DAVID COHEN, Editor           
       September 2003  


 

back to front page

The Best Coast, by Jeff Jahn

This was the essay for the catalogue, "A survey of young West Coast artists from Los Angeles, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver", curated by Jeff Jahn in Portland Oregon, May 19th-24th 2003

installation shot, showing, foreground left to right, Matthew Picton Cracked Parking Lot Drawing #2 and Dry
Creek Bed Casting
, and background, Curtis Fairman Gimli & Gloin, top of pedestal, and Gorf & Iler on sides, Tim Bavington C.C., Jacqueline Ehlis Lick

As a polemic phrase "The Best Coast" conjures the language of mutinous pirates trying to interpret a treasure map. Yet, for the sake of cultural discourse one cannot dismiss the the influence of the West Coast's attitude difference on the direction of American art. Truth be told, culture is a growth industry in the West and to characterize it merely by Hollywood or a permanent eastward genuflection is short-sighted. At the core of this crucial West Coast differentiation is the tenuous existence of its cities. By learning to live with massive fires, earthquakes, water shortages, tsunamis and active volcanoes left coasters simply process these threats to civilization as the price of admission for the spectacular view. Simply put, the West Coast Way is to "get on with it" and culture has a pragmatic pioneering nature that resists being taken for granted. As a net result, major West Coast artists and dealers and even museums tend to be amenable, generous, are definitely conspiring together and in most cases can use the word least used by Americans these days, optimistic. Lets also not forget that the general rivalry between L.A. and New York for worldwide media and vibe superiority creates an interesting dynamic as well. Admittedly, the West Coast is a cultural underdog, but it is one that long ago won the population shift and climate war. Thus, its case is in the hands individual artists (a most flexible group) not its officious institutions. Still, despite brutal economic realities, West Coast cities are sprinting to make up cultural ground; in fact, Portland, Seattle, San Francisco and Las Vegas all have large new museum expansions that will be completed in the next two years. The accelerated growth story of the west is one of pragmatic complexities, one where solutions are found even before supervision can become entrenched, what artist could dislike that?

Thus, whether it is Tim Bavington's coded pop culture perversion of the puritanical stripe or Felipe Dulzaides's welding of physical experience to conceptual video art, the artists in this survey complicate their concepts with desires, and like putting pineapple on pizza… its ultra American pragmatism just works, if you try it. The old polarized 20th century art camps now have children who are sneaking off to make out on a school night. It's that, "left to our own devices" part that gets west coast artists excited although it also means. Thus, in the West using the word can't simply means you are not thinking asymmetrically enough.

Tim Bavington, C.C. airbrushed acrylic on canvas, 120 x 24, 2003 (detail)

To emphasize this asymmetrical thinking, The Best Coast took place in an 8,000-sqft warehouse with million dollar views of Portland's downtown skyline. In this challenging industrial environment the art had to sink or swim of its own accord amongst the concrete and natural light. Somewhere between the womb of the studio and the funerary gallery walls, the warehouse has been the birthplace of big things beyond privileged space. Its a bit like going to the gym, everyone is supposed to break a sweat and look hot doing it. For example, The Armory show introduced the European avant-garde to America, Der Sturm solidified German Expressionism and Frieze launched the germ of the YBA's. In this case we were strengthening a network of cities who until know have been somewhat isolated from one another.

What better way than a warehouse show, to signal this growing trend of West Coast coordination? Historically the warehouse intimates risk and facilitates renewal from the very group that drives the visual arts ecosystem, the artists themselves. Yes, on The west coast the artists still set the tone. Strategically, this particular exhibit coincided with the American Association of Museums national convention allowing important curators from institutions like the Whitney, the Andy Warhol Museum and hundreds of universities to explore the coast for themselves in . The artists brought a very complex polyglot of work, giving visitors a challenging eye exercise that more predigested museum shows don't give. This was a show put on for experts.

Since the West Coast scene is vast, this particular survey focused on young artists who create objects with robust physical presences; installation, sculpture, video and paintings that operate as objects. Concerned with efficacy, this show took cues from Dave Hickey's Beau Monde and Robert Storr's upcoming Site Santa Fe in 2004. Both thinkers are concerned with how an object's aesthetics determine its efficacy. This is a grounded approach in a world where uncertainty reigns and is very telling since objects complicate conceptual aims. Execution effects how objects look and therefore interact. This complication of the conceptual with "a look" is core to the West Coast Way. If an artist is from the Western States it literally shows whether it is John McCracken, Ed Ruscha, Chuck Close, Matthew Barney, Wayne Thiebaud, Robert Motherwell and Mark Rothko the visual experience permeates and informs all conceptual practices. This happens in part because the land gives humanity something to measure itself by. For example, Portland, The Best Coast's host city will never take nearby Mount St. Helens for granted again. Aesthetic efficacy addresses inevitable change.

Melissa Smith British Compliment oil on canvas, 8 x 14, 2002

The West Coast itself is dotted with cities like L.A. and Las Vegas, which have recently come to be known for the work their best artists create. Other major cities like San Francisco, Seattle and the host city of this exhibition, Portland, form a corridor known affectionately as the Silicon Valley and the Silicon Forest. Each has its own respective primary character traits be it willfully transgressive tropes (San Francisco), sarcastic polemics (Seattle), or bohemian individuality (Portland). In Canada, Vancouver has emerged as a major media production destination, a "Hollywood North" if you will.

All have seen fantastic growth in the last fifty years and it can be fairly said that their North American media empires constitute the epicenter of the information age that has shrunk the globe. One is reminded of T.J. Clark's thesis in The Painting of Modern Life, that The Impressionist artists distilled images related to new ways of living. Portland, San Francisco and Seattle are three of the most wired cities on the globe, L.A. is the image capital of the world. In a new information age, one has to expect this creates a pent up cultural force seeking expression. Artists feed on this manifest destiny of technological/media changes just as the Pre-Raphaelites, the early 20th century Parisians, and the German Expressionists all did as their cities took on rapid technological advances of the Industrial Revolution a hundred years or more ago. There is plenty of evidence in this show that the digital world and virtual environment has enhanced the cache of the very physical and the hand made. Thus, on this coast the eyes have it all. The Internet is a visual feast, just like the American West. Both virtual and physical are navigated and used as material for the artists in this show.

continued