February is going to be an exciting month around here especially with our first group show, LOW, in the gallery. This group of PNCA graduate students have put together an incredible show, and we cannot wait to see it come together! We were able to talk a little bit more with these guys about the concept behind LOW and how each of them approached the theme.
Duplex: Can each of you give a brief bio of where you’re from, your selected media for the show and a quick introduction to your work.
Leif Lee: I was born and raised in Bellinham WA, I moved to Olympia WA in 2001 where I lived until moving to Portland OR for graduate studies at PNCA in the fall of 2012. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest has been a defining influence of my work. The Northwest punk & independent music scene, rainforest landscapes, and Olympia’s queer & feminist politics heavily saturate my psyche. I have selected fabric in a palate of black, white and gold, metallic threads & studs to create sculptures that will be installed in the window of the gallery.
Evan Isoline: Born and raised in Denver, CO. I received a fine art degree in printmaking from Colorado State University in 2009. From there I apprenticed at Open Press Studio, Denver’s seminal fine art printmaking studio, under master printmaker Mark Lunning for 3 years. For LOW I am working with three 24” X 36” archival inkjet prints on polyester. The images are three full-bleed close-ups of male torsos, appropriated from fashion ads, stretched, draped and pinned into black wooden boxes. The title is ‘Golgotha’. This work will share formal and conceptual principles with past work involving the distortion, abstraction, defacement and evisceration of the human body as a symbol.
Jon Gann: Born in Ft. Benning, GA and raised in the Southeastern US and Germany. I received my BFA in studio art from the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 2012 and rolled into the graduate program at PNCA that same year. I have been anxious to get back to a 2D format with my work for awhile now just to see where it stands after a number of semesters captivated by sculpture. I am making a set of 4-5 (showing at least three) mixed media collage works that incorporate painting, drawing, and sewing. My work is fueled by an insatiable curiosity. I am interested in limits and what lies beyond them. Building to take apart and reconfigure/exhaust materials, my work resides in a perpetually provisional state and I am comfortable with that. Site ambiguity and queer space are the most recent themes I have been exploring.
Thomas Gamble: I am from Erie, Pennsylvania. A lot of my formal education was in literature, and I’ve always been interested in these sort of subcultural off-shoots that explore the uncanny or the sublime; things that rub up against something just out of reach of one’s consciousness, or are so jarring they annihilate one’s sense of self. Things like punk rock, and more recently certain types of Metal music that I have become aware of can get at this. The reconciliation or abutment of these things- the sort of heady world of literature and the much more direct, but equally coded and specialized world of subcultures, is what my work is exploring. The work for this show speaks in this language; it is dark, dense, the subject matter is derived from antiquated philosophies…
Kelly McGovern: I grew up in the Pine Barrons, in Southern New Jersey. A short train ride from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This is where I found a chaotic solace in the once-booming punk scene, and a life affirming escape from my highly religious and back-woodsy hometown. These early trips, sneaking out to the city, collecting zines, records and attending basement shows, ingrained in me an idea that escape is always possible. It left me with both a wanderlust for the world beyond Shamong, in conjunction with an ever present fear of never going anywhere. Even after moving to Philadelphia, and now to Portland, these two ideas fuel me, and influence my work. The pieces I am submitting are coded references to the terminal anxiety of escape, from my own personal sort-of-zine that I have been creating, within the sketchbooks I keep.
D: The majority of your separate personal work is set on a large scale; do you/did you struggle with paring down for the Duplex space?
LL: I enjoy the opportunity to make work for a specific space or event, and I was excited by the challenge to work within these parameters.
EI: I’m very excited to work with the space, and in general think my work will present well at Duplex.
JG: Not really. Even when working at a larger scale, I tend to work modularly– with few exceptions. Granted, the component pieces of newer works have been growing at an alarming clip. I feel the works I have submitted for LOW are sort of a return to form for me. I enjoy being able to waltz back and forth on the issue of scale, from the monumental back down to the trivial.
TG: My recent work is large scale- but making small, sort-of-precious things was all I did for a long time, working in my parent’s basement or very small studios, etc. There is an intimacy with small spaces and small work that is very appealing. It is like the creation of fetish objects or talismans, which are usually smaller than life-size. They don’t implicate the body on a one-to-one level the way, say, a sculpture of a person the size of a person would. They evoke can a strangeness that I am intrigued by.
KM: I too greatly enjoy working with different scales. I try to consider scale in relation to whatever I am making, as I would color, material, or installation.
D: Did you work together as artists often before this show? Does LOW live on as a group or lives and dies with this show? Do you see yourselves in further collaboration after graduation?
TG: This is the most formal way in which I have worked with Jon and Leif. We have been in shows together (most notably Jon and I made work about memory for a show curated by classmate Travis Nikolai), and we bounce ideas off each other very regularly, but there has really been a need to pull together on a conceptual level that has been really exciting. The introduction of Evan and Kelly is also interesting, as I have known them for a much briefer amount of time. There has been talk recently of some iteration of this group sort of banding together in the future. It feels both natural and challenging to work with this group, which I can only assume is a good sign.
JG: Yes, I mean, Leif, Thomas, and I have banded together pretty tightly throughout the last year and a half of the Visual Studies program. Leif and I took a semester in Europe (Venice, Milan, Basel) and all three of us shared a residency experience at Caldera in Sisters, OR in 2013. Aside from those instances, we depend on each other for accountability and some semblance of stability within the program and life in general. Sometimes we just eat ice cream. Kelly and Evan are easy additions to our ramshackle collective. Their work ethic, rigor, and generosity make them invaluable to a program like ours at PNCA. My hope is that these new bonds flex and grow as we move forward to establish a solid creative network of like minds. NO LAWS NO FEAR OF DEATH?!
LL: Right. Us three have been studying together for the last year and a half at PNCA, and have worked collaboratively loosely on some occasions; residencies, time abroad (for Jon and I), just in the studios, etc. McGovern and Isoline are new friends that also share the studio space we are all in currently. There is talk of LOW continuing in some form or another after this show, and I am very excited about the possibility of working with the people in this group in the future.
KM: As far as we first years go, Evan and I were in a show together in late 2013, but this is the first opportunity I have had to work with Leif, Jon and Thomas. There is a really great community within PNCA that allows us to be informally working together, bouncing off ideas and giving each other feedback, on a fairly regular basis, for which I feel truly lucky to have. I am incredibly excited for whatever is to come next for this group.
EI: I couldn’t agree more about working together in the future. As a peer of this selected group of artists I’m very excited to show work together, and to continue a conversation that I think is very important.
D: How did you come together to form LOW and settle on the theme?
JG: For some time, Thomas and I have been interested in the idea of doing some themed group shows to foster and solidify budding networks between like minds in the Visual Studies program at PNCA. At first, ideas began with guerrilla tactic methodology – such as feeding parking meters to run makeshift galleries for as long as we could afford it, or to curate a slideshow gallery on a building in the Pearl on a First Thursday. The call from Duplex came out and Thomas and I felt that this was the perfect time and vehicle to gather a few similar artists that we admire and respect and introduce our collective practices to the Portland community.
TG: Yes, Jon and I had wanted to do a show for a while, and he is very good about keeping abreast on opportunities. He approached me with the call from Duplex and we sort of gathered some of our favorite artists from within arms-reach whose work all seemed to be in some sort of conversation with each other. All the work we were making made sense to stick together, in some strange way, but we had to figure out what that was. What we came up with was LOW.
LL: Jonathan had sent out an email awhile back, asking if anyone wanted to put together a group show for Duplex Collective’s call to artists. I was really excited by the opportunity. As far as I know he came up with the idea for this group, and we all said yes!
EI: Jon and Thomas contacted me about being a part of a show that had to do with something very specific, almost austere. I was intrigued immediately and encouraged to find out that, through collaborative conversation, each of the artists involved in the show had something very important that they wanted to say to each other.
KM: Similarly, Jon and Thomas reached out to me early this fall in regards to applying for a group show. I was incredibly excited for this opportunity to collaborate with my newly found community in Portland. I was all in from first mention. We came together and composed a list of our similarities. There were so many common threads between all of our work that it was pretty simple to come up with LOW.
D: The show’s statement talks a bit about psychological suffering, it’s relation to the body, life and to the creation of art, could you talk a little bit more about this in relation to the selected work?
LL: The work I create is an off gas of the psychological suffering I experience as an anxious human on this planet. Often the process of creating for me is a means to escape this anxiety, or soothe it somehow. Other times, like the work I am making for this show, I am wrestling with ideas through the interaction with my materials.
EI: I am obsessive and even myopic when it comes to the psychosomatic relationships of pleasure and pain. I would like to find a visual locus where they meet and become indistinguishable, where the psyche becomes flesh, and vice versa.
JG: The size and scope of my work is usually a barometer of a mental disposition in flux. Work that is larger in scale is usually an indicator of a freedom of thought, fairly free from affect. Smaller, more intricate, and repetitive works are indicative of a dip in mood that finds me reverting to a more meditative, exorcising, and cathartic mode of work. I am purposefully exploring that mode in order to highlight an experience of public grief and private salvation.
TG: I think I probably work like Jon in the sense that when times are rough or uncertain I like the control of small work. I tend toward the sentiment that art is really about a sort of acute consciousness of mortality. I was also raised in a large Roman Catholic family, and still have a sort of complicated affinity for that faith, which is really death-obsessed, and I also went to Catholic school where these ideas of death, life after death, and so on were kind of drilled in. Also just being a sort of over-sensitive person, you become in-tune to depression, anxiety, all these sorts of minor sufferings. They can make you neurotic, of course, but I think they also tend to instill empathy, compassion, creativity, and so on. People that suffer to some degree seem to have more interesting things to say, in my experience. That isn’t to say you need to wear it on your sleeve, or make work explicitly about the bleakness of existence or something, but well-adjusted people make terrible art. Or, more likely, they don’t make art at all.
KM: I have an incredibly difficult time verbally expressing myself. The work I create is an outlet for my anxieties, obsessions and fears that otherwise overtake my mind. There is a therapeutic catharsis in creating, and solace and aperture that comes with making something with your hands.
D: It also talks about this being a source of empathy and of collective human experience that can bring people together, how do you feel it’s reflected in the work? Have you found that working together to put together this show has achieved this relationship between members of the group or a broader?
LL: My work addresses my experience of a technologically fast paced landscape based on the pointed rules and regulations of commercialism that then impale the human body. This creates exhaustion, sharp pains and disorientation. I am seeking comfort in the sharp lands of contemporary times. I look for this in my art making and within my friendships with other artists. Working collaboratively takes the edge off of the loneliness that capitalism offers, and brings moments of warmth to an otherwise cold world.
EI: There is empathy in an attempt to critically engage in the understanding of human suffering. There is also empathy in trying to understand desire.
JG: I think it boils down to the basic tenets of human condition and shared human experience. Even though there can be no perfect understanding of an-other, either acknowledgement or denial of those shared tenets is a reflexive response. At the root of those responses, one is either empathetic or sympathetic– you identify or you do not. Art making is, at its core, a selfish practice with the hope of connection and conversation being a latent by product of that making. I think it has. We have been in close conversation concerning the show– discussing details and threads that appear as we go along.
TG: One thing that I find important in certain artists or writers or musicians is the ability and/or willingness to communicate without a lot of a prior knowledge. This is particularly absent in contemporary art, which is often impenetrable even to me, an MFA student, let alone, say, my family or friends who aren’t involved in the art world. There is a lack of generosity there. It may work as a guarantor right now that you will get gallery representation or be taken seriously, but it is ultimately a negative trend. This isn’t to say that everything should fall to lowest-common-denominator, or be anti-intellectual or something, but there needs to be some middle ground. It’s why Nirvana was great, or why Marlene Dumas is great. There is a communication with that stuff that works if you are an art or music geek and works if you aren’t. That’s an empathy. Everyone has had to leave their bubbles for this show and communicate, and those bubbles are very intense in graduate school, where becoming hyper-specific with your work is encouraged and necessary.
KM: I find that people are attracted to work they relate to. Just as a song you can become a theme for a time in your life, or an experience you once had. The more specific and honest you are with your audience, or the people in your life the deeper the connection. There is a beautifully honest thread that ties all of our work together, which is how I imagine we all began to work together in the first place.
D: How do your relationships to the theme of the show differ?
EI: I don’t know if it’s a difference, but I am also interested in what is at the opposite end of low, and how the two conditions are related.
JG: I think the most immediately apparent differences are simply choices made in process and practice. Color resonates differently with each artist involved in the show, that much is obvious. In that same breath, text and its function, narrative, the esoteric, and personal lexicons all carry different weights within the construct of any given piece in reference to each individual’s interpretation of the subject LOW.
KM: I think that despite the many commonalities in our work, the subject we are taking on is ultimately derived from personal experience. With such a subject matter, we can offer each other out condolences, so to speak, but can never live the same experience.
TG: Exactly, and the work is not just pure formalism in the old school where we can set parameters we all work within. One thing that ties us together is we are all making work about very subjective, honest, personal experience. Personally, my work is a conflation of historical, personal, and cultural “lows”.
LL: And mine is, to some extent, an investigation of “low” or queer theory.
D: In the LOW show statement and catalog, you reference quotes for thinkers and writers, it seems safe to assume critical thinking and writing is integral to the theme of this show. How long have you been in thought and discussion before the show was born?
LL: For Gann, Gamble and I the last year and a half for sure. For McGovern and Isoline and I – only in the last few months.
EI: I can say that in the 5 or so months that I’ve known each of the artists, each has shown within their work an inquiry into the relationship between the written word and flesh.
JG: I would say that for the entire year and a half of the graduate program thus far Leif, Thomas, and I talk about pretty heavy topics with regularity. It is all about shifting perspective and agency. We really cut our teeth in the semester of Critical Theory that we took with Sarah Sentilles at PNCA and it has been ever present ever since. I find it quite interesting that Kelly and Evan are already talking with us about the very same topics even though they have not officially had Sarah’s class. They begin this semester and I feel that those conversations are about to intensify.
TG: Writing and reading has always been very dear to me, and for a while I thought that I might be a writer instead of a visual artist. As it turns out, I’m not very good at writing. I love it, but it’s not natural, and any semblance of skill I have at it I have had to work very hard at. Anyway, almost all of the thinkers referenced were introduced to me personally, and I am guessing to Jon and Leif as well, by our amazing professor Sarah Sentilles. She gave us readings that last year that put an academic bend on a lot of the sentiments I had always been drawn to in the aforementioned subcultures… distrust of power, gender equality, and so on. I would say Jon and Leif and I have been in discussion about these specific themes since starting her class last spring.
D: You each have distinct visual styles, however the work reflects the theme tightly and seamlessly. There must be a lot of communication throughout the art making process. Is this true? Do you work closely start to finish?
LL: We mostly work in our own studios I would say. I think the collective studio space, and being school cohorts fosters a lot of collective crossover.
TG: Right. Just the matter of sheer proximity and like-mindedness means that, sometimes even when you don’t necessarily want to work closely with others, they are there. Ultimately it’s very advantageous, and allows for opportunities like this to come together.
JG: As Thomas said, proximity wise, we are all in the same studio building so at any given time we are pretty much at arms length. Aside from that though, we are all pretty invested in and excited about each others practice.
EI: I would consider this a group show, one of very diverse artists and people that currently have timely and serendipitous thoughts on their mind.
KM: At times we do. Other times it is more important to withdraw a bit and nail down our own individual concepts. It’s often a matter of squirreling oneself away and then all coming out of our collective holes and showing what we’ve been thinking and making.
D: What attracts you to the works of your fellow show mates?
LL: The visible hard work and dedication that is apparent in each person’s work is so inspiring. I am so honored to be showing alongside each of these artists.
EI: There is bravery in the risks they take making their work both physically and emotionally.
JG: I have to be honest, first and foremost my attraction stems from a similarity in work ethic and commitment to research and growth. Beyond that I am envious of what comes out of Kelly, Evan, Leif, and Thomas’ studio. It resonates with me, I like to think that some offshoot personality of myself would be / could have / should be making the work I see them make.
TG:I am most familiar with Jon and Leif’s work, since I have been working with them a full year longer. I have always been in love with Jon’s work, and I am very jealous of his output and technical skill as a maker. I think his work is also interesting because it sets up a great tension between formal concerns and a very honest, sort of tender sense of self-exploration. It’s very heavy and serious at times but also very sincere. Leif’s work similarly exhibits this kind of paradoxical sensitivity with very brash, assured gestures that still seem vulnerable. I think her work is some of the least self-conscious, least affected work I have seen, which is why I like it so much. Evan’s work has an extremely graphic sensibility that I responded to, and he seems interested in provocation, which I love. Kelly was an easy choice, our aesthetics line up very well. She is making very strange, non-literal things with this background frequency of punk rock, zine culture, a very limited palette, and so on. While my work can get a bit ponderous or naval-gazey though, hers is very brave. Her performance work has a real fearlessness.
KM: Evan Thomas Leif and Jon all have an amazing level of honesty, sincerity, bravery, and beauty in their work. Visually I was attracted to all of their work right off the bat. Having spoken to each of them about how and why they make what they make only further solidified my appreciation and respect for what has come from each of these amazing people.