Working a white, square museum space isn’t the easiest gig, but [E]mpress is giving it her all. From a round stage at the center of the room, the local rapper whips her long braids and confidently strides into a crowd of teens, parents, teachers, and other curious onlookers who have no idea how to interact with a young, fabulous rap prodigy in this setting. After the set, two Portland Art Museum employees compare her to Kendrick Lamar, and I wonder how many hip-hop musicians they’re familiar with. They want her performance to align with the theme of Marvels., the exhibition taking place on the fourth floor of the museum’s Jubitz Center for Modern and Contemporary Art. While a comparison between [E]mpress and Lamar may be a stretch, [E]mpress’ bold performance and her use of the gallery to suit her artistic purposes certainly fits within the larger project housed here, which encourages new perspectives and communities to enter the museum and have a say in its future.
Marvels. is part of We. Construct. Marvels. Between. Monuments., Portland Museum of Modern Art Director Libby Werbel’s year-long programming project which began in November. The third of its five iterations (following We. and Construct.), Marvels. uses the instructions of the first social practice artwork that the Portland Art Museum acquired—Stephanie Syjuco’s notMOMA—to task 31 art students from Portland-area high schools to refabricate existing pieces of art that are currently on display at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The project also included three local galleries—c3:initiative, Melanie Flood Projects, and Una Gallery—to help curate and narrow the scope for students to choose from, as well as to highlight women and artists of color. Despite having so many diverse creative visions, there’s a striking cohesion to the installation, even if at the opening it was impossible to tell which kid made which object because they were all taking selfies with each other’s pieces.
Jennifer Molina’s refabrication of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ 1992 “Untitled (Toronto)” was without a doubt the central focus of the evening. The two strands of light bulbs that entwine and fall from the ceiling are not only emblematic of life’s impermanence but also make for a whimsical photo op. I asked two sisters, as they snapped photos of one another, if either of them worked on the piece, and their expressions immediately shifted to worry. (I forgot that adults only talk to kids when they’re are in trouble.) One of the sisters non-verbally pointed to a piece she made, further down the hall, and the two of them went back to their photos.
For her interpretation of “Untitled (Toronto),” Molina asked her fellow students to draw designs onto each of the strand’s bulbs in white gel pen. That may be another reason why so many people stopped to take photos with the piece. To my eye, it seems to be one of the few variations in Marvels. “I was actually expecting a lot more interpretation,” Werbel explained later. “But the instructions ask for reproductions to be as close as possible to the original. I think the task allows the students to gain insight into the mindset of the artists who made the work.”
For the youths taking selfies in the halls of the Portland Art Museum, Marvels. is intended to impart a sort of epiphany of ownership. One could compare it to the punk-rock, three-chord moment where an audience member realizes the songs of their favorite band are not beyond their musical ability. The distinction between the stage and the audience blurs, and the crowd, once separate and adoring, threatens to take the stage.