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Tuesday 05.10.11

« artist opportunities | Main | Storm Tharp in the lumber room »

The Score 2: space to grow

Since I'm now beginning my 13th year of living in Portland I thought another iteration of the score was in order. A lot has changed, in fact back in 1999 people kept saying "things never change here." I very publicly bet against them by doing some curating and writing in 2000 and the rest is history (stasis is always a terrible bet). Now the scene has made a habit of of its perpetually growing international profile and the question is more about how the scene will direct its energy rather than simple regionalist grumbling. In short, everyone that gets talked about here has simply upped their game and international profile and The Score is just another way to keep tabs of this new reality. Some feel criticism should be be gentle... but that generally means they simply want to ingratiate themselves, which is fine but it's also important to take a stand, especially when things are obviously wrong. Sometimes the critic's role is to say what everyone perhaps already knows but needs to say publicly. It keeps us honest and therefore a stronger art scene.

(all photos Jeff Jahn)

Perhaps the biggest change is the proliferation of alternative spaces and a generally higher level of sophistication, typified by huge influx of installation/new media art to a one time more traditional painting and crafted object art scene (not that they need to be mutually exclusive). There is room for both in any worthwhile scene.

These days, we simply have more critics, curators, artists and venues. Even the art schools have stepped up their game and I'll be embarking on a series of anatomical articles looking at these various organs of the scene; commercial galleries, art schools, patrons and non profit exhibition venues. The artists themselves are ridiculously difficult to typify and Portland boasts perhaps 17,000+ of them (representing every conceivable ilk, genre and ambition level). In 2011 Portland remains a popular destination for artists... and is a kind of “Rebel Base” as I dubbed way back in 2003 in Modern Painters. That hasn't changed, except the fact that a number of those artists are internationally successful and recognized names Chris Johanson, Harrell Fletcher, Dan Attoe, MK Guth, Storm Tharp, Matt McCormick, Jessica Jackson Hutchins and Corey Arnold etc. (the list goes on). To us though they are just part of the scene and most artists, famous or not are active nationally. The fetished idea of the Portland artist as a "shut in" with Pabst in the basement died a rather well traveled death by 2003. These days a newish group like Oregon Painting Society ends up performing at Tate Modern... no wonder the Oregon Biennial went away, not that the Contemporary Northwest Art Awards that replaced it has proven itself to be up to the challenge either. Maybe that is my point, the artist's are still so far ahead of the local institutions that it's completely on those institutions to remain relevant... not the other way around.

With that, lets look at some things I've noticed in the last 6 months but perhaps didn't have the time to write about:

Birdie Hamilton at Ditch Project's Pearl District Space

Last week's Birdie Hamilton's opening at Ditch Project's satellite space in the Pearl was quite nice even if it did recycle Richard Long's driftwood circle and riff on Robert Smithson a bit too much to make this a believable "lost" or "Northwest" artist. I believe Portland, more than anything needs a nice little non commercial project space gallery in the Pearl... a kind of White Columns non profit (not huge, not wildly expensive... just good). Honestly, if the right sort of space presented itself I've got a list of supporters who can make it happen and run it. The trick is a borrowed space like this short term Ditch satellite wont do. That said, this space in the 937 building was a breath of much needed fresh air.

Richard Serra's Railroad Turnbridge, 1976

Then there was the YU Contemporary Art Center's inaugural opening last Friday night. As we reported first, YU Contemporary Art Center has a big space with both a big potential and big problems. The PCVA is a good starting point but lets remember the PCVA as a model can't work again. The NEA support (which was detailed in our interview with Mel Katz) isn't there anymore. Besides, the artist-run programmatic model doesn't really work for an 8,000sq ft main gallery. That's just too demanding a space to program professionally without dedicated staff (a curator with a program). Also, as the PCVA illustrated, the art world has changed and major artist's dealers get involved... meaning it takes a certain professionalism, seriousness and $$$ to make exhibitions happen (the PCVA paid Donald Judd $100, that wont happen now). Lastly, some have asked, “is the choice of a PCVA show presumptuous?” Yes and no. Yes in that there is no way YU is anything like the PCVA, no in that people need to know their history to move forward.

So how about that history? with; Carl Andre, Bruce Nauman, Agnes Martin, John Cage, Sol LeWitt, Richard Serra and Donald Judd it is top notch and deserves a serious retrospective. Which brings us to the exhibition itself.

Carl Andre under glass at YU

First, let's start with what is right with the YU show, they diplayed Richard Serra's 1976 film Railroad Turnbrige in a wonderful way. It adds depth and understanding to an otherwise archival show. As for the archives, what is shown is excellent but limiting it's size and scope to the # of cases that Reed had available from last year's Terry Winters print retrospective really puts a tourniquet on an archive that could have easily shown 3 times as much material. Instead, it lingers too long on show cards and reviews with just a cursory glance at the large # of correspondences and planning ephemera that are the real meat of the archive. The reviews could have easily been put on the walls.

The biggest curatorial misstep really crosses the line though. Anyone with a rudimentary art history background in Carl Andre knows you simply cannot put 4 of the stacked brick/stones from his PVCA show under glass in the display cases as they are in fact full fledged Carl Andre pieces and not simply archival material. It is simply not acceptable as it turns art that was quite explicitly anti-artifact into an artifact for the sake of curatorial archival fetishing. It is a huge blunder especially since displaying the four on the floor (as the artist intended) would have given visitors a small taste of the original PCVA show. Do I really have to remind the organizers that Carl Andre is an artist radical enough to let people walk on his zinc plate pieces as a way of exploding the art/viewer divide? ...apparently and considering the somewhat abbreviated and convenient way this show was put together it casts serious doubts on this fledgling YU organization's curatorial credentials, esp. since all of this work is not being displayed in the massive 8,000 sq foot main space, which the PCVA deserves (arguably more than YU does at this point). It was a lesson similarly addressed in last year's Judd Conference by Robert Storr in discussing the inappropriate display of a Judd piece on a pedestal at Tate Modern. Storr stated, "The answer is quite simple, if for whatever reason the institution is not allowed to display the piece properly, you simply Do Not Show The Piece." It is the curator's responsibility to insure the work's integrity is maintained and displaying these four (which have siblings in MOCA and the Guggenheim's collection) as if they are archive material is wildly inappropriate. Hopefully, this somewhat amateurish attempt at giving credit to the PCVA wont keep the institution from receiving a more fully realized/professional treatment in the future?

Overall, I wish YU well but unless this fledgling institution can get serious about curatorial responsibilities and come out with a programmatic trajectory of sorts, a budget for the inherently major capital campaign and a board of directors for accountability... they have no chance. I'm uncertain why they thought it was OK to go public without this basic kind of planning. In conclusion, though I often enjoy being the heavy... in this case I take no joy or comfort in the fact that other coverage in town lacks this basic level of analysis. That's why projects like this come and go every few years in Portland, basic standards of accountability and cultural barn-raising are not being upheld and multimillion dollar projects simply do not get funding unless basic things like a board of director's oversight (and pocketbooks), build-out and basic programmatic competence are presented. A scrappy alt space can run that way, not a multimillion dollar institution and being soft on them isn't really helping their case... on a personal level I like everyone involved but Sandra Percival really needs to give this project some discipline.

Nan Curtis at Bonnie Bronson award ceremony

Now onto happier news. On April 25 Nan Curtis was named and formally installed as the 20th Bonnie Bronson Fellow. It's one of only a few regional awards designed to acknowledge significant artists and it usually goes to mid career female sculptors in keeping with its namesake who passed on well too early in her career (though males, painters and photographers have won in the recent past). Nan is special because she's very conceptual, more related to Robert Gober and the Kabakovs than the sort of traditional (and often overtly crafty) focused object making we seem to see in a lot of the Northwest's various art awards. I'll always remember her simple installation of shag carpet in the 2000 Northwest Biennial at the Tacoma Art Museum called Building-wise (to inaugurate the new building). It revealed the wear patterns of visitors traversing a rather over-full group exhibition. (BTW will there be another TAM NW biennial?)

Nan is special also because back in the 90's she brought a certain amount of (then rare) attitude to art making in Portland (making a shit Sunday for PICA's Dada ball for example). In fact, she inaugurated the role as curator of PNCA's Feldman gallery, essentially getting that program off the ground back at a time when only The Art Gym and Lewis and Clark had programs with curators. Now most of the schools, including Reed and PSU have someone developing coherent programs. In fact, back in 1999-2001 when PNCA looked like they might fold up and blow away Nan was an anchor, doing what she could to make the school a contributor to the Pearl District's eventually successful bid to become the nexus of artistic activity in Portland. Back then the Feldman was their only public face. Nan was overworked, likely underpaid and absolutely deserves this award.

This is the second year in a row the Bonnie Bronson has chosen someone who is actually doing their best work at the time of the award (Last year it was David Eckard). With the nomination of Anna Grey and Ryan Wilson Paulsen for the Brink award and this year's Bonnie Bronson winner perhaps there is a bit of a blowback for The Portland Art Museum going so conservative for the Contemporary Northwest Art Awards... which doesn't exactly capture Portland's new media and new attitude make-up (note the attitude change was solidified by 2003).

Morris Louis' Beta Omicron at PAM (far right)

The Portland Art Museum's Portland Collects show has netted the gift one of my favorite works in a private collection, Morris Louis' Beta Omicron (donated by the Whitsells). The Lack of a major Louis was a glaring hole in the Greenberg collection and it is a very good Luis. All that said PAM's collection has very little video, installation and video installation art in it. I know for a fact that some collectors in Portland have such things and indeed even intended to give them to PAM (and still do). Hopefully those holes can be addressed in the coming years as well. Big picture for PAM? As it stands the fate of the late Ed Cauduro's collection is perhaps the most defining moment in PAM's ever more serious collection. If a significant portion does not go to PAM it will be an unmitigated cultural tragedy. I'd like to see Cauduro's legacy be what it deserves to be in perpetuity, the greatest collection of modern and contemporary art in Oregon, perhaps Northwest history. Cauduro's collection has a Rauschenberg on loan in this PAM show. Everyone should see Portland Collects in the next 2 weeks or so if they haven't already.

Katherine Groesbeck at Place

In the past year PLACE, an evolving alternative space in Portland's Pioneer Place Mall has gone from being a somewhat shambling experimental space to a legitimate and increasingly well considered destination (past works by Mack McFarland in particular) and the new show "Survival is a Confusing Attempt" by Katherine Groesbeck is no exception. Yes, Ive seen urban camouflage costume art before so she isnt breaking any new ground yet but her installation of costumes, photography and video documentation work well in the environment. It's DNA is only half store display, the other part is a mild dose of sci-fi horror which makes it seem like all these creatures have been skinned and hung like a bunch of outlawed varmints. They are nothing at all like the jubilant works of Nick Cave on view now at the Seattle Art Museum. Maybe with a little more probing Groesbeck can come up with something more original. She already knows how to present the work.

Evertt Beidler's Moves Manager show at PCC Sylvania was an unusually high production affair for this very nice gallery whose programming has rarely lived up to the quality of the space. Beidler's video is a disturbingly serene and deadpan determinist joke that explores the machinations of traditional young professional life. Decked out in one of fine suits his cybernetic/parasitic machine makes Beidler's character go through the motions in a hilarious series of surreal office landscapes. The briefcase as projector and giant robotic walking legs turned this rather sylvan gallery setting into a cold trade show kind of dystopia. Well done. I wish this gallery had weekend hours so more people can visit it. The show travels to to Seattle's Gallery4Culture: Electronic Gallery (e4c) for this month.

Then there is the expected news that Fourteen30 is moving into the NAAU space. I like the fact that Fourteen30 doesn't overhang its shows like a lot of other galleries but losing a less commercial space like NAAU for Fourteen30's well hung but usually underdeveloped LA 3rd stringers is still a step backwards. Galleries do take a while to develop and some of Fourteen30's Portland artists (who haven't gotten solo shows) are better than the often unremarkable LA artists they exhibit... but it leaves an interesting hole to fill since NAAU was the most critically well-received space in Portland over the past four years (for comparison Fourteen30 commissioned most of its essays, and though well done could have been interchangeably used to describe any # of LA artists just as well). All of which gets me back to the White Columns style space discussion.

Robert Smith at Archer Gallery in Range

One space that has really done well is the Archer Gallery at Clark College in Vancouver Washington. In particular the recent Range show which closed in April is worth noting. Though I wasn't sold on everything in the show it was all very well installed and Robert Smiths's video installation of a mangrove swamp stole the show. It reminded me of Robert Smithson's use of disrupted locale as well as perceptual tensioning devices often seen in Anish Kapoor's work. The effect was a bit like some of those early Dr. Who time traveling segments but in a very good way, especially considering a small part of the video of mangrove stumps was left undistorted giving the viewer a reference point. The distorted light became abstract and folded in upon itself calling to mind the event horizon of a black hole. Great video and an artist to watch.

Paintallica at PSU, March 2011

Last March with shows of purposefully bad painting such as No painting Left Behind at Rock's Box and "Between My Head and My Hand There is Always the Face of Death" at PNCA's Feldman Gallery there was definitely a meme at work but perhaps the wildest of these shows was Paintallica in PSU's MK Gallery. Somewhat neo-pagan combined with street graffitti it reminds me of the stuff Id see when hiking in marginally remote areas of Wisconsin where metal heads would worship some dark satanic lord with crude painting and burning something. When found it would usually send some tiny Midwestern town into a frenzy afraid of how Satan was corrupting their youth. In this case it is the excellent international painter Dan Attoe corrupting a bunch of art students by asking them to up the attitude and skip the technique. Overall it works, blending a bunch of otherwise autonomous voices into an anarchic primal war cry. Yes this is pure rebel without a cause stuff with lots of allusions to death, sex and an HG Westermann style death ship grafitti-ed in the room... which goes to show that this genre of bad painting though entertaining has a hard time distinguishing itself from other bad painting. In Paintallica's case it feels like a communal exercise that knows that community is its highest purpose.

Sandy Rouxmagoux's Marsh Wetlands

There has been a lot of excellent painting going on as of late and I'd be remiss if I didnt point out Sandy Rouxmagoux's last show in March at Blackfish. She's simply the finest landscape painter of Oregon's coast... partly because of her paint handling and partly because she has an eye for the quirky and existential.

Pat Barrett at Gallery 114

Another excellent painter is Pat Barrett, his latest show on view at Gallery 114 may be tiny but he's proven himself to be one of Portland's best abstract paint movers.

Karz Ucci at Perimeter (Archer Gallery January 2011)

Also, I wanted to draw some attention to the Perimeter shows, which took place in February-March at various university galleries. It was a multimedia extravaganza at the Art Gym, Clark College,Hoffman Gallery etc. and its just the sort of subject PAM is never going to tackle (artists from outside the USA who live and work in the area). It's perhaps too daunting to write about in the depth it deserved but I loved Karz Ucci's work at the Archer, Horatio Law's Caught Between the Stripes at the Art Gym.

James Mulvaney at Tractor

I should also note that Last month was the last for Everett Station Lofts standout Tractor Gallery. I really enjoyed James Mulvaney's False Context show and the way he antiqued the floor sculpture Problems With My Finite Self to mimic a certain kind of urban camouflage or spatial ingratiation. Mulvaney is new to Portland via Brooklyn and should be watched. As for Tractor, it's now a part of a long line of important galleries in that space (starting with Field) and the average turnover is a year or two. At 2 years it's time for someone else. The Nisus Gallery and whoever moves into Tractor and Half Dozen's spaces (they are moving to the lower Burnside district) should provide a lot of new blood.

Chase Baido's Sad Barbaric (March 2011)

Last but not least let's mention Portland's most exciting new locale for a project space gallery 12128... it is on a crab fishing boat moored just north of Linnton. In March, Chase Baido's hilarious Sad Barbaric installation might not have been fully realized but the talking mushroom spewing Tom Cruise affirmations from various press encounters was inspired. Never has a fungus seemed so aspirationally unaware of its actual dickishness. The space itself is a fun adventure to find and the space is now buckling down to develop a coherent program of shows. This is one Boatspace to keep an eye on as the summer approaches.

Posted by Jeff Jahn on May 10, 2011 at 0:48 | Comments (0)


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