Where Do We Fit?
Tyler Corbett and Erinn Kathryn's "Metro 14" Reveals the Landscape of Portland
t’s common knowledge that Portland, Oregon, is rapidly growing. Oregon Metro recently forecast that the region’s population will grow by 725,000 in the next twenty years—that’s more than a one hundred percent increase from the current population. To capture this dynamic moment in sculpture form, two Portland transplant artists, Tyler Corbett and Erinn Kathryn, were awarded a grant in 2013 from the Oregon Regional Arts and Culture Council. The resulting sculpture represents the whole of Multnomah County—the landscapes, edifices, and thoroughfares of the Portland Metro Area bisected by the Willamette River. The artists describe their rendition as "absolutely accurate" and a "1-scale aerial view [that] exhibits the interconnectedness of the nearly 300,000 acre city." The sculpture, along with a series of companion landscape paintings, are currently on display at the Multnomah Arts Gallery Center, where I had the opportunity to speak with the artists.
“Metro 14” is eight feet long and six-and-a-half feet wide, made from plywood, acrylic paint, and paper. Supported by two table bases, the piece seems to both float in and reach out from the space it inhabits. The artists describe this aspect of the sculpture as "the duality of its physical immensity and its ostensible lightness"—a paradox that also reflects the concept of a "growth boundary," something that was difficult for Kathryn and Corbett to pin down. They studied topographical maps, aerial photography, and satellite data, yet because of the rate of Portland’s growth, the data was always shifting. Throughout the seven-month period during which they worked on the sculpture, even Oregon Metro changed its assessment mode of aerial photography in order to accommodate the growth. The artists explain: "The studies we used nearing the project’s end were already obsolete. Thus, the sculpture really is reflective of the county in a very specific moment and how inconceivably quickly the growth is occurring."
The edges reveal stratified layers of wood. The land’s guts. Its dermis. A suggestion of geologic history. On the surface, hills thunder up into mountains and the Willamette River crosses through. Portland’s many bridges cross the river, and each seems as impossibly-delicate as a furcula or bird wishbone. This emphasis on topography, rather than civilization, is an ironic engagement with the subject, especially in light of the urbanization trends. The piece’s citified title, “Metro 14,” adds to the irony.
Corbett and Kathryn’s exhibit inspired me to investigate the etymological origins of "Multnomah County." According to online etymology dictionaries, "county" can be traced to the years 1275-1325, from Middle English counten, itself a form of the Latin computāre, or to compute. A secondary origin relates county to "the Roman term for a provincial governor." The Count and his counting. As for "Multnomah," according to Frances Hunter's American Heroes Blog, “Multnomah is believed to be a Chinook Indian word meaning 'downriver' and has been in use since before 1860." Within this pair of words, then, we see an old tale of contrasts—one indigenous and one imperial, one named for the land and one for the people.
A series of landscape paintings accompany the exhibit’s feature sculpture. Several of these occur from an aerial perspective, somewhere between the anonymity of airplane elevation and the proximity of recognizing certain buildings and landmarks. This perspective is awkward, one of strange familiarity.
"Sandy," is painted on a perfectly square canvas within which sit the mostly-square shapes of city blocks. The squareness evokes a feeling of urban claustrophobia. Sandy Boulevard arcs across the bottom third of the composition, and, among the urban geometry, even this slight arc seems to rupture the monotony. In the example of "East Side Esplanade," the loops of interstate and freeway offer visual contrast and superficially suggest something organic, but, ultimately, the layers of concrete upon industry seem doubly-oppressive, bars over the window.
Other pieces in the exhibit indulge more in negative space and abstraction in the form of the white Willamette River. The white is an immensity that swampy tendrils and industrial archipelagos drift within.
White is all colors, but it also implies emptiness, blankness. Such swaths—sometimes avalanching upon the surrounding settlements, sometimes self-contained and almost corporeal—add a high contrast, a drama.
In some twentieth century Chinese painting, white or empty space also occupies the majority of the canvas. Corbett and Kathryn's white-river landscapes echo this style, but one major difference lies in the detail of the non-white matter. Whereas the colored markings in Chinese paintings often express life and movement via impressionistic shapes and bold brushstrokes, the landscapes of “Metro 14” are satellite-photo realistic.
A painting by Zhao Shao’ang (1905-1998).
Other landscapes in the series offer a sea-level perspective and depict the earth mostly without human structures. Chartreuse-gilt, hunter green hills have a clay-like quality, a palette and texture that easily invite the image of dinosaurs roaming. These landscapes are named after the towns built upon them—"West Hills," "Happy Valley"—but the vacant landscapes decontextualize the locations’ names and incite absurdity. These works suggest both pre-civilization and post-apocalypse. They beg the human question(s): where, how, why do we fit into this?
Corbett and Kathryn discuss their thoughts on climate change and their inspirations. "By doing things like raising the water table, we experimented with those looming 'what-ifs' of the earth’s changing." They also note that their landscapes "recall traditions of romanticism of the American landscape." It’s both logical and sad to see climate change’s consequences solidified as motifs within a romantic genre of art. But this depiction of the sad reality and its "looming what-ifs" is inherent in the evocative power art has in influencing perspective. This power is also wielded in the work of one of Corbett and Kathryn’s influences, Maya Lin. Most famous for her design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Lin’s exhibits feature sculptures and landscapes that are highly-designed renditions of natural spaces. "We love her work, but consider ours to be more personal, more handcrafted," the artists said. "We cut every piece of wood with a handsaw, and this feels like a greater connection to the land."
"Avalanche," 1997, Maya Lin. Tempered glass, 10 x 19 x 21 feet. Installation at the South Eastern Center for Contemporary Art, Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Photo by Jackson Smith. Courtesy the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art and Gagosian Gallery, New York.
The natural abundance of the Portland Metro area constitutes a major reason for the great Stumptown migration. Portland was ranked Number One Green City in the U.S. by the Mother Nature Network, and has a long sash filled with (green) badges. And it’s true, it is a divine life—Portland citizens can pass a day in an old-growth forest overlooking the Pacific, and then reemerge in the city limits for an evening of equally rich cultural indulgences. For this region’s stance as a pioneer of urban expansion within natural abundance, it is useful and important to continue to incorporate artistic vision and craft into the movement. Corbett and Kathryn’s "Metro 14" will be on display at the Multnomah Arts Gallery Center until the end of September.
Sara Sutter is a poet and writer. She recently wrote the Letter from Oaxaca column.