the show is slightly more exciting than the logo!
Critical i / Special Edition
It's a bit dull, so let's
discuss it at length!
by Jeff Jahn
he Oregon Biennial isn't supposed to make anyone happy, dammit!
Instead, the Biennial, June 28-Sept. 7, is an excuse to create
dialog a chance to nitpick, bitch and, on rare but deserved
occasion, gush. In that role, this Biennial is the best since
1999. It is also a time to raise the bar and, although this iteration
may improve the galleries some, it does not approach the higher
bar-setting standards found in the more uneven, challenging and
ultimately more influential 1999 Biennial.
The kicker is that Portland has a hundred times the
activity and sophistication it had in 1999 and, except for five
artists, it isn't our A-team.
Still, the show has a few bright spots worthy of note:
Craig Pozzi adds intense charm, Erinn Kennedy makes a breakthrough,
Amy Kendellen captures gravitas, James Lavadour shows his mastery
and Amanda Wojick keeps an overly conservative show from looking
like an out-of-touch one. Lastly, Adam Sorenson shows that the young
artists are often a great deal more elegant than some of the older
Palmer's "Bang Comics! Superman number one hundred and
In general, the show looks solid, professional, even
stoic (a Guenther curatorial trademark) but in an often uninspired,
narrow way that mostly lacks the adrenaline, innovations and up-to-date
intellectual frameworks that one can experience in Portland's scene
on a daily basis.
Basically, the problem is too much/too similar painting
and there is a no-show from video, as well as marginal installation
and sculptural work. It lacks physicality. To illustrate, Erik Palmer,
a photographer of all things, gives the show its most activated
physical presence with his "Bang Comics!" photos.
But first let's use this Biennial as an opportunity
to address Portland's bigger cultural picture. Fact is, the galleries
are still better than the museum for contemporary art-viewing and
the scene itself has begun to drive the galleries in a way that
could fundamentally change the city itself.
With First Thursday, the city has a major high-end
tourism opportunity during the summer and fall that requires some
serious thought from the city, PAM, PICA (TBA), the galleries, and
the Pearl District's business association. Still, despite this viable
business side, what is nice is that many of the artists in town
can lay claim to being the most sophisticated and driving cultural
force here. They have the iconoclastic legitimacy that has made
this an exciting place. That sort of broad from-the- ground-up art
scene has not happened in a U.S. city since New York in the early
1980s. Conversely, L.A. is very institutional.
Hence, the very high expectations for a Biennial that
cannot meet them by design.
Part of the problem (and no secret) is the perceived
vs. real role of this Biennial, both from inside and outside the
institution a role that has to change as the museum changes
dramatically in its contemporary mission in the next two years with
its new wing. More on that very real mandate later.
a cynical Miro tie-in, since Miro has a show upstairs. Still,
this is a good painting by David Anderson.
To give credit where it's due, though, the curator
for the 1999 Biennial, Katherine Kanjo, knew her progressive stance
was at odds with the museum's goals and therefore that show and
the Let's Entertain show (which brought Takashi Murakami and Damien
Hirst) spelled the end of her career here.
That said, Bruce Guenther did not have free reign,
yet that sort of adventure is exactly what the public expects. Scylla
or Charybdis, anyone? The only person who can really address this
is John Buchanan, director of the museum. He is a smart guy and
can do the math. The reputation of the city is at stake with this
new contemporary wing, which breaks ground in October.
the Biennial from 50 feet away
With no video or installation, the show lacks the
wild variety of genres I see all the time here. Sixteen of the 26
artists are painters. Conceptually, there is an issue with the painters
chosen since most practice a dated postmodern approach that makes
the whole show come off isolated, static and contained.
More specifically, too many of the paintings fetishize
a contrived disconnect (known as postmodern ennui) and therefore
the whole show feels hemmed in, overly controlled and a bit dull.
The excuse is that this is what the slide pool reflected
by numbers. I don't doubt that, but if this is just a purely statistical
process, why no pretty flowers or self-portraits?
One should either pick what sticks out or the edge
of innovation not the last remnants of a well-documented
For an example of redundant and overly controlled,
there are Amy Ruppel and Michelle Ross' works. Although nicely executed,
both have very similar color schemes, woodgrained ground and visual
effect. Both are controlled studies, or deconstructions, of their
pictorial elements. Guenther calls it "the idea of a painting."
I call it the autopsy of a once-promising work.
Really, this patina of successful art in "Nestle"
and "The Theory of Lengthwise Roving" is what keeps some
of the Portland art scene too grounded; it comes off as professionalism
for professionalism's sake because it factors out the risk, which
is really what distinguishes the locals from the big boys. Both
resemble '80s artist Jonathan Lasker, but lack his boldness.
Ross' "The Theory of Lengthwise Roving."
This patina may be something reassuring for slide
jurors it looks a bit better in reproduction than in real
life. Mind you, I like both of the works, but it seems like the
experiment was aborted just before it got truly interesting.
Stop chasing elegance and explore.
So yes, Ruppel has a bright future here and Ross is
close to something very cool if she does something that risks falling
in love with the world instead of controlling it.
and reality: new discourse …
this relevant somehow?
Why do I harp on this? Instead of disconnect, we now
know Afghanistan is connected to New York's once cloistered art
scene and having a central tragic event creates instant rapport
with strangers (postmodern ennui is DEAD; real terror makes it outdated).
We also learned civilization still works just fine
and we can all drop the façades and come together when necessary.
Despite this, the Pacific Northwest iconoclasts were there first,
since the WTO demonstration in Seattle was the official moment that
something had changed.
So now that we've moved through that disconnected
and deconstructed theory centric discourse of postmodernism into
one that thinks of the world in connected, aggregate cause-and-effect
terms or evolving complexity, we are facing options that are staggering.
Boulton's 16-foot monster "Spark Gap Transmission"
at the Emergence show, May 2002.
This show misses that staggering energy except in
the case of James Boulton, whose overload aesthetic could be called
Unfortunately, his work is ghettoized with several
other young artists when the effect of having it near Lavadour's
Nature Information would have given the show a bang for a beginning.
Boulton's latest works are even better and more juxtaposed and integrated.
In addition, since "Spark Gap Transmission" was painted
as the capstone of his previous style, it looked better in the Emergence
Show, May 2002. I wanted to see something newer.
Then again, I did tell Boulton he would be in if he
entered that piece. There is a James Rosenquist show next spring
and that painting is a perfect lead-in.
Still, Boulton needs to find a way to be more than
just painting so his work can connect beyond the Rosenquist innuendo.
He is gutsy and will do it. He is very aware of former Turner Prize
winner Chris Ofili, who has blazed some of the trail already.
James Boulton is still developing but has already
outstripped many in town.
To be fair, a handful of the best choices (James Lavadour,
Erinn Kennedy, Erik Palmer and Amanda Wojick) demonstrate an up-to-date
savvy, one where philosophy is complicated by physicality.
Art today is best when theory is stretched and snapped
on the wheel of reality. At that point, art shows its elasticity.
The 2003 Oregon Biennial has poise that many young curators in town
could seriously learn from. It also has no stretch.
Yet, there is one person of whom I am convinced will
find a place in the history books: Lavadour is point blank the best
alchemist of landscape and abstraction on the planet.
Yes, this is not exactly the hottest topic of the
day in the U.S.A., but it is an ageless one that Europe has embraced.
Considering the fact that the white-man's world is
not exactly jibing with the rest of the world, this First Nation
artist offers everyone something. His masterful skill is yoked completely
in the service of what he terms "the raw event." I call it brutal
reality something beautiful, threatening and as much a part
of our lives as the air we breathe.
Lavadour's "Flag 2" from his last solo show.
Lavadour's work has tragedy, awe and the nonchalance
of a squeegee that is both gracious as a grandmother and foreboding
as death itself.
This work is not postmodern, as it is too connected,
entwined with the systemic complexity apparent between man's actions
and the connection to the land. "Connections" are the one constant
in 21st-century discourse, be it database design where SQL statements
link massive amounts of information, terrorists covertly communicating
with their fellows, or environmental issues, which cascade from
one important element to another.
The two works in this show, "Feral" and
"Point," are strong but not as strong as starker and probable
masterpiece works like "Flag" and "Slice" from
his last solo show. I don't make such statements lightly; the last
artist I felt this strongly about was Andreas Gursky.
Erinn Kennedy's "Strands" uses a dark ground
to emphasize her colors in the shapes of strands of pearls. These
gender-charged silhouettes are left dangling from the top of the
painting, making the work's surface act as a surrogate black dress.
I really like this; formally, it presents asymmetrical content on
a symmetrical surface. Yet the painting's surface can be read as
the body as well. This is a new direction of her work.
Previous works like "Choker," also on view,
have centrally located subject matter and the grounds are more window
dressing and detached. Since the graphic style is so impersonal
already, this redundancy smothered some of "Choker"'s
potential (although it is a cool inter-aesthetic pun).
How will this play nationally? Kennedy has a shot
but does not have the outright distinguishing characteristics of
Lavadour, so I would say: make the work a little bit more idiomatic,
try to push past some of the precedents that Jo Baer set in her
Minimalist New York works. This is a good breakthrough but there
is another bigger breakthrough looming out there.
Amanda Wojick's "Green Cliff," like
Lavadour's work, nods to aggregate complexities in 21st-century
life. The thousands of paint-color samples are obsessive and a way
of lacing the natural with the pop consumerism.
Still, being wall-based seems to hold it back, although
it has a nice reference to landscape painting. If the work were
even physically bolder, she would go from being cool to jaw-dropping.
Everyone is impressed with this work, especially since most everything
else is so conservative in media.
Why wasn't there more installation work? I suspect
this will only redouble the installation efforts in town
both because of Wojick's fine example and the fervor its exclusion
Other Points of Interest
Another excellent moment is Scott Patt's "The
Struggle," but it would have been better to have some of his
shirts on sale in the gift shop on display with the paintings in
the privileged gallery space.
Artists like Takashi Murakami have been complicating
fashion, sales and art for years, and it was a missed opportunity
to ghettoize the two. Then again, that is that old postmodern disconnected
"white box" gallery aesthetic. One trip to the Compound Gallery
in Portland will show how well this works. The new aesthetic is
much more integrated and complex.
Star's nicest painting ... of a doggie titled "Gabby."
I was also pleased to see Cynthia Star's work, a series
of naughty little boy doggies that reminds me of Charles Saatchi's
neurotic realism show.
Sex is filled with all sorts of dominance and submission
issues. It's important that the work is represented here; it has
edge and a kinda cute collision of Karen Kilimnick and Hans Belmer.
Still, it should have been placed somewhere else,
maybe next to Palmer's work, or Scott Patt's.
Other bewildering placements were Mike Shea's excellent
and controlled works nearby G. Lewis Clevenger, who ain't exactly
Mr. Freedom. It is a bit of a disservice to both and, with the inclusion
of Erinn Kennedy and Adam Sorenson, there is just too much clean,
hard-edge graphic work in the show. Maybe just Kennedy and Sorenson
were necessary; it's not like we haven't seen Clevenger and Shea
in a Biennial before.
Frankly, the impact of the artists' work was diluted
by this narrowness. As a survey, the Biennial should feature distinct
Bowie's "The following morning the entire park smelled
I was glad to see Chas Bowie in the Biennial, since
I've noticed his reviews in the Mercury are usually perceptive and
well-written, but occasionally his biases as an artist lead to myopia
... eh, it's the forgivable trouble with being a double agent. It
also tipped me off that he was probably pretty good.
The funny thing is that the works are hampered by
their patronizing, overcooked titles. For instance, "He lead
them all around" co-opts the Ed Ruscha-like presence and pop
disposability that makes the image so good by being preachy … we
know McDonald's is a big corporation; nobody needs a reminder.
Then there is my favorite photograph, "The bossy
honking of a distant horn interrupted his daydream, he grabbed his
bag and left." The image has this lovely tousled bed and a
tiny dancer figurine in a sun-soaked window. Not even the unnecessary
patronizing filibuster can ruin it. Just drop the verbose, overly
descriptive titles. Postmodernism was overly reliant on text and
If you want to write a book, write a book; although
this does explain why he digs Brad Atkins so much both are
overly pleased by the cuteness of their titles. (In case anyone
is wondering, yes, Atkins' Blood and Guts Forever show was much
better than the Biennial. It also had no traditional paintings.)
Other painters, like Carla Bengston, Scott Sonniksen
and Jan Reaves, had big, moody dark paintings that, although all
very well done, acted like giant dark windows with bars on them.
Instead of anchoring a show, they made it feel crowded and heavy
in a way that is not the fault of these fine painters.
Two small, feathery, somewhat coral-reef looking installations
by Angela Pozzi were lighter in tone but could not counteract their
megalithic effects; they lacked punch. This claustrophobia reminds
me that the 1999 Biennial had at least twice the space allotted
Lastly, Richard Martinez is a good painter as well,
but his gloopy, David Reed-esque works also felt crowded and a little
overworked. The work makes too much of a show of its not-so-effortless
effects. Reed's paintings of swirls and folds are also very worked,
but his work seems effortless.
Does the Biennial matter
Lewis Clevenger's "The House of the Poet."
In the end, one wishes there were only about 16 artists,
some less-well-behaved picks and at least two large installations
and two video works. As it stands, it resembles the many regional
Biennials I saw in the Midwest while growing up a local show
for locals based upon assumptions about what is local.
In other words a dead-ender for a local career.
The truth about the Portland scene is there are many
painters, but the strongest work tends to be installations and hybrids
of painting and sculpture something this Biennial utterly
For the Biennial to remain valid, it has to take on
a leadership role and champion challenging work that is not necessarily
found in or suitable for the galleries. It panders to regional assumptions
that have already been debunked in the last year.
To see such installation work (because installation
proposals suck unless the juror has seen the work), the museum needs
to allow for casing the scene years before the Biennial. A combination
of outside juror and local curator is also a good way to shake things
up. If this is done, the synergies between the museum and city would
create something that would literally be the envy of every museum
in the country.
That said, this Biennial may have done its best work
in falling short of being challenging.