Berlin, Seattle and the bathroom
surprise and risks
write a book on what has happened in Pacific Northwest art in
June, so please forgive me if I miss talking about all the typical
thesis shows. As usual, this is only the tip of the iceberg
and at the same time I'm focusing on some of my own projects.
All I can say is June was a month filled with
some very important events like Red 76's "Art Stall"
project, which created a mini-Venice biennial in Portland's
potties. Also PICA just opened up "All the Way with Jim
and Shel," probably the single best show Portland has ever
had (I'll cover that next month).
In fact, all three of this month's reviews
the three artists from Berlin at Liz Leach, CoCA's Northwest
Annual in Seattle and the aforementioned Art Stall said
interesting things about the Pacific Northwest's intentions,
and the risk quotient is up.
Speaking of risky schemes,
Michael Oman-Reagan had a really nice PDX window gallery show.
He landed this coupe by leaving exquisite little pieces on PDX
Gallery and PICA's doorsteps.
When PDX sold some of his work, gallerist Jane
Beebe left a note for the then-anonymous artist, asking him
to pick up his check.
It all goes to show how you can make a place for
your art in Portland if you're willing to think asymmetrically.
various artists, various locations (through July 15)
bathroom, Aalto Lounge
The Art Stall project puts artist installations
in public bathrooms all over town and is just the sort of asymmetrical
thinking Portland needs in order to truly blossom.
I particularly like how this conceptually mixes
the venue with an ironic understanding that most people only
have time to reflect and contemplate existence while in the
In essence, Art Stall mixes lowbrow physical space
and higher-brow mental parlance into a scary, but kinda cool,
mono-brow. It sidesteps the whole elevated-but-generalist space
of museums in a very populist way.
Bravo once again Portland artists are fleshing
out the city's best traits: livability, a distaste for balkanizing
societal tropes and what it takes to make a life worth living.
Why not mix daily bodily functions and art?
Honestly, I haven't seen them all yet. But what
I did see varied in quality from James Boulton's thoroughly
OK but unexciting installation in the Pearl District's Visage
Eyewear to the satisfying and intrusive work of Mary Mattingly
at Aalto Lounge.
Mattingly's work literally forces people to wash
their hands without seeing what they are doing. It probably
sends obsessive-compulsives into fits. I like that!
The exhibit that really shook me was Nic Walker
and Ahren Lutz's work in the Matador's john. The space is permeated
with the smell of piss, giving the work a stage worthy of Sam
Shepherd. An acid-free archival quality existence does not apply
here. Even the walls are shellacked a filmy black, and who knows
what kind of stew of sweat, alcohol, human hope and despair
coats these surfaces?
Now for the art. High above the floor, Lutz's
edgy pieces are out of reach of the graffiti that clusters around
I like graffiti but wasn't really prepared for
Walker's work, which is best viewed from the throne and
one of my favorites, "Dutch," had been tagged.
Even some of the other taggers thought this wasn't
cool and made comment on the wall beneath the work. This kind
of feedback is fascinating.
Still, is the work really defaced? I had a feeling
Nic was OK with it and, talking to him later, he seemed pretty
I was more conflicted. "Dutch" was already
a very strong work and I felt it was muddied by the tag. Authorship
and the whole punch of the work were hybridized now.
I felt Walker's original work was a lot more
poetic, sophisticated and rawer than this very typical tag.
Walker himself had stopped signing his own name to the front
of his new series of bas-relief and enamel works, so this addition
seemed truly out of place.
For me, it was as if that "number-painting
guy" from Sesame Street had defaced one of Joseph Beuys
felt and dead tree works. Yet, this was the risk implied in
Overall, I think it hurt Walker's wonderful work
but validated the whole project. In fact, I liked Lutz's work
in conjunction with Walker's work better because of the tag.
The whole event opens some perennial questions.
Is art better suited to an elevated social space? No, but good
luck insuring that Robert Ryman painting if it's in the Matador's
Also, is the museum simply a legal necessity now?
At what point does authorship start and stop? Should the tagger
get credit? (Or was it a rape of the lock?)
I began wondering if museums and bathrooms are
all that different? Suddenly, an artist's work becomes a brand
for the institution that is showing it. Like a portable tag,
a work of art in a museum is individual authorship within a
An essayist like Roland Barthes would have a field
day with the Matador's liminal/urinal space.
Just like a museum, Walker had expectations of
viewers' good and bad behavior without knowing for certain if
his invitation would be taken. In this case the artist hoped
for defilement. This aspect of entropy in Walker's work makes
it interesting, which is why he's such an influential guy in
the Portland scene.
Infamously, Walker previously installed a decomposing
deer carcass in the Everett Station Lofts.
All in all, is authorship just an exercise in
brute force territorial pissing with social conventions and
machinery in tow? Is there a possibility of a victim without
a crime? Is it the artist's intentions or the way that history
is written that really focuses a narrative? Is there a historical
denouement? Or does that happen when someone reads this?
In the end, art is how it is remembered. It isn't (and never
was) modern or postmodern; there is only historical relativism.
I'll remember Nic Walker's piece taking a bullet that validated
this experiment. The individual vision was compromised but re-invested
with a legitimacy of the physical result of a threat made good.
I'm hopeful more indie efforts will allow for
this sort of risk and further explore how art reacts directly
upon the populous.
Center on Contemporary Art (CoCA)
1420 11th Ave., Seattle
through July 13
new space; click photo to visit the Web site.
This was the first big test of CoCA's brand-spanking-new
space. The opening reception was hopping and I can say one thing:
The space itself succeeds in being both a gritty hybrid and
a rarified zone for art. As a former garage, it wears its past
without compromising its current mission overall it has
a roll-up-the-sleeves-and-show-us kinda feel.
This is an important step in Seattle's tenuous
support of the visual arts. After losing the Bank of America
gallery space and one of Seattle's few respect-worthy galleries,
Eyer-Moore, this solidification heralds some new leadership
through permanence. Seattle is a cosmopolitan city, yet CoCA
as an organization has been hampered by its lack of permanent
facilities. This has been rectified.
Meet the juror
This year's annual was juried by the sharp-eyed Linda Farris,
a person with deep roots in Seattle as well as the art world.
This choice speaks well of CoCA's root structure, digging locally
lest the annual simply become an exercise in imported conissuership
that evaporates after the exhibit comes down.
What I like about Farris as juror is that the
artists chosen speak of her completely unapologetic bias.
Instead of trying to please everyone with inclusiveness,
she usually picked work that was either created by women or
made comment on issues that are more likely to be raised by
Refreshingly, "she" knows her subject.
Ohh if all these generalists in the art world could learn
that jacks of all trades are often masters of none.
Now for the art.
The show predictably includes the work of longstanding
regional leaders, like Mary Henry's inherently tacit "More
than you know" geometric painting. Yet, younger work dominates
the field. For example, Donabelle Casis' "untitled"
gestural and gendered conglomeration is not august work. Farris
is obviously hopeful of the future.
Portland (the artists' city of the NW) was well
represented with strong work from Larissa Brown, Jacqueline
Ehlis (whose much anticipated solo debut at Savage opens July
19) and Damali Ayo, whose eye-dentity/political work "White
Noise" brought her second prize.
Still, my absolute favorite work of the show was
Jack Daws' "Manifest Destiny." This neat little red
tricycle has circular saw blades for wheels and bespeaks of
the important formative days of one's youth. It also riffs on
the tendency of Western civilization's (and, in particular,
the USA's) need to cut up, segment and conquer. It's a post-colonial,
post-testosteronal microcosm of youth and nations. It even has
a bell and streamers!
Other inclusions were Mark Danielson's 1970s ranch
houses, which were OK but don't match up to Harrel Fletcher's
works at PICA last year
and Kathy Stone's "wounded flowers," made of delicate
paint and plastic sheets on pins.
I particularly liked Evelyn Donnelley's untitled
photograph of fake tiger fur on which she expertly placed several
toy hedgehogs. I'm unclear what she was evincing other than
70s nostalgia and a formal flair for the most evil orange color
imaginable, but I liked looking at this one.
This Way I" (detail)
The first-prize winner, Lisa Liedgren, also showed
real formal sophistication. Her "Walk This Way I and II"
consisted of well-crafted yellow bumps of pollen-like color
on paper that were both repetitious and still subtly varied.
It's nice work, but it does fit into the sort of contained and
possibly over-refined work that Seattle likes. It doesn't rattle
my cage like Daw's tricycle, but will probably sell well.
If Liedgren is going to move forward, she's going
to need to get a bit more assertive as a presence, like Bridget
Riley, Agnes Martin, Fred Tomaselli or the master, Paul Klee.
To me, this is the most telling part of the show. Farris chose
an artist for the top award who is talented but still has lots
of room to grow.
Most jurors pick the already knighted. Bah! CoCA
and Farris can take a bow: Prizes #1 and #2 went to emerging
talents. When does that ever happen?
From Berlin: History Revisited
Elizabeth Leach Gallery
207 SW Pine St., Portland
through July 27
Kalusa's blurry version of history
With strong shows exhibiting the likes of Louise
Bourgeois, Hans Hofmann, Michael Mann, Judy Cooke, Jules Olitski,
Kenneth Noland and the Whimsy show, the Elizabeth Leach Gallery
has consistently set the highest standards in town.
Now she has pulled off another coupe, a show of
three of Berlin's up-and-coming artists from the influential
Galerie Michael Shultz, home of several European art superstars.
It is an exchange and some of her artists will return the favor.
I nominate MK Guth for one of the slots.
Maintaining similar programs with London galleries,
Germany is very much into these cultural exchanges and signals
its seriousness as the heart of the newly minted European Union.
By travelling, these Germans embrace an openness and a willingness
to hear and be heard that still struggles to address the disastrous
first half of the 20th century.
Hence, the reason this show is called "History
Revisited." History is a kind of terribilita and a Catch-22
for the Germans.
For example, Norbert Bisky's expressionistic melanges
of young blue-eyed and blond-haired boys (above)
are both idyllic and threatening in their homogeneity.
Often depicting the boys performing calisthenics,
his work is fueled by the never-ending circle of the "can
Germans have pride in Germany again?" question, and the
need to support progressive art that the Nazi regime had so
mercilessly cracked down on.
It's a Catch-22, and Bisky further digs into it
by using social realism's style.
His brushstrokes belie his tutelage to one of
my favorite artists, Georg Baselitz, but Bisky seems less hopeless
and less aggressive than his mentor on a personal front. His
work has the impersonal look of an uncertain but official state
function or campaign.
Bisky is of the next generation and this broader,
colder state-consciousness will be something that will challenge
Germans to grow beyond their past not forget it. He is
a damn good painter and I like the coldness he brings to expressionist
brushstrokes and the disgust it has for homogenized Aryan features.
(Mind you, I look like all these kids in his work.)
There is no hesitation here, and this sucks the
viewer in faster. This is important because complacency is a
necessary element for the work.
Stephen Kalusa had the most fully developed work
of the show with his milky Plexiglas presentations of famous
creative-types. These works are inherently museum-like presentations
that engage history in an incomplete, muddled way.
His faces, such as Samuel Beckett (on view in
this show), Hermann Hesse and Rainer Maria-Rilke explore the
romanticism of the past that haunts Western Civilization's present
Each head looms up spectrally as if to say, "you
know, Germany was a pretty great place for all sorts of ideas,
not just fascist oversimplifications and outright lies."
The world judges Germany by a backlash movement and not its
biblical themes: America, meet the four horsemen?
Helge Leibig's work goes back to the Middle Ages
and one must ask: "Is this a future apocalypse, or a past
With repeated images of the four horsemen of the
apocalypse, I kept thinking: These supposedly tense times
are pretty good compared to the Dark Ages.
For example, September 11 was a minor event compared
to the hell on earth caused by the bubonic plague.
I'm not certain how Leibig's works will go over
in America. We have the historical attention span of goldfish
and somehow we feel like gothic apocalyptic imagery simply does
not apply to us. Instead we have Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock
as our two horsemen of the American art apocalypse. I prefer
some of Leibig's earlier, more open-ended imagery (not on view)
to these allegorical, biblical themes.
What Portland can take from this exhibit is the
palpable historic urgency that fuels all three of these artists.
Except for the internment of Japanese Americans, Portland lacks
the historical Catch-22 of progressive Germany.
Still, Portland as a city remembers the more subtle
sins of the 20th century, like unsustainable growth, endless
strip malls, freeway commuter gridlock and a "pave and
forget it" approach to the environment. Portland has a
progressive maturity that must give Europeans at least some
hope for our adolescent country.
In the end, Germany has serious demons. We Portlanders
have nothing but challenges and opportunities, and that is reflected
in our preoccupations. We could do well to adopt some of Berlin's
legendary ambitious openness, though. This show sets the tone
for more to come.