Diary of an Affair

Visual Codec - October 1, 2006

I've always wondered whether the Affair at the Jupiter Hotel was any good. It's most likely just a glorified party, I've thought to myself, a really busy art opening where seeing the art is near to impossible.

Turns out, I was totally wrong.

For the past two years, I haven't made the short pilgrimage down south and now, having spent last weekend submersed in the fair, I feel like an idiot. I attended this year only because I had to. My gallery set up shop in room 248. And even though I was working ostensibly round the clock, any doubts I may have had were totally washed away.

Lest you have any doubts what I really mean, let me be clear. It was amazing. Though it is small in scale, the event is anything but provincial and a far cry from irrelevant.

And, happily, you get to see art and lots of it. In fact, the weekend was packed with lots of good art from all over the country — all the things us geographically isolated Pacific Northwest art people want from an art event.

Here are a few highlights.

Friday night's opening bash was pleasantly uber-chic but not uber-uptight. I got in to Portland late on Friday (note to self: I-5 on a Friday night is, it turns out, more like a parking lot than a freeway). What greeted me, however, was enough to wipe away the frustrations from the long drive.

Sexy young 20 somethings strolled along the catwalks outside the gallery's rooms on the second floor. Stopping in front of the uniformly red-lit doors, gazing at the art, chatting and smiling (yes, the hipsters were smiling), the energy was palpable and the numbers just about perfect: it wasn't too crowded but at that genius point of having reached a critical mass. When Stephen Malkmus started his set, numbers inside the rooms thinned, and slowly most of the galleries closed their doors for the night.

Saturday began intellectually, with a last-minute curatorial panel coming together to replace an absent keynote speaker who was sick. Because the panel was pulled together in the final hours, fair organizers Stuart Horodner and Laurel Gitlen inverted the normal model for these sorts of things. Instead of asking the four panelists to give a talk, they simply asked each panelist to provide a small bio and then handed the audience the floor. We were allowed to ask them anything.

One of the most interesting conversations was prompted by a question about regionalism — a topic that I, for one, am actually sick of. (We're not creating a provincial little scene here. We matter nationwide, worldwide!) And it seemed, so too were several of the curators. Seattle Art Museum's Michael Darling and Joanna Marsh of the Wadsworth Atheneum Musuem of Art in Connecticut, were most eloquent with their responses. They described their experiences with Northwest art, that being that it's very much in line with what's going on throughout the nation and maybe even internationally and said it was silly to essentialize.

Going from room to room for the next two days, Darling's and Marsh's words resonated. While some of the best programs at the fair belonged to out-of-town galleries like Atlanta's Marcia Wood Gallery and Miami's Lemon Sky, local favorites like the endlessly poetic lineup at PDX and Matt McCormick's stunning sunset in Elizabeth Leach's bathroom held up against their national competitors.

In fact, there were some common threads you could almost braid from room to room. Most obviously, drawing seemed to be everywhere, with birds and bodies popping up time and time again.

My two newfound favorites at the fair were working the figure in their art.

Chris Scarborough's highly polished, painstakingly manipulated photographic portraits of family and friends are jarringly and complicatedly beautiful.

Heyd Fontenot's works on paper are equally compelling. The confident nudity of each of the bodies he paints is not at all sexualized but is utterly sincere.

With overly exaggerated eyes, and "body-on-display" poses, both artists explore cultural standards. The images beg the question, are these cute and beautiful, or too frighteningly perfect? Wonderfully the images are ambiguous just enough so as to leave the questions unanswered and keep you looking at them again and again in some futile attempt to know exactly.

That being said, there shouldn't be anything ambiguous about the fair; this year it was great, with galleries showing fantastic programs. Next year, I suggest you don't make the same mistake I did last year (or the year before). Just go.