Twenty-One Years of Studios: Friends of Carton Service

Cathedral Park Place, 6635 N. Baltimore, Sat-Sun noon-6 pm, through July 25

It's not really fair to evaluate Twenty-One Years of Studios: Friends of Carton Services as a traditional art exhibition. To do so would be like sending a restaurant critic to a block party potluck dinner--but only if the potluck had invited the critic and guests in the guise of traditional fine dining. Twenty-One Years of Service is a dinner party in art-show drag, though, and deserves attention as such. This summer's first mega-exhibition sports a press release longer than most Vanity Fair celebrity profiles, a snazzy panoramic invitation, cooperation from scores of celebrated local artists, and the same setting as last year's Modern Zoo blow-out. But when you get down to the meat of this overdressed club sandwich, you're faced with two conclusions, neither of which are very pretty: either this is one of the worst "big" shows to come down the pipe in ages, or a disastrous experiment in Portland's proclivity for placing community participation ahead of quality.

Here's the back story: for the past 21 years, the Unkeles family, who owns the box company known as Carton Services, has rented their surplus warehouse spaces to artists for little money and with extra generosity and compassion not usually extended to broke artists, who generally keep weird hours and play bad music very loudly. The Unkeles turned blind eyes to artists who hosted the Modern Zoo in the building they're now calling Cathedral Park Place, and gave Haze Gallery a rent break big enough that Jack Shimko was able to build the best looking art gallery in the Northwest.

So for the 21st anniversary of the family's involvement in the arts, they decided to throw a big bash celebrating the artists who have rented from them, as well as their own goodwill. In what is being billed as an "historic exhibition," more than 150 current and former tenants are showing their work this month at Cathedral Park Place. Are the acts of the Unkeles family generous, wonderful, and worth celebrating? You betcha. Is the resulting art show worth a drive to St. Johns? Not hardly.

The bulk of the work in Twenty-One Years can be lumped into one of three categories: purely amateur, Saturday Market, or community college student show. The vast show includes two crucifixion scenes, countless faux-Impressionistic watercolors, paintings of the Steel Bridge, a gaudy steel sculpture of a fish whose tail flaps when you crank a giant joystick, New Age pencil drawings, loads of generic and uninspired abstract paintings, a mechanically illuminated bird from the Oregon Zoo's ZooLights program, and an incredibly long time-lapse video of the Fox Tower being constructed, set to a wannabe Fatboy Slim beat.

"But Chas," I can hear already. "It's not about whether the work is good or bad. It's about community and everybody getting to participate, and nobody feeling left out."

While Twenty-One Years of Studios is the most recent example of this "no artist left behind" mentality, the attitude is as pervasive in the Portland art world as Pabst Blue Ribbon. Last year's Modern Zoo is probably the next most inclusive exhibition in memory, where the goal seemed to be filling hundreds of thousands of square feet without any thought given to quality control. Dozens of these invitation-based exhibitions pop up every year in Portland. As long as artists are willing to conform to whatever goofy concept is arranged (design a deck of cards, make a piece of art exactly one square foot, create an artwork about the number "one," etc.) hundreds of people will show up to the opening and be too polite to say that 99% of it is crap.

It's the same mentality of Little League soccer where each child must play in every game, no points are counted, and everyone is celebrated as a winner at the end. If this sounds like an acceptable and desirable model to base the art world on, then we're simply not on the same page. The way I see it, it is a field of uncoordinated, unskilled players who are too emotionally immature not to be taken out for a "winning team" pizza party after every game, and who are being cowered over by ultra-protective parents who lock their children in some life-skill deprivation bubble. True, the kids may be having fun on the playing field, but it's a game that nobody else is interested in, designed to shelter pre-adolescent minds and egos.