Last fall the anonymously written Try Harder PDX, a website (tryharderpdx.com) claiming to be “Portland’s only serious source for art criticism,” surfaced online. The pieces on the review blog bounced from brainy walkthroughs of shows to surprisingly detailed criticisms of local nonprofits, schools, and galleries. The writing, though sometimes incendiary, became an immediate topic of conversation among local artists for its compelling, brusque honesty and educated critique.
The author of the Try Harder PDX allowed the Mercury to interview them via email about their reasons behind the project and their ideas on the binding ties of provincialism, how to energize local artists, and why Portland needs to try harder.
MERCURY: Why did you decide to start a blog of art criticism for Portland?
TRY HARDER PDX: Frustration is pretty much the story. Frustration with seeing artists’ growth stunted by lack of honest feedback. Frustration at heads turning away when somebody expresses a critical opinion about an artwork, as if just hearing a negative thought might cause injury.
I tried to use a skill I had to give Portland something I thought it needed. Portland [has] a rather established scene that’s receding because no one has really made the case for what art does and why it should be supported. 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, we still matter.
Your writing is anonymous. Why? 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 critical thinkers who can evaluate a text to make an informed judgment. When I used to write monthly for two different art magazines, people who knew my writing treated me as a contact, a delicate conduit to some ragged notion of exposure. I welcomed the chance to use a persona, to perform thoughts in a way I couldn’t while writing for an advertising-driven publication.
Plenty of people know who I am. It’s 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.
Try Harder PDX has labeled galleries as operating “from self-interest” and nonprofits 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 Art is the best from a values perspective. Nationale also falls into the category of artists first.
What are examples of other cities in the US with energizing, well-funded, thriving arts scenes? Who is Portland being compared to?
Your question promotes the falsity that capital is the only thing keeping Portland from being New York. From my perspective, complaints of poor funding are just deflecting bad management. Portland will never be New York, but it should strive to create the best possible conditions for its artists. Vision is far more the issue than money; both patrons and artists need to be more critical and vocal about where arts money goes.
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 artist’s statement, or take the work in a different direction? 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.
Why leave the house to look at art? 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 and a bit of flash. It’s all Alexis slapping Krystle. There’s no possibility of looking closer because there’s nothing to be gleaned from seeing a processed image devolve into pixels. Art in person is more expository. It tells a longer, more nuanced story. I’ll check out art anywhere. It’s just about looking closely, trying your best to understand what the work is doing, and how it fits with the dialogues you want to interrogate at a given moment.