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Thoughts on the Portland Biennial By a Recent Portland Transplant

At/After First Glance

Kyle Cohlmia

Disjecta Contemporary Art Center, August 25 – November 3, 2019

Portland’s 2019 Biennial was the first exhibit I attended as an Oregon resident. It was late August, and I was fresh off a cross-country move from the hot, Mid-Western plains of Oklahoma. The contrastingly cool, fresh evening of my new home in the Pacific Northwest led me outside, and I wandered into Disjecta, a non-profit contemporary art space in the Kenton neighborhood, to check out the exhibition.

As I entered Disjecta, I was met with the tingling buzz of a gallery opening; the array of colors, uniquely formed objects, and a variety of sounds burst from the gallery walls welcoming visitors in, and commanding space in a pleasant and earnest manner.

At first glance, I noticed a colorful, flashy installation, presenting itself as a digital shrine. This piece was created by Lynn Yarne, an artist who reworks historical photographs of Japanese and Chinese Americans, addressing issues of diaspora within Portland communities. Further along in the foyer, I was drawn to an electronic-looking device, Wave Scribe by Colin Ives, a machine designed to write out the entire manuscript of Melville’s Moby Dick, the text altered by data collected from the movement of waves off the Oregon Coast. As I rounded the gallery corner, I immediately noticed a bright red wall (a contrast to the traditional white gallery walls) that displayed documents with imagery and text resembling newspaper headlines of historical tragedies. This installation, A NATION IS A MASSACRE by Demian DinéYazhi´ considers over 500 years of violence imposed on marginalized groups such as Indigenous womxn, queers, and citizens of colonized nations.

These were my first few, heavy-hitting moments at the Biennial. At first glance, the pieces, while individually powerful, felt slightly disjointed. However, when I made a second lap around the space, dodging packs of onlookers holding clear plastic cups of wine, I began to find unity and a harmonious flow within the exhibit.

Sharita Towne’s installation, Black Life, Black Spatial Imaginaries: Glimpses Across Time and Space A Visual Bibliography of Black Geographies, which at first felt subdued, nestled in-between Sabina Haque’s dynamic three-screened video project that addresses issues of land and power in East Portland and Ka’ila Farrell-Smith's futuristic memorial to the Indigenous people of Jordan Cove, emerged as a standout. Towne’s black-painted walls which displayed no artwork provided a meditative space in which to observe the centered piece, a horizontally laid 2D collage and floor monitor of a home video, visuals Towne describes as “a bird’s-eye view that extends over Black life and geography,” with a nod to her interest in inherited struggles, and affording collective catharsis.

Like Towne’s work, the pieces displayed in the second room at Disjecta addressed issues of gentrification and displacement.  Life-sized street signs, Alternative Options for Harvey Milk Street by Anthony Hudson/Carla Rossi, advocate for “better, more honest names” for the street recently appointed “Harvey Milk Street,” in an area of Portland that was sanitized from its original site as a hub for gay bars and queer businesses. Hudson’s signs honor local queer heroes, and the violence and erasure of queer culture experienced by Portland residents, exposing the pinkwashing underlying the “Harvey Milk” moniker. The placement of this installation was intentionally positioned to mimic an actual street paralleling Lou Watson’s Look Both Ways on Interstate Avenue (Because Stuff’s Worth It), a fifteen-minute video observing the traffic noise of North Interstate Avenue in Portland.

The 2D work A Racist, by Jovencio de la Paz, a textile piece of earthy tones and geometric patterns (which one might think could be swallowed up by the neighboring, ceiling-high sculpture of a “drunken tower,” titled Onward by Jess Perlitz) was as energizing as it was tall, reaching as high as the gallery walls and directly confronting historical lawmaker, Peter Hardeman Burnett, who wrote the Oregon black exclusion laws of 1844. A Racist is a commanding work that de la Paz explains, “attempts to uncover the subtle history of white supremacy embedded in material culture, suggesting that the purely formal, decorative, or abstract patterning of overshot weaving is potentially fraught with racial tensions.”

While this regional biennial displays a survey of eighteen Oregon-based artists that discuss varied histories from the state, the exhibit speaks to a collective audience and wider narrative, contextualizing Oregon within the larger political landscape and bringing to the forefront themes of diaspora, historical erasure, and white supremacy.

I’m happy to have wandered out to Disjecta that cool, fresh night in late August. While I'm still finding my way around my new home, I encountered a great deal of knowledge about the history of Oregon, the beauty and tragedies confronted by its current and historical residents, and a strong activist voice that is unparalleled by any group exhibition I have engaged with before.

The 2019 Portland Biennial revealed itself to be a group of dynamic artists addressing contemporary and pressing issues in Oregon and beyond, with the will to change, spreading awareness through powerful imagery and representations.


Natalie Ball |Adam Bateman | Jovencio de la Paz | Demian DinéYazhi´with R.I.S.E | Dru Donovan |Ka'ila Farrell-Smith | Harriet Tubman Center for Expanded Curatorial Practice | Sabina Haque | Anthony Hudson | Garrick Imatani | Colin Ives | rubén garcía marrufo | Jess Perlitz | Vanessa Renwick | Sara Siestreem | Sharita Towne | Lou Watson | Lynn Yarne


Yaelle S. Amir | Elisheba Johnson | Ashley Stull Meyers