This Saturday on State of Wonder, April Baer welcomes art critic Jeff Jahn as this week’s guest curator. On the program, they’ll discuss some current issues in the Portland arts scene.
Originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Jahn moved to Portland 15 years ago with a master’s degree in history and a mission to help establish Portland’s art scene as an artist and critic. As a man of many talents, including photography and music, Jahn created PortlandArt.net. Over the years, it became a sounding board for Jahn and the team he established. Their ideas and critiques on the local art scene have bristled many artists, but also inspired intense dialogue within Portland’s art community. Jahn, who is now the editor, says he wouldn’t want it any other way.
On the show, Baer and Jahn will discuss the concept of Portland being a “capital of conscience,” and he’ll dish on his review of artist Andrea Geyer. Her work, Three Chants Modern, is a commentary on the power and politics of women in the art world.
I met Jeff at PICA in downtown Portland to learn more about him and what to expect from his State of Wonder debut this Saturday.
Q&A with Jeff Jahn:
Ifanyi Bell: What is PortlandArt.net?
Jeff Jahn: Basically we took the blog format but applied the art criticism journal; things like the early days of Art Forum, and things like the Partisan Review, took the blog format as a way to be more of a delivery vehicle. Blogs are about personal experiences; we’re more about talking about contemporary art in and around Portland. We also do national and international stories, but it’s usually lensed somehow through Portland, Oregon, or it’s [about] an artist who has something to do with Portland somehow.
IB: Before you were an art critic, who were you?
JJ: I studied as a historian in grad school — studied everything from artists to artist groups and authors as well, but I was actually really interested in the internal dynamics of artists in groups — how they kind of come together to create an environment for things to happen. And as an art critic, that’s kind of what I do. Then I ended up moving to Portland as a city where the visual arts were a main deal. In Hollywood, Hollywood is going to be the biggest thing; in New York City, the stock exchange is going to be the big thing; but in Portland, the artist, in particular, is kind of the main thing. We also have restaurants and whatnot, but it’s a little different. Everybody needs food. Not everybody needs art. Why are all these artists coming here? I was interested in that. I saw that there was work that could be done here.
IB: So you came to fill a void?
JJ: Well, I noticed that there was a real need for this. I saw a lot of other artists here and they needed a voice, and I guess I just kind of created a career of being a voice for this, sort of, ‘new Portland,’ is what some people I’ve heard describe it as.
IB: Who describes this as ‘new Portland?’
JJ: Well, you know, it was the whole Richard Florida thing and the ‘creative class’ coming here, but I think he doesn’t fully understand what it is. These people coming here, they’re not all 35 and under — even though I was 35 and under when I got here — there are people who are in their 50s here from New York City, San Francisco, or London, or Dakar, from all over the world. I just found that the city — Portland — wasn’t really prepared for this new influx of people who had different demands, frankly, than [others] had. Before, it was a very regional scene. People were making art for one another; they weren’t necessarily expecting a national audience to be interested in it. So there was a lot of catching up that needed to be done, and I had a strong voice and a thick skin.
IB: What’s the harshest review you’ve ever written?
JJ: I’m very hard on what I do myself. I’m probably harder on myself than I am on anyone else, but I don’t publish that, although I think there are some people who might find that interesting to see me tear myself apart.
IB: How does a city develop a strong arts presence?
JJ: You can’t have a strong arts scene unless you challenge it. And somebody has to do that. The Oregonian at one point described me as ‘the greatest promoter of visual arts in the history of Portland,’ and it’s possibly true, because I’ve written a lot of international articles. PortlandArt.net reached over 1.3 million unique readers last year, which is a tremendous number considering it’s contemporary art in Portland, Oregon.
IB: What are some of the galleries in Portland that are interesting to you as a critic?
JJ: There’s a lot of start-up, artist-run spaces. Actually, those are probably the ones that are doing the best and actually doing some of the most relevant, international work: Worksound and Appendix (which both closed); Recess, which does really interesting things; and 12128, which is a crab fishing boat, moored in the Willamette River. PICA has a show that opened this past weekend that is incredibly topical; it’s Andrea Geyer’s work and it deals with MOMA and the underrepresentation of women and their role in the modern and contemporary art cannon.
IB: What about other individual artists?
JJ: People like Bruce Conkle, who has really built up an international reputation; Laura Fritz, someone I’ve curated a lot (full disclosure, we’re a couple as well), she’s showing in major museums. Jesse Hayward is doing great things. Victor Maldonado had a painting that got acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.
IB: What are you excited to talk about on State of Wonder?
JJ: I wrote an op-ed for the Portland Tribune a few years ago and I think it’s the most important thing I’ve ever written. It was about Portland being a ‘capital of conscience’ for the United States. And it’s not just about contemporary art; it’s what the contemporary art is pointing to. A lot of times there’s this moral background behind [the art in Portland], so we’re going to talk a little bit about how Portland is a capital of conscience. Also we’re going to be talking about patronage and the arts. It’s difficult to fundraise here and part of the reason is that institutions have a difficult time here. The bigger you are, the more difficulty you might have.