Import/Export: Art and Exchange in Portland, OR

/ 30 March, 2016

What does it mean to have an exchange? Universities in the U.S. define exchange through their study abroad programs: offering students a chance to engage with other cultures and professors to present curriculum and pursue research in their field or region of study. For artists, exchange is increasingly becoming a part of one’s studio practice, and for some it can replace it entirely. Artists move globally. The system of cross-cultural residencies, fellowships, and “labs” moves artists from country to country to realize new work and engage with local audiences, built from our desire to import forms of exchange.

The exhibition Intersecciones: Havana/Portland, hosted by the Ronna and Eric Hoffman Gallery of Contemporary Art, at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, OR, interrogates these forms of exchange and their effect on the process of creation. The exhibition brings together six Cuban artists to create new work in Portland: Adriana Arronte, Elizabet Cerviño, Yornel J. Martínez, Susana Pilar Delahante Matienzo, Reyneir Leyva Novo, and Rafael Villares. Four of the six artists came to Portland for the two weeks preceding the opening to realize new work and site specific projects for the exhibition. Adriana Arronte came to Portland in the Fall of 2015 for a residency at the Tacoma Museum of Glass, and Yornel Martinez was unable to come due to paperwork issues. I was part of the initial trip to Havana to research artists along with the curators, Linda Tesner, Daniel Duford, and Elliot Young. I helped support and organize the trip, host artists in Portland, and often served as translator.

The works by the six artists are dotted through the expansive gallery, providing backdrops for one another and pointing to common threads among them. The front gallery houses an enormous tree stump and a long shelf with 70 wine glasses lined up along it. The crashing weight of Rafa Villares’ tree stump “Eco #10” is a monumental form of displacement, a blip on the radar of the gallery’s surroundings. The top of the stump has been hollowed out and replaced with an image of lightning. Reynier Novo’s “The Crystal Kiss” is a history of Cuban and American presidencies, told chronologically in the form of etched wine glasses.

Moving into the main gallery, Novo’s “The Weight of the Earth: Manifest Destiny” analyzes significant treaties such as the Louisiana Purchase, to determine how much ink it required to write. He then represents the treaties with simple black squares, alluding to westward expansion through simple abstraction. Elizabeth Cerviño’s performance “Stand Up or Change Posture” is defined by the remnants of her action: a pile of earth in which she was buried. Adriana Arronte’s dining room tables present interventions into our most quotidian objects, vases and silverware that have been rendered into tools for some alternative form of consumption. Susana Delahante’s video installation “Foundry” is a circuitous meditation on space and the body, and “We Bring it Curly” is a celebration of Afro-Cuban hair culture through a public afro contest that took place during the Havana Biennial. Yornel Martínez’s zine project “P-350” is a clear bridge between Portland’s DIY book scene and Havana’s kindred spirit of making: over 90 unique artist books comprise a catalog of exchanges that the artist has been facilitating for years.

The artists in the exhibition reflect a diversity of practices and interests, reflecting the expansive art community in Havana. Installation, painting, performance, video and sculpture inform the various works, often climbing hand over fist in the realization of a single piece. At their core however, is a shared spirit and poetic lens. The artists all imbue their art with a sort of abstraction that takes bold and complex systems and distills them to a kind of quiet resonance, a bold reduction. There is an economy of ideas that flows through the show, somehow touching on multiple problematics in current society and reducing them to single gestures.

The Hoffman is a large gallery, and the exhibition felt both brimming and sparse at the same time. However, despite making the point of bringing these artists to Portland, their presence in the show didn’t quite register. While much of the work was made on-site, none of the works are necessarily site-specific, and that in a way detracts from the idea of exchange: it is happening in many capacities, but not through engagement with the city or the gallery or the exhibition in a responsive way. The works included could exist in any gallery in any city around the world. The show nominally hoped to be about an exchange with the Portland community, but I think this reflects the experience of the curators more than the artists (who are all represented internationally to varying degrees, and travel often). Intersecciones had a very collaborative production and installation, working with both artists, students, community members, and the curators and support staff at the Hoffman, yet the result is a gallery show that hides all of this process. The exhibition required a huge effort by the curators to bring these artists here, and I think it is a real challenge (and important one) to show this.

The show as a whole has a powerful ethic, and the energy that went in to it needs to be represented as such. I am looking forward to seeing the catalog which is set to come out soon, and will be available as a PDF. The context that this will provide will help to enrich the representation of the project as a whole.

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