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William Pope.L takes a chocolate syrup shower during his Big Rock Candy Mountain dance marathon
Critical i

Zappa, Elizabeth Peyton, 2003 Oregon Biennial
Iconoclasts unite
by Jeff Jahn

ontext is everything and I've been thinking a lot about the weird stuff on the fringe that sort of hangs out … doin' its own thing.

It either gets toughened up or fades away due to a lack of resolve and exposure. The fringe is also the most important area for the creation of new culture. For example, William Pope.L, Jackson Pollock and Joseph Beuys are all cut from this cloth of potent fringe artists that suddenly seem at the center of the world.

Those artists who get toughened up out on the fringe are pretty much obligated to beat people over the head with their idiomatic ideas whether or not the public wants them.

Even Matthew Barney (whose self-indulgent opus, "The Cremaster Cycle," opens in Portland at Cinema 21 July 18-24; see March i) used the eternal fringe but central world of fashion and art to will his films into being ... never mind that the films are daft.

It's a good time for Barney because these days the world (and New York City) is looking for daft escapism, evidence that hard work pays off and pseudo-religion.

If fringe efforts are done tactically and relentlessly, there is a dénouement and suddenly everything catches on. "The Blair Witch Project" is a good example. The tricks are that you can't pander to your audience and you have to endure long enough with a strong focus.

The lifestyle has a name: "Iconoclast."

And one thing I enjoy about the Pacific Northwest is that it tends to veer towards iconoclasm as a rule rather than the exception.

Ladies and Generals ... Mr. Frank Zappa.

People like Kurt Cobain, Matt Groening, Clifford Still, Mark Rothko, Adolf Gottlieb and lesser lights like Mark Tobey, Eddie Vedder and Morris Graves all come from this tradition, which is part of why I moved here.

Iconoclasm isn't an easy road. The strategy also requires putting in a thousand times more work and dedication than everyone else around you. So if you're not full of energy and more than a little nuts, try something else, because a lazy iconoclast is just a whiner.

Frank Zappa is probably my pick for No. 1 iconoclastic fringe-master of all time, but Beethoven and Frank Lloyd Wright are close seconds. Kandinsky is visual art's most prominent iconoclast. He had some scientifically dubious but aesthetically brilliant ideas about mixing the parameters of music and painting.

Many of Kandinsky's paintings are a bit of a mess, but when he connects he really hits it out of the park. He was very much doing his own thing and for the longest time he was more influential than revered.

"Improvisation Flood," by Kandinsky

Being revered is a problem, too. Just look at Cobain.

Often I think Zappa was purposefully flirting with "sucking" in order to scare away mainstream acceptance ... at the same time he created music like "Sofa No. 2" – a work of staggering whimsy, "cooshyness" and brilliance. Frank Zappa even had a hit song; too bad it wasn't "G-Spot Tornado" (teenage lust remix).

Zappa is hard to get into, but some recent "mix tape" compilations by famous musicians provide nice starting points. Larry LaLonde of Primus created a great one. LaLonde's Zappa Picks has "Sofa," "G-Spot," "Dumb All Over" and many others that will leave you dumbfounded if you have any capacity to appreciate human cultural activity.

Portland is filled with iconoclastic energy. Red 76's I.A.E. event last March, and PCAC's The Modern Zoo (covered here next month) are imbued with iconoclastic energy. Of course this energy often is about as intelligible as declaring "Iconoclasts Unite!" …but that jumble can lead to big things. A few of these people in Portland will figure it out and develop some real balls (post-structuralists, go have a field day).

This also underscores why the Oregon Biennial is so important. It may not be the absolute cutting edge (it only gets as close as politics and slides allow), but it does polarize discussion and highlight the differences between an institutional hierarchy and the more idiomatic ones set up by iconoclastic artists and collectors.

Elizabeth Peyton's "Jarvis"

Elizabeth Peyton

One artist I really enjoy is Elizabeth Peyton. She holds the floor with Andrew Wyeth and makes Eric Fischl look like a fuddy-duddy.

Her best works could almost be mistaken for those dreamy, lovelorn paintings by an aspiring high school artist ... yet they lack the clumsy fatalism of that arena.

It's as if she has all the skill and virtuosity of Schiele and Munch, but instead of seeing the glass half empty, she paints it half full.

Her art is definitely iconoclastic, but instead of Zappa's eternal sarcasm, she paints the ideal at its ripest with full disclosure of the decay necessarily seeded in this opulent youth.

Elizabeth Peyton's "Lucian"

The work is totally out of left field, almost as if Modernism and Postmodernism had never happened. It probably should have been in Hickey's Beau Monde exhibition in 2001.

Peyton pulls it off through personal magic and skill and not the sort of premeditated discourse that usually comes out of art schools. It's all the more impressive since she came through the art school system.

Peyton paints people in a way that never takes the actual subject for granted.

We know the young men and women she depicts are aging and will lose the glow of youth she gives them. But isn't it better to shine that flame than to hide it away?

I call this tactical optimism, addressing fatalism by treating it as something one cannot control.

Thus, mortality is a muse not drawn from lightly – giving this beauty a severe quality no matter how many opiates in which it seems to traffic.

The Biennial is solid and worthy of respect, but is that enough?

2003 Oregon Biennial
June 28-Sept. 7
Portland Art Museum

The Oregon Biennial isn't supposed to make anyone happy, dammit! It's supposed to recommit the state of Oregon to contemporary art.

That means we're all supposed to nitpick, bitch and occasionally gush, so I will oblige! Besides I've been harping about it for months.

Click here for a link to the Critical i Special Edition.

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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