J u n e   2 0 0 4

Final aerial tram design, by AGPS Architects.
Critical i

Portland Tram, PSU's MFA, Boulton, May, Dalbow
Dynamic changes
by Jeff Jahn

he signs were visible everywhere in May: Portland is in the process of dynamic and concrete changes. Here are four of the biggest ones:

1) Thousands of sold-out upscale loft/condos in the gallery-laden Pearl District have made this neighborhood much taller and, presumably, denser. The Henry, which opens soon, is the most expensive and architecturally interesting of the lot, and is situated conveniently next to the planet's best bookstore, Powell's.

Now the neighborhood I described as "America's most expensive ghost town" three years ago in Critical i is finally taking shape.

2) Final plans for the unique aerial tram by AGPS Architects are in. Unlike the Roosevelt Island tram in New York (the one, and only slightly, comparable precedent) this has design quality and will get a lot of attention in the international architectural community.

It goes before the city council for final approval June 10. If approved, the project will be finished in spring 2006. As the lynchpin of the billion-dollar South Waterfront District biotech and residential development, the tram is a big deal. I love this solution – let the biotech geeks have their own downtown! The neighborhood beneath the tram will be affected, but long-term property values should increase exponentially due to footbridge access to the tram and interconnected light rail.

One version of the South Waterfront District.

Many excellent artists, such as Laura Fritz, Jesse Hayward, Matthew Picton, Alia Schmeltz and Ellen George have biotech appeal.

The new tram design has fixed the troublesome mid-tower, which allows cars to rise 500 feet above I-5. The tower itself is like a wonderfully minimalist Tony Smith sculpture, instead of the previous, dull scaffolding look. I like the elegant eastern knife-edge and Martha Graham-ish diagonals. As a key feature, the tram cars are unobtrusively futuristic bubbles that refract light and are nothing like the monorail or anything in the movie "Sleeper."

The tram's mid-tower from the southeast, showing proposed ivy-covered footbridge.

From the north and south sides, the tower will have architectural presence viewable from I-5, but will be less obtrusive from the east and west to preserve residential views.

The hilltop terminal looks a little like one of Robert Delaunay's cubist Eiffel Tower paintings and addresses the engineering requirements that it never rotate more than 3/4 of an inch despite the million pounds of tension from the cable.

Hopefully, the mid-tower won't be painted simple white. Why not pull a Rem Koolhaas and use a mildly iridescent paint that makes it blend into the landscape with a water-vapor-like shimmer? As a design it's understated, yet ambitious and useful. – the exact opposite of the Space Needle.

It's a nice design that reminds me a tad of Zaha Hadid's Austrian ski jump at Innsbruck.

"Plexus IV," by James Boulton.

3) Extensive construction on the new modern/contemporary art wing at the Portland Art Museum. The 28,000 square feet of gallery space is vastly more than the recent Zaha Hadid-designed Cincinnati Contemporary Art Center, which has 17,000 square feet.

Expect it to help bring in donations of important art works. The collection already includes Gilbert & George, Kevin Appel, George Segal and Paul Klee's work, but we never get to see them due to a lack of dedicated gallery space. This is the solution and I like how the design is progressive but understated, allowing us to focus on the art.

4) A nearly sold-out debut show by a young artist like James Boulton at Pulliam Deffenbaugh Gallery.

In terms of shows, May had plenty of OK-to-good solo shows by Boulton, Dan May, Anna Fiedler, Tim Dalbow, Paul Fujita, Molly Wolfe and Kimba Kuzas. Frankly, good is about the best you see anywhere. Only Intense Focus, with Amanda Wojick and Russell Crotty at Elizabeth Leach Gallery and Dan May's Wood show at PDX Gallery were better than good. I'll give May, Boulton and Dalbow's solo shows some deserved scrutiny this month.

Malia Jensen's ceramic kitties ... what's new, pussycat?

My favorite new piece of art in May (after taking in Chicago, Denver and Milwaukee) was by Portlander Malia Jensen, who has been working hard in New York for the last seven months.

Jensen's cuddling ceramic kitties at PDX Gallery are so kitschy, cold, cuddly and personable ... I think she has found a way to make mimetic, soulful longing new again in sculpture.

This is a breakthrough, as the surface and detailing are both solid and ghostly nondescript. Is this a phantom limb of sorts? Contemporaries, like Claire Cowie, are more neurotic-kitschy sardonic and it comes off a contrived rather than poetic like Jensen.

Jeff Koons made ceramics as well, but nobody would say his work has Jensen's soul. Only the great Louise Bourgeois does this kind of longing. But instead of Jensen's phantom connections, Bourgeois's work is one of phantom estrangement. It is two sides of the same coin.

It's a good coin. Instead of postmodern isolation, this new work explores the fragile but powerful connections that allow us to identify with and even love art, while remaining cool and universally nondescript. All this is accomplished with a solid theoretical base melding the pop-culture kitties to a finish-fetish sheen while not mocking itself or the viewer.

Portland at a crossroads

In 2001, Peter Schjeldahl called Portland "Sweden with SUVs." In 2004, it's becoming Weimar with credit cards. People know something worthwhile is going on and artists are very much jockeying for position while simultaneously experimenting. Still, artists continue to collaborate with fashion designers, restaurants and filmmakers. I’m hearing plans for large warehouse shows for the summer.

Rose McCormick's "Black Boot."

Even Rose McCormick's dare to have people check out her studio to determine if her black-and-white-on-burlap works are any good brought out well-heeled collectors for a look-see.

My opinion: her "Black Boot" is a good direction. I like how it combines myth, Philip Guston, hipster/oldster footwear and minimalism, without looking like Rothko's very pretentious pre-breakthrough works. The unpainted right and bottom sides make it work. Still, she needs to develop a narrative context to pull off a full series for a show.

One notes that willingness for art lovers to explore is a marked difference from most places, where such invitations fall on deaf ears. It's all just museums and gallery openings. Here the collectors have gotten used to checking things out for themselves – a huge sea change likely brought about by last year's five visual-art extravaganzas: IAE, The Best Coast, The Modern Zoo, Oregon Biennial and Core Sample. Suddenly, the collectors drove to the art no matter where the hell we hid it.

The fact that young artists are getting a chance to prove themselves shows a system is working here. These changes in the cultural climate are permanent and every new development builds a precedent of hard work, cultural excitement and reward.

Portland State University

Bonnie Paisley's "American Beauty Rose," done in royal icing.

Even PSU is graduating a nice crop of MFAs – Bonnie Paisley, Anna Fiedler and Mariana Tres in particular. Go see them and others at Marylhurst University's venerable Art Gym this month.

PSU needs to get a donor to fund a serious MFA program with both curatorial studies and fine-arts degrees. This requires better gallery hours and management, international artist residencies and an in-house curator, such as every other serious school has.

Portland Art Museum's new art library will help facilitate some of this. PSU simply has to step up and only a major donor can jump-start it – very important for the city and PSU.

South Waterfront District

There is even a follow-up to the Pearl District itself: the South Waterfront. Thankfully, it will have higher architectural aspirations than that warehouse-cum-condo Pearl District wander-wonderland.

The music and effects of Viviana Spoikoininich by Mariana Tres.

The newly christened South Waterfront has already broken ground on the two 20- and 24-story glass residential towers, dubbed "The Meriwether" (think Lewis and Clark).

Is it kosher to intimate one is on a first-name basis with a long-dead explorer? Frankly, I haven't decided if the name is cool or constipated-sounding yet ... it depends on the quality of the building.

Portland, with its budding biotech industry and Starfleet academy-approved razor-tower living in the South Waterfront is positioning itself for industry beyond Intel, Columbia Sportswear, Weiden & Kennedy, Nike and the brewpubs.

Impressively, Portland's plans will maintain all of its other neighborhoods: the walkable and lively downtown, art-hopping Pearl, the hipster and café-laden Alphabet District, gritty/arty Eastbank, wealthy West Hills, funky Clinton Street, cash-laden hippie heaven Hawthorne, bohemian Alberta, etc.

Dan May
PDX Gallery
(through June 16)

Dan May's untitled #18.

Dan May's Wood show at PDX Gallery wins my vote for most accomplished solo outing for the month.

May has grown in mysterious ways since his Art Gym retrospective last year.

May now elicits a very satisfying state of confusion in me, because it's tough to put a finger on why his work is so individual and personal. Somehow, he seems to capture the secret wishes of bibliophiles, the unmade projects of architects and the memories of childhood forts into his wood-and-cardboard conglomerations. If you collect rare books or love archives, you will want one of these.

My personal favorite is the untitled corrugated cardboard rectangle he finished just before the show opened, as it seems to be either a template or an architectural model with wooden inserts.

Dan May's untitled #33.

Another untitled favorite is the lighter-colored corrugated rectangle with grid lines.

Then there is the untitled rectangle with black tabs and what looks to be a coffee cup stain, except coffee would stain more.

Call 'em familiar mysteries.


James Boulton
Pulliam Deffenbaugh Gallery

James Boulton's Plexus II (left) and I, 2004 (II was the first in the series).

James Boulton's first major solo show has been highly anticipated since last summer's Oregon Biennial.

For anyone who thought that appearance was an overnight success, you are so deeply wrong. Of course, everyone knew Boulton before the Biennial. For the sake of chronicling what you have to do to get a solo show in Portland, let's list a few of his stops.

First came a massive multi-canvas installation at Powell's, two Everett Station Loft shows at Fleck Gallery (including its closer, which was reviewed in the Oregonian by D.K. Row nearly a year before the Biennial), and the Emergence show at the Littman Gallery in May 2002, where he debuted "Spark Gap Transmission," the Biennial painting.

"Plexus I," by James Boulton.

In November 2002, he stood out at the Maritime show, along with fellow 2003 Biennial alumnus Adam Sorenson.

One notices a few things: Boulton always showed in good company and made his debut with a work more than 30 feet long, which included many Atari-esque lo-rez graphic forms.

Luck had nothing to do with it – which brings us to his Pearl District solo debut.

Boulton's latest work is purposefully tornadic disaster art. We are in a time when painters are trying to reinvent the form and, as Picasso said, "every act of creation is an act of destruction."

Boulton's latest is Dionysian shredding of art gods from De Kooning to Warhol (well, sort of). They also borrow from video games, MTV videos and William Morris textile patterns. These are all ideas related to Takashi Murakami's hugely influential Superflat show which puréed, leveled and interchanged high- and low-culture elements so freely that the unleavened imagery supposedly lost caste, class and taste distinctions amongst one another.

I found Boulton's new focus on competing patterns to be a vast improvement over his military stenciled Lari Pittman-indebted works at the Ulterior Motives show last November.

Works like "Plexus IV" are successful exercises in synchratism-driven pattern combinations; it is his most challenging and best realized work, but big orange paintings are tougher to sell. Boulton’s focus on pattern entropy is intriguing. Patterns usually indicate affiliation and status. For example, European court life at Windsor Palace is filled with patterns of ritualized activity. If the queen sneezes, then everyone below a duke will follow a certain prescribed etiquette. Also, the highland Scots used various tartans to show clan affiliation. Patterns, affiliations and etiquette are often analogous and Boulton is broadcasting the polite facts impolitely. Maybe not impolitely enough.

"Peptic Circumflex 4," by James Boulton.

As syncretism, Boulton makes a little voodoo by layering recognizable patterns like Ben Day dots, floral patterns, video games, paint smears and mushroom clouds.

He moves them around to loosely weld them to a conglomerate that looks like claustrophobic Flash animation. The patterns exist in enough detail to pick out, but never enough to resolve. This dissonance is the best part of the work. Problem is, Boulton's large-scale square works, like "Plexus I," "II" and "IV," all resolved to an open area or image smack dab in the center of each work.

This makes them feel static and balanced in a de facto way that reduces their dynamic punch. "Plexus IV" is the piece where the “donut” is minimized most and is therefore the most dynamic.

Jackson Pollock's "The Deep" had a similar problem, and Lee Krazner called it a kiss-ass to Clyfford Still. In Boulton's case, I assume this donut hole is due to their large size and square shape, making the center of the work the toughest thing to reach when on the floor and the easiest to focus on when on the wall.

"Spark Gap Transmission" and "Band Camp" from last year were much more asymmetrical, explaining why they are still Boulton's best and most dynamic large-scale compositions. Yet, these new works have much more worthy style and content than their predecessors.

The mid-sized rectangular works do not have this problem, leading me to believe the larger work's donut holes were due to physical displacement. Rectangles are more inherently asymmetrical compositions.

My favorite is "Peptic Circumflex 5." I like how the waves crash through on the left side, while a foamy white seems to erupt from underneath them and the splotchy bad painting from a J. Geils Band '80s video hover on the top and right. It's a painting of paintings, like Matisse's red studio, only this is a studio in a trash compactor.

"Peptic Circumflex 5," by James Boulton.

"Peptic Circumflex 5" also seems to be the history of the artist's own concept of what art is. The J. Geils Band video was the first time the artist was exposed to people painting, and he thought, OK, that is how people paint. I think of "5" as a creation myth for the artist. Yet it is destructive as well; "peptic" means ulcer to me.

Because it is critical, a few other issues need addressing before Boulton is ready to hit L.A., London or New York. It involves maximizing dynamics again, as this work has nothing to do with minimalism.

Although all the paintings were internally cacophonous, they were harmonized through Urban Outfitter and Gap store colors. Of all the works, "Plexus I" is the least challenging, as it borrows most heavily from Urban Outfitters with a little less gushy painterliness than the other paintings. It is also the most indebted to Sigmar Polke’s fetish of transferred graphics.

Another problem with the body of work is that most color tones were muted a little to reduce their clash, yet the patterns themselves all scream dissonance. This incongruity of philosophy and execution made the effect only slightly schizophrenic. Using pastels is an easy way to get colors to work together, but it blunts them, too. Try contrasting pastels with fully saturated color for more push-pull dischord.

These paintings took their meds. If you are gonna create discord, be dissonant. The mostly uniform color tones made the whole show a little monotonous. Debuts are often like that, though.

Ingrid Calame's "eeec-FFw-eeec-FFwFFw."

This debut was merely good – with much promise for better.

Artists, like the hot international artist Ingrid Calame, who samples stains and splotches on sidewalks, have stronger compositions, less hedged color, a weirder sense of scale and a similar way of inviting entropy into the mix to make legibility difficult. Her work sets the bar for this entropy style, but Matisse's paintings of his own studio set all bars for discordant pattern, asymmetrical beauty and weirdly wonderful color.

Boulton has more texture and visceral oomph than Calame and Matisse. He needs to play those cards with more panache.

These works don't really question taste or composition so much as create a puzzle of philosophical and aesthetic gag reflexes – and a somewhat candy-coated one at that. Call it a conceptual and formal cipher that, like most of the best artists in Portland, is meant to be experienced rather than absolutely comprehended. Instead of a modernist or postmodern solution, it's a grotesque Dr. Moreau car crash of already available designs and idiomatic gestures. The viewer is the forensic detective left to investigate.

Competition for Resources
Tim Dalbow

"Anachronism 2" and "Penthouse View," by Tim Dalbow.

The urban development is under way, so let's have a master cultural plan.

In fact, this was the secret subject of Tim Dalbow's ambitious Competition for Resources show at Haze. Although half the time too muddy and/or too woozy-abstract, Dalbow's best semi-abstract views of Portland embodied the developmental flux of the Rose City.

This gives the work some historical relevance despite the uneven showing. But the high points were high and large of scale. His best works reminded me both of Robert Delaunay's Eiffel Tower series and Richard Diebenkorn.

Four pieces were some of the best urban landscapes I have seen in a while – putting veteran George Johansson to shame. For highlights, check out "Anachronism 2," "Obelisk 2" and the extra-nice "Penthouse View."

Tim Dalbow's "Obelisk 2."

In Portland, only Henk Pander and Sandy Roumagoux can handle paint as well as Dalbow. But they have honed the fine art of varying on a theme.

Give Dalbow time.

Suggestion: vary the palette and expand the subject matter to edgier themes – the variety will synergize the whole show.

For non-formal gripes, there needs to be more clarity of philosophy behind the work.

But since its subject is a time of urban redevelopment, this want for clarity on my behalf might be more a civic wish than an artistic consideration. This show bumped Dalbow up on the radar, but did not solidify his position as comfy. Let's see where he goes from here.

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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