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Preview: Portland Mercury: Visual Art

Portland Mercury: Visual Art

Portland's Most Awesome Weekly Newspaper. Covering Portland news, politics, music, food & drink, comedy, cannabis, film, and arts; plus the most extensive movie times, club calendars, and blogs.

Published: Sun, 25 Feb 2018 00:00:01 -0800

Last Build Date: Sun, 25 Feb 2018 10:15:00 -0800

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Beyond The Americans

Wed, 10 Jan 2018 04:00:00 -0800

At Blue Sky Gallery, an Essential Look into the Life and Work of Photographer Robert Frank by Megan Burbank If you’re familiar with the work of photographer Robert Frank, it’s probably from seeing it in a book. Frank’s The Americans is a staple of photography classrooms everywhere, a tome of vérité-style photographs of everyday Americans shot on the Swiss-born photographer’s 1955 cross-country tour of the United States. As an educational tool, it’s an essential guide to street photography and a document of a time and place. As a book, it’s simply a compelling way to lose a couple of hours without noticing, even if you aren’t an undergrad huffing darkroom fumes. I first encountered The Americans as such an undergrad, in a photography lecture. After Louis Daguerre’s rangy Paris street scene, the first known figurative photograph, but before Bernd and Hilla Becher’s conceptual images of industrial buildings and Robert Mapplethorpe’s “Self-Portrait with Whip,” Frank is who you look at, and for good reason: The Americans is like the art world’s answer to Studs Terkel’s My American Century. It captures 1950s American life in a way that’s both ambitious and highly specific, and it’s one of those rare artistically instructive works that also happens to be accessible and even fun. {{image:2}} It’s something you don’t often get to see outside of the slippery, too-thick pages of a coffee table book. Frank’s work is rarely exhibited. That’s what makes Blue Sky Gallery’s new show Robert Frank: Books and Films 1947-2018 so exciting. In this exhaustive exhibition, his images are printed on giant swaths of newsprint hung across several gallery walls, and seeing his work blown up on a large scale is an entirely new way to experience this once-recognizable work. The show is also a completist look at Frank’s life and career, bringing together series like The Americans, later film projects, Polaroids, and candid shots of everyone from Frank’s family members to the poet Allen Ginsberg, instantly identifiable by his thick glasses and infectious, beneficent grin. Seemingly pedestrian subjects—aerial shots of neon swimming pools; gently lit, lovingly arranged doughnuts; simple object studies from a very young Frank’s job-hunting portfolio—are made beautiful and compelling in the artist’s framing and photographic gaze. I take some issue with the show’s lofty claim, in catalog materials, that Frank is “considered the inventor of street photography.” Street photography is an old practice, and staking a claim for a singular “inventor” of the genre seems a dubious project at best. It also ignores the fact that Frank was a contemporary of other great street photographers, including Diane Arbus and Henri Cartier-Bresson, and influenced greatly by Walker Evans. {{image:1}} Still, it’s undeniable that Frank shot The Americans in a magnificent era for photography, and street photography in particular, and there’s a tactile quality to this show that fans of older photographic methods will enjoy. The combination of newsprint and 35mm is a stark reminder of how profoundly analog photography differs from digital work. Film feels more substantial, heavier, the contrasts sharper, the lighting more exacting, the framing more careful, with small visual pleasures that are necessarily absent from digital pieces, like the legible film grain in Frank’s photo of a mountain from his early portfolio work. There’s a quality to both 35mm and newsprint that draws you in. I wanted to touch the photographs in this show, and I actually pulled a real art school move and crouched down in front of one wall covered in blown-up contact sheets—printed rows of Frank’s raw negatives—because I wanted to get as close to the outtakes as I possibly could. About those contact sheets: Along with Frank’s more diaristic projects and Polaroid shots, they give a rare glimpse into his process, making a very humanizing pivot f[...]Santa Fe, New Mexico, from the book The Americans

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Origins of Illimat

Wed, 10 Jan 2018 04:00:00 -0800

Making a Board Game with the Decemberists by Ben Coleman

“Take as many cards as you can, especially summer and fools, be careful of how much winter you take, and if you can clear a field, clear a field,” explains game designer Keith Baker, and I’m intrigued. He and producer Jenn Ellis are describing their latest game Illimat, produced in collaboration with indie band the Decemberists and award-winning illustrator Carson Ellis (Wildwood, The Composer is Dead). It’s partly a card game, a bit of a board game, and mostly an extremely beautiful collection of cards and cloth and tokens. Before playing a round and soundly trouncing me in the process, Baker and Ellis detail the game’s peculiar origin.

“In 2008, the Decemberists were working on an album called The Hazards of Love, and they were doing a promotional photo shoot,” Baker says. In keeping with the rock opera’s Edwardian narrative of betrayal and conspiracy, the shoot’s theme was “What if we were a secret society playing a mysterious game that nobody’s seen before?”


According to Baker, photographer Autumn de Wilde and illustrator Carson Ellis produced a prop that resembled what Illimat eventually became, but at that point there weren’t any rules for how you’d actually play it. Several years later, the band reached out to Baker, based on their experience with his storytelling game Gloom. “They said, ‘Hey, you make games, we have this mysterious thing. Could you make it into an actual game?’” Baker recalls, “They wanted it to be something that could be 100 years old and simply forgotten about.”

The core of Illimat is a straightforward two- to four-player card game reminiscent of Hearts or 13, with various strategic modifiers layered on top. There’s a symbol-strewn cloth mat that represents the aforementioned fields, and the game box itself assigns each field a season.

The most distinctive elements are the Luminaries: gorgeous Tarot-like wildcards that alter the rules of the game when revealed. Carson Ellis has illustrated each card with her signature slightly sinister elegance: The Rake is a bandy-legged dandy standing astride a discard pile; the Forest Queen holds a fern and a brush fire in either hand. These elements might be familiar to fans of the source material, but Baker is quick to note that the thematic overlap is largely what you make of it. “[Illimat] might be played by the people in the world of The Hazards of Love, [but it’s not] Hazards of Love: The Game.”

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Indigenous Weaving Traditions Carry On in Interwoven Radiance

Wed, 03 Jan 2018 04:00:00 -0800

A new exhibit celebrates the Native women artists of the Northwest Coast. by Jennifer Lagdameo

Chilkat and Ravenstail weavings are two of the most complex art forms in North America—and also two of the most underappreciated. The opening of Interwoven Radiance, a new exhibit at the Portland Art Museum’s Center for Contemporary Native Art, aims to change that, by finally shedding some much-needed light and attention on this beautiful and spiritual weaving tradition, carried on by women weavers.

While not as well-known as other traditional Northwest Coast art forms—most of which are traditionally made by men—Chilkat and Ravenstail weavings are certainly no less deserving of the spotlight. A tradition which originated with the Tsimshian tribe, Chilkat weaving is now practiced by traditional Tlingit weavers in the Chilkat Valley of Alaska. The distinctive pieces combine imagery from nature with familiar graphic formline art motifs common throughout Northwest Coast traditional art. More minimalistic, Ravenstail weavings are black-and-white graphic pieces inspired by geometric basketry designs from the region.

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The robes on display document history, honor clan relationships, and unite the community—but there are only a handful of Native artisan weavers trained in these techniques. The time-consuming process requires months of prep work. Even before the initial weaving of the textiles begins, cedar bark and mountain goat hair are collected and processed to form fibers, which are then twined together by hand—it takes more than six weeks to create the 1,000 yards of warp needed to weave just one ceremonial robe. Using an upright loom, the actual weaving of the robes takes more than a year to finish.

Lily Hope, who organized the exhibit with the museum, is a Tlingit artist and weaver based in Juneau, Alaska. She works to carry on the traditions of her ancestors, weaving with skills passed down through her matrilineal side. Robes from Hope and other prominent fiber artists from the community are on display at the Center for Contemporary Native Art. Hope’s exquisite Heritage Robe, (2017), in the traditional palette of black, white, turquoise, and yellow, is displayed alongside her mother (and teacher) Clarissa Rizal’s work—showing a traceable lineage of the female Chilkat weaver-teachers.


The work’s connection with nature is particularly felt in a majestic Ravenstail-style robe made up of seven mountain goat hides by scientist, historian, and weaver Teri Rofkar of Sitka, Alaska. “There is a spirit in that wool which I can’t describe in any other way,” Hope explains. “It’s amazing how much the animal is still present as we put the robe over our shoulders.”

Interwoven Radiance examines the dedication of these women weavers and presents Chilkat and Ravenstail weaving as a dynamic Native art form with a strong contemporary presence—spreading awareness, and hopefully helping to perpetuate a resurgence of this remarkable tradition.

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Teri Rofkar, DNA Robe, 2014.

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Experience Pure Sound Art at Variform Gallery

Wed, 20 Dec 2017 04:00:00 -0800

With new work from Ben Glas, the space makes the medium accessible. by Robert Ham

As someone weaned on the traditional concert experience—watching one or more people make music in real time and, most importantly, onstage—experimental music events have required a shift in my expectations. When people create sound live, they often do so without much movement, or even an acknowledgment that anyone else is listening. As a listener, it makes more sense to just shut my eyes and concentrate.

That’s what makes Variform, the new gallery on Northwest Broadway, such an exciting new addition to Portland’s experimental music landscape. Run by C.M. and Patricia Wolf, the space is engineered simply for listening to long-form sound art. Sometimes it’s music, and sometimes it’s just an enveloping array of drones and tones.

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“This imagined idea that people have to perform live seems really, really odd, especially with experimental music where the studio is really an instrument,” C.M. Wolf explains. “In many ways, just having the recorded sound is how it should be presented.”

The former social worker and musician has gone to great pains to ensure that the pieces Variform features are treated with remarkable care. Using digital tools, Wolf has mapped the frequency nodes of the gallery and set audio acoustic paneling on the wall to make sure the sounds are free from interference. The space also utilizes speakers shaped like half-circles that send sound out horizontally rather than vertically, which would muddy the waves as they bounce around the room.


That attention to detail is especially important when it comes to the work Variform is currently exhibiting. Created as part of artist Ben Glas’ thesis defense, (Music) For A Time and Space uses sine tones (think those long beeps used for hearing tests), sending a variety through a room. As the sounds blend together, rhythms and overtones start to appear, changing and evolving as you move through the space.

While Glas is a local, Variform strives to spotlight sound artists from other countries—especially creators like Japan’s Aki Tsuyuko, who instantly connected with the intention of the gallery, sight unseen.

“She was really, really grateful because she prefers recording,” says C.M. Wolf. “She doesn’t have a big enough draw to make touring financially feasible, so to have her work heard in another part of the world, she has an absolute enthusiasm for it.”

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Ben Glas

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