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Chandra Bocci's "Bubble Speak" at Haze: sardonic consumer fantasy gives it an edge all its own.
Critical i

Chandra Bocci, Affair
A lie that tells the truth
by Jeff Jahn

just got back from L.A. and I'm trying to get my land legs back.

The two best things I saw there were Ed Ruscha's "Chocolate Room" and Robert Smithson's "Stones with Mirror Square."

Both use sensory displacement and familiar objects to great effect. They are physical experiences and tell a story of '70s pluralism before the art world became less intellectual and started labeling everything in high-jargon post-Partridge-Family terms. Notably, older artists, like Ruscha and Smithson, weren't reactionaries looking for something "authentic" to hold onto, like most artists today.

For example, the young star Cecily Brown uses porn because sex is pretty authentic even when it's for $$$. And half the planet uses cute little deer. Yeah, it's kitchy ... but it's a sincere kitch that resembles that '80s period where putting an Izod gator on anything made it preppy.

It has to be said: authenticity is a dead end, especially in the art world where everyone is complicit. Remember Warhol, anyone? Picasso said it best: "art is a lie that tells the truth." Not a truth that panders and tries to tell a lie badly.

Ed Ruscha's "Chocolate Room," at MOCA.

Still, "legitimacy" matters and it's an important distinction to draw between "authentic" and "legit."

Legit is so important that nobody ever talks about it. In addition, the whole little deer, doodles and winsome youth as symbols of innocence are so played out now. It was an affected innocence that flourished under the collective victimization brought on by terrorist strikes.

Now, half the artists in the U.S.A. are doing this deer thing with rapidly diminishing victim cred. With ubiquity, it has lost all legitimacy. Two shows rife with fawning imagery, Because Cynicism Left Yesterday at Disjecta and the Bambi Effect, will be covered next month.

Since the Bambi Effect is open at Savage Art Resources until Nov. 30, go see it; there will be a quiz! A preview question: Will Becky Smith (owner of the hot Bellwether Gallery) be regarded as the Gertrude Stein of 21st-century art aesthetics?

Answer: Ha. Stein’s level of genius and pretentiousness are in a whole other class! If Smith really works hard and gets more rigorous maybe she can birth the 21st century's Nabis group.

By the way, the Royal Art Lodge beat Smith in that endeavor, too; they were the 21st-century Nabis. New York is always so late these days ... even beaten by Winnipeg! Smith needs a new game and her upcoming Todd Hebert show looks like a good direction because he has major ties to Ed Ruscha.

Take note: Becky, the high priestess of glitter and glue, is turning away from glitter and glue. Smart.

Todd Hebert's "Dew," at Bellwether.

Instead of eternal adolescence, both Smithson and Ruscha wanted to destabilize the art experience and force the viewer to create new mental connections. This is in stark contrast to using the past to legitimize itself through the borrowed force of nostalgia.

Nostalgia is a type of displacement, too, but the thing is that nostalgia always gets old. Whereas Ruscha's "Chocolate Room" and Smithson's "Earth Works" get past it all.

They exist in the present so you can never slip into pure nostalgia in their presence.

Feeling a little displaced and plural myself (from all the travel) I wandered around the Pearl District trying to determine its center of gravity and overall level of pretentiousness (both real and potential).

Suddenly, at the corner of Everett and Northwest Tenth, a rather exotic-looking woman driving a Saab turned left (the wrong way) on a one-way street as a rather jovial young man with a chain saw crossed the street. With an arbitrary thought I felt, "Ahh, the old Eurotrash-meets-slasher-movie-enthusiast sighting ... this must be the center of it all!"

Smithson's "Partially Buried Woodshed."

Like using a dowsing rod or Ouija board, I've determined that the corner of Northwest Tenth and Everett is now the arbitrary gravitational center of all things in the Pearl.

Like most centers, it's not where the most activity occurs. Why? Because Affair at the Jupiter Hotel and Chandra Bocci's closing show at Haze are simply more important events and they took place in the near Southeast and St. Johns.

Overall, October was another high-profile month for Portland's art scene, with feature articles in Art News, a photo journal of the Affair art fair on Art Net and some blog activity over at Dangerous Chunky. With a CNN piece on Sept. 28 as a setup to October, the month was buzzing like a slasher-movie's chainsaw or a Eurotrash cavalcade discussing the quality of fake Prada handbags.

Some readers have mentioned that I neglected to review my own art writings last month. Believe it or not, I have a shy side. All I can say is I am grateful for the effect that others ascribe to this endeavor. I am not a writer who thinks of himself as a writer. Instead, Critical i is an experiment in discourse and a tool for understanding. I am a curious mind who happens to write a lot. My training in critical writing is very academic but I break rules for content's sake ... form follows function, not the other way around.

My personal tastes ... I’m into Anselm Kiefer, Damien Hirst and Mattisse. Only profoundly dense people think I’m of the same mind as Dave Hickey just because I’m friends with Jacqueline Ehlis. Although Hickey and I both do share many of our roots in Weimar-era culture. He makes sense, but he is a southern-type soul and I'm a serious Nordic sort. I'm interesed in how Superflat and the Bauhaus intersect. In terms of writers, I’m more influenced by Baudelaire, Swift, Herodotus, Robert Hughes, Victor Frankel, Brecht, Ibsen, Takashi Murakami and Matthew Collings.

Like the musician and visual artist that I am, I mistrust words. But I also believe the pen is mightier than the sword. Unlike many of the toothless journalists who also do this, I think it's important to take that weapon out of its scabbard. I see Critical i as an experiment in waging culture, and it's my intent to make that battlefield "content."

To put it less subtly, something is going on here and it has everything to do with Portland artists rejecting the tropes of the second half of the 20th century – just as Portland as a city rejected both the relentless New York grid (high-end over development) and Los Angeles sprawl (car-culture development).

Portland is the poster child for civilization on a human scale and that makes this city arguably one of the most important in the U.S. My goal is to help articulate the individual efforts found in that larger civic experiment and add stronger critical review to the mix. Notice the "i" in "Critical i" is lower case? I've always gotten lots of attention no matter what I do (I actually abhor accolades ... I like to swim against the current). Some miss the fact that I don't even have to try. The real reason I do this is that this city's artists need both an advocate (when credit is due) and a critical litmus test.

For example, it's nice that both Bryan Suereth and Gavin Shettler are gearing up to play dueling banjos with dueling art centers, but the programming and planning has to be a quantum level better than either has ever mustered. Let artist-curators like TJ Norris, Todd Johnson (who already has a great West Coast photography show developed), Leah Emkin and MK Guth, etc., curate. They have the experience, eye and connections in terms of programming.

Chandra Bocci has a way with mustard.

Chandra Bocci
'Bubble Speak'
Haze Gallery

Haze's closing show (before morphing into H2 in March next year) was another step forward for the technically gifted and materially inventive Chandra Bocci. But it also diverted some of her greatest strengths to venture in these new directions.

"Bubble Speak" was a major departure for Bocci, who previously had done only small to mid-size installations.

This show covered nearly 2,000 square feet of the expansive Haze Gallery. Part of the reason it was so different is that she utilized assistants extensively for the very first time.

The installation itself worked well within Bocci's consummated consumer fantasy idiom. Laid out like a rollercoaster ride featuring a 70-foot-long Otter-Pop rainbow, it twisted and turned like Luca Buvoli's show at PICA more than a year ago ... only with a great deal more freshness and engineering sophistication. It also paralleled Ed Ruscha's pop conscription of food with the "Chocolate Room," among other things.

A more comprehensive view of "Bubble Speak."

The rainbow was followed on the floor by a yellow brick road of mustard packets. It was, metaphorically and in reality, a path nobody wanted to tread. It was also both wonderful and horrible, and people spent most of their time looking at the rainbow and trying to avoid mustard packet boulevard – an interesting study in human behavior. Bocci also created urban flowers out of bed sheets and vacuum-packed clouds. Dash-lined markers on the floor and wall stood in as proxies for clouds not yet realized.

Although jaw-dropping at first, "Bubble Speak" lacked the intense detail of her previous works, including her best effort to date for the Flush show from Core Sample.

What it did do was give us a landfill-sized fantasy theme-park ride ... no mean feat. It looked nothing like Sarah Sze's work, which Bocci was dangerously similar to with "Splat" in the Second Cycle show for Core Sample.

Sze's work is more sterile, more obsessive-compulsive and more like some sort of grand geegaw in the center of Macy's perfume and makeup department. Bocci has a grittiness that is infinitely more blue collar and street. Somehow Bocci comes off both as a lot more melancholic and ecstatic. She fashions worlds, not dioramas. Still, Sze creates a more complete experience.

Where some want to hammer Bocci is over her theoretical rationale for the consumer culture fantasy. This is akin to saying it is wrong for a minority artist like Kara Walker to explore her fantasies around her black-American persona. Bocci engages her environment.

Sarah Sze's "White Dwarf" (detail).

What Bocci does do is acknowledge the omnipresent wonder and "gimme-gimme" factor that modern packaging uses to drive sales.

She redirects this visual power back to the fantasy of the consumer. Like with all fantasies, there is a dark side and to say this is fluff is exactly the same as saying that children's stories like Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market" and Lewis Carroll's "Through The Looking Glass" are just childish nonsense.

She depolarizes the everyday and creates wonder – recontextualizing the daily.

This is a major stepping-stone after receiving praise from Lawrence Rinder, D.K. Row, Richard Speer, Julian Lennon (yes, John's son) and myself. And she is still growing.

Chandra Bocci from Flush last year ... nice detail.

Instead of being cooked up in some privileged grad school, she is developing in the real world and is becoming more articulate with each show.

She now wields awe as part of her repertoire and, if she gets a little stronger, she'll be ready for national acclaim ... but she must learn how to talk and walk the institutional process and play to her strengths first.

This show is a major step in that direction.

In addition, she has obviously influenced other artists, like James Boulton and Paige Saez, with her syncretism of consumerism and loftier design. It's a critique and a celebration both chaotic and sardonic-ecstatic. The fact that it hums in this uneasy space between joy and horror makes it good stuff. It is Portland and, with this show, it becomes increasingly difficult to ignore Bocci.

Still, the show was compromised by limited installation time. We await her pulling out all the stops in March. And we expect detail and awesome vistas next time. A little less space and a lot more time might facilitate that end result.

Affair's opening-night gala at the Jupiter Hotel.

Jupiter Hotel
Oct. 1-3

Affair was Portland's first contemporary art fair and it bodes well for a city that has increasingly more and more at stake in its art scene. I have been to a number of fairs and other frenzied art events in hotels and this had to be the single nicest one in terms of feel. It was crowded yet airy, which contrasts nicely with the way any event in New York seems crowded and utterly redundant.

Affair had that new-car smell.

The crowd was a variegated combination of high stylesters, casual looky-loos and many people from out of town. The opening-night preview was crowded and the first day had triple the number of attendees expected.

The weather was perfect and Mt. St. Helens erupted a 17,000-foot column of steam and ash within minutes of Affair's opening. You do not get that in Miami!

Brad Tucker at Houston's Inman Gallery.

One highlight was Brad Tucker (from Houston's Inman Gallery). The work occupied a space between Roy Lichtenstein's sculpture and Richard Tuttle's constructions. There's a little mid-to-late-1970s Anthony Caro feel in there, too. It's abstraction, but they definitely appear to be letters or universal symbols instead of Malevich constructivism.

I also like Susanna Starr's sponge sculptures (Caren Golden Fine Art, New York), although one cannot help but think this work is a fantasia or meditation on the World Trade Center towers and those whose lives they affected.

Another standout with a lot of buzz was Platform Gallery. The works on hand, especially that of Carlee Fernandez, were great interpretations of still lives and grotesques. I really like the Doctor Moreau aspect of this and Fernandez's work has really improved in subtle ways over her old animal suitcases. Before, it was too crafty; now it is poetic and revoltingly lovely. Baudelairian!

A lot of the other out-of-town work was focused on more adolescent motifs that the 2002 Whitney Biennial spawned. I am completely over it.

Stephen Lyons of Seattle's Platform Gallery.

One exception is a 2002 Whitney alum, Portlander Chris Johanson, who showed with Jack Hanley (San Francisco).

Johanson's work was completely worthwhile, probably because he adds a strong philosphical/propoganda angle. It combines an out-of-the-mouth-of-babes freshness with words, guileless cartoonery and a powerful graphic sensibility – sort of like Howard Finster if he was real intelligent and into Buddhist meditation.

Johanson, along with Rachel Harrison, Forcefield and William Pope L., were really the only things worth remembering from that biennial – and Forcefield did not survive the transition from oddity to success as a working collaborative unit.

I haven't decided whether they were exploited or not.

At Modern Culture (New York), Liz Cohen's work seemed extra vapid. A video of bikini-clad car washers is not that interesting if you already live in an area with lots of nude beaches, like Oregon or France.

New York lost its edge years ago ... and after Giuliani cleaned up Times Square, I suppose this is something direly needed in New York. But ... how lame! Our own Marne Lucas creates much stronger stuff in every possible way.

Susanna Starr at Caren Golden Fine Art.

Lucas's "Undress For Success" satin bedspread was a showstopper in the transient decor room curated by Stuart Horodner.

Other standouts in that room were Bruce Conkle's war helmet flower vase (suspended above a pool of motor oil) and Malia Jensen's ceramic pillows.

The Fruit Loops in a suitcase were utterly forgettable, so the artist will remain unnamed. Andrea Frasier's bouncing-on-the-bed sex-cam worked in completely obvious ways but, yes, it worked. Frankly, the New York stuff often seemed like a one-liner compared to the stuff from L.A., Houston and Portland.

As for Portland galleries, Pulliam Deffenbaugh and Savage stood out – probably because they had more room space. The best room installation went to Gallery 500. Yes, it was completely cheeky to have an old-business-guy-meets-young-girl-in-a-hotel-room scenario. But it was well done, if a little unimaginative; a bit like coming upon a crime scene.

Then again, art fairs are a kind of crime scene.

Keith Rosson's nice pop vanitas on the nation's mood.

I also thought Keith Rosson's unsanctioned paintings in the office and bathroom were the best graphics-oriented works at the fair, channeling the zeitgeist of the time (pun intended) without all the cutesy half-assed Seuss shite seen in the galleries. He's much better than Daniel Duford at transferring the graphic novel into art.

Also, Ellen George's Lalique sculptures at PDX Gallery were amazing, easily outclassing most everything in the fair.

Another local highlight was David Eckard's Podium performance, which makes a case for sincerity being completely beside the point. Podium is a nice meditation on the artist's intent and his workmanlike process. Standing on a portable podium painted in John Deere green and goldenrod yellow, he looks like P.T. Barnum combined with your average Green Bay Packers fan. There is nothing average about Packers fans!

Ellen George's "Gray."

Overall, Horodner's perfect oft-repeated quote that "the world may not need another art fair ... but Portland does," is absolutely accurate.

As expected, sales were good but not incredible. But the real payoffs are the networking opportunities. With The New Art Dealers Association and Armory fairs falling increasingly under the control of the European and New York galleries, the increasingly dispersed art world could really make hay in Portland next year. Consolidation only opens up new frontiers.

This is especially true since art-fair connections often mean the difference between survival and extinction for young, progressive galleries.

Add five to 10 more galleries from L.A. and Chicago ... and Portland will have a real contender. It already feels better here than at other warehouse, pier and hotel fairs. For many reasons, art and Portland seem to be good for each other.

This Affair could be a lasting thing.

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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