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North Building Project, Mark Building, south elevation, pleat glass. [Portland Art Museum © Paul Forster]
Critical i

The Portland visual arts renaissance ...
Wish list
by Jeff Jahn

ow that Portland is finally moving beyond youthful promise and into a more concrete mode of adolescent visual-arts ecosystem maturity, it's time to look at what we need to do next. It's no time to get complacent.

With the new museum wing and a gallery/artist bloom, Portland has a body similar to an adult's but lacks many of the intelligent (but boring) restraints. That's a good thing, though it's frustrating having to constantly give people the art-101 lesson.

The good thing is I now get to have post-grad discussions with someone other than Bruce Guenther or Jacqueline Ehlis. Now there are lots of very savvy people and even a few that approach those two ... if you know where to look.

As always, there are still idiots everywhere, but that's a constant in human history regardless of location.

It's time for a wish list:

1) Schools: PSU needs to get serious about the visual arts with a curatorial studies program as well as an exhibition program with a professional curator. The new art library just down the street at the museum may actually help them facilitate the curatorial studies. Maybe PSU's MFA program isn't enough and PNCA could create a very selective program. Of course that takes $$$ although one capable donor did corner me about what it would take last year.

2) A collective: Portland's many very good artists need to actively court galleries in other cities and, if they do not find a suitable gallery in town, band together to create a strong collective like SOIL in Seattle (it's the one place I always try to check out to sense Seattle's pulse). Portland has an infinitely more active and stronger scene than Seattle but one can always run into the serious die-hard artists at SOIL. There isn't a place like that in Portland. Please make one (and happy 10th anniversary to SOIL).

Work By Matthew Picton, recently acquired by the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco, shown first in Portland.

3) Press: The Oregonian cannot continue to ignore or hold out-of-state accolades against Oregon artists like Matthew Picton, Amanda Wojick, David Eckard, Bruce Conkle, Ellen George, Laura Fritz, Jacqueline Ehlis, Sean Healy, Brendan Clenaghen, TJ Norris and M.K. Guth – all of whom are showing outside the state, often to rave reviews. Look, if the O wants to play the backwards-looking curmudgeon they can, but good luck defending it.

The "we like to fetish our remoteness" shtick only rings true for the old Portland crowd and maybe suburban hausfraus (the Oregonian's core readership?). Portland has grown beyond that self-inflicted inconsequentiality. Now it's better to discuss what level of ambition we wish to aspire to.

Let's remember that all artists are generally taken for granted in their home towns.

Also, the Willamette Week and the Mercury need more features, not just short reviews. I could harp on what the O, WWeek and (to a lesser degree) the Mercury write in terms of content. But I already co-created a near daily publication, PORT, to address that issue in part.

Let's just say all have gotten better and it would be nice to see more improvement ... the best coverage usually comes from Joseph Gallivan at the Portland Tribune, but all of the traditionally printed papers have moments in the sun and the gutter. I'm never going to be happy with it, I'm a critic fer chrissake (I generally hate what I write, too). Basically, if the article stays on topic without odd digressions that mean nothing (like criticizing a warehouse for being a warehouse) and actually looks at the art without comparisons to some painting elephant at the zoo ... then I'm appeased (not that that matters).

All it takes is a little bit of perceptive and truly critical writing and it does happen quite frequently. That is better than most places. Nobody can expect the New York Times from a generalist publication in Oregon. Yet they do ... and good for them. Personally, I don't find a generalist paper like the NYT too challenging a read. It's too accessible to be that insightful; that's their role.

The Armory and The Henry in the Pearl District during a lavender-colored dusk.

4) Galleries: Portland's galleries are numerous and, to be simple, they should sign new artists and take chances (maybe cycle the deadwood into a four-year rotation).

We all know there are young artists in the city who are better than some of those currently being repped. I'd also like to see them take a risk or two and shock their viewers with difficult-to-assimilate work. Basically, it's good to take the safety belts off for at least one or two shows a year (like those big-selling months of July and January!).

Even Jane Beebe of PDX Gallery has often remarked that her favorite shows were in the Window Gallery, which often displayed artists she did not rep. It's true the old Window Gallery was the single most consistently strong/challenging contemporary art venue in the state for at least the last three years, period.

Now that many galleries are taking part in art fairs, I think others are seeing the kind of quality Portland has taken for granted ... and for cheap. The prices Portland artists get have to be addressed this year. Right now the only youngish artists that go for good prices are the three musketeers of the 1999 Oregon Biennial apocalypse: Jacqueline Ehlis, Sean Healy and Brendan Clenaghen.

Also, let's seriously talk about renaming a section of NW Ninth "Gallery Row" now that 10+ galleries can be found either on or right off of it.

5) Institutions: The Portland Art Museum has an exciting roster of shows funded by the Meigs Endowment, starting with Sophie Calle and Roxy Paine. But they need to acquire some major things to fill out the collection:

a) A nice late-period Picasso (I suppose Eli Broad will need more than to be asked very very nicely);
b) A decent Rosenquist (this isn't easy, Warhol is easier and there are a few in town);
c) A strong Marcel Dzama (look, is there anyone more influential/copied right now?);
d) Secure the pick of super-collector Ed Cauduro's collection ... his Warhols, Jasper Johnses, Jeff Koonses and wonderful Basquiats are absolutely critical to making the Portland Art Museum's collections stronger. Cauduro should definitely make John, Lucy and Bruce work like hell for it, though. Still, this goes beyond money and into cultural legacy. Jane Bradley and her mother did the same for the Milwaukee Art Museum and it has a really strong, interesting collection. I am a product of it.
e) Engage the Mark Rothko Foundation full force ... he grew up here and his color choices are absolutely related to the moody depth of a cloudy Portland sky. Besides, the Clyfford Still estate's collection is going to Denver of all places. Rothko may have left Portland but it's time for both sides to forgive and let history be rooted in history.

Also, PICA needs to get its act together. Portland now requires a real Kunsthalle and it needs to be run by someone qualified ... no braggarts or blowhards or off-again-on-again visual arts institutions should be tolerated. They should have strong backgrounds in art and not expect others to supply expertise, because that simply isn't international caliber.

Right now I don't see anyone really capable and it's sad that I can lump the onetime strong, now completely inconsistent PICA into that "not" column. Yes, the new Portland Art Center is acting like an incubator of young fuzzy chicks, but it's all on the safe and somewhat academic side. Gavin Shettler is making strides on the bureaucratic side, though, and the book is still open. Still, they have lost momentum in terms of proving themselves via programming. They need a hit.

Corner of NW 10th and Everett in the Pearl.

6) Collectors: There are a few who pay attention but most have not caught onto the fact that Portland artists are wowing those outside the city.

This means they will challenge their collectors. It's an interesting time because the Pearl District has a ton of open walls and is primarily occupied by empty-nester baby boomers.

I want to see how this develops but I should point out one thing: It takes one serious collector to really make a difference.

Right now, artists like Matthew Picton sell better outside of Portland and that is a bit of a shame. Two pieces from his last Portland show were purchased by the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco.

7) The Art World: Signs are pointing to an awareness that Portland is a strong art city which can field a group show that would make Greater New York look awful (although it would have to be 30-70 artists, not 160; we lack that kind of depth but our best absolutely stand up). Apparently New York lacks that kind of depth as well.

This isn't hyperbole and everyone who matters in the Portland art scene has gotten a lot better.

E-mail Jeff at pivotofjade@hotmail.com, don't miss his recent columns, be sure to see his April 2002 essay, Art and Threat: Untaming Humanism., and don't miss the art-blog, PORT.

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