Barry Johnson

ArtsWatch Weekly: enemies of the people

Plus: ceramics shows all over town, Brontës and Carnage onstage, Shakespeare on Avenue Q, madrigals and music from the Holocaust

I’ve been thinking about my new status as an enemy of the people, which, because I am a longtime member of the press, the leader of the nation has declared I am. I’m not sure what this means (Adrienne LaFrance in The Atlantic has a few ideas), but I suspect that while we’re all getting hot and bothered about the president’s use of the term “enemy” – a word that, in this construction, implies the harsher “traitor” – we might also be thinking long and hard about what he means when he says “people.”

As I have never considered myself an enemy of the many categories of people who make up this nation (although I have certainly resisted the ideas and actions of some, particularly those of an autocratic, opportunistic, violent, or rigidly ideological bent) I inevitably wonder which people these are to whom I am an enemy. And the conclusion I draw, at least tentatively, is that they must be the people who adamantly declare “my country (or my president) right or wrong,” those whose modes of thought and belief are primarily binary, who see a white and a black in every situation with no recognition of the vast shadings and illuminations between. And although I don’t deny I am not fond of their hard-line ideas, it is less true that I am their enemy than that they consider me theirs.

In Ibsen’s play the newspaper editor is a collaborator and the “enemy” is a whistleblower.

This is a far, far smaller definition of the American people than my own old-fashioned idea of a populace enriched by its multitude of backgrounds, talents, experiences, expressions, and beliefs. The president’s declaration, it seems to me, is a siren song to know-nothing insularity, a constricted, self-defeating, fear-driven, and exclusivist view of the American ideal of what a “people” is (or are). Under its sway a belief in a middle ground of understanding over ideology, even when the understanding must come by asking hard questions and seeking answers from alternative sources when the primary ones hide or lie about what they know, becomes a ground of treason. It is thinking that divides the country into “real” Americans – the true believers – and, well, enemies. Including those members of the press who point such things out.


Responding to crisis: Artists will do what artists do

Artists may not have a special responsibility to address bad times, but they tend to do it anyway

On Saturday night, I went to Disjecta’s annual art auction, and I even snagged an artwork. It was made by Colin Kippen, who takes discarded hard plastic packaging and uses it as a mold, into which he pours a mix of cement and perlite. This stuff captures the curves, grooves, dents and “decorative” flourishes on those abandoned plastic containers perfectly, and then Kippen paints them with pretty, seductive acrylics, and affixes the concrete to various objects. In this case, it was the business end of an old rusty shovel (without the handle).

The first time I noticed a lot of Portland artists using discarded objects in their artwork was in the late 1990s. Other artists in the 20th century had done the same, but these were the first artworks I’d seen that were explicitly about recycling or re-use—and not just about re-use. They were re-use. Around the same time, local architects seemed to focus on green designs, before that became a national trend. And a little later, Portland passed its recycling initiatives, without really much opposition. I think these things are related, and so I date our deep cultural acceptance of the importance of environmental sustainability to that time.

Colin Kippen, Reap/Sow I, cement, perlite, shovel, wire mesh, binding wire, acrylic paint, 20” x 16” x 9”, 2016, Portland2016, Project Grow, Portland. Courtesy of Disjecta Contemporary Art Center and Colin Kippen.

Colin Kippen, Reap/Sow I, cement, perlite, shovel, wire mesh, binding wire, acrylic paint, 20” x 16” x 9”, 2016, Portland2016, Project Grow, Portland. Courtesy of Disjecta Contemporary Art Center and Colin Kippen.

Anyway, I was drawn to Kippen’s piece because it reminded me that the ubiquitous disposable plastic containers that surround us have all been “designed” by someone—actual care and consideration, even “art,” have gone into them. Kippen points out and then emphasizes their surprising beauty with his treatment of them. I could get into the political and social “meaning” of the piece I bought, but this column isn’t about that.

At the auction I was introduced to a woman who had been working in swing states for the Clinton campaign. She looked exhausted and shell-shocked (she wasn’t the only one, either), and we talked just a little about what it had been like out there. Then she asked me a question: What special responsibility do artists have at a time like this, she wanted to know. It was an actual question. People ask so few real questions these days—so often we ask a question just to give you our answer. Or as a rhetorical device, often dripping with sarcasm. This women wasn’t that kind of person.

I launched into a discourse on the various roles the arts play inside societies generally, not just in times like these. I started with consolation, because I thought someone working on behalf of the Clinton campaign probably needed that. Music, for example, can console us when we are sad and somehow move us to other emotions, without losing the sadness. I had just started in on how the arts can preserve our most important cultural values, help us generate a common meaning of what our society is like, even help us understand that we ARE a society, when the patient campaign worker was saved by the arrival of my wife. I was a long way from answering her very specific question. What can we rightly expect of our artists now?


On the forced closing of Place Gallery

Or: How can you be in two places at once when you're nowhere at all?

Four years ago, Pioneer Place Mall did a very groovy “Portland” thing by beginning to provide and subsidize some of the empty spaces on the third floor of its Atrium Building to people and organizations wishing to open art galleries. Last month, the owners of the mall, General Growth Properties (GGP) rescinded that agreement with, Place, the first gallery that took them up on their offer way back when. Seems there was bad blood.

Oregon ArtsWatch’s Barry Johnson wrote about the closing shortly after Place Director, Gabe Flores, made it public on the gallery’s website. Since then, other arts writers have weighed in on this abrupt end to the gallery’s lease agreement, including Alison Hallett for The Mercury, Richard Speer for Willamette Week, and Jeff Jahn on his site, There was also a short segment on the local FOX affiliate, KPTV.

An appropriate sentiment/Gabe Flores

An appropriate sentiment/Gabe Flores

I won’t go into all of the details of the dispute between the building’s management and Flores (that’s what the links are for) ), but it seems to stem from the content of the art from the final show in the White Gallery portion of Place’s two spaces, and then Flores’ response to the objections by the powers-that-be. It’s worth a read. (link) Flores adds that the reason given for his eviction was that GPP had found a tenant to pay full rent for the space (Place was only responsible for paying utilities), yet he remains convinced that this was nothing less than a bum’s rush. The only response from GPP that I know of (GPP evidently did not respond to requests for a statement for any of the above listed articles) is a rather cursory and noncommittal written statement given to KPTV: “We do not publicly discuss tenant lease agreements, but please know Pioneer Place is very much a fan and in support of the arts,” GGP General Manager Bob Buchanan’s statement read. “Our goal is to create a unique and enjoyable shopping experience for all our customers.”

Before I get too deep into this opinion piece, I should disclose that I had an exhibit of my own work at Place last year. I have also written about the gallery on a couple of occasions, for both and Oregon ArtsWatch. (One review was less than glowing.) I have had many conversations with Flores over the years and have grown to admire his fertile mind and enthusiasm for the local art community, even though sometimes both can get the better of him. Sometimes it is hard to keep up with his torrent of ideas, and his desire for inclusiveness has resulted in more than a few half-baked exhibitions (more often than not due to the presenting artist). The first couple of years of programming did not give me much hope for his ambitious little start-up, yet Flores and the gallery persevered, and the programming gradually improved.


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