PORTLAND, Oreg. — If you are looking to see art in the City of Roses, a couple of museums would give you a great introduction. There’s the Portland Art Museum, which is co-curating Jeffrey Gibson’s solo exhibition for the United States Pavilion at the 2024 Venice Biennale. You could also visit the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at Portland State University, whose print collection is one of the largest in the country, including pieces by Jasper Johns and David Hockney. 

Or, you could visit an art gallery. While many of Portland’s public institutions are well-known, the city of about 650,000 has a thriving gallery scene for its size, one where the word “community” comes up a lot. We visited four galleries worth checking out — from a cooperative space that’s been around since the late ’70s to a new gallery-bookstore hybrid that supports emerging artists.

Installation view of Peter Gronquist, Manifest at Elizabeth Leach Gallery (photo courtesy Elizabeth Leach Gallery)

When Elizabeth Leach came to Portland from Los Angeles in 1981, she was 24 years old, and the Portland Art Museum had only one curator. Leach changed the city’s art scene, opening her gallery with the goal of exporting the work of regional artists and importing that of international and national creators. She started Converge 45, a city-wide biennial that features 50 artists showing their work across 15 spots around Portland.

When I visited the gallery one quiet summer afternoon, two shows were on view: long-time gallery artist Ed Bereal’s Wanted: Ed Bereal for “Still Disturbing the Peace” and Peter Gronquist’s Manifest. Bereal used a 3D printer to make sculptural installations he calls “topographical drawings,” showing figures entrapped in what looks like the American flag. Gronquist works with materials including bits of lace and ash along with polyurethane molded to resemble bone fragments, painting them in white, pink, and orange hues that recall the nearby Columbia River Gorge. The combination of these two exhibitions — one by an artist who has been active since the ’60s presenting new political work that’s visually compelling, another by a Portland creator using materials in an arresting way to comment on his home — capture what makes Elizabeth Leach’s gallery so special.

Elizabeth Leach Gallery (elizabethleach.com)
417 Northwest 9th Avenue, Portland, Oregon

Megan Sinclair, “A Preservation of Character 19” (2022), inkjet print from 4 x 5 negative, 20 x 30 inches (image courtesy Blackfish)

Blackfish, located near Elizabeth Leach Gallery in the downtown Pearl District, has been around even longer. The cooperative was founded in 1979 by art professors and has 31 owners/member artists, all working in different mediums. Exhibitions in the gallery’s three rooms change monthly, and Director Kendra Roberts told me this alternative model allows each artist to get a solo show every two years or so. Through September 2 in the main gallery, Aaron Johanson displays his photographs spanning nearly 40 years of travels in Points of Interest. Many of these pictures were manipulated using added textures or double exposures, sometimes obscuring parts of the images to render them mysterious and compelling. The two smaller rooms host a group photo show, Sphere of Influence: The Artist Union organized by Alice Christine Walker, and the delightful and funny Text/Object featuring works by conceptual artist and poet Merridawn Duckler. Duckler’s writing bleeds into this installation, which includes a large book of blank pages with a pencil taped to the wall above it, just out of reach — a nightmare of pages that can’t be filled.

Blackfish Gallery (blackfish.com)
938 Northwest Everett Street, Portland, Oregon


Laura Camila Medina, “Mind map (la fantasia)” (2022), watercolor and collage on paper-mâché, 10 1/2 x 14 inches (© Mario Gallucci; courtesy the artist and Nationale)

Nationale, on the other side of the river in East Portland, features a bookstore with titles including Also A Poet (2022) by Ada Calhoun and Quietly Hostile (2023) by Samantha Irby as well as a small stock of items from owner May Barruel’s native France. In the front gallery, Bogota-born artist Laura Camila Medina’s solo exhibition Mi Reflejo, on view through September 2, is both dreamy and intense, encompassing a video work, hanging silk tapestry, and a wall of stuffed plushies painted in pastel colors. At first glance, the works, which incorporate Disney imagery and photographs of Britney Spears CD covers, appear pretty, bubbly, and soft; upon closer inspection, they explore the immigrant experience and the so-called “American Dream”. 

Nationale (nationale.us)
15 Southeast 22nd Avenue, Portland, Oregon


Installation view of And down below the earth shown bright at ILY2, Portland (photo by Mario Gallucci, courtesy ILY2)

Also in the Pearl District is the experimental gallery ILY2 (an abbreviation ofI Love You Too”), founded in 2020 by artist and philanthropist Allie Furlotti to support other creators with “radical generosity.” The second show in this space, And down below the earth shown bright, featured pieces by nine artists all in shades of black, white, or gray. Senior Director Jeanine Jablonski organized the show starting with the works of Portland local Paige Powell, a former publisher at Interview magazine who was close with Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Her photographs of Warhol in a phone booth and Basquiat enjoying an ice cream sundae shared gallery space with Ido Radon’s “Sail, or specter of a world that would be free” (2023), a sail-like installation quilted of deconstructed backpack parts; and “Blood Knot” (2022), a ceramic sculpture by Nicole Ondre. The show’s careful curation — and uncanny palette — brought these disparate elements together.

ILY2 (ily2online.com)
925 Northwest Flanders Street, Portland, Oregon

Emily Wilson is a radio and print reporter in San Francisco. She has written stories for dozens of media outlets including NPR, Latino USA, the San Francisco Chronicle, SF Weekly, California Teacher,...