If I ever find myself thinking about paper or print art, my mind hardly ever wanders to ghosts. However, walking through Stelo’s group exhibition, “Coalesce,” I couldn’t seem to get ghosts off my mind.
Over each piece in the show hangs the pervasive, unsettling spirit of a pandemic. This makes sense, considering at least half of the work on display was made after the outbreak of COVID-19. Regardless of their timestamps, every piece seems to agree: The past lingers into the present, like a ghost who refuses to leave.
Stelo, previously c3:initiative, hosts rigorous and experimental residencies at its Portland and Camp Colton locations — the former nestled into Portland’s historic North Park Blocks the latter between the yawning evergreens and drooping ferns of Colton, Oregon. Established in 2014, the c3:papermaking residency was designed to “engage artists with little or no experience in hand papermaking [to] offer them an opportunity to learn the craft and stretch the limitations of what the medium can do.”
On view at Stelo’s Park Block location through January 30, “Coalesce” exhibits rich examples of just that. Though the show features a diverse and impressive selection of artists from Stelo’s 2019/2020 and 2020/21 hand papermaking and letterpress printing residencies, the idea of “impression” seems important to all of them. More than this, a kind of collective consciousness feels eerily woven throughout the show — one way or another, every artist considers the ghoulish afterlives of places, moments and things, a theme that resonates deeply in a time marked by so much loss.
But “Coalesce” doesn’t stop there. Demian DinéYazhi’s letterpress pieces, for example, greet each visitor at the door with a critical and reclamatory meditation on the future, reacting against the injustices of the past. First, the phrase “EVERY american flag is a WARNING SIGN” is repeated in red and blue ink on white paper and scattered across the wall like wheat-pasted propaganda.
On the rear of that wall, DinéYazhi’s piece We don’t want a president considers the innumerable atrocities committed by the United States, in an elegant rewrite of Zoe Leonard’s 1992 poem and manifesto, I want a president. “We don’t want a president,” DinéYazhi writes instead. “We don’t want a relationship with the earth that doesn’t give back whenever something is stolen, lost, or contaminated.”
In the exhibition space’s south wing, Antonius Bui, Maddy Dubin, Megan Hanley, Lucia Monge and Hannah Kim Varamini muse on things left over.
In a striking, skin-like, mattress-sized piece, Bui’s unbearable splendor infuses paper pulp with used condoms, anal blood, lube, semen and hair. Measuring the height of a twin mattress, the piece saunters into the space like a zombie of past sexual encounters.
Bui’s other unmissable contribution to the show, gathering moss, spreads the remains of a collaborative paper-pulp drawing-installation across the floor. I’m told, during their residency, Bui left a bucket of pulp out for passers-by to draw from and press into the stone of a public walkway. Once dried and transported into the gallery, the result is an upturned, weedy, pebbly mosaic of greenish yellow.
Dubin is up to something similar in their Collaborative diptych #2, which combines recycled bleached cotton, ash, soil and pond water from Stelo’s wilder campus in Colton, OR. This grey-brown paper does something unique in that it remembers the impression of a place, rather than the ink of a pen. Its materials — muddy sludge, the skeleton of a leaf — perform the miraculous act of transporting literal, earthy meaning from one moment and place to another.
In the north wing, Amy Bay’s pieces Tender Blue, Can I Get a Kiss? and Hush Hush start with a similar, earthy, ectoplasmic pulp, but paint with it instead. Combining pigmented cotton and burlap paper, Bay arranges wonderfully floral blobs and stains, patches and petals of purple, yellow, pink and green, rendering “canvas” and “paint” indiscernible.
Not all the papermaking works agreed, however, that places, moments and things live on in the residues they leave behind. The pieces of Kim Varamini’s Atoll (Idiorrhythmic) are three-dimensional casts of found objects – shells, rocks and takeout cutlery –made using soft white Abaca, Kozo, Bull Kelp and Kombu Paper to capture the objects’ curves and edges, well after the object and the cast have been separated. The resulting hulls are as fragile as snake skin. They also left me wondering where all the real, living bodies these skins once wrapped wandered off to.
Jess Perlitz’s haunting paper molds, on the opposite end of the gallery, create a similar effect. Almost like shrunken heads, these hollowed, abaca-pulp shells are lifeless, even creepy. Two bigger, bloated heads seem to float around the wall, while a series of smaller masks hang in a row, rightly titled Body without body masks. The latter feel dead in a way that is both disturbing and compelling. I stepped away wondering how often I look like that.
In truth, there are too many brilliant works in this exhibition to speak to in detail. Some of those ghosts you may need to visit yourself. If there’s one thing that’s clear to me after visiting “Coalesce” it’s that the world does remember us after we’ve gone. Spirits and specters may or may not exist, but the impressions we make with our lives live on long after we leave.
“Coalesce” is on view at Stelo Gallery (412 NW 8th Ave) through January 30, 2022. The gallery is open from 12-5 pm Friday through Sunday.