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Video still from Ann Hamilton's "Untitled (aleph)."
Critical i

Hamilton, Tharp, Chartier, Lake, Caccamise, Everett Station Lofts
Anticipate more
by Jeff Jahn

pril is a month of anticipation when the expected explosion of flowers throughout Portland is in full effect. It's safe to say if you don't like flowers stay out of the Rose City in April.

I'm a big fan of the scenic tour and last month the level of art shows worth seeing was equally blooming. I've never expected more than three good shows per month but April had at least 10.

The single most successful and pollinating event wasn't even a show, but a talk by 1993 MacArthur Fellowship recipient Ann Hamilton.

Hamilton's talk was a packed house with people sitting on the floor of Reed College's Vollum Hall. Highlights were her amazing "Untitled (aleph)" video projected on a large screen, accompanied by its disquieting, jumbling soundtrack, along with her discussion of the tower she's building in Sonoma County, Calif.

Hamilton at Reed College: construction of her Sonoma County tower.

In many ways it's Hamilton's acute awareness of physical proximity and phenomena as a form of communication that makes her special.

For example "Untitled (aleph)" is about the beginnings of communication (aleph is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet), but all the creepy balls in the mouth can be read both as an obstruction to traditional verbal language and as a substitution of sculpture for traditional words.

Hamilton is an alchemist of sorts because she transfers standardized conceptual constructions like language into a demonstrative physical form that also communicates.

It's like a novel with only punctuation!

The great thing is how down to earth and pragmatic she is in person. She feeds on the room, noting where the support is.

When amazed by the turnout she stated, "I think I need to consider moving to the West Coast ..." drawing great applause. Let's just say Portland is probably one of the hungriest art cities on the planet. How that appetite turns into better patronage is something else, but as the Portland Art Museum has shown, it is very possible. Institutional consistency of vision is key and Reed College has definitely been a rock in that department.

Looking Ahead

Joe Thurston's "The Things That Establish Her Personality Sometimes Exhaust Other People."

Spring also brings great expectations, and a new May show by Joe Thurston at Mark Woolley Gallery might be just the thing. Thurston has given his signature "flayed" work a twist, incorporating dramatic mannerist poses from great paintings by Eugene Delacroix and arcadian landscape backgrounds reminiscent of those on the Mona Lisa.

Also of note this month, Laura Fritz (a favorite amongst scores of critics) has a solo show at Seattle's venerable Soil Gallery. MK Guth will travel the red shoe delivery service to Nottingham, England, of all places as well. Dan May will hit the big time with a New York show at Pavel Zubouk in Chelsea in June.

It's a fact: Portland artists have been doing quite well when they show elsewhere and recently Bruce Conkle has received critical accolades for shows at GASP (Boston) and Consolidated Works (Seattle).

Ellen George has shown in Dallas (with a project for a private collection) and David Eckard has shown in Boston and San Diego within the last six months. In New York, Damali Ayo had a library project and Mona Superhero's art was popular. Sean Healy has a big federal project in Houston (which is opening a lot of doors) and Henk Pander recently gave Seattle's Frye Museum a taste as well. Lastly, as previously mentioned in Critical i, Matthew Picton had a wonderful installation at the Carl Solway Gallery's 30 Ways to Make a Painting show, which was full of big names, such as Joseph Kosuth, Polly Apfelbaum and Nam June Paik.

Needless to say the secret about Portland is out: it's home to a large number of artists worthy of national attention, probably because artists get a chance to develop idiomatic styles here. I suspect the Oregonian might even start noting that specific Portland artists are making waves despite not being blessed by the Portland Art Museum's Oregon Biennial.

The Oregonian's recent mention of Sean Healy as flying below the radar is a bit late, too. He's definitely been on the radar for years as evidenced by their review last September, which criticized him for making art that looked like it could be done elsewhere.

That retrograde stance is a fast-dying, old-school attitude that ignores Portlanders who are active elsewhere. Simply put, credit needs to be given when due. It reminds me of how Washington, D.C., treated Anne Truitt's death as something of only local importance. Stupefying!

Matthew McCaslin, Roxy Paine and Matthew Picton (from left) at Carl Solway Gallery.

For example, let's remember that Harrell Fletcher's first Whitney Biennial was largely ignored and only after being in two in a row did he become impossible to ignore locally. It's time to stop promulgating a myth that no longer holds credibility.

The local and the international are increasingly becoming one and it's fascinating to watch how Portland's new and old residents react to the change.

Some folks have been freaked out and that's a legitimate response from sheltered types, but I'm more of the European school of thought that all borders are naturally quite porous.

Truth is, geographical isolation in developed countries is more of a personal choice than an imposition. This is a modern reality and, frankly, it's odd when borders aren't permeable. I anticipate more attitude adjustments in the future of the Portland art scene.

Still, April wasn't all anticipation. Some of the early art blooms of spring were most impressive, making it tough to ignore any of these good shows:

Everett Station Lofts

Frank Miller's "Chanbara" at Ko Du Ku Gallery in the Everett Station Lofts.

The Everett Station Lofts in April were the strongest they have been for quite some time. As artist-run galleries they definitely point to a whole new crop of talent that is milling around town yet again.

Frank Miller's "Chanbara" book of photography at Ko Du Ku Gallery was most impressive.

With dramatic angles combining modern and ancient Japanese street moments, these photos transport the viewer to a crystalline place that reminds me of the disciple that bushido or "the way of the sword" requires.

Messages in bottles at Pepper.

Chanbara is the term given for Japanese sword-fight movies (Tarantino's "Kill Bill" movies are an homage) and this series of photographs has an unmistakable male perspective that is both flattering and unflattering. Publishing a well-done book is also impressive.

At Pepper Gallery, artist and operator Daniyel Hicks put together a nice conceptual participation project appropriately titled "message in a bottle." It isn't very original but its simplicity works with the nice visual presentation. This is a classic romantic existential project and I like seeing it rather than projects that try to garner attention by advertising how many artists take part. Those projects don't do anything other than garner attention for the organizers.

At Ogle, the first installment of shows for Portland Modern's second issue made for a handsome exhibition by two artists the Critical i has followed for a long time, Bonnie Paisley and Rachel Wiecking.

Keith Rosson at Zeitgeist Gallery.

Juried by Sue Taylor, it's a serious step up and Wiecking really looks like she's ready for bigger things (some important collectors have snapped up her work). Bonnie Paisley had the most successful piece with "American Beauty Rose" (reviewed here last year).

Lastly, Keith Rosson at Zeitgeist continued putting out the finest graphic novels distilled into paintings in the Pacific Northwest.

His best works have deft poetic turns and a knack for tense, hilarious moments. They feel perfectly in synch with the times.

Jaq Chartier
Elizabeth Leach Gallery

Jaq Chartier's Testing show at Elizabeth Leach Gallery.

Jaq Chartier's debut solo show at Elizabeth Leach Gallery showed why this emerging national star from Seattle is worth watching. Her stained studies in material absorption and the effects of sunlight are quite empirical, putting her in line with artists like Tim Bavington, Bernard Frize and Sol LeWitt, who all create visual work through a non-visual series of instructions. Chartier is different in that she allows her materials (various staining colors) to interact with the grounds.

What I like is the quantified element of chance that is then organized and annotated. It separates her from those other abstract instruction painters. I particularly like the notes on the sides of the paintings, which keep them from being arid empirical curiosities and turn them into archives as well as active experiments.

Still, this take on Greenbergian formalist stain painting is a bit too formulaic for my taste, although a truly anal-retentive person will get off on it. It's good work but I'd like to see her evolve some, because she is onto something big with her focus on material entropy.

Henk Pander
Laura Russo Gallery

Henk Pander's "Bombadeer" at Laura Russo Gallery.

Henk Pander at Laura Russo Gallery showed how academic painting can be rehabilitated with a wry sense of timing and swift, sure brushstrokes.

Pander is an allegorical history painter, but those who refer to his technique as old masterish couldn't be more wrong. Pander, who doesn't use glazes and paints rather loosely, is more like the early impressionists such as Manet, rather than an old master like Franz Hals.

Sure, he has some chops and the work has a conceptual connection to the melodrama of Goya or Gericault, but that "old master" tag confuses technical competency with subject matter.

Paintings by true old masters like Rembrandt and Sir Joshua Reynolds are studies in various levels of translucence. Pander has a flattened-surface-only picture plane and it's quite good and modern. Pander isn't some anachronism like Odd Nerdrum.

Jacques Flechemuller
Tutti Frutti
PDX Contemporary Art

Detail of Flechemuller's "Birthday Boy."

Jacques Flechemuller at PDX Gallery is a creepy and hilarious artist who exists somewhere between Mark Tansey, Claes Oldenburg, Gerhard Richter (on nitrous oxide) and a gremlin.

His "Birthday Boy" painting had a nice combination of really good, if slightly loose, painting and (this isn't a slam) Salvador Dali goofiness by attaching some googly eyes. It is his disregard for his obvious technical ability that impresses me (whereas Dali relied on it as a crutch).

In fact, the painting seems to be an all-out assault on preciousness which, instead of coming off as a gimmick, makes the piece vibrate with a self-assured innocence that is contagious.

If I had a guest house I'd subject my guests to its not-so-icy stare!

Any collector willing to live with this has got to be someone who will never become a fuddy-duddy and I have to approve of any object that is a dadaesque talisman against self-importance while remaining so stoic.

Detail from James Lavadour's "Blanket."

James Lavadour / Walk
Storm Tharp / The Black Show
PDX Contemporary Art

The single best show in April was PDX Gallery's exhibition of James Lavadour and Storm Tharp in the Wieden + Kennedy Building.

Lavadour may be one of the best gestural painters on the planet and it's a little scary how he also manages to be a bit photo-realistic as well.

One could go on and on, but the man is in a class by himself. Simply put, he is the best landscape painter alive. If there is a criticism it's that the multiple-part works are distracting when stacked vertically and I long for a simple horizontal two-part work with larger format panels.

Tharp is no slouch either. His "Trust" was my favorite work in April.

Storm Tharp's "Trust."

With flamboyant hair and eyelash flourishes on a very rough-and-tumble piece of paper bearing the images of Elvis Costello and Jack Nicholson from "The Shining," it's a tour de force in dandyist plumage designed both to attract and repel. "Trust" is more of a question mark than a statement of intended effect here. Together, the two shows were an interesting contrast in styles and personality. Lavadour's personality is subsumed and ultimately manifest as landscape, whereas Tharp's landscape is full of interpersonal grandstanding and thrives on his personality filling space via his art.

On that coin toss, heads or tails means you win here.

Eva Lake at Augen (from left) "Lovelake," "Sun King," "Swimming Pool" and "Before Dark."

Eva Lake
Vive Chrome
Augen Gallery

Eva Lake's latest show, at Augen Gallery, was one of the most sustained, mature and enjoyable in recent years.

"Sun King" used tight gradient squares that made them into overwhelming experiences ... you just keep thinking about how perfect each square is, yet there is variety. Hand painted without the use of tape, they impress.

Detail of Lake's "Sun King."

Others, such as "Swimming Pool," had larger gradient squares and this emphasized the painterly aspects of this work over its still-prominent serial nature. It is excellent work that stores up the concentrated studio process energy that created it like a visual battery.

Something about the serialness and square nature of the work seems a bit too cloistered and hermetic for my own tastes, though. I have the same issues with the work of Eric Freeman, which is a bit like one of Lake's gradient tint squares blown up to large scale.

Portland Art Museum

Diane Arbus, Untitled (Marcella Matthaei), 1969. [Matthaei Collection of Commissioned Family Photographs by Diane Arbus ©Marcella Hague Matthaei Ziesmann]

The Portland Art Museum had the rewarding Diane Arbus show, an excellent untitled De Kooning from 1977 and a sampler of minimalist works from the impressive collection of Sarah Miller Meigs. Highlights were two Donald Judd chairs, a couple of LeWitt cubes (personal faves), a Carl Andre and a really great John McCracken red plank, "Glow."

McCracken's red ones always seem to get me more than his other works and, at a recent studio tour for the Portland Art Museum's Contemporary Art Council, Jacqueline Ehlis spoke of stealing just such a red plank in L.A. (the fantasy plot involved a fast red convertible). Ehlis has a very anticipated show in June at Savage.

What is great about McCracken is how direct his work is, yet its mirror-like surface heightens its context in the room. Where McCracken differs from Ehlis is she is a material multitasker while he is so ridiculously consistent. Both are products of their times and Ehlis is the one with a lot on the line.

John McCracken's "Vision."

Speaking of fantasy, the Waking Dreams show of Pre-Raphaelite paintings at the Portland Art Museum is worth a romp. Yes, it's steeped in bourgeoisie Victoriana that Lake Oswego hausfraus might really dig, but something more is going on.

The Pre-Raphaelites rode a wave of nostalgia for King Arthur as a nationalistic myth and, by asserting that myth, they made this sort of thing the ultimate imperial cultural tchotchke ... not unlike Jackson Pollock with his drip paintings.

Look, there's a reason Pollock got the nod as an American icon and it had everything to do with him being a hard-drinking man's man from west of the Mississippi.

The difference: The American tchotchke was ahistorical, fitting for a country that now can hardly remember what The New Deal or the gold standard means.

Chris Caccamise, Doug Morris
Trouble in Tiny Town
Savage Art Resources

Chris Caccamise makes nice crafty art.

Trouble in Tiny Town is a very Brooklyn art show; correction, this is a very Brooklyn 2003 art show. 2004 had more antlers!

Still, Doug Morris shows some promise where Chris Caccamise is all premise. It's all that much sadder because this cute toy-art came and left L.A. and Portland back in 2001.

Nothing worse than seeing Brooklyn trying to pass itself off as fresh when the West Coast is driving trends. For example, Caccamise's art is part of the U.S.A.'s knockoff version of Japanese Kawaii or cute culture that was fresh back in 1998. Even artists like Evan Holloway made rainbows and social critique ubiquitous a long time ago.

Back in the late '90s Yoshitomo Nara and Takashi Murakami took dada, existential angst and feelings of desperate cultural impotence, then wrapped them in clean graphic design with big eyes.

Not-so-effective cutesy sarcasm made of paper and enamel.

Caccamise's work is the same thing except that it borrows design elements from '70s TV icons like The Electric Company, School House Rock and Zoom. With the preponderance of rainbows, clouds, lightning bolts and cheap-looking low frame-rate animation, those TV shows conveyed pessimism with a smile and resignation to '70s-era globalism.

As a redux in this show we have an oil tanker called "Don't Fail Me Now." It produces a laugh from fear of current and past oil pinches, but doesn't really offer any insight other than a crafty child's toy. Frankly, it's so precious that it becomes a form of amnesia. Even the oil tanker seems made to be a bit stubby and cute.

Also, the use of paper and enamel hearkens to the very influential photos by Thomas Demand. But the cute reality of Caccamise's work undermines itself in comparison to Demand's resolute fiction captured as photographs.

"relaxed lightning" ... a tribute to lowered expectations.

Let's just say "That '70s Art" is about as bright as Ashton Kutcher, who happens to be in bed with a 40-something trying to remain relavant in an entertainment industry that worships youth. Sure, they're having fun and look good but ... do we need more validation for the hollow nostalgia of a youth scene gone by?

Caccamise is making joke-art, but it's like Carrot Top's prop comedy compared to Claes Oldenberg, who was so much drier and less stylized in presentation. I grant that they may be funny, but it is hardly sophisticated comedy.

A piece like "relaxed lightning" says it all: "Mellow out dude and enjoy the ride ... everything is OK."

Problem is everything is not OK and this third-generation cute art doesn't do it for me (Murakami and Nara are the first generation, Karen Kilimnik and Rachel Feinstein's fantasy sculpture are the second).

Caccamise's work follows a formula like all hipster art: It's full of easily recognized semiotic signs, but in the end it's a marketing strategy that only works on the Portland Mercury crowd. It works on hipsters precisely because they too desperately want to believe that their baby-boomer parents will approve complicitly in these shared parent-to-child Peter Pan syndrome aesthetics. It's my generation's challenge to reassess the America our parents created and Brooklyn art is failing horribly, while the baby boomer trust-fund support system keeps this kind of art on the dole.

Doug Morris's "Untitled."

For better art of nearly the same aesthetic territory, Roy Lichtenstein's sculpture humbles young upstarts like Caccamise – whose profound impotence cannot be overcome as long as they chase a quick, cute buck in Brooklyn or Chelsea.

Comparatively, Lichtenstein owned his impotence and turned toys into tough-to-dismiss art. Caccamise's art is like shooting fish in a barrel.

More succesfully, Doug Morris also relies on craft and has more than a few rainbows as well, but I think he is one of the better artists of this rather soft genre.

Especially when the work is less elaborate and more formal, such as in "Untitled."

Morris's cut-foam constructions echo Fat Tuesday party bonnets and their relationship to tribal masks and Taco Bell polystyrene make them a very interesting confluence of trash and syncretic tribal behavior. It is this anthropological approach that holds some promise, because it addesses the roots of our problems: the human tendency to want to party now and clean up later.

Upon discussion, I teased out that Paul Klee was a very early influence for Morris and I contended that no artist is more influential amongst these crafty kids. Morris learned his lessons well, whereas Caccamise simply illustrates current trends that are better done in Diesel ads.

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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