just before the sun disappears behind the West Hills
5 years in the Portland art scene
Make your own weather
by Jeff Jahn
"Five years my brain hurts a lot, five years
that's what we've got" David Bowie
one recent night I was walking past a martini bar in the Pearl
District and caught the young woman closing up shop dancing a
hilarious little shimmy the kind one never wants anyone
else to see because it was only a quasi-dance.
OK, besides the bar being a tad Pottery Barn-ish fer
me, I warmed to the place because of the disarming and funny moment.
Yep, handle your scandal: So you got caught enjoying yourself
and at work no less ... Good on you! Sometimes you have to forget
about everyone else.
Sometimes you've gotta make your own weather.
As a musician, I learned how sounds and patterns set
up expectations and a mood; they also create pace and momentum.
A musician learns how to move people. I learned discipline there,
too. I also experienced sheer immersive excellence from playing
Beethoven and a Guarneri (once).
Guarneri was the chap who taught Stradivarius how
to make violins and, yes, they are better. From music I also learned
how to get into "the zone" at the blink of an eye ... other artists
and writers often wonder how I get so much done; well, that's
how. However, I have been an artist the longest ... I started
painting landscapes in oils at age six.
In addition, athletes learn to pace themselves and
train. Through the early influence of Muhammad Ali, I learned
you could pretty much say anything as long as you could back it
up in the ring. Ali was the single most amazing thing of the '70s,
and I have to put him as one of the five top people of the 20th
century, alongside Henry Ford, Jimi Hendrix, Henri Matisse and
Einstein. A case for Buster Keaton, the Beatles, Martin Luther
King Jr., Gandhi, Frank Lloyd Wright, Robert Oppenheimer, FDR
and Menachem Begin (for a real twister) could be made. But I won't.
I contend that exemplars of action have more influence (for and
against their actions) than designated leaders of nations or even
Tower: an unparalleled tribute to mediocrity by committees?
I come from a family that has affected things on a
historical scale so I never really had the option of thinking
that individuals had no effect on their world.
Now I've been in Oregon for five years and as much
as I'd have preferred to quietly sit down and be given a Nobel
Prize for drinking strong coffee and shooting rhetorical holes
in the rhizomatic Marxist bureaucracies of Gilles Deleuze while
listening to the "horn throwing" rock of Blonde Redhead in Northwest
Portland coffee shops ... I suspected that wasn't going to happen.
Besides, nothing happens here without a push. But
there is also an intense civic intelligence in Portland that I
find in very few U.S. cities. What's more, it's different than
the intelligence I find in San Fran or New York, where all ideas
seem to have a "done that already" qualification; yet those projects
still plow ahead in self-parody. Here almost everything is for
the first time, or at least it appears that way.
The new plan for the World Trade Center is a case
in point; it is clearly a parody of what everyone wanted it to
be. A building with tacked-on wind turbines? Why? To recall a
time of nostalgic prop-driven airliners which lacked the explosive
jet fuel of an appropriated 727?
For a local example, there is the Portland Building
by Michael Graves. Its groundbreaking but crummy design was basically
the fault of architectural Deus-ex-Machina Philip Johnson. I find
most of Johnson's own work overrated; then again, it's true to
form since his clients are mostly highly rated A-list corporations.
Graves' Portland Building, with its very un-hypothetical (bathroom-like
charm) failings virtually inoculated Portland from the later bastardizations
of Deleuze and Jameson that fueled mid-'80s postmodern architecture.
Translation: I suspect Portlanders saw postmodernist
architectural pastiches as "so 1980" ... even in 1980.
installation, "I am Switzerland III." Background work by
Justin Oswald (left), Jacqueline Ehlis (right); from Battle
of the Artist Curators, Haze Gallery, November 2003. Parts
of the show were commentaries on '70s minimalism.
Despite the foresight, Portland got even more conservative
in terms of architectural statements. Instead, there was a retreat
during the '80s. Portland was a place where people liked to be
where they were and quietly progressive like a town that
wasn't a town. Problem was, Portland was growing up. The buildings
got bigger and nearly two million people now live in the greater
By 1992 the city had some critical mass, but not a
mass of serious criticism.
Instead, "no" was the status quo and nothing was given
a very serious shakedown. Really, it wasn't the worst plan: chill
out and wait to see what happens. It also allowed visual artists
the opportunity to be the first to shake up that status quo; architecture
is very slow compared to the other arts.
Thus, despite being a rather private, bookish, research-in-musty-archives
sort, I realized I'd have to roll up my sleeves and annoy people
until they started taking cultural endeavors more seriously in
the sleepy Portland of five years ago.
I wasn't the only one ... and that meant polarizing
Of course, I would rather just make my paintings and
write my book but it's a tricky catch-22 in this "Sweden with
SUVs," as Peter Schjeldahl called Portland in 2001. Before
one could unveil anything really good here there had to be a mechanism
or two to get credit for the effort.
That meant a critical and aesthetic audit. It seems
to be working now that quality of discourse in concept and execution
is finally an issue that is being discussed. The artists in Portland
are starting to get noticed.
In the visual arts, if a tree falls in a forest and
no one sees, it simply did not happen.
|The new wing at thePortland Art Museum; September 2005
I have heard it a hundred times: Portland has seen
these blips before, but a real change and consolidation is taking
place in a way that is very different.
Consider the mass of top-notch MFA grads coming here.
Consider Haze Gallery making more in sales in March than most
longtime galleries. Consider a real-estate boom of lofts and condos
in the gallery-laden Pearl District. Consider a massive new contemporary
art wing on the museum in 2005.
Then consider years of art-scene churning that have
occasionally out-contemporaried nationally known institutions
like PICA and made the Portland Art Museum's recent Biennial look
silly. I would say something lasting is about to happen; question
is: to what shape will it take and at what level?
Despite this looming onslaught of potential boom or
bust, I have to say I absolutely love the vibe here and genuinely
like most everyone I've met (even the assholes).
Here are some favorite, poignant moments:
from the Play show putting in a long day at the office.
1) Meeting Jim Hodges and Shelly Hirsh at PICA and
having a fun time talking about mostly nothing ... then mentioning
that I am a critic. They gave me this look as if I had died; they
seemed so sad. I wanted to explain that I have been an artist
since age six, working in oils and doing stained-glass windows
… being a critic is just a way of catalytically focusing others
and myself, isn't it? I can use my evil word-powers for good!
2) On Sept. 11, 2001, the five artists of the Play
show met to discuss the show's final proposal at the Aalto Lounge.
Obviously, all hell was breaking loose that day. Bruce Conkle
and Todd Johnson were driving a box truck through Idaho and arrived
relieved to be out of the survivalist zone. Discussions were frank
and matter of fact about the events of the day. I got the reassuring
feeling that civilization falls back on its artists in such times.
The interesting thing was that none of us were too surprised by
the events ... it was not beyond imagination. Lastly, we all knew
people in New York.
3) Two people in Gumby suits burst into the Play show
opening at PSU. Another friend is roller-skating in the gallery
... PSU's anti-alcohol policy is not a detriment and things are
festive anyway. Chandra Bocci curates herself into the show with
a mini-installation next to the comment book.
"Baladachino," at the Vactican.
4) At PICA there is a meet-and-greet with Dave Hickey,
one of those people who annoys me intensely because he published
many of my ideas before I could. I developed quite separately
of him and my thinking is more flexible. I love both Egon Schiele
and Donald Judd; Hickey is clearly wrong about Norman Rockwell.
Besides, nobody imitates a caricaturist. Yet he seems to think
Rockwells are some secret password of Americana, whereas they
are really just a wackier, more mannerist version of reality that
nobody believes existed ... sort of like the Brady Bunch.
We were on the roof of the W+K building and a young
Reed professor was testing his brain with the typical academic
flurry of detailed questions, mostly about Etruscan pottery.
It's the sort of thing one does when one wants to
prove one is not dumb. Hickey is game (the prof is cute), but
I can tell this is kinda his daily boredom routine.
I get the same thing sometimes: Some hotshot college
kid wants to explain the relevance of Bernini's Baldachino to
Frank Gehry's designs. Yawn ... sorta forced ... yawn.
Hickey eventually launched into a litany of who is
useful on an intellectual level: Pierce, Pater, Ruskin (he found
Derrida useless). He springboards from this list to describe the
process of seeing. The prof mentions the ubiquitous John Berger,
who is very matter of fact and not so useful.
|da Vinci: just a guy with an eye ... but what an eye!
Hickey obviously does not want to go down that eight-lane
highway of academic platitudes. I jump in: "really, it's so much
older than all that; how about da Vinci's description of a 'kingdom
of the eye' it predates Bacon and works better than all
the postmodern dissecting tables. Leonardo's shield had an effect,
not just an anatomy-lesson quality."
Hickey quickly turns to me, no longer in defensive
stump-speech mode, "that's the guy ..."
Hickey seems to be both pleased and pissed. I know
Since his death in 1519, Leonardo is still freaking
people out, having eaten our lunch already in so many ways. And
I wasn't interested in testing Hickey or myself, but it was interesting
to note what makes people feel a day late and a dollar short.
5) Being famished and eating two full entrée
dinners and splitting a bottle of wine with Jack Daws, Matthew
Picton and Ephraim Russell the weekend before The Best Coast show
opened. The conversation is great, with a wide-ranging discourse
over Aristotle's assertion that all great art must be ambivalent
(Plato didn't even think art was useful). We decide Aristotle's
idea does not work for 2003.
Nap": a painting I completed on site at The Best Coast;
a kind of daydream of a painting that evolves past white walls.
Somehow, the question of the core human experience
implied connected interaction with one's universe, not an idealization
or segregation of it. Maybe a different humanism is necessary
today ... one which helps facilitate empathy between unrelated
things, like Picton's manmade sculptures of natural forms or Russell's
useless but fascinating ergonomic objects.
We were all talking about design with empathic acknowledgement
of both the human and the other built into it. I guess that instead
of modernism, it is something cultivating attachment not
the throwaway snarkiness of ambivalent culture.
It is not all pure utility or consumer choice. There
can be attachment and loyalty, too.
In one wild moment someone asks, "so did Aristotle
lay the groundwork for the ambivalent consumerism of fast food?"
We staggered back to the exhibition space in an industrial wasteland
of warehouses that will some day be very developed.
Artists get there first and now the city's best restaurant,
clarklewis, is in the building that only 10 months ago housed
The Best Coast.
I am glad the restaurant carries forth the same theme
of elegance coming from an acknowledged rough industrial interior
and a very matter-of-fact presentation and bit-by-bit sampling
of very high-quality food. The Best Coast did the same with art,
somewhere between a studio visit and a farmers market with marfa-esque
elegance. Its about essentials, not the trappings.
What I have learned: It's better to test outside the
bell curve and let 'em just try to figure out if you are either
very stupid or very strategic.
What I've also learned is that, far from just a bunch
of ironists or pageantry mongers, artists create and catalyze
culture. Maybe they don't invent it, but artists facilitate and
catalyze the distinction between a subsistence human settlement
and an outpost of civilization where mankind's philosophy and
the universe's unknown remain in constant, conversant flux.
Artists worth remembering take the atmosphere around
them and alter it. Under the right circumstances (usually a few
artists doing their own thing) the climate changes become more
It isnt done by committee or with buildings,
but with statements by individuals who simply won't accept what
is already out there.