kara walker

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In nearly all cases, a museum’s collection will be larger than the space it has to display that collection. This is where curating comes in. Decisions regarding what objects to display and what information to include are made in order to tell a larger story about those objects, whether art or archaeology. How the museum defines curatorial departments, and the financial support and wall space they receive, determines a great deal of what a museum goer will see.

Due to restrictions of funding and space, it’s common for museums to rotate their collections in order both to protect fragile work and to get a greater part of their art on view to their audiences. To do so tells a broader story about the history of cultural production than would be possible with a static hanging.

Which brings us to these 10 artists not currently on view and the question of why they’re not included in the art historical narrative presented at the Portland Art Museum. Household names or not, they were or are significant contributors to the American cultural landscape. We should expect to see them now and again, but it isn’t clear that they get their fair share of attention. An employee of the museum pointed out the majority of these artists’ works in the collection are on paper, thus they fall under the domain of the Graphic Arts curatorial department.

Graphic Arts has one small gallery in the basement of the museum to showcase a historically, stylistically, and geographically varied array of work. In most museums, graphic arts and drawing fall lower in the arts hierarchy than painting and sculpture, and because they are considered second-tier art, they’re relegated to tertiary placement within museums. The result: Artists relevant, even central, to American art history aren’t included in American galleries because they are represented by works on paper.

There’s yet another layer to this issue: you might have noticed that all the artists in the slideshow are people of color. This is intentional on my part because it was while searching for works by Jacob Lawrence, Diego Rivera, and Carrie Mae Weems that I started to notice a pattern: Fewer of these artists’ works are on display than you would expect them to be, if you’re familiar with American art history.

Obviously, works by major white American artists are also in the Graphic Arts department and are rarely seen, but if you look at the museum’s holdings of Robert Rauschenberg, for example, you can see how these structures play out. The examples of his work that fall under Graphic Arts aren’t on display, but Patrician Barnacle (Scale), a sculptural assemblage, is on view!

Why is it that the museum doesn’t have holdings of the artists in the slideshow that fit in with their criteria of “high” art? One reason is that there aren’t (m)any works by these artists that fall into that category, and that has a lot to do with the fact that prints, drawings, and photographs are less expensive to create and reproduce than paintings and sculptures. Artists working before the end of WWII were often employed by the WPA, or made work that was socially motivated. They placed a higher value on reproducibility in order to address a wider audience. It’s not that the museum is deliberately hiding works of art by artists of color. Rather it is how art historical hierarchies map onto social hierarchies to create the “ghettoization”* of these artists and works, as a friend and former museum employee put it to me.

Despite what the museum thinks of works on paper, I expect that a wide array of Portland audiences would find these artists’ work interesting and relevant. I know I do. Which is why I’ve started looking closer at the PAM’s holdings and curatorial habits in a new blog. It’s why I’ve written this post and another. I think the question of who is included in the art museum’s historical narrative is a matter of public interest, because a publicly funded museum serves multiple public groups. An inclusive museum should showcase America’s diversity. To do otherwise it to present a false historical narrative and vision of our future, through the erasure of the contributions of artists of color.

This erasure, this lack of representation is additionally significant because it can discourage people from imagining themselves beyond what the dominate culture teaches them about themselves. For example, how can girls know they can be scientists, artists, and business owners if all they’re allowed to play with are kitchen sets and the only time they see themselves valued is when they’re being sexualized?

Now take that logic and expand it to even more marginalized groups in American society, and that’s why the matter of who is shown as an artist at the Portland Art Museum is a matter of who is allowed to see themselves, and be seen, as artists in Portland.


Ghettoization The process by which minority groups are forced out of the mainstream aka structural marginalization, which can include physical structures (housing), economic structures (jobs), and cultural structures (mass media) among others.

Getting to know you: Whiting Tennis at Hallie Ford Museum of Art

And a little extra for the sake of contrast

It is sometimes difficult to look at a particular artist’s exhibition and not have a cascade of forerunners’ names wash through one’s mind. Of course, whether readily perceptible or not, every artist has been influenced by someone who came before; likewise, a viewer’s appreciation of said art may rely on and benefit from a knowledge of that art history. Yet, much like this writer trafficking in the comfort of truisms, that influence resonates louder and longer in the work of some artists than it does in others.

The Whiting Tennis exhibit, “My Side of the Mountain,” is at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem through March 23. The title for the show comes from Jean Craighead George’s book of the same name. The book tells the tale of a young man who leaves his city home at a young age to make a new life for himself on some family acreage, where he proceeds to make a living off the land. Written for a young audience, it comes from a time when this country was still making the dramatic shift from a largely agrarian to urban society, and the skills the main character develops to survive were becoming lost to the larger culture.

When Jenni Sorkin reviewed Tennis’s 2008 exhibit at Derek Eller Gallery in New York, she made mention of this book. I also find some comfort that Tennis’ work reminded Sorkin of the artist David Smith’s work. But Tennis’s drawings, paintings, and in some instances, his collages at Hallie Ford brought Smith to mind for me, not his sculpture. Then again, it wasn’t just echoes of Smith; a whole generation of artists sprung to mind, from Picasso to Smith and even the Northwest’s very own Louis Bunce. Nor would I be too far out of line to suggest that Tennis’s sculpture echo some work by his contemporary, Cris Bruch, or owe a debt to the likes of Martin Puryear, but only in Bruch’s and Puryear’s more architectural pieces.


On (not) Seeing Kara Walker Speak at Reed College

The hall was full and the reporter makes a resolution


Kara Walker is a genius. The MacArthur committee made it official when she was 28, and they were right. Walker makes very smart, terribly beautiful, and consistently disruptive and disturbing work, some of which is on show at Reed College’s Cooley Gallery right now.

On Tuesday evening, just after the announcement of this year’s crop of MacArthur geniuses, Walker visited Reed to give a talk. And I should have known to watch out. I should have guessed. The last time I went to see Kara Walker’s art, I waited in line at the Whitney, outside the Whitney and around the corner actually, and I set aside the whole day for it. Because Kara Walker is a genius and a bright challenger of received opinion and even in Southeast Portland on a Tuesday night, everybody, or close to everybody, showed up.

I got to the lecture hall a respectable (I thought) 15 minutes early, but the atrium was already filled with the disappointed. People milled around looking alternately frantic or disheartened, some of them attempting to scoot past the very kind and very adamant door-minders, others squinting at the over-full overflow room, willing more folding chairs to appear. It’s probably unsurprising that Reed students would be avid to see Walker speak, but there were all sorts in the crowd. Students, certainly, but also a series of perplexed older couples, a group of women in their 30s looking amused amid the confusion, various more established folk, some looking very arty and others not arty at all.

Really, close to everybody showed up. And everybody looked surprised and a little impressed. This is Portland. This is Tuesday. We show up for the arts, but we don’t typically line up.

I waved to some lucky acquaintances who’d anticipated better. I wandered around with the Other Disappointed, vaguely imagining that someone might set up another live feed. But, no. Finally, I made my way over to the exhibition and found it likewise crammed, a long line wending out to the student mailboxes. I decided to hold off and went home hungry.

But you know, I’m delighted. Because I’ll go back to the gallery and see Walker’s show on a quieter evening. And the Cooley Gallery, in it’s kindness and wisdom, plans to post a recording of Walker’s talk on their website in a week or so (Editor’s note: we’ll let you know when!). I’ll get to hear what she had to say after all. And in the meantime, I’m delighted that Portland is keyed-in and committed and curious enough to overwhelm the expectations of Reed College, the Cooley Gallery, and all the diligent, disappointed parties who showed up 15 minutes early thinking there wouldn’t be much of a crowd. I hope we all listen to the recording and come back for the show, and then we can chat about it while we’re waiting for things to start the next time everybody shows up. 30 minutes early.


The Cooley Gallery at Reed College is showing “Kara Walker: More & Less” through Nov. 18. The gallery is on the main floor of the Reed Library and is open noon-5pm, Tuesday-Sunday. Admission is free.

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