vs. Clenaghen, Save Point & Kalusa
by Jeff Jahn
"Progress is man's
ability to complicate simplicity"
September the Portland art scene shakes loose of the ubiquitous
summer group exhibitions and gets back to work with promising
shows of focus by Francis Celentano, Christo and Jeanne-Claude,
Sean Healy, Brenden Clenaghen, Kenny Higdon, Karen Madsen, Rick
Bartow, Time-Based Art (TBA) and the Ed Cauduro collection at
PAM (Sept. 4).
Cauduro is easily Portland's top collector, with unknown
artists like Basquiat, Johns, Warhol, Koons, etc. He even collected
"Shortstop," John Chamberlain's first autobody sculpture, so pay
There's also a Ken Aptekar show at Reed College's
Add in Affair, Portland's first-ever art fair with
25 galleries at the Jupiter Hotel including some work from New
York, Chicago and L.A. Suddenly, we've got a very exciting month
One image that struck me as very emblematic of this
time in Portland was conceptual prankster artist Joe Cartino's
performance art piece, "work." Consisting of a helmet emblazoned
with the word "work" and sporting a carrot and stick attachment,
the simple joke accumulated lots of additional absurdity considering
its context. It was executed during the Run-Hit Wonder running
event on Nike's campus in August.
Bovee's "Save Point" at Disjecta.
It was an odd event where everyone had to jog in order
to see DEVO perform (only in Portland, folks). Being a smart-ass
DEVO fan, Cartino just had to take on the whole corporate skinner
box entertainment matrix while being complicit with it. It takes
on additional richness because Nike's bottom line is so attuned
to the hoards of weekend-warrior athletes with bourgeois desk
jobs and a weakness for '80s pop music.
In this environment, the opportunity for hypocrisy
Cartino saw his shot and took it, threading the conceptual
needle that many other conceptualists in Portland simply gloss
over by making the number of participants their main justification.
It isn't the number of participants, it's the artists' abilities
to internalize and take the bullet at the point where they become
implicated in the hypocrisy of such critiques. A classic example
is Vito Acconcis "Trappings," where he talks to
his penis. By doing something ridiculous, Acconci acknowledges
the Wittgensteinian solipsism of conceptual art even as he manifests
it as performance.
Speaking of critiques, the really nice-looking Core
Sample catalog is full of interesting pictures and many only moderately
insightful and on-topic essays. Thankfully, it seems a bit dated
and not in keeping with how galvanized and disciplined the scene
has become after a mere 11 months.
Obviously, Core Sample doesnt deserve all the
credit but it does deserve credit for wearing out a trend.
As predicted, massive group-show festivalism has run its course
only to be supplanted by all the good-to-great solo shows by Ellen
George, Tom Cramer, Alia Schmeltz, Dan May, James Boulton, Bruce
Conkle, Linda Hutchins, Nic Walker and Jesse Hayward. This has
made most of the scene's sustained talents very easy to pick out.
If you've missed those galvanizing shows ... well, you've missed
the strongest series of solo shows by locals in Portland history.
With Sean Healy and Brenden Clenaghen this month,
Chandra Bocci in October, Jacqueline Ehlis in December and Matthew
Picton in February, it's continuing its momentum, too. Worth repeating:
an in-depth vision from a single individual often does more to
serve the entire population as expectations and benchmark-setting
distills ever more idiomatic stylistic results.
Bovee's stylized explosion paintings at Disjecta.
It's only been a year, but 2003 was a flowering phase
that is bearing fruit in 2004 and will continue in 2005.
For instance, Katherine Bovee (reviewed this month)
debuted at the Modern Zoo but made Disjecta look great in August.
Healy debuted his new style at The Best Coast, Clenaghen
debuted his new style at Ulterior Motives, James Boulton shined
at the dull Oregon Biennial and Chandra Bocci did great things
at TBC, Modern Zoo and Core Sample, and will take over the massive
gallery space at Haze in October.
We can't wait.
Until then, a preview of the Brenden Clenaghen vs. Sean Healy
solo show shootout is also in order. I promise to cover the explosion
in Portland art-publishing next month in depth.
Elizabeth Leach Gallery
Narrative from Germany: Kalusa's "Katzentag I" (right) blurs
the vision of the viewer with a painting under Plexiglas.
Yes, in August the Portland scene had some good international
group shows, such as Narrative from Germany at Elizabeth Leach
and the Scratch show at Haze. But I'm ready to sink my teeth into
more than just a couple pieces by an artist these days. That said,
I got a lot out of rising German star Stephen Kalusa's "Katzentag
I" (or "cat day") at the Leach Gallery.
It seemed to exemplify the pensive and serious temperament
of the show.
As a symbol of now-dead atavistic strength and aggressiveness,
the tiger's relationship to Germany's past is clear but its black-market
poacher mise-en-scène and optically blurring Plexiglas
scrim might indicate that the past may finally be fading ... or
has it just gone underground?
Skinheads are not just a German problem, they are
Standing in front of this work, I wonder if the presence
of the background figure looking from behind the tiger counts
the viewer as complicit in the guilt of Germany's checkered past
and/or the black-market tiger trade? Even for Americans it is
an appropriate question, since the League of Nations did appease
Hitler, allowing him to indulge his worst whims. Likewise, back
in the U.S.A., one can buy black-market tiger products at will.
Kalusa spreads a wide net of complicacy.
So yes, even Americans can share in the current and
historical guilt. Not to mention our own checkered past of slavery,
super-predator extinction and genocidal extermination of indigenous
Richter's "Druisen 2004."
Where Kalusa is special is in his lack of shrill didacticism.
His work has a general metaphorical quality that can be applied
to any part of human history.
Kalusa's work is a blurred analog of the dualistic
role of history, both revealing and obscuring. Whereas Anselm
Kiefer, Germany's greatest living artist, is more polarizing and
Like Kalusa, another German luminary, Daniel Richter,
is also concerned with atavism and the present, but isn't as clinical
about the past or present.
Kalusa seems to take the cerebral path and Richter
takes the action path. Both are key to understanding Germany today.
It remains a huge issue: Do Germans dare to have national pride
again? Don't they have a right to start fresh? Then again, aren't
we all charged to remember ... so the same horrible crimes do
not recur? In fact, the worst crimes are still happening in Sudan
and in the Asian tiger trade.
Disjecta (Closes Sept. 3)
view of Save Point at Disjecta.
Katherine Bovee was one of a handful of compelling
exhibitors in last year's Modern Zoo and, fittingly, she has put
on the first show to elevate Disjecta to a must-see visual arts
venue. Minimalism has replaced herding tendencies this time at
As to the video-game subject matter of the show, the
save point in a lot of current video games is a virtual space
where one must move a character in order to save the game; sometimes
it's another character in the game one must catch. If the avatar
dies after that save, then the player can restore the game back
to that point. It is almost as good as time travel, only more
navel gazing and convenient.
Bovee was intrigued with the way virtual time and
real time synchronized in this virtual zone, so she developed
two light sculptures, five paintings and some 3-D virtual models
of several save points in various games to create a beautiful
Disjecta has never looked so nice. The Save Point
itself is titled "0.8.1" and consists of a lamplight
re-creation of a video game event resembling two concentric explosion
rings. The title implies coordinates, time or an IP address for
those with a little more computer knowledge. That interchangeability
of location and definition is fascinating. It's nice to look at,
too, but somehow I feel like I'm at a trade show where geeks dressed
as Klingons discuss Batliff techniques. That isn't bad but, when
I look at the stylized explosion in Robert Irwin fluorescent lights,
I'm let down that this isn't a real video game or a real Robert
The paintings, which distill video game explosions,
do the same thing and I want something more stylized or more explosive.
Overall, I feel the heightened sense of place and drama of Marfa
minimalism at Save Point but, without the game-objective rules,
I'm left waffling.
Point 3-D models at Disjecta.
This is a very telling existential crisis, which mimics
our current predicament. With so many options and a very anti-postmodernist
lack of isolation, the inter-connected solitude is deafening but
This alone is worth the trip and I suggest you see
it at dusk.
It's a successful show but it needs to be odder. Maybe
lose the Robert Irwin reference to give the show a different,
less glaring pulse (ambient lighting will still work best).
It seems to beg for large-scale video elements.
If Bovee can create greater orientation and disorientation
in the viewer, she'll be well on her way to becoming a pied piper
of whatever we eventually call this 21st-century experience-driven
and audience co-opting art.
It is not stoic or hermetically familiar enough to be minimalism,
but it does make me wish for more.
A worthy show, but most of its aesthetic force was
on loan from Marfa and Capcom video games. This is a good start
to making the syncretism rampant in the world of video games invigorate
the rather stale art historical notes everyone from Cecily Brown
to Laura Owens keeps replaying in tinnier re-imagining of De Kooning
and the Douanier Rousseau.
Lunn's work from "Scratch" at Haze Gallery.
Here in Portland it's a pensive but critical time
where one of the themes of 2002-03, "undirected art scene growth,"
already seems horribly passé and the theme of making statements
begun with 2000's Greenberg collection acquisition, the Play show,
Blood and Guts Forever, Ulterior Motives and a swarm of solo shows
worth noting, have definitely taken hold.
Now that there is a general acknowledgement that Portland's
long-sustained art-scene explosion is quite real and not going
away, a new pile of pensive and invigorating questions have arisen
for September. Notably, there aren't any real questions about
the artists themselves, other than whether they can continue to
make bolder, more directed statements. The artists have remade
the scene and now everyone else is repositioning themselves to
take advantage of the new reality.
Here are three wide-ranging heuristic questions related
to the shift:
model of the new Elizabeth Leach Gallery.
1) Elizabeth Leach Gallery (Portland's top blue-chip
gallery) and Haze (the most adventurous, exciting gallery in the
entire Pacific Northwest) have plans for moving to Northwest Portland.
Leach opens in the Pearl in November, joining a majority of the
other player galleries. With the gallery location consolidation,
a question remains: Will the now increasingly acknowledged quality
of the artist explosion in Portland lead to higher-quality art
collections and Portland's ascendance as an art city nationally?
Portland certainly has grown in sophistication with a per-capita
collector base few cities can boast. But collectors that decide
to really make a statement are rare. In anticipation of that growing
need for statements, both Leach and Haze win top prizes for visionary
strategic pluck. We will see how it all goes down in the ripple
effect as Northwest Portland gets ever more serious and adventurous.
Will the tiny but excellent PDX Gallery open a satellite
space? Other Pearl District galleries that I won't name are making
plans for just that. I'm even hearing that the grand Laura Russo
Gallery is mulling over a young artist show. All are important
2) What the hell will Stuart Horodner's art fair,
hold for Portland's art-world profile? With galleries from L.A.,
Chicago and New York participating with some collectors in tow,
I am very curious about this first-ever occurrence in Portland.
It's a little secret that savvier San Franciscans shop for art
in Portland, too. So it looks like Horodner is accomplishing his
connector role more successfully now that he's not tied to PICA's
Edmunds, artistic director for PICA, is back from Melbourne
to oversee the possibly do-or-die Time-Based Art Festival,
3) Organizing the art organizations: I'm not one to
be negative for the sake of critical posturing, but can PICA's
Time-Based Art Festival (Sept. 10-19) capture an audience to sustain
PICA? Or did the organization mess up spectacularly by turning
its back on the visual arts at the precise moment the visual arts
went gonzo in Portland? When PICA was asked to step up, did it
turn its back? Unfair criticism or not, many longtime supporters
no longer care what happens. Essentially, TBA has the organization
facing a no-confidence vote.
The prevailing mood is that PICA is an organization
that has been unresponsive to an incredibly active scene and,
no, I'm not talking about the shows. Instead, most of the PICA
criticisms I hear are related to attitude and engagement. Personally,
I get nothing but friendliness from them and I hope they really
address the roots of the malaise. I want them to connect.
This ambivalence really started to frost over after
artists raised $30,000 for PICA in a single day, yet seven months
later (without a thank you) they have yet to hear a solid plan
for visual-arts programming. People are pissed and all we have
heard is maybe January for resumption of the visual arts programming.
There is no reason PICA can't thrive and, besides,
the money is clearly here in Portland. Even during this recession,
I have to parallel park my car between Ferraris and Hummers with
Considering Portland has the most dynamically shifting
visual-art scene in the country, PICA's unresponsiveness is simply
not acceptable. Advice: announce something solid before TBA.
Galas is among many slated to perform at PICA's TBA Festival.
Whatever the PICA outcome, I'm looking forward to
TBA and recommend Diamanda Galas, Lone Twin, Akira Kasai, Guy
Maddin, MK Guth's Red Shoe Delivery Service, Andrew Dicksen and
David Eckard's performances.
Overall, though, TBA is not what the Portland art
scene has been obsessed with for the last four relentless years;
it has been installation art and paintings.
Even so, TBA is an impressive lineup even if
it remains to be seen whether an audience for such an event can
be cultivated without government funding.
That said, Portland requires an art organization with
an attuned vision at the street level at home and elsewhere
for the present and near future.
PICA clearly is not the answer to all of the city's
needs (that is a ridiculous burden) and at least one new organization
should arise in Portland to serve as nice gallery space a la Soap
Factory in Minneapolis or CoCA/Conworks in Seattle.
It should have at least 2,000 square feet of floor
space and there are plenty of interesting spaces between Southeast
20th and Northwest 26th to choose from. If Minneapolis can do
it, we can. Portland actually has a lot larger downtown population,
although Portland has a two-million metro compared to three million
for the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro region.
Since we're throwing around figures, here's another
shocker for those who consider Seattle a much larger city to the
north. Portland proper's population of 538,544 is closing in on
Seattle's 569,101 (2003 Census Bureau estimates).
Elizabeth under construction in the Pearl District. Will the
people who live there be culturally active?
The difference is less than the population of Bend,
and Seattle's downtown population growth has been stagnant. Of
course, there are other factors at work but, overall, the real
difference has been largely an attitude problem. Seattle is "the
city that likes to congratulate itself" (possibly a bit too much)
and Portland has tended to categorically diminish its own successes.
This tendency has come under fire lately and it is not hyperbolic
to call it a war for the civic soul of the city, especially now
that the Pearl District is really coming together.
The optimist vs. pessimist debate is amusing on a
formal rhetorical level and it's being channeled quite directly
by the art scene. For the record, I don't like being one or the
other; I'm a strategist with a fondness for altruism and feisty
Tellingly, the art scene is big enough to be a political
issue in the mayoral race. Tom Potter is endorsing the Centennial
Mills idea put forth by Gavin Shettler, but it's very expensive
and tied to a ton of contingencies.
I like it, but that's a complicated long-term solution
that begs for some consistent baby steps at first. Attempting
a $30 million solution over at least four years as a virgin voyage
makes me skeptical. I suggest getting something within the next
eight months with solid programming. Rotating guest curatorial
control (like Consolidated Works or Soap Factory) would keep a
community space fresh and could encourage exchange and networking
with other art scenes, depending on the curators chosen.
You might have already heard that something is in
negotiations in Northwest Portland. Ive seen it and, yes,
the space has some breathtaking possibilities.
We have all talked about a changing exhibition space
in or near the lobby of one of the many new Pearl District buildings.
Here is another more specific idea: if a W hotel does come to
Portland as has been rumored, approach them and negotiate a space.
That hotel chain understands that art-friendly synergies fuel
business. Other businesses could easily take advantage of the
same idea, but I'm afraid that, to date, the now-defunct PCAC
(Portland Center for the Advancement of Culture) focused too much
on grandiose plans and stunts rather than developing a consistent
In the non-profit world, your track record is everything
and stunts only appeal to the press. Press is good, press is necessary,
but you need to back up the talk. Simply instigating a mob situation
does not qualify someone to be a leader.
Sean Healy vs. Brenden Clenaghen pre-game show!
How will two young, established Portland artists with
brand new styles, Brenden Clenaghen (at Pulliam Deffenbaugh Gallery)
and Sean Healy (at Elizabeth Leach Gallery), turn that tricky
but invigorating corner with their collectors? Will their collectors
Healy: a really good artist or just a mid-career punk?
Some think longtime Portland collectors are incapable
of riding with the new vigor seen in the city's artists, but I
think Portlanders can handle it.
Shows by Tom Cramer, Bruce Conkle, James Boulton,
Donna Avedisian and Jacqueline Ehlis have all done well in the
last few years.
This new type of Portland artist is not so much a
do-it-yourself hipster looking for a date and a place to crash.
Instead, they are an educated, motivated and philosophically
engaged group whose members are systematically addressing modern
All these artists seem hell-bent on challenging their
audiences. From strong sales at Conkle and Boulton's shows earlier
this year, it seemed like the previously successful Healy and
Clenaghen needed to turn up the heat.
In fact, some formerly popular artists who have played
it safe recently have been punished with weak sales. Big mistake.
Freshness is almost essential in contemporary art economics. Even
40 years later, the litmus test is whether something remains fresh.
The interesting net effect of all this is that some of Portland's
longtime successful galleries are openly wondering if they have
the right mix of artists on their roster. Good question!
I've been heartened in recent years as some of the
cooler Portland collectors are embracing change and will not even
consider buying a hazy gray encaustic square anymore.
Clenaghen's "Ice Children."
There are even emerging stylistic and philosophical
trends: both Healy and Clenaghen create work that is imbued with
elements of personality, psychology and design.
Admittedly, "psychological design" brings to mind
a mix of B.F. Skinner, the Bauhaus, Lacan and maybe that master
of the obvious, John Berger ... so this has the potential to be
horrible. However, I like how existentialism is addressed as a
poetic design element and not some second-hand Sartre affectation.
Both Healy and Clenaghen consider desire a projection
of the self and, therefore, their art can act as a kind of magic
mirror for the viewer.
These themes would be very European in tone if it
weren't for the plucky West Coast pragmatism implied in the work
surface, imagery and colors.
That said, the two could not be more different as
artists. Yet, they are in direct competition with one another,
having been doggedly lumped together by the press since the incredibly
influential 1999 Oregon Biennial.
Tellingly, most everyone in that show has gotten better
in the intervening five years. As Healy and Clenaghen go at it
this month, we get to decide what works and what doesnt.
We have to judge them by their own criteria and divergent strengths.
Healy goes for sweeping tableaus and abrupt juxtapositions that
go between public and intimate settings. Clenaghen is a more controlled
creature whose consistency as an artist is both his greatest asset