Tram, PSU's MFA, Boulton, May, Dalbow
by Jeff Jahn
signs were visible everywhere in May: Portland is in the process
of dynamic and concrete changes. Here are four of the biggest
1) Thousands of sold-out upscale loft/condos in
the gallery-laden Pearl District have made this neighborhood
much taller and, presumably, denser. The Henry, which opens
soon, is the most expensive and architecturally interesting
of the lot, and is situated conveniently next to the planet's
best bookstore, Powell's.
Now the neighborhood I described as "America's most
expensive ghost town" three
years ago in Critical i is finally taking shape.
2) Final plans for the unique aerial tram by AGPS
Architects are in. Unlike the Roosevelt Island tram in New York
(the one, and only slightly, comparable precedent) this has
design quality and will get a lot of attention in the international
It goes before the city council for final approval
June 10. If approved, the project will be finished in spring
2006. As the lynchpin of the billion-dollar South Waterfront
District biotech and residential development, the tram is a
big deal. I love this solution let the biotech geeks
have their own downtown! The neighborhood beneath the tram will
be affected, but long-term property values should increase exponentially
due to footbridge access to the tram and interconnected light
of the South Waterfront District.
Many excellent artists, such as Laura Fritz, Jesse
Hayward, Matthew Picton, Alia Schmeltz and Ellen George have
The new tram design has fixed the troublesome mid-tower,
which allows cars to rise 500 feet above I-5. The tower itself
is like a wonderfully minimalist Tony Smith sculpture, instead
of the previous, dull scaffolding look. I like the elegant eastern
knife-edge and Martha Graham-ish diagonals. As a key feature,
the tram cars are unobtrusively futuristic bubbles that refract
light and are nothing like the monorail or anything in the movie
mid-tower from the southeast, showing proposed ivy-covered
From the north and south sides, the tower will have
architectural presence viewable from I-5, but will be less obtrusive
from the east and west to preserve residential views.
The hilltop terminal looks a little like one of
Robert Delaunay's cubist Eiffel Tower paintings and addresses
the engineering requirements that it never rotate more than
3/4 of an inch despite the million pounds of tension from the
Hopefully, the mid-tower won't be painted simple
white. Why not pull a Rem Koolhaas and use a mildly iridescent
paint that makes it blend into the landscape with a water-vapor-like
shimmer? As a design it's understated, yet ambitious and useful.
the exact opposite of the Space Needle.
It's a nice design that reminds me a tad of Zaha
Hadid's Austrian ski jump at Innsbruck.
IV," by James Boulton.
3) Extensive construction on the new modern/contemporary
art wing at the Portland Art Museum. The 28,000 square feet
of gallery space is vastly more than the recent Zaha Hadid-designed
Cincinnati Contemporary Art Center, which has 17,000 square
Expect it to help bring in donations of important
art works. The collection already includes Gilbert & George,
Kevin Appel, George Segal and Paul Klee's work, but we never
get to see them due to a lack of dedicated gallery space. This
is the solution and I like how the design is progressive but
understated, allowing us to focus on the art.
4) A nearly sold-out debut show by a young artist
like James Boulton at Pulliam Deffenbaugh Gallery.
In terms of shows, May had plenty of OK-to-good
solo shows by Boulton, Dan May, Anna Fiedler, Tim Dalbow, Paul
Fujita, Molly Wolfe and Kimba Kuzas. Frankly, good is about
the best you see anywhere. Only Intense Focus, with Amanda Wojick
and Russell Crotty at Elizabeth Leach Gallery and Dan May's
Wood show at PDX Gallery were better than good. I'll give May,
Boulton and Dalbow's solo shows some deserved scrutiny this
Jensen's ceramic kitties ... what's new, pussycat?
My favorite new piece of art in May (after taking
in Chicago, Denver and Milwaukee) was by Portlander Malia Jensen,
who has been working hard in New York for the last seven months.
Jensen's cuddling ceramic kitties at PDX Gallery
are so kitschy, cold, cuddly and personable ... I think she
has found a way to make mimetic, soulful longing new again in
This is a breakthrough, as the surface and detailing
are both solid and ghostly nondescript. Is this a phantom limb
of sorts? Contemporaries, like Claire Cowie, are more neurotic-kitschy
sardonic and it comes off a contrived rather than poetic like
Jeff Koons made ceramics as well, but nobody would
say his work has Jensen's soul. Only the great Louise Bourgeois
does this kind of longing. But instead of Jensen's phantom connections,
Bourgeois's work is one of phantom estrangement. It is two sides
of the same coin.
It's a good coin. Instead of postmodern isolation,
this new work explores the fragile but powerful connections
that allow us to identify with and even love art, while remaining
cool and universally nondescript. All this is accomplished with
a solid theoretical base melding the pop-culture kitties to
a finish-fetish sheen while not mocking itself or the viewer.
at a crossroads
In 2001, Peter Schjeldahl called Portland "Sweden
with SUVs." In 2004, it's becoming Weimar with credit cards.
People know something worthwhile is going on and artists are
very much jockeying for position while simultaneously experimenting.
Still, artists continue to collaborate with fashion designers,
restaurants and filmmakers. Im hearing plans for large
warehouse shows for the summer.
McCormick's "Black Boot."
Even Rose McCormick's dare to have people check
out her studio to determine if her black-and-white-on-burlap
works are any good brought out well-heeled collectors for a
My opinion: her "Black Boot" is a good direction.
I like how it combines myth, Philip Guston, hipster/oldster
footwear and minimalism, without looking like Rothko's very
pretentious pre-breakthrough works. The unpainted right and
bottom sides make it work. Still, she needs to develop a narrative
context to pull off a full series for a show.
One notes that willingness for art lovers to explore
is a marked difference from most places, where such invitations
fall on deaf ears. It's all just museums and gallery openings.
Here the collectors have gotten used to checking things out
for themselves a huge sea change likely brought about
by last year's five visual-art extravaganzas: IAE, The Best
Coast, The Modern Zoo, Oregon Biennial and Core Sample. Suddenly,
the collectors drove to the art no matter where the hell we
The fact that young artists are getting a chance
to prove themselves shows a system is working here. These changes
in the cultural climate are permanent and every new development
builds a precedent of hard work, cultural excitement and reward.
Paisley's "American Beauty Rose," done in royal icing.
Even PSU is graduating a nice crop of MFAs
Bonnie Paisley, Anna Fiedler and Mariana Tres in particular.
Go see them and others at Marylhurst University's venerable
Art Gym this month.
PSU needs to get a donor to fund a serious MFA program
with both curatorial studies and fine-arts degrees. This requires
better gallery hours and management, international artist residencies
and an in-house curator, such as every other serious school
Portland Art Museum's new art library will help
facilitate some of this. PSU simply has to step up and only
a major donor can jump-start it very important for the
city and PSU.
There is even a follow-up to the Pearl District
itself: the South Waterfront. Thankfully, it will have higher
architectural aspirations than that warehouse-cum-condo Pearl
and effects of Viviana Spoikoininich by Mariana Tres.
The newly christened South Waterfront has already
broken ground on the two 20- and 24-story glass residential
towers, dubbed "The Meriwether" (think Lewis and Clark).
Is it kosher to intimate one is on a first-name
basis with a long-dead explorer? Frankly, I haven't decided
if the name is cool or constipated-sounding yet ... it depends
on the quality of the building.
Portland, with its budding biotech industry and
Starfleet academy-approved razor-tower living in the South Waterfront
is positioning itself for industry beyond Intel, Columbia Sportswear,
Weiden & Kennedy, Nike and the brewpubs.
Impressively, Portland's plans will maintain all
of its other neighborhoods: the walkable and lively downtown,
art-hopping Pearl, the hipster and café-laden Alphabet District,
gritty/arty Eastbank, wealthy West Hills, funky Clinton Street,
cash-laden hippie heaven Hawthorne, bohemian Alberta, etc.
(through June 16)
Dan May's Wood show at PDX Gallery wins my vote
for most accomplished solo outing for the month.
May has grown in mysterious ways since his Art Gym
retrospective last year.
May now elicits a very satisfying state of confusion
in me, because it's tough to put a finger on why his work is
so individual and personal. Somehow, he seems to capture the
secret wishes of bibliophiles, the unmade projects of architects
and the memories of childhood forts into his wood-and-cardboard
conglomerations. If you collect rare books or love archives,
you will want one of these.
My personal favorite is the untitled corrugated
cardboard rectangle he finished just before the show opened,
as it seems to be either a template or an architectural model
with wooden inserts.
|Dan May's untitled #33.
Another untitled favorite is the lighter-colored
corrugated rectangle with grid lines.
Then there is the untitled rectangle with black
tabs and what looks to be a coffee cup stain, except coffee
would stain more.
Call 'em familiar mysteries.
Pulliam Deffenbaugh Gallery
|James Boulton's Plexus II (left) and I, 2004 (II was
the first in the series).
James Boulton's first major solo show has been highly
anticipated since last summer's Oregon Biennial.
For anyone who thought that appearance was an overnight
success, you are so deeply wrong. Of course, everyone knew Boulton
before the Biennial. For the sake of chronicling what you have
to do to get a solo show in Portland, let's list a few of his
First came a massive multi-canvas installation at
Powell's, two Everett Station Loft shows at Fleck Gallery (including
its closer, which was reviewed in the Oregonian by D.K. Row
nearly a year before the Biennial), and the Emergence show at
the Littman Gallery in May 2002, where he debuted "Spark Gap
Transmission," the Biennial painting.
|"Plexus I," by James Boulton.
In November 2002, he stood out at the Maritime show,
along with fellow 2003 Biennial alumnus Adam Sorenson.
One notices a few things: Boulton always showed
in good company and made his debut with a work more than 30
feet long, which included many Atari-esque lo-rez graphic forms.
Luck had nothing to do with it which brings
us to his Pearl District solo debut.
Boulton's latest work is purposefully tornadic disaster
art. We are in a time when painters are trying to reinvent the
form and, as Picasso said, "every act of creation is an act
Boulton's latest is Dionysian shredding of art gods
from De Kooning to Warhol (well, sort of). They also borrow
from video games, MTV videos and William Morris textile patterns.
These are all ideas related to Takashi Murakami's hugely influential
Superflat show which puréed, leveled and interchanged high-
and low-culture elements so freely that the unleavened imagery
supposedly lost caste, class and taste distinctions amongst
I found Boulton's new focus on competing patterns
to be a vast improvement over his military stenciled Lari Pittman-indebted
works at the Ulterior Motives show last November.
Works like "Plexus IV" are successful
exercises in synchratism-driven pattern combinations; it is
his most challenging and best realized work, but big orange
paintings are tougher to sell. Boultons focus on pattern
entropy is intriguing. Patterns usually indicate affiliation
and status. For example, European court life at Windsor Palace
is filled with patterns of ritualized activity. If the queen
sneezes, then everyone below a duke will follow a certain prescribed
etiquette. Also, the highland Scots used various tartans to
show clan affiliation. Patterns, affiliations and etiquette
are often analogous and Boulton is broadcasting the polite facts
impolitely. Maybe not impolitely enough.
Circumflex 4," by James Boulton.
As syncretism, Boulton makes a little voodoo by
layering recognizable patterns like Ben Day dots, floral patterns,
video games, paint smears and mushroom clouds.
He moves them around to loosely weld them to a conglomerate
that looks like claustrophobic Flash animation. The patterns
exist in enough detail to pick out, but never enough to resolve.
This dissonance is the best part of the work. Problem is, Boulton's
large-scale square works, like "Plexus I," "II"
and "IV," all resolved to an open area or image smack
dab in the center of each work.
This makes them feel static and balanced in a de
facto way that reduces their dynamic punch. "Plexus IV"
is the piece where the donut is minimized most and
is therefore the most dynamic.
Jackson Pollock's "The Deep" had a similar problem,
and Lee Krazner called it a kiss-ass to Clyfford Still. In Boulton's
case, I assume this donut hole is due to their large size and
square shape, making the center of the work the toughest thing
to reach when on the floor and the easiest to focus on when
on the wall.
"Spark Gap Transmission" and "Band Camp" from last
year were much more asymmetrical, explaining why they are still
Boulton's best and most dynamic large-scale compositions. Yet,
these new works have much more worthy style and content than
The mid-sized rectangular works do not have this
problem, leading me to believe the larger work's donut holes
were due to physical displacement. Rectangles are more inherently
My favorite is "Peptic Circumflex 5." I like how
the waves crash through on the left side, while a foamy white
seems to erupt from underneath them and the splotchy bad painting
from a J. Geils Band '80s video hover on the top and right.
It's a painting of paintings, like Matisse's red studio, only
this is a studio in a trash compactor.
|"Peptic Circumflex 5," by James Boulton.
"Peptic Circumflex 5" also seems to be the history
of the artist's own concept of what art is. The J. Geils Band
video was the first time the artist was exposed to people painting,
and he thought, OK, that is how people paint. I think of "5"
as a creation myth for the artist. Yet it is destructive as
well; "peptic" means ulcer to me.
Because it is critical, a few other issues need
addressing before Boulton is ready to hit L.A., London or New
York. It involves maximizing dynamics again, as this work has
nothing to do with minimalism.
Although all the paintings were internally cacophonous,
they were harmonized through Urban Outfitter and Gap store colors.
Of all the works, "Plexus I" is the least challenging,
as it borrows most heavily from Urban Outfitters with a little
less gushy painterliness than the other paintings. It is also
the most indebted to Sigmar Polkes fetish of transferred
Another problem with the body of work is that most
color tones were muted a little to reduce their clash, yet the
patterns themselves all scream dissonance. This incongruity
of philosophy and execution made the effect only slightly schizophrenic.
Using pastels is an easy way to get colors to work together,
but it blunts them, too. Try contrasting pastels with fully
saturated color for more push-pull dischord.
These paintings took their meds. If you are gonna
create discord, be dissonant. The mostly uniform color tones
made the whole show a little monotonous. Debuts are often like
|Ingrid Calame's "eeec-FFw-eeec-FFwFFw."
This debut was merely good with much promise
Artists, like the hot international artist Ingrid
Calame, who samples stains and splotches on sidewalks, have
stronger compositions, less hedged color, a weirder sense of
scale and a similar way of inviting entropy into the mix to
make legibility difficult. Her work sets the bar for this entropy
style, but Matisse's paintings of his own studio set all bars
for discordant pattern, asymmetrical beauty and weirdly wonderful
Boulton has more texture and visceral oomph than
Calame and Matisse. He needs to play those cards with more panache.
These works don't really question taste or composition
so much as create a puzzle of philosophical and aesthetic gag
reflexes and a somewhat candy-coated one at that. Call
it a conceptual and formal cipher that, like most of the best
artists in Portland, is meant to be experienced rather than
absolutely comprehended. Instead of a modernist or postmodern
solution, it's a grotesque Dr. Moreau car crash of already available
designs and idiomatic gestures. The viewer is the forensic detective
left to investigate.
|"Anachronism 2" and "Penthouse View," by Tim Dalbow.
The urban development is under way, so let's have
a master cultural plan.
In fact, this was the secret subject of Tim Dalbow's
ambitious Competition for Resources show at Haze. Although half
the time too muddy and/or too woozy-abstract, Dalbow's best
semi-abstract views of Portland embodied the developmental flux
of the Rose City.
This gives the work some historical relevance despite
the uneven showing. But the high points were high and large
of scale. His best works reminded me both of Robert Delaunay's
Eiffel Tower series and Richard Diebenkorn.
Four pieces were some of the best urban landscapes
I have seen in a while putting veteran George Johansson
to shame. For highlights, check out "Anachronism 2," "Obelisk
2" and the extra-nice "Penthouse View."
|Tim Dalbow's "Obelisk 2."
In Portland, only Henk Pander and Sandy Roumagoux
can handle paint as well as Dalbow. But they have honed the
fine art of varying on a theme.
Give Dalbow time.
Suggestion: vary the palette and expand the subject
matter to edgier themes the variety will synergize the
For non-formal gripes, there needs to be more clarity
of philosophy behind the work.
But since its subject is a time of urban redevelopment,
this want for clarity on my behalf might be more a civic wish
than an artistic consideration. This show bumped Dalbow up on
the radar, but did not solidify his position as comfy. Let's
see where he goes from here.