Littman Gallery, Portland State University.
by Daniel J Glendening
foreGround is an exhibition of six Oregon artists, loosely organized around the theme of geology. A group exhibition, in a perfect scenario, brings together disparate voices, and allows those disparate voices to engage in something of a unified conversation. In this case, curator Jeff Jahn has paneled a discussion that comes off as somewhat forced and uneven. The works presented don’t fully jive with one another, with small missteps interrupting the cadence.
Arcy Douglass presents a series of three untitled paintings, black and white geometric abstractions composed around the grid and ninety-degree arcs (sort of bringing to mind a flat honey-I-shrunk-the-LeWitt experiment). These geometries are counterpoint to Jim Neidhardt’s Atomic Fire Balls I-IV, scribbley expressionistic abstractions in black and salmony-red. Neidhardt’s compositions are generally centered on the page, their forms bringing to mind a campfire or strange carnation, the sometimes-violent nature of the scribble relatively tame and controlled. These drawings are, for some reason, hung with large metal spikes in an over-kill gesture for work that verges on elegance. Matthew Picton gives us Portland, a griddy map-based piece with three dimensional building-type structures made out of, supposedly, promotional materials from the film Dante’s Peak and book covers from Ursula LeGuin’s The Lathe of Heaven. It’s also got smoke on it.
Jacqueline Ehlis gives us another grid on the wall, of little boxes: some holding geological specimens, some backed by mirrors, and square blocky canvases with goopy, dirty-pastel colored paint. This grid is part of the installation of Holding Through the Silence, which also includes a photograph by the late Terry Toedtemeier of Haystack Rock at Cannon Beach, and a photograph of that same rock by Ehlis in a frame on the floor, glass smashed by a big, roundish volcanic-looking rock. We pay our dues and smash our idols, all with a bit of postmodern nonchalance, and give a nod to Smithson and LeVa on the way. The grid of stones and mirrors throws the piece off balance. It doesn’t seem to be a real part of the whole package, but an incongruent aside.
While Ehlis’ broken glass does a little something, the most pointed voices in the conversation of foreGround are found in the sculptures of Ben Young and Zachary Davis, E4 F5 and Rovers, respectively. Young’s work takes for its title a classic opening chess move known as the Duras Gambit or the Fred Defense, in which a black pawn is sacrificed to the white pawn for a later advantage. Young’s work consists of a humanoid form shrouded in Bueysian grey felt, crouched on the floor, seemingly impaled with a new, gleaming metal detector. Nearby is a small cast concrete statue of a lapdog, looking on sheepishly. Despite the impalement and implied pain, the work is scarcely violent. It’s almost as if the figure and tool have been joined together through some sort of matter phasing, the electro-divining rod penetrating the shaman without blood, without tearing and cutting, simply materializing inside its form. Magic slain by electro-magnetism, with the stone pup adding a touch of humor.
Death, or its spectre, carries through much of the work, present in Neidhardt’s Fire Balls, Picton’s smoky map, Ehlis’s shattered glass elegy, and Zachary Davis’ Rovers. Rovers is composed of a loose dune-scape of white sand atop a low grey plinth, upon which is projected a looping digital video of small, spot lit, scampering critters. These digital animals scavenge across a blasted, desolate landscape, devoid of any evidence of previous life. In the face of geologic time, in the scales of duration that mark the changing body of the Earth, human life and death is largely irrelevant. When humanity blasts itself off of the planet, through fallout or emissions or whatever else, the rocks will still stand, the sand will still blow in the wind. Perhaps all that will remain will be digital projections, creatures composed of data, prowling through the wasteland.