I was asked by Cameron Hawkey to answer a few questions about Try Harder PDX for an article he was working on. I felt like the combination of his questions and my responses made for a good public ending to this project, and so this will be my final posting to this site. I had hoped to have more reviews before ending the project, but work sometimes had me out of town for as much as a month at a time, so I couldn’t even manage a review a month. I had, at one point, offered to pass the site along to another person, but ultimately, they decided against taking on the project. Portland needs criticism—of both its artists and arts institutions. It is only through utterly honest, unflinching, criticism that the arts community will find the words to make a case for itself and end the current institutional contraction.
1) What’s the story behind starting Tryharderpdx? Why did you decide to start a blog of art criticism for Portland?
Frustration is pretty much the story. Frustration with the dulling effects of collective back patting. Frustration with seeing artists growth stunted by a lack of honest feedback. Frustrated at heads turning away when somebody expresses a critical opinion about an artwork, as if just hearing a “negative” thought might cause injury.
2) Your writing is anonymous. Aside from the appeal of mystery, why? Some say anonymity is merely used to deny accountability. Will you ever reveal your identity to the public?
The primary inspiration is Foucault who offered a vision of the world in which people are actually critical thinkers, and can evaluate a text to determine its operation and make an informed judgement about its usefulness based on their specific critical lens. Also, traditionally, criticism has been anonymous. The history of anonymous critical writing is far longer than the history of branded criticism. Another aspect is that I used to write monthly for two different art magazines. People who knew me for my critical writing tended to treat me as a contact, a delicate conduit to some ragged notion of exposure. That type of attention never interested me. I also welcome the chance to use a persona, to perform thoughts in a way I couldn’t while writing for an advertising-driven publication. It’s all of those reasons combined.
Aside from all of that, plenty of people know who I am. Its only really anonymous if you’re out of my orbit. The site was up for less than a day before the first person identified me. I only have so many stories, and not so many people speak like me, so if you’ve ever met me, there’s not much mystery. The galleries I work with know about the blog, but they all have such a deep level of knowledge about how artists have engaged with the world about them, they don’t see anything untoward.
3) You've moved on to another city and you're parking your domain. Why stop now? Is art criticism something you'll be continuing in a new city?
I tried to use a skill I had to give Portland something I thought it needed. Portland is a rather established scene that is receding, because nobody has really made the case for what art does, why it should be supported. Its economic history is twined with business and tourism, but now it needs a level of sustained self critique to get out of its intellectual stagnation, something to say "Now that tourists are coming here for the food and ignoring the art, we still matter."
If I find that there is a need for my voice here, I’ll pick up a pen. I had intended to stay out of local art politics here, but in a matter of days I started working on establishing a new nonprofit in partnership with an LGTBQ+ activist and a federal defense attorney. I think the key is trying to figure out where ones skills would do the most good in a particular moment. Right now the object is to help grow a more nascent scene, that’s a different task, a different persona, different goals and a completely different approach.
4) You seem to be very disillusioned with the arts scene in Portland. What's your beef? Is it specific to Portland, with Portland's artists, or is it a broader issue?
My beef is with hypocrisy, with people who want to make sure they know one’s pronoun, but don’t care so much about buying art from galleries that are known to steal from their artists. They care so much about your feelings, unless they are ripping food from your mouth. It’s a beef with people who get the feels from typing #metoo, but don’t believe local victims of censorship. It’s a beef with people who talk incessantly about community, inclusion and support, but who refuse to speak up about injustices in their own community for fear of losing their position or damaging their “hustle.” If I had to generalize the Portland art scene, I’d say it was a bunch of cowards who harness current political platitudes for self aggrandizement.
5) Tryharderpdx labels both galleries and non-profits as “poorly run, ideationally bankrupt, divisive cults of personality.” Who’s doing it right?
Private Places. Here/There. Fuller Rosen. They are each truly independent voices that are thoughtful about what they show, digging deep into their own intellectual resources to give Portland what they feel is the best of their specific understanding of art. I think Holding Contemporary and Melanie Flood Projects are also places that should be supported.
In terms of established commercial galleries, PDX Contemporary is the best from a values perspective. Jane has, at times, exhibited her share of crazy, but she is comfortable with a role of supporting her artists, and by any account I’ve heard, doesn’t try to meddle. I think that Nationale also falls into the category of artists first.
6) What are examples of other cities in the U.S. with energizing, well-funded, thriving arts scenes? Who is Portland being compared to?
Your question promotes the falsity that Portland’s art scene would shift dramatically with in influx of money, that capital is the only thing keeping Portland from being New York. From my perspective, complaints of poor funding are just deflecting bad management. Look at how much gets spent on TBA, yet it’s designed for tourists; it’s never had any intention of enriching the lives of local artists, let alone everyday Portlanders. Local artists go to the TBA bar at the end of the day more than they go to the performances.
I can point to 6-digits in lost donations at PAM because curators there either didn’t reply to emails, left people hanging for months, or simply didn’t understand an offer and couldn’t manage the research—and if I can point to these sorts of losses, there’s probably dozens of other people who can too. The money PAM is losing to the changes in RACC funding is chump change to what they are losing to their lack of professional standards. Vision is far more the issue than money, both patrons and artists need to be more critical and vocal about where arts money goes.
In terms of what I compare Portland to, I construct a vision of what Portland ought to be doing through written and oral accounts of how art scenes have emerged, faded, expanded, reemerged, etc. I look to a composite of histories of places like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Detroit, Berlin and try to understand the conditions that resulted in various expansions and contractions in those art scenes. I then consider how Portland is doing creating conditions that are conducive to both art making and art viewing. It’s not about trying to keep up with the Joneses. Portland will never be New York, but it should strive to create the best possible conditions for its artists.
7) Are there any art scandals in Portland that the people deserve to know about?
I know that WW wont print names so lets do it like this: There’s that gallery that’s been accused of stealing from artists at various points over about 25 years, and their erstwhile protege has a gallery that’s been accused of stealing from artists, and they both keep a close orbit to a local ultra wealthy collector and so people feel they have to put up with any and all measure of shit because somehow this grotesque cabal represents the big time and if they just shut up and take it they might end up in a third tier Miami art fair. And then people appear on the scene like the “feminist” who encouraged one of her artists to trade sex for an exhibition opportunity, and this charming man who gives advice to pretty much any organization that will listen, based on his history as a businessman, meanwhile he’s lost, literally, tens of thousands of dollars because he either can’t or won’t balance his checkbook.
The scandal of Portland isn’t even that artists will degrade themselves for these small crumbs; the scandal is that the crumbs Portland offers fell off some nasty piece of Costco pastry.
8) If you were a wealthy patron of the arts, what would you do for Portland’s art scene?
As a hypothetical rich guy, I would give each department at PAM an acquisitions endowment on the condition that the museum restore, in earnest, the position of Chief Curator, and hire a director competent to support that curator’s vision. I would encourage some level of curatorial housecleaning, starting with the stunningly incompetent Julia Dolan.
Beyond that, my imaginary dollars would create a space specifically for emerging artists within the region. It would be a place to show and connect for people who have demonstrated a potential, but are still figuring things out. Learning to mount a show is a skill that develops from practice, and there aren’t enough opportunities for beginners to hone those skills. PICA’s Precipice fund is so idiotic. It assumes that within every artist is a hidden administrator who can juggle nonprofit administration, a studio practice, a day job and ostensibly have some measure of private life. It’s unrealistic and sets artists up to fail. They even explain that program with the “teach a man to fish” proverb. They use a bromide that illustrates a conservative worldview that stands directly in opposition to everything else PICA says it is trying to do. PICA could put their existing infrastructure to such better use on behalf of local artists, but they simply don’t have the management talent to figure it out.
My hypothetical patronage would fund a second art space that works to help artists graduate out of the emerging field, focusing on exhibiting longer term, more refined projects. It would only give solo shows, and it would never interfere with or second guess the artist’s intentions. It may show artists from outside the region, but its thrust would be regional. It would prepare artists for export, resulting, eventually, in a national reputation.
For each of these, the director would have to be focused on building bridges with the community, not pandering. Art does change the world, but it does so by identifying the social unconscious, not by shouting political buzzwords. A director needs to welcome people into the organization, to be a friendly face that makes introductions and stays above the fray. Once an artist is given a show, they need to be left to do the their work without undue influence. (To be clear, there is a difference between critical feedback from peers and critics and institutional art direction.)
My imaginary dollars would be spent regularly with honest galleries invested in bigger ideas and intellectually bolder work.
9) Do you have a clear definition for what is and isn’t art?
Art is what an artist says is art. Beyond that, it’s about interpretation. Does one accept the artists statement or take the work in a different direction? Should the work be examined through a formal or conceptual lens? What are the historical references or philosophical dialogs that relate to it, and then how do you begin to determine quality given a specific project and set of thoughts. It becomes very complex, very quickly which makes it so maddeningly wonderful. Anything can be art, but that doesn’t mean anything termed art is either interesting or important, and that’s a tough concept for a lot of people to understand.
Work becomes interesting because multiple dialogs emerge from the same work. I wrote about the sublimated zeal for the Portland Trailblazers in Avantika Bawa’s show at PAM. The exhibition had been written about a number of times, and every article stuck rigidly to the terms of the press release. In just a couple months the dialog seemed unbelievably stale. I thought Avantika would enjoy a text that took into account how she spoke of her inspirations in more casual circumstances. I thought she would enjoy seeing a totally different take on the work. She pretty much hated it, and wrote to tell me as much. Yet for me it was an earnest and necessary contribution to the very possibility of what that work might be.
10) What art gets you out of the house to go see it? Why not look at it on Instagram and call it a day?
Instagram images versus art in the wild is like watching an episode of Dynasty versus talking on the porch with a neighbor. Art is an intellectual process in which thoughts are conveyed, subjectively and unevenly, through materiality. Instagram gives you the broad strokes, a bit of flash, it’s all Alexis slapping Krystle. There’s no possibility of looking closer, because there’s nothing about the work to be gleaned from seeing its processed image devolve into pixels. Art in person is more expository, it tells a longer, more nuanced story.
Where I am right now, I have to travel 75 miles for a museum, and I do so without prejudice. Its a small, three room space, but the director is fantastic. We became fast friends and she’s making the proverbial silk purse from a sow’s ear. She’s all about solution, and only mentions her budget in the context of how she subverts it. That’s a real arts professional. She once mentioned an idea for a show that sounded more like something that would happen at MoMA than a tiny little museum in the middle of nowhere. I thought she was just spinning fantasies, but then she started explaining where the work would come from. She was serious; she’ll make it happen. The depth of knowledge about what was collected around her, which she acquired very rapidly, and the determination to historicize it in her museum blew me away. I have never seen that level of curatorial talent in Portland. Nothing. Even. Close.
I’ll check out art anywhere. In inspecting a building for investment purposes, I noticed a tenant’s paintings that I felt added depth to the staid dialog of identity. I flagged her in my mind, if I can find or create the right circumstances, I’ll contact her about exhibition. It’s just about looking closely, trying your best to understand what the work is doing and how it fits with the dialogs you want to interrogate at a given moment.