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Pole position: Warhol in L.A.
Critical i

L.A. vs. Portland
A wave of momentum
by Jeff Jahn

os Angeles and Portland are the two best places for artists on the West Coast.

Southern and northern, light and heavy, obsessively surface and obsessively internal; they have intersections. California and the Pacific Northwest need each other in the increasingly decentralized art world for balance and variety.

The rise of Las Vegas as an intellectual epicenter has seeded both cities' clouds, but Dave Hickey can't do everything. It takes more than one man.

Time to compare. But first, in case nobody has stated it for the record, no city north of L.A. can boast the artistic activity that Portland continues to accrue – despite nation-leading unemployment.

That says something: this train has momentum.

Portland is the one major city in America where the museum, filled with the same parade of dead guys, has not overshadowed the locals. In fact, the locals have a wing.

Bruce Guenther is working hard to close the gap through nice acquisitions. I'm happy, because benchmarks of quality are vital, and no living artist showing in L.A. or Portland in August is as good as Ellsworth Kelly or Warhol. Yet.

Jim Hodges at PICA.

Part of the reason we're beating San Fran and Seattle (by widespread admission from respective artists who have visited our fine city) is that they completely alienated most of their artists during the dot-com boom.

They uprooted and pushed their artists out of their workspaces, creating a sense of aesthetic miasma.

New York started losing appeal in 1989, and these days it is a truer cliché for those in the know to try and make it in L.A.

Besides, any cliché worth its salt will find its true home in L.A. (a place where I grew up from 1976-80). So who do we Portlanders measure ourselves against? Los Angeles.

When it comes to museums, L.A. kicks Portland's ass, then flogs us with raver glo-sticks.

They have an Andy Warhol show at MOCA, we have The Splendors of Imperial Japan? The Mejii period wasn't exactly the Ming dynasty or renaissance Italy ... more like the Victorian period in England, which it historically parallels (i.e. poofy, middlebrow and more pandering than innovative). Just having an emperor does not make an empire ... although it is a sad historical seed to the events of World War II.

Thanks be to Guenther, who has snuck some satisfying art from the Broad Foundation in the basement and attic of the museum! Thank you, Eli Broad.

L.A. also has the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a nice collection at the Temporary Contemporary, the Geffen Contemporary and at least 15 nice university and contemporary art galleries. That said, L.A.'s population is about 15 times larger than Portland's.

PNCA student Carolina Medina's "Red Dress."

But we are getting better fast and PICA, with "All the way with Jim and Shel," is a lot better than the PC-obsessed venues in L.A. Our university galleries are terribly under-funded and under-appreciated. Kudos to Nan Curtis, who has done more for PNCA's image in the last year than its entire faculty combined.

That said, many of L.A.'s university galleries have perfected the kind of over-curated art shows that have glutted the art world of late. At least Portland, with the Art Gym and Lewis and Clark, is free of the "poverty of theory" – or as critic Matthew Collings calls it, the "curators educated beyond their intelligence" syndrome.

We have room to improve but at least it isn't a highly evolved mediocrity. More isn't always more. Portland has things to learn but Los Angeles thinks it knows everything. Following is a look at some galleries, juxtaposing L.A. and its Portland equivalents.

1) The battle of the University of Nevada Las Vegas grads

Tim Bavington's "Aqualung," at Mark Moore.

Mark Moore (L.A.'s Bergamot Station) Tim Bavington is one of critic Dave Hickey's students. These UNLV-educated artists have a deeper weight than a lot of the typical L.A. products. Bavington is more idiosyncratic and marches to his own drummer. His work is historically aware and stoic, translating '70s classic rock and '70s formalist stripe abstraction into something his own.

Think hedonistic Shaker aesthetics, both reserved and gonzo. He deserves the press he's getting.

Ehlis' "Environment," at Savage.

Savage (Portland's Pearl District)
Jacqueline Ehlis, another of Hickey's kids, has more attitude than her friend Bavington, but is less stoic.

Her show juggled a really nice window gel treatment that harnessed the sunlight as well as ultra slick, square luster-paintings and spatially activating hemispheres.

The effect in the front room was virtuosic; you feel alive in her environment of perfectly juggled lovelies.

The score
I consider this a tie. Both hit me, haunt me, push me, give depth to Hickey's legacy.

Beauty ain't dumb, and ain't is a word ... especially if you are from Texas, like D.H.

2) Finish fetish

Artist Scott Katano and his work.

Ruth Bachofner Gallery (L.A.'s Bergamot Station)
Scott Katano's wall upholsteries have pop flash, material directness and superb production value.

Like a Peter Frank marshmallow couch, this fits the almost a-historical finish fetish of L.A. to a tee.

Nice work, nice guy from Hawaii. Probably the highest start-to-finish consistency I've seen in a long time. No boredom either.

Pulliam Deffenbaugh (Portland's Pearl District)
Brendan Clenaghen, like Katano, has round forms contained in a rectangle but his work is more inward.

The larger pieces, like "Blue Blush," are excellent but works like "Pink Patches" are a less satisfying pastiche of the same joint compound finish fetish. His Freudian conceptual base comes off kind of quaint in a 19th-century way.

Clenaghen's "Polk-a-Dot Choc-o-Lot" (detail).

Basically this is too much of the same, resulting in a conceptual and aesthetic rut of diminishing returns.

Clenaghen is real good, but this show lacks aesthetic momentum, coming off as a third solo show horse latitude. For example, "Polk-a-Dot Choc-o-Lot" is great by itself, but I miss the interesting sculptural direction of his last show, which had one large non-rectangular ass-kicking piece.

If you are going to be finish fetish, make certain to escalate that fetish or you are just scratching an itch.

The score
Katano, by points for his rigor in pulling off a whole show. Clenaghen has pieces of equal quality but needs to push harder.

3) Nostalgia

Nostalgic Polidori.

Rose Gallery (L.A.'s Bergamot Station)
Robert Polidori's architectural photographs of mid-20th-century Palm Springs are part of a larger summer exhibit.

They make wry commentary and evoke nostalgia. Overall nice and rigorous.

This guy is established and obviously has regional resonance in LA, architecture fans everywhere love him.

Healy's "Color Blind."

Elizabeth Leach Gallery (downtown Portland)
Sean Healy, whose work I have detested for years, finally changed my mind (I live for such things!).

He works with nostalgic graphic elements, like doggy silhouettes, and entombs them in colorful glass and resin.

Healy's "Color Blind" (comments on doggy vision and fiesta ware?) is his first out-and-out breakthrough commenting on history, biology and kitsch. The physicality is great; I thought his previous work was too inward and precious.

Another piece, "Creepy neighbor next door," has lots of current zeitgeist, too. But the Easy-Bake Ovens are just too easy for me. I'm a historian, not an antique collector.

The score
It's obvious that Polidori is more developed and has historical value instead of borrowed historical force. Let's just say if I were consulting for a corporation or museum, I would suggest they buy the Polidori but I would buy "Color Blind" for myself. Call it a draw.

4) Urban life

The real Joseph Beuys.

Dianne Preuss (L.A.'s Chinatown)
This is the most half-assed ripoff of Joseph Beuys ever. It is so "BFA," get some more life experience, that I refuse to use a picture of the show. Here is Beuys' instead.

The small shop-sized gallery was filled with weathered loading pallets as a floor and lots of retail shop detritus on top.

I'm certain some Art Center-trained theologian could try to make a case for this, but it is a pale version of Beuys' "Conversations with the Coyote." Add a coyote and this would suck less; go home, live some learn some. I'm angry about this wasting of brain cells.

Zeitgeist (Portland's Everett station Lofts)
Tyler Kline's truly inspired and Beuys-steeped traffic cone covered with hair shamanistically mixes the urban and the natural as a kind of self-in-city totem. Well done. Hair is definitely the thing that frames the face, directing the eye-traffic of passersby.

Kline: Now this is urban!

The score
Tyler Kline and Portland are more urban than the extended strip mall, endless suburbia of LA. You got it: smaller Portland is more legitimately urban.


Portland's scene needs to step up in ambitiousness and production values. L.A. needs to read more books and think more inventively instead of pastiche.

I think there is a higher likelihood of Portland accomplishing its goals.

L.A.'s top tiers, like the Shoshona Wayne Gallery, Yoko Ono exhibit and Mark Moore's Bavington deserve the current attention. But the world has to wonder if stuff like China Arts Gallery's "Valley Girl" is just a scene that is a an incestuously L.A. backdrop for young actors trying to mix with celebs.

In Portland, art – not the movies – is the most important game in town ... only one other art city in the U.S. can boast that: New York.

We don't have to be the center of the art world. But if Portland steps up like it is threatening to, we might become like 1914 Munich or Frankfurt, which added significantly to art history.

Portland can both make a difference and history. L.A., with Hickey's rigor, already has. Still, for the West Coast to continue its momentum it needs another wave. Portland, the most fiercely idiosyncratic major city in the country, has the potential to fulfill that role.

May our thinkers, promoters – and especially our artists – step up into that role.

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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