Saya Moriyasu – Cats

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Saya Moriyasu, PDX Window Project, May 2014

A charming gathering of Sayu Moriyasu’s ceramic cats resides in the PDX Window Project storefront display space at 925 NW Flanders Street. In colors ranging from earthy to bright red and vivid turquoise these cats look out – some quizzically, some drowsily, and some with what looks like a mischievous twinkle in their eyes. I was reminded of cats up for adoption, their cuteness enticing passersby. Moriysu’s accompanying statement notes her interests in “Americana, consumerism, humor, the decorative arts, class, history, [and] Buddhism.” These cats are certainly of mixed ancestry and they’re all the more fascinating for it.

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Gwen Davidson – Wallowa Mountains

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Gwen Davidson, Wallowa Mountains (2014), acrylic, charcoal on paper on canvas, on view at Froelick Gallery (April 29 – May 31, 2014 )

Gwen Davidson’s landscapes are intriguing collages of color and form that flicker between abstraction and representation. Wallowa Mountains depicts a landscape that appears stacked like some sort of geological layer cake. Davidson creates her painted collages by first painting on papers of different textures and then cutting them into different sized strips. These strips she then affixes to the canvas. It’s a sort of paint by numbers landscape that offers a quite fresh way of seeing. Most interesting to me was the tension at work in many of these paintings: at once they seem to cohere and resolve into familiar views and at the same time to fracture into facets and bits of raw nature, slabs of color and texture, rock and dirt.

Zhan Wang – Artificial Rock #10

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Artificial Rock #10 (2001) Zhan Wang (Chinese, born 1962) Stainless steel On view in Ink Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art (December 11, 2013–April 6, 2014)

Shiny and biomorphic, this contemporary scholar’s rock displayed in a Ming period room as part of the Metropolitan Museum’s Ink Art has an alien, otherworldly presence. In China, starting two thousand years ago, scholars would collect rocks to place in gardens or studies. Rocks that offered miniaturized representations of larger natural features are prized as are rocks that are thin, perforated, and wrinkled as these are evidence of powerful, slow-working natural forces. Artificial Rock #10 with its complicated, sloped surfaces look as if it had been sculpted by millennia of running water. But, in fact, sheets of stainless steel were hammered around a rock, then removed, welded together, and polished creating a hollow form – perhaps suggesting that the scholar’s rock itself has disappeared (at least its original referent). The shiny involuted surfaces are also intriguing; they make it hard to see your reflection and place yourself in this landscape.

Christopher Michlig and John Zerzan – Kiosk Kiosk Kiosk

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Part of Portland2014, Christopher Michlig’s outdoor sculpture has landed akilter in Disject’a courtyard. The wood sculpture, painted black, is incised with text – excerpts from John Zerzan’s anarchic, antitechnological musings. Zerzan makes for gloomy reading and the sculpture itself is also quite stark. The Kiosks – there are three in Portland for the biennial – are described as “catalysts for possibility” and Zerzan’s accompanying pamphlet closes: “Look up from your screens. The only adventure is resistance.” I couldn’t agree more, although part of me longs for art that is more visually compelling, although then, I suppose, such art could become simply another mesmerizing screen. This seems purer and more contrarian.

Jacci Den Hartog – Peach Blossom Spring

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Jacci Den Hartog (American, born 1962), Peach Blossom Spring, 1994, polyurethane over plaster and steel. On view at Portland Art Museum.

Den Hartog’s Peach Blossom Spring, a vertically oriented wall-sculpture of polyurethane over plaster and steel, teeters between the beautiful and the grotesque. It looks something like a traditional Chinese landscape painting that has been rendered in three dimensions and then coated in a thick, gloppy layer of polyurethane. The polyurethane is, itself, beautiful but it also piques one’s curiosity about what lies beneath. David Pagel, in a review from 1996 notes that these are examples of “landscape sculpture” a small genre and that they resemble “the unlikely offspring of Chinese landscape painting and tacky restaurant decorations (especially those found in Los Angeles’s Chinatown, where faux, mini-waterfalls gurgle over plastic rocks and synthetic moss, cascading into ponds filled with samplings of the fish on the menu).” Some insight into the sculpture’s beautiful landscape partially obscured and abstracted by a coating of polyurethane may come from the traditional Chinese fable Peach Blossom Spring Story, about a fisherman who discovers a utopia but is then unable to locate it again. Beauty is ephemeral and often fully accessible only once.

Sasuri Sasaki Hemann – Tidepools

 

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Sasuri Sasaki Hemann, Tidepools (2013)

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Sasuri Sasaki Hemann, Tidepools (detail) (2013)

In 2012 I had the pleasure of stumbling upon Sasuri Sasaki Hemann’s Urban Aquarium at the Portland International Airport. The large wall display of meticulously crafted, floating jellyfish and other undersea creatures was a very welcome respite and I spent a lovely half hour looking and watching others look. Now the jellyfish are back in a permanent exhibit in the international terminal. Tidepools is smaller and installed in a rectangular glass case on the floor. Hemann’s artist’s statement explains that, “Urban Aquarium explores the concept of being ‘out of context’ and ‘displaced.’” For me it was also an occasion to think about a beautiful and vulnerable undersea world that is at once close and far away. I remember seeing a young boy gaze at the jellyfish and ask his mother, “Is it real?” I wanted to say, “Yes!” – jellyfish are real and so too is the ability of art to prod us to see and think differently.

Traer Scott – Moose

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Traer Scott, Moose (2011) Ultrachrome print

Last time I wrote about the dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), those amazing and immersive scenes that are also fascinating examples of installation art. Perhaps as interesting as what’s behind the glass is what happens in front of the glass, as visitors, young and old, look in, sometimes scarcely breaking stride. Traer Scott’s photo series, Natural History, taken at the AMNH in 2008, captures these two layers. In Moose the face of a girl and boy appear to float on the body of the moose. There’s a witty reversal as the humans look ghostly and furtive and the wild animals look solid and in sharp focus. Nature and culture might be separate layers, but they’re always intertwined. Scott’s photos, by showing the human spectators, remind us that whenever we look at or represent nature we change it or perhaps simply become part of the representation

Jaguar Diorama – American Museum of Natural History

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When I was young I loved the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) and I still do. Now, however, the dioramas strike me as fascinating examples of installation art and not simply meticulously recreated natural scenes. On a recent visit to the AMNH the dioramas looked as wonderful, transportive, and sad as ever. As a child I was aware of the death that created these and my son (age six) was too. To me they’re of great historical interest. I found myself imagining what they might have looked like to visitors in the early 20th century. (The Hall of North American Mammals opened in 1942 while the African Hall dates from much earlier in the 20th century.) But these dioramas also struck me as contemporary in their sensibility and their aesthetic, teetering between earnestness and irony.

Wari People – Feathered Hanging

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Wari People, Feathered Hanging (7th-8th century, Peru) Feathers on cotton, camelid hair On view in Feathered Walls: Hangings from Ancient Peru, Metropolitan Museum of Art, September 16, 2013–May 12, 2014

 

One of the more striking sights from my trip to New York City was this feathered hanging from the 7th or 8th century. Made out of parrot feathers by the Wari people, an empire based in the Andes, it is mind bogglingly contemporary with its crisp geometry and saturated color. I was amazed both by how well preserved it was and by its seemingly minimalist aesthetic. Of course, these objects were likely used and viewed quite unlike minimalist art. Accompanying wall text explains that “because the Wari, like other ancient Andean peoples, did not use a writing system, they [the hangings] also played an important role in expressing, recording, and preserving concepts about the human, natural, and supernatural realms.” They are certainly powerful and beautiful, no matter what they meant then or now.

Zhang Jianjun – Scholar Rock (The Mirage Garden)

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Zhang Jianjun – Scholar Rock (The Mirage Garden) (2008) Silicone rubber On view in Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China, Metropolitan Museum December 11, 2013–April 6, 2014

Zhang Jianjun ‘s playful Scholar Rock (Mirage Garden) is a scholar’s rock made out of pinkish purple silicone rubber. It’s a witty updating of an old form, but most surprising was just how good it looked on display in the Astor Chinese Garden Court at the Metropolitan Museum. To my eye both the sculpture and its surrounding garden brought the other more fully to life. Classic Chinese gardens are, after all, deeply crafted and controlled meditations on nature. And perhaps it makes sense that petrochemical substances are the scholar’s rocks of the 21st century. Both Jianjun’s scholar’s rock and the courtyard garden punctures the naturalizing force of the other.

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