OUTSIDE THE OFFICE 'Karen 9.5 mins,' by Ben DeHaan.
Consumerism and creativity have always been uneasy bedfellows. Marx had the idea that artistic design was less a product of the artist's mind than the tastes of the ruling elite. From there evolved the notion that a worker's creative capacities might be separated from the body; that by mastering the rote, mechanistic gestures of physical labor, the mind would be freed to conceive of whatever it pleases.
Ideas like these may make up the high-concept framework of "Surface Tension," the fantastic exhibit at SPACE Gallery by current and former art professionals at Designtex, but they don't have to be the primary takeaway. Simply put, these thirteen artists push their creations beyond the realm of the expressly visual. It's a gorgeous set of oddities, surfaces, and structures, and issues a strong challenge to visual perception using remarkable techniques re-imagining the limits of texture, conception, and color.
Designtex, a New York-based textile production and surface imaging company founded in 1961, has studios in all 50 states, as well as Canada, Mexico, Brazil, and Southeast Asia. It hit Portland in 2009 when it merged with local operation Portland Color, the independent imaging company founded in 1988, and several of the show's artists worked at Portland Color before the acquisition. The show offers no further explication.
However alien the process to their usual method of production, we get to witness the ideas of highly specialized professionals realized when they're not on the clock. In the inkjet portraits of Ben DeHaan, the otherwise sharp colors and contours of his figures are treated with a digitized, highly graphical bleed, blotting out their subjective elements and rendering them cartoonishly indecipherable, as if hung up at the gates between two separate dimensions. Slyly, DeHaan approaches this transformation from both directions. His portraits mounted onto printed paper capture the familiar surreality of the human subject rendered as digital avatar, but a slowly animated video feed suggests a more uncanny inversion of the perspective, animating another set of portraits in a slow, graphical desiccation as if they were 2D images crawling toward real life.
Only the barest hints of representation may be found in three large direct-to-foam prints by Robert Hyde. The images are magnified in the extreme: giant slabs of color whose enlarged pixels float untethered in slowly mutating patterns. After such radical alterations in production, it's tempting to imagine that Hyde's original image source was the human form. That would explain why I gravitated to "Decomposition #2," which bears a hue and trace shapes that might pass as skin.
The decision to place the two most affective structural elements near the gallery door is the most triumphant part of the show. It's there we find a bloom of variously printed growths emerging from the ceiling — the work of Petra Simmons and Irina Skornyakova — like stalactites sprouting from the gallery's wooden planks. But the presence of a large dirigible-ish structure (by Brian Cronin and Eric Spalding) supplies "Surface Tension" with its most radical and necessary element: sound. The apparatus is suspended from ropes. Affixed to a metal frame binding its thick, leathery hide are four sets of headphones, each transmitting the sounds of a rich, ambiently doomy soundtrack (courtesy of Jon Morse). Peepholes on either end of the structure allow access to its kaleidoscopic interior, which, paired with the soundtrack, places the full experience of the thing somewhere between the womblike and the ineffably sexual. In either case I want to take it home.