A completely biased history
Portland art scene
by Jeff Jahn
an anxious time in Portland. There's a new museum wing, a contemporary
art fair, new galleries everywhere and old ones are upgrading.
The hoard of artists includes many who are now showing abroad
(Melbourne, France, L.A., Istanbul, Boston, Oslo, Iceland and
The secret is out.
It's a rather new feeling in town. Six years ago
all I heard was, "Portland can't and Portland doesn't." But
Portland has a tradition of grand efforts, like the 1905 World's
Fair. The city simply needs to apply itself. Of course, who
is leading the charge very much matters.
Now that Portland has gotten over the fact that,
yes, lots of very good artists have moved here (some of the
best were here already because there is a tradition in town),
everybody wonders how all this art alchemy will direct its energy.
At a certain point, though, it isn't civic. It's about the individual
accomplishments of individual artists and there are some very
good ones in Portland.
The local art scene's current heat makes sense.
Portland is a city where most of the things that were swept
under the rug during the late-20th century became conscientious
talking points about community, the individual, cultural invention,
man's place in nature and the necessity of bohemians
as well as variegated and intelligent urban development.
Most U.S. cities were blithely screwing themselves
with '70s corporate globalism and development (a freeway through
downtown Portland was planned but stopped). But there is an
almost Roman civic engagement amongst Portlanders. This is the
place to go against the purely hierarchical corporate flow and
I think of Portland as a rebel base.
PDX Gallery by hot Portland architect Brad Cloepfil: The
space is still just as ultra-refined but more adventurous
and less constrained ... what about future shows? Word on
the street (although not exactly accurate) is that PDX is
synonymous with "quiet" art; I think it's more about exquisite
states. Lavadour and Henry, the gallery's two most mature
artists, are anything but quiet. Also, proprietor Jane Beebe
has a zesty streak which her window project really
showed. The question is, how will PDX Gallery evolve now
that it is less constrained?
Some have pointed out that this has happened here
before, but it hasn't happened on this scale with so many leaders
and definitive events. Now, with real infrastructure changes,
the changes seem like a new baseline. Sometimes smaller eruptions
set the stage for larger ones and I believe that is the case
here. Still, Portland is not a media hub and we simply need
to make noise to get credit where credit is due.
So why here? Those of us who were kids during the
1970s, '80s and '90s recognize Portland as the one major American
city unwilling to screw itself. Portland seems open to the idea
of being a national leader in terms of reenergizing urban life.
I think of Portland as the conscience for the country,
not so much isolated as different. It reminds me of one of my
favorite plays, Ibsen's "An Enemy of the People," partly because
development is held up to moral scrutiny.
Portland is not going to be Houston, Atlanta, L.A.,
Seattle or New York; it's a rebel base for progressive-minded
people. It has a very vibrant cafe culture too. Portland is
a city where respect is not just a human-to-human thing and
the Gen X- and Y-ers moving here uphold that tradition. They
bring new ambition and competitiveness even when they say they
aren't. Overall, the city itself is not the final issue; it's
the rigor and savvy of its individuals.
Picton's last solo show in Portland, but the DeYoung museum
in San Francisco recently acquired the piece. He recently
left this gallery and one wonders which gallery has the
cajones to show this sort of work?
Still, longtime Portlanders do have this knee-jerk
reaction to newcomers. Half the time they assume we are trying
to remake Portland into New York; the rest of the time they
still say Portland "just can't ..."
Which is simply not true.
Critical mass seems to be at hand with the new museum
wing, art fair and numerous new galleries. It's all happening
in a very intelligent way ... not even the 2003 recession could
I came here because the city allowed development
in a world where artists came pre-packaged and fitted with defining
gallery shoes right out of grad school. Portland is a from-the-ground-up
occurrence without the benefit of a major graduate program.
(PSU has improved but needs a full-scale effort from the top.)
A key factor in all the recent changes is that artists
and audiences are developing quickly together it's what Dave
Hickey calls "communities of desire."
A totally biased history of the Portland renaissance
In the late 1980s, First Thursday was started by William Jamison
in the then-fish-smelling Pearl District. In 1995, PICA was
founded by Kristy Edmunds and, since the Portland Art Museum
had scant interest in a contemporary art program, the institution
had several itinerant warehouse shows. PICA held down the fort.
When Jamison died in '95, the city grieved and things slowly
I moved here in 1999 and sensed a gaping hole, but
did not yet understand it was left mostly by a single man. I
think of Jamison like Obi-Wan Kenobi. When Darth Vader cut him
down his example and spirit spread out, becoming "more powerful
than you could ever imagine."
Years later, I was a bit overcome while watching
Scott Ray Becker's 2002 documentary,
"Gridlocker's Paradox." Yes, when I jumped into Jamison Fountain
for an Oregonian photo, it was a li'l improvised tribute; in
all things actions speak louder than words.
Raising standards, 1999
The 1999 Oregon Biennial, curated by Katherine Kanjo, took up
twice the space of the 2001 and 2003 Biennials and was a wild
One video piece repeated the words "I'm sorry."
|Hued Schwegler's Mouthpieces Starred at the1999 Oregon
Michael Knutson and Heidi Schwegler were the stars,
but the show also featured Sean Healy, Tom Cramer, Mike Shea,
Storm Tharp, Molly Vidor and introduced us to Brenden Clenaghen.
Kanjo even recruited Jacqueline Ehlis, who was still
in graduate school at UNLV (arguably the hottest graduate program
on earth during the '90s).
The show pissed off people with its garbage sculpture,
tarot cards by Sarah Taylor and Swallow Pressx2, but it absolutely
set the stage for what's going on now.
Today tellingly the show would be instantly
Also in 1999, Jamie Bollenbach, a Reed student and
former head of the ACLU in Alaska, worked with the college to
create the Bollenbach Art Labs at Southeast 3rd and Alder (it
was next called _Hall and has recently been renamed Homeland).
Its initial purpose was to give Reed students a gallery to show
in, along with cheap studio space.
photograph by Todd Johnson.
Momentum builds, 2000
In spring 2000, PICA invited all the artists it could fit onto
its walls. Only 493 showed up and, waiting in the hours-long
line was where many artists started to talk to one another (I
met Diane Kornberg). Most spoke about how crass a promotion
it all seemed to be for PICA. But I think it had a lot of good
side effects and was a common precursor to the Portland Independent
Salon, the Modern Zoo and Meeting People.
In summer 2000, Todd Johnson curated Popcicle, a
damn good show at the Everett Station Lofts. Hardly anyone noticed
Popsicle in the press, but artists started getting more serious.
Not coincidentally, Muriel Bartol opened Nil Gallery
in the Lofts and her exhibition program was very good, outstripping
anything that had been done before in those galleries and
rarely equaled by the official galleries at the time. She is
going to Art Center in Pasadena, Calif., but longs for Portland
and frequently returns.
"Air Beauty," from the Greenberg Collection.
Also in 2000, the Bollenbach Art Labs became the
site of Cris Moss's first Donut Shop show, featuring himself
and several other installation/video artists; it garnered good press in the Willamette Week.
Two months later at the Labs, I staged a three-person
show with Nic Walker and Kelly Newcomer.
A good deal of art sold for not insubstantial sums.
Moss continued to do donut shops, most of which
looked good but were most notable for their adventurous locations
(something Portlanders were not used to at the time).
Later that year the Portland Art Museum acquired
the Clement Greenberg Collection, signaling big changes in the
That same year, curators Bruce Guenther (PAM) and
Stuart Horodner (PICA) arrived, giving new muscle for modern/contemporary
art within their institutions.
(As an aside, "contemporary art" was a retrograde
term to people like de Kooning and Pollock. For them it meant
socially acceptable and implied impressionist, ashcan or even
social-realist art; modern was a freeing impulse. Some things
change, some don't.)
In addition, these two curators began a series of
great lectures, including Peter Schjeldahl, Dave Hickey, Robert
Storr and Larry Rinder. These lectures were very important and
Portland just didn't seem isolated anymore ... unless of course
you were lazy.
Bjarnadottir and the 2001 Biennial.
2001: The shit hits the fan
In 2001, the Oregon Biennial took place with standout work by
Rae Mahaffey, Jan Reaves, Mark Smith, Melody Owen and, especially,
Hildur Bjarnadottir. Still, it seemed safe compared to 1999,
which had twice as many standouts.
Red 76 (Sam Gould) and the Alphabet Dress (Zefery
Throwell) took Moss's itinerate or "popup" show system
and added a large-scale party element. Disjecta worked with
both of these organizers, as well as independently of them.
These popup shows occurred monthly or bi-weekly
and the scene suddenly got very social, while copious amounts
of Pabst were drunk.
Also in 2001, a small, simple protest to the Biennial
took place at Groundswell on Alberta Street and the Biennial's
curator, Bruce Guenther, showed up. Then, a show I spent nine
months planning, "The Portland Independent Salon," took place
at the Bollenbach Art Labs.
|Portland Independent Salon: Works by Natalie Davis, Liz
Obert, Muriel Bartol and Michael Hernandez (from left).
An 11,000-square-foot success in the same location
where Donut Shop 1 took place, it was unjuried and each artist
was simply given nine feet of wall space, first come, first
The more on-the-ball and serious artists showed
up first and quality ensued.
The Oregonian's Randy Gragg wrote critically on
the show ... to this point only the Donut Shop had gotten mention
and nobody said anything much more critical than "it looked
Natalie Davis and Jacqueline Ehlis starred, but
Muriel Bartol, Laura Fritz, Todd Johnson and Marcello Munoz
also stood out. The Bollenbach Art Labs then became Eagerwally
Gallery under Tim Dalbow's tenure.
Fletcher at PICA.
The Donut Shop also traveled to Bellingham, Wash.,
at a time when Portland was all about Portland. (Now, in 2005,
most of the better artists show nationally and internationally.)
On the institutional side, PICA's programming included
excellent shows by Erica Blumenfeld, Malia Jensen, Kate Shepherd
and Harrell Fletcher. Most were a bit too clean, but Jensen
had the strongest work. Her "Knotty Situation" is without a
doubt a museum piece (why the hell is the plywood tree sitting
in the window of the seaplane fashion boutique in 2005?).
room at the old Savage Gallery.
Harrell Fletcher's Everyday Sunshine opened at PICA
and proved to be very influential, although it wasn't one of
his best shows. His Bay-area aesthetics and participation-based
conceptual happenings were copied clumsily by many journeyman
Portland artists until 2004.
Tracy Savage also opened Savage Gallery with a gorgeous
solo show by Bryan Hunt.
At 5,000 square feet, it was and remains the single
toughest commercial gallery space the Pacific Northwest has
ever seen. For an accurate comparison, it was more impressive
than Mary Boone's Chelsea space but not as nuts as Larry Gagosian's
and a Hamms.
2002: Things get more defined
The Lab, a mock
institution, kicked into gear with a lecture series that took
on practically anything and people like Camela Raymond, Matthew
Stadler, Michael Hebb (before becoming a restaurateur with clarklewis, etc.)
and the magnificent Andrew Dickson all delivered esoteric information
as performance. Again, the David Lynch-approved beverage, Pabst
Blue Ribbon, had unsubstantiated reports of being consumed.
One notable lecture series person wisely chose Hamms, "the beer
The apotheosis of the lectures was a fake professor,
Latteier delivered an SCTV-worthy Powerpoint lecture
on models. The wonderfully terrible Lego sheep are worth checking
out (you can stream it here: http://www.latteier.com/).
In winter 2002, Charm Bracelet put on the Meeting
People show. The idea was that 500 artists would create uniformly
small, square works. It was a striking success as a community
project, but there were sly overtones that many caught and distrusted,
such as participants being used as a number to substantiate
a project. A rift developed between "primary participation"
and "visual efficacy" artists.
Both sides have conceptual aims, but I argued that
the shows that emphasized participation above all else often
did so to the detriment of deeper conceptual rigor (they also
seemed to be Harrell Fletcher rip-offs). In most cases the participating
artists themselves got little out of it. It wasn't anywhere
near as articulate as Robert Smithson or Vito Acconci and seemed
more like a simple combination of speed-dating and crass art-scene
Both Smithson and Acconci could and did write, which
these so-called conceptual artists tried everything to avoid.
Later in 2005, half of the Charm Bracelet, Brad Adkins, became
a process artists (after stating for years that making art is
the least interesting part) and hit his stride with some interesting
and inwardly obsessed work.
Gallery's final show = James Boulton.
A lot of the "primary participation" artists seemed to take
their basis from Harrell Fletcher.
But Fletcher can and does converse about his concepts with
considerably more eloquence. He was included in both the '02
and '04 Whitney Biennials.
These younger conceptualists had a grace period but, at some
point, you have to be able to defend yourself conceptually
especially if you are primarily a conceptual artist.
The Fleck Gallery and Soundvision
anchored the Everett Station Lofts along with Zeitgeist. Field
also emerged in the former Nil space; Michael Oman Reagan had
been Gallery Nil's other programming voice.
Ginsberg Wallpaper from Subscribe.
In spring 2002, a group show called Slowness took
place at the Art Gym. According to some of the arists, the show
was sparked conceptually by the title of Milan Kundera's book,
making this part of the Slow movement.
Only Emily Ginsberg's video effectively slowed anything.
Most of the work was very elegant, but seemed too similar
as if the general absence of color is a visual code for effecting
slowness. It was a show that simply combined too much of the
same thing and became flat. I decided dynamics are key to any
group show. Other flat shows in 2002 included Northwest Narrative
Also in 2002, Jacqueline Ehlis curated Subscribe
with Chandra Bocci, Emily Ginsberg and Trish Grantham at Pacific
University for Women's History Month.
Ehlis's solo show at Savage was the first by a local
artist to realize the potential of the Savage Gallery (although
the long wall-hang was adequate, it could have been better).
Savage as a space was so tough that many top international artists
would have to plan for a year to pull off a show.
The big gallery closed in 2003 and only seven of
its shows in 18 months really fulfilled its promise to any degree.
Heidi Schwegler, Diane Kornberg, Bryan Hunt, Suen Wong, Ehlis
and Heidi Cody were among them. In 2004 it reopened in a smaller
but equally nice space.
The lesson? Details and the artist matter a lot
more than the room you put them in.
Cody (a native portlander who lives in New York) at Savage
Matt Fleck, Marcello Munoz and Jim Archer curated Next Now at
the Littman Gallery.
Standouts were Laura Fritz, Marcello Munoz and James Boulton, whose
"Spark Gap Transmission" was one of the stars of the 2003 Biennial.
Elizabeth Leach hosted a trio of excellent German Painters,
including the amazing (and now red-hot) Norbert Biskey.
At the time it was a rare international show. Now,
in 2005, the gallery regularly hosts such high-caliber shows.
My show, Play, also at the Littman, was an experiment in playful
competition and interaction among artists who were not necessarily
friends, but became so. The artists, Jacqueline Ehlis, Hilary
Pfeifer, Todd Johnson, Bruce Conkle and I, all had extensive
experience outside of Portland. I saw it as an artist-initiated
art-scene intervention and it became a bellwether.
Unique for indie shows, it took a year of planning
and it obliquely referenced 9/11. It was a concerted effort
to raise the stakes. With a postgraduate-level thesis and color
catalog, there was hope that others would attempt similar intellectual
and aesthetic rigor. Many whined instead. But attendance was
great and lots of good vibes came, too. A serious press fandango signaled everyone to wake
up. It set the tone in town for higher expectations.
That same month the Organ, a Portland-based arts
newspaper, published its first issue.
Maritime and Hug Me opened at _Hall and Pacific Switchboard,
respectively. The two shows were baptized when James Boulton
and Adam Sorenson from Maritime and Cynthia Starr from Hug Me
got into the 2003 Oregon Biennial. The kids are alright!
At some point, letters to the editor at this publication develop,
as does some sort of rift between the Hug Me's and the Mods,
as two young art camps emerge.
I suspect the Hug Me's are on Prozac and the Mods
come from well-to-do families (and lack Prozac), but it all
seems odd to me. The psychic condition of the two alleged camps
is interesting, though I think I'm from a different and rarer
camp, whose parents never divorced. Also, is Prozac bad for
Red 76 put on the Art Stall during the summer and
Dim Sum later in the year. Very nice ideas, they shook up the
2003: New standards tested in group shows
In January, Beamsplitter's MachineWorks outed video, both
international and local, and coaxed Portlanders into a dark,
possibly toxic, but excellent environment.
I suspect few of these video artists entered the
In March 2003, Red 76's glorious polyglot of international
and local DIY offerings, called I.A E., defined the idea of
protean artistic impenetrableness at the Laurelhurst Theater.
Too many wrongly tried to understand it as a whole;
that was impossible. Instead, it was a smorgasbord of ideas
in need of distillation a tantalizing prospect in a city full
I.A.E. was the armory of indie
although I think
fetishing DIY is a mistake and a bit like those '90s discussions
of "who's more alternative?" The 21st century was looking more
interesting every day back then. It keeps getting more complicated.
still from "Cablevision" by Paperrad at I.A.E.
But it doesn't matter if it happens in a basement
or a high-profile warehouse by people with graduate degrees.
If it's fresh, it's worth promoting and sharing. The arts die
primarily because of neglect, not through knowledge of what
is happening elsewhere.
Next in 2003, Brad Adkin's Blood and Guts Forever
show at the Art Gym showed us less about friendship than a study
of psyche, failure and fragility all important themes.
It looked good, if not a little timid, for such
a feisty title. Frankly, that's how most Art Gym shows look
(David Eckard exempted, of course!). In fact, Eckard's Art Gym
show wins my vote for most fully realized 2003 exhibition involving
a Portlander. Group shows are nice but always a bit too scattered;
we do them to understand the moment. Statements are for individuals.
Eckard's "Tournament Lumens" at Art Gym.
In May, the Best Coast challenged top young guns from up
and down the West Coast to test themselves in a tough urban
warehouse, along with viewers overly accustomed to prissy didactic
It served as a wake-up call and was a bit like going
to a gym to build one's art-viewing muscles accustomed to sterile
Portland stood up and out in these honest, less-digested
environs. Unlike museum and gallery shows, it was not aimed
Thousands of museum professionals were ensconced
at the AAM convention nearby and connections were made. With
hundreds of curators at the opening, it created a concrete example
about the buzz Portland has had for over 10 years.
Project" at The Modern Zoo.
Next, the populist art experiment called the Modern Zoo grew
and evolved to fill a 100,000-plus square foot corporate complex.
For three months everyone, regardless of chops, intellect or
taste, was invited ... anything could and sometimes even did
I don't disparage the lack of curatorial control;
it was a great way to organically engage the scene. By being
so amorphous it took a baseline temperature of the city and,
consequently, forced everyone to think about what they really
want to do next.
What this means is everyone just got better and
expects more. It wasn't a showcase like the other shows of 2003,
it was an experiment and a concerted field observation testing.
The the summer of 2003, the Oregon Biennial, normally
the arbiter of taste, provoked a lot of discussion due to its
comparatively conservative "painting is where it's at" stance
and comparisons to the Modern Zoo, I.A.E, and Machine Works.
This alone verified that a new standard was now in effect and
taste alone was no longer enough.
Portlanders expected challenges. Portland is more
demanding now, and we've grown to like both taste and
difficult to contend with energy. It must be said that being
a juror of any biennial or official survey is an impossible
but very important job. The upcoming one in 2006 (put off for
a year because of the PAM expansion) is going to be very difficult
to pull off.
L.'s eRascism at PICA.
During the summer of 2003 at PICA, Stuart Horodner's crowning
achievement as a curator was William Pope L.'s eRascism show.
Rotting hotdogs, peanut butter and videos of a grown man crawling
on the street made this one of the two best shows nationally
in 2003 (the other was Franz West's Sisyphus and Waste at
Gagosian). Directly following that show PICA's first Time-Based
Art Festival (TBA) was impressive and picked up on the cascading
energy that all of these events were creating.
TBA was supposed to free up PICA to concentrate on visual
arts the rest of the year but, when TBA lost money in its
first year (like all festivals do), the visual arts program
was sacked. Horodner's last show, it included Dana Schutz,
Hillary Harkness, Steve DiBenedetto and local Henk Pander,
and has yet to recover in any way that restores anyone's confidence
in PICA as a national-level visual arts organization.
Sample happened for one weekend in October. With more than
exhibits, installations, performances and screenings throughout
the city, it was a massive effort that doesn't happen in other
Ocampo's U.N. resolutions, Core Sample, 2003.
For the city of Portland, Core Sample was a massive
follow-up job and, just in case some of the locals missed the
obvious, there was something going on here.
True, some shows like Realagories, Painting Portland,
Crafty and The Hunt were just too regionally predictable for
my tastes and it seemed like organizer Randy Gragg wanted to
make sure some of the older Portland artists could claim they
were participating in the city-wide art renaissance.
But that is all good (up to this point it was mostly
us whippersnappers). The more progressive shows like Flush,
Second Cycle (curated by Stephanie Snyder), Symbiont Synthetic
(so I'm told), David Eckard's Scribe, James Harrison's two-by-four
constructions and the
video art at the Belmont Factory were very important, as
was the catalog. I really liked Pablo Ocampo's U.N. resolutions
at the Belmont Factory space as well.
The more progressive shows collectively declared
that a new, more internationally engaged reality was in effect
here. In spring 2004, the Organ
officially freaked out about the fact that something clearly
was going on in town and started becoming more of a literary
publication rather than addressing the details of the art-scene
renaissance. The Organ stopped publishing in December 2004 but
one thing was certain: the visual art scene vitality wasn't
some pigment of the imagination for all these newcomers flooding
Suddenly, between I.A.E., the Best Coast, TBA and
Core Sample, Portlanders were seeing the local art world and
the rest of the world side by side and, in many cases, the level
of achievement was comparable. Very quickly that odd and undeserved
self-deprecating attitude regarding Portland art vanished. People
were shutting up and doing something and 2003 was a magical
Amidst all this hubbub, Tom Cramer switched galleries
and proceeded to nearly sell out a very large show at Mark Woolley
Gallery. This was the height of the recession and a long-known
fact was reiterated: Portland loves abstract art. Since Rothko
grew up here you'd think this would be obvious, but it needs
to be restated especially because there are a lot of
unique abstractionists in Oregon (Matthew Picton, Jacqueline
Ehlis, James Lavadour, Ellen George, Jesse Hayward, Mark Smith,
Brenden Clenaghen, Michael Knutson, Mel Katz and Cramer, to
name a few).
In November 2003 the Art Gym put on the Ulterior
Motives show to try and wrap its head around this trend. Also,
Jack Shimko and Leah Emkin, two then-recent Lewis and Clark
grads, started the beautiful Haze Gallery and proceeded to put
on the best series of shows the city had seen since the legendary
PCVA (which showed Carl Andre and Chris Burden, etc., back in
the '70s and early '80s).
Also, the people who put on the Modern Zoo decided
to create a populist arts organization, PCAC, and did the process
show with the idea of proving they had something to offer in
terms of art expertise. The results were mixed and, by June
2004, the organization had split into two organizations: the
Portland Art Center and Disjecta.
2004, the solo show year
Conkle's the Lala Zone Expedition at Haze Gallery, June
Haze Gallery opened its first solo show in January
with Nic Walker and instantly upped the ante in the city
with shows by Jesse Hayward, Ali Schmeltz, Corey Lunn, Kenny
Higden, Melissa Smith and Lisa Bowduin Keys (with a real, grumpy
miniature cow). Throughout the year it dominated the art season
with good-to-excellent shows.
The two most memorable were Chandra Bocci's Bubble
Speak, which sported a 70-foot-long otterpop rainbow and a yellow
brick road made of mustard packets, and Bruce Conkle's fantastic
Lala Zone Expedition.
Lala Zone was a pseudo-historical museum that combined
altered videogame screenshots, tin-foil weaponry and hundreds
of figurines depicting an encounter between natives and invaders.
The diorama looked like a family reunion picnic and a genocide-producing
battle and that multiplicity of meanings made it very
Suddenly every gallery in Portland seemed very tame
by comparison, although that isn't fair because it really didn't
try to sell art. In fact, most sales galleries in New York (except
big production value shock houses, like Dietch projects and
Gagosian) seemed tame by comparison.
The fact that Haze was in Portland showing mostly
Portland art was very eye opening and as an experiment had a
huge impact. Haze closed in October 2004 with Chandra Bocci's
Affair @ the Jupiter Hotel Art Fair.
Also in January 2004, PICA's visual arts program
under Stuart Horodner ended with a great lecture by Jerry Saltz,
who indicated he was "intimidated" by what was going on here.
The lecture can be seen in PICA's resource room.
The competitive Saltz seemed to be very aware that
Hickey, Schjeldahl, Rinder, Aconcci and Storr had come through
recently and really wanted to have the best lecture Portland
had ever seen.
General consensus is that he achieved it.
By summer 2004 it became apparent that everyone
needed to step up and Elizabeth Leach made the big move of buying
a building in the Pearl District, which solidified the Pearl
as the top gallery district. Other galleries, such as Mark Woolley,
PDX and Pulliam Deffenbaugh, followed suit in 2005 by buying
spaces as well.
Last but not least, the now cast-off curator Stuart
Horodner snatched victory from the jaws of defeat by putting
together Portland's first contemporary art fair, The Affair
@ the Jupiter Hotel.
Horodner's fair drew large crowds and solidified
what I had purported long ago: Portland is a kind of island
in the art world that allows people to do their own thing. Horodner's
oft-repeated catch phrase, "does the world need another art
fair? No, but Portland does," was brilliant and said a lot.
We weren't as isolated as many thought and Portland still enjoys
a good reputation elsewhere that is increasingly drawing people
to show here.
Just prior to the Affair, the art scene had been
featured on CNN and art-world people all over the globe asked,
"how did you get them to do something on art?" The
answer: "overwhelming legitimacy." Portland's scene
isn't the fabrication of of some cabal of art-world insiders,
it stems from artists reimagining a city.
Richard Misrach and Sam Taylor Wood at the New Elizabeth
2005 gallery space explosion
There was also a proliferation of new galleries that came into
their own in 2005 (even though some were open before that).
The list: Motel, RC, Savage Art Resources (a much smaller but
more adventurously programmed followup to the original Savage,
which just closed), Portland Art Center, New American Art Union,
Chambers, Beppu-Wiarda, Gallery 500, Homeland and Small A Projects.
This culminated in the opening of the new Jubitz Center for
Modern and Contemporary Art.
These new for-profit and non-profit gallerists are
an interesting lot and, as mentioned before, both PDX and Pulliam
Deffenbaugh just opened in new spaces, too.
"Vigor," June 2005.
So far, 2005 has been a year of excellent solo shows
as well, with standout work by Matthew Picton, Amanda Wojick,
Dianne Kornberg, Storm Tharp, Zach Kircher, James Lavadour and
Tom Cramer. But the prize belongs to Jacqueline Ehlis, whose
show Vigor at Savage Art Resources managed to be both
very challenging and financially very successful.
With five separate bodies of work that all worked
together as an investigation of painting's possibilities, it
was a show that took that "seen that, heard that before"
subject and managed to breathe life into it. Her what I call
"phaintings" or photographs of paintings took Stieglitz's equivalencies
(one of the most important bodies of work in abstract art) and
gave it a new spin.
Portland artists also received rave reviews for
shows outside of Portland in 2005. Here are a few: Bruce Conkle
(Boston and Seattle), Matthew Picton (L.A. and San Francisco), Red Shoe Delivery Service (Melbourne), Laura Fritz (Seattle),
Mary Mattingly (Hamptons, Venice), Justin Harris (Melbourne),
PICA restarted its visual arts programming in 2005
with a lecture series and a warehouse
show (that wasn't as interesting as it should have been).
PICA's lack of exhibitions seems out of step with the very active
visual-art community, which is more cutting edge than PICA itself
seems to be. PICA's commitment to visual art is in question
and we have yet to hear any formal plan regarding their visual-arts
Other arts organizations, like the brand new Portland Art Center, have some interesting plans
but word on the street is that their level of expertise lags
behind the galleries and leading artists in the city. Events
like Taking Place and frequent warehouse shows are simply
more interesting. We also have new arts groups like Rake Arts,
the MOST and Manifest Artistry, in addition to the venerable
Red 76. With that kind of ruckus the intellectual standards
in effect in the city's art scene far outstrip the typical university
of Becher, the inaugural show at the New Pulliam Deffenbaugh
The second Affair @
the Jupiter Hotel took place in October and was more adventitious
and a bit more successful than the first, despite the soggier
The presence of Mona Hatoum and White Columns, etc.,
upped the ante. In general, the galleries were better but there
was too much of the same sort of art (self-conscious, faux clumsy
drawings and other termite art) that should be addressed with
a strong jurying of what work each gallery brings. This is a
typical problem that most art fairs have.
At the same time, the Portland Art Museum opened
Center for Modern and Contemporary Art and this metro area
of 2.1 million finally had a place where you could be guaranteed
to see first-rate Minimalism, the School of Paris and Abstract
Expressionism, along with some Pop and more contemporary work.
|Installation at Motel Gallery, July 2005.
This provides an important historical baseline for
artists, collectors and all art institutions in the city. Although
one must wonder how the existence of all the other high-quality shows in town put pressure on the museum to do a
truly challenging Oregon Biennial (slated for July 2006). There
is no way around it: If it is a step backwards they'll be punished
in a way no curator west of the Mississippi has ever been punished
(tarring and feathering is not beyond this city). But if it
is great the love should be intense.
I don't envy that curator and, though the new curator
hasn't been announced, their name had better not be Custer.
Other plans are in motion and the city needs a serious
Kunsthalle (at least three separate plans seem to be
in play). Gallery 500 just closed, so Justin Oswald can focus
on his next art project in the city.
Oswald is dangerous and it's still up to the galleries
and artists in town to support and expand what has already happened
Things have progressed a great deal in Portland,
to the point where galleries opening and closing isn't a big
deal anymore. I suspect the biggest news about Portland art
in 2006 will be that it isn't just for Portlanders (and those
in the know) anymore.
We've been spoiled, but the secret is out.