Creating a Culture of Critique

One year in, Eugene Contemporary Art pushes past local art scene’s status quo

Down by the railroad tracks that carve through the Whiteaker, graffiti art colors the walls of buildings. A large piece spray painted in white advises its audience to “Read up!” but it’s the paint drippings below that inspired local artist Josh Sands. “I saw the paint under the graffiti and thought, ‘Can I take graffiti paint and make something out of it?” he says.

Sands has collected “found paint” not only in Eugene, but also in L.A., San Francisco and Berlin, and with it he sets to work on his latest project. The artist secures the old paint, which he “excavated like an archeologist,” to a plywood board by applying another layer of paint. After multiple rounds of sanding away the excess layers of paint, beautiful shades of color begin to appear.

These are the kind of pieces that will be featured in Sands’ residency, which began Aug. 19, at Eugene Contemporary Art (ECA). He is meticulously crafting his unconventional brand of art — sometimes under the gaze of the community, which can come meet the artist during open studio. His work is in a state of flux, changing with Sands’ inspirations and ideas.

ECA has made itself the spot for experimenting and developing contemporary art. “They’re more interested in coming from a place of ideas and concepts,” Sands says of ECA’s art perspective. “I don’t know if there are other spots in Eugene that would be open to such a loose interpretation.”

ECA is celebrating its one-year anniversary this fall, currently featuring its fourth artist in the residency program, Public Process, where an artist uses The WAVE gallery as a studio for six weeks. Every Thursday night the gallery is open to the public. “Their goal is to get the public involved,” Sands says.

“Real art-making comes out of a trial-and-error process,” says ECA Executive Director Courtney Stubbert. “We thought, what if we just gave someone a key and residency and gave the public the chance to see how the artist came to be?”

ECA and Public Process have been growing, but contemporary art has only begun to brew in Eugene.

“Eugene art is stuck in the ’60s and ’70s activist culture,” Stubbert says. “Since I’ve grown up here, I haven’t seen any change. When everyone in town is an art fan and there’s no culture of critique or wanting to raise the bar, you get a lot of mediocre art that doesn’t really affect culture.”

Jessi DiTillio, the assistant curator of contemporary art at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, believes contemporary art is on the right path here in Eugene. “I think the enthusiasm is there, the art and artists exist, and the key is just tuning in to what is happening,” she says. “Of course, a lot of the artists who go to school here are prone to go to bigger cities because there are more places to show their work, a larger audience and, most of all, more jobs. But I think you can see in the energy that has gone into revitalizing Eugene’s downtown, people in this city are hungry for unique and creative things to do and see.”

Sands hopes ECA will expand and for the community to expand and engage with it. “I think the public’s perception needs to change. The public needs to know art can be a lot of different things,” he says. “Maybe, in a way, ECA is like the one guy stepping over and saying it’s OK to do this. They’re establishing themselves as a home for serious artists who are trying to push their boundaries.”

Josh Sands. Photos by Trask Bedortha.