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Norbert Bisky's spooky blondes at Elizabeth Leach
Critical i

Berlin, Seattle and the bathroom
History, surprise and risks
by Jeffrey von Jahn

could write a book on what has happened in Pacific Northwest art in June, so please forgive me if I miss talking about all the typical thesis shows. As usual, this is only the tip of the iceberg and at the same time I'm focusing on some of my own projects.

All I can say is June was a month filled with some very important events – like Red 76's "Art Stall" project, which created a mini-Venice biennial in Portland's potties. Also PICA just opened up "All the Way with Jim and Shel," probably the single best show Portland has ever had (I'll cover that next month).

PDX window gallery

In fact, all three of this month's reviews – the three artists from Berlin at Liz Leach, CoCA's Northwest Annual in Seattle and the aforementioned Art Stall – said interesting things about the Pacific Northwest's intentions, and the risk quotient is up.

Speaking of risky schemes, Michael Oman-Reagan had a really nice PDX window gallery show. He landed this coupe by leaving exquisite little pieces on PDX Gallery and PICA's doorsteps.

When PDX sold some of his work, gallerist Jane Beebe left a note for the then-anonymous artist, asking him to pick up his check.

It all goes to show how you can make a place for your art in Portland if you're willing to think asymmetrically.

Art Stall
Red 76
various artists, various locations (through July 15)

Women's bathroom, Aalto Lounge

The Art Stall project puts artist installations in public bathrooms all over town and is just the sort of asymmetrical thinking Portland needs in order to truly blossom.

I particularly like how this conceptually mixes the venue with an ironic understanding that most people only have time to reflect and contemplate existence while in the bathroom.

In essence, Art Stall mixes lowbrow physical space and higher-brow mental parlance into a scary, but kinda cool, mono-brow. It sidesteps the whole elevated-but-generalist space of museums in a very populist way.

Bravo – once again Portland artists are fleshing out the city's best traits: livability, a distaste for balkanizing societal tropes and what it takes to make a life worth living. Why not mix daily bodily functions and art?

Honestly, I haven't seen them all yet. But what I did see varied in quality from James Boulton's thoroughly OK but unexciting installation in the Pearl District's Visage Eyewear to the satisfying and intrusive work of Mary Mattingly at Aalto Lounge.

Mattingly's work literally forces people to wash their hands without seeing what they are doing. It probably sends obsessive-compulsives into fits. I like that!

The exhibit that really shook me was Nic Walker and Ahren Lutz's work in the Matador's john. The space is permeated with the smell of piss, giving the work a stage worthy of Sam Shepherd. An acid-free archival quality existence does not apply here. Even the walls are shellacked a filmy black, and who knows what kind of stew of sweat, alcohol, human hope and despair coats these surfaces?

Nic Walker's "Dutch"

Now for the art. High above the floor, Lutz's edgy pieces are out of reach of the graffiti that clusters around the stall.

I like graffiti but wasn't really prepared for Walker's work, which is best viewed from the throne – and one of my favorites, "Dutch," had been tagged.

Even some of the other taggers thought this wasn't cool and made comment on the wall beneath the work. This kind of feedback is fascinating.

Still, is the work really defaced? I had a feeling Nic was OK with it and, talking to him later, he seemed pretty enthusiastic.

I was more conflicted. "Dutch" was already a very strong work and I felt it was muddied by the tag. Authorship and the whole punch of the work were hybridized now.

I felt Walker's original work was a lot more poetic, sophisticated and rawer than this very typical tag. Walker himself had stopped signing his own name to the front of his new series of bas-relief and enamel works, so this addition seemed truly out of place.

For me, it was as if that "number-painting guy" from Sesame Street had defaced one of Joseph Beuys felt and dead tree works. Yet, this was the risk implied in the project.

Overall, I think it hurt Walker's wonderful work but validated the whole project. In fact, I liked Lutz's work in conjunction with Walker's work better because of the tag.

The whole event opens some perennial questions. Is art better suited to an elevated social space? No, but good luck insuring that Robert Ryman painting if it's in the Matador's bathroom.

Also, is the museum simply a legal necessity now? At what point does authorship start and stop? Should the tagger get credit? (Or was it a rape of the lock?)

I began wondering if museums and bathrooms are all that different? Suddenly, an artist's work becomes a brand for the institution that is showing it. Like a portable tag, a work of art in a museum is individual authorship within a community institution.

An essayist like Roland Barthes would have a field day with the Matador's liminal/urinal space.

Just like a museum, Walker had expectations of viewers' good and bad behavior without knowing for certain if his invitation would be taken. In this case the artist hoped for defilement. This aspect of entropy in Walker's work makes it interesting, which is why he's such an influential guy in the Portland scene.

Infamously, Walker previously installed a decomposing deer carcass in the Everett Station Lofts.

All in all, is authorship just an exercise in brute force territorial pissing with social conventions and machinery in tow? Is there a possibility of a victim without a crime? Is it the artist's intentions or the way that history is written that really focuses a narrative? Is there a historical denouement? Or does that happen when someone reads this?

In the end, art is how it is remembered. It isn't (and never was) modern or postmodern; there is only historical relativism. I'll remember Nic Walker's piece taking a bullet that validated this experiment. The individual vision was compromised but re-invested with a legitimacy of the physical result of a threat made good.

I'm hopeful more indie efforts will allow for this sort of risk and further explore how art reacts directly upon the populous.

Northwest Annual
Center on Contemporary Art (CoCA)
1420 11th Ave., Seattle
through July 13

CoCA's new space; click photo to visit the Web site.

This was the first big test of CoCA's brand-spanking-new space. The opening reception was hopping and I can say one thing: The space itself succeeds in being both a gritty hybrid and a rarified zone for art. As a former garage, it wears its past without compromising its current mission – overall it has a roll-up-the-sleeves-and-show-us kinda feel.

This is an important step in Seattle's tenuous support of the visual arts. After losing the Bank of America gallery space and one of Seattle's few respect-worthy galleries, Eyer-Moore, this solidification heralds some new leadership through permanence. Seattle is a cosmopolitan city, yet CoCA as an organization has been hampered by its lack of permanent facilities. This has been rectified.

Meet the juror
This year's annual was juried by the sharp-eyed Linda Farris, a person with deep roots in Seattle as well as the art world. This choice speaks well of CoCA's root structure, digging locally lest the annual simply become an exercise in imported conissuership that evaporates after the exhibit comes down.

Damali Ayo

What I like about Farris as juror is that the artists chosen speak of her completely unapologetic bias.

Instead of trying to please everyone with inclusiveness, she usually picked work that was either created by women or made comment on issues that are more likely to be raised by a woman.

Refreshingly, "she" knows her subject. Ohh – if all these generalists in the art world could learn that jacks of all trades are often masters of none.

Now for the art.

The show predictably includes the work of longstanding regional leaders, like Mary Henry's inherently tacit "More than you know" geometric painting. Yet, younger work dominates the field. For example, Donabelle Casis' "untitled" gestural and gendered conglomeration is not august work. Farris is obviously hopeful of the future.

Portland (the artists' city of the NW) was well represented with strong work from Larissa Brown, Jacqueline Ehlis (whose much anticipated solo debut at Savage opens July 19) and Damali Ayo, whose eye-dentity/political work "White Noise" brought her second prize.

Manifest Destiny

Still, my absolute favorite work of the show was Jack Daws' "Manifest Destiny." This neat little red tricycle has circular saw blades for wheels and bespeaks of the important formative days of one's youth. It also riffs on the tendency of Western civilization's (and, in particular, the USA's) need to cut up, segment and conquer. It's a post-colonial, post-testosteronal microcosm of youth and nations. It even has a bell and streamers!

Other inclusions were Mark Danielson's 1970s ranch houses, which were OK but don't match up to Harrel Fletcher's works at PICA last year and Kathy Stone's "wounded flowers," made of delicate paint and plastic sheets on pins.

I particularly liked Evelyn Donnelley's untitled photograph of fake tiger fur on which she expertly placed several toy hedgehogs. I'm unclear what she was evincing other than 70s nostalgia and a formal flair for the most evil orange color imaginable, but I liked looking at this one.

"Walk This Way I" (detail)

The first-prize winner, Lisa Liedgren, also showed real formal sophistication. Her "Walk This Way I and II" consisted of well-crafted yellow bumps of pollen-like color on paper that were both repetitious and still subtly varied. It's nice work, but it does fit into the sort of contained and possibly over-refined work that Seattle likes. It doesn't rattle my cage like Daw's tricycle, but will probably sell well.

If Liedgren is going to move forward, she's going to need to get a bit more assertive as a presence, like Bridget Riley, Agnes Martin, Fred Tomaselli or the master, Paul Klee. To me, this is the most telling part of the show. Farris chose an artist for the top award who is talented but still has lots of room to grow.

Most jurors pick the already knighted. Bah! CoCA and Farris can take a bow: Prizes #1 and #2 went to emerging talents. When does that ever happen?

From Berlin: History Revisited
Elizabeth Leach Gallery
207 SW Pine St., Portland
through July 27

Stephen Kalusa's blurry version of history

With strong shows exhibiting the likes of Louise Bourgeois, Hans Hofmann, Michael Mann, Judy Cooke, Jules Olitski, Kenneth Noland and the Whimsy show, the Elizabeth Leach Gallery has consistently set the highest standards in town.

Now she has pulled off another coupe, a show of three of Berlin's up-and-coming artists from the influential Galerie Michael Shultz, home of several European art superstars. It is an exchange and some of her artists will return the favor. I nominate MK Guth for one of the slots.

Maintaining similar programs with London galleries, Germany is very much into these cultural exchanges and signals its seriousness as the heart of the newly minted European Union. By travelling, these Germans embrace an openness and a willingness to hear and be heard that still struggles to address the disastrous first half of the 20th century.

Hence, the reason this show is called "History Revisited." History is a kind of terribilita and a Catch-22 for the Germans.

Bisky's brushstrokes

For example, Norbert Bisky's expressionistic melanges of young blue-eyed and blond-haired boys (above) are both idyllic and threatening in their homogeneity.

Often depicting the boys performing calisthenics, his work is fueled by the never-ending circle of the "can Germans have pride in Germany again?" question, and the need to support progressive art that the Nazi regime had so mercilessly cracked down on.

It's a Catch-22, and Bisky further digs into it by using social realism's style.

His brushstrokes belie his tutelage to one of my favorite artists, Georg Baselitz, but Bisky seems less hopeless and less aggressive than his mentor on a personal front. His work has the impersonal look of an uncertain but official state function or campaign.

Bisky is of the next generation and this broader, colder state-consciousness will be something that will challenge Germans to grow beyond their past – not forget it. He is a damn good painter and I like the coldness he brings to expressionist brushstrokes and the disgust it has for homogenized Aryan features. (Mind you, I look like all these kids in his work.)

There is no hesitation here, and this sucks the viewer in faster. This is important because complacency is a necessary element for the work.

Stephen Kalusa had the most fully developed work of the show with his milky Plexiglas presentations of famous creative-types. These works are inherently museum-like presentations that engage history in an incomplete, muddled way.

His faces, such as Samuel Beckett (on view in this show), Hermann Hesse and Rainer Maria-Rilke explore the romanticism of the past that haunts Western Civilization's present pursuits.

Each head looms up spectrally as if to say, "you know, Germany was a pretty great place for all sorts of ideas, not just fascist oversimplifications and outright lies." The world judges Germany by a backlash movement and not its true thinkers.

Leibig's biblical themes: America, meet the four horsemen?

Helge Leibig's work goes back to the Middle Ages and one must ask: "Is this a future apocalypse, or a past one?"

With repeated images of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, I kept thinking: These supposedly tense times are pretty good compared to the Dark Ages.

For example, September 11 was a minor event compared to the hell on earth caused by the bubonic plague.

I'm not certain how Leibig's works will go over in America. We have the historical attention span of goldfish and somehow we feel like gothic apocalyptic imagery simply does not apply to us. Instead we have Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock as our two horsemen of the American art apocalypse. I prefer some of Leibig's earlier, more open-ended imagery (not on view) to these allegorical, biblical themes.

What Portland can take from this exhibit is the palpable historic urgency that fuels all three of these artists. Except for the internment of Japanese Americans, Portland lacks the historical Catch-22 of progressive Germany.

Still, Portland as a city remembers the more subtle sins of the 20th century, like unsustainable growth, endless strip malls, freeway commuter gridlock and a "pave and forget it" approach to the environment. Portland has a progressive maturity that must give Europeans at least some hope for our adolescent country.

In the end, Germany has serious demons. We Portlanders have nothing but challenges and opportunities, and that is reflected in our preoccupations. We could do well to adopt some of Berlin's legendary ambitious openness, though. This show sets the tone for more to come.

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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