Year-end indulgence

This arts writer’s version of a sculptor’s requisite bed piece

I have a number of reasons I don’t like to do year-end reviews or best-ofs; or rather, I have written them in the past, shouldn’t have, and would avoid doing so if I could kick the overriding need to reflect and make an accounting that comes with December.

The Art Center in Corvallis

The Arts Center in Corvallis

First of all, my art viewing, like my arts writing, is a some time thing, which makes me considerably less than an authority. I’m mostly a stay-at-home guy who hangs out in my low-residency (formerly referred to as my dungeon) basement working on other projects and occasionally scanning Facebook for updates from other artists, writers and friends in general. That said, I guess I do look at a lot of art because I follow links. (I suppose if I was a serious info junkie I’d hang out on Twitter instead, but social media = social contract and who has the time?) What I don’t do often, but should, is make the trip to larger cities within fifteen to seventy miles of my home to look. I know I’m missing a lot of worthy, non-virtual exhibits. For instance, there’s always Ditch Projects in Springfield, and Disjecta has considerably improved their programming over the years, as has Corvallis’ The Arts Center. I do regret not getting to these and many other venues more frequently.

Secondly, I want to find it prudent to avoid superlatives, which a summary “grading” of the previous year’s events surely implies. While this may make me a poor (reluctant) critic, admittedly, I have my favorite artists and have opinions about what galleries show consistently good work or are not afraid to push the envelope, but there’s this little voice in my head that asks “Who am I to make such pronouncements?” (See above paragraph.) It has the faint odor of boosterism, self or otherwise, which oddly enough becomes exclusionary. (As my mother says, “Don’t interrupt your work if it speaks for itself.”) To my mind this can quickly become the drugged teat from which malcontents suckle their spew. I’ve seen it happen. The hunger. The horror. The hunger.

Rocksbox Contemporary Fine Art/Courtesy of the gallery

Rocksbox Contemporary Fine Art/Courtesy of the gallery

I recognize my untoward reaction is on par and has more to do with the underlying desires that generate the overblown positioning and overwrought proclamations of artists and their associated institutions (the press being one as well), for I know I am likely just as guilty. Some balance must follow —perhaps even an entertaining of compassion— if I am to gain any insight from what I see as something other than what others may poorly (mis)represent. (The PR coming from Rocksbox Contemporary Fine Art can be forgiven their humorously aggressive proclamations as the exhibits generally match the gallery’s approach to issues of taste and decorum.) The same applies to a one-on-one conversation in an art (or any) setting.

No doubt it’s a rough and tumble existence in the arts, and overstatement, the bouncing on tip toes, frantically waving one’s arms from the middle of a crowded but somewhat subdued room can be a bit unseemly, yet is not without its reasons. The impetus to holler louder than the next is not only because of a limited amount of venues for artists, et. al., it is also very much about the scarcity of money to do their work. Relief from desperation has come for some artists and organizations via the Portland Metro-restricted funding that PICA’s Precipice Fund and R.A.C.C. are providing. If only the scale of such funding was available to other areas of the state… Oregon State and regional, private foundation funding notwithstanding.

Thirdly, without the restraints of a nine-to-five schedule, I often don’t know what day of the week it is, let alone the hour. That obliviousness melts 2013 into 2012 and maybe a little bit into 2011 as well.

Was this the year that the ubiquity and quality of camera phones finally undid professional photography? (Screw the newspapers that let their staff photogs and culture writers go. Ultimately their own pooch will feel it.) Was this the last year of seemingly irrational prices for art before we see the art auction bubble burst (only to get patched up and start to blow up again)? Have art fairs made brick and mortar commercial galleries less financially feasible? (I so desperately want to write a sentence that includes lucre, sensory overload and cocaine. And then there’s the story I heard from one gallerist a few years ago about a party he attended during the gathering of art fairs in Miami. On a table stood a jar full of Viagra. No mention of condoms.) Has the MFA, traditionally considered a terminal degree, been supplanted by the PhD in Art? (Will the take-home pay of longer-educated adjunct fodder ever be enough to pay off student loans before death?)

The short answer? These are gradual shifts, a long time coming and unrestricted by a calendar, yet they may very well bring with them further changes no one can anticipate. Forceful, positive things.

One can hope.

On a more local level, was it this year or last when Rod Pulliam closed down his space where Upfor is now? I do know he has a new space on 17th, although, not surprisingly, I have not been there yet. I was sad to see him close and am heartened that he has not thrown in the towel. And what about Jane Kate Wood and her Victory Gallery? This year or last? She’s landed on her feet at PICA, which will only benefit that organization, but I do miss her eye for European artists. In other news, Marylhurst’s The Art Gym lost Terri Hopkins but concerns were quelled when Blake Shell was hired as her replacement.

Just this month (so it is easier for me to recall exactly when) Appendix Project Space has closed its doors after five years. Word is co-programmers Zachary Davis and Travis Fitzgerald are headed for New York to hook up with another former Appendix guy, Joshua Pavlacky, and help him with a new project, American Medium. This makes me sad, for although I am certain they will do well on the east coast (this makes me happy), Portland is losing an exhibition space that always had interesting, sometimes challenging shows.

Yes, Upfor. Looks promising. Frances Stark for their inaugural exhibit? Wow! And while their programming so far has been, with good reason, popular with the local cognoscenti, I hope 2014 will bring a higher percentage of exhibits from artists outside of Portland.

Hillery Lay's art on her front porch/Patrick Collier

Hillery Lay’s art on her front porch in Baker City

Speaking of things not Portland, I do have a personal highlight from this year of looking at art, and that was a trip to the east side of the state. You can read about it here and here, if you so desire. It was a great trip, my first time across the Cascades, and judging from the hits those two articles received (way more than anything else I’ve written in the last year and a half), a visit most welcomed. I’d love to do it again sometime soon but I still haven’t been to the southern part of the state to see visual art down there. (Oregon ArtsWatch is very much interested in finding reviewers/critics who don’t happen to reside in the Portland Metro area.)

And speaking of speaking, the one good reason why I would write a year-end piece is for a continued sense of community. Regardless of the occasional negative review, my one-on-one time with artists and their art has been a real joy. I’ve learned things or at least gone home and thought about what we talked about or what I saw. The outcome is that I have been forever changed. I’ve been enlightened as well as reified. And so I want to thank the artists.

I am also grateful for the support I’ve received from my spouse who puts up with my preoccupied stares into space as I work on a theme or construct a paragraph in my head over dinner.

I thank you, the reader.

Finally, if it wasn’t for my editor, Barry Johnson, I don’t believe I could do this arts writing thing with any confidence. He has to be one of the best in the business, both patient and dogged, and near encyclopedic in his knowledge of Oregon culture.

Barry is doing us all a huge favor by publishing Oregon ArtsWatch. After all, where else can you find analysis of the arts in Oregon that is as quantitatively and qualitatively substantial as what you read on this site?

And so, the end of 2013 leaves me with regrets, confessions and gratitude. That is f the way it is suppose to work, isn’t it? Out of such reflection also comes a call for resolutions. I won’t bother you with very personal ones but I will share a promise to pay closer attention and think more carefully about the art I review (otherwise there’s no point in continuing) and thereby become more engaged with the art community. If you see me outside of my cage, I’d love for you to say hello and share your ideas about the art you are seeing and help me in that endeavor.

And one last thing: If you aren’t already a supporting member of Oregon ArtsWatch, please consider donating.

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