“the map is not the territory”: Whose border is it?

The Portland Art Museum starts a discussion that involves regionalism, authority, and curatorial process.

Appropriately, there is no transition to ease one into the Portland Art Museum’s exhibition the map is not the territory. The viewer is thrown directly into Fernanda D’Agostino’s video installation, Borderline.

The central sculpture court of the museum is often used as a gathering or transitional space to help prepare the viewer for what is to come inside the galleries. Here it is a gallery itself. Multiple projections flash simultaneously on walls, the floor, and suspended screens: entangled bodies and graceful forms present as peaceful or pleasing but then are overshadowed by columns of of trudging figures, showers of red dots, and engulfing flames. Attention is then divided between the rotating bodies and the encroaching calamities—identified as mass migration, government surveillance, and climate change. D’Agostino’s installation sets the tone for the show and confirms that while compelling, it doesn’t shy away from difficult topics.

Fernanda D'Agostino Borderline

Fernanda D’Agostino, Borderline. (2018) video projection, 2 projectors, 13 scenes set up in a software to combine imagery in a 169 combinations.

The title of the show, the map is not the territory, was inspired by a remark by the philosopher Alfred Korzybski and addresses the idea that what is “solidified” in a word or a map is never the full expression of the thing. This may not be the most poetic application of the theory but in the interest of a succinct explanation: you—with your personal history, your anxieties, hopes, and dreams for the present and future—you are more than your driver’s license. Identity is more complex than that, and in the same way, a region is more complicated than its borders and topographic elevations.

Installation View of the map is not the territory, Portland Art Museum (2019)

The title subtly indicates that this is a regional show—the Northwest is the map and territory in question. This exhibition is the central event for the Center for Northwest Art and is the Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Curator of Northwest Art, Grace Kook-Anderson’s reimagining of its Contemporary Northwest Art Awards (CNAA) exhibition. The map is not the territory is a standout show. It exceeds the constraints of tidy regionalism, dispenses with the conceit of an “award,” and presents, instead, a coherent and meaningful exhibition that speaks to Kook-Anderson’s curatorial philosophy and offers a compelling vision for the Center for Northwest Art.

*****

The Center for Northwest Art was established in 2000 by a gift from Arlene and Harold Schnitzer and then further supported via a $3.5 million endowment from the Schnitzers in 2004. The endowment created the position of a Curator of Northwest Art and provided support for organization, exhibition, and publication.

Jennifer Gately was the first Curator of Northwest art and inaugurated the Contemporary Northwest Art Awards (CNAA) in 2008. Gately saw the CNAA competition and exhibit as a Northwest version of SECA (Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art) award competition administered by SFMOMA that focuses on artists in the Bay Area in California . PAM had historically hosted a regional show in the form of the Oregon Biennial, a huge exhibition of dozens of artists that was often criticized for valuing quantity over quality.

In contrast, the NWAA exhibition highlighted the work of five to eight artists from the broader region of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. Regional curators, gallerists, academics, critics, etc., were each invited to advance three nominees. That list of nominees (259 in 2008 and 296 in 2011!) was whittled into a shortlist by the curator and a “guest advisor.” The PAM curator then did studio visits with the finalists and selected the “winners” for the exhibition. At the exhibition, one of the winners was then lauded with the additional $10,000 CNAA Arlene Schnitzer Prize.

The Museum argued that this “biennial awards process delivers a two-fold benefit: It allows the Portland Art Museum to identify a number of the Northwest’s exceptional talents, and it provides the museum with a far deeper understanding of the new work taking place in the region by both established and emerging artists.”

The CNAA exhibitions gave the award winners a significant platform to show their work, but the exhibitions themselves lacked cohesion. Reviews from all four iterations of the show indicate that the work was good and worth seeing, but as a whole, the shows were reliant on stereotypes of the Northwest, resorted to sampling different styles of art, and failed to make any larger point. Indeed, both Gately and her successor, Bonnie Laing-Malcolmson were loathe to use the exhibition to favor any one type of art or make any larger claims about established artists or new talent. In 2011, The Oregonian art critic, D.K. Row, described the selections as “politically safe…broad consensus—a little of this, a little of that.”  Paul Sutinen wrote about the 2016 NWAA exhibition for ArtsWatch and questioned the entire formulation of the “award” since it wasn’t clear what the award was for, how it provided the promised deeper understanding, or why identifying the artists was important in the first place. Even Laing-Malcolmsen admitted that she didn’t have a “definitive answer” to the question “What is Northwest Art?”.

*****

When Kook-Anderson was appointed Curator for Northwest Art in January of 2017, the only expectation placed on her was that the Northwest Art Center would produce a show that celebrated Northwest art in the main floor galleries. In other words, she was free to ditch the CNAA. I had a conversation with Kook-Anderson about her approach to this show, and it warrants elaboration here because her process and thinking around the show are central to its success.

Kook-Anderson is not a native of the Northwest. She went to school at the University of California, Berkeley, and California College of the Arts and was the Curator of Contemporary Art at the Laguna Art Museum in Laguna Beach, California, for six years prior to moving to Portland in 2015. Kook-Anderson brought some distance to the idea of a center tied to a particular region. She was unfettered by expectations of what she should find or see. To understand the arts landscape of the Northwest, she started doing studio visits.

Kook-Anderson asked colleagues and acquaintances for suggestions but there was no formal nomination process. She sees a curator as an “ally for artists” and her work as “gathering and compiling a ‘database’ of artists.” Even before taking the position at PAM, she was actively engaged in this process as an independent arts writer (she has written for Oregon ArtsWatch) when she first arrived in Portland and even prior in graduate school, albeit informally.

Two of the artists in the map is not the territory, Henry Tsang and Ryan Pierce, were familiar to Kook-Anderson from her time in California. She first encountered Tsang’s work when he was in graduate school at UCI and has followed his work for the past 10 years. She and Pierce took a writing class together at CCA and reconnected once she moved to Portland. She continues to build her list of artists by talking to people: “Whenever I do studio visits or meet with other colleagues, I like to ask who else I should be paying attention to and what other artists they admire. I think that is where I get the best suggestions—from other artists. With every studio visit or meeting, my list of artists grows exponentially.”

Kook-Anderson was most adamant about her awkwardness over the idea of an award or a competition:

Who is best seems an outdated way of thinking about process. When you spend any time with any artists, it is crazy that they do what they do…My role is to try to understand, for living artists, why they are doing what they are doing. I try to understand that as opposed to making the claim that anyone is the best or to make bets on who is going to excel the furthest. I’m not interested in who is hot and who is up-and-coming.

To that end, Kook-Anderson dispensed with the idea that being in the show was as an award and with the $10,000 Arlene Schnitzer Prize that had been the sort of “best in show” award. Instead of prizes (and potentially an honorarium for a guest curator), the budget was allotted for healthier stipends for the participating artists: “I wanted to use the budget to make sure the artists were being paid for their work.”

When conceptualizing a major exhibition, the traditional process entails a curator choosing a theme and then selecting artists accordingly. In contrast to that, for the map is not the territory, Kook-Anderson reversed this and embraced a more generative, organic process: she considered her studio visits, the conversations that “stuck” with her, and visualized how the works would complement one another in the galleries. Once the artists were selected, the group shared readings, conferred, and conversed. Kook-Anderson describes the process as “generous and collaborative” and the group as having “good chemistry” even though they hadn’t worked together previously. “I was really focused on that dialogue and the eventual themes to come out of that.” Korzybski’s “map is not the territory” formulation came from Mary Ann Peters (a contribution Kook-Anderson was very grateful for).

*****

The distinction between a map and a territory is apt because it holds meaning on at least two levels: There is the structuralist distinction between the label and the full expression of the thing, and there is also the historical implication of a map and its ties to colonialism. Both are thoroughly explored in the artists’ works.

In the main galleries (once the visitor has passed through D’Agostino’s video installation), Annette Bellamy’s Moving Mountains (2017) bears clear connection to the first formulation and is the “face” of the exhibition on the promotional materials from the museum. Rounded forms are suspended with fishing line in a loose pyramid; they look like rocks but are actually stoneware made by Bellamy. Typically, a mountain is conceived of as solid, immutable, and immovable, but here, instead, it becomes permeable, and in constant flux however infinitesimally. The space between the floating forms is as important as the forms themselves. The shadows cast on the white platform serve as confirmation of movement. As an artist, Bellamy embodies the unexpected; she has been a commerical fisherwoman in Alaska for 45 years. Her deep knowledge of the land and sea and her relationship with nature defines her artistic practice. Moving Mountains uses fishing line. The large quilt patch abstraction of her Out of Water (2013) is made of fish skin.

Annette Bellamy, Out of Water, (2013) fish skins and artificial sinew, dimensions variable. Photo by Wayne McCall. Collection of Pratt Museum, Homer, Alaska.

Rob Rhee creates work in two categories: vessels and matter. The vessels are objects that have grown into things—gourds that have grown into steel frames or gourd fragments that have been stapled together. The matter category is created by pouring alginate and plaster into a receptacle and removing the resultant shape that is formed or spilled over. The vessel works are displayed on a wall within multiple glass vitrines, affording an intimacy that you couldn’t get by putting the same work on a pedestal. Rhee has a young child, and I particularly appreciated the vitrine that was just at child height (not surprisingly, the glass of that virtine is especially susceptible to finger/nose/snot smudges…).

The wall has one vitrine that juts outward and is used as a shelf for a snake gourd shaped by construction adhesive (Two-headed vessel). Rather than glassed in, this modified virtine serves as a passage and offers a view of the matter side of the installation. On the opposite side of the vitrine wall, the plaster shapes are piled up, scattered among display drawers and open shelves. Rhee speaks of his work as an attention paid to the “mutability of things,” how objects can serve both as templates and as constraints depending on the situation. A map can guide but it also limits perception.

Robert Rhee. Marginalia (2019) alginate x plaster, construction adhesive, gourd sherds

Maps are a tool for knowing a place, but they are also a mechanism for visualizing ownership. Making maps was an activity central to exploration and colonialism. European explorers either included cartographers in their entourages or were cartographers themselves. According to some, the name “America” first appeared on a 16th century map. Conceptual formulations of topography are not unique to the West but they have played an outsized role in colonialism, in claiming ownership, and in placing limitations on Indigenous peoples.

Jenny Miller’s photographs, Charlene Vickers’s sets of objects, and Henry Tsang’s Tansy Point all grapple with issues of Indigenous identity. The subjects in Continuous (including Miller herself) are members of the Indigenous LBGTQ+ community. Miller sees the concept of “Two-Spirit” as a way to decolonize sexuality, because the strict gender binary was a colonial imposition rather than an Indigenous framework. Miller manages to strike a balance between vulnerability and strength with the sitters, and the accompanying flipbook further confirms the importance of this project.

Jenny Irene Miller. Will Bean (2016) from the series Continuous, digital pigment print, 12 x 12 inches (19 x 19 inches framed). Courtesy of the artist.

Charlene Vickers’s work deals with remembering and reclaiming her Anishnaabe tribal identity and questions of the challenges of First Nations communities. Diviners Spears, Diviners Grasses, and Turtle Clan are part of an installation on remembrance. The spears are objects that facilitate or encourage connection with the spiritual realm, the poles in Diviners Grasses are wrapped with grasses and human hair, and the turtles bear associations with land and longevity in many Indigenous cultures. Sleepwalking takes the form of the mocassin and uses it as a template to explore a complicated present. Each of the 10 chairs in the circle holds a blanket and a pair of moccasins variously crafted from reclaimed commercial cardboard (many beer boxes), fabric, and beads. The beading on one pair of moccasins reads “reclaiming our spirit/work Hard” and then “native Woman seeks artistic employment/paid less.” Another uses Heineken beer box fragments and uses beads to spell “screw it” on one shoe and “fuck it” on the other.

Charlene Vickers

Charlene Vickers. Sleepwalking (2000-2018). Moccasins, beer case cardboard, thread, synthetic, twine, glass beans, letter beads, faux fur, denim, cotton fabric, 1920s bedroom chairs, wool blankets, acrylic knit blankets, assorted mixed media and found photo works.

Henry Tsang’s video Tansy Point is off the sculpture court. Upon entering the space, it is tempting to get lost in the rippling coastal grasses and appealing shoreline and to be lulled by the rhythmic cadence of the spoken word. More careful engagement, however, reveals text running across the middle of the screen; it matches the background, so it is difficult but not impossible to read and reveals a translation of the narrator’s words about treaties signed between the Chinook tribes that inhabited the lower Columbia River and the U.S. government. These were not upheld. Tsang does not allow viewers to distance themselves from this miscarriage of justice but instead forces a recognition of involvement. When viewers cross the room, the text stands out against their shadows and what was difficult to decipher becomes readily apparent. The Pacific Northwest was Indigenous land; our presence confirms our complicity in what was ill-gotten.

Henry Tsang. Tansy Point (film still) (2019) video installation (double projection of DCI video footage)

*****

Though the artists are from the Northwest the subject matter of the map is not the territory is not limited to the immediate region. D’Agostino’s Borderline presents issues of migration, visibility, and climate change. Mary Ann Peters’s work considers the experience of the Mediterranean refugee crisis. Impossible monument (flotsam) is a large fishing net filled with abandoned objects suspended from a loping line of buoys. Peters made this piece after a conversation with a Doctors Without Borders nurse who was charged with explaining the etiquette of retrieving lost objects to Yemeni fisherman. Impossible monuments (the gatekeepers’ shadow) consists of jewelry encased in a square pillar of glycerin and is inspired by a Danish law that requires asylum seekers to hand over valuables as collateral if they don’t have the equivalent of $1500 dollars to pay for services. Slipstream (by the light of the moon) replicates the surface of water during a night crossing. For Peters, the map or the border represents perceived opportunity but equally danger and tragedy.

Mary Ann Peters Slipstream

Mary Ann Peters. slipstream (by the light of the moon) (2017) gouache/ink on black clayboard, 48 x 120 inches. Photo by Rafael Soldi. Courtesy of the artist and James Harris Gallery.

Ryan Pierce’s three large paintings wrestle with the concept of exploration and how exploration ties into conquest and exploitation. Pierce is one of the co-directors of Signal Fire, an organization that aims to connect artists with “wild places” to advocate for the natural world through creative activity. The paintings’ imagery acknowledges the conflicted legacy of exploration of the natural world: boxes, jars, and shelves that aid in cataloging and identifying newly discovered specimen. But our obsession with collecting, knowing, and naming invariably means death for that which we have gathered. We identify and unwittingly cause demise. Pierce also contributes a collection of books with titles lovingly imagined for the dystopian future, including Tropic of Arctic: growing fruits and vegetables north of the 65th parallel and Flags without nations: the iconography of the bioregionalist separatist movements 2020-2065. Pierce presents the future that the map hath wrought.

Ryan Pierce. Speculative Fictions (2019); The Shape of the Beast (2018); Finder/Keeper (2019). Altered library books/Flashe and spray paint on canvas over panel.

The generative and collaborative spirit that Kook-Anderson manufactured results in a show that offers viewers something that far exceeds a group show of artists “living in the Northwest.” The distribution of artists was artificial: Bellamy and Miller live in Alaska; Henry Tsang and Charlene Vickers live in British Columbia; Robert Rhee and Mary Ann Peters live in Washington; Ryan Pierce and Fernanda D’Agostino live in Oregon. The artworks they contributed to the map is not the territory exceed these tidy divisions and probe issues of identity, land, and historical legacy without resorting to the trivial or expected or burrowing into the myopic.

*****

There is some irony in the fact that the Center for Northwest Art’s main exhibition used to be about awards and here takes on the idea of maps: both awards and maps, after all, are shaped by the ambitions and interests of the maker. The CNAA aimed at elevating the profile of art in the Northwest by establishing the Center for Northwest Art and the Portland Art Museum as the arbiter of quality. This exhibition accepts the constraints of a map—two artists from Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon—but then immediately undermines it by saying that it isn’t the full story. Kook-Anderson’s approach purposefully downplays her authority, everything was a conversation rather than an imposition of her will.

Participation in this show was not an award, but it certainly is an honor. The artists’ names are hanging on big banners on the front of the museum building. And the building is made of brick—it is an authoritative institution. Kook-Anderson is an ally for artists, and her method has produced an admirable show. But it seems naive to think that there will be no sense of competition or lobbying that will enter the picture in the future.

For this iteration, Kook-Anderson had an advantage here because she was new to her position and so she could conduct studio visits without the weight of expectation. By 2022 when the artists are drawn from the interior regions of the Northwest (Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, and eastern Oregon and Washington) that will no longer be the case.

The Northwest Art Center and its main floor showcase seem more than a bit like Rhee’s gourds: capable of both being shaped and shaping. Since the founding of the Center for Northwest Art in 2007, much has changed in Portland and among its art institutions. As Kook-Anderson becomes more integrated within the arts communities in the Northwest, her approach and vision for the Center may be molded or changed. But equally, in the hands of a curator with such a commitment to living artists—and an abiding interest in listening and understanding what motivates and inspires them—the arts communities will be equally shaped. If the map is not the territory is any indication, the “becoming” will be a process to embrace.

One possible conclusion here is that maps are somehow bad or distasteful: they can’t capture the full expression of a place; they are attached to colonialism. But this would be an oversimplification. Maps have limitations but they can be valuable tools for visualizing a large area and for understanding where things are in relation to one another. This birds-eye function of maps has been downplayed with the reliance on digital maps that facilitate a sort of self-centeredness, they zone in on exactly where we are. We don’t “zoom out.” The part of the map that matters is where I am and all I want to know is how to get from where I am to where I want to go (avoiding traffic).

This bypasses the imagination that a map can foster, the ability to conceptualize more than can be immediately seen, the pleasure of flipping through an atlas and imagining places near and far. That imaginary function is central to the formulation of the Northwest. The map is part of the defining, a point of departure, rather than an end in itself. There may be no good definition for “Northwest art” and this show demonstrates that it doesn’t matter. Like a map, the definition is only the starting point.

 

Correction: An earlier version of this article indicated that Jenny Irene Miller’s subjects were all Alaska Native Indigenous individuals. Several of the sitters are members of other Indigenous groups and live in Portland. Miller wanted to incorporate local representation in Continuous.

Comments are closed.