Storr, Portland art-scene wanderings
Orthodoxy and zombies
a brain-eating zombie that won't stay dead, the most hackneyed-yet-critical
question in the arts lexicon never goes away: Why do we look
I can only answer for myself, in that I use it as
a way to test and challenge my orthodoxy. What I mean by that
is we all fall into ruts and take things for granted. To break
out of ruts a certain totemic snap of physical and conceptual
unorthodoxy to ponder is often required.
That orthodoxy check is where late Greenberg, late
Ruskin and mid-to-late postmodernists ran afoul; they pandered
to an orthodox discourse rather than looking for art that simply
justified itself through physical and conceptual rigor. Honest,
you can judge work on its own criteria.
For example, a lot of conceptual work fails precisely
because all it does is set up a self-fulfilling conceptual orthodoxy.
Likewise, paintings with lots of color that allegedly equals
"emotional intensity" can be similarly bad orthodoxy, since
so many consider color, emotion and creativity to be interchangeable.
If you have read this far you already know it isn't that simple.
Better art is always uncomfortable with how it conforms
to expectations. The best stuff just hums with complicated incongruities.
Kennedy's "Ramona" at Pulliam Deffenbaugh.
Right now, there is a real fetish of adolescent
imagery. In addition, the work is often nostalgic; the Royal
Art Lodge and Tracy Emin kinda started it (both old news now).
Next came Laura Owens, Erinn Kennedy, Assume Astro
Vivid Focus, Barry McGee (whom the New York Times oddly seems
to have just discovered), Cindy Sherman's dull clowns and Neo
Rauch, all of which have subsequently driven the trend into
I'm kinda sick of that Peter Pan orthodoxy. I want
it to move on ... it's like a 29 year old who lives in their
parents' basement and watches cable all day.
The adolescent thing is big because, culturally,
Western Civilization has sailed into some horse latitudes. Everyone
seems to be aware that the next thing has not yet taken hold
but, thankfully, change is inevitable. That sounds just like
being a pensive teen-ager, doesnt it? At least we have
shifted from theory-driven aesthetics to aesthetics that drive
theory. Problem is, adolescent aesthetics aren't that challenging.
This constant destruction and reintroduction of orthodoxy will
continue to churn away. For better or worse, humans like consensus
and like to organize around oversimplifications.
As I make my art rounds in Portland and elsewhere
I am seeing how the Rose City is finally developing work that
could make a splash in the very stagnant or too quickly developed
(or fad-ish) international art pool. Yes, we have the adolescent
nostalgia thing, too. But we also have more serious things,
like Brenden Clenaghen or Ellen George, whose work is almost
In fact, the changes are so palpable in Portland
that a hilarious new satire Web site (apparently) devoted to
reacting to what is written here and elsewhere has sprung up:
It is an excellent development and adds a needed element of
If only the Organ had tapped such great humor and
an eye for detail (I did like the latest Organ, though; good
lead story on Brad Cloepfil but it still seems too devoted to
the art of shrugging). Simply put, devoted or art-intensive
publications, such as Portland Modern, Portland Art News and
a rumored art blog, can better serve PDX which has the
most rapidly changing visual arts ecology in the U.S.A.
Now satire airs the various fears and criticisms
publicly in a less passive-agressive manner. Portland Art News
is a very healthy, cosmopolitan development ... yeah, everybody
is to be Tartuffified!
Santa Fe and Museum Orthodoxy
Storr, a gentle giant-brained curator.
Yes, art fads come and go, so I really cannot buy
into the whole art = fashion theory.
Instead, I look for rigorous, exceptionally bright
people who work hard and do not second-guess what will sell.
Some people pay such close attention to social "it-ness" that
they miss the bigger picture. Frankly, the only reason I can
continually follow Portland is the fact that it has become a
destination for young artists and is therefore a very dynamic
place. Even people who once were terrible at executing their
concepts in physical form are getting stronger (now they need
At the top of the art world there is nobody who
avoids the corruption of content by economics like Robert Storr.
In fact, as I write this I am in Santa Fe, N.M., taking in Storr's
very worthwhile biennial, "Disparities and Deformations: Our
Grotesque." Im not going to review the show here because
I want to touch on the subtler curatorial implications.
Santa Fe itself is a grotesque tourist trap with
some very legitimate cultural history. As such, it is a great
place to consider fads of orthodoxy in bad art and good art
... especially bad tourist art and incredibly horrid bronze
Although quite orthodox in the standard museum ways,
Storr is about the highest class of institutional curator out
there; an academic who has not lost his lust for life and quirky
surprise. (Yes folks, he can dance, too ... he has that swing!)
Storr is unorthodox in that he left the museum to go freelance.
The implications are startling: apparently, good traditional
curators are so rare they can become hired guns and avoid all
the mediocrity-driven bureaucracy. What does this say about
the custodial nature of museums when the rats flee the ship?
The simple lack of fads in Storr's very intellectual,
fun and non-sensationalist show is rooted in being an antidote
to the "intellectual irresponsibility" (Storr's term)
that has become the norm in museums bent on blockbusters.
Schütte's "Big Spirits No. 2, 2004," (foreground),
at Site Santa Fe.
The term "grotesque" was explored here in a thoughtful,
balanced manner and, refreshingly, the work is sometimes 10
years old. Newness for trendiness' sake and collector pandering
are rampant curatorial problems. Storr didn't say it but I will:
The premise of the last Venice Biennale, Dreams and Conflicts:
the Dictatorship of the Viewer, was the single most out-of-touch,
patronizing bit of curatorial word frommage in recent
As if it's the viewer's fault the art reeks!
Instead, Storr designed a show that really looks
at the multifaceted nature of the term "grotesque"
(in short, combining irreconcilable elements). In doing so,
he created an unorthodox blockbuster show ... simply by being
intellectually thorough. Quite orthodoxly (if you have a proper
education), he considered Nero's grotto (the source of the word
grotesque), ornamentation, Goya's "The Sleep of Reason Produces
Monsters" and the indispensable Charles Baudelaire. After taking
stock of the much-abused word "grotesque," Storr then curated
a very straight-laced show that avoids shouting. This conservative
orthodoxy keeps the grotesque theme from becoming a one-dimensional
freak show. Storr asks the viewer to dig deep from the outset.
Saul "Brush Your Teeth" at Site Santa Fe
By avoiding grandiosity (academics often do that
when they publish), Storr's show allowed the underlying tropes
like play, shock, decadence, ornament and absurdity to emerge
without chicanery. Some was quite beautiful and nearly all was
Like Dave Hickey's biennial, it trusted the viewer
without a lot of patronizing pseudo-educational elements. It
is telling how much better Site Santa Fe looked compared to
MOMA Queens ... both are converted warehouses and, apparently,
the curator does matter.
Like Hickey's Beau Monde: Towards a Redeemed Cosmopolitanism,
this is an intellectually driven but aesthetically demonstrated
biennial based on knowledge with roots deeper than the last
50 years. Nothing since the last Site Santa Fe has been so important.
Conversely, Whitney biennials are kinda fluffy,
trendy, intellectually dumbed-down shorthand for less-informed
art types compared to these Site biennials. The Whitney makes
quick trends then kills that trend like a zit in need of popping.
I noticed that the new Whitney director, Adam Weinberg,
was at Site taking notes and enjoying the show (good move).
A major problem for Site Santa Fe is whom do they get next?
Han Ulrich Obrist? Robert Hughes? Matthew Collings? Jerry Saltz?
Peter Schjeldahl? Ed Ruscha?
Hopefully, the aesthetic theme will continue, because
New York's markets have made their museums a little blind to
their own best practices. Why else would Storr leave MOMA? Because
by his own words it had gotten too "conservative." Bravo.
of intellectual responsibility
For Portland, I would like to point out a term that
has been used in an intellectually irresponsible manner: DIY
(as in "do it yourself"). Why is it inappropriate
as a blanket moniker for the Portland art scene?
bit of Googling produced this somewhat puzzling result.
First off, it's the wrong genre: DIY came out of
punk-rock iconoclasm and has moral baggage that typically judges
any success as an invalidation of the scene's aggregate populist-derived
Visual art has very different dynamics and forms
different coalitions usually more focused on individuals.
From Gertrude Stein and Greenberg to Charles Saatchi, the dynamic
was very much about intellectual capital, making arguments and
money (all are at play here in PDX).
Also, to most culture vultures, DIY has the air
of an enforced populist mediocrity that becomes a pejorative
since it implies nobody is sticking out. That idea is dead wrong,
of course. Why else are some people getting so annoyed that
a whole new class of artist has started to distinguish itself
in Portland? It isn't like the YSAs (Young Seattle Artists)
who kinda pathetically aped the YBA (Young British Artist) moniker.
Here there is simply a new wave or two of distinguished
individuals whom we can name ... even if they do not have galleries.
That said, DIY is also a misnomer because a large percentage
of Portland's best do have representation or gallery involvement
and that percentage gets better all the time. This element of
distinguishing excellence is what Richard Florida's "creative
class" demographics simply cannot convey, but it's a very
real element here. In a word, Florida points out the creative
class but fails to see how a class of excellence sustains the
wider creative crowd and brands a city or art scene.
Historically, Braque and Picasso weren't afraid
of sticking out when they attended Gertrude Stein's salons to
joust rhetorically with Matisse and Vlaminck.
Schnapf ... not so DIY.
Besides, I know enough Portland artists who have
studied under Nobel Prize winners, MacArthur Fellows and very
rigorous institutions that any blanket ghettoization of Portland
as DIY is silly and inappropriate. Commitment, pedigree, intellect
and resources do matter and it's comical to act like it doesn't
For hard-working ambitious artists like Jesse Hayward,
Donna Avedisian, MK Guth, Bruce Conkle, Jacqueline Ehlis, Matthew
Picton, Marty Schnapf, Brenden Clenaghen, Mark Smith, Todd Johnson
and James Boulton, etc., it's an insult to consider them anything
but engaged intellectuals.
They all have impressive educations and credentials
that make Portland very lucky to have them. Each cares about
doing something intellectually relevant. Why would they want
their work to self-destruct if it's intellectually engaged?
DIY simply doesn't fit for the leading artists in the Portland
Since the Core Sample catalog has come out, expect
a rhetorical rejoinder if DIY is used indiscriminately. Portland's
real lure is that it has a pre-proto-punk intellectualism ala
Patti Smith and MC5 or a Weimar-esque iconoclasm that is increasingly
articulating itself in terms of cultural critique and design.
Portland art-scene walkabout
not static: Eric Stotik's untitled at PDX.
I really liked Eric Stotik's show at PDX Gallery.
Stotik's strange world of lingering occult images reminded me
of Blake and some of Michelangelo's later works. The only artist
I really want to compare him to is the very weird Alessandro
Everything at PDX had an edgy, disturbed air of
irreconcilable grotesques and man trying to find his place in
a creation that wasn't necessarily custom built for humanity.
Before this show, Stotik tended to bore me (the
work was too purely illustrative and sometimes showed uninspired
reliance on technique).
But this is the artist on fire. It's like some sort
of cross between a 19th-century freemasonry and Vlad the Impaler
I believe that the often tenuous supports, like
Stotik's unstreached canvas rags or the unframed works on paper,
give the show an immediacy the framed works lack. That could
be a very fruitful direction as this work is dangerously close
to a preciousness that might kill the whole mood. Instead of
allegorical illustration, this comes off like the unknown giving
us dreadful hints.
this German enough for you?
Next was Dan Ness at Mark Woolley Gallery. Ness
is a talented artist, but his work sure looks a lot like Sigmar
Polke's. In fact, at the gallery there was much talk of what
was and wasn't so German. Does Ness need to be more or less
German? I'll let it just hang. Nice, but it needs to break from
Saez's "#6" at Zeitgeist Gallery.
Paige Saez's elegant and fugal collaged office supply
work at Zeitgeist Gallery in the Everett Station Lofts have
some real merit that I felt her previous paintings at Pacific
Switchboard failed to achieve.
The best was "#6," which, like her video
work, includes spinning fugal forms. She should expand on this
baroque office-supply minimalism.
It reminds me of Sol LeWitt, but with a lot of zing
that begs to be better articulated.
beats the Bush at Elizabeth Leach Gallery
"Three Schmucks and We're Out."
I'm certain G.W. Bush has no use for new art; he
likes fundamentalism and orthodoxy. His thoughts are trained
on supporting whatever he allegedly already thinks!
I think the Ed Bereal show at Elizabeth Leach does
a pretty great job of skewering Bush with "Three Schmucks
and We're Out!"
Still, I feel this panders toward my political orthodoxy.
I've disliked the Bush clan intensely for more than
20 years, so in many ways the propaganda marginalizes its real
iconic punch by being so time specific.
I suspect that in 20 years this work will be more
consequential as a historical object than as an object whose
potency is more internally manifested.
Of course that, too, is problematic, since clay
pots can become art objects after a certain amount of time.
Some objects are designed to be loaded with meaning, others
acquire it. Since it made me think, I must concede the piece
still works. For the time being.
A Linear Sensory Environment."
5D. Is it a bra size? The fifth dimension? Or a
Judging from this show of spatially engaged works,
I would have to say the installation-art thing that Bruce Guenther
missed at the last Oregon Biennial has continued to evolve.
There was some nice work and some that was more
akin to party favors. All of it was laid out nicely by curator
Ryan Suther, who had little control over what showed up; not
a perfect show, but better than a lot of the more populist shows
that got more press in the last two years.
Another annoyance: artist names and titles were
often difficult to discover. But I liked "Night/Light: A Linear
Sensory Environment." It could be developed a lot further, but
the music and colored lights produced a Zen-like contemplative
effect not unlike moving Steven Hendees.
I found the Russian low-budget flight-simulator
"world's most expensive coffin" fun, but rather lacking in conceptual
heft. Is this a nostalgic paean for those uncomplicated Cold-War
The best piece in the show was Amelia Hendley's "Die."
Hendley poetically evokes a change in states by
installing dead daisies painted on glass, which one walks under
to get into the space. I like how it is a dead stand-in for
living plants and a lively reminder of the phrase "pushing
Life is what you make it and this Vanitas Verde
was executed well with poetic overtones.