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Bruce Conkle's "Cathedral with Minarets, every demon has his day" (foreground) and "Lake of Omission" (right).
Critical i

Conkle, Harris & the new grads
Fantasy, history and the future?
by Jeff Jahn

une was a month of new MFA and BFA debuts and a few more seasoned soloists, like Bruce Conkle (Haze Gallery), who put on one of the very best shows in recent memory.

Conkle’s extensive show, by virtue of its historical, genocidal, environmental and right-here-right-now intensity is everything that a lot of the omnipresent cute art isn’t. Jerry Saltz accurately calls that cute stuff "termite art" in an online article.

Portland has termites, too, like Chandra Bocci. But she isn’t poisoned by the careerist platitudes and lack of critique so rife at the California Earthquakes show that Saltz reviewed.

Other artists related to Conkle, such as Thomas Hirschhorn, the Chapman brothers or Seattle artist Dan Webb, would have gone all low-tech, which invites more cutesy overtones. Instead, Conkle's show, The Lala Zone Expedition, seamlessly juggled high- and low-tech celebrations and critiques ... an amazingly deft high-wire act. Did I mention Conkle is as funny-smart as David Byrne, too? Here, if you haven't seen it elsewhere, is a discussion between Mr. Conkle and myself.

Overall, fantasy seemed to be the big theme in June, possibly because Portland's art tends to be swerve-into-Swiss-surrealism more than any of the other major U.S. cities. Why make a case for a certain kind of surrealism? Because Parisian and Swiss surrealism are very different. The Parisian variety was more about shock and popular image; its modern equivalent is L.A.

In L.A. they often combine allegorical surrealism with pop ... OK, heavy on the pop. Images of Kiss, the Simpsons and Mickey Mouse are constant there. Swiss surrealism avoided Andre Breton's Parisian grandstanding and was more poetic in tone. Think Arp vs. Salvador Dali (who took Breton’s drama-mongering so far even Breton couldn’t stand it).

Paul Arensmeyer's "Joe" (courtesy: Froelick Gallery).

Yes, I acknowledge that New York and L.A. are filled with fantasy deer imagery these days ... but that's more a hipster function of wanting to get closer to old-fashioned mating rituals and fantasies about not being gigantic terrorist targets with huge buildings. Portland's rustic side is less a stylistic gaffe and more genuine. It is hipster pandering when arch city slickers go native only in the studio. Whereas Portland city slickers often get out in the woods (on a weekly basis) and have to think ahead of time about what to do if they cross a mountain lion.

Maybe it's because Conkle is half Swiss, or because of Portland's often remarked upon European-ness, but our local scene reminds me of Swiss surrealism in that we don't fetish heresy or status mongering as a crutch. Instead, we court timeless moods and explore deeply held human questions.

It's the pragmatic and sardonic-yet-philosophical tone that defines Swiss surrealism. Think Hans Arp, Alberto Giacometti, Thomas Hirschhorn and Paul Klee. Then think about Conkle's sardonic whimsy (Klee, Hirschhorn). Then there are material abstractionists Paul Arensmeyer, Brenden Clenaghen, Dan May, Jacqueline Ehlis and Mel Katz (all indebted to Arp and Klee).

Even artists such as Eva Hesse, who isn't a Swiss surrealist but who gave extended life to their M.O. (as did Joseph Beuys and Lee Bontecou), are hugely influential here, too; think Ellen George, Laura Fritz and Christine Bourdette.

Hans Arp's "Constellation with Five White Forms and Two Black, Variation III," 1932. Oil on wood, 23-5/8 x 29-5/8 inches. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

As for figurative stuff, there are Sean Healy and Gregory Grenon's Giacomettiesque existential exposés. Of course, there are thousands upon thousands of artists in Portland; I'm just looking at the obvious leaders for this generalization.

It's dangerous, but also important to point out the ever more coherent character of the "Portland thing," since a bunch of imported PDX observers are about to publish essays in the Core Sample catalog (that show, although exhaustive in its own way, missed a lot of the more important aesthetic arguments and artists).

So, to the Seattle visitor overheard saying it was the apex of the Portland scene: You really have no clue. The scene is twice as good now and, like Moore's law, continues to improve exponentially.

Yes, a helluva lot has changed since October on all fronts – so much so that I no longer have to make my "Wake Up 101" speech and can get on to more challenging things, like discussing how Louis Kahn’s architecture and baroque fugal composition parallels to '70s minimalism. Besides, many culture wonks from elsewhere fail to realize Portland is changing faster than New York (Jerry Saltz, Roberta Smith and Peter Schjeldahl excepted). It makes sense, since Portland hasn’t hit its next plateau yet. Call it cosmopolitan headroom.

It is a very pregnant time, with Linux software creator Linus Torvalds positioning Portland as the open-source Gomorrah to Seattle's closed-source Sodom; we finally are the world leader of something. Has anyone else noticed that we practically own National Public Radio? Quite precisely, Portland art has a stoic pragmatism to it: a little Swiss or Swede with some Japanese Shinto influence; some Murakami super-flat otaku culture and a ton of Oregon Trail pioneering. More than any other city in the U.S.A., Portland seems less concerned with status and more with the richness of life and its requirements. You've gotta believe it's good subject matter and getting translated into the art.

So what about the new kids? For the first time in five years, I'm excited by some of what is coming out of Portland's art schools.

Justin Harris's "The Late Great Libido: The Rock Opera."

Justin Harris
PNCA thesis show

Top honors go to PNCA grad Justin Harris, whose stunning "The Late Great Libido: The Rock Opera" was an amazing theatrical installation. It even managed to rock.

Harris's effort was exhaustive, giving us some indication why his libido might have recently passed away. He left no stone unturned creating; a nicely appointed single-seater theater with red velvet curtain, a well-produced emocore rock song with serious listenability and a video with his face behind a mod-looking black grille.

Overall, it's an intense fantasy of the self, worthy of Wittgenstein.

But that's just the beginning, because to the left of his head, an entire band, consisting of his own tiny silhouettes, performs the music in perfect James Bond pantomime. All this is perfectly synched and it's clear he played all of those instruments himself. To the right of his face are a bunch of sardonic almost Devo-esque New Christy Minstrels dancers swaying in time to the music. The detail is amazing and probably enough to get Harris an MTV music video award ... except this is a theater for one.

One feels lucky to have seen this and there is no "effort is evil" aspect that some Portland slack-luster "Hug Me's" used to espouse. Besides, the “Hug Me's” were sooo two years ago! Once again, I enjoy that slacker sentiment in music and 'zine culture more.

Sure, the themes of Harris's theater are all youth-obsessed and self-fulfilling prophecies of intensely melancholy histrionics, but hey, this is what a soon-to-graduate art student faces. It's honest, unapologetic and jaw-droppingly thorough.

Justin, get that libido back and make more. Watch this one.

Snobby art scene veterans administration

Nic Walker at the new Pause Gallery.

Still, veterans like Conkle and Nic Walker, who showed at the promising Pause Gallery, stole the show.

Walker showed in this same Everett Station Loft space in 2000. Back in those boom times, the show sold out. Of the works here, I particularly liked "Welcome Home."

The vets continue to make nearly all the newly minted look a little wobbly legged in comparison.

So yes, Conkle at Haze Gallery put on one of the most startling displays of poetic cipher polemics I've seen since William Pope L. last year. Call this unsettling fantasy a detour-d'force in neutrality. Conkle's masterfully multi-layered Lala Zone Expedition at Haze was relativistic history in zero gravity, meaning it is impossible to determine up and down, right or wrong. With lovely videogame stills, hundreds of action figures and sarcastic tin-foil weaponry, he left out anything either George Bush could have possibly understood.

"Lord Thimblehead," by Bruce Conkle.

With Iraq and the Lewis & Clark Bicentennial going on, it was both current and timeless.

So can a new MFA out of Columbia do something as sophisticated as Lala Zone? Um, no. Just like a Beaujolais cannot hope to compete in complexity with a great burgundy meant to be cellared for years. These days, if you don't have a gallery right out of Columbia, you're done – and you are served up in mere months after bottling, too ... exactly like Beaujolais, which is good for garden parties.

I suppose that's the biggest problem with the art world; the best art schools seem geared toward the trendy Beaujolais Nouveau or a jammy merlot (heavy, but just not something most wine connoisseurs really bother with – it's more for poseurish English professors). Hence, the reason most of the really good stuff is not coming out of U.S. art schools anymore.

What's new and next?

Everett Beidler's "American Soil."

Looking toward this month, I'm excited about the big warehouse extravaganza, 5-D, put on by Ryan Suther at Hall Gallery.

Suther is very bright and works for the art museum. Not inconsequentially, he is doing the show in a space that spawned the likes of Cris Moss. He has some top locals and impressive outsiders, so pay attention.

The Core Sample catalog should come out in July as well. This will be good for exposing and exporting the scene elsewhere.

Also, the Friends of Carton service show will probably be a massive Zoo-ish affair, since hundreds upon hundreds of artists rent their studios from Ken Unkeles.

Unkeles is a special guy who knows better than anyone the impact that artists have economically in this city.

Downtown, Gallery 500 (Gee5) is picking up steam. Finally, the art is starting to compete with the party atmosphere. It is still nothing like Haze, which continues to run circles around the various university galleries, and the still-MIA PICA (something solid about actual visual-art programming would be good to cut off the already festering TBA festival grumbles I'm hearing).

At Gee5, Everett Beidler's "American Soil" was very well done and not so heavy handed with the allegories like his other works depicting Confucius or bullets. For quite some time now, I've found allegorical work too easily veers into over-earnest editorializing that is better done by over-earnest editors.

The proposed Meriwether in the South Waterfront.

In other developments, the Oregon Health & Science University tram, discussed here last month, was unanimously approved. The Schnitzers gave $35 million of undeveloped land next door to the tram to OHSU. That should create enviable synergy for many biotech headquarters to move here.

Since the South Waterfront (unlike the Pearl District) has no pre-existing cultural edifice and community, I suggest that at least one new building be given a changing exhibition space in its lobby.

Ideally, something similar to the new Albion in London would create a major cultural ediface in this new neighborhood. It could also become a partnership with PNCA or PSU for visiting artist residencies, something like San Antonio's ArtPace. Next step: blow up and replace the Marquam Bridge with something good and sort out the roads by the Ross Island Bridge in the process (the Randy Gragg Parkway?). And it better have a bike lane.

Wright's Price Tower.

As far as the South Waterfront's design merit, the Meriwether looks like a nice set of Vancouver B.C.-ish buildings, which has precedents like Frank Lloyd Wright's Price Tower.

To keep momentum (paramount to Homer Williams' plans), Portland needs another design competition or an adventurous commission, which is quite possible if one looks to a relocating biotech firm, which will need to start from scratch.

With all the development in the Pearl and South Waterfront, I think a truly important architectural statement needs to be made. I'd bet on a mixed-use residential/business space that veers toward a gold or platinum-green building certification.

Possible architects? How about local boy/international up-and-comer Brad Cloepfil, or one of the greats, like Tadao Ando, Renzo Piano (an immensely choosy architect), Norman Foster, Helmut Jahn, Toyo Ito or even young tram design runner-up, SHoP? Maybe someone just below the radar or unfamiliar in the U.S.A., like Hitoshi Abe or Jeroen Van Schooten? All would find the biotech South Waterfront District an interesting, clear slate and beautiful site.

New grad roundup

Russ Remmler's "You must do exactly what you see in nature" (left) and Elizabeth Blades' "Ex Voto I Reality," at Art Gym.

Due to a heavy spate of travel, I missed Lewis & Clark College's BFA show. But I'm excited about Jacqueline Ehlis teaching there in the fall.

It should make L&C an even more formidable presence. L&C graduates have already created the landmark Haze and the potentially dangerous Gee5.

As far as the Portland State University MFAs, I've mentioned Mariana Tres and Bonnie Paisley in the past.

Also present at the Art Gym's recent graduate show were some of their classmates.

Worth noting were Elizabeth Blades' "Ex Voto I Reality," a large, glowing, free-standing structure that was orange on the inside and white on the outside. Although I despise the title and anything that uses the word "reality" after the Wynona Ryder and Ethan Hawke film, "Reality Bites," I still liked the very well-done installation. I think it's trying a little too hard with the conceptual afterbirth title, but the nice see-through wood grain inside is subtle and poignant in its remembrance of the trees it stands for. Think mod Shintoism.

Garrett Adkinsen's "Fin"

Also very materially based and quite nice were Russ Remmler's cement plaster and acrylic wall paintings. I liked the fallen pottery-like shards on the gallery floor beneath them; they made me feel like an archaelogist.

Like adobe Anselm Kiefers, it had an interesting Ozzymandius effect. His titles, like "We see nothing till we understand it," were philosophical but verbose. Minimalist, ancient-looking work needs shorter monikers. Since this is MFA work, I'll assume it's gonna get better. Expect some PSU MFAs to make it to the next Oregon Biennial.

At PNCA, I saw a lot of things that were strong. Garrett Adkinsen's "Fin" reminded me of Eva Hesse, Ellsworth Kelly and Lucio Fontana. Also, Midori Hirosi's "Sparkle Forest" looked better in the dark at the Tube bar than at the Feldman Gallery last month. It is still too obviously a bunch of glittery tubes, though.

As for painters, I saw a nice trio of people who can paint: Eric Rue, Carolina Medina and Michael Kadera.

All seemed to be wrestling with their subject matter and only Medina's hovering octopi got beyond being a technically gifted-student irony. Still, Rue's massive painting, "Brave New Lullaby," was convincingly brave, even if it wasn't new. Kadera's "Venus of Sub Urbino" was Rosenquist-y enough for sure. But, man, when a 20-something art school male takes on suburban feminism, you know he is in no position to comment. Alas, he did.

With PNCA, L&C and PSU suddenly becoming hip and relevant, all three institutions seem to be taking advantage of Portland’s growing international art reputation. A major curatorial studies program is still missing, though.

This month's article is dedicated to the memory of the late, great guitarist, Robert Quine. Some suggested albums: Lou Reed's The Blue Mask, John Zorn's Spillane, Matthew Sweet's Girlfriend, Tom Waits' Rain Dogs and Quine's own band, Richard Hell and the Voidoids. 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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