A still from Peaking

Image: Rick Silva

The vibes are, for lack of a better term, off. Perhaps you’ve noticed: we’re chilling on a precarious subduction zone, things keep catching on fire, and the previously complex laws of the universe seem to have boiled down to some crude approximation of “what goes up must come down.”

Eugene artist Rick Silva has definitely noticed. Silva, whose practice involves creating math-based 3-D art that interrogates both geological change and the ways we process that change, tackles as much in Peaking, on display at Oregon Contemporary from April 22 to June 26. It’s Silva’s first solo exhibition in Portland and part of the gallery’s Site series, a replacement for the defunct Portland Biennial that highlights work by Northwest artists.

Despite Oregon Contemporary’s significant square-footage—12,000, to be exact—Peaking consists primarily of a single 25-minute video work, projected on a scale designed to overwhelm the viewer. “It’s the longest work I’ve ever made,” says Silva. “There are six distinct sections, and showing them as a series on a single large screen felt like the right thing to do. Oregon Contemporary is such a big open space, and one of the only venues in Portland where you can see video art projected really big like this.”

Silva, who’s an associate professor of art at the University of Oregon, has produced works about birds and rocks and roses before, but his heart, so to speak, lies in the hills. Peaking, like several of his past projects, concerns mountains: the first two minutes strand 10 different floating peaks, modeled after formations in the Cascade range, in an engulfing blackness. They’re bisected by lasers, driven by random variables and functions meant to mimic the ways we track things like financial markets and air quality. As the work progresses, the mountains multiply, until peak after peak goes whizzing by, resulting in a very 21st-century brand of information overload.

As you absorb the mounting chaos, it’s hard not to think about the last time you blacked out and stared at your phone for half an hour, or to gawk at the way this collision of nature and digital fabrication makes you feel both tiny and enormous. “My background is in experimental film and electronic music, so I’m always interested in time, rhythms, and loops,” Silva says. “As the frequency of the formations in Peaking escalate, so does the act of ‘peaking’ itself, its sublime quantifications, ecstasies, and precipices.”

“I’m constantly grappling with an audience that thinks art is frivolous, so I love to work with artists whose work has stakes and is having real conversations,” says Ashley Stull Meyers, who curated Peaking. (Oregon Contemporary approached her about selecting an artist for Site after she cocurated the Portland Biennial back in 2019.) “[Rick] thinks a lot about not only the current landscape, but also the future of the landscape, which is really important in a moment where we all have intense anxiety around not only what the future of Oregon looks like, but the future of the Earth, and the way the climate is changing and our relationship to the land is changing.”

She says she’s excited to share something that grapples with unfolding social phenomena in real time as opposed to more “historicizing” work you might find at a traditional museum. “This exhibition is not about one global crisis that’s being grappled with,” Stull Meyers says. “It’s about the concatenation of a bunch of things, and this generalized anxiety of, ‘As a society, are we peaking?’”

If you, like most of us, are already prone to asking yourself that question, Peaking won’t offer many answers. But there’s a thank-god-I’m-not-the-only-one thrill to be had in absorbing its contours and realizing other people are—loudly, clamoringly, urgently—asking it too.

Peaking

Noon–5 p.m. Fri–Sun, Apr 22–June 26, Oregon Contemporary, FREE

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