The Best Coast

Portland, OR

Although The Best Coast is now closed (and was located, when it was briefly open, 170 miles south of Seattle), it's worth noticing that it happened. While not explicitly a response to the upcoming multi-institution Baja to Vancouver, historically it will seem like one: a show of (mostly) emerging West Coast artists, meant to provide a kind of proof of and rebuttal to the idea of the West Coast artist, as well as a rebuttal to current curatorial practices.

Jeff Jahn, an artist and The Best Coast's curator, has worked hard to establish himself as a provocateur-about-town; I found an old flier posted outside a gallery, with the following notice: "Citizen Jahn: a know-it-all art critic discusses the Portland art scene and satirizes Orson Welles," complete with picture of Jahn looking suitably mysterious, his cockscomb of white-blond hair cresting over his high, pale forehead. His dramatic excesses can partly be overlooked in light of the tremendous energy he brought to this show; certainly, over the course of a single night, I have never been part of so many lively arguments about what constitutes a local art scene, what pushes it forward, and whether someone like Jahn is or isn't necessary to make that happen.

On the other hand, the show was what is politely called a mixed bag, and it might also be said that Jahn as a curator hasn't been the artists' best advocate. As he made clear to me, he didn't curate The Best Coast by choosing works that he liked, but rather by choosing artists whom he liked--and letting them install whatever work they wanted. The reason for this approach registers as a kind of dare: Jahn believes the future of art lies not at the whim of curators in overcurated shows, but in the hands of the artists themselves. (Certainly last year's artist-assembled LAVA was nicely installed and had a great deal of impact.) It is possible, however, to undercurate, and The Best Coast called out for a firmer hand.

There was a jarring divide between sophisticated commercial gallery-style art and a more punk-rock ethic that spurns aesthetics in favor of more immediately felt experience. I'm not suggesting that these two ethics can't coexist in a single show, or that if they do, they should necessarily be comfortable; but here, instead of being provocative, it just felt thoughtless, and handicapped much of the good work and all of the mediocre. The DIY work made the polished work look slick and impenetrable; the polished work made the DIY camp seem shabby (an installation made up of a tarp maze with three rooms illustrating choice and destiny seemed particularly pointless).

Laura Fritz's video was shown in an ersatz black plastic tent; I had seen, earlier that day, a gorgeous installation of her work at Soundvision: tables lit from below, displaying jellylike objects (and an unforgettable moving, crackling hairball) in a pristine gallery that receded into the background. The black plastic tent, by contrast, seemed hapless and jury-rigged and distracting. Robert Yoder was not shown to his best advantage with a pillar covered in his signature wallpaper; even his road-sign constructions would have been lost in the visual clutter of the space. Harrell Fletcher and Felipe Dulzaides showed similar videos: the former's of a hand opening to display different objects (a cracker, a ball of cellophane that crackles open and then flies away); the latter's of different objects blown away by the artist's breath--both inventories of randomness, quite visually alike.

The only work that seemed at ease in this setting--a loft-style space, all windows and no walls, the work entirely at the mercy of shifting natural light--was Matthew Picton's. One of his cracked lakebed sculptures hung in front of a window, with light piercing the plastic spheres from both directions, the chaos of the lines set against the grid of the window. Picton trained a tendril of the sculpture around a pipe, and then had it disappear through a hole in the ceiling, making the work seem like an elegant, adaptive animal.

Jahn, at any rate, seemed pleased with the show's sense of dislocation ("I never fit in anywhere," he told me); perhaps the uprooting of art and artists from comfortable contexts will be the enduring West Coast theme.