visual arts reviews by Richard Speer,
Visual Arts Critic, Willamette Week, Portland, Oregon
Due to formatting on www.WWeek.com, these reviews are reprinted plain-text.
Generally, a portraitist is only as good as his subjects. Up until now, this has worked in Jock Sturges’ favor, as he’s photographed nudist families in Northern California and the South of France, making a name for himself as a poet of the pubescent pastorale, his nymphettes shimmering with down and dew. For all the notoriety of his subject matter, Sturges has never trivialized his models’ T&A; their nudity is a vehicle toward simplicity, drawing our eyes not to naughty bits, but to faces, eyes, and what presumably lies behind them. Sturges has always had a knack for capturing the implacable gaze: an open expression that suggests an old soul reawakening inside a young mind. Whether such precocious wisdom actually exists behind these tawny, freckle-faced façades is immaterial; the appearance of wisdom within the frame is sufficient. Which brings us to Sturges’ latest outing at Butters, in which the contemporary Zeitgeist seems finally to have caught up with the artist and turned his romantic visions from honeyed to hackneyed.
The photographer tries, oh how he tries, to plumb his subjects’ depths, only to run aground in shallows; searching for a Mona Lisa smile, he finds only a Barbie doll’s empty stare. The tweener and Gen Y girls populating these pictures harbor no secrets in their eyes, only boredom. They are here on this nude beach because their parents made them come; they would rather be texting their friends or downloading ringtones. From their vacant semblances Sturges wants to coax the same Bertolucci burnish in 2006 that he captured in 1976. Alas, XBox and WiFi have leeched the enigma out of young eyes, leaving vapidity in the void where possibility used to reside. In the absence of the pregnant gaze of old, Sturges forces his models to turn away (as in Fanny, D106) or to feign depth where none is present. In Fanny, D107, the eponymous model flexes her forearm with Popeye machismo, but her sparkless eyes keep the image from being the feminist/genderqueer statement it desperately wants to be. And so Sturges retreats into the forest, photographing Vanessa et Miranda in backlit wide shot, two would-be sprites frolicking amongst the trees, reduced to silhouettes. Pity poor Sturges: Only distance and lighting tricks can turn his displaced mall rats into myths and metaphors. 520 NW Davis St., 2nd floor, 248-9378. Closes May 27. RICHARD SPEER
LAURA RUSSO GALLERY
Tom Cramer’s painted and carved wooden panels at Laura Russo are a jumble of maddening, fascinating paradoxes: Hyperkinetic yet serene, intricate yet cryptic, they show a midcareer artist taking risks, scoring hits, and occasionally falling flat as he expands his well-known visual vocabulary with new syntaxes. As in the past, Cramer carves abstract or semi-abstract shapes into panel, letting paint pool in crannies and sometimes gilding the works until they blaze with Aztec glory. In works such as Golden Dawn he creates undulating, indented surfaces, a tactic that imparts a trippy, handcrafted effect one part Rishikesh, two parts Oregon Country Fair. The imagery in Dune resembles the folds of the brain, while Corridor #7 bursts forward with concentric stars, Space Station with Industrial-Revolution machines and tools, and Power Plant with grim Polynesian tiki totems. The effectiveness of this imagery often depends on Cramer’s chromatic choices. It’s impossible to go wrong with the gleaming gold, silver, and copper leafs at which Cramer has become such a whiz, but when he works in oil paint, he veers between elegance and excess. The mint-on-silver Neptune and maroon-on-silver Crater Lake are subtle, immaculate, pristine; but at times Cramer succumbs to the urge to go all bubblegum cottoncandy godawful Keith Haring willynilly, as in the indigestion-inducing Mango Tree, Rock Garden, and Overpopulation.
When he departs from the tried-and-true and ventures into untested techniques, the artist proves himself light and limber, as in two new subsets of work. The first are his super-fastidious, burned-in shapes on birch panel: jaunty, chaotic, and feverish. With judicious color placement complementing a well-balanced sense of positive and negative space, these fresh, obsessive works are what you might expect to see from a brilliant twentysomething artist just making a name for himself in Williamsburg or Berlin. That an established mid-career Northwest painter can muster such moxie gives hope to us all. The second new tack can be seen in Pipe Dreams and Prehistoric Garden. Less chunky, more sinuous than Cramer normally essays, these works evoke Tibetan cloud designs or wilted lotus blossoms, pulsating with squishy, estrogenic sensuality. RICHARD SPEER 805 NW 21st Ave., 226-2754. Closes Oct. 27.
SEATTLE ART MUSEUM
A conceptual show with an I.Q. of 75, Baja to Vancouver is an ambitious survey of West Coast art that ambitiously fails. Its iconic image, plastered all over press materials and newspaper ads, is Brian Calvin’s Nowhere Boogie, a cartoonish painting of a slacker strumming a guitar as his bored roomate peers out the window. The image is perhaps more telling than the show’s five curators intended: a portrait of the show’s own predominantly Gen-X artists aesthetically diddling themselves while the rest of us vainly scan the horizon for something more meaningful. With birthdates clustering around 1970, these aging Brady Bunchers, who had no world wars or draft to rebel against and no civil rights crusade or hippy movement to join in, have instead ingested lethal doses of pop culture and, fueled by deconstruction, broken it down, stripped it of its original flavor, and puked it up on museum walls, where, by time-honored Duchampian/Warholian hocus-pocus, it’s received as fine art. Of the 33 artists in the show (four Portlanders among them), most seem stuck in a VH1 I Love the ‘70s/’80s time warp that’s rendered their output a loop of cartoons, music videos, pornos, sneakers, surfboards, and homework assignments.
To wit: Delia Brown’s slick music video, Pastorale, aims for a meta-MTV critique but misses the meta. In his stereophonic video installation, Tim Lee recites Beastie Boys lyrics as if he were reading from the phone book. Michele O’Marah stages re-enactments of 60 Minutes interviews, while Shannon Oksanen and Scott Livingstone castrate the 1971 road film, Vanishing Point, in a short film of a surfboard beached by incoming tides. Kota Ezawa’s The Simpson Verdict digitally animates the football star’s acquittal to ambient courtroom sound—and that’s it, no higher level of commentary à la Robert Smigel’s “Fun with Real Audio.” Further riffs on the mundane include Brian Jungen’s transmogrified Nike Air Jordans, Steven Shearer’s compilation of Internet homepage self-portraits, Ron Terada’s exact replica of the Vancouver city limits sign, and Larry Sultan’s photograph series, The Valley, which unglamorously documents a porno shoot (did anybody really think porno shoots were glamorous to begin with?). The most egregiously banal entry in the show belongs to Portland’s own Harrell Fletcher and Miranda July, who offer up further installments of their Learning to Love You More series, an inane Internet homework exercise in community-building bullshit, inexplicably presented under the auspices of art. Fletcher and July, who seem to want to be social workers or Fred Rogers, offer artless snapshots of a man-breasted codger and random passers-by, taken not by the “artists” themselves, but by people who’ve sent photos in to the Learning to Love You More website. It takes little talent but much gall and politicking to slap one’s own name onto a stranger’s Polaroid and convince a museum director to include it in an important show. Perhaps this is the duo’s real art: audacity. In the end, it’s hard to know what’s more pathetic: the TV-derived blandness of Baja to Vancouver’s artworks or the squirmy apologias proffered by curators to sell warmed-over Pop as postmodern revelation. 100 University St., Seattle, 206-654-3100. Closes Jan. 4. RICHARD SPEER
PORTLAND INSTITUTE FOR CONTEMPORARY ART
I walked into William Pope.L’s eRacism with my nostrils closed but my mind open, resolved to give the show, with its rotting meat and curdling condiments, a fair shake. When I emerged from the gallery an hour later, I did so with a grudging respect for Pope.L’s sheer cujones and the bravado with which he sensualizes the normally arid landscape of conceptual art. The show opens with a wall of framed sayings such as “Black People Are the Hole in God’s Anus” and “Black People are the Moat, the Keep, and the Faggot.” Inside the main gallery, the hot dog wall looms. An enormous reverse image of the United States created from 5,000 slowly putrefying hot dogs, the map suggests that behind the sanitized, front-on view of this country rots a veneer of stinking, cheap meat emblematic of what the artist calls “crucified bodies or penises or turds.” (Yes, other tenants in the Wieden + Kennedy building have complained about the stench, and no, you shouldn't attend if you have a hair-trigger gag reflex.) For more food fun, Pope.L uses Broken Column, a row of wooden caskets filled with greasy, broken mayonnaise jars, to critique the unhealthy, chemical-infused food consumed by poor people. Party Room, with its rows of stuffed animals and cheap wine, addresses what it’s like to grow up with alcoholic parents. A video installation shows Pope.L engaged in gonzo performance pieces on the streets of Manhattan, while another video at the end of an immaculate white corridor shows him cavorting in a basement as a kind of etude on bodily orifices. Across the way is the toilet on which the artist sat and shat as he ate and puked up a copy of The Wall Street Journal a decade ago. The commode sits atop a 20-foot-tall shrine—a true throne—to the historic performance piece. Perhaps the show’s most audacious piece (which is saying something) is a gigantic multimedia monster slathered with peanut butter, an upturned banana its penis, spewing forth children’s toys covered in assorted condiments.
What is the monster, whom do the toys represent, and for that matter, just what do hot dogs, mayonnaise, and Wild Irish Rose have to do with poverty and the black experience? You will have to supply your own answer. In an artistic milieu in which conceptual artists routinely subject gallery-goers to abstruse solipsism, Pope.L is that rare creature who goes for broke, testing the line between art and garbage, quite literally. Bless him for that. This art is in your face, in your nose, and in your nightmares -- and if it doesn’t turn you into a conceptualist, well, at least it’ll turn you into a vegetarian. 219 NW 12th Ave., 242-1419. Closes July 26. RICHARD SPEER
PORTLAND ART MUSEUM
Only Nixon could go to China, and only the Portland Art Museum could go to Paris and back, hoping to pass off a stale post-mortem of a 20-year-old installation as the height of new-millennial relevance. Christo and Jeanne-Claude: The Pont Neuf Wrapped, Paris, 1975-85 is quaint in its look at what used to be considered avant-garde but far from quaint in its scale. You walk into PAM’s two-story entrance gallery, behold the impressive scale model and large-format photographs that make up the exhibit, and are compelled to tip your hat to the team that pulled off such an audacious stunt. Then you realize there’s more. Much more. Too much more. The exhibit continues beyond the soaring foyer, deep into the Mary Beth Collins Gallery, documenting with accumulationist tedium the project’s every stage: endless sketches and conceptual drawings, correspondence between bureaucrats about the minutiae of the installation, rope and cables the installers used to wrap the bridge, and on and on. You wonder why they left out the escargot shells and cigarette butts from the premiere party. E-neuf already! Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s running gimmick—wrapping Reichtags, islands, fountains, and the like—has two elements that any great artist should deploy: monumental ambition and an instantly recognizable style. Good for them—they shook up our idea of what constitutes art. Alan Watts said, “When you get the message, hang up the phone.” The art world got Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s message years ago. Finis already -- and that’s a wrap. 1219 SW Park Ave., 226-2811. $6-$15. Closes Jan. 2. RICHARD SPEER
Chinese-born artist Weihong combines computer graphics, Eastern philosophy, and an ancient tea ceremony in her interactive photography installation at Ogle. In 255-0+Tea, Weihong riffs on the RGB color spectrum used in computer monitors, in which zero represents black and 255 white, with all the hues of the rainbow falling in between. She sees a connection between this black/white division and the black-and-white yin/yang symbol long associated with ancient Chinese metaphysics. Building on this connection, the artist has created a stage set with one backdrop white, the other black. Since 2002, in cities as diverse as Milan, New York City, Houston, and Dali, China, she has invited gallery-goers into this installation, serving them Taiwanese tea from black-and-white cups and sesame crackers off a black-and-white platter upon a black-and-white table. There’s a theme going on here, get it? During the course of sipping and chatting, she engages guests in an ongoing discussion about the nature of balance and equanimity. Before the guests depart, Weihong photographs each one, later posting the photos on her website, www.weihong.org, and hanging prints in future shows. Luminaries such as Giorgio Armani have sat with the artist, as have hundreds of people whose names aren’t famous but who, the artist says, are every bit as fascinating. These photos, many of which line Ogle’s walls, are well-executed, awash in natural light and capturing the personalities of each subject with a thoughtfulness that only portraiture can convey.
Weihong is quick to correct the misimpressions of hopelessly Western-minded tea-drinkers like myself. “I like the whole opposition-of-dichotomies thing,” I told her on opening night. “It’s not about extremes,” she said, raising her finger, “it’s about the change that happens in between.” Duly noted. In today’s polarized political climate, we would do well to take this distinction to heart. French philosopher Jean Baudrillard foresaw our times in his 1983 Fatal Strategies: “The world is not dialectical,” he wrote, “it is sworn to extremes, sworn not to equilibrium but to radical antagonism.” Weihong has devised a deceptively simple interactive experience to remind us of the expansive middle ground in which the real marrow of life resides. Synthesis lies between thesis and antithesis—which is why the medium is happy, the Mean Golden, and compromise an art. RICHARD SPEER. Weihong invites you to join her for tea at Ogle between 4 and 6pm, Tuesday through Saturday, until the show ends Feb. 24. 310 NW Broadway, 227-4333.
Like a conquering hero, Terrence La Noue returns to Butters with exuberant oil paintings that eschew frames. The irregular canvases, hung like tapestries, look like ink blots from a fountain pen filled with liquid L.S.D... La Noue lives in New York and the desert Southwest, but his colors are pure Miami. He does things with lime green and pink that could probably get a man arrested in Klamath Falls. Ripping up his old paintings, plastering the rags atop new canvases, and tweaking the works for years until he puts them on the market, La Noue is taking abstraction in directions that do even his most illustrious predecessors proud. Without a doubt, this is the best abstract show of the year thus far. 520 NW Davis St., 2nd floor, 248-9378. Closes Sept. 28. RICHARD SPEER
MARK WOOLLEY GALLERY
No doubt, there’s something precious about an elephant that paints, something Disney-esque and gimmicky that will make connoisseurs sniff down their monocles. The idea that a trained pachyderm can create passable action paintings will also provide plenty of ammunition for abstract-art haters. Can’t you hear them already? “Not only can my first grader make art that looks like Jackson Pollock, a dumb beast can do better!” Finally, all the struggling artists who’ve submitted their portfolios to the Mark Woolley Gallery and been rejected will know that, while they shiver away, unrepresented, in the garret, a fucking elephant is landing one-man shows. But Woolley is resolute. He’s showing paintings by Rama, a 21-year-old Asian elephant and son of the famous Packy, because he can—and because half the proceeds benefit the Oregon Zoo, where Rama lives. Zoo trainer Jeb Barsh, a plucky if not obnoxious fellow, fills Rama’s trunk with non-toxic tempera paints, then commands the elephant, “Blow!” Like a massive, multi-colored sneeze, the paint blasts onto the canvas, as through a pressure sprayer. Then Rama grabs a brush with the end of his trunk and bobs his head up and down, applying random strokes and, by all appearances, having a jolly good time. The end effect is rather like Abstract Expressionism. Unfortunately, the works are limited by the aesthetic choices of Trainer Jeb, who has a lamentable preference for ’80s-era oranges, lilacs, and cherry reds. Ultimately, it’s the trainer who’s responsible not only for the works’ palette, but also their composition and the important question of when to call the big lug off and proclaim the work finished. Sometimes Barsh’s judgment is sound, other times poor. Still, all things considered, the elephant could actually teach us art scenesters a thing or two. To wit, can Rama paint more energetically than Michelle Ross? Yes. Does he have more personality than Laura Russo, more fiscal responsibility than Tracy Savage, more optimism than Randy Gragg, more romanticism than Stuart Horodner, more of an eye than Bruce Guenther, and more humor than the combined staff of The Organ? Yes. Are his works worth their $200 to $2,500 pricetags? No. Finally, are Rama’s efforts only a gimmick? Yes, but so were Warhol’s pissed-on Oxidation paintings and the entire career of Matthew Barney to date. All together now, “Blow!” 120 NW 9th Ave., Suite 210, 224-5475. Works available through December. RICHARD SPEER
PORTLAND ART MUSEUM
Recipe for a reverie: Take one statuesque redhead, dress her in velvets and brocade, and sit her down upon a silk-draped fainting couch beneath jewel-encrusted censers. Ask her to part her heart-shaped lips ever so slightly, then give her a mirror, book, or mother-of-pearl comb to hold vacantly as she luxuriates, swoons, or stretches. Paint her thusly, then title the painting to evoke Greek mythology or Arthurian legend. Voilà! You have just created a Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece. Portland Art Museum’s Waking Dreams: The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites reminds us how quickly yesterday’s revolutionary zeal can become today’s reactionary corn. In the mid- to late 19th Century, members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood aimed to overturn the staid Royal Academy with their vibrantly colored voluptuaries, which, they believed, hearkened back to an idyllic artistic age just before the height of the Renaissance, hence the brotherhood’s name. These fellows were Romantics, to be sure: They illustrated volumes for the likes of Byron and Tennyson and conducted their lives with flair and drama. Take Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who in 1860 married his model and muse, Elizabeth Sidall. When she abruptly died only two years later, he, in a fit of High Romantic melancholia, buried with her the only copy of his unpublished poetry manuscript. Eight years later he exumed her body to recover the poems and publish them. You can get away with this sort of thing if you’re a Romantic.
PAM’s exhibit presents some of the Pre-Raphaelites’ best-known works: William Holman Hunt’s Isabella and the Pot of Basil, with its barefooted siren in a gauzy tunic; Rossetti’s orgiastic Hesterna Rosa and the ivory-skinned icons, Veronica Veronese and Lady Lilith. Frederick Sandy subtly departs from Rossetti’s formulaic Amazonians; his rosy-cheeked Mary Magdalene has a refreshingly contemporary face, rendered with a more realistic technique than that of Rossetti, whose style can veer into the cartoonish. George Wilson’s The Spring Witch portrays Persephone’s vernal emergence from Hades, her mouth agape, body encircled by flowing fabric. It’s one of the show’s most haunting images. Ultimately, for all their tempestuous temperaments and radical designs, the Pre-Raphaelites lacked the courage of their convictions. Formally, the work is an apotheosis of the static: opiated models lounging about heavily in invariant light and ponderous compositions that lack any pretense of dynamism. By blissfully ignoring the contrapposto and light-games of the Renaissance and Baroque, these Victorian gents consigned themselves to a stagnant pool that dried up after a brief spritzing by Art Nouveau and, later, Maxfield Parrish. Combing one’s strawberry tresses and gazing into mirrors while pretending to be Daphne or Guinevere wears thin after a spot. Thanks be to the gods that modernism came along to shake off the torpor. RICHARD SPEER
Never has projectile vomiting been so immaculate. Photographer Brodie Large, director of Everett Station’s newish Residence Gallery, turns the space this month into his own Pop-ish vomitorium. His series of twenty photos, in an installation four prints tall by five wide, riffs on a Warholian repetition of the mundane—namely, a brand of boldly colored upchucking that achieves Portland’s oddest juxtaposition of elegance and, well, just plain yuckiness in ages. If Matthew Barney were to direct a show on Nickelodian, it would look something like this.
Large’s models apply white greasepaint and bright lipstick, then fill their mouths with milk that’s been dyed blue, pink, green, red, and canary yellow with food coloring. The models bend over and spit the foul stuff out as Large, also bent over, captures the expulsion. Because of the position both the models and photographer are in, it appears in the finished images as if the liquids are bursting out horizontally, in defiance of gravity, although the fluids’ contours suggest otherwise. This is a delightfully disconcerting effect, which Large modestly claims is nothing more than “a formal color study.” Indeed, even taken on purely formal terms, the works have formidable presence. Depending on when Large clicks his shutter, he captures the spewage in manifold patterns. His impeccable lighting imparts a Rosenquistian glint reminiscent of airbrushing, yet no such tool was used during processing. Finally, the sharp focus of the face, played against the sometimes fuzzy focus of the liquid, creates a visually perplexing contrast.
These works are as thematically murky as they are pictorially pristine. What, if anything, is the artist trying to say here? It’s open season on interpretation: the logorrhea of political spin, the soul manifesting itself through language, the futility of interpersonal communication? Have at it—what’s your favorite metaphor for hot-pink goo bursting from somebody’s mouth? Then again, why ask why? In their variations on a simple compositional and chromatic theme, the photos are better experienced than deconstructed. When an artist today proves he can do something interesting, shocking even, with a minimum of simple elements, it proves that reductivism, from Malevich to Maya Lin to Philip Glass and beyond, still has something to say. Making a lot from a little, Large is onto something big. 625 NW Everett St., #106, 971-404-0360. Closes Nov. 28. RICHARD SPEER
Gallop, don’t trot, to Motel Gallery to see two of the most knee-weakening paintings to hit Stumptown since Tim Bavington’s show at Pulliam Deffenbaugh four years ago. 28-year-old Omar Chacon, who studied at the San Francisco Art Institute and now lives in Brooklyn, has two acrylic paintings in the entryway that divides Motel’s two galleries, and they will floor you, provided you are the type to be floored by such things—and not everyone is. “Derivative,” some will say. “Decorative,” some will sniff. “Eye candy,” some will harrumph. Pay them no heed. Anyone who cannot appreciate these concentric rhapsodies should be straightjacketed and forced, Clockwork Orange-style, to sit with their eyes wired open and look at these paintings while Sammy Davis, Jr., croons “The Candy Man” over the loudspeaker, until they see the light. Born in Bogota, Columbia, Chacon conjures starbursts of South American color, overlapping them until they become feverish psychedelic dreams. The larger of the two paintings is called Variation no. 2 on variation no. 1 on venezuelan globular cluster. Only a painting this good could get away with a title this bad. 9 NW 5th Avenue, Suite C, 222.6699. Closes July 1. RICHARD SPEER
David Geiser’s paintings luxuriate in chromatic and surface excess, which is to say, they exploit to the fullest degree the qualities oil paint affords—which is saying a lot. If you are interested in what contemporary abstraction can be at its messy, monomaniacal zenith, do not miss this show. David Geiser is the real deal, and his newest work is among the most engaging of his career. With its rhapsodies of varnish-puckered oils, its organic forms sprawling and crawling across the canvas, its shimmering gold leaf and chalky paint residue on crinkled paper, Geiser’s state-of-the-art will engage not only your eyes, but your eye’s fingers. As a colorist, the New York artist, with his predilection for cobalt, may be the heir to Yves Klein. A series of long, thin pieces in what the artist terms “ecumenical blues” extends across an endless gallery wall in a Prairie-style hymn to horizontalism, like sideways monoliths drifting forever outward with the very universe. It’s the most stunning hanging the Northwest has seen this year, and if it doesn’t make your knees weak, you are clinically dead. 520 NW Davis St., 248-9378. Closes Sept. 27.
PORTLAND INSTITUTE FOR CONTEMPORARY ART Tony Tasset’s Works, 1993-2003, could be subtitled: A Postmodernist Gets Mushy. The Chicago multimedia artist, at his oeuvre’s dead end a decade ago, had no choice but to trudge onward to new ground—which, tellingly, turned out to be the tired, old ground of bourgeois values. PICA’s visual arts curator, Stuart Horodner, observes that during the time span encompassed by this show, Tasset’s work became “less ironic and more intimate and poetic.” At the smirky beginning of this metamorphosis, the artist presents himself in a photographic self-portrait called I Peed my Pants. He folds his arms in smug self-congratulation and stares down the camera—all Robert Conrad, I-dare-you bravado—but the wet trail trickling down his khakis undermines the pose. Alas, he is not in control after all—the folly of human vanity! But now enter the more mature Tasset, no longer enfant terrible out to annihilate our collective pretensions, but a mid-career artist with a wife, kid, and gut. He responds to his newfound domesticity by mining it for whatever pearls it might yield: a film of himself shaving, brushing his teeth, and eating a hamburger; another film of his family eating breakfast; a video loop of himself as he loses 30 pounds. Elsewhere he struggles to wrench himself out of the conceptualist trench through heroic craftsmanship, sculpting a hyper-realistic snowman out of foam and plaster, its coal eyes and carrot nose out of steel and wax. With similar materials he painstakingly reproduces the cherry tree in his back yard. Finally, he photographs people and things he loves: his parents, his young son’s eye, his garden. The work, we infer, aims to explore the fleeting moment: aging parents who in a decade may be dead, a growing boy who in a month will no longer look quite so achingly angelic, a bush in bloom that by week’s end will be green and flowerless. Isn’t it interesting that an artist and a movement so convinced of human foibles and the universe’s meaninglessness would yield so easily to maudlin sentiment? This is postmodernism’s dirty little secret: stripped bare, it beats with a heart that is not radical, but reactionary. 219 NW 12th Ave., 242-1419. Closes April 19. RICHARD SPEER
Joe Mus lives half the year in Portland and the other half in Guilin, China, a sweltering, crowded city in the country’s south. Water stains, mildew, and mold cover the walls of his studio in a seedy highrise. Like New Orleans, Savannah, and Key West in this country, Guilin has the whiff of rot about it, a physical decay that leads to the peculiar brand of psychic decadence that can feed an artist or writer—or destroy him. Mus, a peripatetic twentysomething with a mane of sandy brown hair, admits he gives himself over to “distractions and obsessions” in the sultry metropolis, and one such obsession are the exquisite watercolors that mirror in microcosm his symbiotic relationship with Southern Chinese climate and culture. He paints with Guohua watercolors, making gestural swipes of pigment on rice paper, then leaving the works to dry—except that they don’t dry in the hothouse environment, not quickly, at least; they molder along with everything else, the colors bleeding into one another, branching out in tendrils that encroach, lichen-like, into adjoining rivulets of paint. Mus plays a duet with nature in a fashion recalling, but more literal than, David Geiser’s conception of the canvas as petri dish. The watercolors that emerge from what the artist calls this “fog of flowing dreams” have a marbled appearance, shot through with delicate veins. The works on display at Gallery 7126, a Masonic Lodge-cum-gallery in Sellwood, are smaller in scale than Mus’ large-form explorations at the Alberta Arts Pavillion in March but are equally well executed. Consummately satisfying visually, with a motion and energy from their organic seep and sweep, they glow with a color palette that’s vibrant but not garish: velvety reds, blacks, and deep purples, cobalts, oranges, and chartreuse. Although abstract, they sometimes suggest recognizable shapes; a form in one piece looks rather like a salamander, or perhaps a Chinese dragon trooped out for the New Year. The elegance of the watercolors’ presentation, hanging vertically on calligraphy scrolls of white and mint silk jacquard, belies their genesis in a seedy tenement house and speaks to the comingling of artifice and nature, sacred and profane. Mus has found a way to indulge his highest and basest callings within the bosom of seething decay. 7126 SE Milwaukie Ave., 238-7126. Closes Sept. 17. RICHARD SPEER
Truth be told, the throngs who attended this year’s Burning Man—among them thousands of Oregonians—may have been more interested in the drugs, random acts of hedonism, and groovy tribal vibe than the art. And that’s okay. After all, this week-long, hippy-meets-raver festival, held August 25-September 1 in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, is quite possibly the world’s most fabulous party. Despite this (or perhaps because of it), Burning Man has grown into the Do It Yourself art community’s most expansive petri dish: a vast, open playa upon which nearly 200 artists erected sculptures, structures, and installations that spanned the spectrum in theme and quality. It was PCAC’s Modern Zoo on steroids and with sand in its hair, braying the same wakeup call at art-world reactionaries. Even as holdouts such as PAM’s Bruce Guenther argue for ever more tightly curated (read “homogeneous”) shows, a new crop of D.I.Y.’ers is making the case for loose or self-curation, handing the responsibility for critical discernment over to the people actually viewing the art. The downside of this—that some of Burning Man’s art was the kind of crafty crap you see at Renaissance fairs—counterweights the upside—that a polar percentage could well have shown at SITE Santa Fe or the Henry in Seattle. About an even half of the works were conceptual pieces heavy on irony or whimsy: Chris Neary’s Pop-influenced 8-by-10-foot double cheeseburger and inverted Golden Arches, a fast-food commentary after Eric Schlosser; the voyeuristic Confessional Peepshow by San Diego artist John Cid; and Phone Booth to God by California arts group OBOP. The other half were more romantic in tone. Amy Stabler’s Arc of Reflection, a 20-foot-tall arc of mirrors, created what the artist termed “a shimmering waterfall of light.” Todd Dworman’s enormous interactive labyrinth glowed with electroluminescent wire, while David Best’s onion-domed Temple of Honor burned to the ground as the festival’s last-night hurrah. Portland’s March Forth ¾ Marching Band led a procession called the Satyrs’ Bacchanal, while Therm, a Bay Area arts collective, created the festival’s most dramatic sculpture, ThermoKraken, a fierce, abstracted god that hissed and spat fire. The mise-en-scène at Burning Man, especially by night, was itself a kinesthetic collage that might have been choreographed by Matthew Barney and casted by Federico Fellini, with bizarrely dressed and undressed creatures zipping by in glowing Jetson-mobiles, megaphoning cryptic jibberjabber at the crowd while hurtling between funkadelic pleasure domes and taverns measureless to man. Whether the art at Burning Man, from the audacious to the awful, serves ultimately as background or focal point for this glowlighted trip-in, it points toward a more democratic era for emerging artists and a more demanding one for art lovers. As such, it’s far more than the wave of the future; it’s the very pulse of the present. For information on contributing art projects to next year’s festival, visit www.BurningMan.com. RICHARD SPEER
MARK WOOLLEY GALLERY
Rarely does art that so enraptures the senses so fully engage the intellect. Julia A. Fenton considers herself a conceptual artist, but her riotous sculptures are about as far as one can get from the arid, often text-based deconstructions that have given conceptual art its tedious rap. The Toledo, Oregon, sculptor careens over the top with her feathers, polished steel, mirrors, and asphalt in outlandish combinations that would be remarkable even if they were nothing but eye candy. But no, Fenton, who founded Art Papers magazine in 1978, is a serious feminist thinker who uses these perverse objects to explore gender, sexuality, and the politics thereof. A large, untitled sculpture in the current show rises from a coiled rope and steel column to a copper tray full of yellow powder and a crown of wool and glass shards. Fenton is riffing on female stereotypes with materials ranging from cuddly to unyielding to outright dangerous. A piece called Egg is pregnant with metaphor, literally: a pink box dripping with honeybeeswax, appointed with real pubic hair and menstrual blood. Inside the box, sperm-like stickpins assail an oval form. A baby doll emerges from the top of the box, fish hooks and Virgin Mary icons from the bottom. The show’s pièce de résistance is a great, double-ended orifice, pink on the inside, earth-toned on the outside, ringed with inviting feathers on one end, spewing black goo on the other. At its most fundamental, this is a garish, sensual installation piece that commands its space without need of explanation; one step up and it’s an eviscerated organ yanked from a neo-Surrealist nightmare; higher still and it’s a commentary on the attraction/repulsion dynamic with which the female body has long been saddled. “I try to comment without being too didactic,” Fenton tells me at the show’s First Thursday opening, as parents restrain their kids from crawling inside the yawning, feathery hole. Indeed, the work speaks for itself—and sometimes screams—on many levels. Fenton is an important artist and a provocateur of high order, and she has much to say. 120 NW 9th Ave., #210, 224-5475. Closes April 26. RICHARD SPEER
Patrick Finney’s silkscreens peel back the flimsy veils of propriety and unmask the seething id beneath. His is a world haunted by unspeakable desires, barely repressed and boiling over in the sweat-beaded brows of pedophiles, cruisers, and voyeurs. Formerly a commercial and comic book artist, Finney says he now aims to portray the “fiendish sexual addictions” of American men by illustrating “the political and social dichotomies in a toxic, industrial, and institutionalized world.” He has accomplished this—and more—through a sophisticated if unsubtle brand of satire, perfectly suited to Gallery Bink’s proudly “lowbrow” aesthetic. In Lunch in the City, Finney depicts a man feasting on a woman’s sex in the front seat of a car parked in the middle of town, a businessman nearby leering at them as salaciously he tongues mustard off a corndog. A Bridged Traffic Violation shows a woman fellating a cop to get out of a speeding ticket. Boy Scout Appreciation Day shows men, among them a priest, salivating over a Cub who’s relieving himself at a urinal. And Two Priests and a Boy in the Garden of Eden portrays a youth’s impending rape by two clergymen, one of whom spreads the lad’s buttcheeks while the other positions himself for rear entry. The boy’s face registers fear, but his exposed penis is turgid, an example of Finney’s compellingly ambiguous stance as a satirist. Like Su-en Wong’s nude self-portraits (at Savage Gallery through Feb. 22), Finney’s silkscreens look with two faces upon matters carnal. It’s difficult to tell whether his take is homophobic or homoerotic, whether he condemns or empathizes with the men he portrays. Certainly he imbues these scenes with a creepiness that will make some people uncomfortable; certainly he puts Catholicism in the crosshairs with an abandon not seen in this town since last summer, when punk painter Sydney Blue created a stir with her Junkie Jesus. But Finney also takes evident relish in his vulgar vignettes, with their Tom-of-Finland-flavored phallocentrism, S/M overtones, and fever-pitch lust on the cusp of explosion, the hallmark of a Zeitgeist that favors titillation over honest sexual expression. In turn, the artist demagnetizes our moral compass by appealing to our inner dirty-old-man while also appealing to our indignation—arousing us even as he arouses our disgust. 1416 E. Burnside St., 233-8866. Closes Feb. 28. RICHARD SPEER
Sometimes it’s fun to play it both ways. Su-en Wong certainly thinks so. In her artist statement, she confesses that she is intrigued by “the ambiguous nature” of life’s transitions and “the conflicting context of power and vulnerability within my life as a young Asian woman.” With her provocative suite of nearly photorealistic self-portraits, Wong both indulges in and deconstructs the male gaze, Asian stereotypes, and the precarious bridge between childhood and adulthood. She casts herself as a stripper, peep-show performer, Catholic schoolgirl, Siamese twins, lily pond gnome, and sex kitten reclining on a tiger-skin rug. If these works had been painted by a 65-year-old white man, we would probably dismiss them as well-executed cheese at best, pervy misogyny at worst. But because Wong is her own subject, we read them as socio-political self-analysis in oils. The artist gets away with these campily sexy images because her technique is as strong as her message, but also because she plays along as she protests. What Revolutionary soldiers did with “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” what gay activists have done with “queer” and rappers with “nigga,” Wong has accomplished with the “Me-so-horny” stereotype of Asian women as viewed by leering Western men: She has defanged an epithet by appropriating and redefining it in her own enlightened vocabulary. Clearly, this artist, in her second go-round at Savage, is on a mission both solipsistic and universal, working through issues on her own timetable as she develops her motives as a painter and thinker. Perhaps Wong succeeds where others have failed precisely because she embraces, rather than shirks from, her ambiguities, giving voice to the don’t-limit-or-label-me eclecticism of our age. Wong wants to be both an individual and an archetype, blushing schoolgirl and femme fatale, a self-sufficient Western woman with an undercurrent of old-school Asian allure. And who the hell are we to tell her she can’t have it all? 416 NW 10th Ave., 223-2862. Closes Feb. 22.
Local painter Jacqueline Ehlis may have left Las Vegas, but Las Vegas hasn’t left her. The artist, who studied at UNLV under teacher/critic Dave Hickey, includes such titles as Glitter, Pirate, and Mirage in her new show, 90 MPH. Like their namesakes, these audacious abstracts have glamor to burn. With their glossy surfaces, take-no-prisoners oranges, and Kermit-the-Frog greens, these paintings don’t just glow with color; they look as if they could glow in the dark. Ehlis coats one canvas’ beveled edge with neon automotive paint. Another piece with a wry Vegas title, Escort, is so murderously red, it looks like it was fingerpainted with blood. Behind the bombast, the artist maintains technical control, balancing disparate compositional elements with ease. You see it in the way she offsets bold lines with amoeba-like floaters, planes of color with empty space. Having clearly mastered the formalities, Ehlis has moved on to the festivities. Also at Savage, Michelle Ross presents recent works that pose the question: How many media can an artist use on a single canvas? Ross starts with planes of birch, then appoints them with velvet, carpet, faux fur, wallpaper, yarn, felt, leaves... She sticks a messy handful of yarn atop a mound of oil paint, producing an effect reminiscent of pubic hair. She scribbles haphazardly with a pencil in one corner, paints perfect cubes in mustard and turquoise in another. She drips, she distresses, she dollops. While there’s a thoroughness to these variations on a theme, the collective effect is more effortful than virtuosic. 416 NW 10th Ave., 223-2868. Closes August 31. RICHARD SPEER
Like Jimmy Dean and Jimi Hendrix, Haze Gallery burned brightly but briefly. It lived fast, and on October 29, it will die young, half a month short of its first birthday. Thanks to the brilliant Chandra Bocci, the gallery goes out with a bang rather than the whimper with which, in recent months, it had seemed destined to perish. Bocci’s installation, Bubble Speak, is a lyrical rhapsody on childhood lost and regained, fashioned from the kind of eccentric materials she loves to deploy: fluffy, fiberfill-stuffed clouds; flowers with petals cut from fabric-softener sheets, sprouting from a turf of green faux fur; 1,200 feet of multi-colored Otter-Pops strung together in an enormous rainbow, arcing through the gallery and looping back upon itself; and a yellow brick road made of 8,000 fast-food mustard packets, meandering through the space and terminating behind the bar in a spotlit circle of My Little Ponies and toy unicorns. That this stunt comes off as quasi-Freudian regression therapy and not as an exercise in preciousness is a testament to the artist’s sincerity and virtuosity as a gestural abstractionist, using the Otter-Pops to paint broad swaths of color in the air. Arts writer Jeff Jahn has suggested that because Bocci’s installation work is not as imminently saleable as more traditional media, she is doomed to exist at the noblesse oblige of grants and institutional shows. I disagree and believe her ultimate calling may be as a designer along the lines of Verner Panton, whose fanciful, wholistic environments helped define the shagadelic 1960s and ’70s. If a company like, say, Disney were to snatch Bocci up as a designer, she could parlay her pop sensibility into commercial projects while keeping a foot in the fine-art arena. If Julie Taymor can juggle The Lion King and The Magic Flute, anything’s possible. (6635 N Baltimore Ave., Suite 211, 283-6863. Closes Oct. 29.)
Bocci’s triumph crowns the phenomenon that was Haze, the product of the inspiration and perspiration of co-founders Randy Calvert, Leah Emkin, and Jack Shimko. From the get-go, Shimko as lead curator demonstrated a strong eye and a gift for generating buzz, which drew extravagant crowds to the gallery’s god-forsaken St. Johns location early in its run. Knockout shows like The Battle of the Artist Curators, the audio-visual Counterpoint, and Lindsay Bowdoin Key’s American Farm established instant credibility, but the gallery lost steam early this summer when Shimko divulged that, come November, he would ditch the gallery and Portland to take a curatorial assistant position in L.A. A lame duck, he seemed unable or unwilling to summon his erstwhile promotional mojo, and the once prodigious opening- and closing-night crowds dwindled to an embarrassing trickle. Now Shimko, sans Calvert and Emkin, is vowing to open a new gallery, Haze², next March and run it as an absentee curator, jetting in from L.A. for openings, local roots be damned. He claims Haze² will set up shop at the corner of NW 19th Ave. and Quimby St., although he has yet to sign a lease for the space. These vague plans notwithstanding, Haze’s sexy but short-lived run as one of Portland’s reigning “it” galleries ended months ago and has already begun its fade into the haze of halcyon memory. RICHARD SPEER
The Flash text that opens the sculptor’s homepage reads like a movie trailer: “In a world of art incomprehensible to many, Martin Eichinger creates art that is human...” Which is true. The figurative artist sculpts as if he were the direct heir to Canova and Carpeaux. Which perhaps he is. Eichinger dares portray men and women in idealized form: streamlined, stylized, heroic. This is terribly unfashionable, of course, and polarizes gallery-goers into those who consider the work kitsch and those who hail it as Romanticism reborn. It would be easy to paint Eichinger as a hopeless reactionary—if only his command of anatomy were not flawless, if only his sculptures did not command space with such authority or awaken within us some remnant of reverance for beauty. Consider Fireside Dancer, Eichinger’s channeling of Carpeaux’s Génie de la Danse, which captures a woman in midair, sheer dress billowing as she leaps and twirls. We today are so accustomed to sculpture conveying essence without literal illustration (Brancusi’s Bird in Space the archetypal example) that it seems positively retrograde to convey the motion of dance by showing an actual human being in the act of dancing. But From the Heart surprises us with its decidedly unreactionary male nude, his back arched, head thrown back, eyes closed in ecstasy à la Saint Theresa. This is a refreshing depiction, free from gender stereotypes, of a man in the throes of metaphoric surrender, a man strong enough to swoon. Occasionally, perhaps inevitably, Eichinger veers into cheese, as in Lotus Blossom, with its nymph recumbent in an oyster shell, lily pads at her feet, and Adrenaline Rising, with its turbaned bellydancer riding an ostrich. The sculptor’s preference for subjects impeccably toned, Anglo-Teutonic, and hovering around the age of 25, makes our knees jerk for diversity (Fireside Dancer, it should be noted, appears to be a woman of color). Finally, the artist’s coyly Impressionistic handling of male genitals stands at odds with the figures’ anatomic realism. At the end of the day, there is room at the inn for abstraction and figuration. Eichinger challenges us to step back from our prejudices and admit, if only for a second, that the high drama of his supply posed specimens, with their windswept hair and chiseled faces, holds the power to evoke a nearly forgotten emotion: aspiration. 903 NW Davis St. RICHARD SPEER
With his flowing white hair and beard, longtime photographer Paul Dahlquist has become a Northwest icon. His current show of male nudes at Scandals Other Side Café succeeds and fails precisely to the degree that it alternately rises above and falls into the ghetto of “gay photography.” Some shots seem culled from the repertoire of Playgirl/Blueboy poses: six-packed hunks lying back on the sand, sudsing up in the shower, occasionally gripping their engorged schlongs. Other shots belong in the more austere but equally clichéd company of Tom Bianchi and Herb Ritts, all waxed chests and too-perfect studio lighting. But the best among the photos capture a more universal, less sexually sectarian appeal, trading sterile setups for a verité reminiscent of Will McBride and Larry Clark. The impeccably composed yet spontaneous Bashir shows us an Indian luxuriating in the warm waves off Bombay, his countenance dreamy, ecstatic, human. In Light Dots, ether and matter meet in the play of patterns across a tattooed chest. The kid called Martin regards the lens with a trace of mischief, perhaps wondering what the camera’s eye sees in his. Certainly, there’s something to be said for dick and ass, but at the end of the night, it’s the soul, not the sex, that most deeply penetrates. 1038 SW Stark St., 226-7587. Closes Oct. 5. RICHARD SPEER
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