an MFA from the University of Illinois at Chicago, Prior to moving to Oregon in 2003, Collier and his wife operated the Chicago gallery bona fide to critical but not financial success. They live in Corvallis.

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