If you read my last post, you may have noticed I don’t write fluff. I love art well enough to take the derided-as-silly seriously, and the proclaimed-as-serious critically. I’m not going to applaud Disjecta for Portland14 and list the work I enjoyed best because you can find that kind of art writing from any publication these days, if they still offer art “reviews”, and because I’m not so pompous as to think my personal taste is always interesting to my readers.
As the Biennial comes to a close I do want to share with you what I’ve been noticing and thinking about for the past month, and that is Portland14’s geographic distribution. Despite Disjecta’s spacious location in the North Kenton neighborhood most of the exhibition and events venues are in proximity to the Northwest Pearl district. Fortunately, Disjecta published a Portland14 guide that included a map of their dispersed exhibition landscape. Before we get into that though, let’s go over the groundwork.
The Portland14 Biennial, curated by Amanda Hunt from Los Angeles, “celebrates Oregon artists who are defining and advancing contemporary art practices”. As Jeff Jahn over at Portlandart.net points out, the gender ratio is imbalanced and the list reads like a who’s who of who’s already gotten a ton of institutional recognition. In light of Oregon/PDX history and its impact on institutional preferences, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised Portland14 lags even farther behind on representing artists of color.
My count is three: Dieng is Senegalese, Vanhouten-Maldanado has “Mexican heritage”, and if Pugay is some kind of AAPI then you’ve got some solid token representation there. Where race and gender intersect is the most noticeable absence: zer0 women of color. Were someone to calculate the numbers, and were the mathematician so inclined, one could argue this is representative of Portland’s racial makeup. Of course on top of being racist and sexist for attempting to justify such disparity, they’d be wrong. Women compose over half of any given human population, including our own diverse communities.
These potholes in representation are serious and significant. Finding our way around them to arrive at meaning requires mapping Portland14’s exhibition spaces onto the city’s history of urban renewal. Readers beware; here there be Gentrification. Portland14’s geographic heart is the Northwest, with an emphasis on the Pearl District, and with token locations in the city’s remaining quadrants. PSU represents Southwest, the public art billboards occupy the east side: north and south of Burnside, “The Best Art Gallery in Portland” is on NE Alberta, and Disjecta itself is right off of N Interstate. Once an industrial area full of warehouses, the Pearl is now known for commercial art galleries, fine dining and happy hour, and retail boutiques. Like its namesake and the walls of its galleries, the chosen heart of the biennial is smooth and white.
The Pearl district was gentrified long enough ago its pre-history has faded from Portland’s public narrative. White and easily palatable like a saltine, the story goes that the Pearl district has always been what it is. It’s a silent daily communion for those who haven’t lived through cycles of demolition and development. Without regular references to the area’s history the myth becomes easy for a white person to believe, since not knowing to look beneath today’s facade for the brick laid yesterday is the sign and symptom of whiteness. After all, its relationship to history is that of modernity’s: ignoring and outright eradicating the past in an attempt to recreate itself from nothing.
This collective belief in the illusion of whiteness as a-historical, and therefore marked by everything clean, bright, modern, is the delusion that fuels what developers call ‘urban revitalization”. Recognizable from city to city for a common pattern of diffusion from the “center” of the city outwards along major transportation routes, gentrification pushes communities of color out of the heart, and attention, of city centers. The Portland14 map shows just such a progression from the Pearl, the beautiful but useless byproduct of irritation, along Burnside.
An outline will help us understand this encroachment and it’s relationship to the art scene . We begin in the Pearl, at Upfor Gallery, where Ellen Lesperance’s intricate sweater works are spaced over her beautiful shawl paintings that cover the gallery walls to create an encompassing installation experience for the viewer. Were the show not apart of a larger institutional event, it would be easy for me to admire her work for being inspired by archivist activist footage by which she “memorializes the glory of effective resistance in an effort that these moments do not vanish from popular memory”. However, Portland14’s dearth of representation distracts me from fully appreciating Lesperance’s processes and materials. In addition, I can’t help but suspect the accolades of a ‘solo show’ that ends before the rest of the exhibitions are taken down.
Within walking distance is the University of Oregon’s PDX offshoot. White Box Gallery‘s location in the transitional Old Town neighborhood is emblematic of how the biennial maps the Pearl’s mythology onto Brooklyn’s artistic and economic development. All three of the white, male artists exhibited there have “moved on” to Brooklyn, that east-coast hotbed of experimental art venues, hipster Bohemia, and class conflict. That all three of the artists have moved to New York to advance their careers reinforces the idea of Portland as a regional feeding lot for young artists until they’re ready to make it in a big (re: important) city.
As we ambulate over the Burnside Bridge, enjoying the view as we cross the river, to the east-side we come across three public art billboards. Two of them represent work by all of the artists of color I listed above. To the curator’s credit, she gave the collaborating artists additional exhibition space at the flagship location.
Located by driving or taking the Yellow max line up N Interstate Ave., Disjecta’s location in the historically African-American Kenton neighborhood is another example of what’s pushing Portland gentrification off the road. Despite the other artists best attempts, Tranquillo, Dieng and Vanhouten-Maldanado’s monumentally scaled mixed media mural of Reggie’s Barber Shop on NE MLK, is the only work that fills the gallery’s vast space and high ceiling. Their layering of color and graphics abstract the work’s figures without eliminating their form. The walls are tagged with peace signs, African masks are papered over where faces once were, and a neon lighted crown illuminates prints of a sparring boxer. There is dissonance between historical components that are individually recognizable, but which cohere into a narrative told in a language that remains undecipherable no matter how hard the viewer looks.
Finally we return to the map that tempted me into this rabbit-hole. Looking at Portland14’s print media and exhibition design, I notice someone chose to display the city to be viewed from E-W, instead of the usual N-S orientation. I find this distracts viewers from noticing the biennial’s, and Portland’s, progression from the city center to outlying neighborhoods that I’ve just sketched. While Portland14’s layout mirrors the topography of gentrification, with white artists inside the idyllic urban center while artists of color are pushed to the city margins, and often outside the gallery altogether, we needn’t continue to reduce art’s vision and imagination to colonization and consumption.
Food and agricultural economies have been responding to the threat posed by industrial scaled production by emphasizing local and regional connections. These precedents recognizing the communities all around us can provide road-maps to can guide the cultivation of vibrant cultural networks without relying on outdated notions of center vs. margin, inside vs. outside. I’m new to the City of Roses but I know there are more creative cultures thriving within our urban landscape than the small section I’ve seen thus far, and that Disjecta’s Portland14 Biennial represents.
Ultimately, The more we mimic the form and function of those great ‘cultural centers’ such as NYC, the more Portland loses her own sense of history and identity, from which great art germinates. In the meantime we are left with the basest facsimile of a cultural colony, which disturbs the topsoil of old-growth communities and reseeds it with a simple, fast-growing grass. Plush beneath our feet, it chokes out the diversity that preceded it.