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Liam Drain: If you were asking the right questions

Entering Liam Drain‘s If You Were Asking the Right Questions You Would Know the Answer in Advance at the Manuel Izquierdo Gallery at PNCA is as if entering the smallest of museums stocked with antiquities of strange and familiar purpose. All of the objects are funereally black or close. And all are gathered in small groupings. There are various wheel-thrown ceramic vessels and pedestals, candleholders and pitcher-like objects all under the watch of authority’s crown in the center of the room. And among a number of the groupings there are models of small buildings flying black flags at half-mast.

Offer and refusal wrapped into one, I like the way their uniform shadow-like appearances let the viewer focus on their curving forms, but that they’re installed in such a way to confound the consideration of any one of the forms in isolation. Some are even stacked, some on ceramic platforms, rather than singularly displayed. And I like the way some of these dark objects defamiliarize the lot of them. Is this a pedestal with a stopper, an elaborate goblet, or something else? They ask what we know about any ancient object’s use (I recently read about the Smithsonian asking the public for help in establishing the use of some of the more unusual not-so-ancient objects in its collection). And they speak to the craft-based object’s modern trajectory away from use to the fine art sphere of no-use.

The pictograms that appear on the crown and elsewhere are “explained” in a set of three cryptic manuals (beautifully printed in charcoal ink and hand-bound) on a side table. Each is opened out flat inside a ceramic holder that both aids and prevents reading. Bars hold the book open, yes, but they also prevent the turning of pages.

I take these holders as metaphor for the exhibition itself that offers and withholds information in equal measure, as does an unfamiliar artifact, a defamiliarized glyph, the flag flying at half-mast for we-know-not-whom. Further, I take them as metaphor for critical issues of transparency in the Platonic cave of our democracy. Sure we see shadows dancing on the wall, but do we even know enough to ask what’s casting them?

The manuals describe function or give instruction in spare one-liners. “This is a conduit for pouring gravel.” “This machine makes wax taste like animal fat.” They are poetic: “Hold this vessel next to your shell-like ear.” And clearly not at all straightforward: “This compass points at guilt.” My favorite was mention of “a machine for making fire that runs on fire.” Do we know much more about either the objects of the object makers after reading?

Drain said in his announcement for the show, “This exhibition’s title paraphrases a Soviet commissar’s response to a journalist whose questions began to exceed the limits of acceptable inquiry.” “If You Were Asking the Right Questions You Would Know the Answer in Advance” is the kind of convoluted nonsense knot a rational man can tie in an irrational system. The fragments in these manuals could be just such nonsense. Or maybe we just don’t know the right questions to ask.

“These weights measure disbelief.”

Gary Robbins Fan Death at Appendix

He Tried to Dive In
He Tried Not to Die
He Printed It Out

I am lucky. I saw Gary Robbins‘ exhibition, Fan Death, at Appendix Space when no one was around, just me walking down the alley toward a shimmering disk hovering flush with the hay-covered ground. It took a moment to realize that this wavering disk was spinning. And on this day, the sky was blue, and I could walk around the disk and see the tops of various trees reflected in its blue. Apparently on opening night, one inebriated visitor tried to dive in.

By transforming an ordinary mirror into a pool, and by making this the rabbit hole through which we enter the rest of this successful exhibition, Robbins frames it as a lens on our tendency to make mystery of the mundane. One of the two printed works stacked on the floor of the space in a take-one, Felix Gonzalez-Torres gesture, gets at the convoluted, iterative, and problematic ways we get to the bottom of mystery or to any meaning at all.

In the back of the space is a dull-roaring sculpture of a cube of floor fans which in and of itself is brilliant both formally and sonically, but Robbins contextualizes it by including a broadside printed on newsprint that one one side is the Wikipedia entry for Fan Death (a belief prevalent in South Korea that sleeping with a fan on can cause death) and verso, the in-the-background “discussion” or “talk” that goes on among the makers and editors of Wikipedia to question, debunk, update, correct, etc. Wikipedia entries. And really, Wikipedia is the enactment of the collective way any “fact” is recorded and authenticated, witness these “discussions.”

The second stack is prints of an interwoven rainbow of hair-thin sine waves held down with a tiny jar of mercury that echoes the mirror outside. Robbins later told me he thought of the mercury as something we, in Portland, might be commensurately afraid of in relation to Fan Death. This brought to mind Robert Barry’s burying barium-133 in Central Park for his “0.5 Microcurie Radiation Installation,” 1969. It’s still there. And on our end of the country, so’s Hanford. Now that’s scary. Why make up things to be afraid of when Japan moved its nuclear alert to 7, the highest it goes. When we’re connected by ocean to the Fukushima nuclear reactors. Unless making fake things to be afraid of, like Godzilla or God for that matter, takes one’s mind off clear and present dangers.

Eye Level: Adds Donna’s Black Moon at Half/Dozen

Although it is technically an exhibition of individual objects, I take “Black Moon” by Chicago arts collective Adds Donna at Half Dozen Gallery as an intriguing installation, an installation that addresses the archive and the ways it makes (and influences or confounds the making of) meaning. Maybe I’m just in a gestalt-ish frame of mind. Adds Donna writes in their statement about objects infecting one another to create an “assemblage of influence,” a phrase I flat-out love. Not unlike installations by Portland’s Oregon Painting Society, there is a shared aesthetic among many of the objects that suggests a situation, but there are also a number of outlying elements that confound any neatly wrapped up narrative. And not unlike shows by Portland’s Appendix Collective, the aesthetic of the individual artist is evident in the individual object, but the whole greater than the sum of its parts is in fact a whole that informs and elevates the individual object.

Before a dramatic, scene-setting, massive black-and-white digital print of a barren something-scape…the title of the exhibition wants this read as moon or planet, but it looks like a snowy expanse to me…are objects and documents sparsely arranged on white slatted storage shelving as well as on the floor. There are perhaps more plaster casts of take out containers, especially the little plastic cups for salsa, than any other object type, giving the whole thing a kind of archeological feel. Adds Donna calls these “Empties,” and en masse, they’re terrific. There are faux “rocks” and digital pictures of the same rocks and there are series the same photo (boxes in the snow) tinted in red, pink, green. There are crumpled and flattened blank pieces of white paper in frames resting on white folding chairs (referred to as “Speeches” in a brilliant bit of titling). There are monochromatic portraits on the covers of corrugated boxes. And a readymade cow mug. And a crystal paper weight in the shape of the ice cream on a Dairy Queen cone. Two sci-fi soundtracks play from sets of speakers up high on the wall, and on a bottom shelf. There’s something to be said about the way the objects are displayed: especially that some are place one on top of another forcing relationships between objects that elsewhere are displayed solo.

Just the way that most of the objects are not at eye level, but up high or down low, forcing you to bend and stretch to see, you have to bend and stretch to form a kind of understanding. And I should mention that the choice to put two of the three shelf units at horizontal angles smartly sets them up as framing devices for what’s beyond.

The tension, the tug of war is between the “Adds Donna Line” the verso of perhaps a dozen business cards lined up to graphic effect and “19.1.2011.13.35” the fabulous, desolate, wall-sized image of the snowy, rocky expanse. “19.1” wants to situate all of the rest of the objects in the room as related to its image of site whereas the “Line” wants to put us in the Adds Donna studio storeroom where the objects are there because and only because they were made by members of the collective.

“Line” also reminds us of the filtered nature of any archive, that any experience of whatever the archive documents or collects is many-times mediated before we ever get our hands/eyes on it.

Documentation is the first filter. The documentation can never replicate the experience, action, phenomena. Documentation relies on the documenter who makes choices even in the collection of raw materials, evidence. The collection of documentation and primary source is the second filter. What do we collect? What do we make space for? What do we toss? The preservation or lack thereof of the collected is Time’s filtration of the collected. Access and discovery of the archive itself winnows who experiences. Ordering organization will influence whether or how aspects of it are experienced.

The paradox in the archive is that it simultaneously creates meaning and confounds searches for meaning and truth. And this is not accidental, but a reflection of, at least to some degree, choices made by those assembling and managing the archive. In reference to a project of my own, I’ve recently been pointed by a friend to Jacques Derrida’s lecture “Archive Fever, a Freudian Impression.” In his introduction, Derrida etymologically digs into the word archive, discovering roots of commencement and commandment: commencement being the place where things commence or are to be found in nature or in history and commandment being the naming and keeping of those things. For Black Moon, considering the former means wondering what these things are/are meant to be, where they came from. The “Line” rather has us consider the latter, asking why these are objects here and addressing the choices made by Adds Donna. This flexing of authority rather violently wrests the baton of meaning making out of the viewer’s grasp.

Black Moon is the last show at Half Dozen’s Everett Lofts location. They move Eastside in April.

Review: In(ter)dependence

I had to go back to double check my initial response to In(ter)dependence at PLACE…and first thought, best thought, in spite of the fact that this show of shows was to change over the course of its run, my song remains the same: there is some work so strong that I had to return to write about it, but the premise overall—inviting a number of independent curators and gallery owners to curate an artist or artists or an artist group into the show—makes the whole thing an uncohesive mess; an art fair rather than an exhibition. And really, that’s a good thing: one of my gripes about this gallery-in-a-mall is that the art has never addressed its profoundly weird setting…in a former retail space on the top level of a glizty, glass n’ brass, 80s-esque mall. In(ter)dependence at the very least reflects that jumble of visual experiences that the mall comprises. And Jason Doize’s “Product Placement” actually addressed the window dressing that this art might otherwise represent to the owners of a shopping mall…his “products,” hand folded cootie catchers stacked up on a table beside a pallet of paper to be folded. Doize collapses materials, manufacturing, and display (if not actually sale) into one neat 4×6′ installation.

Ditch Projects’ “Green Chain” takes its cue from one of its components, Rob Smith’s video “Annabelle Introduces Her Black Cat to Its Expanded Reflection” as an expanded reflection of a certain Northwestness. Donald Morgan’s “Green Chain,” a hexagonal, colorblocked “log” having been split by an oversized “axe,” set the stage for Smith’s video…beautifully hypercolored flora + kitty… and another, “Ice Water” by Jared Haug (a montaged layering of green-tinged water, floating ice chunks, ocean), that play on a large monitor.

There are a number of other works that I should probably mention, but I went back again specifically to see the installations by Morgan Ritter and Mack McFarland. Morgan’s “Composite Column” was every bit as riveting the second time I went back and had a look as it was to begin with…although she altered the stack of bricks, slapdash plaster logs, a white box, a television, a painted plinth (embellished with a couple of clay female figures)…for six days, recording process notes (and notes to self like “The White TV is charged with Bergson’s Matter and Memory” or “Don’t breath on it.”) on a pink roll of paper on the wall. When I saw the column, it was stacked on the artist herself, or a video of her doing what she called “wigglie line movement” in a red jumpsuit in profile to a soundtrack that was hummed and whistled. I loved its precariousness, its seemingly improvisatory nature, and its juxtaposition of movement and stasis as well as the fact that the notion of making a column addresses a couple thousand years of art and architecture, but most especially monument making. In a nutshell, and the reason why it works with a capital W is that this column cuts against everything a column’s meant to be and do as a yin take on a yang object.

Finally, McFarland has the audacity to fire a shot over the bow of the bad ship S.S. Racism with “Well there ain’t nobody left to impress/ And everyone’s kissing their own hands (material of things unsaid)” and pulls it off. The installation represents the end of the party, confetti littering the floor under the party flags, the tired canvases sporting party hats painted in what I’m reading as skin tones (of course, I only see their edges and infer that they are monochrome) sit on the floor leaning against the wall while two little canvases, one black and one white, lean against each other as a little A-frame on the “dance floor” in the slowest of dances. What’s going on here? McFarland clues us in the subtlest way: titles are written in pencil on the backs of three of the canvases, “An approximation of Adrian Piper’s skin color created from a photo found on Wikipedia,” “An approximation of Ariana Jacob’s skin color created from memory,” “An approximation of A.J. Kemp’s skin color created from memory.” All three subjects are artists. And the two who are black have made work about race and racism. McFarland’s inclusion of Piper (the largest canvas), a pioneering conceptual artist whose 70s work in particular focused on race head-on, puts this work in that line of fire.

Yes, I’m risking boiling this down too much, but McFarland’s arrangement suggests that the nuance of the actual colors of skin tone which are analogous to the variousness of experience an artist might be able to represent in his/her work regardless of his/her skin color go (willfully) unnoticed, the variousness reduced to the binary of black and white. That in the end whatever lipservice the art world gives to inclusiveness evaporates when nobody’s looking. And yet, the self-congratulatory band plays on (the kissing one’s own hand of the title of the piece). The confrontational tone of the title smartly balances the melancholy, party’s-over tone of the actual installation. I was surprised and pleased to be provoked (in a good way) by a work like this, made by a white dude no less, that covers such well-trodden ground, and that’s why I had to return and see it again. And that’s why I’m not done thinking about it.

Maria T.D. Inocencio: It’s Like This Every Day

Thirty One Days  & Going Around   

by Linda Wysong

Maria T.D. Inocencio’s exhibition at Gallery Nine entitled, It’s Like This Every Day is a stunningly beautiful contemplation of daily movement and accumulated memories. Charting her trips around the city and recording colors that come to her attention, Inocencio documents her experience and acknowledges that public space is always understood through a personal lens. The line between public and private is gossamer thin and every street is a stream of overlapping individual experiences.

Going Around is a large symmetrical painting with stylized, looped forms that depict the paths of Maria’s frequent errands. At first glance the work appears to be a formal image. The brightly colored elongated shapes fan out like a flower on the irregularly shaped canvas. There is an abstract sense of order and visual satisfaction. Yet when one comes closer and understands that each color and pattern refers to a repeated journey, the work takes on new meaning. The painting evokes time and travel and encourages us to consider mapping both as public information and an internal mechanism for understanding our constantly shifting perspective.

Going Around 2011 72” x 84” x 1 1/8” wood, acrylic, paper, glue

The second piece in the exhibition, Thirty-One Days is an even more direct document of experience. It is composed of 31 panels (12” x12” each) arranged to reflect a calendar page – October 2010. Each panel is filled with horizontal strips of color that correspond to the hues Ms. Inocencio observed on that particular fall day. Once again, when the painting is seen from across the room, it can be understood as an example of Modernist abstraction but that reading dissolves upon closer inspection. A single line of text has been hand written on each color recording the time and place the hue was observed. On October 1, there are eight colors and eight notes including – “7:43 AM Slanted Orange Light on Buildings I-84 before NE 33 Driving to school” and “ 4:40 PM Flower NE 21st & NE Prescott Leaving David’s house”.

Thirty-One Days, 2011, 72” x 84” x 1 1/8,” wood, acrylic paint, paper, glue

When discussing her work, Inocencio credits the experience of having children as the impetus for both the appreciation of the quotidian and her methodology. Caring for young children evokes an enjoyment of the small pleasures of life. But it can also constrict one’s schedule and mandate working in the short pauses between their meals, walks, and play. Ms. Inocencio turned these time limitations into an asset nurturing her art, as well as her children.

Maria draws on 2 established artistic traditions: (1) art as a ‘Daily Practice’ and (2) the art of walking associated with the French term, Le Flaneur. Her method of systematic recording builds on the vocabulary of a ‘Daily Practice’ and shares the analytical attitude of early conceptualist artists such as On Kawara with his series entitled Today. This work began in February 1973 and since then he has painted the date on an 8″ x 10″ canvas every single day, continually affirming his existence. Inocencio’s delicate touch and dispassionate tone more closely recall the German artist Hannah Darboven. Using the framework of the grid, Hannah Darboven created an Untitled series (1968) derived from hand written computations based on the date. Darboven’s life long practice chronicles existence and evokes the passage of time as she carefully marks each day. While this numerical practice dwells in the realm of systems and abstraction, Maria Inocencio’s work is firmly rooted in the physical world.

Hannah Darboven, Untitled, 1968 – calendar computations

Maria’s intuitive observations drawn from the streets of Portland recall the tradition of Le Flaneur as articulated by the French poet and critic Charles Baudelaire. In the 19th century Le Flaneur was the single gentleman who strolled the urban streets developing the act of observation into an art form. He was simultaneously the detached eye and a participant in the collective life of the city. This idea of art as participatory and intimately connected to daily life continues to be relevant and Thirty-One Days is a dynamic example.

Public space is often presented through the vocabulary of urban planning with its language of maps, zoning, transportation corridors, and economic development. Urban planning is essential but cities are composed of millions of individuals walking to the store and smelling the flowers. Maria Inocencio brings this truth to our attention and shares her vision of a daily routine as compelling and beautiful.

“ While Thirty-One Days is a direct document of time and experience, Going Around tries to make sense of both. … (It) follows a circular pattern, layering and weaving color and line, the way our memory rearranges images and thoughts from our past.”
                                                                                                  – Maria Inocencio 2011