It's called the Cell Project--as in prison cell, monastery cell, cell of political radicals, battery cell or an isolated unit of life. The gloomy power-transfer station on Northeast Alberta Street has housed a dark carnival of conceptual and performance art each Last Thursday since November, but in April, it will be transformed into a new restaurant. Until then, however, the site will be solely in the hands of the Cell-ists.
Amid the narrow aisles of even narrower stalls that once housed electrical switches and cables, Susan Harlan, professor of painting at Portland State University, has painted a series of frescoes over the last few months. Throughout this month, the art trio Cliché au Lait and local favorite Horia Boboia have installed art to be unveiled next Thursday. Other artists from PSU's art, architecture and English departments have also dropped in on the project.
The space is grim, to say the least, with thick concrete walls and, at night, a complete lack of light. Viewers must carry small flashlights to see the works, though the Cliché au Lait artists often incorporate fire into their pieces. Over the past four months, project participants have learned a few tricks about using the space. For one, Harlan says, they know to wear nine layers of clothing while working during the day in the austere building. For another, the art that works best is designed specifically for the space. Hanging paintings here doesn't work, as a group of professional artists discovered last summer. The interior is too cramped.
Visitors must walk the aisles single file, as if stuck in a morbid labyrinth, careful not to fall into the open pits at the bottom of each stall. They don't have much room to stand back and gaze upon a painting, even if they could see more than their flashlight beams reveal. This is less of a gallery and more of a soundstage for Buffy. Cliché au Lait members have been spooked enough to make sure that no one is left working alone there at night. Lait member James McGlothlin initially shuddered at the idea of crawling through the catacombs under the floor to install fire-pits; he still takes careful count of the spider eggs he encounters in the crawl space.
Appropriately, most of the work here runs from mysticism to masochism. Harlan's contribution is the hardest to see at night. Her mixtures of treated concrete and pastels of haunted faces pop out from nooks. Run your flashlight a few inches above one of the works and you won't even see it, although the sensation of being watched by phantoms lingers.
Participants spend all day in the building a few days a week, taking breaks at Binks next door to warm up and to help dispel rumors about this place that, for all intents and purposes, looks like an industrialized torture chamber. "There's a bus stop in front, and people come in saying, 'Hey, man, what is this place?'" Harlan says. "It's really fun."
The old power- transfer station on the corner of Northeast 27th Avenue and Alberta Street. 6-9 pm Thursday, Feb. 28.