Walking into Space Gallery’s annex right now is like getting hit by a 12-foot tsunami of color. The geometrical sections act like hard-edge abstraction. It is intense and overwhelming: oranges, purples, mint, kelly, scorching yellow, vermillion, dazzling lime and so on. The entire space is covered: not just the walls, but the floors, baseboards, outlet covers and so on. This interior of un-muted hues is punctuated by similarly-colored cloth-wrapped pedestals taking the shape of tall, slender bar tables topped by 2-foot disks.
This installation is hard to swallow at first glance. Not only are the colors LOUD, but the title of New York artist Brent Birnbaum’s show offers no welcoming hint whatsoever: “IIIX9MEOW.” The work on the pedestals doesn’t help: The viewer first sees a childishly kitschy hand-sculpted clay poodle bust, and then a handmade-bunny stuffed animal which, while clearly once deeply loved, feels abandoned to the public eye.
Miffed by “IIIX9MEOW,” many viewers have left after just a few moments.
For those curious enough to delve deeper, the artist binder at the entrance has a two-paragraph statement about the show that says things like: “Most people are more surprised (Birnbuam) is not on Facebook than learning his cousin invented the Bedazzler.”
What the viewer learns is that the nine objects on the pedestals were submitted by other artists. (You have to go online to find that Birnbaum put a call for artists on Craig’s List, and that he didn’t get the nine he needed so he filled out the show with two submitted from The Art Department on Congress Street and a work by a SPACE intern, Miles Templeton.)
Birnbaum’s is another example of the artist-as-impresario shows that have inundated Portland this year. The best was Alex da Corte’s “Fun Sponge” at MECA’s ICA, in which the artist played the part of collector and curator while pressing the curatorial staff of the ICA to play its curatorial hand as well. It was a self-critical examination that went further than Birnbaum in addressing art as property and blurring the lines between art and collected kitsch.
The other major such work currently on view in Portland is Rahul Mitra’s “Box City” which is part of the Portland Museum of Art’s Biennial. For “Box City,” Texas-based Mitra invited local artists to paint on wooden wine boxes that were then gathered pavella-like and installed (to the surprise of several of the artists) outside the museum. This work appears destined to be defined not by questions about street art and its (ironical?) installation outdoors, but by the 30 or so painters’ varied perceptions about what they were getting into. (I have found it difficult to comment on “Box City” because it’s caught up in a contentious real-time conversation begun by some of the participating artists, but from an audience viewpoint, it’s an inaccessible disappointment.)
The biggest concern about the Birnbaum and Mitra pieces is the extent to which they come across as disrespectful to the artists because their approach resembles artistic colonialism – an ironic misfire for the Indian-born Mitra. The artist-as-curator theme sounds like a great way to engage local communities, but it’s also a mode that can be infected by an artist’s self-involvement. Birnbaum’s presentation of the work as a “collaboration” is troubling – since collaboration implies a partnership in which both parties have a say – and his involvement comes across as narcissistic, which tips the scales in the wrong direction.
Birnbaum’s component of the “collaboration” is the pedestal (what if the PMA curators called any work they put on a pedestal a “collaboration?”), each of which is titled “My Adidas” and priced separately – $1500 each versus $50 to $400 for the other artists’ works. Some of the collaborators’ works are uncomfortably weak (while lacking camp intentionality). A couple, however, excel: Dave Olsen’s shuttle is an impressively empowered ritual dart and Templeton’s “Bat and Chain” exudes an alternatingly scary or scandalously sexual heft.
In general, I don’t support art that requires significant explanation before the public can understand it. And Birnbaum’s flip comments amplify this problem: The first sentence in his online interview about the Space show, for example, states: “My first degree is in interior design. I doubt anyone will be surprised, after seeing my installation.”
This artist-as-impresario approach is hip and hot. And we’re seeing enough of it locally to realize it’s not a simple conceptualist gesture: It relies on execution, involvement of the community and the integrity of the artist. And it can fail on any of these terms – or on several, as “IIIX9MEOW” reveals.
It’s too bad that SPACE has had another near miss of a show. SPACE is a great organization and their annex gallery is one of the best art venues in Portland. SPACE now has some good artists on staff, so maybe we can start to expect better. But it’s easy to argue that what Space needs is a bona fide curator.
Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at: