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The allure of drawing near

Shannon M. Lieberman reviews a pair of shows at Nucleus Portland. One features intimate portraits and the other works in miniature.


What is the value of closeness? The question perhaps sounds purely philosophical, but many of us have grappled with this over the past year and a half as we’ve made tough decisions about who we can be around and in what circumstances. Our sense of closeness—both in terms of physical proximity and in terms of emotional intimacy—has changed dramatically as we’ve acclimated to physical distancing and using technology to simulate the nearness of in-person gatherings. 

The two exhibitions on view at Nucleus Portland this month—Sasha Ira’s solo portraiture exhibition A Quiet Disposition and the small-format group exhibition Microdose 3—are very different from one another but both succeed in creating a sense of closeness that feels both rare and precious. Ira’s portraits bring viewers in through their sense of intimacy and immediacy, while the scale of the works in Microdose 3 beckon visitors to draw near and look carefully at the universe in microcosm.

human figure with long hair, looks off to the side of the composition
Sasha Ira, Repose. Oil and silver leaf on panel. 12″x9.” Image courtesy of Nucleus Portland.

The portraits in Ira’s aptly titled solo exhibition A Quiet Disposition feature sitters grappling with their emotions. In both Repose and Ponder, the sitters rest their heads on their hands and look out into the distance. It’s a classic pose associated with thinking, and here the sitters seem so lost in thought that we understand them as physically present but mentally somewhere else. And yet there is no sense of intrusion; the paintings are still intimate, with the sitters pushed forward in the picture plane to appear close to the viewers. The impression is that we are confidantes, as if we have been invited into this space but not fully into the minds of the figures. 

In Reticence, the central figure is a woman with long brown hair partially covered by a red scarf or shawl decorated with black flowers. She peers out from this head covering, her brown eyes meeting ours, her head slightly tilted to the left as if she is carefully considering us. The shawl, the head tilt, and the close framing remind me of Christian images of the Virgin Mary, a sense that is intensified by the figure’s unfathomable expression. 

figure with long hair, head covered with a red and blue flower mantle
Sasha Ira, Reticence. Oil on panel. 14’x11.’ Image courtesy of Nucleus Portland.

Historical Madonna and Child paintings like those by Vincenzo Foppa, the Master of the Magdalen, and Berlinghiero attempted to convey to viewers the Virgin Mary’s heady mix of emotions; honor at being the mother of a deity, sadness knowing that she would outlive her son, and the weary acceptance that she must play a role in a divine plan beyond her control. 

Ira’s work gives us a contemporary woman, alone in the frame and devoid of religious content but with a similarly complicated mix of emotions in her expression. She is vulnerable but still meets our eyes as she appears to fade into the background, her shoulders dissolving into fluid streaks of blue paint. The title, Reticence, could be interpreted both as hesitance and restraint. Perhaps what is so compelling about this figure is that we do not know what has caused her turmoil, and she at once feels close and closed off. 

landscape in an impressionistic style
Das Drew, The Castro. Gouache on illustration board. Image size: 4″x3.” Framed size: 4.5″ x 2.5″ x 1.25.” Image courtesy of Nucleus Portland.

Where Ira’s portraits draw us in through their beautiful surfaces and the emotional tone of the work, the art in Microdose 3 asks viewers to come closer in the literal sense. Scale is the common factor uniting works by 27 artists that are diverse in their subject matter, style, materials, and technique. Everything in the show is small, as in measurable in mere inches. Das Drew’s colorful landscapes and café scenes are among the largest works at 4″ x 3″ while most, like Kevan Hom’s paintings of prehistoric animals in bottles and Krista Perry’s bright painted flowers, measure just 2″ x 2.” Unlike a museum setting where alarms, ropes, and security keep viewers distanced from the work, here we are meant to step forward, lean in, and appreciate each tiny detail. It’s fun, sure, but there’s also something soothing about this nearness. The gallery describes the show as a kind of antidote to living in “a culture that often puts emphasis on getting all things bigger or in large amounts.” While the idea is abstract, it came through quite palpably in my viewing experience. And it must be quite popular, as this is Nucleus Portland’s third exhibition of small format work since 2020.


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Although there are certainly other exhibitions in which scale is the theme (the massive installations of Monumenta come to mind), the idea still feels novel. In her description of Microdose 3, curator Stella Ichsan focuses on the meaning of scale, writing that in these works we might discover “a surprising truth that an emotion or physiological reaction can come from something so tiny.” This framing suggests the value of intimacy and saves the idea of a show in which everything is small format from feeling arbitrary or gimmicky. 

Much of the work is delightfully fanciful, allowing viewers to delve into strange alternate realities and fantasy worlds. Among these are Alfred Liu’s cartoonish paintings of heroic penguins and party hat-wearing dinosaurs; Juliet Schreckinger’s series of birds depicted as sea captains; and Lily Seika JonesPortal series featuring majestic landscapes and animals taking on magical roles. 

squirrel in a swirl of smoke over what looks like a small fire
Lily Seika Jones, Portal 3. Watercolor. 1.75″ 1.75.” Image courtesy of Nucleus Portland.

In Jones’ Portal 3, we look through layers of billowing fog to see a squirrel raising its tiny paws over a smoking brazier. The typical skittishness of these animals is replaced by a high degree of focus, as if the squirrel must put all its energy into the task of conjuring or spellcasting. In Portal 2, a ghostly white horse gallops through a misty landscape filled with plants, blue mountains, and a tall, black castle in the distance. It is as if we are peering through the looking glass, temporarily allowed to bring these fantastic visions closer to our own world.

Some of the artists, like the Portland-based illustrator Matt Schu and Colorado-based artist Cristina Bencina, make work rooted in reality that still encourages us to see the world in a different way. Schu’s series of six chimneys in ink and acrylic and rendered in a limited palette of reds, grays, blacks, and whites, makes ordinary architectural features feel special and otherworldly. In Chimney 4, the night sky above a double chimney is alive with streaks of red and white, as if full of comets or shooting stars. In Chimney 2, spirals of light rise above an industrial chimney, unlikely celestial bodies vaguely reminiscent of the swirling stars in Van Gogh’s iconic Starry Night

skyscraper-type building with dark sky and constellations above
Matt Schu, Chimney 2. Ink and acrylic. 1.75″ x 3.” Image courtesy of Nucleus Portland.

The stark black and white of Bencina’s works gives it a bold graphic style that makes familiar plants and animals feel abstracted, even archetypal. Looking at Haworthia, I see beyond the succulent as a whole to marvel at every tiny ridge, edge, and tendril. It seems impossible that nature can produce such abstract perfection, but it does it all the time. 

image of a many-leafed succulent
Cristina Bencina, Haworthia. India ink on clayboard. 2″ x 2.” Image courtesy of Nucleus Portland.

Although most artists in Microdose 3 are represented by multiple works, Jessica So Ren Tang made a strong impression with her single contribution to the show. Tang’s Tiger Balm is a miniature (1″ x 1″ x 0.5″) embroidery on fabric version of the topical pain relief ointment that traces its origin to “the ancient courts of Chinese emperors.” Displayed in actual Tiger Balm packaging, Tang’s squishy, fabric version both looks believably like a real commercial product and delightfully subverts our expectations of the original. On her website, Tang writes, “Embroidery is versatile in mimicking the original object in shape and design but still distinct enough to be recognized as something else. The stitches are soft but substantial, more tangible.”  Even in its plastic packaging, the soft cushiness of the materials was so tangible that I found myself wanting to touch it and feel the springiness of the fabric. To my surprise and delight, I had exactly the kind of “physiological reaction” the gallerists wrote about in making their case for the power of small-format work. And in case you’re wondering, I restrained myself and merely thought about touching it. 

tiger balm ointment packaging
Jessica So Ren Tang, Tiger Balm. Hand embroidery on fabric. Artwork size: 1″ x 1″ x 0.5.” Packaging size: 2.5″ x 3.5.” Image courtesy of Nucleus Portland.

While it may at first seem like an odd idea to showcase tiny works—the kind that require you to get up close to really see them—during a pandemic, the single-room space at Nucleus is laid out well to allow safe close looking. Ira’s work is along the left wall, with the work in Microdose 3 along the right wall and the large, central space of the gallery open for distanced meandering. The space, as well as the exhibitions in it, provide a sense of closeness that is not only welcome, but truly refreshing.


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A Quiet Disposition and Microdose 3 are on view at Nucleus Portland through September 13th and can also be viewed online. Hours are updated on the gallery’s Instagram.

Covid protocol: “Attendees must keep their face covering on and keep a respectful distance from other parties. Only a few people will be allowed inside at a time, you may be asked to wait outside.”

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Shannon M. Lieberman is an art historian whose research focuses on art and gender, exhibition histories, and intersections between art and social justice. She holds a PhD from the University of California, Santa Barbara and teaches art history and visual culture at Pacific Northwest College of Art. In addition to her love of visual art, Shannon is an avid reader and passionate audiophile.


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