Colin Kippen

Responding to crisis: Artists will do what artists do

Artists may not have a special responsibility to address bad times, but they tend to do it anyway

On Saturday night, I went to Disjecta’s annual art auction, and I even snagged an artwork. It was made by Colin Kippen, who takes discarded hard plastic packaging and uses it as a mold, into which he pours a mix of cement and perlite. This stuff captures the curves, grooves, dents and “decorative” flourishes on those abandoned plastic containers perfectly, and then Kippen paints them with pretty, seductive acrylics, and affixes the concrete to various objects. In this case, it was the business end of an old rusty shovel (without the handle).

The first time I noticed a lot of Portland artists using discarded objects in their artwork was in the late 1990s. Other artists in the 20th century had done the same, but these were the first artworks I’d seen that were explicitly about recycling or re-use—and not just about re-use. They were re-use. Around the same time, local architects seemed to focus on green designs, before that became a national trend. And a little later, Portland passed its recycling initiatives, without really much opposition. I think these things are related, and so I date our deep cultural acceptance of the importance of environmental sustainability to that time.

Colin Kippen, Reap/Sow I, cement, perlite, shovel, wire mesh, binding wire, acrylic paint, 20” x 16” x 9”, 2016, Portland2016, Project Grow, Portland. Courtesy of Disjecta Contemporary Art Center and Colin Kippen.

Colin Kippen, Reap/Sow I, cement, perlite, shovel, wire mesh, binding wire, acrylic paint, 20” x 16” x 9”, 2016, Portland2016, Project Grow, Portland. Courtesy of Disjecta Contemporary Art Center and Colin Kippen.

Anyway, I was drawn to Kippen’s piece because it reminded me that the ubiquitous disposable plastic containers that surround us have all been “designed” by someone—actual care and consideration, even “art,” have gone into them. Kippen points out and then emphasizes their surprising beauty with his treatment of them. I could get into the political and social “meaning” of the piece I bought, but this column isn’t about that.

At the auction I was introduced to a woman who had been working in swing states for the Clinton campaign. She looked exhausted and shell-shocked (she wasn’t the only one, either), and we talked just a little about what it had been like out there. Then she asked me a question: What special responsibility do artists have at a time like this, she wanted to know. It was an actual question. People ask so few real questions these days—so often we ask a question just to give you our answer. Or as a rhetorical device, often dripping with sarcasm. This women wasn’t that kind of person.

I launched into a discourse on the various roles the arts play inside societies generally, not just in times like these. I started with consolation, because I thought someone working on behalf of the Clinton campaign probably needed that. Music, for example, can console us when we are sad and somehow move us to other emotions, without losing the sadness. I had just started in on how the arts can preserve our most important cultural values, help us generate a common meaning of what our society is like, even help us understand that we ARE a society, when the patient campaign worker was saved by the arrival of my wife. I was a long way from answering her very specific question. What can we rightly expect of our artists now?

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Portland2016: Disjecta goes gigantic

Contemporary art center Disjecta continues its biennial tradition with Portland2016, the most geographically extensive exhibit in Oregon art history

Last Saturday marked the start to Disjecta’s fourth biennial survey of local art, Portland2016, and for the first time in the contemporary art center’s history as a biennial maker, galleries and alternative spaces outside of Portland have been enlisted to host satellite shows. In total, 25 galleries are participating in Portland2016—fifteen located outside Portland—and the exhibit is being billed as the biggest art show to ever occur in the state. The aim is to expose more people to local art, exchange talent between cities, and “activate” new communities.

This time around, interdisciplinary artist, educator, and writer Michelle Grabner took the helm as curator. She comes credentialed with an extensive background in the arts, currently teaching drawing and painting at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and recently serving as co-curator of the 2014 Whitney Biennial, one of the art world’s most prestigious surveys of contemporary American art.

 

Anya Kivarkis and Mike Bray, installation, University of Oregon White Box, Portland2016/ Photo by Matt Stangel

Anya Kivarkis and Mike Bray, installation, University of Oregon White Box, Portland2016/ Photo by Matt Stangel

Filling 25 galleries with content is no small task, but Grabner rose to the challenge, selecting 34 artists and artist teams from the initial 400+ who applied—dedicating certain sites to single makers and other locations to smartly cherry-picked groups.

Other ArtsWatchers will be chipping in reports on those out-of-town shows. I’ll be talking about the local shows, a few locations at a time. Last Saturday, I hit up the opening reception at Disjecta—and over the following week, University of Oregon’s White Box in Old Town and the c3:initiative in St. Johns.

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