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February 13th, 2008 RICHARD SPEER | Visual Arts
 

Reaching for the APEX

Jenene Nagy dons myriad artistic hats—and wears them well.

     
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False Flat by Jenene Nagy

People who wear a lot of hats tend to have big heads. Not so with artist-curator-gallery owner Jenene Nagy, who has made a name for herself through a refreshingly earnest mix of thoughtfully deployed talent, pluck and hard work. Nagy (pronounced “NAY-ghee”) is in the spotlight this week thanks to the Saturday, Feb. 16, opening of her site-specific installation at the Portland Art Museum. In this, the fifth installment of the museum’s APEX series, Nagy aims to break through the fabled fourth wall, reaching out of the canvas with brightly colored wooden planes, invading the viewer’s personal space, and thoroughly, jubilantly muddling the lines between painting, sculpture and architecture.

The exhibition—her first museum outing and the first time a curator solicited her to mount a show rather than the other way around—comes at a heady time for the artist, who moved to Portland in 2004 and started hitting the pavement, creating opportunities for herself and fellow artists to show their stuff. After a residency at Pacific Northwest College of Art, culminating in her cheekily titled sculptural installation, Backyard Icing , she landed teaching jobs at PNCA, Clark College and PSU. She created new work for group shows around town, while also acting as the business manager for the visual-arts blog PORT and co-founding (with her husband, Josh Smith) the well-regarded Tilt Gallery. The gallery, says Nagy, is dedicated to showcasing “difficult-to-sell work by emerging or under-recognized artists.” Located in the Everett Station Lofts, Tilt has become a First Thursday must-see, with eclectic programming that feels edgy but not forced. This month’s show is a witty installation by Brooklyn artist Lauren Clay, consisting of miniature houses fashioned out of colored sheets of paper that resemble tongue depressors.

“We just started showing work that we liked,” Nagy says of the gallery. “I didn’t want it to feel stale, and so something I’ve consciously tried to do is suspend my own aesthetic a bit and, even if I thought I wouldn’t like the work aesthetically, show it anyway.”

The precursor for Nagy’s PAM show was False Flat , a wrap-around environment she installed at Linville College. She is hardly the first artist to blur the boundaries between painting and other genres—on the national scene, think of Sam Gilliam’s sculptural canvases, and on a regional level of Jacqueline Ehlis’ cold, curvy transgressions—but Nagy advances her inquiries with a rough-hewn DIY industriousness that makes her work seem fresh. It’s a steep climb from a small McMinnville college to the august halls of PAM, and the experience of preparing for APEX has forced the artist to adapt to the parameters of major institutional venue: taking care not to block the path to restrooms, keeping the installation from encroaching on light switches, and making sure visitors in wheelchairs can experience the show. The heightened expectations of a museum show have also led her to kick her visual vocabulary up a notch. “I’m adding a surprise element in the show,” she says, “something new.... I hope it works!”

Indeed, Nagy will be working on the exhibit until the night before it opens Jennifer Gately, the curator who tapped Nagy for the exhibit, says she’s invigorated by the improv, seat-of-the-pants approach, because the APEX series is “designed to be a flexible program, a lablike setting for experimentation....” “Jenene and I have had ongoing conversations about what will happen in the space,” Gately continues. “But ultimately, neither of us will really know until the Museum lights are turned off Friday night.”

People who wear a lot of hats tend to have big heads. Not so with artist-curator-gallery owner Jenene Nagy, who has made a name for herself through a refreshingly earnest mix of thoughtfully deployed talent, pluck and hard work. Nagy (pronounced “NAY-ghee”) is in the spotlight this week thanks to the Saturday, Feb. 16, opening of her site-specific installation at the Portland Art Museum. In this, the fifth installment of the museum’s APEX series, Nagy aims to break through the fabled fourth wall, reaching out of the canvas with brightly colored wooden planes, invading the viewer’s personal space, and thoroughly, jubilantly muddling the lines between painting, sculpture and architecture.

The exhibition—her first museum outing and the first time a curator solicited her to mount a show rather than the other way around—comes at a heady time for the artist, who was born in the Bronx in 1975, spent her teens in New Jersey, and headed west in the ’90s to study art. With a B.A. under her belt from the University of Arizona (Tucson) and an MFA from the University of Oregon, Nagy moved to Portland in 2004 and started hitting the pavement, creating opportunities for herself and fellow artists to show their stuff. After a residency at Pacific Northwest College of Art, culminating in her cheekily titled sculptural installation, Backyard Icing, she eventually landed teaching jobs at PNCA, Clark College and PSU. She created new work for group shows and installation projects at New American Art Union, PDX Contemporary Art, and the Portland Building, while also acting as the business manager for the visual-arts blog PORT and co-founding (along with her husband, Josh Smith) the well-regarded Tilt Gallery and Project Space. The gallery, says Nagy, is dedicated to showcasing “hard-to-show, difficult-to-sell work by emerging or under-recognized artists.” Located in the Everett Station Lofts, Tilt has become a First Thursday must-see, with eclectic programming that feels edgy but not forced. As an example, this month’s show, the gallery’s 23rd, is a witty installation by Brooklyn artist Lauren Clay, consisting of miniature houses fashioned out of colored sheets of paper that resemble tongue depressors.

“We just started showing work that we liked,” she says of the gallery. “I didn’t want it to feel stale, and so something I’ve consciously tried to do is suspend my own aesthetic a bit and, even if I thought I wouldn’t like the work aesthetically, show it anyway. It’s been a challenge in terms of stretching my brain in a different way.” The way Nagy handles the artists who show at Tilt is also unconventional in a business in which artists often supplicate themselves before the almighty gallerist: “I think about what my dream experience would be with a gallery, the ideal relationship I would like to have if I showed my own work, and then I try to give that to them,” she explains.

The precursor for Nagy’s PAM show was False Flat, a wrap-around environment she installed at Linville College. She is hardly the first artist to blur the boundaries between painting and other genres—on the national scene, think of Sam Gilliam’s sculptural canvases, and on a regional level of Jacqueline Ehlis’ cold, curvy transgressions—but Nagy advances her inquiries with a rough-hewn DIY industriousness that makes her work seem fresh. It’s a steep climb from a small McMinnville college to the august halls of PAM, and the experience of preparing for APEX has forced the artist to adapt to the parameters of a major institutional venue: taking care not to block the pathway to restrooms; keeping the installation from encroaching on light switches, security monitors, and motion detectors; and making sure visitors in wheelchairs can experience the show. The heightened expectations of a museum show have also led her to kick her visual vocabulary up a notch. “I’m adding a surprise element in the show,” she says, “something new that I haven’t done before.... I hope it works!”

Indeed, Nagy will be working on the exhibit until the night before its Saturday opening. Jennifer Gately, the curator who tapped Nagy for the exhibit, says she’s invigorated by the improvisational, seat-of-the-pants approach, because the APEX series is “designed to be a flexible program, a lablike setting for experimentation and risk....” “Jenene and I have had ongoing conversations about what will happen in the space,” Gately continues. “But ultimately, neither of us will really know until the Museum lights are turned off Friday night.”


SEE IT: APEX: Jenene Nagy at the Portland Art Museum, 1219 SW Park Ave., 226-2811. $6-$10. Feb. 16-June 22. Tilt Gallery, 625 NW Everett St., Suite 106, 908-616-5477, tiltpdx.com. Check out jenenenagy.com.
 
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