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Friday 04.14.06

« Grass Hut Opening | Main | In the future everybody will be famous for 30 minute parking »


Art writers seem to be complex hybridizations of diverse disciplines, with some knowledge of almost everything and perfect expertise in no single field. Art writers must be simultaneously conversant in multiple fields: philosophy, history, science, literary criticism, psychology, museum management, social and gallery events, studio techniques, etc. etc.

Energetic writing and discussion articulate events in aesthetic and cultural development. Argument itself is a kind of art form, and when done well serves an important cultural function. Through argument writers hone and sharpen the craft of their contemporaries while growing in their own skill and strength. Similarly, artists always benefit from new and thoughtful insight into their work from another source, even if that insight takes the form of a bad or overtly critical review.

However, there comes a point when argument sometimes loses connection to its central goals and devolves into feedback loops of meta-criticism. The danger of art writing is its capacity to spin off from its central object and become a self-completing system independent of the source it seeks to analyze! Historically, we have seen plenty of examples of critical detachment or "spin." In 1863 Napoleon III's curation of the official taste of imperial France at the Salon resulted in the rejection of 80 percent of the applicants, and the subsequent creation of the counter-academy of the Salon des Refuses. Clement Greenberg established a critical hegemony in the mid 20th century which went as far as to specifically direct artists at work in their studios! I hope you will allow me a little historical pedantry in order to support my point of view. Art critics have a certain power, and with that power, I believe, a certain responsibility. In my thinking, that responsibility is to catalyze artists rather than inhibit them, to write their own views in their own voice, and to support those views primarily through engaging the art itself. Art is a mysterious and nebulous field. Judgments and insight can be founded in nothing beyond the individual's direct experience of art. Knowledge of history, movements, galleries and shows ultimately can only set a backdrop for the writer's experience of the work itself.

In my time as an art writer, I have never had any interest in meta-criticism, in criticizing other criticism. In fact, I took a sort of a vow against that kind of thing. So I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, for breaking that vow now.

But after reading DK Row's review of Elizabeth Leach's new show, Fresh, I felt like I had something I needed to say about it. This writing is simply not fair! It concentrates mainly on summarizing the artists' careers and social positions and examines the work actually on display in the gallery in extreme periphery. It speaks not in an individual voice but rather in something like, "The official taste of Portland." It dissimulates and states negative opinions nestled within positive ones, expertly softening its jabs and rounding the corners off its criticism, effectively diluting the points until they seem innocuous and vague and therefore acceptable as "truth."

For example, the article begins with unmitigated praise which takes the form of free-floating aphorism, in no way whatsoever connected to the work on display, but rather a recitation of the common knowledge concerning the artists:

"Fresh is a vibrant, eclectic and exasperating reflection of what and who is new in the art world. Boundless energy is on display: abstract paintings that conjure fantastic worlds; works on paper and paintings filled with picky, doodlish shapes; and sculptural installations that incorporate tiny, stitched-together photographs and miniature models of telephone poles and wires."

I think this is one of the better paragraphs because it actually observes the work on display although in massively truncated form, but I don't see that the idea of "boundless energy" is really supported by this laundry list of descriptors. How are abstract paintings, sculptural installations, miniature models, and works on paper indicative of "boundless energy?" This sounds like an accurate summary of the show, but one so general as to describe any number of group shows throughout the country! It is not so divergent or eclectic to include installation, painting and photography in the same show! This is the nature of any group show. The term "boundless energy" in fact gives the first assessment of the lives of the artists. Most of the artists in this show are at the beginning of their careers and several are still in their 20's. Therefore, "boundless energy" is something readily accepted as a descriptor of the artists themselves falsely attached to a sense of analysis of the work.

Having set up this complimentary smokescreen, the review then proceeds to its real agenda:

"If this show is a reflection of what and who is ascending to prominence locally and beyond, it tells us that the art scene needs ripening. It also tells us that artists today don't have an eye for beauty or craft, or are purposefully dodging notions of the same."

First of all, the phrase "what and who" is a plural form. It should be: "what and who are ascending" This doesn't seem to matter because the whole construction sounds terrible, contradicts the previous complimentary paragraph totally, and remains as unsupported as the compliments! Both the compliments and the criticism thus far rely on a specific American truism; one of those Norman Rockwellesque little gems of drivel by which American culture contemplates itself. Some examples are: "A man's got to do what a man's got to do" or "the sun will come up tomorrow" or "when the going gets tough, the tough get going." The truism which has structured the entire article thus far is: "young people are full of potential and energy which they squander."

But I ask you, I implore you, when looking at the work on display, is there a piece which seems unfinished? Is there a piece which has fallen short of its intended goals, or seems abandoned halfway to completion? Can we assume that the gently chiding witticism Fresh/Unripe (as an aside I am growing really tired of produce metaphors) communicates the author's opinion that the work is unsophisticated or poorly crafted? If so, I want to know how. I want to know why. It is not enough to come up with a clever play on the title of the show itself. It is not enough!

The next paragraph is a list of the artists and their credentials with special concern over who is included in the biennial and who is not, and who has the special status of being a national rather than a local artist. The following paragraph is an elucidation of the special importance of the Elizabeth Leach gallery as an "ambitious commercial gallery" which serves as a "spot on barometer" of the art world at large as well as a point of "intersection of the local and national scenes."

At this point one tends to tire of the sweetness of gallery sycophantism and seek out something more savory: perhaps an exploration of the art on display inside the gallery? What is the goal of these two paragraphs? Is there some purpose to their inclusion beyond institutional sycophantism? Does a piece self-identified as an art review need to give accolades to the most commercially successful gallery in Portland as its main content? Is this an expression of gratitude for the legitimizing effect the biennial has on the Portland art scene? Are we in fact reading an art review? Because, if this is a column on significant shows and galleries these two paragraphs would be a nice summary, despite their sweet, overly fawning tone. However, the author's opinion of the show itself seems to be that it is poor and unworthy of its "stature," but if this is the case, what leads the author then, to praise the gallery? Does not a poor show reflect poorly on a gallery? It seems that the gallery is praised simply for being commercially successful, and any praise the author gives the artists or the work is a mere circumstance of this fact. The author attempts to legitimize his own opinions by allying them with those of the "most ambitious commercial dealers" and the biennial. He then secrets his own extremely negative view of the art work within the positive views of "the Portland Art Scene!"

This is a tactic that anyone who has participated in an underhanded painting critique is painfully familiar with. I call it "Affirmation, Permission, Dissemblance," and see it as the perpetual tool of insecure painters trying to assert social dominance over those they are intimidated by. Simply put, it is the technique of using an expansive compliment to make someone more receptive to a destructive put-down. The intention of "Affirmation, Permission, Dissemblance" is not to communicate an insight or offer any ideas of constructive development, it is simply a method of asserting social dominance by indirectly stating negative opinions without offering any solutions. I want to know why. I want to know what, in the author's opinion, is wrong with the work, and how can it be improved? I am not interested in any more clever produce or eating metaphors no matter how sweet, fresh, over-ripe, chunky, or microwave safe the art may appear to be.

The next paragraph is sort of an elegy for the disappearance of classical art skills from art schools. It culminates by noting that there are no representations of the human figure in the Fresh show. At this point I am totally lost. This seems like a relevant problem circa the reign of Napoleon III and better addressed in the context of the Salon des Refuses of 1863. The loss of classicism? Really? Wasn't that the same turmoil that surrounded the Impressionists and Manet? How are any of the young artists in Fresh a reflection of academia today? Is the author suggesting the "boundless energy" of their work is a product of the disintegration of academic values? Because that is a gigantic claim to make in a single blurb with absolutely no further support. If this were a thesis statement that I wanted to prove, my first question would be: "How many of these artists went to art school and what is the extent of their education?"

Although I don't know the educational background of these artists, my instinct is that it is probably a diverse range.

At this point the author attempts a three paragraph summary of all of the work in the show at the same time, and this essentially is the body of his engagement with the art. There is nothing detailed, or deeply observed, we are instead bombarded with more clever blurbs:

"Kennedy's painted white form that looks like Casper the Ghost meets the Blob"

"Brad Tucker's wood shapes are abstracts that could be three-dimensional minimalist cousins to Kennedy's enigmatic forms - wavy, curly blocks recalling sandbox toys"

"David McDonald's acrylic-and-wax paintings of filigree shapes that recall the airiness of classic frescoes"

In this last insight we find yet another contradiction. Where the author previously laments the loss of "classically taught skills" in this show, here he likens McDonald's work to "classic frescoes." First of all, does the author mean to say "classical" referring to the frescoes of ancient Greece or "classic" meaning "best?" Secondly, doesn't it seem improbable that the product of a diffuse academic system would engage "classic (or classical) frescoes" in their work, or is the whole construction just a roundabout way of describing its "airiness?"

The author quickly concludes with this paragraph:

"To varying degrees, each of these artists is mining the history of abstraction, but with the exception of Kennedy's and Sturgis' pieces, the work is reminiscent of what viewers saw in abundance at last year's art fair at the Jupiter Hotel: modestly scaled art that's whimsical and so breezily casual that you suspect none of the artists can draw or paint with expertise."

In the first half of the article, it was established that the loss of the figure represented a degenerative tendency in art and academia, and now these artists are unfavorably compared to something called the "history of abstraction." My question is: What is the "history of abstraction" and whatever it is, wouldn't it begin with abandoning representation (including the representation of the figure)?

The next paragraph is yet more sycophantic praise of the gallery and concludes with this statement:

"Even though the artists come from different cities a stylistic seamlessness runs through their work. They share common approaches and attitudes toward history and art-making."

Stylistic seamlessness. Common approaches and attitudes toward history (art history?) and art-making. This assessment would once again seem to contradict the initial thesis which stated that this was an eclectic (and exasperating) show! These artists now, rather than eclecticism, share a stylistic seamlessness! What has changed since the first paragraph? The author once again leaps over dissonance and paradox in his own opinions in order to grasp the slimmest chance to compliment the most ambitious commercial gallery in Portland. What vision, what a masterpiece of curatorial insight to craft such a "seamless" show.

The next paragraph views Daniel Peterson's photographs as a documentation of dissipated youth culture:

"you might think young people today are a dissipated bunch: They just hang out in bed, drink booze, eat at cafes and go out to shows."

I ask you, in what way does hanging out in bed, drinking beer, eating at cafes, and attending concerts indicate dissipation? If this is dissipation, count me in! And furthermore, count the entire "adult" population of Portland (and the rest of the United States) in as well! What could be more emblematic of Portland culture at large than beer and cafes?

It is hard for me to negotiate this earlier sentence when I look at Daniel's work:

"artists today don't have an eye for beauty or craft, or are purposefully dodging notions of the same."

Whatever you may think of their subject matter, the most apparent quality of Peterson's photographs is that they are astonishingly beautiful. They are crafted with a profound sense of resonant, spiritual light and a preternaturally skilled eye for composition. Just look at them. All I ask is that you look. Rather than dissipation and disregard for beauty, you will find a restoration of beauty and a dedication to craft that is so profound that it is inseparable from the daily experience of the artist. This is the product of someone who does not hide behind the defense of mastery, but rather completely lives within his art.

Saying that Daniel Peterson's photography is about dissipated youth is similar to saying that Vermeer is about what an innkeeper does in his spare time.

The review goes on to describe Amanda Wojick's sculptures as "silly, appealing one-offs" that make a statement about the environment by using "recycled" materials. The author identifies these materials as "old materials" or "material found at a Home Depot" such as nails. I can't understand this assessment at all. I don't see how using nails in a sculpture makes any statement about recycling. I don't see any reference to environmental preservation or recycling in Wojick's sculptures. They are wonderfully complex organic forms executed through the meticulous assembly of hundreds of concentric circles which seem to have been drawn and then scanned and multiplied digitally. Wojick's sculptures as well, are quite beautiful, and focus on pure form in a direct engagement of the issues of abstract painting.

I'd be grateful if someone could explain the next few sentences to me:

"Trends come and go with the speed of Wi-Fi. But the American fascination with Japanese anime and cartoons still lingers. Locally, few have reflected an interest in that curious world of color and childish emotion like Bocci has."

What is the speed of Wi-Fi? The speed at which Wi-Fi sends information? Meaning quickly? Ok. I guess I understand this part. And I can see the validity in drawing a parallel between Bocci's aesthetic and the aesthetic of cartoons. A possible description of Bocci's overall project might read something like this: Chandra Bocci builds intricate narrative spaces which function as a kind of personal cartoon universe.

I would agree with something more generalized. But this author specifically identifies anime, which has no relation whatsoever to Bocci's work. I can see the possibility of drawing a tenuous parallel between Bocci's aesthetic and cartoons, especially mid-80's magical fantasias such as My Little Pony and Rainbow Brite, but to identify Bocci's work as a direct response to cartoons? Specifically Anime?

The author goes on to critique Bocci's piece by describing previous pieces! He states that the artist "specializes in conjuring fantastic worlds made out of such saccharine fare as Otter Pops and gummi bear candy." From summation of past work, the author develops a metaphor for addressing the current work, likening it to candy and calling it overly saccharine and sweet. Once again, I ask that the work on display be reviewed, or simply looked at! It is ridiculous and wholly unconscionable to replace direct experience of current work with a summary blurb of past work! At the very least, an artist should expect a reviewer to simply look at their piece! I have one question for those of you that will see this show: Does Bocci's sculpture have any candy in it? Anywhere? Would you consider pink macaroni and strands of fake pearls similar enough to candy to simply swap materials from an earlier work? Or is it more real and honest to just look at the sculpture?

And when we look at the sculpture itself, we find it is not so sweet. It is a nocturne which seems to hint at a complex and dangerous irrational narrative. Cohorts of figure skaters descend in an organized river from a shadowy mountain in reverse perspective, they grow smaller as they come closer to the viewer. Broad color shifts map the night landscape, the figure skating girls live in a purple land where amethysts and light bright pegs blossom among the boulders (or are they clouds?). To the east the land froths in pearls and silver chains and grey roses. Beyond the mountains multiple, identical atomic explosions cast a cold pale light over the entire scene.

The second to the last paragraph is yet another accolade to the gallery, this time complimenting Leach on her prescience of the biennial and her ability to reframe biennial artists in a more intimate space.

The final paragraph is yet another exercise in "Affirmation, Permission, Dissemblance" The author compliments the artists' "depth of imagination" and their embodiment of the "world art scene," ending with: "Right now, they are a work in progress."

This review, in its entirety is the written equivalent of a condescending pat on the head. I don't understand why the author thinks those engaged in visual arts in Portland will accept the substitution of criticism of being young for criticism of the work younger artists produce. I do not accept the substitution of criticism of past work for criticism of work on display. I think that artists should be judged by the work they produce, not by their careers or by which gallery or show they are included in. I resent a negative assessment of an artwork inexplicably mutating into a positive assessment of a gallery. I resent the bulk of a review being dedicated to praising a gallery because it is commercially successful while the art on display at said gallery is only summarized and attacked. I think artists deserve to be treated fairly and should be trusted with honest communication, not back-handed compliments or manipulative rounds of "Affirmation, Permission, Dissemblance." If the author thinks this is a diffuse show, why not simply come out and say it? Why mince words and mix compliments and dissemblance? I can think of no other reason to write like this then as an equivocating device for mixing personal subjective opinion with the hegemony of the "voice of Portland art now."

Let us write our own words! Let us speak with our own voices! Let us have the courage to express and defend our own opinions with something more savory than blurbs and puns.

I say down with the Salon! Down with the Emperor! Down with the voice of Portland art now! Down with pats on the head! Down with "Affirmation, Permission and Dissemblance!" Down with the commercial success of a gallery held as more important than the art it contains!

Long Live the Revolution! Long Live an art scene that is actually about art!

Posted by Isaac Peterson on April 14, 2006 at 1:06 | Comments (9)


Thank you!! I read the review when it came out earlier in the week and was horrified.

As a recent transplant to the area I was disheartened to read such an uninformed and thoughtless review. My family and I went to the opening and were so excited by the work. We all feel that if this is what the Portland scene has to offer than we're really glad we're here. (In addition, the museum's contemporary collection rocks. Seeing lesser known works by the big shots as well as wonderful pieces by lesser knowns was a wonder on their recent free night. and the clement greenburg room looks sooooo good).

Reading DK Row's review had me feeling that maybe Portland wasn't up for contemporary work. Happily, your meta-criticism has given me hope and now I think I can live another day....

Posted by: melia [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 14, 2006 08:26 AM

When I read Row's review I actually thought, "I wonder what Jeff Jahn will have to say about this!" My impression has been that you do delve into meta-criticism (e.g., http://www.nwdrizzle.com/drizzle/0410/ci.html ). I certainly agree that's something to be careful about, but I am happy to see it none-the-less.

I find Row problematic as an art critic. His suspicion (a suspicion you suspect he's trying to foist upon you via a slippery second person pronoun) that "none of the artists can draw or paint with expertise" is only half a step from the pedestrian complaint of "that's not art; I could do it!" In fact, it's a half-step to the worse because it doesn't react to the art itself, but rather to a unsupported prejudice.

Row makes no secret that he really wanted to be a sportswriter, but got stuck with the art scene instead. Given that, and the apparent distaste he has for contemporary art, perhaps he should just stick with feel-good pieces about (generally) unchallenging art ala OPB's Art Beat.

Posted by: SimEnzo [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 14, 2006 09:20 AM

My, what a tizzy this has caused. I guess I don't see what all the fuss is about. DK wrote what amounts to a sloppy and uneven review for a Monday edition of the Oregonian.

Isaac's response to DK's review is itself problematic (not to mention its verbosity). If one is to start drawing attention to questionable grammar and the use of "blurbs and puns" in arts writing, fingers will be pointing all over the place. It should also be noted that a written review is not the same as a classroom critique. It is not the place of the writer (DK) to suggest ways to improve the work - that's the job of the teacher.

Rather than breaking your vow to avoid meta-criticism, Isaac, I can't help but feel that your efforts might be better directed by simply writing your own response to "Fresh." Drawing lines and nitpicking seems like a waste of PORT's resources and, personally, I'd much rather be engaged by genuine criticism rather than proselytization.

Posted by: MB [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 14, 2006 12:48 PM

well, me too really! that's what I'd rather be writing! this was just so unfair! I know a critic does not have a responsibility to improve an artist in a "classroom" way. That is more like a personal goal of mine.

A writer can and should say whatever they want. But I think a simple expectation the artist can have of a writer is, as I said, really looking at the work itself! Otherwise it isn't a review, it's a gallery news column!

I guess I shouldn't have brought grammar into this.... I know I have abused grammar more consistently than anyone around here.... And jokes... Man, I'm addicted to jokes...

I think a tizzy is completely justified! I'm tired of this author always softening his opinions for "just another monday edition"... I mean, if he want's to give a negative review, why not just go for it? The artists can take it, the galleries can take it. Even at this point I'm still unclear as to the opinion presented in this article. Was this a good review or a bad review of the show? Was it a bad review of the work but a good review of the gallery? How How How can that be possible?

Posted by: Isaac [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 14, 2006 01:21 PM

I think meta-criticism is a great way for people to learn about contemporary art, thanks Issac! I saw the show and responded to some pieces and not others. When I read the first review I have to admit I could identify with DK, in terms of the overall feeling I had leaving the show. I thought he did a decent job of conveying the pros and cons and I was relativly satisfied. I felt that the lack of any specific exhaustive critique on any of the artists individually was justified by my general ambivalence and re-enforced by the review. Then I read the the critique of the critique and things changed and I felt enlightened, and then felt gipped by the first review. It made me remember that ones response to contemporary art is not neccesarily intuitive. There are many ways to learn about it and how to respond to it, critiques of critiques are just as legit a way to learn about art as any. Especially in this case where (in my opinion) one of the two (Issac) critics is much more informed.

Posted by: jcros [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 14, 2006 04:33 PM

Yes, bring it on! Let's hear Port's review of the show...actually - this would be a great opportunity to have a four-way brief review from each of Port's writers - to hear the differing voices, or unified, in terms of your feelings about a single show. I think that is good, solid criticism. I go for physical writing over heady isms to be honest, I want the meat of the matter...doesn't anyone? DK's review was obviously highly edited, but his gist is there, and I think sometimes you have to throw fireballs in order to clear the pathway between good and exceptional work. Oh, we could just go on forever with this type of debate, huh? Instead - speak up....tell us what Port things about this "Fresh" show already...enough with ye olde timpany....xo.

Posted by: TJ Norris [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 14, 2006 04:52 PM

Well I'm none to convinced this show deserves a 4 way examination, it's pretty OK with Healy and Tucker shining strongly. Im glad you thought of me SimE but this show doesnt meet my criteria for a full review... it's possible DK felt the same way. All critics do this contorted dance of "Does this deserve my time and energy."

The real reason for the hullabaloo is the Oregon Biennial is coming up and it seems quite pregnant with promise. David's review exploits those coming expectations without saying too much... possibly saving it for the actual Oregon Biennial. Which should be a decent one, despite it having a lot of B and C-teamers and a couple A listers.

Jennifer Gately has stated many times in print and privately though that it is a "transitional biennial" and it might not be the best barometer of the scene's true strength due to the iffy nature of slide submissions as a curatorial lense.

Everyone is pretty excited and that's fine by me but group shows are tricky monsters. I actually have a love/hate realtionship with them and part of the reason Im not going to fully review this show is I'm a bit ambivalent... I neither love nor hate it, although I like the idea that Liz is doing it.

In the end, what intercritical dialog (metacritcism) does is give people yet another reason to look harder.

Thanks Ike....

Posted by: Double J [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 14, 2006 06:03 PM

TJ, I am flattered that you implore me (among others) to offer my response to the exhibition. However, as a gallery owner I have had a personal policy, since PORT's inception, not to write any critical discourse on exhibitions, etc. I certainly have strong opinions about art, however, for the sake of professionalism both in my gallery and here at PORT, these opinions are only shared and hashed out in private.

Posted by: jenn [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 15, 2006 10:12 AM

There is clearly a good argument to be made for the separation of the art scene/ published criticism and the academic system. It is true that the art scene at large is not in fact an extension of the classroom.

However, isn't the art scene at large supposed to be beyond the classroom, not beneath it? And if it can be said that the art scene at large should not be considered an extension of the classroom, it clearly follows that it should not be considered an extension of commerce.

As for the defense of the Unripe review as "just a Monday column" not an academic analysis: doesn't the review itself refer directly on multiple occasions to the academic system, art schools today, classically taught skills, the history of abstraction, educational institutions such as PAM etc. etc.?

If this is not an academic writing it is certainly presented that way, and there is no reason not to address it as it is presented.

Posted by: Isaac [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 15, 2006 04:33 PM

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