First Thursday: Episode III

From contemporary sculpture to eye-popping prints and visceral paintings, February’s First Thursday, had it all. Downtown residents poured through the Pearl District and Old Town for an evening packed with opening receptions, and just about every gallery had something new to show.

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From contemporary sculpture to eye-popping prints and visceral paintings, February’s First Thursday, had it all. Downtown residents poured through the Pearl District and Old Town for an evening packed with opening receptions, and just about every gallery had something new to show.

The Vanguard started its own tour back at PDX Contemporary, where the Pacific Northwest College of Art’s MFA in Visual Studies Chair Arnold Kemp displayed a collection of handcrafted sculptural works. The show, titled “When Will My Love Be Right,” continues through March 2 and also features images and a single poem pressed onto an index card.

Kemp’s show features men’s shoes crafted by the artist, placed among discarded seashells atop welded steel pedestals. Also on display were collections of belts, many of them crowned with a buckle shaped into the word “shy.”

“He went to Savannah to learn to make these items,” Gallery Director Jane Beebe said. “He uses pairs a lot. The shells are a vessel or home that have been vacated. The shoes are never worn. They’re waiting for a wearer.”

Kemp also installed a collection of large-scale images of aluminum masks on the surrounding walls. He enclosed the works in painted frames of blue and white or red and white.

“I was thinking about making mirrors,” Kemp said. “Obviously, there are no mirrors in this show. But these aluminum masks capture some of that effect of reflection.”

Kemp also explained some of the history of making the masks.

“These just started out as a playful use of aluminum, but I think they describe emotion better than a face,” he said. “When you consider how we control our faces and expressions, it’s interesting to think that a mask just is. A mask is in some ways more honest.”

Kemp’s work has taken him places. Most recently, he has been named a 2012 Fellow in the Fine Arts by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. He has also achieved renown as a poet; he reflected on one early work, which ultimately led to his working with Beebe.

“A black swan/On a black lake/With a moon/Just black,” he said, quoting from his poem. “I was thinking about all the ways black works in our culture—in fashion, as a race and as a color.”

Just blocks away, Portland State professor Rita Robillard was showing her work at the Augen Gallery on Davis Street. Robillard, who currently teaches drawing classes and gives lectures and seminars at PSU, showed a collection of high-resolution screen prints depicting dreamlike images of Northwest evergreens.

Robillard’s current show, titled “And Then Again…Riffs on Forests and Time,” is a response to her time in residency at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology in Otis, Ore. While there, she studied at the Cascade Head Experimental Forest with colleague Sarah Greene of Oregon State University.

“When I went on sabbatical, I decided I wanted to do something with the evergreens,” Robillard said. “It was fascinating! I also worked with Noah’s Fishery, and learned about their work tagging fish.”

The resulting work is a series of prints in vivid colors depicting natural environs. Layers of images are stacked together in various levels of definition, resulting in some images that appear ethereal, others mist-swept and idyllic. Some of the images use harsher tones, however, reflecting a nature at odds with the reality of modernity.

“I always add a historical point of view,” Robillard explained. “People always project a promise in landscape, a sort of hope for something better. I like to juxtapose that with the historical reality of nature.”

Robillard also explained that her birthplace, New York City, had a clear impact on the direction of her work combined with her time in the natural environment of the Pacific Northwest.

“Growing up in Manhattan, when you come to the West Coast and see the nature here for the first time, the largeness of the trees and the surroundings is overwhelming,” she said.

It is in part that experience that guides Robillard’s current work. Additionally, she pointed to the importance of the discipline of science in considering her own practice.

Ultimately, she brings these ideas together to evoke a respect for nature similar to the sublime.

“In geological terms, and in terms of the universe, we are so insignificant,” she said. “Of course, we can’t think that! But I’m of the mind that we should act with humility with [regard] to nature. These trees, with their massive size, invoke that.”

This First Thursday, night out ended at the Old Town cafe and venue Backspace. Just off the Southwest Fifth Avenue MAX stop, the coffee shop has regular shows of all varieties in addition to its gallery space.

This month, Backspace is presenting the work of local artist Martha Wallulis. Her paintings run the gamut of abstraction and representational work. Several of the works feature images of females swept into surreal environments of color, swirl and shape. Other works document the hectic drip and splash of paint in the manner of the Abstract Expressionists.

Wallulis pointed to an untitled work composed of reds and yellows snaking upward to the top of the picture plane. She noted that she’d flipped the composition for its final presentation, and how it altered the impact of the work.

“Now you can actually see the drips of paint lifting upward,” she said. “Sometimes, you have to break out of that. You have to be open to editing the work. You can look at it a little more objectively when it’s upside down.”

Wallulis also plays with a wealth of materials. A pair of her paintings, titled Glitter and Ashes, feature those very materials, in addition to the vivid greens, blues and aquas of the paint.

“I used the glitter and ashes, and made my own paint with it,” she said. “The works are really about transformation.”

Wallulis, who had spent many previous hours in installation, was upbeat and happy with the show’s turnout, as friends and onlookers expressed their appreciation.

“It’s the culmination of a lot of work, here in this beautiful space,” she said.

Gallery patrons, artists, writers and students attended all the shows in great numbers, and many showed themselves at some of the spaces the Vanguard couldn’t attend this time around.

One Backspace patron, a former PSU business student who identified himself simply as Neal, pointed to a “very detail-oriented show” he and friends Joe and Darryl had just caught at Upper Playground, a block away.

“I ran into quite a few people I’ve known over the years, from all different backgrounds,” Neal said. “It’s a community of artists here, with a chance to express themselves.”

All three exhibitions run through Saturday, March 2, at their respective galleries. Additionally, Backspace will host a show closing the same night and starting at 5 p.m., during which Wallulis will paint live onstage.