Sex, luxury and ceramics

    Beginning last winter, the MFA program’s Monday Night Artist’s Lecture Series brought eclectic artists to campus with a goal of exposing people to fresh approaches in contemporary art by featuring emerging artists, curators and critics.

    Last year, 15 eclectic lecturers participated in the series. This year, 28 lectures will take place – thrusting PSU into a central role in Portland’s developing contemporary art scene.

    This week’s lecture was delivered by a professor from Rhode Island School of Design, Julia Bryan-Wilson, who is the only art historian scheduled for the series. Outside the conventional parameters of art history, Bryan-Wilson thinks dialogues between artists and art historians can be mutually illuminating for both.

    Before attending graduate school at UC Berkeley, she lived in Portland and found a unique creative community that she cites as an influence on her current research.

    ”We had a sense that we were making our own world," she said.

    Bryan-Wilson is currently working on a book about artistic labor in the age of the Vietnam War that evolved from her dissertation completed in 2004. In her lecture, titled On Nuclear Time, she suggested numerous departure points for artists who are responding to the pertinent issues surrounding the disposal of nuclear waste.

    Next Monday, artist Jeffry Mitchell will visit from Seattle to discuss his work in ceramics and other media. He has been enthralled with handiwork since he was young, knitting sweaters and making furniture as a kid. Mitchell sees himself as a folk artist who makes decorative work in the realm of contemporary crafts. Although the distinction between fine art and craft is hotly debated in the Pacific Northwest, Mitchell takes a unique view based on his blue-collar upbringing.    

    ”Since I grew up poor, the things I was denied as a kid were sex and money, and so the work tends toward luxury or about sex somehow. Hiding sex, having sex or not having sex," Mitchell said.

    Sex was a theme in the work Mitchell installed for a show titled Boys and Flowers at Western Bridge in Seattle earlier this year. Mitchell displayed a tribute to a popular bathhouse on Pike Street that will soon be closed. He created a Japanese-style byobu screen that depicted various figures with erections and other erotic poses along with graphic East Asian flowers. Mitchell has been continuing with the flower motif in a series of etchings that mourn the death of his father. Despite their heavy subject matter, the work is full of life, each flower packing a dynamic energy into its bold black and white composition.

    Mitchell draws a profound influence from the three years he spent in Japan during the 1980s, when he had the chance to study pottery and try his hand at calligraphy.

    ”When I went to Japan I had a real affinity for the culture. I can only explain it in terms of reincarnation," he said. The techniques and motifs of Japanese ceramics give Mitchell the freedom to work with ideas that express themselves in a variety of media. In a series of ceramic amalgamations, Mitchell incorporates a multitude of figures, animals and objects so the sculptures become muddy entities that appear abstract from a distance. Some of these works, such as Foo Dogs and Pickle Jar, incorporate metallic glazes that make them lucrative even though they have no clear function beyond their use as playful combines.

    November looks promising, with Jessica Jackson Hutchins in town again after her show Peace at Home, the War Never Left at Small A Projects earlier this fall. Hutchins offers new insights into the paradoxical relationship between the domestic and wild landscapes of our times. Experimental filmmaker and video artist Jeanne Finley will also be in town for a lecture in November. She is currently teaching at California College of the Arts in San Francisco and deals with visual and linguistic metaphors in her work.

    If you can’t get out of town to see what’s happening in the art world, this lecture series brings some distinctive artists to campus every Monday night for the rest of the school year. The lectures will definitely unravel your preconceptions about what is “art" and what isn’t. The lineup is drawn primarily from the West Coast and includes alternative filmmakers, a performance artist, a painter and some artists that don’t fit into categories.