A u g u s t   2 0 0 4

Amelia Hendley's noirish "Die" installation at Hall Gallery's 5D show.
Critical i

Robert Storr, Portland art-scene wanderings
Orthodoxy and zombies
by Jeff Jahn

ike a brain-eating zombie that won't stay dead, the most hackneyed-yet-critical question in the arts lexicon never goes away: Why do we look at art?

I can only answer for myself, in that I use it as a way to test and challenge my orthodoxy. What I mean by that is we all fall into ruts and take things for granted. To break out of ruts a certain totemic snap of physical and conceptual unorthodoxy to ponder is often required.

That orthodoxy check is where late Greenberg, late Ruskin and mid-to-late postmodernists ran afoul; they pandered to an orthodox discourse rather than looking for art that simply justified itself through physical and conceptual rigor. Honest, you can judge work on its own criteria.

For example, a lot of conceptual work fails precisely because all it does is set up a self-fulfilling conceptual orthodoxy. Likewise, paintings with lots of color that allegedly equals "emotional intensity" can be similarly bad orthodoxy, since so many consider color, emotion and creativity to be interchangeable. If you have read this far you already know it isn't that simple.

Better art is always uncomfortable with how it conforms to expectations. The best stuff just hums with complicated incongruities.

Erinn Kennedy's "Ramona" at Pulliam Deffenbaugh.

Right now, there is a real fetish of adolescent imagery. In addition, the work is often nostalgic; the Royal Art Lodge and Tracy Emin kinda started it (both old news now).

Next came Laura Owens, Erinn Kennedy, Assume Astro Vivid Focus, Barry McGee (whom the New York Times oddly seems to have just discovered), Cindy Sherman's dull clowns and Neo Rauch, all of which have subsequently driven the trend into meaningless parody.

I'm kinda sick of that Peter Pan orthodoxy. I want it to move on ... it's like a 29 year old who lives in their parents' basement and watches cable all day.

The adolescent thing is big because, culturally, Western Civilization has sailed into some horse latitudes. Everyone seems to be aware that the next thing has not yet taken hold but, thankfully, change is inevitable. That sounds just like being a pensive teen-ager, doesn’t it? At least we have shifted from theory-driven aesthetics to aesthetics that drive theory. Problem is, adolescent aesthetics aren't that challenging. This constant destruction and reintroduction of orthodoxy will continue to churn away. For better or worse, humans like consensus and like to organize around oversimplifications.

As I make my art rounds in Portland and elsewhere I am seeing how the Rose City is finally developing work that could make a splash in the very stagnant or too quickly developed (or fad-ish) international art pool. Yes, we have the adolescent nostalgia thing, too. But we also have more serious things, like Brenden Clenaghen or Ellen George, whose work is almost freshness personified.

In fact, the changes are so palpable in Portland that a hilarious new satire Web site (apparently) devoted to reacting to what is written here and elsewhere has sprung up: portlandartnews.com. It is an excellent development and adds a needed element of relief.

If only the Organ had tapped such great humor and an eye for detail (I did like the latest Organ, though; good lead story on Brad Cloepfil but it still seems too devoted to the art of shrugging). Simply put, devoted or art-intensive publications, such as Portland Modern, Portland Art News and a rumored art blog, can better serve PDX – which has the most rapidly changing visual arts ecology in the U.S.A.

Now satire airs the various fears and criticisms publicly in a less passive-agressive manner. Portland Art News is a very healthy, cosmopolitan development ... yeah, everybody is to be Tartuffified!

Site Santa Fe and Museum Orthodoxy

Robert Storr, a gentle giant-brained curator.

Yes, art fads come and go, so I really cannot buy into the whole art = fashion theory.

Instead, I look for rigorous, exceptionally bright people who work hard and do not second-guess what will sell. Some people pay such close attention to social "it-ness" that they miss the bigger picture. Frankly, the only reason I can continually follow Portland is the fact that it has become a destination for young artists and is therefore a very dynamic place. Even people who once were terrible at executing their concepts in physical form are getting stronger (now they need stronger concepts).

At the top of the art world there is nobody who avoids the corruption of content by economics like Robert Storr. In fact, as I write this I am in Santa Fe, N.M., taking in Storr's very worthwhile biennial, "Disparities and Deformations: Our Grotesque." I’m not going to review the show here because I want to touch on the subtler curatorial implications.

Santa Fe itself is a grotesque tourist trap with some very legitimate cultural history. As such, it is a great place to consider fads of orthodoxy in bad art and good art ... especially bad tourist art and incredibly horrid bronze sculpture. (Shudder.)

Although quite orthodox in the standard museum ways, Storr is about the highest class of institutional curator out there; an academic who has not lost his lust for life and quirky surprise. (Yes folks, he can dance, too ... he has that swing!) Storr is unorthodox in that he left the museum to go freelance. The implications are startling: apparently, good traditional curators are so rare they can become hired guns and avoid all the mediocrity-driven bureaucracy. What does this say about the custodial nature of museums when the rats flee the ship?

The simple lack of fads in Storr's very intellectual, fun and non-sensationalist show is rooted in being an antidote to the "intellectual irresponsibility" (Storr's term) that has become the norm in museums bent on blockbusters.

Thomas Schütte's "Big Spirits No. 2, 2004," (foreground), at Site Santa Fe.

The term "grotesque" was explored here in a thoughtful, balanced manner and, refreshingly, the work is sometimes 10 years old. Newness for trendiness' sake and collector pandering are rampant curatorial problems. Storr didn't say it but I will: The premise of the last Venice Biennale, Dreams and Conflicts: the Dictatorship of the Viewer, was the single most out-of-touch, patronizing bit of curatorial word frommage in recent memory.

As if it's the viewer's fault the art reeks!

Instead, Storr designed a show that really looks at the multifaceted nature of the term "grotesque" (in short, combining irreconcilable elements). In doing so, he created an unorthodox blockbuster show ... simply by being intellectually thorough. Quite orthodoxly (if you have a proper education), he considered Nero's grotto (the source of the word grotesque), ornamentation, Goya's "The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters" and the indispensable Charles Baudelaire. After taking stock of the much-abused word "grotesque," Storr then curated a very straight-laced show that avoids shouting. This conservative orthodoxy keeps the grotesque theme from becoming a one-dimensional freak show. Storr asks the viewer to dig deep from the outset.

Peter Saul "Brush Your Teeth" at Site Santa Fe

By avoiding grandiosity (academics often do that when they publish), Storr's show allowed the underlying tropes like play, shock, decadence, ornament and absurdity to emerge without chicanery. Some was quite beautiful and nearly all was compelling.

Like Dave Hickey's biennial, it trusted the viewer without a lot of patronizing pseudo-educational elements. It is telling how much better Site Santa Fe looked compared to MOMA Queens ... both are converted warehouses and, apparently, the curator does matter.

Like Hickey's Beau Monde: Towards a Redeemed Cosmopolitanism, this is an intellectually driven but aesthetically demonstrated biennial based on knowledge with roots deeper than the last 50 years. Nothing since the last Site Santa Fe has been so important.

Conversely, Whitney biennials are kinda fluffy, trendy, intellectually dumbed-down shorthand for less-informed art types compared to these Site biennials. The Whitney makes quick trends then kills that trend like a zit in need of popping.

I noticed that the new Whitney director, Adam Weinberg, was at Site taking notes and enjoying the show (good move). A major problem for Site Santa Fe is whom do they get next? Han Ulrich Obrist? Robert Hughes? Matthew Collings? Jerry Saltz? Peter Schjeldahl? Ed Ruscha?

Hopefully, the aesthetic theme will continue, because New York's markets have made their museums a little blind to their own best practices. Why else would Storr leave MOMA? Because by his own words it had gotten too "conservative." Bravo.

Speaking of intellectual responsibility

For Portland, I would like to point out a term that has been used in an intellectually irresponsible manner: DIY (as in "do it yourself"). Why is it inappropriate as a blanket moniker for the Portland art scene?

A random bit of Googling produced this somewhat puzzling result.

First off, it's the wrong genre: DIY came out of punk-rock iconoclasm and has moral baggage that typically judges any success as an invalidation of the scene's aggregate populist-derived integrity.

Visual art has very different dynamics and forms different coalitions – usually more focused on individuals. From Gertrude Stein and Greenberg to Charles Saatchi, the dynamic was very much about intellectual capital, making arguments and money (all are at play here in PDX).

Also, to most culture vultures, DIY has the air of an enforced populist mediocrity that becomes a pejorative since it implies nobody is sticking out. That idea is dead wrong, of course. Why else are some people getting so annoyed that a whole new class of artist has started to distinguish itself in Portland? It isn't like the YSAs (Young Seattle Artists) who kinda pathetically aped the YBA (Young British Artist) moniker.

Here there is simply a new wave or two of distinguished individuals whom we can name ... even if they do not have galleries. That said, DIY is also a misnomer because a large percentage of Portland's best do have representation or gallery involvement and that percentage gets better all the time. This element of distinguishing excellence is what Richard Florida's "creative class" demographics simply cannot convey, but it's a very real element here. In a word, Florida points out the creative class but fails to see how a class of excellence sustains the wider creative crowd and brands a city or art scene.

Historically, Braque and Picasso weren't afraid of sticking out when they attended Gertrude Stein's salons to joust rhetorically with Matisse and Vlaminck.

Marty Schnapf ... not so DIY.

Besides, I know enough Portland artists who have studied under Nobel Prize winners, MacArthur Fellows and very rigorous institutions that any blanket ghettoization of Portland as DIY is silly and inappropriate. Commitment, pedigree, intellect and resources do matter and it's comical to act like it doesn't exist here.

For hard-working ambitious artists like Jesse Hayward, Donna Avedisian, MK Guth, Bruce Conkle, Jacqueline Ehlis, Matthew Picton, Marty Schnapf, Brenden Clenaghen, Mark Smith, Todd Johnson and James Boulton, etc., it's an insult to consider them anything but engaged intellectuals.

They all have impressive educations and credentials that make Portland very lucky to have them. Each cares about doing something intellectually relevant. Why would they want their work to self-destruct if it's intellectually engaged? DIY simply doesn't fit for the leading artists in the Portland scene.

Since the Core Sample catalog has come out, expect a rhetorical rejoinder if DIY is used indiscriminately. Portland's real lure is that it has a pre-proto-punk intellectualism ala Patti Smith and MC5 or a Weimar-esque iconoclasm that is increasingly articulating itself in terms of cultural critique and design.

The Portland art-scene walkabout

Stotik not static: Eric Stotik's untitled at PDX.

I really liked Eric Stotik's show at PDX Gallery. Stotik's strange world of lingering occult images reminded me of Blake and some of Michelangelo's later works. The only artist I really want to compare him to is the very weird Alessandro Magnasco.

Everything at PDX had an edgy, disturbed air of irreconcilable grotesques and man trying to find his place in a creation that wasn't necessarily custom built for humanity.

Before this show, Stotik tended to bore me (the work was too purely illustrative and sometimes showed uninspired reliance on technique).

But this is the artist on fire. It's like some sort of cross between a 19th-century freemasonry and Vlad the Impaler engravings.

I believe that the often tenuous supports, like Stotik's unstreached canvas rags or the unframed works on paper, give the show an immediacy the framed works lack. That could be a very fruitful direction as this work is dangerously close to a preciousness that might kill the whole mood. Instead of allegorical illustration, this comes off like the unknown giving us dreadful hints.

Is this German enough for you?

Next was Dan Ness at Mark Woolley Gallery. Ness is a talented artist, but his work sure looks a lot like Sigmar Polke's. In fact, at the gallery there was much talk of what was and wasn't so German. Does Ness need to be more or less German? I'll let it just hang. Nice, but it needs to break from Polke's influence.

Paige Saez's "#6" at Zeitgeist Gallery.

Paige sez it!

Paige Saez's elegant and fugal collaged office supply work at Zeitgeist Gallery in the Everett Station Lofts have some real merit that I felt her previous paintings at Pacific Switchboard failed to achieve.

The best was "#6," which, like her video work, includes spinning fugal forms. She should expand on this baroque office-supply minimalism.

It reminds me of Sol LeWitt, but with a lot of zing that begs to be better articulated.

Bereal beats the Bush at Elizabeth Leach Gallery

Bereal's "Three Schmucks and We're Out."

I'm certain G.W. Bush has no use for new art; he likes fundamentalism and orthodoxy. His thoughts are trained on supporting whatever he allegedly already thinks!

I think the Ed Bereal show at Elizabeth Leach does a pretty great job of skewering Bush with "Three Schmucks and We're Out!"

Still, I feel this panders toward my political orthodoxy.

I've disliked the Bush clan intensely for more than 20 years, so in many ways the propaganda marginalizes its real iconic punch by being so time specific.

I suspect that in 20 years this work will be more consequential as a historical object than as an object whose potency is more internally manifested.

Of course that, too, is problematic, since clay pots can become art objects after a certain amount of time. Some objects are designed to be loaded with meaning, others acquire it. Since it made me think, I must concede the piece still works. For the time being.

5D, Hall Gallery

"Night/Light: A Linear Sensory Environment."

5D. Is it a bra size? The fifth dimension? Or a hotel room?

Judging from this show of spatially engaged works, I would have to say the installation-art thing that Bruce Guenther missed at the last Oregon Biennial has continued to evolve.

There was some nice work and some that was more akin to party favors. All of it was laid out nicely by curator Ryan Suther, who had little control over what showed up; not a perfect show, but better than a lot of the more populist shows that got more press in the last two years.

Another annoyance: artist names and titles were often difficult to discover. But I liked "Night/Light: A Linear Sensory Environment." It could be developed a lot further, but the music and colored lights produced a Zen-like contemplative effect not unlike moving Steven Hendees.

I found the Russian low-budget flight-simulator "world's most expensive coffin" fun, but rather lacking in conceptual heft. Is this a nostalgic paean for those uncomplicated Cold-War days?

The best piece in the show was Amelia Hendley's "Die."

Hendley poetically evokes a change in states by installing dead daisies painted on glass, which one walks under to get into the space. I like how it is a dead stand-in for living plants and a lively reminder of the phrase "pushing up daisies."

Life is what you make it and this Vanitas Verde was executed well with poetic overtones.

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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