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WW's new Visual Arts writer, Richard Speer, lays out what he'll be looking for.


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When I was 18, my Baptist grandmother gave me this morsel of advice: "Don't go to college. It will turn you into an atheist." She was wrong--I already was one. Actually, like my erstwhile hero, Oscar Wilde, I worshiped only at the altars of art and beauty. But in one sense my grandmother was right. College did change my spirituality. It opened up the walls of my chosen church.

To explain: I was a teenage aesthete. I spent my adolescence in Europe, where I was more likely to haunt museums than skateboard parks. Frighteningly, I developed a fetish for Fragonard and gilded wood, my artistic development arrested in the rococo. When I returned to the U.S. for college, something dramatic happened. One afternoon as I scoured the library in search of a Watteau biography, I accidentally turned into the abstract-art aisles. Out of curiosity, I pulled down a volume about some fellow named Mondrian. I opened the book, my brain reeled, the world changed.

Something about those primary colors twinkling inside ruthless grids resonated in a place between my sinus cavities and my soul. Strange new mistresses began to beckon. I devoured Matisse's L'escargot and O'Keefe's deliciously gynecological flowers. By the time I turned my tassel, I had traveled from the saccharine excesses of post-Baroque Europe to pristine minimalism and a more global cultural awareness, becoming a walking testament to art's power to shake us out of our ruts.

Now, a few years down the line but still susceptible to slackjaw at the discovery of artistic terra incognita, I find myself surveying the art scene in one of the most defiantly idiosyncratic cities in the United States. I feel in Portland the hair-standing-on-end static of potential energy, on the cusp of kinetic. There's an interplay here, at the intersection of aesthetics and politics, between behemoths like the Portland Art Museum, groundbreaking finessers like the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, gallery doyen(ne)s Leach, Savage, Woolley et al., and a simmering indie scene that occasionally boils over with events like last year's Portland Independent Salon. Still, we need more brio, courage, more artists with something passionate and substantive to say about something. To insert "Portland" into the phrase, "L.A. and San Francisco and...," local artists will need not only to challenge gallery owners and collectors, but to engage the city's wider culture--to jolt the hipsters and somnambulant yuppies from their respective aesthetic comas.

In this quest to up the ante there will be missteps. Nic Walker's pseudo-art deer carcass last March at the Everett Lofts gave ammunition to those who brand contemporary art a slave to sensation over content. The art world in the Northwest and beyond, languishing in a post-pastiche purgatory between populism and elitism, Thomas Kinkade and Michel Foucault, will not be rescued by the likes of Walker's nihilistic venison. What, then, will it take to reassemble the pieces postmodernism deconstructed? Style--an artist's individual style, an idea unfashionable these days in certain circles, is the stamp of his soul. Commitment--I will take flat-out bad art that has a commitment to itself over sorta-kinda-maybe art any day of the week.

Art, like opera and soccer in Europe, should be a blood sport. If artists are to remain vital in this dispassionate era, they must mix their paints with sweat and jism and sign canvases in menstrual blood. Yet, art's Dionysian heritage has receded as the academy and the publicist have advanced. Line, form and color have given way to "Where did she earn her M.F.A.?" When it comes down to it, I am more interested in the painting on the wall than the diplomas. I love art because I am a sensualist. To surrender to painting, sculpture, design--or music, food, romance--is quite simply to revel in experience in all its diversity.

Ah, Diversity. Imagine Portland with more mélange. Picture the radiant love child of Northwest Everett and Northeast Alberta streets, a bourgeois/bohemian baby who grows up and founds a new Factory, where blue rinse meets blue mohawk and the subcultures with which this city is blessed cross-pollinate: hippie, queer, black, Asian--hell, even Greshamite. Is this not what art is all about: integrating dichotomies, rocking people's worlds as Mondrian once rocked mine? I may be an atheist (sorry, Grandma), but that kind of art scene would make a believer out of me.

Originally published on WEDNESDAY, 7/31/2002

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