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Wednesday 12.31.14

« Top Posts of 2014 | Main | Cris Moss to White Box »

Best and Worst of 2014

2014 was an odd, placeholder kind of year for Portland and the rest of Oregon's art scene. Few exhibitions blew people away (especially the reheated attempts at regional survey shows) and many artists saved their best efforts for shows outside of town. This continues to prove my thesis that Portland is used more as a base for developing international activity than as a place where you can see what is really going on... at least institutionally. That needs to change and it is a corner that must be turned for the city's cultural health. For example, if an artist is doing work that is on fire, then the community should single out and support that excellence in a serious way. That said everyone seems to be waiting for 2015. In 2015 there will be a new Maya Lin, a new bridge and we will finally see PNCA's new 511 building become the cultural anchor of NW Portland. No institution has caught the new Portland wave of energy as well as PNCA has but that has come at a cost, rapid change and the ill fitting clothes that kind of change creates. Some call the style “Portland eclectic.” Portland will say goodby to PNCA's Goodman Building in early 2015 and in many ways it herald's thew way Portland is beginning to present itself differently (being typecast as merely quirky is the last straw). That said I will focus a lot on curatorial presentation in this list.

Goodbye to PNCA's Goodman Building in 2014

Best and Worst 2014:

Best question of 2014: Will Bruce Guenther's curatorial replacement continue to give the Portland Art Museum an edge as as the most serious/versed art institution in Oregon, while allowing them to lead the city into a new era as more than just a place to see acknowledged greatness... but as a zone where greatness takes hold and inspires the city to be more than just quirk hype? My piece on Guenther's era (which I will publish as our first piece of 2015) will explore what he did and how curator's roles have shifted during his era. No other institution in Portland, cultural or otherwise has/had a personality with a similarly large/serious “presence” as the one Bruce has left imprinted on Portland's psyche. The signs that he was leaving were (in hindsight) obvious starting in late 2013. Also, say what you will but the shows were serious and never devolved into mutual admiration society cliquishness that Portland really needs to keep in check (Portlandia is the JV version of Portland and its characters are typically absorbed in arch personal micro-dramas that miss the big picture). Which all made Bruce's lack of curatorial passive aggressive behavior refreshing. The only way to earn Bruce's respect was to be intelligent and no writing a big check alone would not guarantee that. A majority of today's more careerist, “friendraising” curators tend to lack that same kind of taste and intellectual backbone... not to mention the presence that his personage has. It will be a challenge to replace him as Portland can be difficult for modern and contemporary curators. At the same time the job is crucial for PAM and the city so it is great that the position was endowed as of 2012. Portland is perhaps the most in flux major city in the USA and for better or worse we willfully don't copy other places. Museums typically do.

Ralph Pugay, Spiritual Microwave (detail) 2012

2014 was the year of Ralph Pugay. With the Betty Bowen award finally going to an artist with an edge, a successful solo show called Critter and several less notable group shows, Pugay officially won 2014. This not so daring pick on my list is just his well deserved gold star (sorry Ralph I wish critical acclaim could feed artists too). Thing is he's far from hitting his peak and 2014 shouldn't sate him. To date his themes and output seem to occupy that Quirk Hype mental space that Portlandia and the New York Times have affixed to Portland but Pugay (who is about the nicest gent on the planet) is thinking deeper than comedy or travel sound bytes and it would be nice to see him stretch out on a bigger canvas in terms of scope and themes. I want to see his Garden of Earthly delights, his equivalent to Breughel's The Triumph of Death or Rembrandt's The Night Watch... sure its likely to be funny but what I like about his work is he's never going for the laugh but the existentially too cozy. His work finds the complicit gears of hope and despair and the fact that a regional award took notice of this asks all other regional awards, (CNAA's, Bonnie Bronson, Hallie Ford) to raise their game and be ahead of the curve instead of being perpetually behind it (Pugay cut his chops at PSU's BFA and MFA programs then Worksound, Gallery Homeland and other local alt spaces, while only this year mid level institutions mostly included him as a name check in unremarkable group shows). Frankly, I have far more faith in Pugay than regional awards and cant wait to see him produce something closer to his full potential. All of this seems like a prelude and that's a good thing and a huge move in the right direction

Andrea Guyer's Three Chants Modern at PICA

Show of the Year- Andrea Geyer's Three Chants Modern at PICA. This exhibition was simply too socio/historically layered and far too serious for most of Portland's art establishment and scenesters (whose tastes typically trend towards the facile... like many other art scenes). Still, this show was an on topic with the contributions of women and relentlessly poetic rumination on historic facts that are threatened by MoMA's current and extremely unpopular expansion plans. This one hit hard and often. It was a full 18 round boxing match with the art historical cannon that manages to be touching and very human at the same time. There was no winner in the debate this show prompts except PICA, who understandably can't seem to do anything this serious for TBA. That is by design and I think a festival wouldn't give the concentration a show like this demands. Few artists deal with this kind of epic scope with this level of grace, which goes beyond the typical contemporary art gauntlet of presenting an archive of mildly interesting material in an antiseptic array (the more mild = the more antiseptic or the larger the array... it a very really twee and facile approach that Geyer avoided completely). Instead, this exhibition was full of consequences and sequences. Frankly, if this show doesn't make your list, then there is no better time to re-examine your taste. One of the two most memorable shows PICA has ever put on, the other was William Pope L. 's Eracism. Here's to PICA doing more shows like this... ones that aim a bit higher and push Portlanders to raise their standards. The Precipice Fund is another success story that PICA manages is another great thing that is near and dear to my heart. Honorable mention is Eva Lake's Anonymous Women... she's doing well with this series of collages in NYC and Switzerland but institutionally Portland is S L O W to catch onto this exciting series of collages. *Hint she has an incredibly hard hitting group on Carl Andre and Ana Mendieta ready to go...let's see who steps up.

Rediscovering Lacquer: 12 Artists reinvent a timeless tradition at the Portland Japanese Garden (photo Jeff Jahn)

Best Design/Craft Exhibition – Rediscovering Lacquer: 12 Artists reinvent a timeless tradition at the Portland Japanese Garden. With Kengo Kuma's associates designing the exhibition displays and some truly astonishing works... metallic lacquer anyone? … this one was a toe curling treat. Sadly up for less than a month, hopefully the much needed expansion will allow shows like this the full 3 month run it deserves. The Portland Japanese Garden has done a great job of bringing what is new and what is traditional in Japanese culture to an audience outside of the island nation and the fact that Portland has become such a tourist destination with such an excellent garden has made it a natural ally in keeping Japan in the world's eyes as a leader in design and applied philosophy for the rest of the world.

Kara Walker's Emancipating the Past: Tales of Slavery and Power at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art

Best Install: Kara Walker's Emancipating the Past: Tales of Slavery and Power at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art was one of the very best shows I saw anywhere this year. Funny thing is I saw a lot of the same material in an overstuffed (some works hung so tall even an NBA center would need a step ladder) and poorly executed exhibition at Reed College a few years ago but ohhh what a difference allowing the two linear series of prints, the Emancipation Approximation and Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated) breathe in the long main JSMA space. Also, allowing visitors to walk all of the way around the vitrine holding, Burning African Village Play Set with Big House and Lynching also makes sense, since as three dimensional works they are strongest if one is allowed to walk all the way around them. Book-ending it with a separate video room and a wall painting completed the effect and shows why Jordan Schnitzer's collection can turn the tide for smaller regional museums which otherwise couldn't hope to put on a Kara Walker show. Even the light grey walls made all the black and white pop but for icing on the cake was Walker's impossibly long titled video, “National Archives Microfilm Publication M999 Roll 34: Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands: Six Miles from Springfield on the Franklin Road,” it is from 2009 and is probably the best of her video works. The install of this exhibition retained, even enhanced Walker's keen edge between delight and disgust, which is the whole point and prompts critical thinking.

Rodrigo Valenzeula's Help Wanted at Archer Gallery, Clark College

Best collaborative show: Rodrigo Valenzuela’s “Help Wanted” at the Archer Gallery. This was a gem where the first half of the exhibition turned the gallery into a production studio where Valenzuela performed interviews. The resulting exhibition recalling Chilean miners and the dreams of local day laborers was extremely well executed and impressive. Valenzeula has won a genuis award in Seattle and I wish Portlandwoulddevelop something similar... based on intelligence and innovation.

Richard Mosse's The Enclave at PAM

Best Multimedia - Richard Mosse's The Enclave at the Portland Art Museum. Rarely does any Portland institution bring an entire Venice Biennale pavilion here and never has PAM given over an entire floor of The Jubitz Center for Modern and Contemporary Art to a single artist. The results are spectacular and we have two not one but articles in the works on this crushingly strange appropriation of military intelligence technology coupled with war documentation. I've been a fan of now PAM Director Brian Ferriso's curation since an impressive Rachel Harrison show in 2002 (her first museum exhibition) and now Portlanders can all check out why. As a director he's very practical and even keeled but his taste in art is challenging.

F&D Cartier's Wait and See at Blue Sky

Best Photography Show: As befitting their 40th year Blue Sky put on what is likely their most formally adventurous exhibition, F&D Cartier's Wait and See. The Cartiers essentially turned the entire Blue Sky main gallery into a camera, exposing an archive of vintage photographic papers to the vagarities of light as it moves through the space over the course of the exhibition. Often Photography is a kind of way to cheat decay and death but this show made the entropy of materials its creative genesis.

Installation view of Joel Shapiro's Portland 2014 at PAM (photo Jeff Jahn)

Best Large Scale piece:
Joel Shapiro's Portland 2014 at PAM. This piece could not have been more in departing Chief Curator's wheelhouse (this and so many other hints in 2013/2014 said, swan song). PAM has this soaring space, and it is where I first met Bruce so the two are linked in my mind. Unlike any other institutional curator in Portland Bruce could handle a souring space like this. My survey of his career here shortly should give you much more to consider. Like this Shapiro, Bruce had the intellect and relentless presence you just dont find in most curators these days.

Worst Large scale pieces... Intimate Horizons at Disjecta. A convenient paring of two artists who have never collaborated before that yielded rather awkward results. It was like a lot of MFA blob art bisected with geometry only larger. Compared to the Shapiro show above it just wasn't well executed at all and but the inflatable blobs did illuminate the space for people watching, thing is the art should be more than a backdrop.

Painting: El Greco at PAM: The man could paint and this example at the Portland Art Museum for the next few months alone is worth the trip. Required for all art lovers and painters in particular.

Luc Tuymans at PNCA's Feldman Gallery

Best College Gallery: PNCA's Feldman Gallery. Sadly, this space has run its course in 2014 and PNCA's new 511 building will serve as PNCA's new nucleus in 2015. Still, hosting Luc Tuymans was a notable feat no other college space in Oregon can boast and several other shows including Abigail Anne Newbold and the current Eva and Franco Mattes exhibitions were intriguing (you have a few more days to see it). Like many college galleries there is a focus on the squirrely tangents of various pedagogues such as the dull instrument that was An Exhibition that Might Exist, which replaced the exhibition with art writing about shows not installed (aka an exercise in middling discourse that services the CV as a replacement for experience). I didn't hate it, instead I just felt that the reviews by themselves could have changed the names with so many other college gallery shows that it revealed the gaps in the discourse system (which was probably the point, an admittedly academic point). It reminded me that an art critic strives to take as many chances (or more) than the subjects they cover in order to test the subject matter, whereas an arts writer simply provides coverage and various levels of context. Think of it as the difference between reading about conditions on the internet and a surgeon which will cut out and perform an exploratory biopsy (both have their place but it is important to not confuse them, which this didn't but viewers probably did). Similarly The Abigail Anne Newbold exhibition seemed like the perfect exhibition for an art school's opening show... even if it was a tad too cute, it was a provocative show executed very well. Overall, there is a difference in invasiveness that arch critical thinking requires and it is unpopular at this moment when there are more artists than ever before... at the same time, raising critical standards are what people seem to be calling more for (just as long as they aren't being called out). You might not have liked any of the Feldman's shows this year but you probably saw more than a few of them. I also like the Feldman Curator Mack McFarland's attitude, which never takes anything personally and is more committed to the idea that art helps us all agree to understand how we disagree. Honorable mention was the ever excellent Linfield College gallery who presented both Wafaa Bilal and Peter Campus this year.

HQ Objective is (L to R) Johnny Ray Alt and Andre C Filipek

Alternative Space of the year: HQ Objective. There were so many new spaces that kicked things into gear this year from S1 to Surplus Space and the return of Worksound but HQ makes a point of presenting things well within a manageable space while taking some risks. It's their realistic sense of scope and scale coupled with professionalism rather than sprawling out in 20 directions that makes the a pleasure to visit. The fact that it is in the Oak St. Building in the East Side Industrial District where 14-12 years ago a bunch of warehouses shows remade the Portland Art Scene reminds me how the revolution has continued.

Luchadrone (Excerpt)

Best Video Hampered by a Terrible Install: Victor Maldonado's video Luchadrone in his exhibition Lucha at Froelick. The photographs of his Lucha series are excellent but his surveillance drone following him through the North Park Blocks was wonderfully poetic exploration of the way an outsider feels in a public place. The fact that Maldonado earned his citizenship last year has opened up his practice in so many ways that it was a shame to not present this well. It would have been better to have a large flat screen on the wall or even in the middle of the gallery giving the whole ensemble a sense of traversing space both personal and public. Best video work by a Portland artist in a few years. Honorable mention Vanessa Renwick for her exhibition at the Art Gym. The video of birds was great and exactly what she does best... depicting charismatic nature or buildings in some sort of community context (this case Vaux Swifts and a falcon). But, in this case the viewing hammocks and bird stained glass windows felt like a weird attempt to fill the space and simply felt like part of some other show. Perhaps a different venue or a vertiginous installation where the viewers are purely focused up would have done it. They are still clearly working out how to install the Art Gym after the redesign. Trick is it seems bigger than it really is. Just trust the viewer instead of trying to micromanage how they navigate.

Mathew Leavitt's Desert Mandala Machine (FG), Pacific University

Breakout Year: Matthew Leavitt. His jaw dropping Desert Mandala Machine was easily the most talked about piece of art in Portland for the very busy month of October (gripe if you want that I curated the exhibition it was in but Leavitt exceeded every expectation and deserves this). People made pilgrimages to Forest Grove to see it. Overall, Leavitt's abilities in engineering and studies of spirituality decoupled from practical or organized applications singles him out as a force to watch. Some artists do what is asked and nothing more... I gave Leavitt a little push and he ran round the world with it and I liked his small piece Contrivance even more. Honorable mention goes to Paul Clay for his gender bending swan installation at the Portland Building, Justyn Hegreberg for his show Unhandled Exception at False Front and Amy Bernstein who finally gave us a solo show at Nationale to take in. All four are incredibly intelligent, critical thinkers which is why you should watch them and all have yet to fully reach their potential.

Like I mentioned at the beginning, 2015 will be a year that Portland is pressured to turn some corners and 2014 was the year that careful curatorial choices and edgier risk taking became the clear crucial hairpin turns to navigate ahead.

Posted by Jeff Jahn on December 31, 2014 at 16:02 | Comments (0)


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