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Detail of Willem Volkersz's "The Rescue of Bambi's Friends" at A.N. Bush Gallery in Salem.
Critical i

Northwest Documenta I, New In Town, “The Scene”
What is going on here?
by Jeff Jahn

kay, is all the buildup in the Portland scene going somewhere? Just how serious are Portland's intentions? (Read on for quotes from some real, live Portlanders.)

But first let's take stock; the building blocks are all in place. Portland is the visual arts capital of the economically important Pacific Northwest.

Also, the museums are giving locals more international stuff to chew on and define themselves against (like PICA's WORDSINDEEDS show).

DIY = Socialism?

"Leak" by Kay Rosen at PICA

Portland is producing a lot of independent, artist-initiated events, such as Alphabet Dress, Donut Shop, Charm Bracelet, Moving Pictures and Red 76.

The major media cover these roots-level events. To date, though, only four of the 25 or so shows in the last year have provoked serious critical reviews of work by participating artists: Slowness (Art Gym), Subscribe (Pacific University), The Portland Independent Salon 2001 (the old Bollenbach Art Labs) and the Cell Project (Alberta St.).

This tempered "niceness" makes sense, since most critics want to encourage – not discourage – the collective efforts that are operating on a thin margin. It also gives greener artists a template.

It's worth noting those four critically reviewed events focused primarily on the work, not the party. Intentions matter and as a rule, if you ask to be judged you probably will be. Right now the "art scene" is the most positive story Portland has – especially with its nation-leading unemployment. But the scene is at a critical stage.

Portland “Emergence”

If anything, decisiveness and competition are vital at this point, and the caliber and scope of these new artists' work still needs to rise. The good news? That's already occurring. For example, from 6-10 p.m. on May 3, "Emergence," a show of eight young lions who have hit the indie scene's glass ceiling, opens at PSU's Littman Gallery.

"Emergence" won't have a band or beer, so all will have to focus on the art.

The work of Laura Fritz, an artist featured in "Emergence"

I applaud the frequent collective/hybrid/party events, although they seem firmly rooted in the social realm – thus deflecting criticism.

That social element is important, but shows that launch careers don't confuse issues. Career-making shows stay up for more than one day (permanence and art have strong ties). To create an event that launches careers, one must live by the art sword and die by the art sword. Even the notoriously vacuous Jeff Koons had provocative shows of vacuums.

It wasn't all social connections; it merely made certain people would be there when his tree fell in the forest.

Portland artists and institutions can't get by being simply as good as Los Angeles and New York, they have to be better in specific, definable ways. It won't be money, but Portland can easily do so by virtue of its lack of corruption and its superiority in high-minded ideals like sustainability, focus on work not hype, community, husbandry with nature and aversion to monoculture.

Let's not kid ourselves – international art often is a form of corporate monoculture. At the same time proven international art survives in that jungle precisely because it isn't just a cynical market manipulation, which isn't always true of regional art. It is advantageous for Portland to be on the cusp of the international and the regional so it can avoid the incestuous tendencies of both. The cusp is where innovation leaks into the system.

Northwest Documenta I
A.N. Bush Art Gallery
600 Mission Street, SE
Salem, Ore.
April 9-May 12

Chandra Bocci's "Untitled"

Northwest Documenta I is by far the most representative survey of Pacific Northwest art I've seen. With works by Rick Bartow, Heidi Schwegler, Damali Ayo, Sidney Row, David Gilhooley, Tad Savinar and the show's star, Chandra Bocci, we're relentlessly pummeled into the realization that the region is deep in work that is relevant, even hip. Which proves that if other surveys are unconvincing, it's clearly the curator's fault. (Cue sound of gauntlet hitting floor.)

The show is in a nice part of Salem. On the way down I pictured the people of Oregon's capital city wearing lederhosen and brandishing torches while attempting to burn curator Julie Larson at the stake. Luckily, after a thoughtful museum walk-through, the villagers spare her. Nicely done!

Unfortunately for some (and excellent for others) the show is so crammed with work that it resembles someone's attic. This clutter might put off those reliant on clean architectural cues, but if you have any connoisseurship, it becomes a rollicking-mad art dive. Documenta I is a little like a studio visit and the clutter is exciting.

Works by Sidney Row and Toni Matlock Taylor

By diminishing typical "white box" staging, the work is stripped of unnecessary pretentious preciousness. It also becomes less sanctimonious and allows the work to sink or swim of its own accord. This isn't one of those patronizing shows that try to educate.

I'd rather be slapped than educated, and this art barn packs a wallop.

Where to begin? I particularly liked David Gilhooley's "Free at last, Free at last!" This tower of wacky rocketship-Transamerica buildings conveys something akin to the end of cabin fever. Maybe even a flight from the city? Viscerally it has kick and reminds me of the opening segment of Pee Wee's Playhouse.

It is perfectly complemented by Laurie Austin's "Parfait," a lovely confection of human hair.

Other standouts, like Rick Bartow's moody drawing, "Out of Darkness," paired with Sidney Row's gloopy paintings, recall shamanistic abstract expressionism and the doodles of Cy Twombly.

This is the sort of existential heaviness you are not going to find native to Los Angeles. In the Northwest you are allowed to draw strength from your imperfections.

Works by Tad Savinar, Rick Bartow and Heidi Preuss

Other works, like Heidi Schwegler's "Index" (which I saw and loved last August), are hindered by the close confines and need the clean spaciousness of Portland's Savage Gallery. Like living things, not all art can survive in different environments. Here Damali Ayo's work thrives precisely because of its garage-sale materials and boot-to-the-head bluntness.

For these same reasons, Chandra Bocci's work succeeds in stealing the show.

Her "Untitled" installation of shredded, corrugated cardboard crawls up the ceiling of the show's stairway entrance. With rabid domesticity, she crafts tiny rustic houses out of the same material.

The overall impression is that of a diminutive woodland village covered by the felled trees from Mt. St. Helens' first eruption.

It's homey, it's a disaster, it's beautiful, yet it comments on the inherent ugliness of throwaway consumer culture. She leaves me on a fence and shoots rock salt at me for trespassing. Welcome to the deepest and most variegated undiscovered art frontier of the United States, folks!

For the record, Portlanders answer:
“What do you think is happening here?”

The “scene” seems increasingly vital and rich.
– Sue Taylor, art historian

There seem to be more short glances rather than those who really take the time to look, but that is a problem everywhere, not just Portland.
– Tom Cramer, artist

Portland's cultural life is a volcano about to blow, and the magma of genuinely inspired, interesting, home-grown, uncomfortable, willfully perverse, beautifully odd, under-represented cultural activity has already started bubbling through the cracks of our established cultural foundations.
– Tiffany Lee Brown, provocateur

Cheap rent, committed artists and a desire to rock the boat.
– J.D. Davis, artist

Everything and nothing [is happening]; every conceivable and inconceivable form of expression is rampant in the city, seeking a bridge or conduit toward and from each other.
– S. Llewen, iconoclast

New In Town
Portland Art Museum
Through June 22

Michael Reafsyder

"New In Town" is an excellent, if slightly skin-deep, show.

Since this is not a Biennial year, the Portland Art Museum has provocatively initiated a new series that brings international artists from outside the cloistered Pacific Northwest scene in an attempt to bring some Portlanders up to speed.

The acquisition of the Greenberg collection was a dam-cracking earthquake, and head curator Bruce Guenther is widening the rupture with an infusion that explores contemporary trends in painting from L.A.'s hot '90s scene.

The funny thing is that, except for a short explanation, there is little to tell people this is a Los Angeles show. All artists of merit in town know this already, so one has to think they're sending the scene a personal message: "this is what L.A. did, it has been done … what do you provincial Portlanders have?"

What did L.A. do? Well, they got over the whole "beauty-equals-unimportant" bias of post-modernism with the help of rocking critic Dave Hickey. Hickey peppered his gut-honest ideas with appropriate but definitely post-post-graduate words that pissed off all the formulaic East-coast-educated curators whose parents had bought them nice degrees. In essence, he knew what he was talking about and they had to look it up since he had synthesized things that were not in the official textbook lexicon.

Another useful critic, Matthew Collings, describes this as "curators educated beyond their intelligence!" in his latest book, "Art Crazy Nation."

Hickey took a stand for the importance of "beauty," something many academics had thought they'd explained away like some kind of aesthetic council of Trent (although they still seem to prefer sex with attractive people). With a score of very hot art schools, L.A. was the perfect proving ground for these ideas.

Thus, we end up with this show where all the artists make commentary on the current state of painting. For the most part, they end up making a successful pastiche of Clement Greenberg's aesthetic legacy – and the great artists, like Pollock, Hoffman, Newman, Frankenthaler and Morris Louis, who gave him those ideas.

For example, Monique Preito is Helen Frankenthaler's or Friedel Dzubas' less-gutsy shadow. (That isn't really much of a slam because Frankenthaler is damn smart and has already made history.)

Tim Bavington goes a bit farther by building on Barnett Newman and Kenneth Noland’s stripe paintings. The paintings have a soft edge to the supersaturated stripes. In fact, the Art Museum made a good choice in buying his “Voodoo Child: a slight return (solo),” since it ties in so well both to the emerging West Coast aesthetic and the Greenberg collection.

Portland is the town where Hendrix was fired from Little Richard’s band.

What is interesting about Bavington’s piece is how the actual duration and amplitude of the notes from Jimi Hendrix’s guitar solo have been translated via logic code into a synthaesic tableau. In essence, we are seeing music via color and line. It is a bar code of that portion of the song.

This is a welcome change from artists who see music as more free and less formal than the visual arts, an idea that is completely misinformed. In fact, the combination of extremely formal elements, such as tonal amplitude and the duration a note is held, forms the basis of sound.

What is less certain is whether this translation from sound to visual is more than just a curiosity. Does the piece really transcribe the incendiary feel of Hendrix’s playing? Not really. Hendrix was an improviser and left a lot of ragged edges that increased the element of risk in his work. Bavington’s work has incendiary color but the form isn’t ragged in any way.

For Bavington this is an interesting appropriation strategy, but I’m left feeling the translation is less culturally potent than the original source. Such is the problem when borrowing the form of the great, but not the feel. Warhol could do this because he appropriated images, Bavington loses a lot in translation between media.

If Bavington wants to take it to the next level, more risk needs to be factored in. Still, this is one of the best works in the show and I’d like to see where this develops.

My favorites were by Linda Besemer whose strange plaid, all paint (no canvas or other support) wall hangings push some boundaries. They are hung like linens or drapes on towel racks.

Site Santa Fe

Besemer's ideas are built on Kenneth Noland and Barnett Newman, but her methods and formal effects are so different they become convincing.

One title, "Zip Fold #7," directly refers to Newman, but I sense she isn't iconoclastic enough to really appropriate his zip.

Apparently, some L.A. artists should hire professional writers for their titles!

Bonnie Beach's subtly shaded wall reliefs are excellent and have appropriate titles referencing the ocean and wave action. The works of Beach and Besemer are spatially activating and probably would have survived Greenberg's proclamations.

Other works, like Michael Reafsyder's successful "What the?" were indicative of L.A.'s biggest problem: lacking depth and seeking to deflect criticism instead of engage it. Reafsyder's super-impasted paintings with expertly grinning smiley faces seek to circumvent seriousness while invoking the past. Imagine Molliere doing a DeKooning.

Still, the work is successful and Reafsyder isn't as silly as he is trying to be. This undermines the work and he can't compete when measured with Paul Klee's "Twittering Machine," which successfully circumvents seriousness without undermining its heft. Reafsyder is essentially changing the spelling of stupid to "stoopid." Jeff Koon's "Balloon Dog" tells that joke better, too.

Is Reafsnyder going to really lampoon, or tell art-party jokes?

All in all, L.A. suffers one huge problem: the film industry will always overshadow art as cultural product. This makes art in L.A. a support industry – and artists generally make miserable servants.

Thus, the art is good, not great. Hence, the reason Hickey's coup de grâce at Site Santa Fe tapped Ellsworth Kelly to summon the hopes and fears of "painting."

I'm being totally unfair comparing these kids to a monster like Kelly, but at Santa Fe, his work conveyed the same aesthetic vein that "New In Town" mines ... but with a decisiveness that nothing here can match. Yet.

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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