The Oregonian (image at right by Stephan Kaluza)
Summary: Elizabeth Leach shows the work of three German artists in what's planned as an international exchange of artworks
"Daring" is not a word usually associated with Portland art galleries. With few exceptions, they tend to reflect the region's love of polished craftsmanship. But since 1981, the Elizabeth Leach Gallery has showcased some of the local scene's more provocative artistic lights, attempting to link the region with the larger art world.
When she first arrived in Portland, the California-born Leach was an ambitious upstart with an encyclopedic knowledge of art history in a much smaller art world. Now, she's part of the flourishing old guard, having established a successful blue-chip gallery where local artists and such national-caliber artists as Richard Diebenkorn have shown together.
Leach's eye for the bigger picture hasn't diminished over the years. Last month, for example, the now 45-year-old dealer exhibited prints by Louise Bourgeois, the iconoclastic sculptor with an international reputation. Those larger ambitions, though, have come with a price: Leach has often been criticized for not paying enough attention to local artists and running a sometimes tumultuous gallery with high artist turnover.
But for the next two months, Leach widens her artistic horizons, by looking abroad to Germany. Opening tonight, on First Thursday, Leach is showcasing the work of three German painters: Norbert Bisky, Stephan Kaluza and Helge Leiberg. All are represented by Berlin's Galerie Michael Schultz, the gallery instrumental in launching the careers of such German heavyweights as Georg Baselitz and Markus Lupertz.
"It's a major gallery that has a presence in both young and senior artists," Bruce Guenther, the Portland Art Museum's chief curator, says of Schultz's gallery. "I'm delighted that she's (Leach) trying this."
Leach was not familiar with Schultz until one of her artists, Drake Deknatel, expressed interest in showing his work at Schultz's gallery. Deknatel is a Seattle artist who divides his time between Berlin and Seattle.
Eventually, Deknatel introduced Leach to Schultz, and the two dealers agreed to exhibit several of each other's artists.
"I'll show a few of his younger midcareer artists, and he'll show some of my artists over there," says Leach, who adds that aside from Deknatel, Schultz hasn't decided which of Leach's artists he will show. "The roster of artists will develop over time," she says. Schultz will make studio visits in Portland next month when the exhibit, which runs through July 27, will have a second First Thursday showing.
The benefit to both dealers is obvious: Each gets exposure in a culturally desirable foreign city. The mostly young or midcareer artists are also rewarded. Leach says that none of Schultz's German artists has exhibited on the West Coast before, while only two of her artists, Cris Bruch and Jeremy Borsos, have previously shown in Europe.
"It's a chance for us to be engaged in the international art world," says Leach, whose accent on national artists is rivaled locally by the Augen Gallery, Savage gallery and Butters Gallery. "There's this cross-fertilization that could extend to collectors. Maybe they will then be inspired to travel to these new places. . . . All of a sudden, we're beyond borders, and the context for us becomes global."
The art museum's Guenther concurs. "The artists here aren't seen enough outside the region," he says. "It's going to help all of the other artists and galleries here. It will make people (abroad) interested in what else is going on here. Art begets art."
Perhaps that's premature optimism. Nevertheless, the work by the three German painters is well worth seeing. Blending what could be called the Northwest attention to craft and more trenchant European ideas, the paintings are both appealingly polished and conceptually provocative.
Leiberg's gestural, lyrical paintings have undercurrents of death and are in the vein of traditional German Expressionism. The East German-born Bisky, who was a student of Baselitz, subverts iconographic propaganda imagery in his images of beatific German youth. Educated at the same school as the great painter of the moment, Gerhard Richter, Kaluza makes photo-realist paintings of such famous writers as Samuel Beckett, Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Hesse and then encases them in plexiglass. The finished effect is like watching a blurry image oscillate, perpetually, on the brink of clarity.
Different as they are from one another, the three artists explore the complicated legacy of German history, which has been re-examined more vigorously by recent generations. And though the ceiling for some of the paintings seems expensive by local standards -- prices range from $1,100 to $14,000 -- they aren't by national scales.
Leach is characteristically optimistic about this daring exchange with a foreign gallery.
"There is definitely a community out there that's excited about this work," says Leach, who's outlived more than her share of galleries in her nearly 21 years of business. "The art world is about ideas, not a place." You can reach D.K. Row at 503-294-7654 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.