TWO WEEKS AGO I went to the opening of Meredith Dittmar's current exhibit at children's clothing store Black Wagon. The show comes on the heels of Dittmar's recent exhibit at Upper Playground's Mexico City location, as well as a three-year hiatus from showing locally. The sculptures on display at Black Wagon were largely animal based (of the cartoonish, anthropomorphic variety), which won't come as a shock to those who saw her 2007 Compound show. But for those who've been keeping up with Dittmar's more recent work, these character-driven works will feel like a regression.

"This show is a step back for me," says Dittmar, admitting that her recent artistic progress—into a realistically rendered surreal space—isn't reflected at Black Wagon. When she agreed to the show a year and a half ago, she thought it would be a good time to revisit her kid-friendly characters. In one of Dittmar's simplest pieces at Black Wagon, a bear hands a rabbit a bouquet of giant flowers. Cute, yes. Definitely safe for children, but for us big kids who've kept up with Dittmar's stylistic evolution, it leaves a lot to be desired. That's why I took a trip to the artist's studio last week.

Dittmar's studio: shelving units filled with armies of sculpted cartoon characters; boxes brimming with a fine-art collection that she showed in Istanbul in March of 2009; and commercial design work in various stages of production. When sitting over her newest piece, I felt like I was looking inside a mechanical watch—hundreds of miniature Sculpey shapes, figures, and forms are arranged into what I can best describe as a history of self-awareness, puzzled together with a gear-like tightness.

Affixed to their own Plexiglass layer at the bottom of the piece, various religious architectures are inscribed with binary code, the stages of mitosis, fractal patterns, and chemical diagrams. Animals and trees are peppered around sacred geometric shapes, and each thing locks into the next. "That's the Large Hadron Collider right there," she tells me, pointing to the upper section of the piece. When the composition is finished, a nude figure will float between the Plexiglass layers, symbolizing the relativity of the self.

Compare this to the work from Dittmar's Black Wagon show, and you'll understand why bear-gives-bunny-flowers left me thirsty for her recent, more progressive works. Comparisons aside, things don't look good for seeing a big-kid show in Portland anytime soon. Dittmar admits that her hometown isn't her target market, because people here aren't buying art at a pace that makes local shows financially attractive. The result is a tendency to show out of state, or even out of the country.

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Ultimately, for Dittmar it's about finding the "perfect storm," which she describes as "the right artwork with the right buyers, in the right place at the right time." She hasn't found it yet, but she keeps trying new things, hoping to hit an ideal weather system. Dittmar is focusing on several upcoming shows at contemporary art venues, one later this year at Alphonse Berber Gallery in Berkeley, and another at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, scheduled for the end of 2011 (her work will be shown in MOMA's satellite, the Artists Gallery at Fort Mason, and the next month will be moved to the café at the main museum location).

Dittmar's success is exciting, though let's hope the storm chasing doesn't caravan much more art out of Portland.

SLAY Film Fest
In person at the Clinton St. Theater 10/29 & 10/30