In Varied and Particular Ways
Portland Art Museum, 1219 SW Park, 226-2811, through July 8
Apair of exhibitions at the Portland Art Museum typify two very different approaches to connoisseurship. The front galleries house Location/ Dislocation: Contemporary Prints from the Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer, a selection of conservative yet impressive prints that includes works on paper by David Hockney, Richard Diebenkorn, Judy Pfaff, and loads of other big names that should be familiar to anyone who has taken a twentieth-century art history class. In the museum's basement, In Varied and Particular Ways presents an extensive selection of early photographic experiments that could easily be called The History of Photography They Wish You Would Forget. This charming and sometimes hilarious show illustrates many of the aesthetic and conceptual concerns facing the first two or three generations of humans ever to witness a photographic image.
To read the roster of artists included in Location/Dislocation, one would think they were stepping into twentieth century nirvana. How often do Portlanders get to see shows that include James Rosenquist, Jasper Johns, Lynda Benglis, and Julian Opie? Not often enough, to be certain. Yet the effect produced by the show is disappointing, like getting concert tickets to see your favorite group, who proceed to play only their minor hits, never giving you the chance to fully rock out.
Print studios often invite painters and sculptors to create an editioned set of prints at no charge in exchange for being able to sell a few of the prints once the run is over. This has two primary results: collectors can buy artwork at a fraction of what a painting would cost; and artists get to create work that they don't have to invest themselves as heavily in as they would a ten square foot painting, for instance. There are countless exceptions to this generalization, plenty of which are on view here, but when one compares Lichtenstein's Bedroom woodcut/ screenprint with his Postmodern Interior canvas from last year's UBS PaineWebber show, there is no comparison. Yet, even when many of these artists give it less than their all, they manage to produce works that outshine so much more than any of us could hope to accomplish.
Standout prints include two astonishing Richard Diebenkorn color woodcuts, which do hold their own with his best paintings. Executed by Japanese craftsmen trained in 17th century ukiyo-e woodcuts, Blue and Ochre utilize a layering of opaque tones to create a brushy, painterly effect. Two younger artists, Julian Opie and Sarah Morris have strong showings of stylized, hard-edge color screenprints, both of which appear to derive from computer drafting. I have never seen a work of art by Vija Celmins that didn't silence me, and her untitled, horizon-less landscape from 1971 is no exception, and any day you get to see a Francis Bacon in the flesh is a good day indeed.
Is it possible for any of us to imagine never having witnessed a photographic image? Look at all the photographs that surround you as you read this--what must it have been like when people first encountered this magic box that could chemically capture the likeness of anything you pointed it at? In Varied and Particular Ways examines some of the photographic output from this curious and profoundly experimental era. These are not the iconic landmarks of Beaumont Newhall's photo history. Instead, curator Terry Toedtemeier has unearthed dozens of rare, revealing prints that chronicle photography's technological and ideological evolution. There are the familiar death portrait daguerreotypes, whose shimmering surfaces make even the most robust sitters look ghostly, and there are also the ultra-high speed photographs of Harold Edgerton, whose milk drops capture an entirely different sort of passing moment. A crystalline panorama depicts an underwater atomic bomb testing from 1946, while across the gallery, an 1885 albumen print provides the first photographic record of the caked and crusty dog excavated from Pompeii, one white fang sticking out defiantly. There are crude trick photographs as well--the imaginary Finest Animal You Ever Saw, as well as the trio of apples so large as to fit only three per railroad car.
In Varied and Particular Ways is a risk-taking exhibit that could have only been executed by someone intimately concerned with the questions that arise when silver tarnishes into recognizable imagery. CHAS BOWIE