Constructing Marvels, Breaking Barriers: We. at the Portland Art Museum
Libby Werbel, best known throughout Portland as the Founder and Director of the Portland Museum of Modern Art on Albina, Portland’s sole “modern art museum”, takes on yet another impressive mission to engage with local contemporary artists in the city. Shifting her efforts from Northeast Portland to the heart of downtown, Werbel’s We.Construct.Marvels.Between.Monuments is hosted at the Portland Museum of Art (PAM) as an immersive, artist-led attempt to transform the fourth floor of the Jubitz Center for Modern and Contemporary Art. This project will run from December 2017 to December 2018 and consists of a series of five exhibits born out of partnerships and collaborations with independent artists and art collectives around the city. In lieu of choosing established artists, Werbel gives the platform to local and equally as insightful creators. These collaborations strive to bridge the gap between contemporary art and its accessibility in the city for both makers and viewers. The curation of We.Construct.Marvels.Between.Monuments is also an attempt at a larger conversation of how the museum space itself can be more inclusive and critically-engaged with the creators, thinkers, and innovators in the region.
This unique undertaking with the PAM aims to carve out an even greater reputation for the Portland contemporary art scene as relevant and vastly-wide-reaching, particularly in our current tumultuous political times. Art seems to be one of the few ways remaining to actively participate in practices that are both therapeutic and deeply personal, but also take a stance on larger cultural and social issues. Consequently, creating a space for such different and salient voices is at the top of Werbel’s vision with We., the first installment of this year-long endeavor. A painted, colorful mural on the baseboards of the first four floors of the museum only slightly distracts from the museum’s permanent and visiting collections, and serves to point museum-goers in the direction of the top-most floor where We. resides. To allow for this experiment to flourish, artists Chris Johanson and Johanna Jackson have refreshed and reinvisioned the typically bare and white-walled rooms of the museum. They have added sculptural furniture throughout the floor, augmenting accessibility and the overall comfort of the environment; a reading and seminar space exists in the back room; live plants thrive and add color to the entire space; a stage creates a literal platform to further accentuate the works and voices. Oliver’s colorful pieces such as “A Flower Tree”, the fake materials meant to resemble the live plants in the space, function in tandem with these architectural changes and further beautify the space.
Morton’s vibrant and live abstractions color her canvases to create hyper-stylized worlds and shapes that seem to abound infinitely. Familial themes, visions of space, and narratives of relationships exist prominently in her works, as made evident in her pointed yet humble titles.The repetitive motions of her paint and brush strokes cloyingly tug at imagined landscapes and dreamscapes. These works leave viewers guessing at the subject and motifs of Morton’s pieces, yet also content with their simplified abstraction.
Perry Johnson’s realistic portrayals of facial expressions border almost on the grotesque, accentuating the ridges of his subject’s skin, their rigid, awkward poses, and the tension between the color tones used for their images. In “Trump”, he juxtaposes the President, grimacing in mid-speech, with an image of a smiling individual wearing a t-shirt that reads “autism.” Johnson makes the discrepancy between these two persons glaringly obvious. Incorporating biography and history, these portraits are as sincere as they are inflammatory. Ricky Bearghost’s textile creations weave together bits of history and care in their patterns. Pulling on his Lakota heritage, Bearghost’s vivid and laborious craft recontextualizes even the smallest and most insignificant found piece of trash into a work of art to be revered. These weavings are a dedication to identity and to place, each fiber like a thread between a place, a moment in time, and an individual sense of being.
Kurt Fisk and Dawn Westover also create their own characters and vivacious worlds in their illustrations. Fisk’s “The Planet of the Sea Monkey Fishes” erupts with commotion and text. Finding inspiration in pop culture and animation, this work is accompanied by a video installation in the next room entitled “The Monkey Fishes” that brings his work to digital life. Westover’s portraits resemble Johnson’s in their documentation of well-known individuals such as the Presidential family. Most noteworthy are the three portraits of the Trump women that are so depicted that they verge more on caricatures, with their over-exaggerated expressions and lack of eyes, than realistic portraits. Westover’s illustrations leave viewers second-guessing their first impressions of these famous figures -- are they all as vacuous and fabricated as their representations here?
The announcement of We.Construct.Marvels.Between.Monuments coincidentally arose with the museum’s weighted 2017 decision to connect the Mark Building to the Main Building with the proposed Rothko Pavilion. This decision was met with discourse and reservations, leading PAM to re-evaluate and adapt its expansion plan after initial disagreement from the public. The Rothko Pavilion is projected to reside where the current sculpture garden currently sits in the stretch of Madison Street between Park and 10th Avenue. With the museum’s current trajectory of constructing marvels and not building barriers, the museum facility should mirror the inclusivity of the works represented inside. Currently, the only ramp entry for easy accessibility is hidden behind the stairs that lead up to the side entrance. Subsequently, after entering there entails a further series of maneuvers, elevators, and halls just to reach the first floor of the Jubitz Center. The museum’s main entrance is not accessible to those patrons with mobility challenges which presents a huge deterrent to the overall reception of the space. The Rothko Pavilion would facilitate entry. However, its construction proves to be a double edged sword. If the building as initially proposed is to be built, pedestrians attempting to reach the street car would have to circumnavigate 3 park blocks which poses a different difficulty and burden for those with limited mobility.
Focused on tackling this physical impediment next, the Rothko Pavilion hopefully aims to solve this inconsistency in considering the needs of patrons, bolstering museum attendance and highlighting works exhibited, such as We., all while paying respect to the existing structures of the buildings. Revisions such as extending the hours of the Pavilion and constructing it in glass to enhance visibility and passage are currently in the works. In adhering to the PAM’s mission of creating a space welcome to all, it proves vital that the Rothko Pavilion mirror those significant strides in bridging fine art with the larger Portland community. Which, in Portland, this task of breaching and infiltrating the intimidating world of contemporary art and its (at-times) abrasive and secretive nature can be a daunting feat. For artists and appreciators alike, it seems the only way to be in the know is already be deeply embedded within the city’s aloof art world -- a world that brags about its diversity and inclusivity while at the same time attracting and obstructing the same trickle of visitors for each event.
Although social media and city planning has recently played a large part in expanding this circle of reception, We.Construct.Marvels.Between.Monuments does something more direct by approaching this task at a different angle. With these installations, Werbel is on her way to envisioning an almost complete transcendence of boundaries between independent artists, activists, and artists spaces. Focusing strongly on a sense of community, We. is co-organized with Publix Annex and highlights the talent of six local artists from Public Annex, OUTPOST1000, OSLP, and Albertina Kerr, all programs from the surrounding area that support artists with disabilities. The works of Ricky Bearghost, Kurt Fisk, Perry Johnson, Elmeator Morton, Lawrence Oliver, and Dawn Westover bring to light what public and private spaces can do to encourage and nurture the work of artists with varying abilities, and allow for a wider range and integration of their perspectives. Considering the inextricable ties between public art and the propagation of knowledge and messages, she asks how this series could potentially serve to reformulate the practice of contemporary art and what the future of its Institution as a whole has the potential to become. She succeeds in actualizing a warm environment in which these works thrive, the only challenge being the museum’s still somewhat limiting structural design. Although no definitive moves have been on the Rothko Pavilion as it stands, We.Construct.Marvels.Between.Monuments is a marvel in itself; a promising step towards the type of all-inclusive art scene that Portland has always been portrayed as and has demonstrated it has the power and dedication to be.
We. runs through February 18th and is accompanied by a monthly contemporary trends class hosted by Public Annex the first Thursday of each month at 5pm in the museum space. The class allows for a discovery and discussion of the museum amongst those who identify with disabilities as well as those who don’t.