Saturday, September 1, 2007

Camouflage at PAM (I can't stand the slaughter, but still I patronize the arts.)

I eat chicken, so I can't get too upset if a few hundred butterflies are sacrificed for art. I do find it odd that the Portland Art Museum web site describes the butterfly wings on the new Damien Hirst art as "naturally-shed".

The Portland Art Museum is showing Camouflage, an exhibition of eight paintings exploring the use of pattern. This is a rare exhibit at the PAM that disappoints me. Before its opening, Jeff Jahn called it "Portland's must see contemporary group show of the summer." (Update, 10/17/07.) I had similar expectations, but I wasn't impressed by most of the pieces, least of all the Warhol and Hirst. My reaction is that with the exception of the Philip Taffe paintings, the show is somewhat banal.

I've been searching for artists that have used pattern to see if I can find any that I like. Michael Kidner may be one; also, early Larry Poons paintings with the little ellipses. Otherwise, I'm having trouble coming up with any.

The Warhol that gives the exhibit its title is the least consequential Warhol I can think of. It's a 37-foot long painting of a camouflage pattern, from 1986. It's both banal and ugly. On a good day, camouflage doesn't do much for me. John Motley, in the Portland Mercury says, "Certainly, it's a kind of final statement of irony for an artist so obsessed with repetition and color. But it also embodies the exhibition's central tension, straddling a line between self-signifying decorum and sublimated expression." Thinking along those lines, maybe I didn't like the show because the works are either decoration or they sublimate expression to the point that little is left but banality.

Then there's the new Damien Hirst, a tacky collage of butterfly wings. This is among the many horrible ideas that come from one of our most overrated artists. It's certainly not ugly, thanks to the butterflies, but coming from Hirst it's banal, or at least trite, in my opinion. So the wings are stuck to cathedral window shaped boards. Supposedly they are "naturally-shed" butterfly wings. Hmmm. Did Hirst didn't spend the last couple of years collecting dead butterflies? This is the same artist that had the bad idea to create an installation of caterpillars and canvases covered with sugar solution and glue. The caterpillars turned into butterflies, and then stuck to the canvases. Here are a couple of links to more on Hirst butterfly art, with no reference to the "naturally-shed": Gargosian Gallery, "Hirst accused of sadism. . ." The Gargosian site says the butterflies symbolize the "inherent fragility of life." Yes, to a wingless butterfly, life is certainly fragile.

Also, there's some evidence that this isn't an original idea. L.A. artist Lori Precious has been doing stained glass butterfly wings for ten years. Should she be in the show instead of Hirst? Personally, I'd like to see Portland declare that they've fulfilled their quota of Hirst showings for the next half-century or so. Also, in 1988, Tom Marioni created The Golden Wing, a collage of butterfly wings on wood.

There are a couple of Christopher Wool paintings, and Agnes Martins. I want to like Agnes Martin's work, being a proud fan of minimal art, but I think her work usually drains all the excitement out of minimalism.

The only work that I didn't find either banal or ugly is the snake painting from Philip Taaffe. Still, his other contribution is not particularly appealing.

Nevertheless, I wholeheartedly appreciate the effort by PAM (curator Bruce Guenther) to gather small but relevant shows like this. Pattern painting is what it is. It deserves to be seen, and a small grouping such as Camouflage is at least representative. Besides, there have been numerous small but excellent shows at PAM since I arrived in Portland: Leonard Baskin, Wes Mills, Minimalism/Post Minimalism, The Drawn Line. Read more from Jeff Jahn about PAM's new exhibition philosophy here.

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