O c t o b e r   2 0 0 4

Bridge for sale, no reasonable offer refused!
Critical i

Wanna buy the Fremont Bridge?
Critiquing the critics
by Jeff Jahn

n the past five years I've witnessed a huge expansion in coverage of the Portland art scene, both local and from outside city limits.

From devoted indie 'zines to the generalist daily and weekly publications ... even CNN – the coverage of art production in Portland is a lot better now and makes Seattle and San Francisco often look thin. There is something afoot here and it isn't some tiny grad-school clique.

What used to be underground buzz about Portland's scene is now making it into the press. So it's time for me to be the J.D. Power and Associates of art writing on Portland.

I apologize for the perversity of focusing on art writing when September had so many good shows. To be brief, the best two were the Ed Cauduro collection at the Portland Art Museum and Sean Healy at Elizabeth Leach Gallery (Sean will get a review elsewhere).

So why art writing? Well, as the old Confucian riddle goes, if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, did it make a sound? In historical terms, probably not – although historians might try and reconstruct it in a less than accurate way.

Sean Healy juggles diverse media at Elizabeth Leach Gallery: one of the two best shows in Portland in September.

Art criticism discusses art as it is seen now, whether the artist is living or dead, although art history really only begins once an artist has died.

Thus, art criticism is a way to test the art's worth as a cultural product even without being tested by time.

It's a little bit like the projections of political analysts: important but prone to egregious mistakes.

To a certain degree, it doesn't really matter if a review is positive or negative as long as it is intelligent and provocative, and indicates some promising parallels to the art discussed. Talent attracts talent. Art lovers aren't drones.

Yet reviews are important, as any scene outside of New York will be initially judged by the level of its local critics. Logically, reviews are easy to access by critics from elsewhere.

Places like London (with Matthew Collings, Adrian Searle, etc.) and recently Vancouver, B.C. (Peter Culley) have rated well. Dave Hickey certainly put L.A. on the map in the mid '90s. Still, some rightly see art criticism as akin to trying to sell someone the Fremont Bridge.

Artists, dealers, collectors and scenesters care what is written simply because art is so subjective and ephemeral that any sense of accumulating validity becomes important. Because of all the subjectivity, the art world is intrinsically insecure.

Axel Lieber at PNCA: This nice international show went unremarked by the press in September (last day is Oct. 2).

People obsess about criticism in Portland because things are changing so rapidly. There is both an openness and caginess in town, but it's more polarized than I've ever seen elsewhere. It's similar to Salt Lake City when non-Mormons began outnumbering Mormons for the first time, except there are no easily definable traits in the Portland art world other than separating the doers from the listless.

Look, change is here. We might as well change in an intelligent way, backing up promise with follow-through.

I've said it before, but this Portland art hoard is content- and conscience-oriented in outlook, and unlike the pure careerism rampant in other art hot spots.

The daily content created by the critical mass of engaged individuals in this city is why they stay here. It's more like the Land of Misfit Toys from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer … Portland artists don't play the reindeer games, which can keep one away from the work.

This congregation of misfits and bizarre but symbolic moves has historically been good for art, be it Superflat, Frieze, Der Sturm, moving to Tahiti to take over the Paris art world or De Kooning's turn to figuration at the height of Abstract Expressionism.

I love Joseph Beuys' brilliantly symbolic journey to New York where he did not set foot in the city. Similarly symbolic, artists are choosing Portland over Brooklyn because living a cliché is stifling. Here, the clichés aren't so well defined.

Anselm Kiefer's "Book with Wings" at The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.

On this theme, I am reminded of Anselm Kiefer's excellent "Book with Wings," which can be seen at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.

It is so successful that it has its own room, a rarity anywhere. For me, the piece acknowledges the difficulty artists face when confronting critics, history and the public in general. The best artists crave criticism early on – feed on it, then supersede it.

Kiefer is the best artist to emerge from Germany since WWII, partially because he internalizes and addresses the important criticisms and problems of that country's Nazi past. Sometimes the megalomania trips him up but in the case of his "Book with Wings," he is on. Optimistic and cynical, it embodies the twin poles of discourse with gruff, hard-won elegance.

Serious artists know content and intellectual rigor in art writing is key if the work is to survive. Unless you are Henry Darger, you cannot make work purely for your basement dwelling and expect it to survive the cold march of time. Besides, Darger died before discovery; it isn't a gig most will sign up for. Criticism sets bars, infuriates, tests, misconstrues and catalyzes a system that individual artists learn to navigate more and more effectively. A culture of rigor is a good thing.

Whereas Williamsburg, recently taken over by hipster trust-fund artists in trucker hats, is just a form of subculture mongering one should avoid. Remember the 2002 Whitney Biennial ... besides Rachel Harrison, William Pope L. and Chris Johanson, it was full of too much of the same subculture for subculture's sake. A lot of it got lost in translation and then it was co-opted. A year later, a lot of glitter-and-glue art flooded Brooklyn (Portland already had it). Art has to be tested in numerous cultural milieus so it can remain strong no matter what the cultural translation. That is the test.

Illustration by Portland painter Rose McCormick in her American Specterian 'zine.

Speaking of tests, lately the discourse Portland's art scene generates has never been so serious, far-reaching or varied.

The major international art magazines are paying closer attention, too (like this month's Art News). But frankly, things need to get more serious about discourse both from critics and artists if things are to move forward beyond their current state. Discourse can't just be on par; we have to be clearly superior on certain points and different in our execution.

Currently, Portland is known as an "active art scene I keep hearing good things about." It needs to become, "That Gilles Foisy is really amazing; this incredibly pregnant pause is produced when you come across his work."

Specificity is key.

Historically important movements and shows like Superflat, Frieze, Minotaur, the Phalanx, the Blaue Reiter and the Abstract Expressionists all made a rhetorical case first in the small press.

Sure, after Pop, things got dumber for a while (as a purposeful rhetorical endgame). But as a temporary (even temporal) remedy, Donald Judd (the artist) virtually answered his own work (as a critic). It was an interesting and successful case where a near autodidactic critic/artist feedback loop laced with megalomania actually worked.

Judd proves that internally consistent idiosyncrasy can work wonders and, as critics, it is incredibly important we judge artists by the criteria they set forth as well as judging that criteria's relevance to our current condition – locally and internationally.

Donald Judd's 100 untitled works in mill aluminum in Marfa, Tex.

Artists should be able to justify themselves and their work (hopefully in an inventive way).

So what if 400 artists show up somewhere ... it's only significant as a market study for artist-supply stores. It tells me they are somehow suffering from an inferiority complex.

Either make the inferiority complex the prime element of the work or get over it. Otherwise it's too infrequent to be effective group therapy.

Also, relying on insider-art-bureaucrat jargon like "post conceptualism" is rhetorical drivel. What, we are suddenly post-thought? Don't tell me it's proto-intellectual! It's neo-bullshit.

Lastly, it is cliché but true: Critics are not as powerful as many consider them to be ... they merely highlight things they deem worthy and unworthy. This makes art criticism a somewhat pathetic, moralistic endeavor. Thus, critics are prone to weird ego implosions that everyone waits for, like spectacular crashes in auto racing.

Art writing of all sorts achieves another effect beyond discourse; it makes artists feel acknowledged and gives them a reason to stay.

Portland Modern

The new kid on the block, Portland Modern, is a color publication. I like the concept of this publication devoted to spotlighting unrepresented artists. The trick to making it work is connoisseurship. Although Mark Brandau juried this first effort, he indicated others would be tapped for future issues. I found his tastes kinda old '90s postmodernist; the work had that listless Seattle quality, except for Donna Avedisian.

Doing shows associated with this publication is an important follow-through, too. But the first one at Disjecta was a nicely installed bore.

I suggest that they get two or three established artists or curators to jury these. What would Stuart Horodner and Storm Tharp pick?

A fairy ring of ruby slippers for the Red Shoe Delivery Service at PICA's Time-Based Art Festival. RSDS is a mass-transit fantasy experience.

Red Shoe Delivery Service catalog

Catalogs outside of the Art Gym shows are rare and by having Stephanie Snyder and Amoreen Armetta write essays, plus including a snappy DVD, M.K. Guth shows a whole other level of sophistication.

Documentation like this does indicate a greater level of seriousness to people outside of Portland. If I want to impress someone I can break out The Best Coast hardcover catalog or the Play show. It works wonders in proving you aren't some flake.

The Portland Mercury

Ever since the much-missed Karrin Ellertson set a good precedent by doing smart reviews in incredibly small print in 2000, the Mercury has had good critics with increasingly better and more consistent coverage. Chas Bowie (who had earlier experience writing for Glass Tire in Austin, Tex.) filled in admirably despite penning the single most personally bitter and mean-spirited review I've ever seen (Bowie is a decent photographer as well, so some professional envy was likely at play): Artist Tim Bavington was mostly criticized for studying with Dave Hickey and selling paintings. Stupefying.

Tim Bavington's "Voodoo Chile": a slight return (solo). Portland Art Museum purchased it with funds from the Contemporary Art Council.

Bavington's L.A. dealer (who had never before responded to a review) was forced to reply.

He so intelligently handed Bowie his rhetorical and moral ass, I can understand why the weekly neglected to print.

Bowie is a good writer, though, when his bike-messenger dispassionate hipster cred isn't summoned like a demonic Williamsburg trustafarian trucker hat.

His single best bit of writing was for the William Pope L. show two summers ago and, unlike a lot of critics, he is best when he is a bit confused and/or overwhelmed (a sign of superior intelligence).

It doesn't matter much, though, since he isn't doing reviews anymore. Sadly, aside from the timely art fair story in the Sept. 30-Oct. 6 issue, the Mercury seldom runs features on art. Hint hint, nudge nudge, more feature articles would be a better use of Bowie’s ability and readers would surely pay attention.

Then there was this little ditty on page 55 of the Mercury's Sept. 23-29 edition: "There's a contingency out there who quickly dismisses Michelle Ross's tweaky, pseudo-pathetic brand of thrift store minimalism. I want to shake these people and go all Clockwork Orange on them, forcing them to really look, and maybe even think, until her paintings start making sense to them."

Michelle Ross' OK but not exactly scintillating art.

It is unclear who wrote this but it deserves a rejoinder. We have looked and Ross is merely OK; I get it. Her own stated strategy is to balance all the disparate elements so no one overwhelms the other. Pax mediocrity!

It's a technical gambit of suppression, watering down each element until it's weak enough to sit listlessly on the same surface with the other elements. It is a bit elegant but in an over-rehearsed, generic way, not unlike a celebrity impersonator doing Katherine Hepburn.

The work is merely OK because it uses a strategy that guarantees the markers of sophistication through a lack of freshness, kinda like public art by committee.

International artists such as Jessica Stockholder and Jonathan Lasker are essentially this work's artistic parents – both of whom are infinitely better. Lasker is a much more ambivalent and controlling doodler and Stockholder is disparate and tweaky. Hopefully, Ross' new installation at Savage, Haptic Loop, will stop chasing the look of sophistication ... like a maid trying on the lady of the house's clothes. Ross can do better but she needs to risk failure rather than to engineer mild success. Her friend Brenden Clenaghen does more with less.

The Mercury's new critic, Ryan Dirks, is promising. A bit more cerebral and less stylistic than his predecessor, he is clearly well educated and thinks systematically, like a cryptographer trying to decipher some secret code. There are post-structural dangers in that approach, akin to reading the road signs but missing the view. But every strategy has its pitfalls. Welcome to the club.

The single best art writer at the Mercury is managing editor Phil Busse, whose review of Storm Tharp's show last year is worth a read even now. Too bad he isn't going to be our next mayor; he's probably too intelligent and informed for politics.

The Oregonian

Randy Gragg (left) and DK Row (who becomes invisible when he wears a fishing hat): their punk-rock credentials are pretty spotty.

What can I say? The Oregonian's coverage has expanded greatly over the last three years and I like the new A&E format, which intersplices some worldly art news here and there.

It reflects the growing sophistication of this city.

The Oregonian does more features than the other publications, but they get pretty community oriented unless you are Harrell Fletcher – and in your second Whitney Biennial in a row. The first one was not enough to impress this bunch.

In fact, they rarely if ever acknowledge that local artists are active elsewhere except for the recent Sean Healy article.

Here's a list of recent and future developments: Damali Ayo (a New York library), Matthew Picton (Miami, New York, San Fran’s Transamerica Building), David Eckard (Santa Barbara and Seattle), Ellen George (Dallas), Jacqueline Ehlis (Atlanta and Austin), Hilary Pfeifer (San Fran, Philly, Florida), Melody Owen (North Adams), M.K. Guth (Armory Show) and Bruce Conkle (the new Nýlistasafnið Museum in Iceland next August).

Portland's scene is not some cloistered enclave.

Yet in his Sept. 28 review, D.K. Row seems to lament the end of Healy's insecure regionalist flavor while praising his ambitiousness and increasing national success ... even inferring that Healy’s own character is really that of an introvert. He clearly doesn’t know Healy that well. Healy's work is about personality and persona as filtered through nostalgia, and this is a natural progression.

I think Row has confused a mid-career turning-point show that incorporated introspection with pieces like "Teachers Lounge" and "Homecoming Court" and dialog about extroverted persona, like "That's Your Posse," as playing against type. It has a nice push-pull and the Oregonian seems to be taking a rear-guard regionalist stance.

I offer that Healy did incorporate his whole personality, which had been typecast as something it wasn't. One must note that Healy (like so many young artists) is not from Portland, so giving him a regionalist tag is a bit misleading.

Since it is a turning point, he will further refine things. But it certainly isn’t a case of Healy being what he isn't.

And what’s up with saying that Healy, Jacqueline Ehlis, Brenden Clenaghen and Bruce Conkle are "working within the low key, independent aesthetic that seems appropriate for a city where politeness reigns."

Yeah right. Healy is so indie-low-key-polite with a $250,000 federal project in Houston. Ehlis (who has never before been described as low key or Portland polite) studied with Dave Hickey and talks to Robert Storr comfortably like they’ve known each other for years (because they have).

Fact is, there is an enclave of artists who are anything BUT low key and are very engaged. Ironically, it's a story the Oregonian broke back in 2002 with the Play show. You can’t take it back (or is this a sly thought bomb?).

As Jerry Saltz told Portland at his talk at PNCA last January, "I'm watching." The artists know this. (If you missed Saltz's talk, it's available at PICA.)

I suspect that the artists are bemused by what the Oregonian considers their stereotypical temperament. Besides, the artists have already proven that stereotype to be false time and again. The art scene (including major donors to the Portland Art Museum who didn't like the last Biennial at all) is much more aggressive now, and good examples are all the "unofficial" and "official" shows at the Jupiter Hotel (Oct. 1-3).

It's true that the attitude change needs to take place at the collector level, but that is already occurring. The Art Fair might be a good gauge.

How’s that for low key?

Meanwhile, Randy Gragg (now the Oregonian's architecture critic) is sorta missed by some older Portland art scenesters. Yet the switch to Row has greatly improved the variety in coverage. Row will review small indie spaces and old, entrenched-past-their-best-art fogies, profile a list of artists that everyone should take note of (remember James Boulton in 2002?) and point out those whose ambitions are bent on change. Lately his criticism has gotten more opinionated and been argued more effectively. Possibly his best piece of writing ever was last winter's take on the now-retired curator of Asian arts Donald Jenkins – a lovely, poetic homage.

Row writes on photography (and voyeuristic scenarios) more than the other critics in town. His predecessor, Gragg, is a very good writer but his Achilles heel as a critic is an inability to understand anything he doesn't already understand. Row doesn't have that problem and freelancers, like Harvest Henderson, bring a different perspective that is even more catholic in tastes. Row isn't afraid to take sides and the Oregonian should make him a full columnist.

Although the arts coverage for the only major daily newspaper in the state necessarily serves too many masters, there are a few funny Oregonian quirks. They often portray art personalities as crazies or snobs and they'll rubber stamp anything that invokes the word community. Often, curators are privately or publicly bemused when the main theme or stated rationale for a show is ignored in the critical process. That is life.

A murkier James Boulton from 2002: Let's just say Randy Gragg would have never given this wild work a solo review in the Oregonian.

The Oregonian does dearly love the "DIY" acronym, ignoring art history completely (i.e. artist-organized events like the salon des independents, Ferus Gallery, Frieze and the Royal Art Lodge). But DIY is like crack to the paper; they can't stop using it. Oh, they will try, but they can't.

Yet, they know better than to use the "Do It Yourself" phrase on most of the players in town.

Instead, they could acknowledge the intelligence of Portland artists and stop referring to them in monolithic terms. It's particularly invalid when Gragg uses it repeatedly to define Core Sample as if he was selling Girl Scout cookies. Is Gragg really so punk rock with all his local connections, help from developers and a grant from the Lehman Foundation? DIY music does not apply for grants (let alone get them); it doesn't hold for this case either. Sheesh!

Despite these complaints, the Oregonian does a B+ job in its sleuthy art-scene coverage. In the current climate for newspapers, that's impressive. Even the New York Times has an arts and culture editor with no substantial background in the arts. Scary.

Art Access

Art Access, a Seattle publication, realizes Portland exists – yet it acknowledges us only as Oregon in its venue listings. Not that there's a city here. And, truth be told, it's a better city with considerably less stunt architecture. Don’t get me wrong, though, I love much about Seattle and I’m interested in expanding the Portland-Seattle connection.

Portland Monthly

So far, Portland Monthly magazine has run a captioned picture of James Boulton in a quasi-romantic situation and one of Stuart Horodner on the eve of his art fair. They are missing opportunities to make inroads in the target audience (households making $100,000-plus) by not addressing the art scene.

The magazine's main competition, the Oregonian's A&E, has stepped up art coverage ... go figure. Get a critic or do photojournalism and publish some glossy photos; the Oregonian cannot compete in that arena.

Willamette Week

Richard Speer

Richard Speer is playing the role of Apollinare as critic in town, which begs the question: is the comparison a pre- or post-trepanned version of the poet?

Regardless, Speer infuriates everyone by daring to set foot in the cheese galleries that will never be mentioned here in the Critical i. Yet, he is a very good writer, capable of stirring the pot.

Speer, a former TV newscaster, can and often does scoop the Oregonian. Beneath all the pageantry, he is a sharp investigator who gets to know the artists he discusses.

Critics are put out there to destabilize the ossifying tendencies of culture and Speer certainly achieves that effect.

He also cajoled his editors at Art News to do another feature on Portland for October. Very important.

Speer can't stand conceptual art and initially labeled me as a conceptual artist ... which I am, but my conceptual proclivities are usually directed by experiences and not the other way around. He also questioned if my hair was truly naturally blond, so I had my rather blond mom contact him.

Overall, he treats art like the social sport it is and does the best artist profiles in town. This is important when the mayor's office and the Oregonian try to discuss the quite serious art scene as simply a demographic anomaly or a function of elitist money hedging.

What I like best are his one-liners, like "DIY DOA." Since he talks to artists a great deal, he is pretty dialed in.

"Good Taste," by Zach Kircher.

If only he would stop giving the cheese galleries attention.

Speer's editor, Steffen Silvis, is an excellent art writer himself and I'm wondering when the WW will do another piece like 1999's cover story on the influx of new young art leaders. That was back when things were not nearly so serious. There are more people than Bryan Seureth and myself out there, and the public should know. Putting faces on this multifaceted situation helps everyone understand the depth the art scene continues to build upon.

Portland Tribune

The twice-weekly Portland Tribune does not have a dedicated art critic and only occasionally covers the art scene. But when they do, they generally do the best feature articles in town. Their most recent gallery coverage was Haze Gallery’s April show that featured a straw floor, flying udders and a real cow. The Trib's photography generally wipes the floor with the Oregonian.

Portland Tribe

Portland Tribe, a brand-new "multi-cultural monthly," looks to be moving in where The Organ has failed: visual arts coverage. The Tribe's debut issue included a big, illustrated art calendar. It was also cheerful and community supportive, and promises to have good, hard-nosed movie criticism, starting with John Esther's review of Vincent Gallo's "The Brown Bunny."

Let's hope they do something similar and get an art critic. With 10,000-plus artists in Portland, it's an obvious niche market and quality criticism quickly establishes a readership here. Covering an artist who carves Buddah heads is swell and supportive, but it lacks any intellectual merit. Is this gonna be a feel-good community fluff paper or something more meaty?

The Stranger

Rem Koolhaas's Seattle Central Library.

The Stranger is the best paper in the most sarcastic city in America: Seattle (New York is a close second).

But with a monorail, the Space Needle and a sci-fi museum plus the world's richest human, Seattle is reminded constantly of a tangible future that has passed it by.

The Stranger's long-time critic, Emily Hall, has left – which makes sense, since she seemed more interested in her own thoughts than in the art she viewed in a perfectly valid Wittgensteinian style.

We got along fine until Modern Painters preferred my writing to hers. Writers can be a catty, bitter bunch. However, I agree with her parting statements on Seattle. We privately discussed many similar ideas nearly two years ago, so she had this brewing and she did a great job.

Seattle needs to learn that money fixes cosmetic blemishes but can also create gulfs of disenfranchised cynicism. The Stranger's new critic, Nate Lippens, seems to have encountered this cynicism and I think he wrote about the Core Sample catalog to make this point; a smart rhetorical move. He's been charged with a huge job up there, but he's got four world-class artists living in the city to work with (Robert Yoder, Casey Keeler, Francis Celentano and Jack Daws).

'Oregon Art Beat'
Oregon Public Broadcasting

"Oregon Art Beat" is a rather old-fashioned regionalist television program. It covers mainstream artists and thinks abstract = inaccessible, loves community stuff and avoids the more challenging art that is getting increasing national attention.

It is as sophisticated as Salem.

I'd love to see them handle David Eckard, Blackfish Gallery's "the Locals" show or Jack Shimko, who is moving Haze Gallery to NW Pettygrove (set to open in March 2005).

The Organ

The Organ plays a new tune? Nope; Mr. Pat Gillick is the hep cat!

OK, this is a case of "I told you so" (and I wish it wasn't). I actually hate harping on these nice people but, frankly, they are a bit clueless – which is weird because the editor's brother, Jon Raymond, is a good art writer.

The long and short of it: The Organ originally conceived of itself as a monthly art and culture newspaper and was primarily supported by art gallery advertising. Funny thing happened, though. They pretty much refused to do but a dribble of reviews of artists' solo shows (the lifeblood of the art community), made artists feel unwelcome to review other artists and instead focused on art institutions. Pure genius.

They have featured good interviews with Gus Van Sant and architect Brad Cloepfil, and published a brilliant essay by Matthew Stadler. But they completely missed the Haze Gallery renaissance and haven't pointed out important artists, like Matthew Picton and Sean Healy, doing major projects outside of Portland.

They also seemed to be morphing into a newsprint literary review. This is old news and I warned them twice – not out of mean-spiritedness but as an honest concern.

Despite their claims, not once has the Organ's coverage superseded that of the Mercury, Willamette Week or the Oregonian on any major art exhibit in Portland – likely because they see themselves as journalists more than an art-world cavalcade. With a few rare exceptions, the word “journalism” in the art world is virtually synonymous with a lack of critical content.

Yes, Organ Editor Camela Raymond's story on PICA's problems was a good journalistic piece that came in many, many months after the story broke. Yet, while focusing on what institutions did and did not do, literally hundreds of good shows went unremarked.

Portland needs a real in-depth art publication as generalist periodicals don't want to alienate anyone by getting into arch-arty geek-speak.

The fall 2004 edition of the Organ contains this statement from editor Raymond: "You may notice fewer art reviews. Having started life promising to be 'a broadsheet by and for artists and fans,' this may seem like an admission of failure, and it sort of is." She then cites her lack of resources, and self-proclaimed "high" writing standards, then begins to extol the writing prowess of Seattle's Regina Hackett and the Stranger's critic emeritus, Emily Hall. She even wishes the Organ could "trade one of its critics for the PI's Regina Hackett."

Daniel Duford's destroyed golem sculptures.

Hackett is a fine but none-too-unique art critic who does nowhere near the sleuthing and sly thought bombs of the Oregonian's Row, or the cage rattling of WW's Speer.

In addition, the Mercury's series of reviews from Dirks, Bowie and Ellertson are on par with or better than Hackett's work. Randy Gragg's project management of Core Sample did more for Portland than any Seattle critic ever has done for that city.

Thus, I'll avoid proposing the obvious trade and offer to send the capricious Daniel Duford.

Actually, he’s a talented artist who is still developing. So, sorry Seattle, we need to keep him. His new mural at Saucebox might just redeem him (although his current mural at PNCA is a terrible mess).

Simply put, Seattle's critical climate, although intelligent, never seemed all that engaged – in which case it makes sense that The Organ seems to long for that kind of arrested development.

In print, Seattle has big-city brains and a wounded regionalist attitude.

In fact, as I walked around Seattle last weekend, I heard locals openly remark how they want to learn from Portland, their artier, shorter and older sister city.

Look, The Organ's editor is not exactly a leader yet, but I hold out hope. Just call someone like Catherine Bovee (an international-caliber writer) or any number of other interested types and have them do several 100-word reviews like this:

1) Christo and Jeanne Claude; the Pont Neuf wrapped at Portland Art Museum
The Christos aren't visual innovators, but they have created a unique niche in that they address collective symbolic civic memory and historical context by highlighting absence. Due to their ubiquitousness and manmade nature, their architectural pieces work best – what else do you do with a bridge full of history like the Pont Neuf?

Their Pont Neuf project was the most challenging due to politics, but the Reichstag was pure brilliance (what else do you do with a symbol of Nazis using fear to seize the government?). Whereas the soon-to-be-executed The Gates for Central Park project is dated and daft, like lingerie tarting up a grand public space. Besides, New York has greater symbolic absences since 9/11.

Brenden Clenaghen's "I Saw You Shine" (right).

2) Brenden Clenaghen at Pulliam Deffenbaugh; 'I Saw You Shine': New Works
Clenaghen is a smart, talented artist who has evolved. To what was once veering into assembly-line uniformity Clenaghen has now added design elements that accessorize his previously formulaic work. Clenaghen's new chandelier forms in the black works look like precious Elizabethan pearl-and-bead work only through very stark modern materials. Other works, like "I Saw You Shine," seem to carbonate simple thought-balloon, tadpole spermatozoa and comma forms. His new work co-opts the language of desire from design and couture elegance, and adds it to his already highly evolved confectionary surfaces. This psychology-meets-design work is beginning to distinguish Portland as something different and nationally identifiable. Clenaghen and Portland are proving there is life beyond irony.

Portland Art News

Portland Art News is an often hilarious satire Web site that gives form to a lot of valid fears about the Portland art scene, such as development on the Near East Side, the Pearl District and South Waterfront, Chas Bowie's lame new writing gig, PICA, the Oregon Biennial and money in the art world. (PAN also severely underestimated my ego, which actually requires a much taller 666-foot statue that pulls art babble out of its ass.)

Core Sample catalog: Clear Cut Press

The Core Sample logo: notice how the edges begin and end appropriately with the Fremont Bridge and has bubbles amongst a cacophony of bridges.

The Core Sample catalog is both a major achievement and a critical disappointment.

First off, the photos are good and good names are associated with the project. It's a little more exciting in print than in person for many of the more inexperienced curatorial efforts. Also, much of the art writing is more descriptive than penetrating, just like everywhere else.

The above-par opening essay by Matthew Stadler brilliantly describes the show as similar to Open Source software. This is completely accurate and consistent with most of the other endeavors in Portland up to that point, like the Donut Shops, the Alphabet Dress, I.A.E. and Open Walls at PICA.

Unfortunately, Gragg and Stadler were not exactly up on all those events and missed a huge opportunity to point out specifics regarding Portland's four years of sustained art-scene explosion. Also, Stadler's claims of "non-hierarchical" structure cannot be supported.

The fact remains that this so-called indie exposé was filled and lead mostly by artists who already have galleries or notable professional credentials.

Notable people who participated, like Michael Knutson, Pat Boas, David Eckard, Emily Ginsberg and Nan Curtis, are all professors from various institutions – which makes it all the more impressive that they could all come together. Instead of non-hierarchical, it was depolarized: The show put aside cliques and little fiefdoms and is even more impressive because of it. No other major city in the country could do this. People have noticed and it's the talk of Seattle (not exactly the right target, guys; but not bad, either).

Still, it's a good piece – well written and articulate. Stadler slyly traverses the territory of Dave Hickey's "The Invisible Dragon" and "Air Guitar" by showing how mid-20th-century Ford-era policies empowered institutions to the point of co-opting artists to make bland institutionally supportive work.

Stadler's best argument is that the show as "an experiment in institutional destabilization" was less inspired by the Deleuzian rhizomatic model of non-hierarchical nodes than a subtext of intense institutional critique. Core Sample, along with four other big (and often more interesting) shows – Beamsplitters, I.A.E., The Best Coast and The Modern Zoo – were a referendum for the city's institutions in 2003.

You see, Portland had scant curatorial attention from the Baja-to-Canada curators based in San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle and Vancouver. Then, Portland Art Museum's 2003 Oregon Biennial had hatched a dud and PICA seemed uninvolved in the massive upswell of artistic energy in the city. The institutional destabilization was real and in full force for at least six months. It was not an internal experiment within Core Sample. Somehow, curatorial practices seemed to be in little marshes away from the deep, fast-moving cultural channels in Portland.

Collectively, 2003's group shows were a momentary Tiananmen Square protest that refused to call itself one. Due to an intense cumulative effect, everyone noticed and, for once, it was not too late.

Back to the texts for the various Core Sample shows; they went from very good to awful.

David Eckard (left) at the Core Sample Catalog release party.

Quite good = Stephanie Snyder's "Second Cycle," which very perceptively discussed a wide-ranging national phenomenon in full force in Portland. The essay went beyond describing and added important perceptive context to the work of Paige Saez and Chandra Bocci.

Also, Randy Gragg's "Postcards from the Ends of the Line" and "Scribe" had some penetrating words. But "Traveling Cinema" was truly inspired wordsmithing.

Mediocre = "Hermes and Aphrodite," by Anne Simon. It misses the fact that Hermes and Aphrodite, when combined, become "hermaphrodite."

Randy Gragg and Stephen Cleary's "Learning to Love You More" and Cleary's "untitled elephant" are simple exposition describing the project with no illumination, passion or intellectual penetration – as if the themes of DIY and community are justification enough. What kind of community? The essays read like a list of ingredients or a résumé of the artists' previous projects.

Embarrassing = "Flush," by Mark Hansen, which reads like a wordy college senior's lit-crit essay, with stuff like: "The words multivalent nuances emerged for them in considering the work as a whole." (Pg. 229)

Instead, just write something like this: "Flush" as a word served as a motto for the artists to explore separately together. This approach resulted in an ecosystem of contiguous individual works.

The biggest missed opportunities were in the external texts. Essays by Celia Dougherty and Lynne Tillman were strangely off topic and/or uninformed.

Dougherty, who prefers an esthetic of rusting melancholy, seems to have already decided what Portland was about before she wrote this essay. Inexplicably, she described Portland as a city whose "boom time is long gone." (Pg. 347)

With nearly three billion in redevelopment dollars going into the Pearl District and the planned South Waterfront, a hoard of young people, skyrocketing housing prices and districts like Mississippi experiencing gentrification overnight – she is dead wrong. Dougherty also believes artists before the massive redevelopment did not populate the once-industrial Pearl District. Gragg, of all people, should have corrected her. At least she actually discusses the works in the show.

Tillman's essay is the worst art bit by a professional I have ever read. It drifts around after trying to impress us with the fact she is a traveling critic. B.F.D. Most critics move around; we, too, have discovered air travel.

Melody Owen (left) at Core Sample catalog release party.

She wanders around off topic from Seattle to Portland. She also makes claims such as Portland lacks a "vital gallery system." (Pg. 344)

Gee, why do we have so many galleries that impress better critics like Jerry Saltz, David Cohen and David Pagel?

She then spends one paragraph on the art before more name and place dropping. Pretentious and intellectually bankrupt, she nearly ends it with, "maybe Love's the virtual center." (Pg. 346)

This is a lazy effort and a monument to guileless pretension. Much better is Peter Cully's honest travelogue and attempt at understanding America and Portland (a city that rejects many standard American tropes).

Last but not least is the daring and occasionally perplexing Larry Rinder, the most contentious Whitney Biennial curator since The Ten protested back in 1938.

Rinder's essay does not tell me much, kind of like Custer telling Crazy Horse about his own people. What Rinder does well, though, is pick a few works by a few of my favorite artists, like Ellen George, Paige Saez and Chandra Bocci (whom Jacqueline Ehlis and I discovered together; Ehlis was the first to curate Bocci into a show; we kinda think of her as our daughter and can't wait until her show this month at Haze, and H2, Haze's second coming, in March).

Point is, Rinder is still only a little familiar with Portland and his piece is at least a focused, professionally written document on the Portland experiment. It adds to the accumulating pile of evidence that this scene’s best artists should not be ignored.

It's the "what next" that makes this book special, because it seems so outdated to us now. I want to see more intelligent self-publishing, artist-to-artist dialog and continued competitive fellowship.

Although Core Sample's essays missed a huge opportunity to acknowledge and discuss the startling artist-initiated group eruptions of 2003 (Beamsplitters, I.A.E, The Best Coast, The Modern Zoo along with Core Sample itself), I believe their cumulative effect changed this city irrevocably.

Beamsplitters brought Tony Oursler amongst locals' video and film installations; I.A.E. was an incredibly international showing that increased worldly awareness. The Best Coast was tactical and exposed more outside curators to Portland than any show to date (300-plus curators from the AAM convention among 1,200-plus attendees in six days, including Medici members of the Portland Art Museum). The Modern Zoo was a pure populist stunt; a political statement indicating visual culture's importance here with more than 5,000 attendees in 110,000 square feet over three months.

Core Sample merely restated the obvious to those of us who live here. It was not the freshest group of shows and didn't have the connoisseurship or inclusivity of others. It was late, yet right on time. Core Sample was Sha Na Na compared to the Bill Haley & His Comets of previous shows.

How the scene has followed up with Haze and other great solo shows is the real story. Core Sample was not an auspicious end, it was merely the end of the beginning.

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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