A FAMILY OF STONES in the garden. Half-formed sculptures in the yard. Each day, Michihiro Kosuge rises from bed and goes to his Scappoose studio to tend them. Some days he refines their shapes with a little chisel work here and there. Other days he just lets the rain happen. Paints for an afternoon. Waits for instructions. Instructions from his stones.
Ned Colclough, decades younger and on the opposite coast, lives in the city. In Brooklyn. He makes furniture and interiors for a living but finds himself drawn to the scraps left behind at the end of the day. He arranges the wooden leavings into little balancing acts. It's what they would have wanted, he thinks. In the city, he happens upon other objects that seem to harmonize with the same unidentifiable will: bits of fabric and metal, rocks, paper. He builds platforms for his arrangements. It's the least he can do for the things that speak most powerfully to him, that seem to ask day in and day out for a place in the world.
Perhaps it's the voices of inanimate things that brought these men together for New Arrangements at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art. While you could call both artists formalists, engineers of the abstract, of the minimal, you'd be walling in artistic impulses that are not so quickly defined. Colclough and Kosuge are kindred spirits of the wide ear. Their labor is to express not their own will, but the will of the materials they've chosen.
"It's creating space for other ideas," says PICA Visual Art Curator Kristan Kennedy, "and that's an unusual gesture sometimes, because we think about art being about meaning. We want to know, 'What does it mean?'" She's accounting for the Western tendency to deduce authorial intent when viewing art, to position a show in a tidy historical timeline—common strides toward universal reader comprehension.
In being contrary to quick meaning, Kosuge's stones often feel like possibilities: they feature textures of varying qualities, raw surfaces spilling into polished planes of mirror-like smoothness; they assert various gestures and shapes, teeter between representation and abstraction; they contain the natural condition of the stone, and the chance to be manipulated in service of human needs. They are moments of balance and opportunity.
Colclough intervenes with his materials to arrive at a similar place. In an untitled standout from the show, three wooden boards stand vertically on a low platform, sharing the space with a square sheet of burnished metal and a scroll of black fabric. Two of the boards feature bowed cuts from end to center, shapely absences making it impossible for the boards to stand vertically without the support of the others. Atop the fragile little fence balances a length of fabric rolled up like tape.
These instances of balance, impermanence, and material get closest to universal significance on PICA's rooftop sculpture garden. Populated by a fleet of Kosuge's sculptures, the outdoor collection is reminiscent of a mass grave for giants. Pieces like "Bones" and "Tooth" represent their titular anatomical components, and filtered through themes of balance and impermanence, you get the sense of an artist questioning the material of the body. (Kosuge's own tooth is embedded in the corresponding piece.)
The durability of stone can feel comforting in the face of mortality, but that feeling is just as quickly erased when considering works like Colclough's "Untitled," a white fabric canvas with short lengths of black thread affixed to its surface via static electricity. Amid an emerging discussion of the human condition, this delicate drawing breeds vulnerability—everything you know could come apart at any minute.
With all the human qualities asserted on these objects, it's clear that the will of Kosuge and Colclough, not that of the materials, is what's being serviced. But we knew that all along. What's to be taken away is a guide for how to learn about ourselves through the everyday things around us, how to interrogate the material world to meditative ends.