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Tony Tasset's "Dead Blue Jay" at PICA.
Critical i

Tasset, Held, 'Twin Peaks,' First Thursday & Donut Shop 7
First-person Portland art tour
by Jeff Jahn

ince art is an intensely personal and subjective thing, I decided to do this piece strictly from that vantage.

First off, I've decided not to write much about Tony Tasset at PICA, other than he has really bored me for very personal reasons for more than 10 years. Most of it comes from his whole exploration of a typical Midwestern guy's life. Being from Wisconsin, I'm an expert on that … in fact, I've avoided it like a vampire avoids the sun.

Eating cornflakes, having children, dreaming of marrying blond women, gaining 30 pounds, pretending to be Neil Young – that's what everyone I went to high school with did.


Only a month after I moved here my best friend blew his head off rather than face that kind of future. So in that context, I find Tasset's stuff second-hand smoke. Still, I liked the dead blue jay somewhat as a reminder of what I left behind.

Somehow, it was still inadequate.

Since this is a bit of a diary, let's set the mood as I write: It's midnight on a Saturday and spring has arrived in Portland. The weather was lovely all day, but now it's raining and a 40-mph wind is laying waste to all the club kids' umbrellas.

Tim Lukowiak's "Dual Axis," at Heaven.

I'm at the Heaven Coffee Shop. The place is full and I'm surrounded by paintings by Tim Lukowiak, who claims his work is "an amalgam of metaphysics, comic books, Japanese pop, modern and classical art and how color plays in the mind."

He's right, of course, but the only thing I like is "Dual Axis," which could be some decent cover art for a techno album. I particularly like how the neon lights in the store window tint the work. Stylistically, he's a young aesthetic gadfly looking for his thing – but he does have talent.

"Dual Axis" reminds me a bit of Al Held's latest work at Reed College's Cooley Gallery. Held is an extremely influential artist and I admired an early painting on view at MoMA while in New York last month. Still, the current work seems more like an overly detailed illustration of the imagination rather than a sparse catalyst for it, like his earlier works. That said, some of the new work, such as "Ram Air," held my attention.

Al Held's "Ram Air," at Reed College's Cooley Gallery.

I particularly enjoyed hearing Held speak about his work. One attendee queried him as to whether he was influenced by Duchamp. His refreshing response: "I managed to avoid rock 'n' roll and I managed to avoid Duchamp."

At least someone avoided him! Sometimes an artist's ability can be measured by what they don't allow.

Speaking of not allowing, I'm certain some will see this as trippy art, which, of course, is kinda shabby thinking.

Held is a cool kind of square, obviously isn't dropping acid and the incredibly sustained activity of the work comes from a half century of visual experimentation taken in radical directions. It's about indulgent work, not indulgent chemicals.

In many ways Duchamp was one of the least indulgent artists, in terms of art-making. In fact, he stopped making it altogether. Technical indulgence is a tricky thing; it's out of fashion in some circles, yet in the Dave Hickey camp, it's de rigueur. That's a thin line and, frankly, very few artists attempt to flirt with virtuosity. Many just take a Fluxus-cum-Duchamian-just-add-water conceptual base. They press on so self-pleased with their too-easily pilfered mental cantrips.

If you want to follow that bad example, simply say "art is ridiculous" and "art sucks" and there you have it ... instant, reactionary, negativist art.

A 1949 Hans Hoffmann at Elizabeth Leach.

A lot of the collectives are doing that sort of fluxus-lite work that also draws on the emo-rock aesthetic that broken homes, Prozac, etc., give to some kids.

Most of it looks like a cry for attention that, at the same time, is afraid to step into the limelight. As art, it becomes therapy.

As an antidote to "therapy art," I note that curator Bruce Guenther was playing Easter Bunny in April, with an excellent late-'70s Roy Lichtenstein, a classic Robert Rauschenberg and a killer painting by Jasper Johns, "0-9," all on display in the Portland Art Museum's Schnitzer Atrium.

For those of us accustomed to top-notch work at museums, these little Easter eggs get us through until the new contemporary wing is completed. Honest, the museum owns some nice contemporary work – it's just that there's no place to put it!

For German Expressionists, they have an excellent Paul Klee, a rustic Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, a nice Max Beckman, etc. ... some day we can see all three together. Another top-shelf work by Hans Hoffmann, at Elizabeth Leach Gallery, is also worth a pilgrimage. If you paint, don't miss these works.

Agent Cooper "treats" himself to some coffee ... demonic or mundane?

"Twin Peaks, Episode 8"
Mission Theater

I caught "Twin Peaks, Episode 8" (the first show of season two) at the Mission Theater. Simply put, it is a great, pitiless, but still humanistic achievement – great to see the familiar intro with its mill fashioning boards out of trees supported by music filled with hope and despair.

The whole thing emphasizes how tenuous our control of our surroundings is. Lynch is a behaviorist/semiotician sort, and his model works better for movies and theater than real psychology or real-life occurrences. In my mind, Lynch and Brecht are very much related, probably via Jim Morrison, somehow.

Since I didn't grow up in the Northwest, these shows originally reminded me of Northern Wisconsin. My family has a cabin that looks just like the Great Northern Hotel.

Audrey with drapes and lamp shade wings at One-Eyed Jacks ... are those eyebrows demonic or mundane?

I was particularly taken by the scenes with Donna, who wears Laura Palmer's sunglasses and starts acting the part of Hollywood femme fatale.

The numerous musical numbers with Leland Palmer similarly transformed characters that seemed accessible into living Hollywood masks: emotive and performative but dead inside.

Basically, it all becomes choreography and reminded me of Marlene Dietrich in "Blue Angel."

There was also a scene where Audrey, trapped at One-Eyed Jack's, used masks and curtains to fend off the amorous advances of her unaware pimp-daddy father.

It's all so classic – the masks and curtains as symbols of the theater. In Twin Peaks, drama lifts and debases, polarizing the human experience. Are these actors, gods or monsters? Are these roles really our higher or baser selves? Lynch makes that question scary, seductive, unreal, tangible and as predictable as small-town boredom.

Cooper and Truman have some donuts.

Of course, the shivering final sequence with the murder of Laura Palmer and the demonic cackling of the Bob character froze the room.

Violence is a mask, too.

It reminds me that the power of visual media can be found in its sensory deprivation of taste, smell and touch. It's a kind of mask, which is why Picasso and Matisse's work still affect us ... the strange sensory dissolution heightens attention. Similarly, Lynch knows where the red meat is in his "Twin Peaks."

"Coupling" (foreground), with Kronschlaeger's works in the background.

Donut Shop 7
PNCA's Feldman Gallery

Three years ago, Cris Moss started the Donut Shop in what is now called the _Hall space in SE Portland. An excellent idea. Seven shows later I can say the first was the best, but this last one had the single most satisfying piece of art in any of his shows.

It also had some of the most blatantly ripped-off MFA drivel. Yet, I loved part of the exhibit and overall the installation was very well done.

Congrats and a hats off to gallery director Nan Curtis are in order. She takes risks.

Bad news first: photographer John Harris apparently thinks nobody has seen or heard of Jake and Dinos Chapman, famous for their disturbing, often gory, dioramas. Sorry guy, we get art magazines here and fake carnage looks very limp when you've got CNN coverage of the Iraq war pumped in 24-7.

Detail of John Harris' photography.

I think '80s and early '90s postmodernism lost touch with true horrors like war, disease and despair. Most of that stuff, like Schnabel's work, just had the sort of despair one sees from cocaine addicts ... a world of alienation created by an alienating drug culture fueled by deficit spending Reaganomics. Let's get past that stuff.

Another photographer, Alois Kronschlaeger, makes very German work which, although nicely executed, simply lacks interesting content. On a core level it is over reliant on ennui without any of the real tension between disgust and desire that Baudelaire (the father of ennui) so personified.

With titles like "Residue and concealment #2," the allusion to drug culture is about as ham-fisted as it gets. Compare it to Baudelaire's "The Vampire," from Les Fluers Du Mal, and it seems quaint.

My snotty, arrogant suggestion: watch some David Lynch. Actually, watch all of Lynch's work. Then stalk him. I'm certain he's used to it. Kronschlaeger draws lines but never crosses them, and the art is mired in the aesthetics of 1993.

Julia Fenton's work at Mark Woolley Gallery.

A successful work like Julia Fenton's untitled, on the other side of the Pearl district at Mark Woolley Gallery, is infinitely superior for this reason.

Beauty and disgust with lots of layers.

The standouts of the Donut Shop 7 are Frantiska + Tim Gilman. They created one misfire that needs refining, along with one exceptional installation.

Their "Coupling" of two fuzzy bears looks like a lot of MFA work I see coming from California art schools, with two animals joined at the head. Somehow, the cheap-looking foam pedestal for one of the bears and the lack of Discovery Channel pheromone lust in the forms undermined the piece. So couples share a brain and there is a control-and-dominance thing ... it needs more layers, a shifting tension ... maybe some weird flowers.

"We Took a Sideways Glance and Fell into the Bottom of a Season," by Frantiska + Tim Gilman.

Conversely, their "We Took a Sideways Glance and Fell into the Bottom of a Season" is amazing.

The floating dioramas of foliage recreating the reflections of water with real underside foliage were a great, mimetic, one-to-one correlation of a mirror image couple, still capable of springtime frolics.

By suspending elements in the air, it also creates a metaphor for the suspension of disbelief transfiguring the fake foliage and waterfall into something plausible.

Love is in the air, so cue the Barry White.

Detail Of Donald Jones' work at Soundvision.

First Thursday (April 3)
Stratum and Fluorescence

Everett Station Lofts

I really liked the Lofts last month. Soundvision's Stratum was excellent and I particularly liked Donald Jones' pictures of flotsam and jetsam in a river or lake. Instead of the completely dislocated aesthetic that I find essentially bankrupt, it is another work that walks through the territory of postmodernism into a new country many artists are exploring.

The difference: all of the disparate elements seem connected and there is a tide, an ebb and flow. Somehow, even though the photos are fragmented, they are all of the same cloth and cannot be cut. Welcome to the 21st century.

At Field in a fit of aggravated indulgence, I decided to leave the relatively gutless and removed confines of art critic and install a long-shelved experimental project for Michael Oman Reagan & Muriel Bartol's Fluorescence show.

Fluorescence show: Ehlis, Bartol, Walsh (on wall), my string-a-ling (foreground).

I think it went well.

Jacqueline Ehlis and I installed first. Hers was hard edged, so I decided to go soft for contrast … (it was a dialog project).

Apparently, by not going ultra-clean it stood out – which I wanted. The Pacific Northwest tends to see clean lines as indicative of value (an anti-rustic aesthetic that comes from the ease in which moss develops around here). For instance, when was the last time you saw Jean Debuffet in these parts?

My point exactly.

The region seems relatively ignorant of the whole entropy art aesthetic in Art Brut, Art Informel, Jackson Pollock and Eva Hesse. Since most around here are more aware of Marfa-influenced work, many think minimalism = clean. Not so.

Simply put, Richard Long, Eva Hesse, Robert Smithson and Andrew Goldsworthy show that organic or natural aesthetics can be minimal.

Eva Hesse (left) and a detail of my stepchild to her work.

In general, I only see flaws in shows I'm associated with and this is no exception. My criticism of my own work is basically that it was very derivative of Eva Hesse and Louise Bourgeois. Yet, I liked it because I like Eva Hesse a lot. This unease made me feel self-conscious about how fragile authorship is within history.

After some thought I decided the lack of hard tied knots and the bright color gave mine a different feel, more free will and less fate than anything Hesse ever evoked. That figures. I'm not exactly similar in personality to Hesse. I'm doubtful that my modifications to her ideas were as visually convincing, since it isn't the core thrust of my work. It also reminded me of antiaircraft fire over Iraq. Thus my installation, called "Tant," implied free will, but with lots of consequences.

Overall I think it needed three more layers going up several stories. I think of it as a preparatory sketch.

Still in hypercritical mode, I was a little dismayed that many critics managed to write about the show without talking about properties of the color itself – since it is, after all, a show about fluorescent color. Then again, postmodern criticism usually limited formal discussions to the big, empty white space of the gallery wall because it was reactionary to Greenbergian formalism, which discussed form, color and texture.

What I noticed was fluorescence dematerializes its support material and the objects start to seem like dreams. For example, Sara Dis' entombed creatures do not seem so pathetic when wrapped in high-pitched colors. The color made them like candy. Even my Eva Hesse rip-off looked less ponderous and heavy because of the color; if it were brown it would have looked like ruined fishing net (like Hesse). The color turns light itself into an object, which photons, of course, are (although we seldom acknowledge it). James Turrell has made a career out of this.

In a way, it was like appropriation art and I'm glad Eva's aesthetic in Sara and my work kept it all from being the ultra-clean show some confused it as. Hence the title.

Some of Sarah Dis' creatures.

Similarly, I liked Brad Adkins "I'd do anything for Love," an oval-shaped pin-and-spotlight piece – until I read the title.

This feigned "cult of the fragile psyche" thing is growing old. It's like listening to Jewel, fer chrissake! It's also very emo-affected and I am not going to treat Adkins with kid gloves like everyone else does – mainly because he has good ideas that I would like to see developed, instead of prematurely foreshortened or aborted.

He questioned my short comment last month so, I decided, why not just say it publicly? I like Brad himself more than his work ... so I unleash this with the caveat that I like the ideas but they need more rigor. If it's going to be conceptual art it literally needs to make up its mind.

So, here goes. Can a mock-biographical work effectively subvert criticism? In this case no, and here is why:

One huge problem is that the work is mistaken for being self-effacing, both by other critics and the artist himself (a real no-no; sarcastic work can't believe its own sarcasm and remain credible). Why? Any works with a spotlight on them and a title with an "I" refer back to the artists themselves. Thus, instead of being self-effacing, they say "look at me ... pretty please."

This type of grab for attention requires a certain charity on the part of the viewer, whereas Harrell Fletcher's infinitely better work is based on being charitable and shares some private thing with the viewer. Being charitable is self-effacing, but asking for charity (although not a sin) is a bit needy and demanding – purposefully diluting rather than layering the conceptual heft of the work. In the end, I doubt the artist would "do anything for love" at all, but would whisper for attention. It is simply too passive-aggressive for me, a strategy that keeps the artist from investing much in the work or concept: Fluxus-lite.

To be stronger it needs to be more – or less – evasive. In other words, it needs to succeed or fail more fully in its aim to raise itself above being cute. Right now it tries to have it both ways, but without anything at stake there is no tension between the "look at me" and the "I'm not important" impulses. It's simply too much an extension of Adkins' own self-consciousness to exist beyond him.

To be succinct: ennui and self-pity mixed with passive-aggressive grandstanding is just not an effective mix. One of Adkin's own avowed influences, Joseph Kosuth, purposefully distanced all of his work from emotion and autobiographical content for this very reason.

If Adkins invests nothing (as the blank aura suggests), why would someone else invest their concern? Either alienate the viewer more fully (like Charles Ray) or bring them in (like Fletcher).

Adkins could also combine the two and hold them in stasis like Ed Ruscha. He threatens to do it, but never walks that tightrope because his objects evaporate too much to hold the opposing forces in place.

Did someone say "Evil"?

Also, better artists, like Ruscha, indirectly discuss themselves through metaphor but in more loaded and consequential terms. For an example, Ruscha's great work "Evil" is a little self-condemning (and congratulatory).

Since "Evil" is inked in the artist's own blood, he celebrates how that vital fluid has somehow become more culturally important than when it was keeping him alive.

The notion of art being more important than the artist is seen as evil, or at least "wrong," to some. Ruscha straddles the fence with the work. By not being personally involved it's impossible to tell if "Evil" is evil. ("Evil" was my nickname in grad school.)

Also, to be blunt, emo as an M.O. works better in teen-age pop music, since it is disposable – a real cult of personality is needed in Adkins' work, since it continually refers back to Brad.

Still, it was a successful piece in most every way except its title's paramount conceptual undertow. So, if you want love, change the title to "Anything for Love?" The question puts something at stake and doesn't believe its own "look at me" schtick.

That said, I think Adkins will figure it out someday. I don't write him off as "more a curator," like many do. He's too hypersensitive about all this to be "just an organizer." And this sort of schmaltz-liquor thing won't play with people who can help get Adkins to the next level.

Michael Oman Reagan's work, for example, is just as delicate but expresses it within the work without referring back to the artist. This self-contained conceptual rigor is what is needed.

Jacqueline Ehlis' work made me realize why fluorescents are used for sports: it reinforces a border as a target, but also enhances the transgression – the athletic gall of scoring a point.

Fluorescence can be confrontational, a big "nah, ah, don't go there."

Somehow Ehlis' "drawing" seemed a bit too rooted and static (and the version outside her studio is better). Squares and rectangles are very stable forms ... targets instead of the sensation of speed she is often after. Still, the tape on the outside of the gallery was my favorite part.

Muriel Bartol's gauzy Fluorescent work flirts with immateriality and a delicate virtuosity.

Ehlis is into Ellsworth Kelly, so I'm certain she has more dancing forms in the works. This was an experimental piece, as was mine. There are things artists learn only from doing.

In fact, she's made a breakthrough in the studio (think of Ellsworth Kelly and Eva Hesse shooting spitballs at Richard Serra, yet absolutely phenomenologically serious) and I see how this wall drawing has been translated into some amazing museum-quality work made from more solid materials.

Muriel Bartol's works were extremely nice, with very sophisticated layering. A kind of fluorescence behind a gauzy scrim.

I know Bartol, and this work fits her personality – always a good indicator that the art is hitting the mark.

Overall, it's nice to mix it up. Thinking and writing about art only goes so far. Being a practitioner is crucial.

Bartol and Reagan's work was the most developed in the show, since most of the other work was experimental. I like experimental shows like this, where one has to try and get into the artists' heads a bit. Bartol and Reagan used the curatorial impetus as a kind of studio, looking for new experimental ideas once their own work became solid.

Overall, yes, it was cramped quarters but the fluorescent color properties of the works made it breathe. Interesting. It was like a studio visit with 15 artists all at once.

Work by Michael Oman Reagan.

In the end I guess I distrust any critic or curator who doesn't try to practice what they are supposed to be engaging. For example, the world's greatest wine critic, Robert Parker, started the Beaux Freres Winery in the Willamette Valley to avoid that "conceptual" trap.

To be sure, being a critic makes one sensitive to people's biases, including one's own ... but being an artist means stretching other people's biases.

One hand literally shakes the other, so there is no reason one can't be both. Robert Motherwell, Frank Stella, Duchamp and Picasso were all very good at evaluating other people's work as well as their own.

I wish artists would critique critics more. I think critics should do the same to one another as well.

In short, I am finding everyone's tastes, including my own, are too conservative and predictable. Which usually means something very interesting is on the way. I'm thinking more and more about intense personal subjectivity and how it is a coordinating force. Subjectivity is not the alienating insular version continually touted in late 20th-century postmodernism.

One is reminded that Manet's "Olympia" brought personal subjectivity to the fore ... and somehow modernism and postmodernism seem like such arbitrary terms for a much broader field of optimists, pessimists and fence straddlers.

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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