Art Review: Willie Little at Oregon Contemporary

Willie Little, my own little corner, 2022. Installation at Oregon Contemporary, photo by Mario Gallucci

Installation by Willie Little at Oregon Contemporary, In my little corner, consists of a series of portals that transport the viewer outside the gallery’s four walls and to other times, places and corners of the artist’s memory.

The moment I entered Oregon Contemporary, I was immediately interrupted by a recreated facade of Little’s childhood home on a tobacco farm in North Carolina. The light green paint on the wood shingles is peeling as if it had been battered by the sun and weather for decades. The porch swing is missing one of its slats, making it unstable. A corrugated iron roof appears to be rusting in real time as I imagined the open screen door closing during a thunderstorm.

When I walked onto the wooden porch, the boards creaked underfoot. I could feel the playing of the boards as much as I could hear the sound, and it was the first of many sensory experiences that transported me to the rural south of fifty years ago. Beyond the screen door portal, Little divides the cavernous main gallery into several room-sized vignettes, each depicting a formative memory of his life.

Willie Little, my own little corner, 2022. Installation at Oregon Contemporary, photo by Mario Gallucci

Little’s childhood bedroom greeted me first, with every detail offering a glimpse into Little’s childhood in a black religious family in the late 1960s. A photo of Diahann Carroll, dressed as her character in the sitcom revolutionary Julia— is suspended between a cardboard fan with the effigy of the Madonna and a blaxploitation movie poster with Pam Grier. Caroll, the Virgin Mary and Grier act as a holy trinity, presiding over a collection of McCall’s sewing patterns, various magazines and scattered toy soldiers and tanks: Little’s first hint at the expectations of gender and identity placed on a young boy.

A pilled and stained sky blue blanket, not too heavy for North Carolina summers, is tucked neatly into the bed frame with a threadbare quilt folded at its foot. Pillowcases do not match. A black-and-white television loops in the corner, flashing images of The Brady Bunch and Captain Kangaroo. Stacked above a wardrobe, two suitcases and a hatbox suggest a desire to embark on a larger life elsewhere.

The room works like a time machine. As soon as you enter it, the world of Portland in 2022 ceases to exist. I had to physically stop, several times, from sitting on the bed or picking up the magazines, so completely immersed in Little’s constructed world was I (except for one distraction, but I I’ll talk about that later). My friend and I sat cross-legged in front of the TV, for what seemed like an eternity, as if we had been invited on a date.

Willie Little, my own little corner, 2022. Installation at Oregon Contemporary, photo by Mario Gallucci

The following vignette is a recreation of a room adjoining Little’s grandmother’s house where he spent Sundays after church playing a game he called “girl”. The space is filled with sex toys like a blonde Barbie (wearing a leopard coat and one of her fur-trimmed boots is missing) and a naked six-pack Ken. A fur stole waits to be thrown over the shoulders as white gloves emerge from a box on a sewing table. It was in this room that Little could safely explore parts of his identity that he could not yet talk about. In a recent artist talk, Little recounted hearing family members talk about an “effeminate” pianist at a time when he considered being gay. “They castigated him. They flayed him,” he recalled. would never be the same again.” The installation chronicles the gap between this realization and Little’s current reality.

Little’s painstaking, virtuosic attention to detail makes these spaces, which in someone else’s hands could easily register as staged sets, feel real and fully inhabited by people we don’t. can’t see.

Willie Little, my own little corner, 2022. Installation at Oregon Contemporary, photo by Mario Gallucci

Little’s journey through the past ends in the far corner of the gallery where a collection of glittering objects, including a golden gun, a Spiderman doll, a gay pride flag and a dump truck with a dazzling tailgate, hangs from the ceiling in an outburst of eerie joy. It’s a defiant embrace of the parts of himself he once had to hide and a triumphant ending to the story. Tonally and aesthetically, this last space is not consistent with the rest of the show. Perhaps it was on purpose, to emphasize the difference between the past the artist wanted to escape from and the present reality. This distinction would have been more effective if the bedroom thumbnail had been rotated 90 degrees clockwise so that the wall obscured the glittering objects in the final corner. As a neurodivergent person, the light emanating from them on the other side of the gallery kept catching my attention, pulling me out of what would otherwise have been a totally immersive experience.

Willie Little, my own little corner, 2022. Installation at Oregon Contemporary, photo by Mario Gallucci

During Little’s artist conference at the African Diaspora Museum on August 16, he shared a story that confirmed everything I know to be good and true about creating art. He knew early on that he wanted the siding of the house to represent asbestos shingles. “I couldn’t find any green anywhere,” he said. He went to one of the businesses in town specializing in the sale of salvaged materials and asked them if they could keep their eyes peeled. In the meantime, he started looking for a porch swing, of which he had an exact picture in his mind. A friend said she saw a free porch swing in her neighborhood that might be perfect, although it wasn’t. He decided he would leave it to the universe.

Months later, he visited another company that salvages salvaged materials and found boxes upon boxes of green shingles he was looking for. After loading them into his car, he took another lap around the space. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a swing…the swing– that someone had dropped off while he was there and would have missed it if he had come even an hour earlier or a day later.

I am not an organized religion, but I place my faith in the gods of art – the benevolent forces that conspire with artists who are in the flow of their practice to help achieve seemingly impossible things. Little In my little corner looks like an inspired collaboration between past and present, the South and Pacific Northwest, the gods of art and an artist whose eye for detail allows him to connect time and space.

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In my little corner is on view at Oregon Contemporary until October 2.
This piece is co-published by Oregon ArtsWatch and OUT OF THE BOX.

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