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Review: Ontologue

Untitled, Melis van den Berg 2010

Untitled, Melis van den Berg 2010

Melis van den Berg’s “Untitled” fills the entire first gallery at the White Box (70 NW Couch), shoving gallery director Elizabeth Lamb’s desk into a corner under this massive cardboard structure that looks like a model of a flying saucer. It’s dramatic, formally beautiful, appropriately architectural for this gallery in the building that houses U of O’s architecture program. “Untitled” is all about the space of the gallery, what’s in it (it includes, is propped up on, gallery furniture), and how we interact with/in it. Lamb is practically under the thing, a kind of cruel joke. She invites me to crawl underneath “Untitled” and look at it from inside which you should definitely do. It reminded me of Nan Curtis’ works that reference children’s forts, though on a happier note.

Let me set aside for a moment the stated rubric of this exhibition of four recent graduates of London’s Slade School of Fine Art:

ONTOLOGUE explores the intersection between awarenes of being for the artist and the audience. … the artists confront cinema, the material properties of objects, and time and semiotics, thus opening a dialogue about phenomenology and consciousness.

And let me say something that we don’t often talk about when we talk about art. I thought about this when I saw Jacob Kassay’s installation at Car Hole, but I didn’t use the word: delight. We don’t use it any more than we use the word “taste.” Both are considered unserious, aren’t they? But there it is, simple delight, in a show that cloaks itself in philosophical jargon. From van den Berg’s invasion of the front gallery to curator Joshua Kim’s “1:17,” puddle and oversplash of what looks like silver or hardened mercury (I know that’s not possible) but is in fact Gallium (who knew? delight!) on the floor, the show has work that is surprising, work that raises interesting questions about a number of things but perhaps not the nature of being, necessarily.

“1:17″ immediately brings to mind Serra’s lead splash pieces. The title makes it clear that it is a record of a performance or a test, an “I wonder what would happen” as gallium is poured on the wooden floor for one minute and seventeen seconds. (Kim apparently poured the gallium at the opening.) What would happen to the gallium if the temperature of the room changed?And the little flecks of shiny silver that have splashed out across the floor make it unclear where the piece stops (How close can you get?), impacting our experience of the gallery space and how and where we move in it. This piece makes me curious to see more of Kim’s work.

In the darkened black box, Sepideh Saii’s “Behind the Scene” two-channel video work based on footage from “La Vie en Rose,” a biopic of Edith Piaf. When Piaf finally takes the stage, the film is projected on Saii who we hear singing a tune hauntingly, veering in and out of tune. That she chooses this ultimately triumphant moment in which to insert her presence into the space of the film demonstrates that Saii is interested in more than an examination of the real and the cinematic portrayal of same. I haven’t seen her other work using a similar strategy, but I’m guessing that this is part of a larger, serial imaginary self-portrait. I would love to see a live performance of a work of this nature by Saii.

Finally, Benedict Youngman’s “Before and After” is sculpture, photo, and found object, the results of a “residency” on a ranch near Tillamook. Start with the pile of hexagonal plaster tubes on the floor. In context, the stack visually references stacked lumber, the obvious reference as it sits beneath “before” and “after” photocopies of black and white photos of a forest and a clearcut wheatpasted to the gallery wall. And the obviousness, hammered home with the title of the work, is a bummer because there’s so much more here, not least because the stack also references basalt cliffs. The hexagon recurs in a plaster sculpture photographed on the ranch grounds and a cast shadow in another photo. A hexagonal structure being one of the strongest/most sound, the shape here could be metaphor for the robustness of the rural, suggesting that the before and after of the photos might be switched—that the after could in fact be the new growth of trees post-clearcut making the binary that urban dwellers think of when we think of logging into the cyclical that rural Oregon knows it to be.

Thanks Joshua Kim for introducing these artists to a Portland audience.

Review: Hard Cover

Jacob Kassay Hard Cover Car Hole Gallery

Jacob Kassay, Hard Cover. Car Hole Gallery

“I’ve always balked at writing anything because there’s this need that everyone seems to have for the conceptual or verbal validation of art which doesn’t interest me at all. Maybe I’m trying to get too specific about it. Specifically, my work just is what it is. To the extent that it’s successful, you can’t take it apart.” — Fred Sandback

On the back cover of the 100+ page catalogue for the exhibition Hard Cover at Car Hole Gallery (114 SE 12th) is a giant cross, two lines hastily drawn with a wide black marker that is running out of ink. These two lines serve as a kind of documentation for one of the two covers by artist Jacob Kassay (NY) of minimalist works by Fred Sandback that make up the show. And this work, executed in black yarn taped to the haggard concrete walls of this subterranean garage gallery, was the one that startled us and made us laugh because the only Sandback piece that I’ve seen in town, the only Sandback I know of in Portland is this very piece at the lumber room. Collector Sarah Miller-Meigs has a cobalt blue and orange (hope my memory serves) Sandback in her Pearl District space above the Elizabeth Leach Gallery…one piece of yarn is horizontal at about chest height, one of comparable length traces the line of the corner where the walls meet. In the cover that gallery director Sam Korman executed on behalf of Kassay, the vertical line nearly melts into the grey textured corner, aping the black cracks elsewhere in the walls. Though it’s really only about three miles away, this cover couldn’t be further from the original, aggressively announcing its means of existence via the torn scraps of duct tape that hold it to the wall. Though it’s lo-fi, it’s still fierce, like a Black Flag version of a Carpenters song. And I like it.

jacob kassay, hard cover, car hole gallery

I should tell you that although I don’t recall the name of the Fred Sandback corner piece at the lumber room, the other cover at Hard Cover looks to be a cover of Sandback’s “Untitled (no. 48, Three Leaning Planes, from 133 Proposals for the Heiner Friedrich Gallery)”
(1969). The source piece, too, was executed in “black acrylic yarn” and, “Dimensions vary with each installation.”

Interestingly, some of Kassay’s previous works, including those for which he gessos the ground then sands it away, and even those he has silverplated, address the textures and below even the colors of the walls of Car Hole as much as anything.

Perhaps Kassay turned to a Sandback cover as a further reductive gesture.

What do we want to say about cover versions of art? It’s a short path from Duchamp eliminating representation by presenting the thing itself—a readymade (urinal, bike wheel)—to proto-pop artist Jasper Johns’ cast beer cans as an art thing representing the thing itself and Warhol’s flat image of the thing itself (soup can) to appropriators presenting images (or objects) of art images (or objects) as art. It’s a mobius strip. Or rather things fold in on themselves again and again until they can’t be worked, folded, any further and we viewers are bent into perceptually/intellectually odd positions (i.e. being able to see the back of one’s own neck where the cranium meets the spinal column).

This is the second time in a week or so that Elaine Sturtevant comes up in visual art discourse in Portland (the other was the tantalizing prospect of YU bringing Sturtevant to Portland for an exhibition), but I can’t resist going to the O.G. of appropriation of visual artworks (see also Mike Bidlo, Sherrie Levine, &c). The octogenarian Sturtevant has been doing reproductions or restagings or cover versions of art works by well-known artists for decades. I can’t help feeling that in part this kind of work is like that of the bard in a pre-literate society who recounts the epic poem again and again to maintain the collective memory of the heroic act(s). If my dear friend who knows a thing or two about contemporary art was not so familiar with Sandback’s work then yes, there is clear and present value in covering it as a way of pointing the viewer toward the original. But of course, the broadly accepted raison d’etre for this kind of work is that it critiques the notion of authorship and originality that apparently still requires critique. Sleeping dog. Lying. Kicked. Again. Remind me someday to tell you about how I think that the notion of taking Roland Barthes “Death of the Author” as a prescription, as an excuse to gaze unendingly into the barbershop mirror/mirror/mirror/mirror, is a misreading of the essay. And as Ron Silliman said of a cavalcade of poem works based on canonical literary texts (a related if not entirely analogous phenomenon), “Do we really need an EAVES OF ASS?” In other words, once covering has been covered, does more covering need covering?

The best thing, perhaps, about Hard Cover is the curatorial gesture of its 3/4-inch thick 8-1/2 x 11 catalogue held together by brass fasteners, the catalogue essay consisting of, it looks like, all of the Fred Sandback statements and interviews Sam Korman could find online. They are printed in the kind of jagged lines that occur when one copies and pastes web-based text into a word processor. As one who appreciates and critiques in equal measure the castles of words we build around works of art, this catalogue was made for me.


Little timely note. Museum of Contemporary Craft curator Namita Gupta Wiggers just told me that she’ll have a complete set of issues of Veneer magazine that we can check out as part of the new exhibition opening this week Object Focus: The Book. Veneer=Flint Jamison=co-founder YU. But what I want to tell you is that Jamison was just featured in ArtForum’s 500 Words column talking about Veneer, the art magazine that’s art as magazine.

Stacy Lynn Smith: Accumulate

Opening November 19th,  Vestibule (8371 N Interstate) will be presenting work by Portland artist Stacy Lynn Smith. The work is a collection of posters and flyers manipulated and organized by Smith in an attempt to make a kind of sense out of the constant barrage of information that is a common contemporary life.  According to the press release: “Accumulation confronts the inevitable fragmentation of experience made possible by abundant connection and access.”

Public Art, Moving Beyond the Box

by Linda Wysong

Try balancing on a ladder with a bucket and scrub brush while polishing Abraham Lincoln’s nose and you will soon learn that there are many people who care about public art. During the short time I was employed by RACC as a sculpture cleaner, I came to expect art conversations with strangers. A man in a business suit paused to share his renewed appreciation of freedom and the right to vote while I balanced beside Abraham Lincoln in the Park Blocks. Then a woman walking her dog stopped to chat about public art and its importance to community. Later as I moved my bucket to the mall, a pierced and tattooed teen told me that she always stopped to examine James Hanson’s, “Talos No 2″ because it reminded her of space aliens. Then there was the family who traveled all the way from Kansas to Grant Park to pose with Beverly Cleary’s “Ramona and Henry” by Lee Hunt. As an artist and maker, I found the public’s engagement both exciting and an unexpected confirmation of the value of art in public places.

There is more than a little irony in the fact that public art has long been regarded as a second class venture by art critics. Democracy, engagement, and accessibility are highly valued attributes in the contemporary art dialog. Additionally, public art is out of the white box, engaged with the community and connected to the everyday. Yet it is often discounted and ignored.

Possibly, we in the art community are unconsciously guilty of contributing to this exile by always looking for work with the stamp of curatorial approval or the aura of the new. Or is the myth of the lone romantic artist living in a garret so pervasive that work produced in, around or through the system is ignored? So often we walk briskly by and do not see that sculpture which has been in the park for as long as we can remember. But if you pick a warm sunny day and head out with a bucket and brush and position yourself next to a random piece of sculpture, your experience will be radically different. People from all walks of life will inevitably engage you in fascinating conversations about aesthetics, politics, community, and urban development.

Linda K. Johnson, "Daily Movement Journal,"

As I begin this adventure of systematically thinking and writing about public art, it seems appropriate to define the term. Public art usually refers to work that is permanent, institutionally sanctioned, and publicly funded. Heroic soldiers, politicians and Greek gods, as well as, murals and large abstract Modernist forms immediately come to mind. In this digital world the physicality of large scale sculpture can indeed be powerful and engaging. “The Big Pipe Portal: Making the Invisible Visible” (2009) by Rhiza A+D with its spiraling form and placement on the edge of the Willamette River is one such example. But the world of art and life is much larger then a single format. In addition to traditional stand alone sculpture there is a cornucopia of temporary, dance, performance, text, design, digital and guerrilla options. Linda K. Johnson’s, “Daily Movement Journal,” was a series of mini performances, that allowed chance encounters with dance. Nan Curtis and Martin Houston created a moving narrative when they placed signs along the road in their “12th Street Project.” Rose Bond continues to animate (literally) urban structures with her window projections. Art in the public sphere is enormously rich and I intend to explore this terrain.

A gallery strives to be a neutral environment that functions as a blank slate for the presentation of unique and beautiful objects. By contrast, the street and the garden are sites where the character of the place is an omnipresent force that shapes both the form and the experience of the work. For the understanding of art is one of encounter where both the physical properties of the piece and the cultural space are fundamentally linked. Even though the viewer’s experience may be a solitary one, the encounter is understood within the larger web of history, culture and site.

As Nicolas Bourriaud states in his essay Relational Aesthetics, “The art practice thus resides in the invention of relations between consciousness. Each particular artwork is a proposal to live in a shared world, and the work of every artist is a bundle of relations with the world.” To investigate public art and art in public is to delve into human nature and our connections in a constantly changing world.

Note: This is the first of a series by Linda Wysong on art in the public realm. Please comment and suggest topics for future articles.