We live in the best of times—at least measured by the profusion of visual arts in Portland and the state. The number of artists and the places they have found and created have both continued to grow. The thin infrastructure of existing institutions and galleries hasn’t been able to keep up, and so 2017 found us in the middle of a boomlet of new alternative organizations, cooperatives, groups and galleries. Many of these had a social and/or political bent to them, which makes perfect sense in this year of political tumult. The best form of resistance, both to the short-term national political condition and to the long-term drift away from democracy, is to develop new ways and platforms to share art-making, which itself can be a call to reflection and an appeal to shared experience and values. We will get out of this together, and when we do, we want to bring everyone with us.
As I wandered through the ArtsWatch visual arts stories of 2017, I was struck by two things. The first was that our resources were entirely insufficient to keep up with all that was going on. The second? The stories that our arts writers—all freelancers—created in response to what they encountered still managed to sketch an outline, an abstract, of what was going on. Hannah Krafcik, Paul Maziar and Nim Wunnan wrote about new galleries, new organizations and new artists showing in alternative locations. Paul Sutinen produced a series of interviews with some of our most decorated artists. Bob Hicks wrote compelling stories about the Portland Art Museum’s programming and the reimagining of the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education in its new Pearl District digs. And we had several one-shot reports—about an artist collective in Cuba, art made from the detritus washed ashore in Bandon, Oregon, and the back-and-forth between a model-photographer and the painter recreating her on canvas.
If you scroll through our visual arts category, you can find these and lots of other posts, most of them longer-form, all of them committed to grappling with art, artists and the culture in which they operate. The list that follows isn’t my peculiar assessment of the “best” visual arts stories of 2017. It just illustrates what I’ve been talking about, in one way or another.
Louis Bunce: Catalyst for making Portland a city of modern art
New arrivals to Portland may not recognize the name “Louis Bunce.” His work is hard to find and his influence difficult to track these days. But the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem staged one of its crucial retrospectives of important Oregon artists in early 2017, and Paul Sutinen dug into the details. I especially liked this series of sentences in the first paragraph, which penetrated the noise of the culture with several short strokes: “It is an important show. It is a great show. It is accompanied by a monograph on Bunce by Roger Hull. It is important. It is great.” And it was.
Black art: a neverending story
Bob Hicks took us with him on his tour of “Constructing Identity,” an astonishing exhibition of African American art drawn from the Petrucci Family Foundation Collection, that ranged over styles and subjects and artists, giving us a profound sense of the variation, depth and incredible talent of artists most often left out of typical, white narratives of American art history. I’ll jump to the last paragraph of the story:
“This is black art. This is black art. This is black art. This is American art. This is American art. This is American art. This is art. This is art. This is art. Like life itself, it’s broad and varied and unpredictable. If it doesn’t all fit neatly together, isn’t that the point?”
The Contact Zone: Galeria Taller in Mantanzas, Cuba
Samuel Eisen-Meyers had dreamed of going to Cuba for a long time, and he finally made it to the island after travel restrictions were lifted in 2016. He wrote about his trip for ArtsWatch, specifically his time at an artist collective, where he spent a few weeks. “It was raining heavily. Thunder and lightning pounded the sky as I’d never heard before. The downpour sent water through the gallery, and Jose Carlos was singing and sweeping the water steadily from each room as the floors of the building turned into small running rivers.
“I started at the studio as an assistant,” Carlos says. “Osmany gave me the opportunity to be involved. This is not only a studio, this is a school. People work here and everyone gets along really well and teaches to each other…teaching you, showing you the way to be successful.”
Susan Seubert’s days of the dead
A photography show about asphyxiation and other forms of suicide might not seem to be the best antidote to our cultural “now,” but the impulse for Susan Seubert’s photographs (of models), which were part of the Venice Biennale this year, came directly from our present situation. “I was very depressed about a lot of things, but one was how far backward we’d gone culturally,” she said about the genesis of the series. “I thought we’d moved past this as a human race. I found myself deeply saddened by that. … the rise of Trump and this utter disdain for restraint.” Bob Hicks’ thoughtful engagement with these beautiful, disturbing images helps the reader take a breath and dive more deeply into them.
Morehshin Allahyari at Upfor: Flux, ambiguity, the unknown
Laurel Reed Pavic explored the jinn tradition to get to the bottom of Morehshin Allahyari’s exhibition of paintings and video at Upfor, which counters and adds to the traditional roles of women in the mythological tradition—seductress or earth mother. “While the jinn, Huma and Ya’Jooj Ma’Jooj, are fearful monsters, they are necessary to survival. Allahyari proposes the rejection of easy notions of “good” or “evil” in favor of flux, ambiguity, and the unknown. Contemporary maladies demand reimagined spirits.” Pavic wrote about several other exhibitions this year, including Bill Will’s retrospective, “Fun House,” at Lewis & Clark College’s Ronna and Eric Hoffman Gallery; Alison Saar’s prints and sculptures at PNCA, “Crepuscular Blue”; and “Photographs from the cold and wet,” her account of a Blue Sky show that featured Corey Arnold and Aleksey Kondratyev.
UNA Gallery and Y.G.B.: Asserting the community
Hannah Krafcik reported on two important new projects in the city, both of which are successfully creating spaces for, as UNA Gallery says, “POC, Queer and Femme voices” in the city. She quotes Y.G.B.’s Natalie Figueroa:
“I think that there’s a group of people here who are used to everything being theirs to devour. And there are groups of people here who are used to being devoured. And then there’s this space in between of people who are like, ‘OK wait. We have to stop this. We have to demand space. We have to do it in a way that’s healthy.’ And for us, we’re [Y.G.B.] doing the organizing around people of color, black and brown people, around women, around queer folks.”
Krafcik’s work this year for ArtsWatch also included important stories about Field of View, a program that provides paying residencies to artists with disabilities; an interview with Demian Dinéyazhí, a Portland-based indigenous, queer artist; and a story about Miss Anthology, a new “project that will enable racially and economically diverse female and genderqueer youth, ages 13-18, to create their own stories through sequential art (aka comics),” among many others.
The Washed Ashore Project: Saving the Seas with Art
David Goldstein and his wife Cheryl travel the country in their RV. When they landed in Bandon, Oregon, they wandered into the Washed Ashore Project gallery, an initiative begun by Angela Hazeltine Pozzi to convert the pollution of southern Oregon beaches by plastics into art. Goldstein describes the process:
“The organization collects trash that community volunteers remove from beaches. After they wash and sort it, a professional artist designs a sculpture and directs a group of Washed Ashore team members, volunteers, and students in building it.
The creative detail in the 66 gigantic sculptures they’ve built to date is amazing, especially when you consider that they are made entirely of found debris: bottle caps, plastic lighters, combs, shotgun shells, synthetic rope, detergent bottles, water bottles, flip-flops, aluminum cans, pop-top tabs, styrofoam blocks, and more — almost 40,000 pounds worth so far. On our visit, the docent even pointed out a plastic remote control on one of them.”
Eye to Eye
“It is an act of sheer defiance. It just is.
The plan to shed half of your clothes, allowing someone not your lover to peruse your scarred, dilapidated body, simply has no other explanation.”
That’s how Friderike Heuer begins her photo-essay about her decision to pose for Henk Pander, “a friend, the most successful, visionary painter of them all, the Dutch-born Portland artist Henk Pander.” The layers of language, art process, photographs and painting accumulate into something very familiar (an artist painting a model), but then entirely new. Heuer’s insights, her keen photographer’s eye, and her language take us past traditional boundaries. “What they can’t show, these photographs, is how an act of unrestricted, mutual looking can bring about something essential. Each one of us documenting the other creates connectedness that voids any potential gaze. Not fraught with all the issues of the more familiar intimacy between lovers. No questions of the right or need to please, balance of power, possibility of loss.
This looking moves beyond the terms of object/subject and settles on the gift of being seen.”
A conversation with Lucinda Parker
Paul Sutinen conducted extended interviews with seven important figures in the Portland art scene: Lee Kelly, Stephen Hayes, Jef Gunn, Blake Shell, Christopher Rauschenberg, Tad Savinar, and Lucinda Parker. Sutinen—an artist, arts educator and arts writer—is a direct and inquisitive interviewer and his subjects here reveal themselves in interesting ways, both direct and indirect. There’s a certain puckish charm to the entire set, and visiting (or revisiting) any of them will land you in a deep back-and-forth between two people deeply involved in making and thinking about art. Here’s a little exchange in the Parker interview that comes right at the end:
Do you think about yourself in the context of the long tradition of painting—from caves, through the Renaissance, Abstract Expressionism—in this time of digital art and video?
Absolutely yes. And I think there’s a reason why painting rules. It’s because of the sense of touch, it’s because of the malleability of it. People get a lot of malleability from their computers, but it never has a sense of touch. But, they get malleability because it’s so clever, everything is so clever and you can get all kinds of things to happen. I’ve seen people do images that are great, but they don’t have the sense of touch. In painting you can see the mind working, you can see the hand working, you can see the eye working—all together.
10,000 Roses Later: Sarah Meyohas’s ‘Cloud of Petals’
Paul Maziar’s essays for ArtsWatch this year have wandered from the Portland Art Museum’s Robert Frank exhibition to Sophie Larrimore’s “Sunday Paintings” show at Nationale Gallery to a Stumptown Coffee display of Jordan Clark’s small-scale abstract paintings. He brought a keen eye to detail and a mind full of possible connections to each of those excursions. Here is how he ends his take on the complicated intersection of life, art and technology at Disjecta—Sarah Meyohas’s multi-dimensional “Cloud of Petals”:
“The result is a fever dream, a deconstruction or reimagination that’s oddly reminiscent of our experience in the digitized, surveilled, endlessly categorized world. It makes me think of the unlikely paradox that is our individuality complicated and yet enlivened by the inextricable nature of our being. I thank Sarah Meyohas for making something beautiful, astonishing out of all this, instead of something as terrifying as this world tends to be.”
2018? We can hardly wait!