Documenta I, New In Town, The Scene
is going on here?
is all the buildup in the Portland scene going somewhere? Just
how serious are Portland's intentions? (Read on for quotes from
some real, live Portlanders.)
But first let's take stock; the building blocks
are all in place. Portland is the visual arts capital of the economically
important Pacific Northwest.
Also, the museums are giving locals more international
stuff to chew on and define themselves against (like PICA's WORDSINDEEDS
DIY = Socialism?
by Kay Rosen at PICA
Portland is producing a lot of independent, artist-initiated
events, such as Alphabet Dress, Donut Shop, Charm Bracelet, Moving
Pictures and Red 76.
The major media cover these roots-level events.
To date, though, only four of the 25 or so shows in the last year
have provoked serious critical reviews of work by participating
artists: Slowness (Art Gym), Subscribe (Pacific University), The
Portland Independent Salon 2001 (the old Bollenbach Art Labs)
and the Cell Project (Alberta St.).
This tempered "niceness" makes sense,
since most critics want to encourage not discourage
the collective efforts that are operating on a thin margin. It
also gives greener artists a template.
It's worth noting those four critically reviewed
events focused primarily on the work, not the party. Intentions
matter and as a rule, if you ask to be judged you probably will
be. Right now the "art scene" is the most positive story
Portland has especially with its nation-leading unemployment.
But the scene is at a critical stage.
If anything, decisiveness and competition are vital
at this point, and the caliber and scope of these new artists'
work still needs to rise. The good news? That's already occurring.
For example, from 6-10 p.m. on May 3, "Emergence," a
show of eight young lions who have hit the indie scene's glass
ceiling, opens at PSU's Littman Gallery.
"Emergence" won't have a band or beer,
so all will have to focus on the art.
work of Laura Fritz, an artist featured in "Emergence"
I applaud the frequent collective/hybrid/party
events, although they seem firmly rooted in the social realm
thus deflecting criticism.
That social element is important, but shows that
launch careers don't confuse issues. Career-making shows stay
up for more than one day (permanence and art have strong ties).
To create an event that launches careers, one must live by the
art sword and die by the art sword. Even the notoriously vacuous
Jeff Koons had provocative shows of vacuums.
It wasn't all social connections; it merely made
certain people would be there when his tree fell in the forest.
Portland artists and institutions can't get by being
simply as good as Los Angeles and New York, they have to be better
in specific, definable ways. It won't be money, but Portland can
easily do so by virtue of its lack of corruption and its superiority
in high-minded ideals like sustainability, focus on work not hype,
community, husbandry with nature and aversion to monoculture.
Let's not kid ourselves international art
often is a form of corporate monoculture. At the same time proven
international art survives in that jungle precisely because it
isn't just a cynical market manipulation, which isn't always
true of regional art. It is advantageous for Portland to be on
the cusp of the international and the regional so it can
avoid the incestuous tendencies of both. The cusp is where innovation
leaks into the system.
Northwest Documenta I
A.N. Bush Art Gallery
600 Mission Street, SE
April 9-May 12
Northwest Documenta I is by far the most representative
survey of Pacific Northwest art I've seen. With works by Rick
Bartow, Heidi Schwegler, Damali Ayo, Sidney Row, David Gilhooley,
Tad Savinar and the show's star, Chandra Bocci, we're relentlessly
pummeled into the realization that the region is deep in work
that is relevant, even hip. Which proves that if other surveys
are unconvincing, it's clearly the curator's fault. (Cue sound
of gauntlet hitting floor.)
The show is in a nice part of Salem. On the way
down I pictured the people of Oregon's capital city wearing lederhosen
and brandishing torches while attempting to burn curator Julie
Larson at the stake. Luckily, after a thoughtful museum walk-through,
the villagers spare her. Nicely done!
Unfortunately for some (and excellent for others)
the show is so crammed with work that it resembles someone's attic.
This clutter might put off those reliant on clean architectural
cues, but if you have any connoisseurship, it becomes a rollicking-mad
art dive. Documenta I is a little like a studio visit and the
clutter is exciting.
by Sidney Row and Toni Matlock Taylor
By diminishing typical "white box" staging,
the work is stripped of unnecessary pretentious preciousness.
It also becomes less sanctimonious and allows the work to sink
or swim of its own accord. This isn't one of those patronizing
shows that try to educate.
I'd rather be slapped than educated, and this art
barn packs a wallop.
Where to begin? I particularly liked David Gilhooley's
"Free at last, Free at last!" This tower of wacky rocketship-Transamerica
buildings conveys something akin to the end of cabin fever. Maybe
even a flight from the city? Viscerally it has kick and reminds
me of the opening segment of Pee Wee's Playhouse.
It is perfectly complemented by Laurie Austin's
"Parfait," a lovely confection of human hair.
Other standouts, like Rick Bartow's moody drawing,
"Out of Darkness," paired with Sidney Row's gloopy paintings,
recall shamanistic abstract expressionism and the doodles of Cy
This is the sort of existential heaviness you are
not going to find native to Los Angeles. In the Northwest you
are allowed to draw strength from your imperfections.
by Tad Savinar, Rick Bartow and Heidi Preuss
Other works, like Heidi Schwegler's "Index"
(which I saw and loved last August), are hindered by the close
confines and need the clean spaciousness of Portland's Savage
Gallery. Like living things, not all art can survive in different
environments. Here Damali Ayo's work thrives precisely because
of its garage-sale materials and boot-to-the-head bluntness.
For these same reasons, Chandra Bocci's work succeeds
in stealing the show.
Her "Untitled" installation of shredded,
corrugated cardboard crawls up the ceiling of the show's stairway
entrance. With rabid domesticity, she crafts tiny rustic houses
out of the same material.
The overall impression is that of a diminutive woodland
village covered by the felled trees from Mt. St. Helens' first
It's homey, it's a disaster, it's beautiful, yet
it comments on the inherent ugliness of throwaway consumer culture.
She leaves me on a fence and shoots rock salt at me for trespassing.
Welcome to the deepest and most variegated undiscovered art frontier
of the United States, folks!
For the record, Portlanders answer:
What do you think is happening here?
The scene seems increasingly vital and rich.
Sue Taylor, art historian
There seem to be more short glances rather
than those who really take the time to look, but that is a problem
everywhere, not just Portland.
Tom Cramer, artist
Portland's cultural life is a volcano about
to blow, and the magma of genuinely inspired, interesting, home-grown,
uncomfortable, willfully perverse, beautifully odd, under-represented
cultural activity has already started bubbling through the cracks
of our established cultural foundations.
Tiffany Lee Brown, provocateur
Cheap rent, committed artists and a desire
to rock the boat.
J.D. Davis, artist
Everything and nothing [is happening]; every
conceivable and inconceivable form of expression is rampant in
the city, seeking a bridge or conduit toward and from each other.
S. Llewen, iconoclast
New In Town
Portland Art Museum
Through June 22
"New In Town" is an excellent, if slightly
Since this is not a Biennial year, the Portland
Art Museum has provocatively initiated a new series that brings
international artists from outside the cloistered Pacific Northwest
scene in an attempt to bring some Portlanders up to speed.
The acquisition of the Greenberg collection was
a dam-cracking earthquake, and head curator Bruce Guenther is
widening the rupture with an infusion that explores contemporary
trends in painting from L.A.'s hot '90s scene.
The funny thing is that, except for a short explanation, there
is little to tell people this is a Los Angeles show. All artists
of merit in town know this already, so one has to think they're
sending the scene a personal message: "this is what L.A.
did, it has been done … what do you provincial Portlanders have?"
What did L.A. do? Well, they got over the whole
"beauty-equals-unimportant" bias of post-modernism with
the help of rocking critic Dave Hickey. Hickey peppered his gut-honest
ideas with appropriate but definitely post-post-graduate words
that pissed off all the formulaic East-coast-educated curators
whose parents had bought them nice degrees. In essence, he knew
what he was talking about and they had to look it up since he
had synthesized things that were not in the official textbook
Another useful critic, Matthew Collings, describes
this as "curators educated beyond their intelligence!"
in his latest book, "Art Crazy Nation."
Hickey took a stand for the importance of "beauty,"
something many academics had thought they'd explained away like
some kind of aesthetic council of Trent (although they still seem
to prefer sex with attractive people). With a score of very hot
art schools, L.A. was the perfect proving ground for these ideas.
Thus, we end up with this show where all the artists
make commentary on the current state of painting. For the most
part, they end up making a successful pastiche of Clement Greenberg's
aesthetic legacy and the great artists, like Pollock, Hoffman,
Newman, Frankenthaler and Morris Louis, who gave him those ideas.
For example, Monique Preito is Helen Frankenthaler's
or Friedel Dzubas' less-gutsy shadow. (That isn't really much
of a slam because Frankenthaler is damn smart and has already
Tim Bavington goes a bit farther by building on
Barnett Newman and Kenneth Nolands stripe paintings. The
paintings have a soft edge to the supersaturated stripes. In fact,
the Art Museum made a good choice in buying his Voodoo Child:
a slight return (solo), since it ties in so well both to
the emerging West Coast aesthetic and the Greenberg collection.
Portland is the town where Hendrix was fired from
Little Richards band.
What is interesting about Bavingtons piece
is how the actual duration and amplitude of the notes from Jimi
Hendrixs guitar solo have been translated via logic code
into a synthaesic tableau. In essence, we are seeing music via
color and line. It is a bar code of that portion of the song.
This is a welcome change from artists who see music
as more free and less formal than the visual arts, an idea that
is completely misinformed. In fact, the combination of extremely
formal elements, such as tonal amplitude and the duration a note
is held, forms the basis of sound.
What is less certain is whether this translation
from sound to visual is more than just a curiosity. Does the piece
really transcribe the incendiary feel of Hendrixs playing?
Not really. Hendrix was an improviser and left a lot of ragged
edges that increased the element of risk in his work. Bavingtons
work has incendiary color but the form isnt ragged in any
For Bavington this is an interesting appropriation
strategy, but Im left feeling the translation is less culturally
potent than the original source. Such is the problem when borrowing
the form of the great, but not the feel. Warhol could do this
because he appropriated images, Bavington loses a lot in translation
If Bavington wants to take it to the next level,
more risk needs to be factored in. Still, this is one of the best
works in the show and Id like to see where this develops.
My favorites were by Linda Besemer whose strange
plaid, all paint (no canvas or other support) wall hangings push
some boundaries. They are hung like linens or drapes on towel
Besemer's ideas are built on Kenneth Noland and
Barnett Newman, but her methods and formal effects are so different
they become convincing.
One title, "Zip Fold #7," directly refers
to Newman, but I sense she isn't iconoclastic enough to really
appropriate his zip.
Apparently, some L.A. artists should hire professional
writers for their titles!
Bonnie Beach's subtly shaded wall reliefs are excellent
and have appropriate titles referencing the ocean and wave action.
The works of Beach and Besemer are spatially activating and probably
would have survived Greenberg's proclamations.
Other works, like Michael Reafsyder's successful
"What the?" were indicative of L.A.'s biggest problem:
lacking depth and seeking to deflect criticism instead of engage
it. Reafsyder's super-impasted paintings with expertly grinning
smiley faces seek to circumvent seriousness while invoking the
past. Imagine Molliere doing a DeKooning.
Still, the work is successful and Reafsyder isn't
as silly as he is trying to be. This undermines the work and he
can't compete when measured with Paul Klee's "Twittering
Machine," which successfully circumvents seriousness without
undermining its heft. Reafsyder is essentially changing the spelling
of stupid to "stoopid." Jeff Koon's "Balloon Dog"
tells that joke better, too.
Is Reafsnyder going to really lampoon, or tell art-party
All in all, L.A. suffers one huge problem: the film
industry will always overshadow art as cultural product. This
makes art in L.A. a support industry and artists generally
make miserable servants.
Thus, the art is good, not great. Hence, the reason
Hickey's coup de grâce at Site Santa Fe tapped Ellsworth
Kelly to summon the hopes and fears of "painting."
I'm being totally unfair comparing these kids to
a monster like Kelly, but at Santa Fe, his work conveyed the same
aesthetic vein that "New In Town" mines ... but with
a decisiveness that nothing here can match. Yet.