Maryhill Museum

Art notes: Maryhill springs up

Plus: Final call for 'Mother' and Louis Bunce, Goltzius x 3, kickoff for Art Passport PDX, Portland Open Studios' be-a-patron plan

Sunday was shirtsleeve weather in Portland. The torrents returned on Monday, but the temperature’s been inching above 55. The hellebores and daffodils are pushing up. And if you want a sure sign that it’s almost spring (the calendar says it starts next Monday, the 20th) here it is: Maryhill Museum of Art opens for the season on Wednesday, with a big celebration on Saturday.

The museum, in a concrete castle that stands above the Columbia Gorge about a hundred miles east of Portland on the Washington side of the river, battens its hatches every winter when the storms grow fierce, and its reopening every March is a true regional reawakening.

Théâtre de la Mode: “My Wife is a Witch” (Ma Femme est une Sorcière)—A Tribute to René Clair, with 1946 fashions and mannequins; original set by Jean Cocteau, recreated by Ann Surgers; Gift of Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, Collection of Maryhill Museum of Art

The 2017 season, which runs through November 15, appears to be focusing on the museum’s own eclectic collections, with a new installation of its international chess sets, a show of ancient Greek ceramics from the permanent collection, some spruced-up dioramas from it weird and wonderful Théatre de la Mode models of post-World War II French fashion (including the Jean Cocteau design), and an exhibition of recent works added to the permanent collection, including pieces by, among others, Lillian Pitt, Rick Bartow, Betty LaDuke, Fritz Scholder, and R.H. Ives Gammell, the American realist whose symbolic/mythological series of large paintings The Hound of Heaven has long been in the permanent collection.

Angela Swedberg (American, b. 1962), Cheyenne-Style Elk Ladle, 2008, hot off-hand sculpted glass, brain-tanned leather, antique Italian glass seed beads, porcupine quills, silk ribbon and red ochre paint, 28” x 6”; Museum purchase, Collection of Maryhill Museum of Art

Visiting the esoteric blend of passions and aesthetic compulsions that make up the museum – they range from brawny Rodins to furniture designed by Queen Marie of Romania to celebrations of the iconic dancer Loie Fuller to American realist paintings of the 19th century to a significant collection of Native American and Western art – is almost always a blast, and getting there on a nice spring day is half the fun. You can plan your own route and take as much time as you like. I’m partial to a coffee stop in Mosier, then winding through the hills on the old highway into The Dalles, maybe stopping for lunch, and getting back on the freeway for the final lap. The Gorge beckons. Heed its call.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: It’s raining cats and dogs. Road trip!

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

In a lot of Oregon schools it’s spring vacation. Maybe you’re already off someplace with the offspring – a beach cabin, or the dreaded Disneyland. (Hint: Enchanted Forest, south of Salem, is a lot closer and a lot cheaper, and it’s open this week.) Maybe your kids are grown and gone, or you don’t have any, but a little early-spring zip out of town sounds like a good idea. Well, why not? Interesting stuff happens all over the place.

Out the Columbia Gorge, the Maryhill Museum of Art opened last week for the 2016 season, which will run through mid-November. I haven’t made the trek yet, but I will, partly to see the museum’s freshened-up display of international chess sets, a collection I find fascinating even though I don’t play the kingly game. There are also interesting-looking exhibitions of American Indian trade blankets (this one doesn’t open until July 16; the others are open now), classic American art pottery, several paintings from the collection that are too big to be on permanent display (size matters, especially when there’s limited space) and – this should be a kid-pleaser – animal paintings from the permanent collection.

"A Golden Retriever," Edwin Douglas, 1900, oil on canvas, Maryhill Museum of Art

“A Golden Retriever,” Edwin Douglas, 1900, oil on canvas, Maryhill Museum of Art

That includes the 1900 A Golden Retriever (above), by the Scottish painter Edwin Douglas, and to be sporting about it, you might want to take the nippers first to the Portland Art Museum to see another great big painting, Carl Kahler’s My Wife’s Lovers (you don’t have to spill the beans on the title), which is on loan through May 15 and is being promoted as “the world’s greatest painting of cats.” Hey, this is the Pacific Northwest: It’s raining cats and dogs.

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Indian painting: past as prologue

Maryhill Museum's "American Indian Painting: Twentieth-Century Masters" captures a transition in time

The Maryhill Museum of Art, that beguiling concrete-castle oddity sitting high on a desert cliff about 110 miles east of Portland on the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge, is a seasonal pleasure in the Pacific Northwest. And this is the season. Isolated and subject to bitter winter weather, it operates from mid-March through mid-November, and picks up visitors briskly as the warm summer months approach.

Its collections are an eccentric and shrewdly varied crazy quilt, from Rodin sculptures to Eastern Orthodox icons, American Realist paintings, dazzling carved chess sets, film clips and posters of the celebrated bohemian dancer Loïe Fuller, French fashion theatrical tableaux from immediately after World War II, and ornate furniture designed by Marie, queen of Romania, who, along with dancer Fuller and San Francisco socialite Alma de Bretteville Spreckels, helped establish the museum in the grand home of their friend Sam Hill. Hill, a genuine Northwest character on whose vast unrealized estate the museum stands, was a visionary builder of roads and public landmarks, including the nearby Stonehenge replica, which movingly commemorates soldiers from the area who were killed in World War I, and the Peace Arch, which links the United States and Canada at Blaine, Washington, and Surrey, British Columbia. He abandoned his never-lived-in castle above the Columbia when his dreams of establishing a Quaker farming community on his 5,300 acres there crumbled.

Allan C. Houser (Chiricahua Apache, 1914-1994), "Bufflo Hunt," 1952, gouache on illustration board, 17.25 x 26.5 inches.

Allan C. Houser (Chiricahua Apache, 1914-1994), “Bufflo Hunt,” 1952, gouache on illustration board, 17.25 x 26.5 inches.

The Rodins get a lot of the attention, but in many ways Maryhill’s small but significant collection of traditional Native American implements, clothing, and artwork is at least as important an attraction. The collection’s strength is work from the surrounding Plateau region, but it also includes fine pieces from the Arctic to the Eastern Woodlands and territories between, and the museum often augments its permanent collections with temporary exhibitions of traditional and contemporary work.

That makes Maryhill a fitting place to host the modest yet intriguing current show American Indian Painting: Twentieth-Century Masters, which continues through July 15. Twentieth-Century Masters and two small supporting exhibits offer the museum’s visitors an excellent opportunity to consider the history and shifting status of Indians in America – a tale that all too often is considered a story of the past, but which is very much alive and still being created.

Drawn from the collection of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, the exhibit includes watercolors, tempera, and other works by transitional painters from the Plains and Southwest, mostly from the 1930s through the early ’70s. The word “Masters” in the title is a stretch, but sounds better than “Transitional Figures,” which these painters largely were. The show’s Plains artists in particular link the tradition of 19th and early 20th century ledger art – brisk, active images of hunting, battle, and other subjects drawn or painted on sheets of lined accounting ledger books, and themselves transitions from earlier traditional painting on buffalo and other hides – and the sophisticated variety of contemporary Native American art.

The story told in Twentieth-Century Masters is partly a tale of the shifting tides of assimilation and “otherness,” and white expectations for Indian art. From the beginning of contact white and Indian cultures traded goods and ideas – the great give-and-take of Pendleton design and the enthusiastic adoption by Indian artisans of Eastern European manufactured beads are just two small results of the process. The artists in this exhibit were responding partly to romanticized ideas about Indian life and culture, as Maryhill curator Steven L. Grafe writes in his essay for the exhibit: “At both the University of Oklahoma and the Santa Fe Indian School, romantically inclined educators had encouraged young Indian artists to find and preserve the primitive and the unspoiled, and to remain untaught. They encouraged their students to produce works that they believed looked uniquely ‘Indian.’ Lakota artist Oscar Howe (1915-1983) responded to this regimen in 1958, when he wrote, ‘There is much more to Indian Art, than pretty, stylized pictures … Are we to be held back forever with one phase of Indian painting, with no right for individualism, dictated to as the Indian always has been, put on reservations and treated like a child, and only The White Man knows what is best for him?’”

Archie Blackowl (Southern Cheyenne, 1911-1992), "Love Call," c. 1970, tempera on mat board, 19.5 x 14.5 inches.

Archie Blackowl (Southern Cheyenne, 1911-1992), “Love Call,” c. 1970, tempera on mat board, 19.5 x 14.5 inches.

There is, in fact, considerable variety of approach in the show’s paintings, from the vigorous, muscular action of Chiricahua Apache painter Allan C. Hauser’s 1952 gouache Buffalo Hunt and Navajo artist Quincy Tahoma’s mane-flying 1952 watercolor Three Wild Horses to the stylized, flat geometrics of Southern Cheyenne artist Archie Blackowl’s 1970 tempera painting Love Call, which plops a pair of traditional human figures on a vibrantly reduced field of color. Navajo artist Harrison Begay’s sweet domestic scene Navajo Maidens, c. 1970, and his 1952 watercolor The Weavers are nicely rendered, deceptively simple illustrations. Cree artist Acee Blue Eagle’s c. 1950s Woman and Deer shows a delicate approach to line reminiscent of 18th and 19th century Asian Indian paintings. Other paintings – including Cherokee/Potawatomi artist Franklin Gritts’s c. 1938 Cherokee Corn Stalk Shoot, with a pair of contestants waiting their turns as a third leans his back into bow-pulling position, and Muscogee Creek/Seminole artist Fred Beaver’s clean-lined and formally energetic 1974 gouache Creek Stomp Dance – portray rituals of tribal life.

A few pieces in Twentieth-Century Masters break free from the illustrative mold, remaining figurative but in a much more stylized and leaning-to-abstract way. Chippewa artist Patrick DesJarlait’s boldly contoured 1970 painting The Catch, depicting a man and woman stringing newly caught fish for drying, has a modern muralistic feel, like a Diego Rivera, although it’s only 25 inches wide (which nevertheless makes it one of the larger pieces in this intimately scaled show). A pair of New Mexico paintings – the c. 1950 Eagles and Rabbit (Symbols Used on Altars), by Joe Hilario Herrera of Cochiti Pueblo, and the 1970 Symbols of the Southwest, by Anthony Edward “Tony” Da of San Ildefonso Pueblo – are excitingly stylized and geometric, blending traditional patterns with modern abstract approaches to space. Compared with the show’s more traditionally pictorial pieces, they’ve come a long way, indeed.

Patrick DesJarlait (Chippewa, 1921-1973), "The Catch," 1970, tempera on paper, 19.75 x 25 inches.

Patrick DesJarlait (Chippewa, 1921-1973), “The Catch,” 1970, tempera on paper, 19.75 x 25 inches.

The story of American Indian Painting remains largely a rural, reservation tale, a depiction of the lives and legends of a people essentially apart. That was not entirely true then, of course, and is less true now. As reality tends to be, the actual story is much more complex. Drive out of Portland to Maryhill and you’re driving into Indian country. But you’re driving out of Indian country, too. More than two-thirds of Native Americans now live in urban areas, including about 30,000 in the Portland metropolitan area and another 9,000 across the river in Clark County, Washington. Of Oregon’s not quite 4 million people, about 102,000 identify themselves as fully or partly native – more than the populations of boom towns Hillsboro or Bend.

Still, as you roll out of the wet side and toward the desert, it seems more like Indian country, or at least the Indian country of the American popular imagination that so many of the paintings in Twentieth-Century Masters reflect: wide and dry, with undulating hills and big open spaces. And it’s still there. Go a little farther east and you get to Pendleton and the Umatilla reservation; a little south and you enter the massive Warm Springs reservation; a little north and you’re in Yakama territory. Just a whistle downriver to the west – you can see the spot from Maryhill – you’ll have passed Celilo, where in 1957 the backwaters from the newly opened The Dalles Dam flooded Celilo Falls, which had been a fertile fishing ground and major meeting and trading place for the people of the Columbia for as much as 15,000 years. Here is where you get into the Plateau region, a vast territory beginning on the eastern shank of the Cascades and stretching from British Columbia to Northern California, on east to Idaho and Montana.

Anthony Edward "Tony" Da (San Ildefonso Pueblo, 1940-2008), "Symbols of the Southwest," 1970, tempera on paper, 19.5 x 14.75 inches.

Anthony Edward “Tony” Da (San Ildefonso Pueblo, 1940-2008), “Symbols of the Southwest,” 1970, tempera on paper, 19.5 x 14.75 inches.

Some great traditional art, from basketry to beading, is still being made in these long stretches of land. But in the 21st century its creators are aware that it is traditional, and they are far from untouched by modern life. Native American artists in the Pacific Northwest today are also artists in the world at large. As comfortable with European art history and the trends of the contemporary art world as they are with the patterns and traditions of their tribal affiliations, artists such as Wendy Red Star, James Lavadour, Sara Siestreem, Joe Fedderson, Lillian Pitt, Rick Bartow (whose major retrospective Things You Know But Cannot Explain continues through August 8 at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in Eugene), Gail Tremblay, and Marie Watt are creating sophisticated work that’s among the region’s most exciting and challenging. Their art can be conceptual and abstract or pictorial or decorative at once, drawing from traditional themes but reinterpreting them in light of contemporary methods and cultural realities.

The artists in Twentieth-Century Masters helped pave the way. Grafe concludes his essay on the exhibition with this: “A new generation of painters brought rapid change and in 1971, in his Indian Painters and White Patrons, J.J. Brody observed that ‘easel painting was a White art medium; it was given to the Indians; and the result for fifty years was meek acceptance. Now the Indians have taken it … The taking has resulted in a vital, expressive, sometimes un-pretty, sometimes polemical, and always stylistically varied art. The forms might be quite un-Indian but they merely reflect radical changes in the purpose of Indian art.’”

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Raven Skyriver (American, b. 1982), Tyee, 2014, off-hand sculpted glass, 19” x 5” x 32”; Photo by KP Studios.

Raven Skyriver (American, b. 1982), Tyee, 2014, off-hand sculpted glass, 19” x 5” x 32”; Photo by KP Studios.

Another, smaller, special exhibition at Maryhill, Tlingit artist Raven Skyriver’s Submerge, indicates one of the many directions that contemporary Native American artists have taken. Skyriver, still in his mid-30s, grew up on Lopez Island, one of the more sparsely populated of the larger San Juan Islands in Puget Sound. He turned early and easily to glass-blowing, a form that combines art and craft, ancient technique and contemporary ideas. He studied in Venice, the center of European glass art, then moved on to the American epicenter of the Pilchuck Glass School in Stanwood, Washington, and began working with modern master William Morris, where he learned the techniques of sculptured glass. Much of what he does now is sculpted sea creatures: octopus, frog, sea otter, whale, salmon, halibut, trout. The pieces in this small show, all of fish, have a sleek serenity and a kind of dulled surface sheen that is a quiet counterpoint to Chihuly exuberance. There’s a dignity to these forms: each is encased in a glass vitrine in a hallway of floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Gorge canyon. They seem natural here, floating in their own element. Submerge continues through the season, until November 15.

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F.A. Young (American, 1862–1922), Warm Springs Indian Women on Horseback, 1902; Collection of Maryhill Museum of Art

F.A. Young (American, 1862–1922), Warm Springs Indian Women on Horseback, 1902; Collection of Maryhill Museum of Art

A third special exhibition, also up through November 15, continues the museum’s ongoing interest in the history and art of its surrounding territory. Native Peoples of The Dalles Region, which lines a hallway leading to the museum’s education area and café, consists of photographs of tribal members in nearby Wasco County, Oregon, taken in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many are in the Edward Curtis tradition, though taken by local photographers; a few are less obviously posed. Some subjects are in ceremonial dress. The images are historically fascinating, and raise some of the questions that the paintings in Twentieth-Century Masters also do: to what extent are they images of the people as they wanted to be seen, and to what extent are they the result of a romanticizing white eye? The answer isn’t clear, and probably isn’t simple. Yet, they represent a people who are invisible to much of mainstream American society. And being seen is an important step.

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These three interlinked exhibits are easy to take in on a single visit, and still have time for the Rodins or the chess sets or whatever else strikes your fancy. Despite its new-wing expansion in 2012, the museum doesn’t have a lot of space for temporary exhibitions, and it takes some ingenuity to present them well. In this case, their placement encourages a little wandering, which in almost any museum is its own reward. Executive Director Colleen Schafroth says that long-range plans include moving the permanent American Indian collection to the top floor and moving the Theatre de la Mode fashion exhibit to the current Native American space in the rotunda down the hall from the Rodins. That’ll put the Native American collection close to the main gallery for temporary shows.

Plaza, Mary and Bruce Stevenson Wing, with original museum building behind. On the hills are some of the windmills that help support Maryhill financially. Foreground: Alisa Looney (Portland, Ore.), "Roll & Play," 2007, powder-coated and flame cut mild steel, 36" x 75" x 48". Gift of the North Star Foundation, 2008.06.001. Photography Scott Thompson

Plaza, Mary and Bruce Stevenson Wing, with original museum building behind. On the hills are some of the windmills that help support Maryhill financially. Foreground: Alisa Looney (Portland, Ore.), “Roll & Play,” 2007, powder-coated and flame cut mild steel, 36″ x 75″ x 48″. Gift of the North Star Foundation, 2008.06.001. Photography Scott Thompson

Any shifting at Maryhill is done on a tight budget. The museum has an annual operating budget of about $1.2-$1.3 million, and covers about 70 percent of it from earnings, including leasing of its large land holdings for ranching and wind-farming. The rest comes from donations and grants. As with any cultural organization, running Maryhill is a matter of delicate and strategic balances, working lean and getting the most from what’s available.

The museum’s isolation is both an asset and a drawback, and part of the challenge is making it more asset than drawback. For urban visitors, a great deal of the pleasure of a trip to Maryhill is the trip itself. It’s a comfortable spin though dramatically changing countryside, with dozens of possible side excursions and longcuts. I like to cut off of I-84 at the little town of Mosier, just east of Hood River, for instance, and take the winding old highway through the hills into The Dalles, where I can get back onto the freeway again. Sometimes I jog north of Maryhill, past the farm town of Goldendale, to the forestside St. John the Forerunner Greek Orthodox Monastery, where I can step into the nun-operated bakery and shop and wander the aisles looking at reliquaries and personal icons for sale, check out the CDs for the latest from the excllent Portland choir Cappella Romana and other masters of old religious music, and pick up a quick Greek lunch or a few pastries to go. Maryhill is a popular day-trip destination for urbanites, especially from the Portland area, but people tend to go once a year. Closer communities are much smaller, and even though the area is developing a bigger cultural touring base (the large Maryhill Winery, with its series of popular concerts by the Gorge, is just up the road), the tourism economy is still in its infancy, and there’s a lot of mileage between cultural destinations.

The museum’s 2012 expansion did a great job of easing the building’s overstuffed-attic feel, but it didn’t add a huge amount of gallery space, and more gallery space might allow for more temporary exhibits, which could create more frequent visits, the way the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, for instance, attracts repeat visitors through its rotating productions. Might a small new building on the museum’s expansive grounds, dedicated perhaps to revolving temporary exhibitions of contemporary Northwest art, Indian and otherwise, someday boost traffic to Maryhill and help make it a more regular destination for urban travelers? The numbers, of course, would have to crunch, and as far as I know, no such plan is on the table: just keeping things going is challenging enough.

Then again, Sam Hill always thought big. And the east end of the Gorge is bound to become a more thriving destination. Can Maryhill anticipate the future in smart, active ways, and slice itself a bigger piece of the cultural pie? Can culture, itself, help counteract the economic isolation of the rural Northwest as jobs and money flow to the cities? Tune in next decade.

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Hockney and a fresh start as Maryhill season wanes

As the Gorge museum tries on its new extension for size, it's the home stretch for Hockney's take on the Brothers Grimm

Plaza, Mary and Bruce Stevenson Wing. Foreground: Alisa Looney (Portland, Or.), “Roll & Play,” 2007, powder-coated and flame cut mild steel, 36″ x 75″ x 48″. Gift of the North Star Foundation, 2008.06.001. Photography: Scott Thompson

To everything there is a season, and Maryhill Museum of Art’s is about to come to a close. The museum, in Northwest visionary Sam Hill’s old concrete mansion at the dry end of the Columbia Gorge, makes an annual concession to the inevitable wind and snow of winter, shutting its doors on Nov. 15 and reopening in the spring – next year, as usual, on March 15.

That means you still have a couple of weeks to shake Puddletown off of your galoshes and make the trek, a little more than 100 miles eastward on the Washington side of the river. (Travel hint: Excellent coffee awaits just off the freeway in Mosier, 5 miles east of Hood River, at 10 Speed East Coffee. You can then either return to Interstate 84 or take the gorgeous Historic Columbia River Highway about 18 miles through the hills into The Dalles, where you can rejoin I-84. High and winding, with stunning interior views that you never see from the riverside freeway, the old highway’s a favorite loop for bicyclists and motorcyclists, and a treat for the occasional motorcar, too.)

This year in particular there are good reasons besides the drive itself to make the Maryhill trip before the season ends.

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First, this is the first season you can see the museum’s expansion into the new Mary & Bruce Stevenson Wing, centerpiece of a $10 million remodel and extension that opened this spring. The project, which delivered a lot of bang for the buck, helps the museum feel less like an overstuffed closet and more like a well-planned display space. It adds some gallery areas, gives others more room to breathe, offers some fine new educational space and an extended deck that has you hanging quite breathtakingly over the edge of the cliff. Unseen but perhaps most significantly, it adds desperately needed storage space. And although the expansion sounds huge – 25,500 square feet – it’s deliberately slung low, near or below ground level, so it won’t fight visually with the original building, which began its long and laborious construction process in 1914. About half of the additional square footage is in the form of a sweeping new plaza that covers underground rooms and is highly adaptable for big-crowd events. Since it feels more like landscaping, it further lessens the visual impact of the new wing.

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“The Boy Hidden in a Fish,” from €”The Little Sea Hare,€” in “Six Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm,” 1969, etching. © David Hockney. Used with permission.

A second good reason to make the trip now is to catch the special exhibition “David Hockney: Six Fairy Tales,” which opened in mid-September and closes with the season. The exhibition has the delicious shudder of a chill autumn day. It consists of original versions of Hockney’s 39 etchings for a 1970 book that included six stories collected by the Brothers Grimm: “The Little Sea Hare,” “Fundevogel,” “Rapunzel,” “The Boy Who Left Home To Learn Fear,” “Old Rinkrank,” and “Rumpelstilzchen.” For the most part the illustrations are allusive, not so much off-topic as off-action, looking for moments of stillness that freeze the characters and their quizzical psyches in space. Simplified and cut close to the bone, they suggest the strange ritualistic timelessness and eerie hyperrealism that make the worlds of fairy tale and magic so potent and memorable. The tales, and Hockney’s illustrations, reside in that enthralling, floating, slightly frightening space where childhood glimpses adulthood, and adulthood slips back into childhood. “They’re fascinating little stories,” Hockney wrote, “told in a very very simple, direct and straightforward language and style; it was their simplicity that attracted me. They cover quite a strange range of experience from the magical to the moral.”

The prints can seem idyllic, as in “The Lake,” a view for the tale “Fundevogel” of a glacier-carved landscape remarkably like the one that spreads below the museum. Or they can seem impossibly stop-action, like the image of an uncoiled cat springing fiercely toward the expressionless face of a calmly seated boy, in an illustration for “The Boy Who Left Home To Learn Fear.” All 39 prints are in black-and-white, and the exhibition enjoys unusually informative and engrossing wall labels that give excellent background on the Grimms and their stories and quote liberally from Hockney on how he approached the project. They’re written by the show’s excellent curator, Robert Flynn Johnson, curator emeritus for the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and something of a legend in Bay Area art circles.

The etchings in “Six Fairy Tales” seem far removed from the photomontages and big richly colored paintings of Southern California swimming pools that most people think of when they think of Hockney. But even though his work has played around the edges of Pop and even Cubist ideas he’s almost always been a representational artist of sorts, and that’s meant that drawing skills have been crucial to his work. The link between these etchings and his much more famous paintings is, literally, the line.

One of the reasons to like this show is that, without really saying anything about it, it helps tear down the often artificial wall between art and illustration. These are book illustrations. Yet we accept them as art because they were made by an artist. If some people think Hockney was slumming on this project, he declares decisively that he didn’t: “They’re a ‘major’ work in that they took a long time, nearly a year, to make, just from the artistic point of view; if you’d worked on a painting for a year, you’d think of it as a major work.”

The last previous major show of a single illustrator’s work I saw was “The Bible Illustrated: R. Crumb’s Book of Genesis,” which sprawled across the Portland Art Museum’s special-exhibition galleries in 2010. Created by the great and feverish underground comix illustrator Robert Crumb, the guy behind Mr. Natural and Fritz the Cat, it approached the artificial wall from the opposite side: Instead of an “artist” doing “illustration,” like Hockney, it revealed an “illustrator,” Crumb, doing “art.” And it made an impressive case that art was what Crumb had been doing all along. Crumb’s vital, sometimes ribald, action-driven style puts him in the same illustrative camp as N.C. Wyeth and Gustave Dore. Hockney’s more still and contemplative approach is closer to Barry Moser’s and Rockwell Kent’s. In one sense, though, “Six Fairy Tales” works better than “Genesis” as an exhibit. Crumb’s mass of illustrations for all 50 chapters of the book of Genesis were uniformly sized, without exception, making it all but impossible to create any sort of rhythm or variation in the installation: You read the walls exactly as you’d read the book the illustrations came from, except the prints on the walls were a little bigger. By contrast, the prints in “Six Fairy Tales” have a pleasing variation in size, allowing a little syncopation to the installation, and the cozier confines of the relatively low-ceilinged spaces in Maryhill’s special-exhibit galleries make the encounter a more intimate and involving experience.

“Old Rinkrank Threatens the Princess,” from —Old Rinkrank— in “Six Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm,” 1969, etching. © David Hockney. Used with permission.

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Also continuing through Nov. 15, and well worth taking the time to see, is “Gifts From Our Ancestors,” the result of work between Native American artists on the Washington and Oregon sides of the Columbia and Snake river system and about 2,000 schoolkids of varying ages. It’s in the museum’s nicely proportioned new education center, below the plaza, which allows both work and display space for the many students whose visits are such an important part of what the museum does. This exhibit shows off some very fine student work in a range of traditional media, and also offers a concise explanation of the Confluence Project, the ambitious geographical and historical art project among Columbia River Basin tribes, environmental artist Maya Lin, regional artists, architects, landscape designers and civic groups to create a 300-mile-long “story” of the river basin, concentrating on installations at six spots. One will be within eyeballing distance from Maryhill, downriver at Celilo Park, where Celilo Falls was the region’s chief native fishing and cultural center for thousands of years until 1957, when the switch was pulled on the engineering marvel that was The Dalles Dam and the ensuing flood of water engulfed the falls and turned the river into something like a lake. Lin, best known for her Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., will design a piece called the Celilo Arc to mark that history.

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Ceramics from the permanent collection and the view out the glass walls to the Columbia River Gorge below, from the new connecting galleries on the plaza level. Photo: BH

To anyone who’s spent time in the fascinating but technically antiquated and undeniably outgrown original museum building, the advantages of the new wing are obvious. Plainly put, the museum badly needed to expand – it was like a family with two bedrooms and four kids that needed to add a dormer to the back of the house – and the Stevenson Wing solves a huge number of problems. The Loie Fuller dance collection and the museum’s oddball yet marvelous collection of chess sets, for instance, breathe much more freely and naturally. The very good Rodin collection, one of the museum’s most significant attractions, gets the digs it deserves without the clatter of the coffee shop that had intruded on its space. A new small plaza-level gallery in a glassed-in connecting space that juts out toward the gorge offers various possibilities: right now you can see a display of ceramics from the permanent collection, along with a drop-dead view through the glass walls to the gorge and hills beyond.

A few people have criticized the project for not being bold enough or making a big architectural statement. I don’t agree. This was a practical project undertaken on an extremely tight budget in difficult economic times, and it had very specific goals. Lead architect Gene Callan of Portland’s GBD Architects made the right decision by keeping the lines clean and simple and low-slung. He didn’t try to hide that this is a contemporary addition. But he made sure it didn’t jockey for attention with Hill’s concrete house. The addition recognizes that the original mansion is the main visual attraction, and it does what it needs to do quietly and serenely. It provides some new gallery space, but not a lot: other needs were more pressing. Maryhill may well need more gallery space at some point. Right now, the new wing offers several elegant, even exciting touches, from its lovely plaza to its brashly cantilevered excursion into space that can leave you teetering, perfectly safely, over the edge of the cliff. Its simplicity and sense of scale make it work. This is what the museum could afford and sustain. It fits its site, does its job, provides some splendid views of the natural attractions that surround it, and delivers frankly much more than $10 million worth of service to the museum. It’s possible that someday a second large building will become both desirable and financially possible. If and when that happens, the museum has room to burn on its 5,300 acres of land.

In the meantime, a few small things could help. Most of them involve signage. The new walkways lead naturally toward the plaza, which is on a lower level than the main entrance, which remains up the long ramp that used to bring automobiles up to Sam Hill’s door and out the other side. Your eyes and feet naturally want to head down the easy slope to the plaza, not up the steep slope to the entrance, and once you discover you’re in the wrong place you need to either retrace your steps or walk up a steep and clumsy set of outdoor stairs. Better signage inside would help guide visitors more easily through the multi-floor maze of galleries, too.

One of the problems that Maryhill faces, given its isolation from large population centers, is how to get visitors to come back a second and third and fourth time. It’s a long trek from Portland, longer from Seattle or Spokane or Eugene, and people need a reason to return. In fact, Maryhill offers a decent selection of interesting temporary exhibits. But it’s tough to tell. Once you walk in the main entrance, the first-floor attractions are pretty much the same every time you visit. The Sam Hill memorabilia. The Queen Marie of Romania furniture and decorative objects and artwork. The little gift shop around the corner. The mostly undistinguished collection of mostly American and mostly 19th century paintings. Like it or not, the main floor is the face of the museum, and it basically never changes. “Six Fairy Tales” is an attractive show, and it happens to fit the confines of the special-exhibition galleries quite nicely. But those galleries remain tucked away and, for many visitors, either largely forgotten or never discovered on the main museum’s top floor. What’s different is also hidden. So, for that matter, are Rodin and Fuller and the chess sets and another of the museum’s greatest attractions, its significant collection of Native American art.

You can’t fit everything on the main floor, of course. But maybe it’s time to rethink what goes where. Could that 19th century painting collection, for instance, head up to the third floor, where visitors who are truly interested in it could peruse to their hearts’ content? Might the special-exhibition galleries move into their space, or even into the more forward galleries where the Hill memorabilia is now, with Sam shifting to the main-floor back galleries? The main space is pretty large, and devoted to Queen Marie. Might that collection, as charming as it is on first encounter, be consolidated a bit – might it even be made a little smaller, with some of its pieces moving in and out of rotation – to make room for some “teaser” pieces from the other collections? Given that the big main-floor gallery is the one that makes the big statement, might it be used in part to introduce the charms of the more hidden galleries? Might (a) the special exhibits at least sometimes be featured in the main-floor side galleries, and (b) part of the main space be used to lure visitors into the harder-to-reach galleries on other floors? A rotating piece from the Native American collection, perhaps, next to a single Rodin, next to a piece from (or even a good photograph of) one of the odd but beguiling Theatre de la Mode dioramas? Can this space be used to (a) show off what’s genuinely new and temporary, and (b) provide some rotating “movie trailers” to the coming attractions to be found deeper inside what remains, despite its improvements, a somewhat warrened and burrowed building? Those warrens and burrows provide a good deal of the museum’s charm. They also define a good deal of its problems. So: can Maryhill do a better job of packaging and selling what it has? Yes, I can hear the shouts of outrage: a museum isn’t a supermarket or an online retailer, and shouldn’t be tarted up and marketed like one. Still, if you have something to sell – and a museum experience at one level is a product that needs to be sold – you should do your best to sell it.  Or, as my Sunday school teacher put it many decades ago, Don’t hide your light under a bushel. You may file your protests against the crass commercialization of the art world now.

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Well, maybe so, maybe not. Still, the conversation’s worth having, even if the ideas turn out to be impractical or undesirable. In the meantime, Maryhill has collections that are genuinely worth seeing, and a modest but highly successful and much-needed expansion, and some spectacular views of the surrounding countryside, and, for just another couple of weeks, those intriguing Hockney prints. If you’re feeling adventurous, drive a little farther, just north of Goldendale, to the St. John the Forerunner Greek Orthodox Monastery for a little lunch and browse and maybe a take-home bag of baklava. Lots to do, lots to see, great drive, just a couple of weeks left. And that’s no fairy tale.

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NOTES:

D.K. Row wrote extensively for The Oregonian on Maryhill and the Stevenson Wing shortly before it opened in spring 2012.

In August 2011 I wrote about the museum’s expansion project during construction, also for The Oregonian.

In May 2012, William Yardley wrote for The New York Times about the museum, the new wing, and the wind power that helps pay museum’s bills.

 

 

 
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