OFF THE PLAIN
Contemporary Northwest Photography
Curated by TJ Norris
Pioneer Place Mall, 700 SW 5th Avenue/3rd Floor, Portland OR
April 18 - June 2
Thursday through Sunday, 12-6PM
From the title “Northwest Photography: the Same but Different” I had the feeling that someone out there may have taken more than a typical scant look at what’s going on at Place through the weekend of 6/1. Author Jenna Lechner writes…”Some shows demand a second viewing. Sometimes because they’re great, sometimes because they’re a totally different experience on a second viewing, and sometimes because they’re a slightly different exhibit on a second viewing. And then, of course, some shows are simply demanding. All of the above are true in Place Gallery’s survey of Northwest contemporary photography, Off the Plain. Curated by Portland photographer TJ Norris, it’s a packed group show with 17 artists and showcases a mix of non-traditional photographs……” (more here)
JOE: Off the Plain, a show of contemporary Northwest photography, is a stimulating exhibit of twenty mixed media works that build on photography but go beyond traditional notions of the photograph. Curator TJ Norris offers it as “an opportunity to look forward from the cast of photographic traditions without discounting its influence.” Some works are manipulated or layered images, such as two large headshots, side by side, of apparently different individuals. Put on the available 3-D glasses and one head becomes the other, or not, depending on which eye is used (one lens is red, the other green). The artist describes it as “an imaginary portrait of the conceptual space where identities overlap.” Other pieces are more difficult to appreciate unless one is familiar with current movements in photography, and some of the accompanying artist’s statements are conceptualized beyond easy understanding. Still, it is well worth a visit. Come prepared to be challenged.
ANN: Off The Plain is a wonderful collection of contemporary photographic work which has something for everyone. My favorite work is the piece by Tricia Hoffman. Tricia uses an old sewing machine case to tell a compelling story which is both personal and historic. I grew up with a similar piece of furniture which was loaded with sox for darning and spools and scissors and hat pins. Sewing and the machine represented both my Mother and a way of life when everything was hand made. The artist talks about the journey the sewing machine table made throughout her life from place to place and she shows images in the drawers of things that could have been or were in the drawers. The emotional content is obvious; and references compelling.
After offering, some local inquiring minds in the arts wanted to know — and a handful of Off the Plain artists responded in kind. Questions were submitted by two regional professionals in the arts which generated some particularly provocative and pertinent responses.
Carson Legree, Director
Clark College’s Archer Gallery asks…
1.) How does your work reference and/or build upon the work of earlier artists? Who are those artists and how did they influence your work? I can’t look at Ben Buswell’s work, for instance without thinking of Vida Clements and her paintings that “lack a point of reference, horizon, or discernible depth of field”. Is anyone looking at Bruce Conner? Harrison Higgs maybe? Does Richard Schemmerer ever look at the work of someone like Lucas Samaras?
Ben Buswell: To address Vija Celmins specifically, I don’t associate my work with hers as our choices regarding process are very different, and for me this is where much of the meaning in both of our work lies. I do however understand the connection between the choices we make regarding how we frame images. For me this choice is two fold. On the one hand, the lack of reference point, along with surface manipulation and the angled framing, allows me to “objectify” the photograph. On the other, the images I use are of specific places, yet have ubiquitous associations. A good analog to this second idea is Roni Horn’s “Some Thames” series of photographs.
Harrison Higgs: Yes to Bruce Conner. My primary camera for many years was a vacuum-tube video camera from which I grabbed stills. Less interested in the literal, I took to that pulsing glowing rhythm of video. Because my experience of the image in this form was based upon the projection and gathering of light, Robert Irwin also affected my thinking (though not my style).
Michael Sell: This particular vein of my work springs from a weird place combining the ideas of artists like Paul Klee and Mark Rothko with the notion of photography as a purely decorative element in contemporary society. The notion of the author is somewhat lost in the era of phone cameras and ubiquitous Internet access. I recently discovered the work of Byron Kim whose Synecdoche looks very similar to this work. His idea of exploring racial identity through singular fields of colors is intriguing when I compare it to my work. Boiling down a person’s identity, heritage, or ethnicity to a single color is a way of categorizing humanity. The taxonomy in my piece is different in that the work explores selective editing and summarization of these famous images.
Richard Schemmerer: I am familiar with Lucas Samaras and like his art books especially the ones with nails and razor blades. I have my own series of book art. As an interdisciplinary artist I appreciate that he is not afraid of paint. I can relate to that as a painter myself. To me painting is not a dirty word, is not dead, and will always have a special priority to me and to many others. I lived in Hawaii for many years and became familiar with a different art aesthetic. There was a lot of talk about East verses West. The Japanese culture is very strongly represented on the islands. I was always fascinated by the art of origami as it can transform a flat sheet into something magical which dates back to the Edo period around 1600 but is predated by Chinese practice during the Sung Dynasty.
I took a lose approach by updating the technique and use it as modular form to built the base construction. I have been inspired to use this approach by Japanese artist Mark Kadota who builds intricate origamies out of light wood. I used this approach to lift the photographs of the ground so to speak inspired by modern day architects like Frank Gehry, but also by natural structures like honey combs. Intellectually I followed a blend of paths like Dada and Jacques Derrida’s ideas of deconstruction. Because I work “off the plain” a lot I have a myriad of influences to be grateful for especially Félix González-Torres.
Ted Hiebert: In a larger context my work has always paid special attention to artists working in self-portraiture and alternative techniques, especially optical (rather than chemical) alternatives. Among those that play heavily in my own influence are Lucas Samaras, Evergon, Diana Thorneycroft and Joel Peter Witkin. In a broader context I’ve also been heavily influenced by artists like Bruce Nauman and John Baldessari for their ability to fuse playful and conceptual approaches to art-making.
Chao Wang: I think one of my great influences is the photographer Moriyama Daido. I’ve enjoyed many of his works and think the influence on me is about the freedom to interpret things as I see — taking photos the way that your mind tells you; not being constrained by the conventional sense of beauty. Many of his photos reflect the dark side of the Japanese society, but personally I want to express my opinion in a strange but yet humorous way.
Carson Legree, Director
Clark College’s Archer Gallery asks…
2.) How does your work fit into a NW tradition? Does it reference previous NW artists or it is somehow shaped by the natural or unnatural environment of the NW?
Michael Sell: Not sure. I moved here from the midwest in 2009, but I don’t yet see a regional specificity to my work as of yet.
Harrison Higgs: I’m not sure I do fit in. The supernatural environment is everywhere though.
Chao Wang: The NW’s nature definitely play a huge role in my photographs, I enjoy how people and nature seems to connect tightly here, but sometimes also found this strange in a way, since i do not grow up this way, it is interesting that I heard a expression that “people in seattle always seem to dress like they are going camping the next minute” . I found it really interesting and also represent a certain stereotype that i somehow want to include in my works.
Ted Hiebert: Not really. I’m new to the Pacific NW (moved in 2009) so still acclimatizing to what it means to be working as an artist here. I’m from the west coast of Canada however, so the Vancouver School does factor somewhat into my frame of reference, though mostly as a tradition I try to avoid mimicking.
Richard Schemmerer: NW art tradition in my mind would refer to native Indian art. In some ways I tried to adopt a sense of their philosophy in regard to the environment as one of the curatorial requirements was to reflect on the NW sensibility. Like in the Chilcat Indian tradition that weaves tree bark into textiles. The base of my sculptures is not just origami but also a 3 D version of weaving them together. The photos are of course made from paper which is tree pulp made from trees.
Carson Legree, Director
Clark College’s Archer Gallery asks…
3.) How does your work reveal or describe some aspect of life that is unique to the 21st Century?
Richard Schemmerer: First of all I find this question unfair, slightly passive/aggressive and irrelevant. That said it is of course an excellent question. The 21st century is still very young and we are still with one foot at least in an old world paradigm. So let me address this questions from that position I am in. First of all the pieces are architectural and highly complicated in their structural form I could not have made them with the help of advanced glues. Just kidding but for the fun of it lets assume life in the 21st Century is unique.
My work bridges architecture, photography art, craft, concept, social practice and time based art all into a singular presentation. It tempts the observer to reflect at his role as such and as the piece is observed the observer becomes a performer. The sculptures I presented can today shape shift in size and actually be built as either public art or used as blue print for lets say a high rise complex.
Harrison Higgs: I don’t think I’m successfully describing it yet in my work, but we are finally moving away from dualistic views of the world.
Ted Hiebert: The works in this show are directly related to a series of meditations I have been doing on the question of technology. I’m interested in the ways technology shapes our frames of conceptions and alters what we might otherwise see as normalized modes of perception. At stake in the question of technology is our ability to imagine beyond the confines of new and seductive modes of digital perception — our ability to remix the machines, so to speak, and to find creative ways to dialogue with the new possibilities technology offers. While anaglyph 3d glasses are not a 21st century invention, I see these interventions into the technique as allegorical in that they suggest ways to also intervene into how we use other technological apparatuses.
Chao Wang: I guess it has to do with the involvement of technology. I shoot film, but instead of printing with an enlarger, I enjoy the freedom of scanning the negatives and using software to add my texture and language into the photos.
Michael Sell: This work helps to illustrate the anonymity of the contemporary photographer. Technology, the Internet, and photography in general are so widespread in industrial society (and education) that the important names and themes become seemingly less important. This is a generalization of sorts, but as an educator, I find that students remember fewer and fewer specifics about the artists we study in class. This work responds to that; it is an idea that the average person wouldn’t want to be anywhere near Serrano’s Piss Christ, but if you can paint their wall in that burnt orange yellow, the source of the color means less than how the color itself affects their lives.
Ronald Kriesel, Board Chair
3D Center of Art & Photography asks…
1.) Curator Norris sought to activate the possibilities of how light might be re-shaped through dimensionality, slippage, angularity or aspects that are participatory or performative. How did your art contribution in this exhibit give me, the viewer, the opportunity to look forward from the cast of photographic traditions without discounting its continued influence.
Ben Buswell: As someone who is mainly concerned with objects, I come to this exhibition as an outsider to the traditions of photography. My interest in the photograph has to do with it’s use as a material and as container of history. I am interested in the slippage of the image in time and it’s relationship to the viewer, ”the frozen moment” vs. the active object.
Richard Schemmerer: As the images have a shiny surface and are variegated in tone, combined and installed on a white wall they do throw shadows which change with the time of day and the amount of sun shine coming through. The light also shifts and exposes different aspects of the construction and the motive as the viewer moves around it. I think light breaks on the surface of these elements and gives them a futuristic aspect. One can imagine that we live in housing modules on a different planet in designs like it.
In terms of “photographic traditions, et al” I am not sure if I understand your question correctly. The viewer becomes the lens by which this installation will be remembered. My hope was to introduce a new way to present photography and liberate it from being a framed flat surface or serve as a copy of nature, a memento mori or being purely documentary. At the same time these photo objects fulfill the same tasks as ordinary photography but also offer up a conceptual aspect as well as a craft element.
Ted Hiebert: These works are about expanding the creative field of vision, remixing what we see in ways that challenge the static sense of the image and instead require us to see pictures for the conceptual impact they have. Technical interventions are both an homage to past technologies (since they wouldn’t be possible without the technologies they use) and a challenge (hopefully) to the possibilities prescribed in advance by technology itself. My pictures use the isolation of the eyes necessary for anaglyph 3d to instead mashup two different pictures of the world, reinforcing the simple claim that we can see the world in more than one way at any given time.
Ronald Kriesel, Board Chair
3D Center of Art & Photography asks…
2.) We all make choices about liking or expecting to like an artwork or an exhibit. Contemporary art is a challenge for me in which to engage. For me to appreciate the art or intent of the art or the implied story of the art, I expect it to appeal to me. Most art in this exhibit did not appeal to me.
Per the Curator’s goal, which pieces made me think in a new way: “Involuntary Souvenirs”, “Photo Swatch Grid #1” (did the red tones I moved stay together until today?) and “Untitled Constructed Perspectives 01-05” ( Something about bringing nature with us). So I wonder what you think of this possibility? Are the pieces I passed over telling a story I missed? Why did they not also make me think in new ways? Or were they experiments that failed?
Harrison Higgs: I am working with the light based-image as projected into space, reappearing in different planes. It is true that I’ve depersonalized the original narrative. This round goes to industry.
Ted Hiebert: I think there is value to failed experiments, and I think there is a certain willingness required on the part of the viewer in order to find ways to engage with work that isn’t immediately appealing. This is especially true with contemporary art, which often privileges dialogue — and consequently doesn’t always declare in advance what it means (since that meaning waits in many ways to be determined dialogically). At the same time, many of the works in this exhibition asked the viewer to work quite hard in order to engage, something that most of us have a particular threshold for. So — was there something missed if you didn’t work hard enough to engage all of the works? Sure. But at the same time, there will always be things missed in a story that privileges engagement over information or didactic presentation. It’s an incomplete answer of course, but more just to point to the larger context in which this kind of reaction is completely inline with the thresholds we all have for engagement with various forms of contemporary art. Works never fail on their own, nor do they succeed without those who engage them.
Richard Schemmerer: I think art does not have to be understood, felt or liked for that matter. Sometimes the greatest works are the pieces we don’t like. They can teach us about the role of expectation or our judgment. Good art serves mostly as a mirror first, and secondarily as a bit of entertainment. My work “Constructed Perspective” took multiple perspectives into consideration. I had decided that for this exhibit I would create something that was likeable for most people and easy to grasp and relate to. The elements invoke nature and its ability to multiply or replicate.
They also are architectural - just like the base of biology is mathematics and architecture, but they also can be experienced as a mental construct like the architecture of memory — and how each image we screen builds up to the whole picture. A life time of pictures that makes the movie of our life. An experiment can never fail because it was intended to be an experiment not a recreation, an act that has already happened many times before. Every experiment is at its core a failure. But failure is good as with nothing new would ever be conceived. So by not liking some pieces the viewer is invited to reconsider these pieces as the markers that will be the guide to a newer, more expanded vision.
(Saturday, May 4, 2013)
On one of Portland’s very first bright summer-like days our Artist/Panel Discussion The Constant Construct + Inevitability of Complex Perspective began its session. After a short curatorial intro the discussion took off with short bios and insights about each artist’s work in context within the exhibition. The panel talked about breaching photographic traditions, about teaching (three of the panelists are also teachers), about sculpture, and where we are at right now with media overload in the Northwest.
Regionalism was happily not the main crux of the conversation, though conclusions were made in light of the medium that it mattered to an extent. Bolstered by its conceptual nature the overarching theme was how the photograph is ultimately shapeshifted in a variety of unexpected forms nowadays. That was until post-modernism was brought up. This sparked considerations about language in the arts, in general and globally, particularly pertaining to semblances between art and architecture. This debate could have gone on a whole lot longer given that Place’s Gabe Flores dropped hints of post-structural theorist Lacan and the heterotopias of Foucault into the conversation. If time allowed we could have gone a few more rounds (perhaps infinitely?) on this alone. For me it brought back up my inclusion in the amazing Of Other Spaces exhibition I was involved in a few years back.
The dialogue was rife with issues pertaining to commerce and its aftermath, structure and ideology. Coming soon: a video excerpt of the above panel, as well as extended questions that were submitted to me by Carson Legree of Clark College’s Archer Gallery and Ronald Kriesel of the (sadly defunct) 3D Center of Art & Photography. Stay tuned.
by Richard Speer
…Whether in his photography, curatorial endeavors or seminal gallery, Soundvision, TJ Norris has always been a reliable purveyor of conceptually and visually elegant projects with a minimalist bent. His latest outing, Off the Plain, extends his signature aesthetic into the conceit of photography-as-sculpture…..(Read Full Review)
Inventing Three-Dimensional Arrangements 2 (Installation View)
by Melanie Flood
b. 1982, Lake Tahoe, CA
Residence: Portland, OR
Vaughn is a Portland based artist and designer pushing the boundaries of the photographic process and structure. Hailing from a family of artists she was educated at Hallmark Institute of Photography and is an Adjunct Professor at Lake Tahoe Community College. Her work has been exhibited throughout California, Nevada, and the Pacific Northwest. Major publications include work featured in American Photography Magazine as well as a guest appearance on NPR. She was the 2003 recipient of the Mamiya Award of Excellence.
silence apart (2013, detail)
“Through a combination of functionally based materials and utilitarian objects my work explores visual juxtapositions against audio interpretations. The alignment of imagery on materials inherently susceptible to corrosion invokes ideas of the human spirit and its unavoidable relationship with time.”
silence apart (2013, installation view)
Curatorial Commentary: At first I was intrigued by Vaughn’s use of materials, fusing photography, metal and functional objects. But take a closer look and you will note that these vintage objects, particularly in silence apart have no “real” function except to incite discussion and delight. The work incorporates a portable (circa 1950’s?) record player that spins aluminum discs (sans grooves). In its installation the piece emits only the sound you generally hear once the needle hits the inner end of the record, where you would ordinarily flip to hear the other side. Instead there is repetitive white noise static, going round n’ round. A cryptic re/cycle, or perhaps an erasure, or memory — or some combination thereof. The viewer may select one of four of these “records” on a nearby tiered shelf. But the images are records of something of a completely ‘other’ nature. A mythical, gestural portrait of a young woman (the artist?) flailing amid a natural scape. The circular format of the works only re-emphasizing the tunnel-like gaze of a voyeuristic lens.
In beloved a woman holds a classical bust as if she is about to drop it (ala Ai Weiwei). Through the patina from rusty surface the high-heeled lady stands poker-faced atop a grassy knoll, with one half of her visage shrouded with her locks, seems to confront the viewer. Behind her a pure white dog (or deer) is poised, standing at attention. The mirror image which is hinged together is far more obscured and the face is nearly non-existent. Is she letting go of something secret and sacred, or is it a portrait of lost love?
Inventing Three-Dimensional Arrangements #2 (2012)
b. 1979, Manhasset, NY
Residence: Portland, OR
Melanie is an Artist & Curator with a BFA in Photography from the School of Visual Arts. As Managing Editor of the quarterly arts publication zingmagazine she curated two solo projects, Declassified by Jenny Holzer and Roaming by Todd Hido. In 2008 she opened Melanie Flood Projects, an artists’ salon located in her Brooklyn residence. During the gallery’s brief existence, MFP was featured in The New York Times, New York Magazine, Paper Magazine, Time Out NY, & Photo District News. Melanie has since relocated to Portland, where she continues to curate and create her own work.
Inventing Three-Dimensional Arrangements #1 (2012)
Curatorial Commentary: The open and similar color field, in these two images, one saturated and one muted, are both from Melanie’s ongoing Suggested Experiences series. In her practice she lives with objects, often quite common, cheap, machine mass produced — and arranges them in lyrical ways where the focus on the central inanimate thing is paramount. They are folded, draped and placed, just so. Years ago you would be hit with a flash of Technicolor, then it was Kodakchrome and now it’s a kaleidoscope called, you guessed it, ©Tumblr - a place where over 100 million blogs exist in cyberspace!
The source of the color in the case of Inventing Three-Dimensional Arrangements comes from various artificial dyes that are at once dazzling to the eye, and yet are anything but real. Color that absorbs itself into something. The circus comes to mind. As such Flood navigates that space of 21st Century plasticity in the world of the found object by negating concrete space with a neutral backdrop. The viewer is left in the floating void. These easily accessed, tactile things (Dollar Store anyone?) draw us closer. Yet, the objects, still contained within the flatness of the picture plane, deny our touch, remaining only a document of something simulated, toyed with, invented.
Untitled #1, Untitled #2 (2013, installation view)
b. 1978, Charleston, SC
Residence: Billings, MT
Sarah is an Assistant Professor of Art at Montana State University in Billings, Montana. Sarah holds an MFA in Photography from the Design Architecture Art and Planning Program at the University of Cincinnati in Ohio and a BFA in Studio Art from Texas State University. Her work has been featured in exhibitions national and internationally, which include Seattle, Kansas City, Belgium, Germany and Washington DC.
“My current body of work focuses on miniature landscapes constructed with organic and synthetic materials. I want the subject of the work to appear as if it is plausible as an inhabitable space but that an interaction with the world of the supernatural has just occurred. My interest in space and its many manifestations of analog and currently digital was an impetus for my use of layering in this work. With the use of colored film in front of each photograph to reference layers, masks or vectored shapes that are created in a virtual space.”
Curatorial Commentary: I was immediately absorbed into Sarah’s futuristic imagery. They pair geometries with natural settings that have been arranged and fabricated with effects to throw the eye from any possible central point-of-view. I also found her deft use of color to harness something that went beyond basic abstraction into a realm of topographies, surveillance and abduction. There is an eerie sense of both presence and absence at work.
To achieve some of the overall result Knobel has employed a frameless approach, sandwiching the work within several layers, simply leaned along a thin constructed shelf. The layers simultaneously create an apex and hazy distortion in the central image. While some may consider this to be, say, a facsimile of a transmission, others may infer mapping out a variance on new urban planning. What I see are new worlds, partially disguised as Planet Earth, particularly that in sub/urban Montana, with a twist of course.
First There is a Mountain (2013)
b. 1974, Dallas, OR
Residence: Portland, OR
Buswell received a BFA from Oregon State University in 2001 and a MFA from The University of Wisconsin/Madison in 2005. Ben creates objects through emergent processes and the excavation of materiality. His work is concerned with the construction of shared experience, knowledge and identity. He lives and works in Portland with his family, and teaches Sculpture and Design at Portland Community College. Buswell has had solo exhibitions in both Portland and Seattle. His work has been included in the 2006 Oregon Biennial at the Portland Art Museum, Portland 2012: A Biennial of Contemporary Art at Disjecta, and recent exhibitions in San Francisco, and Los Angeles.
Curatorial Commentary: When I was first exposed to Ben’s work what I saw were bold sculptural pieces, often monotonal, retrofitting common objects and blunt form. From the start I so appreciated his understanding and delivery of organic undulation and the perspective brought on by viewer interaction. His work asserted a sense of reaching out from the surface. In the ensuing seven years I have seen his work continue to evolve into larger sculptural forms using various materials including ceramics, mirror and photographic imagery. What started to emerge was an unusual fusion that used a photographic base that broke from basic traditions of both sculpture and photography.
It was when he began to score the surface of images that I took closer, proper notice. At once this simple (yet daring) action harkens works like A Bigger Splash, Milk Drop and countless copycats. There’s something about piercing the thin paper layer that defies its purpose and makes it unique by way of its re-appropriation and indelible, repetitive hand at work. In First There is a Mountain Buswell further distorts this notion by scoring between the lines already made by way of the sandy surface captured by the light of the lens. These lines, intersecting and meeting other lines, create something of a patchwork texture which shifts the light on the surface as you view the piece linearly. This act further brings light back into the frame (also handmade and angled) so to move the eye over the entire picture plane.