IN CHARACTER Greta Bank, as Gustave
Menet, makes her statements live and in person.
Courageous, theatrical, and conceptually rich, Greta Bank’s “NSFW” installation in the SPACE Gallery annex breathes life into conceptions of Portland art. It merges the time-honored medium of painting with uncanny experiential elements to explore subjects we regard to be both universal and utterly mysterious.
From outside, this supposedly contentious show looks almost clinical. Standing by the Congress Street window, viewers can see only glimmers of a sole light source on the gallery’s far wall, and all you can truly make out from her labyrinthine installation are the imposingly tall steel studs propping up several large foam canvases, which Bank has rotocut into amorphous shapes and bored holes into. Each is lined with a silvery fiberglass material, and, from behind anyway, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was a construction site in the off hours.
But that’s just not how the room flows. Stand near the enormous, radiant wall of light, softened by a gigantic scrim, and you’ll see Bank’s canvases for what they really are: unabashed, slightly grotesque, and strangely meditative paintings on the subject of living female agency at its most fundamentally corporeal level: menstruation.
In this light, Bank’s project and its many aesthetic choices explode with significance. The directional energy of the room, the magnetic pull of the artificial light, the hushed sterility of the steel edifices are some obvious ones, but none are more effective than the implications which come from Bank’s presence itself.
Dressed in the guise of Gustave Menet, an original character that applies post-structuralist feminism to the notion of the poached-in-history art hero, Bank lives within the gardens of “NFSW,” constantly painting and repainting the vivid, impressionistic nudes on her canvases. She wears a thick gray beard, a colorless bikini top beneath an unbuttoned sport coat, and slacks with red flower petals lining the inseam. She stands on three-foot stilts and paints with brushes mounted onto bamboo sticks, towering over visitors in a dynamic equally cartoonish and genderfuckingly paternalistic.
As she stated in an interview with the gallery, it’s the mystery of menstruation that motivates this work more than anything else. “NSFW”’s success lies in Bank’s ability keep that mystery intact, handling it as an unsolvable puzzle and expanding its reach from the domain of the strictly private to several others — feminine, erotic, societal. Her paintings contain no blood, instead depicting rawly fleshly figures whose contours bleed into a red-orange background. Masses of beach-found detritus in color-coded piles sit between the canvases and the light, which the artist has included in tribute to bowerbirds and their habit of creating large, brightly-colored installations as rituals of courtship. The distant chirps of such birds make up the soundtrack. How does this all relate? I’ve arrived at theories, but the connection isn’t literal. The exhibit contains no transference of facts, only inferences, interpretations, and evocations.