Can culture be constructed?
On some level, the answer requires a yes. And
with that, welcome to the most expensive urban ghost town in
America -- Portland's Pearl District.
In short, there is more going on in the Pearl
than the ever-popular First Thursday street festival for those
who care to dig. The cafés foster discussion and the
museums or galleries offer subject matter.
The Pearl is legitimately arty, even if black
clothing equals arty for you. But for many Portlanders it has
a reputation (fairly and unfairly) for being more form than
of the art: Portland's Pearl District, at least for the
moment, sports the look of a ghost town.
This gripe is tired and often valid, supported
by the fact that few artists can afford rent in the district.
Forget that. Let's go beyond that urban-planning speed bump;
artists are an opportunistic lot (just like developers). Oysters
The Pearl, as the moniker suggests, has a lot
of hopes pinned on it. It is a district where Portland's emerging
international reputation is put into a concrete form as visual
The nature of that ambassadorship will determine
whether the Pearl will become a geographically indistinguishable
pastiche of Nouveau Riche iconography, or something unique --
and therefore important -- to culture in America.
lines: The Park Avenue Lofts (center).
Recent developments in the Pearl
The Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA) has a new
curator, Stuart Horodner. His first show, "BEhold,"
deals with the messy phenomenon of accumulation in the work
of four different artists: Lynn Cazabon, Lisa Hoke, Richard
Klein and Al Souza.
This is a change of aesthetics from director Kristi
Edmunds' shows, which tended towards surgically clean installations
by Kate Shepherd and Erika
Blumenthal (reviewed last month). Maybe Edmunds simply needed
a cleaning frenzy after the unruly start of PICA's OPEN WALLS
show (which invited every Portland artist it could fit)?
It is good that PICA chose someone with divergent
aesthetics, because between the ultra-clean design inside the
Vitra design shop and the starkness of architect Brad Cloepfil's
(Allied Architects) work for the Weiden + Kennedy building and
the PDX gallery, an unsustainable subtext of "clean minimalist
lines = taste" was starting to be made.
Horodner's arrival keeps the architect's and the
artists' achievements from becoming commonplace and unnecessarily
diluted. "BEhold" opens May 3.
Art: One of Portland's newer galleries.
Also of note is the recent relocation of Savage Art to the Pearl.
By moving from its old space on the South Park Blocks, the gallery
will welcomely up the ante in a blue-chip fashion by forcing
comparisons and dialog between Portland and New York. Savage
cut her art-world teeth at Sotheby's.
This move by Savage is crucial since Northwest
art often runs the risk of insulating itself by focusing exclusively
on Northwest art. It also makes a good case for the Northwest
when the locals can stand, and occasionally triumph, in comparison
against the international standards.
The architect for Savage's new gallery space must
have intuited the need and created a medium-sized front exhibition
space in order to engage in dialog with the street through its
Even before Savage, the PDX gallery created its
Open Window Project. PDX's project solved that age-old "galleries
are intimidating" bunyip.
The Window Project gives contemporary art in the
Pearl a casual Northwest confidence that Kenny Scharf's Nordstrom
window installation downtown lacked last year.
Hybrid exhibition spaces
Galleries are not the only spaces fostering visual culture in
the Pearl. In fact, hybrid exhibition spaces like the Little
Wing Café, Visage Eyewear, Michael G. Ferguson Insurance,
750 ml, Torrefazione, Utrecht Art Supply and Powell's Books
have all made commitments to exhibitions by artists with serious
These hybrid spaces, the real testing grounds
of the Pearl, are invaluable. Someone right out of Pacific Northwest
College of Art is unlikely to have the dialog or experience
with the grit of life to resonate like someone seasoned in the
Nil: The Jaqueline Ehlis exhibit.
A place to use your discretion
The Everett Station Lofts (between Everett and Davis on Broadway)
are very important exhibition spaces that many First Thursdayers
simply are unaware of.
Here, galleries like Nil, Inchmeal, Fleck and
101 provide some of the fiercest and -- surprisingly -- some
of the most accomplished shows in Portland.
In these lofts the artists often get only one
night (First Thursday) to showcase. That lends the shows an
immediacy that can be elevated to fresh eloquence, or deflated
to sophomoric narcissism.
For the developed eye, this is where you can discover
talent. Some of these shows provide the aesthetic challenges
that most of the moderately successful galleries established
in the Pearl need to tap in order to take things to the next
And there you have it
In the end, it is up to artists and gallery-goers to be critical
and insightful enough to separate the Pearl from the similarities
omnipresent from Seattle to San Diego.
The Pearl's atmosphere is conducive; cafes, shops
and galleries do take some direction from the artist community.
The reason for this: right now, not enough people live in the
unfinished buildings to set the tone and the artists have become
the de facto voice.
This tone (let's call it informed connoisseurship)
has to be a product of real effort and reflection.
Can culture be built out of ghost town? Yes, but
unless effort is applied to insight, another mall by any other
name will not smell as sweet.