Paul Sutinen

 

Can Modernism be ‘new’ anymore?

A show of abstract work at Elizabeth Leach Gallery leads back to the history of Modernism

This sports anecdote is from the introduction to A Fine Disregard: What Makes Modern Art Modern by Kirk Varnedoe, the late American art historian who served as chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art from 1988 to 2001.

“Somewhere back in a rainy summer in the 1970s, I made a pilgrimage of sorts to a place in the north of England that it fascinated me for years; it’s a playing field that’s part of the Rugby School, and on the wall next to the field is fixed the marker I came to see. It reads: “This stone commemorates the exploit of William Webb Ellis, who with a fine disregard for the rules of football as played in his time, first took the ball in his arms and ran with it, thus originating the distinctive feature of the Rugby game. A. D. 1823.”… I was among [those who played rugby in the late 1960s] and as I moved back toward the bare essentials of the sport, I found my curiosity enduringly piqued by the tale of its origin. What possessed Webb Ellis, in the heat of a soccer game, to pick up the ball? And stranger still, why didn’t they just throw him out of the game?”

In 1823 a guy changes the game from what we call soccer, to the game of rugby. In the late 19th century another game changed, and Varnedoe’s question applies. When Cézanne painted Mont Sainte-Victoire with daubs of paint, or certainly when Pablo Picasso began showing analytical cubist paintings—why weren’t they thrown out of the art game? Why did the game change to accommodate them?

So “modern” art reflected an abrupt change from the way art was played in the past, and depending on the critic/historian it originated with Édouard Manet and the “frankness with which [his paintings] declared the flat surfaces on which they were painted,” according to critic Clement Greenberg, or maybe with Van Gogh and Gauguin, according to Arthur Danto—at least sometime before 1900.

Chris Gander,”Plug:Matrix,” 2017,oil on wood construction, 21 x 21 x18″/image courtesy of the artist and Elizabeth Leach Gallery

The idea of modern art also reflected the critical/historical concept of “progress” in art. The genealogy runs something like this: Renaissance begat Mannerism, which begat Baroque, which begat Neo-Classicism, which begat Romanticism, and so on to Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Dada, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism—and then, according to Arthur Danto, in the early 1960s, with Pop Art, and for Danto with the example of Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box, 1964, which looked just like the mundane Brillo box in the grocery store, the historical idea of “progress” stopped. No longer is there an avant-garde. There is no “next step” in art evolution. As Danto said, “As far as appearances were concerned, anything could be a work of art, and it meant that if you were going to find out what art was you had to turn from sense experiences to thought.” It no longer had to look like art to be art.

Modernism in this reading was the last gasp of art “progress.” For a critic like Greenberg (by the way “modern art” is a critical/historical term—I’ve never heard of an artist saying, “I’m a modern artist”) modern painting (painting was the main vehicle for the progress in modernism) tended to strip away things that were not fundamental to painting. The best modern painting, according to Greenberg, would demonstrate recognition of the flatness of the canvas and emphasize color— attributes special to painting. Likewise, Greenberg would find sculpture that was painted with colors irritating, since color was an attribute of painting, not something like scale or form that was essential to sculpture. By the end of the 1960s these ideas were worn out, and nobody cares much about that puritan view now.

Joanna Pousette-Dart,
“Cañones #3,” 2007-08,
acrylic on canvas on shaped panels,
79 x 92″/image courtesy of the artist and Elizabeth Leach Gallery

Now there is an exhibition at the Elizabeth Leach Gallery entitled New Modernism that “presents seven artists whose innovative approaches to formalism link them to the modernist art movement of the 19th century.” I don’t buy this premise. All artists have their own formal approaches, and if they do interesting work, their approaches will be personally different (innovative) from those of others. Looking at the exhibition, I don’t see “modernism”—either in the sense of an abrupt break with the past (since there is no “progress” anymore) or in attitudes linked to refinement of the essences of painting or sculpture. The show could easily and more accurately be called Some Current Abstraction, or something like that.

Still, the current abstractions in New Modernism include some interesting artworks for us to consider.

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Lee Kelly just turned 85. Through June into mid-July he is showing new work at Elizabeth Leach Gallery. Over a career of almost 60 years Kelly has completed dozens of public and private sculpture commissions. He has major works on the Portland Transit Mall and the Rose Garden in Washington Park. He lives and works on what was a dairy farm in Oregon City; the barn is now a shop/studio. What was pastureland 50 years ago is now reforested and populated with Kelly’s sculpture.

You grew up in Idaho. Did you go to high school there?

No. I came out here.

Where did you go to high school?

Roosevelt, but I went back there and did ranch work in the summer.

Why? Because you couldn’t find work in Portland?

I loved the idea of horses and doing all that.

Lee Kelly in his studio/shop. Winter Garden at Muktinath in process at left. Small
maquette for the sculpture at right in the background.

So now you got a sculpture farm next to horses. When you were at Roosevelt High School did you do any art there?

I tried to, but I got crossways with the teachers.

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Blake Shell arrived in Portland about nine years ago. Her background included an M.F.A. in Photography from Savannah College of Art and Design and work as gallery curator/director at the University of Arizona. She soon became director of the Archer Gallery at Clark College (2009-2012) and then succeeded founding director Terri Hopkins at The Art Gym in 2013. She is now the new Executive Director at Disjecta (www.disjectaarts.org), one of the most adventurous art spaces in Portland.

This conversation occurred in April 12, on her second day at Disjecta.

You are the Executive Director. What do you see as your job, and what do you have other people doing?

I’ll be overseeing the team and all aspects of the organization. I’m really in a place of thinking about strategic moves forward, the growth of the organization and working with the board to increase fundraising that can increase programming support for artists and all the things I’ve been interested in—as well as just making sure that things are happening in a strong way. There’s a great staff here already.

“Oh Time Your Gilded Pages,” Disjecta, curated by curator-in-residence Michele Fiedler, artists Adriana Minoliti and Bobbi Woods/Photos by Mario Gallucci

The organization already has awesome programming. It already has things like the Curator-in-Residence program, which is really interesting—bringing a curator in to create an entire season of programs every year. We are currently in the sixth season of bringing in different curatorial voices from outside of the region to interact with artists and the arts community. The seventh season will start in the fall.

To bring programming here and to share information out to other areas about what’s happening here is a really important thing for any arts community, but particularly at this point in Portland’s history. Portland and Oregon artists are engaged in a national and international way.

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Christopher Rauschenberg: The beauty of the bucket

Portland photographer Christopher Rauschenberg has spent his career paying deep attention to the beauty around him

John Cage said, “Beauty is now underfoot wherever we take the trouble to look.” That seems to be the point of Christopher Rauschenberg’s photographs for more than 40 years.

Beyond that work as a photographer, Rauschenberg was one of the five founders of Blue Sky Gallery—now one of the premier photography institutions in America—back in 1975. He founded the Portland Grid Project in 1995. As the website states: “Christopher Rauschenberg took a pair of scissors to a standard map of Portland and cut it into 98 pieces. He then invited a group of 12 Portland photographers, using a variety of cameras, films, formats, and digital processes, to all photograph the randomly selected square each month. By 2005 they had covered every square mile of Portland and shown each other over 20,000 images.” The Grid Project is now on its third round of photographing the city.

Christopher Rauschenberg, Warsaw, 2016

In 1997-1998 he spent time in Paris rephotographing 500 scenes shot previously by Eugene Atget, who Rauschenberg considers “the greatest photographer of all time.” His website portfolio includes photographs from travels to Europe, China, Tanzania, Thailand, Brazil, and Guatemala. From March 26-April 19 a selection of recent photographs from Poland will be shown at Elizabeth Leach Gallery.

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Louis Bunce: Catalyst for making Portland a city of modern art

A retrospective of Louis Bunce's at the Hallie Ford Museum makes the case for the artist as the catalyst for modern art in Portland

There is a retrospective exhibition of paintings by Louis Bunce at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem, running through March 26. 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.

The importance of Louis Bunce to the development of art in Portland (and Oregon) cannot be overstated. As Hull says in his introduction: “Arguably Louis Bunce was the major Oregon modern artist of the twentieth century—a claim that can be substantiated on the basis of his enormously skilled production in many styles and modes, his friendship with artists on the New York scene that provided links between the Big Apple and the Rose City, his imaginative will to make Portland, Oregon, a city of art as well as roses, and the sheer force of his amiable, extroverted personality.”

Gerald Robinson, “Portrait of Louis Bunce,” 1955, gelatin silver print//Courtesy Hallie Ford Museum of Art

The exhibition certainly demonstrates “his enormously skilled production in many styles and modes.” Born in Wyoming in 1907, Bunce graduated from Jefferson High School in Portland. He attended the School of the Portland Art Association (later called the Museum Art School and later the Pacific Northwest College of Art), and spent four years in his early 20s in New York attending classes at the Art Students League. Early on he was enthralled with the paintings of Paul Cézanne, and the early landscapes in the exhibition have hints of Cézanne.

He then seems to have been inspired by the surrealist Giorgio de Chirico in the 1930s, with works like Along the Waterfront, 1939-1940. Here is a view from the seawall along the Willamette, looking north. Two figures lean on the wall, gazing across the river, but the rest is a simplified still life of objects: timbers, post, wheel, bridge and the towers of the Portland Public Market Building (later the Oregon Journal Building, demolished in 1969 for the construction of Waterfront Park). It has the bleakness of de Chirico, but maybe that’s also the bleakness of the Great Depression.

Louis Bunce, “Along the Waterfront”, 1939-1940. Oil on canvas. 34” x 30 ½” /Courtesy Hallie Ford Museum of Art

By the 1950s Bunce, in the spirit of the times, was making abstract expressionist style paintings. For me these are his most powerful works. Bunce combines freedom of form making with explorations of paint application—typical abstract expressionist attributes—with the feeling (not really “depiction”) of the land and sea of Oregon. Burned Land No. 2 relates directly to the series of massive wildfires known as the Tillamook Burn. Other titles such as Bay Composition No.2, Beach—Low Tide, Soft Rocks, Cliffside, or Lava Field, make it clear that Bunce was looking locally for (oh, I hate using this word, but…) “inspiration.”

Landscape-inspired-abstraction continued to be Bunce’s motif of choice through the end of his life, with a few side tracks into “pop”-inspired, paintings of enormous apples and roses, and a series of collages and serigraphs with strange furniture-like motifs (unfortunately not in this exhibition, but in a show of Bunce paper works that just closed at Hallie Ford).

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Interview: Tad Savinar on making theater, urban design and studio art

The Portland artist explains how he's sorted his multiple career paths

Tad Savinar has done a lot of interesting things in a career of 40-plus years.

In 1982 he organized an exhibition for Portland Center for the Visual Arts called A Few Good Men. One of those “men” was actor/writer Eric Bogosian who presented a monologue performance. Three years later the play Talk Radio co-created by Savinar and Bogosian premiered at PCVA. In 1987 it was produced by Joseph Papp at the New York Shakespeare Festival. Two years after that it was a feature film directed by Oliver Stone.

In the early 1990s he was a member of the Westside Light Rail Project Design Team. Since then he has participated in dozens of design teams and planning projects from Oregon and Washington to Arizona and New Jersey.

Now he is Vice Chair of the Portland Design Review Commission which “provides leadership and expertise on urban design and architecture and on maintaining and enhancing Portland’s historical and architectural heritage.”

But throughout his career he has been known as a studio artist with numerous exhibitions and public arts works to his credit.

Tad Savinar, THE NEW MAN,14 x 11.5 inches,
Digital print on paper,
2014

Currently at the Ronna and Eric Hoffman Gallery at Lewis and Clark College is an exhibition of
34 paintings, prints and sculptures he produced between 1994 and 2016 (along with 9 digital prints conceived during a sabbatical in Florence Italy in 2014). The show, “youniverse—past, present, future—Selected works from Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation” runs from January 17-March 5.

This conversation happened last September.

You’ve said that to understand America you need to listen to talk radio and country music. Do you still think so?

I do—and talk to a 12-year-old.

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Go for Warhol’s Pop stylings, stay for Corita Kent’s “Power Up”

The Portland Art Museum's Andy Warhol exhibition opens the door to Pop Art, but don't miss the Corita Kent show downstairs

As you enter the Portland Art Museum you are confronted by a wall of big colorful prints with the face of Chairman Mao by Andy Warhol from 1972. I wonder what Mao means to viewers now. The leader of China (back then “Red China” or “Communist China”) died 40 years ago.

Warhol used the stock ubiquitous portrait of Mao Zedong, the same image that was then plastered all over China at the time. It’s interesting to think that then it was politically cheeky for Warhol to use an image of arch-enemy Mao in the same way he had utilized the images of such celebrities as Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Kennedy, and Elizabeth Taylor. At the same time, it must have been almost sacrilegious from the Chinese viewpoint to depict the iconic Chairman with a blue face, green lips and arty scribbles.

Andy Warhol (American, 1928–1987). Mao (II.91), 1972. Screenprint. 36 x 36 in. Courtesy of Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation. © 2016 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Andy Warhol (American, 1928–1987).
Mao (II.91), 1972. Screenprint. 36 x 36 in.
Courtesy of Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation. © 2016 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts,
Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The framed prints are even hung on wallpaper with purple Mao faces. With his wallpapers that repeated images from his prints and paintings, Warhol was among the first to raise questions of what disciplines were to be considered within the realm of “fine art.” Paintings, sculpture, prints—certainly fine art—but wallpaper?

This survey of Warhol’s work in printmaking, Andy Warhol: Prints from the Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation, provides an opportunity to evaluate what he brought to contemporary art thinking, especially to the rise of Pop Art in the 1960s and ‘70s.

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