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It Used To Be Better

What went wrong in Portland’s visual arts scene, and what we can do to fix it.

Udders hang from the rafters. They're fake, fashioned from rubber molds, but the long-haired calf grazing in the corner of the gallery is real, and it's pissing on the hay covering the hardwoods. It's Saturday night, April 3, 2004, and New York artist Lindsay Bowdoin Key has transformed North Portland's Haze Gallery into a simulated barnyard for her gonzo exhibitionAmerican Farm.

About 500 people—everyone from curators to Lewis & Clark students attending their first art show—have made the trek up to St. Johns. Some of them are out in the parking garage, tailgating with Gentleman Jack and eight-balls. Most have ventured inside, where a girl acting as docent holds court, outfitted in Daisy Dukes and a plunging checkered blouse. Artist Lindsay Key is circulating, explaining her drawings, paintings and video installation to viewers, some of whom struggle to connect the show's whimsical visuals to its high-minded critique of the meat industry.

American Farm by Lindsay Bowdoin Key at Haze Gallery in 2004.

The cognitive dissonance is heady, as is the energy of a heterogeneous crowd swilling booze and processing big ideas. This was Portland circa 2004, at the crosscurrents of social and aesthetic synergy. It was fucking electric. Above the wafting scent of fresh hay and cow piss, you could almost smell the rocket fuel of an art scene flying fast and high, burning bright, very close to flaming out.

That was 11 years ago, almost to the day, yet the memory is fresh and even more poignant as I step down from my perch at WW to concentrate on three book projects. (I'll still be covering Portland shows for ARTnews and other national publications.) It's been a wild run. For 13 years, I've galloped through 146 First Thursdays and more than 3,120 exhibitions. I covered the Portland presence at Burning Man and Art Basel Miami Beach, and chronicled our art community's trajectory during a period when Portland's national profile rose precipitously. As I sign off, I'm sharing an old-timer's perspective on how our visual-arts culture has devolved since I began in 2002 and what we need to do to get back on the right track.

First, the bad news. The Portland art scene is blander, more commercial, less experimental, and just plain less exciting than it was in 2002. Yes, there's a chance this could just be the hindsight of a no-longer-dewy critic looking backward through rose-tinted glasses. But I don't think so. I believe that the gentrification and Portlandia-fication of this town has seeped into our art scene. The same forces that closed Slabtown and Magic Garden and have driven up housing prices have created an aesthetic climate that panders to recent transplants who have lots of money and deficient taste. We see many Pearl District condos and fresh apartment buildings in Southeast filled with white walls that are either bare or hung with posters instead of original work by Portland artists.

In my first column for this newspaper ("A Critical Eye," WW, July 31, 2002), I said that "to jolt the hipsters and somnambulant yuppies from their respective aesthetic comas," we needed to cross-pollinate the First and Last Thursday scenes and spawn "the radiant love child of Northwest Everett and Northeast Alberta streets." Little did we suspect that Alberta would essentially become Everett, replete with tony wine bars and shops for artisanal esoterica.

To give you a sense of how juiced up the art scene was in the early aughts compared to now, consider the year 2003. In April of that year, Mark Woolley Gallery put on what I still consider the best exhibition I've seen in the Northwest, Julia Fenton's Devices and Desires, a virtuosic exploration of gender and sexuality. Fenton used pink feathers, polished steel, mirrors, asphalt, pubic hair and menstrual blood to create ravishing sculptures that simultaneously delighted and repulsed.

Untitled by Julia Fenton from the show Devices and Desires at Mark Woolley Gallery in 2003.

That summer, art impresarios Gavin Shettler and Bryan Suereth hatched the Modern Zoo, a bone-shattering knockout of a group exhibition that continues to set the standard for sheer curatorial cojones. With a bold but strategic lack of restraint, they invited more than 100 local artists to fill more than 100,000 square feet in the old Columbia Sportswear factory in St. Johns with every manner and media of artwork. It was a glut, a vomitorium, an expansively sloppy phantasmagoria. The spirit was best summed up by a sculpture installed by Chandra Bocci: Gummy Big Bang, a sunburst of gummy bears that perfectly captured the explosive creativity gripping Portland.

Gummy Big Bang by Chandra Bocci at the Modern Zoo in 2003.

That September, the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art held its first-ever Time-Based Art Festival. 'Nuff said.

The following month, writers Matthew Stadler and Randy Gragg staged a series of 30 exhibitions all over town, collectively titled Core Sample. Unimpressed, I dubbed it "Snore Ample…one of the most important art extravaganzas ever to anesthetize Portland." In hindsight, I realized it had been much better than I gave it credit for at the time.

The very next month, Haze Gallery opened in St. Johns and immediately became the "it" gallery of the moment. Founded by artists Jack Shimko and Leah Emkin and businessman Randy Calvert, Haze mounted ambitious, often outrageous shows such as the aforementionedAmerican Farm.

Haze also had a hedonistic scene. At one opening, VIP room guests were served pre-rolled doobies on silver platters. One big reason Haze had such an electric charge was Shimko's rivalry with his frenemy and fellow art impresario, Justin Oswald, founder of the now-legendary Gallery 500, which was on the fifth floor of the Bullier Building downtown. For an entire year, Shimko and Oswald spurred one another on like Lennon and McCartney. Both galleries brought together first-rate exhibitions, youthful energy, and a mise en scène reminiscent of Andy Warhol's Factory.

At Gallery 500, Suicide Girls staffed a kissing booth one month, while revelers streamed into Oswald's disco ball-appointed bedroom for conversation and cocaine, not necessarily in that order. A memorable art show featured New York artist Pinar Yolacan's photographs of septuagenarian women dressed in garments made out of chicken skin, lamb and beef—one of those photos appears on the cover of this week's issue. The energy created by Haze and Gallery 500's competition between 2003 and 2004 hasn't been matched since.

Finally, in November 2003, the gender-queer duo known as 2Gyrlz Performative Arts held its annual Enteractive Language Festival, a series of happenings in visual and performance art. In an enduringly horrifying event called "Porno-Social Ritual," gonzo French provocateur Jean-Louis Costes stripped naked, drank his own pee, ritually cut a female performer's labia, and flung feces into the audience. I literally ran out of the venue to escape the flying shit.

That was 2003: unruly, intense, unforgettable. It seems unimaginable today that so many groundbreaking exhibitions could have happened in a single year. That's not to say the years that followed were lame. But as Portland-praising feature stories started popping up in The New York Times and elsewhere, the domino effect of new arrivals, the building boom to house them, and climbing rents gradually blunted the remnants of the city's countercultural edge, which thrived on cheap space and a culture that rewarded the outlandish. Experimental artwork grew increasingly marginalized, and the work you saw in galleries began to look more and more interchangeable.

Dorothy Goode’s Homage Grid at Butters Gallery.

Which brings us to now—and some good news.

There's a helluva lot going on. After a lull, the art scene's picking up speed again.

Some kick-ass new galleries have just opened, run by people with formidable curatorial chops. One is Portland 'Pataphysical Society, at the Everett Station Lofts, run by former Disjectacurator-in-residence Josephine Zarkovich and her husband, David Huff. Another is Carl & Sloan Contemporary, in the Disjecta complex, co-directed by another husband-and-wife curatorial team, Calvin Ross Carl and Ashley Sloan. And Jeffrey Thomas' eponymous gallery has a jazzy synergy with the other art businesses it abuts, Murdoch Collections and Katayama Framing.

Meanwhile, established galleries like Elizabeth Leach, Fourteen30, Froelick and PDX Contemporary are exposing Portland artists to international collectors at fairs like L.A. Art, Palm Springs Modernism Week and Art Basel Miami Beach.

Through their own initiative, local artists such as Eva Lake and Bruce Conkle have recently picked up galleries in New York City, which is a big deal. And artist, educator and curator Modou Dieng is connecting Portland artists with the world through his Worksound International program, partially funded by the Andy Warhol Foundation.

With all these promising developments, what needs to happen to kick this clutch into even higher gear?

First, the Portland Art Museum needs to replace recently retired chief curator Bruce Guenther with somebody who not only has great connections and can schmooze rich donors, but who also gets out of the museum regularly, hits First and Last Thursdays, and mingles with rank-and-file local artists. Otherwise, the museum may as well be an ivory tower.

Adam Sorensen'€™s Tabernacle at APEX in 2011.

Secondly, above and beyond the museum's Contemporary Northwest Art Awards and APEX series, PAM needs to mount more shows featuring local artists—and not just late-career, blue-chip names who have one foot in the grave. It's a museum, not a mausoleum.

"Our curators and educators are always searching for—and finding—new ways to connect people to art," says Brian Ferriso, the museum's executive director, who cites populist exhibits on bicycles, cars and Italian fashion as examples. He also promises engagement with local gallery owners like Elizabeth Leach to discover local talent. "Our next modern and contemporary curator will help the Portland Art Museum continue to be an institution of the city, state and region, and not just in it." The museum's next exhibit, in May, features work by Chinese artist and blogger Ai Weiwei.

Out in the galleries, we need more owners traveling to art fairs and getting our local artists into the national spotlight.

And newcomers to Portland need to deep-six the M.C. Escher posters they had back in Wisconsin, hit some shows at galleries and coffee shops, buy some original local art and keep buying it. We need more passionate, educated collectors. For far too long we've been in a doldrums where only a handful of people seriously collect—Jordan Schnitzer and Sarah Miller Meigs prominent among them—and when those people stride into a gallery, they're besieged by artists and gallerists in a feeding frenzy of ass-kissing and genuflection. We need more collectors like Intel brand manager Bryan Deaner, who is known for actively collecting artwork by emerging local artists rather than sticking to Damien Hirsts.

West Coast Turnaround by Shelby Davis and Crystal Schenk at Disjecta's Portland2010, March 2010.

As for our local nonprofits, Yale Union needs to clarify its mission. It's a great, open, sunlit space, but its programming is an uneasy, unfocused hodgepodge of visual art, film and performance. YU also needs to start showing local artists, not just artists flown in from New York and Berlin. Unless it does that, it's never going to connect with the Portland public. Finally, we need more cross-pollination among art lovers and people who love dance, theater and music. You hardly ever see art scenesters at the opera, Portland Center Stage or Doug Fir. Let's mix it up!

Keeping Portland's art community vital and growing is going to be a big challenge, but I think we can do it. The next person who covers this beat is going to have her work cut out for her as she reports and opines on what happens next.

As I sign off, I think back on that first column I wrote in 2002. In it, I said that although I was raised atheist, the world of art had become "my chosen church." I still think art is the greatest religion. And I thank you for joining me in the pews these last 13 years.

Go here for Speer's favorite Portland shows of the past 13 years.