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At Portland Art Museum: Andreas Gursky rocks!
Critical i

Hickey, Rinder, Klein, PaineWebber
Does it rock?
by Jeff Jahn

as it just me, or did the pace of things in Portland find a new gear in September and October?

Suddenly artists are taking more curatorial control, artists are the critics/editors, and artists are getting more press than institutions. I see these developments as a partial liquefaction of the art scene. What else is going to happen?

Institutionally, PICA brought in the Whitney Museum's Lawrence Rinder and "art devil" Dave Hickey to improvise their ideas before Portland audiences. Thus, at two different gatherings, we met two of the most controversial decision-makers in art.

Not to be outdone, the UBS PaineWebber collection sampler suddenly gave the Portland Art Museum a weighty display of mostly 1980s and '90s contemporary work, including two Andeas Gurskys; I'm happy.

I'll get to Hickey, Rinder and UBS later and, yes, blood will be drawn.

Portland's Robert Calvo: "Labyrinth."

But first, my favorite work this month (other than that terrifyingly good Giacometti that Bruce Guenther snuck in at the Portland Art Museum) was Robert Calvo's "Labyrinth" at Elizabeth Leach's "Snapshot" show.

It's basically a piece about generic monoculture and the ghosts of urban development that haunt all cities attempting to emulate the New York-style grid. It also incorporates fractal, shaped brushstrokes and simple manmade self-repeating building forms.

Skylines do not a great city make; that's merely one strategy, perfected 50 years ago ... somewhere else.

Likewise, Compound, Portland's newest gallery, showed that the influx of new energy into the city has not even come close to abating, with excellent work by Dave Kinsey and Andy Howell.

Nic Walker deals with the punks.

Also, my friend Nic Walker had a show at Fleck. I thought the four carved relief works were stronger than the three traditional paintings for their street shaman-noir feel.

Aesthetically, the reliefs are like Joseph Beuys ritualistically beating Ed Ruscha over the head with Gordon Matta-Clark's home furnishings.

Finally, in the last month or two I was subjected to the delicious horrors of having one's own plans come together much better than expected in the "Play" show at Portland State. More on that later, too.

Overall a theme emerged: persnickety individuals are the only ones who get anything done right. At some point, institutions are only as good as their leaders – and Portland seems to have a fair number of both. Running with the pack is for the dogs.

Sheila Klein
"Objects between Subjects"
Lewis and Clark Gallery of Contemporary Art

Klein's "Bonnet Nave."

Sheila Klein had a first-class exhibit at Lewis and Clark College, giving me what I wanted: an in-depth look at someone's decisive creative "events." All of it worked due to a combination of spatial assertiveness and material approachability, mediated with biographical iconography.

Outside, the giant pants sculpture, "Stand," didn't go for the easy ha-ha of a Claes Oldenberg and had strong formal elements. I suppose this is what Louise Bourgeois would do had she been more well adjusted.

At their best, Klein's soft fabric creations told of an intimate, interactive art. The Greeks, and Aristotle in particular, felt ambivalence was necessary – a notion that the work of Klein and others have dispelled. Her tents and cushions have the push-pull of intimacy, yet grant the desire for respectful privacy.

I particularly liked lying on my back inside "Bonnet Nave," a large, shimmering tent work, made from space-age fabrics usually seen on athletes. Instead of go-go-go, it said stay-stay-stay. I'm especially interested in how her work humanized space, since every object used scale to promote familiar trust instead of declarations of cultural importance.

Klein proves everything that is architecturally activated does not need to be so filled with testosterone.

Lawrence Rinder

Rinder: Whitney guy.

Lawrence Rinder, curator of contemporary art for New York's Whitney, was the first of two lecturers. His talk was a sort of digression about a show he's developing. This show conceptually discusses non-Americans creating work about America. It was fascinating for the institutional processes it revealed.

Highlights were a "Wizard of Oz" re-imagining with a German Dorothy in provincial, dour surroundings trying to communicate with a blond hypermedia ditzy U.S. Dorothy and a Japanese screen showing Zero fighters laying waste to New York.

Uh, so the passive-aggressive Whitney needs to re-establish or mourn New York's invincibility by revisiting the Axis vs. the Allies thing? Come on ... New York never was invincible and at some time will be a pasture like Rome became for a while. Just deal with it: New York isn't as all-important as it used to be.

That's good, because it is still very important, just in a saner, more contextual way (as shown in Rinder's controversial Biennial).

Biennial participant Steven Dean's "Pulse."

Frankly, foreign work that does not discuss the U.S.A. will tell more of real attitudes and, dammit, Native American tribes have dealt with this subject with so much more force than those included in Rinder's survey. Maybe Native Americans are too close for the Whitney.

Conceptually, this really is a good idea for the institution. It pushes their "American" rules some.

Still, if Rinder really wants to do something daring, just feature five outstanding works.

Creating a huge show of 30 artists will blunt the stronger work.

Examples are the Russian artist's dream machine and the Korean bombing ground photos. This would put the Whitney's heft behind these artist's careers in a big way by taking a stand. As it sits, this show is just a little tram ride through "not U.S.A.'s" U.S.A. theme park – and a bit parochial.

Rinder seems like he's made for better things than that.

Dave Hickey

Hickey to Portland: Do you know how to rock?

Dave Hickey's lecture was infinitely more satisfying than Rinder's. Not that Hickey is going for satisfaction. He picked on arch-mediocre institutions and baited as many sacred cows as he could find: wussy artists, publicly funded arts, tenured faculty, small cities, museums, big cities, etc.

His basic premise is the need for a redeemed cosmopolitanism. He talks of intricate systems of dialectical utopias. Some cities (utopias?) are very bourgeois, carnivalesque and populist – like Las Vegas. Others are elitist and more puritanical – like Santa Fe.

A trend develops. Hickey, whether intentionally or not, has become a bit of a poster child for blooming Southwest cities. It's only natural; he is from Texas. And anyone who can make pretentious art-world people feel stupid for not seeing how Foucault's writings about carnival-faire environments are proven true in cheesy Las Vegas grandeur is great. (I only got to apply it to Thomas Hardy)

I just think he's more limited in his appreciation of the more northern climes – not that he couldn't ... He just doesn't think about London as much as he does about Los Angeles.

Rocking the entire Southwest: "Site Santa Fe 2001."

Then again, Hickey's "Site Santa Fe 2001" biennial rocked so hard it validated the entire Southwest, including L.A., as legit art meccas. One can't argue with results like that.

Hence, he failed to really discuss London, a non-Beau-Monde city that is a hell of a lot more important, art-wise, than L.A. He even pointed out historic Florence with the Medicis as another non-Beau-Monde model city that did pretty well for itself – the equivalent of a scorched-earth policy.

Rhetorically it's a nice move, since it isn't what you say, it's how much air you can take out of your detractors' lungs.

London as a patronage system has been the most important seedbed for international-level art for the last 12 years (the place was a complete art backwater 12 years ago). London proved all it takes is two main characters: a big collector (Saatchi) and one brilliant artist (Hirst). Other lesser dukes fill in the gaps.

Portland is a lot like Munich in 1910 (which had Bernhard Kohler and Kandinsky) and similarly needs the one-to-one magic connection to take off.

Thus, I can forgive Hickey's funny baits about Portland, Bloomington and Austin being similar cities. I've been to those places, Dr. Hickey, and there's 10 times the amount of cultural activity present in Portland. Those cities are driven by large universities; Portland isn't.

Also, Portland isn't a scene driven by public funding, either – as he seemed to infer. That's why Portland is special: it's where young unmarried people come to get away from all the corporatized suburban monotony.

Portland is a Romanesque city where dining out is very big, and for some reason it supports an unusually large visual-arts infrastructure. Yet I think the ribbing is good: Portland still needs more balls.

Super-genius: C.S. Pierce.

Hickey's truly important points were that there needs to be small, highly organized communities of desire; artists need to cause trouble and you better be prepared to fight hard to get anything done. Oh yeah, and if you are intelligent enough to integrate Charles S. Pierce, father of philosophical pragmatism, with Walter Pater – that doesn't hurt, either.

Hickey knows his gambit: In the war of ideas, being right 50 percent of the time is the best one can hope for. He's batting .500, and understands all about the pitches he chooses not to swing at.

And that's admirable – like all real thinkers, he's out to see what he can get away with. And in the art world there are only two in this league: Dave Hickey and Damien Hirst, period.

UBS PaineWebber
Portland Art Museum

Richter: The best? Not!

OK, a lot has been written on this, so I'll write the stuff the other editors think is too brainy for their general readers.

One important point is that this corporation would not have this collection without the interference of founding CEO John Mellon.

There are all the basic questions about the conspiracy of blue chip art and blue chip corporations. But on that let's just say that the collection's Damien Hirst is the show's most innocuous piece, which means they chose wrong.

Now for a prickly question: Is Gerhard Richter really the world's leading painter?

Of course not. Most of his ideas and techniques, like "the impossibility of painting," have already been articulated more adeptly by other Germans – such as Sigmar Polke and Anselm Kiefer.

Anselm Kiefer: more challenging than Richter.

This includes painting over photographs. Also, Richter's whole focus on his mysterious past is just secondhand smoke compared to Joseph Beuys, who showed him the strategy in the first place.

In essence, Richter is a greatest-hits collection of German art all packaged in a way that masters the forms but takes no real initiative. Thus – he's good, but not Hans Hoffman, Joseph Beuys or even Sigmar Polke good.

I consider him on Francesco Clemente's level: excellent, but doomed by his heavy-handed chimerical use of himself and his techniques to be the second-best of his generation. An Eric Clapton compared to Hendrix: not bad, but kinda embarrassing if you think about it.

Chris Ofili's "Afrodizzia" is better than Richter.

Furthermore, painting on photos like Hans Hoffman isn't as inscrutable as it's supposed to be. It's accessible.

This produces good attendance at shows, since Richter meets his audience 90 percent of the way (and nice colors don't hurt).

In fact, photographer Andreas Gursky is just as painterly, but less hodge-podge about his materials and aims.

Ed Ruscha, Chris Ofili, David Reed, Kiefer and Ellsworth Kelly are all more legit contenders because they point to the impossibility of painting and pull it off with more risk (I pick Kelly).

By the way, unless you are daft, Basquiat was the best painter of the '80s, and guys like Clemente and David Salle are good bridesmaids worthy of attention. See them at PAM, too.

Most of the others are a bit overheated, with Schnabel being very overrated (Guenther wisely gave him a cramped transitional space in the show, and Cy Twombly a better place). The question is how much blow does it take to make Schnabel's paintings look good? He paints half-assed so his full-assed ego doesn't get any competition.

If you're in the area, check out the seminal Warhol, Basquiat, Clemente, Brian Hunt, Sam Taylor Wood and the great Andreas Gurskys.

Littman Gallery
Portland State University
Bruce "the ice man" Conkle, Jacqueline "jacquelope" Ehlis,
Hilary "bologna" Pfeifer, Todd "the myth" Johnson and myself "the elf"

Play: So, are you still reading?

First off ... uh, who wrote, "I Love You" in the consarned guest book? We are all kinda wondering if it's for the whole group? Can you handle all of us LOVE-ing you back?

More seriously, I think all the press was important to bust things up in Portland but, yes, I got sick of my face, too ... it's the sword of Damocles. And I've already got bigger trouble stirring. Follow-through is crucial.

Overall, that damn show was a highly collaborative, Frankenstein-making, mad-scientist group effort. Everybody became experimental, since we wanted to see what happened when five artists each tried to play by their own rules – together.

To answer the parochial questions about my role as curator and artist: the show was an experiment comprised of all its participants – think jazz quintet. I gathered four other artists who I knew could handle the collaboration, much like starting a band.

I think it's critical that artists reclaim curatorial control, and I was not attempting to emulate what have become traditional curatorial practices. A show called "Play" would be a critical lack of balls if the guy who called the game only wanted to officiate.

In some ways, having an outside curator is like having an outside songwriter – it might produce coherent material but it won't rock particularly hard. Artists like Takashi Murakami, Damien Hirst and old guys like Kandinsky, Duchamp and Mark Rothko all curated and participated in shows. Artists simply have the right to do these things.

It's important to remain dangerous, and that means being involved. I still consider the real tests to be solo shows.

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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