A weekend of wandering leads to ‘The Roma Journeys’

Joakim Eskildsen’s "The Long Plaits, Tirnaveni"/Courtesy Blue Sky Gallery

I fully expected to be writing about music right now. On Friday, I was attempting to juggle my weekend calendar so I could try to catch Holcombe Waller and friends at the Alberta Rose, the Portland Cello Project and friends at the Aladdin and maybe try to squeeze in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s Holiday Revue with songbird Susannah Mars, though I was also very attracted to the “Hard Times” double bill at the Hollywood Theater (“The Grapes of Wrath” and “Wendy and Lucy,” each introduced by Jonathan Raymond and Kelly Reichardt, who wrote and directed the latter).

But early Friday afternoon I heard that Portland artist Robert Hanson had died (of cancer, aged 75), and suddenly my weekend ground to a halt. I wasn’t a close friend of Hanson’s, though we chatted occasionally when I saw him at art events with his wife, the artist Judy Cooke. I admired his work, which had taken a turn toward figure drawings in the ‘90s, curious little things that were immediately “readable” as portraits (or self-portraits) but then after some scrutiny proved much more elusive than that, the work of a quick mind and a deft mind applied to making creative marks on paper, not simply representations of people. But I had never engaged them on the digital page, which is where I try to work things out.

Maybe that’s what stalled my weekend, the realization that I’d never be able to enlist Hanson to help me, to guide me to an understanding of his work and through that work other things ever more central. I posted the sad news Friday on the ArtsWatch Facebook page (which you can find here), and finally, Saturday, I wrote something about him, drawing on an interview he’d done with the artist Anne Johnson. (You can read it here, if you want.)

By that time I was well past going to hear music, though, even though I knew it would be good, maybe even revelatory, and at the very least, good fun.

Joakim Eskildsen’s “Madalina, Stefanesti”/Courtesy Blue Sky Gallery

Joakim Eskildsen’s “Madalina, Stefanesti”/Courtesy Blue Sky Gallery

Saturday night, I decided I needed to see some art, so I went to the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s Prints for PICA, an annual fundraiser. I love the idea: Lots of Portland artists gather to spend the day creating dozens of monoprints to sell for PICA. They aren’t expensive ($50-$400), and the prints are all over the map, some amazingly accomplished and some so informal they seem haphazard, though even those (maybe especially those) might have a little hook or two to reel you in.

The event seemed to be a success: People showed up and bought art. As I was encountering one beguiling abstract, an intense young man plastered his yellow sticky note on it and ran to find a handler to remove it from the wall. It was thrilling in a way, his desire turning to action like that. Hey, I was just looking; he was several steps beyond that.

I saw some people I knew, including Victoria Frey, PICA’s executive director, who said they’d divided the “social” artists from the more hermetic ones this year, so the chatting wouldn’t drive the ones who wanted to create in silence totally nuts. Good idea.

Then I ran into Chris Rauschenberg, who told me about some photography outings that sounded fabulous, suggested some solutions to certain interior decorating problems we shared (magnets!) and suggested that I drop in on the show at Blue Sky photography gallery (which he helped found back in the ‘70s), “The Roma Journeys” by Scandinavian photographer Joakim Eskildsen. Maybe I wouldn’t do everything that Chris suggested (magnets!), but in this matter I figured I was in safe hands.

Sunday, after dropping into the Publication Fair at the Ace Cleaners (and buying a couple of inexpensive books for gifts: Dear, I just know you’re going to like them!), I hit Blue Sky. It had just opened, so I had good uninterrupted viewing of Eskildsen’s photos (they are collected in a book, too, with essays by Eskildsen about various aspects of the project), which he’d taken between 2000 and 2006 documenting several Roma communities in various European countries — Hungary, Romania, Greece, Russia, France, Finland — and India.

The people he depicted were poor, and I wondered what was happening to them as Europe’s economy shuddered, especially Greece. They live on the fringes of cities or little settlements in the countryside: One of them is under a massive power line. The houses are ramshackle, and the faces are lined,  if the people are old, or need a good scrubbing, if they are young.

Beyond certain physical characteristics, what distinguishes these people as Roma? I don’t know. I might say the colorful patterns of the wallpaper they use or the dresses they wear, but really they aren’t that different from “the other 90 percent” anywhere, in Portland for that matter. So, this is a show about poverty, maybe — the red gas cylinder connected by a hose to the gas stove, the peeling walls, the collapsing couches and chairs, the crumbling houses.

The people? Except for some of the boys and men, posing for the camera with tough-guy sneers, they are smiling or caught in congenial conversation with each other. You like them; they live on so little; the little girls are so beautiful.

Yes, the little girls are so beautiful, but so is the guy smiling on top of the ancient and dilapidated car that he’s using to gather scrap metal. And the two old women so deeply engaged in… what? If they were my grandmother and great aunt, they’d be talking about their vegetable gardens or gossiping lightly about someone or remembering something funny that happened many decades before I was born.

Many decades ago Robert Hanson started making art, started thinking about the world in his particular way, and started to move those things together somehow. As I looked at Eskildsen’s portraits, I remembered Hanson’s, which are completely different. Would I call them “beautiful”? Yes, I think I would.


This post first appeared on Oregon Public Broadcastings Arts & Life page.

One Response.

  1. cancer guide says:

    Thanks, beautifully written!

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