Backstrand, Tres & Taruya
November, Portland had a good number of worthwhile shows. This
reiterates the fact that we do not need a giganto bang-zoom
festival to have a great month.
Besides, if you're like me, you prefer to tie the
heuristics of the scene together ad hoc, instead of having it
presented on a TV tray ... which has its place, but we've done
Thus, Portland has good bones even despite the somewhat
sad (but also potentially invigorating) news of PICA shutting
down and retooling its visual arts program. People see doom
and salvation in these sorts of institutional things too quickly
and it gets down to how serious PICA and its board are about
the cutting-edge visual art and not about Stuart Horodner,
who remains the curator till February.
For now let's just say that cutting-edge art requires
a guerilla outlook. Leaner can be meaner, but only if the dictates
from the top support such risk-taking.
Ironically, Horodners William Pope L. show
last summer already fit that bill and PICAs next moves
must learn a great deal from that immense community effort/engagement
"Unforeseen," Horodnerss last
show as PICA's visual arts curator, opens Dec. 3.
Still, in many ways last month's offerings were
stronger and more varied because of a lack of centralized or
institutionalized grandstanding. As a scene, we've made our
collective point. But some of the solo shows gave me the much-needed
in-depth look I've been craving. It's a good time for individual
artists to separate from the pack. For November, the most challenging
and satisfying solo-show honors go to Jay Backstrand, Mariana
Tres and Yuken Taruya.
In particular, November was a great month for painting
in Portland with Kenny Higdon at Lovelake, Joe Thurston at Mark
Woolley, Rae Mahaffey and many others at the Art Gym, Aden Catalani
at Backspace, Cynthia Star at Powell's and Drake Deknatel at
Elizabeth Leach Gallery.
It's getting me excited for a likely crushing "used
car lot" solo show by Nic Walker at the new Haze Gallery in
January. Walker's an influential legend in the Portland scene
and a focused large-scale show like this is exactly what I want
to see from him.
He's one of only a handful of young artists who
I would count on to pull off a fully sustained and challenging
solo show; the guy is seriously talented and lives his work.
Star made inside jokes at Powell's with "Dale."
Back to November: We even had the Triumph of French
Painting at the Portland Art Museum, which is a bit hyperbolic
since a single Italian Caravaggio would shed light on how half
the works in the show are derivative of him.
More accurately, it should have been called, "French
painting becomes worthy of respect." Somehow, I doubt that would
sell tickets to what is a rather mid-level show that has only
one good Nicholas Poussin, the old master on whom "the triumph"
as an argument would largely hinge on.
In fact, the other Poussin in the show, "Achilles
Amongst the Daughters Lycomedes," is pretty funny
stuff with Achilles showing off his heel like some sort of sitcom
actor. In my mind, Poussin, not known for garish silliness,
painted it as an in-court joke or on a bender. Another disappointment:
no Claude Lorrain mythical harbour scenes. They are amazing
and would have really strengthened the triumph argument.
OK, that was then, this is now. So why does painting
matter still? It is a surprisingly easy defense. As long as
humans have existed, our footprints and handprints have made
marks. It's the root of a lot of our communication. These marks
take on different levels of significance as a result of humankind's
activities, like war, peace and creating civilization. Painting
is about the persistence of our activity, and as flawed as our
actions might be, it matters a hell of a lot.
Catalani at Backspace.
When humans become perfect or incorporeal then painting
dies; not before. Any other assessment is an exercise in mental
Painting survived photography and it can survive
I agree that, at first glance, paintings are unnecessary
from a practical standpoint. This is a strength, though. They
have the appeal of a parallel universe without obvious utility
that allows paintings to gather the lint, dust and sweat of
our activities in a way we cannot fully appreciate while we
are busy building cities and eating sandwiches.
My take: Painting is that necessary second opinion
when common sense tells us we are dying every day. Maybe our
actions matter and live on in perpetuity in spite of each day
burning that candle of life a little lower? Maybe a couple of
perceptive artists make marks and record the stuff that can't
be simply snapped in a photo?
Each medium has its strength and painting is where
many hard-to-define intangibles often end up. The medium is
looser than photography and more off the beaten path than a
lot of installation and video. Anachronism has freed painting
in many ways.
Deknatel's "BCaptiva Departs."
It requires a little philosophical Kung Fu, but
painting is a true myth, an uncommon form of wisdom in nonsense.
Like a vampire, it is seductive but dead.
Sure, some paintings are, as Peter Doig calls them,
"a zombie medium." I propose that there is an elegance that
can go beyond zombies; maybe some unstoppable single-minded
mummies, feral werewolves, some evil scientists and the best
and worst of the monsters: vampires.
Like all monsters, paintings are a mirror of humanity.
Since I'm feeling Gothic today, paintings are also
a bit like a vampire in that they often require blood. RIP:
Basquiat, Modigliani, Morris Louis and August Macke.
Non-painting is good, too, of course.
Mariana Tres at the Portland Building
Homespun Universe: The Wondrous Works of Anabella Gaposchk
Young Stars in Cassiopeia," by
Mariana Tres at the Portland Building has put on
the tightest and most conceptually challenging non-painting
show by a Portland artist in years (yes, she bests most of the
Tres' methodology was to create an obscure, fake
historical photographer/astronomer: Anabella Gaposchk. To further
complicate matters, Gaposchk is a leading figure in a fake historical
movement of 19th-century women photographers based in the Columbia
By the time you are correctly pronouncing Gaposchk
you have already allowed her to be real enough to be worthy
of respect. Insidious!
What's more, Gaposchk did not so much photograph
the heavens as create compelling images of what appear to be
celestial bodies from baking ingredients.
Gaposchk supposedly created these images by scattering
flour, sugar and other ingredients to create photograms. The
process is also commonly known as creating fakes!
What is so insidious is that this fact isn't covered
up and is simply treated as normal Victorian astronomical photography.
In another demonstration of savvy, Tres evokes the famous photos
of Cottingley Glen fairies that even fooled Sir Arthur Conan
Doyle in 1917.
The photos are displayed in period Victorian frames,
often with lenses like curved glass. Of course, Tres did all
this and she exploits the wide acceptance of Occam's razor,
where the simplest answer is often accepted as truth. Through
a lot of poetic effort, Gaposchk's existence and attribution
is simply more plausible than Tres' efforts and invention.
featuring Prudence Roberts with some authoritarian furniture.
To fill out Gaposchk's personality, Tres created
side stories like a Peruvian traveler who is given a tiny photograph,
which somehow finds its way back to this installation.
Even a documentary video, narrated by OPB celebrity
Kristian Foden-Vencil and starring curator Prudence Roberts,
discusses Gaposchk as if she really existed. It is hilarious,
convincing and has shades of Orson Welles' "War of the
The attention to detail, period look, appropriation
of museum and documentary film conventions are great, but it's
the subtleties woven into the exhibit that make it really come
For example, Gaposchk does something historically
titillating with diary entries like:
|"What caused me to undertake this catalogue was the
nebulae I discovered in the spring of 1883 above Omega Canis
Major. It held quite the striking resemblance to women's
Tres also writes: "Influenced by the
discoveries of turn-of-the-century mathematician Henri Poincare,
who stated that what was being detected was not new things but
new relationships among already existing things, Gaposchk transcended
her celestial observations and, in her kitchen, found the proper
utensils and notes?
It's these subtle, fabricated feminist overtones
that a lot of over-eager revisionist historians would love to
Tie that web of lies to the repeating patterns found in complexity
theory and you've got revealing philosophical questions: Are
the laws of the universe the same in the kitchen as they are
in space? Do our historical hunts through the past begin with
our earnest desires in the present?
Certainly, without historical precedent, most civilized rhetoric
would collapse. Thus, we mine the past to justify or challenge
I like this. Instead of whacking us over the head,
Tres poetically lets us discover how empirical science and equality
for women are tied together in the past. Tres codes the show
with iconic symbols like the bikini and Isaac Newton's apple
and throws it into an intense relativist context by having them
masquerade as celestial discoveries.
By making the world more empirical, the men in charge
during the 19th century had to question the whole notion of
a weaker sex ... and since nobody could prove the premise, it
had to be considered false. A lot of sensible people caught
on and gave the suffrage movement the traction it needed to
fight the power!
She blinded me with science ... I cannot tell whether
Gaposchk or Tres deserves the credit; well done. The way this
show questions authorship, authentication and authority is exciting.
Also by tying the 19th-century domestic kitchen
space with astronomical observations, Tres is implying how manipulation
of history is so important to being a successful artist. William
Pope L. does it, Greenberg and Krasner helped Pollock do it
and, apparently, Tres can do it, too.
Yes, conceptual art can be great, but it takes intellectual
rigor and inventiveness of this level to warrant accolades.
Vito Acconci Lecture
PICA's Vito Acconci lecture was a perfect primer
for all the half-assed conceptual artists in town lead astray
by lazy practitioners given too much PR attention without equal
In contrast, Acconci made many intelligent statements
about what he assumed was going on during various eras and how
he then created work that accomplished whatever he felt was
not going on.
In other words, he had a program based mostly upon
how his impish intellect defied the conventions of the time.
Here's a guy who doesn't pander to, but can play
with, his audience. It is engaging.
For example, when minimalism and anything-goes performance
art was "in" during the 1970s Acconci masturbated under the
floor as both a critique and a celebration of that moment through
daring and crudity. The piece, "Seed Bed," was also an attempt
to connect with gallery goers in an intimate and erotic way,
and Acconci stated this with great clarity during the lecture.
It's a pro-individual sentiment echoed in his later
architectural sidewalks that rise up to greet people and give
them intimacy in which to hide, make out or commit serial murder.
Instead of making a joke of the viewer, Acconci makes a joke
of the assumptions surrounding art and space in particular.
To pull this off one has to be articulate, and one
of my favorite Acconci quotes from the lecture, "Psychology
is a form of escapism," proves it. I love how so many New Yorkers
need their therapists before tragedies and come together as
communities after them.
of Acconci's playful living sidewalks in my birthplace:
Another example of Acconci's perceptive statements
was during the '70s. At that time, the New York galleries at
420 Broadway became elitist cultural symbols of the U.S.A.'s
Sensing this, Acconci created a table that also
became a diving board onto the street below ... he wanted out.
When the art market got big in the '80s, he moved
to architecture. Acconci was not simply a trickster sincerity
was very important to him on a conceptual basis and you've
gotta respect a guy who does such things.
Elizabeth Leach Gallery
Oct. 2-Nov. 1
Another non-painting highlight was theYuken Taruya
show at the Elizabeth Leach Gallery, with its amazingly delicate
trees cut into shopping bags.
Taruya's talent takes the cookie-cutter banality
of temporary luggage and turns it into tiny theaters of impossible
fragility and dramatic lighting. Shopping is definitely theater;
I mean, why else would grown people sit on Santa's lap at the
mall? (Don't answer that.)
The economy of the means and the way Taruya makes
such mundane paper bags into personal parks is thrilling. So
what if they are not archival? Neither is Edvard Munch's "The
Scream," which is on cardboard, and will outlive us all.
particularly nice late Picasso at the Portland Art Museum.
First off, I declined to call this "Portland
Paintings" for a reason: the city's scene is becoming one
of those places where young artists from everywhere want to
For example, Los Angelino Vinh Bui had a nice show
at Field in November and within the last 18 months German wunderkind
Norbert Biskey, Las Vegan Tim Bavington and Bay area luminary
Laurie Ried have all shown here.
The Portland Art Museum even has an excellent late
Picasso on loan, "Femme assise dans un fauteuil
(Buste de Jacqueline)." It's on display in the European
galleries just before the second floor entrance to the Hoffman
In the Midwest and on the East Coast, museum goers
take them for granted. In the Pacific Northwest they are rare,
and thank you for the loan.
I have always loved Picasso's late portraits of
women like Sylvette and Jacqueline the last and best
Mrs. Picasso. (What a terrible job that was.)
In particular, there is something about the incredibly
fast, self-assured application of thinly slurried gray and blue
paint in this portrait that gets me. Its twisting composition
and color scheme is reminiscent of El Greco, and yet it has
that nonchalance of face paint that El Greco never came close
The hair area is amazing since the gray between
the black lines is actually a base coat. The near/far orientation
of black foreground lines in flat gray space as a hairdo is
quite breathtaking. It's a study in looseness and tension that
makes paintings by Cy Twombly and Lucinda Parker in the atrium
below look overcooked and over-obvious.
I guess I'm drawn to the confident application and
the sort of tenuous insecurity of the figure. It's as if Picasso
is testing to see if his subject is real. It is existential
but not without humor. Kinda like how a kid will poke something
to see what it will do.
In these late paintings, Picasso is serious about
being cartoony. All serious painters can flirt with some cheesiness
and still pull it off. Rembrandt had lots of dress-up costumes,
Pollock incorporated cigarette butts, etc., and Warhol literally
plumbed the depths of cheesy kitsch for his charge.
For homegrown stuff, one of the strong painting
shows was Ulterior Motives out at Marylhurst University's Art
Kovel's "Color Theory" at Savage Art Resources.
It echoes a lot of the ideas and artists in the
last three Oregon Biennials, such as Mike Shea, Brenden Clenaghen,
Michelle Ross, Molly Vidor, Rae Mahaffey, Mark Smith and James
Boulton, along with a few of the artists like Robert Yoder,
Casey Keeler, Jacqueline Ehlis and Bruce Conkle that The Best
Coast also put together.
For a while now I've put forward the idea that West
Coast artists complicate abstraction's old purity with loaded
worldly preoccupations like classic rock, ergonomics, play,
natural parking-lot weathering and fake fur.
The Art Gym show is a compendium of those instances.
It's an exhibition whose time has come and I'll cover it in
depth at another date.
In fact, this aesthetic movement isn't anything
purely exclusive to this coast. We saw it from New Yorker Andi
Kovel, who helped inaugurate Tracy Savage's latest venture,
Savage Art Resources.
With a work like "Color Theory," she is
dealing with optical effect and by crossing it with kitsch painting
and glasswork, she's certainly no purist. But there is something
more compartmentalized in this work than that of West Coasters.
They are more rigid and discrete lacking
the West Coast crosstalk found in Robert Yoder's rearranged
road signs at the Art Gym. The more compartmentalized a work
is, the more it looks like late-postmodernism. It's sophisticated,
but maybe at the expense of freshness.
This "crispness" illustrates New York's biggest
problem: its sophistication might be too telegraphed or staged
and the audience feels pandered to, as if each painting is a
sales pitch aimed at their refined but sometimes predictable
assumptions. Refinement isn't good when it is an end unto itself.
friendly Sasquatch at Lovelake.
Still, I liked this work as it reminded me of John
Baldessari and Miranda July's accessorized dot photographs,
both of which have a bigger "huh?" factor.
Another trend that is very un-postmodern in current
painting is its very direct acknowledgment of history's constant
flux and plasticity. Postmodernism just treated history like
an oppressor, and individuals were isolated and subject to circumstance.
For an example of history unshackled at Lovelake
Gallery, we had Kenny Higdon's horrifying re-imagining
of Lewis and Clark's adventures.
OK, what isn't there to love about seeing the dead
and sometimes decapitated bodies of Lewis and Clark being dragged
off by Sasquatch?
Artists are simply reconfiguring assumptions and
looking for alternative timelines like some sort of Star Trek
episode ... except they know it's cheesy and people like Higdon
don't try to over explain. The sensuality of paint fills in
and obscures all the attendant plot holes simultaneously.
Paint can be the perfect static analog for the passage
Lovelake's December show features another painter
who is beginning to put it all together, Tim Dalbow.
The untitled painting shown here is reminiscent
of Richard Diebenkorn, but I can see a woman in profile. Dalbow
mentions that the black form is like a squirming kitty she is
holding. Nicely done. The content and application mirror each
other. The viewer squirms. Is this supposed to be figurative
Laura Russo Gallery
Backstrand's "Veil of Reason."
What has gotten into Jay Backstrand? He has always
had technique and knowledge, but this new work is invigorated.
As always, he seems positioned between James Rosenquist
and David Salle. But this time out he makes peace with the postmodern
past. We have gone through that and things are more liberated
Backstrand's new work is also a bit more contemplative
in tone than those other artists.
For example, my favorite, "Veil of Reason,"
with its dramatic focus on eye contact and historical tableaux,
implies engagement and rearranged continuity with what we see
and remember. Does it imply that Western Civilization has good
bones or, at the very least, is self-aware enough to reorganize
itself productively? That's a good question and any painting
that provokes a good question deserves respect.
The titles even have a bit of humor while quoting
important images of both culture and desire, although there
is a not-so-subtle implication that "this is a boys' world"
that doesn't sit so well with me.
In "All in the Eyes" he quotes Francis
Bacon, Antony Gormley, Robert Motherwell and Picasso. I see
it as a philosophical question, since recognition of the original
artists is not "all eyes."
The company work is shown in certainly matters,
and I think Backstrand points to this in the painting.
Dissimilarly, a classic '80s artist like David Salle
creates work where the subject is pathologically susceptible
to circumstance, while history and context are minimized. That
sort of pathological a-historicality was a big problem with
postmodernism; it quoted history but seldom understood much
of it as a cause-and-effect relationship.
view: "All in the Eyes" (right).
Postmodernism in painting was an index of ideas
but often lacked a contextual understanding of the idea's tangible
effects in the world. Francesco Clemente and Basquiat are the
exceptions, as their history gave them more context.
Backstrand is simply doing what all good painters
do: making connections to the present and looking for solutions.
The result is that his work seems fresh and exciting.
Somehow, his titillating porno images take on the look of noir
cinema. Painting as golden-era celluloid? Not the worst idea.
He even incorporates sculptural elements as if to
say a painting can be a museum unto itself.
My biggest problem with the work is the lack of
idiomatic vernacular, i.e. it borrows a lot and combines a lot,
but I still don't see an identifiable or original motif that
would take them to the next level. After seeing these, though,
I believe Backstrand is capable of it. I'd like to see something
stylistically stamp the work as "a Backstrand."
"A Chorus of Frogs."
Contradictorily, I like his somewhat European acceptance
of the past. It really is almost impossible for any artist to
do anything new. Much like composers in music often do, he borrows
motifs from other artists and mixes them all together. It is
perfectly valid; I just want more.
In the past, this use of other artists in Backstrand's
work seemed quotidian and too reverent. The earlier works borrowed
too much of their content from the recognition of the elements.
Not so now. They connect their ideas in a looser fashion and
their pictorial organization of hot and cold colors is much
So what has gotten into Backstrand? I think
it is more than likely that all the activity in town is making
everyone push things a bit further. I've seen it in Lucinda
Parker's work as well. Most of the players are making strides.
PDX Window Gallery
Jesse Hayward's painting, "Exodus," is
definitely bravura kitsch. This thing is filled to the gills
with candy-colored sparkles, frosting and sickening bursts of
It is almost like the Frankenstein ghost of all
the birthday and wedding cakes you've ever consumed: a celebration
of celebrating celebration.
Yes, one knows the party is over, but "Exodus"
seems to say the party never ended, just the orgy of creation.
So what does it mean? Well, it makes a very good
case for refined taste being dull. Hayward's orgy is completely
tasteless, which sounds like the perfect flavor for a time when
more people follow than lead ... same as it ever was.
In a lot of ways, this is what '50s artists didn't
want abstract expressionism to become, yet its existence proves
we've come a long way. Now, this painting would turn heads anywhere,
kinda like keeping an extensive Christmas light installation
up year 'round. However, will it drive your neighbor's property
If it does you probably have unfashionably unsophisticated