It's an image that could keep you up at night: a young man, his wife, and their child lay atop the bolted entrance to a family crypt. The parents' eyes are closed as the child rests limply on his mother's body. Behind them, an enormous tombstone; beneath them, a society of corpses.
Call it existential, morose or just plain creepy, this is the family portrait reimagined as memento mori. It's part of a series of 20 photographs entitled Giants in the Earth, a highlight of Disjecta's dynamic Portland 2012: A Biennial of Contemporary Art.
Last August, the husband-and-wife duo in the photo, Ryan Wilson Paulsen and Anna Gray, toted their 1-year-old son, Calder, with them on a road trip up the East Coast to visit and photograph themselves at the gravesites of notable cultural figures. Among the graves were those of landscape designer Frederick Olmsted, writer Harriet Jacobs, poets Wallace Stevens and E.E. Cummings, and abstract painters Jackson Pollock and Piet Mondrian. From each gravesite, the pair also pulled handfuls of weeds, which they later scanned and turned into prints. Finally, they planted those weeds in a garden, cataloging them and keeping the seeds they produced.
This is exactly the manner of earnest art project legions of recent grads would kill to take on. Paulsen and Gray are living the collaborative artist's dream: Spending all day and all night with one another in the studio and in the field, hatching ideas and crafting art objects, all while raising a toddler. For them, there's zero separation between artistic and family life.
Moreover, they make art together and only together. In their brand of aesthetic monogamy, neither undertakes a side project that would exclude the other. According to their gallery rep, Jane Beebe of PDX Contemporary Art, the arrangement couldn't be more productive. "I think their collaboration strengthens, rather than weakens, their work," she says. "They're doing something smart, engaging and fresh, and while there's a rigor to it, it's not a grim, intellectual rigor that you can't grasp—it's approachable."
Paulsen, 33, is tall and lanky, with a wheat-cracked voice and boyish manner, while Gray, 28, has a worldlier, slightly smoldering manner. They met in 2005 as PNCA undergrads, married in 2008 and began collaborating exclusively two years later, when they graduated from Portland State University's master's program. Today, batting ideas around in their book-lined home studio in Goose Hollow, the two often seem of one mind. They finish one another's sentences in the same dialect of academic art-speak, marked with words like "semiotic," "diaristic," "practice" and "cultural commons."
They share the same email address and use the royal "we" in correspondence. They even team-teach the same art course at PSU. They have idiosyncrasies—Paulsen smokes cigarettes while Gray does not, and Paulsen researches in depth while Gray goes for breadth—but the two are united where it counts.
"The Disjecta pieces are some of the works we've been making about the idea of influence: how, once a person is dead, their influence continues, but their individual character doesn't matter anymore," Paulsen says.
"It's also about the question of our invasiveness as artists," Gray continues. "If we photograph Wallace Stevens' grave, it doesn't seem as invasive as if we photographed the person buried next to him.â
With a blend of sincerity, invention and wit, the couple's projects have garnered national interest. In March, their color-coded book indexes were exhibited at Volta, a satellite art fair of the prestigious Armory Show in New York City. In mid-May, several of the couple's pieces travel to the ArtPadSF fair in San Francisco, followed in July by a local exhibit themed around political dissent at PDX Contemporary Art. Then they traveled to Southern California for the San Diego Art Museum's summer salon series.
For a couple only two years out of grad school, all this attention would seem to point toward the beginning of a charmed life. Which makes the stakes that much higher.
"Part of what makes it all interesting is the certain amount of risk involved when your professional life and personal life are integrated, not compartmentalized," Gray says. "If something goes wrong, you lose more than just a husband or an art partner; you could lose both."
Without skipping a beat, Paulsen pipes up: âSo far, so good.â