Portland2016 Biennial of Contemporary Art

Julia Oldham: Filming the human-animal hybrid

The Portland2016 biennial includes the films of Julia Oldham and their explorations of the intersection of animal and human

By JENNIFER RABIN

The unidentifiable sound in the Royal Nebeker Art Gallery at Clatsop Community College in Astoria comes from Julia Oldham’s 55-second video “Captured Yeti.” Oldham, dressed in a faux fur yeti costume to match her platinum hair, screams at us from behind the crooked muzzle strapped to her face. Bars in the near background keep her from the forest beyond. Oldham’s movements—lurching and twitchy—have both human and animal qualities, creating an unsettling hybrid that communicates a universal fear of captivity.

The yeti’s cries come from a soundscape of the artist’s own screams mixed with with the high-pitched whine of an electric guitar and the screech of a metal door opening and closing. Oldham shot the video one afternoon on her porch, scrapping together pieces of white muppet fur, black lipstick, and a dog muzzle. This is the sort of thing Julia Oldham does in an afternoon.

Julia Oldham, still from "Winter Is When I Love" (2015)

Julia Oldham, still from “Winter Is When I Love” (2015)

“The Bearwife,” playing on an adjacent wall in the gallery, part of Disjecta’s Portland2016 biennial, features a woman in a white dress, played by Oldham, who is out for a walk in the woods. She looks through her binoculars as she wanders the countryside, snacks on flower petals, and then, suddenly, gets devoured by a bear. The bear lies down for a postprandial nap and, cued by a color shift in the video, the woman emerges from the bear suit, her body streaked with bloody claw marks. She convulses through a zombie death dance before the video reverses and her emergence is undone, putting her back inside the bear suit.

It is difficult to know whether this period represents the bear’s fever dream after a fresh kill, which I think was the artist’s intention, or a cocoon-like metamorphosis of a woman who, surviving her own death, has transformed into a bear. The latter interpretation may have something to do with my impression of Julia Oldham herself.

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Portland2016: The cellular memory of place, Part One

In Disjecta's biennial installations by Heidi Schwegler and Avantika Bawa in Clatskanie and Astoria explore the living traces in old buildings. Part One: Heidi Schwegler

By JENNIFER RABIN

Heidi Schwegler’s exhibition in Disjecta’s Portland2016 Biennial is difficult. You cannot pop in for a moment and expect to take much with you. It requires time to investigate and to understand. But you will be rewarded for your efforts because the more you look, the more you see.

The show doesn’t start when you enter the makeshift gallery, which is housed in the abandoned Hazen Hardware store in Clatskanie. The surrounding area informs the exhibition as much as the work itself, so everything you notice from the moment you turn down the sleepy side street in downtown Clatskanie affects the experience. The restaurant on the corner, with a row of hanging flower baskets out front, boasts a gift shop and video lottery. A sign outside the biker-friendly pub & grill advertises Taco Tuesdays. A defunct Oddfellows lodge across the intersection still bears the I.O.O.F. letters above the door even though it is now home to a craft store. Until it closed in 2014, Hazen Hardware had been in business for 56 years, so it has seen the grand openings and not-so-grand closings in Clatskanie, tracking both the rise and fall of the economy and the variability in what we buy and, therefore, value. It contains the cellular memory of place.

Walk in to Hazen and you will find yourself face-to-face with a gray powder-coated, chain-link cage, about 8-feet square and open at the top. The closed door to the cage lines up with the open door to the store, so you can only take a few steps before captivity confronts you. It’s not immediately clear if the chain-link fencing is one of Schwegler’s pieces or something left in the retail space by the previous owners. Actually, that’s the case with many of the pieces in the show. In Schwegler’s world, the veil between art and life is thin.

Heidi Schwegler, Portland2016 biennial, Hazen Hardware installation/Jennifer Rabin

Heidi Schwegler,”OR (part two)”, Portland 2016 biennial, Hazen Hardware installation/Jennifer Rabin

Searching for something the brain can definitively identify as art, the eye locks onto five plywood pedestals along the left side of the space, each displaying a single object. Art! I am drawn to the nearest sculpture, which is made of two plastic gas station mugs—a red Xtreme Gulp™ and a blue QuikTrip®—each cut in half and joined in the middle by an intentionally sloppy vertical line of white epoxy. It is arresting and immediate, the perfect flag for our declining culture: a cheap red, white, and blue trough from which we can drink with both hands. Moving along to the other pedestals, I notice an overturned garbage bin atop one, and a beach ball atop another, and I flirt with the idea of walking out. I am a die-hard populist when it comes to art, so my eye roll reflex is strong. At first glance, Schwegler’s decontextualized objects make me think it’s going to be another one of those Art shows. Wanting to be proven wrong, I go to Schwegler’s artist statement for clues.

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Disjecta recruits a distinctive national curator for its biennial

Ex-Whitney Biennial curator Michelle Grabner will make the selections for the Portland2016 Biennial of Contemporary Art

Disjecta Contemporary Art Center announced that the curator for its Portland2016 Biennial of Contemporary Art will be Michelle Grabner, who also happened to be one of three curators of the 2014 Whitney Biennial (the most important and inevitably controversial biennial in the country, for those keeping score at home). Her choices then included lots of mid-career and later women artists, including a room full of big abstract paintings, and she combined them with work by artists more involved in the art hybrid forms that have conquered a wide swathe of art world attention.

Grabner is an artist herself (her work includes abstract paintings, video, and sculpture), and chair of the Art Institute of Chicago’s painting and drawing department. She’s also a curator and writer. The press release included a quote from David Norr writing in the introduction to her exhibition at MoCA, Cleveland: “All of Grabner’s activities are driven by distinctive values and ideas: working outside of dominant systems, working tirelessly, working across platforms and towards community.”

Michelle Grabner will curate Disjecta's 2016 biennial.

Michelle Grabner will curate Disjecta’s 2016 biennial.

In her curator’s statement, Grabner wrote about the importance of place and our sense of the local in our thinking about art today:

In an essay examining “localism” published in the May 2015 issue Frieze, writer Jennifer Kabot asks, “localism could be called provincial, but it could also ask questions such as: what makes work contemporary now? What issues are being grappled with and which questions asked? As more artists and writers move outside the ‘centre’, how can that open up art and increase its relevance as artists confront new communities and contexts?” The questions shaping the discourse addressing place and proximity are the most compelling questions emerging from contemporary art today. Biennials are the perfect organizing conceit to bring these issues to the fore as they are fundamentally structured to be a recurrent measure of art and context.

Which makes how she will approach this exhibition even more interesting. What makes a Portland biennial “Portland”? How does the city affect the artists working here? How visible is that effect? What does it tell us about art and about Portland?

Grabner also runs two spaces with her husband, artist Brad Killam, The Suburban and The Poor Farm, in Oak Park, Illinois, and Little Wolf, Wisconsin, where she experiments with ideas about presenting and encouraging artists’ work. Stayton, Oregon, artist and frequent ArtsWatch contributor Patrick Collier showed there last fall.

More from her resume: “Grabner holds an MA in Art History and a BFA in Painting and Drawing from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, and an MFA in Art Theory and Practice from Northwestern University. She joined the faculty of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1996, and became Chair of its prestigious Painting and Drawing department in the fall of 2009. From 2012-2014, she was a senior critic at Yale University in the Department of Painting and Printmaking. Her writing has been published in Artforum, Modern Painters, Frieze, Art Press, and Art-Agenda, among others.”

Disjecta's  Portland2014 Biennial of Contemporary Art was curated by Amanda Hunt./Disjecta Contemporary Art Center

Disjecta’s Portland2014 Biennial of Contemporary Art was curated by Amanda Hunt./Disjecta Contemporary Art Center

Bryan Suereth, Disjecta’s executive director, was predictably happy to enlist Grabner. “I am beyond thrilled to have a curator with the stature of Michelle Grabner lead this program,” he said in his statement. “Her participation continues the trend of bringing experienced and influential curatorial voices to Oregon for meaningful engagement with our art communities. I hope this will be a substantial and lasting experience for the
entire state.”

Previous curators of the biennial include Criss Moss (2010), Prudence Roberts (2012) and Amanda Hunt (2014).