Jess Perlitz’s Onward totters at the center of the Portland2019 Biennial at Disjecta Contemporary Art Center. The artist describes it as a “drunk tower…a fire tower that has survived, a surveillance tower that is skeletal, and a monument that is flaccid.” The object that crowns the structure she calls a “ghost and shell of a weather vane,” but this seems a rhetorical overreach for the hollow sack with it lazily listing arrow. A weather vane confidently indicates a direction. This limp arrow points to confusion and indicates disarray.
Cultural disorientation runs rampant in 2019. Whether one attributes it to the protracted death throes of white patriarchal hegemony, (late) late capitalism, global warming or some unruly amalgamation—the world is a mess and certitude is in short supply. Artists and intellectuals everywhere feel an urgency to make art about pressing social and political issues. Ignorance is a bliss to which art is no longer entitled. The Portland2019 artists turn their attentions on Portland and Oregon and adroitly examine, disassemble, and remake our shared home through their art. The art offers viewers a multifaceted understanding of our microcosm.
When Disjecta took over the Oregon Biennial from the Portland Art Museum in 2010 it made it clear that each incarnation of the Biennial would be determined by the selected curator. So each Biennial has been its own thing: 2010 curated by Cris Moss, 2012 curated by Prudence Roberts, 2014 curated by Amanda Hunt, 2016 curated by Michelle Grabner and now 2019 curated by a trio of young curators: Yaelle S. Amir, Elisheba Johnson, and Ashley Stull Meyers. The 2019 curators describe their focus as “work by Oregon based artists whose practices are rooted in a rigorous approach to socio-political commentary, presenting diverse perspectives on historical and contemporary narratives unique to the Pacific Northwest.”
The Biennial concept often garners angst. Lisa Radon’s post for ArtsWatch from 2012 “A few questions concerning Portland2012 Biennial” rings relevant. What is a Biennial other than something that happens every two years? The 2016 Biennial was an expansive affair with the work of 34 artists at 25 venues across the state. The 2019 Biennial features the work of 17 artists plus the Harriet Tubman Center for Expanded Curatorial Practice all in the Disjecta Building on North Interstate Avenue. Half the number of artists, one twenty-fifth of the venues and three years after the last Biennial instead of two? Can it still be a Biennial if it is three years after the last installment?
Amir, Johnson, and Stull Meyers appear to be unfazed by such handwringing. Portland2019, if you dispense with all the Biennial hoopla, is a show of work by Oregon artists grappling with pressing issues, most prominently racism, community identity, and change.
Jovencio de la Paz uses a colonial-era weaving once owned by the writer of the Oregon black exclusion laws of 1844 (Peter Hardeman Burnett) as a point of departure for his work Options for a Racist. De la Paz offers various “weave drafts” of this textile and recombines them to make new schematics that highlight the letters “A Racist.” The new schematics are extractions, recombinations of the warp and weft pattern of the historic textile—present but not evident unless one strips away other layers of design.
Sara Siestreem’s project deals with a contemporary variant of racism against Oregon’s Indigenous community as it unfolds in Coos Bay with the Jordan Cove LNG controversy (a proposed liquefied natural gas terminal and pipeline). There are multiple environmental issues with the project and The Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians filed a petition to protect the Jordan Cove estuary by making it Tribal Culture Property. In Siestreem’s installation, a photograph of a lawn sign against this petition reading “Stop TCP (Traditional Cultural Property) Historic District” is captioned “Overt Racism.” Siestreem’s accompanying work includes two figures, Matriarch and Tycen, composed of dance caps, skirts, and dance shoes balanced atop large wooden desks. The materials list for the composite figures is long and includes beads, leather, hide, found beadwork, and fibers executed by Siestreem and collaborators. Traditional crafts and desks as indices of bureaucracy bump together in symbiotic unease. It was the imposition of colonial bureaucracy that resulted in Indigenous expulsion, and yet now it is also bureaucracy (in the filing of the TCP petition or, on a more abstract level, the “approval” of Indigenous identity) that provides a means of protection.
Also linked to issues of Indigenous cultural patrimony is Garrick Imatani’s film Drift, part of his larger project centered on Tamanowas (also known as the Willamette Meteorite). Tamanowas, a 15.5 ton sacred object for the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, was removed and sold ultimately to end up at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Efforts to return Tamanowas to Oregon have been in vain, but in 2001, an agreement was reached so that the Grand Ronde tribal members have private access once a year.
In a previous iteration of the project, Imatani accompanied the tribe on this visit and created a 3-D model of Tamanowas. The film at Disjecta was made with virtual reality software that shows Tamanowas taking leave of its pedestal in the National History Museum and returning home to Oregon and the Grand Ronde. On its journey, Tamanowas enters other institutions with items belonging to the Grand Ronde to create a record of dispersion. The film’s screen is encased in a large, foam iceberg. This helps to monumentalize the smaller screen but it is equally thematic. It is hypothesized that Tamanowas was brought to Oregon on a glacier; its return is facilitated by a theme-park-ready facsimile.
Imatani’s work tempers outrage with poignant whimsy, but Demian DinéYazhí’s work provides no such balance and instead uses stark text to raise awareness and shake viewers out of long-cultivated complacency. There are two seemingly separate components to DinéYazhí’s A Nation is a Massacre at Portland2019: a series of prints with yellow text against blue-toned photographic images and then a series of statements in red on a glass door. While the prints are effective and affecting, DinéYazhí’s work reaches its full and devastating potential with the installation on the glass door. The door establishes the title (“A Nation is a massacre”) and then continues with smaller font statements, including “Oregon was founded through incalculable attempts by settlers to exterminate Indigenous peoples” or “You are a product of indigenous genocide & environmental racism.” The all-caps font and use of aphorisms recall Barbara Kruger or Jenny Holzer, but DinéYazhí’s work favors even more pointed confrontation. The discomfort is the point, the forced awareness of facts that, if presented at all, have been cast more palatably so as not to offend.
While artists exploring issues related to Oregon’s Indigenous groups have dominated the discussion here, many other Biennial artists consider the Oregon experience of other communities. Sharita Towne’s contributions include a book, mixed-process print, and video exploring what she describes as “Black geographies and imaginaries.” Lynn Yarne made a shrine that celebrates the community memory of Portland’s Chinese and Japanese inhabitants. Sabina Haque’s video installation focuses on communities of color east of Portland’s 82nd Avenue in neighborhoods known as The Numbers. rubén garcía marrufo’s work focuses on border crossings and the Latinx community (in the United States). Anthony Hudson (also known as the drag clown, Carla Rossi) considers the gentrification of Portland’s “Vaseline Alley” and the erasure of LGBTQ history that the sanitized “Harvey Milk Street” represents.
Amir, Johnson, and Stull Meyers selected some artists whose work approaches related issues in a more abstract fashion. Dru Donovan’s untitled photographs center on roofing shingles to consider construction, labor, and shelter. Ka’ila Farrell-Smith’s collage painting No Man Camps: Missing Her uses stencils and wildfire charcoal to draw attention to the issues of “man camps” erected adjacent to Indigenous lands to house laborers for LNG (liquefied natural gas) pipelines. The pipelines threaten Indigenous lands; the “man camps” further threaten the safety and health of Indigenous communities. Farrell-Smith’s gestural, looped pipeline is topped with an x-ed out LNG.
While Farrell-Smith’s paintings approach a similar subject to other works in the show from a more oblique angle, the other painter in the show is a more curious inclusion. Adam Bateman’s Field Study #12 and Field Study #14, both from 2016, are large, light-toned abstract works. They are pleasing to look at but out of sync with the rest of the more insistently messaged works in the show. Bateman’s artist statement references farming and the wall tag invokes Manifest Destiny, but the connection is tangential to the more formal paintings. They seem out of place and leagues away from “A nation is a massacre,” “The children are in cages” (from Vanessa Renwick’s you remember, you forget), or “SW Dead Faggot Street” (Anthony Hudson). It seems telling that Bateman’s paintings are from 2016, the same year as the last Portland Biennial and, for 10 months of the year at least, prior to the election of Donald Trump. Michelle Grabner, herself an abstract painter, curated the 2016 Biennial at Disjecta. Bateman’s paintings would have fit more comfortably in that show than this one.
I would be remiss not to mention outstanding contributions of the Harriet Tubman Center for Expanded Curatorial Practice. The project, shepherded by Lisa Jarrett and Harrell Fletcher of Portland State University, facilitates contributions by students from Harriet Tubman Middle School to the arts community. For the Biennial, a group of six seventh graders (Bea, Elliot, Esperanza, Joyce, Nora, and Syncier) interviewed artists, wrote wall tags, and will conduct a panel discussion about their experiences. The students’ wall tags aren’t always directly related to the works they accompany and the students clearly found some artists’ work more compelling than others, but the insight they offer demonstrates engagement and enthusiasm.
Perlitz’s weather vane doesn’t inspire confidence that the Portland art scene has a good sense of where it is going and that trepidation seems only justified. This is the first Biennial since Blake Shell took over at Disjecta after Bryan Suereth’s ousting on New Year’s Eve, 2016. Two of the three curators are most recently from shuttered institutions and there have been a rash of venue closings in recent years. But the young(ish) set of artists assembled by Amir, Johnson, and Stull Meyers showcases a visual arts community willing to grapple with a fraught past and complicated present. The art can’t be described as pretty nor escapist nor timeless. Perhaps timeful is a better characterization—a snapshot of where we are in 2019 in all its messiness—and that does seem appropriate for a Biennial. Throw in engagement and enthusiasm from some seventh graders, and while the Portland art scene may not know exactly where it’s headed, it seems we’ll be alright.