Paul Sutinen


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.


Samantha Wall: Painting portraits, freshly

Samantha Wall's drawings approach the human face in a personal way

In the 1997 obituary for Willem de Kooning, the New York Times noted an anecdote from the early 1950s: “An often repeated story has it that the critic Clement Greenberg, who championed pure abstraction, insisted that it had become ‘impossible today to paint a face,’ to which Mr. de Kooning replied, ‘’That’s right, and it’s impossible not to.’”

I thought about that as I looked at Samantha Wall’s series of drawings of women’s faces at Laura Russo Gallery. Some 60 years after de Kooning thought it both impossible to paint a face and impossible to avoid painting a face, Wall has found a way to depict faces that is somehow bold, restrained and, most impressively, fresh.

Samantha Wall,"Ann-Derrick", 2016, graphite on paper, 30 x 22 inches/Courtesy Laura Russo Gallery

Samantha Wall,”Ann-Derrick”, 2016, graphite on paper, 30 x 22 inches/Courtesy Laura Russo Gallery

Wall’s drawings, simply graphite on paper, focus almost exclusively on the expressive parts of the head: the eyes, nose and mouth. These parts are rendered with exacting detail—down to individual eyelashes—recalling both the neoclassical drawing of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres and the early grayscale paintings of Chuck Close. The faces are carefully shaded, lightly with little dark shadow—usually just deep darks of the eyes that gaze at us, the viewers. Then there are a few very light linear elements describing the edge of a cheek, or wisps of hair, just enough to make the structure tangible. The marvel to me is that Wall keeps this vignetting of the face from descending into mannered gimmickry.


Harold Feinstein’s camera was always at the ready

A Blue Sky photography show gives us the quick eye of a New York photographer

I’ve been looking at art for nearly 50 years. I rarely get a surprise anymore. I was about a quarter of the way around the front gallery at Blue Sky when I thought, “Holy smoke, who was this Harold Feinstein and why didn’t I know about him before?”

I was looking at Blanket Toss, 1955, a photo of activity at Coney Island. In a broad void of blank sky, a guy in swim trunks flies high above the tossers below. The tossee flails in a gesture that would never be found in painting because the angle produces a hard-to-grasp view of the anatomy—in painting it would not be believable. We would think that the artist had exaggerated, or misunderstood anatomy.

Blanket Toss

Harold Feinstein, “Blanket Toss”, 1955/Courtesy Blue Sky Gallery

But in photography we believe it because it is a photograph, something that records what is actually there. Especially long before Photoshop. The awkward gesture of the tossee is important, but I think the key to the picture is the pair of boys at the front foreground, who have turned away from the action to smile in our direction. In these pictures Feinstein often makes the spectators as important as the performance.


Breaking through: Robert Colescott and JD Perkin

Laura Russo Gallery shows some post-breakthrough art by Robert Colescott and J.D. Perkins

There’s a tantalizing little glimpse of Robert Colescott’s work at Laura Russo Gallery right now. Colescott (1925-2009) was an important American painter, representing the United States in the Venice Biennale in 1997. He is probably best known for his satirical paintings of the 1970s in which he, as a black artist, lampooned racist caricature stereotypes in works such as George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page From an American History Textbook, 1975, a take off on Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851, by Emanuel Leutze.

In a 1999 interview, Colescott said of these overt paintings, “it’s about white perceptions of black people. And they may not be pretty. And they may be stupid…it’s satire. It’s the satire that kills the serpent, you know.” These blatant works were very controversial, and 40 years later they are still powerful for their imagery. But we should not overlook the idea that they are also powerful because they are fine paintings.

Robert Colescott, "Call to the Valley", 1965, oil on canvas, 77.5 x 58.75 inches/Courtesy Laura Russo Gallery

Robert Colescott, “Call to the Valley”, 1965, oil on canvas, 77.5 x 58.75 inches/Courtesy Laura Russo Gallery

There are none of the 1970s works in the current small show. There is a big painting from 1965, a couple of big works from the 1990s, and a few works on paper. The 1965 painting, from a time when he taught at Portland State University, Call to the Valley, (about six and a half -by-five feet) is sort of a regular painting for its day. There are ambiguous figures in an ambiguous landscape. Call to the Valley was painted when Colescott was 40 years old. It speaks of a painter dealing with then current painting issues, but not yet finding a strong individual voice. It seems that the subject matter of the 1970s gave Colescott his individualism—so he could paint like he really meant it.


Michael Brophy: The tree and the stump

Michael Brophy's newest set of forest paintings call into question "ugly" as a category

Michael Brophy’s new paintings at Laura Russo Gallery are immediately impressive. The big (six-and-a-half-by-eight foot range) paintings depict the forest, sometimes deep among giant trees, sometimes as the stump land of logging aftermath. For example, in The Orphans, 2015 a hiker is dwarfed by soaring tree trunks, rising well beyond the edge of the canvas. In The Machine in the Garden, 2016, we see a photographer off in the distance point a camera toward us through the truncated pillars of stumps.

Brophy shows us that both kinds of landscapes can be picturesque, if not in conventional ways. But in one kind of picture mankind is the insignificant visitor, and in the other humans have utilized their intellect to bring the forest down to their own size. With this visual confrontation of the primeval with modern decimation both painted with the same kind of objective care, one can be prodded to thinking about how we as city dwellers relate to a forest of trees that can become the stacks of lumber that make our homes.

Michael Brophy, "The Machine in the Garden", 2016, oil on canvas, 78 x 90 inches/Laura Russo Gallery

Michael Brophy, “The Machine in the Garden”, 2016, oil on canvas, 78 x 90 inches/Laura Russo Gallery

In an ART 21 video segment, the photographer Robert Adams talks about his response to seeing and photographing clear-cuts: “It’s not just a matter of exhaustion of resources—I do think there is involved an exhaustion of spirit.” Finding the spiritual connection in the land harkens back to 19th century American landscape attitudes—the unspoiled land of America was akin to the unspoiled Garden of Eden. In both cases, humans intervened.


Painting in the long shadows of painting

Painters Sherrie Wolf and Jan Reaves take full advantage of the history of art and their painting skills

“It seems that the main focus of painting is to give pleasure,” the painter Robert Ryman said. “If someone can receive pleasure from looking at paintings, then that’s the best thing that can happen.” If you have interest in the pleasures of looking at paintings, this is a really good month.

Sherrie Wolf and Jan Reaves, showing at Laura Russo Gallery, work at opposite ends of the old false dichotomy between representational and abstract painting. Wolf paints still-lifes in a very tight realist way, and Reaves paints big bold painterly abstractions.

Sherrie Wolf, Sunflowers, 2016, oil on canvas, 50 x 50 inches

Sherrie Wolf, Sunflowers, 2016, oil on canvas, 50 x 50 inches

In a recent essay bemoaning the state of painting pedagogy that nowadays mistakes verbal critical thinking for the knowledge of painting acquired through the practice of actual painting skills, Laurie Fendrich says, “every painting exists in the long shadow of great paintings of the past.” Sherrie Wolf illustrates her shadows both by quoting the classic objects of still-life—glassware, crockery, fruits and vegetables, vases of tulips—and by incorporating images of “great paintings of the past” in her paintings of the present. The genre of still-life doesn’t have the meaning it had in its 17th century beginning. What was exotic, expensive or symbolic centuries ago in great still-life painting is now ordinary. We can buy fresh fruit at any time of the year. Glassware is cheap. Tulips used to be fantastically expensive, and the short life of flowers and insects could symbolize mortality. What once were possessions of the rich have become everyday stuff. Wolf’s paintings are about using mundane subjects richly.


Stephen Hayes: Keeping painting new

Painter Stephen Hayes show at Elizabeth Leach Gallery points in a very particular direction

Just over 40 years ago Artforum magazine published a “special painting issue.” Painting was in trouble, losing status as a vehicle for the “avant-garde” as it had been from the time of Impressionism (a hundred years earlier), through Cubism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art and Color Field Painting. In the magazine was “Painters Reply…,” an article in which more than a dozen artists gave responses to a short questionnaire. The intro to the questionnaire began, “ARTFORUM wishes to ask you, as a painter, what you consider to be the prospects of painting in this decade. It appears that painting has ceased to be the dominant artistic medium at the moment.”

Today there is no “dominant artistic medium at the moment,” and the concept of “avant-garde” is not an issue. As Buffie Johnson said in her reply to Artforum: “Having been proclaimed ‘dead’ more than once, the persistence of painting is remarkable.”

Stephen Hayes, "Paris, Bataclan (11.15.15)", oil on canvas, 2016, 23 x 35 inches

Stephen Hayes, “Paris, Bataclan (11.15.15)”, oil on canvas, 2016, 23 x 35 inches

If you want a great example of remarkable, persistent painting, see Stephen Hayes’s exhibition at Elizabeth Leach Gallery, which continues through May 28.