IT MAY SEEM easy to overlook Subtitles, Victoria Haven's new show at PDX Contemporary Art, but knowing her past work gives it power. The Seattle-based Haven works in abstraction. Her drawings—often ink on paper—are precise and geometrical, but at the same time, they're transcendent, and suggestive of sweeping landscapes or open space.
Sometimes, Haven's work takes familiar, native-Northwest objects (e.g., Gore-Tex, lumber) and remixes them. At other times, she uses art history as a jumping-off point, but repurposes relics from her personal life as fodder for her art: Past subjects have included the TDK cassette tape, its geometric logo tiled into a pyramid. And Haven's 2011 show Hit the North, split between Greg Kucera Gallery in Seattle and PDX Contemporary, featured a tree stump that had been carved out with a chainsaw so that the words "no fun" protruded visibly from its surface. The words came from Haven's husband's homemade tattoo (itself inspired by a song by the Stooges); according to a write-up of the show by The Stranger's art critic Jen Graves, the chainsaw handiwork was provided by a carver in Allen, Washington, "who goes by the name of Bear in a Box."
Often, there are more handmade marks in Haven's work. In the case of Subtitles, the pieces look like digital images, but are actually prints made using laser-etched woodblocks. The words come in pairs—"hire / oracle," "toot / vortex," "omen / nope"—and line the wall, stacked above, below, and, to the left and to the right of one another. The words were plucked from Haven's personal text messages, and paired using an algorithm designed by an artist friend. The project was also shown in New York as a projection, where the words "continuously rotated in random order." From that show, some of the words were made into stills, and those freeze-frames are on display at PDX Contemporary.
There's a strong footing in abstract painting and early conceptual art in Subtitles—Lawrence Weiner, in particular, comes to mind. Sometimes you see the wood grain in the prints, and sometimes they're pitch-black. Looking at the show, it can be hard to find a "point of entry," as they say. Knowing Haven's past body of work gives it that entry point, though, making it possible to recognize Subtitles as a subtly bold move for the Northwest artist.