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Wednesday 02.08.06

« Art vs. Craft: The Debate Continues with Paula Owen | Main | Psychedelic Logging »

Controversial ho hum

Appreciation of Beauty by William Park

The most controversial art show in Portland (as determined by very unscientific means of overhearing "what's the deal with?") isn't what you would think. Sure we have shows about Nigerian genocide, naked girls eating frootloops and ecoterrorism but the show in question contains a few paintings by William Park that address middle-aged white guys with bald heads at Mark Woolley Gallery. Really, it is the familiarity and omnipresence that is causing a stir, not so much whether the subject is taboo (unless you are Zach Lund). I like some of these paintings a lot (mainly because they are so not my thing) and would have asked him to be in my Fresh Trouble show had I known of these new works.

I find it interesting that they evoke such a response from young men and women who see them as symbols of boomer tyranny as they gentrify Portland left and right. Whereas boomer women have more varied responses and as expected gen-x and boomer men get all antsy if they are in the process of losing their hair. I'm not going to review this and instead make this an open thread for comments, so fire away...

Why does foregrounding balding boomer men positively get people so stirred up???? Arguably, they are the demographic who wield the most power in this country and yes there is a lot of dissatisfaction but can't the bald enjoy their moment in the sun? Don't they deserve it? I don't think a hairless pate in itself is much of the issue, lots of other shows have clean shaven heads in the city.

Posted by Jeff Jahn on February 08, 2006 at 21:33 | Comments (12)


A lightbulb went off: Having been bald for many moons I do not connect my skull to power :)

Though, as I stated in my column, I was formally taken in by Park's realistic use of painterly light. I felt the image you depict here to be a bit kitsch, coy. But his "Talking With Myself" and "Phases of the Moon" - in its back-turned reticent gaze with the viewer, along with its pun on male-pattern baldness, talks about aging, self-reflective disonance and basic humanity. Aside from its take on self as raw man, the only thing I would consider "controversial" about this show is the extended homage to John Lennon. Imagine!

Posted by: TJ Norris [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 9, 2006 12:08 PM

Yeah I know what you mean... it's not like this is a portait of Dick Cheney... yet somehow some people react as if it IS.

I should note it's a self portait too. What I really find funny is how people react so strongly... as if this is the greatest secret in american society, that somehow feminism was supposed to censor this sort of thing... which is ridiculous. Maybe the real elephant in the room is the "Me Generation" and by stating it so blunty it becomes polemic.

I think most art viewers in Portland would agree that the environment, the various wars, and nuclear proliferation are all a bit more pressing than one man's scalp...

Yet where there's smoke there's fire... I think the boomer generation is demographically what any smart person in the US is looking at.

Posted by: Double J [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 9, 2006 01:03 PM

Well, I guess, if you are going to just focus on this one work, "Appreciation of Beauty" it can be scaled like either a tuna or a minow. I chose the latter, because I felt his other works mentioned were quite strong (even the Lennon paintings, it was the subject I would question). When I saw these works I had the immediacy of self reflection, self doubt and worth. There did not seem to be a voice pining a generation or gap therein. Being on the cusp of two generations, myself, I feel that Park's work voices something much quieter, more internalized, almost nostalgically sweeter than what is being sought in this string. But, opinionated as that may sound, it would make good sense to dialogue it all the same.

Park is a very good painter. And coming from someone who isn't a pro-painting cheerleader, his work deals in layers, some slightly secretive, and as depicted, quite topical. I prefer when he remains shrouded somewhat, with his guises guarded. Those are the most powerful pieces in this ten year retrospective. If I had curated this exhibition I would have included only a single image of Lennon, or put them in a separate "study" space. That's my only real strong criticism of this show. The monotypes radiate immediate ambiguity, and make me, the viewer, do a double take. His perspectives are quirky and when art renders my physicality it's got to be good.

Posted by: TJ Norris [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 9, 2006 01:47 PM

I agree he does very internal work and is a good painter. I chose the kitchy appreciation painting only as an illustration not as the only subject of this thread. His "Phases of the Moon" is probably my favorite along with the monoprint, "Access to Government Island." I think that allegorical political element is very interesting.

"Government Island" is is more demographic piece than the more internal paintings and since so much of the art world is youth obsessed I think this sort of thing doesnt get the proper attention it derseves. Actually, had it been a solo show it would have gotten a review.

I also agree the Lennon thing is way too kitschy/sentmental for me to tolerate, whereas "Appreciation of Beauty," by being so large and kitchy both provokes me and lets me appreciate his guts. It's purposefully terrible and the guy can obviously take a joke on himself.

Posted by: Double J [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 9, 2006 03:03 PM

The fact that a William Park show is being cited as a source of controversy is strange enough, but it's even more curious that folks are responding "so strongly" to work that has been around for some time. The Mark Woolley show is a mini-retrospective covering ten years of Park's work. Many of the pieces you are discussing (save for the newest Lennon-themed pieces) were exhibited at Augen Gallery when Park was represented there.

Posted by: MB [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 9, 2006 05:34 PM

Who is responding so strongly to this show? The only shows that I've heard anybody talking about this month were the Ovitz Collection at Reed, the sex machine show at Powell's, and Ghosttown.

Posted by: jerseyjoe [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 9, 2006 06:44 PM

I don't necessarily understand the "controversial" aspect of the paintings, however, I do feel as if these paintings are the best I have seen by William Park. They seem more focused in subject, theory, and agenda that any of his other work. I just personally never found a lot of his work overly interesting, yet I think this show hit the nail on the head, as they say.

Posted by: Calvin Carl [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 9, 2006 07:18 PM

well... the controversy meter, as everyone knows, is an imprecise instrument at best... I don't think it even registered when Prince released the album "Controversy"... I find the applause meter much more reliable .... however, I think I must corroborate the efficacy of Jeff's "what's the deal with-" system because I encountered the same thing throughout the night on First Thursday and even found myself guided with no less compelling maneuver than the-arm-around-the-shoulder-you-just-have-to-see-these-paintings technique into the antechamber at Mark Wooley's....

Well, that point certainly holds, it is hard to identify a retrospective as a controversy, since the word controversy really implies an emerging event! But, all the same, article 4 of Port's Mission Statement just happens to be:

4. To root through the fertile loam of the northwest art scene in search of revelations and delicacies, in much the same manner that a wart hog roots through the leaf bed of the amazon in search of truffles.

No really, that IS article 4.
And if you are as prone to making tenative amateur forays into natural biology as I am, you will be under the same confusion that I was for many years, in thinking that wart hogs rooted through the leaf bed looking for choclate. So as a public service:

truffle |?tr?f?l| noun

1 a strong-smelling underground fungus that resembles an irregular, rough-skinned potato, growing chiefly in broad-leaved woodland on calcareous soils. It is considered a culinary delicacy and found, esp. in France, with the aid of trained dogs or pigs. Family Tuberaceae, subdivision Ascomycotina: Tuber and other genera.

2 a soft candy made of a chocolate mixture, typically flavored with rum and covered with cocoa.

Anyways, I've been thinking about these paintings a great deal, and I think first of all they are difficult to dismiss because of the great skill with which the paint is handled. There is one painting (I don't know the name) but it shows a girl swimming under the surface of a pond. Park's paint handling demonstrates the self confidence of a studied master! One element of mastery in any form, I feel, is the ability to be succinct or immediate. It is a paradoxical idea, that the true master of a technique understands how to let that technique fall apart, and create vital, open spaces. I think sometimes about Mozart, who makes the most elaborate, intricate constructions in his compositions and allows them to suddenly disintigrate into a single floating piccolo which reiterates a central theme so simple as to become embarrasing to a lesser composer. Or sometimes, like in Don Giovanni, he just continually adds more voices to the same simple theme, and allows the listener to experience 50 people on stage singing the same thing, where a lesser composer would have found this too brutal, too simple...

The reason I'm talking at length about Mozart is because Park's painting about swimming, whatever the title is, demonstrates that same, supreme self confidince, the ability to be succinct... the figure beneath the water is close to photographically rendered but the surface of the water itself is just a big, single scrape of blue green, rendered in one continuous motion.... Oh that passage made me so happy! One gets really tired of paintings made to represent the skill of the artist, where every square inch seems a persuasion!

Think of Diebenkorn, he is a master colorist, a master figure drawer, but he knows how to introduce unstable elements into his compositions... He knows that it is okay shake up the structures of his own paintings by letting some parts of them be ardently stupid.

William Park paints with beautiful sprezzatura
(another public service:)

sprezzatura |?sprets??t(y)o?r?| noun

studied carelessness, esp. as a characteristic quality or style of art or literature.

ORIGIN Italian.

Ok, I might as well just admit it, and my students will tell you anyway... I spend a lot of my free time on the Merriam-Webster site doing recreational word searches.... Is that so horrible? What if I told you I drink whiskey while word searching? Would that make you feel better?

However, what I would like to point out, as I constantly tell my students, mastery of technique is NOT the same as communication of meaning. And it benefits us in generating a reading of these paintings to not be so dazzled by the technique and search for the meaning autonomously. What exactly is the meaning generated in Park's retrospective? To me it is indeed, as Jeff points out, the biography of a baby-boomer. If we are calling these paintings "controversial" it is important to specifically identify the controversy.... and most of the talk about the controversy so far seems to centered around the ethos of the boomer generation itself, not these paintings! Certainly the question of how this generation changed culture is a relevant and controversial one, but all these paintings do is reflect the experience of an individual agent in the "paradigm shift"... (yes I used the term paradigm shift, I realize I will now be torn to little pieces)

To me the question is one of chronology and the meaning of painting. Certainly Frida Khalo's work had the same kind of autobiographical impulse, but Khalo elucidated a mysterious inner world that was hers alone, and could only be communicated through her artistic practice. Can we liken Park's autobiographical impulses to Khalo's? Only very tenatively. There is a big difference between revealing a private emotional landscape and making a painting of John Lennon. The image of John Lennon is an emblem accepted by the culture at large as signifying generational experience. It is far too easy to claim John Lennon's music and life as a biographical episode in the life of an unconnected individual. It is a facile association. I mean, I was born in 1975 and the first time I heard "Working Class Hero" was a definite point of transformation in my life. But for me to claim the life of John Lennon as a biographical episode? Too easy. Not true. Besides, this painting slipped so easily into the sacchrine, optimistic, nostalgic view of the 60's pushed by culture at large that I didn't even know to look at it as a painting! I thought it was a poster! It didn't even register as a painting on my radar.... I was like: "What is that? I thought this room was part of the art gallery, I guess it must be an office or something!"

As far as the bald paintings go... I have to admit, I've been really grappling with these... They are well executed and compelling images, and some of the themes verge on the cosmic (Phases of the Moon) But the gentle self-ridicule of middle age seems like the provenance of the situation comedy. Do these paintings really parallel the gently self-critical narcissism of "Everybody loves Raymond?" It seems to me like this is the case!

I keep trying to construct feminist defenses of these paintings but they keep collapsing. They go something along the lines of..

You know, to the Gorilla Girls these would be Odalisques.. or rather, pointed assaults on the tradition of the Odalisque. If this were a feminist painter attacking the canon, these would be about the inherent narcissim involved in every objectification of a woman as a passive sex object disguised as "the pursuit of beauty".

Here a man is objectified and ridiculed, without the protection of some high-handed abstract ideal, (beauty).

But, like I said, my complex defense keeps falling apart. I can't tell the difference between strategic narcissism and actual narcissism, and isn't it a moot point anyway? Narcissism is Narcissism, whether it's used a subtle prying tool negotiating sexual personae in art history or a theraputic means of self-acceptance, it's really the same thing!

I kept thinking of that Seinfeld episode where George declares "This is the summer of George!"
"I'm gonna be a painter Jerry!"

ok..... went a little too far with that..... anyways...

Posted by: Isaac [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 9, 2006 08:12 PM

Can we assume that Isaac's above post is the written equivalent of what JJ describes as "being so large and kitchy [that it] both provokes me and lets me appreciate his guts?"

Posted by: MB [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 10, 2006 12:00 PM

... ahh kitsch is its own reward and it does tell us something very important about our world: If something isn't capable of provoking a humorous response it probably doesn't matter.

I liked the sitcom reference a lot and Park's work does have that aspect... really none of us would care though if he wasn't such a good painter.

all this grist is great, it is part of the reason I thought an open thread rather than a review might be more appropriate.

Hell, let's jinx Park... if he applied for the Oregon Biennial I think he's a very good choice. Also the Fry Museum in Seattle might be an ideal location to show him in more depth...

Posted by: Double J [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 10, 2006 12:12 PM

So much a do about truly nothing! And all from.the man who claims"Change is good." So how 'bout JJ? Show us!
Time for you to try the bald look you find so fascinating. You've been here for how many years with the same 'do?

Posted by: lsd [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 11, 2006 08:29 PM

I agrree, to me it seems like nothing but clearly lt it has touched a few nerves both good and bad. I find it interesting that the last refuge of controversy can be found in something so banal. (maybe warhol's to blame/thank?) When everything is permitted does a sort of reverse avant garde become some kind of social lightning rod? I think the real truth to it is that Park is a pretty darn good painter and his prowress with a brush is what makes us take it seriously... or at least provokes us to take it seriously.

as for myself... PORT is neither the place nor is it relevant to discuss such dull matters as staff haircuts, unless it is somehow related art. Which in this case it isnt.

LSD if there is a void that needs filling TV's access hollywood or any # of makeover shows should do the trick.

Park's iconic but campy treatment of the subject is somehow very relevant though, despite sitting way on the sidelines in reation to most of contemporary art's concerns and pecadillos. Which of course means that this thread about nothing definitely is "something".

Posted by: Double J [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 12, 2006 12:29 PM

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