May Barruel

Gallery shows shuttered but not forgotten

You may not be able to see this work in person at Nationale and Third Room but it remains attention worthy

I’m about to do something I’ve never done before: review two gallery shows which were scheduled for March, then abruptly shuttered, due to precautions taken to reduce the spread of COVID-19. The moment feels ripe for experimentation. Under normal circumstances, the objective of a review is to promote or critique a significant cultural event. This review, however, will serve as a reminder of what we will inevitably miss out on, if we don’t support our cultural institutions during this crisis. While fears about the pandemic were still emerging here in Oregon, Nationale launched a month-long retrospective featuring a series of paintings by the late Carola Penn, titled, Who Am I, Anyway. Around the same time, Third Room––a non-traditional gallery in Northeast Portland operated by a board of patrons––unveiled a solo-show of work by Alexis E. Mabry, an emerging multidisciplinary artist from Austin, Texas, titled Static Age

Penn’s retrospective at Nationale was curated by May Barruel, the gallery’s owner and director, while Mabry’s show was curated by Third Room’s founder, Kalaija Mallery. Both of these galleries excel at offering a great deal to look at in a very small space. Taken together, these shows underscore the collaborative achievements of female curators and artists working in Portland, as well as the significant contributions that small, independent and non-traditional galleries continue to make to the contemporary art scene.

I learned of Carola Penn’s local reputation only after her death, which feels like a betrayal given that Portland’s artistic community has long revered her fidelity to her creative practice, and her facility with a paintbrush. Penn’s key themes are time, its effect on identity, and the incompatibility of natural and urban environments. She spent a significant portion of her career in Portland reflecting on the construction boom’s impact on the natural environment. Lauded for her ability to integrate pastiche and collage into her work, she showed as much concern for how a painting was displayed in relation to other paintings, as she did for its content. 

In sauvie island road, (2013-2018) for example, Penn bisects a landscape of a marshland with another painting depicting an abstraction of a road––two vertical orange lines against an asphalt-colored wash. The left and right panels of the triptych golden state (2014) depict dreary images of an oil field overpopulated by oil wells. The center panel portrays a lush California hillside planted with Eucalyptus trees, bathed in golden afternoon light. Exquisite brushstrokes of yellow ochre and Prussian blue delineate the shadows rippling across the hillside’s gentle slope. The same palette of blues and yellows can be found in the surrounding oil fields, but in this terrain, they lose their vibrancy, appearing muted and macabre.

Penn has a gift for dovetailing private, firsthand observations with universally accessible themes. That said, her paintings reflect a consistent shift away from communal spaces––the urban sprawl of San Francisco and Portland––towards a life of quiet reflection in concert with nature. The series on display at Nationale focuses on her childhood as a second-generation American growing up in the U.S. in the 1950s. The show’s title alone, Who Am I, Anyway, signals introspection. Attuned to the fragmentary nature of human memory and perception, these works feature snapshots from Penn’s early life, coalescing with motifs derived from folktales, mythology, old master paintings, pop culture, and the visual language of advertisement.

Little Lulu sleeps in Van Gogh's bed
Carola Penn, Van Gogh’s Room (2003-2016). Acrylic on wood. 16 x 14 inches. Image courtesy of Nationale.

Two of the paintings at Nationale––Van Gogh’s Room and Van Gogh’s Chair (2003-2016)––reimagine scenes excerpted directly from Vincent van Gogh’s paintings. In one, a small girl (Penn’s autobiographical double, Lulu) sleeps soundly in the master painter’s flaxen bed. The figure of Lulu is appropriated directly from the work of the trailblazing, mid-century comic-book artist and media mogul Marjorie (‘Marge’) Henderson Buell. After her debut in the Saturday Evening Post in 1935, Buell’s comic character, Little Lulu, became wildly popular. Little Lulu was adored by readers of the Post for almost a decade, and later developed an even more far-reaching reputation, earning her creator a fortune in film and advertising deals. In another of Penn’s paintings, we see Lulu climbing up the crossbars of a wicker chair, which first appeared in Van Gogh’s Gauguin’s Chair (1888), preparing to usurp the old master’s seat. Like Van Gogh’s juxtapositions of resonant greens and reds and yellows and blues, all of Penn’s compositions––either in some small detail or in the figure-ground as a whole––contain an unexpected contrast of pastel colors. Her Van Gogh paintings in particular, communicate a deep appreciation for the capacity to see in color, and for the sensation of finding oneself surrounded by it.

Carola Penn, Van Gogh’s Chair (2003-2016). Acrylic on wood. 16 x 14 inches. Image courtesy of Nationale.

Penn makes deep gouges into layers of acrylic paint to physically sculpt the hard edges and contours of her figures. In Van Gogh’s Chair, the wicker seat is rendered in thick blankets of green and yellow paint. The individual wicker slats are vigorously etched into the impasto, forming deep grooves in the painting’s surface, and heightening its mimetic force. Likewise, in Van Gogh’s Bedroom, the hard lines of a pillow are hewn into the paint, giving the cushion an uncanny volume. One can easily imagine the sensation of resting one’s head on the soft, ivory cloud of paint at its center, just as Lulu, the sleeping girl in the painting does. These, unfortunately, are features of Penn’s paintings which must be seen in person to be appreciated.

It’s easy to imbue Penn’s images with meanings. They lend themselves to narrative. In today’s context, an untitled painting of a woman pushing a shopping cart heaped with paper goods which tower above her, looks like a mother diligently preparing for a pandemic. Other images in this series depict matriarchal figures performing superhuman, often surreal feats. One woman in a rose-colored dress flexes eight deft arms, juggling three apples, five eggs, a baby, a butcher’s knife, a bottle, a clock, a typewriter, a pot, and a whetstone. In another painting, Lulu strides confidently through a department store aisle filled with male figureheads, pushing a shopping cart in front of her. Sporting a fiendish grin, she has filled her cart with various countenances plucked from the shelves: potential spouses, or perhaps identities she could grow into.

woman with towering shopping cart
Carola Penn, Shopper (2003-2016). Acrylic on wood. 16 x 14 inches. Image courtesy of Nationale.

Most awe-inspiring among the paintings in Penn’s retrospective is a massive triptych depicting a modern-day Adam and Eve, aptly titled Losing Paradise (2006). It’s here that the artist’s dexterity as both a figurative and abstract painter is in full view. In the left panel, the proverbial couple sits side-by-side on a fallen log. Eve conceals her genitals with her knitting work, whereas Adam screens his with a mug of coffee. In the center panel, we witness a confrontation between the duplicitous serpent and an antique Hoover vacuum cleaner. In the third, a man in a suit and a woman in a red dress regard each other with scepticism or apprehension. Behind them, Penn provides a grim depiction of the fate many married couples are confined to: overcrowded suburbs, ghostly, congested motorways, and a few remaining trees from the garden of original sin, jockeying for a position among colossal telephone poles in the urban skyline.

Carola Penn, Losing Paradise (2006). Acrylic on wood. 6 x 12 feet. Image courtesy of Nationale.

Like Penn’s impasto paintings, the large-scale tapestries in Alexis E. Mabry’s Static Age are exceedingly sculptural. The work on display explores the detritus, substances, social postures and performances of a generation which oscillated between a light-hearted pursuit of pleasure and uninhibited nihilism. Mabry implements a rich cocktail of media, including paint, textiles, and upcycled craft materials. In respect to both form and content, she is a free-spirited bricoleur, often stitching hard lines into the surface of her canvases to define the contours of her figures. These include hieroglyphic depictions of Element, Korn, Marilyn Manson, and Handsome Boy Modeling School T-shirts, adidas shoes, Huffy BMX bikes, and Honda hatchbacks. By appending small sculptural elements to her tapestries’ surfaces, she brings them into the third dimension, further eclipsing the distinction between painting and the plastic arts. The smoke from a cigarette, for example, is recreated as a wisp of synthetic stuffing.

Installation view of Static Age at Third Room. Image courtesy of Third Room.

Set in the mid 90s and early aughts, Mabry’s tapestries impart micro-narratives of communal buffoonery and substance abuse, punctuated and contextualized by still-life ensembles of soft-sculptures, scattered throughout the intimate gallery space. These sculptures physically reproduce the dross of a specific strain of fringe consumerism: a lifestyle cultivated by aspiring skateboarders and BMX bikers, fueled by dimebags, synthetically flavored corn chips, and cheap consumables loaded with caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol. Mabry’s surprisingly vibrant soft-sculptures include 40oz malt liquor bottles, Doritos bags, PlanB packages, Dasani water bottles, traffic cones, Camel cigarettes, and Rust-Oleum spray-paint canisters. “You don’t have to know Alexis personally to relate to the work, or to care about the imagery she is depicting,” remarks Third Room’s former curator, Kalaija Mallery. She continues: “The Portland scene has been waiting for an experimentation with textiles that is not inherently ‘twee’…Alexis is making a crumpled pack of Camel 99s into a precious art object. It is important to remember that art can be playful too, and that artists from other places can still impart sincere “punctum” (piercing of the heart) onto artists they don’t know or relate to.”

soft sculptures of spray paint, camel box of cigarettes and doritos
Alexis E. Mabry, Krylon Green (2020) Fabric, quilt padding, chicken wire, thread, aerosol paint, acrylic paint. Image courtesy of Third Room.

Mabry’s meditations on her own personal history suggest that what we consume materially, no matter how benign or inconsequential, can leave as dense a residue on our psyche as the experiences we share with our closest human compatriots. Mabry invites viewers to ask: What are the indices of my behaviors as a consumer? Which scraps and fragments would I gather and stitch together to recreate my past?

Static Age is as much about what endures within us, as it is about what remains after we’ve exited a stage of life. The show’s title suggests that nostalgia entails looking back on a fixed or rigid view of one’s personal history. Yet the work implies that our memories of our early years are much more malleable than the experiences themselves. Mabry’s choice of materials, for example, intimates that our impressions of our young-adult life may eventually lose their hard edges, softening over time. Even our most discordant experiences and self-destructive years can eventually become a source of inspiration, or even comfort. But it takes deliberate, intentional work to get to that point. We are tasked with fabricating a coherent sense of self from a tangled, fragmentary set of experiences. The stitches in our patchwork spirit are the traces of that commendable enterprise.

We may not be able to attend exhibitions or performances in person for a while, but some galleries are making their shows available digitally. Supporting local arts venues is now more crucial than ever. If institutions like Nationale and Third Room don’t receive financial support, we may lose them. Established cultural institutions in Oregon are already struggling financially. A few, including the Portland Art Museum, are making some of their services available virtually, but the majority of their revenue comes from ticket sales and concessions. Fortunately, Nationale has other revenue streams. You can support the gallery directly during this time by purchasing original works of art, artist prints, or goods from their webstore

Third Room’s future was uncertain even before this crisis. Since its creation, its founder Kalaija Mallery has been the gallery’s primary source of funding. It is currently supported by the members of its patron board, most of whom are students or recent graduates. Mallery recently moved to St. Louis, Missouri, to pursue a position at The Luminary, and laments that the gallery may not be able to pay rent after this year. You can support Third Room by making a one-time donation, or by becoming a monthly contributor.

Since the first salons, the art world has relied on communal exhibitions to share new work, foster conversation, celebrate bright stars, and precipitate paradigmatic shifts. It’s a shame that my readers may not have the opportunity to see these shows. In the face of a growing pandemic which may incite a global economic recession (or a political revolution, or both), it may also feel inconsequential. As others in the cultural sector have pointed out, this is a fantastic opportunity to make art and devise new ways to share it. Mabry’s and Penn’s work has moved me to look forward, to anticipate how I will look back on this event, and potentially tell its story.


Nationale has plans to extend Carola Penn’s solo-retrospective, “Who Am I, Anyway,” through mid April. Please check www.nationale.us or follow them on Instagram @nationale for updates.

Check in with
http://thirdroom.net or follow them on Instagram @thirdrooomproject for details about workshops, conferences, and upcoming shows.

This article was made possible with support from The Ford Family Foundation’s Visual Arts Program.

VizArts Monthly: Fill March with art and sunshine

March is abuzz with shows, events, lectures, and more

Flowers are blooming, the sun is shining, and things are happening! There have been some real shakeups in Portland’s art world lately, from reorganization at RACC to the uncertain future of PSU’s Littman and White galleries. But in case you are worried that your busy art-viewing calendar is doomed to dry up in the wake of these changes, have no fear! This month is absolutely overflowing with art shows and events to take in. To paraphrase my new favorite comedian, Julio Torres, I have a lot of shows and not a lot of time, so let’s just get started.

A light silver-pink mylar balloon in the shape of a heart, partially deflated and mounted on a gallery wall.
Work by Sam Noel, image courtesy 1122 Gallery

Sam Noel: but, how does one eat an elephant?
February 27 – March 21
1122 Gallery
1122 SE 88th Ave

Portland artist Sam Noel presents her lush sculptural works in a solo show at 1122 Gallery, her first since graduating from the final MFA cohort of the now closed Oregon College of Art and Craft. Noel’s practice is rooted in textile crafts, but her works include a range of unexpected materials including foam, ribbons, and mylar balloons, through which she examines the experience of inhabiting a fat, female body in contemporary culture. Glitzy pastel surfaces are complicated by slumping forms and haphazard construction, evoking the angst and confusion of adolescence with compassion and humor. 

Continues…

Portland artist John Gnorski’s exhibition Like a Train in the Sky at Stumptown Coffee celebrates the Portland artist’s Stumptown Artist Fellowship award. It was curated by May Barruel, the proprietor of Nationale, and features a suite of woodblock prints and tenuously representational sculptures-as-drawings that readily communicate forms without being didactic. The forms aren’t fixed; they don’t always represent, say, humans, herons, or trains—but they’re also not nothing, far from it. In fact, “far from nothing” would be a good subtitle for a show that announces its attachment to, among other things, dusk and clouds. The fourteen works all involve wood, a material with which Gnorski, a carpenter by trade, is intimately familiar and they refer loosely to the visual world. 

Continues…

Iterations of vision: Amy Bernstein’s Between the Dog and the Wolf

Absorbing abstraction at Stumptown Coffee Roasters

Between the Dog and the Wolf, an exhibition of six large, colorful paintings by Amy Bernstein, reveals the artist’s attention to the infinite possibilities of color, form, and symbols—plus the keenness to engage this attention in novel ways. Bernstein is the seventh recipient of the Stumptown Artist Fellowship and her work is currently on exhibit at the downtown location of Stumptown Coffee Roasters (123 SW 3rd Ave).

Bernstein’s paintings don’t readily recall direct influences, but instead foreground her active mind and life as a writer, lover of poetry, and socially conscious painter. Each canvas appears as a strange new thing made strictly in and on her own terms—a notable trait in the 21st century given all the art that has preceded. The paintings seem complex because of their no-nonsense, other-logic abstraction, and then simple because of their all-fun-and-games presentation and delight. In Bernstein’s paintings, there aren’t familiar images, formulas or tropes—but there’s something known and easeful about them: something uncanny that recalls a dream or an encounter with a stranger.

Amy Bernstein, “Buoy” (2018). Oil on canvas. 64×54 inches

Continues…

Nationale art gallery sums up its year

At the Southeast Portland gallery the smells are good and the dirty jokes are funny

As of this recent solstice, Nationale is 5 years old. In 2008, the gallery and shop opened on East Burnside and 28th Ave. in a tiny barber shop, then in 2010 moved to the north-facing side of the complex of boutiques, galleries, and salons at SE 8th and Burnside, before relocating o the sunnier, easier-to-find side facing Burnside in 2011.

In this time, owner/director May Barruel, (who also curates some of Stumptown’s exhibitions) has developed a stable of eight represented artists, a handsome catalogue of past exhibitions that includes some of Portland’s most interesting young artists (some of whom even still live here), and an always charming store full of a curated collection of books and objects that, according to Barruel’s longtime friend Jon Van Oast, “is what May’s brain would look like if you could walk into it, which you can now”.

Examples of wares from their holiday newsletter:

“lots of stocking stuffers from France (cute candy, La Peruche sugar cubes, harissa cans, good mayo, etc.), art books on everyone’s wish list (Mike Kelley, Peter Doig, Marcel Dzama, Wes Anderson, David Shrigley, etc.), braille greeting cards by Amber W. Smith, 2014 lunar calendars, and Nationale’s favorite store staples: OLO perfumes, Apartamento magazine, and Marseille soaps…”

(Those perfumes and soaps seem to play a sort of aromatherapy-optical-illusion within the space of the small shop, somehow making it feel much breezier and expansive.)

For the past few years, Barruel has picked a  selection of work from that year’s artists (sometimes leaving out favorites that have been sold). This year’s selection is on view now through December 31, with extended holiday hours on the 23rd and 24th (closed the 25th).

Inside Nationale: A wall featuring work by Delaney Allen/Nim Wunnan

Inside Nationale: A wall featuring work by Delaney Allen/Nim Wunnan

Curated loosely and fondly, restricted to what can fit in the corner and what will hang well together, this year’s selection features photos by Delaney Allen, paintings by Brandon Chuesy, Ty Ennis, Jaik Faulk, and Lindsay Kennedy, and sculptures by Aidan Koch. The show is a sort of incidental cross-section of the last year. These pieces in particular seem to have come from a mostly-purple-and-pink chunk of 2013, but the accidentally matched palette is close enough to work and tempered enough not to be cloying.

Kennedy’s “Wave Tempo” radiates from the back wall, its lavender glow visible from the burger joint across the street. Inside, you can see that it’s flanked by her smallest piece and one of Chuesy’s paintings, which—and I do mean this as a compliment—is what I would imagine Francis Bacon would produce had he been a character on the “Muppet Babies.” These two pieces echo each other with patches of pink so close that you’d think the two shared a studio.  The darker-purple, “Autumnal II / Fred Miller’s Hat” by Ty Ennis balances the lightness of the wall and contributes its own careful hand to a conversation started by the hundreds of precise, distinct brush strokes of “Wave Tempo.”

Koch’s small, ceramic sculptures sit on a low corner shelf, pink and white and grey, possibly grumbling over what they will do to the store when they come alive at night, which they obviously do. You can follow a sort of arc that carries their same irreverence, scale, and humor across the other wall, connecting the dots between Chuesy’s layered color-blots and Ennis’s cartoonishly pornographic watercolors, ending with a small diptych by Kennedy. Dense, small, collected, and thickly painted, the two page-sized canvases balance each other like entangled particles—the light one is so springlike and pastel and the dark one spikily dark. Easy to imagine them spinning off and wreaking eccentric havoc on the room if their bond was severed through some kind of nuclear studio-physics.

The wave of these smaller paintings routes around three of Delaney’s most devious photos from his last show at Nationale. All studio works, they’re charged with a glossiness that plays well against their otherworldliness. One of the eight artists Nationale represents, Allen’s images from his current and past series are also available in three books published by Publication Studio, stacked near fellow Nationale-alum Carson Ellis’s “Dillwood’s Revenge”.

A wall at Nationale featuring work by Lindsay Kennedy./Nim Wunnan

A wall at Nationale featuring work by Lindsay Kennedy./Nim Wunnan

On the opposite wall, Jaik Faulk’s “The Girl Who Drank Gold” broods by itself. Like Allen, Faulk’s last few years have been very productive, each marked by an excellent solo show at Nationale. Barruel’s very engaged curation of regular shows by the artists in the orbit of Nationale gives Portlanders an opportunity to follow the development of emerging artists with uncommon focus—even if you just stop in for a magazine or some soap. Having followed both Faulk and Allen’s shows, I was interested to see them hung with their alumni when I heard about the end-of-year collection.

It’s not meant to be as intense or considered as the solo shows that the collection draws on (Nationale only shows solo artists otherwise). Since it’s not meant as a retrospective, some strong work from 2013 is missing (notably Marie Koetje), but it’s a good chance to see or re-see some highlights from a growing, extended family of artists. It’s like an impossible holiday party—everyone is charming or interesting or both, it’s full but not crowded, the dirty jokes are funny, and it still feels relaxed even though everyone there is sharp as a tack.  Also the shop smells really good.