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Wednesday 12.29.10

« Why Not? Why Stop? | Main | Time to Vote: Portland Art Scene 2010 Readers Poll »

Final Thoughts on 2010: First Impressions

10,000 artists at Worksound by Jim Neidhardt

For December’s First Friday, I dropped in at Worksound to see Jim Neidhardt’s installation, 10,000 Artists. The gallery had just opened for the evening, and only the gallery director, Modou Dieng, Neidhardt and a couple of the artist’s friends were in attendance. The installation consists of a paper banner stapled along all of the walls in the gallery. The paper is inscribed with the names of artists, many but not all local, and others of international fame. In addition, there is a roll attached to a stand with more names suggesting that the list goes on and on. There also are two Dex phonebooks on a table, the cover of one altered to read “Artist Listing.” The inside of that phonebook has not been doctored, suggesting that everyone listed in the white pages and the companies in the yellow pages are all artists. In fact, I overheard the artist telling his friends that his dentist was included on the banner.

Neidhardt and Dieng asked me what I thought of the installation, and my response was: “It has me thinking.” As neither of them know me or know that I occasionally write art reviews, and in an effort to let the work speak for itself as much as possible, I try to keep conversations to a minimum with exhibiting artists about their work. Besides, what this work was saying to me would be difficult to express in a diplomatic fashion. In short, I was disheartened and confused, as Jeff Jahn had suggested I be sure to see this installation. I saw what I took to be perhaps the greatest weakness of Portland’s art scene, which is the self-congratulatory nature of an otherwise fairly strong community of artists. I imagined that later in the evening and for the duration of the exhibit, many local artists would stop by, if for no other reason than to see if they made the list. If they did, they would make a mental etching. (And if not, then what?) In any tight-knit community as we have in Portland, “incestuous” relationships can develop, but what I feared I was witnessing at Worksound was full-blown hemophilia, and Pollyanna was bleeding freely. I couldn’t get in my truck fast enough.

For several days thereafter I kept my own counsel. It wasn’t until I approached Jahn about a topic for an essay that the subject of the Neidhardt piece arose. As it turns out, being largely unfamiliar with Neidhardt’s past work, my impressions were pretty close to the statement he was trying to make about the local scene. I cannot imagine a drier wit, and thusly curious, did a little online research, and found a quote that is attributed to Neidhardt about 10.000 Artists: “let the artists and their names reflect on the audience as Commodity.” Artists schooled in the contemporary arena are well aware of their status as commodities, while the audience consumes. Yet, who is the audience for Niedhardt’s installation? The artist whose name is and isn’t listed, of course, and therefore all are doubly damned. In a way, Neidhardt’s banner is both a low blow and right on the mark.

In my short time covering Portland galleries, I have an underlying impression that while there is an admirable enthusiasm within the community, the energy remains largely centralized. All too often, the same local artists are seen in one group show after another. Even if these artists’ works are otherwise well worth seeing, it can give the appearance that the most energetic personalities, with either the most friends or an available space, can exhibit a number of times in any given year. Granted, artists generally want their work to be seen, but it seems there is often an over-exposure, both in the professional and alternative galleries, and a consequent diminishing return that ends up fueling the hunger for an audience instead of building the career.

Of course, there is a flip side to this observation, yet I am not certain that it helps improve the situation. With a purposeful omission of names, I would be remiss to note there are many people I’ve met in Portland, seemingly tireless educators, gallery directors, arts administrators and artists, who do try to kick things up a notch, and work hard to accomplish their vision for their own work and their community. They are quite capable of holding their own with people of a similar ilk in larger art communities and art markets, and no doubt some of them know this about themselves; yet, endeared to their own community — a community that benefits from them on so many levels — they perhaps garner a more secure sense of self and place, but at what cost? (This is not so much a criticism as it is a word of caution. Still, I can anticipate umbrage.)

TJ Norris curates a show about himself at PLACE called "Spread Ego"

There seems to be an ethos in Portland that energetically supports a wide range of ideas and creative efforts. This is why we see spaces like the third floor of Pioneer Place become a showcase for the artist community, and why TJ Norris can get a number of artists to make works of art about him for that space. One can find similar events many times a year, and a few overlap in their scheduling often enough to make me marvel at how many active artists there are in our fair city. Granted, these endeavors act as laboratories for developing eyes and ideas, and in this regard are no different than DYI exhibition spaces in every larger city with a few art schools; yet, perhaps in the spirit of community, there is an accompanying self-congratulatory sense I get that dampens my desire to take the event or work seriously. No doubt some of our young artists, curators, administrators and gallery directors with a professional attitude to compliment camaraderie and passion will rise above the party atmosphere and sporadic viewing hours, but without a certain level of gravity given to our exhibition decisions, and this includes learning to say “no” in whatever capacity we hold in the art community, we will be left with what amount to be BFA shows without the benefit of faculty supervision.

It is the latter that may have partly inspired Niedhardt to make 10,000 Artists. The live-and-let-live attitude that makes Portland a pleasant place to hang out can do a greater disservice to the development of a creative environment. Ironically enough, the more I think about the Niedhardt piece, I wonder if the installation merited a month-long exhibition. It is, after all, more a sentiment, an opinion or a statement perhaps better disseminated as part of a dialogue amongst friends over coffee.

There already is a model in place that we can use to ensure our special little community does not permanently fall into the trap of mutuality leading to pablum— or reacting to it — and from our time in school, most of us have the capacity to follow this strategy. Teachers have a responsibility to their students: question motivating factors in order to bring a clearer resolve to the ideas the student begins to glean and utilize. Once out of school, it should be the student’s responsibility to seek out similar relationships, and indeed, encourage it through their own actions and exchanges. Become the teacher and the taught. Strive to be cordial and critical at the same. Surely, we must allow and experience some dissent among our ranks, for it is there we will find a new dialogue, one that serves to encourage our energy in directions we may not have otherwise taken.

These are the people I want to party with.

Posted by Patrick Collier on December 29, 2010 at 11:50 | Comments (9)


Well there are many layers to the Portland art scene and one of the easiest distinctions or lines of division are those who those who show constantly and then those who really avoid anything but the most important or suitable situations.

Perhaps a dialectic of saturation exists between Neidhardt and Norris?

Yes, Jim is terribly dry and arch sarcastic... perhaps the crouton (mummified bread) of the art scene salad? At the same time I feel like his show wasn't pathetic enough.

Also, 10,000 Artists had very low attendance compared to other WS shows... showing people are aware of the problem or have been somehow been shamed. I'm not convinced it needed a show either and over the years there has been a raging battle between focusing on quality in group shows and shows that were simply large like the Modern Zoo or last year's Manor Of Art. It was part of the rationale for PAM discontinuing the Oregon biennial in favor of the CNAA's. So there is another more discriminating impulse at work here (one reason we wanted to bring Judd back to Portland in 2010).

I'm glad you can bring this up as a newcomer... tight group shows are rarer than they should be and it's true that too many of the same artists are appearing in group show after group show. Maybe the other critics aren;t as cranky as you and I? Note to curators... group shows tend to be anonymous melanges especially if old work and super familiar names are involved. Do something to distinguish the show.

This was also the big problem with the Portland 2010 show. For a biennial it sure felt like Portland 2009 with a lot of recycled work and a list of artists who were omnipresent in 2009. Instead, the scene actually hungered to have some new names and hungered for some differentiation rather than an omnibus restatement of a lot of work that was displayed better 10 months earlier (ironically there was an explosion of small alt spaces and new names in them, ignoring them wasn't the best idea). At the same time many major Portland artists actively avoided taking part in Portland 2010... which is also encouraging. There are many very good artists in Portland who understand the concept of opportunity costs (often those who went to art schools outside of Portland).

Sometimes Portland artists simply workshop ideas for shows around the globe in Portland like a test run. There are 17,000 + artists here and though Portland allows people to develop I think it is important to really step out and distinguish yourself at some point. Perhaps it is because Portland's art schools are pumping out a lot of newbies these days? I find the scene goes in cycles... this was a group show year.

In any case there are those artists who always �bring it� and those who simply want to take part. I think its OK for recent grads like Calvin Ross Carl, Damien Gilley and Laura Hughes to show a lot but it makes less sense for established artists to do more than 1 solo show a year. Sad to say it but there is a more elite Corp of Artists in Portland who often go 2-4 years without doing local shows and it does separate the men from the boys. Some artists are bad editors some are great. Other artists and collectors follow the ones that are good editors precisely because the seek to raise expectations and spring surprises.

Overall, I applaud you taking this on. Shows are often overhung and many artists dilute their activity pursuing half formed ideas. In some cases it is a laboratory other cases less so. Still, there have been a lot of tight shows that provide another angle.

Tight shows:
Victor Maldonado at Froelick
Donald Judd at White Box
Dan May at PDX (up now)
Kelly Rauer at NAAU
Arcy Douglass at Chambers
Storm Tharp at PDX Contemporary
Corey Arnold at Charles Hartman
Mark Grotjahn at PAM

Let's have more shows that are conscious of being extra tight in 2011... it is never an accident.

Posted by: Double J [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 30, 2010 01:26 AM

Patrick. Thanks for the good words. You succinctly stated some of my own concerns for Portland without being inflammatory. The final paragraph is something I wish we could collectively adopt as a new years resolution(one that would actually stick). Best regards.

Posted by: jsmith [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 30, 2010 10:54 AM

Mr. Collier the topic of your statement is interesting although I am a little confused at your conclusion. Would the Worksound show be successful if the names had been different? I think there is a trend of ego driven saber rattling art. The tendency is for it to centralize because it is about maintaining a position like a popularity contest. What is most detrimental is that quality cannot co-exist with this behavior. It is either one or the other. I think it will tire it self out, like Roman rule, and when it does the art will improve greatly.

Posted by: Faure [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 30, 2010 12:58 PM

"The live-and-let-live attitude that makes Portland a pleasant place to hang out can do a greater disservice to the development of a creative environment."

I see your point, but it is only a disservice to an artist lacking a strong internal compass, and that artist will be lost in any environment. But if you mean that soft standards lead to bad shows you are of course right -- but do higher standards lead to better shows or to fewer shows?

As for overexposure, I think it's just a matter of the quality of the work. There are artists producing work I would be happy to see every day; others seem overexposed at a glance. Most artists are not very good -- that's how it is everywhere and always (more or less), so bad shows are the inevitable downside of being where there are a lot of opportunities, and I'm happy to live with that.

I'm not sure how diectly I addressed your essay here, Patrick, but this is what spilled out after I read it.

Posted by: rosenak [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 30, 2010 07:24 PM

@JJ (Jeff) A number of shows this last year managed to get past my crankiness. I found them to be inspiring, beautiful, thought-provoking, among many other positive descriptives. I could name a few, but in keeping with the theme, of the above essay, I shall refrain.

@jsmith (Nice anonymous moniker!) I am glad you did not find my words to be inflammatory. I mean no insult or disrespect. Just as one must allow for differences of opinion, my tastes and tolerances may run contrary to those of others. In fact, my essay may not be more than a collection of truisms about the art world, and therefore merely a not-so-gentle reminder for artists, curators and exhibitors to aspire beyond a certain comfort level.

@Faure I dont believe the particular names on the banner has any bearing on the point Neidhardt wants to make. However, I am curious about Jeffs call for a more pathetic installation. As for your illusion to saber rattling, no doubt egos are involved. Were artists, fer crissakes! We cant help ourselves; plus, the ego makes for a wonderful source for conflict to keep us inspired. (mild joke & mea culpa) Unfortunately, even in presumably egoless social practice art, there often exists a lack of rigor that is also overlooked because the work is considered non-hierarchical, au currant or righteous, which brings me to

@rosenaks point that Most artists are not very good. That is certainly true, yet as Jeff states, what is needed is a more discriminating impulse both for artists and exhibitors alike, particularly, but not exclusively in the case of group shows. My point and if I have not made myself clear it is because the discussion is still nascent is that even those who consider themselves professional, and also those who have a certain passion, may be doing harm to their careers in an environment that dissuades discussions arising from considered dissention or rejection. It is a difficult topic to encapsulate, and in actuality needs more than a 1200-word essay to address in a thoroughly responsible manner.

Thank you all for your comments, and I look forward to a continuing healthy and enlightening conversation.

Posted by: Patrick Collier [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 30, 2010 10:10 PM

I don't disagree with anything in your response to my comment.

I should have written, "Most art is not very good" instead of...

Posted by: rosenak [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 30, 2010 10:38 PM

Thank you for your comments Patrick. I think a group of artists being in a series of shows responding to each other could produce very interesting results. The motivation of the art is important because we are artists. That it is done for expression not just for frivolous attention. You know sincerity in Art ..etc.

Unrelated but social practice seems like the most ego driven art to me.

Posted by: Faure [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 31, 2010 09:10 AM

Patricks essay on the Neidhart Worksound installation and the Pioneer Place art space projects come at a pivotal point the history of the Portland Art Scene. I have to chuckle at the tone and critical direction of the piece. Although I cant say that I strongly disagree with the essay or any of the comments made by some of our local cultural brain trust, I have serious problems with the primary focus. Some of the most pertinent issues relevant to the local scene were ignored entirely. I am frankly getting weary of hearing the same old tired clichs of this DIY, live-and-let-live attitude being used to marginalize much of what is distinct and important about the visual arts community in Portland.

I know that there is some interest in looking at the big picture in terms of the history of the local scene and Portlands place in the Art World, but I feel that this view deserves more frequent and thorough scrutiny. Granted, I am not that interested in art criticism as it is used to give some definition to the scene here, rather I have focused on specific traits, trends and characteristics of the Portland Art community that make it different other major art centers around the continent.

I see that Patrick touches on some of the issues that go directly to that heart of what the arts in Portland is all about. Patrick, I think I was there when you had that conversation with Jim Neidhart at Worksound. I remember, because in contrast, I had an immediately positive reaction to installation. The piece was meaningful to me because Ive been around the scene for thirty years. I know many of the people whose names were included on the banner. I saw how these names came from all parts of the arts community and how that was a perfect reference for the level of collaboration and co-operation that goes on with artists who have chosen to be here. I got the phone book joke about how it seems like everyone you meet in Portland claims to be an artist.

I also saw only one name in red that generated both praise and harsh criticism even though most people attending the opening didnt understand why his name was in red. As Jim may have told you, Chris Haberman was the guy who came up with the original idea for the piece. This is a guy who is the iconic outsider who has his finger in many parts of the scene. He is also on the leading edge of the populist art movement that has taken hold here in Portland driven by a continually growing number of artists and an audience that is expanding at a brisk clip. That said, using Jeff Jahns numbers I have to ask, how is it that 17,000+ artists have decided to set down roots in a town the size of Portland? Doesnt that give us an unusually high per capita number of artists?

I can attest to the flood of creative talent coming to Portland from all over the country. I drop in most Sunday nights at the Goodfoot Tavern to check in with the artists attending the weekly Drink & Draw sessions. Every week I ask complete strangers the same questions: Where are you from?; How long have you been here? ;What brought you to Portland?; What other art scenes have you been part of?; What are your feelings about the Portland scene? the answers are shockingly consistent.

These are the artists that make up the core group for the shows that Chris Haberman and Jason Brown curate at Goodfoot and Poboy Arts and Framing. These are the artists represented by the Peoples Art space on the 4th floor of Pioneer Place. Peoples Art and Gene Flores Place are the only two that will be in continuous operation at the mall for the full year of their gifted lease. Place is that space for rigorously academic installation art and Peoples Art is the populist, low priced, DIY community simply taking advantage of the opportunity to give the public access to this talented and energetic group of emerging artists. Place comes with very carefully thought out artist statements and Peoples Art just has price tags; but they are working together to bring the public a broad slice of whats going on in the local scene. I dont believe this level of collaboration is happening in the other big art scenes around the country. At least thats what I hear from all these newly arrived artists Ive been meeting.

Now I want to go back to those questions Im always asking these new young artists and the role money plays in some of the answers. Money is not the driving force bringing huge numbers of talented artists to Portland; there isnt that much here. There are only two fortune 500 companies headquartered here in Oregon and that translates into a much smaller pool of cash for supporting the arts than is available in larger cities. The irony is that the absence of corporate money is a primary reason for why many artists migrate here. They are refugees from places like New York, LA, Chicago, and Houston, where the cultural agenda is largely driven by big corporate money. In the largest art centers, if an artist cant break into the upper echelon of the scene theyre in, their career is dead. If they do find their way in, they often dont have the freedom to do what they want. There is also the issue of competition between artists and galleries that discourages collaborative efforts.

OK, now look at the Portland DIY, live-and-let live style of art community. Get the right group of people together, and you can do anything you want; as long as you dont expect any big monetary return. What I see motivating artists that flock here is the support they find in a highly cooperative environment, and the creative freedom to do whatever they want. Sure, the result is some radical variations in the quality of concept and execution of shows and installations, but to dwell on these inconsistencies misses the most important aspects of this scene.

We have a truly populist movement going on with both the artists and the audience. This populist furor holds the potential for fostering a great expansion of the base support for the arts in the region. Quite literally, the paradigm that drives the arts here has created a new blueprint for promoting art to the broadest possible audience. The Portland Art scene has become a fish bowl that a large portion of the art world is peering into with an intense interest.

For all these reasons, I have to say that I believe that Portland is the most important emerging art scene on the continent. I dread saying that because I know the potential this statement has for generating both laughter and scorn. Im saying it anyway because I believe it. I will also say that the 10,000 Artists installation and the Pioneer Place art spaces projects give evidence to the issues Im addressing.

There are several reasons for how this is possible. First, the history of how the Portland scene has evolved over the last 40 years made the current creative environment here inevitable, and second, the critical mass of artistic talent that now resides here keep the scene rolling at a constant boil. Third, with the glut of art and art venues in Portland the public has a remarkable level of access to original work. My sense is that the accessibility of art for the public and of venues to show work for the artists may be the most important defining qualities of the Portland scene.

Frankly, we need someone or some group to write a concise history of the Portland Art Scene from 1958 to the present. This would offer a context for how this all came together. Lacking that, as a community we need to acknowledge the significance of what the local art scene has evolved into and promote a public dialogue to reinforce our findings.


Posted by: Duane [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 4, 2011 09:14 PM

Wow very interesting.
this forum needs to be a town hall meeting about pdx art scene.

Posted by: Modou [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 27, 2011 09:43 AM

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