Rauschenberg, younger artists & a panel discussion
usually means sunless gloom in the Pacific Northwest.
But between Robert Rauschenberg, one of history's
most inventive artists, and several younger artists, I found unexpected
energy and occasional depth in Portland's sleepiest month.
Something has absolutely changed, and the closing
of PICA's visual arts program and several galleries (most were
not progressive) hasn't had the doom effect the Oregonian keeps
pedaling in its pages these days.
Instead, Portland is getting younger, more sophisticated,
hungrier and more inventive. Still, it can't keep pace with the
Maybe it's even a bit more pensive, too, about the
philistinism that some tolerate around here. Will the 2005 Biennial
be an afterthought? Will all these new Pearl District condos become
repositories for worthy art or just a bunch of reprinted French
absinthe posters in nice frames?
It's a guerilla arts revolution: 2003 reshuffled the
deck and 2004 is dealing the cards; 2005 plays that hand.
Nobody really knows what's going to happen and that
uncertainty can either be freeing or self-destructive in Portland.
Whereas New Yorks art scene plays blackjack like the house,
it always holds at 17. Where it differs from a typical game of
21 is that we dont lose or gain anything if we go over.
Portland simply needs to win one hand and quality generally speaks
for itself in the art world.
Remember, a lot of attention is coming here in 2005
with Portland Art Museum's new wing. Hopefully the next Biennial
will take itself seriously. But if it doesnt, I'm certain
something dramatic will happen. And, frankly, that scenario might
Speaking of depth, Haze is putting on the most provocative
series of shows I've seen in Portland to date and, unlike PICA
or PCVA, it is generally recent MFAs from top schools like CCAC
or Rhode Island School of Art and Design. Think of it as a for-profit
(i.e. sales keeping the doors open) art center.
Rathbun at Ogle.
This is the innovative sort of thing Portland can
make its reputation on. Other excellent shows, like Mike Rathbun
at Ogle and Marie Sivak at Blackfish, added to this impressive
Years ago in the Bear Deluxe journal, former PICA
curator Stuart Horodner astutely pointed out this demographic
of young artists, two-five years out of graduate school, are the
ones to watch and Haze proves him right.
Too bad PICA was mostly too interested in names past
the freshness date to be more surprising.
It also explains why Core Sample was generally middle
of the road; its focus was too old and too group-centric. There
is real talent with pedigreed track records here that deserves
real attention. The lack of promising recent MFA grads is another
reason the Biennial fell so flat.
You can find them all over Portland. One young graduate,
Brandon Wilkinson, showed an excellent "Pole Posters" painting
at Blackfish. The image consisted of a bunch of rock 'n' roll
posters on a telephone pole. It's a good rule: paint what you
love. (Mayor Katz eat your heart out notice how the anti-poster
or obsessive-compulsive campaign kinda died when the economy tanked?
City government has more important fish to fry.)
Schnapf, downtown at Stumptown.
If we are talking creative economy, it emphasizes
that Portland absolutely requires a serious MFA program even more
than new art venues and festivals. But somebody truly powerful
has to crack heads at PNCA or PSU. I wish that had been discussed
at the new Critics and Curators panel discussion (more on that
Then there were Marty Schnapf's big-explosion paintings
at Stumptown downtown. They are intentionally like those raster
graphics of shattering glass and evoke the threatening feeling
of bombs going off just outside the café.
OK, post-9/11 bombs aren't just for Jerusalem anymore
and Schnapf was right when he notified me that his exhibit had
more than just a passing congruence to my "Art
and threat" essay.
Problem is, they only look good from 20 feet or more
away. Up close they are shoddy. I realize they are huge, but please,
take more time. Despite this supposedly dangerous undertone, Schnapf's
paintings come off more like Peter Davies, Julie Mehretu and Kevin
Appel's lovechild than a reference to tragedy and explosions.
For a similar shard-filled historical precedent, we have Caspar
David Friedrich's "Sea of Ice" with its wrecked ship.
Davies' "Overlaps with Rectangles."
Instead, Schnapf's paintings exist too obviously as
abstract paintings with nice frames. If they are windows, I don't
feel it. They lack even video-game-style urgency.
If I hadn't read the card I'd just think nice,
big triangle-shard paintings. In addition to the cafés,
I also saw some worthy group shows at Powell's, Motel, PNCA, Pacific
Switchboard and, best of all, _Hall gallery. Not surprisingly
there were several with Valentine's Day themes.
I was feeling the love.
Some of the shows were well curated and some were
toss-off salons. But the most rewarding experiences came from
solo shows at Elizabeth Leach and Haze galleries.
Elizabeth Leach Gallery
207 SW Pine St.
"Sling Shot" (1985).
Robert Rauschenberg's multiples show at Elizabeth
Leach Gallery held what had to be the single most collectable
thing I have seen in years, a device Rauschenberg calls a "Sling
Shot." The fact that it's a device underscores what one has to
love about him: he's an inventor at heart.
The "Sling Shot" reconfigures common presentation
media consisting of a light-box with multiple layers of retractable
Simple and snappy, it was the thing I loved most all
month long and, although it's a multiple, it had all the punch
of his larger one-of-a-kind combines of the '60s.
What's interesting about the device is that the image
sheets can be extended and retracted to any configuration the
This incorporation of chance invariably gets traced
back to John Cage, but there is a great tradition of chance-influenced
art that makes earlier artists like Calder, Jean Arp, Pollock
and practically any surrealist, interesting.
It is pertinent, of course, that Rauschenberg's systems
of chance and subjective choice clearly influenced Damien Hirst's
closed-system entropy vitrines, such as "A Thousand Years,"
which contained a rotting cow head, flies and a bug zapper. The
difference in effect is American pragmatism vs. European pessimistic
cynicism. Possibilities vs. impossibilities?
Yet one has to be careful. Many of Rauschenberg's
late paintings in the era of "Sling Shot" are disappointing
because they seem too methodical and coherent, whereas physicality
and incongruity often mark his best work. On both accounts this
holds up to some pretty high standards.
Instead, I prefer works that display his quirky pragmatism
in abundance. Some of the more traditional prints, such as "Murmurs,"
displayed that poppy pragmatism to good "open" effect
By introducing an infinitely reconfigurable element
into printed images, something exciting happens. "Sling Shot"
I always enjoy it more when a great old artist shows
why we loved the work in the first place by giving it a new spin.
Rauschenberg and Pollock are the premier American artists for
our country's most defining philosophical trait: pragmatism. This
"Sling Shot" illustrates Rauschenberg in top form.
Even the owners get to reconfigure the images to their
Jesse Hayward and Aili Schmeltz
6635 N Baltimore, Ste. 211
Schmeltz's installation (detail).
The title to this show, Nowadays, was so grammatically
Midwestern I initially thought it was a kind of nod to "That '70s
Show"-style retro kitsch culture. "That '70s Show,"
like most great nostalgia sitcoms ("Happy Days," "Joni
Loves Chachi") not surprisingly is set in my home state,
Thus, I was fully prepared to regale people with my
superior '70s knowledge (being a child of the era), consisting
of references to "Kramer vs. Kramer's" infamous chicken
scene, playing my first ABBA LP, the difference between Formula
and Firebird Trans Ams and the "raw power" attachment to my red
Schwinn stingray bicycle with a banana seat.
I was completely wrong. This was no quote-fest lampoon
like "That '70s Show." Instead it was a seething indictment
on current art practices as lensed through some '70s heresies
rather than anything popularly associated with that era. I should
have known. Haze's directors, Jack Shimko and Leah Emkin (in particular),
seem hell-bent on not being anything like mass media. There is
smart, tough thinking going on here.
Instead, Nowadays was a show incredibly tuned to current
times even to the point of being just as unresolved as the current
moment in history. Finally, some refreshing honesty.
The two artists could not have been more different
in their approaches.
Jesse Hayward, whom I reviewed last November, is kinda
the Frankenstein's monster that all those third-rate abstract
expressionist professors who snagged university positions in the
'60s and '70s would have never allowed to graduate.
There is no angst, no tension; just the kind of mess
and glee one gets from knowing painting's power as a medium can
start over again by being shredded in some farm machinery like
Hayward's art is uneven, but only as that of an intentional
heretic would necessarily have to be. It's also easy to misunderstand.
I suspect the average bourgeois lederhosened villagers might want
to carry torches into Haze to burn these things. After a conversation
I had with Hayward, I think this is apparently the case. One St.
John's yokel stammered "those paintings are a waste of education"
to this genuine and pleasant artist. Um, point taken wise man.
Hayward has an MFA from one of the best art schools in the country,
CCAC in the Bay area (when it was still called CCAC). It is possible
that sophistication is wasted on the unsophisticated.
One standout work, "Augsberg," is to painting what
haggis is to cuisine. It consists of layer after layer of glittery
goo and sickening glop.
The paint is slurried into a gumbo that reminds
me why people stare at car crashes ... it's just fascinatingly
This is a cultural excyclema. In Greek theater it
was a scene too awful to display on stage, so the violence happens
offstage only to be frozen as a tableau on a cart wheeled out
before the audience.
Much like oysters, it is an acquired taste. You are
either tough enough to handle it or you dismiss it as a mess.
Still, it doesn't go quite far enough, since the intense texture
seems to be calling for free-form sculpture.
Problem is, "Augsberg" isn't a mess. The
left side is keyed more to the juxtaposition of red and robins-egg
blue (harsh), and the right is keyed to rubber-ducky yellow and
the same grandpa-pajama blue. Thus, it is a formal exploration
of the three primary colors with tertiaries, intense texture and
glitter thrown in. It's all about throwing all but truly perceptive
eyes off the trail. Hayward's better paintings separate the men
from the boys, kinda like winning a really ugly boxing match.
Less challenging works (success isn't even an issue
here) like "Donner" and "Travelodge" simply masquerade as the
overly saccharine works one finds in bad hotel rooms. By flirting
with something worse than kitsch, these become a tour of philistinism.
At least "Travelodge" is cracked philistinism; one
can see crevasses in the paint.
Furthermore, "Donner" is a completely unnecessary
double-layered canvas. Who knows what the secret painting underneath
has? I like the philosophical implications for painting that has
hidden kinetic mystery embedded in it.
Yes, it's a stupid thing to do ... kinda like becoming
an artist instead of an accountant! But it's culturally admirable.
Other works, like "Tonic," juxtaposed the monochrome
black painting on top and the gloop on the bottom. Funny enough,
the "Black" painting is probably one of the colorful
gloop paintings paved over in literally gallons of black paint.
Hey, if you can pave paradise, you can pave hell,
Still, one senses Hayward has not quite hit his ultimate
mark in terms of heresy. His painting sculptures, like "Steve,"
"Chris" and "Bob," are too uniform like colon polyps in
the intestines of painting history.
His work has precedents in Chamberlain, DeKooning,
Franz West and Jules Olitski, and it begs to be a little crazier…
a little less evenly distributed … a lot more irregular.
This is something we get from the most recent work
in the show, the sculpture "Erin." It's elegant, lithe and only
kinda ugly. I like it, but it still isn't awkward enough.
Hayward has the potential to do great things, but
only if he stops being so symmetrical.
This was the single most challenging painting show
I've seen in the last year, and it was not for the faint of heart.
Nice job, but be less contained next time.
Aili Schmeltz had a very different strategy.
very large installation at Haze, and one painting.
Her ambitiously scaled installation combined a lot
of Midwest lake-culture elements: maritime upholstery, model train-set
trees and over-saturated paintings of deer mating season by rustic,
glacial kettle lakes.
Schmeltz is that weird kinda creature, the rusticated
Mod. Instead of purely looking to a future, she uses imagery from
parts of this earth that never seem to change.
In fact, the other night I was discussing how furniture
in lake cabins is almost always a kind of time capsule of '50s,
'60s or '70s furniture. My family even has one that is firmly
set in the '20s. My point is that by being vacation homes they
always have this positivist vacation vibe.
Now, Modernism was not all "the future will be better,"
since Modernist masterpieces like Franz Marc's "The Fate
of the Animals," Kandinsky's "Flood Improvisation"
and Picasso's "Les Demoiselles de Avignon" were clearly
pessimistic and dark. Instead, they addressed change and Schmeltz
does similar things by reaching back to a primal past filtered
through vacation-time idylls.
paintings and installation.
In particular, "mating" seems to preoccupy her paintings,
and her installations seem like interesting topographies to do
some mating in.
Let's face it: If you are mating regularly you usually
see the challenges of the day with a little more "I can handle
this" attitude. For that reason, she is pretty Mod.
Still, I felt the installation was overdone. Maybe
fewer blue topographic lines and less cushions would have helped.
In spite of those things, it's great to see an installation
this big and ambitious. I'd like to see it take on a little more
focus, i.e. a stronger correlation of the mating deer to the topography.
Despite that, Schmeltz is a major player in the scene and it was
almost like having springtime early.
Overall, between Hayward and Schmeltz, Nowadays seemed
to indicate that Portland's big thaw in 2003 is beginning to bloom
and, what's more, it is inviting people from elsewhere to play.
Group Hug: Motel, Girls Gone Wild, _Hall, Pacific
and Gaut's "Fearless" at Motel.
As for standout pieces in group shows, I found Johnne
Eschelman and Adrian Gaut's work at Motel, "Fearless," to be very
poignant and poetic.
With its broken heart, dismembered head and cold-
looking water, the cartoony dove or penguin was drenched in gallows
The most important detail is the word "fearless,"
written in dashed lines as if it was a sewing pattern that could
be cut out and reapplied somewhere else.
I like this kind of pathos, where the human spirit
in its quest for love can be renewed and defeated again and again.
Sure, the pangs-o-love are painful and nobody expects
to survive them, but most of us do.
Humans are survivors.
Between Eschlemen's poetic conceit and Gaut's strong
line, these two artists seemed like a perfect marriage and an
excellent illustration of the human condition. Anything worth
having is at least a little scary.
Porter's "A Book Arts Show."
At _Hall, there was a very smart show called Multiplex.
Consisting of woven elements and book works, this was a nicely
laid out exhibition with only a few duds. My favorites were by
Iris Porter and Rachel Wiecking, who makes delicate mixed-media
Porter's "A Book Arts Show" was a wry, inspired piece.
With its catawampus oversized ladder and the warning, "do not
climb," it mirrored the ubiquitous preciousness of book arts shows
and gives the viewer the visual equivalent of a "shhhhhh"
from a librarian. Yet, the implied dare to discover the books
nestled at the top was exactly what it's like to find an excellent
book in a store or library. Any installation that evokes hunter/gatherer
behavior is doing something right.
Besides, how can one go wrong with a strange ladder
that could be right out of Alice in Wonderland or Christina Rossetti's
"The Goblin Market"? This mixture of fantasy and commentary
on reality made this a real find.
We should all take note of this space that gave birth
to the first Donut Shop, Maritime and the Portland Independent
Stains," by Harrison Haynes.
Although Pacific Switchboard had three artists in
its latest show, I really only liked two paintings by New Yorker
Harrison Haynes: "Grass Stains" and "Kitty Dunes Reality." The
rest of Haynes' later 2003 work, like "Outbuilding," was just
fetishing isolation; it's passé and trite. I liked the
other two because they were nostalgic dreams and added an open-ended
mythic experience to illustrations of an unfamiliar personal history.
"Grass Stains" is more open ended and weird, with
its masculine posturing and what's up with that dog? Haynes can
paint, but his later works from 2003 are stillborn. In "Outbuilding,"
the shack that exists in black space is too shrill and too rehearsed
to achieve anything more than the predictability of "this is a
painting of a lone shack which signifies loneliness and isolation."
Also at Pacific Switchboard, local photographer Shawn
Records achieves similar levels of bluntness and lack of poetry.
Some of the photographs, like the one with a young girl with a
snake between her legs, are just ultra-detailed double entendres…
like someone saying, "I get it ... the snake is a P-E-N-I-S."
In the end, Records' work is something only a lover
of photographic technique could find worthy, even though the compositions
are kinda flat, too. Just because they are large, detailed, well-framed
photos doesn't make them interesting. They lack style and the
content (oftentimes gender politics) is just as wanting. Presentation
and format is something photographers get too caught up in, and
it resembles Greenbergian formalism in its "can't see the forest
for the trees" technical myopia.
Similarly unfulfilling was the "Girls Gone Wild" show
at Powell's. Besides Megan Walsh, Carson Ellis's "Lucky Green
Dress" and Marne Lucas's PG Pony Ride, the work was more "girls
gone self-conscious," "overcooked" or just plain "mild."
Instead of a curatorial statement, the title is just
a stunt to get people to take a look-see. That said, the strategy
worked ... although it was not so much the title but the long
list of artists, some of whom I am keeping tabs on.
The highlight: Walsh's photo of one of Portland's
most distinctive beauties is dramatically cropped with just her
chin at the top of the frame. I've never seen such good structure
in Walsh's photography. The shot is anything but fragile, anything
but overtly sexual. It just seems respectful and familiar, akin
to making a special someone breakfast on Sunday morning. Walsh's
photography has always included these middle scenes where the
chin is all we can see it creates an immediacy. In this
case it really works and there's nothing exploitive about it.
At PNCA, Jubal Nance's "Space Garbage" was an extremely
welcome contrast to the horribly bad PNCA staff show, which may
be the single worst thing I have ever seen in a university gallery.
The Higgins project was nearly as sad and about a thousand times
more self-righteously sullen; at least they are students, so I
In contrast, Nance's installation mimicking sci-fi
sets from space shows like "Jason of Star Command,"
"White Dwarf" and, especially, "Space 1999,"
was a perfect antidote.
Nance's "Space Garbage."
"Space Garbage" was created from 90- percent-recycled
materials pulled from PNCA dumpsters. What is important is the
At 20 or more feet away it looks great: the conduits,
power couplings (sci-fi space is full of power couplings) and
hoses create a setting where one expects the cylons or Boba Fett
are about to crash through at any moment.
But close up it is just cheesy junk and cardboard.
How is this different than any old "Doctor Who"
By being garbage, it acknowledges its pulp-pop iconography,
a lived-in universe that George Lucas popularized. Without the
cameras it is a playground to revisit and explore our memory of
sci-fi tropes. So go, be Kirk, Darth Vader or the biggest cheese
ball in all of acting history, Ricardo Montelban as "Kahn." Time
to geek out and reenact a scene from "The Empire Strikes
Princess Leah: "Han… I love you"
Han Solo: "I know!"
(Han is then frozen in carbonite by Darth Vader)
As a cultural critic, I suggest Americans must master
the cheese or it will certainly master us. Nance gives us a golden
opportunity to do just that. Please, make more of these!
Critics and Curators
Marylhurst University, Feb. 18
(aka The Love Fest)
Curtis, Daniel Duford, Jeff Jahn, Eva Lake, Camela Raymond and
Ellis' debauched "Lucky Green Dress" from Girls
Gone Wild... what is this about?
Panel discussions like these are always flawed, but
some good things were discussed on Feb. 18 at Marylhurst University
like artists' prices and how many shows we each see per
Nan Curtis mentioned originating some touring shows,
Eva Lake brought a different side of the story from Curtis and
myself (apparently we've become art-world insiders around here),
Camela Raymond brought up how rare it is to find art writers and
I brought up an idea of a Turner/Bass Prize for Portland. Daniel
Duford was clear and concise as well.
But overall, it was the same old sort of thing,
with lots of talk but little discussion of action (except for
Curtis's show plans).
I felt it necessarily started as too cordial and
ended (as these things almost always do) just when some interesting
notions deserved more attention.
It would have been good for us to challenge one
another directly. I must add that very little discussion covered
curatorial practices, which is a shame because it's a practice
concerned with managing expectations and context (critics react
to and build expectations and context). I dislike the idea that
all curatorial practice must be detached, since major artists
like Takashi Murakami and Damien Hirst have had stellar effects
as catalyst participants in shows they have put together, like
Frieze and Super Flat.
The focus on institution (i.e. curators) is an epidemic
and many reviewers seem to pay more attention to the space, its
reputation and the nice white walls rather than content. In fact,
most American art writing is expository and rapidly becoming unnecessary,
since jpegs are so easy to share. Why simply describe when showing
is so much better?
Then there were some things that raised my hackles
at the discussion.
Raymond, editor of the Organ "review of arts,"
essentially claimed it isn't the Organ's place to promote artists
and described the goal as more "literary." Then she
stated (the discussion was taped), "I'm tired of hearing
artists promote themselves, actually." OK then, like so many
other writers, maybe she prefers dead artists? Why cover a living
scene with that attitude?
This, of course, is my old beef with her and I've
gotta make an ethical argument or two.
Her statement is at best naive, because any press
is a form of promotion and validation (see Core Sample, etc.)
and it's better to use that power judiciously than to pretend
it doesn't exist. At worst, it means her bimonthly publication
becomes a willful excuse to turn the lives and work of living
artists into a writers' workshop that self-consciously stops short
of really taking ownership of its subject matter.
Is it a bait and switch? Does art serve purely as
literary fodder? And how insightful can that fodder be if it fails
to discuss anything in depth? Once again, specific attention does
become a kind of "promotion," but the more common word
for it is content.
When depth and details are omitted due to "promotional
concerns," all that is left for a writer is the quip or remark.
Many of these remarks can be strung together when supposedly reviewing
group shows resulting in a thoroughly uninformative communiqué.
That is a writer's vanity and is much worse than any promotion;
it discredits the writer more than anything.
Conversely, writers like Voltaire, Gore Vidal and
Matthew Collings used the quip effectively, although it was sharpened
on the grindstone of promoting one side over another.
Thus, coverage is the issue here, and the question
of what constitutes valuable wordsmithing is central. (Funny enough
a satirical article, "Which
is better? Art vs. art criticism," appeared in this publication
As a rule, a short (dismissive or positive) remark
without a followup qualification does not constitute true coverage
in a dedicated arts publication. Instead, exploring the question
"why" while discussing the artist's aims vs. the reviewer's
experience is key. This is a problem common to much art writing
outside of the major magazines.
Since Raymond's stated goal at the discussion was
to "motivate dialog ... but not boost," I sense too
much pre-editing on the "form" side. Yet, I understand
that dry taste; no complaints there.
Still, any kind of "motivational writing"
inherently boosts something. Hamstring the qualified excitement
too much and the quality of discourse suffers as well. Overall,
I think she's confusing tone for content.
Besides, providing dry, writerly and tempered coverage
is possible, even when giving special attention.
Lastly, Raymond admits that there are few actual
reviews in the Organ.
Wiekening at Multiplex: The_Hall Gallery. The Oregonian, Willamette
Week and Mercury missed it, yet it deserved attention.
Simply put, the Organ needs to be better at the
arts than the generalist publications like the Oregonian, Willamette
Week and the Mercury. Those are professional publications that
don't fear being critical or doing rare, often brief, interviews
of artists. Once again, it's no sin to give individual artists
But generalist publications can't focus on the minutia
that some art deserves. What's more, it's challenging to write
about work that requires depth.
In fact, in-depth profiles of artists are a good
direction and one shouldn't need to be of Gus Van Sant's stature
to warrant them.
Inexplicably, it has been OK for institutional spokespersons
to have profile articles in the Organ regarding their shows and
organizations. Sounds potentially promotional, eh? Why the double
standard? Why is the individual such a pariah?
Also, by purposefully avoiding in-depth arts coverage
yet continually expanding the actual size of the paper, the Organ's
space has to be filled somehow. It has become an unintentional,
but thinly veiled, social pages where the agitprop rarely cuts
across cliques. This makes getting new writers more difficult
than it has to be, and it defeats the early "big tent"
intentions of the publication.
Sivak at Blackfish.
Don't get me wrong, though. I support Raymond's
endeavor and empathize. She is interested in an area where she
has little background and it's absolutely a ton of work. I don't
intend this to be mercenary but, as we know, no good deed goes
Still, she's making it extra tough on herself and
I'm concerned about her getting burnt out. To be fair, she is
wisely delegating some duties to more opinionated and seemingly
more interested parties. That is a good move; let them do what
they need to do.
I'm purposefully ignoring that sophomoric, "what
should the Organ be" essay contest that was run last year.
Talk about pandering!
One general thing that caught me in the panel discussion
was a tacit acceptance that people don't want to be critical.
That is not my experience. The reader usually wants the writer
to be critical so that they then have license or opportunity to
agree or disagree.
It's also been my experience that people who don't
want to be critical are covering something up. I don't live in
a glass house.
With that in mind I offer to debate anyone who wishes
to do so, publicly or privately.
Raymond's March 5 response to Jeff Jahn. ed.]