When I first encountered the work of sculptor Jenene Nagy in her 2005 solo exhibition Backyard Icing, her project hinged on the intimacy of its scale and on the artist's acute attention to detail. Those sculptures, which were the result of an artist residency at Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA), were inscrutable forms made of dried house paint, foam, nails, and pushpins. It was nearly impossible to determine if they resembled elaborately decorated cakes or miniature arctic tableaus, but their sensuous materiality and vibrant colors were fascinating enough to make such interpretations superfluous.
Interestingly, since that show at PNCA, the scope of Nagy's ambitions has grown exponentially larger. In 2006, she co-foundedTilt Gallery and Project Space with her husband, Josh Smith, in the EverettStation Lofts. Over the past two years, its programming has become an increasingly reliable source for challenging, installation-oriented art.
As an artist, Nagy's reach has similarly swelled. In place of Backyard Icing's diminutive sculptures, her recent work has been marked by sprawling, site-specific installations that are painted directly onto the gallery wall and seamlessly extend into three-dimensional forms. As such, they embody both the flatness of the pictorial plane and the depth of the sculptural object. Other local artists have been tilling this ground of late—including Stephanie Robison and David Eckard in last year's Liveries (summer stock) show—but Nagy's handling manages to be the most formally uncomplicated, but conceptually satisfying of the group.
After mounting similar installations in the Jesse Hayward-curated group show The Hook Up and a solo exhibition at Linfield College last fall, Nagy presents her most fully realized environmental work, "s/plit," in her recently opened APEX show at the Portland Art Museum. A jagged form is painted in purple latex paint across two gallery walls, while drywall extensions encroach into the space and even creep up one wall. In "s/plit," Nagy has added a series of neon lights: clusters of white arrow-like triangles that seem to spur a viewer through the gallery. As these lights' cords snake down the front of the sheetrock to electrical outlets, they work in tandem with the bare two-by-fours that prop up the panels and the conspicuous paint drips to remind the viewer that this is a built environment. Like a theater backdrop or amusement park set, Nagy's installation is only meant to scan as a convincingly natural environment; it breaks down as artificial under weightier scrutiny. But this tension is what makes walking through "s/plit" so engaging and joyful: It's like walking onto a stage where the set design is cast in the starring role.