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Cynthia Lahti's "Falling Horse" for Core Sample's Crafty.

Critical i

Portland art-scene roundup for beginners
Core Sample
by Jeff Jahn

If you cannot keep the suburban in check, we will expand the urban drastically ... we must export our wicked urban ways to preserve them.

– fictitious Portland arts beaurocrat talking
to a Lake Oswego hausfrau at Core Sample

K, after Core Sample, most now believe something is going on in Portland's art scene. It's something that those who have been paying attention in Portland, Seattle, London, L.A. and New York already knew.

But as usual, most things need to be stated three or more times to sink in for the laggers. I ask the logical next big questions: What, why and where will it all go? In terms of why, the pat sound-bite answers that say it's because of unemployment and cheap rents are either patently false or irrelevant next to more important factors.

I'll dedicate this entire article to Core Sample's ramifications and highlight some of what Portland needs to do after this perfect storm of group shows in 2003. Since few seem to care about publishing in-depth critical statements about these shows, I'll be the heavy.

Still, I want everyone in Portland to know how proud I am to be living here. To Randy Gragg, PCAC, PICA, PAM and Red 76 ... thanks. And to everyone involved or interested in the scene it has been a hell of a great year. I suspect 2004 will be different but more "decisive and focused" in its exhibitions than 2003, the Portland polyglot year.

First, some debunking. Unemployment might swell the ranks of people who occasionally make a little art, but it actually hampers serious art-making. Unemployment creates self-doubt and throws one's life into chaos. It's distracting and, luckily, most of the major players do work ... many even have excellent careers and this acceptance of artsy people in the office is part of what makes Portland so dangerous as an arts city. It is woven into the city's very fabric.

Second, cheap rents are important only because Seattle and San Francisco are outrageous ... that still isn't "the real reason" for the Portland boom, though, because without opportunity rents matter little and Portland isn't as cheap as L.A. or Austin can be. It has gotta be the opportunity factor, specifically, the "unsupervised" creative-opportunity factor.

Portland's Big Pink tower & "Blade Runner" sky.

Fact is, Portland is the only major city on the West Coast where visual arts are the big game in town. At the same time, there is a real-estate boom of lofts as well as a lack of institutional oversight of the scene. It's a nice mix for think-for-yourself pragmatic artists who are still coming here for an opportunity. The unemployment might also be linked to how many people relocate to this place without a job. Again, most of the crucial scenesters are employed.

Thus, Portland's art scene is booming because it is underdeveloped institutionally, yet people wrongly complain about that very aspect. There aren't a lot of grants, etc., setting up false hierarchies ... it's a free-for-all meritocracy and a scramble is in effect.

Some mistakenly believe the scramble is being fought in the print media (it's important, but doesn't do much more than highlight individuals). Even the local arts paper, The Organ, is weak on criticism of actual shows (it's more expository; maybe add five short 50-word reviews? Make 'em anonymous if critics are worried about losing friends?).

Chandra Bocci's "Splat" at Second Cycle.

Instead, the real important moments are in the one-to-one meetings between a new class of collectors, intellectuals and the decent-to-excellent work of some artists in town. Some of the people who complain about collectors simply don't know any of the new players who have emerged (some of the dealers and curators don't even know them).

These are people who can't be sold on buzz, have traveled the world and only believe things when they see them presented in rigorous form.

I might add that they are collecting some of the same key artists, too …

Since we are on the subject, it's time to provocatively name names of leading artists who are in the indie scramble (gallery artists are in the mix, too, but let's limit this).

The non-galleried artists who seem to be winning in that Portland art meritocracy scramble are Chandra Bocci, Bruce Conkle, Laura Fritz, Melody Owen, Johnne Eschleman and Michael Oman-Reagan.

Conkle is the only one who has put on convincing museum-scale shows showing off his major-league experience.

Jen Rhoads curated Flush and stood out artistically.

The others need to add this step to their log of exhibitions. Two of the best young still-developing painters on the scene, Adam Sorenson and James Boulton, have already been picked up by galleries adding some drive to what is going on. But those two can't sit idle, either.

Some other artists of note that everyone should take seriously are Jen Rhoads, Tim Dalbow, Dan Ness, Cynthia Star, Nic Walker, Carson Ellis, Jesse Hayward and Paige Saez. I've got a good feeling about Rose McCormick, too.

What next?

Joe Thurston's work.

After the immense glut of group shows, some convincing solo efforts are where the real proof will be made. If you really want to prove yourself, there can't be any hiding behind groups, or short deadline excuses. It takes guts and sustained rigor to pull off a solo show right, so don't rush it. Also, it will finally get the critical onus back on the work as opposed to describing the organizers.

We all know it is a standard journalistic convention to describe a single personality rather than artistic efficacy of the art. It's a historical fact: cults of personality are necesasary for scenes to flower internationally and at home.

The recent spate of personality indicates Portland is becoming confident as a cultural leader, instead of a province suspicious of ambitions and focused programs.

If it's good, lets just say so.

Despite this, focusing on organizer personalities is definitely a hindrance to upstart nonprofits like PCAC that want to operate as vehicles for the artists instead of the other way around ... it's good to question it, though; it keeps organizations on track.

There are exciting November solo shows from some very talented people. At the Portland Building there is the thoroughly intelligent Mariana Tres (who does amazing things with fabricated facts). At the PCC Northview Gallery the naked wryness of Keith Rosson will probably resonate.

Then there is Joe Thurston at Mark Woolley Gallery ... I can't tell you how many recommendations he got from international critics in town and it still took him years to land a gallery. His last show was great and from what I've seen, this will be another.

Event-ism is dead; let's celebrate it with a festival!

Tom Cramer's "Listening Chamber" at Symbiont/Synthetic.

With so many extravaganzas this year, and more focused solo and themed group shows on the horizon, I have to say event-ism has been done to death. This will probably suck the air out of all those participation shows that peaked in 2002.

In the future, instead of a 25-artist extravaganza of bad or old work, just give us one jaw-dropping piece, or a suite of work. Then stake your reputation on it if you dare.

Note to artists: If you don't dare, you are not ready yet. There is no shame in that, but know it. If you don't know where you are in the landscape you simply can't navigate to better ground. Tom Cramer's amazing solo show makes this point perfectly.

Core Sample audience and content observations

Carson Ellis "By the River" at Reallegories.

Core Sample was great for beginners to Portland's art scene and often disappointing to those who keep up. Still, there were gems.

It was great that it was so large and will have a catalog, and not so great that it was intentionally less adventurous and more academic because of it.

Thus, it often looked like the old Portland of five years ago, which was good, but predictably so. Not enough of the new talent in curators here was tapped.

In fact, the list of exclusions is staggering: T.J. Norris, Paul Fujita, Todd Johnson, Amelia Hendley, Zefery Throwell, Bryan Suereth and Matt Fleck are all people who have really made the scene exciting, yet they were no-shows.

Choosing Morgan Curry and Jen Rhoads was cool, though.

Both are smart and talented, and we're lucky to have them in town.

Despite those inclusions, the Sample's somewhat old-school quest for clarity reminded me of the regional art center shows I'm used to seeing in the Midwest – only a critical mass of them with a consistently higher quality. A certain shock of the new from strong, rather unrestrained young artists often showing at the Everett Lofts was missing.

Instead, for every challenging cosmopolitan show like Flush, there were two or three Reallegories that smacked of "education." Although that's good for Portland art-scene neophytes, it really didn't raise any bars ... since most of the work was old and already seen.

Still, some new strategies by David Eckard, Chandra Bocci, Matthew Picton and Jen Rhoads did create new excitement by finding solutions to previous problems.

So yes, just like all the other major group shows in the last year, it had big flaws. Next to the Biennial it was probably the second-most even of 2003 festival events, but it also garners none of the strongest moments ... an odd institutional malaise that will likely give good structure to the catalog. There are tradeoffs to everything.

Famous Portlander Extremo the Clown's "Soul of My Neighbor" at Gallery Bink ... totally overlooked by Core Sample

In fairness, part of the malaise likely comes from the size of the effort. Unless you have the budget, architectural planning, more than nine months' time and a vast array of work to commission and choose from, such as Dave Hickey's Beau Monde, that sort of good-not-great thing is gonna happen. Even then, that isn't a correct model for a burgeoning scene that just got its legs – like Portland.

In 20-20 hindsight, something more cosmopolitan would have been better than simple genre shows. Despite the Sample being touted as DIY (terrible term), some vibrant and a hell of a lot more punk rock elements were left completely out, like lowbrow and skate culture. Both are very important here, and the zeitgeist guys could have done some excellent iconoclastic work around a theme like "Culture Snafu."

In fact, Tyler Kline and Damien Ayers had a show at PSU concurrent with the Sample, as did Extremo the Clown ... why not include them?

Core Sample was also weak on photography. I mean, how did I become one of the stronger photography curators by having Johnson and Kornberg in my show when I have very little love for the medium unless it's summa caliber? Certainly Marne Lucas, Christopher Rauchenberg and Bruce Guenther are all extremely qualified to do a real survey, yet they were not approached for logical, but pointless, reasons.

Look, I'm nitpicking for dialog's sake. Critically, and as freakin' human beings, we have to excuse the older artist tint to Core Sample because the Oregonian's Randy Gragg has been somewhat out of the loop and nothing's perfect. So what if Core Sample occurred partly because Gragg wanted to get into the loop? That's excellent, he's a bright guy and instead of bitching (as critics often do), he did something. Overall, nice job!

Regarding the dearth of photography, its omission is OK – the rightly hated 2003 Oregon Biennial did have lots of nice photography. Let's give credit where it's due: no one show did it all. That's good and displays depth in the scene.

Wake up little Suzie, wake up!

Storm Tharp's always-strong drawings at Malia Jensen's Draw show: Core Sample.

In many ways Core Sample was old-guard Portland waking up. Let's see: Randy Gragg got plugged into the scene again, Michael Brophy is certainly more re-energized in his painting now than six years ago and Malia Jensen is getting feistier and curatorial.

Then let's not forget that lots of mid-career craft-oriented artists were showing in an unfinished industrial space for Crafty. I think the craft theme is probably strong enough to garner critical attention by itself, if it weren't so upstaged by all the powerfully youth-inflected and less self-conscious work in town. Wait until Brad Cloepfil's Columbus Circle craft museum is finished in New York, folks.

Quiet work is good, but not as a scene's "egg tooth."

The mid-career Core Sample focus emphasizes the fact that the art thing has been going on here for a long time and that early '90s bubble wasn't for naught. Core Sample made the case that Tom Cramer and Malia Jensen, etc., are proven core Portland artists. Their energy sets them apart.

Solipsism: is it for you?

Mark Rothko: definitely more important than Morris Graves and Mark Tobey; a hypercritical guy, too

It's important to point out strengths and weaknesses for the sake of future endeavors, so I'll be super ultra-duper hyper-critical (and further highlight the main reason I've never married).

Core Sample was too self-conscious as a stereotypical "Portland thing" compared to all the other big shows in 2003. The most un-cosmopolitan example was the Painting Portland show. As a historic statement, it was pretty much unnecessary considering that PAM has an entire permanent wing that does a better job with a stronger and deeper collection.

Had an early Rothko been added to the mix I maybe could have forgiven everything. Instead the space could have been used for an un-themed but Portland Now show.

MIA were Sean Healy, Brendan Clenaghen, Mel fricken Katz's sculpture, etc. Oh, well ... call it missed opportunities due to a need to revisit ourselves too much.

Yep, pointless redundancy is the road to solipsism. At least we aren't Seattle, with its ridiculous parade of Northwest masters' shows that overlook the Real Masters of the Northwest: Rothko, Still, Gottlieb and Motherwell.

Newsflash: Morris Graves and Mark Tobey are great artists, but second-tier to four of the greatest artists of all time. At the Seattle Art Museum I've seen too many shows that seem to show Tobey as the center of the universe.

Similarly, Core Sample does mark an exhaustion with "see Portland" shows largely brought on by a season of three "locals only" shows: the Modern Zoo, the Oregon Biennial and now this.

Let's remember the facts. In 2003, Machine Works, I.A.E., the Best Coast and T.B.A. all brought in outsiders as significant elements and were more truly cosmopolitan than the solipsistic shows. Maybe the final burnout on hyper-internalized, self-consciousness to a fault is Core Sample's second most important effect?

If you want to spread the word you've gotta play generous host, not eager tour guide. For example, although I loved the gutsy "Override" train idea, importing an audience does seem a bit provincial when we write an article specifically on just 40 visitors from nearby Seattle.

To illustrate, my Core Sample gallery comment book is filled with people from Sydney, Zurich, London and New York. These people are here all the time. Also, it's not like Seattle just discovered us. Seattle's two fastest eyes, Elizabeth Brown and Linda Farris, have visited here multiple times, made studio visits, collected work and seen major events.

Institutions are not the enemy

Not to pick on him (but he's the posterchild) ... Gragg's brand of vitriol against the institutions in town (part of his rationale for Core Sample's being) is largely misplaced.

In fact, a lack of control on the scene is why the art in Portland is more innovative than much of the Vancouver, B.C., art – which is rehashed Euro-Postmodernism ossified into their institutions at a time when it was a valid thing 20 years ago (Brian Jungen excepted). Some of the B.C. "placeless" art is only popular because it is the last bastion of Postmodernism's isolated and deconstructed aesthetic, and there are still lots of collectors and curators who are comfortable with it.

It's kinda like buying a 1986 Jeep CJ 7 because that was the last year before it became a usable vehicle redesigned by Chrysler! Hey, it's your money ...

Vitto Acconcci's "Grasp," 1969 Guggenheim collection.

Back to institutions.

Both PAM and PICA bring viewers here from elsewhere all the time – and save us the long flight to Cologne or New York to see nice shows from elsewhere. PAM's Cézanne show, the new North Wing and PICA's Vitto Acconcci lectures are breathtaking developments for the hoard of Portland artists who don't measure themselves by local heroes or current New York faves, but by the best history has produced. Cézanne and Acconcci arguably rate.

Truth be told, B2V will bring fewer cultural tourists to Seattle than the Paris years Cézanne retrospective will bring to Portland. I suggest someone put together a concurrent must-see show … hopefully not some festival, but an ultra-tight one-to-three person show. Portland's best gallery artists are already in the process of doing this.

Believe only in what you can read?

Pablo de Ocampo's wonderful U.N. resolutions at the Belmont space.

Core Sample's main and most important plus for the Portland scene is a major, widely available catalog. It doesn't exist yet, but I have faith in Matthew Stadler, Rich Jensen and Gragg to make this happen.

Publishing is an amazing amount of work (unless you've done it you have no idea!). As a personal request, I hope the essayists do a good job and refrain from overusing "DIY" (which is a pejorative, ghettoizing term that to many infers limited ambition through its association to punk rock's iconoclastic avoidance of success. The greatest artists, such as Picasso and Michelangelo, could create excellent work despite success).

Instead, I'm toying with the tongue-in-cheek cheese of the term "avant en-garde," differentiated from modernism's old avant garde, in that institutions aren't so hopelessly out of touch anymore.

It's more about salient freshness – that split between what is lively and what is old hat – and relates to advertising's relentless image competency. The "en-garde" part points out the fact that artists are actively challenging the institutions again.

Another essay-writing peeve is the constant fetishizing of Oregon's distance from New York. It is an easy and not-so-informative art-writing crutch.

Curatorial trends, or lack of them ...

A Jerry Mayer sign at Nan Curtis's Later.

Curatorially, Core Sample also tended to focus on unoriginal academic distinctions such as allegories, crafts, drawing and even man and nature (I'm guilty here). That said, it is a core sample and a retrospective of basic tropes.

Still, I always ask how much navel-gazing is going on. And on a scale of 1 to 10, this was 7.5.

Another curatorial observation is that a bunch of mostly green curators went for traditional hangs where all the work was presented too uniformly. The more experienced curators, like Nan Curtis and Stephanie Snyder, were obviously less spatially restrained.

With paintings hung at similar heights on white walls and lots of white podiums, many of the shows by greener curators displayed no understanding of how to create excitement via a gutsy, engaging layout. In the Belmont space in particular, the spectacular space outdid more than a few of the shows. Mind you, all were good ... but very good or great? Don't kid yourself; there was dead space.

Giving credit: highlights of Core Sample

Detail of Chandra Bocci's work at Flush.

One highlight was Chandra Bocci at Flush. Her work, a combination of '60s pop and Victorian theater hit me like a post-consumer-waste Baron Munchausen adventure scene.

Still, these newer and slicker works were a little bit anonymous stylistically ... her dying unicorns last November were better and their fussy homemade quality was Bocci's strength. This new work was a little too breezy, shiny and abstract. But it was very cool and, importantly, portable.

Bocci's work at Second Cycle was excellent but too reminiscent of Sarah Sze (that said, it had more vitality; the figurative work is more distinct from that of other artists).

Storm Tharp's "The Prince's Theater," at Crafty, curated by John Raymond.

Also impressive was Jen Rhoads, whose hard-edged abstractions I saw for merely a few seconds, but have been able to keep in my mind for the last eight days.

Paige Saez's work was a little too much like James Boulton's work at Fleck last year.

Boulton's work, a sea mural on a wall, was good. But I actually preferred an earlier painting from the Maritime show last year that used the same imagery.

It was tighter and somehow more strikingly odd as a portable, smaller work.

Flush wins points for stating its curatorial purpose: "to display vitality." It followed through with engaging and often surprising work.

Crafty was a tour de force in the genre, but highlighted the problem with high-craft work: mere virtuosity gets dull.

The works with the most power to thrill were Malia Jensen's "Bunny," Storm Tharp's "The Prince's Theater" and Cynthia Lahti's "Falling Horse," which was emblematic of crafty art at its best: it's fragile and its intense tenuousness gives it urgency that some other works in the show just didn't have.

One real highlight was David Eckard's "Scribe." Gone are the frills of his Tournament Lumens show and in its place is a workmanlike blend of overall wearing performance art and torture device sculpture. Instead of the previously distracting pageantry, this performance-art sculpture piece (which he used to create circles) is by far the best thing he's ever done. He can easily run around the country raising quizzical havoc with it.

David Eckard's "Scribe." Nice job!

Eckard addressed all of my previous incongruity issues between his performance and sculptural work competing for attention. In this case, the mystery is front and center and, as a performer, he literally disappears into his work by becoming the process-driven engine.

"Scribe" is also less time-intensive than the really long endurance tests of the past.

I will conveniently omit everything I liked and disliked about my own show, Symbiont/Synthetic (except that I never want to be a gallerist again, but was glad to experience it once).

Lastly, the Belmont space was the most difficult mixed bag and a lot of it was dull, rather academic, or on the opposite spectrum as hippie idealogue work.

For example, Reallegories had a couple of very good artists, like Eric Stotic and Carson Ellis, but was really just too generic an effort curatorially. With only one painting by the consistently excellent Ellis (and a rather typical hang) it came off flat.

The omission of several artists, such as Rick Bartow, Kevin Kadar, Nic Walker and Keith Rosson, came off as the vanilla curatorial effort it was – no real shame in that, other than missed opportunity. Scope and depth of style, plus juxtaposing one strong piece off of another, is the only way to go.

I also liked Vanessa Renwick's "Hunting Requires Optimism" installation, but the middle section of The Hunt show needed a centerpiece. It was also a pretty darn provincial theme and Reallegories didn't provide a necessary contradiction to that impulse to judge it as such. The two shows were a very regionalist synergy and not the best idea to put together.

Harrison's "Hermes and Aphrodite" view looking up ... way up.

The true stars of the Upstairs Belmont space were James Harrison and Pablo de Ocampo.

Harrison's amazing "Hermes and Aphrodite" (think Hermaphrodite) was some fine dual-gendered and wonderfully vertigo-inducing terror architecture.

Spiraling up in cadences of 2-by-4s, it was less womb-like than his "Dahoud" piece in Seattle's Blurred show a year or so ago.

Excellent and, like a slinky, it's fun for a boy and a girl.

Pablo de Ocampo's very nicely done installation of words from United Nations resolutions was quiet and did give an excellent opening impression.

Downstairs, Capture and Release was a mixed bag of video work, but some was stunning.

Melody Owen's work of dual monitors with the same blond girl moving toward a Romanesque sculpture was great until she spoiled it with a cheezily overplayed crying statue at the end. I was completely freaked out until the "woman as an object" card was so hamfistedly played.

Melody Owen's video ... oh so close; it's breaking my heart!

Likewise, Cris Moss's "Girl in a Bathroom" was just trying too hard to be trauma queen. I've seen better from him.

Some of the coolest things from Capture and Release were Lee Krist's "Tableau Vivant" and McDougal and Rhodes' "The Cake & Arm," with its pitcher throwing a ball at a cake. Its slo-mo tri-screen was a very cool study in intentionality and effect.

I also liked parts of Matt McCormick's interactive wishing-well video, although the moving spot seemed kinda corny.


I found myself questioning: Is the good work I've seen before all we've got? The answer is no.

For those who haven't kept up, Core Sample was great. But for those in the know, it was training wheels. Those who think this is the zenith of Portland art are still sadly uninformed.

One studio visit to people like Sean Healy or Jacqueline Ehlis will confirm one truth about Core Sample: we've already moved on.

Just wait. They and others are pushing themselves way beyond what you've come to expect.

Everything has changed.

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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