PORTLAND 2012 BIENNIAL: DISJECTA, ITS OWN PETRI DISH FOR ART
by Jonny Boys
Traditionally a biennial art show is a snap shot of what is currently going on in a particular art market. So I was excited to see what the perception of the market is from inside its walls.
As to be expected, the establishment has a firm placement in the show. And by firm I mean that at any of the venues just a simple toss of a rock would hit an artist with a BFA, MFA and/or a college instructor from one of four schools in Oregon. While I am not saying that is a bad thing, I am saying that possibly the show's curator, Prudence Roberts, a college professor of art history approached the task from a biased standpoint. A true sampling of the art market would have gone outside of the familiar.
For years the ruling class of Portland's art establishment have delighted in being overly critical of Bryan Suereth's Disjecta. But its vision is crucial to the viability of Portland's art culture, which
is consistently conservative. Without it this town will continue to hemorrhage collectors to Los Angeles' emerging art market.
Neglecting to follow the established art scene in Portland, I stumbled on the Disjecta's website accidentally, while doing a city by city comparison of emerging art galleries and discovered Portland 2012. I was surprised that no one really knew about the biennial when I asked artists who have been around for years. I went to the Facebook event page and saw very few people had been invited. It made me wonder if the event would actually have a pulse or not?
I got my answer on March 10, 2012 when I attended the opening at Disjecta. The place was packed and the air was electric with excitement. As I viewed the work, I realized it was fairly stagnant and began to ask myself why was this so exciting? Seven years ago when I was first breaking in to the gallery business we were showing artists like this in Cincinnati. At that time many of the artists were showing the same styles of work. Is sterile and stagnant really representative of the current work in Portland? I've seen what is showing on the proverbial “other side of the tracks” in Portland and it was not represented in this show.
I immediately noticed there were no placards near any of the work. I asked a volunteer if there were programs available, he told me that there were no programs, just a listing of artist
statements. I inquired if it was online to which I received a shrug of the shoulders and an “Um, I'm not sure”. They were not. Maybe that will be different in 2014.
The most notable piece of the opening event was Brian Gillis's massive installation, On Failure and a Prospect. This work attempts to convey the continued story of multiple unrelated issues that were a failure which eventually led to progressive change. Gillis used different sized plastic blow-up balls as a backdrop for the textual banners which sat on a large platform of MDF panels and 2x4's. This was intended to look like a parade float, but the over simplified conceptual nature of the structure, was lost because space was too small for the scale of the piece.
What struck me, whether Ellis intended it or not, was that the New Coke and the Edmund Pettis Bridge stories had larger balls behind them while the Berkeley Pit Copper Mine and the Donald
Rusk Currey, Ph.D. banners each had a small ball. It is as if the artist subconsciously tried to convey ranking of issues based on societal impact of ecological discoveries verses social injustice and American consumerism. Coca-Cola Classic and New Coke are major icons and the black civil rights movement set an entire race of peoples free in America. It's possible that the artist sees that ARCO's Berkeley Pit and Currey's felling of Prometheus seem less culturally relevant to the viewer, because while their impact on society is important, they remain largely unseen. It is an interesting side note that the artist copied word for word the entries from Wikipedia.org for the Edmund Pettis Bridge, the Berkeley Pit and the Donald Rusk Currey banners. Gillis is an Assistant Professor of Ceramics at the University of Oregon. You
can read more about his work at www.gillislab.com.
Prudence Roberts, who was interviewed on OPB's “Think Out Loud”, said on reviewing the submissions of 280 artists that she wasn't “looking for novelty...I was unfamiliar with, I'd say, the majority of artists that applied” and that she was looking for art that would “stand the test of time”. 256 artist in Portland did not make the cut because the curator was not familiar with their work. That statement sums up an anti-progressive elitist attitude that has plagued the western art establishment for a century.
In the late 1950's three curators in Long Beach, California, Walter Hopps and Edward Kienholz, who founded Ferus Gallery together, as well as Irving Blum, were among the first to
embrace art that was considered outside of the box. Andy Warhol's “Campbell's Soup Cans”, his first solo pop art show, took place there. Robert Irwin, Edward Ruscha, and Llyn Foulkes all showed for the first time at Ferus. Today all of these artists are widely collected by Museums and private collectors around the world. It is my argument that the future curation of this event should look at all art submissions from the standpoint of what impact will this artist have on Portland in the next fifty years and less on what is familiar.