D e c e m b e r   2 0 0 5

The city of Portland blurs its own lines as it redefines itself.
Critical i

A five-year sea change
Portland, sophistication and class
by Jeff Jahn

ntil recently, Portland 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 and freshness. 

An example 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 Portland.

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 stable organization.

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. 

Window of 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 can't.

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 immediacy.

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 artists.

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 place.

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?

Oh, yes.

E-mail Jeff at pivotofjade@hotmail.com, don't miss his recent columns, be sure to see his April 2002 essay, Art and Threat: Untaming Humanism., and don't miss the art-blog, PORT.

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