Portland2012 at Disjecta, Portland

by Sarah Vaeth

March 2012

I’ll reiterate a complaint aired about Disjecta’s first (2010) biennial: Portland2012 is much too dispersed. Curated by Prudence Roberts, twenty-four Oregon artists and artist-teams have been selected for five venues, in staggered periods beginning in late February and ending in May. As of this review, two venues have opened, so this won’t provide a comprehensive critique; call it a status report. Perplexingly, while two strong selectees—Akihiko Miyoshi and Ben Buswell—are featured centrally at PDX Across the Hall, seven more require a drive to Marylhurst University’s Art Gym, a respected exhibit space to be sure, but in Lake Oswego. Why the far-flung separation, when the Pearl has so many art spaces within walking distance of each other? Marylhurst was only worth the trip so that I could add Cynthia Lahti as a third highlight. Otherwise, this exhibit was as collegiate as its setting. A’s for demonstrating familiarity with the art world. A’s for teacher-pleasing execution.

In Miyoshi’s self-portraits, the artist is recognizable only by his narrow silhouette. None of his photographs represents him directly: in every case he’s shooting his double in the mirror, behind the camera. But these images aren’t simply a spin on Narcissus’s frustrated overture. Narcissus pursued his double; Miyoshi hides his. He traces his silhouette with pieces of colored tape stuck to the mirror: red, blue, green, sometimes yellow or orange. Sometimes the tape pieces are in focus, so you know the image for what it is—the (blurred) figure of the photographer stands well back from a mirror covered with little pieces of colored tape. In other images, the tape is unrecognizable as such: out of focus, blurred into beads of colored light. The figure of the artist, focused but nevertheless obscured, is haloed with these lights. In one image, just a few cluster around him like so many fireflies. In another, they densely adhere. While Miyoshi sometimes subjects his images to digital manipulation, the rule in this series is the analog simulation of a digital aesthetic. The camera hides both the artist and the means of his manipulations.

Mirroring makes Buswell a poetic pairing to Miyoshi at PDX. Ideas of reflection and falsity are echoed strategically in his floor sculptures, but the twinned, wall-mounted Devil’s Lake is most compelling: each image is teased from the altered black and white photograph of a man-made lake. Sometimes the age-old format is the rhetorically right choice: on the wall, these images are “windows” so their illusionistic depth could be infinite. At the same time, they’re deceptively superficial. Each piece has been marked over with short scratches, exposing more or less of the white under the photo. One lake seems touched by sunshine, the other twilight. Simultaneously, the raised burrs of glossy photographic paper catch real light and the whole image sparkles like diamond pavé, a thing to covet. The artist must have willed exactly this: the photographed lake is a facsimile, the answer to a lack in nature. Altered by more fakery, the photograph is an artificial gem, arousing instantaneous desire in the viewer.

Lahti similarly confronts the art object as a thing to possess. Her Trash Paper Series is resistant to commodification; the individual pieces only make sense in context, en mass. But the photographed Crush Series? Perfectly wall-ready. In this way the artist has objectified her own critique of objectification. Wadded up cutouts from vintage glamour magazines: images of fashion models, hopelessly dated. The two-dimensional beauties have been molded into three-dimensional goblins. The slightest twist or bulge turns the ideal into the monstrous. Initially they look like a familiar trope, the beauty myth mutated into the grotesque. The concept, recently utilized by Wengechi Mutu, creates a morbidity in the art. In their use of bygone advertising, they serve as memento mori. The three Black Hair sculptures resemble shrunken mummy heads. How unstable the human form is, how easily consigned to the boneyard, as yesterday’s Harper’s is consigned to the wastebasket. It is easy to draw comparisons between Lahti’s objects and one’s own mortality. Is her photo-documentation of such an object merely the production of a salable souvenir; or is this the futile act of preserving-again the corrupt visage

The disjointed works shown at Marylhurst struggle to shine in comparison to the seamless flow between the artists at PDX. The overall exhibit presents as a Whitman’s Sampler of contemporary practices and values. A lack of curatorial context means that the collective currency is recognizable only to the art literate. Because the biennial is city-wide and representative of all contemporary production in the region, it should be accessible to everyone. Unfortunately, it’s spread too thin: both physically in how it’s stretched around the city and contextually due to a lack of common ground. A tighter show might have focused on constellations of shared ideas, and those ideas would have been articulated to a general audience. Maybe that would have meant fewer venues or fewer works, but the inclusiveness of Portland2012: A Biennial has only contributed to the lazy—and false—notion that contemporaneity is a random pluralism.

Portland2012: A Biennial of Contemporary Art
28 February—31 March, 2012
PDX Across the Hall
27 February—4 April, 2012
The Art Gym, Marylhurst University
Portland