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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
Unforeseen: 4 painted predictions
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.
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
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.
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
The problem existed before the terrorist attacks.
Unlike Murakamis 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
At least shes 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 wed 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
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
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
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 wouldnt 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.
Its a topic found in the Lascaux caves as well as being
central to the output of Gauguin, Matisse, Pollock and even
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."
3336 NE Albina
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
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
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.
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
"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.
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.
Bargain Basement Used Cars
6635 N Baltimore, Ste. 211
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.
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
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.
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
One can step back and see a car or step close in
and suddenly be transported to the messy floor of an artist's
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.
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.
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.