Art in Review

Portland2010 Revisited

New biennial survey digs into Oregon’s psyche

By Graham Bell March 31, 2010


GUEST CULTUREPHILE POST by Portland Monthly intern, Graham Bell

Here in Oregon we’ve got truckers in big rigs hauling logs; wisdom-seeking hippies rubbing their crystals together; and the occasional car up on blocks in the front yard. We’ve also got artists—lots of them. Seemingly with the similarities in mind, curator Cris Moss selected a panoply of works for Portland 2010 the city’s first indie biennial survey. Through April 25 you can peruse the results at Disjecta, Rocksbox, and a number of smaller venues that the exhibition is calling home.

Disjecta, March 13–April 25
8371 N Interstate
(503) 286-9449
FRI-SUN 12-6 pm
(Closed April 4)

Hopping off the MAX next to rustic strip joint the Dancin’ Bare, I was engulfed in the charm of Kenton, Portland’s one-time slaughterhouse district. With a quick stroll through the food carts set up outside, I reached the gallery entrance and got my first taste of Disjecta: The back end of Crystal Schenk and Shelby Davis’ West Coast Turnaround, a massive homemade, seemingly full-scale 18-wheeler looming large in the dark corridor like a fiberglass whale at the museum of natural history. One of Schenk’s other works, Holy Cow, is equally impressive. An overly ornate wooden plaque is the backdrop to a longhorn skull with a growth of crystals that would give British provocateur Damien Hirst a run for his money (except this bicornuate bovine is pure Oregonian).

The mineral vein is continued across the gallery by Bruce Conkle and Marne Lucas in their Warlord Sun King: The Genesis of Eco-Baroque, an installation that resembles a kind of hanging gardens of Babylon influenced by New Age healing and Old World architecture. It’s a mixture that serves to both intrigue and enthrall while making you fear for the cranial safety of the errant child passerby. David Corbett’s geometric forms in two and three dimensions are a mass of lines and empty space that drip and bleed. But at the same time, they also freeze and calcify in a manner that is just solid enough to look imposing. Sean Healy’s Muscle Car Memory is a punny allusion to trashy front yards and their tire-less denizens that has the allure of brightly colored candy and an unassuming nature that gives way to a truly Portlandian wit. This is a show with many layers. The glitzy outer shell is fun to look at but the crystalline core is where the real magic happens.

Rocksbox Fine Art: Ditch Projects: Are You Ready for the Country?
March 13–April 25
6540 N Interstate
(503) 516-4777
FRI-SUN 12-6 pm, or by appt.
(Closed April 4)

I grew up in the sticks and have spent my life fleeing toward the promise of urbanity. The artists at Ditch Projects take an opposite tactic. They embrace the grunginess, the grittiness, the sheer hillbillyness of their post-industrial gallery in Springfield, and bring it to us here in our mid-sized metropolis. Comprised almost exclusively of MFA students from the University of Oregon, the witty reference to Jeffrey Deitch’s NY gallery and their own creek-straddling space is an ample primer to the members’ intellectual art. That said: I don’t know if I am ready for the country.

To the undiscriminating eye, the myriad machinations of experimental installations that twist through Rocksbox resemble a strange ritual about to take place. Mirrors and neon pink string-wrapped crystals hover here and there amid melted wads of black. Curious symbols are barely discernible on the round, repeating shapes mounted sequentially in the first gallery. It’s not something that pulls you in so much as makes you wonder if you’re allowed to be there without proper clearance.

But to my eye—and any eye that has beheld these artists’ work over the past couple years—we know all of this already. As individual works there is some success. The videos of hands/paint/glass and a burning air freshener tree are especially mesmerizing. The fluorescent, Dan Flavin-esque construction in the back gallery (Damon Harris) and the shimmering photographs of flora in the front (Rob Smith) are not new ideas, but they are worthy of a closer look. It all comes down really to what has plagued Ditch Projects from the beginning: presentation. This is not a cohesive group installation. It jumps from pocket to pocket, finding different objects that relate only loosely to each other via a hip and catchy nom de guerre. This is a group of disparate artists that just happen to show together, drink together and put all of their art much too close together.

What I am ready for is the solo shows.

March 20–April 25
240 N Broadway
(503) 286-9449
FRI-SUN 12-6 pm
(Closed April 4)

As the evening sun refused to set on a deceivingly brilliant March day, I departed to the eastside for the second Saturday of openings for Portland2010. The multiple venues and large number of artists makes for a diverse showing and the dispersal of locations allows for some cardio work.

Entering the Leftbank Project, one is surrounded by Steven Slappe’s video environment, the single installation at the space: four connected video feeds simulating what a Lilliputian must feel like sitting at a crossroads of two dusty country roads. There was the potential for a much more immersive experience that fell short. If this was a pitch for a longer and more in-depth piece, get this artist a grant application. But for me to vote yes, I would need more minute details and subtle visual extras to make it worth any our rapidy dwindling arts funding.

Templeton Building
March 20–April 25
230 East Burnside (SE 3rd)
FRI-SUN 12- 6 pm
(Closed April 4)

A trek through the back lots of the Rose Garden and a wary jaunt down MLK brought me to the foot of the Burnside Bridge and the Templeton Building. Truly this is a venue for installation art. And the artists rose to the occasion.

Damien Gilley’s Zero-Sum toys with hard black lines and vibrant pinks that confuse your notions of perspective while forcing a reevaluation of three-dimensional space. Nearby, John Brodie’s Westworld takes a different approach from Gilley’s work as it overwhelms the viewer with a collage of imagery that vaguely resembles a collaboration between rundown billboards and yearbook mugshots that together evoke a powerful sense of déjà vu.

Jenene Nagy’s drywall installation in the basement looks like a well-controlled disaster. The sharp forms and harsh lights are hugged by a claustrophobic darkness that was not present at her February exhibition at Disjecta. It was impressive, but needed more space. Where the other installations in this show use the building, here Nagy’s installation is dominated by the structure causing it to lose a lot of the work’s potentially jarring physicality. Along with Nagy in the basement, off to the side, was Pat Boas’ video piece: a dual projection of words culled from household objects that, projected in sequence, form a gradual story. While provocative in concept, the presentation seemed flimsy and detracted from the overall impact of the work.

The straight photography at the Templeton Building were especially strong: Corey Arnold’s New Fish Work bringing a dynamic and exhilarating look at the seabirds of the Bering Sea and Holly Andres’ triptychs forcing you to do a double-take at seemingly ordinary scenes. Arnold’s photos are large and crisp. Not a single square inch is wasted in capturing the angular, harsh realities of life on a commercial fishing vessel. Andres’ work takes a more fictive stance and Anna’s Birthday Party, the more accessible of her offerings, draw comparisons to other photographers of staged tableaux like Gregory Crewdson (although Andres has a decidedly less cinematic approach).

In the same theatrical vein, David Eckard’s Mountebank (a moral decline) consists of a collection of constructed objects that look like they should be useful if you happen to inhabit an illustrated tale of magicians and vaudevillians. Loops of metal and pseudo-organic forms partner with stage prop apparati. They’re similar in form to some of his other elaborate sculptural/performance works like Implied Props. They also have ties to Eckard’s bizarre video pieces like Prestidigitation—A Folly in Eleven Acts in their combining of both sculptural and two-dimensional elements with an acted showmanship by the artist.

The Oregon Painting Society’s HexenHouse is a double studio apartment’s worth of found items, stacked cubes, and smoke machines with a high-pitched soundtrack that sends you fleeing for the lower levels. For all the hyperbole imbedded in the piece, it’s really not much more than a superficial resurrection of 1950s-60s happenings. The casual, almost haphazard assembly of the installation’s elements made it hard for the viewer to navigate through the environment. Instead your attention is jolted here and there by disparate elements that, while redeemable on their own, suffered from the presentation as a whole. And when your artist statement includes the words “metaphysical Hawaiian chill zone,” it’s hard to take anything seriously. Add a couple synth beats to your found objects and second-hand ready-mades and you’re MGMT. Rock and roll.

Portland2010 is not the biennial that Portland Art Museum left behind. Its fresh and experimental approach is clearly a departure from its predecessor, though it could still learn a thing or two. Moss’s curatorial focus is clear: the exhibition of numerous younger, less traditional artists at this year’s biennial is a step in the right direction. However, the diversity of offerings was disheartening. The multiple venues could have been an excellent excuse to stage several completely different shows that more accurately encompassed Portland’s artistic merit. Absent were some established Oregon artists who would have given the newer work a proper creative lineage. That said, the exhibition’s participants provide viewers with bold imagery and an intelligent discussion of what it means to make art in Portland today.

Graham Bell looks at art and tells you about it. An art historian by training and an art handler by trade, he was raised in the dense conifers surrounding Mt. Rainier. Persuaded into a life in the arts by his abiding love for Neoclassicist French painting and contemporary photography, he can often be found with a coffee headache squinting at the latest and greatest that Portland’s art scene has to offer. He holds a BA in Art History from Willamette University and an MA in the same from the University of Oregon. When not being hypercritical he can be found sipping a sour ale or strumming a sour note.

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