Upfor is a Portland, Oregon-based gallery presenting works by contemporary artists, with an emphasis on time-based and media art.
Laura Mylott Manning: Thank you, Theo, for participating in this interview. Please tell us more about yourself; where are you from originally and how did you become involved in the arts?
Theo Downes-Le Guin: Thank you for inviting me, Laura. I was born in Portland about four miles from where I now have a gallery. Fortunately for everyone I got out of town for a long time before coming back.
I studied art history undergrad and interned and worked in museums and galleries when I was younger. But I ended up doing my graduate studies in sociology and working in policy research and in industry before returning to visual art. So the gallery is a second career and a full circle for me.
LMM: I’ve been following Upfor Gallery after I first came across your booth at Volta NY 2015. It would be great if you could discuss your gallery program further and how art fairs play a role.
TDG: We present work by early to mid-career artists. Several of our artists live in the Northwest; most do not and a few are essentially nomadic. We place a strong emphasis on media art but we also present painting and other so-called traditional mediums. The program is unified by our artists’ willingness to tackle big ideas, by their interest in contemporary media and technology culture, and by attempts to engage audiences at a conceptual and intellectual level, not only retinal.
As for fairs: we’ve done about a dozen fairs in the three years we have existed. We were very lucky to be accepted into one of the best US fairs, Untitled Miami, from the beginning. After doing a lot of fairs in 2015, we have narrowed down to an ideal of two or three quality fairs a year. I would rather do no fairs than do a mediocre fair, in terms of artistic context. But for a gallery in a tertiary market, fairs remain an important platform not just for sales but for relationships and curatorial exposure. And when the context is good, I enjoy them.
LMM: While visiting Portland this summer, I stopped in and viewed the show Eat, Drink and Be Merry by artist Maria Lux. I really enjoyed the exhibition. Please share more details about it.
TDG: I first saw Maria’s work at her MFA program thesis show in Urbana-Champaign. I was struck by her thoughtfulness, the obvious research that went into her work, and by her meticulous recreation of certain elements from mid-1960s museum exhibition design. The works were extraordinarily mature and resolved for someone still in school. A couple of years later I revisited her work, contacted her, and over a year or so we refined her ideas into something we could ship across the country and show in this space. Maria is not commercially-minded artist and installation-based exhibitions are rarely bread and butter for galleries, but every now and then you have to say damn the torpedoes.
LMM: The work shown at Upfor has an emphasis on time-based and media art. Please talk about your interest in those areas and how shows come together in your space.
TDG: The idea that someone could set out to collect art that is truly contemporary and then avoid media art is absurd. But that is the status quo for most contemporary collectors! Collectors are afraid of obsolescence, of loss of uniqueness, of the difficulties of living with art that involves movement or noise or internet connections in a domestic environment, and of art where they can’t really imagine how it was made. But if you truly value the avant garde, much of it lives in media art now, you can’t or shouldn’t avoid it.
I am personally interested in artists who are thinking about and responding to the influence of high technology and media on our culture. Not coincidentally many of these artists are using the very technology that they study and critique to make their work. So it’s more the ideas than the mediums that draw me in. But I also feel that many forms of media art are underrepresented in commercial galleries, because they are very hard to sell, for the reasons I already addressed.
I will take a moment to pre-plug my handbook forthcoming in 2018 on collecting and living with media art, co-authored with curator Ashley Stull-Meyers.
LMM: What do you think makes the art scene in Portland unique?
TDG: I may not be the right person to ask. Though I live here, I try to think of Portland as just one more place among many that are producing interesting art and artists. On a crabby day I’d say that one thing that makes our art scene unique is the lack of sense of urgency of our collector community. When I try to be positive and objective, however, what I see in our artist community is an unusual ability to embrace and respond to the spectacular physical environment in which we live, without simply giving into uncritical documentation of that environment. Not that we don’t have our share of descriptive landscape painting, but we have a lot that goes beyond that as well.
LMM: What’s currently on view at Upfor and what’s up next?
TDG: Our current exhibition compactly summarizes 100 years of art about African American culture, guest-curated for our third anniversary by local collector John Goodwin. It’s an unusual exhibition for us and it’s a knock-out. In mid-October we open Jack Featherly’s second solo exhibition with us. He was the artist you saw at Volta in 2015.
For more information please visit: http://www.upforgallery.com
929 NW Flanders St
Portland, Oregon 97209