City Focus:  Portland, Oregon -- PACIFIC EDGE
by Richard Speer


        Glamorously grungy Portland, Oregon has both nothing and everything to prove to the art world at large.  With its hippy-meets-hipster vibe, it exudes a kind of slacker chic that belies the formidable ambition of the artists, curators, gallerists, and other sundry scenesters who live here in the long shadow of Mount Hood.  Dust off your mental tableau of a sleepy logging town full of Haida totems and brawny, bearded men in flannel shirts—this is not your grandfather’s Portland, nor your father’s, nor even your older sister’s.

            “There was a definite shift in the artistic climate here around the year 2000,” opines Randy Gragg, an arts writer for The Oregonian, the state’s daily newspaper.  “We had a population of 20- to 34-year-olds coming in, many of them artists from back East, just about the time the dot-com boom was ending.  They may have moved here because they’d heard Portland is the place everybody comes before they get a ‘real job,’ but whatever the reasons, they had an overabundance of talent and an underabundance of employment.  In return, Portland offered cheap rent and the lifestyle choice of indulging their free time in artistic pursuits.”

            As these artists began coursing through the city’s caffeinated bloodstream, they began to turn a traditionally institutional, top-heavy art scene upside down.  Now, some four years later, the transformation is complete.  No longer do trends trickle down, Reaganomics style, from the Portland Art Museum; they spring up from the rain-soaked streets.

For this reason, some of the most exciting art galleries are more than just galleries—they share physical and psychic space with other kinds of cultural venue.  Take Disjecta Gallery, where by day you may take in a show by up-and-coming installation artist Chandra Bocci and later that evening enjoy a poetry reading or jazz quintet.  At Gallery 500, where art openings throb to the chords of live rock bands, you might round a corner and wind up in the middle of a live performance piece or find yourself locking pierced lips with a punker girl in the gallery’s $5-a-pop kissing booth.  At the Goodfoot Lounge, while enjoying a game of pool and sampling some of the city’s world-renowned microbrews, you may peruse two floors full of unexpectedly challenging lowbrow art.  Backspace Gallery doubles as an art space and online gaming parlour, while Compound Gallery, next door, moonlights as an action-figure retailer specializing in Japanese anime characters.  A few blocks away at Ogle, you may ogle some of the city’s most invigorating installation art while an optician checks your vision and sends you home with a new pair of high-end eyewear.

And then there are the Everett Station Lofts, an entire city block of artist studios which becomes an experiment in art-meets-anarchy on the first Thursday of every month.  As street musicians strum Bartók on the ukulele, Everett’s resident artists turn their nearly 20 storefront lofts into a bazaar of the bizarre.  On any given month you may encounter goth-style metal sculptures laden with candles, photographic nudes ranging from tame to gynecologic, neon spray-painted panels by Los Angeles artist Muriel Bartol, or austere lucite cubes containing, inexplicably, tiny bean sprouts.  The turnaround at the lofts is predictably high, but part of the fun of the experiment is watching the creative cauldron bubble, shooting flaming sparks in every direction.

A step up from the funky multi-use spaces and lofts are a plethora of arts groups and collectives, many of them long-lived and housed in permanent headquarters, offering gallery shows and performative “happenings.”  Blackfish and Talisman are two of the area’s most established artists’ co-ops, while arts groups Charm Bracelet and Red76 have made recent waves, the former by stuffing a massive vinyl elephant with discarded artist’s statements and gallery press releases, the latter by offering a sit-down “dinner” called Dim Sum, where “diners” ordered artist’s portfolios in three courses—food for the eyes rather than the stomach.  Red76 took Dim Sum on the road to Eastern Europe in February.  “If rocks stars can tour the world,” mused group co-founder Sam Gould, “why can’t artists?”

            Superimposed over the scrappy, high-energy newcomers and the more established arts groups are a generous helping of blue-chip galleries showing regional, national, and international artists of high caliber.

Augen Gallery specializes in prints by Picasso, Lichtenstein, and Warhol, as well as Jim Dine and Chuck Close.

After 23 years in its downtown location, Elizabeth Leach’s eponymous gallery is poised to move across Burnside Street in November into the chi-chi Pearl District.  Leach shows heavy hitters like Robert Rauschenberg, Louise Bourgeois, Suzanne Caporeal, Carlos Estrada-Vega, and Gregg Renfrow, in addition to a varied local stable.

Alysia Duckler’s namesake gallery doesn’t shy away from controversy.  She followed up her May show (a feminist critique featuring Heidi L. Kirkpatrick’s naked-woman toothbrushes) with a racial satire by Arvie Smith, an African-American painter who managed to re-cast Munch’s The Scream with Buckwheat from The Little Rascals.

Butters Gallery represents sculptor Ming Fay, photographer Jock Sturges, and painters Michael Kessler and David Geiser, while Froelick Gallery specializes in Northwest artists such as landscape painter Robert Gamblin, founder of Gamblin Artists Colors, the paint supplier to David Hockney and Alexander Lieberman, in addition to thousands of other artists.

Jane Beebe, director of PDX Gallery, also showcases Northwest artists, most notably the Native American painter James Lavadour, who hails from the Walla Walla tribe in Eastern Oregon.

Pulliam Deffenbaugh Gallery has made a strategy of snatching up rising talents like Oregon Biennial exhibitors James Boulton and Erinn Kennedy, while Laura Russo, grand dame of the Northwest old guard, regularly presents Gregory Grenon, Lucinda Parker, and sculptor Mel Katz at her namesake gallery.

Perhaps Portland’s pluckiest art dealer is Mark Woolley, known for his offbeat offerings, which have included everything from Tom Cramer’s silver-leaf mandalas and Matthew Picton’s cake-sprinkle honeycombs to Joe Thurston’s disturbing psychological portraits and Julia Fenton’s installations of steel, pink feathers, and menstrual blood.

Figure into this gaggle of galleries the visual arts programs offered by several colleges and universities (among them Reed, Lewis & Clark, Marylhurst, and the Oregon College of Art & Craft) and seven local art critics (four at newspapers, two on radio, and one on the Internet), and you have an aesthetic Renaissance that is being closely watched and widely promoted beyond the bucolic Columbia River Valley in which Portland sits.

“I’m intimidated!” cried Village Voice art critic Jerry Saltz, only half jokingly, as he held aloft a Northwest arts broadsheet called The Organ during a recent speaking trip to Portland.

“A confident and creative social milieu,” wrote Lawrence Rinder, formerly of the Whitney, in a catalog essay for last year’s ambitious, multi-venue Portland survey, Core Sample.

The city has played host to other high-profile exhibitions, including the month-long 2Gyrlz EnterActive Language Festival, which this fall will feature a “body-based installation show” by Skip Arnold, and last summer’s The Modern Zoo, in which 100 artists filled a 100,000-square-foot warehouse with work in all manner of media.

            And then there is the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s annual TBA (Time-Based Art) Festival, a largely performance-based affair that has divided local opinion:  one camp lauding the fest’s international reputation, the other convinced that the big-budget performances are responsible for recent cuts in PICA’s visual arts programming.  These cuts were so significant, they resulted in the layoff of erstwhile curator Stuart Horodner, the man responsible for bringing Tony Tassett and William Pope.L to Portland.

            Now a free curatorial agent, Horodner has organized the city’s first professional art fair.  From October 1 to 3, Affair @ The Jupiter Hotel will fill the bedrooms, bathrooms, and closets of a quirky boutique hotel with the works of emerging and mid-career artists both regional and national.  Twenty-five galleries and guest curators are slated to participate.

“It’s an irreverent way for local dealers to let their clients encounter the artists they show,” Horodner says, “and it gives out-of-town dealers a chance to share their programs in a blossoming art city.”

Looming at the top of the city’s now bottom-heavy mise-en-scène is the Pacific Northwest’s oldest art museum, the Portland Art Museum.  Next fall, the museum will open a new Center for Modern and Contemporary Art, but the construction crews are already hard at work on the $31.5 million facility, which will house within its 28,000 square feet the museum’s modern and contemporary collection.  The collection spans from Cezanne, Monet, Picasso, and Pollock to Frank Stella, Helen Frankenthaler, Claes Oldenburg, and Kiki Smith, and is augmented by one of the museum’s crown jewels, the Clement Goldberg Collection, acquired in 1999.

“The new center is the culmination of a 10-year expansion project,” says museum executive director John Buchanan.  “We’re excited about having a space where we can play out our collection from the beginning of modernist painting, all the way through the art of our time.  We want to to reach into a new audience for the museum, to speak to Gen-X and sew the seeds for a new cultural generation.”

The building itself will help bridge the past and future through an extensive renovation of a 79-year-old Masonic temple, its façade preserved but outfitted with pristine glass overlooks in an incongruous but striking design by Ann Beha Architects of Boston.

Says Buchanan:  “We know the new Center will attract national and international attention, but it’s important for us to stay true to our regional roots.  Our Northwest and Native American collections set us apart, and the new wing will reflect that.  I’ve always said that if a person were to be ushered, blindfolded, into the buildling and then took off the blindfold inside, I’d want them to say, ‘Oh, I'm in the Northwest!’ not, ‘Hmm, I wonder whether I’m in Cincinnati, Richmond, or Denver?’”

Clinging to the old-growth roots of tradition while somehow rocketing beyond mere regionalism is what Portlanders seem to do instinctively.  Perhaps because the city lies equidistant between the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Cascade Mountains to the east, its citizens know how to play surf against turf, to the detriment of neither.  They see no conflict between promenading along the ritzy “First Thursday” art walk in the Pearl District and the edgier “Last Thursday” art walk on Northeast Alberta Street.  Why limit oneself?  Whether the city’s high ambitions or what Lawrence Rinder calls Portland’s “laid-back, come-what-may ethos” will ultimately prevail, remains to be seen.  For now, in the glow of its happily polarizing present, Portland seems content, quite simply, to be here now.

—Richard Speer