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The Post Office and Dan Ness celebrate the big B.F. this month. Fuller was one of those rare cynical visionaries ... SpongeBob is anything but rare these days.
Critical i

Bambi, Bucky and Bob
Innocence meets cynicism
by Jeff Jahn

"All of human wisdom is summed up in two words: wait and hope."

– Alexandre Dumas
The Count of Monte Cristo

"Every man alone is sincere. At the entrance of a second person, hypocrisy begins."

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

he twin poles of perception are optimism and pessimism, and most human activity, including art, mixes a combination of the two.

For example, I'm pretty certain most everything on this planet (including art objects, architecture and books) is gonna be vaporized when our li'l yellow sun goes supernova ... in the ultimate bonfire of the vanities! Yet, I'm rather fond of some of those doomed things that mark the uneven process of human existence, landfills excepted.

Damien Hirst's "The Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living."

Yes, humankind and its detritus share the same fate. But I like the combination of balls and wisdom it takes to greet doom with a passionate kiss.

A great work of art, like Damien Hirst's "The Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living," does just that. It's so cynical that it becomes both a hilarious bouquet of flowers and a Dear John letter for the grim reaper. The dearth of important Hirsts on display at major New York museums always looks like an intentional and small-minded omission in the face of the facts. Nobody did that '90s decade better.

Also, I thought Dan Ness's nice little Buckminster Fuller installation at Zeitgeist Gallery last month (including B.F. postage stamps) explored both cynicism (for the aspirations of the past) and a yearning for similar radical idealistic thought (mostly M.I.A. in the culture of the present). In many ways it was much better than his show at Mark Woolley Gallery this summer.

Dan Ness celebrated and skewered Buckminster Fuller at Zeitgeist.

My personal belief is we might as well enjoy life, and wouldn't it be great if the enjoyment was intellectually stimulating – maybe even resulted in something we could share with others? It's an essentially optimistic outlook I have to work at, because my critical tendencies easily veer into cynicism. Problem is, cynicism goes nowhere and, in a world with so much to do, a cynical stance seems irresponsible as an aegis of thought.

Of course, everything sucks. The big question is, what are you going to do about it? At least Buckminster Fuller looked for the key problems of starvation and shelter and tried to find solutions. Yes, his idealism provoked cynical responses, but it's more important to be original for such noble purposes.

After a visit to Dachau during high school, I concluded that the complacent/cynical acceptance of Hitler by the majority of the German populace was the key factor in that particular tragedy. It was as if otherwise reasonable people cynically thought, "Herr Hitler seems to get things done in an orderly fashion, who cares if he's a hateful bigot?" Chaotic Weimar economics are not an excuse.

Following the recent election, we seem to have some real challenges ahead as our so-called conservatives seem to be anything but conservative.

Jody Faucett, from Disjecta's Because Cyniscism Left Yesterday show.

In the present day, innocence and cynicism are hot subjects. For at least five years the faux-innocent artists in the U.S.A. have been painting little birdies, horsies and deer into their work. Unicorns and rainbows (often in pastel colors) are also big. Now it looks like polar bears on icebergs are the next big thing in quasi-innocent art.

As an antidote to all this, I like Tal R's self-described "zombie" painting style. By comparison, R's paintings make those with deer look over-calculated and forced.

R's work, along with Dana Schutz's cannibalistic fantasy paintings (which I also like), acknowledge how very little innovative thought is affecting the art world today.

Thus, many top artists are eating their own rather than finding new sources of aesthetic nourishment. True, Schutz's paintings draw their own blood, but I still think it's rather bloodless work. Her paintings describe the problem but do nothing to fix it and it's difficult to be interested in all the pity. There is a lot to like but nothing to love.

Dana Schutz's "Self-Eater 2003."

During the '90s, art impresario Ralph Rugoff rode in on the trend of fetishing the sulky and pathetic. Rugoff's pessimistic and not exactly innocent work championed "failure fetish," which could usually be accomplished with self-conscious drawings, pale colors and faux-naive figurative paintings filled with schlemiels demonstrating all sorts of bad posture.

This mood fit perfectly with the bursting of the dot-com bubble but it seems to be aging badly. It delivers the pathetic, dopey-is-cool, university-sanctioned mope-laden self-indulgence = style credo.

I dislike most of it because it is an easy affectation with a practically guaranteed effect: pity for confused trust-funders with infinite possibilities and no drive.

It's just too conservative for me. The "why try when failure can be guaranteed?" ethos is just not cutting it. I call these artists the "Hug Me's."

Truth be told, puppies make more effective sad faces. For instance, Californian Brian Calvin definitely has got the sulky effect in his painting. His stuff looks like competently painted coffeehouse-amateur-night art but it's actually not nearly as interesting as the more clumsy stuff I see everywhere in Portland and Seattle java spots. I think it's trust-funder-as-outsider art.

Brian Calvin's "Nowhere Boogie."

Let's look at the history of the sulk: It was definitely in effect in 1904 Vienna, an imperial city with its empire in decline (but, man, is this stuff weak compared to existential masters Edvard Munch, Oscar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele).

Sulk-art also seems rather weak compared to characters like J.D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield or Goethe's Young Werther.

The viscount of the sulkers is Brian Calvin. His characters are intentionally one-dimensional but look like over-embellished love letters to Alex Katz, Calvin's obvious anti-inspiration.

Katz, with his nearly blank ambivalence, is more daring and less of a mannerist – not to mention a lot better stylist than Calvin.

Furthermore, most innocent-pathetic art is less compelling than its parallels in popular music, like Radiohead, Modest Mouse or even Jack Black, who acts out his pathos with perfect self-immolating musical intensity.

Still, the despair of 9/11 gave license to a lot of cutesy innocent-pathetic art, just like Pollock's Life magazine article gave rise to tons of bad faux-angsty stylized expressionism. Despite this, the Royal Art Lodge really brought that pathetic-innocent-victim style to international acclaim in the late '90s. The first wave was the best and nothing all that interesting has come from their followers in Brooklyn since. That was 1999. I'm over it.

SpongeBob: innocent superstar.

Sadly, the innocent/cynic debate isn't best articulated in the art world (another sign our art academies have lost their pulse). Leave that to pop culture's SpongeBob SquarePants, who was originally conceived of as a porous innocent surrounded by cynics (and, curiously, fishy ones).

Notably, SpongeBob is not a perennial victim like Wile E. Coyote or Seinfeld's George Costanza (both victims of their own design).

To wrap up this rant, I think the art world likes losers (Beautiful Losers show).

Why? Because it makes the wealthy feel both superior and less threatened to think of artists as impotent, mopey street sages. Admittedly, the street sages with MFAs are often their children.

Despite that, after this last election I cannot see liberal-minded types fetishing losing as a consummation devoutly to be wished for. It does matter who wins.

Santiago Calatrava ... building hope?
University of Washington
Seattle (Nov. 7)

Santiago Calatrava's Milwaukee Art Museum.

In architecture, the hegemonic grasp of cynicism is under the strongest attacks and Santiago Calatrava reminded me, with his Nov. 7 lecture at the University of Washington, that he is the most inspiring man in his profession. Tellingly, he spoke to a capacity crowd and many were turned away from the hall.

The university then used this situation as a pitch for an even larger lecture hall, possibly designed by Mr. Calatrava ...

I can't blame them; Seattle is a city that collects architecture.

After the brilliant (but hardly ever open) Seattle Library by Rem Koolhaas, Seattle needs another building with which to distract itself. Portlander Brad Cloepfil is already doing the Seattle Art Museum.

So yes, Calatrava is a pragmatic man and, like most adults, is definitely not an innocent. Still, he is the farthest from being a cynic that architecture allows. Really, who wants to spend millions on a sulky, depressing building? The downside is that some of his buildings, like the Milwaukee Art Museum, have been plagued by massive cost overruns.

MAM atrium (photo: Jeff Jahn).

Despite this, you get what you pay for. Calatrava's inspiring buildings soar, they often resemble string instruments and they are almost always painted that heavenly space-mountain white.

If fact, the white can be obnoxious and, the first time I walked around the outside of the Milwaukee Art Museum, I sang the theme to "The Love Boat" in jest of its Princess Cruise Ship whiteness. I stopped singing when I got inside.

Even the museum's Alexander Calder mobile is definitely served well by the space Calatrava made for it. Calatrava's projects are usually structures where ideals and ideas are manifested – places like museums, concert halls or bridges.

His buildings are incredible servants of humanity, not the other way around like the work of so many other "great" architects.

In fact, Calatrava's PATH terminal in New York looks to be the only bit of new architecture up to the task of reclaiming Ground Zero from the terrorists.

The design of the infinitely compromised Libeskind/Childs Freedom Tower at Ground Zero will be tall but it won't really address the intense symbolic void at the site.

PATH atrium: New York or Alderon?

Besides, what are a bunch of tacked-on windmills doing at the top of its Freedom Tower? It's a silly eco-pander that does not make up for the fact that it is a less-than-inspired building on a plot of earth thirsty for inspiration.

A compromised design cannot cope with the uncompromising weight of history, horror and responsibility that Ground Zero demands. That's why Dachau and Auschwitz are not allowed to be bulldozed. What monument would be able to speak better than the camp itself?

Needless to say, Ground Zero is a place where innocence and real victimization make paintings with deer and rainbows seem like the trite affectations they are.

At least Calatrava has addressed humanity's need for uplifting places.

Other architects, like Frank Gehry, Tadeo Ando, Daniel Libeskind, local boy Brad Cloepfil, Norman Foster and Rem Koolhaas, are also capable of being inspiring and pragmatic when asked to compromise a little.

But all of them take a backseat to Calatrava. I think people love his work so much that they don't wish him to compromise so much ... hence the heavy price tags.

Cynical institutions?

This is your mama's MoMA. [Courtesy Museum of Modern Art © 2004 Timothy Hursley]

Other big-name architects, like Renzo Piano, Herzog/de Meuron and new MoMA expansion architect Yoshio Taniguchi, are poetic-utilitarian in their approach, rather than evocative like Calatrava.

A museum's choice of architect says a lot about that institution's level of cynicism.

For example, New York's new MoMA practically says "we are what you expect, only bigger and whiter than before." By going with Taniguchi and not Koolhaas or Stephen Holl, they keep interpretive context control more in the hands of the curators than the visitors or architects. At one time architects redefined the meaning of modernity not purely as a style but as an experience (see Frank Lloyd Wright). MoMA somewhat rightly quells the impulse to challenge the art via architecture. Still, art that lives in the present should be challenged and that radical Greenbergian term, "toughness," seems neutered by much new museum architecture.

Still, I think the museum did a good job in being fundamentalist and not gimmicky, but it definitely lacks any (even token) experimental tinkering. Look, it's 2004 – we should have some variety beyond whiteness. That whiteness is anything but neutral; it conveys a certain precious deadness.

Thus (as if it was ever in question), MoMA is definitely stating "the art of the present, while interesting, is not as important as our collection of works up until 1989 ... we are resting on our laurels and officially abdicate the responsibility of showing new and non-blue-chip ideas to someone else."

I think a major theme for the next 10 years will be that our established institutions like MoMA are so cumbersome (and investment oriented) that, for the first time since the early '80s, individuals will be charged with turning the big ship of western civilization. Who knows, maybe everyone is about to man the lifeboats.

Local causes for cynicism and optimism

Plemons and Shettler of Portland Art Center.

For dramatic contrast in economic scale to MoMA there is the brand new Portland Art Center headed by Gavin Shettler and Karen Plemons. It's large enough to be exciting, small enough to afford rent for two years with the help of a grant. It's not Brobdingnagian, but the space is definitely the nicest gallery in Portland now that Haze has closed (Elizabeth Leach's new gallery and the New American Art Union space are equally lovely, too).

Thankfully, the center puts its imperative on consistent and adventurous gallery-space programming.

As a rather young non-profit, Portland Art Center now needs operating capital for programming and salaries. Portland does have a huge untapped membership pool of arts people that until now has not had an organization that seemed to fit its needs. Still, Shettler and Co. need to reach the real money and it will take more than talk and intentions to make that happen. This project lives and dies on its programming.

I am optimistic because Shettler has reversed his old anti-curatorial position, which seemed to promise everyone a show opportunity. It was simply an untenable populist utopian idea that wouldn't help anyone. Bravo. It's not like hasty warehouse shows were uncommon here. Instead, we need a venue for more considered and gutsy solo statements. Let's hope this is it.

Main gallery for the yet-unfinished Portland Art Center.

Shettler, who readily admits he is not an "art expert" but an arts facilitator, will have a five-person programming committee, including himself and center programming director Karen Plemons.

The other three members mentioned were good choices, too.

In a stroke of brilliance, the main gallery space is to be devoted to installation art for the first year. It is a severely under-served genre and probably the most exciting part of the scene.

Another smaller gallery and a bathroom will also be programmed with a looser, even more experimental approach, featuring all media.

The first two main gallery shows of the year are solid but adventurous choices: John Mace and Katherine Bovee. As a juror, I fought to get Mace a show at the Portland Building last year and it will be exciting to see what he does for the Jan. 7 inaugural show.

Mace is capable of being spectacular but has not had a great venue to strut his stuff. Let's hope he delivers. This art center needs an auspicious start.

If it can follow through with some really great programming, the community will support it. Money isn't scarce here, but Portlanders are not easily fooled. If the programming does not excite them, the Portland Art Center will die.

There is competition, too. Shettler's former Modern Zoo partner, Bryan Suereth, is planning to open a much larger, less-well-planned non-profit on Portland's Park Blocks this spring. Call it cultural dueling banjos!

Even PICA claims to be restarting visual programming in January (after a year hiatus!). PICA has got a lot of bad blood to fix and their Masada complex has not helped. I missed them (Time-Based Art just isn't my preferred focus) but, with the new museum wing and two local art centers, they are reentering at a competitive time in the visual arts.

Detail from Brodie Large's Color Show at The Residence.

Everyone, including noteworthy once-staunch supporters, are saying "I'll believe it when I see it."

The promise of a lecture series should be easy to deliver, but we all wonder why it's taken nearly a year. The visual-art scene in Portland really doesn't take kindly to being an afterthought these days.

Another thing to be excited about is a new space, The Residence, in the Everett Station Lofts.

The Lofts have been disappointing this year but gallery proprietor Brodie Large put on the nicest show seen in the Lofts since Michael Oman-Reagan closed Field last year.

Large's work had an inspired subject matter (color with the tonal nuance of B&W photography) and was concise, consistent and beautifully hung.

Let's hope he resurrects the Lofts – which are bustling with activity but low on inspiration, compared to their heyday from 2000-03. With what looks like a major blue-chip gallery relocation to a building only two blocks away, the Lofts will become even more optimally placed by the end of 2005.

The Bambi Effect
Savage Art Resources

Carlee Fernandez at Savage Art Resources.

Yep, little deer are everywhere ... at Disjecta, Motel, Backspace, the Everett Station Lofts and at Haze's Aili Schmeltz exhibition last March.

So what does it all mean?

At best, the so-called Bambi Effect is represented by Carlee Fernandez's "Rabbit with Tangerines."

It's a kind of call and response between the natural and manufactured, and hits on both atavistic and civilized levels.

In this example, the bunny and tangerines merge a combination of ornamental still life and Frankenstein-like grotesque.

It is both aesthetically pleasing and very dead ... like that animatronic Lincoln at Disneyland.

The whole thing is definitely too posed and manipulated – kinda like Michael Jackson doing an "impromptu" dance on a car outside his child-abuse court hearings.

It is more subtle than that, though, since the presence of a little white bunny implies lab-animal genetic manipulation. By mixing the impulse to say "aww how cute" and "that's wrong," the viewer experiences what Robert Storr has been describing as "soul dizziness" – a disoriented response to a series of incongruent, instantaneously triggered responses that the mind cannot reconcile so much as accept and move on. Is that the Bambi Effect, then? Nope.

Ashley Macomber's "Conversation of Death."

In other pieces, like Ashley Macomber's "Conversation of Death," two stylized wolf heads seem to gaze at a gopher fish. Predator and prey, the li'l "fish out of water" gopher is no match for his antagonists.

The piece is both cute and mean, does not really take sides and brings up the life-and-death struggle that is part of being an animal. Although the piece is good, it does not seem to go much beyond its own kitschy fantasy. It's as if being a study in innocent but necessary victimization is enough. I disagree. Seems like a vegan trying hard not to seem too vegan.

Other pieces, like Marc Swanson's "M.D.S." (a drawing of an owl sitting upon a platform with banners on an animal hide), is a study in supports. The hide is the support for the drawing, which supports the banners and platform, which stage the owl, an age-old symbol of wisdom.

It is a somewhat romantic study evoking wild places and the hard work of hewing civilization out of the wilderness by hand. It is a drawing, after all. I suspect it has more effect if you live in Manhattan and didn't grow up seeing real deer and owls on a daily basis, like myself. To these eyes, it just seems like a city slicker playing the frontiersman gimmick.

Somogyi's "The moment just before."

Shay Nowick's works on paper have the same problem. "Horse Ride, With The" is a rather unconvincing study in self-pity.

There is a young girl sitting on the ground, her turtleneck pulled meekly over her chin. The rather unintimidating horse stands next to her and has a big "F" on its saddle blanket. Since the turtleneck rider is not riding, I suppose "F" is for failure. Yet, the scene all seems so self-imposed.

Next time, fail better by trying to get on the damn horse. This is "I need therapy" art.

I did like two other pieces.

Erika Somogyi's "The moment just before" deals in potentialities.

Its little stump and delightfully painted pinecone, rocks and "almost a geode" have a certain innocent wonder to them that isn't forced like some of the work in this show.

Innocence inherently has potential both for bigger and better things and for corruption. Somogyi's piece teeters along the twin poles of fulfillment and doom. Life is like that and, although this is precious, I think that it wins with disarming charm.

The last piece is Justine Kurland's "Self-Portrait With Deer." I've been a fan of Kurland's for years and I like how this piece puts her intentions as a photographer and a person literally front and center.

Justine Kurland's "Self-Portrait With Deer."

In the past, she has assembled a troop of young girls who explore a landscape.

More recently, she photographed communes, somewhat exploring her own upbringing.

Her works are studies in innocence and Kurland herself has a gleeful, zippy, almost elfin personality (picture her hopping up and down with a high-pitched squeal while she tells me how much she loves Portland).

What I like about this self-portrait is that she is no longer just the voyeur. She meets the adorable wild ones in a park's parking lot. It's both a human and inhuman animal in the sort of Checkpoint Charlie that exists between the two.

In this work the photographer and the photographed are both naked and aware. Like the best work in the Bambi Effect, it isn't so much the big innocent eyes or even an effect, it's a conceptual acknowledgement that the artist is complicit in keeping innocent qualities alive through bringing verve to the creative process.

Call it zest ... why else would an artist take up crazy taxidermy or cavort with real deer?

Kurland and Fernandez are the most accomplished artists here because their works retain legitimate innocence while evincing a knowing regard at the same time.

It makes me smile and disturbs me, so it must be art.

Karen Kilimnik's "Dinner" (Seattle Art Museum) ... she made better horsies way back in 2002.

The other work by younger artists in this show could be better described as the Bambi Affect.

So yes, the Bambi silhouette is today's symbolic poodle-skirt-meets-anime-big-eyed-schoolgirl, but I'd rather see something weirder.

A few years ago, Karen Kilimnik did this sort of innocent girl nostalgia much better. Why? Because the narrative is much more ambiguous and less cloying. Yes, the Bambi trend continues. But to a certain degree it has parodied itself out of freshness and relevance for this new wave.

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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