L.A. vs. Portland
wave of momentum
Angeles and Portland are the two best places for artists on
the West Coast.
Southern and northern, light and heavy, obsessively
surface and obsessively internal; they have intersections. California
and the Pacific Northwest need each other in the increasingly
decentralized art world for balance and variety.
The rise of Las Vegas as an intellectual epicenter
has seeded both cities' clouds, but Dave Hickey can't do everything.
It takes more than one man.
Time to compare. But first, in case nobody has
stated it for the record, no city north of L.A. can boast the
artistic activity that Portland continues to accrue despite
That says something: this train has momentum.
Portland is the one major city in America where
the museum, filled with the same parade of dead guys, has not
overshadowed the locals. In fact, the locals have a wing.
Bruce Guenther is working hard to close the gap
through nice acquisitions. I'm happy, because benchmarks of
quality are vital, and no living artist showing in L.A. or Portland
in August is as good as Ellsworth Kelly or Warhol. Yet.
Hodges at PICA.
Part of the reason we're beating San Fran and
Seattle (by widespread admission from respective artists who
have visited our fine city) is that they completely alienated
most of their artists during the dot-com boom.
They uprooted and pushed their artists out of
their workspaces, creating a sense of aesthetic miasma.
New York started losing appeal in 1989, and these
days it is a truer cliché for those in the know to try
and make it in L.A.
Besides, any cliché worth its salt will
find its true home in L.A. (a place where I grew up from 1976-80).
So who do we Portlanders measure ourselves against? Los Angeles.
When it comes to museums, L.A. kicks Portland's ass, then flogs
us with raver glo-sticks.
They have an Andy Warhol show at MOCA, we have
The Splendors of Imperial Japan? The Mejii period wasn't exactly
the Ming dynasty or renaissance Italy ... more like the Victorian
period in England, which it historically parallels (i.e. poofy,
middlebrow and more pandering than innovative). Just having
an emperor does not make an empire ... although it is a sad
historical seed to the events of World War II.
Thanks be to Guenther, who has snuck some satisfying
art from the Broad Foundation in the basement and attic of the
museum! Thank you, Eli Broad.
L.A. also has the Los Angeles County Museum of
Art, a nice collection at the Temporary Contemporary, the Geffen
Contemporary and at least 15 nice university and contemporary
art galleries. That said, L.A.'s population is about 15 times
larger than Portland's.
student Carolina Medina's "Red Dress."
But we are getting better fast and PICA, with
"All the way with Jim and Shel," is a lot better than
the PC-obsessed venues in L.A. Our university galleries are
terribly under-funded and under-appreciated. Kudos to Nan Curtis,
who has done more for PNCA's image in the last year than its
entire faculty combined.
That said, many of L.A.'s university galleries
have perfected the kind of over-curated art shows that have
glutted the art world of late. At least Portland, with the Art
Gym and Lewis and Clark, is free of the "poverty of theory"
or as critic Matthew Collings calls it, the "curators
educated beyond their intelligence" syndrome.
We have room to improve but at least it isn't
a highly evolved mediocrity. More isn't always more. Portland
has things to learn but Los Angeles thinks it knows everything.
Following is a look at some galleries, juxtaposing L.A. and
its Portland equivalents.
1) The battle of the University of Nevada
Las Vegas grads
Bavington's "Aqualung," at Mark Moore.
Mark Moore (L.A.'s Bergamot Station) Tim
Bavington is one of critic Dave Hickey's students. These UNLV-educated
artists have a deeper weight than a lot of the typical L.A.
products. Bavington is more idiosyncratic and marches to his
own drummer. His work is historically aware and stoic, translating
'70s classic rock and '70s formalist stripe abstraction into
something his own.
Think hedonistic Shaker aesthetics, both reserved
and gonzo. He deserves the press he's getting.
"Environment," at Savage.
Savage (Portland's Pearl District)
Jacqueline Ehlis, another of Hickey's kids, has more attitude
than her friend Bavington, but is less stoic.
Her show juggled a really nice window gel treatment
that harnessed the sunlight as well as ultra slick, square luster-paintings
and spatially activating hemispheres.
The effect in the front room was virtuosic; you
feel alive in her environment of perfectly juggled lovelies.
I consider this a tie. Both hit me, haunt me, push me, give
depth to Hickey's legacy.
Beauty ain't dumb, and ain't is a word ... especially
if you are from Texas, like D.H.
2) Finish fetish
Scott Katano and his work.
Ruth Bachofner Gallery (L.A.'s Bergamot Station)
Scott Katano's wall upholsteries have pop flash, material
directness and superb production value.
Like a Peter Frank marshmallow couch, this fits
the almost a-historical finish fetish of L.A. to a tee.
Nice work, nice guy from Hawaii. Probably the
highest start-to-finish consistency I've seen in a long time.
No boredom either.
Pulliam Deffenbaugh (Portland's Pearl District)
Brendan Clenaghen, like Katano, has round forms contained in
a rectangle but his work is more inward.
The larger pieces, like "Blue Blush,"
are excellent but works like "Pink Patches" are a
less satisfying pastiche of the same joint compound finish fetish.
His Freudian conceptual base comes off kind of quaint in a 19th-century
"Polk-a-Dot Choc-o-Lot" (detail).
Basically this is too much of the same, resulting
in a conceptual and aesthetic rut of diminishing returns.
Clenaghen is real good, but this show lacks aesthetic
momentum, coming off as a third solo show horse latitude. For
example, "Polk-a-Dot Choc-o-Lot" is great by itself,
but I miss the interesting sculptural direction of his last
show, which had one large non-rectangular ass-kicking piece.
If you are going to be finish fetish, make certain
to escalate that fetish or you are just scratching an itch.
Katano, by points for his rigor in pulling off a whole show.
Clenaghen has pieces of equal quality but needs to push harder.
Rose Gallery (L.A.'s Bergamot Station)
Robert Polidori's architectural photographs of mid-20th-century
Palm Springs are part of a larger summer exhibit.
They make wry commentary and evoke nostalgia.
Overall nice and rigorous.
This guy is established and obviously has regional
resonance in LA, architecture fans everywhere love him.
Elizabeth Leach Gallery (downtown Portland)
Sean Healy, whose work I have detested for years, finally
changed my mind (I live for such things!).
He works with nostalgic graphic elements, like
doggy silhouettes, and entombs them in colorful glass and resin.
Healy's "Color Blind" (comments on doggy
vision and fiesta ware?) is his first out-and-out breakthrough
commenting on history, biology and kitsch. The physicality is
great; I thought his previous work was too inward and precious.
Another piece, "Creepy neighbor next door,"
has lots of current zeitgeist, too. But the Easy-Bake Ovens
are just too easy for me. I'm a historian, not an antique collector.
It's obvious that Polidori is more developed and has historical
value instead of borrowed historical force. Let's just say if
I were consulting for a corporation or museum, I would suggest
they buy the Polidori but I would buy "Color Blind"
for myself. Call it a draw.
4) Urban life
real Joseph Beuys.
Dianne Preuss (L.A.'s Chinatown)
This is the most half-assed ripoff of Joseph Beuys ever. It
is so "BFA," get some more life experience, that I
refuse to use a picture of the show. Here is Beuys' instead.
The small shop-sized gallery was filled with weathered
loading pallets as a floor and lots of retail shop detritus
I'm certain some Art Center-trained theologian
could try to make a case for this, but it is a pale version
of Beuys' "Conversations with the Coyote." Add a coyote
and this would suck less; go home, live some learn some. I'm
angry about this wasting of brain cells.
Zeitgeist (Portland's Everett station
Tyler Kline's truly inspired and Beuys-steeped traffic cone
covered with hair shamanistically mixes the urban and the natural
as a kind of self-in-city totem. Well done. Hair is definitely
the thing that frames the face, directing the eye-traffic of
Now this is urban!
Tyler Kline and Portland are more urban than the extended strip
mall, endless suburbia of LA. You got it: smaller Portland is
more legitimately urban.
Portland's scene needs to step up in ambitiousness
and production values. L.A. needs to read more books and think
more inventively instead of pastiche.
I think there is a higher likelihood of Portland
accomplishing its goals.
L.A.'s top tiers, like the Shoshona Wayne Gallery,
Yoko Ono exhibit and Mark Moore's Bavington deserve the current
attention. But the world has to wonder if stuff like China Arts
Gallery's "Valley Girl" is just a scene that is a
an incestuously L.A. backdrop for young actors trying to mix
In Portland, art not the movies
is the most important game in town ... only one other art city
in the U.S. can boast that: New York.
We don't have to be the center of the art world.
But if Portland steps up like it is threatening to, we might
become like 1914 Munich or Frankfurt, which added significantly
to art history.
Portland can both make a difference and history.
L.A., with Hickey's rigor, already has. Still, for the West
Coast to continue its momentum it needs another wave. Portland,
the most fiercely idiosyncratic major city in the country, has
the potential to fulfill that role.
May our thinkers, promoters and especially
our artists step up into that role.