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Space project: Portland Art Museum's North Wing.
Critical i

Northwest space
Art and architecture
by Jeff Jahn

he big news is that the Portland Art Museum is adding 20,000-30,000 square feet of gallery space for contemporary art – all the more amazing since most museums nationwide are scaling back.

Needless to say, cultural space allocation and a city's personality are intrinsically linked.

It's no secret that space informs artwork and gives it civic cache. Sadly, many artists, curators and gallerists are passive or at least terribly conventional about it. It's like being a gifted dancer but absolutely uninterested in choreography! Such oversight keeps creative types from reaching their highest potential.

As animals, we react to the hunter-gatherer gallery-hopping experience like raccoons looking for crawfish, in that we develop a heightened awareness of our surroundings through environmental changes. In essence, a good hang or installation is a cue that says, "crawfish more likely here; pay attention."

Center on Contemporary Art

"Blurred": The show of the year.

Luckily, the Pacific Northwest is filled with interesting art spaces – as evidenced by CoCA's absolutely stunning "Blurred" show, which turned their normally spacious venue into a Habitrail architectural funhouse.

Damn, that was one hot show. Just look – regionally, nothing else was even close. The show of the year.

Such a show continues to prove CoCA's importance to the region, not just Seattle. If one can fill space like this, then who needs a 35-foot open area? "Blurred," by its very nature, blended art as space and space as art. The two are separated needlessly, probably due to that silly 20th-century trend toward specialization. The 21st century will be one of combinations.

The only criticism I can levy is that "Blurred" was all inside and somewhat contained. All it needed was an installation by James Turrell and an outdoor hot tub designed by Frank Gehry and this could have been at MOMA or The Walker.

Still, I wanted to focus on how art and architecture informed one another in more omnipresent and discreet forums, i.e. the gallery scene.

[P.S. The main reason Gehry doesn't suck is because he realizes "Artists" can kick his ass (except for Frank Stella, who has become Gehry's shadow).]

James Lavadour
"Intersections II"
PDX Gallery

Space command: Lavadour at PDX.

This stunning little space is both condensed and open, very much like Lavadour's paintings – which often feature silhouetted forms from the Columbia River Gorge and other geographical cues.

Lavadour is really at his best here, where threatening volcanic volumes and harsh abstract forms seem to warn of some impending avalanche.

Even from the angle shown (at left) they command space with their drip-laden sides.

The tension of nonchalant and virtuosic control contrasts the solidity of the space designed by Allied Works with its ultra cool Swiss Army style, modular moving walls, display cabinets and storage compartments. When the architecture is changeable although inert and the art is ultra solid but full of kinetic energy, you have something.

Both the space and the paintings seem to say of the architect and artist: "I can do anything." And then they give proof. I'm betting Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works owns a Lavadour. Likewise, Lavadour can honestly say that when his work is in one of Cloepfil's spaces, the painting owns the building.

It reminds me that one really gets the measure of an artist and an architect when they are pitted against one another. I think Ellsworth Kelly's show at the Guggenheim many years ago bears this out. Joseph Beuys pulled it off, too. You've gotta be the best, not just great, to take on Frank Lloyd Wright.

Judy Cooke
Elizabeth Leach Gallery

Right here, right now: classic Cooke.

This work is weathered and scarred from creative activity, like torn pages from one of Leonardo's notebooks. All of these classic Judy Cooke paintings come from the early 1970s and stand as the artist's most challenging body of work.

This "improved by time" aesthetic matches the heaviness of Liz Leach's exposed brick firehouse. The combination adds to the work.

This same aesthetic gave nice historical heft to a show of German artists earlier this year. Gallery spaces that have hardwood floors and exposed brick tickle me. They speak warmly and remind me of the lofts where a lot of this work is created. Something all white with concrete floors has a harder, less historically aware effect that says, "right here, right now."

Both are valid, of course.

Diane Kornberg
Savage Gallery

Success in the big room: Kornberg at Savage.

This is one serious gallery space, and of the colder variety I mentioned above. The back room, in fact, is so serious it often has highlighted the shortcomings of some artists.

Savage artists Heidi Schwegler, Su-en Wong and Brian Hunt all pulled it off – with Hunt taking top honors. From a spatial standpoint, Hunt's vast Grand Canyon maps and sculptural airships had the right amount of thrust and reserve.

We can add Dianne Kornberg to that list of successes in "the big room."

Kornberg: The new stuff.

Frankly, I don't think most photographers in Portland can handle this space but Kornberg's clinical creepiness is more distilled than her previous work. By getting away from the myriad of bugs that she has done in the past, her new work seems to twitch. Maybe it is all the negative space or the lovely framing, but these specimens under glass are both unsettling and elegant.


I completely disagree with D.K. Row's Oregonian review, where he shrugged this work off as a series of technical "ticks." Kornberg has moved ahead and not merely in technical ways.

This new work has more soul and relies less on technical strategies. By moving to single centralized figures, Kornberg's work is more upfront, naked and stoic. This vulnerability and strength form a tug of war that is a new emotional sensation in Kornberg's work. It is also spatially activated.

Kornberg's new elements pull this show off. Her bug collection series would have been too static for this space.

Overall, the new understatement is more threatening and stoic, reminding me of a scene in Margaret Atwood's book, "Surfacing," where a dead body is seen under water.

Portland Institute of Contemporary Art (PICA)

Perilous path: PICA walks the walk (Baden at left).

Another Cloepfil space, it is cold and hard. But Horodner has taken a very conceptual idea and made some serious physical statements.

For example, the Mowbry Baden piece sited at a slightly uncomfortable angle to the entry of the main gallery is a Feng Shui nightmare … and a nice touch. The Baden acts as a screwed up path and a really-not-up-to-OSHA-standards set of handrails.

It almost invites one to walk through, but also threatens to make that path to grandma's house perilous.

Another deft touch is the Janine Antoni video of two pairs of feet walking in each other's footprints. It provokes mimesis in the viewer, which then has them perambulating merrily into the gallery space. What a nice way to bring someone into the gallery through visual suggestion.

Both pieces are set at zigzag angles that break up the airy but rectangular PICA space. By making Antoni and Baden disagree, or at least refuse to be parallels to the architect's solid spatial rectangles, Horodner informs us rightly: The art is more important than the walls, ceiling and floor. Since these are the two most telling pieces in the show, it makes perfect sense.

Chandra Bocci

Beyond contained space: Bocci's birds.

OK, I'm going to say it again, Bocci is one of Portland's best installation artists. Problem is, installation artists need space. Her portable city conglomerations are inspired but beg for de-boxing and expansion beyond the contained space.

Her bird installation made of trash really does it, though. A particular one made of bubble wrap is amazing, and another made from Chinese food detritus is like a ghost of some tasty Kung Pao chicken.

Spatially, work like this is perfectly at home – even among the scaffolding that holds the stage lights at Disjecta's hybrid gallery/musical performance venue.

The Pacific Northwest has a special attunement to activated space, to which all these shows attest.

That the Portland Art Museum is ideally situated on the Park Blocks gives it the same cultural status of a temple – with dedicated space for a growing contemporary collection. I'm certain the city's momentum will only continue.

There are different ways to build art scenes and Portland, with its focus on content, is set for the long haul.

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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