Well worth visiting is Portland’s best public art annex, the Portland Convention Center.

First – don’t go with the crowds. The place is open, free and comfortable to visit almost any reasonable hours, including it seems most weekends. Tourists are a drag. I’m not your tour guide, so figure things out for yourself.

Just a short list – six fairly uninteresting Carl Morris abstracts, a badly hung Louis Bunce, a perhaps one of Portland’s great paintings, Bilalian Odyssey by Isaka Shamsud-Din, a weird fairly awful Lucinda Parker – too large to see clearly from any position, literally as large as a Clear Channel billboard, dozens of “literary” brass plaques, all nicely designed (the Kesey quote has a pic of Brautigan who grew up in outer NW Portland but is ID’ed as a SF poet by bardologists, oh well) but uninformative, and a long wonderful poem by Olympian Gail Tremblay which is badly rendered on another set of plaques and, badly lit, is almost unreadable.

Oh here’s a tour guide thing. Don’t miss the bathrooms (which is another reason to go when no one else is around!) They are also filled with artwork, mostly glazed tiles, but also mirrors and painted tiles. Some with geographical gems, some with historical figures. See if you can find Joaquin Miller.

NYC artist Ming Fay wins the contest for big big big, has a thing about making fruit large large large. I’m not sure why. I tried to read a couple of essays from his web site (which tried to crash my machine) and averted my eyes just prior to slashing my wrists. Oh Tom Wolfe! The Theories!

One of the most impressive public rooms in Oregon, the new main hall of the Convention Center, facing Martin Luther King Blvd, holds the two LARGEST ginkoberrys in the world.

What’s a ginkoberry? Dunno. Fay proposes it’s an ancient fruit of some sort the size of a truck. It’s green like frosted bronze, smooth, beautiful, precious. I like them very much, but they would be just as interesting if they were the size of my thumbtip and tasted like pineapple.


The two ginkoberrys are set on high pedestals next to escalators which give a good, in motion view. Between and flying above are thick brown branches carrying bright ginko flowers (look like poppies) of blown glass. Every color of red, and the center globs of blue, clear and red glass turn purple in the changing light.

For the branches + flowers the hall is a distraction with noise and moving light, no neutral background, and lofted 25 feet above the viewer. From a accessible balcony the view is better.


The craft and execution of the work is fine, but Fay presents huge for the sake of huge. Ginkoberry Gwa is designed to fill up huge space, commissioned within the context of public construction. Fruit – how politically neutral can you get? Ah, make them prehistoric mythical fruit! Sweep up those percent-for-the-art contracts! What does this mean?

Think about it as the San Simeon Problem. Government contracts are almost inherently corrupt and present interesting public relations problems. Who benefits from airports, convention centers, dams, freeways? The people? No, foremost it’s Bechtel or Walsh Construction or other similar forces. And when the public discovers the truth? We get bread and circuses.

Take the smallest percentage possible, like 1%, giftwrap it as a windfall, and buy local decorative art or politically neutral art for these billion-dollar spaces. Subways, prisons, public colleges, tunnels. I wonder if FEMA reconstruction pays a dividend to the arts? In Portland, see our Transit Mall, our parks, our airport, our beautiful city hall and the Central Library.

Critics might describe most of this work as abstract, or decorative. Builders might describe it as inoffensive. Politicians avoid describing art at all, preferring for once silence.

Art should be evocative, provocative, and tell a story. Fay’s work at the Convention Center does all this, but within its context is pointlessly large and its neutrality points toward its selection as manipulative. The selectors, often co-op’ed artists within this tiny and conflicted community, please their masters and leave tourists pondering, “am I in Boise?”

I’ll write about art outside the Convention Center soon.

Advertisements