BY BRIAN LIBBY
Two art exhibits opening today take liberties with the notion of a people-less city, one a fictitious vision of the future and one drawn from our everyday urban landscape.
In a collaboration with PixelPool, four students from the Art Institute of Portland were commissioned to create a digital image of the chosen subject: Portland in 100 years without people. This dystopian idea has a long history. There are Hollywood movies like 1946's The Last Man on Earth, 1985's The Silent Earth or 2007's I Am Legend with Will Smith. There are also more serious literary looks, like Alan Weisman's book The World Without Us. Yet these images still, perhaps because they picture our own city sans residents, can evoke numerous feelings of alarm, sobriety and redoubled concern for progressive action.
In Ann Petit's illustration, brides and the downtown waterfront have leaned like the Tower of Pisa. Only birds can be seen moving in the frame, left to nest amongst the concrete, steel and glass. Lisa Ortlip presents the St. Johns bridge, long Portland's most beautiful span, overcome by vines. Bridges always carry symbolic meaning besides literally moving traffic; somehow the notion of a connecting span no longer doing its job adds greater poignance. Although if this were the ugly Marquam Bridge or the Columbia Crossing, one might not feel so bad seeing them abandoned.
In an illustration by Sarah Francian, the arches of Ankeny Plaza have given way to ivy, with cars stopped right in their tracks as if whatever wiped away the population did so very quickly. Ankeny Plaza is today revitalizing with a new Mercy Corps headquarters and a relocated Saturday Market, yet it is also one of Portland's oldest public spaces. To see it no longer vibrant gives a sense of the city's long history halted.
Pioneer Place shopping mall's interior atrium is the subject for Ben Fleuter's illustration. Personally, this human being is already completely absent from this architectural space. Malls inevitably feel claustrophobic, even when they have Guggenheim-like atriums pictured here. Even so, the nod to consumerism and its absence is noteworthy in Fleuter's piece.
"PDX 2111" is a one-night First Thursday exhibit at Pixelworks, located at 308 NW 11th Avenue. The exhibit will be open from 6-8PM tonight.
Meanwhile, local artist, writer and curator TJ Norris has an exhibit opening at Anka Gallery that looks at blank signs throughout the west.
"In a continuation of a series of abandoned signs that I started investigating in 2008, I've traveled through the Northwest... to capture something universal," Norris explains. "These largely ignored, lonely structures are growing in number. What this says about economics and the downward spiral of advertising is a multi-tiered thing left to one's imagination. I've been entranced by the subtle, formal qualities of these mysterious gutted outposts and their ominously intimate lost messages. A great sense of emptiness is categorized by their poker-faced, sitting-bull silent nature. The phrase 'Silence = Death' emerges more loudly than ever before. We are left in the great in-between."
"Back in 2008 I first started noticing a quieting sub/urban horizonline when contrasting my experiences of looking/living in the Northwest while on a trip to Los Angeles," Norris adds. "There was something pronounced about former advertising marquees now hollowed out after a closure of a big box store chain like Circuit City or even a small operation like a mechanic's garage. These totems and empty boxes, collectively growing over the past few years recede quietly into the background from Vancouver (BC) to Vernonia, from Boise and Boston."
"As the economy has contorted during this recession these quirky reminders have further dotted my consciousness. In tens of pilgrimages to regional and distant places I've recorded these 'signs of the times'. On a recent return visit to LA I noted lesser obvious signs than in previous trips compared to the implosion of such in my own surroundings, suggesting a possible paradigm shift of small vs. large cities. Not being an urban planner or economist I used this opportunity to strictly focus on the structures themselves. Looking through their devoid former message, effortlessly propped in quiet, hard-lined grandeur."
Perhaps these exhibits appeal specifically to me, because my own photographs are often people-less. The one time my work was reviewed, by The Oregonian in 2003, reviewer DK Row even noted that there was not a single person in the 25 photographs. But there may also be an appeal more universal here, whether it's a people-free city that people find eerie or one that recalls the old Chinese curse: "May you get what you wish for."
The Norris opening is this Thursday from 6-10PM at Anka Gallery, 325 NW Sixth Avenue.