In the past four months, seven Portland galleries have closed. The city's changing economic landscape is having very real consequences within the art world. As we muddle through our growing pains, six women are pioneering new models for seeing art, reshaping the scene by thinking outside the white box.
Sam Hopple and Taryn Wiens, who founded the curatorial project S/PLI/T, met while working at Disjecta and quickly discovered they both wanted to curate. Realizing they couldn't agree on artists, the duo came up with the idea to do two-person shows. "It's really fun to each pick an artist and to see how they organically connect," Hopple says. S/PLI/T doesn't have its own gallery space. Instead, Hopple and Wiens seek out established venues and guest-curate shows that feature the work of two artists side by side. Last month, they took over Old Town's Duplex Gallery, and in October, they'll show the work of video artist Rives Wiley and sculptor Allison Peck at the Portland Pataphysical Society, a social club in the Everett Station Lofts. Hopple and Wiens promote emerging artists, whose careers are often tenuous in the first five years. "That's the point at which people become artists for the rest of their lives, or they drop it," Wiens says. "Giving them one good exhibition is critical."
May Barruel and Gabi Lewton-Leopold are the curating team behind Nationale, a hybrid gallery/shop on Southeast Division Street. Driven by a deep investment in their roster of artists (which includes Elizabeth Malaska, whose collagelike paintings, currently on display, challenge the representation of the female form), Barruel and Lewton-Leopold's support extends beyond what most galleries offer. They even help their artists edit grant applications. They also provide a different experience for gallery visitors. Nationale exists apart from the gallery epicenter in the Pearl District, occupying a sunlit storefront in the bustling Division/Clinton neighborhood. Half of the gallery serves as a shop, and the other is reserved for exhibitions. "A lot of people use the items in the shop to feel safe so they can explore the art," Barruel says. "I don't necessarily differentiate between a piece of original art, a well-written novel, a soap whose artisan recipe has been the same since the 14th century, or a one-of-a-kind, hand-painted bead necklace."
Zemie Barr and Shannon O'Connor, who met while working at the photography gallery Blue Sky, were dismayed by trends in contemporary art. "It was veering away from personal narrative and emotional depth," Barr says.
"Personal" is code for "female" work in the art world, and is often dismissed as not being as creatively rigorous as the more objective, conceptual or purely aesthetic forms of expression. So Barr and O'Connor opened Wolff Gallery (see "The Wolff Pack," below) in Old Town earlier this year to champion female artists and encourage them to "embrace the personal as political." The effort has paid off.
"Visitors tell me that it feels good in our space," O'Connor says. "If an artist is making something that's really personal, people can feel it. Even if they are new to coming to galleries, they don't have to intellectualize it. They will have an emotional reaction."
As our city reacts to the turmoil of change and we wait to see how it affects our creative class, these six women are the ones to watch.