Avantika Bawa: Coliseum
I’ve avoided writing about either of Avantica Bawa’s concurrent exhibitions, APEX: Avantica Bawa at the Portland Art Museum and Coliseum at Ampersand Gallery and Fine Books, because I haven’t really known what I think of the work. I went to Bawa’s talk for the Northwest Art Council, and her presentation felt constrained, as if she were only sharing half the story. There, frankly, seemed to be more pleasure in the mention of the Portland Trailblazers than the expected discussion of the work. It seemed clear that something posited as a tangential consideration held a deeper overall meaning. Because Bawa’s project unfolds over two locations, I’m not writing a review, per se. I’m trying to figure out why it was important for Bawa to make the work, as a step toward understanding what the work has to offer.
In Grace Kook-Anderson’s deft, Foucauldian curatorial essay for the PAM show, she discusses the history of the Veterans Memorial Coliseum largely in the context of the powerful who entertain themselves at the coliseum and the powerless whose homes were razed to make room for that entertainment. The building–both its physicality and its image–contain that history. The text, however, felt more like the way Kook-Anderson thinks. It’s the type of insight that makes her the sharpest curator at PAM. Yet it didn’t feel so much like Bawa, whose interpretations of her own work tend to be porous and malleable, dodging and weaving over time so that one gets somewhat different answers on different occasions, leaving an impression that the work lives and grows in her mind, that it’s always being reassessed so that certain facets might be deployed in different ways in the service of the work. Bawa has always seemed to understand—and use to her advantage—the limitations of dialog, a refreshing rebuke of art that pleads for its own importance.
All of the works at both PAM and Ampersand depict some view of the Veterans Memorial Coliseum facade, but beyond that, there doesn’t seem be a fixed set of rules about how the images are composed, executed, or their faithfulness to the subject. Within the two exhibitions, Bawa presents prints–both lithographs and gravure, as well as drawings in various combinations of graphite, pigment, colored pencil, and oil pastel with at least one piece that uses acrylic paint. The work is primarily abstracted geometric renderings in the style of modernist photographers such as Ezra Stoller. However, drawings of the full exterior of the building creep in as well, as does an occasional curved line depicting the building’s interior structure. In the PAM show, oil pastels deliver a perfectly smooth surface, while, at Ampersand, the same medium is used to deliver a more tactile surface that seems to turn the paper into sheets of marble or travertine. As well, many of the pieces at PAM are drawn with delicate, though lightly smudged, lines of graphite while at Ampersand, some of the lines of graphite tear into the paper. This material wandering seems to pose a curious question about what, exactly, Bawa is up to. Is she cycling through various applications of media trying to find exactly the right nuance to convey a specific idea, or does the shift from pencil to oil pastel make it possible for her to discover her subject anew, again and again, becoming more a matter of personal exhilaration? Or is it simply a type of evasiveness played out through materiality?
Bawa’s talk at the Northwest Art Council offered the work as an expression of her obsession with architecture and geometry, though she didn’t seem to have much, specifically, to say about either architecture or geometry. With the help of two assistants, Bawa has made untold renderings of the coliseum, yet her dialog didn’t exude the sort of passion one associates with obsession; she seemed most animated at the mention of the Portland Trailblazers. The talk left me feeling like this work was merely a set of rather conservative formal experiments that use a look derived from Minimalism, challenging its material restraint but ignoring its spirit of aesthetic transgression. Though, Mineral Spirits, a gold painted scaffolding that was spotlit in a massive, darkened, decaying room in the Astor Hotel building in Astoria was visually astounding. It had the same type of material transformation as Tony Feher or Jim Hodges, without seeming redundant. If somebody can make something so striking, I should be willing to spend the extra time to understand the evolution. There had to be more than broad notions of geometry and architecture and a subtext of gentrification and racism that the artist scarcely saw fit to mention.
The statement for the exhibition at Ampersand, which came about five weeks later, focused more confidently on the link between the building and the Portland Trailblazers. What had baffled me for so long was the fetishist’s sleight of hand! In the mental magic of sublimation, something easily accessible becomes a seamless stand-in for an unattainable object. Every drawing of the coliseum is a portrait of The Blazers; not a player, or even the team, but the feeling derived from ritual attendance—anticipation and euphoria, defeat and victory. These drawings are coded depictions of the totality of Bawa’s infatuation with basketball. She speaks about fandom and sport through a sort of visual equivocation. Geometry provides sufficient common ground between Bawa’s artistic practice and The Blazers’ erstwhile modernist home. In the artist’s mind, this tangential connection is magnified into a false equivalency between the building and her experience of the Blazers. It doesn’t matter a bit that her team hasn’t played in that stadium for over 20 years.
The Veterans Memorial Coliseum is simply the waste product of a sports franchise that grew to require additional seating. That it was once touched by the Blazers, though, is enough to create a productive association for Bawa. There is a scene in the movie The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert in which Felicia (Guy Pearce) reveals that the vial she kept around her neck is a tiny bit of feces fished from a toilet bowl after Agnetha Fältskog exited the stall. This bit of sewage was the most personal connection available between Felicia and her idol. Disgust and vulgarity weren’t concerns, they couldn’t be. It was an ABBA turd, and that was enough. This relationship of sublimation and obsession, I think, is where Avantica Bawa’s latest body of work comes from: fandom as a catalyst for the most improbable associations and a deeply felt desire to reify the sense of awe she experiences watching Portland Trailblazer games.