A System of Systems 

Travis Townsend's Sculptural Ambiguity

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TRAVIS TOWNSEND'S newest sculpture, an ambiguous, peanut-shaped vessel, rests on the floor of Doppler PDX. Created during the Kentucky-based artist's recent residency at the Oregon College of Art and Craft, this vessel is made from students' discarded wood scraps, suggesting a representation of a yacht or a crude spacecraft. Hanging from it are lengths of string that suspend little wooden rowboats above the ground. A single slack length (tied to the vessel's mast) is attached to a nearby wall, leading the eye to an image drawn on it.

This wall drawing mirrors the ambiguity of Townsend's sculpture: A group of rectangles look like a flattened box, and a simplistic sketch of a tank rides through it. At the top of this drawing, a pipe appears to either vacuum up or emit a coral-like mass of "veins," as the artist describes them—an interaction he says is meant to represent the "interconnectivity of systems." Like Townsend's sculpture (where rough pieces of wood are joined with colored glue that's left dripping and oozing from the many seams) there's a degree of sloppiness that the artist maintains as evidence of the object's making. So these pieces aren't just systems, they're systems that represent their own creation. (Conversely, two paintings incorporating motifs from Townsend's wall drawing are sanded down to show how units of order can also be degraded through human input.)

Rather than nail down specific values within this exposé on designed and interconnected systems, Townsend leaves behind a series of questions: How do systems function? How complex are the relationships between them? Can we take an honest inventory of these relationships from the proverbial overpass?

While taking an inventory of systemic order is a worthwhile project, I wonder if Townsend's undefined values come as a strength or weakness. Of course, the wall drawing with the tank could be interpreted as a representation of the military-industrial complex (or something similar), and the sculptural piece, inscribed with images of birds and symbols of travel, could be read as Noah's Ark, or any number of things. But these aren't values that Townsend explicitly expresses, and that's where the artist bows out of his opportunity to walk us through a clear worldview. Ultimately, the show's success relies on the viewer's willingness to accept the artist's generalizations and questions as a complete artistic statement.

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