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Monday 05.21.07

« Rosalind Krauss and Miranda July separated at birth? | Main | PNCA Benefactor To Lead a Major Cultural Breakthrough for Portland »

Oregon Biennial, not so dead?

The Oregonian has a bit on the newest iteration of the Oregon Biennial today, it has resurfaced at the Portland Art Center. Good move, It is a turning point for PAC because they are known more for good intentions than authoritative programming and this forces that issue (Gavin's honest about it and understands this as a growth opportunity). I'm endorsing it and suggested this obvious move (with some cautionary caveats). Yes, I've been in on this, which is why I haven't said anything till now (sometimes scoops matter less than letting things catalyze and develop).

After the museum's biennial turned into the Contemporary Northwest Art Awards (the museum shouldn't be in the talent scout business), I discussed it with Jane Beebe and Rod Pulliam, then met with PAC director Gavin Shettler. He hadn't made the connection* about the end of the biennial before Jane and Rod brought it up several days after it happened (hint read PORT) but it was obvious how the biennial fit into the Portland Art Center's mission.

My conversation with Gavin was frank and I'm going to keep much of it confidential. The main issue is PAC's exhibitions still lag behind the better parts of the local scene...for example two recent warehouse shows Mississippi:May and Retinal Reverb both had more energy and intellectual edge than the generally genial or civic tone at PAC.

My concerns:

Relying purely on committees and local curators wont work. To be relevant, bring in an outside curator, (Robert Storr or Jerry Saltz would be my top picks but make certain it isn't just a token name, have them curate). The museum was coasting on its reputation, PAC needs to build its rep and sophistication level. Yes, the Oregonian will endorse anything that uses the word community in a press release but a simple community clearinghouse show will backfire. As it stands many artists with serious MFA's avoid PAC and this is an opportunity for them to fix that. I'm openly critical here because its a widely held opinion and PAC needs to address it. They need to impress not just ingratiate themselves. A serious outside curator and a challenging show is the only way to go.

$100,000 is way more than the Portland Art Museum has ever spent on a Biennial, $30-40,000 should do.

Whatever shape it takes, studio visits are the only way to make the show more than a cattlecall of submitted jpeg images assembled on a wall.

Give the selected artists more than 6 months to prepare new work, showing old work is a no no in a scene as active as Portland's.

Also, does this need to be a statewide show? Why not make it a Portland Biennial and open it up to anyone living in Southern Washington and Oregon who have shown in Portland? If they are serious they will have found a way to show here already.


Posted by Jeff Jahn on May 21, 2007 at 10:25 | Comments (17)


It's agonizing to watch the Portland art community rag on Portland Art Museum. DK Row has nothing but contempt for the museum and will take any opportunity to bash it about the face.

For exhibitions (including art at the museum and elsewhere) he rarely writes about the art from a critic's perspective in order to help a wider audience engage the work - we're out here, we're not all artists or insiders! Instead, it's all cocktail party chatter and innuendo and gossip.

DK says PAM has "turned it's back on the every other year Oregon artists survey" - and you say PAM shouldn't be in the talent scout business. As a member of the public I've seen PAM attempt to respond to the art community and develop a more relevant exhibition for their work and for the public.

Apparently no good deed goes unpunished here - as much as I find it interesting that PAC is tackling a Biennial, that it's presented as a smack down with PAM is just plain tiresome.

Is it about the art? Or is it about pecking order and insider know-it-all-ism.

Posted by: Ibid. [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 21, 2007 06:46 PM

I am sure that the Museum spent more than $100,000 in staff time on the Biennial. That includes publicity, handling the submissions, reviewing them, communication with the artists, press, studio visits, gallery preparation, AV, the catalog, staffing the gallery, returning the artwork. I would estimate the opening party, which has consistently drawn the "creative class", who rarely visit the Museum otherwise, was in the $10-20,000 range alone. Well worth it, I would say. Bring in a national curator for the final selection, even without studio visits, add another $20,000. $100,000 for PAC to do The Oregon (Portland?) Biennial may be low. I would expect that the Museum will open its books and transfer all the knowledge, contacts and processes to PAC to ensure the New Biennial a successful start.

Posted by: Criticaleye-notpen [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 22, 2007 08:00 AM

I don't really understand why PAC would want to host the Oregon Biennial. Why not start their own, like COCA's Northwest Annual, Bay Area Now, or Greater New York?

Posted by: jerseyjoe [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 22, 2007 10:15 AM


I absolutely share your concerns. The O seems to support culture as long as it is strictly amateur (or craft or photography based)... but if you are Mona Hatoum, Chris Johanson, Matthew Picton, Jacqueline Ehlis or Sean Healy that level of national/international seriousness is a problem. The O seems to give the Schnitzers a lot of credit too (which is due of course) but part of the reason patronage is so underdeveloped in town is due to their kind of town hall bumkinism when it comes to visual arts discourse.

Also, my quip about the museum not being employed as a talent scout isn't a put down... instead I applaud the museum acknowledging the work that needs to be done (pushing developed regional artists to national prominence). Younger/scrappier institutions can tackle the earlier stages of singling out and developing talent. The scene is so developed that the museum doing a "talent show" looked a bit late.

Instead the museum is about saying "this is something signifcant." Alt spaces are more about saying "this is something to watch, discuss and support"... at a much earlier level.

I see what you mean CritEye. about staffing but PAC is a mostly volunteer organization and will realistically be so in 2008. Gavin and I talked a lot about the logistical ins and outs.... every decision will have its compromises of course. Gavin's just had a big fat load of homework dropped o his lap and it's just another crash course he has to take.

Joe, we did discuss the whole naming thing... I think PAC wants the institutional legacy/baggage of the OB name.

it is good for PAM, hopefully good for PAC...

Posted by: Double J [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 22, 2007 10:20 AM


Where is the evidence for DK Row's 'contempt' for the PAM? I find the DK's coverage of the PAM to be too lenient.


The charge that the O only supports culture that is 'strictly amateur' is ridiculous. A review, positive or negative, is support.

Lets take a look at some of your examples of "national/international' seriousness:

Bumpkin Roberta Smith called one of Mona Hautum's pieces "obvious and weak". Although Hautum has many admirers, there are plenty of examples of writers who find her work to be too obtuse.

I'm sure many of your 'serious' colleagues can't stand Chris Johanson, and put him in the 'doodler' camp that PORT has always been quick to dismiss. If he hadn't already achieved success prior to moving to PDX, I doubt you would be a supporter.

I know a lot of readers who thought Row's review of Ehlis was right on the money. You have been a promoter of her work since you started writing. In an early piece for NW Drizzle you stated that you thought she was the most serious artist in town, but that you were biased. What is the reason for your bias? Transparency is key.

What falls into the realm of bumpkinism is PORT's incessant cheerleading and supplicant desire to be part of something called national/international seriousness. Or, as Marge Simpson would say:

"Somewhere, somebody thinks I'm better than someone else"


Posted by: stephen_cleary [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 23, 2007 08:05 AM

The second line should read "I find DK's coverage of the PAm to be too lenient".

Posted by: stephen_cleary [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 23, 2007 08:12 AM

Stephen, Row's contempt for PAM was easilly demonstrated in Ibid's comment as it was a collateral swipe.

As far as Johanson goes if you remember my Modern Painters review in 2004 for B2V you would note Ive always supported him. He's the real deal, like Dzama. All the imitators are something I can't support.

The Hatoum review was such an outlandishlisly philistine piece that it prompted Stephanie Snyder to write a letter to the editor. The problem isn't the negativeness of the review but the way they are done (and it's not just Row). For example the Picton review (not written by Row btw) compared him to a painting elephant... Picton isn't even a painter. The Hatoum review which I dont have handy had similar illogical leaps.

The Johanson review prompted a number of internationally famous curators & critics (who read PORT often ...THANKS) to send emails of support, not because it was negative but because it was just reactionary.

Ehlis of course is one of my closest friends and the problem with that review was it was nearly the same formula as reviews of Sean Healy, Picton, etc. basically dismissing it as big city artwork with too much production value.

Look, I support David and other O writers in many ways, they don't have to like minimalism, conceptualism or even phlistinism (The O employs intelligent people including David)... the point is Portland has move beyond the knee jerk reactionary stance.

Back in 2003 a noted curator told me "It will be interesting to see when there is a real shake up in the arts writing in Portland, the city deserves better." It has already begun.

I'll debate this in a public forum (not as a lecture, but a real debate) any time any place... but only with the writers and editors responsible, so this is all the further I care to discuss this with you.

Stephen, I respect your stance and the Sysyfusian guts to be DK's most ardent apologist.

Still, I'd bet my life that Jacqueline Ehlis is the mot serious studio artist in the Pacific Northwest (sure its subective but the evidence makes it very arguable...so like her work or not she's successful), would you similarly bet your life on the arguable quality of DK's Mona Hatoum or Chris Johanson reviews?

Posted by: Double J [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 23, 2007 10:00 AM

I'll side with Roberta Smith. Hatoum's work has always read as overproduced props for a "scary" movie. I'll take Hostel, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Psycho, or the local gag shop over her schmaltz anyday.

As for Johanson, it's lamentable (and also to his credit) that his "style" has been appropriated by the advertising industry and West Coast art students. How long did it take for the same to happen to Warhol, Bridget Riley, or Ben Shahn?

And Ehlis? What is there to say about an artist who takes photos of her paintings to prove that photography can't do what painting does? And what was it that her paintings are doing anyway? If one is able to ignore the rhetoric around the work, it's not so hard to imagine these paintings (or are they sculptures or are they photos?) as funny artifacts 20 years from now. Like New Coke, clear plastic appliances, acid washed denim, and parachute pants.

I doubt that DK was anticipating that you would read his comparison of Picton to a painting elephant as a literal thing.. He's not an elephant, either.

Posted by: jerseyjoe [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 23, 2007 12:31 PM

There is a world of difference between Smith's review of Hatoum and Row's and that's the point.

Formulaically dismissive reviews dont work and I have some criticisms of the Johanson, Ehlis and Healy shows myself, mostly regarding the hangs and in some cases the execution or choice of work shown but in general all were good shows, some were excellent but that doesnt matter. What does matter is that the review i more than a reaction to the success of the artist.

Look, like her work or not Ehlis creates a lot of controversy by simply being very good at what she does... making generous, curious but refined objects that are often read as paintings. Of course it's an aquired taste and I appreciate the hard as nails directness but it's not one dimensional, it's still strange (if I felt it was formulaic I'd let her know).

For me the photographs of the paintings were the first interesting feedback loop from a painter that Id seen in reference to Stieglitz's Equivalent series in a long time... that alone is notable.

Posted by: Double J [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 23, 2007 01:50 PM

It seems like you create a lot of controversy by talking about her seriousness all the time.

Didn't Kosuth nail the Steiglitz hammer on the head with Chair, definition of chair, and photograph of chair?

Posted by: jerseyjoe [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 23, 2007 02:35 PM

In hindsight, I don't think there's any real controversy about Ehlis' work, regardless of whether or not you drop her name all the time.

Posted by: jerseyjoe [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 23, 2007 03:06 PM

(I started writing this before your hindsight response Joe) You responded...you tell me why Ehlis gets you so testy? (they definitely appealed to collectors too) I like her work and I simply advocate the stuff that really gets me. I really dont care how jealous or ambivalent that makes some people, some find it exciting. I drop lots of other names too, next week will be Grotjahn.

Kosuth was just one very well hammered nail but there are always more nails... Stieglitz's Equivalent series have wide ranging influence but I dont see many things that reference their process in the way the Ehlis works did and still do something different.

Gerhard Richter learned a lot conceptually from the Equivalents too. Joe Goode's torn clouds (which you may see in Portland sometime very soon) are also inolved in the whole rich discussion over translation in art.

Posted by: Double J [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 23, 2007 03:07 PM


Forgive me for not considering a favorable 2004 review of Chris Johanson as proof of your keen foresight. That bandwagon was well on its way down the road when you jumped on.

I'm hardly a Row apologist. For example, I happen to enjoy Chris Johanson's work, but I didn't find Row's piece reactionary...he actually did a better job of describing his position than several of Johanson's detractors (even the ones from World Famous Newspapers). I would guess that 1/2 of the artists in town feel the same way about Johanson as Row does. Who cares? I get the impression that you want Row to agree with some mythical group of famous international art sophisticates (that read PORT...thanks!). I'd rather read a dissenting voice than one too eager to fit in.

Row is hardly a philistine, and if his Hatoum piece provoked Stephanie Snyder to respond...good. Art is made to be talked about. If you are so concerned about formulaic approaches, you might consider changing the "10,000 artists, back up the hype, we're growing up" drone you've been on for the last seven years.

So, the bias you admitted to regarding Ehlis at NW Drizzle is based solely on close friendship? May I be so bold as to ask if you own any of her work?


Posted by: stephen_cleary [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 23, 2007 07:20 PM

Hilarious, you are now officially flailing.

No, I don't own any of Ehlis' work. If I did it still wouldn't matter, the relationship is a hypercritical one that started with art 2 years before we even met. So if I were to feel she had made a wrong turn, she would be the first to know. I'm one of those people who puts art first and all my friends know that.

I only advocate that which earns my critical enthusiasm and I dont write blank checks for anyone. In many ways friends are always exposed to higher expectations because we both know it would reflect on eachother.

In other words you are out of your depth when second guessing my motivations and personal life. Critics and curators choose certain artists for a reason and in my case its always because I feel the work I'm writing about or showing is convincing.

Art is about bias and finding what works for you. Im open about my biases.

Also, its hardly formulaic to reiterate a position about an art scene that has consistently made great strides. At least I have a position with a demonstrated track record.

So OK maybe you are not an apologist for Row but it's tough to take your analysis seriously when you say you didn't see the Johanson review as reactionary when a lot of it bemoans how Johanson was given an Apex "Northwest artist" show even though he didn't develop here and has only lived in Portland for 3 years. What, he has to wait 10 years and grow moss in his beard for his official Portlander card? Sure, Row admits that his transplanted nature "doesn't matter" but that is a knowing damage control for his reactionary stance. It's an awkward and unconvincing hedge that tries half heartedly to have it both ways. The overall tone of the article was reactionary towards someone successful, famous and transplanted. That was the angle the piece took and I doubt Row could deny it. Here is a link to the article: here

As far as Row needing to measure up to, "some mythical group of famous international art sophisticates", what a crock, is that the best you can do? Nobody expects homogenization of the art world and the paper tiger you construct misses the point... art professionals do regularly email me when I point out the reactionary stance the O has taken towards the new wave, which isn't regionalistic.

Instead, it's more accurate to say there are new standards in place.

Do you honestly think the Johanson review was outstanding Mr. Nonapologist?

I prefer Amy's PORT review: here

P.S. I saw Bay Area Now2 with Johanson, Fletcher and Rigo99 in 1999 and Johanson was the immediate standout.

Posted by: Double J [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 24, 2007 01:20 AM

***warning for trolling, comment removed***

Note, these PORT comments were off topic, devolving and personally directed (which is for tabloid pubs not PORT).

Previous comments were civil, keep that tone in the future.

Posted by: stephen_cleary [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 24, 2007 07:08 AM

Grumble. I am not much of a fan of Johanson or Dzama as they pretty much give harder working artists a blind spot in terms of levels of heightened craftsmanship. The APEX show was a big man's childish rant and DK Row's commentary was not only spot on, it vindicated many in terms of not feeling stripped of years of perfecting their craft. A scrawled off doodle is just that, and I see this artist fitting snugly in this class. If you're going to "doodle" do-do it like Twombley for instance, to the hilt! The museum shoots itself in the foot for jumping on that bandwagon, honestly. It's bad fad, not hi-brow art posing as "outsider". Now, while greats like Klee, Murakami, and others have toyed and played with childlike imagery - each have done so with refinement. And Johanson even has nothing on say, Howard Finster of Joe Coleman. The whole lot is disposable and one doesn't believe that it has a place in a museum, tisk-tisk. PS: I think there may be a tad bit of mold growing in that beard mentioned above.

Posted by: Norma Dee Plume [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 24, 2007 07:16 AM

Warning, Stephen... you are now being a troll. Take a break from the tabloid mud slinging.

Norma... Im a huge Klee fan, thanks for the well reasoned bit. Row seemed to avoid the stronger critical stance you take regarding Johanson's work.

Still, I contend Johanson was a great choice... his rejection of craft is useful.

Posted by: Double J [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 24, 2007 09:15 AM

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