Whitney Biennial

The Week: Art is where you look

From Eastern Oregon to a paint-out on the coast to queer opera and TBA Fest in Portland to the streets of New York, art is all around us

THE ARTS WORLD MIGHT BE FINANCIALLY FRAGILE, with a tenuous toehold on the economic stepstool, but art and culture are all around us, wherever we look – and certainly, wherever ArtsWatch’s writers look. Carnegie libraries-turned-community-art-centers in Eastern Oregon. Street art and “high” art having a deep-in-the-trenches conversation in New York. Dancers in the woods near Astoria and a landscape paint-off in Cannon Beach. Queer Opera in Portland, a virtuoso theatrical solo turn in Clackamas County, Pavarotti on the radio, contemporary performance art at PICA’s TBA Festival in Portland, a great photographer imprinted on the nation’s memory. And really, we haven’t begun to scratch the surface of things.

Pendleton Center for the Arts, in a former Carnegie Library. In the
home of the Pendleton Round-Up, Randy Gundlach’s horse statue by
the entrance adds a Western touch. Photo: David Bates

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Suereth and Disjecta part ways

The founder and executive director of the North Portland contemporary arts center will leave at the end of this year

More than 15 years after Bryan Suereth founded Disjecta, he and the North Portland contemporary arts center are parting ways. Suereth, who is executive director of the sprawling former bowling alley near the Kenton neighborhood’s iconic Paul Bunyan giant statue, will leave on Dec. 31.

“Sixteen years ago I never imagined this organization would be as vital to the cultural landscape of the Pacific Northwest as it is today,” Suereth said in a prepared statement released Wednesday. “I’m extremely proud of the unique opportunities Disjecta provides to artists and patrons and of the incredible support we’ve received from this community.”

Suereth

Suereth

Neither Suereth nor the board gave a reason for his impending departure, and Suereth did not say what his plans might be.

“Bryan’s vision and energy as founder guided Disjecta successfully for over 15 years, and we are grateful for his service,” board chair Christine D’Arcy said in the same prepared release. “We are also confident and enthusiastic about Disjecta’s future.”

To many people in the contemporary arts scene, Suereth has been Disjecta’s face from its beginnings in an old Masonic Lodge on Northeast Russell Street. The move to Kenton in 2008 provided a much larger space in an out-of-the-way part of town that was beginning to revitalize. Disjecta became a key part of that rebirth. Known best for its contemporary art programming, the center has also hosted dance, theater, music, and other events. It’s also provided subsidized artist studios.

Inside the contemporary art center Disjecta.

Inside the contemporary art center Disjecta.

Disjecta and Suereth became known beyond Portland in 2003 when they assembled The Modern Zoo, at the time the largest-ever visual art exhibition in the Northwest. The center’s impact grew when it began to produce the Portland Biennial after the Portland Art Museum scrapped its long-running Oregon Biennial.

Disjecta took the idea and ran with it, giving it both more focus and a broader geographical reach. The center also instituted a curator-in-residence program, bringing in rising or well-known national curators to make the biennial choices with an outside eye. That usually has meant, among other things, visiting an extraordinary number of studios around the state. This year’s biennial was curated by Michelle Grabner, who teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and also was a co-curator of the 2014 Whitney Biennial. Grabner and Disjecta spread the 2016 biennial to sites in Portland and around the state, a decision that upset some art followers who discovered they couldn’t see the whole show in a single setting, but pleased and energized others who saw it as a smart way to create a genuinely regional event.

The executive director position will be filled on an interim basis while Disjecta conducts a national search for a new director. “We look forward to building upon a strong support base and the past successes attained under Bryan’s leadership, and look to accelerate our growth and further expand the reach and impact of Disjecta,” D’Arcy said in her statement.

The book I read was in your eyes

Anne Hamilton at Elizabeth Leach, Anna Gray and Ryan Wilson Paulsen at PDX Contemporary Art

When I first thought to write this essay for ArtsWatch, the artists for the 2014 Whitney Biennial had not yet been announced. I mention this because now I cannot consider the Portland exhibits I wish to write about without contemplating the tenor of the Whitney curators’ choices for the upcoming Biennial. Much of the art chosen is by artists who also write about art, or artists who often use text in their work, or artists who only use text in their work, and to fill out this line of thought, publishers of texts. (See the breakdown here.)

Not that I want to make claims for being prescient or any such thing, but the art that caught my eye in Portland the last two months also had much to do with writing and reading. Never mind that I am often creatively geared this way and that my own predisposition may guide me toward this type of work—I have seen a lot lately. In the last year or so I have written essays about artists who use text as a central focus of their work: Lisa Radon’s sublime ἐπί ἡμέρα (epi hemera) and Sue Tompkins’ typewritten works at Portland Museum of Modern Art and part of this year’s TBA Festival.

Now, Elizabeth Leach has an exhibit by Ann Hamilton that runs for ten weeks through January 11, plus Anna Gray and Ryan Wilson Paulsen were around the corner at PDX Contemporary Art last month. Then there is an ongoing curatorial thrust of Yale Union. While I hesitate to call it a trend, I cannot brush it off as a coincidence. Something is afoot.

Whether text (and I mean this in the broadest possible sense) is finally getting its due as the inspiration for and an element of a fair amount of art we see these days, or that the worlds of the poet, philosopher, curator, critic and artist have irrevocably melded into a Leviathan of practice, it nevertheless has me thinking.

Does building a richer inner life, namely by reading, run the danger of becoming a form of hermeticism, thereby leaving something or someone behind?

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