Sublime Banality at Here/There Gallery
Here/There Gallery opened their doors with an exhibition that, among other things, attempts to add to the entirely unfashionable and ostensibly debunked, notion of the sublime. In a world where art is increasingly linked with either social experience or the unassailable heroism of identity, the idea that was once referred to as the “aesthetic emotion” is generally considered quaint and antiquated. The very mention of the sublime is often interpreted as a lack of seriousness. However, it is still a vital notion within contemporary discourse. Roland Barthes’ punctum is very much about the aesthetic emotion, and is still commonly taught in college level photography programs. Paul Crowther writes about the drive for the new as a permutation of the sublime, while more recently Thierry de Duve examined the idea of the sublime in relation to more theoretical approaches to art making, releasing it from its association with beauty. The Here/There Gallery press release also offers a notion that the curators refer to as “ontological-recycling” that seems to have the curators pushing, maybe just a bit beyond, their own limits. In their text, at least, they deliver a quirky blend of academics laced with mysticism that seems to understand contemporary art for what it is, a collection of individual expressions. One of the more interesting concepts in the press release is the idea of a “post-teleological talisman.” I’ve never before imagined such a thing, but for several weeks I’ve been considering that idea, and the different ways its conceptual operation may and may not work, though I don’t pursue it any further in this article.
This four-person exhibition, featuring work by Madison Donnelly, Colin Kippen, Todd Schroeder, and Rachael Tarravechia, is situated in a very small storefront gallery. Part of that limited space is devoted to scented candles, tote bags and a counter with a recessed display of jewelry. There are small, white, plastic 3-D printed sculptural works seated on two pedestals in the front windows, while paintings on canvas, wall mounted sculptures and paintings executed on pages of the New York Times line the remaining wall space. The two available corners are both occupied by floor standing sculptural objects.
Rachel Tarravechia only has two paintings in the exhibition, though they have a rather outsize presence. One is small, stationed just enough behind the counter to make close looking feel awkward. It is a square canvas with the word “SWISH!” running vertically alongside a cut paper overlay of a basketball passing through a net, set against a background of Louis Vuitton’s Monogram pattern rendered in pastel colors. The blunt descriptive and simple line drawing has the feel of Lichtenstein, though the aesthetic is more craft store than mechanical reproduction. The juxtaposition of sport and luxury evokes a familiar dialog of sports as a potential way out of poverty for young men of color, though I have no way of assessing the artist’s investment there; it might simply posit sports as a luxury product. I’m also unclear how this artist’s work might relate to sublime banality.
Across the room, Tarravechia presents a larger canvas with a bubble gum pink background and ample rhinestones throughout. Even without its roll call of luxury fashion brands, it would be the flashiest thing in the room—and this room includes a display of jewelry. In a single painting, Tarravechia combines the Commes des Garçons’ Play logo, Murakami’s smiling flowers, Chanel’s interlocking Cs, Fendi’s Zucca logo, and the Burberry B. (It’s as if the curators consciously choose this piece to irritate Portland’s old guard.) Adding to a rather complex assortment of objects is the decidedly quotidian Wilson brand tennis racket and box of Fruity Pebbles cereal set alongside a helping of luxury branded ice cream, a side zip platform boot and thick gold chain sporting some of the previously mentioned logos. Titled Memento Mori, the obligatory skull—though with orange teeth—is placed front and center, sporting flame-adorned shades over its orbital cavities. A Nike swoosh and reference to Off White’s Virgil Abloh is drawn on the side of the cranium. The painting is, strictly speaking, a vanitas—a historical genre that was intended to remind viewers that they cannot take their worldly pleasures with them into heaven. With Tarravechia’s collection of material aspirations, one is reminded how boastful this type of painting must have been during its Ranaissance heyday: the rarefied painting used to catalog the lavishness of one’s life as an ostentations expression of humility.
Madison Donnelly’s work, Trash Bags, sits quietly in the corner, casually evoking the artworks of Robert Gober in which he uses a lump of wax, seemingly shaped by a plastic sack only to become an ultra-realistic depiction of a human chest. In Donneley’s work, a pair of black and white disposable trash bags have their draw strings cinched at the top while crumpled folds of plastic merge seamlessly into a smooth and shiny pattern of button tufted upholstery at the bottom. This piece is engagingly strange and completely surreal. It is gorgeous to look at, and the formal transition from trash to class, or from banality to sublimity, happens imperceptibly. The work maintains both significations simultaneously, yet gracefully. Unfortunately, within the context of the exhibition and the close proximity to Tarravechia’s painting, the diamond shapes of the button tufting seem to give way to another allusion, this time Chanel’s Matelassé. Donnelly’s sculpture, no matter how perfectly considered and executed, suffers in the context of its intractable neighbor.
The same relationship emerges between Tarravechia’s and Todd Schroeder’s work. The quiet gestalt of heart shapes, made of folded grids and paint delicately blown onto the Sunday New York Times, becomes contaminated by the repetition of the heart shaped Comme des Garçons Play logo bordering Tarravechia’s Memento Mori. I end up not wanting to think through the meaning of Schroeder’s systems and persistence, but rather to assimilate it into the world of entry level luxury clothing.
The only works that seem to resist Tarravechia’s influence, are the small scale wall sculptures of Colin Kippen. These pieces are made from cement cast in the plastic remains of consumer packaging. One might recognize a “recycle” logo or the shallow geometric textures associated with styrofoam or those thin plastic structures used to house grocery store cookies. Kippen presents the negative space of those objects and then further abstracts them with mists of contrasting colors of aerosol paint, and other found objects. Recognizable shapes, such as an electrical junction box or the burner from an electric stove, no longer carry their once-specific associations, but transform into something that vaguely references sci-fi aesthectics, yet lands on inscrutability, refusing clear categorization. One might bend their head under a sculpture projecting from the wall to ascertain that the flat of a spatula is hidden within a slab cement, but even with this information, Kippen’s formal vocabulary is personal and stylized enough to exceed the sum of its original parts, and in this manner, rather humbly, steals the show.
Whether or not Here/There Gallery has succeeded in expanding a notion of the sublime, or perfectly articulated their thesis of “ontological recycling” isn’t so much the point. There’s an intelligence, a fighting spirit nestled within Sublime Banality, and with that Here/There Gallery has injected some much needed audacity into a typically staid art scene.
1920 N Kilpatrick Street
Portland, OR 97217