In case you slept through it, Core Sample was an art happening last October that packed two dozen exhibitions, featuring work by 140 regional artists, into a 10-day festival. Oregonian architecture critic Randy Gragg and Clear Cut Press co-founder Matthew Stadler headed up the festival, hoping to complement the West Coast survey Baja to Vancouver, which had just kicked off at the Seattle Art Museum. Despite ample pre-publicity, Core Sample generated less advance buzz than your average impromptu house party and slugged along in the kind of costive torpor that comes from infinite ambitions and zero pizzazz. In some quarters it became known as "Bore Sample" or "Snore Ample."
Now, nearly a year later, in a kind of delayed tantric ejaculation, 2,500 copies of the event's catalog are splattering the streets, boasting as their calling card an essay by former Whitney Museum curator Lawrence Rinder that Sample organizers have touted with the pride of anglers posing with a 22-pound bass. Alas, now that Rinder has left the Whitney for browner pastures, his essay is more like a nine-pound lake trout.
What the Core Sample catalog does well is establish the festival's good intentions and advance the thesis that interesting art is being made in these here parts. It proves without a shadow of a doubt that Chandra Bocci is the most promising under-30 talent in Portland and that Matthew Picton is hands down the most brilliant multimedia artist working in the Northwest. And it shines the spotlight on a handful of other worthy contenders: Stephanie Speight, whose untitled installation suspended wooden slats in a striking minimalist circle; Lee Krist and Philip Cooper, whose multimedia installations infused M.K. Guth's show Capture and Release with both drama and enigma; first-rate satirist Andrew Dickson; and Paige Saez, who with Rose Wooderson juxtaposed deconstruction and polymorphous perversity in an unlikely medium: the knitted afghan.
The catalog also shows that what Village Voice critic Jerry Saltz calls "termite art--small of scale, made of cheap or flimsy material...and slightly street" has infested Portland with a vengeance. For examples, see Cynthia Lahti's ceramic figurines, Malia Jensen's precious carved-soap sculptures, Harrell Fletcher and Patrick Long's fraudulent attempts at drawing, and the nerdish PowerPoint ramblings of patently untalented "fake professor" Amos Latteier. Also in this category were arts groups Charm Bracelet, who shredded artists' statements and gallery press releases and stuffed them into a vinyl elephant in an ill-defined ode to collectivist nihilism, and Red76, whose tedious reference-room-as-art-project reeked of a mid-'90s earnestness so very, very over.
To a large degree, the catalog essays suffer the same anemia that plagued many of the shows themselves. Many of the essays were penned by the same writers who make local arts broadsheet The Organ such a reliable cure for insomnia. There's a real danger when pulseless post-mods, trying so hard to write in a quasi-academic and above all Writerly fashion, attempt to hold forth on so presumably passionate a phenomenon as art. Witness Mark Hansen speculating that "thematically driven and omnibus geographical art shows are effective ways of delineating contemporary trends and illuminating a regional gestalt, but they rarely shed much light on what the artmakers themselves make of their own milieu," and Camela Raymond admitting that, while Harrell Fletcher's drawings display "no virtuosity, beauty, or even style," they nevertheless expose "the detritus of a failed, ritual attempt to know and empathize with the Other in the very moment of its own failed, self-memorializing ritual."
Astoundingly, it is the nine-pound trout, Rinder, who most pointedly sums up Core Sample's aspirations and limitations. "I found myself," he writes, "gravitating toward individual works while resisting the tendency to understand Portland itself as a coherent culture." Buy the man a cigar for pointing out that no amount of faux-earnest advance P.R. or pompous-prose postmortem can freeze-dry a zeitgeist for the ages. "In the end," he concludes, "the experiences that stay with me are those imparted by particular works of art.... These works have, as far as I can tell, nothing in common."
Edited by Randy Gragg and Matthew Stadler(Clear Cut Press, 416 pages, $16.95)