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REPORT: Portland
by richard speer
May 2012

Installation View of Prison
Peter Halley
Photo: Mark Stein, courtesy Disjecta

The space takes no prisoners. At 3,500 square feet, with a ceiling that vaults 26 feet, the main gallery at arts nonprofit Disjecta throws down a gauntlet to any artist who would presume to fill it. The challenge multiplies exponentially should an artist opt to fill only the walls but leave the expansive concrete floors bare, yet this is exactly what renowned painter and printmaker Peter Halley did earlier this year with Prison, the sixth and final installment in Disjecta's inaugural curator-in-residence season. Halley, a poster child for the Neo-Geo movement of the 1980s-era East Village, has sustained a career-long obsession with squares, rectangles, and thick connective lines, which he posits as stand-ins for a host of social and technological phenomena. In March 2011, the New York artist was approached by Disjecta's curator-in-residence, Jenene Nagy, to create an installation for the nonprofit�s barn-sized main gallery. He accepted, intrigued to adapt his signature geometric syntax to an idiosyncratic structure and delve further into his lifelong fascination with architecture. "As the 1980s gave way to the '90s," he reflects, "I felt that the core issues I was interested in as an artist had moved into the sphere of architecture. I very much admired the writing of Rem Koolhaas and a number of others who were addressing the social function of architecture at the turn of the millennium."

In the past, Halley had always firmly divided his installation practice into distinct styles. His painting-based installations stuck to his familiar rectilinear vocabulary, while his prints featured colorful explosions that seemed to playfully dynamite the squares and rectangles that established his reputation. But upon considering Disjecta's layout, he decided for the first time to use the prison motif rather than the explosions in a print installation. "The fact that the sheetrock walls are not freestanding but are detached from the physical perimeter wall was an important part of developing the project. The walls seemed more like a fence that holds something in than a wall that keeps something out. It seemed almost like a prison yard."

Over the next few months, Halley and his assistant, artist Lauren Clay, sifted through compositions from past paintings, composited them, and enlarged them into sheets of digital prints in acid green and magenta. Then in late January of this year, the prints were installed in a grouping that hugged three walls, spanning 175 feet long by 12 feet high. Theater gels threw a queasy sheen over the stacked prisons, an effect heightened by intense color bouncing off two partition walls painted DayGlo yellow. These walls, viewed from afar, appeared to subtly warp in a convex funhouse distortion, while the hundreds of vertical and horizontal prison bars dizzied the eye with moire effects. The eye-boggling, hyperchromatic atmosphere filled the hall almost as a liquid, the Felliniesque sense of carnival balanced by a Bergman-like angst; the confinement and oppression implied by the relentless prisons and fence-like walls recalled the specter of concentration camps and Soviet gulags. At the same time, features endemic to the hall dueted almost whimsically with Halley's motifs and artistic history. Looming above one wall, the slats of a large heating vent echoed the horizontal prison bars beneath. Traversing the room's heights, diagonal and curved Douglas fir beams created visual tensions with the artist's perpendicular compositions. Finally, protruding awkwardly from a corner, a drainage pipe seemed to obliquely reference Halley's famous quip contrasting modernism's transcendental aims with his own decidedly less grandiose intent: "I took Barnett Newman's 'zip' and turned it into plumbing."

Prison was unquestionably a shot in the arm for Disjecta and a milestone for the larger Portland art scene. "Working with an artist of Peter's caliber was amazing," Nagy says. "He is extremely generous and runs a tight ship, which I appreciated." The show capped Nagy's tenure; the program resumes in September with a new curator, unnamed as of press time. Meantime, Disjecta's "Portland2012: A Biennial of Contemporary Art," curated by Prudence Roberts, will be followed by summer exhibitions showcasing recent MFA graduates of the University of Oregon and the Pacific Northwest College of Art. These are heady times for a once-scrappy nonprofit, founded in earnest in 2000 by executive director Bryan Suereth. If there were any doubt whether times have changed, it was dispelled by a telling moment at the start of Prison's run. Halley had donated ten prints for Disjecta to sell, in support for their curator-in-residence program. The prints were offered at $1,000 apiece, a bargain for this artist's work but still conceivably outside collectors' comfort zones in a town notorious for shallow pockets. Would somebody, anybody, pony up and buy one? That question was as open as whether anyone would have ever dreamed that Disjecta could survive and thrive here for 12 years and counting. As it turned out, the prints not only sold; they sold out.

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