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Trish Grantham's always-untitled paintings feature a cast of uneasy characters.
Critical i

Ayo, May, Grantham and 20 years at Elizabeth Leach
Braver new world
by Jeff Jahn

The 20th Century officially ended on September 11.

The Western World arbitrarily thinks in centuries, but the true Zeitgeist is definitely defined by events. So, just as WWI ended Victorian idealism and replaced it with something more complex, the rest of American culture (lead by the symbolically over-secure baby boomers) has momentarily caught on to what a lot of observant types have always known:

Simplistic worldviews and the insulating SUVs that swept consciousness under the rug have hit a brick wall.

In fact, the information tools to forecast, model and monitor the complex effects of our actions are now widely available. In essence, we have a greater capacity to know what we do not know. The question is – will we fall back on blind nationalism and didactic propaganda, or show the world and ourselves our true strength, our openness? By the time you read this, these words will have been repeated so often they'll be a stock epitaph.

Hmmm ... so why should we care about art?

Because it is the cultural and aesthetic conscience/psychosis of our time. It is a direct reflection of our culture's capacity to adapt to security and insecurity. Just as Cubism, the Fauves and German expressionism expressed the tacit elements that shaped the next 50 or so years, the art right now (maybe not gallery- or museum-approved) reveals some clues. Overall, the worthwhile stuff will not be as easily sorted as the work of the last 30 years (baby boomers love things to be refined and sorted).

It is only natural. Europeans have already accepted that nothing is completely new and therefore are fine with more frayed edges. In essence, America is growing up; I welcome it. Maybe it's coincidence, but Portland in September had an amazing array of very strong and engaged shows with lots of frayed edges.

Damali Ayo's "eye-con" series shadows cultural cachet.

Damali Ayo
Shift we are not yet done. An art experience
Mark Woolley Gallery
120 NW 9th Ave.

Damali Ayo is right on, and Portland is in need of hearing it. She puts it bluntly: "We live in a society that relies on racism not as historical occurrence but as an everyday foundation to our interactions and structures of all kinds."

Ayo knows full well that humans are visual creatures, as well as the perils of not really paying attention.

Da Vinci called it the "kingdom of the eye," and the truth is that people, for the most part, don't actively pay attention to what they see. They do react, however. As an oversimplification, most people react to the easiest, most general visual stereotypes that come into view. The familiar is usually perceived as good and unfamiliar is usually bad. It is ingrained, on all sides. Ayo's "eye-con" series explores these assumptions and the icons that have gained cultural cachet without much critical review.

In one of my favorite eye-cons, blackface entertainer Al Jolson is a blown-up photocopy fronting the shadow of Mickey Mouse, another blackface character. Ayo's tag notifies the unaware that these entertainers are not black, yet made their reputations furthering negative stereotypes. It makes me wonder when Disney as a corporation will publicly denounce "The Song of the South," but that would open a whole can of worms in moviemaking history. By turning up the focus on icons like Jolson and Mickey, Ayo shows them for what they are: not entertaining and not funny, yet too obvious to avoid.

"collars," by Damali Ayo

Ayo's strategy is the abrupt wake-up call, but her provocative work has a lot of levels that can be missed. Her "collars," which, according to the narrative, shock the wearer whenever a racist statement is made, has connotations to corporate culture and the overall yolk of a capitalist culture imbued with racial value judgments. The collars can even reference those who adopt the "blend-in-and-don't-stick-out" aesthetic of the corporate workplace.

Similar to a caste system, the collars are arranged with the lightest collar higher than the colored ones. Are they all slave collars? Is it the individual or the collar that matters? The clothes make the man, according to the old saying. Is this homogeneity simply breeding an intolerance for certain inalienable facts like race and personal expression? Do these facts have anything to do with an employee's job description?

Good questions.

Portland is particularly adept at ignoring the race issue. In the Southeast, Southwest and Northwest neighborhoods, there is a conspicuous homogeneity of white folk. Here is a big-city planning problem: the Northeast neighborhood, Portland's (ugh) "center of diversity," is tough as hell to get to from the Southwest because of the freeways. It's easier to cross the Willamette River than I-84. The Northeast is walled off from the rest of Portland, and a few puny avenues are the only real north/south arteries other than the freeways.

Ayo catches flack for the abrasiveness of her work and, yes, Betty Saar has done great things with Aunt Jemima. But the fact remains that this is a worthy tradition. This is sociologically involved; it is archaeology for the present.

If a utilitarian Etruscan artifact has become museum art, then I argue that Ayo's work certainly tells us more about America today than a broken plate tells us about the Etruscans of yesterday. The problem lies in admitting the obvious: everyone can try harder. Ayo takes it personally because it is her right; she doesn't acquiesce to ignorance. After this show, nobody can say Portland's galleries lack engagement.

D.E. May: cardboard, yes, cardboard.

D.E. May
Reservoir District
PDX Gallery
604 NW 12th Ave.

Quiet veracity.

D.E. May has it. His Reservoir District show has a genuine, hermetic feel. There are no gimmicks and, as we chatted, he quietly stated he doesn't do interviews. I respect that. Instead, we simply talked shop. He loves cardboard, and so do I. His meticulous works in the medium have a wonderful fragility.

Frankly, all art, like life itself, is fragile. So I appreciate the candor in May's material. Still, if properly housed, it will outlive any of us.

D.E. May's large array of small works in the back of PDX Gallery.

May suggests that cardboard is simply the perfect solution for him. We chuckled about the innumerable curators and "archivists" that frown on such material. I could care less; the work itself is successful. The tiny grids, the loving pencil traces and plum lines all suggest plans for some exquisite project undertaken. Tiny numerals often label each area in a work. The mature modesty imbued on each stoic work is never retiring. Each piece faces its own mortality with dignity.

The large array of small works in the back of the gallery speaks of May's incessancy. His work is more of this earth than Agnes Martin's, and at least as elegant as Joseph Cornell's. He manages the strengths of each.

To this historian, it conjures the feeling of primary source materials and May's is an archive with variety as well as nostalgia for the present sense.

The array in the back of the galley is an Alexandria of ciphers, repetition, planning and reason that goes beyond the easy commodities of installation and paintings to leave us with a quiet, elegant record. The work seems so assured in its own existence.

The Reservoir District, without question, is a perfect solution.

Twenty Twenty: Elizabeth Leach Gallery celebrates its 20th anniversary through Oct. 31.

Elizabeth Leach Gallery
Twenty Twenty
207 SW Pine St.

Major accomplishment: This is the Elizabeth Leach Gallery's 20th anniversary.

The show is running an extra month – so definitely visit the space.

Twenty years is a long time to be in the gallery business. They get taken for granted in a lot of ways. The focus is usually on the artists, museums and sometimes, in rare instances, know-it-all critics. That's probably because galleries often are seen both as saviors and satans by the artists.

Yet, dealers often have noble aims and a role. They are supposed to educate and cultivate clientele. Artists can't educate (they often find it remedial and annoying) and museum curators are often too tied up with institutional politics and sheer busy-ness to help collectors find their way. This, along with babysitting artists, is the dealer's job.

For once we get to focus on the gallery. The choice of Greenbergian artists reaffirms serious aims, and I find this choice telling. It makes business sense as a follow-up to the Greenberg Collection at PAM. Also, Hofman's "Variation of a Theme in Blue II" is far above the watered-down Ab-Ex painting we are usually subjected to in town. In some ways it says to Portland's collectors: "It is time to expect better."

If galleries in Portland do not do this, then the local arts scene (my pet subject) will not set its aims higher – and we will be stuck with more of the same (re. mid- to late-career local artists with limited ambition).

Portland is changing.

It is the only major U.S. city to so openly avoid the New York model. Why should the art scene be a knock-off when the city is unique? People are emigrating here specifically because of its green issues and human scale. Leach's gallery has a perfect location in the unique downtown – away from the commonplace cookie-cutter art spaces in the Pearl District. This is key.

The gallery certainly has one of the nicest spaces I've ever seen and the show is very gratifying. By focusing on world-class art, such as Hofman and Judy Pfaff's exquisite print work, the gallery is setting the bar high for young artists. Will they deliver? In another 20 years will this be remembered as the gallery's highest-quality show, or will something rival or exceed it?

Charge and pop: Trish Grantham's paintings stand out in the visual jungle.

Trish Grantham
Time will tell
3356 SE Belmont St.

Belmont Street is probably the best place for the hip younger types to congregate, and Seaplane is probably the shop most emblematic of that.

Seaplane combines art and fashion; the fare here isn't so homogenized and it helps to have more self-confidence and individuality than baby-boomer types can usually muster.

Trish Grantham is a good example. Her always-untitled paintings have a cast of uneasy characters that developed over time in her sketches. She hasn't studied art and has obviously been woodshedding.

She prefers groups of creatures in her paintings. They are psychologically charged but rather open-ended on specifics. The landscapes are impassive but Grantham, a Gen-Xer like myself, tends to address threats and risk as necessary parts of a life well lived.

This gives her paintings a charge and a pop that brought some work for Adidas to her door. The Gen-Xers have attitude and joie de vie. Will Portland tap this?

Grantham has been painting for three years and has really come a long way. Her work can stand out in a shop filled with fashion and other merchandise. It is a type of art that can leave the white box of the gallery and still hold visual interest even amongst the competition.

Anything can stand out in the desert but you've really gotta have something to stand out in the dense visual jungle of the 21st Century marketplace … and you'd better have some teeth to back it up, too.

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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