This month at Newspace, dozens of classified pages torn from the Oregonian line the gallery's first wall. On these broadsheets, scribbled notes and retraced circles map out photographer Chris Willis' treasure hunt of choice: estate sales. According to the artist, he and his wife began regularly visiting these sales when they moved to Portland a year ago and this body of work was the inevitable result. It's a modestly scaled endeavor, in which Willis captures some of the sales' more unusual finds: a chair full of googly eyed sock puppets; the spines of issues of Popular Science from the '40s through the '60s; or a jar of purplish pickles, dated "1962." Although shot straight-ahead, these images are not just the documentation of orphaned curios and time-warped interiors. Willis' framing and flair for color reveals a painterly eye, while his subjects present a fragile and vulnerable sense of humanity.
Without question, there's a thrill in rummaging through a house full of another person's belongings and, on a base level, Estate Sale fulfills that superficial voyeurism. But the fact that these are estate sales—not garage or yard sales—injects even the most light-hearted or eccentric images with sobering morbidity. These objects are, in essence, the unwanted remainders of an individual's life: prized by the deceased, but deemed dead weight by his legacy. The viewer is constantly reminded of this unsettling context by the orange and white price tags on everything.
While not always exquisite photographs, the most powerful inclusions capture items or spaces that expose the quirks and idiosyncrasies of the deceased. For example, one photo documents a library of VHS cassettes, each labeled with a TV Guide summary of the taped program. Another presents shelves from some basement workspace, in which pieces of hardware—nails, bolts, screws—are carefully segregated in tiny jam jars. Others reveal the hidden spaces of a home, such as a spiraling cactus that overturns its pot on top of a water heater. In this image, the twisting cactus parallels the coils and pipes that sprout from the heater. Beyond observing this formal construction, though, Willis saw the scene's quiet weight as an outsider, even though it must have been familiar to the point of invisibility for the home's former owner. JOHN MOTLEY