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Guest Writer

Portland's Pearl District
Incubator of insight or urban pastiche?
by Jeff Jahn

Can culture be constructed?

On some level, the answer requires a yes. And with that, welcome to the most expensive urban ghost town in America -- Portland's Pearl District.

In short, there is more going on in the Pearl than the ever-popular First Thursday street festival for those who care to dig. The cafés foster discussion and the museums or galleries offer subject matter.

The Pearl is legitimately arty, even if black clothing equals arty for you. But for many Portlanders it has a reputation (fairly and unfairly) for being more form than content.

State of the art: Portland's Pearl District, at least for the moment, sports the look of a ghost town.

This gripe is tired and often valid, supported by the fact that few artists can afford rent in the district. Forget that. Let's go beyond that urban-planning speed bump; artists are an opportunistic lot (just like developers). Oysters still abound.

The Pearl, as the moniker suggests, has a lot of hopes pinned on it. It is a district where Portland's emerging international reputation is put into a concrete form as visual art.

The nature of that ambassadorship will determine whether the Pearl will become a geographically indistinguishable pastiche of Nouveau Riche iconography, or something unique -- and therefore important -- to culture in America.

Clean lines: The Park Avenue Lofts (center).

Recent developments in the Pearl
The Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA) has a new curator, Stuart Horodner. His first show, "BEhold," deals with the messy phenomenon of accumulation in the work of four different artists: Lynn Cazabon, Lisa Hoke, Richard Klein and Al Souza.

This is a change of aesthetics from director Kristi Edmunds' shows, which tended towards surgically clean installations by Kate Shepherd and Erika Blumenthal (reviewed last month). Maybe Edmunds simply needed a cleaning frenzy after the unruly start of PICA's OPEN WALLS show (which invited every Portland artist it could fit)?

It is good that PICA chose someone with divergent aesthetics, because between the ultra-clean design inside the Vitra design shop and the starkness of architect Brad Cloepfil's (Allied Architects) work for the Weiden + Kennedy building and the PDX gallery, an unsustainable subtext of "clean minimalist lines = taste" was starting to be made.

Horodner's arrival keeps the architect's and the artists' achievements from becoming commonplace and unnecessarily diluted. "BEhold" opens May 3.

Savage Art: One of Portland's newer galleries.

New galleries
Also of note is the recent relocation of Savage Art to the Pearl. By moving from its old space on the South Park Blocks, the gallery will welcomely up the ante in a blue-chip fashion by forcing comparisons and dialog between Portland and New York. Savage cut her art-world teeth at Sotheby's.

This move by Savage is crucial since Northwest art often runs the risk of insulating itself by focusing exclusively on Northwest art. It also makes a good case for the Northwest when the locals can stand, and occasionally triumph, in comparison against the international standards.

The architect for Savage's new gallery space must have intuited the need and created a medium-sized front exhibition space in order to engage in dialog with the street through its ample windows.

Even before Savage, the PDX gallery created its Open Window Project. PDX's project solved that age-old "galleries are intimidating" bunyip.

The Window Project gives contemporary art in the Pearl a casual Northwest confidence that Kenny Scharf's Nordstrom window installation downtown lacked last year.

Hybrid exhibition spaces
Galleries are not the only spaces fostering visual culture in the Pearl. In fact, hybrid exhibition spaces like the Little Wing Café, Visage Eyewear, Michael G. Ferguson Insurance, 750 ml, Torrefazione, Utrecht Art Supply and Powell's Books have all made commitments to exhibitions by artists with serious intent.

These hybrid spaces, the real testing grounds of the Pearl, are invaluable. Someone right out of Pacific Northwest College of Art is unlikely to have the dialog or experience with the grit of life to resonate like someone seasoned in the Pearl's trenches.

Gallery Nil: The Jaqueline Ehlis exhibit.

A place to use your discretion
The Everett Station Lofts (between Everett and Davis on Broadway) are very important exhibition spaces that many First Thursdayers simply are unaware of.

Here, galleries like Nil, Inchmeal, Fleck and 101 provide some of the fiercest and -- surprisingly -- some of the most accomplished shows in Portland.

In these lofts the artists often get only one night (First Thursday) to showcase. That lends the shows an immediacy that can be elevated to fresh eloquence, or deflated to sophomoric narcissism.

For the developed eye, this is where you can discover talent. Some of these shows provide the aesthetic challenges that most of the moderately successful galleries established in the Pearl need to tap in order to take things to the next level.

And there you have it
In the end, it is up to artists and gallery-goers to be critical and insightful enough to separate the Pearl from the similarities omnipresent from Seattle to San Diego.

The Pearl's atmosphere is conducive; cafes, shops and galleries do take some direction from the artist community. The reason for this: right now, not enough people live in the unfinished buildings to set the tone and the artists have become the de facto voice.

This tone (let's call it informed connoisseurship) has to be a product of real effort and reflection.

Can culture be built out of ghost town? Yes, but unless effort is applied to insight, another mall by any other name will not smell as sweet.

E-mail Jeff at pivotofjade@hotmail.com, don’t miss his recent columns and be sure to see his April essay, Art and Threat: Untaming Humanism.

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