Portland is not New York. Obviously. In the 20th century, world-renowned movements born in New York City ranged from abstract expressionism to Fluxus and pop art. But in the 21st century, there has been a marked shift toward more decentralized art practices that are not tied to a particular geographic epicenter. The incipient visual arts scene in Portland has been considered provincial, but some say it is on the brink of a tantalizing but uncertain future. With the proliferation of first and last Thursday art openings and the recent birth of First Fridays, there is a sense that everyone is an “artist” and anything can be deemed “art.”
Portland is now standing in a distinctive position. With the influx of artists and proliferation of galleries, Portland is becoming a source for new perspectives on contemporary art on the West Coast.
The Vanguard brought together two faculty members from the Portland State art department to discuss their perspectives on the past, present and future of the visual arts scenein Portland. Harrell Fletcher hails from the Bay area and has lived in the Portland area since 2000. Horia Boboia is originally from Romania, lived in Los Angeles in the early 1980s, and has lived in Portland for more than a decade.
What perceptions did you have about art in Portland when you first arrived?
Horia Boboia: Back in those days it was pretty dormant. Except for the Portland Art Institute in the old city – it was the only venue in town that exposed the public to something unusual. There were probably two or three galleries at that time quite similar to the way the east side is just coming up right now. Every time I was here I said this is a place I would never live. I guess the city changed and I guess my needs, my perspectives changed as well.
Harrell Fletcher: It was clear that there were fewer institutions than there were in the Bay area, but people were really friendly and enthusiastic and I wasn’t too concerned about Portland having an established art world. In a way, I was glad Portland was more low-key. There wasn’t any sort of dominant figure, the way there is in the Bay area or Los Angeles. There was a very established music scene, theater scene, literary scene, film scene and dance scene. The stuff that was going on in the visual arts was much more collaborative and grassroots.
Do you consider yourself a part of an artistic community here in Portland, and where does it extend to and where does it draw its limits? You both have international careers so I want to know what the role of artistic community is in your lives here in Portland.
HB: I like to believe I am a part of an artistic community, but on the other hand I think its important to be down to earth in the sense that for sure artists live in a community, one that welcomes you and gives you some sort of feedback. Portland provides that to you, but there is no stone left unturned, very little that stands undone in this city. No mystery, there are no real surprises. Arts institutions consume themselves very fast. There is this bubble and then people become complacent about it all.
Where do you find your artistic community as a post-studio artist?
HF: It’s pretty broad. It’s true I don’t have a studio; I just don’t work in that way. Projects happen in lots of different places. I have more friends in the art world in New York than I do here, so if I go there I do more art world things. But I identify myself as a Portland artist now, and people are curious about that out in the world. I think in a way it’s sort of exotic.
What about your community? Where do you feel it lies?
HF: A lot of people from the Bay area and elsewhere are moving here – artists, writers and others. For me it’s a relief to not be dealing with all of these art world people here. I want to help Portland develop its visual art community/world/scene, whatever it is, but it’s not crucial to me. I would like to see it benefit others. As a teacher, I want students to have opportunities, and artists that I meet here; I want them to have opportunities. I hope that it becomes a more solid place for artists, it seems like its headed in that direction.
What do you feel are Portland’s artistic eccentricities and cultural assets that should be nurtured?
HB: This “fringe-ness,” always a little bit outside the loop. It gives you a little independence and gives you a place of your own. People are not bothering us, but we can bother ourselves. That’s a good thing. It implies some sort of courage to operate not from the center, but outside the center. I don’t think we have character that you can point on and say, “this is Portland style,” because of this decentralized atmosphere that we live in. There is a kind of immediateness, a sort of Northwest low-profile type of attitude that has a link to other things that are happening culturally here. What is working for Portland is a certain package, easy living, it’s not that expensive. It’s my opinion that we benefit mostly from this influx of young people in the last 10 years.
HF: Everyone says Portland is a livable city, and I think there’s truth to that. A sense of being in a small town with larger sort of cosmopolitan kinds of things that people want to have access to. There’s this appreciation for just doing something and sticking to it, having a long-term relationship with it, as opposed to being hot and successful. That’s one of the benefits of being here; well it’s both a benefit and a deficit because occasionally there’s a lack of aggressiveness towards wanting to push ahead.
HB: Intensity. Yes. It never gets very intense.
There’s an outside perception that people in Portland are slower.
HF: Well, the whole West Coast, from an Easterner’s perspective.
Is the slowness an asset or a weakness, or neither?
HF: To be an artist on the West Coast is like a normal thing; it’s like, isn’t everybody? But to make a living as an artist is almost unheard of. On the East Coast it’s a much more viable thing and there are fewer people who would make the claim to be an artist. Being an artist has a certain respect and cultural value.
Where do you think the contemporary art scene in Portland is headed?
HB: It’s happening, I don’t know if we are going to break the sound barrier. I don’t think we are going to make that splash or anything. It’s good and bad. Some galleries like Liz Leach are bringing along a more established way. There are some gutsy people, from PICA and some smaller galleries like Chambers. The Art Center looks promising for now. There are some signals that we have hope.
HF: I think it’s going to slowly develop. Hopefully no one is going to get too excited. And sort of – there’s no real way to blow it. The worst sort of thing about Portland really is when people are attempting to make it something that it’s not, to do this self-aggrandizing activity. Being pretentious about it, rather than just being realistic. I think it’s a big mistake for people in Portland to attempt that sort of thing. There are two problems in Portland: one is putting on airs, and the other is the provincial element. It’s like some people don’t know post-modernism has happened or something. I think people need to be a little more bold, show out of town, get out of town a little bit.
HB: Institutions such as Portland State should be more active, participate and take on a more visible role in shaping the city’s visual arts scene. There’s not much help coming from the state, that’s for sure.
HF: I think Portland State has the potential to be a great institution within the city. It has all of this incredible potential, but for some reason the larger administration must not be valuing the art department very much, considering the facilities that we’ve been given currently. With some really minor gestures from the larger administration we could suddenly have a really great art department, graduate program, gallery and all kinds of things. As we can see with the example of the lecture series that happened last year and will start again on Monday, we can easily put on something like that.
HB: It will benefit the community. It’s a well-known fact. There is a responsibility for us to assume that role because we are an educational institution in the center of the city. Why not take the leadership and become a center of sorts for the arts in Portland?