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A new creme de menthe vibe turns Portland on its side ...
Critical i

Heaven, hell & purgatory
Vibe: Portland and New York
by Jeff Jahn

ibe: it drives the art world ... actually, it drives the world, period. How we perceive our surroundings is the root-level underpinning to our mental states. People simply want to be where the energy is.

Right now, Portland has "the vibe." If it were a drink it would be creme de menthe.

Although I'm not certain if any place has a real handle on what is going on, we live in a time where things are in a state of re-jigging ... a phrase some Brits have thrown at me lately. Portland seems full of possibilities, things are positive and seem to be changing for the better.

Portland is a city that isn't broken as an incubator. In fact, it's starting to bear fruit when most of the other U.S. cities are cleaning up after a very messy party.

At this writing, I am drinking a chai in the alcove of a Northwest Portland coffee shop that is blaring some righteous guitar courtesy of Blond Redhead. Several people, young and old, are discussing Hegel and Kierkegaard. On another side of the room a young couple takes a break from clubbing by playing chess. I love that!

Being surrounded by neon signs and art by street youths keeps laptop gypsies like me bathed in the civic-anarchy vibe this country needs right now to recharge itself.

Sometimes vibe is the more or less fly-by-night aesthetic of fashion or something more permanent, like art (both have strengths and weaknesses; here you're stuck with art). Both are vessels of vibe, anchors or amphora of taste, dreams, obligations and probably a nightmare or two.

Paul Klee's "Temple gardens" at the Metropolitan Museum.

Divining "vibe" (an indispensable word for advertising people) is almost like using a dousing rod, but there's something to it … not soft science, not hard science, but real because you feel it tacitly.

Dave Hickey calls 'em communities of desire. Portland is a place where many youths are carving out their cosmopolitan dreams because nobody dared dream them here before.

And if you can dream, it can be executed here. This is the first wave.

That said, I want to see bigger dreams and an increase in mad-scientist experiments. I want some young painter with crazy red hair like Gene Wilder to metaphorically come out of the studio and frighten the villagers with his “monster,” screaming ITTT’S AAAALIIIIVE!

For example, painter James Boulton, detailed many times in this space, just got his leg up and is in the 2003 Oregon Biennial. Since he's the most engaged of the 20-something painters I know, let us hope this is just the beginning. The biennials have, unfortunately, been the summa of many a career.

To get beyond their regional cultural reach, cities like Portland, Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., all need to push further into a reality that might not yet exist.

Da Vinci: mad scientist.

It's an audacious goal that simply takes vision and follow-through. Someone like Paul Klee, for instance, sought to make the invisible visible in his work. There's no reason this goal can't be applied on a civic level. Some serious cultural coordinating needs to occur and we shall see if Mayor Katz’s cultural taskforce recognizes the fact that Portland’s art museums, galleries and art walks are the key ingredient.

As you'll see later on, most current New York art seems to lack this pregnant vibe. Still, two exhibits at the Metropolitan, "Klee the Traveler" and the Leonardo Da Vinci show, showed just where vibe can go if it is coupled to a mad scientist's quest for pleasing oneself.

Portland's scene has lots of vibe. It's probably the best place in the country to create a vibe of your own, but we have yet to hit second gear.

With the U.S. in a state of war, Portland somehow seems to be saying “told you so ...” Likewise, New York seems to have convinced itself of the inevitability of another attack despite the likelihood that one would happen in L.A., San Francisco, Miami or Washington D.C., since such cities present more iconic targets.

Portland is a city that swims against the current, something that is becoming more and more valuable. In 1980, the Portland Building gave us the first example of postmodern architecture. The trend crossed over into art shortly thereafter. But the Portland Building left such an awful taste in people's mouths that, to some degree, it inoculated the city from the cult of postmodern pastiche that became virulent in the 1980s and '90s.

Now that Portland has an art scene on the move and a non-pastiche architect like Brad Cloepfil, the time has come to decide what is worthwhile and pursue it aesthetically. In terms of vibe, I noticed Tyler Kline at Zeitgeist was painting a purple diptych with gas masks and Portland police shock troopers. It felt like some of George Grosz and Jorg Immendorf’s better works.

International Arts Group Exposition
Red 76 arts group:
Laurelhurst Theater, March 12
"I've got an answer, I've got an anthem"

The vibe at Red 76's I.A.E., March 12, Portland.

There was so much to see that every report will probably be completely different. So, as the saying goes, individual results may vary.

First off, DIY indie arts events have probably been going on ever since the birth of the first place where laws consolidated civic power: a place called Uruk, an extinct city in what is now called Iraq.

DIY events keep cultural products and distribution channels from turning into useless parodies of themselves.

In 2002, Lawrence Rinder, a curator for the Whitney, caught hell for including many such DIY and youth enterprises into the most controversial showcase for American art, the Whitney Biennial.

He even purchased a piece by the collective Forcefield (included in the I.A.E.) for the Whitney's permanent collection, a serious but cool heresy! (The piece, a fluorescent David Lee Roth rocker figure, "Leader," looks great and, in the Whitney’s halls, makes much of the art around it look flaccid.) On cue, a wave of resentment from squares, Peter Scheldjahl and provincial New York sophisticates ensued.

Now, in Portland, Red 76 had a brilliant idea to convene a collection of the collective art groups all in one place, one night. In a word: nice.

Here is a cattle call of some of what I saw:

Chris Mills shot "Air Guitar" in black and white for dramatic effect?

Instant Coffee (Toronto) offered a series of highly entertaining videos. Most were infused with a light sense of humor that touched on two themes: "Hey, look at me" and "I'm no big deal." Emblematic of the entire ensemble, Chris Mills' "Air Guitar" film was funny, pathetic and narcissistic. In his studied awkwardness, he would be air-guitaring away, confronting passers-by with the half-truth words, "I just want to make people happy."

His schtick makes Brad Adkins' similar work look positively derivative, because it is. On screen Mills is uncomfortable, makes other people uncomfortable and does the sophomoric dance of "gimme your attention." Some might think I'm being negative … I think this is cool. However, don't make me watch it again.

Mills knows it's all about being looked at, acknowledged, to somehow matter. But what happens once he has the passers-by attention? (Besides becoming a good mimetic device for the film viewer.) At that point, it floats away into the vacuousness of the moment. "Air Guitar" is nihilistic comedy, but Mills is no Sartre, yet (and likely never).

Somehow, one senses he is aware of the shortcomings. He begs us for patience and, considering the brevity of his film, I'll give it. I can think of worse endeavors.

Like most of this work, it's for people with lots of time on their hands. Adults seldom have such a luxury. Still, Instant Coffee salutes the elders (they realize responsibility is coming) and one cannot fault them for their youthful gratuitousness; it's good, clean, witty fun. Yet, it might yield something else. And even if it doesn't, in this case, youth has not been wasted on the young. Their gratuitousness is a form of savoring a fleeting time in life.

But do these films bridge cultural anthropology in the way that Etruscan pottery becomes art? Right now, no. But maybe in a thousand years.

Solar powered pirate radio station by Temporary Services (Chicago).

Collective Jyrk (Portland) had some pretty cool basement noise rock in this video. It took me back to my basement tapes days of high school when a friend and I started "ABL" (Anti-Biotic Legumes).

The blippy sound-grime and the repetitive endless noodling of the on-screen musicians captured the "I know this has marginalized appeal" vibe, but plowed along like Sisyphus. Most things this marginal test the open-mindedness of the viewer. Many in the theater were not up to the task.

Yes, this could have used effective editing, but not everything must be user-friendly.

Base Kamp from Philadelphia offered "Mix Tape," a face-blending mimetic mélange where the tape listener's face morphed into Elvis, Dean Martin and other luminaries. Grotesque and funny, it worked the theme of "what if I mattered?" It's witty only once, but worth that first trip.

Other groups, like Eveleigh and Evans (London) and Konstakuten (Stockholm), provided documentary evidence of self-started art events and were a good how-to guide. Somehow, it seemed anticlimactic though … then again, that's Europe in a nutshell!

Paperrad's "CableVision": Sooo damn funny; finally, "Spinal Tap" gets a freaky lil' brother.

American groups like Temporary Services (Chicago) and Paperrad (East Hampton, Mass.) seemed less permanently defeated. In fact, Paperrad's "CableVision" video, with its relentless Vulcan machine-gun shelling of '70s and '80s etcetera was soooo damn funny I could not stop laughing.

A bunch of '70s-style classic rockers who stoically play psychedelic rock while standing on top of speeding custom vans (all this is Flash animation) nearly killed me. I could see that one several times. I went home, picked up my black Les Paul guitar and put it somewhere near my bed; I knew I needed a rock 'n' roll dreamcatcher after seeing what has to be the sickest, funniest hyper-mélange of '70s and '80s imagery ever distilled.

"Spinal Tap" has a lil' brother and he is really weird! Funny is good, but its aesthetic capital gets spent; stronger art retains its charge by giving less away.

In the end, I am reminded that Forcefield has now disbanded; all that success leads to another stage ... sort of like the The Royal Art Lodge collective in Winnipeg. The best metaphor is the piece "Leader" itself – the group collectively created what it did not have. But once you can imagine a country, you want to go there for real. Collectives are good, but leaders bring about the real changes. Someone has to walk the walk that the group talks.

The long-term effect of these groups is a potential mass cloud seeding, a potential golden age; culturally, we haven't had one of those since the '60s.

Everett Station Lofts

Tyler Klein's levitating asteroid of vibe.

Tyler Klein's big balls of aluminum foil hung there in tension like cumulonimbus clouds of post-consumer art.

With the bright twine it was an art informel dream … as long as it was suspended off the floor it was art; if it hits the ground, then it's litter. The best dreams threaten to die.

I like that tension (Paul Klee taught his students at the Bauhaus to master gravity first; good advice – most people can relate to gravity).

Damien Ayers' Portland debut.

Damien Ayers' debut in Portland, with glib remarks like "Death, I hid from you as long as I could, let's be friends," and "It ain't over till it's over," have the feel of skate culture meeting Ziggy cartoons by way of Ziggy Stardust filtered through Barry McGee. Since I am partial to Klee and Kirchner's pine trees, Ayers also wins points. Not as precious as Barry McGee.

Maybe none of these Portland artists will be remembered, but there is a genuine vibe to the work.

New York Vibe

Franz West's "Corona," seen here in Vienna; better indoors in NYC.

OK, I spent a long weekend in New York and the vibe was reminiscent of treading water, often in a very polished and detached way.

I like to call it post-intellectualism – it's almost insightful, but leaves that crucial insight part out because, frankly, that is a risk.

Insight requires one to commit.

Besides the flat stuff, I saw some great David Reeds and Franz Wests; completely worth trudging through the snow.

One-time Portlander Heidi Cody's work looked smart at the Scope Fair in the Dylan Hotel (a major collector ordered a whole alphabet set; nice going Heidi).

Overall, a sense of powerlessness or a fetal-position effect was in force. Tons of highly developed but terrible art was in force, and only about 20 things were worth seeing (mind you, only London has more than 20 shows worth seeing a month).

Here is my quick vibe-o-meter for 10 things:

Franz West pushes past the powerless with "Sisyphus IV."

1) Franz West: Sisyphus at Gagosian. This is art informel on steroids. Metaphorically, Franz West rolls large globby creations up the hill. He knows his job is "push, push, push." It's not rational; it is the will to survive given physical, grotesque form. His large painted aluminum sculptures, like “Corona” and “Dorit,” infuse the room with zest.

Sophistication does not come from slickness or bigness, it comes from making art that, start to finish, has taken a good look around civilization and can virtuostically inhabit the frayed edges of its fabric. West just outdid the Otoku culture of Japan for ridiculous existential absurdism, while utilizing Greek myth. I always liked Franz West; now I LOVE Franz West.

Ovalle's Puragtory, a dull silver cloud.

2) Inigo Manglano-Ovalle at Max Protech Gallery. A big humming silver cloud form called "Purgatory" is just that. Neither here nor there, just big bombastic gasps of postmodernism, choking on its own fumes. It's a pointless technical achievement in titanium, and someone should have told this usually very adept artist about the Guggenheim Bilbao, completed in 2000; same material and mucho-superior. "Purgatory" is not as interesting as a real cloud, and about as interesting as waiting in line at the DMV.

I get it, it's a liminal stupor and, unfortunately for Inigo, I hate art that makes people dumber and contemplate suicide.

David Reed: a beautiful purgatory.

3) David Reed at Max Protech Gallery. Luckily for the gallery staff (lest they slit their own throats) they have gorgeous David Reed paintings up in the back.

Reed's swirling cloud-like purgatories of beauty and balls-out enigma cancel out Inigo's useless tripe. It is not fair, but Reed rocks. Ovale just sniffs glue.

There are purgatories and there is hell with production value. Reed is not heaven. This is another purgatory, but he does something more sophisticated than Ovale; beauty without end.

Not numb ... not edgy, Reed is like Milton Avery and Cannes era Matisse.

4) Matthew Barney at the Guggenheim. The films are better than the props. I suppose weed or Prozac would help this out, which means it is weak work.

The props are revealing and informative about the film process, but the film itself is the main work.

Still, I believe the stills are more enigmatic; they were poorly lighted due to the fluorescent fixtures.

Semmes: OK, it's orange; very clever.

5) Beverly Semmes in the "O" at Leslie Tonkonow Artworks. This exhibit says, "Hello, I am a big orange-draped room with red amphora." If Tang is your thing, this is your heaven.

Orange has always struck me as the boldest of colors. This was an interesting mock-temple to color, and not as cool as Jim Hodges curtain from the PICA show last year. It lacked Hodges' soul.

Somehow, it just seemed like a stage with no actors.

Besides, color artists like Ellsworth Kelly, Yves Klein and Mondrian do better with less. Nice, interesting, but a future? I dunno. This was interesting at the time but, looking back, it isn't.

"Remember the 'O'" sounds like a bad call to arms.

6) Scope art fair. Infinitely better than the armory ... it replaced the monotony of familiar artists with a helter-skelter mix. Savage (team Portland) with Heidi Cody's light boxes had a tactical presentation advantage: self-contained lighting. In addition, they were clean and conceptually fully formed. Other good things were photos by San Francisco artist Keith Boadwee and some really spooky Norwegian art.

7) Armory show. No Dave Hickey kids on display on the Friday when I went. The only first-rate YBA art was a cubbyhole of Tracy Emin's work, one fun Damien Hirst spin painting and a bunch of Sue Williams' semi-interesting paintings.

Sue De Beer at Postmasters rocks. Her take-no-prisoners look at mimetic twins reminds me of the great (but creepy) film "Dead Ringers."

I wanted to hate the armory's featured artist, Barnaby Furnas (at Marianne Boesky). But guess what? His moon-age daydream fantasies of concerts he never saw simply rock. Their light touch and energy are everything Bill and Ted were not ... funny, excellent and – whoa – full of energy. At a fair this dead inside, you gotta love this sort of stuff.

Maria McGill's excellent "silver cloud" at CRG.

Other stuff I liked and was familiar with: Marcel Dzama, Linda Bessemer and Gary Hume. Now that's an odd threesome!

Overall, it was a gallery who's who ... but nothing new. A nice Bernard Frieze here, a decent Martin Kippenberger there and several Gerhard Richters that were lovely but kinda predictable compared to Reed, who is a better painter.

Sad but true: The armory is a dog-and-pony show of familiars. The scope was better. The armory should be renamed The Mall.

8) Jo Baer at Dia Center. This was the only good thing at Dia besides the Robert Irwin light piece. The second room was amazing: hung low, "V. Eutopicus" seemed to be burning rubber in a power stand on the wall. No wonder Dave Hickey included this monster at Site Santa Fe. Say what you will, Hickey still had the best show of the 21st century to date. If you can't see that, you are in denial. Again, something better will come along, but a lone artist will have to pull it off. It wasn’t neo-modernism, superdupermodernism or post-postmodernism. Hickey’s show was a return to the love of art in contrast to the aesthetic hypochondria of postmodernism.

9) Maria McGill at CRG Gallery. One room was stunning. It consisted of several mirrored blown-glass pieces that reflected the flock of shiny black drips on the wall. Once again, this reflection sets up a mimetic dialog of seeing the world around you as lensed through what currently has the viewer’s attention. It was smart and to the point, and I couldn’t help but think about alchemy.

Donald Moffett's "Gold Tunnel," extravagantly flat.

10) Donald Moffett, Extravagant Vein at Marianne Boesky. This was so saccharine, even Hickey would have to hate the iridescent gold lamme video gimmickry that projects high-color Central Park scenes onto metallic canvases.

I suppose I can chock this up to nostalgia for what New York was like before September 11, but I gotta say this would bore people to tears in L.A.

Too bad, I was a month early. This month Boesky is showing Takashi Murakami, one of the three great artists of the '90s (and today). As a gallerist she knows what she's doing and she knows her New York clientel – who are just as capable of old sycophantic regionalism as every other place.

Ground Zero Slide / Portland Tram Vibe
United Architects (UN)

UN architects WTC design.

My favorite September 11 site design was the one by the UN architects group. It was much better than the winner's (Liebskind) memorial to every minutia of the attacks.

Still, for what it's worth, I like Liebskind and he was my second choice. But his holocaust museum in Berlin was more tasteful.

Instead, UN's glittering, hypermodern and defiantly stoic design threw a mirror up to New York and the rest of the world. Instead of pity, it was built on doing it better (not doing it more somber). UN probably didn't have the political muscle, even though it was the best blend of distinctiveness, innovation and, yes, vibe.

On March 26, the OHSU tram project announced the firm of Angelil/Graham/Pfenninger/Scholl as the winner. Although I’m disappointed that UN studios did not get the job, I think the tram still could get the cover of Architectural Record Magazine for Portland.

UN's version: The wham-bam-thank-you tram.

UN’s proposal was very strong – maybe too strong – since it proposed moving the tram’s route to connect with the Ross Island Bridge.

Although this was a bold and brilliant way to make the tram a much more important people-mover, it probably was not quite what developers of the North Macadam district were hoping for.

That, along with UN’s design, which had a retro-future Jetsonesque aesthetic that Seattle’s Space Needle, as well as towers in Vancouver and Toronto, all share. UN’s was the wham-bam-thank-you tram!

Portland, a refreshingly stubborn city, went with a firm that rightly realized the tram cars themselves were the biggest architectural jewel, and AGPS’s cars don’t look like anything in Woody Allen’s "Sleeper." This is an extremely European-looking design, unlike anything in American pop culture – even "Star Trek."

I love the AGPS cars, not just an antiquated version of the future. OK, so maybe the jury did go with the most radical proposal ... it's also the most understated one.

AGPS's version: The what's up dock.

Still, the AGPS upper landing towers in this early design phase lack zest when compared with the firm's L.A. Children’s Museum design.

Simply put, the vibe of this tram shouldn’t pander to the most skittish Portlanders; it should be strong enough to convert naysayers.

AGPS's cars are perfect though – much better than UN and SHoP’s.

E-mail Jeff at pivotofjade@hotmail.com, don’t miss his recent columns and be sure to see his April 2002 essay, Art and Threat: Untaming Humanism.

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