Portland art blog + news + exhibition reviews + galleries + contemporary northwest art

recent entries

Giving Thanks Readings
Meet RACC's new leader Madison Cario
November Reviews
Early November Links
Spooky reviews
Countdown to Portlandageddon?
Mid October Links including PNCA/OCAC merger talks
Paul Allen, philanthropist and arts champion dead at 65
Midwest Art Initiative Tour
Haunting October Picks
End of September News
September review cluster

recent comments



Book Review
Calls for Artists
Design Review
Openings & Events
About PORT

regular contributors


Tori Abernathy
Amy Bernstein
Katherine Bovee
Emily Cappa
Patrick Collier
Arcy Douglass
Megan Driscoll
Jesse Hayward
Sarah Henderson
Jeff Jahn
Kelly Kutchko
Drew Lenihan
Victor Maldonado
Christopher Moon
Jascha Owens
Alex Rauch
Gary Wiseman



Guest Contributors
Past Contributors
November 2018
October 2018
September 2018
August 2018
July 2018
June 2018
May 2018
April 2018
March 2018
February 2018
January 2018
December 2017
November 2017
October 2017
September 2017
August 2017
July 2017
June 2017
May 2017
April 2017
March 2017
February 2017
January 2017
December 2016
November 2016
October 2016
September 2016
August 2016
July 2016
June 2016
May 2016
April 2016
March 2016
February 2016
January 2016
December 2015
November 2015
October 2015
September 2015
August 2015
July 2015
June 2015
May 2015
April 2015
March 2015
February 2015
January 2015
December 2014
November 2014
October 2014
September 2014
August 2014
July 2014
June 2014
May 2014
April 2014
March 2014
February 2014
January 2014
December 2013
November 2013
October 2013
September 2013
August 2013
July 2013
June 2013
May 2013
April 2013
March 2013
February 2013
January 2013
December 2012
November 2012
October 2012
September 2012
August 2012
July 2012
June 2012
May 2012
April 2012
March 2012
February 2012
January 2012
December 2011
November 2011
October 2011
September 2011
August 2011
July 2011
June 2011
May 2011
April 2011
March 2011
February 2011
January 2011
December 2010
November 2010
October 2010
September 2010
August 2010
July 2010
June 2010
May 2010
April 2010
March 2010
February 2010
January 2010
December 2009
November 2009
October 2009
September 2009
August 2009
July 2009
June 2009
May 2009
April 2009
March 2009
February 2009
January 2009
December 2008
November 2008
October 2008
September 2008
August 2008
July 2008
June 2008
May 2008
April 2008
March 2008
February 2008
January 2008
December 2007
November 2007
October 2007
September 2007
August 2007
July 2007
June 2007
May 2007
April 2007
March 2007
February 2007
January 2007
December 2006
November 2006
October 2006
September 2006
August 2006
July 2006
June 2006
May 2006
April 2006
March 2006
February 2006
January 2006
December 2005
November 2005
October 2005
September 2005
August 2005
July 2005
June 2005

contact us


Contact us






powered by


Movable Type 3.16

This site is licensed under a


Creative Commons License

Thursday 07.21.11

« Forest for the Tree Farm (Part I) | Main | Eddie Soloway at Newspace »

Surveying Northwest Regional Surveys Part II

Double twinkle_sm.jpg

Whenever several institutional curators get together to talk about regional art and curating it, the discussion nearly always turns out the same (a discussion of familiar institutional minutiae and curatorial preferences)... so I avoid them.

Well, except when I sit on them like I did in 2008 on OPB or 2003 for Core Sample with Michael Darling (then still at MoCA), Elizabeth Brown (The Henry), Randy Gragg (then at the Oregonian), Jane Beebe (PDX Contemporary) and myself. The point I made for this panel (by getting up from the genial table and walking with the mic) was that Portland was in a state of change and upheaval and any show that didn't address that energy wasn't relevant. It wasn't a brilliant statement, simply a true one that in hindsight has been validated on an international and local level time and again. It remains accurate because Portland persists as an artist destination and lately the art schools have all upped their games producing a glut of home grown MFA grads in addition to the emigrants. I moved here 12 years ago on April 1 1999 with the specific idea that a lot of changes were about to occur and a vague sense that I might be useful. In 2000 I became a curator and critic and the rest is history.

Generally there is no incentive for Northwest institutions to do an excellent (therefore potentially redefining) regional survey as doing so only makes the next one tougher and positions the institution as too crucial in deciding area hierarchies (a political can of worms with every gallerist, artist and collector lobbying like mad). Also, the curators who assemble these shows are generally not trying to establish themselves as bleeding edge practitioners in contemporary art (many active artists in Portland are). Instead, most institutions shoot for a survey that draws a decent audience promotes a little good will and ingratiates itself amongst a broad array of patrons artists and other creatures of culture (critics being the vultures?). In other words the shows are about the institution's position in the region, not the state of cutting edge contemporary art in the region. Hence, nearly every institution has some sort of survey to preside over and the way it is done says a lot more about the institution than the artists it ultimately shows. No institutional survey in the Northwest is a truly crucial barometer of achievement here, the solo shows tend to matter more. Even Whitney biennialers aren't terribly rare. Thus, I'll get excited when only when someone gets a solo show at the Whitney, or better yet the Hayward Gallery in London.

Artists often don't understand institutional politics but regional survey's leave curators vulnerable like nothing else and though Ive done them myself I've always had a completely free hand. That never happens for curators at major institutions. Still, I understand the trepidation... as all curators have to walk a line between intuition, patrons (funding), the artist pool and an overall awareness of the world and overall critical climate. Also, one can never get beyond the regional discussion, the real trick is moving through it to reveal the hopes, fears and insecurities highlighted by surveying your own back yard. Curatorially you can be Custer or Crazy Horse (or one of their soldiers).. you can be a bellwether or a bulwark. You can be an agent of change, it's messenger or the butler at the door running interference. It is that simple and regional surveys are great at making where you stand clear.

Locally, the smarter artists, curators, critics and are mostly unwilling to define Northwest art (beyond the fact that we know our environs are important) and because the art world is international (we do live in an instant information age) the criterion by which everything is judged will always be international, even if the checks written by patrons are primarily local. Thus, institutional surveys of the regional are always tinted by the patronage of that institution, which can lead to schizms.

The problem is a place like Portland draws new artists from around the world to its environs and those same artists have inherently international careers and aspirations. They work and live in Portland for the lifestyle and comradereie of their peers and probably don't care that much about local institutions unless they are recent MFA's trying to build a career. If Portland artists sell their work they often do so through dealers elsewhere. Yet there is a sense that area institutions rely too much on mostly conservative Northwest galleries as a barometer of importance.

Thus, the question of regionalism is a red herring. The real discussion centers around the institutions and patronage... what does an institutional survey of a region say about the institutional priorities and plumbing of the area? The surveys also reveal the strengths and failures of curators like nothing else. For example, how aware is that institution of it's various audiences and expectations? Is it capable of having a multilayered, self relflexive and philosophical discussion with that audience?

Here are the 10 main ways regional shows fail or should I say, refuse to detonate in the art going public's consciousness:

1) Overhung. It is something which anonymizes and marginalizes the individual artists as extras in the institution's larger movie. No institution in the Pacific Northwest is so awesome that it can do this effectively (like the Whitney often does). Too many artists says, “we arent very confident about this work,” to the viewer. Sometimes there is a lot of ground to cover but with so many regional surveys in the Northwest we don't have that problem.

2) Artists past their prime. Sure 1 or 2 elder sages is a very good thing but dont pick artists that are no longer at the top of their game. Instead, give them retrospectives if they are so important that we must revist them and witness their decline in agonizing detail. I prefer people who just get better.

3) Artists that have been over shown already and or do not have new work specifically for the survey exhibition.

4) A general lack of excitement or anticipation over what might happen when these artists show up and play in a room together. Certain artists capture people's attention, they are at the top of their game and people either love them or hate them. Lack of polarized or at least strong response means the artist is safe (pay attention to critics, we keep track of this way better than most institutional curators do). Some artists have simply found their level already and curators need to make certain the show isn't defined similarly. A little trust in the right artist can yield huge results.

5) Avoid stereotypes or use them in an intellectually curious way that explores why a stereotype exists and if the phenomena has some validity as a trend.

6) Institutionally following “a process” rather than developing a sense of who are the most relevant artists doing work that activates a discussion of our times. A good curator has people they can listen to, a great curator has an eye and an innate sense of when an artist is onto something that goes way beyond their hermetic studio practice and goals. Note, all work is not studio based so this requires something akin to telepathy... so good luck if you dont have that skill and try plan B and listen to good people. A sucessful show always has a few wild cards that surprise us all.

7) Being seen as choosing artists based on what gallery and or collector collects the work. Seattle has a lot of good collectors but they dont really dig around their own scene that well. Portland artists focus more on collectors and dealers outside of Portland so you can't look locally here either. All curators know artitsts and it is important to get outside that wheelhouse when doing a big regional survey. Still quality matters... if your old college roommate is a great artist in their prime that is perfect for the show, don't avoid them, just ask yourself... are they really that good? Quality is king and critical acuity paired with trust and daring are the jewels in the crown.

8) A general tendency to tone down the works by disparate artists in a group show rather than try to exacerbate their differences and unique talents. For example choosing off white works by 15 artists generally means a curator is guilty of this. I call it decorator curation and any formal criteria can lead to this, color, shape, material even the age of the artists will produce surprising connections that might make a show look out of date... unless of course that is what you are going for.

9) Curate the show with a predetermined philosophical argument rather than the exploration of the questions at hand. Instead start by looking for the relevant questions, ask which artists are relevant to that discussion then question your findings and artists that are outside your wheelhouse so far. Some artists embody certain ideas as community leaders, but I always question whether it's too obvious or not to use them. Using the same defacto environmental or minimalist artist in 15 different surveys is a slow painful kind of death for that artist.

10) Not enough time. New work requires time and installation art is frequently site specific. 6 months is a bare minimum but 12 is more ideal. 8 month is likely the most any show will allow.

Before we go any further here is some historical background for the regional surveys, in general they no longer are crucial for a serious art career and are more social events than anything.

The most influential, IE successful institutional regional surveys in the past decade or so have been:

One of the stars of the 1999 Oregon Biennial Heidi Schwegler's Body Transformed, 1998 (photo Bill Bachhuber) Still probably her best piece.

1999 Oregon Biennial, curated by Katherine Kanjo. It infuriated people by putting what one viewer described as “garbage art” (I call it installation and post minimalism) next to Lucinda Parker's paintings, and introduced Portland to brash worldly contemporary art by Heidi Schwegler, Jacqueline Ehlis, Sean Healy, Brendan Cleneghen, Nan Curtis, Storm Tharp (all before their prime) etc. It took a lot of chances and the curator recruited artists rather than merely waiting for them to apply. Kanjo who is now at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego was less defined by the patrons than by her own very sharp set of eyes with a similarly worldly outlook. She blended it with historical artists like Tom Cramer and Lucinda Parker. The show reset institutional expectations in Portland and revealed schisms. Kanjo left PAM within a year but somehow that show had elevated Schwegler, Ehlis, Healy, Clenaghen and Cramer as top tier stars in the galleries. This set the precedent for the biennial as the kingmaker in the scene... something which is problematic and probably why Bruce Guenther sought to get PAM out of the Oregon Biennial business. I agree, large museums should NOT be the primary talent scouts in their environs. Even The Greater New York show doesnt do that. The Oregon Biennial certainly became both a political headache and necessity, a ladder for aspiring artists. In fact, I wasn't that thrilled with this 1999 show. Looking back a lot of the work was underdeveloped, but then again people still talk about this one. One can't argue with results,

2001 Pacific Northwest Annual, Curated by Sue Spaid at the Belleview Art Museum. In a brand new Steven Holl Building it was handsome international looking show that featured Melody Owen and Matthew Picton among others. It had stunning craft but it was very reflexively done... not apologetic or overly fetished. The idea always had to be just as strong or stronger than the workmanship. I really liked this show, very well executed in all manner but it did have a lot of artists in it. It was a brand new building after all.

2011 BAM Biennial Clay Thowdown jurors: Bif Brigman, collector (Seattle, WA); Stefano Catalani, Director of Curatorial Affairs/Artistic Director, Bellevue Arts Museum (Bellevue, WA); Akio Takamori, artist (Seattle, WA) and Namita Wiggers, Curator, Museum of Contemporary Craft (Portland, OR). It wins points for taking a specific theme and exhaustively adressing it with energy and a sense of discovery. Similarly I think Blue Sky could do a photography biennial. There is definitely something to be gained in limiting the show criteria and a clay thowdown is a great idea as it sets up a potential series of themed shows. Wood, Glass, Metal, Paper? It's influential for being good and showing a way through the grab bag, yard sale style shows.

Overall these successful shows usually take place when something is in the air and the institution wants to get a whiff of it because of a new building, institutional re imagining or a restless curator who wants to make a mark rather than milk a local group show for a cheap blockbuster and attendance bump.

OK but not defining institutional surveys:

2004 Building-wise Northwest Biennial juried by Illya and Elena Kabakov at the Tacoma Art Museum. Actually, the Kabakov's didnt act as jurors, since everyone who applied got in. Yet, because everything was on the theme of celebrating the new building for the Tacoma Art Museum it kind of worked. It was too full, but kinda crazy and fun. It showed that curatorial selections dont always help. Attendance for the opening was huge of course. It perhaps did define The Tacoma Art Museum's relationship to it's audience... saying please please please come. This can be done once... but TAM has done similar only less open, less focused and less crazy biennials since.

2006 Oregon Biennial, curated by Jennifer Gately clearly was designed to please the new audience in Portland and bridge an audience for the Jubitz Center for Modern and Contemporary Art, which opened the year before. It calculatedly chose good artists from every major social clique in Portland from Lucinda Parker and Bill Will to Pat Boas and David Eckard to Jesse Hayward, Matthew Picton, Chandra Bocci and Anna Fidler. Bocci and Hayward got the most attention because they created excellent new pieces in a show with a lot of nice work we had seen already in solo shows. It didn't break the ice so much as acknowledge artists who had really helped change Portland's expectations already. The opening was a massive affair, perhaps the biggest I've ever seen in the Northwest. It was a response to an enormous # of large scale non institutional warehouse shows from 2001-2005 (which now take place in alternative spaces programmed monthly rather than one off shows so in a way they have institutionalized as well).

2008 Contemporary Art Awards, curated by Jennifer Gately with image jurying by James Rondeau. This replaced the Oregon Biennial and started with a bang with well installed and impressive work by Dan Attoe and Marie Watt then degenerated into a dark warren of cramped installations and sometimes so so work by the other artists. Only Cat Clifford was a surprise in the list and since she had the least impressive work, the show lacked that thrill of discovery. Still, Attoe's work was very Northwest with it's forests, a pornographic neon sign and sullen kids but was at the same time the most international of any artist in the show. Attoe was not relying on his materials so much as fashioning them into silver bullets capable of killing any in the Twilight films furry denizens. It was a reflexive moment and gave us hope that the CNAA's would be a Turner Prize for the Northwest. Maybe it was not completely satisfying but it signaled a potentially internationally relevant check mark that made no apologies for liking Douglas Fir trees a lot (3 of the 5 artists used Doug Fir). Still, in Portland the show was widely pulverized for picking 4 Washington artists out of 5 when Portland has hotter scene. Honestly, Attoe is really a Portlander who teaches at PSU and merely lives in Washougal just across the river. At least the show produced what were essentially 5 solo shows.

2010 Portland Biennial, curator Cris Moss at Disjecta. It was an aspirational biennial by a large alt-space without a staff curator to hone its program into a coherent series of shows. It included most every artist who had been getting attention in Portland for the past 2 years (One person asked me if they just gave anyone a review in 2009 a slot, no but ha!). Much of the work had been seen recently (and displayed better) so it robbed the show of its sense of discovery (there are plenty of less discovered artists who deserved a break) and using multiple locations made it even more diffuse, like a big party. It makes sense as an institution trying hard to prove its worth to the community but like the 2006 Oregon Biennial an institution can only do that kind of show once without diminishing returns. I'd argue local curators don't provide the international exposure the truly ambitious members of the scene scene craves either (anything that provides studio visits from outsiders is a win win). Still, it is a good exercise, especially if it improves. This version was done on too tight a timeframe and was too diffuse to be anything more than a social event with little critical discussion of anything because the work had already been discussed.

Unsatisfying Institutional Survey Shows:

2001 Oregon Biennial, curated by Bruce Guenther. It wasnt that there wasn't good work in it (Mark Smith, Hildur Bjarnadottir, Melody Owen for example)... just too many past their prime old school Portland painters at a time when Portland was being overrun with interesting installation and video work. It was overstuffed as well. The show more reflected the Portland Art Museum gearing up to build dedicated spaces for its modern and contemporary collection (which has a lot of painting and sculpture) than Portland in 2001. By 2003 the Oregon Biennial got better but had the same problems.

2003 Baja to Vancouver. Good work and good artists but the curators tended to pick work that was consistently sullen and melancholy, which is odd because the West Coast is the capitol of optimism for the entire planet. By ignoring this very basic truth it felt like a bunch of outsiders trying to find gloom in the nicest place on earth. Had they included both optimism and pessimism this would have been a success. A curatorial exercise in caprice that still was worth seeing.

2009 Northwest Biennial at the Tacoma Art Museum, Curated By Rock Hushka and Alison de Lima Greene . There was some good work in here )Jack Daws Linda Hutchins) but there was so much of it that those who made the trip from Seattle and Portland felt a little underwhelmed. This is the show that let every area curator know that over stuffing a regional survey to get as many people as possible at the opening is no longer going to be tolerated.

2011 Contemporary Northwest art Awards, Curator Bonnie Laing-Malcolmson. Jen Graves at the Stranger and I have publicly stated we wont review this show. It isn't badly hung like many overstuffed shows it simply looks like something from 20 years ago. One question that gets tossed around was did Bruce Guenther choose this show with BLM as a sock curator?... answer is a definitive NO. She was given free reigns and that means she will have a very public series of shows that will show us a lot about her as a curator. She is actually more intelligent than her predecessor but has been out of the curatorial game and never in a place as dynamic as Portland's scene so this response to her first shows isn't a surprise. Even trustees who collect contemporary art have expressed dislike for this CNAA show and Portlanders are generally a pretty polite bunch. Let's watch and see how this develops. I like how self-possessed this new curator is and Im interested in the whole programmatic arc ultimately. There is a bridge to be built to a new generation of collectors who have skepticism about PAM's interest in contemporary art. I know Brian, Bruce and Bonnie well enough to know they want to change that situation.

Concluding thoughts:

The most memorable shows take chances and the curators seem to have free reign, curiosity, time and a good eye. A strong contemporary survey can't come from a curator who doesn't roll up their sleeves and find out who is ready to take it to the next level... simply finding one's level doesn't play well in cities where the art scene is already very dynamic. Contemporary thought is not a particle... it is a wave and needs to be treated as such. The best artists are like surfers on that wave and a good survey mirrors that idea... letting each one catch their own particular wave and not crowd them out... wipe outs can be spectacular and telling too.

In most memorable surveys there is no nominating committee and the process puts a lot of faith in a very good eye and keen intellect of the curator who is unafraid to play strong artist off of strong artist with fresh new work. The institution itself has to be receptive and the curator has to be skilled enough to make the institution curiously poetic about the present. Im not a big fan of bringing in outside jurors unless they actually get a hand in creating the final show but pairing a local guide with an outside eye can create the outside attention artists require today. Who that curator is really matters... a conservative curator like James Rondeau (who simply juried images for the first CNAA's, with no studio visits) didn't really add to the process. Whereas getting Hans Ulrich Obrist or Lauri Firstenberg into NW studios would be great but they wont just want to be a token name.

Here are some very successful models:

SECA awards at SFMOMA: a list of nominators choose artists and they get studio visits. It has a great track record of finding the stars of tomorrow.

Greater New York: PS1 (as Part of MoMA) wields incredible power with this show but like the SECA awards it has a great track record for finding the next big thing. New York has an interest in being the art Capital of the world. They aren't any longer and this show was created after that happened.

Turner Prize: a highly anticipated occurrence. The general public really gets into the contest aspect of who will win and a lot of betting takes place. I suspect that no institution in the Northwest has the balls to make their survey into a contest but they are missing an opportunity to create intense public discussions and engagement. Sometimes the Turner Prize really matters but at other times (and lately) it's more like American Idol and its better to be a finalist and not win the whole shebang.

The Whitney Biennial: Ok successful is maybe not the right word... infamous is better. It was protested by The Ten and the Irascibles. Things are too career oriented to do that now so the show tends to take chances and toss a lot out there. Some of it sticks. Portland has had 6 artists in the last 5 iterations, some have been the breakout stars of the show and the Whitney hasnt really done that exhaustive a look at Portland (of our elite 25 they have been in the studios of perhaps only 10 and there are a tons of young artists worth getting a look that always missed).

Overall, the goals of artists like, creating a reflexive sense of inquiry into our times through work that goes beyond its studio... should inform NW surveys and reveal both our lumber and gold-rush past along with our ideals for sustainability, technology, livability and design in the present. Doing so embodies the challenges and failings of our age.

I'm still waiting for a regional survey that confidently steps up and explores that which is just beginning to accrue awareness in our culture... with special attention to our immediate environs. That would be the best possible outcome. A survey that is personally engaged with the best thinking in the region and presents it unapologetically in an undiluted fashion. As someone who has curated this sort of thing time and again I don't think it is really the curators that fail in the task... but the institutional will that seems suspect. Don't be shy, demand it... Ive found all area institutions like to hear a clear response. What will the next few surveys look like?... i.e. TAM's next NW Biennial, 2012 Portland Biennial, the 2013 CNAA's etc?

This is part II of PORT's regional art survey discussion here is Part I

Posted by Jeff Jahn on July 21, 2011 at 13:13 | Comments (0)


Post a comment

Thanks for signing in, . Now you can comment. (sign out)

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Remember me?

s p o n s o r s
Site Design: Jennifer Armbrust   •   Site Development: Philippe Blanc & Katherine Bovee