Anne Grgich's "Oblong Head"
Hanson, Heidi Schwegler, Kristi Edmunds, Anne Grgich
Death, pestilence & politics in Portland galleries
In July, a buzz was in the air.
The Portland Art Museum's Clement Greenberg exhibit (through
Sept. 16) forced us to think about something other than Portlanders,
opening up a new era.
The weather was beautiful and for some odd reason the galleries
combated the sunshine with cheery themes like death, disease
and a Fat Tuesday party. Maybe all the almost-gothic morbidity
was an elegy/celebration for the end of a static/musty local
Or was it a way to combat the idea that summer shows are lightweight?
Am I detecting a subtext of communal intelligence developing,
or is it just coincidence?
Portland Art Museum
1219 SW Park
July 7-Aug. 26
Polychomed Bronze and a John Deere: "Man on Mower"
by Duane Hanson
The current Duane Hanson exhibit opens up a Pandora's Box of prickly
Hanson's sculptures imitate nature, complete with real clothing
and informal posture. Yet, the illusion is often disturbingly incomplete
and therein lies their worth.
Hyper-real, these sculptures act upon the viewer a little like
cheese in a mousetrap. Often, out of the corner of the eye, one
mistakes them for real people.
When perceived as not quite kosher (the skin has a uniform sheen
and mammals should be covered in tiny hairs) the curious viewer
looks harder and -- whack! -- Hanson lets loose the pathos of a
banal, middle-class existential tragedy. If these works were completely
deceptive we probably would ignore their human condition.
These sculpture, or visual "traps," address demographic
queues and create an allegory of leveling microeconomics, where
each individual is uniformly disaffected with their niche. Everyone
looks pathetic and defeated. Each sculpture is a character (cleaning
staff and security guards are favorites) whose social status and
role in life is clearly apparent through their accessories.
"Old Couple on a Bench"
In "Old Couple on a Bench," the overweight pair is dressed
in Kmart-esque clothes common 15 years ago. Posture-wise, they seem
oppressed by the summer heat -- bushed from all the fun retirement
The bench, like something out of a Thomas Hardy novel, provides
the deistic allegory for retirement (sit down -- you are no longer
useful, this is now your role).
In fact, that deistic "cog in the universe" aspect gives
them more subtle terror than similar work by Ron Mueck. (Although
the museum brought this show in to be an attendance booster.)
Without breath and toupee-ish hair, Hanson's work does not evoke
the noble vitality of life and, instead, everything resembles death.
All his works are elegies, although the polychromed bronzes like
"Old Couple" are superior to the bondo and fiberglass
Why are we not fooled?
Most animals can intimately sense death, and I kept seeing the
family dog, lying in his kennel too still for life, as I cruised
around the space. Even the scale of the people seems diminished,
like Grandpa in the casket.
The verdict on Hanson
There is debate whether Hanson is all technique, but I propose he
lacks that very facility. This isn't photo-realism, this is fatal-realism.
What he is good at is evoking the omnipresence of death in life.
Damien Hirst's formaldehyde shark (below) would be a great curatorial
choice to pair next to "Man on a Mower." I'd call the
show "Death: everyone is doing it!"
Actually, I hate that sort of curatorial "connect the dots"
Heidi Schwegler and Kristi
416 NW 10th
June 29-Aug. 4
Schwegler's "Legacy" and "Index" (background)
Two years ago Heidi Schwegler proved the Oregon Biennial could have
some teeth. It was obvious that she was good -- maybe too good.
The problem: Portland galleries often make the mistake of booking
themselves two years in advance (as if nothing exciting will pop
Schwegler was and is exciting. Her penchant for oral fixations,
candy colors and medical pathology are challenging stuff. Because
she deserved it, PDX Gallery gave her a window project and that
small sample set my expectations very high.
The wait wasn't long. Schwegler's solo show at Savage's large back
gallery sets some new precedents, putting her on an aesthetic collision
course with the hottest, most relevant European artists in the last
20 years. How's that for drama? Yep, drama in Portland. Now that
The show begins with "Index," which reprises the small
jewel-like creations seen in the 1999 Biennial. But instead of devices
for any imaginable orifice placed in a display box like the Biennial,
"Index" hangs jewel-like re-creations of diseased tissue
in nice surgical bags.
The presentation is more lab-like than the salesmanship of the
earlier work. There is containment, but the baggies don't seem like
a foolproof barrier between the viewer and contagion. Also, the
presentation instills more fear and churlish love of baubles by
bringing them closer to us.
These are innate truths, and the sphinx-like nature of "Index"
makes it first-rate work -- not easily summed up and always worthy
of another look.
Schwegler considers disease a "genetic gift" and an "heirloom"
-- the connection between an individual and the human race's mutual
fear of pathology. I suspect this is language designed to bridge
the antipodes between her love of bauble-esque beauty and her innate
fascination with disease. It is no wonder that she was trained as
a jeweler; the human mind can be impressive in its ability to find
More traditional graphic works, like "Health" and a margin
of "Tolerance 1" (a more traditional painting) are much
less of a synthesis and more of a textbook page. That work, with
its illustrative head-restraint hardware and child, has literary
resonance but isn't as rich in tacit visual information as "Index."
These illustrations are a bit too didactic. Yes, happiness is a
choice -- especially in the developed world -- but this work is
a visual one-trick wonder, referencing our reactions against a predicable
tableau. In essence, the obvious made more obvious.
The same didactic message is ingrained in "Index," is
more effective since it's not so distanced and is more explicit.
Reality enhances the threat as we can avoid the textbook version
easier than the actual "heirloom," now made into a jewel
Similarly, half the show is spent comparing images of glamour/beauty
and diseased tissue in light boxes resembling those used for reviewing
x-rays. This is more predictable photojournalism and is spread over
Three works would have made the same point as the 20. But, then
again, I can't stand the harmonic predictability of an hour-long
J.S. Bach concert. So the Schwegler might be in good company.
The show's centerpiece is the hanging tableau of "Legacy,"
a real breakthrough. The large square is tethered from the ceiling
and the banal coloring of the transparent blocks seem pleasant enough,
even though the sterling silver rings inside are set with more diseased
There is a visual feast here: within the colored squares, everything
is slightly obscured and heightens the disgust/curiosity Schwegler
is staking out for her subject matter. Do we want to see the disease
and the pretty but banal bauble in more focus, or do we want the
issue obscured more with a heavily frosted surface treatment?
Hypothetically, obscuring the tissue would turn "Legacy"
into a formal abstraction and more clarity would render both too
descriptive, like the light boxes. In her way, Schwegler has found
the Bermuda Triangle for beauty and disease.
A myth/mystery/fear develops in this strange region of space and
I'm left wondering if both beauty and disgust are unavoidable and
necessary. At least we can avoid the strange forces of the Bermuda
Triangle by vacationing elsewhere.
Yet it is presentation that Schwegler wields with the most inhibition.
Hirst's "The Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone
British artist Damien Hirst has arguably been the master of presentation
in art for the last 15 years. He is also very taken with the medical
"parafinalia" and the display of specimens -- often creatures
With his precedent, one has to wonder: can Schwegler go beyond
the distanced presentations that both she and Hirst use to similar
effect? Only then can she press on farther past the laboratory and
into that even pricklier world of day-to-day life and contagion.
Kristi Edmunds: What has she gotten herself into!
Increasingly, Kristi Edmunds has become more known for her role as
El Capitan of the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art.
Is she still an artist? Hopefully, this show should settle some local
politics with her installation of a huge personal, handmade letter
in shorthand code on Savage's wall. (We live in a tense, paranoid
age and the scrutiny is important.) Locally, a few have been uncomfortable
with PICA's snuggling up with Weiden & Kennedy -- and saw the
"design oriented and minimalist " shows as proof that PICA
was the public relations dog of the large and powerful ad firm.
#1: Imagining How One Gets There From Here (A Letter Regarding
a Red Boat)," by Kristi Edmunds
Part of it stems from some of Marx's ideas that minimalism removed
the trace of the worker's handicraft. Therefore, the product could
be more easily co-opted as a purely capitalist icon associated as
market product, not a worker's labor.
In the wake of the WTO, this sort of thought is understandable
and in this show Edmunds shows she is still an artist. The work
is personal and generally curious, not some poster child of corporate
Wow, the things artists get into! Whoever said that the age where
ideas mattered was "dead" is patently wrong.
Edmunds is not an artist who produces a lot of work. She tends
to mull over a number of ideas then makes whatever it is in a very
compressed period of time. Her tastes are wide, and this time she
created a text in a cipher that she made up as a child.
of Kristi Edmunds' "Letter #1: Imagining How One Gets There
From Here (A Letter Regarding a Red Boat)"
In "Letter #1," Edmunds' discreet language conveys rapidity,
but it all seems familiar. The glyphs scroll across the wall with
a loose natural spacing and a sureness that is at times controlled.
At other times, large erasure swipes, arrows and diagrams seem to
describe the making of the very installation we see.
The black and white is elegant, but also evokes the daring child
with a crayon who draws on walls. In a way, the whole work seems
like the short attention span theater of a 3-year-old who simply
does something because it is interesting and they can. This is a
Edmunds' "A Memento for Tracy"
My favorite of Edmunds' work, "A Memento for Tracy,"
is more improvised and nonchalant. With its arrow toward the power
outlet, black sputters and a bit of black inside the prong openings,
it threatens to overwhelm the larger piece. It's reminiscent of
a child's unruly "hey, mom, see what I made for you ..."
The viewer really has no idea what this memento actually means,
although the glyph marks are more haphazard and "dotty."
I dig that.
One can come away from this exhibit with a sense of something the
Greeks called "dromena," or "things done." Edmunds
does things because she can. It's an impulse and the things done
are usually provocative.
The show gives a glimpse into the impulsive soul of PICA and has
a lot of Edmunds' unruliness in it, jumping from film to dance to
installation. This sort of bouncing gets confusing on a corporate
résumé and that's why PICA has survived -- not by
some master corporate plan, but as a fresh opportunity to do things.
Certainly, it would be duller without it. Some day Edmunds might
be able to separate her existence from PICA. But let's hope it is
Mark Woolley Gallery
120 NW 9th, Suite 210
of "Oblong Head"; see full view above.
My favorite work of gallery art in July was "Oblong Head"
by outsider-artist Anne Grgich. This thick stew of puzzle pieces,
congealed paint and glitter is reminiscent of Georges Rouault (if
he had painted in New Orleans on Fat Tuesday).
The work is stoic, somber and gothic, yet it also declares a syncretic
relationship with games, festivals and a general joie de vivre.
Not exactly the easiest stew of aesthetic directions to digest.
Essentially, this is spicy food. Grgich's work is considered outsider
art -- which focuses on untrained and often anti-academic artists
who create with rough/rustic materials outside of highbrow material
consciousness and the traditional cultural legitimacy courted by
more sales-driven artists.
The genre is extremely well regarded (it became the vogue after
the art-market collapse of 1989 as a return to integrity) and Chicago
is probably the best place to take in a lot of it. In fact, Grgich
was a cover artist for Raw Vision Magazine in 1998. For those unfamiliar,
Raw Vision is outsider- and tramp-art's premier publication.
You don't see outsider art much in Portland, probably because the
West Coast in general is "taste-wise" insecure. In other
words, most of the art, furniture and architecture focuses more
on oblique quality signifiers like finish (fashion), craftsmanship
I can forgive furniture and architecture for this because there
is a practicality to pure craftsmanship. But if the art is too polite
it is dead. Grgich's "Oblong Head" is anything but polite.
Yep, I can see all the Oba-goers on First Thursday gazing upon
the crusted/turgid/sparkly surface of "Oblong Head" with
lost and puzzled looks.
No, Victoria, Prada and tramp-art don't mix.
The crusted surface leaves one with a sphinx-like puzzle that one
should never want to solve. Real taste is about accepting and relishing
dramatic differences without trying to impose homogenizing common
It is the difference between the menu at Denny's and an authentic