Taking in the 30 pieces of New Trajectories I, is not unlike the experience of viewing one of its most arresting pieces. Composed of dense layers of sweeping arcs, inky smudges, and the rigid geometry of architectural drafting, Julie Mehretu's "Untitled (Dervish)" forcefully drags the viewer's eyes across its surface, refusing any single point of focus. Similarly, New Trajectories I is so teeming with a diverse and captivating range of art from the last five years that it can be a little overwhelming.
Culled from the extensive private collection of Hollywood power player and member of MoMA's Board of Trustees Michael Ovitz and his wife Judy, the show could have easily been a sprawling and disconnected survey of contemporary art. However, its deeply insightful curation creates meaningful relations between a disparate group of artists, teasing out stylistic and thematic connections through strategic spatial juxtapositions. As the exhibition's "relocations" subtitle suggests, the most striking commonality among the work on display is an attention to spaces: settings that are both realistic and mundane, as well as those that could not exist anywhere but in the minds of the artists.
Such believably commonplace environments populate three tiny realist paintings by Los Angeles-based artist Robert Olsen. In his dim, yet luminescent oil treatments, he paints subjects that include an orange plastic chair and its faint reflection in a polished tile floor; an electrical service box at the side of a desolate highway; and a downtown bus shelter orbited by the soft-focus lights of distant streetlamps. Every one of these scenes is eerily void of humans, imbuing them with an unsettlingly cold effect. This can also be seen in Francesca Gabbiani's intricate paper collages, which depict interior spaces derived from film stills. "In the Movie," for example, presents a view down a long corridor lined with doors, as a vibrant orange and red carpet of interlocking shapes shrinks into the horizon. The image is derived from a shot of the hotel in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, which should charge the image with a sense of danger. But without that knowledge, the blocky pieces of cut paper project flatness and sterility, suggesting a vacant corporate office more than a site of supernaturally inspired murders.
Elsewhere in New Trajectories I, the environments and settings that are represented are far more fantastic and surreal. "Tontauben," an enormous, deserted landscape by the painter David Schnell of the Leipzig School, depicts a massive wood-planked foreground where rectangular wooden boxes are stacked on top of one another. Huge button-like objects rain from the mottled sky, which is a patchwork of blues that at once suggests a camouflage pattern and a paint-by-numbers kit. Upping the ante on the sublimity of Schnell's scene, Brooklyn-based painter Marc Handelman's "Vision" appears to be a field of cirrus clouds during a particularly colorful sunset. But the vaguely fisheye perspective and blood-red formations that stretch across the night sky are far too otherworldly and apocalyptic to be regarded as kitschy motel art.
When human subjects do appear in these spaces, they often seem to exist in a kind of nowhere, taking up residence in—to borrow Mehretu's description of her own paintings—"story maps of no location." In a miniscule, untitled oil painting by Tim Eitel, another member of the Leipzig School, a girl sits, waiting to be photographed by another who fidgets with her camera. Against a depthless background of two slightly skewed rectangles of black and gray, the two figures appear to have been superimposed onto a minimalist painting. But the dimensional representation of the girls compels the viewer to read a sense of believable perspective into the work. Similarly, in one of Nigel Cooke's slight watercolor paintings, a woman's head floats, seemingly displaced, in a dimly lit room, threatening to recede into the darkness.
A few of the works resist a tidy placement within the "relocations" motif—such as Cosima von Bonin's wall-sized tapestry or Aya Uekawa's deft alternation between trompe l'oeil and Op Art in her portrait, "A Suburban Team Player Candidate." But that's hardly a criticism of an exhibition that displays so much exciting art that might not otherwise be shown in Portland. Not only does New Trajectories I confirm the Cooley Gallery's increasingly indispensable role in bringing contemporary art to Portland, but it also casts a long and intimidating shadow on the city's visual arts programming for the remainder of the year. JOHN MOTLEY