Barry Johnson

 

The Oregon Visual Arts Ecology Project: Examining the culture

The Ford Family Foundation and the Oregon Arts Commission have founded a new website that focuses on art in the state

At this moment, any effort to preserve our shared culture is a noteworthy event. This is especially true of the arts parts of the culture. As Oregon Arts Commission’s Meagan Atiyeh noted at a symposium that introduced one such effort, the Oregon Visual Arts Ecology Project, the state’s media has abandoned its commitment to full-time critics writing about the arts. And that means that both contemporary conversations about the arts and future investigation of our culture are/will be limited. What happens to a culture that doesn’t understand its past or its present? We are perilously close to finding out.

Backed by the considerable resources of The Ford Family Foundation and the Oregon Arts Commission—more than $50,000 since early 2014, according to Atiyeh, not including lots of staff time—the project intends to be an informal archive and an online magazine that takes the measure of the visual arts in the state. “The partners’ shared wish is to create an accessible, permanent, virtual collection documenting Oregon’s visual arts landscape,” the mission statement says, “and, to continue the metaphor, the interconnected realms of artist, institution, patron, curator, arts writer… which become that ecology.”

Ryan Pierce, From the Pockets of the Wanderer, 2014. Flashe on canvas over panel. Courtesy of the artist and Elizabeth Leach Gallery, Portland

According to Atiyeh (in an email interview), the website hopes to reach a broad public. “We designed a site that I hope can be rewarding for a highly invested artist or a curator who is looking for research materials and also a casual arts viewer in Oregon (or any spot on the globe, honestly).”

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James Baldwin: Fighting white supremacy

James Baldwin understood that capitalism lurked behind slavery and white supremacy in America, even if that side doesn't quite emerge from 'I Am Not Your Negro'

James Baldwin’s great project, as I might derive it from Raoul Peck’s documentary “I Am Not Your Negro,” was to try to understand the African American experience. That involved some specific questions: why the catastrophe of slavery fell on black people in America; what it did to them psychologically; how the culture of white supremacy that it bred continues to oppress them; how they might cope constructively with this history and this present, and how things might change.

Baldwin’s project was deeply serious, his conclusions generated by personal anguish and anguished thought, and his words are majestic, still. “I Am Not Your Negro” (which has begun runs at Cinema-21, the Hollywood Theatre and Kiggins Theatre, after playing the Portland International Film Festival and the Portland Black Film Festival) is awash in those words, those descriptions, those insights, that anguish.
The film does other things, too. It tracks the intersection of Baldwin with other black leaders of the ‘60s—Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X. It shows how Baldwin’s reading of the media around him, specifically Hollywood movies, changed as he began to become aware of the deep racism that infected the system. And it shows how Baldwin came to place the blame for America’s “race problem” squarely where it belonged.

James Baldwin, center, is the subject of “I Am Not Your Negro”/Magnolia Films

“But the future of the Negro in this country is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of the country,” Baldwin says in the film. “It is entirely up to the American people and our representatives—it is entirely up to the American people whether or not they are going to face, and deal with, and embrace this stranger whom they maligned so long.” African Americans, of course, are the stranger, and “maligned” is a rather tepid word for the evil that white people visited on them.

He continues: “What white people have to do, is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place, because I’m not a nigger, I’m a man, but if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it. And you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that.”

“You need it…” Peck’s film leaves the talking to Baldwin, his descriptions and explanations of our racial history, of the crimes white people committed, the lives they distorted, because they “needed it.” It’s a powerful film because Baldwin’s truth is so powerful.

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Henk Pander’s memories of Nazi occupation

Dutch-born Henk Pander lived his early childhood in occupied Holland, an experience he has captured in his work

The painter Henk Pander was born in Haarlem, in The Netherlands, in 1937.

That meant he was three years old when the Nazi occupation of that city began in 1940 and eight, when it finally ended in 1945. The “Hunger Winter” of 1944-45 was especially bad. Food was scarce; the Nazi occupiers and their Dutch collaborators were desperate to find resources, human and otherwise, to keep the war going; it was an extremely cold winter.

That winter the Nazis came for his father, who managed to escape. But would he be able to escape the next time?

Henk Pander, "The Floor"

Henk Pander, “The Floor”
“On our street another large family was involved in the resistance. There were routine house searches. People hid between the joists under the floors. The wife pretended to be ill. I tried to make these works from a child’s point of view.”

That profound experience of occupation stayed with Pander as he grew up in Holland, training to be an artist, as his father was. A primary lesson: “The government can walk into your world without hesitation,” Pander says. When he arrived in Portland in 1965, after marrying an American and starting a family, he brought that sensitivity to the coercive power of government. And he saw that power exercised in Portland, in response to the anti-Vietnam War protests of the time. He drew, painted and caricatured that Portland, and continues the practice of capturing the world around him—animated by his classical Dutch art training—to this day. From a purely documentary viewpoint alone, that work is fascinating—among the most important contributions to our understanding of Portland, Oregon, and America that I know of—even before we start to interpret it.

What that little boy witnessed in Haarlem between 1940 and 1945 became another vector of exploration. After seeing an Anselm Kiefer mixed-media painting show in Paris in 1984, a mediation on World War II and the Holocaust, Pander filled several drawing books with his memories of the war.
And then between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s, he started painting them. I would suggest that those memories haunt much of Pander’s work, but these paintings allow us to see, feel, and experience what life under Nazi occupation was like. At the same time, they operate on a metaphorical level, too, the level of nightmare. Art historian Roger Hull calls them “among Pander’s most moving and profound accomplishments,” in the catalog essay for the Pander retrospective at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem.

Pander isn’t given to euphemism. “I again live in a Fascist period,” he says of this time. He’s not talking about Obamacare, and he’s not being metaphorical.

During the recent election, I heard the words “Nazi” and “Fascist” used more frequently than I had since my childhood, when they were used mostly to describe actual Nazis and Fascists from the recently concluded war. Mostly, the words were used loosely, I thought. Trump supporters used them, and so did Clinton supporters, neither side making a particularly coherent argument in the process, partly because the definitions of those words are contested and complicated, far more than our political conversation can handle at this perilous point. What is the proper application? I’m not a political scientist, but perhaps experiences like the ones Pander painted.

It’s possible that these paintings seem a long way from your everyday life in Portland; for some, though, they may capture the essence of it, especially if they are at Standing Rock right now. At the very least, they serve as a warning: We do not want this in Portland, in Oregon, in America, not for ourselves and not for anyone else.

Pander contributed the captions for these paintings.

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White Bird: Reggie Wilson considers Moses(es)

Although you won't see a burning bush, choreographer Reggie Wilson manages to convey the Moses story in dance and music

When I saw the parenthetical plural attached to the title of the dance on Reggie Wilson’s first program in Portland, “Moses(es),” I was pretty excited. A dance that features multiple interpretations of the mythic Moses sounded right up this former Baptist’s alley. And when I read that Wilson had drawn on Zora Neale Hurston’s novel, “Moses, Man on the Mountain,” for his dance, my excitement seemed justified. Hurston’s Moses is a sort of shaman, medicine man or voodoo master: “He knows the ways and meaning of Light and he heard the voice of Darkness and knew its thoughts.” Take me to that river!

A moment in Reggie Wilson's "Moses(es)"/Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

A moment in Reggie Wilson’s “Moses(es)”/Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

But though Hurston’s version of Moses appears in “Moses(es)” in the person of Wilson himself, Wilson doesn’t choreograph narrative dances. So, no burning bush or parting of the Red Sea, no delivery of the Ten Commandments or turning a rod into a serpent (serpent cults abounded in the Middle East), at least not that I could tell from watching.
Multiple Moses(es) do show up, but they were in the songs, the spirituals, that figure prominently in the soundscape, especially “Go Down Moses.”

“Go down Moses,
way down in Egypt Land,
Tell old Pharaoh,
Let my people go.”

This is God talking to Moses, and when the right baritone lays into that spiritual, it does indeed sound like the voice of God, if not like James Earl Jones. And honestly, “Let my people go” never fails to send a shiver down my spine.
The spirituals tell the familiar Moses story, and the sonic context is provided by African musicians, such as the Ngqoko Women’s Ensemble, or Middle Eastern groups, such as Mazaher from Egypt, among the last practitioners of Zar, a healing drum ritual. And maybe the historical context for Moses, insofar as you believe he was an historical character, not a myth.

Wilson’s Fist and Heel Performance Group dances to this music, and if you’re in the right frame of mind, maybe you can catch glimpses of Israelites laboring in slavery in Egypt in their dancing. I thought I could, but I’m pretty suggestible.

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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?

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Nathaniel Mackey: Black breath matters

African American poet, essayist and academic Nathaniel Mackey gave us an extended consideration of breath—in poetry, music and black life

Gregg Popovich, the best and most innovative coach in professional basketball, responded physically to the election of Donald Trump. It made him “sick to my stomach,” he told NBA beat reporters before the Spurs played on Friday.

He wasn’t alone. The election took a physical toll, if my Twitter and Facebook feeds are any indication, sometimes attacking the gastrointestinal apparatus and sometimes the nervous system. Or maybe your windpipe became scratchy and your chest constricted with the enormous weight of the political events, compressing your lung and interfering with your respiration.

Maybe you couldn’t breathe.

“I can’t breathe.” “I can’t breathe.” “I can’t breathe.”

Eric Garner said it 11 times, face down on the sidewalk on July 17, 2014, as a New York City policeman applied a chokehold to his neck. Then he passed out, and neither the gathered squad of policemen nor the EMTs who responded to the call attempted to revive him. The cause of his death, according to the medical examiner: “compression of neck (choke hold), compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.” Garner couldn’t breathe.

Poet/academic/music writer Nathaniel Mackey mentioned Eric Garner several times at Reed College this week, both in his poetry reading Thursday night and his lecture, “Breath and Precarity,” Friday, a talk that linked the advanced jazz explorations of black jazz musicians in the ‘50s and ‘60s—Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, Roscoe Mitchell—to experimental poetry at the same time, to Amiri Baraka, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley and Charles Olson, among others. Maybe the common theme of lecture and poems was simply that Black breath matters, a phrase Mackey used.

Nathaniel Mackey, the Reynolds Price Professor of Creative Writing at Duke University, spoke at Reed College this week.

Nathaniel Mackey, the Reynolds Price Professor of Creative Writing at Duke University, spoke at Reed College this week.

The common language the poets and musicians of the ’50s shared, the common physical link, involved breath. Ginsberg famously organized “Howl” with the idea of breath: “Ideally each line of ‘Howl’ is a single breath unit,” he said. “My breath is long—that’s the measure, one physical-mental inspiration of thought contained in the elastic of a breath.” As Mackey pointed out, it doesn’t quite work out the way in practice, neither with Ginsberg nor with Olson, here in his 1950 essay, “Projective Verse.”

“And the line comes (I swear it) from the breath, from the breathing of the man who writes, at the moment that he writes, and thus is, it is here that, the daily work, the WORK, gets in, for only he, the man who writes, can declare, at every moment, the line its metric and its ending—where its breathing, shall come to, termination.”

Breath is funny. I can control my breath to a certain extent. I can huff and puff until I make myself light-headed, for example, or slow my respiratory process to a level barely perceptible. But then, most of the time, I am breathing without thinking about it at all, autonomically, firing up under stress and damping down during rest. I like the effort to connect creation (in Olson and Ginsberg’s case, poetry) to breath, both to acknowledge its importance and to employ it consciously. I do have to say that it seems…abstract. Idealized. Theorized. Both Olson and Ginsberg would have hated that characterization, because they were so interested in linking mind and body, maybe even to argue the primacy of body.

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Elections elect candidates, but usually they do much more than that: They tell us about ourselves and about the state of the culture that surrounds us. A national election, the one we held yesterday, reveals the characteristics of the collection of subcultures that form the nation and the condition of the national culture, which imperfectly negotiates the union of those subcultures. Among other things.

Our national culture is in crisis. So are many of our subcultures, geographic and otherwise. Maybe we knew that before the election, but elections can insert exclamation marks that can’t be overlooked.

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America at its best and healthiest reflects its most profound founding principles, which our culture has saved for us. All people are created equal. They are endowed with inalienable rights, among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This election demonstrated how shallowly these assertions are held within the culture. All people are created equal, maybe, but some more equal than others. That I borrow from George Orwell (“Animal Farm,” 1945) demonstrates that this isn’t a new problem in Western cultures. Under the stress of war or even the day-to-day punishing grind and periodic crises of our economic system, the “more equal people” in Western democracies have found it easy to abandon principles like the ones in our Declaration of Independence. America did that in this election.

You can dispute this assertion. I’m not going to spend time attempting to prove it here. You saw this campaign and the results of the election. If you believe that it upheld our principles, that it wasn’t one long insult based on race, national origin, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and size of bank account, then we’d have to have a long and probably fruitless conversation about it. All of these can limit the “equality” of a particular individual in our national culture, or help propel him to the top of the pyramid. I use the male pronoun for a reason.

A healthy culture preserves the best lessons from its history and gives an approach to solve the problems that arise in social life. Reason and the importance of evidence in arguments, for example, which existed before the Greeks but which they codified in such a way that we might use them today. Various expressions of ethics. The rub of liberty against responsibility. Our loyalty to ourselves and to something larger than ourselves. The sense of unity and purpose that larger “something” (whatever it may be) can give us. Our appreciation of tasks well done, both simple ones we do alone and complex ones we do with others. The wonders we have encountered, the discoveries we have made, the maps we have constructed so the discoveries and wonders don’t get lost. The importance of the integrity of language. The different ways that beauty appears to us.

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