Mark R. Smith and Maria T.D. Inocencio’s exhibition, Loss of Material Evidence, closed on Sunday, December 9th. The works in the show successfully take on one of art’s highest callings: to make visible the unspeakable, here an exploration of grief. The irony of course is that this exhibition about loss also marks the end of an era for the Ronna and Eric Hoffman Gallery of Contemporary Art at Lewis & Clark. Only a few days prior to the closing of this exhibition, it was announced that the long-time gallery director and curator, Linda Tesner, had been let go. So the end of the show coincides with the end of the gallery, one loss merging with the other.
It would be a mistake, however, to let sadness over the loss of Tesner and concern over the future fate of the Hoffman Gallery to overshadow the achievements of Smith and Inocencio. The show was beautiful in concept and in execution. Inspired by the aging and inevitable loss of the artists’ parents, the works in the show are a meditation on death and the accumulation of things. The lament is tempered by a hopeful note of celebration of the power of family and community. Grief is felt and processed and then, ultimately, transformative.
An enormous abstract composition (roughly 9-by-16 feet) sets the tone for the show. Vertical stripes of varied colors, interspersed with thin white lines flank a central composition of nested, striped squares. The title, Time Tunnel, suggests some sort of flashing tunnel time warp ushering the viewer into the gallery. Perhaps because of too much time with art history books and not enough exposure to time-warp tunnels, I was struck by the similarity to Frank Stella’s abstractions of the 1960s. Stella’s works were products of High Modernism, abstraction that celebrated the materiality of paint; Stella famously said about his works, “what you see is what you see.”
Smith and Inocencio reject this Modernist tautology; Time Tunnel isn’t an opportunity to meditate on the paintness of paint but rather a call to consider what to do with the stuff accumulated over a lifetime. Smith and Inocencio’s stripes are not paint at all but reclaimed fabrics painstakingly deconstructed and then remade into symmetrical stripes. Some of the fabric strips are only inches long but the stripes are so meticulously arranged that the seams between pieces are barely visible. The style of the stripes and their fabric types recall striped polo shirts, the collared garment of choice of many an erstwhile or aspirational golfer. With Time Travel and many other works in the show, the stripes aren’t a formal device but the answer to the question: what to do with a lifetime-supply of striped shirts?
Several works in the show use these stripes née shirts. In Mother: The Farthest Ten Acres; Father: Late Arrival; and Mother, Father: Long-Lived but Not Forever the stripes are composed into arches, circles, and curves. A pair or trio of framed found photographs interrupts the geometric patterning in these works, the photographs cut from Smith’s parents’ hundreds of saved copies of National Geographic. In Objects and Aura, the stripes are fashioned into small squares and used as a backdrop for a pair of figurines made by the artists’ son at age 10. The figurines seem to be Smith’s acknowledgment that his own saved treasures will inevitably become accumulated stuff that someone will clean out. In Afterimage: The Night Sky, the stripes become circular constellations on the ceiling that can be gazed up at from a brown recliner. The chair evokes both limited mobility and the association between the sky and the afterlife.
Many of Inocencio’s works use repetition as a form of meditation in the processing grief and loss. For the installation, Comforter—Beloved Embrace, Inocencio cut out copies of photographs from family albums, one per day. She combined these photo cut-outs with tracings of leaves that were collected on daily walks, traced, and then cut out. The 365 figures and more than 3000 leaves blanket the ceiling and trail down the walls so that the viewer is enveloped in this space of memory. Remembering Every Day presents a large grid of varied colors, but closer inspection reveals that each color is an associated with a memory, one colored memory for each day for one year from the day her mother-in-law died arranged as a pinwheel. Each square bears a date and a token description: hand towel, attic tablecloth, fridge magnet. Stuff that becomes memories and those memories then reduced to a bare minimum—a word or phrase and color.
Fear of Falling is a tower of things, not things remade or memories extracted from things but actual, physical things: a discarded strand of Christmas lights, reading glasses, a colander, a plastic novelty goblet, and a ball of yarn among many others. The tower is precariously balanced; the title references the instability of the structure and the mobility issues that accompany aging. What to do with two of life’s inevitabilities: aging and a junk drawer (or basement)? When is stuff a treasured memory and when is it just stuff?
A whole self-help industry has emerged to answer this question. Marie Kondo promises that ridding ourselves of things will bring joy. Or if you’re starting later, you can always Swedish death clean. Smith and Inocencio don’t offer a solution so much as camaraderie. They aren’t chastising anyone for keeping a plastic novelty goblet or stacks upon stacks of back issues of National Geographic, and they aren’t offering a solution or a way out. Instead, they’re showing their way through, the sifting, remaking, and letting go. They invite viewers to witness their grief and loss as a way to contemplate our own.
High Modernism posited that formal aesthetic qualities were universal, that all people could grasp the beauty in abstraction if they only made the effort. This assumption of the universality of formalism has largely been abandoned—the acknowledgment of plurality and the fact that different visual traditions value different qualities and personal experience affects the way we see. What I find so appealing about this show is that it uses abstraction to speak to a different universal—not formal aesthetics but loss.
At the end of a tumultuous year in the Portland arts community—the closing of the Art Gym at Marylhurst (amid the closing of the university), the end of Tesner’s position at Lewis & Clark, potential changes on the horizon for OCAC and PNCA—it is easy to focus on what we’ve lost or are afraid of losing. In that vein, the December afternoon closing of Loss of Material Evidence could have been a dirge but it was not. The afternoon was dreary and cold but the gallery was awash with warmth, art, and community. There was a crowd. Smith and Inocencio were apron-clad, giving a tutorial on how to make Smith’s mother’s apple pie. Tesner was a model of grace and generosity as she shared her thoughts on the show and the larger endeavor of curating. There were even gifts as the show’s beautiful catalogs were given away. Against all odds, loss was spun into something lovely.