By ABBY McGEHEE
The Close Read: OCAC Alumni 2023 Biennial, now showing at X Gallery until the end of October, is the second alumni show since the Oregon College of Art and Craft closed in 2019. Organized by the OCAC Alumni Board and curated by independent curator Sam Hopple, the show is a family affair. Hopple, who oversaw the galleries at OCAC from 2016-2019, has a keen understanding of the ethos of OCAC and its emphasis on skilled making. The managing director of X Gallery, Jennifer Viviano, taught at OCAC and received her MFA in the Applied Craft and Design program. Twenty-eight alumni of both the BFA and MFA programs are featured in the show.
I taught at OCAC for over twenty years and know several of the artists. So while I cannot offer a wholly objective analysis, I can offer some insights.
The show encompasses work in the major areas of practice: Painting and Drawing, Books Arts, Fibers, Metals, Ceramics, and Wood. In her curatorial statement, Hopple describes the academic practice of close reading as an in-depth analysis of a text. That notion applies beautifully here as the works on view, without exception, invite close visual engagement. At several points during my multiple visits, I found myself inches away from the work, resisting the urge to investigate the tactile qualities of paint swatches, flagging tape, hemp rope, resin, ceramic or walnut. Scale also plays a part as many of the works are modestly proportioned and require a physical intimacy to understand their components.
The paintings, which are generally considered to operate more purely visually than three-dimensional forms, assert their objectness. Lindsay Gryskewich’s Bungalow Bay densely renders a domestic interior, employing a thick impasto line of neon turquoise to describe a fish bowl. Dorothy Sharrar’s punningly titled Wallflower, layers jewel tones of blue and orange under paler washes of yellow and green. Sgraffito linework conveys the active process of image making and asserts both the hand and process of the artist. Two works by Andrea Simon, diminutive watercolors showing figures in interior and landscape settings, suggest their contingency as they are lightly appended to their much larger pale pink substrates, rendering them eerily vulnerable. Yet this presentation simultaneously insists on these small paintings as objects. Kara Lain’s The As-Is #0099 has a rich surface treatment that alludes to her visual experience of the urban environment, becoming a fragment of that environment more than a representation of it.
Hopple has selected works in a variety of media which reflect the wide range of materials and processes in which OCAC alumni continue to engage. While each work pursues its unique line of inquiry, there are throughlines in the exploration of material, flexibility in the approaches to media, and a playful willingness to confound the expectations of craft. The show exults in the handmade and the works’ animation comes from the deployment of makers’ skill.
OCAC’s curriculum emphasized an exploration of haptic learning, a commitment to skill acquisition and the use of that skill to make objects that are beautifully crafted and intellectually rigorous. Outside of academia, the term “craft” is frequently reduced to the functional and utilitarian. While one might perch in Christiana Hedlund’s Alta Swing or drink tea from Shilo Gastello’s Scalloped Chawan, the preponderance of the work in this show is meant to be admired not pressed into service. Even when function is alluded to, it is auxiliary to the aesthetic and conceptual aspects of the work. We appreciate the regular weave of the hemp rope and its interplay with the modernist sculptural chair in Hedlund’s swing. Similarly, we admire the rich plum celadon and the controlled curve of Gastello’s tea bowl.
Craft in this show comes from the legacy of the materials – cloth, clay, wood, metals – as well as the modes of making -weaving, throwing, carving – to produce what the art critic, Louise Mazanti, has called “super objects.” She defines these objects as a category of work that draws on craft and design practices but firmly establishes its aesthetic and conceptual meaning. For example, Arielle Brackett’s Destruction of the Tillamook Rainforest No. 2, is an expertly executed “necklace” of ferns and a blue flocked form that stands in for the native flora and fauna being destroyed. Even though it could be worn as a necklace, who would adorn themselves in this sad tale? Similarly, Kate Speranza uses the language of metals to make four, square silver forms that might reference a brooch but the presentation on four dark gray substrates as well as the title, Astoria Underfoot, turn them into tiny landscapes, the sidewalk and glittering glass of her urban exploration.
While space does not allow sustained consideration of each and every piece, that does not reflect any deficit of interest, skill or beauty in the pieces not named or discussed. A review twice as long might accommodate the breadth and depth of what Hopple has included. Anne Bujold’s felted rabbit with formed and welded steel, Submerge, Thea Kinner’s Tabloid, and Oliver Wilson’s American Landscape (Bait and Switch) are humorous, poignant and slightly surreal with unexpected marriages of materials, made and found objects. Amarette Gregor’s Paint Chip Toad charms atop its unusually tall pedestal set off by the electric hues of Sherry Saele Kollar’s woven flagging tape with angora titled For Your Own Good. Cathie Carroll and Hannah Newman step outside their usual ways of working, introducing resin and pigment in Carroll’s Pink #13 (Seepage) and epoxy clay, foam, and vinyl in Newman’s Hot Spots. The fibers program is robustly represented by stunning weaving by Taylor Nerhling, Sarah Laird, and Melanie Audet and a boldly patterned fiber wall piece by Leigh Radford. This represents only a primer for the show and I invite the reader to make their own discoveries through close reading.
As Hopple notes in her curator’s statement, “each artist has a unique conceptual framework and creative aesthetic that encapsulates the legacy of Oregon College of Art and Craft. This special grouping speaks to the endurance and continuity of the OCAC Alumni community.” I offer my profound gratitude to the Alumni Board for organizing and executing this exhibition. OCAC is gone. OCAC is here.
 Louise Mazanti, “Super Objects: Craft as an Aesthetic Position,” in Maria Elena Buszek, ed., Extra/Ordinary: Craft and Contemporary Art (Duke University Press:2011), 59-82
The Close Read: OCAC Alumni 2023 Biennial is open through October 29th. X Gallery is located at 815 SE Grant Street and is open from 10-4 Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday.
Abby McGehee is an art historian and arts educator living in Portland, Oregon. She taught at the Oregon College of Art and Craft from 1997 to 2019. She is the author of articles on Late Gothic architecture as well as contemporary subjects in the Pacific Northwest.