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In Brazil, Northwest artists wove others' views the U.S. into their work
by: COURTESY OF DAVID ECKARD, David Eckard’s belly images of “American tragedies” were conversation starters on the streets of Rio de Janeiro.

The Portland art scene is constantly questioning how local it is versus how national, but for a real shake-up it's hard to match what happened in January: Six Portland artists and eight students from the Pacific Northwest College of Art went to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, as the return leg of a cultural exchange with the art gallery A Gentil Carioca.


You may remember when the Brazilians came here in 2005. Internationally known sculptor Ernesto Neto assembled a tent of stretch nylon and sandbags in the art school's common area, while in the window Laura Lima showed live chickens decked out in colored feathers like samba dancers.

The local curators, Nan Curtis and Elana Mann, soon chose six artists, who had 18 months to think about what they would do for the exchange. They were:

• Bruce Conkle, who is known for his Northwest landscapes full of Douglas firs and sasquatches.

• David Eckard, who does performance/sculpture such as Float, when he drifted down the Willamette River last September on a contraption of his own making, declaiming on one of his trademark megaphones.

• Don Olsen, who draws.

• Emily Ginsburg, whose graphic silhouettes on paper were included in the latest Oregon Biennial.

• M.K. Guth, a sculptor who deals with fairy tales and is widely known for her Red Shoe Delivery Service at past festivals.

• Tamsie Ringler, who makes sculpture using old cars.

They had 18 months to think about what they could make for the exchange, or 'troca' in Portuguese. Ginsburg made five large works on paper and installed them once she got there.

'It took longer than I thought,' she said last week as the artists met at PNCA to reflect. 'There was a lot of hurry up and wait.'

Olsen brought some drawings, inspired by Portland's cityscape, then made some of Rio when he was there. He projected them on to the gallery walls, and with assistants' help, traced and then painted them. They will remain until they are painted over.

Ringler wanted to work with a car, but it took six days to find one. She and her assistants customized it by covering the stripped interior with bronze leaf and installing a conical portal in the roof.

'We worked on the street every day, so we met a lot of people,' she said.

There were arguments about parking spaces and minor friction with the coconut seller/shoe shiner.

'People thought it was related to Carnival because of the gold, but when we said we were artists they understood.'

While they stayed in the bohemian Santa Teresa district in a large bed and breakfast, the gallery was downtown in Centro, a neighborhood bustling with street vendors and prostitutes.

'There was so much noise and incredible stimulation, but after 6 p.m. it was dead as a doornail and quite dangerous,' Ginsburg says.

Looking at U.S. from afar

The gallery A Gentil Carioca, which means roughly 'the kind person from Rio,' has a casual approach to art.

'The way they run the gallery is it's not so divided,' Eckard says. 'You walk in and it's not an ice-cold cube.'

The founders asked the Portlanders to do work that was 'temporal and integrated into the neighborhood,' he says.

Eckard built a prosthetic stomach that housed dioramas depicting 'Five American tragedies, moments when America turned on itself.' So for a few hours a day on five consecutive days he would stand in the street under an umbrella, with interpreters, and wait for people to check him out. The dioramas showed the hosing of civil rights demonstrators in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963; current Ku Klux Klan activities; a lynching in Indiana in 1930; the McCarthy hearings; and the Japanese internment during World War II.

'They'd ask what was going on, then it would turn into a conversation among the onlookers, like, 'Hey, that's like how people are restricted in the favelas here,' or a discussion about Brazil's role in World War II … '

For once Eckard found himself invisible in his own street theater.

'In Portland, when I did my Scribe thing, people would come up and go, 'Ooh what's that?' thinking it was some weird moment, but when they'd hear it's an art project they go, 'Oh,' ' as though bored or disappointed.

Eckard also found a widespread assumption that all Americans are 'gung ho' about the Iraq war.

M.K. Guth's work consisted of braiding long pieces of artificial hair. (The idea grew from her recent installation referencing Rapunzel.) Gallery visitors were provided with ribbons on which to write. Guth wrote her instructions on the wall: 'Please offer your opinions on people from the United States.'

'The way opinions work is you know they're going on, but you don't know what they are,' Guth says. This was her way of getting them out.

Many comments praised the technology, the movies, the music and the people of the United States. Many disapproved of President Bush and the Iraq war.

'You are lost in the fog,' was one such comment.

Artists saw Lego, real cities

In the sweaty pressure cooker of Rio, culture sought out the visitors.

They noticed the graffiti was artfully done, with artists working together rather than defacing each other's work. Music, too, was integrated into everyday life, with people drumming and singing spontaneously.

They got a tour of a local samba school, normally impossible, since the highly competitive schools are more like production companies wary of industrial espionage. They sweated through long, meaty barbecues.

And at their B and B they met a Dutch filmmaker who took them to Pereirão, a favela above the Laranjeiras neighborhood, to see the Morrinho (literally 'little hill'). This is a model of the slums, made of bricks and populated by Lego people. The boys who made it stage animated plays with the dolls that are shown on Nickelodeon in Latin America, and the project was recently selected for this year's Venice Biennial.

So what, exactly, did they exchange?

'The students who went to Rio have been sitting in (the Commons) for two weeks radiating, because they know something that no one else does,' Guth says. 'In a world so hard, with bus bombings, murders, gunfire at night, this gave them the confidence to deal with this cultural freak-out. What the students brought back was confidence.'

During their stay a 6-year-old suburban Brazilian boy was caught up in a carjacking. His mother got her other kids clear, but he was entangled in his seat belt as the car drove off. He was dragged for 2 miles, ending up headless and footless, curled in the fetal position.

'The whole city was dressed in black the next day in mourning,' Guth says.

They all learned to think on their feet, artistically. Olsen's work was a drawing that merged Portland and Rio, and Conkle planned a similar sculpture, although lack of scavengeable parts meant he had to rethink his work completely after three days. He ended up rigging up a closed system of water, plants and fish that mimicked Rio's vertical strata, both social and geographical.

'I wanted to use local materials, to not say, 'Here's what we can do and you can't,' ' Conkle says.

They enjoyed great hospitality, although Portland was new territory for most of the Brazilians they met. The artists usually described it as 'north of California.' Mostly they were just considered 'the Americans.'

One thing they are proud of is a review in Brazilian newspaper O Globo pointing out that their work seemed integrated into the community, which is a principle of A Gentil Carioca.

For the Brazilian gallery, to have had emerging artists come work in the city as peers, as opposed to established artists just coming to show their work, Ginsburg says, 'is a more meaningful gesture.'

'Instead of blue chip artists going, 'This is how it's done,' ' Ringler adds.

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Troca: USA artists talk

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 20

Where: Pacific Northwest College of Art, Swigert Commons, 1241 N.W. Johnson St., 503-226-4391

Cost: free

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