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Matthew Picton: original and decisive.
Critical i

Picton, Bocci, Sawa, Knutson & 'Maritime'
Is the Portland art scene decisive?
by Jeff Jahn

ou quit drinking coffee?" one of my best friends recently stammered at me. "You suck!"

I savored his decisive indictment but, then again, he's a trial lawyer. I basically don't do addictions, so I guess that's decisive, too.

Women and dark chocolate are the only things worth not giving up, and long-term decisive loyalty makes them more rewarding as well. It's what I like about this town: There is continuity and the visual arts community is very old for a West Coast city – this month the Portland Art Museum turns 110 years old!

My discussion, therefore, centers around one word: Decisive.

Those who don't consider themselves "taste-makers" yet write reviews, curate shows and/or exhibit work, just come off as art-scene den mothers. Portland has a window of opportunity – take it decisively and work hard, or join the whiners' club and drink more Pabst ...

In November, three shows (Matthew Picton's at Mark Woolley, Michael Knutson's at Blackfish and "Maritime/Nautical" at the Art Labs) had examples of what I consider decisive statements that in one way or another will stick. None were paradigm-redefining statements, but they were all on the right road.

Another show, "Lost and Found" at Savage, also had some good examples of decisive art among the unwieldiness of the "Blind Date"-style group show where each Savage artist chose an unrepresented artist to show with.

Dealer Tracy Savage therefore had no control, which she admits was harrowing but ultimately worthwhile. The effect was the equivalent of a singles' mixer.

Clique, clique: how many to screw in a light bulb?

Overall, one new truth about Portland has emerged: today the city's art scene is a great deal more factional than it was last summer – top to bottom.

I take this as a sign that things are growing up and there is something here worth having. Suddenly, each young clique has developed at least one or more instigators. This is true both for represented and unrepresented artists.

I count about two dozen noteworthy cliques with varying levels of development, originality, snottiness and snootiness.

Some are just paper leaders and cocktail mixers; others are sincere about developing real curatorial/critical chops.

TJ Norris: a focus on multimedia.

And there are still others, like new guy TJ Norris, whose sound vision gallery at the Everett Station Lofts is the work of a seasoned veteran.

Norris is willing to put his money where his existentialism is. He has a program. The fact is, if you are going to make it as an artist you have to become a decisive aesthetic editor and you have got to outmaneuver others who seek to do similar things.

Take a position and take the time to do it right.

"Lost and Found"

Funny and grotesque: Bocci's "Another one bites the dust."

Chandra Bocci's "Another one bites the dust" at Savage's "Lost and Found" show is pretty decisive. The insidious pink from deodorant, tampon and yogurt boxes is assembled into fairy castles, plastic bags become puffy clouds and a bunch of dead or unconscious unicorns tumble out of a lil' girl marketing heaven.

It's damn funny and grotesque. The diorama piece resembles "The Last Judgment" by Michelangelo but without the wrath of God, and there is no way Bocci is as peeved as big Mike was.

Instead, all the unicorns look as if they were hit by insecticide or a neutron bomb. The buildings remain but the magical inhabitants have been smote. It's an indictment and a celebration of advertising. The lil' girl unicorns die, but the girlishly gendered packaging for tampons and yogurt never fade. This is no coming-of-age piece; it is about the agelessness of advertising. Youth sells, nobody outgrows it.

This marks the fourth time in the last year I've mentioned Bocci. Have I mentioned that she has grown exponentially in her work? This would be even better if it were a full-room installation.

Domestic surroundings: Sawa's "Dwelling."

Another "Lost and Found" favorite is "Dwelling." Hiraki Sawa's video of planes slows time and makes us reconsider domestic surroundings in terms of their relationship to us as daily travelers.

The '50s interiors evoked memories of my dad eating his breakfast and then taking off to work – often involving an airliner for the commute.

Why not digress? Home isn't always a place one lingers; it is a starting point for a journey. It is something Portlanders need to learn about serious artists ... don't worry if artists come or go.

Rothko: went where he could best serve his vision.

It only matters that they ever called Portland home – particularly if it is during an important developmental period. Then that artist becomes a part of the city's history and an ambassador as well. Otherwise the city feels like a clingy, overly sheltering parent.

For example, Mark Rothko grew up and learned about color, form, line and volumes here. Just because he went to New York doesn't mean he erased Portland ... it means he went where he could best serve his vision at the time.

Portland should grow up and forgive the animosity that grew out of the situation. Mark Rothko is part of Portland just as Jackson Pollock is associated with Cody, Wyo., and much of the vastness of the West; it can't be severed, only overlooked.

Matthew Picton
Mark Woolley Gallery

Fully formed: Picton takes man and nature's fingerprint.

Matthew Picton is one of the better artists on the West Coast; his original work is fully formed, thoughtful and ingenious.

A growing list of galleries from L.A. to Seattle attests to his potent force.

Picton actively pursues the complex fractal patterns of the outdoor world via the synthetic cast. By making casts like an archeologist of parking-lot cracks he takes a kind of fingerprint.

He achieves this lofty husbandry of man and nature by using these natural gullies and parking-lot cracks as forms in which to cast his resin, acrylic beads and candy sprinkles.

Picton, up close.

In "Cracked Parking Lot Sculpture #7" he embeds Spanish moss in resin and then mimics the moss's ability to fill in space upon a wall.

His previous work also avoided the style of his own hand by using double-sided tape to gather up loose paint flakes, dirt, etc. Thus, many of Picton's works are partial ready-mades.

Dada and natural awareness of the sublime is becoming one of the Pacific Northwest's best contributions to contemporary art these days and Picton is one of the very best.

When this subject matter eventually gains notice, Picton will be one of its chief voices.

Michael Knutson
"Coiled Lattices"
Blackfish Gallery

Although he wrongfully considers Leon Golub more of an '80s artist, Michael Knutson is one of the keenest intellects in Portland's art community – a lot smarter than the entire stable of some galleries.

(Golub created somewhat fringe protest art during the '60s, but really honed his thing in the mid-late social realist '70s with paintings like "Guerillas." He merely started selling well during the '80s – like most artists of the '70s. Knutson, like any good artist, is considering the practical aspects of earning a living rather than Golub's affinity for social messages that gained serious clout after Vietnam and Nixon.)

Truly rigorous: Knutson is smart and decisive.

Knutson has pulled off a rarity in Portland: a truly rigorous, sustained, intellectually petulant cipher of a solo show.

His growing mastery – and I mean mastery of his geometric, optical effects – have the sort of dry, experimental origins that lead to the computer chip and the Post-it Note.

But by being art, it stands in closer proximity to Barnett Newman – a microcosm/macrocosm that references itself through process. It is an accretion of complexity that becomes decisive effect. I could put that in simpler terms but won't do Knutson such disservice.

Detail of Knutson's "Red and White Twisted Ribbons": formulaic from afar, eccentric up close.

Some of the standouts in the show are "Orange and Yellow twisted ribbons," "Red and White twisted ribbons" and "Blue and White star coil." Everything is pretty relentless.

By focusing on the theoretically formulaic, but in fact consistently irregular, Knutson unifies the whole surface in a fussy way that lesser painters would stop at.

By repeating the formula with a kind of baroque autistic automatism he's saying one thing: be decisive.

Pick something and don't dither. Nothing is perfect, but who wants perfection when variety produces such regularity? It is a mantra for art lovers: maturity is a risk many don't take. Knutson is a great example of a decisive artist who knows what he wants and takes it to interesting extremes.

MessHall Gallery

Space to shine: James Boulton (left) and Carson Ellis.

This group show was coherent, occasionally surprising, and let each individual have the space to shine.

The overall effect was excellent and left me wanting some sort of written statement about port cities, uncomfortable iconoclasm and change. The visual statement was decisive and kinda lonely.

It makes me chuckle to think of someone trying to explain existentialism to a sailor. Talk about preaching to the choir!

Works like Carson Ellis' "Ghost Ship" were direct and subdued. I single that work out because the formal flatness of field and illustrative feel have a coastal meagerness to it – an asceticism that says tough, instead of effete; knowing in its silence.

James Boulton's sea chart abstraction was strong enough to read from 50 feet away in the cavernous space. Adam Sorenson's baby blue enamel-dominated ghost ship (painted like Wonder Woman's invisible jet) was another winner and sold quickly.

Zeferry Throwell's gestural works captured the visceral rust and decadent ennui of a barnacle-crusted manmade object being reclaimed on the sea floor. It shows just how good this young painter is becoming. All he needs to do is develop his program and he could make a strong case for a serious revival of decadent abstraction.

Hell, pop is already in its neo-neo-pop revival stage why not an ab-ex meta-revival? Oh yeah, the art world isn't for legit intellectuals any more, it's for those who are tied into the vernacular cues of design ... hopefully, I'm wrong. Zeferry, maybe you could give the world a 1,000-plus-word essay?

Golden: enticement to linger.

Samara Golden's video piece, "Gang of Ones," was evocative, if not a bit heavy handed, in presentation.

The opening pans of magazine coastlines were particularly evocative but the words interrupting the scenes just seemed intrusive; even the fonts felt forced. The two mod chairs and the rug completed the mood nicely, enticing me to linger.

My favorites were two painters.

Tracy Timmins' uncomfortable portraits, probably painted from amateurish snapshots, bespoke the isolation of the vacationing summertime bathing beauty and the seasoned old salt of a local. Wry and ultimately a study on existential happiness and isolation, they worked together to show two sides of the seaside resort inhabitants.

My other favorite was Tim Dalbow's excellent painting of an oil taker hit by terrorists. The billowing menace of black smoke around a ship broadcast T-R-O-U-B-L-E. His handling of paint and lonely ocean has a strong Andrew Wyeth feel: accomplished, ascetic and spooky. The element of threat and the isolation are deadly.

Tim Dalbow at Art Labs "Nautical/Maritime."

Soon after, I found out this image was of the French oil tanker targeted by terrorists. Bravo, Tim ... a much nicer history painting than Henk Pender's often hyperbolic variety. This painting is ambiguous, crystal clear ... and decisive.

Question of the month ...
Which brings us back to the bigger question: Can Portland be considered decisive? I can give a qualified "yes" in terms of movement toward something decisive – with the coming biennial as a chance for a concrete statement (we shall see).

Till then, well, galleries like Savage, Liz Leach, Mark Woolley, Froehlich and PDX all had excellent shows in November ... Also, at least four DIY shows either had interesting work or provocative presentation. I thought "Maritime" was the best, while "Hug Me" at Pacific Switchboard had the hip, happening aspect down, with lots of self-help ennui. This all promotes a sense of expectations for shows and is critical, but I want to see something more.

To date, only a few 2002 shows really sought for escape velocity outside Portland. I want to see more of that, both from the galleries and the DIY productions. It requires catalogs and international art-press presence; innovative thinking should permeate the entire enterprise.

And the real question is whether enough of a ruckus can be raised to get the rest of the planet's attention. The galleries need to advertise conspicuously and promote themselves – and First Thursday – nationally. I mean, Condé Nast did a tour of Portland and didn't even mention First Thursday, or the Pearl District as an art zone.

While the work is here, the perception of it being here needs to be better. Portland has truly ambitious artists, now it needs truly ambitious productions to make the decisive push.

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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