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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
by Portland painter Rose McCormick in her American Specterian
Speaking of tests, lately the discourse Portland's
art scene generates has never been so serious, far-reaching or
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
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
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.
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
ring of ruby slippers for the Red Shoe Delivery Service
at PICA's Time-Based Art Festival. RSDS is a mass-transit
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
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.
Bavington's "Voodoo Chile": a slight return (solo).
Portland Art Museum purchased it with funds from the Contemporary
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 Bowies ability and readers would surely pay
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
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
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.
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
Here's a list of recent and future developments: Damali
Ayo (a New York library), Matthew Picton (Miami, New York, San
Frans 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 Healys own character
is really that of an introvert. He clearly doesnt 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 isnt a case of Healy being what
And whats 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 theyve
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
cant 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.
Hows 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.
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
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. Dont get me wrong,
though, I love much about Seattle and Im interested in expanding
the Portland-Seattle connection.
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.
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.
If only he would stop giving the cheese galleries
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
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 Gallerys
April show that featured a straw floor, flying udders and a real
cow. The Trib's photography generally wipes the floor with the
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?
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
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).
Organ plays a new tune? Nope; Mr. Pat Gillick is the hep
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
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
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
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."
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, hes 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
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.
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
Core Sample catalog: Clear Cut Press
Core Sample logo: notice how the edges begin and end appropriately
with the Fremont Bridge and has bubbles amongst a cacophony
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
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.
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
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,
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
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.
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.
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 scenes best artists should not
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.