Justine Kurland & Mary Mattingly
A tale of two institutions
the occasionally dark and stormy month of May there were many
interesting art developments in Portland. Two were from visual
art institutions trying to find their way.
The best of these visual offerings was (with certain
caveats) Justine Kurland's talk at PICA, of which I will go into
greater detail later.
I also traveled a great deal, seeing Seattle no less
than four times, plus Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Chicago and Milwaukee
all in one whirlwind month.
My favorite thing, besides Minneapolis's new Walker
Art Center addition and the Chicago MCA's Universal Experience
(art and tourism) show, were the earthworks at Lizard Mound near
my parents' house in Wisconsin. It is an old haunt.
Robert Smithson may have coined the term "nonsite,"
but these mound builders created some amazing bird, panther, linear
and, yes, lizard-shaped earthwork sites. With no apparent utilitarian
use other than a rare burial, these effigy mounds were in part
manifest aesthetic decisions and enigmas.
I've always found these effigy mounds appealing because
they are large but not huge, so there's a very human scale. Also,
the forest easily swallows them if not maintained. Larger mounds,
generally from different tribes farther south, usually had more
utilitarian purpose. Simply put, these are smaller and more enigmatic.
|An effigy mound in Southeastern Wisconsin.
You can look for reviews from my travels and up-to-the-minute
Portland art info at PORT, an art
blog I'm starting up with Jennifer Armbrust and two other art
writers, Andie DeLuca and Katherine Bovee.
PORT starts June 1 and will be an intellectually responsible
place for reviews on the dynamic Portland art scene. There'll
be relevant art writing about non-Portland art news as well. It
should be an important, sophisticated addition to the explosion
of art activity that Portland is experiencing connecting
it to the world. I'll continue my more thematic, experimental
and philosophical pieces here in the Critical i.
Looking further into June, it seems like we have another
strong month with Jacqueline Ehlis at Savage and Tim Dalbow at
Laura Russo Gallery. Ehlis has grown a great deal since 2002 and
her very different series of works all play incredibly well together
(let's just say she is the most hardcore "dedicated studio process"
artist in town ... we'll see if it shows). Dalbow will display
what he's learned since his uneven breakout last year at Haze.
|Pat Steir's "Green One" at Elizabeth Leach
A show that continues through July, Paint at Elizabeth
Leach Gallery, yields some of my favorite viewing experiences
in some time.
In particular, the absolutely amazing Pat Steir painting,
"Green One," one of her signature waterfall series, stands out.
"Green One" is a direct, no-nonsense poem on materials,
a kind of Shinto shrine to the liquid properties of paint and
the effects of gravity.
This really excellent Steir managed to more than hold
the walls with a Joan Mitchell and a very good Louise Fishman
also in the show.
Other notable efforts were by Harvest Henderson at
Pause Gallery and Joe Thurston at Mark Woolley Gallery.
Henderson's installation of real but artificially
tinted sod and vines comprised of pictures of augmented women
made a well-thought-out visual metaphor. It plays on the preference
for man-made nature over the natural with its inevitable blemish
|Harvest Henderson at Pause Gallery.
The installation was quirky but somehow the idea seemed
too neat and tidy. It needed something less ubiquitous than lawn
products and pretty/fake ladies to keep the viewer off balance.
I liked it but it didn't leave me feeling conflicted
or engaged as much as it could have.
As a follow up to last month, I did like some of Joe
Thurston's uneven show. For example, the show-card piece, "The
Things that Establish Her Personality Sometimes Exhaust Others,"
was one of the best things I've seen this year. But much of the
other work lacked the strong backgrounds of that work and the
poses were too direct.
Something about the physical torsion, glaring eyes
and fierce teeth in the card piece simply made the more head-on
views of the models seem one dimensional and predictable. Once
again, Thurston had good titles all around.
Kurland and Jon Raymond
|Justine Kurland's "Cyclone" at PICA.
PICA brought Justine Kurland and Jon Raymond to Portland
to discuss their book collaboration, "Old Joy." But
it quickly became apparent that Kurland was the main event. I
consider her the most important photographer since Andreas Gursky
and her talk reinforced that take.
She has grown in diversity over the last two years,
which is rare for someone who came out of Yale's influential MFA
program in the '90s. At Yale she absorbed lessons from Gregory
Crewdson, who is known for his staged cinematic scenarios.
Most of Crewdson's former students are the equivalents
of tribute bands. But a long time ago, Kurland exceeded her former
professor by going where Hollywood doesn't into the world
of humble incomplete utopias and a rare sense of sincere anachronism.
Kurland's work burrows beneath Modernist ideals and
Postmodernism disconnection and strikes gold. It gets right to
the pregnant present where history is both helpful and cruel.
Recently she has photographed trees with surprisingly engaging
effects. No wonder she likes Oregon. She needs to see the Octopus
Tree by Oceanside.
Kurland gets past the dystopian irony and goes straight
for the harsh utopia as a kind of grounded amoral fairytale. Like
Little Red Riding Hood it reveals the human talent for survival.
Somehow, all of her best photographs have an incredibly powerful
open-ended narrative content and her work rather unironically
presents experience as a visible thing. Her lack of irony mongering
instantly sets her apart as a classical humanist from the typical
subculture comedians the art world churns out.
Kurland started the talk by discussing her choice in subject matter.
Initially, her subjects were young women gone off to live in the
wild or by overpasses. It was somewhere between Henry Darger,
"Lord of the Flies" and an update of the Amazon legends.
|"Old Joy": a Kurland and Raymond collaboration.
Unlike a lot of young New York artists, Kurland is
incredibly knowledgeable about the history of her craft.
Fascinatingly, her recent forest photos took a cue
from Civil War battle photos, which would only show the bullet
and cannon scars upon the trees. As she spoke about her photos
they were projected on the overhead screens in the Wieden + Kennedy
You could feel time nearly stop in the room as she
spoke of communes across the country and innocent utopias that
look run down. It is an important truth. Utopias can be difficult
and compromising places to live in and Kurland is one of a handful
of artists who can use truth and fiction simultaneously.
For example, her photo of a tree and several young
women with their hair tied to it recalled a village custom she'd
heard of, as well as Goya's famous war sketches. Her photo looks
very odd but somehow completely normal ... poised near tradition
and the horrors of war without going there.
|Justine Kurland's "Moss Covered Troll Trees."
What makes this work so important is that it displays
the moment before definition, that pregnant time before the choices
that lead to other choices get set in motion.
That defining moment is full of freedom and constraints
and manages to be simultaneously ancient and new.
After Kurland, Jon Raymond read his story about two
hippies trying to connect. That text from Kurland and Raymond's
collaborative book, "Old Joy," was mostly anticlimactic.
All but the segment where the two hippies have a soak
in a hot spring seemed superfluous and wordy, especially when
one considers the wordless eloquence of Kurland's work.
Everyone I spoke to said they tried to watch Kurland's
images overhead and tune out the reading. Maybe Raymond's story
isn't that bad, but Kurland's more open-ended narratives
were also more complete. Kind of like Boswell having to contend
with Shakespeare's mastery, Raymond was simply outclassed. Kurland
is one of 15 people I've met who seem ageless (a combination of
wise and playful, reserved and generous) and I suspect this is
what adds deep zip to the alchemy of her photography.
Kurland's images were also on display in the Wieden
+ Kennedy lobby, but I can't help thinking that an artist as significant
as this deserved more than a "coat check," as someone called it.
There are plenty of better gallery spaces in the city
and one should have been procured.
of two institutions
Disjecta & PICA
|Disjecta attempts to make a case for its existence ...
I'm curious if Disjecta will stop trying to PR its
way into anybody's heart and put on a good art show. Now is their
second chance (Mary Mattingly's show failed) and guest curator
Cris Moss's upcoming Donut Shop 9 might be the first decent thing
we've seen from Disjecta in a year.
Moss has a better track record than Disjecta and his
Donut Shop 9 opens June 4. Moss's Donut Shop series has always
been competent and the first one was stellar.
Despite this savvy choice, Disjecta's new Web
site is riddled with a grating sense of entitlement and implies
that they are the voice of the artists. Yet, numerous people listed
on their advisory board have expressed some grave doubts.
The question remains: Is Bryan Suereth (Disjecta's
sometimes bull-in-a-china-shop founder) his own biggest liability?
Many artists have said much the same, but more colorfully. Even
some listed as advisory board members have grave misgivings and
have already left [see story update below
For a new Web site it seems less than up to date.
Tellingly, Disjecta's actual board of directors (the
people with financial control) has not attracted much in the way
of heavy hitters to its ranks. That needs to change or this is
simply a fantasy waiting to be dashed. Also, I find the large
number of Disjecta staffers disturbing when the organization needs
to be lean and mean.
I've raised these points privately and publicly before
and they need addressing.
Another rookie mistake: Disjecta's donation levels
define a $500 gift as an "Acquaintance" and progress
to a $2,500 "Neighbor," $10,000 "Lover" and
$20,000 "Fiancée," etc. This cumulative set of
cavalier assumptions evokes a mood that seems more interested
in a one-night stand or more co-dependent relationship than anything
Even the Portland Art Museum has a "friend"
level at $100, whereas $5,000 only buys "freindship"
at Disjecta. One must consider that the number of $500-plus donors
that much more established organizations, like PICA and the museum
have, is small. Why limit your base so early on?
With news that the Portland Art Center (run by Gavin
Shettler, Suereth's former co-director in the Modern Zoo organization)
plans to be expanding significantly in 2006, it effectively pulls
the rug from under Disjecta. Despite claims to the contrary on
both sides, they are in direct competition.
Lastly, Disjecta, in its extra patronizing "where
is art going?" brochure, implies that it is the voice of
a popular artist uprising. But a real test of that claim would
be a broader membership drive. Their somewhat sporadic and often
oddly low-profile fundraising attempts need to step up considerably
to be considered serious and the upcoming art auction might be
a start. If it flops ...
|William Pope L. at PICA 2003: standard setter.
On June 10 PICA produces a warehouse show, called
Landmark, for its 10th anniversary.
Unlike Disjecta, PICA has lots of big names, like
William Pope L., Dana Schutz and Jim Hodges. The warehouse is
a nice move but I wonder why they waited. PICA's current "coat
check" lobby exhibition space at Wieden + Kennedy is an embarrassment
and this warehouse show will try to make a case for continued
relevance in the Portland visual art world (Hint: a coat check
is not good enough; even Disjecta knows that).
Landmark might be billed as a 10-year celebration,
but it could actually be a eulogy for an organization that has
slipped considerably since PICA stopped its curatorial program
in January 2004.
The new director of programming (whoever that might
be) will need to work miracles, not more of the same.
Lastly, PICA's birthday slogan (with my emphasis),
"10 years of making the world safe for contemporary
art," conveys an ill-advised prophylactic mission statement.
I hope they don't take it seriously. PICA has been widely and
rightly criticized for showing "safe" names sometimes preferring
them over strong shows.
Both Disjecta and PICA seem to live in curious parallel
universes and both really need to make a better case for why we
should care. That said, I want to care and have cared in the past.
With the right new leadership and donor relations half as good
as the Portland Art Museum's, PICA could survive as a visual arts
entity. But if they think that they can simply use the visual
art patrons as a fundraising tool for their current emphasis on
performance they are on very shaky ground.
|Jennifer Bartlett at Reed's Cooley Gallery in 2003.
Important visual arts people just shake their heads
now, when before they were simply being critical.
After brilliant shows, like William Pope L.'s Erascism
in PICA's dedicated gallery back in 2003, we came to expect a
good show in a good space. What held back attendance was a general
attitude problem at PICA that hasn't changed. Physically, that
means at least a warehouse, not a coat check (and we even waited
a year for that &%$#@ coat check!).
Dissimilarly, Disjecta talks a fine game but needs
to produce results, both in fundraising and programming, or they
should go away (see Mary Mattingly, below).
Truth is, the hoard of artists in Portland has redefined
the city's expectations and you better believe any organization
that fails to take that into account will suffer. With so many
people moving to Portland from places like New York, San Francisco,
L.A., Houston, Sydney and Chicago, any organization that cops
an attitude of smug superiority but presents day-old bread will
probably be shunned.
Some, like PICA and the Portland Art Museum, have
understandably taken serious hits because they felt they were
on the crest when they were actually lagging behind. Now, the
museum is stepping up, as PICA has scaled back.
The Portland Art Museum, the Feldman, Reed College's
Cooley Gallery, The Art Gym and the Portland Art Center have all
stepped up their exhibition abilities. My advice is simple: One
can't expect to do nothing (or something mediocre) and survive
It is a time of rapid change, increasingly sophisticated
expectations and expanded horizons. Anything less than that wont
We go Round and Round in the Night
at Feldman Gallery
|Sub-par work: Mattingly at the Feldman.
Don't get me wrong: Nan Curtis's curation of PNCA's
Feldman Gallery has made it the most consistently decent art space
in Oregon for the last four years with the likes of Heidi Cody,
Axel Lieber, Charles Goldman and Robert Parke-Harrison. I hate
to call attention only when the inevitable misstep occurs, but
this one is so obvious I can't let it slide.
This show is just that painful.
It must be noted that the Mary Mattinglys at the Feldman
were simply sub-par work.
WGRARITN (for short) makes both Disjecta (which has
a very spotty record) and the Feldman's otherwise always solid
and sometimes stellar program look awful.
It doesn't deserve a review, it deserves a rebuke.
If this is where art is going, somebody needs to go to Betty Ford
for detox instead.
Mattingly's experiences from PNCA to Parsons to Yale
(in a two-year period) not withstanding, this came off as a hackneyed
half-assed attempt with more wall text than the filibuster's hall
of fame. This much text is never a good sign and, boy, do the
poorly constructed cardboard trees and badly cut insulation foam
with cheesy circuit boards deliver.
|Amanda Wojick at Elizabeth Leach Gallery, February 2005.
Add in the elaborate verbiage and you get something
far less than mediocre. The poorly laid out jumbles of junk here
and there even usurp the otherwise competent video and photos.
Simply shoddy. The show deserves nothing else.
Local artists on the move nationally and internationally,
like Chandra Bocci, Bruce Conkle, Amanda Wojick and even current
PNCA students, have done similar fantasy themes infinitely better.
It all calls the Feldman's policy of no local artists into question
as an outdated idea.
Mattingly does decent enough photography, video and
performance art but in this case that ability clearly lies outside
installation art. Please stick to photography, video and performance
art or do some wood shedding.
I consider this the worst (supposedly) professional
show in Portland history. Ever.
Let's hope nobody beats it!
[Update: Since this story's deadline,
a member rejoined Disjecta's advisory board, which indicates some
degree of compromise. J.J.]