"Cathedral with Minarets, every demon has his day" (foreground)
and "Lake of Omission" (right).
Harris & the new grads
history and the future?
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.
Conkles 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 isnt. Jerry Saltz accurately
calls that cute stuff "termite art" in an
Portland has termites, too, like Chandra
Bocci. But she isnt 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 Bretons drama-mongering so far even Breton
couldnt stand it).
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.
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 Kahns 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 hasnt hit its next plateau yet. Call it cosmopolitan
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
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.
Harris's "The Late Great Libido: The Rock Opera."
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
art scene veterans administration
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.
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.
new and next?
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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 Portlands
growing international art reputation. A major curatorial studies
program is still missing, though.