Locus at University of Oregon’s White Box Gallery, Portland

by Sarah Vaeth, August 2011

Locus is the collaborative team Robert Mantho and Michael Wenrich, whose joint projects examine architecture as “an act of art in a specific place.” In Changing Place, Mantho and Wenrich have finely intersticed the two rooms of White Box gallery in Portland with strands of thin vinyl-coated cord, anchored in a false floor which undulates in shallow hills and valleys. Rising from the floor in vertical or diagonal batches, the cords wrap around a grid of pipes on the ceiling, then attach to the gallery walls. Most are black, but a few red cords accent the batches and subtly deviate from them in trajectory. Because they’re pulled straight and taut, the cords seem to point, resembling the forensic lines used to trace bullet paths. The hard-edged geometry of the cord system relates it to minimalist structures; however, its functional interaction with the features of the gallery puts a focus less on its own materiality and more on the space it intersects. In this way the work aligns with a history of architectural sculpture in which the theatricality of minimal forms is fulfilled at the expense of their “objectness.”

The artists have made a game of interacting with the space, constraining their decisions by a set of rules. The path of descent from ceiling to wall is treated differently depending upon whether a cord is wrapped around a pipe parallel to the wall or perpendicular to it. If the pipe is parallel, the cord descends nearly straight-on, appearing vertical to viewer standing in front of the wall. If the pipe is perpendicular, the cord is pulled far from the pipe to land at an angle 45 degrees from horizontal. The black cords all land between one-third to halfway up the wall; the red cords sometimes land much lower on the wall, or stop at the ceiling. Where they anchor at the floor, the batches of line are distributed in a way that encourages an intimate and individual weaving  through the room.

By Rosalind Krauss’s definition, Changing Place would be an axiomatic structure, a form resulting from combining the terms architecture and not-architecture. For Krauss, this category of artistic practice is characterized by acts of intervention, whereby the inherent conditions of architecture are concretized. This is certainly the operating principle in Mantho and Wenrich’s work: the elements  introduced into the architectural space serve to make the architecture more visible. Here, a set of positions on a gallery wall have been picked out as virtual objects. Points on a path through the gallery are made concrete. Further defamiliarizing the floor as a place for aesthetic experience, the artists have built up its topography in rising and falling curves. This alteration permits a shift in access to the gallery and the result is an intensification of the viewer’s felt relationship to every surface of the space. Walls which ordinarily function as the neutral backdrop to aesthetic content are made more physically present as the viewer is steered toward encounters with them from unaccustomed rises or dips in the floor. A brick wall seems more tactile in its rough and pitted texture, a glass wall feels vulnerably exposed to the street it overlooks. Where we would normally treat the gallery as a container, willing its functional infrastructure invisible, here every aspect of it—windows, lighting system, emergency exit—is implicated in the work.

This is not a flawless piece. In a work as sparsely designated as this one, it’s easy to introduce a distraction—and this does happen in an important instance. The altered topography of the floor has been surfaced with fiberboard panels to create a uniform appearance, but the panels don’t quite adapt to the changing grade of the subfloor, creating bouncy spots under foot. The improvisational nature of the artists’ on-the-spot construction makes a degree of roughness acceptable, but if they’re unintentional side-effects, these soft spots are too noticeable to be ignored.  The unbalancing effect might be interesting if exploited deliberately—in another artwork. Here it strikes a wrong note, an element of sudden and arresting motion in what is otherwise a very still and meditative spatial work.

Changing Place
12 July—3 September 2011
White Box, University of Oregon
24 NW First Avenue, Portland