At first, Marie Watt's decision to use blankets as the principle medium in Tread Lightly, her current show at PDX Contemporary Art, seems a little curious. Then again, most of us formed one of our first intense attachments to a blanket. And it's easy to see why: All the psychological value a blanket offers—warmth, security, protection—is embodied in sensuous physical terms. Although Watt builds off this near-universal connection to blankets, her assemblages also gain meaning from an exploration of materials and art historical references.
Composed of scraps of wool blankets and hung on the gallery walls, Watt's collage-like blankets occupy a gray area between painting and sculpture. This tension is best seen in "Threshold." On an enormous olive-colored plane of military issue blankets, Watt overlays a looping pink ribbon over a white bull's eye—simultaneously conjuring Eve Hesse's sculptures and Jasper Johns' target paintings. The far-left section of the painting is dominated by a grouping of colorful swatches from dozens of wool blankets. These piles of fabric interact with a series of towering, totem-like sculptures that stand throughout the gallery. Each depicts a teetering stack of cloths, meticulously representing the folding contours of each piece. But Watt undermines a viewer's expectations about the fabric's properties by using hard materials such as reclaimed cedar and fir. Similarly, "Staff: Custodian," the most slender of the sculptures, appears to be a precarious tower of bronze-cast handkerchiefs. Both rigid and cold, the sculpture's monolithic portrayal of blankets completely defies the inviting warmth of the wool blanket pieces.
The show falters, though, with the overtly political "Catastrophe." Over a bed of disaster-relief blankets, a floral-patterned blanket hangs like a quilted comforter. Beneath it, a pair of boots limply sprawl, implying a corpse beneath the covering. Unanchored to the disaster blankets at the bottom, the comforter can be lifted to reveal dog-piled prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Such a direct statement (the blanket represents a "cover-up") undercuts the sense of mystery "Catastrophe" would possess if Watt had left questions about the hidden casualty unanswered. Even if it suffers from a lack of subtlety, this piece serves to complicate how blankets function: They can also offer false comfort and security in their capacity to conceal gruesome realities.