ditch projects

This December brings opportunities to engage with the arts community in Portland, past and present. Memorial exhibitions honor the lives and work of two prominent Oregon artists whose creativity left an impact on their many students as well as the galleries and collectors that supported them. Shows in Portland and Springfield reflect on the visions and reverberations of artist-run projects both within their close-knit circles and in the community at large. Artists in two innovative fellowship programs present work made possible by the financial and creative support of forward-thinking curators and patrons, and a big group show brings work from artists from across the country to an independent artist-run gallery.

Finally, a number of holiday art sales provide a tangible way to contribute to the arts, as proceeds from these sales in large part go directly to artists and allow them to continue to create, enriching our collective culture. Wherever your gallery-walking and holiday-shopping takes you, make sure to stop for a moment and find your own way to express your appreciation for the hard work that artists and arts professionals do all year round. 

A large woven tapestry in  dusty pastel colors of linen, depicting an empty room with a checkerboard tile floor, vaulted ceiling, and surrounded by arched windows with sheer curtains blowing in the wind.
Judith Poxson Fawkes, Scutching Floor (photo courtesy Russo Lee Gallery)

Jan Reaves 
Judith Poxson Fawkes
December 5 – 21
Russo Lee Gallery
805 NW 21st Ave
This month, Russo Lee Gallery will honor the work and memory of two Oregon artists who recently passed away: painter Jan Reaves and weaver Judith Poxson Fawkes. Reaves was a longtime faculty member at the University of Oregon whose career spanned thirty years and left an impact on many young art students. Her abstract acrylic and oil paintings glow with translucent washes and drips of color, their characteristic looping gestural forms dancing across the canvases. Poxson Fawkes mastered a variety of complex tapestry weaving techniques over her forty-plus year artistic career. Though terms like inlay and double-weave might be unfamiliar to the average viewer, the radiant and intricate geometric patterns they produce require no special knowledge to appreciate. Considering the recent resurgence of fibers and textiles among contemporary artists, Poxson’s beautifully crafted work may find new fans among the younger generation.


ArtsWatch Weekly: dark & stormy nights

Frankenstein, Día de Muertos, tribute bands, dinosaurs, warps & wefts, and a Dope Elf: Welcome to the art week.

TODAY IS BOTH HALLOWEEN AND THE BEGINNING OF DÍA DE MUERTOS, two holidays that have distinct backgrounds and meanings but are often linked in the public mind, because they occur each year at about the same time and because they deal, in their own ways, with the souls of the dead. Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, which begins today and continues through Saturday, is a celebration that began in central and southern Mexico and has spread broadly from there. It’s a time for remembering friends and family who have died, and helping them along their spiritual journey.

Carlos Manzano as Bombón in the Día de Muertos-inspired play Amor Añejo, at Milagro Theatre through November 10. Photo © Russell J Young 

Milagro Theatre’s current show, Amor Añejo, gives you a good sense of the spirit of Día de Muertos. Bennett Campbell Ferguson, in his review for ArtsWatch, Into the Beyond, with Pain and Laughter, calls it a “tale of bereavement and rebirth.” “It’s an elegy—and more,” he continues. “The story flows from a single death that leaves everything from pain to joy to absurdity in its wake. Amor Añejo’s fullness of spirit makes it an unmissable play. At once profoundly soulful and gloriously silly, it invites us to touch the life of Hector, a painter who refuses to accept the death of his wife, Rosalita.” Naturally, that’s only the beginning.


Amina Ross at Ditch Projects: a meander nevertheless flows

Amina Ross inaugurates the 11th year of Ditch Projects with a multimedia installation, 'When the water comes to light out of the well of my self'

Ditch Project, now in its 11th season of exhibitions in Springfield, Oregon, has kicked off this year with Amina Ross’ When the water comes to light out of the well of my self. The multimedia installation is curated by the Director of Black Embodiments Studio, Kemi Adeyemi, and continues through November 2. As the title of the exhibit indicates, to come to an understanding of the artist’s intent, full immersion is required. Yet, if one looks for a starting point for the narrative that occurs, one might find oneself lost in metaphors for and about water.

That is to say the exhibit can be a little difficult to navigate at first, at least if one tries to follow the list of pieces on the information card. The animation Refracted Rituals, for example, is first on the list, yet the piece itself, a single monitor partially draped with a blanket, is in the far back corner of the gallery. The information card then becomes something to be put aside as a guide for anything but knowing the title of a piece. And so the viewer meanders as though following a flatland stream, its bends and eddys eventually revealing the scope of the work. 

Amina Ross, Untitled (watering is a type of releasing)/photo by Mike Bray, courtesy of Ditch Projects

Two multi-colored pillows suspended from the ceiling, Hold (1) and Hold (2), are the first things one sees, although a scaffolded bed-like platform to their left and a stack of four monitors on the right side of the gallery, compete for attention. The bed, Etheric Bridge (Winter’s Grief), has two people lying on it, so I move over to the monitors. The card lists this piece as Untitled (watering is a type of releasing) with a note that reads “on top of the monitors there is water from 3 baths and a tincture made of Hawthorne and rose.” In that the contents of these jars looks more like decaying sludge, I wonder what sort of bath they are from. Certainly not the relaxing, bubbly kind. Some sort of trauma is afoot, and perhaps the multiple segments of the video will provide some clue. 

All four monitors simultaneously play a progression of shifting images: a drawing of a motherly figure with love and compassion in her expression; then someone (the artist) washes their hands with a stone that generates suds; a drain appears yet is so harshly lit that most of what we see is just white light; next, a lengthy abstract and shifting pattern that looks a bit like the bottom of a stream bed covered with freshly fallen leaves (I begin to make color associations with the jars); then, a hand (presumably the artist’s) running fingers through a white fur-like material; and finally, a still image of a hand alongside what looks like it might be river rocks, both partially obscured yet bridged by a brilliant light. Aha! The same image that covers the cushion portion of the bed piece!

I wait for my turn to lay myself down on the bed and take in the images on the four monitors above it. The thin cushion/mattress is uncomfortable for this old guy’s bones and I wish I had one of the pillows for my head. It is unclear at first what I’m looking at. Three of the four monitors show very little, except I can tell I am looking at water. The fourth monitor has a rock in the same water, and I realize the camera is inside a tub. I begin to see leaves floating, then a body, or rather parts of a body, as the monitors fragment the rather chaotic scene. Eventually, the tub drains leaving the detritus behind, and the jars sitting on the stack of four monitors of Untitled (watering is a type of release) now have a context for their contents. An emotional cleansing has occurred. 

Amina Ross, Etheric Bridge (Winter’s Grief)/Photo by Mike Bray, courtesy of Ditch Projects

Normal hygiene practices would not necessarily be an indication, yet a ritualized cleansing of the skin is another matter. The repetition of this act in various videos suggests a persistent intention on the part of the artist. I would hesitate to speculate—if I didn’t know from reading Adeyemi’s accompanying essay—that the work is significantly about race, gender and sexuality. The installation avoids a literalness or a didacticism, and that allows others to access universal symbologies that may offer a more general perspective.

The 29th hexagram of the I Ching, for example, is The Abysmal (Water).(1) It is one of the I Ching’s eight double hexagrams, meaning that in this particular instance the water trigram is on both the top and bottom. Despite the negative inference in the title, Water is considered auspicious. Think “plunging in.” Not surprisingly, then, the heart is involved as well. Danger still lingers (The Abysmal), and the I Ching cautions that one might do well to be strategic when following a passion.

Commentary for the hexagram states, “Water sets the example for the right conduct under such circumstances [danger]. It  flows on an on, and merely fills up all the places through which it flows; it does not shrink from any dangerous spot nor from any plunge, and nothing can make it lose its own essential nature.”

Water’s nature is multifarious. It is ice and steam; it drains and bubbles up; it soaks, erodes, fills and falls. We find evidence of some of these characteristics in the two remaining videos, Refracted Rituals and Onyx at sunset. As somewhat abstract single-monitor pieces, neither has the strong narrative qualities of the four-channel pieces, yet they do act as culminating vignettes, especially Refracted Rituals, as it incorporates images that we have already seen. In each, water flows in and out or up and down. It is not constrained by rules of physics, and so can also represent that for the artist, convention is also put aside. 

As the title for the exhibit subtly suggests, light plays a role in much of this work as well. Both Refracted Rituals and Onyx at sunset have changing light in the sky. The blinding white-out of a drain in Untitled (watering is a type of releasing) is quite off-putting, as if the artist does not want us to see what has been washed away (although in another scene the drain is filled with dirt that must be ushered down and away). The recurrent image of the brilliant light that bridges the hand and rocks is perhaps the most obvious, and while it does create a sense of wonder for this viewer (how was the image created?), it also may be key to why I walk away from this exhibit with a good feeling. Whether by their own doing or with the help of some outside force, the artist has managed some degree of resolve.

Amina Ross, Film Still from
Untitled (watering is a type of releasing)/Courtesy of Ditch Projects

Indeed, the coherence of the exhibit comes through the interplay of motifs and repetition of images between the various pieces, all of which becomes more apparent after patiently wandering around the room a couple times. The initial sense of melancholy that comes from Untitled (water is a type of releasing) and Etheric Bridge (Winter’s Grief) is relieved when images from the two works are incorporated in Refracted Rituals. We become aware of a new dynamic simply because this latter work (and Onyx at sun set) remove the narrative and become more of a culmination…a resolve.

It’s as if acceptance is itself a force to be reckoned with.

(1) I Ching/The Richard Wilhelm Translation, rendered into English by Cary F. Baynes, Princeton University Press. 1977.

Year-end indulgence

This arts writer’s version of a sculptor’s requisite bed piece

I have a number of reasons I don’t like to do year-end reviews or best-ofs; or rather, I have written them in the past, shouldn’t have, and would avoid doing so if I could kick the overriding need to reflect and make an accounting that comes with December.

The Art Center in Corvallis

The Arts Center in Corvallis

First of all, my art viewing, like my arts writing, is a some time thing, which makes me considerably less than an authority. I’m mostly a stay-at-home guy who hangs out in my low-residency (formerly referred to as my dungeon) basement working on other projects and occasionally scanning Facebook for updates from other artists, writers and friends in general. That said, I guess I do look at a lot of art because I follow links. (I suppose if I was a serious info junkie I’d hang out on Twitter instead, but social media = social contract and who has the time?) What I don’t do often, but should, is make the trip to larger cities within fifteen to seventy miles of my home to look. I know I’m missing a lot of worthy, non-virtual exhibits. For instance, there’s always Ditch Projects in Springfield, and Disjecta has considerably improved their programming over the years, as has Corvallis’ The Arts Center. I do regret not getting to these and many other venues more frequently.

Secondly, I want to find it prudent to avoid superlatives, which a summary “grading” of the previous year’s events surely implies. While this may make me a poor (reluctant) critic, admittedly, I have my favorite artists and have opinions about what galleries show consistently good work or are not afraid to push the envelope, but there’s this little voice in my head that asks “Who am I to make such pronouncements?” (See above paragraph.) It has the faint odor of boosterism, self or otherwise, which oddly enough becomes exclusionary. (As my mother says, “Don’t interrupt your work if it speaks for itself.”) To my mind this can quickly become the drugged teat from which malcontents suckle their spew. I’ve seen it happen. The hunger. The horror. The hunger.


Photography review: Land’s End

Photographers operating in the landscape: Portland Art Museum and Ditch Projects

John Mann, "Untitled (proposed on-ramp)"/Ditch Projects

John Mann, “Untitled (proposed on-ramp)”/Ditch Projects


“Till paths be wrought through wilds of thought…”

One has to get through nearly six of the eight verses of “America, the Beautiful,” past when “spacious skies” become “halcyon” to sing the above phrase, something I’d venture to say very few people have done. Granted, the line refers to the Pilgrims as they took the first steps in exploring (and exploiting) the landscapes described in the song, “from sea to shining sea.”

Last week I spent a few days with my spouse on Oregon’s coast. I know I don’t have to sell Oregonians on the scenic beauty, and in that I probably couldn’t write anything that would bring new insight, to expound on such would be a waste of everyone’s time. Yet, elsewhere on these intertubes I have a self-appointed duty to chronicle such journeys, including posting the obligatory photos of sites such as Haystack Rock.

After posting about our mini-vacation and raving about the beach, sea and rocks, all the while apologizing for the inadequacy of my photos, I found that one reader responded with a link. It seems that one no longer has to attempt to capture scenic wonders with a camera, for the Unigine company has developed software, the Valley Benchmark DX11, that allows you to create your own. Call it a mini-mini-vacation: “The Valley Benchmark includes 64,000,000 square meters of very detailed terrain that includes mountains with snow-capped peaks, green expanses, rocky slopes, flowers, and a number of other photorealistic renderings.”

I did not see the word “beauty” or “splendor” once in the copy, yet it does promise that the  software “amazes with its scale” and “procedural object placement of vegetation and rocks.” Purple majesty as algorithms.

One would hope that the fun would be in tweaking these “procedures” to create something that will have the components arranged in ways that run contrary to what we have more or less come to expect in the real world. However, it is more likely this program’s primary purpose is simply to replicate natural land formations and the likely configurations of flora upon it. For good reason: Standards are pragmatic; we have expectations that have precedence, not only from our personal experience but within the history of images of the landscape that have come before. They bring us comfort and in the right — or in the wrong —  hands manipulate us.

But even within the long history of landscape photography that has itself established certain expectations, artists have been intent on personalizing the real thing, either by utilizing the technology that is the camera or pursuing a specific and personal agenda. Two exhibits, one at Portland Art Museum, and the other at Ditch Projects in Springfield, give us a fairly full spectrum of how photographers have approached and interpreted this genre.


 Minor White, "Easter Sunday, Stony Brook State Park NY"/Portland Art Museum

Minor White, “Easter Sunday, Stony Brook State Park NY”/Portland Art Museum

Portland Art Museum’s current photo exhibit, “Surface” provides us an overview of this development with a goodly number of landscape photographs from the museum’s collection. An early example is Carleton Emmons Watkin’s “Rooster Rock, Columbia River” (1867), used as a stereograph. More recently, Chris McCaw’s “A Sunburn for the Portland Art Museum” (2012), has a hole burnt through the paper where our Sun should be. Both images have been manipulated to suit a purpose.

It is easier to forget there is a camera or photographer involved in the works by Maud Ainsworth, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Lily E. White and others of a similar ilk in the exhibit. Yet  with later photographers, a restlessness sets in. The landscape requires enhancements, and in that comes what one might describe as a desire to show their hands in the making of the images.

Harry Callahan’s “Lake Michigan” (1949) is a subtle example as he pushes the contrast to highlight grasses; Minor White’s “Easter Sunday, Stony Brook State Park NY” (1963) uses exposure time to make light dance perpendicular to the flow of water just before a waterfall. Sharon Harper’s “Germany II” (2000) offers the viewers a completely blurred image; and, Doug and Mike Starn use tape to piece together their “Seascape (#72) (1985-86). The last two examples involve a greater degree of manipulation, yet in all of these later works the artist is every bit as present as the scene captured.

Simon Norfolk, “Untitled (Namibia)” from the series “For Most of It I Have No Words: Genocide, Landscape, Memory”/Portland Art Museum

Simon Norfolk, “Untitled (Namibia)” from the series “For Most of It I Have No Words: Genocide, Landscape, Memory”/Portland Art Museum

Even so, nowhere is the artist more assertively present than in a photo by Simon Norfolk. More akin to the earlier masters of the medium, in this particular piece Norfolk relies less on the photographic techniques to make a statement and instead uses the title, “Untitled (Namibia)” (1998) from the series “For Most of It I Have No Words: Genocide, Landscape, Memory,”  to provide us the context with which to view the image. The image itself, although luscious, is an intentionally inadequate stand-in for a protest against genocide. The beauty is used to beget a sense of helplessness that hopefully turns to outrage.

In an indirect way, we come full circle back to the landscape in a near ideal state, even though its pristine nature has been compromised by having to endure our time in it. It has been carved into a shadow of its former self yet into something that still resembles its former state: Who would know the difference if no one was left to take note?

However, we have not yet reached the point in time when this post-and-pure-apocalyptic terrain exists without prescribed meaning or purpose. Indeed, much of contemporary landscape photography incorporates evidence of human presence and “industry.”

In the broadest sense, we do define the Earth’s surface.


Let’s be clear, “Three Ways to Draw the Landscape” at Ditch Projects in Springfield is not a drawing show. Then again, it is, at least in some respects.

The three artists in the exhibition, Jonathan Gitelson, William Lamson, and John Mann, are all members of Piece of Cake, a larger group of photographers in the Americas and in Europe. While not strictly a collaborative effort, the members do provide support and feedback to each other, and in this case come together to propose three ways to interact with the landscape other than with straight photography. Although photography is certainly a large component to the work here, each artist takes a different trajectory, which is what gives us the title of the show.

Like much of Gitelson’s recent work, “The Last Snow in Brattelboro” is diaristic. Using photography to chart and document his daily comings and goings, his two (or three) pieces in this exhibit chronicle the final melt of a massive amount of snow during the winter of 2010-2011. One piece is a photograph showing a rhododendron, a small patch of snow next to it and a wooden sign that is painted with the title of the project. The actual sign rests against the wall near the photo. The other piece is a map that includes photographs of locations in Brattleboro, again with small patches of snow.

He demarcates a path through his experience of his world. In “The Last Snow…” there is a bit of humor and pathos in the somewhat obsessive search for and documentation of the many quickly disappearing patches of snow scattered throughout the town.  The map Gitelson has made includes all of these places, complete with a chart for snowfall amounts in the months of December through April. It looks very handmade, almost cartoonish, which lends itself to the feeling that here is a man who is alert and wistful but takes none of this, including himself, too seriously.

Still, humility notwithstanding, and even with something like the weather, over which we have little control, we do well to understand it as best as we can, observing and then coming to anticipate change. (Gitelson is looking for signs of spring.) In doing so, we bring ourselves closer to our primal, perhaps natural selves, which I would maintain has its merits for a landscape photographer. Yet, as we know, even the best prognosticators utilizing the latest meteorological tools often get it wrong.

John Mann takes the sense others have made of our world, most notably through cartography, and adds another dimension, both literally and figuratively, by mixing sculptural elements with parts of maps and then photographing them together. I have written about the use of photography as almost secondary to the art, not as a way to catalogue but to capture a “mood” of another medium and to emphasize the photo as an object, and, of course, the object in the photograph. In Mann’s case, this distancing of the various media from their purity as separate pursuits imbues the final product with a sense of isolation.

There are recognizable points on the pieces of maps and globes Mann utilizes in his small constructions. This is further enhanced by the placement of his rather enigmatic structures, most notably in the piece “Untitled (fulcrum)” where a sliver of a map that includes (if memory serves) the name of the city Hilo on the island of Hawai’i and an angled, thin slice of ocean. This piece of paper is placed on a small circular object to create the fulcrum — but a fulcrum for what purpose? To further confuse the viewer the shallow focal length of the photo blurs what might be crumbs scattered about the surface on which the fulcrum rests. We are “lost at sea” with questionable resources and a tool that serves no useful purpose in our dilemma.

One gets the feeling the joke is on the viewer, pointing not so much to a misanthropy as our collective futility, and Mann’s “Untitled (proposed on-ramp)” further drives home this message. A frail spiral is built up off the surface of a map (if it actually was built to scale, it would be a massive affair and not unlike a Tower of Babel). Given that its supposed purpose is for entering a lane, it is unclear whether the ramp leads down from the ether to the two-dimensions of the map or vice versa, either direction quite impossible.

William Lamson, "A Line Describing the Sun"/Ditch Projects

William Lamson, “A Line Describing the Sun”/Ditch Projects

William Lamson’s “A Line Describing the Sun” takes a more direct approach to the landscape than either Gitelson or Mann, calling to mind the land artist Robert Smithson, and to a degree Andy Goldsworthy and Richard Long. The two-channel video documents a performance of sorts: Lamson burns a line into the soil of the Mojave Desert and uses a large fresnel lens mounted on his vehicle to record it. The line traces the arc of the sun as it passes overhead.

Although the contraption Lamson built, plus the methodical tracking of the sun and the melting of the ground into glass, bring a level of complexity to this piece, it is otherwise fairly straightforward. It is also as close as we come in this exhibit to an actual drawing, even though the line made is on the land itself. Yet, primarily because the piece is beautifully filmic — I want to write “epic” — I found myself “getting it” and still not moving on. Good thing, for the pacing is vitally important to a better understanding of making the arc and the endurance required for this performance under an unrelenting sun.


A quintessential photograph of Mount Hood taken from some distance, although striking, nowadays is a bit of a cliché. However, I suspect I will never tire of seeing the volcano to my right (as well as grateful for the clear skies that allow it) as I drive up I-5. And, although I imagine I have not taken my last snapshot of its snow-covered peak, the motivation to do so has significantly lessened.

Likewise, homage must be paid to those who came before with a lens encased in a wooden box We call them intrepid. For some, that romance endures without shame; for others, it is more the spirit and fortitude of those early landscape photographers that calls, as they seek both what is out there and those inspiring horizons that lie behind the eye.

Bruce Conkle. photo via ditchprojects.com


“Shovels are used to produce homes and food, as well as freeways, dams, and nuclear plants. Smoke is often sensed but unseen. ”
Bruce Conkle, 2011

Smoke and Shovels is the latest from Portland artist Bruce Conkle, opening this Saturday July 16 at 7 PM at Ditch Projects (303 S 5th Avenue #165, Springfield OR).

When you see work by Portland artist Bruce Conkle, you may not immediately group him with the artists who earnestly employ and/or address the natural in their work. That’s because Conkle’s sense of humor (and the absurd) kicks his work into a hard left turn that spirals away from the obvious. And it helps that his sculptures might be made of tin foil, pink foam, bent wire, and/or a coconut with a little crystal growth.

Sometimes the work is poetic, as with his silver-plated burls, great natural bulbous tree growths harvested by Conkle and wall-mounted in a trophy like manner as sculptural reliefs. (He ironically calls them “Philosopher’s Burls.”) Sometimes it’s grotesque, as with the slimy pink suspended blob that appears to be on Pepto-Bismal life support with an improvised pump-and-surgical-tubing apparatus that keeps it coated in goo. Sometimes it’s both funny and very sad: the recurring figure of the sweet snowman is terribly melancholy in the face of global warming. And sometimes it’s just elegantly weird as with the collaboration Conkle did with Marne Lucas, “Warlord Sun King,” that featured a hanging tanning bed as a chandelier with dangling chunks of various crystals and minerals.

Conkle’s Swiss ancestry recurs in cartoon form with the artist posing in lederhosen with various homemade alphorns that might be made of a patchwork of wood scraps or have the sounding end of the horn slathered with some kind of slimy-looking substance. So his interest in nature is, in spite of gilded burls, less romantic and more clear-eyed or warts-and-all after all. One can imagine that what we see as postcard picture perfect is, to the inhabitant, as practical and functional as a horn to communicate with far-flung neighbors…as romantic as a cell phone call. And the often improvised or provisional appearance of his sculptures to me relates to the make-do and can-do necessities of life for those who live closest to nature, be they Swiss villagers or Northwest pioneers.

Recipient of a 2010 Oregon Arts Commission Fellowship, Conkle has exhibited internationally.

Also opening is Tom Greenwood’s History Publishing Company. Greenwood, of  Jackie-O Motherfucker, is a longtime musician and multimedia artist. (Jackie-O plays at the opening.) Much of Greenwood’s visual work has been in conjunction with his music and performance as cover art, posters, and ephemera.  Recently, Greenwood’s work was curated in 2010 into a solo show at CUE Art Foundation by Chris Johanson.