Summer is coming to a close in the Pacific Northwest and for those of you who don’t enjoy braving the elements to enjoy nature’s beauty, you can thank the Portland Art Museum for bringing the outdoors indoors with their fall programming.
They began last week with The Artisans Cup, an American bonsai competition and exhibition that allowed you to walk tall amongst a forest of miniaturized trees selected for their prestige as some of North America’s finest bonsai. The event was held in the Mark Building of the Portland Art Museum and the opulence of the gallery space emphasized the bonsai’s elevated status from houseplants to works of living art. For co-curator Chelsea Neil, the concept of a bonsai exhibition in a nationally respected art museum was nothing new, except that this one was held in North America where, unlike in China or Japan, bonsai aren’t nationally recognized as Art. This gave Chelsea and her partner Ryan Neil (founders of bonsai incubator and garden, Bonsai Mirai) the challenge of mounting an engaging exhibition to the standards of PAM with an art form unfamiliar to many of the museum’s typical patrons.
The setting was a good start. A dark room with marble floors, Greek statues and dramatic lighting set an impactful stage for the exhibition, while each tree was showcased on a custom built platform by Portland’s Skylab Architecture complete with a spot light illuminating a small landscape designed by each artist. Bonsai roughly translates to tree and a shallow dish, and it’s the relationship between these two parts that defines the quality of a bonsai. Each aspect of the tree and its container were meticulously chosen, including small accent pieces that were meant to further define the character of the bonsai. These accents were often small plants sourced from the same geographical region as the bonsai, but could be as personal as a notebook from the artist’s home with a quote inscribed or even a skateboard deck.
While small plants and notebooks staged on a set seems to be gliding further into the kitsch of craft and state fair competitions, the trees themselves were powerful examples of the complicated relationship between humans and nature. The impossibly shallow dishes chosen for the plants contained entire root matrices for trees ten times their size, supported with a tamed elegance. And wire ties still imposed on the twisted branches of the trees to direct growth exposed the brutal yet awe-inspiring relationship people can have with nature, as well as the equally complicated relations of art and science. What made the exhibit all the more personal was the abundant amount of bonsai species sourced from local regions of Oregon, Washington, and California. They challenged our nostalgic concepts of trees that many of the viewers grew up with and were previously known only as large and unwieldy, now sat transformed as reduced and contained bonsai.
David Crust’s Larch bonsai planted in a decrepit Hoover vacuum was particularly impactful. It was a lanky tree that Crust has been training for 14 years in the bowels of the vacuum and he claims the mechanical vessel he chose represents “our future doom under the weight of technology.” The piece looks like an assemblage work by Ed Keinholz, emphasizing the found nature of these works and the way the artists hobble together many objects to make one whole work. In all, there were 70 works in the show, which were arranged in rows like a farmer’s field. The display by Skylab was built with angle cuts in the backdrops so when you stood in front of a tree the background was solid, but when you walked down a row you could get glimpses of the other trees as if you were in an orchard (or looking through the terrifying mirrors at the Livingroom theater). Chelsea Neil claims this also gives the illusion of a forest, being able to glimpse many competing landscapes at once.
The show was a quick but successful introduction to the high-art of bonsai exhibition in North America and challenged the Portland Art Museum’s traditional notions of an art object. It is a promising indication of coming events at the museum, which will focus on the outdoors and our ability to capture nature through art.