Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Contemporary art centers, YU, PCVA and I

YU: Let the imagining begin!
By Barry Johnson

A blank page. A guitar standing in the corner. A rehearsal room. A vast empty gallery space.

Some things take us right to the lip of creation and then give us a little push forward. We can't help it. We start to fill them, use them, in our imaginations at the very least. A great question to ask someone you think you know pretty well: How would you fill that blank page, that empty gallery?

On Friday, I dropped by the old Yale Union Laundry Building where YU, a new contemporary arts organization, makes its home.  YU was offering a trip to the past in the form of an exhibition of artifacts from one of its predecessors, the late great Portland Center for the Visual Arts, but I think that was really an indirect way of leading us to the lip of creation of something entirely new.

We entered on the first floor, which was nice and open and commodious, but we were directed upstairs for the display. When I landed in Portland in 1979, PCVA was the center of the city's small contemporary art scene. Portland had a few commercial art galleries (soon to be joined by a bunch of new ones), an artists organization or two, Blue Sky gallery for our photographers, an art school and a craft school and a craft non-profit gallery, but PCVA was the only place in the city that you could see the work of the American artists (and performers) who had changed the art world during the 1960s and 1970s, redefining art values and practices in the process.

The only place. Robert Rauchenberg, Sol LeWitt, Bruce Nauman, Agnes Martin, Trisha Brown, Vito Acconci, Ed Ruscha, Chuck Close, Robert Irwin -- we could go on and on.

Portland arts writer Lisa Radon has been working on a book about PCVA, and from the Crumpacker Family Library at the Portland Art Museum, where most of the PCVA archives went, she assembled this quick trip down memory lane with Sandra Percival and Hope Svenson. I stooped over the vitrines that contained old letters, photographs and newspaper clippings documenting some of those shows, and then I would run into old friends from that time, including Donna Milrany and David Cohen, who tried to keep PCVA going as Oregon's economy suffered its deepest Recession since the Great Depression (deeper even than our current one). Eventually, in 1987, it couldn't go on and merged with the Portland Art Museum.

At the time, I didn't realize how big a loss this was.  But as various other attempts to create a contemporary arts center with PCVA's ambition foundered in the years since, I've come to regret it more and more.  Our contemporary art scene now is far larger and better developed than it was in PCVA's time. Our college galleries are more active; so is the Portland Art Museum's interest in contemporary art. Our commercial gallery scene is more various and far bigger. The performance art/dance programming that PCVA offered has been picked up by PICA and White Bird.

But the energy and focus that various museums of contemporary art provide in other cities around the country, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, is missing here. Not that they have the exuberance and  chutzpah that PCVA had -- PCVA always felt so subversive, in a creative way. You felt like you were in a guerrilla camp in the mountains, and the government of "acceptable art" below was teetering and about to fall.

As I wandered from vitrine to vitrine, pausing to read Paul Sutinen's long accounts of the shows for Willamette Week and Fresh Weekly (I edited a few of them myself), thoughts like these flashed through my head, and then I had them again as I read Radon's historical sketch of PCVA, which is available at YU and will catch you up on many of these matters.

But then I left the exhibition room (and I haven't even mentioned Richard Serra's films, which are showing through May 21) and entered that vast open gallery space I mentioned in the first paragraph. On that rainy early evening it was bathed in soft light -- the banks of windows were so large that they captured all the available light waves into the room. And then I started imagining some of the events and shows I'd seen at PCVA in this room, followed by events and shows I'd like to see there. I'm sorry. You see it, and you'll do the same thing, I bet, imagine it full of installations, sculpture, paintings, performances that you need it to be filled with.

I haven't talked to YU's organizers, yet (we'll get to that soon, I hope). I don't know what its prospects really are, going forward. I know that these arts centers are hard to pull off. I wish we had a way of nurturing them and funding them to help them make the leap into reality -- YU is still in its "pre" phase, raising money to drive the programming it hopes to bring to town. I have no idea what sort of yearly budget YU will need, but it's hard to do these things on the cheap. Most of the successful American contemporary arts centers are in cities larger and richer than Portland.

But I already "owe" them for that rush at the lip of creation, for that big empty space. When I close my eyes now, I can't picture exactly what's on display there, but I do see that we're having fun.


Lisa Radon said...

Hi Barry,
Thanks for writing this. I just wanted to point out that the Selections from the PCVA Archive show was put together as a collaboration with Hope Svenson, Sandra Percival, and I.

Barry Johnson said...

Corrected above -- thanks for keeping the record straight, and good job to the three of you!

David said...

Thanks Barry for this thoughtful piece. I too discovered PCVA in 1979 - an art school student dragged up the three flights of stairs to discover Bruce Nauman's strange and provocative installation. I was transformed forever. The magic and power of making that climb, peering in that door for the first time, knowing you were going to see something you've never seen before was an experience that was difficult to describe in words. The build up and anticipation made it all the more powerful.

But PCVA was more than being exposed to great art and artists - as you mention, a number of institutions are now starting to fill that void. PCVA was a place where the creative community "gathered" - a place where the artists had true ownership and going there was a celebration and a recognition of the importance of artists and art in our lives. That is what is missing today and given the way contemporary institutions need to behave and operate - it is an idea which cannot truly be recreated.

I could go on - but I feel that this is what we've been missing since that sad day in 1987. And we've been searching for it ever since.

David Cohen
PCVA 1983-87

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