Unearthing A Scene

By D.K. Row

October 19, 2003

For the past eight days, the series of artist-organized exhibits called Core Sample has dazzled Portland with a rare concentration of persuasive work: Bill Will's larky homage to nationalistic fervor, featuring an American flag that moved menacingly forward on retro-fitted garage door rails and then folded around the seated viewer. Andrea Borsuk's brilliantly curated show of complex allegories that revealed a well-developed underground of Portland artists working the same dreamscape territory with considerable skill. Andrew Dickson's funny and touching multimedia retrospective of a mysterious artist named Wren, complete with an installation made out of Lego blocks. Pablo de Ocampo's thinly veiled commentary on Middle East politics using grains of sand as words. Malia Jensen's extraordinary cast-soap purse sculpture that caught every hand-clutching detail of this everyday necessity.

These were only a few notes in the dense cacophony of the more than 20 exhibits, one-night events, and roving installations and performances presented by scores of artists at several citywide locations last week.

At first glance, Core Sample simply reaffirmed familiar evaluations of the current scene -- that it's energetic and vibrant, in large part because of the thousands of young creative types who have moved to the city in the past several years. (Many Core Sample exhibits, however, showcased seminal Old Guard artists like abstract sculptor Mel Katz, realist painter Henk Pander, conceptual artist Paul Sutinen and others.)

But ultimately, the mammoth event, which was inspired by conversations between curator Terri Hopkins, writer and publisher Matthew Stadler and Oregonian architecture critic Randy Gragg, revealed an art scene that has finally shed its image as a one-dimensional art village. There is an unprecedented level of artistic sophistication, discussion and variety now. Find one major realist painter such as Pander, for example, and you'll quickly reference several others of differing attitudes and temperaments, such as those included in "Reallegories": Borsuk, Paul Green, Michael Brophy and Eric Stotik.


Presenting a representative sampling of this fertile art scene was the simple brilliance of Core Sample. Like ripples from a tossed pebble spreading across a lake, it took over industrial warehouses, showrooms and clubs, presenting wave after wave of creative work. Observed casually, the extent of the activity wasn't surprising. But experienced intimately over eight days, its depth and magnitude took on the air of revelation, a frisson, as if we were seeing the art for the first time.

One obvious measure of this breadth was the sheer number of mediums employed by the participating artists, which ranged from postmodern advertising and design principles to ephemeral and none-too-slick film and video work to tried-and-true sculpture, photography and painting.

Look at one of the event's best locations, the Belmont Factory, 1875 S.E. Belmont St., for one handy microcosm of the event as a whole.

Near the rear of the 18,000-square-foot space brilliantly designed by Ovid Uman stood James Harrison's heroically erotic conceptual sculptures made of 2-by-4 blocks of wood. Adjacent to these tilted, staircaselike towers was de Ocampo's sand installation, Bill Daniel's sculptural work using a '65 Chevy van, Borsuk's "Reallegories" and another group exhibit, "The Hunt," curated by Brophy and Vanessa Renwick. "The Hunt" wove an evolving and wryly funny narrative on big game and other types of hunting using Brophy's landscape paintings, archival photos of hunters supplied by Tom Robinson, Jenny Ankeny and Scott and Brandi Gregory, and a video installation by Renwick. The videos -- contained in a row of refrigerators -- played continuous loops of grainy footage of wolves dragging down their prey.

Paces away from this multimedia assembly was a flight of stairs that led viewers to "Capture and Release," a breathtaking, subterranean maze of film and video art by 18 artists.

The Belmont Factory was a dizzying experience that took two separate tours to absorb -- the video work alone required hours to soak up -- in part because of the depth and sophistication of the work, and in part because viewers often had to reorient from watching one medium to another and then back. The many different ideas, forms and creative approaches on view in this one Core Sample location told many stories, but perhaps the most universal of them was that conceptual art practices have grown exponentially from 20 years ago. It is, in the most literal sense, an exploration of the entire visual landscape around us in all its crazy variety. Fusing craft and conceptualism The art world tradition of well-made and polished objects, which has been long beloved in the Northwest, looms as large as a redwood in Core Sample. Take, for example, two curated group shows -- Jon Raymond's "Crafty" and Stephanie Snyder's "Second Cycle" -- and an on-site interactive installation created by the duo Charm Bracelet, called "Untitled (Elephant)."

Each show featured exquisitely made work that would have impressed even the most demanding craft lover, notably Jensen's purse from "Crafty" and Bill Morrison's sculpture from "Second Cycle," which reproduced strip-mall warehouses and freeways using sculpted cardboard. But almost all of the art took an ideological turn that upended the straight-line lineage of craft. The deftness and ability to paint, mold and sculpt material served conceptual concerns, not to create purely representational objects.

Charm Bracelet tweaked the formal aspects of craft in cheeky and spectacular fashion with its interactive "Untitled (Elephant)." The duo of Brad Adkins and Christopher Buckingham sculpted a riotous-looking elephant using one giant piece of 20-gauge vinyl material resting on a podium. Remaining faithful to the interactive principles that have defined their previous works, the artists asked visitors to fill this transparent skin by having them shred color cards from art shows and then stuff them into the slitted opening of the vinyl material. Piecemeal, the elephant mushroomed, growing into its familiar hoof-and-trunk shape as shredded paper inflated it during the week. Whither, a curating scene Core Sample featured many fine curatorial efforts (in addition to those of Borsuk, Brophy and Renwick, Raymond and Snyder). Nan Curtis brought together nine established artists, each of whom made their names outside the gallery system. Jennifer Rhoads' "Flush" explored with beauty and zaniness the metaphorical possibilities of the show's title. Jeff Jahn filled the former Margo Jacobsen Gallery with a mix of two- and three-dimensional work that attempted to narrow the gap between the natural and synthetic worlds. And Malia Jensen's "Draw" was a feast of hand-drawn imagery by more than a dozen artists.

This abundance of curatorial efforts teased out one of the glaring weaknesses of the local scene: We have relatively few curators here commenting on local work with penetrating exhibits.

Part of that is because the growing number of artists has exceeded the spaces, dealers and institutions that can adequately divine the rapidly growing art world. But an even larger reason is that most galleries and institutions haven't embraced the unconventional formats employed by such do-it-yourself groups as Red76, Charm Bracelet and the Portland Center for the Advancement of Culture. The latter mounted a Herculean, if unfocused, art carousel, "The Modern Zoo," in 100,000 square feet of warehouse space during the summer.

But for the best example of the established art world letting the moment slip by, recall the 2003 Oregon Biennial at the Portland Art Museum. Making his selections from cattle-call entries submitted by artists, curator Bruce Guenther excluded the instigator-style spirit and incredible diversity of voices that now define Portland art. Instead, he modeled a world of mostly midcentury-influenced abstract painting. It was a fine and worthwhile celebration of cool craft, but Guenther's biennial was inevitably more memorable for failing to do what such an exhibit is designed to do: capture the vigor and energy of the community's current art scene.

The hunger for dialogue that seizes the moment is what Core Sample boldly articulated last week. From Raymond's brilliant fusion of craft and concept to Borsuk's realist painting show, Core Sample shouted out the belief that the spirit of volunteerism and this flood of funky, independent exhibits were as crucial to today's scene as better funded and publicly validated museum and gallery productions.

Perhaps the proof of this was the presence of Lawrence Rinder from the Whitney Museum of American Art. The provocative curator of the 2002 Whitney Biennial, which focused largely on art from regional centers across the country, greeted artists and arts insiders on the streets while touring Core Sample sites Sunday afternoon. Rinder has volunteered to write a major essay for the hefty catalog documenting Core Sample, to be published in April by Clear Cut Press. Beyond Core Sample Like any massive enterprise, Core Sample had its faults. Some of the work was amateurish, for instance. And one important oversight was the small amount of photography in relation to other mediums. Photography is the art world's medium of the moment, and Portland is rich in practitioners of the art form.

But as art extravaganzas go, Core Sample was a success. And as a measure of the art scene, it was also right on. More than that, Core Sample was the current generation's statement of arrival. Their impressive show of volunteerism and eclecticism was a declaration to the public: We are here, right now.

And as participants now celebrate eight incredible days of art, it's hard not to ask a series of questions: What's next? What levels of excellence and sophistication can the Core Sample approach reach? Can the mostly twenty- and thirtysomething artists in these exhibits flourish without support from more established institutions around town?

Seen this way, Core Sample becomes a responsibility for the larger arts community: It's something to be nourished as well as celebrated.