Despite the recession, poor art sales, and the continued dearth of first-rate collectors, this was an astounding year for the Portland art scene. It was astounding because in the absence of any tangible reason for optimism, the pulse was strong where it counted: quality. It's the darndest thing—like going to your doctor and saying, "I have gangrene on both feet, but I just won a marathon...how is that possible?" And she examines you and says, "I have no idea, but congratulations."
How can objective data explain the energy of Rocksbox, Worksound, Disjecta, and Anka? The string of first-rate shows at Fourteen30? The programming at Fontanelle, SEA Change, Virtuoso Studios, and Milepost 5? Tilt Gallery is no more, but its founders are still mounting kick-ass shows as "Tilt Export." Mark Woolley Gallery is no more, but Woolley is curating freelance shows all over town. Pulliam Gallery has reduced operations but is still hanging in there. Gallery Homeland isn't raking in big bucks, but it's still sending more than half-a-dozen local artists to Berlin as part of a new exchange program. Any town can crow about its cultural milieu when money's flowing like wine, but times like these show what a city's really made of, and by god, Portland's made of solid gold. Here are some of 2009's highlights.
Best show of 2009: Bruce Conkle and Marne Lucas' Warlord Sun King at the Marylhurst Art Gym. With its crystal-hung tanning bed and geode champagne cooler, this synthesis of the pair's "Eco-Baroque" sensibility was serious and absurd at the same time.
Best painting: (tie) Gustavo Ramos Rivera's bold abstractions at Elizabeth Leach, and Mary Henry's transcendental geometries at PDX...Henry died at the age of 96 during the show's run, and there could have been no finer tribute to her career than this exhibition.
Best sculpture: Jesse Durost's Fabrications at Fourteen30, with their allusive architectonic towers, mobiles and wall pieces.
Best mixed media: Tom Cramer's sinuous relief paintings, metal-leaf fantasias and wood burnings at Laura Russo.
Best photography: Liz Obert's wry commentary on technology, Cybernetic Landscapes, at Pushdot.
Best installation: The illusionistic virtuosity of Damien Gilley's Approximate at Gallery Homeland, perfectly complemented by Ethan Rose's soundscapes.
Best work on paper: Anna Fidler's trippy tribute to basketball, The Game, at Disjecta.
Best glass: Mel George's affectionate Reminders at Bullseye.
Best group show: (tie) John Brodie's innovative labor of love, Store for a Month, which showcased 64 artists in a temporary store on Southeast Division Street, and Jhordan Dahl's debonair White Noise at Worksound.
Best museum show: Portland Art Museum's rapturous celebration of the rococo, La Volupté du Goût.
Best local arts blog: While Port (portlandart.net) remains required reading, we give the edge to Lisa Radon's newish Culturephile (portlandmonthlymag.com/blogs/culturephile-portland-arts/) under the auspices of Portland Monthly. With its news blurbs, reviews and Radon's mix of tough love and benevolent engagement, this is a blog with thoughtful content and a generous spirit.
Best artist quote: From 80-year-old photographer Paul Dahlquist, interviewed in WW: "Eye candy is my drug of choice—and I love to O.D.!"