July 2006


I repost this column because it has largely disappeared from the Oregonian web site by 3 PM. By archiving it here, it will always be available for those who search by Google, etc.

Monday, July 31, 2006 – The Oregonian, by D.K. ROW

Federico Nessi’s photograph of a languorously reclining young man that mocks heroic and passive images from art history. Chandra Bocci’s big bang installation that incorporates hundreds of gummi bears speared like kebabs over a grill. Pat Boas’ drawing of a strange, coiled hybrid figure that looks part animal and part vegetable.

There’s an abundance of arresting images in the 2006 Oregon Biennial, an exhibit that accurately mirrors Oregon’s eclectic art scene. Just as recent biennials did to varying degrees, the 2006 show highlights artists young and old, new and established names, a variety of thematic concerns and a mix of media from painting to video art.

But that encyclopedic breadth also makes this biennial so open-ended that it prompts a reappraisal. In the past decade, the local art scene has evolved into an artistic organism so vast the public can no longer easily assess or digest it — it’s a great leap from 20 years ago. The biennial, the museum’s single most important regular exhibition of art made in the state, presents an opportunity to interpret the trends and practices flourishing within the scene. The biennial could be more than a temperature reading: It could be a full-fledged diagnosis.

That’s not to say that Jennifer A. Gately, the museum’s first curator of Northwest art, hasn’t taken some bold steps. After arriving in mid-January, Gately had only a few months to look through the slides of 768 applicants, eventually selecting 34 artists for this year’s show. Unlike her predecessors, Kathryn Kanjo and Bruce Guenther, she’s expanded the range of media to include examples from Portland’s thriving video art community: Grace Carter and Holly Andres’ touching, almost maudlin recollection of their mothers; Vanessa Renwick’s somber documentation of the destruction of the Trojan Nuclear Power Plant; and Andrew Ellmaker and Mark Brandau’s ponderous take on artistic essence.

For the first time in recent memory, Gately also tapped a few artists to make site-specific pieces for the show, including Bocci’s heavenly gummi bear meditation on consumerism, Brittany Powell’s paean to Americana using cutout images of a diner menu and Jesse Hayward’s intentionally messy installation that demolishes the boundaries between painting and sculpture.

But other than these changes, the exhibit resembles just another safe survey, and it repeats some perennially bad museum habits, such as the incomprehensible exclusion of any kind of introductory and panel notes for the show. Just as it did with its recent outstanding survey of the career of Hilda Morris, the museum offers no explanation to the public about the show — what it is, how it was assembled, what it attempts to chart. The public is simply in the dark.

What’s on the walls and floors, however, is more accommodating, even if there’s so much work that wall space is crowded and the floor space congested enough that visitors may find negotiating the exhibit a navigational task.

Gately may have been at the museum since January, but she’s clearly knowledgeable about the Northwest scene and has nurtured deep connections with its artists from her stint at Idaho’s Sun Valley Center for the Arts. In this biennial she acknowledges as many layers of the Oregon art world as she possibly can, in particular the tsunami of new arrivals to Portland, many of whom have no relationship with Portland’s commercial galleries.

The 34 artists can be grouped in several categories. Established veterans and previous biennial selections such as Storm Tharp, Lucinda Parker and Michael Brophy show work along with artists who have toiled for years to little public recognition — Renwick, David Eckard and Bill Will, whose missile made out of reconstituted wood is his latest and brilliantly suggestive political statement. Then there are the emerging artists who are on the verge of ascending to the scene’s major platform, including figurative artist Ty Ennis and non-representational painters and drawers such as Kristan Kennedy and Anna Fidler.

Within these selections, a few discrete themes emerge.

Drawing and other works on paper have experienced a resurgence in the past several years, and Gately gives us a little glimpse of it in Laura Vandenburgh’s apparition-like abstractions of the physical landscape and Kennedy’s drooping, buoyant figures that have the suppleness of lava oozing out of a volcanic lip.

Art has always been a form of historical documentation, and that approach is well alive here. Brophy’s images of outdoorsmen and the Northwest landscape continue to chart the sad collision between culture and environment. Shawn Records’ spooky photographs manage to turn even dilapidated parts of suburban Beaverton into fog-shrouded scenery worthy of a period film set in Victorian England. David Rosenak shows a firm drawing hand in his paintings of yards and homes, works that so effectively bridge the worlds of photographed and drawn imagery that they aptly characterize the term “hyper-realism.”

Speaking of fantasy, a biennial would be committing sacrilege without acknowledging our culture’s operatic passion for various realms of the fantastic. Mariana Tres concocts the histories of fictional 19th-century figures through a collection of artifacts and photographs that amount to an elaborate private performance. Mark Hooper’s photographic imaginings of the Lewis and Clark journey are similarly quaint if amorphous fantasias, more performance art than photography.

As Gately notes in her catalog essay, one dominant image in art history has been the portrait. And two of the show’s standout offerings fit here: Tharp’s variations on the self-portrait — sculptural, painted and drawn works that nod to the tortured English expressionist Francis Bacon while celebrating the offerings of local florists; and Nessi’s large-scale color photographs that use his friends to poke fun at and celebrate heroic figures.

A persistent criticism of Northwest art has been that it favors craftsmanship over complex ideas. Several artists address the tension between art and craft by fashioning works that appear to be anti-craft pieces, including K.C. Madsen’s tilting, skewed monoliths made out of industrial paper, Amanda Wojick’s satire on the environmental hazards composed of Home Depot products, and Hayward’s boundary-breaking painting-sculpture pieces that have been piled on with paint and latex.

The result of all of this amounts to a wide-angled picture of an Oregon art scene morphing into something bigger. But instead of breaking down and deciphering this maturing art monster, Gately has simply surveyed it — the show’s so diffuse that it looks like a Rorschach blot. It can mean anything the viewer wants.

Which points to a possible course for the next biennial. Gately is clearly a cautious card player. But she will need to push her hand with the next biennial if she wants to match the museum’s bold, historic move of hiring a curator devoted exclusively to regional art. There’s too much at stake and too much going on in the local art world.

But what a wealth of activity she has: The massive generational shift within the local art scene, for example. Or the unorthodox grass-roots arts practices championed by numerous collectives and other groups. Or simply the astounding number of prominent art figures emerging.

Such an effort will surely require an overhaul of the biennial process, which needs to finally include invitations as well as submissions. When that happens, the Oregon Biennial will be a curator’s vision, and not simply a reflection.

D.K. Row: 503-294-7654; dkrow@news.oregonian.com

If you haven’t been watching Rockstar: Supernova, you’re fortunate. Created for the diet pop swilling masses, it’s pure dreck – with one glorious human vital spark named Storm Large. And she’s from Portland. Thank the internet gods for youtube.com.

Important note – this is high end karaoke, with the prize being a recording contract. Singers don’t pick the band or what song they sing. Click the triangle in the center of the picture to watch her performance.

Week One: Pinball Wizard – The Who

Week Two: Surrender – Cheap Trick

Week Three: Just What I Needed – The Cars

Week Four: Anything Anything – Dramarama

Week Four: ENCORE of Anything Anything – Dramarama

This little lovely was found at PSU, spray paint on a desktop, I think.

This is the indie girl Daniel Clowes is looking for.

This dear boy, life size & snuck behind some dumpsters in NW Portland, has already been painted over. Why show it then – if no one else can visit it, see it, meditate a moment, have a smoke with the Mexican dishwashers – what is the aesthetic value of an image destroyed? Ah ha! What is the value of a Van Gogh owned by a Japanese marine insurance company, cached forever in a salt mine, efficiently holding value and far easier to secure and maintain than gold or diamonds? What is the value of song played on a guitar without strings? Just how beautiful, on a scale of one to ten, is a Picasso in a dark room?

I dunno.

These two, found at 10th & SE Belmont and again at about 9th and Ankeny, don’t make sense to me – I doubt I am the intended audience. They seem to be part of a series which Portland Public Art has listed before as Art Students as Colonial Stooges.

Who Makes What You Love? and How Do You Respond?

At the right, a smallish 6 x 5 inch spray paint on sidewalk – again on a street no one walks (except Holocene or Sassy’s patrons who are presumably both intoxicated and in the dark). A weird graphical face + the word Obey.

Then another version appears – about one-sheet – on 23rd Avenue in the midst of all the wandering tourists. Yay!

Is this image trademarked? Don Rumsfield is looking for a new icon. Is it fun? Is there a message? Should I be shopping more, buying green and local and handmade? Obey what? Jeez – a little politic is a dangerous thing to an artist without a clue.

Acch – I’m tired of walking. What’s on TV?

This scrap of resistance is dedicated the White House speechwriting staff. Folks when you’re discouraged think of this – someday your unborn grandchildren will hate you for what you’ve done to ruin our perfectly good language.

Like yesterday’s post, this one is on SW 12th Avenue, between Alder and Washington.

All the fluff and hype surrounding the new artsy fartsy Oregon arts scene is completely defeated by reading the numbers – .16 cents per person.

Having failed to encourage Republican legislators to be reasonable or solve the state’s complex public mental health problems, the Oregonian editorial board is now stalking arts funding. (Might be because publisher Fred Stickel is on the PAM board?)

Read – Loving the arts, one payday at a time, The Oregonian – July 24.

Read – By the numbers Oregon ranks 47th in the nation for public state funding of the arts, investing only 16 cents a person, The Oregonian – July 24.

(Portland metro supposedly does much better at almost $5 per person of support. I bet that number could be jacked up 1000% if you segmented the population again to 97210.)

Employed? RACC’s Work For Art program has a pretty good 2-1 deal they call the Art Card.

Employed by heathens? Civilize ’em!

According to Artsusa.org8,324 Arts-Related Businesses in Oregon Employ 36,380 People. Read more on their website, including a breakdown of each business segment by state legislative district. Neat.

Know about the Nancy Hanks Lectures? The annual lecture is named for Nancy Hanks, former president of Americans for the Arts and chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, who devoted 15 years of her professional life to bringing the arts to prominent national consciousness.

Listen to William Safire give the 2006 lecture (link opens lecture – or download / 44 MB)

You probably don’t know this.

But Jimi Hendrix had a pet monkey named Charlie Chan.

This artwork was found on SW 12th Avenue, between Alder & Washington.

Did he really?

“Are you or have you ever been a member of a terrorist organization – or government?”

The text of this political poster plays off the line Senator Joseph McCarthy made famous in the 1950s, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”

The original is Archibald Willard’s most famous picture, The Spirit of ’76, circa 1875 which hangs in Abbot Hall in Marblehead, Massachusetts, one of the most noble pieces of US propaganda every created and kept nicely.

About 10 x 15 on paper and wheat pasted to a wood board covering a broken window of a downtown garage on SW 12th Avenue, this poster looks like it was badly photocopied from a worn t-shirt. The gluer has added the words “fuck the FBI” and “wiretap” and “ARL” and then finally, “throw away the chains.” I’m not sure what ARL stands for. And which chains? Rosseau? Marx? Marley’s Ghost? Kunta Kinte? Hard to tell.

The second poster, glued next to the first at the same time, shows a white hand holding a black hand, the words “Unity” and “Solidarity” printed and “Forever!” penciled in.

Stencil work found on NE Killingsworth behind a Korean mom & pop. Why are these street artists so shy? All this sneaking amounts to a nuisance. No wonder the city thinks this is vandalism. Be daring – or get a canvas.

Two peculiar pieces below – shown in three pictures here – by the same artist, both on small pieces of plywood – the bike about 5 x 8 inches and the murder 5 x 15 inches.

Both are wood screwed into the patio fence of a PSU deli. Rust on the screws says these two have been up for a few months – at least through a lot of rain. They’re set down around shin high – not particularly visible. The murder piece is clearly the work of a sick mind. Or copied from another sick mind.

I haven’t found any others like these. Of course I am not looking.

Years and years ago I used to collect the artwork of a person I called Mr. Clifton. A grossly psychotic man, young and strong and black as ink, usually wearing loose overalls and a workshirt. He lived under bridges and painted on scraps of sheetrock he’d pull from dumpsters in acrylic paint with his fingers. The pictures were crude and always had a comment or question. Otherwise he minded his own business.

I collected a dozen or so of these. He’d leave them around downtown, leisurely leaning against a bus stop or a trash bin. This was long before William Jamison started showing “naive” artists. I’d pick them up in a weird treasure hunt.

Once my companion and I found his lair – under the west end of the Marquam Bridge. Desolate and beautiful urban beach – with thunder constant overhead. We found sculptures scattered about, made of fish bones, twigs and stones laid in ornate designs, and collected trash. He had good but crazy taste.

One hot summer day he boarded a bus I was on, wearing nothing but his overalls which had served as his paint rag. He carried a fishing pole and a white plastic bucket of water. In one pants pocket he had a salmon – probably 20 inches long, and in the other a bright yellow dahlia fully spread, dripping labia wet.

He also made paintings under highway overpasses. Over the years we spotted dozens of these – from San Francisco to Seattle, following the route of his mad wanderings. The last extant one we saw was in about 1990. We have no pictures – no artwork. I imagine someone has him locked up somewhere.

If you know the whereabouts of this person – please contact this blog.

Next Page »