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Critique the hand that feeds you

Aaron T Stephan plays with the space of the PMA
By MARIAH BERGERON  |  October 6, 2014


‘OFF MARK’ installation in the Portland Museum of Art’s lobby

The problem of the art museum and how it adapts with the progress of art has been an issue since before the Conceptualist movement, before Dada brought the weird and Situationists took to the streets. The aesthetic or material principles that once defined the quality of art continue to be rejected and picked apart today, as the necessity for hallowed halls or rectilinear frames is dismantled and reproached. These transgressions from the status quo have broke open the form, stretching the role of museums from silent study halls to carnival tents in order to be vessels for their expanding collections. Aaron T Stephan’s To Borrow, Cut, Copy, and Steal is an exhibit that pokes and prods at the space it’s in, taking part in Portland Museum of Art’s ongoing mission to make a balanced home for the classical and the contemporary.

Humor is a useful tool to break the ice in a formal setting, and here, at the museum entrance, Stephan warms up the crowd with a quiet prank. A deluge of paint from the second story threatens each unaware entrant, visible only once inside. The frozen pour of cool latex coating in bismuth pink looks to ameliorate the potentially acerbic stodginess of a museum’s insides. It’s a gag on par with rubber vomit, something made to startle, laugh, raise suspicions, and gesture to denote that mischief is in play.

The geometric bloom of “Off Mark,” created from a cluster of 30 square white columns each bent at an irregular angle, casts such a balanced texture and weight that at first pass it reads as pure formal composition. A second look reveals the columns to be a manipulated standard gallery pedestals. Their usual anonymity is animated; their refusal to stay flat cancels their utility as platforms, and gives them voice. Unlike Stephan’s earlier usages of these shapes, in which they seemed like injured or useless creatures, this mass seems a unionized protest for the recognition of the beauty of museum fixtures, held fittingly in the center of the lobby.

“An Awkward Meeting of Painting and Sculpture” achieves the same sentiment through simplicity of contrast. A too-beautiful sawhorse of richly varnished mahogany and bronze hardware serves as an armature for an oversized rubber paint stroke—as if a Roy Lichtenstein got the Claes Oldenburg treatment. 

The prim Doric cascade of “28 Columns” could be worked into the show’s theme of collapse of Western tradition, but the tidiness of the columns’ downward twist seem more like a formal Muybridge study of stop-motion than historical commentary. Likewise the six etchings of “Girl with a Pearl Earring—Tangled Process” show a development of an image moved past the mark of commodified iconographic mass production, settling on a tutorial on the process of printmaking.

Stephan’s most thematically on-point, conceptually well executed, and intrinsically problematic work is his audio piece “Conversations,” three edited recordings compiled from calls he made to phone sex lines to talk with the operators specifically about art. The piece is accessible via the PMA’s cell phone tour program—reachable via any phone at any time—with each conversation existing at an extension number. Where “Conversations” succeeds is by dissolving the museum walls instead of fighting them, transporting the conversation away from how museums can stifle and toward how they can expand. 

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 See all articles by: MARIAH BERGERON

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