Since I saw the Oregon Painting Society’s Radiant Dream Face, exhibited in Portland State’s Autzen Gallery last December, I have been vividly and persistently haunted by the collective’s installation. Focusing the Society’s scattershot gestures into an imminently inhabitable environment, the exhibition cross-wired an alien domestic setting with a recording studio, where pairs of potted houseplants, gently nestled among kitschy thrift store assemblages, could be played as joystick instruments, sounding the ethereal tones of a theremin. Altogether, the interior space felt like a scene in a cinematic dystopian drama; A Clockwork Orange or Logan’s Run made manifest.
That is, it looked like how we used to imagine the future would turn out.
Comprised of Matt Carlson, Birch Cooper, Liam Drain, Barbara Kinzle, Brenna Murphy, Julia Perry, and Jason Traeger, the Oregon Painting Society has been building up an intriguing aesthetic over the course of the last year, as a stream of performances, music, and exhibitions sketched out its most potent points of pleasure: witchcraft, New Age spirituality, psychedelia, and science fiction.
A mere two months after their exhibition at the Autzen, the Oregon Painting Society returns with ShadowGut, which operates like an addition to the retro-futuristic blueprint the collective teased in Radiant Dream Face. Here, a series of sculptures scan as furniture, but what purposes they serve is not entirely clear. One suggests some combination of cabinetry and control room, as a black light glows and a surveillance monitor flickers in a blond-wood enclosure. At its right, a similarly compartmentalized structure features a pulsing green strobe and, beneath a cloth curtain, a cupboard where dozens of bathroom hand towels are neatly folded and stacked. To intensify the disorientation, the space is scored by elongated tones and burbles that, through knobs and dials embedded on the sculptures, allow visitors to actively steer the soundtrack from chirping static to shrill, teeth-clenching squeals and back again.
With their nods to suburban décor and domesticity, the Oregon Painting Society flirts with pat nostalgia, the obsolete dreams of an unrecoverable past. Even their depictions of the future point backwards. Yet the collective dodges such trappings because the spaces themselves exude a kind of consuming magnetism: sufficiently familiar to luxuriate in, but just strange and absorbing enough to coax one toward fantasy.
Because so much of the work in the show is interactive, even those parts without an ulterior function seemed to be charged with a mysterious potential. I was mistakenly led to grope, for example, a pair of braids sprouting from a wall on wheels, expecting to trigger some wave of chattering feedback.
By that point, the space had insidiously taken hold of my imagination. A flood of questions still follows: Who lives here and what do they do in this place? Is it a ritual worship chamber or a guest bathroom? Is it the past, present, or future? And what could anyone possibly need with all those towels? That ShadowGut remains so unyielding and tight-lipped, of course, preserves the delicious sense of disorientation and ensures that the space persists as memory: a dream-place vividly and covetously remembered, but exiled from the waking world.
- John Motley