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Friday 09.28.07

« Construct/Re-Construct | Main | Monday Night Lecture Series »

Last chance reviews Mcfarland and Cowie

September was blessed with a glut of interesting shows that didn't get proper reviews because the requisite TBA and the Affair at the Jupiter Hotel overview pieces took up most of the column inches allotted in the Oregonian, Mercury and WWeek. Sure they each had reviews but their obligatory information articles sort of ate into the critical space.

To counter that effect here are two quick reviews of shows worth your attention this coming weekend:

Claire Cowie's Homunculus (Hyena)

Clair Cowie at Elizabeth Leach Gallery:

Cowie is a veteran Seattle artist who I've often considered a kind of soggy Yoshitomo Nara with an added touch of Rachel Feinstein's princess thing.

Maybe she's not the most original as a kind of northwest Kawaii "cute" culture offering but her Homunculus (Hyena) piece literally showed new teeth along with a creepy scatological turn. It's the best thing she's ever done. Homunculus (Tree) is also successful, with it's play on Athena's sprouting from the head of Zeus metaphor with sheep sprouting from the heads of bears.

The other sculpture seemed steeped in the soggy/cute "woe is me" aesthetic she has mined more effectively in her earlier Hummel sized works. Now by super sizing the Hummel she often stretches the implicit preciousness to precarious levels of affectation that just look forced and lame when compared to the visceral oomph of Franz West or even Contemporary Northwest Art Awards competitor Jesse Hayward.

Also, the works on paper here were really forgettable (a lamer version of Allison Schulnik) and I can't tell you how many Seattle artists seem to equate sad looking pastel colored watercolors with compelling art, but it's a whole lot of them. Still Im a fan of her work, the good news is Cowie has made a breakthrough, bad news it wasn't followed up in the rest of the show. Rather than a cast of characters it comes off as simply a desire to make bigger stuff with some thrilling but mostly mixed results.

Part of Mcfarland's Preparations @ PAC

Mack Mcfarland's Preparations is probably the best conceived and executed show ever attempted by the Portland Art Center (whose exhibitions have developed a very hit or miss reputation). Let's hope there is more of this kind of rigor and tight execution instead of the stuff that gets lost in the space or seems only to exist as illustrations for overcooked wall text etceterata.

None of that here though. "Preparations" with its fragrant boughs of rosemary and experiments lifted from the notes of composer Alexander Scriabin explored sight, sound and scent synesthesia. It is the kind of thing that early 20th century artists like Kandinsky reveled in, a melange of different artistic practices.

At his core Mcfarland is a very technical artist and his use of NTSC color systems (for video) as a kind of artistic glue for the various experiences creates a beguiling laboratory for the senses… so what looks rather academic on paper actually works because the connections aren't overly explained. A little madness is a good thing here, even if the point seems lost in the jumble… it is called "preparations" after all. It's also the most engaging thing that McFarland has done to date, going beyond technical concerns. It isn't just the gears working, there is grease in this.

Other shows that end this Weekend:

Jenene Nagy's False Flat is being deinstalled today so this PORT review is your best bet for the best solo show of the month.

Jeffry Mitchell at Pulliam Deffenbaugh

Angela West at Quality Pictures is a gem... QPCA is the best reviewed space in Portland and this show is just one reason why

Model Behavior at Organism... it is the last weekened for my latest curatorial effort

Francis Celentano's Le Cirque Variation 18 2007

Francis Celentano at Laura Russo, he's always good and this show really makes a case for his paintings, which often get upstaged by his sculpture

Posted by Jeff Jahn on September 28, 2007 at 14:29 | Comments (6)


Hi Jeff,
first of all, as a member of the curating committee that accepted Mack’s work, thanks for your positive review of Preparations. I agree that it is a strong work. Now, I realize that my association with the Portland Art Center makes my voice suspect, but I have to comment on this post. Consider it a case of too much coffee or just the last straw. Your attitude towards PAC reminds me of that friend who just can’t make an unconditional compliment. You know - “Oh, I love your hair today. It looks so much better than usual!”

For one, are you critiquing Mack’s piece or the Portland Art Center in general? Honestly, I think that your conflation of the work with the institution is somewhat misguided. PAC is not a commercial gallery - the mission is to provide space for the community, which means taking chances on emerging or unknown artists, tackling large and ambitious projects, and opening doors to many different kinds of art. Not all of these have been polished or even entirely successful, but they have reflected the community at large. It would be interesting to read a real consideration of the Art Center as a cultural institution in Portland, and the ways that you think the organization may or may not be fulfilling their mission.

A lack of depth and substantive backing precludes the possibility of real engagement with your ideas. For example, “A hit or miss reputation” among whom? And exactly what kind of “rigor and tight execution” are you referring to? What are the concrete parameters of your terms? Are these conceptual questions or matters of aesthetic presentation? How are they reflected in Mack’s work ? You also mention “stuff that gets lost in the space or seems only to exist as illustrations for overcooked wall text etceterata”... You seem to refer to specific unnamed examples, but without any clear reference, it’s difficult to counter or even consider your critique. What about Lou Mallozzi’s elegant and conceptual sound installation (which I curated) or any number of previous installations (which I had nothing to do with), such as Second Skin, Roxanne Jackson’s Lost Wisdom, Houston, or others...? In a kind of friendly repartee, I must say that your lack of clearly stated ideas has created a hit-or-miss reputation for your entries on Port (not to mention your consistent lack of editing or proofreading). I would like to see Port step up to its potential role as a place for in-depth, well-considered critique and discussion.

Posted by: seth [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 2, 2007 04:21 PM

Thanks Seth, all this is in the spirit of making Portland the best art city it can be and never settling for anything less.

First off "community" is not a shield from critique. I'd counter that one needs to critique in order to get the best community possible. PORT has a comittment to critique, and that is simply what I did... though I appreciate your honest reaction. You deserve a lot of credit for caring enough to write.

In that sprit, I'll back myself up... in fact it was an artist who haf recently showed at PAC who characterized the exhibition history as "hit or miss" and I borrowed their words (I didn't put that in the review simply to be "nice").

Im hardly alone in this; The Mercury and Oregonian have all raised the issue of the quality of shows time and again regarding PAC (I'd take the issue very seriously rather than try to explain it away). I'm glad you feel a sense of responsibility here but I want your hackles raised... I want PAC to be successful and I'm simply doing my job as one of the mose visible critical voices in town by pointing out an issue which I raised many years ago. I'm just following up (critiscism isnt just one review it's about creating a running dialog).

The fact remains, PAC did a good job with Mack's show and I'm doing nothing to take anything away from that by noting how it stood out. Your assumptions about me speak of our own projections, not my intent. I understand your passion, but I merely ask that you just read my words closer. I chose not to throw the baby out wit the bathwater.

Mack himself is a good curator for PNCA and knows how to hang a show and that might be why his show was a standout. Take the advice for what it is... constructive.

If you want to discuss the particulars of various shows... let's have coffee or a drink? In Portland there is no excuse for people who assume they know people's intent when all they do is read their words. A false sense of familiarity often occurs between writers and readers and Portland is close knit enough that it doesnt have to happen. Frankly, I invite contrition as a healthy part of any serious art scene. Any community that doesnt foster critique will tend to be mediocre.

Lastly, I want PAC to succeed and I chat with Gavin frequently. Reviews are earned and PAC did a good job with Mack last month, it is just that simple. I'd really like to be able to write nice reviews more often.... I'm not the only critic with that attitude either.

Posted by: Double J [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 2, 2007 06:12 PM

Hi Jeff,
thanks for your response. I should say my familiarity is based not on assumption but on reading your reviews over the last two years. Not all of them, but many... I am actually basing my response on the kind of continuing threads that you mention.

I just want to point out that I'm not throwing out any babies or even the bathwater. I am inviting your critique - one based on specifics and particularities rather than references to unknown sources or comparisons or opinions backed by unnamed voices. I'm asking you to take responsibility for your own writing by explaining clearly the basis of your opinions. I agree that critique is vital, and that's why I'm asking for a higher level of "quality" in the writing...

I mean, I do take the question of quality seriously, recognizing the subjective nature of such judgments. I realize that the "community" term is the Archilles tendon of my argument. It is not meant to be a blanket protection but rather to point out that various curatorial committees and voices are at work within the structure of PAC - unlike a commercial gallery which usually attempts to construct a coherent and unified curatorial approach. This diversity of voices and ideas at PAC only requires to a greater degree that you critique the show at hand, on its own terms, and within context. I'm asking for sharper, more focused and extended critique, not an end of critical opinions or a general "nice-ness". Ok, I know I'm responding to a quickie end-of-month wrap up, but I think my comments also apply more generally.

Finally, I have to say that I disagree strongly with your statement that reviews are earned. A critic is not some kind of "attention-fairy" scattering gold stars to those shows that deserve discussion. While a strong, well-presented, thought-provoking show probably provides more material for writing, I believe that any show can provide fertile ground for discussion. If anything, the writer is the one who "earns" the right to critique through literary worth - by peeling away layers of meaning, digging deep, making useful insights and building ideas. That is, creating poetry in response to the perceived. In the sense that almost any work of art can act as a microcosm of the culture at large and a thread in the signifying fabric, it can be worthy of critical attention. The question I'm proposing is: why should the critic's opinions be worthy of our attention as readers?

Posted by: seth [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 3, 2007 01:58 PM

No problem and I appreciate your concerns + the opportunity to air a response to them.

First off, as a critic I reserve the right to protect the identity of outside opinions I offer up or adopt as my own. By doing so I am agreeing with those other voices as well (unless otherwise stated). I think that is very direct. I also think you missed my point about reading multiple articles by an author often creating a false sense of the writer's intent, especially when the writer is hypercritical. A defensive response to a critical statement is natural but if I really disliked something Id simply say so or ignore it completely.

Second, reviews are absolutely E A R N E D and I think you are confusing public and private discussion with published critique. When I say that reviews are earned, I mean that critics should (and often do) pay close attention to artists & institutions track records before choosing to address them. This isn't some "attention" pixie dust as you suggest, it is a very important part of any exhibition program and gaging its success. It's a track record that defines most cultural endeavors, as the experimental nature of culture is bound to be uneven if looked at on a case by case basis (a blind man's elephant).

Of course critics are all fallable but that is part of the practice of critiscism. By being "a practice" it implies a continuity viewings and through a critics sustained attention a review is earned.

A review can be earned a million of different ways. A string of strong shows, a drought of strong shows, an artist who differentiates themselves somehow, etc. The point is a serious critic keeps tabs even if they dont write about every show.

Furthermore, I'm hardly looking for the same kind of coherent exhibition program from a comittee based system as a single curator would produce... I'm actually kinda enthused by the kind of surprises that varigated approaches create. Comittees have their place and the discussion of commitee based decision making and my review seems only to stem from the fact that you are on that decision making committee and want to defend it. Reasonable enough, but I'm not the one fixated on that aspect.

Lastly, if you are confused as to why I would adopt the opinion of another person and keep their name anonymous, consider the fact that I definitely adopted those words by using them. I absolutely agree with that person but when you pressed me I also presented that view as being not merely my own as you suggested. Like it or not "hit or miss" is a bit of a consensus among a lot of experienced voices. It is part of the critic's practice to keep an ear open to consensus and the opinions of other savvy viewers. The critic can then agree or disagree with that consensus. It only matters if the critic's practice develops a strong track record.

Critics don't simply offer opinions, ideally they offer carefully weighed judgements and those judgements are earned in a multitude of ways. My judgement (based on a lot of experience) was that Mack Mcfarland had a good show that opens some really promising new directions for him. Many of the other shows you mentioned showed promise but didn't execute to the same degree that Mack's show did and I wondered why. It's just that simple.

Another interesting bit, my review was the first review (positive or negative) that PAC had recieved since March 7th 2007 (according to PAC's site, not counting community or human interest articles). That factoid should tell the careful reader something and it supports my point.

Maybe it irks you but reading between the lines is part of digesting art criticism. The cliff notes version of my review would state that I'd love to see more shows that deserved the kind of critical attention Mack got for his excellent show.

Congratulations to Mack McFarland and PAC for working together so successfully.

Posted by: Double J [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 3, 2007 02:45 PM

I've seen several shows at PAC that were a lot more interesting than "Preparations". And I agree that your criticism of the institution via your positive review of the show was both questionable and somewhat incoherent.

Posted by: rebeccasylvester [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 6, 2007 11:20 AM

Instead, I suggest that I have touched a nerve (which is what good critisicm does). It is interesting that the nerve was so raw! That rawness is almost more telling...

Also Rebecca, I find it hard to believe that something you have called "vague" could have incited such a reaction.

The fact remains that Mack had a good show because it was particularly rigorous, intellectually expansive and well executed. In fact, it came to my attention because many liked it and by word of mouth suggested I check it out. Ive got pretty high standards, I don't get excited abou ok or good shows... they have to go beyond that and Mack got the job done in a way I hadnt seen.

The point is "the grapevine" found it notable and I agreed. Sheesh, the umbrage one can get for a positive review. The critical community is definitely avoiding PAC in the review sections... and I wanted to simply give credit where it is due.

Furthermore, I hope you find all reviews questionable, that's the point. A review isn't the end of discussion, it is an opening.

If I or anyone else writes something that stings, there's probably a pre-existing wound that should be addressed... and the question of "execution" and PAC has been raised by every critical publication in town for years. I'm hardly presenting a new point, though I was the first to raise it.

In short you aren't doing PAC any favors because they have had a hard week in the press. Why don't you let them lick their wounds? They can bounce back, but grousing over 10 of my words that don't agree with your experience doesn't really help.

It was a favorable review after all!

Posted by: Double J [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 6, 2007 05:01 PM

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