J u n e   2 0 0 5

Justine Kurland's "Fencer": anachronism without using irony as a crutch.
Critical i

Justine Kurland & Mary Mattingly

A tale of two institutions
by Jeff Jahn

n the occasionally dark and stormy month of May there were many interesting art developments in Portland. Two were from visual art institutions trying to find their way.

The best of these visual offerings was (with certain caveats) Justine Kurland's talk at PICA, of which I will go into greater detail later.

I also traveled a great deal, seeing Seattle no less than four times, plus Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Chicago and Milwaukee all in one whirlwind month.

My favorite thing, besides Minneapolis's new Walker Art Center addition and the Chicago MCA's Universal Experience (art and tourism) show, were the earthworks at Lizard Mound near my parents' house in Wisconsin. It is an old haunt.

Robert Smithson may have coined the term "nonsite," but these mound builders created some amazing bird, panther, linear and, yes, lizard-shaped earthwork sites. With no apparent utilitarian use other than a rare burial, these effigy mounds were in part manifest aesthetic decisions and enigmas.

I've always found these effigy mounds appealing because they are large but not huge, so there's a very human scale. Also, the forest easily swallows them if not maintained. Larger mounds, generally from different tribes farther south, usually had more utilitarian purpose. Simply put, these are smaller and more enigmatic.

An effigy mound in Southeastern Wisconsin.

You can look for reviews from my travels and up-to-the-minute Portland art info at PORT, an art blog I'm starting up with Jennifer Armbrust and two other art writers, Andie DeLuca and Katherine Bovee.

PORT starts June 1 and will be an intellectually responsible place for reviews on the dynamic Portland art scene. There'll be relevant art writing about non-Portland art news as well. It should be an important, sophisticated addition to the explosion of art activity that Portland is experiencing – connecting it to the world. I'll continue my more thematic, experimental and philosophical pieces here in the Critical i.

Looking further into June, it seems like we have another strong month with Jacqueline Ehlis at Savage and Tim Dalbow at Laura Russo Gallery. Ehlis has grown a great deal since 2002 and her very different series of works all play incredibly well together (let's just say she is the most hardcore "dedicated studio process" artist in town ... we'll see if it shows). Dalbow will display what he's learned since his uneven breakout last year at Haze.

May roundup

Pat Steir's "Green One" at Elizabeth Leach Gallery.

A show that continues through July, Paint at Elizabeth Leach Gallery, yields some of my favorite viewing experiences in some time.

In particular, the absolutely amazing Pat Steir painting, "Green One," one of her signature waterfall series, stands out.

"Green One" is a direct, no-nonsense poem on materials, a kind of Shinto shrine to the liquid properties of paint and the effects of gravity.

This really excellent Steir managed to more than hold the walls with a Joan Mitchell and a very good Louise Fishman also in the show.

Other notable efforts were by Harvest Henderson at Pause Gallery and Joe Thurston at Mark Woolley Gallery.

Henderson's installation of real but artificially tinted sod and vines comprised of pictures of augmented women made a well-thought-out visual metaphor. It plays on the preference for man-made nature over the natural with its inevitable blemish or asymmetricality.

Harvest Henderson at Pause Gallery.

The installation was quirky but somehow the idea seemed too neat and tidy. It needed something less ubiquitous than lawn products and pretty/fake ladies to keep the viewer off balance.

I liked it but it didn't leave me feeling conflicted or engaged as much as it could have.

As a follow up to last month, I did like some of Joe Thurston's uneven show. For example, the show-card piece, "The Things that Establish Her Personality Sometimes Exhaust Others," was one of the best things I've seen this year. But much of the other work lacked the strong backgrounds of that work and the poses were too direct.

Something about the physical torsion, glaring eyes and fierce teeth in the card piece simply made the more head-on views of the models seem one dimensional and predictable. Once again, Thurston had good titles all around.

Justine Kurland and Jon Raymond
Old Joy

Justine Kurland's "Cyclone" at PICA.

PICA brought Justine Kurland and Jon Raymond to Portland to discuss their book collaboration, "Old Joy." But it quickly became apparent that Kurland was the main event. I consider her the most important photographer since Andreas Gursky and her talk reinforced that take.

She has grown in diversity over the last two years, which is rare for someone who came out of Yale's influential MFA program in the '90s. At Yale she absorbed lessons from Gregory Crewdson, who is known for his staged cinematic scenarios.

Most of Crewdson's former students are the equivalents of tribute bands. But a long time ago, Kurland exceeded her former professor by going where Hollywood doesn't – into the world of humble incomplete utopias and a rare sense of sincere anachronism.

Kurland's work burrows beneath Modernist ideals and Postmodernism disconnection and strikes gold. It gets right to the pregnant present where history is both helpful and cruel. Recently she has photographed trees with surprisingly engaging effects. No wonder she likes Oregon. She needs to see the Octopus Tree by Oceanside.

Kurland gets past the dystopian irony and goes straight for the harsh utopia as a kind of grounded amoral fairytale. Like Little Red Riding Hood it reveals the human talent for survival. Somehow, all of her best photographs have an incredibly powerful open-ended narrative content and her work rather unironically presents experience as a visible thing. Her lack of irony mongering instantly sets her apart as a classical humanist from the typical subculture comedians the art world churns out.

Kurland started the talk by discussing her choice in subject matter. Initially, her subjects were young women gone off to live in the wild or by overpasses. It was somewhere between Henry Darger, "Lord of the Flies" and an update of the Amazon legends.

"Old Joy": a Kurland and Raymond collaboration.

Unlike a lot of young New York artists, Kurland is incredibly knowledgeable about the history of her craft.

Fascinatingly, her recent forest photos took a cue from Civil War battle photos, which would only show the bullet and cannon scars upon the trees. As she spoke about her photos they were projected on the overhead screens in the Wieden + Kennedy atrium.

You could feel time nearly stop in the room as she spoke of communes across the country and innocent utopias that look run down. It is an important truth. Utopias can be difficult and compromising places to live in and Kurland is one of a handful of artists who can use truth and fiction simultaneously.

For example, her photo of a tree and several young women with their hair tied to it recalled a village custom she'd heard of, as well as Goya's famous war sketches. Her photo looks very odd but somehow completely normal ... poised near tradition and the horrors of war without going there.

Justine Kurland's "Moss Covered Troll Trees."

What makes this work so important is that it displays the moment before definition, that pregnant time before the choices that lead to other choices get set in motion.

That defining moment is full of freedom and constraints and manages to be simultaneously ancient and new.

After Kurland, Jon Raymond read his story about two hippies trying to connect. That text from Kurland and Raymond's collaborative book, "Old Joy," was mostly anticlimactic.

All but the segment where the two hippies have a soak in a hot spring seemed superfluous and wordy, especially when one considers the wordless eloquence of Kurland's work.

Everyone I spoke to said they tried to watch Kurland's images overhead and tune out the reading. Maybe Raymond's story isn't that bad, but Kurland's more open-ended narratives were also more complete. Kind of like Boswell having to contend with Shakespeare's mastery, Raymond was simply outclassed. Kurland is one of 15 people I've met who seem ageless (a combination of wise and playful, reserved and generous) and I suspect this is what adds deep zip to the alchemy of her photography.

Kurland's images were also on display in the Wieden + Kennedy lobby, but I can't help thinking that an artist as significant as this deserved more than a "coat check," as someone called it.

There are plenty of better gallery spaces in the city and one should have been procured.

A tale of two institutions
Disjecta & PICA

Disjecta attempts to make a case for its existence ...

I'm curious if Disjecta will stop trying to PR its way into anybody's heart and put on a good art show. Now is their second chance (Mary Mattingly's show failed) and guest curator Cris Moss's upcoming Donut Shop 9 might be the first decent thing we've seen from Disjecta in a year.

Moss has a better track record than Disjecta and his Donut Shop 9 opens June 4. Moss's Donut Shop series has always been competent and the first one was stellar.

Despite this savvy choice, Disjecta's new Web site is riddled with a grating sense of entitlement and implies that they are the voice of the artists. Yet, numerous people listed on their advisory board have expressed some grave doubts.

The question remains: Is Bryan Suereth (Disjecta's sometimes bull-in-a-china-shop founder) his own biggest liability? Many artists have said much the same, but more colorfully. Even some listed as advisory board members have grave misgivings and have already left [see story update below]. For a new Web site it seems less than up to date.

Tellingly, Disjecta's actual board of directors (the people with financial control) has not attracted much in the way of heavy hitters to its ranks. That needs to change or this is simply a fantasy waiting to be dashed. Also, I find the large number of Disjecta staffers disturbing when the organization needs to be lean and mean.

I've raised these points privately and publicly before and they need addressing.

Another rookie mistake: Disjecta's donation levels define a $500 gift as an "Acquaintance" and progress to a $2,500 "Neighbor," $10,000 "Lover" and $20,000 "Fiancée," etc. This cumulative set of cavalier assumptions evokes a mood that seems more interested in a one-night stand or more co-dependent relationship than anything else.

Even the Portland Art Museum has a "friend" level at $100, whereas $5,000 only buys "freindship" at Disjecta. One must consider that the number of $500-plus donors that much more established organizations, like PICA and the museum have, is small. Why limit your base so early on?

With news that the Portland Art Center (run by Gavin Shettler, Suereth's former co-director in the Modern Zoo organization) plans to be expanding significantly in 2006, it effectively pulls the rug from under Disjecta. Despite claims to the contrary on both sides, they are in direct competition.

Lastly, Disjecta, in its extra patronizing "where is art going?" brochure, implies that it is the voice of a popular artist uprising. But a real test of that claim would be a broader membership drive. Their somewhat sporadic and often oddly low-profile fundraising attempts need to step up considerably to be considered serious and the upcoming art auction might be a start. If it flops ...

William Pope L. at PICA 2003: standard setter.

On June 10 PICA produces a warehouse show, called Landmark, for its 10th anniversary.

Unlike Disjecta, PICA has lots of big names, like William Pope L., Dana Schutz and Jim Hodges. The warehouse is a nice move but I wonder why they waited. PICA's current "coat check" lobby exhibition space at Wieden + Kennedy is an embarrassment and this warehouse show will try to make a case for continued relevance in the Portland visual art world (Hint: a coat check is not good enough; even Disjecta knows that).

Landmark might be billed as a 10-year celebration, but it could actually be a eulogy for an organization that has slipped considerably since PICA stopped its curatorial program in January 2004.

The new director of programming (whoever that might be) will need to work miracles, not more of the same.

Lastly, PICA's birthday slogan (with my emphasis), "10 years of making the world safe for contemporary art," conveys an ill-advised prophylactic mission statement. I hope they don't take it seriously. PICA has been widely and rightly criticized for showing "safe" names – sometimes preferring them over strong shows.

Both Disjecta and PICA seem to live in curious parallel universes and both really need to make a better case for why we should care. That said, I want to care and have cared in the past. With the right new leadership and donor relations half as good as the Portland Art Museum's, PICA could survive as a visual arts entity. But if they think that they can simply use the visual art patrons as a fundraising tool for their current emphasis on performance they are on very shaky ground.

Jennifer Bartlett at Reed's Cooley Gallery in 2003.

Important visual arts people just shake their heads now, when before they were simply being critical.

After brilliant shows, like William Pope L.'s Erascism in PICA's dedicated gallery back in 2003, we came to expect a good show in a good space. What held back attendance was a general attitude problem at PICA that hasn't changed. Physically, that means at least a warehouse, not a coat check (and we even waited a year for that &%$#@ coat check!).

Dissimilarly, Disjecta talks a fine game but needs to produce results, both in fundraising and programming, or they should go away (see Mary Mattingly, below).

Truth is, the hoard of artists in Portland has redefined the city's expectations and you better believe any organization that fails to take that into account will suffer. With so many people moving to Portland from places like New York, San Francisco, L.A., Houston, Sydney and Chicago, any organization that cops an attitude of smug superiority but presents day-old bread will probably be shunned.

Some, like PICA and the Portland Art Museum, have understandably taken serious hits because they felt they were on the crest when they were actually lagging behind. Now, the museum is stepping up, as PICA has scaled back.

The Portland Art Museum, the Feldman, Reed College's Cooley Gallery, The Art Gym and the Portland Art Center have all stepped up their exhibition abilities. My advice is simple: One can't expect to do nothing (or something mediocre) and survive here.

It is a time of rapid change, increasingly sophisticated expectations and expanded horizons. Anything less than that won’t do.

Mary Mattingly
We go Round and Round in the Night
Disjecta at Feldman Gallery

Sub-par work: Mattingly at the Feldman.

Don't get me wrong: Nan Curtis's curation of PNCA's Feldman Gallery has made it the most consistently decent art space in Oregon for the last four years with the likes of Heidi Cody, Axel Lieber, Charles Goldman and Robert Parke-Harrison. I hate to call attention only when the inevitable misstep occurs, but this one is so obvious I can't let it slide.

This show is just that painful.

It must be noted that the Mary Mattinglys at the Feldman were simply sub-par work.

WGRARITN (for short) makes both Disjecta (which has a very spotty record) and the Feldman's otherwise always solid and sometimes stellar program look awful.

It doesn't deserve a review, it deserves a rebuke. If this is where art is going, somebody needs to go to Betty Ford for detox instead.

Mattingly's experiences from PNCA to Parsons to Yale (in a two-year period) not withstanding, this came off as a hackneyed half-assed attempt with more wall text than the filibuster's hall of fame. This much text is never a good sign and, boy, do the poorly constructed cardboard trees and badly cut insulation foam with cheesy circuit boards deliver.

Amanda Wojick at Elizabeth Leach Gallery, February 2005.

Add in the elaborate verbiage and you get something far less than mediocre. The poorly laid out jumbles of junk here and there even usurp the otherwise competent video and photos.

Simply shoddy. The show deserves nothing else.

Local artists on the move nationally and internationally, like Chandra Bocci, Bruce Conkle, Amanda Wojick and even current PNCA students, have done similar fantasy themes infinitely better. It all calls the Feldman's policy of no local artists into question as an outdated idea.

Mattingly does decent enough photography, video and performance art but in this case that ability clearly lies outside installation art. Please stick to photography, video and performance art – or do some wood shedding.

I consider this the worst (supposedly) professional show in Portland history. Ever.

Let's hope nobody beats it!

[Update: Since this story's deadline, a member rejoined Disjecta's advisory board, which indicates some degree of compromise. – J.J.]

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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