As in Seattle, Portland's art galleries host a monthly "First Thursday" gallery walk, opening their doors after the work day to an assortment of pedestrians. Many are friends of the artists whose work hang on the walls; others are simply curious to set eyes on art that is produced in their own community.
In Seattle, the walk was initially conceived as a means of drawing people to a neighborhood they might not otherwise visit, and I suspect this was once the case in Portland as well. But just like Seattle's Pioneer Square, Portland's Pearl District has long since become a destination for people of better means. As night began to fall, my visiting friend Brian and I decided to get a taste of Portland's reputedly hot art scene.
Since I began observing the region's art scene 13 years ago, I have known many of Seattle's most important artists to show in Portland galleries. When I was involved with the now-defunct Reflex magazine, I would frequently head down to Portland to see exhibits, meet artists, or to confer with our contributing editor Lois Allan. There were then (and still are) many great figures in the city, including painter Michael Brophy. As Portland's fortunes have risen, I was expecting to see some changes taking places on the walls which might reflect positively on the city's growth and gentrification.
There was, to be sure, much fine work to take in and some considerable dreck. But general speaking, the art on the gallery walls seemed a bit more conservative than what one might find in Seattle. Certainly one can expect to see lots of excellent work in both cities that might just as easily been created five, ten, or 20 years ago, but Portland lacks the gravitational pull of an ambitious Lawrimore Project, a confident Howard House, a risk-taking James Harris, or an established yet completely current Greg Kucera.
I wasn't exactly taken with Hap Tivey's light boxes at Leach Gallery, but rather liked Barbara Sternberger's abstract paintings in the back room. I could never quite understand Leach's sensibility back in the 1990s, and I guess I still don't today. Pulliam Deffenbaugh was showing a strange trio of artists — realist Thomas Conway, abstract painter Linda Geary, and the more decorative, flower-obsessed Casey Watson &msash; whose disparate presence together caused me some confusion. It is difficult to imagine a major gallery in Seattle representing or even exhibiting these three together. (I did enjoy Watson's paintings, however.)
Next door, PDX was showing a rather uninspired series of thick, textured oils by Molly Vidor. Seattle painter Alfred Harris had a show at Froelick that was pleasing to behold, while Augen opted not to feature locals this month, showcasing prints by Vanity Fair-profiled Caio Fonseca and some guy named Pablo Picasso.
The most promising venue I visited was the Tilt Gallery and Project Space. Lauren Clay's three dimensional paper structures — which allude both to the high ideals of Modernism and the consumable utilitarian comforts of everyday life — were a breath of fresh air. Are there more storefronts like this out there? My tour of Portland's galleries and art spaces was far from exhaustive (I missed the Art Gym at Marylhurst, the venerable Laura Russo, and no doubt countless other places I've probably not even heard of), so I better consider doing this again.
Overwhelmed by the growing crowds that had turned out to look at art (in the rain), we decided to have dinner at the Bread and Ink, a place I frequented in my student days at Reed College. We drove past the Portland Chinese Garden and saw what appeared to be a night-time flower sale taking place beneath the rain and bright lights. After dining quietly in the nearly empty Hawthorne restaurant, we returned to the Jupiter Hotel, where we were to face another night of inefficient climate control and loud partying in the upstairs suite. Next day, I headed back to town, but not before being startled at the sight of a skeletal, spectre-like horse standing near the side of the road. Coming to my senses, I realized I was looking at a Deborah Butterfield sculpture partially illuminated by the distant street lights. It was time to go home.
I have always had a deep affection for this city, where I spent what were the most formative years of my adult life. As Seattle grew increasingly wealthy and intoxicated with itself in the years that followed, I would look to self-contented Portland as a place that had somehow gotten it right. But during this trip I began to wonder if something had gone awry; if Portland had come down with the same maladies and delusions that had afflicted Seattle before the dot-com bubble-burst diminished its inflated self-importance. If so, I'm sure they'll get over it.This article originally appeared in the Artdish blog. Artdish, edited by Jim Demetre, is a Northwest forum of visual arts.