PORTLAND, Oregon — Walking through the Pearl district of Portland, (what many Portlanders refer to as the ‘bougy Pearl,’ native slang for what they believe to be an elitist and distinctly un-Portland neighborhood) and you could easily miss the entrance to the Lumber Room. A single gray door with a small blue sign and buzzer signals the entrance. Despite its covert entrance the space is far from pretentious. Entering a downstairs corridor you’ll find no attendant and no one to buzz you in — you’re simply left to your own devices to gaze and then wander up the pine staircase to the main gallery space on the second floor.
The Lumber Room’s current exhibition, With a Clear Mind, you can move with the truth, showcases mainly drawings belonging to the collection of the art patron and founder of the space, Sarah Miller Meigs. The heiress to a Stimson Lumber Company fortune, the largest timber operation in the Pacific Northwest, Meigs shies away from publicity or recognition and quietly goes about the business of supporting art institutions and artists, amassing a potent collection of contemporary art. The Lumber Room was established in 2010 as the place in which Meigs would showcase her collection.
With a Clear Mind is restrained, reflective, and tender, given its focus on minimalist works. The exhibition includes the work of Tacita Dean, Sol LeWitt, Agnes Martin, Chadwick Rantanen, Dorthea Rockburne, and Lynne Woods Turner. The space is conducive to these artists in its scale and repose. The large front windows, wood floors, and exposed timber beams wash the space with soft, warm light even on a rainy day. It has the comforting feeling of being invited into someone’s downtown loft for a cup of tea.
On the ground floor, at the end of its darkened, narrow hallway, a projector displays an endless film loop of Tacita Dean’s “Still Life.” The film jump cuts between stills of an abstract drawing, making abstraction cinematic. Watching the film plays with our increasing dependence on the short attention span theater that is YouTube and the animated gifs of social media. Instead of viewing we’re actively watching. “Still Life” sets the tone for the rest of the show by walking the line between meditation and play.
Upstairs, two pencil drawings by Rockburne, placed in two separate rooms, are the most serious of the exhibition. The large drawings with their geometry and ultraviolet acetate blocks potently demonstrate that minimalism is not just a man’s game. Rockburne is deft at pairing sharp geometry with the semi-transparent acetate shapes, luring us into the artwork, breaking down the barriers between drawing, painting, and even cinema.
The largest wall in the exhibition contains a series of prints by the legendary Agnes Martin, meditations on what Rosalind Krauss famously referred to as “abrogating the claims of natural objects”: the grid. A top row of print permutations of six quadrants sits atop prints formed with 12 quadrants, all a mere 8.5 inches square. Martin’s crisp lines and soft, warm paper manage to astonish still to this day despite protestation from Krauss or others to the contrary. How can something so simple manage to evoke such profound feelings?
A collection of Lynne Woods Turner drawings hang across from and adjacent to the Martin prints. Turner, Midwest-trained and known for her subtle abstractions of geometric forms, surprises in her ability to hold her ground against such a modern master as Martin. The impish drawings riff on mathematical variations of polygonal shapes, moving cinematically across the wall as if begging to be animated. They’re both delightful and serious in their gestures which hint at grander themes of infinity and ontology.
Hanging between two timber pillars, which divide the Martins from the Turners, is a sculptural loop by the LA-based artist, Chadwick Rantanen. The clear plastic tubing is filled with cloth materials, in this case nurses’ scrubs branded “Sweet Bambi,” which is also the name of the sculpture. At first glance, the loop is so nondescript it could be mistaken for a rope separating sections of the gallery rather than an artwork. Although from a curatorial perspective it dovetails nicely with the other works, it is a bit lost in the space and in the wash of Martin’s entrancing prints. The loop’s incision of empty space is a wonderful subtlety but the postmodern subtext winds up pushing against rather than with the show as a whole. A set of four marker and pencil drawings by Rantanen are also featured as a grid on a side wall but feel similarly sequestered from the other artists’ works on display.
In the back of the second floor exhibition space, past the gallery kitchen and small library, is a small room that was specially built for its installation by the late Sol LeWitt, “Wall Drawing #109.” Two white walls of equal dimensions joined at a corner display ten thousand seemingly random lines drawn in pencil, with five-inch lines on the left wall and 10-inch lines on the right.
The drawing is barely visible upon entering the room, awash in daylight from the window opposite the installation. Unlike the boldness of many LeWitts, this work plays perfectly into the curation of the show with its understatement. The lines, as in so many LeWitts, surprise us by their mathematical precision and elegance, fitting within the constraints of simplistic rules. In a moment’s breath we realize that behind complexity lies simplicity and randomness. The quantum nature of our reality is laid bare and rather than feel overwhelmed by the infiniteness of it all, there is a sense of calm.
There is a gentle irony to the Lumber Room. Here is one of the few places in Portland to experience truly potent art in a town known for its hipster digressions and yet the gallery is unadvertised, tucked away from public view and open only two days a week. It’s as if the work is too much for the uninitiated here. In that sense, the Lumber Room feels both necessary and out of place, a quiet force in a city that desperately needs its influence while remaining elusively out of site.
With a Clear Mind, you can move with the truth continues at the Lumber Room (419 Northwest 9th, Portland, Oregon) through May 2.
Correction: An earlier version of this review attributed Tacita Dean’s 16mm film piece to Dorthea Rockburne. This has been fixed.