Joel Shapiro’s Portland, a site-specific installation at the Portland Art Museum, resides in a strange space. The atrium of the museum is called a “sculpture court,” but there is nothing specifically sculptural about it. Like any other atrium, it is an open space in a large building, encompassing a number of stories, allowing light and air to move through the space while humans are constrained to the floor below and the edge of the balcony above.
Shaprio’s installation hangs from cord, pieces of brightly painted wood levitating in the air, so the space keeps the viewer from the work through the laws of physics. One is forced to walk underneath the hanging pieces of the sculpture, or view them from above and to the side. It is like watching a parade of shapes and colors either from the crush of the crowd or from the distance of the grandstands. One knows that if one tries to break out into the street to join the parade, the police that is gravity will come to remove you back to the appropriate viewing zone.
But in Portland, there is one piece of the installation that was different, separate from the parade. As I walked underneath the sculpture and as I gazed at it from above, my eyes kept returning to it. The large yellow board was my favorite.
Each piece of wood in the installation is hung separately. Although the thin cords suspending the wood share anchor points and cross over each other in their paths from ceiling to sculpture, each hangs individually, and alone. The yellow wood had the longest cords, coming all the way from the top of the atrium down nearly to the ground, where the piece hung in the center of the space, mere inches above the floor. It was the biggest piece, though not the longest. But the most outstanding element of it was that it was low to the ground. I was forced to circle the oversized plank, unable to pass beneath it. It was on my level. It was similar to me. It mocked the ugly marble floor it nearly touched. It swung, nearly imperceptibly in the moving, conditioned air. I felt I could move it if I wanted to. I desired to reach out and touch it, to feel the grain and to rap my knuckles against it to hear what the wood sounded like. But I did not and simply stood, gazing at this one particular piece, an individual among a group.
I tried to imagine this one piece alone in the room, without the others. It would be self-indulgent, perhaps: a single item mocking the rest of the underutilized, open space. But what did the other pieces add to this one yellow plank? They appeared as hangers-on, an unnecessary entourage. Maybe one more could stay—the pink block up in the top corner of the room that had also caught my eye. A single friend for this solitary board, separate from each other they way I was from them, hanging without any friction by which they could move themselves closer to each other.
Is it weird to anthropomorphize wood in this way? Is it strange to hang wood in an atrium? Would it be more odd to leave an atrium open, a big expensive room with no purpose to people? Perhaps the yellow wood and its pink friend could put the room in its place. But what place is that? The sculpture, in place until September 21, is only temporary. But so is the room. And so am I.