In the intimate Manuel Izquierdo Gallery, Josh Smith's architectonic sculpture, Working With Doubt, holds forth in blond Russian plywood, smooth and gently curved on one side, slotted and rectilinear on the other. The smooth side evokes a tall ship's sail, while the opposite side, with its cubbyholed matrices, could be a shadowbox for your aunt's thimble collection. The piece stands on wooden legs and feet, its scale and posture essentially human. A gill-like slot connecting the two sides terminates in an orifice that appears to have extruded the small, wooden block on the floor underneath: a burgeoning biomorphic Mini-Me. What is going on here? At his opening, Smith said the piece is an exploration of "systems of support" as explained by architect Steven Holl in the book Urbanisms: Working With Doubt.
But there's more to this than an obsession with urban planning. Smith is just one among a growing cadre of Portland artists who share an obsession with constructing, deconstructing and reconstructing sculptural elements out of wood. Jenene Nagy, who co-founded Tilt Gallery and Tilt Export with Smith, has made a name for herself with genre-busting pieces that, like Smith's, often prop up structures on exposed support beams, evoking stage sets and studio back-lot façades. For her piece in Disjecta's Portland 2010, she deconstructed one of her works that had been installed in Disjecta's Kenton neighborhood space and reassembled it in a wildly different configuration in the Templeton Building. That's just perverse. Joe Thurston, in his latest work, has been putting his intricately carved and painted wood panels through bizarre sculptural and architectonic permutations inspired by Polish sculptor Miroslaw Balka. In her Vivero in Lusso series at Portland State and Worksound, Vanessa Calvert—who used to deconstruct images into photo collages—began deconstructing church pews: sawing them apart and reconfiguring them in irreverent neo-Cubist contortions. Also at PSU and Worksound (and Gallery Homeland), Damien Gilley has been using woodwork and colored tapes to make viewers question whether they're looking at environments that have been put together or taken apart.
These artists make no effort to conceal the artifice of their lumberjack-meets-mad-scientist experiments, for reasons attributable to both zeitgeist and geography. Generation X, which the artists all belong to or are on the fringes of, has always been aware of the façade of appearances. Thurston was born while con man Richard Nixon was president, graduated from high school while former actor Ronald Reagan was in the White House, and came into his own artistically as Bill Clinton was pounding on the lectern, insisting that he did not have sex with that woman. This is a generation that has always known there's a man behind the curtain. What's the point in prettying up the stage set if everybody knows it's a sham to begin with? "Doubt is the new certainty," Smith says. "There is a true lack of guiding rules in the worlds of art and architecture. In fact, I would say I am confident in doubt and ambiguity."
Secondly, the logging and construction industries in Oregon may well have seeped into the aesthetics of the native Oregonians in this movement (Thurston and Calvert) as well as the transplants (Smith, Nagy, and Gilley). Deforestation and construction are inherently about the deconstruction and recontextualization of wood. Whether consciously or subconsciously, these artists seem to have calibrated their compasses by the same lodestar, tempering the romanticism of old-growth forests with the pragmatisms of contemporary urban living. The results are startling, perplexing, and strangely beautiful.
shows at the Pacific Northwest College of Art's Manuel Izquierdo Gallery, 1241 NW Johnson St., 226-4391. Show closes April 30.