J u n e   2 0 0 3

Frank Stella's "Metjaroe" is terrible.
Critical i

Who is hot? Who is not?
Stella, Kelly, Pope.L, Henzley, Boyle
by Jeff Jahn

n the New York front, Frank Stella has put an exclamation point on his downward slide with his latest show at Paul Kasmin Gallery.

This happens to great late-career artists and it's OK that Stella has evolved/devolved into mere highly refined craft, because if every top-notch artist stayed at the height of their powers for 50 years we'd have nothing but old artists choking out the young bucks.

The problem stems from the reality of diminishing returns on Stella's strategies and pandering to one's own aesthetic constructs. Pandering is the death of most good ideas.

Without explaining it any further, I dub this "convention-center art." Either you know what I mean or not; I would love to hear Stella explain why it isn't.

Ellsworth Kelly's "Red with White Relief."

Ellsworth Kelly at Matthew Marks Gallery continues to bore some and thrill others with typical brilliance, but for me this guy is just so damn good – blunt, honest and mysterious. All in all, kinda like stories about the Bermuda Triangle or Loch Ness Monster: you see it as fabrication, but it's hard to believe it is not somehow magic. Kelly's derived and distilled forms are simply more magical than what originally inspired them (things such as rooftops).

Back home in Portland, we can all safely say there is a heap of artists here these days and I think we have another two years before peak. It's made up of an incredibly wide-ranging demographic; some are skate punks, others are ambitious people with an international bent. Monolithic characterizations are pointless.

So far, 2003 has major oomph – every month has had something genuinely exciting and The Best Coast show definitely had tongues wagging coast to coast from major institutions across the land. So, OK, there was a big wave with the AAM Convention and my pirate crew and I simply showed the how, who and why of The Best Coast.

Not by coincidence, the now officially hot Portland art scene pulled off a fait accompli with a national audience in tow. I'm very proud of the artists, but those who took part need to follow up – be sure that I will. Besides the success, there were many beautiful, touching moments ... what a great group of people! It was like summer camp.

In the end, I followed the lead of an artist community with soul; the show had an immense collective IQ, something most institutional curators manage to stifle. Being artists in a confederation, we knew better.

Some Best Coasters: Picton, Fairman, Bavington and Ehlis.

There are still lots of things to look forward to: Portland Art Museum's Oregon Biennial, and the October groundbreaking for the new contemporary wing.

Other museum events, like the James Rosenquist show (2004) and an early Cézanne retrospective (2005) give a great baseline to the activity of the living scene.

The broader scene needs to be ready to make some major statements by the time these shows roll through.

Some, like Malia Jensen, Tom Cramer, Bruce Conkle, Sean Healy and Jacqueline Ehlis (etc.) already have the goods, but it's up to them to get the show on the road. The artists in Portland have to start thinking of themselves as cultural ambassadors. Portland is ahead of the game in many ways and the city needs to assume those leadership roles.

Still, I continue to enjoy the developing artists in town – they seem to arrive daily. For example, in an uneven show called Diorama-rama at _Hall, I saw a mix of good, banal and excellent work. One artist, Jesse Sargent De Jonge, in the "Volcanics" series, turned lovely national park dioramas into a 3-D walkabout. The work only looked good from one angle, which is kinda perverse in a way that I like. Another artist, Javid Howell, created a couple of truly excellent minimalist works.

Diorama-rama: "Volcanics."

In the near future (June 27) we have the 2003 Oregon Biennial, which has infuriated a lot of the young conceptual, video and installation artists in town. Then again, some of them could care less and are happy that a broad swath of painters of all age groups is represented (including the rival cliques of Hug Me's and Mods).

Let us just say biennials are not really supposed to make anyone happy; they're an exercise in recommitting the cultural landscape of the state to the arts. In addition, the format of being juried from slides is, well, crap ... so keep that under consideration. Don't whine, simply work harder.

The Best Coast show pretty much made the point regarding what is and needs to be happening in Portland: Friendly exchange and competition is good and leads to better art.

The "I'm OK, you're OK" thing promotes being OK – which gives you Minneapolis.

All I care about is STRONG art and art that is working to get better. Obviously, I am not "Portland Uber Alles" as some mistakenly think. Instead, I see a network of West Coast cities standing on their own as cultural trading partners, as well as engaging the rest of the world. I see Portland as a Rebel Base that others from outside can also enjoy.

William Pope.L: "The Great White Way."

William Pope.L
219 NW 12th
(through July 26)

PICA scores a knockout punch with William Pope L. The show smells like a sticky sweet dumpster, it infuriates/endears itself to blacks and whites alike and it incorporates rotten meat and Americana.

What is not to love?

I wonder what King William would be like if he grew up in France, Egypt or, God forbid, Germany? Chills ... Pope.L manages to react to everything without being reactionary. By being nonstick Teflon, his discourse remains vital; by being about race and Americana his objects are omnipresent.

Part of his success is that he absolutely means everything he does or says, but remains in disbelief or wonder at the same time. Thus, he refuses to paint himself into a corner. I think it's his visceral panache that makes it happen, and he is a really sweet guy.

Viscerally and in terms of cumulative effect, this marks the real birth of PICA as a visual arts organization. Until now, it has been my opinion that the institution did not want the visual arts program to take the spotlight from the performance program. Fah! Stuart Horodner as curator scores his first knockout by putting on what is probably the single-best version of this touring retrospective. It is cramped, lovely and nauseating.

Pope.L's real trick is that he's a great listener, so even when he is on the soapbox about race and America, he is listening, connecting. He reads gestures and body language; he is not stumping, he is thumping. Pope.L is a guy doing his own thing, reading between the lines, aiming between the eyes and raising hell with food.

Michael Henzley's "Plan for Robot."

Michael Henzley
New Work
Mark Woolley Gallery

I've been watching Michael Henzley for years now, and he's always impressed me as an artist who is willing to stretch himself and use "rough material" in a West Coast city where Jean Debuffet is almost unknown and every artist in the galleries, at the very least, went to art school as an undergrad.

Portland panders to craft and the patina of uninspired professionalism a bit too much.

Despite this, Henzley's latest work has really evolved; it retains its doodle-like overload, but gone is his old reliance on Basquiat-like paint handling. What comes out is a pile of elegant doodles that still breathe and do not suffocate in the tangle. It's a bit like Cy Twombly and a bit more cartoony than the work of Nic Walker (one of Henzley's influences) three years ago. What gels is a sense of ancient cartooning, not unlike hieroglyphics. It's not Carol Dunham, but he's on the right track.

Carol Dunham's "Alpha."

So what is Henzley specifically trying to say?

I don't think the artist wants the specifics to be clear, but the somewhat ancient graffiti of his work makes me wonder: What if the library of Alexandria was filled with doodles and cartoons? The mind at idle play ...

This is an important thing if you live in an overly stressed high-speed pace of life.

To my eye, they are totems of that rare creature: free time. I find the work liberating and elegant and wonder what new layers are yet to come.

Go Chode!

Ryan Boyle
Company Chode
Powell's Basil Halward Gallery

I like the pathos of Ryan Boyle's obsessive work, the various "chodes" (vaguely amphibian creatures ... company + hoard + toad = chode?). They cavort in a pitiless funland where they ruthlessly dominate and subjugate one another (it's a world I do not live in).

The odd tableaus have a circus/carnie-like aspect, a bit Betelgeuse and a bit Pee Wee's Playhouse ... so there is this whole Tim Burton thing. It is also related to Hieronymus Bosch's scenes of hell. Is this a corporate hell? Probably.

Of particular interest were the drawings of the chodes themselves in context to the distressed materials. Is this the reverse of the clean high-rises of the corporate cultures, the moral ramshackle and their less-than-elegant occupants?

This installation definitely worked and was even better than Art Gym's Blood and Guts Forever show. The extended layout and larger pieces anchored some of the minutia. In the end, I'm reminded of Marcel Dzama, and Hogarth's great etchings ... all with installation art.

Pretty cool. I'd like to see Boyle's take on Brueghel's Tower of Babel.

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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