For my money, art is most vital when it's picking up the slack for the shortcomings of language, moving toward an expression of the ineffable. So, perusing Chris Jordan's five large-scale archival ink-jet prints in the Portland Art Museum's APEX gallery, I couldn't help but puzzle that his project is so narrowly obsessed with numbers and statistics—the quantifiable phenomenon of the world.
Jordan's 2007 series Running the Numbers: An American Self-Portrait, from which all five works are drawn, visually depicts various realities of American culture—from the number of cell phones retired each day (426,000) to the annual ER visits caused by prescription pain killer abuse (213,000)—in dense, digitally composed tableaux. In the case of the latter, a whorl of concentric circles—each made of thousands of tiny images of Vicodin pills—suggests the pinpricked pupils of a user. Through the repeated use of a single image or a handful of them, Jordan trades in the visual lexicon of the infinite, cribbing conceptually from Pointillism and Chuck Close's "pixilated" portraits in a single pass. Such art historical nods seem awkward fits, though, considering how entrenched his subjects are in the finite.
There's no denying that Jordan's work is meticulously executed or occasionally stunning: "Cell Phones" is so packed with visual information, it dissolves into something like the smudged definition of Formica. But this formal beauty is repeatedly undercut by ham-fisted didacticism. After all, a work of art that implicitly chides Americans for inefficient residential energy use—via a cosmos of Photoshopped lightbulbs—seems like it ought to have bigger things on its mind. "Skull with Cigarette," a mosaic-like image of a skeleton getting its nic fix, is the worst offender. Cobbled together from 200,000 tiny cigarette carton tops, the piece represents the number of Americans who die every six months from smoking. It manages some impressive tonal shifts from afar and makes like a miniature cemetery up close (with each headstone bearing the familiar logos of Camel, Kool, and more), but, in the end, telegraphs the moral complexity of a "Just Say No" poster.
If such straightforward messaging makes for truly soporific propaganda, I suppose it does have one perk: I guarantee you won't leave Jordan's exhibition wondering what it all means.