|The city of Portland blurs its
own lines as it redefines itself.
five-year sea change
sophistication and class
was a defiantly low-key city with a tradition of civic involvement.
But in the past five years a sea change has taken place and, though
civic involvement is still a prime defining principal, the city's
public awareness of class and sophistication (i.e. the dark arts
of informed comparative analysis) has increased exponentially.
Portland is filled with
a surprising number of very intelligent individuals who want to
work on the periphery and, for the experienced, it's one way to
have an edge ... a place for the unlikely to develop.
Nowhere is this upgrade in sophistication more apparent than in
the visual arts.
Actually, part of the reason the visual arts scene is so contentious
is because it has become the leading edge in the debate of whether
Portland can still be Portland if it is slick, urban, discerning
and highly competitive.
Why? Because the boiling art scene gives names and faces to this
phenomenon of comparative excellence and foregrounds the idea of
achievement as a self-feeding ecosystem that continually strives
to distinguish itself (this is new in Portland and yet it doesn't
have the crass get-the-cow-to-market feel of New York).
As a rule of thumb, it's always better to have things on your own
terms and Portland allows that (if you are willing
to do the extra legwork to get noticed internationally). It still
takes hustle maybe even more hustle than other places
but the advantage is that one's back isn't against the wall.
Portland allows artists to take
things on their own terms like no other city in the country. If you're good you will
get noticed here; in other places, being very, very
good isn't necessarily enough and additional hoops unrelated to
merit are the norm. Sometimes sophistication can hold back innovation
of unique work from Portland
by Ellen George: A combination rattlesnake gummi
worm it's sculpture that is formal, sophisticated,
disturbing and fun; you won’t see this kind of work coming
from other places, yet she shows in other places as well as
Also, because the art world is inherently international, it stands
to reason that a lot of these local artists (some with a world-class
education) are the most porous point of entry for international
concerns to be articulated in our backyard.
In fact, the world increasingly looks to Portland
(as a unique peripheral outpost of progressive thought with less
corporate corruption) as a model of a U.S.
city that isn't like other metropolises.
Question is: Is Portland
willing to export itself via its better artists?
Actually, that might be a moot point. Portland's artists do
not ask the city for permission to export themselves and are already
showing all over the place.
In fact, Seattle's Regina Hackett recently pointed out that Matt
McCormick, Vanessa Renwick, Laura Fritz and Harrell Fletcher are
some of the most interesting video
artists working today and they all come from here.
Yet, this is a city that doesn't really support video artists.
The dealers clearly fear a medium that has no apparent collector
base in town. Until the dealers and collectors step up (maybe with
help from the museum) Portland will continue to be a rebel base
where the city doesn't actively try to take credit for its achievements.
This rebel component of sophistication now has a foothold at the
Portland Art Museum that, with the exodus of the Buchanans as directors,
presents a real oppportunity for new leadership in a very financially
Part of the reason this new sophistication is so shocking to some in Portland is that
there's very little conspicuous consumption (unless you live in
the Alphabet District between Northwest 21st and 23rd, where Ferraris
are somewhat common). Now the Pearl
District allows people to show off their Maseratis as they shop. People can also look inside each other's
big glass condo windows and see what's on display. This, folks,
is a big deal and it shows in the numerous gallery upgrades recently:
Mark Woolley, Pulliam Deffenbaugh, PDX and Elizabeth Leach.
A few more are about to happen as well.
Now gallery spaces in Portland
telegraph certain expectations and subtly support certain mindsets
before one ever sets foot inside.
the new Pulliam Deffenbaugh Gallery and a bit of the new PDX
Gallery both have a certain curb appeal that says "serious."
Let's just say the slick + cool countenance of the new Pulliam
Deffenbaugh Gallery radiates a certain precision toughness (nice
job by architect Rick Potestio).
The heavy precision works so well with German photography that
it's a wonder why I haven't seen metal floors before in a gallery. It's also the opposite of PDX Gallery.
The new PDX Gallery space by architect Brad Cloepfil is airy, unhurried
and exudes a diffuse elegance. I'm
not certain if all of PDX's artists can handle this space's Zen-like
openness, which asks the artist to define the space or take on a
breezy passiveness that could seem unfocused or a victim of some
kind of permanent-vacation mentality. Still,
the space could be played like a violin in skilled hands.
We shall see. Some PDX artists like James Lavadour will have no
problem and I think Ellen George, the gallery's most sophisticated
space user, won't have too much of a problem. I like the PDX space
because it can be reconfigured and allows a really sophisticated
artist another way to express mastery in a way that a generic box
Overall sophistication is built upon a series of subtle signs that
groom the viewer's experience. Here are
a few questions to ask when setting foot in a gallery:
Is the floor polished? Or unfussy concrete (like Liz Leach's space)?
Does the gallery convey a sense of permanence? As a follow up, does the space acknowledge
the building's past or does it completely renovate/cover up the
past? Both are ways to telegraph a sense of permanence and
Is the space under a level of Bentham-like surveillance or is it
simply implied that one be on their best behavior? Do people whisper
like in a library or church?
Is the wall labeling long and cheesy like the back of a box of
Cheerios? Are prices printed
next to the work? All of this is
very bad unless they're hand written on the wall like Bruce Conkle
did for his Haze show in 2004 ... that's a nice touch. Rules are
made to be broken, but only if done so out of knowledge instead
of ignorance; comparative aesthetics again.
How aware are gallery staff, artists and collectors of developments
in art history or the current gallery scenes elsewhere? How does what one sees
here stack up? (Sometimes
very, very well; other times it's embarrassing.)
As for prices, are you paying less than $2,500 for a classic and
larger example of an established artist's work? If so, you are positively getting a steal. I
have no idea why artists and dealers allow prices less than this
to happen here. It's a big problem that undervalues Portland
For major local artists, is there a huge buzz before an opening? The king and queen of this in Portland are Tom Cramer
and Jacqueline Ehlis. No surprise,
they are the two best-selling artists in town under 50.
|2D From 3D
at Elizabeth Leach Gallery, featuring wooden maquettes and finished
bronze works by Joel Shapiro.
Are there invite-only previews?
Does the local press actually discuss the work in terms that go
beyond hick reactionary reviews or party reports?
Does press wrestle with a work's specific level of critical and
philosophical relevance, or does it generalize?
Particulars really matter and in some ways the press here can be
inconsistent. Sometimes it's good, other times the local press inexplicably
tilts at windmills.
The lack of critical writing in the Portland press has allowed some very unqualified
people to be tolerated and, luckily, it seems like that era has
ended. Now they need to give
credit where it is due or risk the joke being on the publication,
not the scene.
Now for the trickier signifiers of sophistication:
Does the the way the art is hung convey an overarching aesthetic
intelligence? Many group shows in Portland really lack this, but
it's a problem for solo shows as well. The solution to hangs in
Portland is often a kind of anonymous over-hang with too much of
the same thing. This ho-hum "more of the same" approach
often turns a great painting show into "wallpaper," as
one curator described it. A more sophisticated approach? Feature
a single work or a single artist on a wall. This isn't done enough.
Does the show have surprises and challenge assumptions? I consider
the recent 2D From 3D show at Liz Leach to be successful in this
regard. The show includes Joel Shapiro's wooden maquettes as a form
of drawing. It's interesting and something I didn't expect from
a Portland gallery. I like these surprises!
The truly serious art experience is capable of stripping all of
the razzle-dazzle down to elemental states without lots of qualifiers.
That's why Donald Judd's Marfa experiments, land art and good warehouse
shows still carry this immense protean cachet with viewers when
they are pulled off well. It's sophistication without the crutch
of prissy packaging it lets art be experienced in a similar
way to a mountain, grocery store or far-off mountain goat and takes
the comparative aesthetic training wheels off!
Look at a gallery's stable. Is it coherent? Overly coherent as
a formula? Does the gallery take on new artists regularly? Does
the gallery make money on living artists who have solo shows or
is it a secondary market dealer offering works by international
names that have been purchased before and are now being resold?
Does a gallery promote its artists or merely subsist off of them?
What is the gallery's commitment to its artists on a national stage
(often this means art fairs)?
At least Portland doesn't seem to buy the "if it's from New
York it must be good" camp and that's what I like about this
Another question is, Does a gallery allow its artists to stretch
its collector's tastes? (i.e. Do the artists lead the taste of the
collectors or do they pander?)
These are all big questions and in the intervening months I expect
that the gallery reshuffling taking place will further sort itself
out. The truth of it, though, is that it's still Portland
meaning the quirky is expected and respected rather than buffed
to a high sheen.
Finally, can quirkiness be heightened to new levels? Is it possible
to make Portland a lot weirder, yet more sophisticated?