PDX Road Trip: New Work from Ellen Lesperance, Jessica Jackson Hutchins and Wes Mills

Driving to Portland from Seattle is such an easy thing to do, most of the time I find myself there on a whim, without any concrete plans, experiencing the city in a choose-your-own-adventure style, with one experience leading into the next. When I arrived in such circumstances again last week, I ended up happening upon a survey of some of the city’s stalwart artists.  While the PORTLAND2014 biennial organized by Disjecta in a selection of discreet art venues across the city helped ensure a steady selection of shows, straying off the biennial track at times also yielded the most resonant works, with exhibitions by seasoned Portland artists Ellen Lesperance (NAP #97), Jessica Jackson Hutchins and Wes Mills representing some of the most exciting pursuits at the moment and reinforcing these artists’ positions as some of the city’s strongest voices. – Erin Langner, Seattle contributor


Ellen Lesperance, Do you know that one day you lost your way, man?, installation view. Image courtesy of Upfor Gallery.

Ellen Lesperance’s work is, if nothing else, vocal.  In the most literal sense, she embeds her own voice and words directly into the sweater patterns she constructs as large gouache and graphite works on paper.  Her show, Do you know that one day you lost your way, man?, on view at Upfor Gallery as port of PORTLAND2014, continues the artist’s ongoing explorations of feminist activism.  Lesperance uses archival images as reference points to integrate designs from garments worn by women during political demonstrations into her tightly constructed imagery that stretches in wide swaths with noticeable weightiness; while the paintings are often paired with sweater made from the patterns, even without the physical sweater, Lesperance’s work exude the aura of a fiercely warm, well-made object of the human hand.


Ellen Lesperance. S.O.S., gouache and graphite on tea-stained paper, 29.5 x 40 inches, 2014 (private collection). Image courtesy of Upfor Gallery.


Ellen Lesperance, Land of Feminye II
, gouache and graphite on tea-stained paper, 29.5 x 40 inches, 2014. Image courtesy of Upfor Gallery.

The artist’s new show expands this inquiry into new forms, coating the gallery walls behind her new paintings with a flesh-like textile she created by burying flowers wrapped in silk and allowing them to compost.  In the gallery’s center, a group of brashly painted ceramic sculptures of women whose backstories range from historic legends from the Amazon, to the FEMEN protest group that originated in Kiev, Ukraine, in 2008. Bringing three distinct mediums together into a single show is difficult, and while Lesperance’s outcome was not entirely seamless, the paintings themselves evolve within this new context; their underlying reverence became more pronounced alongside the unearthed wall coverings, their stories more tangible beside a group of humans.


The Ground, installation view. Image courtesy of Adams and Ollman.


Jessica Jackson Hutchins and Conny Purtill, Table of Contents, 2014, gesso, India ink, pencil, acrylic, oil, paper, glazed ceramic and found plate on canvas, 17 x 22 in. Image courtesy of Adams and Ollman.

While Jessica Jackson Hutchins figured prominently in PORTLAND2014, it was her single, sculptural painting in a separate exhibition at Adams and Ollman Gallery that I could not get out of my mind.  Part of a group show titled The Ground, Jackson Hutchins was among five participants invited by Boston artist Conny Purtill to use a set of gray canvases she had prepared using gesso and India ink as the starting point for a new piece.  Most participants opted to largely maintain the original canvases’ form and palette, which gave Jackson Hutchins’s color-drenched transformation of her base layer into the three dimensional, mixed media Table of Contents a distinct sense of inhibition.  Against the otherwise tidy show, her pasted-on plates (one made by the artist and one found), worn patches of flower-patterned paper and thrashed application of paint emit the raw intimacy of joining someone you barely know for a well-intentioned, if imperfect, family dinner.  Particularly given Jackson Hutchins’s prominence among major museum shows in the last several years, finding this more modest moment of her work slipped into the folds of a small Portland gallery made it feel all the more honest and real.


Wes Mills, Hamilton Drawings, installation view. Image courtesy of PDX Contemporary.

The honesty of Wes Mills’s works on paper is one of subtle nuances, like a person who reveals himself through small mannerisms and discreet gestures.  The artist pulls brittle pages from books, which become punctured surfaces for his meditative constellations of circles that appear organically structured from a distance but are in actuality tethered to a deliberate, linear system. Many of the title-less, abstract configurations included in Hamilton Drawings at PDX Contemporary are strung along the finest strokes of graphite, giving the sense that every detail of works that vary from less than ten inches to the artist’s full body length are calculated and rethought, until they each find their own, very specific place.


Wes Mills, no title, 2014, graphite on paper, 19 x 8 5/8 in., image courtesy of PDX Contemporary

A story of Mills experiencing a painful injury while hiking accompanies the show, as does a single figural drawing, of a person laying supine inside of a rectangle, titled I am cleansed. Considered against the path of meticulously placed circles that comprises Mills’s body-length drawing, an awareness of mortality emerges from behind these delicate works, its query substantial but made light by a quietly confident understanding of one’s own place in the eternal, highly calculated scheme of things.


Wes Mills, no title, 2014, graphite on paper, 8 5/8 x 6 3/8 in., image courtesy of PDX Contemporary.

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Do you know that one day you lost your way, man? by Ellen Lesperance is on view at Upfor Gallery as part of PORTLAND2014: A Biennial of Contemporary Art through March 29. Table of Contents by Jessica Jackson Hutchins and Conny Purtill is included in group show, The Ground, at Adams and Ollman gallery, through April 26.  Hamilton Drawings by Wes Mills is on view at PDX Contemporary through April 12.

Erin Langner is a writer and museum professional based in Seattle, WA.

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