A p r i l   2 0 0 5

Gilbert and George + Doh-Ho Suh = art market stability at the Armory in New York? Lehmann Maupin Gallery.
Critical i

New York, Portland & John Mace
Memory symmetry
by Jeff Jahn

ew York in March was full of gonzo packed-to-the-gills art events.

The Armory Show wasn't surprising but looked pretty good, whereas a show called Greater New York held fewer discoveries than the Bay Area Now 3 plus the California and Oregon biennials combined.

Back on the West Coast with nice (almost too sunny) weather, Portland was full of photography shows – notably the Diane Arbus Family Album show at the Portland Art Museum (I keep going back), Jim Lommasson's American Fight Clubs at the New American Art Union and the excellent magic-noir-realism of the Sanchez Brothers at Gallery 500.

Elizabeth Leach's gallery had an excellent group of big namers, including Richard Misrach and a really refined yet Trompe l'Oei-impish solo show by Portland's best clicker, Dianne Kornberg.

Misrach is one of my favorite photographers and there is something about this particular giant beach scene that makes me feel like a seagull scavenging the sands for remainders of sandwiches.

Nan Goldin, Richard Misrach and Sam Taylor Wood at Elizabeth Leach Gallery.

Also, the pairing of Misrach with Sam Taylor Wood's "Self Portrait Suspended IV" (Wood is curled up in a fetal position in mid air) produced a theme of flight. It's a reminder that flying is just prolonged falling.

Yes, photography is cool and mechanical but there is nothing wrong with Aristotelian ambivalence.

In fact, ambivalence gives photography its best card.

A great photographer like Arbus (or a really good one like Kornberg) is essentially editing time into one frame – just like Greek sculpture frozen in time.

The fact that the edit lies and doesn't reveal as much as it conceals can heighten interest, similar to the effect of an actor lowering their voice to make the audience listen harder.

James Boulton's "Son of Town Hall" at Pulliam Deffenbaugh Gallery.

We also got a sneak peek at James Boulton's newest and probably best painting to date, "Son of Town Hall," at Pulliam Deffenbaugh Gallery. It sold instantly.

"S.O.T.H." has a more asymmetrical and surprising quality than Boulton's square works of last June. Also, there is an airier sense of folded space between the patterns that are painted, poured and sprayed on – kind of like Sigmar Polke possessed by Henri Matisse.

Still, Boulton's color has a uniform key that is pegged within the acidic pastel palette. The colds aren't very cold and the hots aren't very hot, which makes it a bit like '70s T-shirts.

With so much turbidity I find the more uniform color dress code a bit out of step.

Also at Pulliam Deffenbaugh another Portland stalwart, Brian Borrello, debuted a new style of charcoal and motor-oil drawings. They are more mysterious than his motor-oil works on marble dust. These also sold instantly; see a trend here? The good stuff goes as fast as Pearl District lofts and condos are being occupied. I'm just happy that only the better stuff seems to sell ... people here have developed some taste.

John Mace at Portland Art Center.

Despite the photographs and brush-and-pen mark making in March, the real excitement came from installation art and other news as the Portland Art Center opened with its first show featuring John Mace and Suzy Root. Root was a bit precious and not as good as Hildur Bjarnadottir or Shannon Scholian, who also knit things. But Mace certainly brought a fresh ambitiousness with his project.

Also, the announcement that PDX Gallery will finally move to bigger digs indicates that a serious Pearl District gallery consolidation is in effect. For 2005 everything is changing and now some galleries need to take on a few more new artists.

If your stable is stable during a time of change you are clearly missing out. Case in point: I look forward to Eva Lake's show at Augen Gallery this month.

Lastly, Storm Tharp and James Lavadour's show at PICA's old space was a welcome display of virtuosity that made most of the younger New York galleries I saw in March seem like doodlers and cutesy dabblers (more on PAC and John Mace below).

Dianne Kornberg's masterful "P. Miniata" at Elizabeth Leach Gallery.

Looking at art

I enjoy the sheer improbability of art as an endeavor and also enjoy the fact that otherwise sane people go out of their way to do something esoteric. Occasionally, they even do it well enough in front of an appreciative audience where they can get credit for all the work. It's also interesting that you really have to know yourself before you can create decent art (and decent criticism). Aye, there's the rub ...

Still, it's important to acknowledge that criticism has a weird moralistic subjectivity to it that is designed to grate, inspire and test the reactions of those who care to read it. I made my peace with it years ago. It's important to not seek approval.

Most artists, on the other hand, are hungry for any legitimacy they can get.

For example, I got feedback from an artist I reviewed last month, who said they agreed with about 90 percent of what I wrote. I considered that a kind of failure. Then they revised the number to 60 percent. Now that's more like it.

An artist is often so close to their work that a critic will nearly always sound like an eccentric uncle going off on a tangent. In art, tangents aren't tangential and that intellectual double standard is what makes looking at art and making it challenging endeavors.

Carlos Sanchez (far right) discusses his work at Portland's Gallery 500.

The importance is that the words have some relevance to the experience, not to the writer's ever-present superego. A lot of art writing is all about the writer and their tics. I write about art precisely because I'm bored with myself and interested in the art.

Still, there is something hilarious about saying "this rules," "this sucks" or "this sucks rules" all the time.

But if one can't define why they prefer or dislike certain things it's probable that person is just watching where the herd goes.

If you're not where the waves break on the ship you are a passenger. Passengers often have this indistinct experience and existence; are they ballast, tourists or extras in a movie?

All truly incredible things have a certain salient precision about them ... like Martha Graham's choreography, Robert Fripp's guitar work, even a Jackson Pollock painting – which isn't so surprising, because no artist has married process and existentialism as successfully as he did.

When an insecure but ambitious man takes to dripping paint you know he's suddenly decided to go for broke. It's a place where everything either turns out miraculous or a mess. They were his miracles and messes.

Matisse's "Red Studio" at MoMA: existential before existentialism.

New York, New York

While in New York I felt a great deal of this powerful existentialism in my favorite classic modernist works at MoMA, like: Pollock's "One (Number 31, 1950)," Matisse's "Red Studio" and Jasper Johns' "Between the clock and the bed."

In fact, being in the same room with Johns very briefly last summer was very informative, as the man is exactly like his best work – tacit and full of the measuring of things without explaining them ... a cipher. John Currin was in the same room, too, and nobody cared who he was.

See, there is some justice!

That is how the better artists seek immortality – not purely through professional reputation and momentum (those fade quickly), but by creating some truly memorable extension of themselves. Still, Johns' less than best work is like an actor ad-libbing during a tryout, always quoting this and that. Everything can't always be great.

Dan Flavin's "Monuments to V. Tatlin" at Dia:Beacon.

Also in New York, I fell in love with Robert Smithson's "Map of Broken Glass," Dan Flavin's "Monuments to V. Tatlin," Warhol's "Shadow Paintings" and Fred Sandbeck's delicate string works. I also renewed my love of Richard Serra's "Torqued Ellipses" at Dia:Beacon.

From MoMA to Beacon, classics are classics for a reason ... anyone who tells you otherwise is selling you some magic beans!

In many ways New York and art is a classic combination.

Yes, with a new MoMA still drawing throngs, the Armory Show and Greater New York at PS.1, March was a busy month for the city that still somewhat myopically considers itself as the only city (remember, at one time Rome became a largely uninhabited sheep pasture).

Ivan Navarro at Art Rock Rockefeller Center.

Also, New York's weather was terrible. And with tea drinkers like Gary Hume and Damien Hirst taking over Chelsea's two top galleries (Gagosian and Matthew Marks), I constantly overheard New Yorkers remarking how the Brits had taken over.

Wasn't that obvious 10 years ago? Poor New York bastards. Oh well, New York isn't the center anymore; it's more like a convention hall that gets rented – especially when considering the silly doodle and glue art it's producing in hoards.

That "Hug Me" trend was officially played out last year (it died in early 2003 in Portland), but some didn't get the memo and every serious critic in America (see Tyler Green and Jerry Saltz) is waiting for an art-market correction to banish the doodlers with thrift store materials back to the eternal adolescence they continue to foist upon New York. What was once a tough city with tough art now has less edge than Snuggle the fabric-softener bear!

What's worse is the realization that this is the best New York can do to counter the Bush Administration's fundamentalism and wartime crisis mongering ... Sheesh!

Allison Smith and her cuter version of war at the Armory Show; sheesh!

I'll point out again that this horsey/whimsy art was done better by Karen Kilimnik and Rachel Feinstein in the late '90s! New York has a serious problem in the young-artist department these days.

It will get better soon, I hope.

That said, I found the Armory Show to be pretty good and much improved over the 2003 version. Highlights were the nice juxtaposition of Doh-Ho Suh and Gilbert and George at Lehmann Maupin.

It was a meditation on symmetry as a civilizing and stabilizing force, whereas back when the Bauhaus was at Dessau, they saw symmetrical patterning as a primitive design crutch.

Deitch Gallery at the Armory Show.

I disagree. All good design ideas use so-called primitive crutches.

Asymmetry is just another ancient strategy that makes one more conscious of irregular distribution and the tenuous balance of visual elements. When used in art or furniture it conveys dynamism. Gilbert and George once passed themselves off as human statues; intense symmetricality is just another way to convey the idea of permanence. Judging by their careers it looks like they were successful.

Other galleries, like Bellwether and Deitch Projects, created one-artist commerce zones. Allison Smith worked hard to muster the troops by selling art as arms and Deitch Projects made cookies. These were visual respites but I don't go to the Armory for respites. I go for the art avalanche.

For fairs, I like how the space element of galleries is standardized and all the art has to fight to speak with less presentation gimmickry. It's a bit better than a garage sale (but only a bit).

Kevin Lander's work (left) at Angstrom Gallery, the Armory Show.

My favorite piece was by Kevin Landers at Angstrom Gallery. A bunch of blank but colorful potato chip packages on a seemingly normal but skewed display shelf, it made its case about presentation and cumulative effect.

Do the words really matter for branding? Or is it more about taking up space in order to dominate the field of vision, like on supermarket shelves?

We already know the answer to that and Landers understands that art can occupy space in a similar way.

It is a critique that is also a celebration.

Hypocrisy isn't going away, so Landers just makes the whole complicit matter smarter – a deft move at the Armory Show.

Several other galleries stuck out as well: Neil Rock at Henry Urbach Architecture, Isa Genzken at Hauser & Wirth and Ivan Navarro's "Short Cuts" at Roebling Hall.

Navarro looked even better at the Art Rock show at Rockefeller Center. The Scope fair was a mess. Few exhibits besides Dust Gallery, Yoo Projects and some German photography here and there were good.

MoMA's Contemporary Galleries: Koons, Smith, Polke, Warhol (from left).

Overall, the work was sub par compared to normal gallery-going in L.A., San Francisco, Portland, Chicago and Seattle.

Portland's Affair @ the Jupiter Hotel last October was infinitely better than Scope New York 2005.

As far as the new MoMA goes ... it is glorious but the contemporary galleries all have work that is predominantly gray, brown, silver, gold or white.

This plays well together design-wise, but it's crap as an art experience. The effect is leveling, making the Warhol Rorschach, Kiki Smith, Jeff Koons and Rachel Whiteread pieces have an arbitrary kinship one might expect in a community group show in the Midwest.

It is ridiculous when these artists' life's work was notable for their distinguishing characteristics. Outside the stellar acquisition of Josiah McElheny's "Modernity, Mirrored and Reflected Infinitely," MoMA's contemporary collection is currently playing second fiddle to The Art Institute of Chicago, S.F. MoMA, LACMA, Milwaukee Art Museum, etc. No wonder Robert Storr had to leave! I sense a Caligula sort of rottenness in Denmark at work!

Yet, I found the soaring atrium space to be a nice cleansing of the palette as I moved from floor to floor.

Ruscha, Lichtenstein and Warhol (from left) at MoMA.

The permanent collection of classic works before 1980 is predictably awesome. For example, the pop trio of Warhol's "Gold Shot Marilyn," Roy Lichtenstein's "Drowning Girl" and Ed Ruscha's "OOF" has it all: vanity, iconographic absorption, melodramatic doom and sarcasm.

To top it off with "OOF" ... it brilliantly writes its own review.

I even found the much-maligned placement of Matisse's "La Danse" in a stairwell to be rewarding.

Combined with Brancusi's "Fish," it makes the painting seem like more of a living statement. Matisse's influence is perpetual but, by being belligerently placed in a stairwell, it indicates that those postmodernists who tried to state that modernism had died have missed the point.

Matisse's "La Danse" and Brancusi's "Fish" at MoMA.

Modernism was never just happiness (Guernica, anyone?). It was a full-spectrum experience including existential isolation and eternal transition. This Matisse in particular is all about unstoppable change and transition, so a staircase is perfect.

Postmodernism is just a word for those who accept the alienation as endemic and permanent, whereas Matisse's "La Danse," with its circular group scene, reminds us isolation is largely a self-imposed state.

In the Chelsea galleries, Bellwether had a four-woman imagistic show called Epic with plenty of technical aplomb, but I found the omnipresence of horseys, unicorns and forest scenes to be a study in triteness.

Everyone is doing this awful fantasy art, but I did like Melissa Brown's "Bermuda Triangle." It was about unspoken fears in the framework of a popular myth.

Other good shows were Petah Coyne at Gallerie Lelong and Robert Gober at Matthew Marks. Cheim & Read's Basquiat show, In Word Only, was amazing – a real poet amongst a field of posers.

Detail Of Alexander Ross's Untitled, 2004.

It seems like there is a great divide between the older galleries and most of the newer galleries, which pedal the "Hug Me" art. Yet, my favorite show had to be Alexander Ross at Feature Inc.

Ross makes models of sculpy then photographs them. Working from the photographs he then paints the finished product. Through these translations he manages to articulate why paint still exists as the chief artistic medium. To boot, he has intense skill at conveying impossible focus points and pixelation. His concentration is palpable in his work.

As for content, the paintings are always untitled with cartoony alien monster tentacle boogers and a photo-realistic but not photographic touch that Damien Hirst's new paintings can't do, but try.

Like string theory vibrations, Ross's images exist in multiple dimensions and realities: sculptural, photographic, painterly, alien, terrestrial, toy, scientific and even digital. His asymmetrical compositions are his best, but even the symmetrical ones are disturbing.

Yuken Teruya's "Notice Forest," a favorite at Greater New York.

Here is my short list of young artists really worth caring about in New York: Alexander Ross, Lisa Yuskavage, Karin Davie (whose third show opens at Mary Boone this month), Dana Schutz, Kristen Hassenfeld, Sue de Beer and Yuken Teruya.

The last four are mostly the only reason to wade through 167 artists at the Greater New York show at P.S.1. Ross was in the 1999 version. Not much has changed since the '99 show other than it has gotten cuter. In fact, this current trend in 21st-century art was pretty much laid out in the late '90s. As if 9/11 never happened? I don't like this cutsey denial thing.

Let's just say that without Karin Davie's super-technical, visually woozy and nonchalant rainbows, Elizabeth Peyton's youth fetish and Rachel Feinstein's constructed baroque whimsy as late '90s seeds, most of this Greater New York show's artists would be still looking for a visual vocabulary. I like the original better than the sequel.

John Mace
The Sending
Portland Art Center

John Mace at Portland Art Center.

John Mace's The Sending was a very ambitious start for the brand new Portland Art Center's exhibition program. It had three main elements:

1) A giant spiral of constantly pumping iodine meant to evoke dialysis tubing;

2) A small room with Benny Hill videos, a chair, some ashes and several tinted aquariums for windows;

3) A hospital gurney with iodine and subwoofers plus two video projections.

This was easily the most engineering-heavy show I've ever seen in Portland.

Thematically, The Sending was concerned with memory and the show was designed to evoke Mace's childhood memories of his mother's serious illness. The mood is private and, on opening night, too many people were present. This destroyed the sense of disconnected atrophy one gets when viewing the space nearly alone.

By oneself, the giant iodine spiral changes from a circus sideshow gimmick into a fascinating harbinger of death as bubbles in a dialysis tube can be fatal. That's the thing about doom: People can't help but stare as it approaches and the circles of bubbles here give the show its first really absorbing moment.

The room with Benny Hill is the second component and, although I found the presentation interesting, the metaphor of looking through aquariums at embarrassingly good or bad comedy was too spelled out. Yes, being in the hospital is like being in a fishbowl, but the final part of the installation with the gurney makes this point more effectively. Thus, the second portion of the show is superfluous.

The final element consisting of a hospital gurney is the best part of the show. Mace has placed the gurney upon an orange dais where nostalgic Super-8 filmed family scenes are constantly repeated. We see a jumping dog, a little girl and themes of air and car travel, among others.

John Mace's The Sending at the new Portland Art Center.

The images alone are a bit stock, like flashbacks in that old TV show, "The Wonder Years." But memories do have a stock quality. What really makes it work is how the spiral of dialysis tubing is visible from the mirror at the foot of the gurney.

Like a rearview mirror trained on morbid threats, it sets up a wonderful cross talk in the room. Add to that the fact that the gurney has a pan of iodine whose placid surface is disrupted by the regular beating of numerous subwoofers and a sense of dependent isolation sets in. It sounds just like the slow beating of one's heart.

This rang true of my own limited hospital stays and brought me back to the annoying sense of powerlessness from my own experience. Hospitals dull everything and this supinely creates a place where memories really fester. Mace has done a good job here.

My only complaint is that the Benny Hill aquarium, along with the high curved wall in the center of the room, makes the layout a tad clunky, drawing too much attention to the temporary walls instead of the work. Maybe they were just too eager to show how much curatorial infrastructure they could produce?

If you're going to do this sort of architectural build-out, have an architect offer some suggestions on volumes. In this case it was too much.

Yes, claustrophobia is an asset to this hospital theme. But the layout of this otherwise excellent show would have benefited by removing the Mr. Hill and vacuum-with-ashes room.

Besides, the ashes give too much information on the inevitable mortality in hospitals. Memory is more poignant when left unresolved.

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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