It's perhaps the most ambitious, large-scale art exhibition of its kind to occur here. Gavin Shettler and Bryan Suereth, co-creators of the Portland Center for the Advancement of Culture, have hit it big with their first major project, The Modern Zoo, which spreads out within an entire warehouse in St. Johns.

Suereth and Shettler didn't imagine anything this gutsy at first. Three months ago, the building's proprietors showed the pair a 6,000-square-foot space as a possible site for PCAC's upcoming projects. What the two found was 6,000 square feet contained within a space close to 240,000 square feet. PCAC told the owners they might like to use half of the warehouse. Instead, the owners donated the whole space to them for three months. Immediately, calls went out to various art kingpins of the Portland scene, from the underground to the establishment alike, and out popped The Modern Zoo.

Implicit in the festival's title is its concept. Suereth and Shettler invited more than 75 Portland artists, gallery owners and curators to develop their own spaces within the confines of the Zoo. Then the two labored 70 hours a week to get the space ready, doing it all for $2,500.

PCAC has no specific aesthetic agenda, which makes parts of The Modern Zoo seem, well, like a zoo. But, as Shettler says, "Neutrality is important to our mission." The project itself is a work in progress, an organism built to grow.

The Modern Zoo as a whole defies formal critique; it simply is what it is. "It's a spectacle," says Suereth. From a strictly curatorial standpoint, the show lacks flow and theme, making it difficult to engage at times. And, of course, some of the work isn't great. But if taken work by work, space by space, the Zoo houses some stunning specimens.

Ahren Lutz's multimedia portraits of death-row inmates with their last meal requests are hauntingly beautiful and excessively brutal. Camille Gerharter's installation, Untitled, Edgar and Me, evokes fear and fearlessness in its depiction of a human form trying to calm a beast...within? Another of the show's strengths is a whirl of hummingbird feeders by Melody Owen, a collision of redundancy and whim. P:ear gallery has a spot, too, and has built a solid exhibition of paintings by local homeless youth.

The show's darling, Northwest Abstraction, curated by Shettler, is an exhibit of the usual suspects, though a breathtakingly gorgeous painting by Patrick Puopolo stands out. Perhaps Steve Macdougall and Chris Rhodes' satellite incarnation of their ongoing project, Ye Olde Lab Shoppe, best illustrates the spirit of the event. The lab's space is half workshop, half work, constantly evolving with new installations, film shorts and retrospective documentation. Macdougall and Rhodes have mapped out their summer with a posted aesthetic "to do" list that includes the building of one giant domino only to knock it over, which seems to serve as a metaphor for The Modern Zoo itself.

Though by no means an exhaustive representation of PDX artists, The Modern Zoo serves as a decent crash course in the state of Portland art and its organizations. It'll be interesting to see how the project evolves. As Suereth says, "We've only just begun." It's nice to see a project that begins by capitalizing on one of Portland artists' greatest resources--guts.

The Modern Zoo

Portland Center for the Advancement of Culture group show.

Cathedral Park Place, 6635 N Baltimore St., 481-7450, . Closes Aug. 31.

Only about one- third of the exhibition is complete. PCAC plans two more major openings as well as many performance- based events to occur throughout the summer.