The Unknown Exhibition

A show exploring anonymity, craft, and art takes on new meaning amidst social distancing

The Unknown Artist, a group exhibition curated by Lucy Cotter at PNCA’s Center for Contemporary Art and Culture, is an investigation of the value of art and its intricate relationship to authorship and visibility. Cotter brings together ceramics and textiles from the collection of the CCAC (formerly held by the now shuttered Museum of Contemporary Craft) along with work by contemporary artists from Portland and around the globe. The show reveals new patterns of meaning and deep connections between seemingly disparate practices. 

The Unknown Artist at the Center for Contemporary Art and Craft, installation view, image courtesy CCAC and Mario Gallucci

Continues…

White Bird on the brink

The venerable Portland dance presenter faces a major deficit due to concert cancellations during the pandemic

Have you noticed that it’s the arts we are all turning to right now to survive? 

While we wait out our “sheltering at home” and attempt to dodge the covid-19 virus long enough to keep our hospital beds and intensive care units from overfilling, it’s the free dance performances, free music concerts, free books, free museums exhibits, free art classes—all online—that are making this horrible situation bearable. 

But the question is, will these same arts organizations be there when life gets back to normal, whenever that is? 

Unfortunately, from where I stand right now, it doesn’t look good.

On Tuesday afternoon White Bird, Portland’s biggest dance-only presenter and one of the few dance-only presenters left in the United States, announced that if the organization can’t make up a $350,000 shortfall by June 30, it will have to consider the painful possibility of shutting down for good. The shortfall is the result of show cancellations due to the pandemic. You can read their full announcement here

In addition, White Bird will also see a 20 percent increase in rent from Portland’5 Centers for the Arts, which comprises the Schnitzer, Winningstad, Keller, Newmark, and Brunish halls: White Bird is a frequent renter of the Schnitzer and Newmark halls. The venues are owned by the City of Portland and managed by the Metropolitan Exposition Recreation Commission for Metro.

The situation is dire, White Bird co-founder Walter Jaffe said to me this morning when we spoke on the phone, but it’s dire for all arts organizations, he stressed. 

White Bird is a nonprofit organization that brings a variety of well-known and emerging, national and international dance companies and choreographers to Portland. It was launched in 1997 by Walter Jaffe and Paul King and was named for their beloved cockatoo, Barney, who is now 32.

Paul King, Walter Jaffe and Barney, of White Bird. Photo by Jennifer Alyse.

Continues…

Starting Over: The arts fight back

A new column rolls into view, and news from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, RACC and the Oregon Cultural Trust

Way back before the Covid-19 virus pandemic sent us into a sad and alarming combination of hibernation and vertigo—way back before then, let’s say early March—I would have used the same two words to describe the situation of the arts community in Oregon. “Sad” and “alarming.”

I didn’t need the March 5 panel on Building Political Support for the Arts in Portland to make me think that, but the conclusion was unavoidable after the panel members testified. It was pretty glum. It was also the last public event I attended.

I could quote almost anyone on the panel, hosted by Portland State University and moderated by Portland Creative Laureate Subashini Ganesan, to illustrate this conclusion, but let’s choose Dámaso Rodríguez, the artistic director of Artists Repertory Theatre for the past seven years. Artists Rep is Portland’s second-largest theater company, 38 years old and counting. Its past couple of years have been financially tumultuous and the company is in the middle of raising money for a new theater space. But unusual in a public setting for an arts administrator, Rodríguez was plaintive, and his melancholy had an edge to it, . 

Oregon Shakespeare Festival is closing until at least September 8. /Photo by Kim Budd

“Art elevates society,” he said, quietly and intently. “It is essential to living a good life. It would be nice if public policy made that statement. I feel isolated. I feel alone. I feel like we [in the arts] have become experts at surviving, and public policy could lead to us thriving.”

Artists Rep is going to need all of its survival skills now. And if the people associated with the company do manage to pull that rabbit out of the hat, where will they be? Back to “sad and alarming” where they entered this particular movie? Back to alone?

Continues…

Once more into the coronabreach

ArtsWatch Weekly: As the pandemic crisis grows, Oregon artists and arts groups feel the financial squeeze. Plus, streaming a few good vibes

THE WORLD’S MOVING SWIFTLY AS WE’RE INCHING ALONG IN OUR OWN ISOLATIONS. Radical announcements are arriving daily that we wouldn’t have anticipated a couple of months ago. The world’s in crisis, economically but more importantly medically, and different leaders are taking drastically different approaches to dealing with a phenomenon that, in a deeply connected world, knows no national borders. Some argue, with what seems extreme cynicism, that a thinning-out of grandparents and people with weaker immune systems is a small price to pay for restoring a booming economy and propping up the stock markets. Others, including most medical experts, argue that maintaining strict isolation is crucial to taming the beast and buying time to develop and distribute effective vaccines. 

Seven groups of Oregon Symphony musicians, just after being laid off for the rest of the season, put on micro-concerts in their own neighborhoods so small audiences could remain at a distance and yet still hear music performed live. Photo: Joe Cantrell


The fallout in the cultural world has been heavy. In Oregon, museums, galleries, theaters, concert halls, libraries, movie theaters, cultural centers, cafes and clubs have been shut down from Ashland to Astoria to Portland to Bend to Baker City and beyond. Schools are closed or operating online only. Cultural organizations, which always operate on tight budgets, are in crisis, and many are looking at bleak futures. The Oregon Symphony has canceled the rest of its season and laid off all of its musicians, and is looking at a $5 million shortfall. This year’s Waterfront Blues Festival has been canceled: The internationally recognized celebration, which ordinarily draws thousands of music lovers to Portland’s downtown riverfront for the four-day July Fourth holiday weekend, plans to return in 2021. White Bird Dance, which for 22 years has brought top-flight international companies to Portland audiences, finds itself in a life-threatening $350,000 hole because of cancellations, and is asking for help. Oregon Children’s Theatre, which relies partly on school-trip audiences that have disappeared because schools are no longer in session, needs $200,000 by the end of May. At this point Chamber Music Northwest, the celebrated mostly-summer festival, is going ahead with plans to produce its fiftieth anniversary season June 22-July 26.

Continues…

MusicWatch Weekly: The Apocalypse will be livestreamed

As world ends in slow motion, musicians struggle in solidarity

First of all, how are you? Eating enough? Staying inside and entertained? Called your friends and/or family lately? Good.

Let’s start by collectively admitting that we’re Not Doing Alright. It’s been a busy two weeks since last we spoke, dear reader: schools closed, concerts canceled, tours derailed, musicians laid off, stay-home orders issued, force majeure clauses invoked. We’ve been comparing notes with our fellow Gen X-ers and other overthirties, folks who experienced 9/11 and its aftermath as adults, and we’ve all reached the same conclusion–this is weirder by far.

Nobody knows what the hell is going to happen next, and as we scramble to make sense of it all we find ourselves grasping for new definitions of “musical activity” in general and “music journalism” in particular. We’d like to quote words from Oregon ArtsWatch Executive Editor Barry Johnson’s Mission Statement, which have recently comforted us:

The arts remind us that we are in this together. That we aren’t alone in our particular thoughts and feelings. That things can be made right and whole, if just for a moment. They remind us that the individual can do great things, and so can individuals acting together. And somehow, they resolve the great tension of American life, that between the rightful autonomy of the individual and the responsibilities that come with belonging to a group. We can’t imagine a good outcome to our dire problems—as a community, a nation, a planet—without the complex lessons the arts teach us.

We believe that the processes of discovery, explanation and discussion of journalism have an important role to play in all of this. An “informed citizenry” extends to cultural matters, and that is the mission of Oregon ArtsWatch—to help those of us in this particular culture share support and create arts and culture that respond to our needs.

Continues…

Voices from the front: ‘We’re in it for the long haul’

The longtime owner of a Cannon Beach art gallery predicts her business and others will survive the COVID-19 shutdown, with a little help from the community

Joyce Lincoln remembers vowing to herself at the age of 9 that one day she would live in Cannon Beach. Even as a child, she appreciated the natural beauty, the fresh air, and the community spirit. The Northwest native saw her wish come true in 1987, when she and her husband, Robert Necker, opened Northwest by Northwest Gallery in downtown Cannon Beach Thirty-three years later, they’re representing some of the biggest names in regional art.

Joyce Lincoln, owner of Northwest by Northwest Gallery in Cannon Beach
Joyce Lincoln says she’s seen hard times before in her 33 years as owner of Northwest by Northwest Gallery.

But now, she said, the place National Geographic named one of the most beautiful places on Earth has posted a closed sign.

The COVID-19 virus has ground life to a halt. Lincoln had to close her gallery during what would normally be a busy week – spring break — after tourists swamped the coast last weekend and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown issued a statewide order closing nonessential businesses and telling people to stay home.


OREGON IN SHUTDOWN: VOICES FROM THE FRONT


“You can walk down Main Street and maybe see six other people,” Lincoln said this week. “Nothing is happening; it’s total devastation. Everyone is frightened out of their wits and frightened for themselves and their families. We’re all losing money every day. People are distracted by fear.”

Nonetheless, Lincoln said she completely understands why businesses have been shut down and tourists asked not to visit. But while health concerns top everyone’s list, Lincoln also worries about the local families who make their living in the restaurant and hotel businesses.

Last year, the local food bank served 9,000 people, she said. “And that was in good times.”

Lincoln’s been through this a time or two. There were the dark days following 9/11 and the drawn-out recession following the 2008 housing market collapse. The gallery pulled through, largely thanks to regular clients and local friends and, Lincoln said, “We learned to live a conservative lifestyle.”

Continues…

Gallery shows shuttered but not forgotten

You may not be able to see this work in person at Nationale and Third Room but it remains attention worthy

I’m about to do something I’ve never done before: review two gallery shows which were scheduled for March, then abruptly shuttered, due to precautions taken to reduce the spread of COVID-19. The moment feels ripe for experimentation. Under normal circumstances, the objective of a review is to promote or critique a significant cultural event. This review, however, will serve as a reminder of what we will inevitably miss out on, if we don’t support our cultural institutions during this crisis. While fears about the pandemic were still emerging here in Oregon, Nationale launched a month-long retrospective featuring a series of paintings by the late Carola Penn, titled, Who Am I, Anyway. Around the same time, Third Room––a non-traditional gallery in Northeast Portland operated by a board of patrons––unveiled a solo-show of work by Alexis E. Mabry, an emerging multidisciplinary artist from Austin, Texas, titled Static Age

Penn’s retrospective at Nationale was curated by May Barruel, the gallery’s owner and director, while Mabry’s show was curated by Third Room’s founder, Kalaija Mallery. Both of these galleries excel at offering a great deal to look at in a very small space. Taken together, these shows underscore the collaborative achievements of female curators and artists working in Portland, as well as the significant contributions that small, independent and non-traditional galleries continue to make to the contemporary art scene.

I learned of Carola Penn’s local reputation only after her death, which feels like a betrayal given that Portland’s artistic community has long revered her fidelity to her creative practice, and her facility with a paintbrush. Penn’s key themes are time, its effect on identity, and the incompatibility of natural and urban environments. She spent a significant portion of her career in Portland reflecting on the construction boom’s impact on the natural environment. Lauded for her ability to integrate pastiche and collage into her work, she showed as much concern for how a painting was displayed in relation to other paintings, as she did for its content. 

In sauvie island road, (2013-2018) for example, Penn bisects a landscape of a marshland with another painting depicting an abstraction of a road––two vertical orange lines against an asphalt-colored wash. The left and right panels of the triptych golden state (2014) depict dreary images of an oil field overpopulated by oil wells. The center panel portrays a lush California hillside planted with Eucalyptus trees, bathed in golden afternoon light. Exquisite brushstrokes of yellow ochre and Prussian blue delineate the shadows rippling across the hillside’s gentle slope. The same palette of blues and yellows can be found in the surrounding oil fields, but in this terrain, they lose their vibrancy, appearing muted and macabre.

Penn has a gift for dovetailing private, firsthand observations with universally accessible themes. That said, her paintings reflect a consistent shift away from communal spaces––the urban sprawl of San Francisco and Portland––towards a life of quiet reflection in concert with nature. The series on display at Nationale focuses on her childhood as a second-generation American growing up in the U.S. in the 1950s. The show’s title alone, Who Am I, Anyway, signals introspection. Attuned to the fragmentary nature of human memory and perception, these works feature snapshots from Penn’s early life, coalescing with motifs derived from folktales, mythology, old master paintings, pop culture, and the visual language of advertisement.

Little Lulu sleeps in Van Gogh's bed
Carola Penn, Van Gogh’s Room (2003-2016). Acrylic on wood. 16 x 14 inches. Image courtesy of Nationale.

Two of the paintings at Nationale––Van Gogh’s Room and Van Gogh’s Chair (2003-2016)––reimagine scenes excerpted directly from Vincent van Gogh’s paintings. In one, a small girl (Penn’s autobiographical double, Lulu) sleeps soundly in the master painter’s flaxen bed. The figure of Lulu is appropriated directly from the work of the trailblazing, mid-century comic-book artist and media mogul Marjorie (‘Marge’) Henderson Buell. After her debut in the Saturday Evening Post in 1935, Buell’s comic character, Little Lulu, became wildly popular. Little Lulu was adored by readers of the Post for almost a decade, and later developed an even more far-reaching reputation, earning her creator a fortune in film and advertising deals. In another of Penn’s paintings, we see Lulu climbing up the crossbars of a wicker chair, which first appeared in Van Gogh’s Gauguin’s Chair (1888), preparing to usurp the old master’s seat. Like Van Gogh’s juxtapositions of resonant greens and reds and yellows and blues, all of Penn’s compositions––either in some small detail or in the figure-ground as a whole––contain an unexpected contrast of pastel colors. Her Van Gogh paintings in particular, communicate a deep appreciation for the capacity to see in color, and for the sensation of finding oneself surrounded by it.

Carola Penn, Van Gogh’s Chair (2003-2016). Acrylic on wood. 16 x 14 inches. Image courtesy of Nationale.

Penn makes deep gouges into layers of acrylic paint to physically sculpt the hard edges and contours of her figures. In Van Gogh’s Chair, the wicker seat is rendered in thick blankets of green and yellow paint. The individual wicker slats are vigorously etched into the impasto, forming deep grooves in the painting’s surface, and heightening its mimetic force. Likewise, in Van Gogh’s Bedroom, the hard lines of a pillow are hewn into the paint, giving the cushion an uncanny volume. One can easily imagine the sensation of resting one’s head on the soft, ivory cloud of paint at its center, just as Lulu, the sleeping girl in the painting does. These, unfortunately, are features of Penn’s paintings which must be seen in person to be appreciated.

It’s easy to imbue Penn’s images with meanings. They lend themselves to narrative. In today’s context, an untitled painting of a woman pushing a shopping cart heaped with paper goods which tower above her, looks like a mother diligently preparing for a pandemic. Other images in this series depict matriarchal figures performing superhuman, often surreal feats. One woman in a rose-colored dress flexes eight deft arms, juggling three apples, five eggs, a baby, a butcher’s knife, a bottle, a clock, a typewriter, a pot, and a whetstone. In another painting, Lulu strides confidently through a department store aisle filled with male figureheads, pushing a shopping cart in front of her. Sporting a fiendish grin, she has filled her cart with various countenances plucked from the shelves: potential spouses, or perhaps identities she could grow into.

woman with towering shopping cart
Carola Penn, Shopper (2003-2016). Acrylic on wood. 16 x 14 inches. Image courtesy of Nationale.

Most awe-inspiring among the paintings in Penn’s retrospective is a massive triptych depicting a modern-day Adam and Eve, aptly titled Losing Paradise (2006). It’s here that the artist’s dexterity as both a figurative and abstract painter is in full view. In the left panel, the proverbial couple sits side-by-side on a fallen log. Eve conceals her genitals with her knitting work, whereas Adam screens his with a mug of coffee. In the center panel, we witness a confrontation between the duplicitous serpent and an antique Hoover vacuum cleaner. In the third, a man in a suit and a woman in a red dress regard each other with scepticism or apprehension. Behind them, Penn provides a grim depiction of the fate many married couples are confined to: overcrowded suburbs, ghostly, congested motorways, and a few remaining trees from the garden of original sin, jockeying for a position among colossal telephone poles in the urban skyline.

Carola Penn, Losing Paradise (2006). Acrylic on wood. 6 x 12 feet. Image courtesy of Nationale.

Like Penn’s impasto paintings, the large-scale tapestries in Alexis E. Mabry’s Static Age are exceedingly sculptural. The work on display explores the detritus, substances, social postures and performances of a generation which oscillated between a light-hearted pursuit of pleasure and uninhibited nihilism. Mabry implements a rich cocktail of media, including paint, textiles, and upcycled craft materials. In respect to both form and content, she is a free-spirited bricoleur, often stitching hard lines into the surface of her canvases to define the contours of her figures. These include hieroglyphic depictions of Element, Korn, Marilyn Manson, and Handsome Boy Modeling School T-shirts, adidas shoes, Huffy BMX bikes, and Honda hatchbacks. By appending small sculptural elements to her tapestries’ surfaces, she brings them into the third dimension, further eclipsing the distinction between painting and the plastic arts. The smoke from a cigarette, for example, is recreated as a wisp of synthetic stuffing.

Installation view of Static Age at Third Room. Image courtesy of Third Room.

Set in the mid 90s and early aughts, Mabry’s tapestries impart micro-narratives of communal buffoonery and substance abuse, punctuated and contextualized by still-life ensembles of soft-sculptures, scattered throughout the intimate gallery space. These sculptures physically reproduce the dross of a specific strain of fringe consumerism: a lifestyle cultivated by aspiring skateboarders and BMX bikers, fueled by dimebags, synthetically flavored corn chips, and cheap consumables loaded with caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol. Mabry’s surprisingly vibrant soft-sculptures include 40oz malt liquor bottles, Doritos bags, PlanB packages, Dasani water bottles, traffic cones, Camel cigarettes, and Rust-Oleum spray-paint canisters. “You don’t have to know Alexis personally to relate to the work, or to care about the imagery she is depicting,” remarks Third Room’s former curator, Kalaija Mallery. She continues: “The Portland scene has been waiting for an experimentation with textiles that is not inherently ‘twee’…Alexis is making a crumpled pack of Camel 99s into a precious art object. It is important to remember that art can be playful too, and that artists from other places can still impart sincere “punctum” (piercing of the heart) onto artists they don’t know or relate to.”

soft sculptures of spray paint, camel box of cigarettes and doritos
Alexis E. Mabry, Krylon Green (2020) Fabric, quilt padding, chicken wire, thread, aerosol paint, acrylic paint. Image courtesy of Third Room.

Mabry’s meditations on her own personal history suggest that what we consume materially, no matter how benign or inconsequential, can leave as dense a residue on our psyche as the experiences we share with our closest human compatriots. Mabry invites viewers to ask: What are the indices of my behaviors as a consumer? Which scraps and fragments would I gather and stitch together to recreate my past?

Static Age is as much about what endures within us, as it is about what remains after we’ve exited a stage of life. The show’s title suggests that nostalgia entails looking back on a fixed or rigid view of one’s personal history. Yet the work implies that our memories of our early years are much more malleable than the experiences themselves. Mabry’s choice of materials, for example, intimates that our impressions of our young-adult life may eventually lose their hard edges, softening over time. Even our most discordant experiences and self-destructive years can eventually become a source of inspiration, or even comfort. But it takes deliberate, intentional work to get to that point. We are tasked with fabricating a coherent sense of self from a tangled, fragmentary set of experiences. The stitches in our patchwork spirit are the traces of that commendable enterprise.

We may not be able to attend exhibitions or performances in person for a while, but some galleries are making their shows available digitally. Supporting local arts venues is now more crucial than ever. If institutions like Nationale and Third Room don’t receive financial support, we may lose them. Established cultural institutions in Oregon are already struggling financially. A few, including the Portland Art Museum, are making some of their services available virtually, but the majority of their revenue comes from ticket sales and concessions. Fortunately, Nationale has other revenue streams. You can support the gallery directly during this time by purchasing original works of art, artist prints, or goods from their webstore

Third Room’s future was uncertain even before this crisis. Since its creation, its founder Kalaija Mallery has been the gallery’s primary source of funding. It is currently supported by the members of its patron board, most of whom are students or recent graduates. Mallery recently moved to St. Louis, Missouri, to pursue a position at The Luminary, and laments that the gallery may not be able to pay rent after this year. You can support Third Room by making a one-time donation, or by becoming a monthly contributor.

Since the first salons, the art world has relied on communal exhibitions to share new work, foster conversation, celebrate bright stars, and precipitate paradigmatic shifts. It’s a shame that my readers may not have the opportunity to see these shows. In the face of a growing pandemic which may incite a global economic recession (or a political revolution, or both), it may also feel inconsequential. As others in the cultural sector have pointed out, this is a fantastic opportunity to make art and devise new ways to share it. Mabry’s and Penn’s work has moved me to look forward, to anticipate how I will look back on this event, and potentially tell its story.


Nationale has plans to extend Carola Penn’s solo-retrospective, “Who Am I, Anyway,” through mid April. Please check www.nationale.us or follow them on Instagram @nationale for updates.

Check in with
http://thirdroom.net or follow them on Instagram @thirdrooomproject for details about workshops, conferences, and upcoming shows.

This article was made possible with support from The Ford Family Foundation’s Visual Arts Program.