Northwest Photography: The Same but Different

Some shows demand a second viewing. Sometimes because they’re great, sometimes because they’re a totally different experience on a second viewing, and sometimes because they’re a slightly different exhibit on a second viewing.

And then, of course, some shows are simply demanding. All of the above are true in Place Gallery’s survey of Northwest contemporary photography, Off the Plain. Curated by Portland photographer TJ Norris, it’s a packed group show with 17 artists and showcases a mix of non-traditional photographs. I first went to the opening reception for the exhibit. It was abuzz with people. During my second visit, by contrast, I was the lone body in the gallery, accompanied by the noise of a scratchy record player, and a distant but distinctive tune by Michael Bolton playing over the mall’s intercom (Place, which used to be a Pottery Barn, is located on the third floor of a mall).

Upon second viewing, some of the pieces in Off the Plain had actually physically changed. Some pieces had sagged or decreased, and some had been shuffled. To start, the central piece in the gallery had twisted and morphed. Organizing Principles by Brooks Dierdorff consists of two cubes of ballistic gel on pedestals, sandwiching a close-up photograph of an animal’s fur. Formerly confident, minimalist blocks of gelatin had become saggy, bowing forms.

Brooks Dierdorff. "Organizing Principles." Ballistics Gel, .22 Caliber Bullets, Double-Sided Inkjet Print. 52"x34"x17." 2012. Image courtesy of the artist, taken as installed at Disjecta.

Organizing Principles is alarming in how simple it is and yet how alive it feels; the sagging forms have given it a grotesque and deflated feeling. To the left of it is Winter Garden by Joshua Kim, which features a pot of flowers have that have over time wilted and died. Just ahead of this piece is a grid, Photo Swatch Grid #1 by Michael Sell, which consists of wooden blocks of color accompanied by a small sign that invites you to move around the panels. The arrangement has been shuffled. There’s a shelf to the left of them, with canisters of paint for the taking. A third of the canisters have disappeared.

If the show represents Northwest photography, then Northwest photography asks for engagement and participation. This makes sense: Portland itself has long been recognized as a city of socially engaged art (see Portland State University’s early inception of an Art and Social Practice Program in 2006). Involuntary Souvenirs by Tricia Hoffman tacitly implores you to thumb through index cards. The work consists of a turquoise desk that belonged to the artist’s mother, a hoarder. Inside the desk and on top of the desk are indexical photos, which document every item that her mother astoundingly packed into the desk’s drawers. Another piece, Ted Hiebert’s Anaglyph 3D Mashups, encourages the viewer to wear a pair of 3D glasses to see a mash-up of the artist’s face and another male face. Wear the glasses, and the faces merge; close one eye, however, and you see distinct separate faces.

Ted Hiebert. "Anaglyph 3D Mashups: Doug Jarvis + Ted Hiebert." Anaglyph print. 18"x24." 2013.

Amongst trending aesthetics in Portland are a proclivity for outlined, geometric shapes and starry skies, which is something you already know if you’ve ever set foot in a boutique in this city. Sarah Knobel’s Untitled #1 and Untitled #2 are visually entrancing and sumptuous with rich colors, ferns, and cloudscapes isolated with triangles, but I resist indulging in it entirely. Melanie Flood’s Inventing Three-Dimensional Arrangements #2 feels like a Technicolor take on drapery studies of the Old Masters. Her images are delicious to look at, although, just as her subject matter favors quantity and excess, I think her work is better served when there are many pieces displayed together.

Melanie Flood. "Inventing Three-Dimensional Arrangements #2." Archival Pigment Print. 20"x20." 2012.

One of the most demanding pieces in the exhibition is Bea Nettles’s artist’s book PLACE, four booklets displayed in a vitrine. PLACE is essentially collection of poems, cut and pasted together like a ransom note: she has taken antiquated last names from tombstones and collaged them together to form sentences, making a gravestone Mad Lib. It takes a minute to sift through the small text, but reading the mash-ups are rewarding. “Palm reader spies hearts delight,” reads one sentence. Although from Illinois, her work finds a comfortable home in Portland, with a slight tint of the spiritual world, à la West Coast Spiritualism.

Bea Nettles. "Place." Handmade book. 32"x18"x3." 2013.

Off the Plain excels in its risk-taking, and its willingness to ask questions or even fail (their extensive documentation on Tumblr is evidence of this). Even the space itself is something of an experiment—as Place curator Gabe Flores said, “It started as a joke.” As a survey of non-traditional photography, this non-traditional exhibition space pairs well.

As for the idea of a Northwest aesthetic, there’s disagreement over whether this exists. However, historically, there’s no denying certain trends. Names that stick out in early Northwest photography include Edward Curtis and Darius Kinsey—photographers who were documenting the expansion of the West: the logging industry, the changing Native Americans. The title of the exhibit, Off the Plain, acknowledges this lineage, but suggests a photography that moves away from documentation of land and environments, and moves towards something else. What is that something else? It’s an ability to ask questions about what photography can be, and, as Off the Plain demonstrates, the answer to that is not going to be clear, and it’s going to take some participation and conversation.