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Rae Mahaffey's "Contrast."

Critical i

Backstrand, Tres & Taruya
Flinging paint pots
by Jeff Jahn

n November, Portland had a good number of worthwhile shows. This reiterates the fact that we do not need a giganto bang-zoom festival to have a great month.

Besides, if you're like me, you prefer to tie the heuristics of the scene together ad hoc, instead of having it presented on a TV tray ... which has its place, but we've done that.

Thus, Portland has good bones even despite the somewhat sad (but also potentially invigorating) news of PICA shutting down and retooling its visual arts program. People see doom and salvation in these sorts of institutional things too quickly and it gets down to how serious PICA and its board are about the cutting-edge visual art – and not about Stuart Horodner, who remains the curator till February.

For now let's just say that cutting-edge art requires a guerilla outlook. Leaner can be meaner, but only if the dictates from the top support such risk-taking.

Ironically, Horodner’s William Pope L. show last summer already fit that bill and PICA’s next moves must learn a great deal from that immense community effort/engagement – or perish.

"Unforeseen," Horodners’s last show as PICA's visual arts curator, opens Dec. 3.

Still, in many ways last month's offerings were stronger and more varied because of a lack of centralized or institutionalized grandstanding. As a scene, we've made our collective point. But some of the solo shows gave me the much-needed in-depth look I've been craving. It's a good time for individual artists to separate from the pack. For November, the most challenging and satisfying solo-show honors go to Jay Backstrand, Mariana Tres and Yuken Taruya.

In particular, November was a great month for painting in Portland with Kenny Higdon at Lovelake, Joe Thurston at Mark Woolley, Rae Mahaffey and many others at the Art Gym, Aden Catalani at Backspace, Cynthia Star at Powell's and Drake Deknatel at Elizabeth Leach Gallery.

It's getting me excited for a likely crushing "used car lot" solo show by Nic Walker at the new Haze Gallery in January. Walker's an influential legend in the Portland scene and a focused large-scale show like this is exactly what I want to see from him.

He's one of only a handful of young artists who I would count on to pull off a fully sustained and challenging solo show; the guy is seriously talented and lives his work.

Cynthia Star made inside jokes at Powell's with "Dale."

Back to November: We even had the Triumph of French Painting at the Portland Art Museum, which is a bit hyperbolic since a single Italian Caravaggio would shed light on how half the works in the show are derivative of him.

More accurately, it should have been called, "French painting becomes worthy of respect." Somehow, I doubt that would sell tickets to what is a rather mid-level show that has only one good Nicholas Poussin, the old master on whom "the triumph" as an argument would largely hinge on.

In fact, the other Poussin in the show, "Achilles Amongst the Daughters Lycomedes," is pretty funny stuff with Achilles showing off his heel like some sort of sitcom actor. In my mind, Poussin, not known for garish silliness, painted it as an in-court joke or on a bender. Another disappointment: no Claude Lorrain mythical harbour scenes. They are amazing and would have really strengthened the triumph argument.

OK, that was then, this is now. So why does painting matter still? It is a surprisingly easy defense. As long as humans have existed, our footprints and handprints have made marks. It's the root of a lot of our communication. These marks take on different levels of significance as a result of humankind's activities, like war, peace and creating civilization. Painting is about the persistence of our activity, and as flawed as our actions might be, it matters a hell of a lot.

Aden Catalani at Backspace.

When humans become perfect or incorporeal then painting dies; not before. Any other assessment is an exercise in mental masturbation.

Painting survived photography and it can survive anything else.

I agree that, at first glance, paintings are unnecessary from a practical standpoint. This is a strength, though. They have the appeal of a parallel universe without obvious utility that allows paintings to gather the lint, dust and sweat of our activities in a way we cannot fully appreciate while we are busy building cities and eating sandwiches.

My take: Painting is that necessary second opinion when common sense tells us we are dying every day. Maybe our actions matter and live on in perpetuity in spite of each day burning that candle of life a little lower? Maybe a couple of perceptive artists make marks and record the stuff that can't be simply snapped in a photo?

Each medium has its strength and painting is where many hard-to-define intangibles often end up. The medium is looser than photography and more off the beaten path than a lot of installation and video. Anachronism has freed painting in many ways.

Drake Deknatel's "BCaptiva Departs."

It requires a little philosophical Kung Fu, but painting is a true myth, an uncommon form of wisdom in nonsense. Like a vampire, it is seductive but dead.

Sure, some paintings are, as Peter Doig calls them, "a zombie medium." I propose that there is an elegance that can go beyond zombies; maybe some unstoppable single-minded mummies, feral werewolves, some evil scientists and the best and worst of the monsters: vampires.

Like all monsters, paintings are a mirror of humanity.

Since I'm feeling Gothic today, paintings are also a bit like a vampire in that they often require blood. RIP: Basquiat, Modigliani, Morris Louis and August Macke.

Non-painting is good, too, of course.


Mariana Tres at the Portland Building
Homespun Universe: The Wondrous Works of Anabella Gaposchk

"Merging Young Stars in Cassiopeia," by Anabella Gaposchk?

Mariana Tres at the Portland Building has put on the tightest and most conceptually challenging non-painting show by a Portland artist in years (yes, she bests most of the painters, too).

Tres' methodology was to create an obscure, fake historical photographer/astronomer: Anabella Gaposchk. To further complicate matters, Gaposchk is a leading figure in a fake historical movement of 19th-century women photographers based in the Columbia River Gorge.

By the time you are correctly pronouncing Gaposchk you have already allowed her to be real enough to be worthy of respect. Insidious!

What's more, Gaposchk did not so much photograph the heavens as create compelling images of what appear to be celestial bodies from baking ingredients.

Gaposchk supposedly created these images by scattering flour, sugar and other ingredients to create photograms. The process is also commonly known as creating fakes!

What is so insidious is that this fact isn't covered up and is simply treated as normal Victorian astronomical photography. In another demonstration of savvy, Tres evokes the famous photos of Cottingley Glen fairies that even fooled Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1917.

The photos are displayed in period Victorian frames, often with lenses like curved glass. Of course, Tres did all this and she exploits the wide acceptance of Occam's razor, where the simplest answer is often accepted as truth. Through a lot of poetic effort, Gaposchk's existence and attribution is simply more plausible than Tres' efforts and invention.

Video featuring Prudence Roberts with some authoritarian furniture.

To fill out Gaposchk's personality, Tres created side stories like a Peruvian traveler who is given a tiny photograph, which somehow finds its way back to this installation.

Even a documentary video, narrated by OPB celebrity Kristian Foden-Vencil and starring curator Prudence Roberts, discusses Gaposchk as if she really existed. It is hilarious, convincing and has shades of Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds" broadcast.

The attention to detail, period look, appropriation of museum and documentary film conventions are great, but it's the subtleties woven into the exhibit that make it really come to life.

For example, Gaposchk does something historically titillating with diary entries like:

"What caused me to undertake this catalogue was the nebulae I discovered in the spring of 1883 above Omega Canis Major. It held quite the striking resemblance to women's undergarments."

Tres also writes: "Influenced by the discoveries of turn-of-the-century mathematician Henri Poincare, who stated that what was being detected was not new things but new relationships among already existing things, Gaposchk transcended her celestial observations and, in her kitchen, found the proper domestic equivalents."

Gaposchk's utensils and notes?

It's these subtle, fabricated feminist overtones that a lot of over-eager revisionist historians would love to uncover.

Tie that web of lies to the repeating patterns found in complexity theory and you've got revealing philosophical questions: Are the laws of the universe the same in the kitchen as they are in space? Do our historical hunts through the past begin with our earnest desires in the present?

Certainly, without historical precedent, most civilized rhetoric would collapse. Thus, we mine the past to justify or challenge the present.

I like this. Instead of whacking us over the head, Tres poetically lets us discover how empirical science and equality for women are tied together in the past. Tres codes the show with iconic symbols like the bikini and Isaac Newton's apple and throws it into an intense relativist context by having them masquerade as celestial discoveries.

By making the world more empirical, the men in charge during the 19th century had to question the whole notion of a weaker sex ... and since nobody could prove the premise, it had to be considered false. A lot of sensible people caught on and gave the suffrage movement the traction it needed to fight the power!

She blinded me with science ... I cannot tell whether Gaposchk or Tres deserves the credit; well done. The way this show questions authorship, authentication and authority is exciting.

Also by tying the 19th-century domestic kitchen space with astronomical observations, Tres is implying how manipulation of history is so important to being a successful artist. William Pope L. does it, Greenberg and Krasner helped Pollock do it and, apparently, Tres can do it, too.

Yes, conceptual art can be great, but it takes intellectual rigor and inventiveness of this level to warrant accolades.

Vito Acconci Lecture

Nov. 12

Vito Acconci

PICA's Vito Acconci lecture was a perfect primer for all the half-assed conceptual artists in town lead astray by lazy practitioners given too much PR attention without equal critical standards.

In contrast, Acconci made many intelligent statements about what he assumed was going on during various eras and how he then created work that accomplished whatever he felt was not going on.

In other words, he had a program based mostly upon how his impish intellect defied the conventions of the time.

Here's a guy who doesn't pander to, but can play with, his audience. It is engaging.

For example, when minimalism and anything-goes performance art was "in" during the 1970s Acconci masturbated under the floor as both a critique and a celebration of that moment through daring and crudity. The piece, "Seed Bed," was also an attempt to connect with gallery goers in an intimate and erotic way, and Acconci stated this with great clarity during the lecture.

It's a pro-individual sentiment echoed in his later architectural sidewalks that rise up to greet people and give them intimacy in which to hide, make out or commit serial murder. Instead of making a joke of the viewer, Acconci makes a joke of the assumptions surrounding art and space in particular.

To pull this off one has to be articulate, and one of my favorite Acconci quotes from the lecture, "Psychology is a form of escapism," proves it. I love how so many New Yorkers need their therapists before tragedies and come together as communities after them.

One of Acconci's playful living sidewalks in my birthplace: Milwaukee, Wis.

Another example of Acconci's perceptive statements was during the '70s. At that time, the New York galleries at 420 Broadway became elitist cultural symbols of the U.S.A.'s economic dominance.

Sensing this, Acconci created a table that also became a diving board onto the street below ... he wanted out.

When the art market got big in the '80s, he moved to architecture. Acconci was not simply a trickster – sincerity was very important to him on a conceptual basis – and you've gotta respect a guy who does such things.

Yuken Taruya
Elizabeth Leach Gallery
Oct. 2-Nov. 1

Another non-painting highlight was theYuken Taruya show at the Elizabeth Leach Gallery, with its amazingly delicate trees cut into shopping bags.

Teruya's "Silver Mitten."

Taruya's talent takes the cookie-cutter banality of temporary luggage and turns it into tiny theaters of impossible fragility and dramatic lighting. Shopping is definitely theater; I mean, why else would grown people sit on Santa's lap at the mall? (Don't answer that.)

The economy of the means and the way Taruya makes such mundane paper bags into personal parks is thrilling. So what if they are not archival? Neither is Edvard Munch's "The Scream," which is on cardboard, and will outlive us all.

Paintings in Portland

A particularly nice late Picasso at the Portland Art Museum.

First off, I declined to call this "Portland Paintings" for a reason: the city's scene is becoming one of those places where young artists from everywhere want to show.

For example, Los Angelino Vinh Bui had a nice show at Field in November and within the last 18 months German wunderkind Norbert Biskey, Las Vegan Tim Bavington and Bay area luminary Laurie Ried have all shown here.

The Portland Art Museum even has an excellent late Picasso on loan, "Femme assise dans un fauteuil (Buste de Jacqueline)." It's on display in the European galleries just before the second floor entrance to the Hoffman wing.

In the Midwest and on the East Coast, museum goers take them for granted. In the Pacific Northwest they are rare, and thank you for the loan.

I have always loved Picasso's late portraits of women like Sylvette and Jacqueline – the last and best Mrs. Picasso. (What a terrible job that was.)

In particular, there is something about the incredibly fast, self-assured application of thinly slurried gray and blue paint in this portrait that gets me. Its twisting composition and color scheme is reminiscent of El Greco, and yet it has that nonchalance of face paint that El Greco never came close to.

The hair area is amazing since the gray between the black lines is actually a base coat. The near/far orientation of black foreground lines in flat gray space as a hairdo is quite breathtaking. It's a study in looseness and tension that makes paintings by Cy Twombly and Lucinda Parker in the atrium below look overcooked and over-obvious.

I guess I'm drawn to the confident application and the sort of tenuous insecurity of the figure. It's as if Picasso is testing to see if his subject is real. It is existential but not without humor. Kinda like how a kid will poke something to see what it will do.

In these late paintings, Picasso is serious about being cartoony. All serious painters can flirt with some cheesiness and still pull it off. Rembrandt had lots of dress-up costumes, Pollock incorporated cigarette butts, etc., and Warhol literally plumbed the depths of cheesy kitsch for his charge.

For homegrown stuff, one of the strong painting shows was Ulterior Motives out at Marylhurst University's Art Gym.

Andi Kovel's "Color Theory" at Savage Art Resources.

It echoes a lot of the ideas and artists in the last three Oregon Biennials, such as Mike Shea, Brenden Clenaghen, Michelle Ross, Molly Vidor, Rae Mahaffey, Mark Smith and James Boulton, along with a few of the artists like Robert Yoder, Casey Keeler, Jacqueline Ehlis and Bruce Conkle that The Best Coast also put together.

For a while now I've put forward the idea that West Coast artists complicate abstraction's old purity with loaded worldly preoccupations like classic rock, ergonomics, play, natural parking-lot weathering and fake fur.

The Art Gym show is a compendium of those instances. It's an exhibition whose time has come and I'll cover it in depth at another date.

In fact, this aesthetic movement isn't anything purely exclusive to this coast. We saw it from New Yorker Andi Kovel, who helped inaugurate Tracy Savage's latest venture, Savage Art Resources.

With a work like "Color Theory," she is dealing with optical effect and by crossing it with kitsch painting and glasswork, she's certainly no purist. But there is something more compartmentalized in this work than that of West Coasters.

They are more rigid and discrete – lacking the West Coast crosstalk found in Robert Yoder's rearranged road signs at the Art Gym. The more compartmentalized a work is, the more it looks like late-postmodernism. It's sophisticated, but maybe at the expense of freshness.

This "crispness" illustrates New York's biggest problem: its sophistication might be too telegraphed or staged and the audience feels pandered to, as if each painting is a sales pitch aimed at their refined but sometimes predictable assumptions. Refinement isn't good when it is an end unto itself.

Higdon's friendly Sasquatch at Lovelake.

Still, I liked this work as it reminded me of John Baldessari and Miranda July's accessorized dot photographs, both of which have a bigger "huh?" factor.

Another trend that is very un-postmodern in current painting is its very direct acknowledgment of history's constant flux and plasticity. Postmodernism just treated history like an oppressor, and individuals were isolated and subject to circumstance.

For an example of history unshackled at Lovelake Gallery, we had Kenny Higdon's horrifying re-imagining of Lewis and Clark's adventures.

OK, what isn't there to love about seeing the dead and sometimes decapitated bodies of Lewis and Clark being dragged off by Sasquatch?

Tim Dalbow, untitled.

Artists are simply reconfiguring assumptions and looking for alternative timelines like some sort of Star Trek episode ... except they know it's cheesy and people like Higdon don't try to over explain. The sensuality of paint fills in and obscures all the attendant plot holes simultaneously.

Paint can be the perfect static analog for the passage of time.

Lovelake's December show features another painter who is beginning to put it all together, Tim Dalbow.

The untitled painting shown here is reminiscent of Richard Diebenkorn, but I can see a woman in profile. Dalbow mentions that the black form is like a squirming kitty she is holding. Nicely done. The content and application mirror each other. The viewer squirms. Is this supposed to be figurative or not?

Jay Backstrand
Laura Russo Gallery

Jay Backstrand's "Veil of Reason."

What has gotten into Jay Backstrand? He has always had technique and knowledge, but this new work is invigorated.

As always, he seems positioned between James Rosenquist and David Salle. But this time out he makes peace with the postmodern past. We have gone through that and things are more liberated now.

Backstrand's new work is also a bit more contemplative in tone than those other artists.

For example, my favorite, "Veil of Reason," with its dramatic focus on eye contact and historical tableaux, implies engagement and rearranged continuity with what we see and remember. Does it imply that Western Civilization has good bones or, at the very least, is self-aware enough to reorganize itself productively? That's a good question and any painting that provokes a good question deserves respect.

The titles even have a bit of humor while quoting important images of both culture and desire, although there is a not-so-subtle implication that "this is a boys' world" that doesn't sit so well with me.

In "All in the Eyes" he quotes Francis Bacon, Antony Gormley, Robert Motherwell and Picasso. I see it as a philosophical question, since recognition of the original artists is not "all eyes."

The company work is shown in certainly matters, and I think Backstrand points to this in the painting.

Dissimilarly, a classic '80s artist like David Salle creates work where the subject is pathologically susceptible to circumstance, while history and context are minimized. That sort of pathological a-historicality was a big problem with postmodernism; it quoted history but seldom understood much of it as a cause-and-effect relationship.

Installation view: "All in the Eyes" (right).

Postmodernism in painting was an index of ideas but often lacked a contextual understanding of the idea's tangible effects in the world. Francesco Clemente and Basquiat are the exceptions, as their history gave them more context.

Backstrand is simply doing what all good painters do: making connections to the present and looking for solutions.

The result is that his work seems fresh and exciting. Somehow, his titillating porno images take on the look of noir cinema. Painting as golden-era celluloid? Not the worst idea.

He even incorporates sculptural elements as if to say a painting can be a museum unto itself.

My biggest problem with the work is the lack of idiomatic vernacular, i.e. it borrows a lot and combines a lot, but I still don't see an identifiable or original motif that would take them to the next level. After seeing these, though, I believe Backstrand is capable of it. I'd like to see something stylistically stamp the work as "a Backstrand."

Backstrand's "A Chorus of Frogs."

Contradictorily, I like his somewhat European acceptance of the past. It really is almost impossible for any artist to do anything new. Much like composers in music often do, he borrows motifs from other artists and mixes them all together. It is perfectly valid; I just want more.

In the past, this use of other artists in Backstrand's work seemed quotidian and too reverent. The earlier works borrowed too much of their content from the recognition of the elements. Not so now. They connect their ideas in a looser fashion and their pictorial organization of hot and cold colors is much stronger.

So what has gotten into Backstrand? I think it is more than likely that all the activity in town is making everyone push things a bit further. I've seen it in Lucinda Parker's work as well. Most of the players are making strides.

Jesse Hayward
PDX Window Gallery

Hayward's "Exodus."

Jesse Hayward's painting, "Exodus," is definitely bravura kitsch. This thing is filled to the gills with candy-colored sparkles, frosting and sickening bursts of color.

It is almost like the Frankenstein ghost of all the birthday and wedding cakes you've ever consumed: a celebration of celebrating celebration.

Yes, one knows the party is over, but "Exodus" seems to say the party never ended, just the orgy of creation.

So what does it mean? Well, it makes a very good case for refined taste being dull. Hayward's orgy is completely tasteless, which sounds like the perfect flavor for a time when more people follow than lead ... same as it ever was.

In a lot of ways, this is what '50s artists didn't want abstract expressionism to become, yet its existence proves we've come a long way. Now, this painting would turn heads anywhere, kinda like keeping an extensive Christmas light installation up year 'round. However, will it drive your neighbor's property values down?

If it does you probably have unfashionably unsophisticated neighbors!

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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