What kind of year will 2009 be for art in scrappy, hippie-happy Portland, Oregon? It couldn't be much worse than 2008, which saw the closure of the nonprofit Portland Art Center, the cancellation of the Affair at the Jupiter Hotel Art Fair; the resignation of the Portland Art Museum's curator for contemporary Northwest art; and the closure of several quality galleries, such as Small A Projects, Tilt, and Rake. Despite these setbacks, 2008 had its positive developments: the reemergence from relative dormancy of the nonprofit Disjecta; the opening of a promising new gallery, Fourteen30 Contemporary; a superb survey show of emerging and mid-career Portland artists ('Volume,' curated by Jeff Jahn); and increased vigor among new-ish galleries such as Rocksbox and WorkSound.
Another strong development with repercussions into the new year is the continuation of New American Art Union's endowed series, Couture. Now halfway into its two-year run, the series, helmed and personally funded by NAAU founder/director Ruth Ann Brown, awards each of ten Portland artists a six-week show and an $8,000 stipend to create original artwork that is conspicuously not for sale. Brown, a feisty 29-year-old iconoclast who sees herself as a 21st Century updating of Isabella Stewart Gardner, undertook the project as an act of old-school arts patronage and defiant civic boosterism.
'I had the sense,' she says, 'that instead of honoring its roots as an incubator of talent, Portland was feeling this kind of provincial slight, trying to emulate New York and Los Angeles and San Francisco.' Brown also felt local artists were suffering the pressures afflicting the contemporary art world in general: an over-reliance on the MFA degree as entree to curatorial and gallery circles; an emphasis in art schools on theory over practice; and the imperatives to create large quantities of easily classifiable, large-scale work in short time periods, to expedite placement in the market. As an aggregate, Brown believes, these factors have led to 'an inflation of prices and a dilution of the creative process.' Her impetus to create Couture, then, was 'to allow local artists to sit down, take time to look at what they're doing, and have a moment of reprieve at the end of the show's run to think about what they're doing going forward.'
In June 2007, from a field of 120 applicants, Brown picked ten artists for the series. As of today, half of them have already shown: a three-person collective called The Video Gentlemen (Carl Diehl, Jesse England, and Mack McFarland), multi-media minimalist TJ Norris, Dave Hickey protégée Jacqueline Ehlis, camera obscura devotee Ethan Jackson, and documentarian Jim Lommasson. In 2009 the remainder of the artists will complete the series: kinetic sculptor Laura Fritz, video artist Vanessa Renwick, video/sculpture virtuoso Stephen Slappe, mixed-media artist Ty Ennis, and light-and-space designer Rose McCormick. Brown chose these artists because they married concept and physicality in fresh ways and avoided a trend toward what she sees as 'heartlessly clever work that's innocuous, looks pretty, and can sit there for years and not bother you, like a trophy wife.'
How has the program gone so far? TJ Norris, whose 'INFINITUS' completed its run last June, says he found the combination of creative freedom, financial support, and the large (900 square foot) exhibition space akin 'to getting all three of the wishes you'd get from a genie in a bottle.' He says he finds Brown's approach 'innovative, especially when you view it in the context of the competitive, lottery-like nature of dwindling public funds, when philanthropy only shows its face on blue-moon Sundays every leap year...' January's Couturier, Laura Fritz, adds that the series would be 'refreshing even if we were in an economic boom time... Whether times are tough or not, artists don't generally get consistent funding.' She says the stipend 'definitely makes it easier to justify the purchase of equipment and materials, especially machinery and tools for future projects.'
While the series has not been covered extensively in the national press, Brown says that was never her goal. Local engagement is what she's after. She is particularly pleased at the attendance garnered among people from the wider community beyond the usual First Thursday gallery-hoppers. For the Jim Lommasson show, for example—which chronicled the homecomings of American veterans from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan—the opening-night crowd was largely comprised of men and women in uniform. It made for an unusual, slightly uncomfortable mélange as military types rubbed shoulders with black-turtlenecked art hipsters, but the dynamic led to interactions and discussions that wouldn't likely have happened in a more homogeneous setting.
Brown is still figuring out what to do when the tenth and final Couture show comes down on October 4 of this year. She might start a whole new series, or begin including artists from outside Portland, or even 'tear the whole building down' and build a new gallery, literally, from the ground up.
'Cul De Sac,' 2008, Stephen Slappe, video installation
Photo: courtesy of WorkSound Gallery