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Exhibit explores beauty

Melanie Manchot: “Love Is A Stranger”
Portland Institute of Contemporary Art
219 N.W. 12th Ave.
Thru March 23
Wed-Sat 12-6 p.m.
$3 non-members

There seems to always be plenty of talk about how “modern art doesn’t mean anything” and that “there’s no message in it” except for maybe the occasional declaration that nihilism has overrun all sense of “good taste.” So if you find that a digestible social analysis and critique is necessary for art without an involuntary divulging of the senses, then Melanie Manchot’s PICA exhibit entitled “Love Is A Stranger” is just what you need. She’s got plenty to say, even if her playful and gentle style may not make it so apparent at first.

This is not to imply that her work is necessarily blatantly political or propagandist, though every form of expression is that in some way. The issues she’s dealing with here, including our notions of beauty, desire, human relations, and the boundaries of physical space, are ones that are often overlooked in a society that tends to only see the macro. Daily moments of beauty walk on by, unnoticed, in the same way that a London man in a tight-collared suit shakes his head in disgust after Manchot asks him if he will kiss her.

Her piece “For A Moment Between Strangers” attempts to capture on video the reactions of people in the cities of Los Angeles, New York, London, and Cologne as people’s daily instinctual paths are interrupted. Manchot asks them an innocent question, “I was wondering if you could give me a kiss?” A rather simple and well-intentioned inquiry is at the same time a stick in the spokes of the wheel of the mechanical life cycles that we all in some way lead. As people’s programmed trajectories are thrown off course, the reactions are as divergent and varied as each individual personality that Manchot encounters. An old woman says that she’s “just an old woman, and didn’t do that anymore.” A medical student explains the intricacies of nanobiology and the dangers of bacterial transmissions, but adds that if they were in a club, he’d kiss her. Of course, there’s every reaction in between, with curiosities piqued by her unconventional behavior, resulting in intrigue, paranoia and shock. The people who reject or accept Manchot’s proposal are not so obvious to the stereotypical eye, it must be added.

Upon entering Manchot’s visions of “Liminal Portraits,” one may be surprised by the initial offering, as one’s perceptions of beauty are called into question. Aren’t nude bodies all supposed to be young, supple and firm? Manchot shows us photographs of her nude mother, who would not exactly be the normative definition of what is considered beautiful. But should it? How much of what we consider beauty is constructed from the first day we lay our eyes on the world? It depends on perspective. Why is her mother’s pear-shaped body, full of waves of skin and flows of rounded parts, so unattractive that we are opposed to seeing it in the nude? To further the question, how much can we be comfortable with nudity in our conception of what is beautiful? These questions are interposed with various backgrounds of gleaming cityscapes, lush botany and illuminating sunshine that place our ideas of beauty into a new light, a liminal light.