J a n u a r y   2 0 0 5

CMCA (with 28,000 square feet of gallery space): Portland finally gets serious about contemporary art on a continual public basis.
Critical i

Portland art in 2004 ... and 2005
Days of past future
by Jeff Jahn

efore I list my 11 favorite art shows of 2004, let's preview a handful of items for 2005, which already looks like a banner year for Portland as an art city in terms of national visibility.

1) The Center for Modern and Contemporary Art (CMCA) at the Portland Art Museum will open in October. Yes, there will be video/installation works and new acquisitions to be announced throughout the year (expect something soon).

The museum already has: Gilbert and George, George Segal, Marcel Duchamp, Robert Irwin, Frank Stella, Kevin Appel, Paul Klee, Hans/Jean Arp, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and a real nice David Salle that I've warmed up to.

The museum needs: Ellsworth Kelly, John Chamberlain, Agnes Martin, Andy Warhol (there are several in town), Picasso (a late Jacqueline or self-portait painting) and Jean Dubuffet. Let's extend this, since I'm making a wish list (and not writing the check): Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Tracy Emin, Carl Andre, Anselm Kiefer, Gerhard Richter, Francesco Clemente, Kiki Smith, Robert Indiana, Elizabeth Peyton, Andreas Gursky and Ed Ruscha. Judy Pfaff might be a great addition, too.

This museum expansion is a big deal and will make that fun 2001 Greenberg acquisition year look like a bite-size appetizer (although it was the trigger). Also, Tracy Savage deserves another round of applause for the foresight in bringing something that distinguishes the museum in terms of historical roots. Without a super-collector like Jane Bradley (Milwaukee art museum) or Eli Broad (the world's top collector), Portland needed something substantial. The 28,000 square feet of gallery space is exciting, but chief curator Bruce Guenther is pretty determined not to have the building overshadow the art ... so expect a continual stream of acquisitions. Will the 2006 Oregon Biennial be completely overhauled?

Matthew Picton: cutting a fine profile in front of some recent work.

2) Highly anticipated solo shows by some of Portland's best artists:

Matthew Picton (February, Mark Woolley Gallery). The London-born Ashland, Ore., resident is hot nationally and showed everywhere but Portland in 2004. This 2005 show will rectify that situation and, as an added bonus, he has the entire gallery. I absolutely love the giant Jolly Ranchers! His prices will be increasing after the show, as his work is popular in larger cities.

Jacqueline Ehlis (June, Savage Art Resources). Portland's most dedicated, connected, industrious and surprising artist. Seriously, of Portland's painters, does anyone have more engaged joie de vivre? Ehlis is very influential on the younger generation as well. Remember, she gave Chandra Bocci her first real show. Overall, Ehlis is the hardest core in a city full of softies. (Remember how uninspired a decent Michelle Ross looked in unfair comparison at the last show?)

Ehlis has really pushed her boundaries since then. This new work made nearly everything I saw in L.A. look cheap and cookie cutter.

Tom Cramer (October, Mark Woolley Gallery). Of Portland's so-called old guard, nobody is remotely as hot (although he is not really very old). Notably, Jordan Schnitzer has bought some key pieces. Cramer just keeps getting better; he is Portland's artist laureate and (gasp) a completely original artist.

Linda Hutchins: an artist who puts visual content front and center (even when using words).

Linda Hutchins (January, Pulliam Deffenbaugh Gallery). Who says you have to be in an Oregon Biennial to land a gallery? Hutchins is in top form and looked great at the Northwest Biennial in Tacoma.

Dianne Kornberg (March, Elizabeth Leach Gallery). My favorite Portland photographer, she captures quiet stillness with the eye of a scientist. As a huge admirer of da Vinci's drawings, I see the aesthetic merit in this. Kornberg will be the first to really test Liz Leach's new space.

Eva Lake (April, Augen Gallery). She's got an eye, she's got the touch. Besides, she and gallerist Bob Kochs have so much in common in temperament that it only makes sense. Lake, one of the very best painters in Portland, gets to go on the record.

Tim Dalbow (June, Laura Russo Gallery). It's a shocker: One year after Haze, Dalbow has a show at the big LR. It isn't surprising talent-wise, though; Dalbow can really handle paint and everyone from Mark Woolley to Liz Leach has kept an eye on Portland's best-dressed and most mysterious cityscape/landscape/figurative painter.

3) Will there be another Affair art fair in October as well? Sounds like there will be ... we hope. Expanding the event's scope should really make it the alterna-fair to all the poorly conceived alterna-fairs. Portland isn't as sloppy as those Scope/Nada offerings. Fairs are less about sales (except the art Basels, the Armory and Frieze) than connections, and Portland's art fair is great at the connection angle.

John Mace from his 2004 Portland Building show.

4) Portland Art Center opens Jan. 22 with some initial shows … Gavin Shettler's new project is nice looking, but will the programming be there? John Mace as an opener in February for regular programming does show some real promise.

Conversely, the more ambitious new Disjecta (which aims to be infinitely grander than Shettler's project with its artist studios, residencies and a lot more square footage) will attempt to develop funding during 2005 as well.

Yes, raising $120,000 in one year from an organization which has never operated with a $50,000 budget will take a miracle, but it's not impossible. My big question: Can the Disjecta-ers fund-raise without programming? (That was the old Modern Zoo's problem.) Arts funding is fickle; if you cease to program you cease to exist.

Also, most people refuse to drink the Kool Aid when Bryan Suereth claims Disjecta's past visual art shows were somehow exemplary rather than merely OK (except for Katherine Bovee's excellent recent show). The gallery with exemplary programming was Haze. Not to say Disjecta didn't do other things very well; their music programming has been amazing.

One of Disjecta's very OK shows from 2004 (Portland Modern).

My point? Both projects are attempting to step up and it's ridiculous to think anything that either has done before has been consistently good enough. Let's just say both projects produce vast amounts of talk but the winner will be the one that delivers. Shettler's project will thus have first at-bat. Comparisons between these two projects (and former non-profit partners) will be inevitable. Let's hope one or both find success. But, like with any new project, you have to accurately assess your strengths and weaknesses.

5) Portland Art Dealers Association plans an international art festival for October (surprise, surprise). Yes, October is the big month in Portland (oh, and I'll be doing a little something, too).

The 11 best Portland art shows of 2004

1) Ed Cauduro collection at Portland Art Museum (on view until Jan. 2). This show was just a fraction of Cauduro's treasure trove, some of which has been given to the museum. Warhol's "Jackie 1964" is alone worth the trip. Other standouts, like the Basquiat, Al Held and Christopher Wool, along with John Chamberlain's first car-crush sculpture, are all wonderful. Even the very early Julian Schnabel is actually good. We can only hope the Warhol and/or Basquiat become centerpieces of the museum's collection. It would fill in important gaps and Cauduro has a chance to do something profound rather than auctioning it all.

2) Bruce Conkle's Lala Zone Expedition at Haze was easily the most challenging and rewarding show of the year in Portland by a living artist.

Bruce Conkle's Lala Zone Expedition at Haze Gallery.

Conkle's stunning digital landscapes were installed in a mock natural history museum setting, which was comprised of tin foil weapons and hundreds of action figures in a diorama. The use of tiny figures, digital space and giant tin foil objects gave the whole project an intense shift in scale ... not unlike Alice going down the rabbit hole.

Of note: Many dealers, collectors and top artists in town bought pieces.

As a whole, the show abstracted history in a complicated, multi-layered way that few American artists ever attempt. For example, there were no clear sides to this meditation on colonization, genocide, environmental disaster, video-game consequences and our current war in Iraq, mixed with the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The only reason the Cauduro collection comes out on top is that primo Warhol ("Jackie 1964"). Try harder next time, Bruce ... just think, what would trump a classic Warhol?

Really, it isn't easy being an artist today – or maybe it's just that the world was simpler in 1964. Maybe it's always been this complex and only now, with the onslaught of instant access media, can we comprehend our overwhelming ignorance? Conkle seems to understand the delusional potential of skewing information better than most other living artists.

The New Elizabeth Leach Gallery (from left): Louis Bourgeois, Judy Cooke, Cris Bruch and KIki Smith.

(Also, to whoever stole Conkle's puking gnome sculpture from the contemporary crafts loading dock, return it or a vengeful Conkle will activate its puking apparatus and flood you out of your lair!)

3) Elizabeth Leach Gallery's 23+ on 9th show and the move to the Pearl District. It's a nice space with a cool slant to the ceilings. Artists such as Louise Bourgeois, Sean Healy, Yayoi Kusama, Dianne Kornberg, Cris Bruch and Kiki Smith look awesome and really sing in the room.

Some other artists, both young and old, looked a bit flat compared to the refined walls and industrial-tough floor. It is a reckoning and Leach just gave all her current artists reason to push a lot harder. I would like to see an Elizabeth Leach gallery-swap with Sadie Coles Gallery in London.

Chandra Bocci's Bubblespeak at Haze: best use of mustard in 2004.

4) Chandra Bocci at Haze. The best gallery Portland has seen since the PCVA went out with a bang.

Bocci put on a show that would have impressed PS1 (MoMA's experimental space in Brooklyn). It conflated the inflated dreams of consumerism and dashed fantasy with frightening reality.

OK, Chandra, what you need to do now is work with half the space and cover every inch. I realize that this might kill you, but it's where you've gotta go.

Ellen George from Meadow.

5) Ellen George's Meadow at PDX Gallery.

The show was simply gorgeous. Who said contemporary art must be cold and austere?

George's exquisite work competes with nature and might just depict how humans are part of a grander whole.

Ellen George is a poet with a jewelers eye!

Sean Healy at the old Elizabeth Leach Gallery.

6) Sean Healy at Elizabeth Leach.

The show was an important transition for Healy, whose work had always been a bit too inward.

Now he is exploring the reflexive effects of body language and the tension of rivals in social settings. What could be more relevant?

His waterfall was an impressive philosophical take on the presentation of nature through manmade reproduction.

It's like a magic mirror that gives cunning answers. Healy's work speaks clearer now and I suspect it will really take off.

Charles Goldman at PNCA's Feldman Gallery.

7) Charles Goldman, currently at the Feldman Gallery, PNCA. Sure, he sort of rips off Yoko Ono's pine box and tree installation piece from some years ago, but I love his infinity piece with wheels.

The oil barrels with water constantly cycling are rather poignant takes on the Middle East, too. He's a good bet for the 2006 Whitney Biennial, but he isn't good enough to save that show from its institutional predictability.

Still, the Feldman has really stepped up. When will PSU get serious and hire a curator?

8) Justin Harris's The Late Great Libido video installation at PNCA's graduate show and PICA's TBA Festival. With a soundtrack from his bandmates in Menomena, this tiny theater for one was an amazing tour de force for someone so young.

9) Hilary Pfeifer, Nan Curtis and Marty Houston at Tacoma Art Museum’s Northwest Biennial, Buildingwise.

Hilary Pfeifer (the couch) + Nan Curtis & Marty Houston (the off-white carpet) at Tacoma's Northwest Biennial

I'm certain it wasn't supposed to be a collaborative installation, but Curtis and Houston's giant off-white carpet that tracks wear patterns in a gallery space was very cool.

Furthermore, its cooperation with Pfeifer's couch made for a very sneaky installation that did a homey art dance inside a museum gallery.

10) Gilles Foisy at Butters Gallery. His soft speaker was extremely poetic, well done and impressively restrained without being stodgy.

11) Katherine Bovee's Savepoint at Disjecta. This show combined the digital and real by creating savepoints in space.

Gilles Foisy's "Soft Speaker" at Butters Gallery.

The minimalist take worked but some greater cohesion was necessary. Somehow, I wanted to explore more. It's a real notice that the very intelligent Bovee is a talented comer. We anxiously await her Portland Art Center show.

Other things worth mentioning

Other excellent shows were from Michael McMillen at Reed College, Laurie Reid, James Boulton and Brenden Clenaghen at Pulliam Deffenbaugh, Carlos Estrada-Vega at Elizabeth Leach Gallery and Nic Walker, Jesse Hayward and Aili Schmeltz at the dominant gallery in terms of exhibitions, Haze.

I can't in good conscience give a hotel art fair a rating on my Top 11 ... they mostly suck for showing the art but, if you've got an eye, that shouldn't matter. Let's just say the Affair was very important beyond the exhibition aspect. It outed Portland collectors in a public "see and be seen" event and exposed them to non-Portland galleries and collectors.

Also of note, Savage Art Resources has put on a number of truly worthy theme shows, but maybe they don't know that the art scene absolutely overdosed on group shows back in 2003. I thought their Surface Tension show was good and Jacin Giordano's work is what Michelle Ross attempts to be. Laurel Gittlen is clearly ambitious and, as gallery director, is bringing a lot of freshness.

Savage's most satisfying thing was Tad Savinar's show. But, as Portland's freshest gallery (now that Haze is gone), I'd like to see them do something more in-depth. Also, the constant group shows often miss much better local artists who fit the theme. Tricky curation is only so good; following a trend is nowhere near as interesting or rewarding as creating one.

Katherine Bovee's Savepoint at Disjecta.

Other huge questions: Will the very good PDX Gallery ever expand? And, will prices in Portland ever expand? (To make a ridiculous but very informed statement, I suspect the size of the PDX Gallery and the prices artists in Portland command are systemically linked. not that PDX has been lax there.)

Truth is, Portland is growing up ... we've got a lot of good-to-great artists (and tons of bad ones), but the galleries are in a bind unless people realize this is a great place to buy international and emerging artists.

Yes, Liz Leach was brash but very practical when she made her move to the Pearl. But I've seen a lot of artists from other galleries, such as PDX, in the new Leach Gallery thinking about what an ideal gallery could be. Yes, the galleries are rivals but they also play off of each other. Even Laura Russo is showing some new younger artists. I think Portland has a great set of galleries and gallerists and they all play a role.

But the game is changing.

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

How it changes is anyone's guess (even Laura Russo is now doing art fairs!), although Leach showed real panache with her move. Now everyone else will decide what to do next. If Homer Williams is right (and I think he is), a mass of wealthy baby boomers will come into semi-retirement here.

They worship youth and why wouldn't they?

One way to not retire like your parents in Arizona and Florida is to move to the Pearl and take on urban living. Maybe even taking up art collecting as opposed to endless golf-cart jockeying. Art collecting requires self-knowledge and most Americans could use a great deal more of that.

There has been a philosophical void – that "sucking sound" left by the end of the 20th century – being addressed here. Portland may very well get its act together in 2005 and articulate something important. Let's just say the one-time icons of radical thought (housed in MoMA and The Art Institute of Chicago) have been muted to some degree by their investment value. Portland is a cultural frontier and that is exciting.

The artists must simply do what they are routinely asked to do: the nearly impossible. Upstage the museums to validate them, inspire the galleries to take smart risks and go way beyond the past four years of the art scene's churning.

This is the test. But with the Bush reelection, the rich will get much richer – creating a wild opportunity for artists.

Somehow, Portland is more important now as it serves as a conscientious objection to the values of the current administration, which has its roots in the mendacity of the last 25 years or so. Portland didn’t fall in step with all the other major U.S. cities during that time.

That's why the artists are here. Can they make good?

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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