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Conceptual prankster Joe Cartino.
Critical i

Get to work!
Healy vs. Clenaghen, Save Point & Kalusa
by Jeff Jahn

"Progress is man's ability to complicate simplicity"
– Thor Heyerdahl

n September the Portland art scene shakes loose of the ubiquitous summer group exhibitions and gets back to work with promising shows of focus by Francis Celentano, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Sean Healy, Brenden Clenaghen, Kenny Higdon, Karen Madsen, Rick Bartow, Time-Based Art (TBA) and the Ed Cauduro collection at PAM (Sept. 4).

Cauduro is easily Portland's top collector, with unknown artists like Basquiat, Johns, Warhol, Koons, etc. He even collected "Shortstop," John Chamberlain's first autobody sculpture, so pay attention.

There's also a Ken Aptekar show at Reed College's Cooley Gallery.

Add in Affair, Portland's first-ever art fair with 25 galleries at the Jupiter Hotel including some work from New York, Chicago and L.A. Suddenly, we've got a very exciting month in Portland.

One image that struck me as very emblematic of this time in Portland was conceptual prankster artist Joe Cartino's performance art piece, "work." Consisting of a helmet emblazoned with the word "work" and sporting a carrot and stick attachment, the simple joke accumulated lots of additional absurdity considering its context. It was executed during the Run-Hit Wonder running event on Nike's campus in August.

Katherine Bovee's "Save Point" at Disjecta.

It was an odd event where everyone had to jog in order to see DEVO perform (only in Portland, folks). Being a smart-ass DEVO fan, Cartino just had to take on the whole corporate skinner box entertainment matrix while being complicit with it. It takes on additional richness because Nike's bottom line is so attuned to the hoards of weekend-warrior athletes with bourgeois desk jobs and a weakness for '80s pop music.

In this environment, the opportunity for hypocrisy was limitless.

Cartino saw his shot and took it, threading the conceptual needle that many other conceptualists in Portland simply gloss over by making the number of participants their main justification. It isn't the number of participants, it's the artists' abilities to internalize and take the bullet at the point where they become implicated in the hypocrisy of such critiques. A classic example is Vito Acconci’s "Trappings," where he talks to his penis. By doing something ridiculous, Acconci acknowledges the Wittgensteinian solipsism of conceptual art even as he manifests it as performance.

Speaking of critiques, the really nice-looking Core Sample catalog is full of interesting pictures and many only moderately insightful and on-topic essays. Thankfully, it seems a bit dated and not in keeping with how galvanized and disciplined the scene has become after a mere 11 months.

Obviously, Core Sample doesn’t deserve all the credit but it does deserve credit for wearing out a trend.

As predicted, massive group-show festivalism has run its course only to be supplanted by all the good-to-great solo shows by Ellen George, Tom Cramer, Alia Schmeltz, Dan May, James Boulton, Bruce Conkle, Linda Hutchins, Nic Walker and Jesse Hayward. This has made most of the scene's sustained talents very easy to pick out. If you've missed those galvanizing shows ... well, you've missed the strongest series of solo shows by locals in Portland history.

With Sean Healy and Brenden Clenaghen this month, Chandra Bocci in October, Jacqueline Ehlis in December and Matthew Picton in February, it's continuing its momentum, too. Worth repeating: an in-depth vision from a single individual often does more to serve the entire population as expectations and benchmark-setting distills ever more idiomatic stylistic results.

Katherine Bovee's stylized explosion paintings at Disjecta.

It's only been a year, but 2003 was a flowering phase that is bearing fruit in 2004 and will continue in 2005.

For instance, Katherine Bovee (reviewed this month) debuted at the Modern Zoo but made Disjecta look great in August.

Healy debuted his new style at The Best Coast, Clenaghen debuted his new style at Ulterior Motives, James Boulton shined at the dull Oregon Biennial and Chandra Bocci did great things at TBC, Modern Zoo and Core Sample, and will take over the massive gallery space at Haze in October.

We can't wait.

Until then, a preview of the Brenden Clenaghen vs. Sean Healy solo show shootout is also in order. I promise to cover the explosion in Portland art-publishing next month in depth.

Stephen Kalusa
Elizabeth Leach Gallery

Narrative from Germany: Kalusa's "Katzentag I" (right) blurs the vision of the viewer with a painting under Plexiglas.

Yes, in August the Portland scene had some good international group shows, such as Narrative from Germany at Elizabeth Leach and the Scratch show at Haze. But I'm ready to sink my teeth into more than just a couple pieces by an artist these days. That said, I got a lot out of rising German star Stephen Kalusa's "Katzentag I" (or "cat day") at the Leach Gallery.

It seemed to exemplify the pensive and serious temperament of the show.

As a symbol of now-dead atavistic strength and aggressiveness, the tiger's relationship to Germany's past is clear but its black-market poacher mise-en-scène and optically blurring Plexiglas scrim might indicate that the past may finally be fading ... or has it just gone underground?

Skinheads are not just a German problem, they are everywhere.

Standing in front of this work, I wonder if the presence of the background figure looking from behind the tiger counts the viewer as complicit in the guilt of Germany's checkered past and/or the black-market tiger trade? Even for Americans it is an appropriate question, since the League of Nations did appease Hitler, allowing him to indulge his worst whims. Likewise, back in the U.S.A., one can buy black-market tiger products at will. Kalusa spreads a wide net of complicacy.

So yes, even Americans can share in the current and historical guilt. Not to mention our own checkered past of slavery, super-predator extinction and genocidal extermination of indigenous populations.

Daniel Richter's "Druisen 2004."

Where Kalusa is special is in his lack of shrill didacticism. His work has a general metaphorical quality that can be applied to any part of human history.

Kalusa's work is a blurred analog of the dualistic role of history, both revealing and obscuring. Whereas Anselm Kiefer, Germany's greatest living artist, is more polarizing and less optical.

Like Kalusa, another German luminary, Daniel Richter, is also concerned with atavism and the present, but isn't as clinical about the past or present.

Kalusa seems to take the cerebral path and Richter takes the action path. Both are key to understanding Germany today. It remains a huge issue: Do Germans dare to have national pride again? Don't they have a right to start fresh? Then again, aren't we all charged to remember ... so the same horrible crimes do not recur? In fact, the worst crimes are still happening in Sudan and in the Asian tiger trade.

Katherine Bovee
Save Point
Disjecta (Closes Sept. 3)

Installation view of Save Point at Disjecta.

Katherine Bovee was one of a handful of compelling exhibitors in last year's Modern Zoo and, fittingly, she has put on the first show to elevate Disjecta to a must-see visual arts venue. Minimalism has replaced herding tendencies this time at Disjecta.

As to the video-game subject matter of the show, the save point in a lot of current video games is a virtual space where one must move a character in order to save the game; sometimes it's another character in the game one must catch. If the avatar dies after that save, then the player can restore the game back to that point. It is almost as good as time travel, only more navel gazing and convenient.

Bovee was intrigued with the way virtual time and real time synchronized in this virtual zone, so she developed two light sculptures, five paintings and some 3-D virtual models of several save points in various games to create a beautiful minimalist exhibition.

Disjecta has never looked so nice. The Save Point itself is titled "0.8.1" and consists of a lamplight re-creation of a video game event resembling two concentric explosion rings. The title implies coordinates, time or an IP address for those with a little more computer knowledge. That interchangeability of location and definition is fascinating. It's nice to look at, too, but somehow I feel like I'm at a trade show where geeks dressed as Klingons discuss Batliff techniques. That isn't bad but, when I look at the stylized explosion in Robert Irwin fluorescent lights, I'm let down that this isn't a real video game or a real Robert Irwin.

The paintings, which distill video game explosions, do the same thing and I want something more stylized or more explosive. Overall, I feel the heightened sense of place and drama of Marfa minimalism at Save Point but, without the game-objective rules, I'm left waffling.

Save Point 3-D models at Disjecta.

This is a very telling existential crisis, which mimics our current predicament. With so many options and a very anti-postmodernist lack of isolation, the inter-connected solitude is deafening but pleasant.

This alone is worth the trip and I suggest you see it at dusk.

It's a successful show but it needs to be odder. Maybe lose the Robert Irwin reference to give the show a different, less glaring pulse (ambient lighting will still work best).

It seems to beg for large-scale video elements.

If Bovee can create greater orientation and disorientation in the viewer, she'll be well on her way to becoming a pied piper of whatever we eventually call this 21st-century experience-driven and audience co-opting art.

It is not stoic or hermetically familiar enough to be minimalism, but it does make me wish for more.

A worthy show, but most of its aesthetic force was on loan from Marfa and Capcom video games. This is a good start to making the syncretism rampant in the world of video games invigorate the rather stale art historical notes everyone from Cecily Brown to Laura Owens keeps replaying in tinnier re-imagining of De Kooning and the Douanier Rousseau.

Portland questions

Corey Lunn's work from "Scratch" at Haze Gallery.

Here in Portland it's a pensive but critical time where one of the themes of 2002-03, "undirected art scene growth," already seems horribly passé and the theme of making statements begun with 2000's Greenberg collection acquisition, the Play show, Blood and Guts Forever, Ulterior Motives and a swarm of solo shows worth noting, have definitely taken hold.

Now that there is a general acknowledgement that Portland's long-sustained art-scene explosion is quite real and not going away, a new pile of pensive and invigorating questions have arisen for September. Notably, there aren't any real questions about the artists themselves, other than whether they can continue to make bolder, more directed statements. The artists have remade the scene and now everyone else is repositioning themselves to take advantage of the new reality.

Here are three wide-ranging heuristic questions related to the shift:

Architectural model of the new Elizabeth Leach Gallery.

1) Elizabeth Leach Gallery (Portland's top blue-chip gallery) and Haze (the most adventurous, exciting gallery in the entire Pacific Northwest) have plans for moving to Northwest Portland. Leach opens in the Pearl in November, joining a majority of the other player galleries. With the gallery location consolidation, a question remains: Will the now increasingly acknowledged quality of the artist explosion in Portland lead to higher-quality art collections and Portland's ascendance as an art city nationally?

Portland certainly has grown in sophistication with a per-capita collector base few cities can boast. But collectors that decide to really make a statement are rare. In anticipation of that growing need for statements, both Leach and Haze win top prizes for visionary strategic pluck. We will see how it all goes down in the ripple effect as Northwest Portland gets ever more serious and adventurous.

Will the tiny but excellent PDX Gallery open a satellite space? Other Pearl District galleries that I won't name are making plans for just that. I'm even hearing that the grand Laura Russo Gallery is mulling over a young artist show. All are important developments.

2) What the hell will Stuart Horodner's art fair, "Affair," hold for Portland's art-world profile? With galleries from L.A., Chicago and New York participating with some collectors in tow, I am very curious about this first-ever occurrence in Portland. It's a little secret that savvier San Franciscans shop for art in Portland, too. So it looks like Horodner is accomplishing his connector role more successfully now that he's not tied to PICA's moorings.

Kristy Edmunds, artistic director for PICA, is back from Melbourne to oversee the possibly do-or-die Time-Based Art Festival, Sept.10-19.

3) Organizing the art organizations: I'm not one to be negative for the sake of critical posturing, but can PICA's Time-Based Art Festival (Sept. 10-19) capture an audience to sustain PICA? Or did the organization mess up spectacularly by turning its back on the visual arts at the precise moment the visual arts went gonzo in Portland? When PICA was asked to step up, did it turn its back? Unfair criticism or not, many longtime supporters no longer care what happens. Essentially, TBA has the organization facing a no-confidence vote.

The prevailing mood is that PICA is an organization that has been unresponsive to an incredibly active scene and, no, I'm not talking about the shows. Instead, most of the PICA criticisms I hear are related to attitude and engagement. Personally, I get nothing but friendliness from them and I hope they really address the roots of the malaise. I want them to connect.

This ambivalence really started to frost over after artists raised $30,000 for PICA in a single day, yet seven months later (without a thank you) they have yet to hear a solid plan for visual-arts programming. People are pissed and all we have heard is maybe January for resumption of the visual arts programming.

There is no reason PICA can't thrive and, besides, the money is clearly here in Portland. Even during this recession, I have to parallel park my car between Ferraris and Hummers with frightening regularity.

Considering Portland has the most dynamically shifting visual-art scene in the country, PICA's unresponsiveness is simply not acceptable. Advice: announce something solid before TBA.

Diamanda Galas is among many slated to perform at PICA's TBA Festival.

Whatever the PICA outcome, I'm looking forward to TBA and recommend Diamanda Galas, Lone Twin, Akira Kasai, Guy Maddin, MK Guth's Red Shoe Delivery Service, Andrew Dicksen and David Eckard's performances.

Overall, though, TBA is not what the Portland art scene has been obsessed with for the last four relentless years; it has been installation art and paintings.

Even so, TBA is an impressive lineup – even if it remains to be seen whether an audience for such an event can be cultivated without government funding.

That said, Portland requires an art organization with an attuned vision at the street level – at home and elsewhere – for the present and near future.

PICA clearly is not the answer to all of the city's needs (that is a ridiculous burden) and at least one new organization should arise in Portland to serve as nice gallery space a la Soap Factory in Minneapolis or CoCA/Conworks in Seattle.

It should have at least 2,000 square feet of floor space and there are plenty of interesting spaces between Southeast 20th and Northwest 26th to choose from. If Minneapolis can do it, we can. Portland actually has a lot larger downtown population, although Portland has a two-million metro compared to three million for the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro region.

Since we're throwing around figures, here's another shocker for those who consider Seattle a much larger city to the north. Portland proper's population of 538,544 is closing in on Seattle's 569,101 (2003 Census Bureau estimates).

The Elizabeth under construction in the Pearl District. Will the people who live there be culturally active?

The difference is less than the population of Bend, and Seattle's downtown population growth has been stagnant. Of course, there are other factors at work but, overall, the real difference has been largely an attitude problem. Seattle is "the city that likes to congratulate itself" (possibly a bit too much) and Portland has tended to categorically diminish its own successes. This tendency has come under fire lately and it is not hyperbolic to call it a war for the civic soul of the city, especially now that the Pearl District is really coming together.

The optimist vs. pessimist debate is amusing on a formal rhetorical level and it's being channeled quite directly by the art scene. For the record, I don't like being one or the other; I'm a strategist with a fondness for altruism and feisty debate.

Tellingly, the art scene is big enough to be a political issue in the mayoral race. Tom Potter is endorsing the Centennial Mills idea put forth by Gavin Shettler, but it's very expensive and tied to a ton of contingencies.

I like it, but that's a complicated long-term solution that begs for some consistent baby steps at first. Attempting a $30 million solution over at least four years as a virgin voyage makes me skeptical. I suggest getting something within the next eight months with solid programming. Rotating guest curatorial control (like Consolidated Works or Soap Factory) would keep a community space fresh and could encourage exchange and networking with other art scenes, depending on the curators chosen.

You might have already heard that something is in negotiations in Northwest Portland. I’ve seen it and, yes, the space has some breathtaking possibilities.

We have all talked about a changing exhibition space in or near the lobby of one of the many new Pearl District buildings. Here is another more specific idea: if a W hotel does come to Portland as has been rumored, approach them and negotiate a space. That hotel chain understands that art-friendly synergies fuel business. Other businesses could easily take advantage of the same idea, but I'm afraid that, to date, the now-defunct PCAC (Portland Center for the Advancement of Culture) focused too much on grandiose plans and stunts rather than developing a consistent track record.

In the non-profit world, your track record is everything and stunts only appeal to the press. Press is good, press is necessary, but you need to back up the talk. Simply instigating a mob situation does not qualify someone to be a leader.

The Sean Healy vs. Brenden Clenaghen pre-game show!

How will two young, established Portland artists with brand new styles, Brenden Clenaghen (at Pulliam Deffenbaugh Gallery) and Sean Healy (at Elizabeth Leach Gallery), turn that tricky but invigorating corner with their collectors? Will their collectors prove fickle?

Sean Healy: a really good artist or just a mid-career punk?

Some think longtime Portland collectors are incapable of riding with the new vigor seen in the city's artists, but I think Portlanders can handle it.

Shows by Tom Cramer, Bruce Conkle, James Boulton, Donna Avedisian and Jacqueline Ehlis have all done well in the last few years.

This new type of Portland artist is not so much a do-it-yourself hipster looking for a date and a place to crash.

Instead, they are an educated, motivated and philosophically engaged group whose members are systematically addressing modern life.

All these artists seem hell-bent on challenging their audiences. From strong sales at Conkle and Boulton's shows earlier this year, it seemed like the previously successful Healy and Clenaghen needed to turn up the heat.

In fact, some formerly popular artists who have played it safe recently have been punished with weak sales. Big mistake. Freshness is almost essential in contemporary art economics. Even 40 years later, the litmus test is whether something remains fresh. The interesting net effect of all this is that some of Portland's longtime successful galleries are openly wondering if they have the right mix of artists on their roster. Good question!

I've been heartened in recent years as some of the cooler Portland collectors are embracing change and will not even consider buying a hazy gray encaustic square anymore.

Brenden Clenaghen's "Ice Children."

There are even emerging stylistic and philosophical trends: both Healy and Clenaghen create work that is imbued with elements of personality, psychology and design.

Admittedly, "psychological design" brings to mind a mix of B.F. Skinner, the Bauhaus, Lacan and maybe that master of the obvious, John Berger ... so this has the potential to be horrible. However, I like how existentialism is addressed as a poetic design element and not some second-hand Sartre affectation.

Both Healy and Clenaghen consider desire a projection of the self and, therefore, their art can act as a kind of magic mirror for the viewer.

These themes would be very European in tone if it weren't for the plucky West Coast pragmatism implied in the work surface, imagery and colors.

That said, the two could not be more different as artists. Yet, they are in direct competition with one another, having been doggedly lumped together by the press since the incredibly influential 1999 Oregon Biennial.

Tellingly, most everyone in that show has gotten better in the intervening five years. As Healy and Clenaghen go at it this month, we get to decide what works and what doesn’t. We have to judge them by their own criteria and divergent strengths. Healy goes for sweeping tableaus and abrupt juxtapositions that go between public and intimate settings. Clenaghen is a more controlled creature whose consistency as an artist is both his greatest asset and weakness.

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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