M a r c h   2 0 0 4

Jesse Hayward's "Tonic" at Haze Gallery.
Critical i

Rauschenberg, younger artists & a panel discussion
Gloom shloom!
by Jeff Jahn

ebruary usually means sunless gloom in the Pacific Northwest.

But between Robert Rauschenberg, one of history's most inventive artists, and several younger artists, I found unexpected energy and occasional depth in Portland's sleepiest month.

Something has absolutely changed, and the closing of PICA's visual arts program and several galleries (most were not progressive) hasn't had the doom effect the Oregonian keeps pedaling in its pages these days.

Instead, Portland is getting younger, more sophisticated, hungrier and more inventive. Still, it can't keep pace with the artists.

Maybe it's even a bit more pensive, too, about the philistinism that some tolerate around here. Will the 2005 Biennial be an afterthought? Will all these new Pearl District condos become repositories for worthy art or just a bunch of reprinted French absinthe posters in nice frames?

It's a guerilla arts revolution: 2003 reshuffled the deck and 2004 is dealing the cards; 2005 plays that hand.

Nobody really knows what's going to happen and that uncertainty can either be freeing or self-destructive in Portland. Whereas New York’s art scene plays blackjack like the house, it always holds at 17. Where it differs from a typical game of 21 is that we don’t lose or gain anything if we go over. Portland simply needs to win one hand and quality generally speaks for itself in the art world.

Remember, a lot of attention is coming here in 2005 with Portland Art Museum's new wing. Hopefully the next Biennial will take itself seriously. But if it doesn’t, I'm certain something dramatic will happen. And, frankly, that scenario might be better.

Speaking of depth, Haze is putting on the most provocative series of shows I've seen in Portland to date and, unlike PICA or PCVA, it is generally recent MFAs from top schools like CCAC or Rhode Island School of Art and Design. Think of it as a for-profit (i.e. sales keeping the doors open) art center.

Mike Rathbun at Ogle.

This is the innovative sort of thing Portland can make its reputation on. Other excellent shows, like Mike Rathbun at Ogle and Marie Sivak at Blackfish, added to this impressive month.

Years ago in the Bear Deluxe journal, former PICA curator Stuart Horodner astutely pointed out this demographic of young artists, two-five years out of graduate school, are the ones to watch and Haze proves him right.

Too bad PICA was mostly too interested in names past the freshness date to be more surprising.

It also explains why Core Sample was generally middle of the road; its focus was too old and too group-centric. There is real talent with pedigreed track records here that deserves real attention. The lack of promising recent MFA grads is another reason the Biennial fell so flat.

You can find them all over Portland. One young graduate, Brandon Wilkinson, showed an excellent "Pole Posters" painting at Blackfish. The image consisted of a bunch of rock 'n' roll posters on a telephone pole. It's a good rule: paint what you love. (Mayor Katz eat your heart out – notice how the anti-poster or obsessive-compulsive campaign kinda died when the economy tanked? City government has more important fish to fry.)

Marty Schnapf, downtown at Stumptown.

If we are talking creative economy, it emphasizes that Portland absolutely requires a serious MFA program even more than new art venues and festivals. But somebody truly powerful has to crack heads at PNCA or PSU. I wish that had been discussed at the new Critics and Curators panel discussion (more on that below).

Then there were Marty Schnapf's big-explosion paintings at Stumptown downtown. They are intentionally like those raster graphics of shattering glass and evoke the threatening feeling of bombs going off just outside the café.

OK, post-9/11 bombs aren't just for Jerusalem anymore and Schnapf was right when he notified me that his exhibit had more than just a passing congruence to my "Art and threat" essay.

Problem is, they only look good from 20 feet or more away. Up close they are shoddy. I realize they are huge, but please, take more time. Despite this supposedly dangerous undertone, Schnapf's paintings come off more like Peter Davies, Julie Mehretu and Kevin Appel's lovechild than a reference to tragedy and explosions. For a similar shard-filled historical precedent, we have Caspar David Friedrich's "Sea of Ice" with its wrecked ship.

Peter Davies' "Overlaps with Rectangles."

Instead, Schnapf's paintings exist too obviously as abstract paintings with nice frames. If they are windows, I don't feel it. They lack even video-game-style urgency.

If I hadn't read the card I'd just think nice, big triangle-shard paintings. In addition to the cafés, I also saw some worthy group shows at Powell's, Motel, PNCA, Pacific Switchboard and, best of all, _Hall gallery. Not surprisingly there were several with Valentine's Day themes.

I was feeling the love.

Some of the shows were well curated and some were toss-off salons. But the most rewarding experiences came from solo shows at Elizabeth Leach and Haze galleries.

Robert Rauschenberg
Elizabeth Leach Gallery
207 SW Pine St.

Rauschenberg's "Sling Shot" (1985).

Robert Rauschenberg's multiples show at Elizabeth Leach Gallery held what had to be the single most collectable thing I have seen in years, a device Rauschenberg calls a "Sling Shot." The fact that it's a device underscores what one has to love about him: he's an inventor at heart.

The "Sling Shot" reconfigures common presentation media consisting of a light-box with multiple layers of retractable transparencies.

Simple and snappy, it was the thing I loved most all month long and, although it's a multiple, it had all the punch of his larger one-of-a-kind combines of the '60s.

What's interesting about the device is that the image sheets can be extended and retracted to any configuration the owner chooses.

This incorporation of chance invariably gets traced back to John Cage, but there is a great tradition of chance-influenced art that makes earlier artists like Calder, Jean Arp, Pollock and practically any surrealist, interesting.

It is pertinent, of course, that Rauschenberg's systems of chance and subjective choice clearly influenced Damien Hirst's closed-system entropy vitrines, such as "A Thousand Years," which contained a rotting cow head, flies and a bug zapper. The difference in effect is American pragmatism vs. European pessimistic cynicism. Possibilities vs. impossibilities?

Yet one has to be careful. Many of Rauschenberg's late paintings in the era of "Sling Shot" are disappointing because they seem too methodical and coherent, whereas physicality and incongruity often mark his best work. On both accounts this holds up to some pretty high standards.

Rauschenberg's "Murmurs."

Instead, I prefer works that display his quirky pragmatism in abundance. Some of the more traditional prints, such as "Murmurs," displayed that poppy pragmatism to good "open" effect as well.

By introducing an infinitely reconfigurable element into printed images, something exciting happens. "Sling Shot" is special.

I always enjoy it more when a great old artist shows why we loved the work in the first place by giving it a new spin. Rauschenberg and Pollock are the premier American artists for our country's most defining philosophical trait: pragmatism. This "Sling Shot" illustrates Rauschenberg in top form.

Even the owners get to reconfigure the images to their own needs.

Jesse Hayward and Aili Schmeltz
Haze Gallery
6635 N Baltimore, Ste. 211

Aili Schmeltz's installation (detail).

The title to this show, Nowadays, was so grammatically Midwestern I initially thought it was a kind of nod to "That '70s Show"-style retro kitsch culture. "That '70s Show," like most great nostalgia sitcoms ("Happy Days," "Joni Loves Chachi") not surprisingly is set in my home state, Wisconsin.

Thus, I was fully prepared to regale people with my superior '70s knowledge (being a child of the era), consisting of references to "Kramer vs. Kramer's" infamous chicken scene, playing my first ABBA LP, the difference between Formula and Firebird Trans Ams and the "raw power" attachment to my red Schwinn stingray bicycle with a banana seat.

I was completely wrong. This was no quote-fest lampoon like "That '70s Show." Instead it was a seething indictment on current art practices as lensed through some '70s heresies rather than anything popularly associated with that era. I should have known. Haze's directors, Jack Shimko and Leah Emkin (in particular), seem hell-bent on not being anything like mass media. There is smart, tough thinking going on here.

Instead, Nowadays was a show incredibly tuned to current times even to the point of being just as unresolved as the current moment in history. Finally, some refreshing honesty.

The two artists could not have been more different in their approaches.

Jesse Hayward's "Augsberg."

Jesse Hayward, whom I reviewed last November, is kinda the Frankenstein's monster that all those third-rate abstract expressionist professors who snagged university positions in the '60s and '70s would have never allowed to graduate.

There is no angst, no tension; just the kind of mess and glee one gets from knowing painting's power as a medium can start over again by being shredded in some farm machinery like Hayward does.

Hayward's art is uneven, but only as that of an intentional heretic would necessarily have to be. It's also easy to misunderstand. I suspect the average bourgeois lederhosened villagers might want to carry torches into Haze to burn these things. After a conversation I had with Hayward, I think this is apparently the case. One St. John's yokel stammered "those paintings are a waste of education" to this genuine and pleasant artist. Um, point taken wise man. Hayward has an MFA from one of the best art schools in the country, CCAC in the Bay area (when it was still called CCAC). It is possible that sophistication is wasted on the unsophisticated.

"Augsberg" (detail)

One standout work, "Augsberg," is to painting what haggis is to cuisine. It consists of layer after layer of glittery goo and sickening glop.

The paint is slurried into a gumbo that reminds me why people stare at car crashes ... it's just fascinatingly awful.

This is a cultural excyclema. In Greek theater it was a scene too awful to display on stage, so the violence happens offstage only to be frozen as a tableau on a cart wheeled out before the audience.

Much like oysters, it is an acquired taste. You are either tough enough to handle it or you dismiss it as a mess. Still, it doesn't go quite far enough, since the intense texture seems to be calling for free-form sculpture.


Problem is, "Augsberg" isn't a mess. The left side is keyed more to the juxtaposition of red and robins-egg blue (harsh), and the right is keyed to rubber-ducky yellow and the same grandpa-pajama blue. Thus, it is a formal exploration of the three primary colors with tertiaries, intense texture and glitter thrown in. It's all about throwing all but truly perceptive eyes off the trail. Hayward's better paintings separate the men from the boys, kinda like winning a really ugly boxing match.

Less challenging works (success isn't even an issue here) like "Donner" and "Travelodge" simply masquerade as the overly saccharine works one finds in bad hotel rooms. By flirting with something worse than kitsch, these become a tour of philistinism.

At least "Travelodge" is cracked philistinism; one can see crevasses in the paint.


Furthermore, "Donner" is a completely unnecessary double-layered canvas. Who knows what the secret painting underneath has? I like the philosophical implications for painting that has hidden kinetic mystery embedded in it.

Yes, it's a stupid thing to do ... kinda like becoming an artist instead of an accountant! But it's culturally admirable.

Other works, like "Tonic," juxtaposed the monochrome black painting on top and the gloop on the bottom. Funny enough, the "Black" painting is probably one of the colorful gloop paintings paved over in literally gallons of black paint.

Hey, if you can pave paradise, you can pave hell, too!

Still, one senses Hayward has not quite hit his ultimate mark in terms of heresy. His painting sculptures, like "Steve," "Chris" and "Bob," are too uniform – like colon polyps in the intestines of painting history.

His work has precedents in Chamberlain, DeKooning, Franz West and Jules Olitski, and it begs to be a little crazier… a little less evenly distributed … a lot more irregular.

John Chamberlain

This is something we get from the most recent work in the show, the sculpture "Erin." It's elegant, lithe and only kinda ugly. I like it, but it still isn't awkward enough.

Hayward has the potential to do great things, but only if he stops being so symmetrical.

This was the single most challenging painting show I've seen in the last year, and it was not for the faint of heart. Nice job, but be less contained next time.

Aili Schmeltz had a very different strategy.

Schmeltz's very large installation at Haze, and one painting.

Her ambitiously scaled installation combined a lot of Midwest lake-culture elements: maritime upholstery, model train-set trees and over-saturated paintings of deer mating season by rustic, glacial kettle lakes.

Schmeltz is that weird kinda creature, the rusticated Mod. Instead of purely looking to a future, she uses imagery from parts of this earth that never seem to change.

In fact, the other night I was discussing how furniture in lake cabins is almost always a kind of time capsule of '50s, '60s or '70s furniture. My family even has one that is firmly set in the '20s. My point is that by being vacation homes they always have this positivist vacation vibe.

Now, Modernism was not all "the future will be better," since Modernist masterpieces like Franz Marc's "The Fate of the Animals," Kandinsky's "Flood Improvisation" and Picasso's "Les Demoiselles de Avignon" were clearly pessimistic and dark. Instead, they addressed change and Schmeltz does similar things by reaching back to a primal past filtered through vacation-time idylls.

Schmeltz's paintings and installation.

In particular, "mating" seems to preoccupy her paintings, and her installations seem like interesting topographies to do some mating in.

Let's face it: If you are mating regularly you usually see the challenges of the day with a little more "I can handle this" attitude. For that reason, she is pretty Mod.

Still, I felt the installation was overdone. Maybe fewer blue topographic lines and less cushions would have helped.

In spite of those things, it's great to see an installation this big and ambitious. I'd like to see it take on a little more focus, i.e. a stronger correlation of the mating deer to the topography. Despite that, Schmeltz is a major player in the scene and it was almost like having springtime early.

Overall, between Hayward and Schmeltz, Nowadays seemed to indicate that Portland's big thaw in 2003 is beginning to bloom and, what's more, it is inviting people from elsewhere to play.

Group Hug: Motel, Girls Gone Wild, _Hall, Pacific Switchboard

Eschleman and Gaut's "Fearless" at Motel.

As for standout pieces in group shows, I found Johnne Eschelman and Adrian Gaut's work at Motel, "Fearless," to be very poignant and poetic.

With its broken heart, dismembered head and cold- looking water, the cartoony dove or penguin was drenched in gallows humor.

The most important detail is the word "fearless," written in dashed lines as if it was a sewing pattern that could be cut out and reapplied somewhere else.

I like this kind of pathos, where the human spirit in its quest for love can be renewed and defeated again and again.

Sure, the pangs-o-love are painful and nobody expects to survive them, but most of us do.

Humans are survivors.

Between Eschlemen's poetic conceit and Gaut's strong line, these two artists seemed like a perfect marriage and an excellent illustration of the human condition. Anything worth having is at least a little scary.

Iris Porter's "A Book Arts Show."

At _Hall, there was a very smart show called Multiplex. Consisting of woven elements and book works, this was a nicely laid out exhibition with only a few duds. My favorites were by Iris Porter and Rachel Wiecking, who makes delicate mixed-media works.

Porter's "A Book Arts Show" was a wry, inspired piece. With its catawampus oversized ladder and the warning, "do not climb," it mirrored the ubiquitous preciousness of book arts shows and gives the viewer the visual equivalent of a "shhhhhh" from a librarian. Yet, the implied dare to discover the books nestled at the top was exactly what it's like to find an excellent book in a store or library. Any installation that evokes hunter/gatherer behavior is doing something right.

Besides, how can one go wrong with a strange ladder that could be right out of Alice in Wonderland or Christina Rossetti's "The Goblin Market"? This mixture of fantasy and commentary on reality made this a real find.

We should all take note of this space that gave birth to the first Donut Shop, Maritime and the Portland Independent Salon.

"Grass Stains," by Harrison Haynes.

Although Pacific Switchboard had three artists in its latest show, I really only liked two paintings by New Yorker Harrison Haynes: "Grass Stains" and "Kitty Dunes Reality." The rest of Haynes' later 2003 work, like "Outbuilding," was just fetishing isolation; it's passé and trite. I liked the other two because they were nostalgic dreams and added an open-ended mythic experience to illustrations of an unfamiliar personal history.

"Grass Stains" is more open ended and weird, with its masculine posturing and what's up with that dog? Haynes can paint, but his later works from 2003 are stillborn. In "Outbuilding," the shack that exists in black space is too shrill and too rehearsed to achieve anything more than the predictability of "this is a painting of a lone shack which signifies loneliness and isolation."

Also at Pacific Switchboard, local photographer Shawn Records achieves similar levels of bluntness and lack of poetry. Some of the photographs, like the one with a young girl with a snake between her legs, are just ultra-detailed double entendres… like someone saying, "I get it ... the snake is a P-E-N-I-S." Boorish.

In the end, Records' work is something only a lover of photographic technique could find worthy, even though the compositions are kinda flat, too. Just because they are large, detailed, well-framed photos doesn't make them interesting. They lack style and the content (oftentimes gender politics) is just as wanting. Presentation and format is something photographers get too caught up in, and it resembles Greenbergian formalism in its "can't see the forest for the trees" technical myopia.

Megan Walsh's untitled.

Similarly unfulfilling was the "Girls Gone Wild" show at Powell's. Besides Megan Walsh, Carson Ellis's "Lucky Green Dress" and Marne Lucas's PG Pony Ride, the work was more "girls gone self-conscious," "overcooked" or just plain "mild."

Instead of a curatorial statement, the title is just a stunt to get people to take a look-see. That said, the strategy worked ... although it was not so much the title but the long list of artists, some of whom I am keeping tabs on.

The highlight: Walsh's photo of one of Portland's most distinctive beauties is dramatically cropped with just her chin at the top of the frame. I've never seen such good structure in Walsh's photography. The shot is anything but fragile, anything but overtly sexual. It just seems respectful and familiar, akin to making a special someone breakfast on Sunday morning. Walsh's photography has always included these middle scenes where the chin is all we can see – it creates an immediacy. In this case it really works and there's nothing exploitive about it.

At PNCA, Jubal Nance's "Space Garbage" was an extremely welcome contrast to the horribly bad PNCA staff show, which may be the single worst thing I have ever seen in a university gallery. The Higgins project was nearly as sad and about a thousand times more self-righteously sullen; at least they are students, so I can forgive.

In contrast, Nance's installation mimicking sci-fi sets from space shows like "Jason of Star Command," "White Dwarf" and, especially, "Space 1999," was a perfect antidote.

Jubal Nance's "Space Garbage."

"Space Garbage" was created from 90- percent-recycled materials pulled from PNCA dumpsters. What is important is the experience.

At 20 or more feet away it looks great: the conduits, power couplings (sci-fi space is full of power couplings) and hoses create a setting where one expects the cylons or Boba Fett are about to crash through at any moment.

But close up it is just cheesy junk and cardboard.

How is this different than any old "Doctor Who" set?

By being garbage, it acknowledges its pulp-pop iconography, a lived-in universe that George Lucas popularized. Without the cameras it is a playground to revisit and explore our memory of sci-fi tropes. So go, be Kirk, Darth Vader or the biggest cheese ball in all of acting history, Ricardo Montelban as "Kahn." Time to geek out and reenact a scene from "The Empire Strikes Back":

Princess Leah: "Han… I love you"
Han Solo: "I know!"
(Han is then frozen in carbonite by Darth Vader)

As a cultural critic, I suggest Americans must master the cheese or it will certainly master us. Nance gives us a golden opportunity to do just that. Please, make more of these!

New Critics and Curators
panel discussion
Marylhurst University, Feb. 18
(aka The Love Fest)
Nan Curtis, Daniel Duford, Jeff Jahn, Eva Lake, Camela Raymond and Paul Sutinen

Carson Ellis' debauched "Lucky Green Dress" from Girls Gone Wild... what is this about?

Panel discussions like these are always flawed, but some good things were discussed on Feb. 18 at Marylhurst University – like artists' prices and how many shows we each see per month.

Nan Curtis mentioned originating some touring shows, Eva Lake brought a different side of the story from Curtis and myself (apparently we've become art-world insiders around here), Camela Raymond brought up how rare it is to find art writers and I brought up an idea of a Turner/Bass Prize for Portland. Daniel Duford was clear and concise as well.

But overall, it was the same old sort of thing, with lots of talk but little discussion of action (except for Curtis's show plans).

I felt it necessarily started as too cordial and ended (as these things almost always do) just when some interesting notions deserved more attention.

It would have been good for us to challenge one another directly. I must add that very little discussion covered curatorial practices, which is a shame because it's a practice concerned with managing expectations and context (critics react to and build expectations and context). I dislike the idea that all curatorial practice must be detached, since major artists like Takashi Murakami and Damien Hirst have had stellar effects as catalyst participants in shows they have put together, like Frieze and Super Flat.

The focus on institution (i.e. curators) is an epidemic and many reviewers seem to pay more attention to the space, its reputation and the nice white walls rather than content. In fact, most American art writing is expository and rapidly becoming unnecessary, since jpegs are so easy to share. Why simply describe when showing is so much better?

Then there were some things that raised my hackles at the discussion.

Raymond, editor of the Organ "review of arts," essentially claimed it isn't the Organ's place to promote artists and described the goal as more "literary." Then she stated (the discussion was taped), "I'm tired of hearing artists promote themselves, actually." OK then, like so many other writers, maybe she prefers dead artists? Why cover a living scene with that attitude?

This, of course, is my old beef with her and I've gotta make an ethical argument or two.

Her statement is at best naive, because any press is a form of promotion and validation (see Core Sample, etc.) and it's better to use that power judiciously than to pretend it doesn't exist. At worst, it means her bimonthly publication becomes a willful excuse to turn the lives and work of living artists into a writers' workshop that self-consciously stops short of really taking ownership of its subject matter.

Is it a bait and switch? Does art serve purely as literary fodder? And how insightful can that fodder be if it fails to discuss anything in depth? Once again, specific attention does become a kind of "promotion," but the more common word for it is content.

When depth and details are omitted due to "promotional concerns," all that is left for a writer is the quip or remark. Many of these remarks can be strung together when supposedly reviewing group shows resulting in a thoroughly uninformative communiqué. That is a writer's vanity and is much worse than any promotion; it discredits the writer more than anything.

Conversely, writers like Voltaire, Gore Vidal and Matthew Collings used the quip effectively, although it was sharpened on the grindstone of promoting one side over another.

Thus, coverage is the issue here, and the question of what constitutes valuable wordsmithing is central. (Funny enough a satirical article, "Which is better? Art vs. art criticism," appeared in this publication last year.)

As a rule, a short (dismissive or positive) remark without a followup qualification does not constitute true coverage in a dedicated arts publication. Instead, exploring the question "why" while discussing the artist's aims vs. the reviewer's experience is key. This is a problem common to much art writing outside of the major magazines.

Since Raymond's stated goal at the discussion was to "motivate dialog ... but not boost," I sense too much pre-editing on the "form" side. Yet, I understand that dry taste; no complaints there.

Still, any kind of "motivational writing" inherently boosts something. Hamstring the qualified excitement too much and the quality of discourse suffers as well. Overall, I think she's confusing tone for content.

Besides, providing dry, writerly and tempered coverage is possible, even when giving special attention.

Lastly, Raymond admits that there are few actual reviews in the Organ.

Rachel Wiekening at Multiplex: The_Hall Gallery. The Oregonian, Willamette Week and Mercury missed it, yet it deserved attention.

Simply put, the Organ needs to be better at the arts than the generalist publications like the Oregonian, Willamette Week and the Mercury. Those are professional publications that don't fear being critical or doing rare, often brief, interviews of artists. Once again, it's no sin to give individual artists a forum.

But generalist publications can't focus on the minutia that some art deserves. What's more, it's challenging to write about work that requires depth.

In fact, in-depth profiles of artists are a good direction and one shouldn't need to be of Gus Van Sant's stature to warrant them.

Inexplicably, it has been OK for institutional spokespersons to have profile articles in the Organ regarding their shows and organizations. Sounds potentially promotional, eh? Why the double standard? Why is the individual such a pariah?

Also, by purposefully avoiding in-depth arts coverage yet continually expanding the actual size of the paper, the Organ's space has to be filled somehow. It has become an unintentional, but thinly veiled, social pages where the agitprop rarely cuts across cliques. This makes getting new writers more difficult than it has to be, and it defeats the early "big tent" intentions of the publication.

Marie Sivak at Blackfish.

Don't get me wrong, though. I support Raymond's endeavor and empathize. She is interested in an area where she has little background and it's absolutely a ton of work. I don't intend this to be mercenary but, as we know, no good deed goes unpunished.

Still, she's making it extra tough on herself and I'm concerned about her getting burnt out. To be fair, she is wisely delegating some duties to more opinionated and seemingly more interested parties. That is a good move; let them do what they need to do.

I'm purposefully ignoring that sophomoric, "what should the Organ be" essay contest that was run last year. Talk about pandering!

One general thing that caught me in the panel discussion was a tacit acceptance that people don't want to be critical. That is not my experience. The reader usually wants the writer to be critical so that they then have license or opportunity to agree or disagree.

It's also been my experience that people who don't want to be critical are covering something up. I don't live in a glass house.

With that in mind I offer to debate anyone who wishes to do so, publicly or privately.

[Read Camela Raymond's March 5 response to Jeff Jahn. – ed.]

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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