In a cranky letter to the editor published earlier this week in The Register-Guard, painter Jerry Ross complains about the Eugene Biennial exhibition being shown this month at the Karin Clarke Gallery downtown.
The new Biennial, which opened to a packed reception on First Friday, was created by Karin Clarke to replace the Mayor’s Art Show. That long-favorite event died when its host, the non-profit Jacobs Gallery, having lost a city subsidy, closed its doors earlier this year.
The new Biennial, Ross seems to say, is just one more symptom of the crushing repression of good art by the “snob elite” that control art in Eugene. “I don’t expect the Clarke Biennale to be anything other than a boring assemblage of art objects sans the energy and iconoclasm of our city,” he wrote.
Oh, would that the snob elite had such power, Jerry. Then we’d have dozens of great commercial art galleries downtown (instead of two). And we’d have a municipal visual arts center, with a gallery and museum, alongside the Hult Center for the Performing Arts.
I like Ross. I’ve known him a long time. One of his paintings I bought years ago is hanging on my wall at home. He is one of the founders of the Salon des Refusés, a slightly tongue-in-cheek alternative exhibition that ran for years alongside the official Mayor’s Art Show. The only qualification for admission was, your work had to have been rejected by the mayor’s show jury.
Back in the days when there were hundreds of entries in the mayor’s show each year (that was in the days of no or low application fees), that meant the Salon exhibited hundreds of rejected works when the two shows opened, and held their receptions, on the Thursday night of Eugene Celebration weekend.
And, yes, the Salon threw a bigger party. After all, it had a lot more artists, and their friends, to highlight.
The end of the Salon came when the Mayor’s show went from jurying actual physical works of art, delivered to the Hult Center by hopeful artists, to jurying by looking at digital images. It was no longer simple to grab rejected artists as they picked up their works on judgment day, so Steve LaRiccia, director of the New Zone Gallery, which hosted the Salon, changed over to an all-comers show that ran at the same time as the Mayor’s show. That was nicely inclusive, but lacked the pizazz of an exhibition made up entirely of rejects.
Ross likes to imagine that there actually is an arts elite running Eugene, one that’s determined to hold back the throbbing masses of dangerously interesting and subversive art and make sure that no one gets to see it.
That’s a lovely idea, and I wish that it were so. But over the years of covering the two competing/complementary art shows, I was rarely struck by any work in the Salon that seemed to have been excluded because of some interesting or provocative message. I always enjoyed the Salon, as it gave a clearer picture of the broad swath of art being produced around Lane County. But I liked seeing what the official Mayor’s Show jury did with all that raw material over at the Jacobs.
The city seems to be pulling back from community art, on a number of levels, high or low. The Eugene Celebration, which was privatized several years ago, went on to fail. The Jacobs, as noted, has shut down – though months later, no one has gotten around to removing any of the signs outside the Hult Center inviting people to see a now non-existent art gallery. To its credit, the city threw some financial support to Clarke’s biennial, sponsoring an award, but that’s a small fraction of what it used to provide to the Jacobs.
As a businesswoman, Clarke did a bold thing when she decided to hold a juried show – her first since starting the gallery in 2002. She has rent and bills to pay, and it’s yet to be seen what kind of sales this show will generate.
Meanwhile, if anyone in town thinks the “snob elite” has too firm a grip on the arts world here, let them step up and produce their own art exhibit, juried or otherwise. I’ll be first in line to go see it.