The wood beam reads CARS STORED AT OWNERS RISK.
  • The Stranger
  • The wood beam reads "CARS STORED AT OWNERS RISK."
Walk into Suyama Space for tonight's opening of Portland-based artist Avantika Bawa's installation AT OWNERS RISK, and you will get a dose of the pungent smell of oil.

The artist wanted it that way... sort of. Actually, there was a minor industrial disaster.

Here's what happened. To create the art, which was inspired by Suyama Space's history as an auto body shop, Bawa brought in several minimalist elements—with twists. There are posts painted blue, like the steel posts of the hydraulic lifts that hoist cars into the air so mechanics can work under them. There are also, sitting on the floor, two large boxes that look like oversized oil trays, but refined and silvery.

Earlier this week, Bawa, with the help of curator Beth Sellars, filled those large trays with used motor oil (donated by Sellars's mechanic).

The oil was beeeee-yootiful. Brown. Slick. Shimmery. Reflective. Bawa was thrilled.

OIL! True or false?
  • Emma Shultz / Suyama Space
  • OIL! True or false?

Except then came the smell. It started out strong and rather than getting weaker, got worse. The architects who work at Suyama Space were having trouble breathing. Sellars and Bawa themselves could barely inhale. Everyone was about to go insane with oil poisoning. The artist was disappointed but had no choice; she had to empty the trays.

At tonight's opening, the trays will be filled with brown shimmery liquid, but it will only be costume oil, some concoction they hadn't yet come up with yesterday afternoon when I stopped by to interview the artist.

Yet the scent still lingers in the air. It will smell like oil for a while as it dissipates, and that's part of the point. The building's own history is being reenacted in a way. It was once soaked in oil, and the gallery's wood floor still sometimes gives off the lightest whiff of it.

"I'm glad I at least brought the oil in and took the oil out," Bawa said. "Oil doesn't go away. This is what is happening [in the world] on a smaller scale."

The Portland-based artist's installation involves not only oil but also ramp forms that reference the several ramps in the building, which were made necessary by the Denny Regrade. The ramp you walk when you first enter the gallery is architect George Suyama's own reference to the Regrade transformation. But few people ever notice the ramp is even there, let alone know that it contains local history.

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"I didn't want to do much," Bawa said. "Just hint at the then and the now."

Details about tonight are here, and the smell really isn't that bad, just present.

Bawa will give her artist talk Saturday at noon at the gallery. Ask her to show you the ramps and you might just get a tour of the whole old Suyama Space building, which is kind of fascinating. (Then, afterward, I really do recommend Eirik Johnson's artist talk about his time hunting Northwestern mushroom hunters at 2 pm in Pioneer Square at G. Gibson. You can make it in time)