J u l y   2 0 0 3

Yes, the show is slightly more exciting than the logo!
Critical i / Special Edition

2003 Oregon Biennial
It's a bit dull, so let's discuss it at length!
by Jeff Jahn

he Oregon Biennial isn't supposed to make anyone happy, dammit!

Instead, the Biennial, June 28-Sept. 7, is an excuse to create dialog – a chance to nitpick, bitch and, on rare but deserved occasion, gush. In that role, this Biennial is the best since 1999. It is also a time to raise the bar and, although this iteration may improve the galleries some, it does not approach the higher bar-setting standards found in the more uneven, challenging and ultimately more influential 1999 Biennial.

The kicker is that Portland has a hundred times the activity and sophistication it had in 1999 and, except for five artists, it isn't our A-team.

Still, the show has a few bright spots worthy of note: Craig Pozzi adds intense charm, Erinn Kennedy makes a breakthrough, Amy Kendellen captures gravitas, James Lavadour shows his mastery and Amanda Wojick keeps an overly conservative show from looking like an out-of-touch one. Lastly, Adam Sorenson shows that the young artists are often a great deal more elegant than some of the older practitioners.

Erik Palmer's "Bang Comics! Superman number one hundred and three."

In general, the show looks solid, professional, even stoic (a Guenther curatorial trademark) – but in an often uninspired, narrow way that mostly lacks the adrenaline, innovations and up-to-date intellectual frameworks that one can experience in Portland's scene on a daily basis.

Basically, the problem is too much/too similar painting and there is a no-show from video, as well as marginal installation and sculptural work. It lacks physicality. To illustrate, Erik Palmer, a photographer of all things, gives the show its most activated physical presence with his "Bang Comics!" photos.

But first let's use this Biennial as an opportunity to address Portland's bigger cultural picture. Fact is, the galleries are still better than the museum for contemporary art-viewing and the scene itself has begun to drive the galleries in a way that could fundamentally change the city itself.

With First Thursday, the city has a major high-end tourism opportunity during the summer and fall that requires some serious thought from the city, PAM, PICA (TBA), the galleries, and the Pearl District's business association. Still, despite this viable business side, what is nice is that many of the artists in town can lay claim to being the most sophisticated and driving cultural force here. They have the iconoclastic legitimacy that has made this an exciting place. That sort of broad from-the- ground-up art scene has not happened in a U.S. city since New York in the early 1980s. Conversely, L.A. is very institutional.

Hence, the very high expectations for a Biennial that cannot meet them – by design.

Part of the problem (and no secret) is the perceived vs. real role of this Biennial, both from inside and outside the institution – a role that has to change as the museum changes dramatically in its contemporary mission in the next two years with its new wing. More on that very real mandate later.

Great, a cynical Miro tie-in, since Miro has a show upstairs. Still, this is a good painting by David Anderson.

To give credit where it's due, though, the curator for the 1999 Biennial, Katherine Kanjo, knew her progressive stance was at odds with the museum's goals and therefore that show and the Let's Entertain show (which brought Takashi Murakami and Damien Hirst) spelled the end of her career here.

That said, Bruce Guenther did not have free reign, yet that sort of adventure is exactly what the public expects. Scylla or Charybdis, anyone? The only person who can really address this is John Buchanan, director of the museum. He is a smart guy and can do the math. The reputation of the city is at stake with this new contemporary wing, which breaks ground in October.

Viewing the Biennial from 50 feet away

With no video or installation, the show lacks the wild variety of genres I see all the time here. Sixteen of the 26 artists are painters. Conceptually, there is an issue with the painters chosen since most practice a dated postmodern approach that makes the whole show come off isolated, static and contained.

Amy Ruppel's "Nestle."

More specifically, too many of the paintings fetishize a contrived disconnect (known as postmodern ennui) and therefore the whole show feels hemmed in, overly controlled and a bit dull.

The excuse is that this is what the slide pool reflected by numbers. I don't doubt that, but if this is just a purely statistical process, why no pretty flowers or self-portraits?

One should either pick what sticks out or the edge of innovation – not the last remnants of a well-documented genre.

For an example of redundant and overly controlled, there are Amy Ruppel and Michelle Ross' works. Although nicely executed, both have very similar color schemes, woodgrained ground and visual effect. Both are controlled studies, or deconstructions, of their pictorial elements. Guenther calls it "the idea of a painting." I call it the autopsy of a once-promising work.

Really, this patina of successful art in "Nestle" and "The Theory of Lengthwise Roving" is what keeps some of the Portland art scene too grounded; it comes off as professionalism for professionalism's sake because it factors out the risk, which is really what distinguishes the locals from the big boys. Both resemble '80s artist Jonathan Lasker, but lack his boldness.

Michelle Ross' "The Theory of Lengthwise Roving."

This patina may be something reassuring for slide jurors – it looks a bit better in reproduction than in real life. Mind you, I like both of the works, but it seems like the experiment was aborted just before it got truly interesting.

Stop chasing elegance and explore.

So yes, Ruppel has a bright future here and Ross is close to something very cool if she does something that risks falling in love with the world instead of controlling it.

The Biennial and reality: new discourse …

Is this relevant somehow?

Why do I harp on this? Instead of disconnect, we now know Afghanistan is connected to New York's once cloistered art scene – and having a central tragic event creates instant rapport with strangers (postmodern ennui is DEAD; real terror makes it outdated).

We also learned civilization still works just fine and we can all drop the façades and come together when necessary. Despite this, the Pacific Northwest iconoclasts were there first, since the WTO demonstration in Seattle was the official moment that something had changed.

So now that we've moved through that disconnected and deconstructed theory centric discourse of postmodernism into one that thinks of the world in connected, aggregate cause-and-effect terms or evolving complexity, we are facing options that are staggering.

James Boulton's 16-foot monster "Spark Gap Transmission" at the Emergence show, May 2002.

This show misses that staggering energy except in the case of James Boulton, whose overload aesthetic could be called Information Expressionism.

Unfortunately, his work is ghettoized with several other young artists when the effect of having it near Lavadour's Nature Information would have given the show a bang for a beginning. Boulton's latest works are even better and more juxtaposed and integrated. In addition, since "Spark Gap Transmission" was painted as the capstone of his previous style, it looked better in the Emergence Show, May 2002. I wanted to see something newer.

Then again, I did tell Boulton he would be in if he entered that piece. There is a James Rosenquist show next spring and that painting is a perfect lead-in.

Still, Boulton needs to find a way to be more than just painting so his work can connect beyond the Rosenquist innuendo. He is gutsy and will do it. He is very aware of former Turner Prize winner Chris Ofili, who has blazed some of the trail already.

James Boulton is still developing but has already outstripped many in town.

James Lavadour's "Point."

My picks

To be fair, a handful of the best choices (James Lavadour, Erinn Kennedy, Erik Palmer and Amanda Wojick) demonstrate an up-to-date savvy, one where philosophy is complicated by physicality.

Art today is best when theory is stretched and snapped on the wheel of reality. At that point, art shows its elasticity. The 2003 Oregon Biennial has poise that many young curators in town could seriously learn from. It also has no stretch.

Yet, there is one person of whom I am convinced will find a place in the history books: Lavadour is point blank the best alchemist of landscape and abstraction on the planet.

Yes, this is not exactly the hottest topic of the day in the U.S.A., but it is an ageless one that Europe has embraced.

Considering the fact that the white-man's world is not exactly jibing with the rest of the world, this First Nation artist offers everyone something. His masterful skill is yoked completely in the service of what he terms "the raw event." I call it brutal reality – something beautiful, threatening and as much a part of our lives as the air we breathe.

James Lavadour's "Flag 2" from his last solo show.

Lavadour's work has tragedy, awe and the nonchalance of a squeegee that is both gracious as a grandmother and foreboding as death itself.

This work is not postmodern, as it is too connected, entwined with the systemic complexity apparent between man's actions and the connection to the land. "Connections" are the one constant in 21st-century discourse, be it database design where SQL statements link massive amounts of information, terrorists covertly communicating with their fellows, or environmental issues, which cascade from one important element to another.

The two works in this show, "Feral" and "Point," are strong but not as strong as starker and probable masterpiece works like "Flag" and "Slice" from his last solo show. I don't make such statements lightly; the last artist I felt this strongly about was Andreas Gursky.

Erinn Kennedy's "Strands."

Erinn Kennedy's "Strands" uses a dark ground to emphasize her colors in the shapes of strands of pearls. These gender-charged silhouettes are left dangling from the top of the painting, making the work's surface act as a surrogate black dress. I really like this; formally, it presents asymmetrical content on a symmetrical surface. Yet the painting's surface can be read as the body as well. This is a new direction of her work.

Previous works like "Choker," also on view, have centrally located subject matter and the grounds are more window dressing and detached. Since the graphic style is so impersonal already, this redundancy smothered some of "Choker"'s potential (although it is a cool inter-aesthetic pun).

How will this play nationally? Kennedy has a shot but does not have the outright distinguishing characteristics of Lavadour, so I would say: make the work a little bit more idiomatic, try to push past some of the precedents that Jo Baer set in her Minimalist New York works. This is a good breakthrough but there is another bigger breakthrough looming out there.

Wojick's "Green Cliff."

Amanda Wojick's "Green Cliff," like Lavadour's work, nods to aggregate complexities in 21st-century life. The thousands of paint-color samples are obsessive and a way of lacing the natural with the pop consumerism.

Still, being wall-based seems to hold it back, although it has a nice reference to landscape painting. If the work were even physically bolder, she would go from being cool to jaw-dropping. Everyone is impressed with this work, especially since most everything else is so conservative in media.

Why wasn't there more installation work? I suspect this will only redouble the installation efforts in town – both because of Wojick's fine example and the fervor its exclusion has created.

Other Points of Interest

Another excellent moment is Scott Patt's "The Struggle," but it would have been better to have some of his shirts on sale in the gift shop on display with the paintings in the privileged gallery space.

Artists like Takashi Murakami have been complicating fashion, sales and art for years, and it was a missed opportunity to ghettoize the two. Then again, that is that old postmodern disconnected "white box" gallery aesthetic. One trip to the Compound Gallery in Portland will show how well this works. The new aesthetic is much more integrated and complex.

Cynthia Star's nicest painting ... of a doggie titled "Gabby."

I was also pleased to see Cynthia Star's work, a series of naughty little boy doggies that reminds me of Charles Saatchi's neurotic realism show.

Sex is filled with all sorts of dominance and submission issues. It's important that the work is represented here; it has edge and a kinda cute collision of Karen Kilimnick and Hans Belmer.

Still, it should have been placed somewhere else, maybe next to Palmer's work, or Scott Patt's.

Other bewildering placements were Mike Shea's excellent and controlled works nearby G. Lewis Clevenger, who ain't exactly Mr. Freedom. It is a bit of a disservice to both and, with the inclusion of Erinn Kennedy and Adam Sorenson, there is just too much clean, hard-edge graphic work in the show. Maybe just Kennedy and Sorenson were necessary; it's not like we haven't seen Clevenger and Shea in a Biennial before.

Frankly, the impact of the artists' work was diluted by this narrowness. As a survey, the Biennial should feature distinct strategies.

Chas Bowie's "The following morning the entire park smelled of pancakes."

I was glad to see Chas Bowie in the Biennial, since I've noticed his reviews in the Mercury are usually perceptive and well-written, but occasionally his biases as an artist lead to myopia ... eh, it's the forgivable trouble with being a double agent. It also tipped me off that he was probably pretty good.

The funny thing is that the works are hampered by their patronizing, overcooked titles. For instance, "He lead them all around" co-opts the Ed Ruscha-like presence and pop disposability that makes the image so good by being preachy … we know McDonald's is a big corporation; nobody needs a reminder.

Then there is my favorite photograph, "The bossy honking of a distant horn interrupted his daydream, he grabbed his bag and left." The image has this lovely tousled bed and a tiny dancer figurine in a sun-soaked window. Not even the unnecessary patronizing filibuster can ruin it. Just drop the verbose, overly descriptive titles. Postmodernism was overly reliant on text and cynical intertextuality.

If you want to write a book, write a book; although this does explain why he digs Brad Atkins so much – both are overly pleased by the cuteness of their titles. (In case anyone is wondering, yes, Atkins' Blood and Guts Forever show was much better than the Biennial. It also had no traditional paintings.)

Other painters, like Carla Bengston, Scott Sonniksen and Jan Reaves, had big, moody dark paintings that, although all very well done, acted like giant dark windows with bars on them. Instead of anchoring a show, they made it feel crowded and heavy in a way that is not the fault of these fine painters.

Two small, feathery, somewhat coral-reef looking installations by Angela Pozzi were lighter in tone but could not counteract their megalithic effects; they lacked punch. This claustrophobia reminds me that the 1999 Biennial had at least twice the space allotted to it.

Lastly, Richard Martinez is a good painter as well, but his gloopy, David Reed-esque works also felt crowded and a little overworked. The work makes too much of a show of its not-so-effortless effects. Reed's paintings of swirls and folds are also very worked, but his work seems effortless.

Does the Biennial matter anymore?

G. Lewis Clevenger's "The House of the Poet."

In the end, one wishes there were only about 16 artists, some less-well-behaved picks and at least two large installations and two video works. As it stands, it resembles the many regional Biennials I saw in the Midwest while growing up – a local show for locals based upon assumptions about what is local.

In other words a dead-ender for a local career.

The truth about the Portland scene is there are many painters, but the strongest work tends to be installations and hybrids of painting and sculpture – something this Biennial utterly missed.

For the Biennial to remain valid, it has to take on a leadership role and champion challenging work that is not necessarily found in or suitable for the galleries. It panders to regional assumptions that have already been debunked in the last year.

To see such installation work (because installation proposals suck unless the juror has seen the work), the museum needs to allow for casing the scene years before the Biennial. A combination of outside juror and local curator is also a good way to shake things up. If this is done, the synergies between the museum and city would create something that would literally be the envy of every museum in the country.

That said, this Biennial may have done its best work in falling short of being challenging.

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

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