KEY FIGURES is a perfect example of a gallery show where you need to read the info sheet on hand. Sometimes the titles are funny, sometimes they offer insight; the materials give meaning and intention.
Key Figures, a group show at Adams and Ollman through March 28, is essentially a room full of faces. Some look psychotic, some unassuming, and some are confusing. Speaking of confusing: The first thing you'll notice when you enter the gallery is a piece of cardboard to the left of the entrance. You'll think, "What the hell?" It's called "Untitled (Shield #4)," and it's by Chris Bradley. It looks like a piece of cardboard pulled in off the street, propped against the wall, with two circular eyeholes cut out. What it doesn't look like is a painted piece of steel and aluminum. But that's what it is—trompe l'oeil cardboard. Surrounded by framed work, it comes as a surprise.
There are a number of surprises in Key Figures. The show's like a lesson in contemporary figure drawing—the art ranges from abstraction to borderline caricature to conceptual. Arnold J. Kemp has one of the larger pieces in the show, a print of a piece of aluminum with three holes cut out. The top of the frame is painted red and fades to black; the piece is called "What Actually Happens (See Black Say Red)." The holes are an ominous reference to the hoods of the Ku Klux Klan: It's a haunting, poetic gesture about racial violence. A painting by Vaginal Davis, "Jeanne Lanvin, Madame Grès, Elsa Schiaparelli," lists some of its materials as "Britney Spears eye shadow, Wet n Wild nail polish, Afro Sheen, Aqua Net Extra Hold Hair Spray"—three heads are stacked on top of one another on a small piece of cardboard. An oil painting by Brian Kokoska made me laugh: It's titled "Buttercup (She Gives No Fucks)," and it looks like the head of a child—the face of a girl with a huge grin and giant eyes, painted all yellow and black.
Most of the work in the show was done within the last couple of years, but some of my favorites are the older pieces. Mireille Delice's piece from the 1990s, a Haitian voodoo flag, is enchanting—bedazzled with sequins and beads, it sparkles in the space. In the back of the room, there's a patchwork of bright colors, a petite watercolor by Gladys Nilsson done in 1968.
All of the pieces have a spontaneous feel to them. The gallery lists its mission as specializing in work by self-taught (or "outsider") artists of the 20th century, and contemporary artists who work in a similar, intuitive way, some of whom are local; it's one of the few spaces in Portland dedicated to that type of work, which is refreshing to see. Offering up a whole show to figurative work is itself still unique—or out of vogue—in a gallery space these days. This is the second show in Adams and Ollman's new home on the west side of the river, a small white box off West Burnside. I'm looking forward to many more.