Oregon ArtsWatch

 

Voices from the front: Ghostlighting

As live theater disappears, Eugene playwright Rachael Carnes turns her hand to video-conference plays – and leaves a light on for good luck


BY RACHAEL CARNES


When Lin-Manuel Miranda and bestie Andrew Lloyd-Weber are both socially distancing in their respective homes, yet engaging in a good-natured musical theater pingpong match in the Twittersphere, it has been a decidedly weird week in theater.

As a playwright, my first canceled production announcement came from Nylon Fusion in New York City, which had made the painful choice to cancel its coming festival, including the premiere of my new play Catalyst. The cancellations, closures and cheerily optimistic postponements exploded relentlessly after that, for me and for every other theater artist and dancer and musician — for anyone who depends on a stage and an audience, not to mention all the people who get people on that stage and audiences in those seats.

That was Thursday. A dimming of the lights, a shuttering, a grief spiral. What will we do?


OREGON IN SHUTDOWN: VOICES FROM THE FRONT


Well, theater is made of scrappy, communicative, creative people. We collaborate. We design. We dream. We build things that no one has ever heard of before — from scratch — and we work together to make it happen.

Rachael Carnes says Eugene has a robust theater scene, including long-running Oregon Contemporary Theatre, which is “curating a season that is as bold and as innovative as one you might see in Portland or Ashland.”
Rachael Carnes, Oregon playwright.

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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

by SEBASTIAN ZINN

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.

Making music in a time of isolation

As the world shuts down and the Oregon Symphony faces a stark financial crisis, musicians create a series of mini-concerts from home


PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOE CANTRELL
STORY BY BOB HICKS


AS AN ODD AND NERVOUS QUIET SETTLED over greater Portland and most other places from coast to coast in the past several days, small islands of sound broke the spell, scattered here and there like grace notes or staccato exclamations. They were counter-ripples against a tide of silence, little bursts of defiant pleasure, sounding carefully yet emphatically: Even in a time of plague, the music would not die.

These small musical uprisings were especially compelling considering the Oregon Symphony Orchestra’s announcement last Friday that it was suspending its current season, which was to run into June, and laying off its 76 contracted musicians, along with 19 staff members and two conductors. The situation, symphony President and CEO Scott Showalter told The Oregonian/Oregon Live, is dire. “We need emergency funds now,” he told reporter Nathan Rizzo. “What we’re staring down between now and the end of June is a $5 million loss.” Showalter had written to Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, Rizzo added, urging state economic support for the orchestra as the coronavirus crisis takes its toll, and the symphony is actively seeking private funds as well. The danger of collapse, it seems, is very real. And the orchestra is not alone. Across Oregon and the nation, cultural groups of all sorts are staring nervously into what seems a daunting economic abyss.

An invitation to the neighborhood: come close, stay apart, join us at a distance as we make some music.

So on Friday through Sunday, in what was not quite a coincidence, a large handful of those recently furloughed symphony musicians went small. In Portland and its surrounds, seven musical mini-events took place, on musicians’ porches and in their yards, at neutral neighborhood gathering spots where listeners and players alike could keep their social distance and yet also be together, sharing something both sophisticated and elemental: the joy of music.

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Judging by the cover

Bright paintings inspired by library books at Adams and Ollman

by LINDSAY COSTELLO

The vibrancy of Marlon Mullen’s paintings beckons to every pedestrian who passes the broad windows of Adams and Ollman. The thirteen paintings included in Mullen’s solo exhibition are inspired by advertisements, as well as magazine and book covers running the gamut from Artforum and Art in America to knitting and cooking publications. Mullen finds these visual references in the library at Nurturing Independence Through Artistic Development (NIAD), a Richmond, California art studio supporting artists with disabilities. Mullen, who is autistic and primarily nonverbal, has maintained his art practice at NIAD since 1985. His paintings translate the written language and imagery of his references into abstracted forms, creating an inspiring new layer of aesthetic function.

Marlon Mullen, Untitled (2015). Acrylic on canvas. 36 h x 36 w. Image courtesy of Adams and Ollman.

Upon entering the gallery, the viewer finds nine acrylic paintings on comparably-sized canvases lining three walls. Further back, a smaller room contains three additional paintings, and one more hangs behind the gallerist’s desk. Mullen’s references to graphic design, advertisements, language, fine art, and popular culture are swiftly apparent. Organic shapes in a palette of bright blues, pinks, yellows, and oranges make each work feel alive and confident. Key phrases emerge from the canvases: “The World of Rubens;” “Art in America;” “First Steps in Knitting;” “New American Paintings.” Yet no elaboration is provided—Mullen’s paintings are untitled. The words seem to exist primarily as compositional elements of the overall works; legibility and textual meaning is secondary.

The exhibition’s thirteen paintings fall into three distinct categories: renderings of existing media including both text and image, text-only works, and fully abstracted works with no text or representational imagery. Working within these categories, Mullen descends further and further into an aesthetic of pure abstraction. However, each painting still reflects rapt attention to texture, shape, scale, and bold color choices. 

Marlon Mullen, Untitled (2019). Acrylic on canvas. 28h x 22w. Image courtesy of Adams and Ollman.

Mullen’s paintings referencing magazine or book titles such as Artforum, New American Painting, Art in America, Cook’s Edition, or First Steps in Knitting all fit into the first category. The painted titles of each publication are included in the works, providing the viewer with base context, but Mullen then captures only his source imagery’s general shape, leaving a dizzying array of bright blobs. One of Mullen’s largest paintings, referencing a juried exhibition poster, features a stylized pink face dominating the canvas. The figure is a series of connected shapes, with hair and eyelashes expressed as single lines, nose and nose-shadow taking on equal importance and size. Another painting, inspired by the book cover of First Steps in Knitting, features an abstracted basket, yarn, and needles floating in the center of the canvas against a bright blue background. Mullen’s heavy paint application and visible brush strokes enhance the painting’s tactility; the canvas itself becomes part of the image. 

Three more paintings contain only text, which Mullen has rendered in blocky capital letters and spaced irregularly, eliminating letters, joining words, and creating new words. When the text is indecipherable, it best illustrates each letter as an individualistic form, drifting on the canvas, free from the need for context. In one painting, the sole phrase, The World of Rubens,is painted in black against a solid white background. Buoyant in the center of the canvas, the shapes that make up each letter of the phrase take on a quirky personality, as though they are congregating friends. This promised “World of Rubens” is absent, yet the work still feels complete. Mullen’s clean approach convinces the viewer that the words themselves have artistic merit. 

Marlon Mullen, Untitled (2017). Acrylic on linen. 36 h x 26 w. Image courtesy of Adams and Ollman.

Mullen’s fully-abstracted works are also his fewest; only two are featured in this exhibition. In one such painting, thick, curved black lines stand out against a terracotta orange background, surrounding several orbs and other organic shapes. The viewer can’t be certain that Mullen used print references for these paintings, but the shapes feel like ghosts of Mullen’s source imagery from his other works, or depictions of shadows without form. If references were used, they’ve morphed completely into his visual language of intuitive forms and kaleidoscopic color. As with the other works in the show, Mullen allows the viewer to fill in the gaps.

While his references help to define the general composition of the paintings, Mullen’s style is most integral to his works. Thick layers of paint create a textural, swirled, and dappled effect. His formalist style pares down the source images to their contours, creating psychedelic color planes that fit together like puzzle pieces. Mullen’s compositions vacillate between representation and abstraction, placing a particular emphasis on small details and shadows while scale is skewed and reimagined. Yet Mullen’s stylistic renderings do not detract from his source imagery. Rather, it’s elevated, encouraging the viewer to consider new translations and interpretations of the existing media. When Mullen works with book and magazine covers as reference images, he cuts off access to the interior of these publications, thus thwarting the viewer’s ability to learn more. What’s left is a sense that all of the information needed is already provided in the works themselves. Mullen’s visual interpretations become a symbolic language.

Marlon Mullen. Untitled (2013). Acrylic on canvas. 41 h x 48 w. Image courtesy of Adams and Ollman.

Mullen’s solo exhibition at Adams and Ollman comes after a milestone year in his career: his work was included in the 2019 Whitney Biennial. (This was the first year the Biennial included an artist with disabilities working within a progressive art studio.) Mullen has been exhibiting work nationally and internationally since 2011, starting at smaller galleries and working up to solo exhibitions at Atlanta Contemporary in 2015 and White Columns in New York City in 2012. He won the prestigious SFMOMA SECA Award in 2019 and the Wynn Newhouse Award in 2015. 

abstract painting by Marlon Mullen based on the cover of Art in America
Marlon Mullen. Untitled (2016). Acrylic on canvas. 36 h x 36 w. Image courtesy of Adams and Ollman.

Mullen’s paintings separate texts from both their original meanings and the necessity for meaning. His painted words begin as poetic gestures, highlighting form over function, yet it’s difficult to ignore Mullen’s frequent references to “high art” publications like Artforum and Art in America. This raises further questions. Why does Mullen consistently work with these specific references? How does art media act as a catalyst toward continued art-making? It seems as though the answer lies in practicing mindful looking, continuously, as Mullen has atNIAD for over 30 years. Mullen’s skilled noticing serves as a reminder of the importance of diverse perspectives. One observer may disregard an old magazine cover, but Mullen instead breaks down its form to rebuild it again, practicing perceptive, self-assured mark-making. Excavating references from both high art and the everyday, Mullen transforms his source material, thrusting pure shape and color into the light.


Marlon Mullen’s work is on view at Adams and Ollman through March 21st. The gallery is currently open by appointment only.


Lindsay Costello is a multimedia artist and art writer living in Portland, Oregon. Her critical writing can be found at Hyperallergic, Art Practical, Art Papers, 60 Inch Center, and Art Discourse, among other places. She is the founder of soft surface, a digital poetry journal and residency, and the co-founder of Critical Viewing, a recurring web and riso-printed publication aggregating contemporary art events in the Pacific Northwest. By day she works at the Portland Children’s Museum.

The political prints of John Buck

A retrospective of the artist's prints and sculptures at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art

by SHANNON M. LIEBERMAN

A Klansman posed as the Statue of Liberty holds a burning cross instead of an eternal flame. A breastfeeding mother wears a belt made of sticks of dynamite, the first fuse already lit.  Medusa looks into a mirror to find not the reflection of her serpent hair, but a benign, 1960s-style smiley face. These compelling, imaginative vignettes live in the backgrounds of John Buck’s multivalent prints, which are on view through March 29th in the Hallie Ford Museum of Art’s special exhibition John Buck: Prints and Sculpture from the Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation

Installation view of John Buck: Prints and Sculpture from the Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art. Photo courtesy of the author.

Curated by John Olbrantz (who is also the museum’s director), the exhibition features 39 of Buck’s works, a combination of sculptures in the round, relief sculptures, and woodblock prints produced over four decades. In an election year, during a highly contentious presidency, and practically in the shadow of the Oregon State Capitol building and courthouses, Buck’s highly political prints emerge as the clear stars of the show. He draws on a wide range of references, cleverly and seamlessly integrating mythology, art history and popular culture into scenes that are at times as surreal as they are harrowing. While the museum attempts a careful neutrality by balancing the charged prints with less political sculptures and providing general context rather than interpretation in the wall labels, exhibiting this work at this time is inherently political. This is work that needs to be contemplated not in terms of modernist reverence for art as autonomous but in terms of the postmodern understanding of art as part of a broad nexus of social concerns. 

John Buck (American, b. 1946), Heart Mountain, Wyoming, 2000, edition 6/15, seven color woodcut, 62 x 37 in., collection of the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation, © 2019 John Buck / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Photo: Strode Photographic LLC.

Several of the sculptures echo the bright colors of the prints and at times repeat iconographic elements, but the layered imagery in the prints beckon viewers to come closer. The prints engage with past and present social upheaval, addressing, for example, South African apartheid in Crossroads, immigration on the U.S.-Mexico border in Trails Plowed Under, and the internment of Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans during World War II in Heart Mountain, Wyoming. More generally, Buck’s imagery repeatedly and sharply decries greed and its capacity to dehumanize, to corrupt public institutions, and to harm the environment. 

Perhaps the best examples of this focus are found in The Cat and Argosy. In The Cat, a jaguar prowls the foreground, while in the background figures from Sumerian art cart wheelbarrows full of bones, stab Uncle Sam’s hat, and playfully spin a globe on the tip of a sword. Argosy reimagines the all-seeing Greek giant Argus as an eye-covered potato in a jar. Argosy can also mean “bounty” in the sense of a cache or cornucopia. In Buck’s deft hands, the desire for riches takes the form of a blindfolded Mickey Mouse holding a moneybag and stepping on the scales of justice to outweigh a schoolhouse. Bambi is hitched to a cart laden with symbols of the U.S. government, happily walking off with the Washington Monument and the Capitol Building. In the lower right corner of Argosy, a slumped figure with a sign that reads “will work for food” holds a palette and paintbrush. A reaper-like figure pushes the Statue of Liberty in a shopping cart, while a smiling skeleton with “ignorance” written across its head rides a pogo stick over tiny, screaming figures. A person with African features eats out of a trash can. Books are discarded, unread, burning. There’s no subtlety here—the absurdity of what’s already happening is precisely the point. 

John Buck (American, b. 1946), The Cat, 2016, edition 3/15, nine color woodcut with hand coloring, 37 x 74.25 in., collection of Jordan D. Schnitzer, © 2019 John Buck / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Photo: Aaron Wessling.

Buck found his groove as a printmaker between 1980 and 1983, refining his technique and developing a strong graphic style that supports endless experimentation and variation. One unexpected pleasure of the exhibition is the wall text that illuminates Buck’s unusual printmaking process in an accessible fashion. He carves the central image first, often in multiple, interlocking pieces, then shallowly incises the background. Once he has carved the entire design, Buck “cuts the block apart in sections that can be reassembled like a large jigsaw puzzle.” Unlike many traditional woodblock processes that require a separate, carved block for each color, Buck’s “jigsaw” pieces can be lifted out from the block, inked, and set back in place so the entire block “can be printed at one time.”  You can see it for yourself, as the woodblock for Phoenix Rising, a rubbing of its surface, and the finished, seven-color print are on view next to one another. Putting the block itself on display near two other versions of the work invites comparison, allowing viewers to see how materials and process impact the finished work. I found myself counting the pieces and looking to see where edges that weren’t perfectly flush created white spaces between the segments. The “jigsaw” quality of the central images and cartoonish style of the backgrounds call to mind myriad associations with childhood and innocence. The playfulness of Buck’s style is what makes the scenes both engaging and ghastly, and it is that tension that gives his social and political commentary such sharp teeth.

John Buck (American, b. 1946), Phoenix Rising, 2006, edition 1/10, seven color woodcut with pochoir, 50 x 37 in., collection of Jordan D. Schnitzer, © 2019 John Buck / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Photo: Strode Photographic LLC.

Phoenix Rising is a tongue-in-cheek title for an image of a dodo that looks like it comes out of an Audubon field guide, but whose habitat teems with imagery of humanity’s historical and current foibles. In the sky, a floating church with a giant human hand pulls on puppet strings, swinging a grouping of the four horsemen of the apocalypse taken directly from Albrecht Dürer’s iconic 15th-century woodcut. The bottom of the church hovers over the Capitol Building, the lack of separation between church and state made evident as the dome of the Capitol nestles tidily into the bottom of the church. A tower with hands dangles hooded marionettes holding warheads from the top of the structure, while armed troops spill out a door at the bottom. The rest of the scene is a melee of warring factions, dressed to suggest religious and nationalist conflicts. I take away a clear sense that humanity’s perpetual fighting has dire consequences and puts us on the path toward our own extinction.

In the tradition of other forms of printmaking and, later, comic books, Buck’s simplified, linear figures are both easily recognizable and punchy. But at times the simplified depictions veer into caricature. In War Eagle, a 2010 work that wall text characterizes as an image of “upheaval in the Middle East,” a figure in the bottom left corner has a pointy beard, bandoliers across his body, and weapons on his back. The figure’s eyebrows are dramatically angled in the classic suggestion of villainy, his lips upturned in a frighteningly gleeful smile as he appears to torture a nearby female figure. He is the embodiment of the West’s idea about Middle Eastern terrorists, but his appearance here seems to reinforce that idea rather than question it. Two larger figures ride camels through a contemporary urban landscape. Appearing in the same work, I wondered if this was simply another kind of stereotype—the romanticized Arab that is not vilified like the terrorist Arab, but a stereotype nonetheless, and one that plays on reductive fantasies about the identities and lives of real people. Perhaps Buck’s goal is satire, as it is in so much of his work; after all, these scenes take place beneath a serene, soaring eagle that dominates the picture plane and stays the course even when crows work together to chase it away. 

Buck’ powerful imagery, underscored by his unusual printmaking technique, prompts viewers to think about their own values, and, by extension, what role they play in these social ills. The “jigsaw puzzle” quality of his prints acts as a metaphor for considering how all the parts fit together: in the imagery, in society, and in terms of the relationship between art and politics. The prints are not a specific call to action, and there are no solutions offered; it is enough to draw viewers into the consideration of unpleasant subjects that some folks would rather ignore. Buck once told interviewer Lynn Matteson, “I don’t think anything I’ve ever done is going to change anybody’s mind. And that is somehow the motive.” Whatever one makes of the works in John Buck: Prints and Sculpture from the Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation, they keep you looking, questioning, and looking again. 

John Buck: Prints and Sculpture from the Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and his Family is on view at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art through March 29, 2020.


Shannon M. Lieberman is an art historian whose research focuses on art and gender, exhibition histories, and intersections between art and social justice. She holds a PhD from the University of California, Santa Barbara and teaches art history and visual culture at Pacific Northwest College of Art. In addition to her love of visual art, Shannon is an avid reader and passionate audiophile.

‘Pipeline’: Looking for space

"He doesn't belong anywhere": Portland Playhouse and Confrontation bring searing life to Dominique Morisseau’s tale of Black identity


By DANIEL POLLACK-PELZNER


Where is there space for Omari? Not at a wealthy, white private school, where the young Black man at the center of Dominique Morisseau’s heart-rending Pipeline is about to be expelled. (He shoved a teacher who needled him past the breaking point to provide his point of view on Black male violence in Native Son.) Not on YouTube, where a video of Omari’s outburst is going viral, turning him into another Bigger Thomas, Richard Wright’s savage menace. Not at the inner-city public school where his mother teaches Gwendolyn Brooks to teenagers who pass through metal detectors only to crack each other’s heads on the floor. Not at his father’s place, where strict hierarchy and child support checks keep Omari at bay. Not in his girlfriend’s dorm room, where he’s barred from finding a tender moment before packing his bags. “He doesn’t belong anywhere,” his mother tells the private school board members, pleading with them not to send Omari down the school-to-prison pipeline. “There is no block. No school. No land he can travel without being under suspicion and doubt. No emotion he can carry without being silenced or disciplined. He needed more space to be.”

La’Tevin Alexander and Jasper Howard in “Pipeline” at Portland Playhouse. Photo: Shawnte Sims

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Upcycled and avant garde at Everywhere Space

A designer collective on East Burnside aims to change the business model of retail fashion

By SEBASTIAN ZINN

I am holding a pair of cargo pants made from flexible orange nylon. Their surface is symmetrically festooned with several smartly constructed, triangular fanny-pack zipper-compartments, which look large enough to be useful, and small enough not to obstruct the wearer’s mobility. Nearby, the drapey sleeves of an oversized, mustard colored sweater, hanging from the end of a clothing rack reach lazily toward the floor.

The chest of the sweater is divided equally by two geometric patterns. On one side, a white triangle floats atop an ultramarine background. On the other, a thick doughnut of mustard colored fabric is framed by a white square. The sweater seems to transfer the minimalist perfection of a Piet Mondrian composition onto a three dimensional, wearable garment. If sweaters had personalities, this one would be simultaneously blasé and purposeful.

The clothes I am combing through were created by the inquiring minds of the designers at Everywhere Space, an avant garde fashion retail collective on East Burnside. The collective’s co-owners include Alexa Stark (@alexastark), Alec Marchant (@alec.marchant), Ryan Boyle (“Collect Call,” @collect_call_), and Rose Mackey (@thingsrosemakes). Everywhere Space is Stark’s brainchild, and occupies her former studio and retail space. Over the course of several visits to the shop, Stark and I discussed her inspiration for the space, the collective’s ambitions, and her views on the contemporary fashion market.

Pants by Alexa Stark. Photo credit: Alec Marchant.

Everywhere Space, Stark tells me, is a “fun fashion playland, run by designers who want you to feel joy.” Producing “clothing that is affordable, approachable, playful and for everybody,” all the designers in the collective up-cycle, establishing new relationships between raw materials, clothing manufacturers, and consumers. Up-cycling (or reworking) entails deconstructing and reconstructing garments, or creating clothing from materials that would otherwise be scrapped, like “deadstock” fabric. Ryan Boyle (Collect Call), the designer of the orange cargo pants described above, often uses found materials excavated from waste bins and free boxes. Boyle explains: “Not only is new fabric unsustainable, it’s financially unattainable. Even if I could afford new materials, I rarely find anything that inspires me…I learn a lot from taking apart pre-existing clothing.”

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