|If you cannot keep the suburban in check, we will expand
the urban drastically ... we must export our wicked urban
ways to preserve them.
fictitious Portland arts beaurocrat talking
to a Lake Oswego hausfrau at Core Sample
after Core Sample, most now believe something is going on in Portland's
art scene. It's something that those who have been paying attention
in Portland, Seattle, London, L.A. and New York already knew.
But as usual, most things need to be stated three
or more times to sink in for the laggers. I ask the logical next
big questions: What, why and where will it all go? In terms of
why, the pat sound-bite answers that say it's because of unemployment
and cheap rents are either patently false or irrelevant next to
more important factors.
I'll dedicate this entire article to Core Sample's
ramifications and highlight some of what Portland needs to do
after this perfect storm of group shows in 2003. Since few seem
to care about publishing in-depth critical statements about these
shows, I'll be the heavy.
Still, I want everyone in Portland to know how proud
I am to be living here. To Randy Gragg, PCAC, PICA, PAM and Red
76 ... thanks. And to everyone involved or interested in the scene
it has been a hell of a great year. I suspect 2004 will be different
but more "decisive and focused" in its exhibitions than 2003,
the Portland polyglot year.
First, some debunking. Unemployment might swell the
ranks of people who occasionally make a little art, but it actually
hampers serious art-making. Unemployment creates self-doubt and
throws one's life into chaos. It's distracting and, luckily, most
of the major players do work ... many even have excellent careers
and this acceptance of artsy people in the office is part of what
makes Portland so dangerous as an arts city. It is woven into
the city's very fabric.
Second, cheap rents are important only because Seattle
and San Francisco are outrageous ... that still isn't "the real
reason" for the Portland boom, though, because without opportunity
rents matter little and Portland isn't as cheap as L.A. or Austin
can be. It has gotta be the opportunity factor, specifically,
the "unsupervised" creative-opportunity factor.
Big Pink tower & "Blade Runner" sky.
Fact is, Portland is the only major city on the West
Coast where visual arts are the big game in town. At the same
time, there is a real-estate boom of lofts as well as a lack of
institutional oversight of the scene. It's a nice mix for think-for-yourself
pragmatic artists who are still coming here for an opportunity.
The unemployment might also be linked to how many people relocate
to this place without a job. Again, most of the crucial scenesters
Thus, Portland's art scene is booming because it is
underdeveloped institutionally, yet people wrongly complain about
that very aspect. There aren't a lot of grants, etc., setting
up false hierarchies ... it's a free-for-all meritocracy and a
scramble is in effect.
Some mistakenly believe the scramble is being fought
in the print media (it's important, but doesn't do much more than
highlight individuals). Even the local arts paper, The Organ,
is weak on criticism of actual shows (it's more expository; maybe
add five short 50-word reviews? Make 'em anonymous if critics
are worried about losing friends?).
Bocci's "Splat" at Second Cycle.
Instead, the real important moments are in the one-to-one
meetings between a new class of collectors, intellectuals and
the decent-to-excellent work of some artists in town. Some of
the people who complain about collectors simply don't know any
of the new players who have emerged (some of the dealers and curators
don't even know them).
These are people who can't be sold on buzz, have traveled
the world and only believe things when they see them presented
in rigorous form.
I might add that they are collecting some of the same
key artists, too …
Since we are on the subject, it's time to provocatively
name names of leading artists who are in the indie scramble (gallery
artists are in the mix, too, but let's limit this).
The non-galleried artists who seem to be winning in
that Portland art meritocracy scramble are Chandra Bocci, Bruce
Conkle, Laura Fritz, Melody Owen, Johnne Eschleman and Michael
Conkle is the only one who has put on convincing museum-scale
shows showing off his major-league experience.
Rhoads curated Flush and stood out artistically.
The others need to add this step to their log of exhibitions.
Two of the best young still-developing painters on the scene,
Adam Sorenson and James Boulton, have already been picked up by
galleries adding some drive to what is going on. But those two
can't sit idle, either.
Some other artists of note that everyone should take
seriously are Jen Rhoads, Tim Dalbow, Dan Ness, Cynthia Star,
Nic Walker, Carson Ellis, Jesse Hayward and Paige Saez. I've got
a good feeling about Rose McCormick, too.
After the immense glut of group shows, some convincing
solo efforts are where the real proof will be made. If you really
want to prove yourself, there can't be any hiding behind groups,
or short deadline excuses. It takes guts and sustained rigor to
pull off a solo show right, so don't rush it. Also, it will finally
get the critical onus back on the work as opposed to describing
We all know it is a standard journalistic convention
to describe a single personality rather than artistic efficacy
of the art. It's a historical fact: cults of personality are necesasary
for scenes to flower internationally and at home.
The recent spate of personality indicates Portland
is becoming confident as a cultural leader, instead of a province
suspicious of ambitions and focused programs.
If it's good, lets just say so.
Despite this, focusing on organizer personalities
is definitely a hindrance to upstart nonprofits like PCAC that
want to operate as vehicles for the artists instead of the other
way around ... it's good to question it, though; it keeps organizations
There are exciting November solo shows from some very
talented people. At the Portland Building there is the thoroughly
intelligent Mariana Tres (who does amazing things with fabricated
facts). At the PCC Northview Gallery the naked wryness of Keith
Rosson will probably resonate.
Then there is Joe Thurston at Mark Woolley Gallery
... I can't tell you how many recommendations he got from international
critics in town and it still took him years to land a gallery.
His last show was great and from what I've seen, this will be
Event-ism is dead; let's celebrate it with a
Cramer's "Listening Chamber" at Symbiont/Synthetic.
With so many extravaganzas this year, and more focused
solo and themed group shows on the horizon, I have to say event-ism
has been done to death. This will probably suck the air out of
all those participation shows that peaked in 2002.
In the future, instead of a 25-artist extravaganza
of bad or old work, just give us one jaw-dropping piece, or a
suite of work. Then stake your reputation on it if you dare.
Note to artists: If you don't dare, you are not ready
yet. There is no shame in that, but know it. If you don't know
where you are in the landscape you simply can't navigate to better
ground. Tom Cramer's amazing solo show makes this point perfectly.
Core Sample audience and content observations
Ellis "By the River" at Reallegories.
Core Sample was great for beginners to Portland's
art scene and often disappointing to those who keep up. Still,
there were gems.
It was great that it was so large and will have a
catalog, and not so great that it was intentionally less adventurous
and more academic because of it.
Thus, it often looked like the old Portland of five
years ago, which was good, but predictably so. Not enough of the
new talent in curators here was tapped.
In fact, the list of exclusions is staggering: T.J.
Norris, Paul Fujita, Todd Johnson, Amelia Hendley, Zefery Throwell,
Bryan Suereth and Matt Fleck are all people who have really made
the scene exciting, yet they were no-shows.
Choosing Morgan Curry and Jen Rhoads was cool, though.
Both are smart and talented, and we're lucky to have
them in town.
Despite those inclusions, the Sample's somewhat old-school
quest for clarity reminded me of the regional art center shows
I'm used to seeing in the Midwest only a critical mass
of them with a consistently higher quality. A certain shock of
the new from strong, rather unrestrained young artists often showing
at the Everett Lofts was missing.
Instead, for every challenging cosmopolitan show like
Flush, there were two or three Reallegories that smacked of "education."
Although that's good for Portland art-scene neophytes, it really
didn't raise any bars ... since most of the work was old and already
Still, some new strategies by David Eckard, Chandra
Bocci, Matthew Picton and Jen Rhoads did create new excitement
by finding solutions to previous problems.
So yes, just like all the other major group shows
in the last year, it had big flaws. Next to the Biennial it was
probably the second-most even of 2003 festival events, but it
also garners none of the strongest moments ... an odd institutional
malaise that will likely give good structure to the catalog. There
are tradeoffs to everything.
Portlander Extremo the Clown's "Soul of My Neighbor"
at Gallery Bink ... totally overlooked by Core Sample
In fairness, part of the malaise likely comes from
the size of the effort. Unless you have the budget, architectural
planning, more than nine months' time and a vast array of work
to commission and choose from, such as Dave Hickey's Beau Monde,
that sort of good-not-great thing is gonna happen. Even then,
that isn't a correct model for a burgeoning scene that just got
its legs like Portland.
In 20-20 hindsight, something more cosmopolitan would
have been better than simple genre shows. Despite the Sample being
touted as DIY (terrible term), some vibrant and a hell of a lot
more punk rock elements were left completely out, like lowbrow
and skate culture. Both are very important here, and the zeitgeist
guys could have done some excellent iconoclastic work around a
theme like "Culture Snafu."
In fact, Tyler Kline and Damien Ayers had a show at
PSU concurrent with the Sample, as did Extremo the Clown ... why
not include them?
Core Sample was also weak on photography. I mean,
how did I become one of the stronger photography curators by having
Johnson and Kornberg in my show when I have very little love for
the medium unless it's summa caliber? Certainly Marne Lucas, Christopher
Rauchenberg and Bruce Guenther are all extremely qualified to
do a real survey, yet they were not approached for logical, but
Look, I'm nitpicking for dialog's sake. Critically,
and as freakin' human beings, we have to excuse the older artist
tint to Core Sample because the Oregonian's Randy Gragg has been
somewhat out of the loop and nothing's perfect. So what if Core
Sample occurred partly because Gragg wanted to get into the loop?
That's excellent, he's a bright guy and instead of bitching (as
critics often do), he did something. Overall, nice job!
Regarding the dearth of photography, its omission
is OK the rightly hated 2003 Oregon Biennial did have lots
of nice photography. Let's give credit where it's due: no one
show did it all. That's good and displays depth in the scene.
Wake up little Suzie, wake up!
Tharp's always-strong drawings at Malia Jensen's Draw show:
In many ways Core Sample was old-guard Portland waking
up. Let's see: Randy Gragg got plugged into the scene again, Michael
Brophy is certainly more re-energized in his painting now than
six years ago and Malia Jensen is getting feistier and curatorial.
Then let's not forget that lots of mid-career craft-oriented
artists were showing in an unfinished industrial space for Crafty.
I think the craft theme is probably strong enough to garner critical
attention by itself, if it weren't so upstaged by all the powerfully
youth-inflected and less self-conscious work in town. Wait until
Brad Cloepfil's Columbus Circle craft museum is finished in New
Quiet work is good, but not as a scene's "egg tooth."
The mid-career Core Sample focus emphasizes the fact
that the art thing has been going on here for a long time and
that early '90s bubble wasn't for naught. Core Sample made the
case that Tom Cramer and Malia Jensen, etc., are proven core Portland
artists. Their energy sets them apart.
Solipsism: is it for you?
Rothko: definitely more important than Morris Graves and
Mark Tobey; a hypercritical guy, too
It's important to point out strengths and weaknesses
for the sake of future endeavors, so I'll be super ultra-duper
hyper-critical (and further highlight the main reason I've never
Core Sample was too self-conscious as a stereotypical
"Portland thing" compared to all the other big shows in 2003.
The most un-cosmopolitan example was the Painting Portland show.
As a historic statement, it was pretty much unnecessary considering
that PAM has an entire permanent wing that does a better job with
a stronger and deeper collection.
Had an early Rothko been added to the mix I maybe
could have forgiven everything. Instead the space could have been
used for an un-themed but Portland Now show.
MIA were Sean Healy, Brendan Clenaghen, Mel fricken
Katz's sculpture, etc. Oh, well ... call it missed opportunities
due to a need to revisit ourselves too much.
Yep, pointless redundancy is the road to solipsism.
At least we aren't Seattle, with its ridiculous parade of Northwest
masters' shows that overlook the Real Masters of the Northwest:
Rothko, Still, Gottlieb and Motherwell.
Newsflash: Morris Graves and Mark Tobey are great
artists, but second-tier to four of the greatest artists of all
time. At the Seattle Art Museum I've seen too many shows that
seem to show Tobey as the center of the universe.
Similarly, Core Sample does mark an exhaustion with
"see Portland" shows largely brought on by a season of three "locals
only" shows: the Modern Zoo, the Oregon Biennial and now this.
Let's remember the facts. In 2003, Machine Works,
I.A.E., the Best Coast and T.B.A. all brought in outsiders as
significant elements and were more truly cosmopolitan than the
solipsistic shows. Maybe the final burnout on hyper-internalized,
self-consciousness to a fault is Core Sample's second most important
If you want to spread the word you've gotta play generous
host, not eager tour guide. For example, although I loved the
gutsy "Override" train idea, importing an audience does seem a
bit provincial when we write an article specifically on just 40
visitors from nearby Seattle.
To illustrate, my Core Sample gallery comment book
is filled with people from Sydney, Zurich, London and New York.
These people are here all the time. Also, it's not like Seattle
just discovered us. Seattle's two fastest eyes, Elizabeth Brown
and Linda Farris, have visited here multiple times, made studio
visits, collected work and seen major events.
Institutions are not the enemy
Not to pick on him (but he's the posterchild) ...
Gragg's brand of vitriol against the institutions in town (part
of his rationale for Core Sample's being) is largely misplaced.
In fact, a lack of control on the scene is why the
art in Portland is more innovative than much of the Vancouver,
B.C., art which is rehashed Euro-Postmodernism ossified
into their institutions at a time when it was a valid thing 20
years ago (Brian Jungen excepted). Some of the B.C. "placeless"
art is only popular because it is the last bastion of Postmodernism's
isolated and deconstructed aesthetic, and there are still lots
of collectors and curators who are comfortable with it.
It's kinda like buying a 1986 Jeep CJ 7 because that
was the last year before it became a usable vehicle redesigned
by Chrysler! Hey, it's your money ...
Acconcci's "Grasp," 1969 Guggenheim collection.
Back to institutions.
Both PAM and PICA bring viewers here from elsewhere
all the time and save us the long flight to Cologne or
New York to see nice shows from elsewhere. PAM's Cézanne
show, the new North Wing and PICA's Vitto Acconcci lectures are
breathtaking developments for the hoard of Portland artists who
don't measure themselves by local heroes or current New York faves,
but by the best history has produced. Cézanne and Acconcci
Truth be told, B2V will bring fewer cultural tourists
to Seattle than the Paris years Cézanne retrospective will
bring to Portland. I suggest someone put together a concurrent
must-see show … hopefully not some festival, but an ultra-tight
one-to-three person show. Portland's best gallery artists are
already in the process of doing this.
Believe only in what you can read?
de Ocampo's wonderful U.N. resolutions at the Belmont space.
Core Sample's main and most important plus for the
Portland scene is a major, widely available catalog. It doesn't
exist yet, but I have faith in Matthew Stadler, Rich Jensen and
Gragg to make this happen.
Publishing is an amazing amount of work (unless you've
done it you have no idea!). As a personal request, I hope the
essayists do a good job and refrain from overusing "DIY"
(which is a pejorative, ghettoizing term that to many infers limited
ambition through its association to punk rock's iconoclastic avoidance
of success. The greatest artists, such as Picasso and Michelangelo,
could create excellent work despite success).
Instead, I'm toying with the tongue-in-cheek cheese
of the term "avant en-garde," differentiated from modernism's
old avant garde, in that institutions aren't so hopelessly out
of touch anymore.
It's more about salient freshness that split
between what is lively and what is old hat and relates
to advertising's relentless image competency. The "en-garde"
part points out the fact that artists are actively challenging
the institutions again.
Another essay-writing peeve is the constant fetishizing
of Oregon's distance from New York. It is an easy and not-so-informative
Curatorial trends, or lack of them ...
Mayer sign at Nan Curtis's Later.
Curatorially, Core Sample also tended to focus on
unoriginal academic distinctions such as allegories, crafts, drawing
and even man and nature (I'm guilty here). That said, it is a
core sample and a retrospective of basic tropes.
Still, I always ask how much navel-gazing is going
on. And on a scale of 1 to 10, this was 7.5.
Another curatorial observation is that a bunch of
mostly green curators went for traditional hangs where all the
work was presented too uniformly. The more experienced curators,
like Nan Curtis and Stephanie Snyder, were obviously less spatially
With paintings hung at similar heights on white walls
and lots of white podiums, many of the shows by greener curators
displayed no understanding of how to create excitement via a gutsy,
engaging layout. In the Belmont space in particular, the spectacular
space outdid more than a few of the shows. Mind you, all were
good ... but very good or great? Don't kid yourself; there was
Giving credit: highlights of Core Sample
of Chandra Bocci's work at Flush.
One highlight was Chandra Bocci at Flush. Her work,
a combination of '60s pop and Victorian theater hit me like a
post-consumer-waste Baron Munchausen adventure scene.
Still, these newer and slicker works were a little
bit anonymous stylistically ... her dying unicorns last November
were better and their fussy homemade quality was Bocci's strength.
This new work was a little too breezy, shiny and abstract. But
it was very cool and, importantly, portable.
Bocci's work at Second Cycle was excellent but too
reminiscent of Sarah Sze (that said, it had more vitality; the
figurative work is more distinct from that of other artists).
Tharp's "The Prince's Theater," at Crafty, curated
by John Raymond.
Also impressive was Jen Rhoads, whose hard-edged abstractions
I saw for merely a few seconds, but have been able to keep in
my mind for the last eight days.
Paige Saez's work was a little too much like James
Boulton's work at Fleck last year.
Boulton's work, a sea mural on a wall, was good. But
I actually preferred an earlier painting from the Maritime show
last year that used the same imagery.
It was tighter and somehow more strikingly odd as
a portable, smaller work.
Flush wins points for stating its curatorial purpose:
"to display vitality." It followed through with engaging
and often surprising work.
Crafty was a tour de force in the genre, but highlighted
the problem with high-craft work: mere virtuosity gets dull.
The works with the most power to thrill were Malia
Jensen's "Bunny," Storm Tharp's "The Prince's Theater"
and Cynthia Lahti's "Falling Horse," which was emblematic
of crafty art at its best: it's fragile and its intense tenuousness
gives it urgency that some other works in the show just didn't
One real highlight was David Eckard's "Scribe."
Gone are the frills of his Tournament Lumens show and in its place
is a workmanlike blend of overall wearing performance art and
torture device sculpture. Instead of the previously distracting
pageantry, this performance-art sculpture piece (which he used
to create circles) is by far the best thing he's ever done. He
can easily run around the country raising quizzical havoc with
Eckard's "Scribe." Nice job!
Eckard addressed all of my previous incongruity issues
between his performance and sculptural work competing for attention.
In this case, the mystery is front and center and, as a performer,
he literally disappears into his work by becoming the process-driven
"Scribe" is also less time-intensive than
the really long endurance tests of the past.
I will conveniently omit everything I liked and disliked
about my own show, Symbiont/Synthetic
(except that I never want to be a gallerist again, but was
glad to experience it once).
Lastly, the Belmont space was the most difficult mixed
bag and a lot of it was dull, rather academic, or on the opposite
spectrum as hippie idealogue work.
For example, Reallegories had a couple of very good
artists, like Eric Stotic and Carson Ellis, but was really just
too generic an effort curatorially. With only one painting by
the consistently excellent Ellis (and a rather typical hang) it
came off flat.
The omission of several artists, such as Rick Bartow,
Kevin Kadar, Nic Walker and Keith Rosson, came off as the vanilla
curatorial effort it was no real shame in that, other than
missed opportunity. Scope and depth of style, plus juxtaposing
one strong piece off of another, is the only way to go.
I also liked Vanessa Renwick's "Hunting Requires
Optimism" installation, but the middle section of The Hunt
show needed a centerpiece. It was also a pretty darn provincial
theme and Reallegories didn't provide a necessary contradiction
to that impulse to judge it as such. The two shows were a very
regionalist synergy and not the best idea to put together.
"Hermes and Aphrodite" view looking up ... way up.
The true stars of the Upstairs Belmont space were
James Harrison and Pablo de Ocampo.
Harrison's amazing "Hermes and Aphrodite" (think Hermaphrodite)
was some fine dual-gendered and wonderfully vertigo-inducing terror
Spiraling up in cadences of 2-by-4s, it was less womb-like
than his "Dahoud" piece in Seattle's Blurred show a
year or so ago.
Excellent and, like a slinky, it's fun for a boy and
Pablo de Ocampo's very nicely done installation of
words from United Nations resolutions was quiet and did give an
excellent opening impression.
Downstairs, Capture and Release was a mixed bag of
video work, but some was stunning.
Melody Owen's work of dual monitors with the same
blond girl moving toward a Romanesque sculpture was great until
she spoiled it with a cheezily overplayed crying statue at the
end. I was completely freaked out until the "woman as an object"
card was so hamfistedly played.
Owen's video ... oh so close; it's breaking my heart!
Likewise, Cris Moss's "Girl in a Bathroom"
was just trying too hard to be trauma queen. I've seen better
Some of the coolest things from Capture and Release
were Lee Krist's "Tableau Vivant" and McDougal and Rhodes'
"The Cake & Arm," with its pitcher throwing a ball
at a cake. Its slo-mo tri-screen was a very cool study in intentionality
I also liked parts of Matt McCormick's interactive
wishing-well video, although the moving spot seemed kinda corny.
I found myself questioning: Is the good work I've
seen before all we've got? The answer is no.
For those who haven't kept up, Core Sample was great.
But for those in the know, it was training wheels. Those who think
this is the zenith of Portland art are still sadly uninformed.
One studio visit to people like Sean Healy or Jacqueline
Ehlis will confirm one truth about Core Sample: we've already
Just wait. They and others are pushing themselves
way beyond what you've come to expect.
Everything has changed.