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Video still by Melanie Manchot at PICA
Critical i

Celentano, Manchot, Row, Fritz, Moss, Haven
Installation, Observation, Inundation
by Jeff Jahn

bondanza, as Mama Celeste would say. Portland was inundated with excellent shows during what I expected to be a January/February lull.

Sure, one has to hunt around. We don't have lots of big-name galleries to make art-hunting predictable, but since when does predictable = worthwhile? Just like in any other city, one has to sort out the vain, mediocre or predictable from the challenging stuff. The good news is it exists both in quality and quantity if effort is expended. My avalanche of reviews should bear this out.

In fact, there were so many good shows I didn't have the opportunity to review other excellent shows like Michael O'Mally's back-room installation at PNCA's Feldman Gallery or "Field" at Elizabeth Leach Gallery, where Michael Mann and Sam Francis give our local color-field painters an old-fashioned school'n.

As we start 2002, the artists feel enfranchised in Portland and the core galleries haven't fallen prey to the ennui cliché. Some even go for the throat from time to time. This scene isn't something to sneeze at, although it's still building.

Laura Fritz's "Disclosure" at Fleck Gallery

Also, some new blood and leadership (with high critical expectations) have been added to the Portland Art Museum, PICA, the galleries and the all-important developing-artists' scene.

In essence, during 2001 Portland realized it didn't have to make excuses and in 2002 it is following through by working harder.

Hence, we have lots of new artists in the gallery stables and lots of younger artists who might be too good for some of the tamer galleries in town. Here are this year's first races run:

Francis Celentano
Laura Russo Gallery
805 NW 21st Ave.

These works have real power, stopping me mid-stride as I walked by from across the street. That happens to me rarely in museums and is even rarer in galleries. Celentano, one of the first-generation pioneers in the 1960s Op Art movement, isn't just going strong – he's gaining new ground.

Op Art pioneer Francis Celentano at Laura Russo Gallery

With his luscious swirling columns of color he may well be eclipsing his earlier work, producing art that fits in well with Dave Hickey's Beau Monde ideas. To be relevant at 70-something just means you were right all along. I'm glad the world is catching up.

In works like Star #4, Celentano reinvents that seminal icon of the Greek pillar, charging it with the eternal newness that drives the U.S. economic machine. This optic column is a bit like candy or soft-serve ice cream, it's a bit like a new car, it dazzles yet it doesn't pander to these fleeting appetites. Instead, it is both approachable and inexhaustible – two things a car or candy are not.

Optically, I like the way the colors shift with the position of the viewer; they delight and madden. It makes us doubt the mind and trust the eye. If ever beauty had a definition – that would be my vote.

My favorite is Star #2. This pink, salmon, violet and gray masterpiece gives two of Celentano's possible apprentices, Ellsworth Kelly and Sol Lewitt, something to chew on. Celentano achieves so much as a hedonist in perfect control, once again reminding the puritans that the taste of something sweet is not an invitation to the unimportant hamper.

Things have changed in the West as the new coast asserts itself. I guess we youngsters now have proof there is life in hedonist abstraction after Greenberg. The control is amazing as #2 seems endless, gradually widening from base to top in a tornado of youth. With its slick plastic surface it is art that no curmudgeonly mud can stick to.

Certainly Celentano is expanding on Brancusi's endless column (pronounced "Brancoosh"). This is the museum-quality Northwest art I never see in Northwest museums. It is so refreshing to see someone remain vital for so long – the best measure of relevance. Art is a war of attrition, and Celentano has won.

Melanie Manchot
PICA, 219 NW 12th Ave.
A review of a review by D.K. Row
The Oregonian, Jan. 15, 2002

One of Manchot's "Liminal" series of photographs

Two very important events recently coalesced into one. First, PICA unveiled the Melanie Manchot show, once again setting the international standard in Portland. This is a photographer who so very adeptly incorporates my favorite non-modernist, non-postmodernist themes of trust, intimacy and the overall glue that keeps our civilization together on a person-to-person basis.

It's part of a trend towards reassessing basic human impulses and needs, like "Breathing" at the New Museum in New York and "Behold," curated by PICA's Hordoner last year; and beauty, at Dave Hickey's "Beau Monde" during Site Santa Fe.

Of nearly equal importance, on Jan. 15, The Oregonian ran its first review by dedicated staff art critic D.K. Row. It was a position left unfilled since early 2001, when Row left for New York. Maybe someone didn't think it was an important enough position to fill? Yet, newspaper coverage is critical as is the public notice of major, top-quality shows.

To illustrate, the Milwaukee Art Museum (my previous home – and I mean the museum, not the city) ran a jaw-dropping U.S. debut show of photographer Andreas Gursky. It hit me hard, but I think I'm one of only 50 people who saw it, as there was absolutely no press attention. The press there often just grouse about how Milwaukee isn't New York (well, duh!).

Gursky is arguably the best photographer since Stieglitz invented photography as a serious art form. (If you have to argue, it usually means there is a 50/50 chance it's true and I like those odds.) Manchot is one of two photographers that has excited me since Gursky.

So what better way to welcome Mr. Row back and further validate the importance of his criticism than by disagreeing with a portion of his first review? Besides, the reason I'm picking one major point is the fact that I rather agreed with the rest of it. Welcome to persnickity'sville ...

I must disagree with Row's assertion that "The most accomplished pieces by Manchot in the show are a series of large-scale portraits of her mother dubbed, 'Liminal Portraits.'" Although excellent, those works are easily the most traditional, iconic and accessible in presentation, composition, intertextuality and subject matter. Their single figure, the artist's mother, defines the picture plane and dictates the entire context and resonance of the work upon the viewer. In other words, they are a clear entry onto the road Manchot's work is traveling, not its ultimate destination.

I liken the liminals to a creation myth. They present the liminal, nearly tacit region that a daughter and mother create between one another. It is a least common denominator. We all have mothers (with the advent of cloning, we will see how that trend sticks) and therefore these liminal photographs create a sort of intermediary mental space that surrogates Manchot's position in the relationship with the viewer's.

One of Manchot's "LA Pictures," combining fantasy text and photos.

The problem is it's a very one-way exchange that overwhelms Manchot's avowed goal of trust and the testing of personal limits. This occurs because Manchot's mother cannot be surrogated fully as our own. No matter how liminal, it cannot usurp that fundamental reality. To us she's just some lady. The liminals likely spurred Manchot onto her more impressive breakthroughs in the show.

Thus, either "The LA Pictures" of kissing couples or "Gestures of Demarcation" (where another person stretches a painfully large amount of skin from Manchot) can be seen as a great deal more accomplished because she allows the viewer the freedom to associate with either of the two figures.

Providing more options gives greater latitude and theater for the viewer. This engenders trust while still framing the question, and accomplishes her aim more fully.

Portland Installation Feast
Surprise, surprise! The last month has been filled with installation and video art; lets compare some.

Eagerwally Gallery
630 SE 3rd (a block north of Montage)

At the Eagerwally Gallery's "Climate Control" show, the overall feel was refreshing – although installations incorporating beds are "pretty MFA" (my term for the predicable art that can be found in any art school). In particular, Yuro Matasouka's inventive string of white Christmas lights enclosed in prescription bottles with photographic images inside stood out and set the tone for a show with some guts.

Still, I felt the angst-ridden dark personages standing beneath the lights were redundant and forced in comparison to all the photographic faces in the plastic bottles. The work's strength is in its connotations of the face as the theater of personality and drugs as a potential hijacker or savior of that theater. It didn't hurt that the drug containers looked like amber Chinese lanterns either, adding another layer of Pa Chen, or "family," to the work. There is promise here.

Laura Fritz
Fleck Gallery
625 NW Everett St. #107

Laura Fritz specimen "Insular"

After getting a lot of attention in the Portland scene for her kinetic practically sci-fi sculptures last year, Laura Fritz has now turned the vital corner from curious to disturbing.

Previously, her creepy magnetic automations made seed-like forms skitter like wounded cyborg germs in need of maintenance.

Some evolved forms of these magnetic/kinetic works are featured here, but they are not her current focus. Instead, Fritz's new works address entropy through specimens and video vitrines. This new direction more convincingly transgresses the lines between science fiction and reality.

The specimens are better than the tad gimmicky kinetics. For example, with "Insular," Fritz fills medical vials with a variety of chemicals that congeal, coalesce and change for a period of weeks. Eventually the decay stabilizes. Is Fritz creating life or is she inducing death? Is this an abortion or a cloning experiment? At this point in history some of our sci-fi fantasies and nightmares are coming true. By deliberately hijacking this awareness, the viewer glimpses the FDA's decision-making process. Is this the cure or the disease? Fritz threatens both.

The most successful piece in the show is the video vitrine, "Section." A big part of its success comes from the fact that it isn't obvious as a video screen and therefore in 20 years won't succumb to utterly dated nostalgia. The work consists of a black box with a milky white surface that pulses with an eerie light from within. On rare occasions the profile of a large brown moth crosses without noise, setting up a succinct and rich metaphor for the act of observation. Without the moth it evokes the paintings of Portland's most famous artist, the late Mark Rothko. With the moth, early Gerhard Richter, Bruce Nauman and Joseph Cornell are referenced. Sublime and mortal. She is onto something.

Cris Moss
Elizabeth Leach Gallery
207 SW Pine


Cris Moss is known as the creator and promoter of the Donut Shop series of itinerate art exhibits. I can't say enough good things about doing that sort of out-of-the-box thinking and promotion in Portland, but critical review has to come into play somewhere.

Moss is still in art school, but let's not waste criticism on those too old or dull to care.

The installation has a clumsy MFA academic didacticism and really doesn't go far enough to become something more than a learning exercise in repetition. The installation consisted of a screen with a tiny stabbing stick figure, another screen that flashes "I hate the way I fucking write," some white shirts, a video of a sewing machine whose needle repeatedly penetrates white fabric causing some sort of blood-red liquid to seep through and some photographic stills of that footage.

Overall, the oblique allusions to virginal textuality, the making of text, violence and, surprise surprise, "repetition," are just so typical to the art school environment that it seems like Moss has made a zoo of hackneyed art productions that inundate all college art programs.

It tells me he's searching for a way to frame his questions regarding art differently by expelling the stuff around him publicly. That is a healthy direction. Keep at it. And kudos to Liz Leach for giving him a real opportunity to develop. Artists don't appear like Athena, fully formed from the head of Zeus. Frankly, nobody has ever had the balls to give me a bad review!

To be constructive, I really love Moss's earlier piece, which can usually be found at Visage eyewear in the Pearl. With its distended greenscreen and wires trailing, it evinces some sort of sci-fi horror. On the screen is the image of a child's face that continually changes moods and direction of gaze. The work probes the projection of anthropomorphism that we humans are prone to do. People interact with this artificial intelligence and it is a subtle study in humanity, even if it is a bit too indebted to Tony Oustler.

Victoria Haven
PDX Gallery
604 NW 12th Ave.

Haven's "Halo Event" installation is world class. The piece consists of dozens of delicate elliptical clear acetate cutouts, each held by two pins. Light travels through the ovals, casting shadows on the wall behind. On some of the shadow ovals, Haven has slyly painted the wall with light blue, making the shadow seem somehow changed and odd. The work evokes Robert Ryman, Agnes Martin and Eva Hesse, but by adding this odd transfiguration to the oval she wields "emphasis" in a way that they did not. This "wobble," as she calls it, is a path to perfection by accepting the inherent imperfection that is necessary for variety. Minimalism and variety, now that's an excellent wobble. Through March 9.

Stay tuned: next month I unveil my recent essay, "Art and Threat."

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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