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PORTLAND, Oregon — For those who don’t live here, North Portland is a neighborhood near the far end of the light rail just before the city runs up against the Columbia River. Until its recent discovery by millennials hungry for cheaper housing, it was a diverse, rough-edged, working-class neighborhood. Now it’s emergent with gentrification and Disjecta Contemporary Art Center‘s decision to open there seems prescient. Housed in a 12,000-square-foot former bowling alley, Disjecta contains a large open gallery space and several adjacent artists’ studios. Entering the main space feels more like visiting a dance hall than a contemporary art space, with its vaulted timber ceiling and 15-foot-high walls. The current exhibition, Constructs, was organized by curator-in-residence Rachel Adams and features three artists from disparate locales: Dallas’s Nathan Green, Pablo Rasgado from Mexico City, and Oregonian Laura Vandenburgh. Unfortunately, none of them created an installation that can contend with the space’s imposing architecture.
Green’s work consists of painted geometric tubes in blended shades of burnt sienna and yellow ochre that suggest gently rounded forms. Each of the painted forms interlocks with others until it hits a predetermined quadrangular boundary. Multiples of these, and sometimes triangles, stretch from the floor toward the top of the wall, separated from the edges by a white border. The piece, “GSRD Clay Earth (for the Petways),” occupies only a portion of the central gallery wall, remaining more a discrete painting than a true mural even as it wraps around the corner opposite Vandenbergh’s work. The painted installation feels like a colorful Bridget Riley in an Art Deco style. But the rigid confinement of the mural limits its power and hampers its ability to extend the conversations started by Green’s Op art predecessors. Had the mural consumed both of the available walls it’s painted on, it might have achieved a more meaningful interaction with the physicality of the space and succeeded in mimicking the forms of the building’s ceiling, hinting at Oregon’s logging industry and Portland’s nostalgic temperament.
Rasgado’s wall piece forms a large rectangle of vertical strips collected during his travels. They are pieces of urban detritus, remnants of billboards and wall advertisements excised using a fresco extraction technique and then formed into an improvised canvas. From a purely aesthetic perspective, Rasgado’s piece is the strongest in the show. It is also the most traditional, consisting as it does of a large rectangle on a wall, and less responsive than the other artists’ installations. His composition shows a delicacy of form and a keen eye for color and texture. The peeling paint and layered papers that form the colorful strips evoke the beauty of natural deterioration. It reminds me especially of Rauschenberg’s Cardboard works, which masterfully manipulated found pieces of cardboard into wall collages. But that vibrancy and originality is lacking in Rasgado’s piece because his use of found materials is constrained to a very conventional format that looks like a large canvas. This misses an opportunity to respond to Disjecta’s gallery space, leaving the work to be overwhelmed by the architecture and the memory of precedents like Rauschenberg.
The only local in the show, Vandenburgh takes up oceanic motifs that echo the geography of Oregon. Her two works are mounted in the corner opposite Green’s painting. The lighter wall piece hints at Goode’s homolosine projection map of the globe, but is not a representational map. The mesh structure is white with subtle shades of washed out orange that give it illusory depth and an otherworldly quality. Its sister piece uses the same mesh structure but in full-on safety orange, underlining its evocation of a net as opposed to a geometric construct or map. This orange netting is the only piece in the exhibition that leaves the wall. The undulating shape drapes over a small rectangle of green artificial turf and flows onto the floor. Atop the netting lay stone-like rectangles of a material that resembles steel wool. Vandenburgh wants to blur distinctions between sea and sky, man-made and natural. The site-specificity of the piece is welcome, but it too is no match for the size of the space and cries out for greater scale and more interaction with the gallery architecture.
Adams envisioned an exhibition that unifies painting, sculpture, and architecture. “These are three elements that each artist touch upon in their work,” she told me. “While you could say that Laura’s work is more sculptural, Pablo’s work deals with existing architectures in cities, and Nathan’s work is more painterly, there is a crossover that happens within each piece that unifies these elements together, and creates a very meditative environment within the gallery space.” For me, the scale and content of the three artists’ works felt more separate and isolated than unified. The foremost weakness of Constructs is its safety. The Disjecta space is cavernous. I’ve seen it swallow up a large-scale Peter Halley installation. It’s a challenge for a curator to both enliven the large, dark gallery and invite invention, or even rebellion. Although Constructs ultimately falls short of realizing its unification of painting, sculpture, and architecture, it still shows a willingness to engage viewers beyond some of the traditional distinctions between media. It is always encouraging to experience attempts to shake loose the provincial veil that, as Portlandia joked, often makes this city feel like a dream of the 1890s.
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