Last to Last, Portland Center Stage, May - June 2014

Seattle-based artist, Serrah Russell presents new collages in the exhibition, “Last to Last,” which is in view in the Ellen Bye Studio Gallery, in pairing with the theatrical production The Last Five Years at Portland Center Stage. The story explores a five-year relationship between a rising novelist, and a struggling actress. The show uses a form of storytelling in which one story is told in reverse chronological order (beginning the show at the end of the marriage), and the other story is told in chronological order (starting just after the couple have first met). The characters do not directly interact except for a wedding song in the middle as their timelines intersect. 

CURATORIAL ESSAY by Elizabeth Spavento: 

I asked the artist to create works that would relate to The Last Five Years, a play about two New Yorkers in their twenties who fall in love, each telling their version of the story from a different point in time. In the art world, this may appear uncouth; an artist, after all, is supposed to find inspiration in a muse or invent a creative process heretofore unknown to mankind in order to create something truly innovative. Luckily for me, Serrah was excited to be put “on assignment” and created a poetic series of works—over fifty of them when I visited her studio—that were at once meditative and explosive, minimalist in their composition but expansive in narrative. Serrah isolates portions of images and then juxtaposes them to other fragmented images in her collages, creating unique and interesting pairings. Both are., for example, depicts white gauze (silk maybe?) billowing out against a black background; a diaphanous membrane, a ghost. At the paper’s edge, the artist places an image of what appears to be supple, shiny black leather cut to fit the arc of the white fabric next to it. The collage appears whole, the gauze mirrored in the reflection of the leather’s hide and its shape made complete by the other image. These pairings take on new meanings and relationships as the source for each image used is obscured either by the artist’s hand (as evidenced by the tearing, cutting, and reassembling of the image on the page) or by the dreamlike feeling the works create of being simultaneously familiar with and foreign to the textures, figures and landscapes featured in the works.


Pushing the medium of collage into new territory, investigating new ways of relating found images to one another, Serrah Russell even managed to create a sculptural piece that drapes silk against concrete, capturing the hard and the soft edges found in each of us, frayed ends and all. The idea for Changing Tides emerged out of a conversation I had with Serrah about the duality that exists in her work: things are at once hidden and revealed, obvious and convoluted, mournful and optimistic. The duality, the tension that exists between two opposing forces that share the same edge, comes alive through the creative decisions the artist makes. In her smaller works, I was struck by her ability to condense the strongest aspects of each composition to one or two images and was fascinated by her use of vellum as both background to highlight and as translucent lens through which one could view the work. Serrah mentioned that she had been experimenting with scale and photo printing in her studio, and I immediately wanted a piece for the wall based off the other works I had seen. I couldn’t predict what it would look like, but I could sense what it would feel like.  Changing Tides did not disappoint. When I saw it, I knew that it was what I had been hoping for: a mark of the artist moving in a new direction while still retaining her signature sophistication and delicacy. My only regret is that there wasn’t enough space to hang more.

--Elizabeth Spavento, Curator


As a curator and human being, Elizabeth Spavento is interested in equity, particularly as it relates to issues of race and gender, the untapped potential of space, altered states of consciousness and unstructured time. Her practice seeks the fringe as a way to push back against hegemony, and her work tends to favor alternative spaces and community-driven practices. She has curated exhibitions for Disjecta Contemporary Art Center in Portland, OR and Open Source Gallery in New York, NY in addition to exhibiting her own work in Buffalo, NY. Spavento's largest project, ALL RISE, was a two-year long series of temporary public artworks punctuated by performance, video and music on a 90,000 sq. ft. gravel lot in downtown Seattle. In 2015, it was recognized as one of 38 outstanding public art projects in the country by Americans for the Arts Public Art Network. She and her partner, Jared Haug run Border Patrol, a contemporary art space that investigates the intersection between contemporary art and corporate aesthetics.