Apex at Portland Art Museum: The Gridded Architecture of Avantika Bawa

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Apex at Portland Art Museum: The Gridded Architecture of Avantika Bawa

By Lusi Lukova September 18, 2018

In-depth, critical perspectives exploring art and visual culture on the West Coast.


The ongoing series of exhibitions known as Apex, at the Portland Art Museum, presents the work of emerging and established artists living in the Northwest. Residing in the context of the Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Center for Northwest Art, the current program debuts new work by the Portland-based artist, curator, and educator, Avantika Bawa. The culmination of a three-year project, Bawa’s exhibition takes the iconic Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Portland as its subject and explores the power of repetitive image making and observational variance in its production. With the study of architecture and its nuances at the crux of her artistic practice, Bawa creates renditions of the Coliseum’s structure that are not minimal but are deceptively simple. With this series of paintings, drawings, and prints, she devises a pattern for reinventing one image of the historic building into endless iterations.

Elegantly designed by the architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and completed in 1960, the Coliseum boasts an International Style façade, synonymous with sleek structures erected in the 1920s and 1930s. Strongly linked to Modernism and Modern architecture, the building is characterized by its hulking volume, its generous employment of glass and repetitive modular forms, and the formal rejection of all ornament and color. With Bawa’s devout interest in architecture and geometry, Apex at once beautifully captures the elegance of the structure and also daringly reworks its status as an art-historical monument. In a recent interview with Ashley Gifford of Art & About PDX, the artist states she has hope “that the appreciation for work that leans more towards the formal, minimal and quiet will soon have a larger audience again.”1 It is not difficult to see Bawa’s quiet employment of restraint. Yet, in depicting such a socially magnanimous structure as the Coliseum, Bawa is unquestionably making work that is socially and atmospherically conscious—work that requires as much rigor as reserve.

Apex (installation view), 2018; Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon. Photo: Lusi Lukova.

Bawa takes into consideration the abundance of grids, lines, and visual perspectives at play in the facade of the Coliseum and uses these formal elements to delve deeper into the abstraction of memory and place. Although this exhibition features only nineteen works—drawings, prints, and large-scale paintings—Bawa’s three-year study of this one building, working with variants of a single concept, produced more than one hundred iterations of its architecture. It might appear that the building’s stark glass facade and hard edges are incongruous with the more temperate and supple modalities that Bawa engages. However, in the artist’s employment of the grid, with its inherent adaptability, a softening of tonalities occurs in which more expressive nuances are able to surface, which diminish some of the more harsh and brutish aspects of the building.

In incorporating herself within a formalist, modernist art practice, Bawa runs up against the complexities of the movements. To compare two of her inspirations: both Piet Mondrian and Agnes Martin employed grids within their artistic practices, yet they did so in strikingly different ways. Bawa resides, fittingly, at the apex of their two variations on the same style. Her work lends structure and hard lines that seem finite and strong, much like Mondrian’s paintings; like Martin, her pieces are evocative and sensitive, leading into a poetics of form, color, and space, as opposed to the stereotypically masculine way the grid is often interpreted in the history of art. Bawa successfully works within the rules imposed by her chosen practice, yet she explores the endless nuances and possibilities within those implied restrictions.

Avantika, Bawa. Coliseum Black, 2018; acrylic and oil pastel on wood panel; 80 x 120 inches. Photo: Lusi Lukova.

These studies are prolific, both in number and in theme. Varying colored backgrounds momentarily shift the perspective away from the nuanced architecture, so that the silhouette of the whole structure may be recognized and better appreciated. As important as the minutiae are to these pieces, Bawa depicts the unadorned presence of the Coliseum with unrestrained freedom, moving between compositionally balanced and unfettered. At times, such as in Coliseum 15 (2017), the artist does not even depict the correct number of columns supporting the building; Bawa has incorporated eleven, but the structure actually boasts twelve. This lapse is by no means a mark of negligence. If anything, it stands as a testament to the way Bawa has immersed herself in the study of this structure and its broader potential for personification. In the work, proper proportions are less important than a larger sentiment of grandeur. The abstraction that occurs with such an intense and focused practice has led the artist to create movement and flexibility out of the solid and the static. The rigidity of line gives way to the softer poetry of the building’s construction, allowing for a meditation on form and repetition to take place through Bawa’s prints, drawings, and paintings.

This type of all-consuming involvement with a singular project is not unfamiliar to Bawa. In previous exhibitions, she has responded to other sites and rendered the locales in a similar fashion to her work with the Coliseum. Some of her other projects include Parallel Faults (2017), a close examination of fault lines at Los Angeles Valley College, and Mineral Spirits (2016), in which she constructed golden scaffolds paired with a sound installation in the Astor Hotel in Astoria, Oregon. Bawa pinpoints these different spaces as hubs of action and artistic potential and subsequently relocates them to a field of memory by way of artistic study. As a result, each space takes on a new and equally powerful standing in regional history and memory. Bawa is highly sensitive to her surroundings, their cultural resonances, and the impacts of her recordings.

Back in Portland, the physical location that the Veterans Memorial Coliseum occupies has undergone a variety of political and social tensions. In the Albina District, the predominantly Black community has experienced significant displacement as a result of bureaucratic decisions surrounding construction and development. Located in this once vastly different neighborhood, the Coliseum exists on a somewhat shaky foundation, as many question whether it assists or deters the further overdevelopment of the area.

Thus, Bawa’s depictions could be seen as an attempt to raise the specter of continually repurposed urban structures, and their struggles to grow and change alongside the communities they are nestled within. The works in Apex seem to ask how the Portland community can simultaneously admire the bygone architecture of the Coliseum and its history in honoring veterans and local sports teams (the Coliseum was once home to the Portland Trail Blazers) while acknowledging its inadvertent contribution to the rupture of the community. While Bawa may not overtly address these issues, what can be gleaned from her sincere and thoughtful abstractions is an appreciation of varied perspectives, a transcendence of narrative, and a sharp contrast from a hyper-real rendition of the site. Instead, Bawa’s tenderness toward the structure comes forth, allowing the formalism of her painting style and the history of the Coliseum’s architecture to dissolve into a subtle study of atmosphere and prominence.

A limited-edition book will be released through Ampersand Gallery to accompany the exhibition. Apex is on view through February 10, 2019, at the Portland Art Museum.

Notes

  1. Ash Gifford, Avantika Bawa Interview, Art & About PDX. http://www.artandaboutpdx.com/blog/artist-interview-avantika-bawa

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