F e b r u a r y   2 0 0 4

Nic Walker paints with a dead crow in unexpectedly meaningful ways at Haze.
Critical i

Nic Walker, Dana Schutz, Paige Saez
Focus now
by Jeff Jahn

e started off the year with the Blizzard of 2004. A highly uncharacteristic event, it shut down Portland for four days and sacked the First Thursday openings, too.

All that is just fine, since the real story was Northeast Portland's two new galleries, Haze and Pacific Switchboard – both of which threaten to put on some of the best shows of 2004 if January is any indication.

I use the term "best" in that they have both shown a genuine commitment to work that takes risks. Whether successful or not, the ante is being upped with a focus on individuals.

Tyler Kline at Mark Woolley's 10th anniversary.

Also, with Haze's January show doing more in sales than most of the established Pearl District galleries, this is a measurable disturbance.

Will edginess become a vital part of the new gallery model?

The New Art Dealers Association, largely based in Brooklyn and Williamsburg, N.Y., is something Haze should look at joining as a way to connect Portland to that phenomenon. It's important to get credit for what we do right.

I definitely saw a lot of decent-to-good figurative work in January.

So yes, something important is happening in Northeast Portland; focused solo and duo shows following the wake of 2003's deluge of group hallucinations: Modern Zoo, Core Sample, The Best Coast, Ulterior Motives, Oregon Biennial, etc.

I can't applaud this more focused trend enough; all large group shows are inherently flawed, but they do act as valuable compass points. Not coincidentally, a compass reading means nothing if you do not use it to get your bearings and set a new course.

Apparently Northeast Portland is the new prow of the ship.

Detail of Daniel Duford monkeying around at Mark Woolley Gallery.

That is not to say there were no useful group efforts. Mark Woolley Gallery's massive 10th anniversary show had a bunch of worthy artists, including the modish Gustav Mortier, lava-like Adam Charles, Kenny Higdon, Eva Lake, John Brodie and Tyler Kline.

Even Daniel Duford had a nice illustrative painting with baboons and ladies. It was a nice change; his mural at the Modern Zoo was a bit too much like a '70s cop show turned into a cartoon and lacked emotional heft for an anti-war piece. Indignation alone does not cut it and perceptiveness can be blinded by the initial passion.

Duford is one of those artists who seems talented and driven, but stylistically capricious. Between his Golem ceramics (which were more successful after being vandalized), cartoony murals, clumsy installations and nice illustrative paintings, one wonders if he will ever focus long enough to graduate beyond group shows and give us a real look.

Tyler Kline, who recently moved to Philly, does good focused things in the same figurative sociological satire idiom; I would simply like to see Duford reach his potential.

August Macke's "Clown in a Green Costume" at the Rau Collection.

Humanism in art history?
In fact, all Portland figurative artists should check out the excellent pairing of Max Beckman's "The Mill" and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's "Fir Trees" at the Portland Art Museum (near the Monet water lily).

The Kirchner doesn't have an attributed date, but is probably between 1918-20. To my eye and limited inspection it's probably closer to 1920; the trees are less spiky in that year.

Also at the museum, the Rau collection is worth a trip. The show focuses on the human face. Unlike “The Triumph of French Painting” show, it actually has some first-rate works by first-rate artists: Cezanne, Reni, August Macke, El Greco, along with some surprises, such as Marie Laurencin's "Three Young Girls and Two Dogs."

If one thinks of dogs as fidelity markers, Laurencin seems to be indicating slutty behavior by one of these three, despite the very virginal white paint dominating the piece.

Difficult to say, but it could be a comment on Parisian girls and their carrying on with German soldiers during the occupation of Paris.

Laurencin is usually a boring second- or third-rate School-of-Paris Picasso-entourage artist so, yes, Dr. Rau had an eye to find this gem. Girls gone wild, indeed.

Dana Schutz
Unforeseen: 4 painted predictions

Dan Schutz's Dead Zebra at PICA.

Dana Schutz is one of the nicest doom mongers I've ever met. She's a charming, quirky young woman and the toast of New York – a tough role to fill. She also happened to be one of four artists in PICA's Unforeseen show, and I want to focus on her.

I like her work, but like most of the best new stuff out of New York or anywhere else, it doesn't really warrant any stronger praise as it acts as a thermometer of a rather tepid reactionary moment in the art world. The other doom monger is fellow Columbia University grad Barnaby Furnas.

Yes, she's on a par with Keith Tyson and Cecily Brown, but she isn't original like Chris Ofili, Takashi Murakami, Yek or Elizabeth Peyton – all pre-2000 art stars. The problem is cultural bankruptcy in the 21st century. The good thing is that her work acknowledges the problem more directly than anyone else's ... a mixed blessing.

Jasper Johns' "Corpse and Mirror."

Why? Well, her best work in Unforeseen, "Dead Zebra," is a re-imagining of Jasper Johns' famous crosshatched magic mirror series, which actually discusses the same issue of how to re-imagine art when everything has already been done. It is the sort of chitchat that permeates a period with sophisticated connoisseurship with scant amounts of innovative intellectual foment.

It's an age-old problem and two places seemed to be addressing it: Columbia University and UNLV when Dave Hickey was still teaching there.

Each program was generally infused with one of two major interrelated issues: death for Columbia, sex for UNLV.

For Columbia, there is the Dionysian beauty of Elizabeth Peyton's incredible paintings of youthful romanticism. For UNLV, there are Yek's explosive and equally youthful Apollonian orgasm/afterglows that present a state of being beyond race, gender and definition. Practically everyone else was doing gender politics, so the 1990s were essentially chewing the intellectual cud of the '70s. That considered, it's hilarious that Schutz's dead ruminant is so knowingly displayed.

Basically, Schutz is a fantasist like Odilon Redon and Francis Bacon, except her myths are mostly centered on postwar American art (Johns, Guston, Alex Katz) and absurdist comedians (Chris Elliot, Tom Green) instead of Oriental and Greek myth. Is Schutz asking if that New York art-world zebra can change its stripes? And what if the zebra really is dead? (P.S. It isn't, but the game has to change.)

Another detail to note: "Dead Zebra" is comprised of an explosive crosshatched sky with two tall trees above and the dead fallen zebra at the bottom.

Likewise, the paintings "stripes" are more robust in the sky and likely a cartoon of something horrible from above.

So yes, it's a 9/11 fantasy painting. That makes sense, because tackling it head on is just too ghastly. Instead of a "painted prediction" as the show promises, it's a history painting of an already definable event.

This rearview-mirror look in 'Dead Zebra" is both its strength and ultimate problem; it's tough to go full speed ahead if you are watching your caboose.

Takashi Murakami still the apocalyptic champ.

As one of the best 9/11 paintings, Schutz's "Zebra" is important, but its implications are oppressive. Besides, Takashi Murakami's mushroom Armageddons simply beat them to the apocalyptic punch even before 9/11 occurred: Tokyo 1, New York 0.

The problem existed before the terrorist attacks. Unlike Murakami’s pop-historical apocalypse, most young artists now calibrate their work to the short-term effect rather than the strength of long-term ideas. The art world is too limited and Schutz is trafficking in the uncertainty that widespread knowledge creates.

At least she’s utilizing history and presenting it in the naive Douanier Rousseau fashion, although with the conceit of extensive education. I think her point is that we're all more naive than we’d like to think.

Instead of moving on, will New York continue caricaturing itself and its art scene for a few more years with the likes of John Currin, Schutz and Donald Moffett's projections onto paintings of a quiet Central Park, etc.?

Its markets need to start looking at other places more seriously because its tank is still running on fumes. Everything runs on ideas and there aren't any new ideas ... just ones we've swept under the rug: environment, quality of life, family and happiness.

Emil Nolde's "Mask Still Life" (1910) outclasses all painterly expressionism since 1970.

I think New York's art world has turned to self parody in the same way Hollywood's over-developed and over-refined series of power brokers and connections continues to pump out more mediocrity. It's all too finely processed; it doesn't spawn follow-ups in the way dada lead to surrealism and '70s minimalism helped spawn '80s neo geo. Now it's mostly just sequels.

Just like the movies, it's a situation where in our poverty we praise anything that is at least worthy of attention like it's an aesthetic messiah. Still, we are far from a golden age. America's last new great painter was Jean-Michel Basquiat.

For a comparison to Hollywood, Schutz is the "Mr. Show" of the art world. It isn't a solution but it is a knowing wink.

In 1997, noted critic Robert Hughes pointed out in his book, "American Visions," that the New York art world has deluded itself into believing it has been continually creating a consistently high level of important art as a way to feed a gluttonous art market. In truth, we have hit a wall and instead of the "painted predictions" the Unforeseen show promised, it is actually an apocalypse of mediocrity that has already happened.

Dana Schutz's "Frank," a combo of Tom Green and Chris Elliot ... he gets chopped up ... ewwwwh!

So we are in an intellectual and aesthetic bubble and Schutz's cannibalistic fantasies point out that the art world has been eating itself for some time. It's astute and witty although hardly innovative.

In fact, Schutz's recent backpacker painting is an indication that the whole awareness of the malaise wants to move on but the cannibalistic baggage remains. Schutz is really into Emil Nolde and if there was ever an artist who could find magic in anything it is him. Even Paul Klee looked up to Nolde. I'd like to see Schutz channel more of Nolde's magic and raw ceremony; I trust it won't be reverent.

Constructively, she's done some interesting cannibalistic versions of the Last Supper at the Mahaffey print studio.

So, will someone please tell Western Civilization to once again engage in big thinking so we can move on? I'm somehow certain New York can't do it. For evidence, the Whitney Biennial is all about nostalgia: entertaining navel-gazing, but hardly what's required. How about something radical?

Remember when radical was a word that was used too often? Now it's never used; it's a tragic hint. The Maya, the Romans and the Egyptians all understood acknowledgement of death as an important part of life, a function of renewal that the endgame arrogance of postmodernism wouldn’t address. If the helm of Western thought is to remain firmly ensconced in America we have to do better than coast on our triumphs from the '50s and '60s.

It might sound grand but it's also practical; our cultural production – especially art – needs to address our mortality with both frankness and poetry. Things like sex, birth and death are key to the central human question: What makes life better both for individuals and the group? It's a simple question that has been beside the point for too long. It’s a topic found in the Lascaux caves as well as being central to the output of Gauguin, Matisse, Pollock and even Tracy Emin.

I fancy the job description that reads "Wanted: detail-oriented forward-thinking intellectual versed in Greek tragedy, data integration, Taoism, superstring theory and the Holocaust, capable of pulling stagnant Western thought out of doldrums. Part of a circle of artists, musicians and authors concerned with the state of world affairs preferred."

Paige Saez
Pacific Switchboard
3336 NE Albina

Paige Saez's tattooed arm.

The talented but still calibrating Paige Saez exhibited her multimedia paintings at Pacific Switchboard. Her mixed-media triptych, "I Love This Game," comprised of vinyl collage elements and paint in various layerings and excavations, didn't really come together.

The collage paintings were a mess of conflicting directions and simply tried to go everywhere all at once: a series of Matissian cutouts, Pollock drips, graffiti sprays and topographical add-and-delete effects that mimic the "undo" options in computer programs.

Is this nondestructive editing a formal strategy that cultivates indecisiveness? Maybe?

Close up, there were moments, though, like forests of Flash animation.

I'm certain she's sick of hearing it, but the work is too similar to James Boulton's (although his has been more convincing).

Still, both of their work is in calibration mode until its questions of material, sequence and hybridization find expression in more elegant, individual solutions.

Just before this show, I ran into Saez at Mark Woolley Gallery. She was the featured independent artist and her collages of office-supply stickers were much more elegant, succinct ... a bit like Richard Tuttle meets local Michael Oman-Reagan. Thus, the collages had a very American and European feel befitting their Portland origin.

Detail of Saez's "Spider."

The real highlights in this show were the "Spider" installation and the video "I Miss You," curated by Alicia Cohen into her "Body Snatchers" screening (also at Pacific Switchboard).

"Spider" was a web of multi-colored twine. The viewer is presumably either the arachnid or, more likely, its prey. The web is delicate and seems to have caught several bits of shiny plastic in a more elegant matrix than the paintings. The shiny pieces follow the colors of her forearm tattoo, which caught my eye as well. I thought it was just some fun thing, but it's clearly more permanent.

At first glance, I thought the web was a work by Melody Owen, but that artist's work seems to always have an ominous dissonance to it – like her recent untitled frog video, also shown at the "Body Snatchers" screening. Comparing the two, Saez's work is a more open, less circuitous experience.

Another view of "Spider."

Backing up this distinction, Saez's "I Miss You" video was impressive. At first we see Saez standing in roller skates and a nice dress, but soon she is spinning.

With that interesting vantage point, our view is held in reciprocation by the unseen cameraperson as we are the center of the world.

Throughout the spin, Saez is laughing and the spliced visual and aural giggles are layered in fugal forms like her vinyl cutouts on the painting, only to much greater effect.

Nothing is as wondrously odd as a playful laugh, and Saez's video is excellent. It acknowledges the need for video to be watched to exist, since it lacks the token totemic physical space that a painting or sculpture must occupy for presentation. I like Saez's poetic title, since a DVD must be played – thus a fondness to revisit is very important to living with video art.

Nic Walker
Bargain Basement Used Cars
Haze Gallery
6635 N Baltimore, Ste. 211

Nic Walker's 1962 Lincoln Continental (left).

With six ballsy mural-sized works (8x12 to 8x16 feet) depicting cars in far-from-ideal circumstances, plus a mural-sized series of serial ink drawings made with a dead crow, Nic Walker and Haze have fired the first shot of 2004.

Walker could have painted 50 of the small, easily consumable paintings he has sold to literally hundreds of collectors in the last four years; he did not. Instead, he made a bigger, less-collectable statement that still sold. It sets expectations high for the rest of the year.

Yes, giant murals, dead crows and a Victrola sound insane in print, but it is actually a very important business and artistic strategy: creating first impressions.

Few Portland galleries have any bang to their initial impressions. In fact, only Laura Russo, Elizabeth Leach, PDX and the new Savage Gallery have spaces that create immediate expectations of quality. In Haze's case, the feeling was expansive, familiar and odd, because the scale was massive, yet made up of non-corporeal black dots. These were ghost cars.

There was a pervasive sense of nostalgic, familiar otherness. The layout made me excited to see everything else in the show, but that's the easy part and getting stuck on the layout misses the point.

"Mustang" (detail).

The works themselves utilized the tried-and-true opaque projector – a mostly overdone technique that, from Warhol to Sigmar Polke to Wolfgang Tillmans, is synonymous with irony. Still, using brushes is even more common and we still let all sorts of people use them.

Walker's work differs somewhat from those other artists in that his are not ironic at all, and are not about fame, attention or even Polke's commentary on painting's little tropes.

Instead, a sense of mortality and entropy pervades each mural – especially the Mercury pickup truck and the Ford Mustang still half-concealed by the tarp. In that work, all but one wooden panel on the Mustang are done in drywall, further giving the work a sense of fragile urgency.

"Mustang" (super detail).

Instead of Warhol's tragic car crashes of fleeting fame, another opaque projector artist, Joseph Beuys, comes to mind. This is urban shamanism where the mundane is either lucky fetish or unlucky omen.

In fact, there is a lot of shifting as the closer to the works one gets, the more they turn into Jackson Pollock's, where messy, stringy drips reveal a kind of single-celled world where the initial pencil lines look like ghost cells in a Petri dish.

One can step back and see a car or step close in and suddenly be transported to the messy floor of an artist's studio.

Thus, the paintings dissolve into the process that built them. This close-in microcosm is tough to reconcile with the larger picture and that is challenging. OK, I'll take the bait: Looking close could be read as exorcising the memories of those who once rode in these cars.

The best mural is the 1962 Lincoln Continental. It's an odd image: a convertible with suicide doors swung wide open. Is it a slit wrist or an allusion to the stretch version of this car which gave JFK his last ride?

Although it is intentionally open-ended and rhetorical, I think Walker would welcome those associations, as they make life seem more fleeting and precious – which is his real focus: an effect rather than pure narrative.

Crow paintings ... yes, that is blood.

I like to think of the doors (which Walker has used a lot in his work) as an invitation to get in and then slip out ... which is exactly what we do when we look at art, or anything else for that matter.

It is an aesthetic carwash for me, full of bristles and suds, then a rinse.

Still, I found Walker's crow paintings on paper a more direct and poignant transformation. By using something dead that seems to exhibit more life on paper, he opens the discussion for meaning and lessons in death.

Here is Walker's magic: Death makes one either more cynical or more appreciative and, although some might see it as a shock thing (because the viewer relies on the cynical impulse to head off confronting mortality), it's really a celebration and a non-cynical way to make something out of death's inevitability.

Famous pop-savvy artists like Ed Ruscha or Polke are so caught up in the circle of irony that they can't escape and, although these aren't a match for those artists' best works, they point to where Walker can go ... and where they cannot (the spiritual). Anselem Kiefer, Francisco Clemente and the master, Joseph Beuys, all went this more spiritual route.

Overall, it's a good show and better than most of the stuff I've seen in New York and L.A. by non-legendary artists, i.e., those with names like Ruscha, Franz West, Rosenquist and Serra. I'm even more impressed because I know Walker's show was created in a month and a half.

Walker's distressed wood bas-relief (2002).

Yet, except for the Lincoln, these murals are not his very best works. I reserve that for his narrative paintings. His cow-headed wedding parties, a bunny bridesmaid with a battleaxe and the painstakingly carved bas-reliefs in distressed wood were never given a show like this, but they deserved it.

Still, if Walker could do a serious show on such short notice when most artists would fail even with a year's prep time, it indicates something special. Give him the opportunity and he will rise to it. Instead of the hipster plague of "I'm too cool to show effort," he condenses experience by making the very hard art of mural painting look a little too easy.

In an art world where most attempt to lower expectations as part of their finished product, this is welcome change and deserves to be noted.

If Walker feels like being more original, he can be. But he took a very mature stance by succeeding without indulging in that vanity.

It's amusing to say that about the most ambitious solo show in recent memory, but Walker is holding back. Next time he won't have to play that card.

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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