Art Orgy

Getting Busy At The Modern Zoo

The tour took about an hour. Before we began, Portland Center for the Advancement of Culture's co-directors Gavin Shettler and Bryan Suereth got a volunteer started on tearing down a very large shelving unit in the middle of space 39c. They had assigned over 80 such plots to as many artists in their temporary exhibition hall – 100,000 square feet of interconnected warehouse and office structures a few blocks north of the east end of the St. John's Bridge. The following week of June 14 promised the commencement of their summer-long "arena rock show" of art called the Modern Zoo.

Most recently occupied by outdoor-clothing giant Columbia Sportswear, the crazy quilt of sky-lit, wood-floored vaults and airless, blue-carpeted offices on the sloping, riverbank end of North Baltimore Street was a well-timed gift. Well-timed for the property's new owners, Ken Unkeles and David Gold, who intend for the summertime traffic to lure artists and creative entrepreneurs to lease the cheaply priced space (a model Unkeles has pioneered successfully in other buildings, such as the long-standing "Feed and Seed" artist hive in the North Interstate industrial area). And well-timed for PCAC, the upstart nonprofit whose mission is to nurture and promote regional artists, because halfway into their first fiscal year expectations were rising for them to show their first hand.

It was, of course, a full house. Nonetheless, on that day in early June, it looked pretty empty. Only a few weeks into their tenure, Shettler and Suereth were trudging through a blizzard of details. The week before, I'd received a mass e-mail from public relations volunteer Melissa Logan requesting donations of "power strips, extension cords, trash cans (small and large needed), light bulbs (50-watt spotlights preferred), 10 rolls electrical tape, 10 rolls masking tape, 10 rolls duct tape, clip lamps." The all-volunteer staff and revolving corps of helpers had already muscled through most of the big tasks –tearing out dozens of floor-mounted electrical outlets, rigging lights, building an 80-foot wall that would hold the event's centerpiece (an exhibition of multigenerational Northwest abstract painting), getting insurance, doing publicity, talking with neighborhood associations and dispensing concessions for a cantina and beer garden. But there was still much left to do, including getting walkie-talkies, prodding the first round of 21 artists to prep their walls and hang their shows by the deadline, and considering what it meant that one of several large fluorescent lighting fixtures in the main gallery space had plummeted to the floor without warning. Also, the 80-foot wall still needed to be painted, more lights needed rigging and that shelving unit needed to go to make room for more art.

As we made the labyrinthine circuit, Shettler and Suereth ticked off the coming attractions. Here's where Cynthia Star and Natascha Snellman will interview strangers and photograph them. Here's where Courtney Price will fill a pantry with cans of food covered in poetically modified labels. Here's where Tom Blood's poetry will broadcast while he recites it from a dinghy in the river. Here's where Pete McCracken will trap fellow artist David Eckard in a locked room. Here's the stage, where music and dance performances will occur throughout the summer. Here's where Patrick Melroy has started building an indoor patio, assisted by a master stonemason. Here's where Midori Hirose is constructing a hill from carpet remnants. Here's what will be Steve MacDougall's and Chris Rhodes' art lounge, now a jumble of ping-pong tables and chairs.

"You don't ever leave the realm of art when you walk through this space," Suereth explained. "People don't do this very often, and there's a reason. The spectacle is one of the fun parts."

"Come August, I think it will really be like a zoo," Shettler added.

Or perhaps a carnival, where the borders between things are more permeable. At the opening, with the initial tonnage of art installed, it was hard to give your complete attention to any one thing, even large-scale installations like Eckard's ambiguous torture-pleasure devices and Daniel Duford's Leon Golub-ish wall mural and large clay figure referencing America's military disgraces. The best moments were found, not coincidentally, in quieter, enclosed chambers: Ahren Lutz's room of paintings of death row inmates imprinted with the menus of their last dinners and Melody Owen's interlocking rings of hanging hummingbird feeders. The Northwest Abstraction show (a project several months in the works before the Zoo fell in PCAC's lap) looked fine, glowing like a jewelry case under good lighting. Consistent with Shettler's hopes, the paintings by young artists like Patrick Puopolo and Ann Marie Nafziger held up against Lucinda Parker, Judy Cooke and Phil Sylvester, and vice versa. But still, the room felt strangely like an afterthought, without definite scope or argument, and a little lonely away from all the other celebrants.

PCAC's inclusive impulse was taken to a kind of apotheosis in art collaborative Red76's The Ministry of Small Things, a network of rooms given over to artists for viewers to watch them making art. "Seemingly inconsequential moments, through the passage of time," their leaflet read, "fill us out and are tied into a neat (sometimes not so neat) bow to form our whole story. What's frustrating is that these moments and pieces pass us by most times without even a hint of acknowledgement on our parts. Similarly, the creation of art – be that book, film, photo, action, etc. – is nothing but the sum of its parts." Inside, it continued: "The Ministry of Small Things is a place to put a magnifying glass/microphone on the invisible middle, on all the thoughts, fits and starts, and hair brained [sic] ideas that make up your life."

Much like the Ministry, the vision guiding PCAC – to create a "neutral" exhibition and resource center for regional art – is tied to the idea that magnifying the "invisible middle" will advance artistic culture. That seems the antithesis of what's expected from exhibiting institutions, exchanging judgment and moderation (or modulation) for inclusivity and polyphony, and agonism for a "safe space for art." It's hard to predict the ultimate impact of this departure or even to know how to gauge its success. At the Zoo opening, which was surely an extreme instance of PCAC's approach, the overall result was unsatisfying, a loose and bewildering "nothing" of parts, dismally reflecting the messy realm of regular life. It certainly seemed less about advancing culture – placing a template of continuity on it – than about helping it atomize and copulate, a sort of orgy of the species. Is this a bad thing? Aside from leaving everyone feeling a little dirty and used and resulting in some redundancies and throwbacks, I'd argue that it's probably not. In fact, it may be a propitious starting place for a new institution searching for new answers. If Shettler and Suereth have done one thing, they've shown that they're willing to follow adventure without looking back or sweating the details. It seems like the right attitude.

When we reached Hirose's carpet remnants near the end of the tour, we ran into building co-owner David Gold. He explained that they were "all squared away about the wood" and asked whether they'd talked with Unkeles about taking those shelves down. Suereth assured him they had. While Gold explained amiably that 39c was no longer available for the Zoo, as it was needed by a paying tenant, we rounded the corner into the room, where the volunteer had just completed the now superfluous demolition. "No big deal," Suereth said without missing a beat. "It's basically the same thing on the other side."

About This Story


  • Author: Camela Raymond
  • Published Online: Jan 13, 2012