You wanna know about Border Patrol? I'll tell you about Border Patrol. Elizabeth Spavento came here a year or two ago to head the visual art programming at SPACE Gallery. She and her partner, Border Patrol co-director and artist Jared Haug, came from the other Portland or somewhere like that, but they also brought a connection to a larger art world that our Portland is missing. Not to say that the artists here aren't amazing or haven't broken through local, regional and national ceilings, but there aren't many places a conceptual artist can go to get their groove on. Border Patrol is one of those places and I'm thankful it exists. (I'm being required to include a disclaimer with this review: I had a solo show at Border Patrol. Mmm, think it was two shows before this one. In light of that, I hope you don't mind if I get freaky but I also want to give Border Patrol their due respect. It's an important gallery and obviously I think so which is why I showed there.)
With the current show, WILD FAMILY, there's a breadth of materials that feels deceptively large. This makes sense because it's about creating a world. A world where women rule. From the artifactual sculptures of Cammie Staros to the handmade stationary by Erin Elyse Burns, this is a world with intention. Looking at the definition of intention as the healing process of a wound, I wonder if women can save us. If this show is any indication then the answer is yes.
Conceptual art ain't always easy to understand. As an artist and as a man I sympathize with the dude I once heard say he hated art that required an explanation. But when the person doing the explaining is Elizabeth Spavento and the experience of transferring the history around a specific piece and its connection to native women is part of its design — yes, artist Demian DinéYazhi' required her to literally tell gallery viewers about #DecolonizeFeminism Poster Series '94 as a condition of its exhibition — then sorry buddy, enjoy your figure drawings, 'cause I'm over here trying to learn just what it's like for a girl. School's in session.
If there was one conceptual artist I would tell you to study before seeing this show, it would be Felix Gonzales-Torres. I fucking love his work and any fears or discomfort I have about not understanding what conceptual art is or what a particular piece means all melt away when I see it. He's not on display here, but his legacy is present. The ability to translate something as simultaneously personal and far-reaching as the HIV pandemic is something Torres executes with materials ranging from candy to stacks of paper.
I love that a pathway to thinking about another gay male artist of color was opened to me by an exhibition that envisions a world ruled by women. It's a generous world and I admit, I feared I was too stupid to enter. Because of it and because of its form.
Enter WILD FAMILY.
In First Light (2017) by Erin Elyse Burns
This is the part where I'm supposed to break down what some of the pieces mean and give a few artists their due. Maybe I'm just being lazy but I really don't wanna do that. Of course I know that as a curator, Spavento wants a good review (who doesn't?). But I think it's more so that I don't want to bullshit you, the reader, with some polemics that lay claim to understanding. I feel like I don't know shit about this and I'm embarrassed by the ways I haven't had to know. What I can do is say I'm willing to listen and learn about something I benefit from everyday: the labor of women. Women who rule.
I do like to occasionally spill the tea though, so fuck it.
There's some tactile elements in this show that are giving me life. I'm not kidding when I say I feared I would be too dumb to understand this show, even before I knew it was about women (which then made me feel extra dumb). Upon entry I encountered Courtney Kemp's Vanities and Victories and thought Oh fuck, what is this? There are elements that are familiar, but the combination of materials is throwing me way off. I didn't know how to enter the world of it. That's because I had only been experiencing it with sight. With just a little direction from Elizabeth who invited me to touch it, my experience of the work completely changed. With consent. No, something else. Invitation. Which has me thinking all about consent and how as a man I was so ready to dismiss something I perceived as not being immediately accessible to me.
I would like to give some props to Elizabeth Atterbury. I see you, Elizabeth. Her work to me has always had a misty muted technicolor streak that has to do with nothing if not place and memory. I gagged when I heard she had made the offering here, sand-coated objects that look like miniature world wonders, elemental and built to last. I was surprised because I had always known her as a photographer so it was like oh hey girl, you made the leap to sculpture. I haven't followed her work closely over the years, but it wasn't for lack of interest; moreso knowing that as an artist she was not going away anytime soon and that when the time was right I'd be all up in it. I'm not much of a seeker but I stay ready to receive anything by Elizabeth Atterbury. I know she flirted with experiments in form early on and had been looking at ways to expand the boundaries of the picture frame. I got the low down from Spavento that this work is Atterbury's snapshot of motherhood through the architectural and topographic impressions of her Florida upbringing, reclaimed monuments to time and space. You go, girl — but please not back to Florida.
The breadcrumbs that connected me to the memory of Felix Gonzales-Torres were Atterbury's piece Let it go, let it go, let it go followed by the work of Erin Elyse Burns, a series of display shelves with carefully crafted funerary boxes containing messages that immediate conjure what the artist refers to as "the incomplete communications existent throughout our lives." They let me know that as man, as a queer artist of color, as someone grappling with my own struggles and triumphs, I'd be okay in this WILD FAMILY.
Similar to the NYC-based queer women’s artist collective Fierce Pussy’s urgency around creating visibility through accessible means (Xerox-copied posters), Demian DinéYazhi' utilizes agitprop in an aesthetic and directed play with motif, information and performance. I love this piece but I also feel the most othered by it, conscious of my masculinity somehow. It unveils my own limited knowledge of the history of feminism. Even though it’s made by a queer artist, the fact that they are male feels like a side door into a world I didn’t earn the right to witness. At the time of this writing, I don’t even know if they are the only male in the show, but I know my ears piqued when Spavento informed me he was a he. I think I may have asked. I was relieved the show depicted a world that didn’t exclude men but ashamed of that relief somehow. Ashamed that I hadn’t done the homework required to earn my place among women like he had and that’s why I was on the outside looking in. Coveting his place just like a damn dude. And yet this piece informs me this is exactly why I’m here: to learn. #DecolonizeFeminism Poster Series transforms the passive viewer by inviting us to participate in the resistance to the ways Indigenous women’s voices have been erased. The use of performance with the curator being required to describe the work is brilliant and opens a door into a world that even other women have held closed through the whitewashing of feminism. [Ed: Per Spavento, a portion of sales of Demian DinéYazhi's work will be donated to the Indigenous Action Network.]
Okay, moving right along. So black women and why their work is important. Um, duh. Get the fuck out of here if you don't agree with that. Zakkiyyah Najeebah shows us the door with this simple video De(liberate) featuring Nina Simone, Toni Morrison and Sister Souljah. As art, it gets out of the way of itself, and as a contribution to the exhibition is yet another pathway that connected to moments in the history of black cultural production that I don’t get enough of in my life. Hello pathways. Who knew a world ruled by women would have so many.
According to the curatorial statement for the show, “WILD FAMILY is dedicated to memories, representations, and imaginings of matriarchy. Named after a 1510 drawing by artist Albrecht Altdorfer, this exhibition imagines a world in which women rule ... the exhibition uses (Alfdorfer’s) drawing as a framing mechanism as both an alternate history and as a dissection of patriarchy. Like Altdorfer, the works on display de-naturalize current power relationships while conjuring the arrival of a transformed landscape. Assuming that historical representations contain kernels of worlds to come, WILD FAMILY stumbles toward a suffusion of female energy.”
Okay, shit is about to get real. There’s a pitfall in conceptual art. You can’t un-know something. It’s like a movie by M. Night Shyamalan. The knowing stays fun but it never matches the thrill of that first reveal. That’s a best-case scenario. The worst case is that the dude who hates conceptual art because it has to be explained will say “story or not, this piece sucks.” Spavento’s three drawings don’t suck. But before I knew the stories behind them, I did notice their departure from a world that otherwise felt more tightly crafted. And this is purely about taste here. Which even talking about my taste like it matters more than what I’m ostensibly “tasting” makes me feel like a lip-smacking sex trafficker who buys and sells women. I have to rearrange my thinking if I’m going to contribute to this WILD FAMILY and look at the ways that Spavento — also the curator — is pushing the materiality of the other artists forward with this ephemeral mess of gouache on paper. Hmmm…leading from the back…interesting.
Spavento’s Transtrance (for Kajanne Pepper) and Where babies come from (wombroom) come off as counterpoints to the two ceramic and brass sculptures by Cammie Staros titled Siren (<>) and Siren (There Key Slow & Stead). With a nod to antiquity and archeological preservation, Staros conjures the type of forms you would see in a history museum. I think that’s why I avoided the vessel-like structures at first and why I'm thinking about them now, toward the end. There’s something sad to me about objects being put behind glass or on a pedestal that were once a vital part of people’s everyday lives. A closer look through the fear of erasure, I see that they are actually vibrant and strong objects imbued with a figurative vitality, recalling ancient forms and a world where their creation and use still exists. Staros writes in her artist statement that “by encouraging consideration of both the art-object and the self-as-object, I hope to compare ways that art and bodies are displayed, looking and being looked at.” In light of that, it makes sense I found myself questioning my own gaze and how that gaze was transformed by acceptance of not what this work looks like but what it could be — a body, a tool — much like way we view other people and brush up against our ideas of who they might be, how qualities like their strength or fragility are performed, inhabited or seen.
The video work by Nika Kaiser, I really love. It felt very personal. Seeing the woman in the video interact with the landscape recalls the physical sensation of sand, ocean, how you feel your body in a different way when interacting with the elements. There's a performative revolution around the natural environment, the body and the use of visual evidence as storytelling that takes me back to the late Cuban artist Ana Mendieta. Where many of Mendieta's earth/body sculptures occurred privately with documentary photographs of the performative work being all that remained, the audience is allowed to see the woman in Kaiser as she traverses the landscape with a furrowed brow that says: this is the business, the business of what Spavento describes (in reference to the figures in the 1510 drawing by Albrecht Altdorfer that the exhibition is named after) what it takes to not exploit the natural environment but rather participate within it.
I thought I was too dumb and male to understand this show until I realized all you have to do in this WILD FAMILY is to receive the wisdom, strength and beauty offered by the women who rule it.