Exploring Portland’s Regional Arts District –
Art doesn’t differ from city to state to country as much as I sometimes think it should, or wish that it did. Like most things in this highly technological decade of “sharing,” art has become a global form of expression, and galleries worldwide feel homogenized when it comes to the medium and aesthetic they promote. Looking at auction results you can surmise, as clearly as you could when the “hierarchy of genres” was taken seriously in the not too distant past, what that hierarchy is in today’s art market. Analyzing different artists shown across the U.S. can be a repetitious endeavor, as galleries make only the smallest of shifts in the artwork and the artists represented to appeal to the tastes of a regional aesthetic or income.
Regardless of this trend, however, I never cease to be excited to leave the New York City art scene, and tackle the gallery districts of other major cities. I approach them with the hope of finding what artists in the 19th century found when they traveled: themes, tastes, techniques, and mediums that were both foreign and inspiring. Art is, if art history has taught us anything, driven forward by regionalism and an avid appropriation of said regionalism. No matter how disappointing gallery hopping by city can be at times, like finding out that the souvenir you proudly bought in a truly exotic country was made at home, the opportunity of seeing art elsewhere never loses its appeal, and nor should it.
On a recent trip to Portland, Oregon, on a vacation full of grandfathers, daily ventures to discover local art, and a healthy dose of the disturbingly thin but delightfully crisp Pacific Northwest air, I took a wander through Portland’s Pearl District. Like many gallery districts elsewhere, the Pearl was once an industrial area full of warehouses and rail yards, and over the past few decades it has been reshaped into a neighborhood full of galleries, warehouse-to-loft conversions, boutiques, and restaurants. The demolition of the viaduct, a raised portion of Lovejoy Street, and the construction of Portland’s streetcar helped in clearing and revitalizing the neighborhood. Thomas Augustine, a Portland-based gallery owner, first coined the neighborhoods name by using the first name of Pearl Marie Amhara, an eccentric and spiritual woman that encouraged creative people to inhabit what was then called the “Northwest Industrial Triangle.”
The Pearl is a very pretty neighborhood with big streets, grassy center dividers, looming trees, clean sidewalks, and new buildings that look private but not exclusive. The galleries are predictably less inviting than the neighborhood itself, having that ‘we can be open if you care to come in’ vibe we associate with galleries. Aside from a fair number of independent spaces, the Pearl District is also home to Portland’s Museum of Contemporary Craft. A lovely space full of light that’s filled at times with provocative work like Ai Weiwei’s urns, the museum also exhibits some less than relevant artwork, drawing primarily from the American Craft movement in the 1960s. The current exhibition on view during my visit was the artwork of Betty Feves, a ceramic sculptor working between the shakily drawn lines of art and craft in the 1950s-70s. She is an artist who boldly tackled a male-dominated medium as well as the masculine aesthetic of modernism.
The first gallery I visited was Charles A. Hartman Fine Art, a small space with an impeccable installation of paintings by Dan Robinson, a middle-aged painter working in the small Oregon town of Fossil, in an act of self-inflicted rural exile. Robinson, painting in the post-industrial, American tradition of the 1930s and 40s, captures pristine western landscapes in bright, blocky colors. In the foreground of landscapes that describe the idyllic shapes of hills, trees, winding roads, and bubbling rivers, all stretching towards the horizon, are the so called ‘blemishes’ of industrial society; mills, farms, powerhouses, gain silos, boats, factories. These gray, rusty, and all but abandoned eyesores are painted with as much reverence and nostalgia as the rivers and mountains. With his retro style Robinson seems to question the rise and fall of American manufacturing and production. He casts warm tones of yellow and brown over an American life that has all but disappeared, and yet still lurks in the corners of our national idealism.
The Blue Sky Gallery, Oregon’s Center for the Photographic Arts, is by far the most interesting gallery I visited. Larger in size, Blue Sky is a nonprofit gallery designed to educate rather than attract collectors, which explains why the artwork exhibited there is more conceptual and provocative than anything shown elsewhere in the Pearl District. The gallery is also equipped with a flatfile collection of local artist prints called The Drawers. Treating artists prints like a community resource, an artistic library, is an approach to art that is noting but refreshing.
During my visit one half of the Blue Sky Gallery was devoted to the photographs of the German photographer Dorothee Deiss, a Berlin-based artist showing a body of images titled As If Nothing Happened. Biking 100 miles of cleared land where the Berlin wall once stood, Deiss documents space the wall once inhabited. As the title suggests, there are no landmarks showing how divisive and destructive that long, narrow strip of landscape was at one time. Deiss shows us through a series of powerful portraits the people who were deeply and irrevocably scarred by that infamous wall. Images of overgrown grass, crumbling pieces of cement, fallen statue heads, and rusting barriers all describe an era of a nation’s history that is kept alive through a landscapes memory.
Nine Gallery, the artist-run cooperative founded in the 1980’s by nine artists interested in working outside of commercial galleries, also operates inside, though is completely independent from, Blue Sky. Sectioned off like a small installation room, Nine Gallery exhibited the sculptural work of Christine Clark, a Portland-based artist and a metals professor at the Oregon College of Art & Craft. Working with paper stretched over metal frames, Clark created an installation of abstract shapes swarming together toward the corner of the room. Titled Herded, her piece is a “nonfigurative” portrayal of the herd mentality, of the loss of identity we sometimes experience by listening, adapting, or believing more in those around us than in ourselves. Without being overly conceptual her piece is certainly visually compelling, though seemingly lacking in deeper meaning and motivation.
At Froelick Gallery I stumbled upon a group exhibition titled Undressing Room, a show featuring the mediocre artwork of artists who deal primarily with the nude or naked body. Like most group exhibitions the quality of work was uneven and the installation of was messy and crowded, packing explicit photographs of genitalia on top of drawings idealizing the female form. I did, however, discover another noteworthy local artist named Heidi Kirkpatrick, a photographer who works with alternative processes and Tintype-like images. In a small triptych that could have easily been lost in the sheer number of naked bodies displayed throughout the gallery, Kirkpatrick’s photographs in tiny tin boxes caught my eye. Different in size, approach, medium, and aesthetic her images depicting cropped female bodies in Muybridge-esque poses were wonderfully appealing. Experiences with physical pain allowed Kirkpatrick a more lighthearted approach to the human body. Her images steer away from the sexualized body and ponder instead the workings of the body itself and how photography can hope or help to capture its motion.
What I take away from the Pearl Districts galleries, other than a few new artists to add into my vocabulary, is the importance Portland galleries place on local artists. Even if the artists shown are not from the Pacific Northwest the work they make, in many cases, deals with living there. Sadly I don’t believe that this emphasis on supporting local artists is the same everywhere, and it’s almost as though the city wishes to tune out what is happening in other places to support those working close to home. Despite my best efforts to the contrary, I don’t necessarily find there to be anything drastically wrong with this. There is always a danger, with art and even culture in general, of shutting yourself off to what is happening in other places, just as there is a danger in paying too much attention, and placing too much value on aesthetics dictated from afar. The Pearl District galleries face this danger and fall on either side of it. Though the galleries opt at times for an insular perspective, they also showcase local work that is more grounded and potent because it is truly and uniquely local.