Portland Art Museum, 1219 SW Park, through February 15
I magine going to a museum exhibition of, say, a photographer of little significance to the current dialogue--Edward Weston for example. Besides wondering why Weston--a historically important figure, to be sure, but a straight-up Modernist whose practices and aesthetics have been well-covered and bear small relevance to the contemporary climate--should be having a major museum show right now, you notice another curious decision. The exhibition is cluttered with darkroom test strips, alternate prints in which the photographer darkened the sky, and variations on the same photos with differing levels of contrast. It's an academic packrat of an exhibition. Now change the words "photographs" to "woodcuts" and "Edward Weston" to "Helen Frankenthaler," and what you have is the current show at the Portland Art Museum.
For some reason known only to printmakers and their most die-hard enthusiasts, it is acceptable, and even encouraged, to produce and display variation after variation of the same print within their medium. The PAM basement, where half of the Frankenthaler exhibition is located, contains twelve prints or related drawings corresponding to Frankenthaler's Essence Mulberry, ten to Grove, five to Clearing, and five to Cedar Hill. What is this madness? I have neither need nor desire to see a dozen variants on the same abstract design. Who cares if one is grape, one currant, and another blueberry? This Behind the Music approach to art display is an exhausting reflection of museums' tendencies to beat us over the heads with educational material, rather than serving as a repository of great artwork. I understand that museums have educational departments, and they would be remiss if there wasn't something connected to the show explaining how woodcuts are printed, but to show every step of the process, each with the same prominence as the final result, is both tedious and pandering. Then, to top it off, five more versions of the same print follow.
The main floor's foyer gallery hosts the exhibition's strongest work: Frankenthaler's paintings and their derivative prints from the past ten years. Still trafficking in the thin washes for which she became famous, the artist now paints on warm-toned wood panels. Madame Butterfly, 2000, is an uncommonly beautiful and lyrical abstraction. With chalky whites, traces of Yves Klein blue, electric fuchsias, and muted golds, Frankenthaler demonstrates that she can still (no spring chicken, she) paint organic, non-conceptual abstraction as well as, if not better than any point in her career. From 1995, the Tales of the Genji series of paintings actually recall those of local painter Michelle Ross, with their wonderfully abject doodles and lines on wood. Besides Ross, another 2002 Oregon Biennial artist comes to mind--Cynthia Star, who like Frankenthaler, paints thin washes over the seductive grainy surfaces of wood panels to allow the board to become an active part of the painting.
The show is called Helen Frankenthaler: The Woodcuts, though, and not Helen Frankenthaler: The Late Paintings, and this is where the show gets funny. Next to each abstract painting on wood panel hangs a startlingly precise replica of it in woodcut. In what I assume is a very difficult and technically virtuosic stroke, the wood grain has been printed on paper in trompe l'oeil fashion, and each brushstroke and mark has been duplicated as well, to the exact same size. Standing in front of the pair, then the original painting and its subsequent (yet more affordable) doppleganger, one is forced, consciously or not, to choose a favorite. The prints, then, take on a conceptual slant about visual perception in the same vein of Chuck Close and Vik Muñiz, although Frankenthaler has no intentions on becoming a visual trickster. I began to imagine the woodcut imposters as a tribute band, like England's These Charming Men, who have built a career on the music, mood, and performances of Morrissey and The Smiths. If we were to see the two bands back to back--the original and its faithful copycat--would it be possible to prefer the second? I think out of perversity, yes. To honor adolescent lip-syncing sessions in front of the mirror, the willfully flaccid refusal to create original work, an admiration of the craft of forgery, and for various postmodern deceits that we can file under "simulation and simulacra"--yes, I believe we can. None of these, however, are heaps of great praise to thrust upon a major museum exhibition. CHAS BOWIE