J a n u a r y   2 0 0 3

Tony Oursler at moving image art show Dec 12-14, 2002
Critical i

Eyeing the Portland art scene
Potential hullabaloo in 2003?
by Jeff Jahn

ortland art scene, what do you want? There's much activity that's either going to get more serious or become drivel; it won't stay the same no matter how social it seems.

Even more serious newcomers are coming to town, so stake your claim. With an ever more facile and dangerous scene converging on the looming potentials of the 2003 Oregon Biennial, “what” is the big, ornery, heuristic, chimerical question of the day.

It's time to get one's liminal face outta the Roland Barthes and step up to the plate. Curate your own statement ... or engage the museum by entering.

Louise Bourgeois shows first-rate conceptualism in "Stitch by Stitch" at Elizabeth Leach Gallery.

This month's survey includes an incomplete discussion of Portland genres and strategies. Art in Portland comes in almost any idiom imaginable and varies – from work by legit superstars like Tony Oursler, to amateurish copies of more fully realized international art, to local stuff that is legitimately a leader in an emerging genre.

The question is: Will there be a convergence or a split between the serious players? Also, is someone ready to collect the serious players and pay more than $10G for someone less than 40 years old in the Pacific Northwest? The money is here, but so is a lot of bumpkinism.

See, no matter how many postmodern arguments are made for globalism creating a general dilution of indigenous products, well, place still matters. A person will make different art in Sri Lanka than in Eureka, Calif. Gotta use those inherent quirks.

It isn't regionalism ... simply an awareness of place.

New York for the last 40 years has been the most provincial city on earth because it saw itself and its concerns as summa. Instead, it was usually the second or third place to catch on (pretty impressive, actually). The place is a marketplace, but true to the new global realities, that market has moved a lot of its production elsewhere. With a proliferation of art fairs and numerous biennials, that myth of New York as summa has been shattered.

Will the Organ have balls? Let's hope so ... that's what's needed.

Another sticky question: Is Portland prepared to take notice of what is very good and critique what isn't? It's all about raising expectations and the same old excuses really don't hold anymore. Portland can expect more; this isn't San Diego.

For example, D.K. Row's slam on Catherine Ace last year was both courageous and right on. Live with it. Richard Speer has a baroque, dramatic bent to his words and Chas Bowie is a very welcome addition.

Will Camela Raymond's arts newspaper, "The Organ," live up to its potential and produce a budding crop of hypersensitive critics? Let's hope so, but it has to be of a caliber that will affect collectors by taking a stance and backing it up.

The previous Biennial: Mark Smith had the big statements.

2003 Oregon Biennial
Portland Art Museum

With plans for a huge new wing for contemporary art, PAM has its single best chance to prove contemporary art and art in Oregon are intersecting concerns with this Biennial.

Or will the museum look out of touch with the new developments in town?

Bruce Guenther isn't stupid, folks, so you might want to send him the toughest art you've got.

I'll give B.G. some serious attention here because he can take it, and I've considered him the best curator for sculpture in the country for the last 10 years (on account of his "the essential gesture" show in L.A.). Still, everyone and everything – especially museums – have limitations, and strong statements by shows outside the museum can have more definitive effects than the Biennial. Things are too big for the Biennial to fully take in or discuss.

Although the Biennial isn't the final word, it could be the single best way to promote what is and has been going on here. I saw the Bay Area Now 3 show in San Fran last weekend; it was mostly amateurish and half baked. Still, this show got international attention in Art in America. Guenther can definitely shut up some of his colleagues who say "Portland ... har-har" if it's done right.

Curators in San Fran and Seattle already know we have the goods, but will we use 'em?

"Taste," by Zack Kirchner.

The other big question regards "aesthetic collisions" and dynamics; it would be nice to have more of both – bold youth and bold august work. The Biennial is a big hairy group survey show that can get diluted if everything tries to achieve balance.

Will the layout feature big statements in contrast to other dissimilar big statements? Or will it all just blend together in a passive haze of politeness, which one gets soooo often here? (Think PICA's Northwest narrative show in 2001; it was strictly OK.)

But I think Portland has outgrown that. Will Guenther put on an imposing-provocative local show? I don't want his tattoo to overshadow this next one. Been there done that.

To put it bluntly, his predecessor, Kanjo, did this in 1999 and it remade Portland's galleries – introducing now-stars Jacqueline Ehlis, Brendan Clenahgen (who should create a room-sized environment sometime), Sean Healy, Heidi Schwegler (who was THE young star) and revealing more dangerous and masterful versions of Michael Knutson, Tom Cramer and Molly Vidor.

Guenther himself admitted the last show "lacked engagement." That is an honest appraisal of his show, but also of the art that was entered. This time everyone better step up because the Biennial could really mean something as a showcase to the world.

An incomplete and non-exclusive list of
genres and strategies in Portland art

Christine Bourdette's "Modest Exaggeration."

Noir and the Northwest cliché

This seems to be the defacto style of the region ... possibly a consequence of Morris Graves, lots of rain and the early work of Rothko, Clifford Still and Robert Motherwell.

I get sick of gray fuzzy landscapes in encaustic, but there are stronger stylists around as well, even video boxes.

Artists like Nic Walker, Christine Bourdette and Brian Borrello all recycle materials to create their signature styles that historically have their roots in Beuys-Twombly-Ruscha, Kiki Smith and an odd combination of Franz Kline and Ed Ruscha, respectively.

Laura Fritz's sci-fi noir video and light boxes are like classic '60s Gerhard Richter … his best era.

Laura Fritz's "Disclosure."

Her moth video box is still the best video piece I've ever seen.

The eerie moth under a milky Plexiglas doesn't look dated like most video and works as an apt metaphor for viewing art; is it trompe le video?

It is creepy, elegant and disturbing in its natural effect and unnatural mechanics.

Accumulation art

Bocci: marketing heaven and hell.

This is a style I'm partial to.

I really like Joseph Cornell and Cornelia Parker, so collections and serialization of that collection gets me. Chandra Bocci (reviewed last month) rides that very difficult fence of love and revulsion of consumer culture. Edie Tsong and Gabriel Manca accumulate magazine imagery (something normally throwaway), then start manipulating things to their aesthetic whims.

Pat Boas' tracings of New York Times images in "Slowness" were elegant conceptually, but physically worth less than seeing all those papers plastered against the wall instead of the tracings.

It seemed like second-hand smoke.

Melody Owen, similarly, can be too precious. But her very effective car-crash chandelier actually accumulated memories (and gave me flashbacks to my potentially fatal Firestone-induced rollover nearly four years ago).

Michelle Ross, another accumulator, has one of my favorite artist statements, and Cézanne is clearly her Yoda (with a crazy-quilt George Braque for an Obi Wan).

She accumulates carpeting, scribbles, string, paint and other do-dads on wood surfaces. Although she achieves her goal of control (and safety), she looks like she is sacrificing risk for elegance. It's good for now, but lacks Agnes Martin's rigor and Cézanne's presence through thoroughness, a process that creates solidity and presence.

Detail of Edie Tsong's work.

James Boulton, with his "spark gap transmission," accumulated an effect akin to Chris Ofili and James Rosenquist as well. His 16-foot-wide work makes him one of the few painters who has signaled his intentions to accomplish something. I suggest he really look at Ofili; they have a nice one in San Fran. Mark Smith accumulates old clothing and vacuum packs it (see photo of last biennial, above).

Margaret Shirley and Laura Domela's work, at Laura Russo Gallery, layer captured imagery to nice effect, too. Domela doesn't use actual collage but, like James Rosenquist, arranges imagery into natural forms. Shirley's work uses real seaweed.

Rex Amos, who lives in Cannon Beach, has great accumulation pieces from the '60s – check some of them out at the "Fehrenbacher Hof" in Goose Hollow, next to "The Goose."

Technology art

Bruce Conkle's Pink Valley.

Emily Ginsberg creates impressive wallpaper (see November 2001) and slows time with her video work.

Bruce Conkle absolutely kicked ass with his Photoshop de-populated and de-pixilated computer game stills. Sublime and some of the very best computer art I've ever seen.

It is quite ahead of anything similar I've seen from L.A.

Impressive work: Emily Ginsberg.

Likewise, Kris Timkin, Jacqueline Ehlis and Anna Filder all use computers either to produce the image (Timken) or design custom laser-cut graphics (Ehlis).

In many ways the computer allows reality and unreality to converge in a more forced way – further increasing our skepticism of the image.

Nature not nurture

Ellen George's "Trail."

Matthew Picton (reviewed last month) and Ellen George both have a way of "inhabiting" space and addressing an environment with a man-and-nature husbandry.

Hilary Pfeifer, Malia Jensen, Bonnie Paisley and Lucinda Parker all borrow some force from the mainstream as well.

This is a genre that can help define Northwest art in a way with which other places cannot compete. An in-depth discussion would require a lot more space to get into properly.


Malia Jensen's tree shirt.

I love Malia Jensen's ridiculously useless tree shirt, and she exists in my mind as a conceptualist with enough sense to also build physical efficacy into her plans – hence her skunk taking a bath is cast in soap.

One major up-and-comer, Michael Oman-Reagan, is dangerously ascetic. His sophisticated, fragile, elegant works and legendary communication project (see July 2002), where he communicated with gallerist Jane Beebe purely through leaving work on her doorstep, proves he's on top of his game.

Oman-Reagan is a perfect fit for PDX Gallery and is Portland's most European artist – probably even more so than ex-pat Europeans. He also runs the Field Gallery at the Everett Station Lofts.

Michael Oman-Reagan.

Others, like Nan Curtis, Kristy Edmunds, Harrell Fletcher, and Brad Adkins, are all card-carrying conceptualists, too (Adkins will likely make a card). Melody Owen can be lumped in, but she does get into the process part more than the others.

Like all conceptualists, their most universally convincing stuff comes when the cuteness of their narrative ideas are tested and informed by the truth of making something or finding something readymade.

Louise Bourgeois learned this a long time ago: Ideas need efficacy, else they become mental masturbation or mere trickery.

Brad Adkins created this going-away card last year.

Otherwise it is like arguing the number of angels on the head of a pin, which was OK for 1992 ... not 2002. Both Adkins and Harrell Fletcher seek to ingratiate their viewer/participants into the whole.

Sometimes conceptualism is refreshing, other times so cute I want to spit, yawn or read something by a real narrative writer like Gore Vidal, Dave Hickey, Charles Baudelaire or Voltaire.

The problem with conceptualists is that they can come off like trepanned philosophers and they are not worthy of comparing to the real deal, like Hegel, Plato, etc.

"Eye Con," by damali ayo.

Another conceptualist, damali ayo, makes very physically interactive environments. Once again, she's in the world – not simply rambling about it.

Hell – I even got accused of being an arch-conceptualist this year …

Trust me, I ain't gonna do that secret poststructuralist narrative handshake (although I love Duchamp, conceptual ideas are a tool, not an end; talk is cheap).

Identity art

Storm Tharp's "Orchid Eaters."

Long ago it was just portraiture, like Gregory Grenon. But now it has expanded to installation art, like ayo.

Ayo is one of the few artists in town sociologically concerned with race, but it is also more generally about identity outside of that discussion. Nan Curtis, Edie Tsong, Daniel Duford, Joe Thurston and Pearl Dik are all good examples.

Others, like Cynthia Starr and Sandy Roumagoux, use dogs instead of people – creating a sense of detached honesty not unlike talking to a stranger. Et tu Camus?

Joe Thurston's Flayed series.

Storm Tharp's work often turns me off with its narcissism, but I have to say his latest show, "Drawings," has a few real tour de forces – in particular the Franz Xavier Messerschmidt shout-out, "Orchid Eaters."

Lastly, a group of counter-culture expressionists is worth seeing at Zeitgeist in the Everett Station Lofts.

Tyler Kline, Paul Fujita, Dan Ness and Keith Rosson round out the group.

I particularly like Kline's conceptual pieces, too (chickens in windows, etc.).

Appropriately named: Zeitgeist.

Some think they are just skate punks (which they are, and that is good). But they are also some of the most daring existential artists in Portland.

Kline was trained at the extremely well-respected College of Art and Design in Savannah, Ga.

Optical presence/Finish fetish

Jacqueline Ehlis fits into both camps with a very inviting form of toughness. Her work romances the eye, creates a give-and-take.

Jacqueline Ehlis' tough glitter.

Viewers can often see themselves reflected in her work.

Other artists, like Tom Cramer and his metallic-finished wood carvings, cast a kind of ancient temple/rave party glamour about the space around them.

Brendan Clenahgen has a whole vocabulary of desire, as do Heidi Schwegler and Sean Healy.

Brendan Clenahgen's "Kiss."

Christine Bourdette has a percussive tidiness and control that fits the finish-fetish genre well.

Abstractions by Eva Lake, another optical explorer, display great effects loosely based on the diagonals of the Fremont Bridge. How very Ellsworth Kelly!

Others like Rae Mahaffey, Michael Knutson and Todd Johnson are masters of optical patterning.

Low Brow

"Cavegan," by Bwanna Spoons.

Art has gone though an amazing leveling and, as if to prove Christopher Knight right, sign makers and tattoo artists are doing great things in a genre called Low Brow.

Gallery Bink is the epicenter, but Portlander Extremo Klown is THE Cézanne of the genre in this country ... I also really like some of the work by Bwanna Spoons.

Spoons' Lego piece spelling out "Sunset" was evocative at Stumptown last summer.


James Boulton's "spark gap transmission" is 16 feet wide.

Painting isn't dead and still has some of the coolest moves in art, kind of like having a huge 'fro and a polyester leisure suit – the anachronism is balzy.

Megan Walsh, Michael Knutson, Erin Kennedy, Curtis Phillips, Zack Kirchner, Brian Borello, Paige Saez, Marcello Munoz, Adam Sorenson, Tim Dalbow, Carsen Ellis, Zeffery Throwell, James Boulton and Henk Pander all provide proof positive.

Age has its benefits, too.

In some ways it's too bad Lucinda Parker was in the last two Biennials, because she is now painting better than she ever has (good for her).

"Flag 2," by James Lavadour.

Furthermore, James Lavadour is now quite simply at a level of western landscape/abstract painting that no living U.S. artist can match. I will settle that point with fists if necessary. He's Andrew Wyeth's long-lost heir (incredulous ... bring it: Lavadour is ready for international acclaim).

In conclusion I'd like to make a last shout-out to Matt Fleck, who has worked hard the last two years to help a lot of the Everett Station Lofts artists lift their game.

He finished his two-year run with James Boulton last November and I'll miss intruding on the red-headed architect every First Thursday.

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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