BY BRIAN LIBBY
Attending the opening reception last Friday for artist Avantika Bawa's new exhibition at the Portland Art Museum, part of the APEX series devoted to Pacific Northwest artists and comprised of a series of drawings devoted entirely to Veteran's Memorial Coliseum, was a treat in so many ways. And it wasn't just a treat. It was a validation.
Nine years and four months ago, Portland's then-mayor, Sam Adams, announced that Memorial Coliseum would be demolished to make way for a minor-league baseball stadium, as part of the larger effort to make Providence Park a soccer-only stadium for the Portland Timbers. At the public announcement, Adams was surprised to find a room full of Coliseum supporters opposing his demolition plan.
Since that night, there have been peaks and valleys aplenty. Adams ultimately reversed course, and sought a renovation plan that failed to reach a vote in City Council before his term ended. The building has avoided demolition threats a few times in the ensuing years, most notably from former City Council members Steve Novick and Randy Leonard, both of whom have now left office. But it has also received a National Register of Historic Places listing from the National Park Service in 2011, and a National Treasure listing from the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2016. The building even received a modest $2.5 million renovation in 2017. It is still waiting for the full-scale restoration it deserves, which third-party economic studies commissioned by the City of Portland have shown would turn a profit.
Looking at Bawa's magnificent artworks Friday night, I couldn't help but marvel at how far the building has come. Even if it's still waiting for that restoration — and when public buildings wait this long it's often known as "demolition by neglect" — over these nine years the tide has more than turned. I used to hear a fair amount of skepticism from members of the public, especially conservatives. Why would anyone try to save a simple glass box like that? Everybody knows only old buildings with gargoyles get saved. Why would anyone try to preserve an NBA team's home after the team moves out? There were always easy answers to those misguided questions: modernism can be historic too, and arenas can stay busy without basketball. Yet the point is that much of the skepticism has gone away.
Seeing the Coliseum given such reverential and heroic treatment from a talented artist was a moment to savor.
I first met Bawa in 2015 during her show at the University of Oregon's White Box gallery, "Aqua Mapping," which explored the history, topography and climate of three separate locations. Much of Bawa's art is like this: displaying a localized scrutiny on one place, or in this case, one building. In the case of Memorial Coliseum, her focus is even tighter.
In these nearly two dozen drawings on display in the Apex show, she focuses solely on exterior views of the Coliseum, depicting its facade in a way that emphasizes the grid-like face of this circa-1960 building by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. In none of these drawings, for example, does one see the concrete seating bowl inside the glass box. In a talk with Grace Kook-Anderson, the museum's curator of Northwest art, Bawa discussed the fact that to introduce the bowl would have been to widen her focus too much, and that artistically she was for now focused on just the grid-like appearance of the exterior. (She explained that the bowl could be a subject of future artworks.)
Bawa also discussed with Kook-Anderson artistic influences on her work such as Agnes Martin, with her serene grids and stripes, and Piet Mondrian, with his blocks of color. I also saw some of Bridget Riley's pattern-making style, and in one piece of Bawa's, which depicts solely the white top of the Coliseum, I was reminded of the abstract-expressionist "zip" paintings of Barnett Newman.
One comment I heard from time to time at Friday's opening was curiosity about the fate of the building. Even for those decidedly in the pro-renovation camp, the Coliseum saga has dragged on for so long now that it's easy to lose track of what's going on. Basically, I told those who asked, the Coliseum is in better shape than it's been in years thanks to last year's $2.5 million "refresh," as it was called. The National Treasure listing in 2016, and the National Trust's ensuing and ongoing involvement, have helped cement perception of the Coliseum as an architectural landmark too special and too busy to tear down. (It continues to host over 100 events a year and break even.)
Last year's introduction of the Albina Vision, an urban design plan for the Rose Quarter designed by Hennebery Eddy for a consortium led by Zari Santner and the Meyer Memorial Trust's Rukaiyah Adams, also helped articulate the Coliseum as part of a future high-density, mixed-use neighborhood. City leaders responded positively to the plan, which helps stitch back together the neighborhood that used to be there before Interstate 5, Emanuel Hospital and the Coliseum itself were built. The Coliseum can actually be part of revitalizing the neighborhood that used to be there, acting not just as a place for concerts and sporting events but as a building serving the community.
Yet these ongoing dramas should not form the narrative of Bawa's show. You don't have to know about urban-renewal financing or City Hall politics or the economics of large entertainment venues to appreciate Avantika's drawings. In a way, you don't even have to have an abiding love of the Coliseum itself. You just have to stand there and let her drawings wash over you. I appreciate a particular duality: that the drawings themselves are very precise, but Bawa still lets us see the imperfections of the human hand. To me it's like a jazz musician bending the notes: making you aware of precision by playing with those rules. I also love works such as these that seem to straddle a line between representationalism and abstraction. These are not abstract works, for it's clear the Coliseum is being depicted. Yet the geometry of the building as imagine by Bawa allows one to become temporarily immersed in the language of the drawing in a way that becomes experiential, and about more than seeing the building that exists across the river in drawing form. Bawa's drawings are greater than the sum of her graphite strokes, just as the Coliseum's architecture is something greater than the sum of its steel and glass: something transcendent.
Bawa's APEX show at PAM runs through February 9. If you love architecture, and love seeing it depicted with a long, deep gaze by an exceptionally talented artist, this show is, well, the apex.