Bruce Nauman, Basements at Reed College, (far left) Wall-Floor Positions
, 1968, (large center) Dance or Exercise on the Perimeter of a Square (Square Dance)
1967-68 (photo Jeff Jahn)
2012 held what was perhaps the highest quality collection of exhibitions in Portland's history...
partly because most of the major institutions really stepped up their game when
it came presenting major artists (since when does Portland ever have 2 Bruce Nauman shows in one year?)... while the very vital street level contemporary scene added
a great deal of new intrigue and conceptual rigor to the mix. I also penned an Op Ed in the Tribune about Portland's current cultural prominence and how to keep that momentum going
Still, there is a schism between Portland's most cutting edge artists and its
top tier institutions/awards who seem more comfortable with mid-late career and
academic concerns than challenging/interesting art with a fine edge (the kind
that most professors have trouble keeping). Also, when there is a connection between
the edge and top local institutions it seems ad hoc and sporadic... This troubles
me deeply as we have cutting edge art scene that gets its validation consistently
outside of Oregon. It is both consistently gratifying and a tad embarrassing that
our institutions seem to learn of Portland's excellence through out of state institutions
Portland's very active
alternative art spaces got some deserved credit in the Wall Street Journal
even though Worksound
and Half Dozen closed. Recess, 12128 and Falsefront stepped up. Though Appendix
seems to exhibit art that is very similar from show to show, that anonymity means
there are ideas are being refined (I'm waiting to see the end product).
Simply put, alternative spaces are often where contemporary curators find what
is cutting edge relevant... Portland is full of them and could use more formal support.
A view of the Rothko retrospective (photo Jeff Jahn)
Most exceptional programmatic arc for 2012:
It is easy to take it for granted but the Portland Art Museum's Chief and Contemporary
Curator really outdid himself this year with Rothko, Gerhard
, Joseph Beuys, Sigmar Polke, Bruce Nauman, Cindy Sherman, Mike Kelley
and an excellent Ellsworth Kelly print retrospective to boot. Stephanie Snyder's
Cooley Gallery did pretty well with Bruce Nauman and Kara Walker too.
Chase Baido's Enter the Troll (detail)
So who were the breakout artists this year?:
, Kyle Thompson, Wendy Given, Jamie
, Amy Bernstein, Zachary Davis, Jordan Tull, Crystal Schenk,
Holly Andres, Zoe Clark, Nathaniel Thayer Moss and Ralph Pugay. All have been
active for a few years or more but they each solidified themselves in 2012 as
bonafide forces who can counted on to consistently push the envelope. But it
isn't just the kids, stalwarts of the scene like Eva Lake made a splash in New
York, Victor Maldonado had a work acquired by the Museum Of Fine art Houston's
and Marne Lucas as Ecobaroque were sent to Mongolia (for good behavior
and an earth art biennial). This highlights a schism between those who play
a local game (IE teach at school and collect awards and grants) and an international
one (be sharp and hungry, dazzling critics, collectors and curators elsewhere).
It was very interesting when a young group like MHSR (and offshoot of the Oregon
Painting Society) went from doing a performance/installation at appendix then
weeks later was in Chelsea. In fact, the Appendix kids are associated with a
sister project in NYC, American Medium. The message to Portland institutions
is, be relevant and pay better attention.
The passage of the arts tax in 2012 is just a starting point, now how well
will it be applied? How will it effect the way public yet non arts tax money
is appropriated? This unfinished essay about Priming
the Cultural pump looked at how Portland allocates cultural support resources
To date there is no mechanism to directly support alternative spaces (which
are the real life blood of Portland's current cultural prominence). Now that
there is more $$$ in the system the system should take care to be as relevant
as possible to the current state of the arts. Lets give credit though, RACC
seems to have responded to my (and others) criticism somewhat in their latest
rounds of grants but to date there have been no systemic changes to RACC or
the OAC to directly support the operations of alternative spaces. These spaces
who know how to do edgier projects with much less funding than your typical
public art panels could be expected to achieve. There is also the issue of how
the grants panels are convened... often panels have only one or two recognizable
members of the contemporary art community in judgment of proposals. I think
its more reasonable that at least 50% of a panel for contemporary or excellence
oriented grants be knowledgeable. Time and again I hear about a great project
that surprisingly got funded because only one of a 7-18 person panel dug their
heels in. I typically also hear that one person say, I didn't recognize
anyone else on the panel. I believe that we need to set higher expectations
for the way panels are comprised and the outcomes of so called artistic
excellence oriented funding. The good news is there is a lot more funding
Programmatic letdowns of 2012:
They are moving in a better direction than last year but how about YU's contemporary
program made up of work that is mostly several decades old? It is quirky but
does it serve the contemporary community as much its founder's bibliophile tastes?
At least they caved to the inevitable and finally put together a real board
of directors... but is it one with deep enough ties to Portland to raises the
millions needed to make YU truly functional? Then there was a Contemporary
Northwest Art Awards
list that completely ignored new media and the youthful
energy that makes Portland an interesting art city.
No. the worst letdown was a survey of the Portland art scene as attempted with
the Portland 2012 biennial, which was more a collection of names and spaces than
a thought producing exercise. A a kind of roving art party it was simply hard
to shake the feeling of a arbitrary/claustrophobic feeling scavenger hunt in 4
locations. Sure, there was some good work but it was completely mitigated by being
simply too full, rambling and diluted. Basically, including so many artists en
masse was a timid, ingratiating attention grab by all the institutions involved.
Portland has outgrown this sort of thing. Instead, of curatorial rigor we got
a collection of names and worst of all they were already familiar ones. A survey
that is attempting to be relevant should dig harder and introduce a few new names
(not hard for a destination city like Portland)... those discoveries are usually
the only thing anyone remembers about these types of shows. Next time dig more
effectively and present a collection of gems or at least something that takes
a memorable position.
By comparison, the Tacoma Art Museum's 10th Northwest Biennial (which I was
in) might have been needlessly overstuffed too but it was in one place and introduced
lots of new names who had never been in large survey show before. More importantly
it created a lot of interesting juxtapositions in the actual installation of
the show. Those things matter.
Nathaniel Thayer Moss in Perceptual Control at Worksound
Best group shows:
The Experimental Film Festival's Rumblings
at Gallery Homeland
and Worksound's Perceptual Control provided satisfying
surprises at every turn which is what you want from shows with 5 or more artists.
Men at Lewis and Clark
is a quirky trio of the curator Daniel Duford's own
artistic influences but it works... probably better than Duford's own work which
seems academic and ingratiating compared to his heroes. Kudos to Duford for an
excellent show and putting yourself before a very tough trinity/tribunal.
Oregon History Uncovered:
Feves at the Museum of Contemporary Craft
can't really compare with Mark Rothko
but she's 100 times the artist that Amanda Snyder was and much more influential
in every way. As is often the case with regionally important artists the excellent
book produced for this pivotal mid-century Oregon artist is superior to the exhibition,
which was overstuffed in the way long overdue things tend to be.
Most Quixotic: Anonymous
at The Art Gym
... an enormous exercise in huh?
Last but not least here were the 10 most accomplished shows/works in Portland,
(in no particular order other than the first one):
Of course the top spot goes to
Mark Rothko retrospective at Portland Art Museum
. This show was an important
game changer for the museum and a long overdue homecoming for Portland's most
famous son. The simple fact that most Portlanders had no idea that Rothko was
from here rectified a glaring omission in our civic knowledge base. The works
were stunning and the scope and scale of the show left even PAM's biggest critics
among the in the know crowd stating that this was finally the major show that
we expect from the museum. No it didn't break any new ground (partially because
another museum is working on a Rothko show with Portland ties... IE paintings
of Portland) but it didn't have to. Quality speaks for itself and this was one
of the top 5 things Ive ever seen in Portland. Yes Virginia, there is a thing
called greatness in the arts... no matter what academics try to tell you. A true
intellectual knows the difference... when words cannot exhaust the art, that is
a very good sign. Thanks to the departed patron Harold Schnitzer who didn't get
to see his life's dream of a major Rothko retrospective before he passed. Curator
Bruce Guenther did an admirable job of collecting both major and poignant works
and we discussed the show on OPB's Think Out Loud radio program. Easily one of
the 3 most powerful shows I have seen in Portland during the past 13 years.
Nauman Basements was perhaps the best show Ive ever seen at Reed's Cooley Gallery
What curator Stephanie Snyder achieved here was a tour de force on the artist's
genesis and collectively these early videos and films constituted the Promethean
rudiments of Nauman's mature practice. Like a series of scales that Nauman practiced
(he is a decent musician after all) the videos systematically explored space,
tempo, rapport, place and rhythm in a way that was utterly riveting. Seeing the
show when it was relatively empty was incredible as the polyrhythmic layers of
these works created an incredible aural stew of violin bowing, ball bouncing,
film projector clicks and Nauman's own footsteps. This is one exhibition that
should have traveled.
Isabelle Cornaro's Reproductions at PICA (photo Jeff Jahn)
Cornaro's show in PICA's cavernous second floor space
was extremely subtle
and surprising. Though Portland is thought of as very European we are rarely treated
to a show with such finely delineated Euro-art sensibilities. It was extremely
welcome and it is this kind of art that Portland's (shudder to write it) Creative
Class wants to see.
Corey Arnold's Salmon Shark
What can I say about Corey
Arnold's Graveyard Point exhibition at Charles Hartman Fine Art
that I havent
said in previous reviews? These photos were breathtaking, humorous and knowing
in a way that is incredibly difficult to pull off... I'd almost call the Buster
Keaton-esque if they weren't suffused with such an existential melancholy that
keeps them from being comedic stunts.
Thompson's video GROUP THEORY/WE'RE HAVING MUCH MORE FUN in a dual show with Caitlin
was one of the best per formative video art pieces Ive seen in a while.
Simultaneously evoking the heartbreaking flotsam of that Japanese Tsunami and
genuine Northwest lumberjack style pluck... with a dash of Jackson Pollock in
the Namuth Film... This is excellent work from Portland's most exciting new video
Detail of Mike Kelley's City 0000 (2009-2011), lent by Nicolas Berggruen Charitable Trust (photo Jeff Jahn)
Kelley at the Portland Art Museum
. Culled from Nicholas Berggruen's rather
awe inspiring collection, this showing of the then recently departed Kelley's
largest City of Kandor piece was both excruciatingly painful as a reminder of
what the world had just lost and completely inspiring for the awkward depth he
left us as a legacy. Somehow Kelley encapsulated the idea of an ideal civilization
that was both tantalizingly present and completely out of reach, utilizing the
capital city of Superman's home planet. No Kelley retrospective is complete without
this piece... sigh, we will miss you Mike Kelley.
... well I can't review her shows anymore but I can relay what others
said. One very prominent curator whose university program is the benchmark for
contemporary art in Portland stated, Expertly conceived and perfectly executed.
Critics like Peter Plagens and Sue Taylor both (separately) spent over an hour
simply looking. This was not uncommon and I repeatedly witnessed from one to 30
visitors at a time stand sit and investigate wordlessly for over an hour in the
room in a hushed way that only pieces like Judd's artillery Sheds or Bruce Nauman's
Fat Chance John Cage regularly produce. Ask anyone who saw it, I'm not overstating
it's power to overwhelm then harness the viewers complete attention at all. This
was original and powerful work like all of these 10 shows.
Tharp isn't just the best figurative artist in Portland,
he's still challenging
himself and therefore has many more facets than those who might be trying to ride
his coat tails. Spanning two galleries his Holding a Peach showed his humor and
fashion sense and the grotesque.
Crystal Schenk's Artifacts of Memory at Linfield College (photo Jeff Jahn)
Crystal Schenk's Artifacts of Memory at Linfield College was a re-staging of her
masterful MFA thesis project. This was a very strong show and I'm sorry I didn't
have time to review it earlier this year. Dealing with the frankly heartbreaking
suicide of her mother and the difficult memory of this events makes for a difficult
show to build upon... though her stained glass shopping carts are very strong
as well. (Im less convinced by her collaborations and simulacra works and would
love to see a solo show of new work by her.
Until seeing Francis
Bacon's Figure Writing Reflected in a Mirror at PAM
, I'd always been a bit
wary of Bacon... and felt like he was just a debouched Braque clone mixed with
a courtroom sketch artist. Instead, I finally saw the lyrical poet whose paint
handling in this work was exceptional. Perhaps it is the way this was not a triptych
which seemingly unified Bacon at the time of the work contending with his former
lover's suicide. This is the painting where Bacon changed as an artist with a
zen kind of acceptance.