cultural renaissance, Adam Sorenson, plus ...
completely biased history
of the Portland art scene
by Jeff Jahn
it a perfect storm, but Portland is in high gear as an art incubator.
Last month I saw fresh work from Dan Ness, Nic Walker,
Adam Sorenson and Joe Biel, as well as blue-chip work by Susan
Rothenberg in my gallery goings. It's all worthy work that I'll
include within my review of this fledgling renaissance.
The Portland art scene's current heat makes sense.
Portland is a city where most of the things that were swept
under the rug during the late 20th century became conscientious
talking points about community, the individual, cultural invention,
man's place in nature and the necessity of bohemians, as well
as variegated and intelligent urban development.
When most U.S. cities went blithely on screwing
themselves, Portland planned and there is an almost Roman civic
sentiment amongst the citizens. This is the place to go against
the purely hierarchical flow and I think of Portland as a rebel
base. The upcoming Core Sample, Oct. 11-19, should display an
incomplete review and follow up the momentum set by earlier
shows this year. The real test will be the solo shows of 2004.
Ness at Zeitgeist.
Some have pointed out that this has happened before,
but it hasn't happened on this scale with so many leaders and
definitive events. Sometimes smaller eruptions set the stage
for larger ones.
Yes, we have the highest unemployment in the country,
but most of the key people are employed and attention from elsewhere
continues to build. We are not a media hub and simply need to
make noise to get credit where it is due.
So why here?
Those of us who were kids during the '70s, '80s
and '90s recognize Portland as the one major American city unwilling
to screw itself, and it seems open to the idea of being a national
leader. I think of Portland as the conscience for the country,
not so much isolated as different. It reminds me of one of my
favorite plays, Ibsen's "An Enemy of the People."
Portland is not going to be Houston, Atlanta, L.A.,
Seattle or New York; it's a rebel base for thinking people.
Portland is a city where respect is not just a human-to-human
thing and the Gen X- and Y-ers moving here uphold that tradition.
They bring new ambition and competitiveness even when they say
they aren't. Overall, the city itself is not the final issue;
it's the rigor and savvy of its individuals.
work from Nic Walker.
Still, longtime Portlanders do have this knee-jerk
reaction to newcomers. Half the time they assume we are trying
to remake Portland into New York; the rest of the time they
say Portland "just can't ..."
Which is simply not true. Critical mass is approaching,
and in a very intelligent way ... not even a recession has derailed
it. I came here because the city allowed development in a world
where artists came pre-packaged and fitted with defining gallery
shoes right out of grad school. Portland is a from-the-ground-up
occurrence without the benefit of a major graduate program.
(PSU and PNCA can work on fixing that once this recession is
over next year.)
That said, this month's Core Sample should solidify
what has definitely been a good start to a cultural renaissance
in Portland. It still needs dialog and I would like to see stronger
written statements from artists. But mark my words: With the
new museum wing opening in 2005, Portland will officially have
its time in the sun. Galleries get ready, artists sharpen your
sticks and scenesters kiss that person you have been aching
to kiss ... it's time to get it on.
Portlander Joe Biel at Mark Woolley.
Still, despite this lack of definitive writing by
artists, this is a strong scene visually and that's what matters.
A key factor in 2003 is that artists and audiences
are developing quickly together it's what Dave Hickey
calls "communities of desire."
Truth be told, words (especially catch phrases)
are for the rest of the world.
If you want to counter my account then do so, otherwise
silence breeds what D.K., Richard, Michaela, Sue, Pat, Chas,
Camela, Morgan, Matthew, Harvest, Steffen, Phil, Katherine,
Daniel and I write in various Portland publications.
I ask: Are you OK with the history we are bastardizing,
coloring and oversimplifying? If not, start writing.
But first, a review of a young painter I really
SW 3rd and Ash
The standout show in September was Adam Sorenson
at Stumptown Coffee. His Matisse-like work wears the Oriental
imprint well. He has a nice touch as a colorist and this makes
his work seem lighter, more immaterial than the heavily worked
paint surfaces often belie. Instead of paint, the works almost
seem like rice paper a rare attribute that separates
his work from Gary Hume's, which is harder and colder.
Still, Sorenson can learn from both Matisse and
Hume's economy. I suggest checking out Jean Hellion, whose color
courts airiness itself.
Sorenson has obviously grown since the recent Biennial
and I love the fact that we see this in a café. The new
work is less contained and he makes more confident use of his
leaf-like forms, nonchalant lines and arabesques.
"La Danse with Nasturtiums," 1912.
Soon those elements will congeal even more. I particularly
like his odd approach to scale, foreground and background, which
remain in constant flux. Where he needs a little work
and I mean only a little is the painting surface.
In many paintings (no titles at the show), there
were zones that were extremely overworked, showing the struggle
of the painter. In other spots they were effortless and the
incongruity of the zones made his work seem as if it was second-guessing
itself (not in a good way). Either highlight the texture changes
or unify the texture.
For an example of highlighting texture changes,
there is Matisse's great "La Danse with Nasturtiums." It is
a painting of paintings; so much for "meta" being a late-20th
Last month at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art,
I came face to face with this Matisse, which is normally in
the Pushkin Museum.
The right-side edges of the orange stool and the
blue background are heavily reworked and I can see heavy traces
of previous brushstrokes next to the orange dancing bodies in
the adjacent blue. Yet these vestigial traces eventually blend
into a huge sea of ultramarine.
The dangling Nasturtium plants are nonchalant and
the orange and ultramarine color scheme sears the eyes. It is
this textural highlighting of the reworked area (particularly
strong by the orange dancing bodies) that bridges the nonchalance
of the plant, the aggression of the red stool and the vastness
of the ultramarine blue background activated by the dance.
The texture gives us painterly ghosts of Matisse's
The alternate strategy would be to unify the whole
surface, like the excellent Susan Rothenberg at the Elizabeth
Leach Gallery ... as you move closer to the painting surface
the brushstrokes seem to evaporate.
The final pieces in Sorenson's show were two cutout
groves of pine trees painted in his pop-like color schemes.
paintings confound space.
This nod to the forest highlights another advantage
Sorenson has in this Pacific Northwest environment: an enhanced
attention to intrusive foreground figures that activates negative
space ... such as those tree branches.
His enhanced perception of space allows him to mess
with perceived scale and the overall orientation of the viewer
to the work, not an L.A. thing or a New York thing, but definitely
a bit like Chinese scroll painting.
In a way, Sorenson's decorative work could not be
further from wallpaper with its fun activated cosmos of loops,
leaves and other forms, because its ambiguity is so demanding
as pictorial space.
A totally biased history of the Portland renaissance
In the late 1980s, First Thursday was started by William Jamison
in the then-fish-smelling Pearl District. In 1995, PICA was
founded by Kristy Edmunds and, since the Portland Art Museum
had scant interest in a contemporary art program, the institution
had several itinerant warehouse shows. PICA held down the fort.
When Jamison died in '95, the city grieved and things slowly
re-germinated. I visited in '98, while on the way to pick up
my masters degree and to participate in a show at L.A.'s convention
I moved here in 1999 and sensed a gaping hole, but
did not yet understand it was left mostly by a single man. I
think of Jamison like Obi-Wan Kenobi when Darth Vader
cut him down his example and spirit spread out, becoming "more
powerful than you could ever imagine."
Years later, I was a bit overcome while watching
Scott Ray Becker's 2002 documentary,
"Gridlocker's Paradox." Yes, when I jumped into Jamison
Fountain for an Oregonian photo, it was a li'l improvised tribute;
in all things actions speak louder than words.
of Heidi Schwegler's work.
Raising standards, 1999
The 1999 Oregon Biennial, curated by Katherine Kanjo, took up
twice the space of the 2001 and 2003 Biennials and was a wild
One video piece repeated "I'm sorry."
Michael Knutson and Heidi Schwegler were the stars,
but the show also featured Sean Healy, Tom Cramer, Mike Shea,
Storm Tharp, Molly Vidor and introduced us to Brendan Clenaghen.
Kanjo even recruited Jacqueline Ehlis, who was still
in graduate school at UNLV (arguably the hottest graduate program
on earth during the '90s). The show pissed off people with its
garbage sculpture, tarot cards and Swallow Press, but it absolutely
set the stage for what's going on now.
Today tellingly the show would be
Also in 1999, Jamie Bollenbach, a Reed student and
former head of the ACLU in Alaska, worked with the college to
create The Bollenbach Art Labs at Southeast 3rd and Alder (now
called _Hall). Its purpose was to give Reed students a gallery
to show in, along with cheap studio space. Notable was the work
of Ed King.
photograph by Todd Johnson.
2000 … Momentum builds
In spring 2000, PICA invited all the artists it could fit onto
its walls; 493 showed up, and waiting in the hours-long line
was where many artists started to talk to one another ... mostly
about how crass a promotion it seemed to be for PICA. I think
it had a lot of good side effects, though, and was a common
precursor to The Portland Independent Salon, The Modern Zoo
and Meeting People.
In summer 2000, Todd Johnson curated Popcicle, a
damn good show at the Everett Station Lofts. Johnson is currently
the preparator for the Art Gym and probably the most adept curator
in Portland today very precise and as untalkative as
I am chatty. Hardly anyone noticed Popsicle in the press, but
artists started getting more serious at the lofts.
Not coincidentally, Muriel Bartol opened Nil Gallery
in the lofts (where Field currently is) and her exhibition program
was very good, outstripping anything that has been done before
or since in those galleries, and rarely equaled by the official
galleries. She is going to Art Center in Pasadena, Calif., but
longs for Portland. Go meet her; she has a show at Field this
"Air Beauty" from the Greenberg Collection.
Also in 2000, the Bollenbach Art Labs became the
site of Cris Moss' first Donut Shop show featuring himself and
several other installation/video artists; it garnered good press
in the Willamette Week.
Two months later at the labs, I staged a three-person
show with Nic Walker and Kelly Newcomer. A good deal of art
sold for not insubstantial sums. Moss continued to do donut
shops, most of which looked good.
Later that year the Art Museum acquired the Clement
Greenberg collection, signaling big changes in the museum's
Also in 2000, curators Bruce Guenther (PAM) and
Stuart Horodner (PICA) arrived, giving new muscle for modern/contemporary
art within their institutions. (Few know this, but "contemporary
art" was a retrograde term to people like de Kooning and Pollock.
For them it meant socially acceptable and implied impressionist,
ashcan or even social realist art; modern was a freeing impulse.
Some things change, some don't.)
With the addition of these two curators also begins
a series of great lectures, including Peter Schjeldahl, Dave
Hickey, Robert Storr and Larry Rinder. These lectures are very
important and Portland just doesn't seem isolated anymore ...
unless of course you are lazy!
Bjarnadottir and 2001 Biennial.
2001: The shit hits the fan
In 2001, the Oregon Biennial took place with standout work by
Rae Mahaffey, Jan Reaves, Mark Smith, Melody Owen and, especially,
Hildur Bjarnadottir. Still, it seemed safe compared to 1999,
which had twice as many standouts. Curatorially, the new space
is kinda blocky and that needs to be addressed.
But every Biennial I've seen (the last three) had
some great work.
Red 76 (Sam Gould) and the Alphabet Dress (Zefery
Throwell) took Moss' traveling-show system and added a large-scale
party element. Disjecta worked with both organizers, as well
as independently of them.
These "popup" shows occurred monthly or
bi-weekly and the scene suddenly got damn social, while copious
amounts of Pabst were drunk. (Why do I hate Pabst? I'm from
the real Milwaukee!)
Also in 2001, a small, simple protest to the Biennial
took place at Groundswell on Alberta Street and Bruce Guenther
showed up. Then a show I had planned for nine months, "The Portland
Independent Salon," took place at the Bollenbach Art Labs.
Independent Salon: Works by Natalie Davis, Liz Obert, Muriel
Bartol and Michael Hernandez (L to R).
It was a huge 11,000-square-foot success, not unlike
the Modern Zoo, only with a more consistent nod to quality.
Like the Zoo, it was unjuried, but it differed in
that each artist was simply given nine feet of wall space, first
come, first served.
The more on-the-ball and serious artists showed
up first and quality ensued.
Randy Gragg wrote critically on the show ... to
this point only the Donut Shop had gotten mention and nobody
said anything much more critical than "it looked good."
"Skunk takes a Bath" at PICA, 2001.
Natalie Davis and Jacqueline Ehlis starred, but
Muriel Bartol, Laura Fritz, Todd Johnson and Marcello Munoz
also stood out. The Bollenbach Art Labs then became Eagerwally
Gallery under Tim Dalbow's tenure.
The Donut Shop traveled to Bellingham, Wash., proving
this scene can and will travel.
On the institutional side, PICA's programming included
excellent shows by Erica Blumenthal, Malia Jensen, Kate Shepherd
and Harrell Fletcher. All were a bit too clean, but Jensen had
the strongest work. Her "Knotty Situation" is without a doubt
a museum piece.
and a Hamms.
2002: Things get more defined
The Lab, a mock institution, kicked into gear with a lecture
series that took on practically anything. The David Lynch-approved
beverage, Pabst Blue Ribbon, had unsubstantiated reports of
being consumed. One notable lecture series person wisely chose
Hamms, "the beer refreshing."
The apotheosis of the lectures was with our favorite
fake professor, Amos Latteier.
Latteier delivered an SCTV-worthy lecture on models.
The wonderfully terrible Lego sheep are worth checking out (you
can stream it here: www.Latteier.com).
Fletcher at PICA.
In winter 2002, the Charm Bracelet put on the "Meeting
People" show. The idea was that 500 artists would create uniformly
small, square works. It was a striking success as a community
project, but there were sly overtones that many caught and distrusted,
such as being used as a number to substantiate a project. A
rift developed between "primary participation" and
"visual efficacy" artists.
Both sides have conceptual aims, but I argue the
shows that emphasize participation above all else do so to the
detriment of deeper conceptual rigor. The artists themselves
get little out of it. Robert Smithson and Vito Acconci it ain't.
Both Smithson and Acconci could and did write. I'll
believe a work's conceptual rigor when it starts laying out
strong conceptual arguments in print, gets more provocative
on a one-to-one basis or gives out directives to the crowd like
"storm the Bastille." Until then it is "We are the World" media
Gallery's final show = James Boulton.
Harrell Fletcher had a show at PICA, "Everyday
Sunshine," in 2001.
A lot of the "primary participation" artists seemed
to take their basis from Fletcher, but he can and does converse
about his concepts with considerably more eloquence.
These younger conceptualists have a grace period
but, at some point, you have to be able to defend yourself conceptually
especially if you are a primarily conceptual artist.
Gordon Matta Clark sawed houses in half and was eloquent about
it ... balls and brains = artist, folks.
The Fleck Gallery anchored the Everett Station Lofts
along with Zeitgeist. Field also emerged in the former Nil space;
Michael Oman Reagan had been Gallery Nil's other programming
Ginsberg Wallpaper from "Subscribe."
In spring 2002, Pat Boas curated Slowness at the
Art Gym. Was the show possibly sparked conceptually by the title
of Milan Kundera's book? Only Emily Ginsberg's video effectively
slowed anything. Most of the work was very elegant, but seemed
too similar as if the general absence of color is a visual
code for effecting slowness. It was a show that simply combined
too much of the same thing and became flat, and I decided dynamics
are key to any group show. Other flat shows in 2002 included
Northwest Narrative at PICA.
Also in 2002, Jacqueline Ehlis curated Subscribe
with Chandra Bocci, Emily Ginsberg and Trish Grantham at Pacific
University for Women's history month.
Ehlis' solo show at Savage was the first by a local
artist to realize the potential of the Savage Gallery (although
the long wall-hang was adequate, it could have been better).
Savage as a space was so tough that many top international artists
would have to plan for a year to pull off a show.
The gallery closed this year, and only seven of
its shows in 18 months really fulfilled its promise to any degree.
Heidi Schwegler, Diane Kornberg, Bryan Hunt, Suen Wong, Ehlis
and Heidi Cody were among them.
The lesson? Details and the artist matter a lot
more than the room you put them in.
is a cut or two above the rest on the longwall at Savage.
Matt Fleck, Marcello Munoz and Jim Archer curated Next Now at
the Littman Gallery; standouts were Laura Fritz, Marcello Munoz
and James Boulton, whose "Spark Gap Transmission"
was one of the stars of the recent Biennial.
My show, Play, also at the Littman, was an experiment in playful
competition and interaction amongst artists who were not necessarily
friends, but became so.
Unique for indie shows, it took a year of planning
and it obliquely referenced Sept. 11. It was a concerted effort
to raise the stakes. With a postgraduate level thesis and color
catalog, there was hope that others would attempt similar intellectual
and aesthetic rigor. Many whined instead, but attendance was
great and many good vibes came, too; a serious press fandango
signaled everyone to wake up.
Also in September 2002, The Organ, a publication
devoted to the arts in Portland, published its first issue.
In November, "Maritime" and "Hug Me" opened at _Hall
and Pacific Switchboard, respectively. The two shows were baptized
when James Boulton and Adam Sorenson from "Maritime"
and Cynthia Starr from "Hug Me" got into the 2003
Oregon Biennial. The kids are alright!
76's Dim Sum.
At some point, letters
to the editor at this publication develop, as does some
sort of rift between the "Hug Me's" and "Mods," as two young
art camps emerge.
I suspect the Hug Me's are on Prozac and the Mods
come from well-to-do families (and lack Prozac), but it all
seems odd to me. The psychic condition of the two alleged camps
is interesting, though I think I'm from a different and rarer
camp, whose parents never divorced. Is Prozac bad for art?
Red 76 put on the Art Stall during the summer and
Dim Sum later in the year. Very nice ideas, they shook up the
2003: New standards tested in group shows
In January, Beamsplitter's MachineWorks outed video both
international and local, and coaxed Portlanders into a dark,
possibly toxic, but excellent environment. I suspect few entered
In March, Red 76's glorious polyglot of international
and local DIY offerings defined the idea of protean artistic
impenetrableness at the Laurelhurst Theater.
Too many tried wrongly to understand it as a whole;
that was impossible. Instead, it was a smorgasbord of ideas
in need of distillation a tantalizing prospect in a city
full of artists.
IAE was the armory of indie … although I think fetishing
DIY is a mistake and a bit like those '90s discussions of "who's
more alternative?" There can be a convenient sense of a-historicality
to the punker versions of this artus operandi, but I don't think
history should be sold so short; die Brucke, der Blaue Reiter,
Nabis and even the Impressionists were all indie and aware.
We should call it like it is … the Avant-En-Garde not only exists,
it is popular today especially in Portland.
Isn't the 21st century looking more interesting
still from "Cablevision" at I.A.E.
It doesn't matter if it happens in a basement or
a higher-profile warehouse by people with graduate degrees.
If it's fresh, it's worth promoting and sharing. The arts die
primarily because of neglect, not through knowledge of what
is happening elsewhere.
Next in 2003, Brad Adkin's Blood and Guts Forever
show at the Art Gym showed us less about friendship than a study
of psyche, failure and fragility, all important themes.
It looked good, if not a little timid, for such
a feisty title. Frankly, that's how most Art Gym shows look
(David Eckard exempted, of course!). In fact, Eckard's Art Gym
show wins my vote for most fully realized 2003 exhibition involving
Portlanders. Group shows are nice but always a bit too scattered;
we do them to understand the moment. Statements are for individuals.
Eckard's "Tournament Lumens" at Art Gym.
In May, The
Best Coast challenged top young guns from up and down the
West Coast to test themselves in a tough urban warehouse, along
with viewers overly accustomed to prissy didactic environs.
Call it a wake-up call, and a bit like going to
a gym to build one's art-viewing muscles accustomed to sterile
Portland stood up and out in these honest, less
digested environs. Unlike museum and gallery shows, it was not
aimed at novices.
Thousands of curators convened nearby and connections
were made. It created a concrete example nationally about the
buzz Portland has had for over 10 years.
Project" at The Modern Zoo.
Modern Zoo grew and evolved to fill a 100,000-square-foot
corporate complex. For three months everyone, regardless of
chops, intellect or taste, was invited ... anything could and
sometimes even did happen. I don't disparage the lack of curatorial
control; it was a great way to organically engage the scene.
By being so amorphous it took a baseline temperature of the
city and, consequently, forced everyone to think about what
they really want to do next.
What this means is everyone just got better and
expects more. It wasn't a showcase like the other shows of 2003,
it was an experiment and a concerted field observation/testing.
In 2003, the Oregon Biennial, normally the bellwether
of taste, provoked a lot of discussion due to its comparatively
rear-guard stance and comparisons to the Modern Zoo. This alone
verified that a new standard is now in effect. Taste alone is
no longer enough. Portland is more demanding now, and we've
grown to like both taste and energy. It must be said
that being a juror of any biennial or official survey is an
impossible but very important job.
L.'s eRascism at PICA.
Lastly, PICA's Time Based Art Festival (TBA) was
impressive and picked up on the cascading energy that all of
these events are creating. The MachineWorks was a big, rousing
part of the success, and I caught Daniel Bernard Roumain.
Roumain has a gift for layering but lacks the technical
brilliance on the violin to really take off (but as violist
with gypsy blood, I'm picky).
TBA frees up resources for Horodner's visual arts
program for the rest of the year. I must note that the William
Pope.L eRascism exhibit was one of the very best shows on the
planet this year. TBA gives Portland a badly needed yearly festival
to tout. Once again, the catchphrase is important here. I think
TBA highlights PICA's importance to the community, which people
can and often do take for granted when regular monthly or weekly
performances take place.
A festival gives "now or never" immediacy to seeing
Suddenly, between IAE, TBA and others, Portlanders
are seeing the local world and the rest of the world side by
side ... very quickly that odd and undeserved self-deprecation
of Portland art (by those who have been here forever) is vanishing.
People are shutting up and doing something. With PCAC becoming
more focused in the upcoming "process" show, they have the opportunity
to prove themselves in a critical way.
What's next? I see a real necessity for large-scale solo and
For starters, make sure to check out Tom Cramer's
show, which fills the entire Mark Woolley Gallery (through Oct.
31). It's a crushing tour de force showcasing two years' worth
of work. Never have I seen such a combination of sustained visual
potency and diversity within a solo show in Portland
that includes artists from outside the city who have shown here.
Cramer is an artist at the height of his powers.
Finally and beyond all that, stronger written statements
are necessary. If you're curious about how to make that happen,
you can always email me and I can point you to resources.