Spot On: From a Distance

By Patrick Collier

Blackfish Gallery member Melinda Thorsnes has curated a show at that gallery. “EAST meets WEST” showcases the work of 16 Oregon artists from east of the Cascades. The title choice is understandable but unfortunate as it calls to mind some sort of orientalism (though it did inspire the title of this essay) that highlights our preconceptions of place. Of course, this may be intentionally ironic, for I saw nothing apart from a bit more yellow in the palette or geographic references in titles that would otherwise let me know that these artists were from over yonder.

I did, however, keep returning to Sandy Brooke’s two “Fate & Luck” pieces. Done with oil stick on linen, there is a spontaneity that seems an appropriate response to both the helicopters hovering within the oil mixture and what subject the titles suggest. As Brooke points out in her artist’s statement, no matter the mission, with merciful intent or without, choppers cause quite a stir, and she lets this happen in her art.

Sandy Brooke, “Fate & Luck, Grimsvotn,” Blackfish Gallery

I might further suggest the similarity of styles and mediums of many Eastside and Westside artists can be extended beyond Blackfish’s walls to what sort of exhibit we would get if we were to clump all of the galleries in town together in a single building. Such a show would certainly contain a healthy amount of abstract work (in its various permutations, both minimal geometries and chaotic expressiveness), including Jesse Hayward at GalleryHOMELAND,** Julia Mangold*** and Gregg Renfrow at Elizabeth Leach, and Gwen Davidson in Froelick Gallery’s front space, to name a few.


It is a common sentiment among artists and arts writers that abstract art may be the most difficult to discuss. Understandably, with the paucity of referents beyond such things as materiality, repetition, or, at best, a suggestion of signs and symbols within a work that may help fix a ground for the viewer, an analysis of the sublimated content and intent usually serves only to reinforce “the eye of the beholder.” If one is to find satisfaction in the viewing, aside from any help a title may provide, significance and meaning tend to be described with terms implying a visceral, or perhaps meditative nature… “Felt.” Need I point out that although internalized, this is also a sort of distancing?

However, for the artist the finished work is less passive than purposeful, and it may be here where we are afforded access to “meaning.” Hayward’s collection of paintings, “Beating to Windward,” spring from his memories of attending sailing camp as a youth, while Renfrow’s recent pieces, “Closer to the Water” are directly derived from the light changes he sees in his daily surroundings.

Jesse Hayward, “Weather Helm,” GalleryHOMELAND

Some additional, albeit peripheral meaning/understanding of the artists and their processes may come from contrasting their respective processes of recollection and distillation. If by chance you had the opportunity to listen to Eva Lake’s interview with Hayward on KBOO, his approach should not come as a surprise, as his is no doubt an enthusiastic and associative mind. Knowing little about Renfrow, I can nevertheless imagine him to be more contemplative in both countenance and practice.

Gregg Renfrow, “Curiouser and Curiouser,” Elizabeth Leach Gallery

However, what is common to each outcome is a perceived loss (the transience of Hayward’s time and Renfrow’s light ) that needs and seeks to be fulfilled, and it is this resistance to completion that perpetuates further attempts. Call it inspiration. And while the same may be said for any genre of art as it tries to translate both the earthly and ethereal, it is with more abstract forms and techniques that we find a celebration of this fissure, this gap that persists between the task of creating and its outcome.

If this crevice initiates yet also constrains the art production, then dare we reduce discussion of art to the arrangement of artifice?

I anticipate opposition to such an extreme proposition (even as humor), for the motives and/or needs of artist and audience alike remain paramount despite the persistence of glaring or subtle imperfections. Likewise, recourse to substantial or authoritative feedback on specifics other than composition (namely, more sublime elements) is not easily forthcoming, which leaves the singular voice (as “mine”) to many of its own devices as it floats freely above or outside said accumulations, whether these be the in the creation of the artwork itself or in its presentation.

This is the appeal of isolation, parting from the social into an abstraction of one’s own making: The ideal madness. And its expression seeks something more elusive than rationale.


If only one was in this heaven alone, or else, coming down to Earth, some sense need be made.

A Google-mobile came through our area a few weeks ago. The mounted camera was an odd affair, but as far as I can tell, few folks took notice. Nor can I find an image online of the trees in front of our house that block the view from the road. The Google Earth eye-in-the-sky is entirely another matter. Based on the layout of our vegetable plots in that image, I know what year and month the photo was taken. In that we are not growing marijuana, I can’t imagine the photo would be of much interest to anyone but my wife and me. However, I may be wrong, for just as we see more and more artists using the Google Street View images as a source for their art, so too the satellite views have been mined.

Part anthropology, part archeology, what is consistent is a type of cataloguing in service to particular and strategic contexts. Last May at Blue Sky Gallery, Portland was treated to Mishka Henner’s Google Street View pulls of what may be prostitutes along remote stretches of roads in Spain and Italy. This month, Breeze Block is exhibiting Jenny Odell’s culls from Google Maps, “The Fossilized Present.”

Jenny Odell, “All the People on Pier 39,” Breeze Block

Odell removes objects and people from their environments into collections. Grouped together as a taxonomy for each piece of art, original and individual contexts are exchanged for a sameness. However, the more successful of these presentations sidestep looking like insects transfixed by entomological pins and instead provide new ways of looking at or thinking about things of this world: grain silos become strands of pearls, brooches and earrings; landfills lose both their enormity and unsightliness; and people, even when actively congregated, become almost insignificant, except in how together they make pretty flowing marks on a sheet of paper.

If only they knew…

Critical distance and creative relevance are abstract concepts, and as such, always inflicted with vagaries such as ambiguity and happenstance, and therefore necessarily run contrary to an (already impossible) ideal. Yet, to my disjointed way of thinking, I see both married in a little dance of push and pull that I’ll call “Preference,” never getting it “right” as much as trying to somehow make it work.


* In the upcoming months I will be making a concerted effort to cover more than the Portland and Salem regions for this column. I would ask artists and arts organizations throughout Oregon to please add ptcpatrick at gmail dot com to their mailing lists.

** It needs to be noted that I am on the advisory board of GalleryHOMELAND and my artwork has been exhibited there.

*** John Motley gives us his thoughts on Mangold’ exhibit and also Heather Watkins’ abstact work at PDX Contemporary.

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