Bob Hicks


At PSU’s new museum, art for all

The new Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the urban university gives Portland a new center for contemporary art. And it's free to everyone.

As you walk around the new Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at Portland State University, the eyes have it. Staring out from the prints on the walls in the museum’s inaugural exhibition, Art for All, they leap across the space between art and visitor, intimate and visceral and commanding. When the new museum’s interim director, Linda Tesner, was shaping its first show she wanted to appeal to as broad a potential audience as possible, and decided to stress portraits: person to person, universal and immediate. What could be more democratic?

“Art for All” might well also be the new museum’s motto. When the newest Schnitzer-named university art museum – the third in the Pacific Northwest – opens its doors on Thursday at PSU, Portland will gain something that’s common across Europe but almost as rare as hen’s teeth in the United States: a free art museum. That’s free, no strings attached: free admission for any PSU student or staff member; free for anyone and everyone, from anywhere and everywhere, who wants to visit.

Left: Robert Colescott’s Haircut, 1989, oil on canvas, 84 x 72 inches. Right: David Shrobe’s Keeper of Secrets, 2018, oil, acrylic, graphite, paper, canvas, wood, fabric, metal, and vinyl. Photo: Spencer Rutledge, courtesy PSU

That fact alone distinguishes the new JSMA from most American museums. It tears down the stubborn economic wall that traditionally keeps lower-income people on the outside and turns museums into havens for the middle and upper classes. The costs of building, maintaining and exhibiting museum collections are high, and in the U.S., where government underwriting of cultural institutions is scant, that usually means high admission prices, too: standard admission to the much larger Portland Art Museum, for instance, is $20, an amount that doesn’t even begin to cover the costs of keeping its doors open.  


ArtsWatch Weekly: dark & stormy nights

Frankenstein, Día de Muertos, tribute bands, dinosaurs, warps & wefts, and a Dope Elf: Welcome to the art week.

TODAY IS BOTH HALLOWEEN AND THE BEGINNING OF DÍA DE MUERTOS, two holidays that have distinct backgrounds and meanings but are often linked in the public mind, because they occur each year at about the same time and because they deal, in their own ways, with the souls of the dead. Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, which begins today and continues through Saturday, is a celebration that began in central and southern Mexico and has spread broadly from there. It’s a time for remembering friends and family who have died, and helping them along their spiritual journey.

Carlos Manzano as Bombón in the Día de Muertos-inspired play Amor Añejo, at Milagro Theatre through November 10. Photo © Russell J Young 

Milagro Theatre’s current show, Amor Añejo, gives you a good sense of the spirit of Día de Muertos. Bennett Campbell Ferguson, in his review for ArtsWatch, Into the Beyond, with Pain and Laughter, calls it a “tale of bereavement and rebirth.” “It’s an elegy—and more,” he continues. “The story flows from a single death that leaves everything from pain to joy to absurdity in its wake. Amor Añejo’s fullness of spirit makes it an unmissable play. At once profoundly soulful and gloriously silly, it invites us to touch the life of Hector, a painter who refuses to accept the death of his wife, Rosalita.” Naturally, that’s only the beginning.


James B. Thompson, 1951-2019

Remembering the wide-ranging Oregon artist and Willamette University professor, who has died at 68. A memorial service will be held Nov. 5.

When James B. Thompson was growing up in Chicago in the 1960s he often hopped on the Illinois Central train and headed down to the Loop to spend the day hanging out at the Art Institute of Chicago, one of America’s great museums. What he saw there added to an eclectic list of influences on his own emergence as an artist. “I had the movies and I had TV, and both were important to me,” he said. “And I had books. And radio. Baseball cards. And then, the world of music. It’s a weird world. Forms of entertainment become dominant in our lives.”

As he grew and traveled and established his own distinguished career as an artist and teacher, other experiences and influences added to his broad vision of the world of art: medieval books of hours and their free-floating sense of space, the mysteries of Neolithic stone art, the techniques and possibilities of fused glassmaking, the game of golf, the act of mapping, geological shifts, the ways in which science and nature and human beings interact, the human impact on the changing landscape, the fading of traditional cultures in a modern world, the cultural and artistic implications of the fragmentation of the universe, the liberating breakup of Renaissance perspective in contemporary art.

Thompson died on October 27, 2019,at his home in Salem, Oregon, from effects of the cancer mesothelioma. He was surrounded by his loving and supportive family. He was 68.


Women of Will, and vice versa

At Portland Playhouse, Tina Packer and actor Nigel Gore dive deeply into the dramatic world of women in Shakespeare's plays

A couple of minutes into Women of Will, Tina Packer’s smart and curiously seductive play/presentation at Portland Playhouse, a virile-looking fellow named Nigel Gore strides manfully onto the stage. “I come bearing testosterone,” he announces in a slightly puckish tone, and so he does.

Packer and Gore are the sole performers in Women of Will, a quickly shifting show that alternates between intimate scenework and speculative commentary on the nature of Shakespeare’s approach to his women characters – an approach that evolves from submissiveness and victimization in his early plays, such as The Taming of the Shrew and the Henry VI trilogy, to the fully engaged women of his late romances, such as Pericles and The Tempest, in which daughters help redeem their fathers. It is, Packer proposes early on, the story of the playwright’s own “enlightenment journey.”

Nigel Gore and Tina Packer at Portland Playhouse. Photo: Brud Giles

But first, that testosterone. It’s on raw display in scenes from Shrew, in which Gore as Petruchio whips off his belt and roughly attaches it around the neck of Packer, who is playing Kate, dragging her about the stage like a dog or a mare: Kate, that fine ferocious spirit, broken to the bit. Yet another form of this unfettered manliness pops up in the second act as Gore, playing Othello, bellows in pain and self-obsessive passion at Desdemona, who despite her obvious intelligence and courage and even love has no protection against his rage. “Othello is a play about race, but it’s also a play about gender,” Packer comments, and in this sad and ghastly and strangely moving bed-and-murder scene that rings searingly true.


How to be a critic? Just do it

A critic’s voice is not the voice of God. It is human, and fallible, and individual. It will sometimes please you, sometimes amuse you, sometimes infuriate you.

I told a friend the other day that I was working on a talk to be titled “How To Be a Critic,” and when she asked me how it was going I said, “Well, I hope I figure out the answer before Tuesday night.”

Truth is, there are about as many ways to be a critic as there are critics. If you’re looking for a decoder ring, that’s kind of annoying. Nevertheless, it’s true. Critics are writers, and writing is more art than science. It has rules, but they’re bendable. And all critics will bend them in their own peculiar ways.

A critic’s voice is not the voice of God. It is human, and fallible, and individual. It will sometimes please you, sometimes amuse you, sometimes infuriate you. Always, it should engage you. You should find critics who speak to you, one way or another, and stick with them as long as the conversation stays interesting. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t disagree or argue with them. Most critics argue with themselves quite a bit, and are plagued by second thoughts.

A critic ought to stimulate you, and get you to thinking in fresh ways, and open new windows for you to look into or out of. A good critic helps frame a conversation. She opens sometimes unexpected views to the subject at hand. She helps you see things in different ways. Good criticism is informed, but it’s also open and curious. It’s an exploration. It’s quite possible that the critic’s got to where she’s leading you just a couple of steps before you. I once ran across a description of the beast that I haven’t been able to track down since: “A critic is someone whose education takes place in public.”    

This essay was delivered on Sept. 17, 2019, as a speech for the Artalk! series at the University Club of Portland. Sections of it are adapted from “Three Hands of Art,” a December 2014 speech delivered to the art-book publisher Pomegranate Communications.

Working artists, as you can imagine, often have different definitions. Picasso framed the difference between critic and artist as the difference between theory and practice. “When art critics get together they talk about Form and Structure and Meaning,” he said. “When artists get together they talk about where you can buy cheap turpentine.”

The actor Eli Wallach was a little more pointed: “Having the critics praise you is like having the hangman say you’ve got a pretty neck.”

Or the poet Robert Burns, in rhyme: “Critics! Appalled I ventured on the name. Those cutthroat bandits in the paths of fame.”

Oscar Wilde, on the other hand, saw something of a collaboration, if not quite an equal one: “The critic has to educate the public,” he wrote; “the artist has to educate the critic.” I like this, and find it true. I’ve learned about art through the grace and good will of many artists who have introduced me to their work, shown me how they do it and talked about why, trusted me enough to take the chance that if they open up to me I’ll get it right, or mostly right, and pass along what I’ve learned. Sometimes, I imagine, they find it vexing that I skew the view toward my own.

I have informal guidelines to how a critic should or shouldn’t go about the task. I’ll get to those later. And as an aside, I’d like to say that I don’t really much care for the word “critic.” I’m not overly fond of the word “art,” either. Both are reductive and limiting, and prone to serious misinterpretation, but we use them because they’re quick and handy. I think of myself as a writer first, but the phrase “writer who is writing today about the theater” doesn’t fit very well in a byline. The pieces I write, as a cultural journalist, I like to think of as engagements in a continuing conversation. I once mentioned to Libby Appel, when she was artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, that I didn’t think of myself as a critic. She rolled her eyes. “Oh YOU’RE a critic, all right,” she said. We liked each other, but on that point she was firm: I was an inevitability.


Honoré Daumier, Walk-through of an influential critic, from ‘Sketches from the Salon,’ published in ‘Le Charivari,’ June 24, 1865. Lithograph on newsprint, second state; image: 9 7/16 x 8 9/16 inches. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Rogers Fund, 1922.

CRITICISM, OF COURSE, CAN’T EXIST WITHOUT ART. A good critic should never forget this. However creative your process may be, what you practice as a critic is a secondary art form. And you can’t – or at least, I can’t – talk about art without also talking about its social context. So let me observe that our culture is schizophrenic on the subject.


ArtsWatch Weekly: Vertigo’s cash crunch, space race

Plus women and Shakespeare, Roger Kukes' stories in paint, Día de Muertos, Dani Baldwin, prison tales, film fests, art biz, "Butterfly" time

SOMETIMES THE ADVENTURES OF THE ARTS WORLD ARE LIKE THE PERILS OF PAULINE. More often, actually, than a lot of people realize. Except for a few brand-name stars – the 1 percent of the arts world – making art is risky business, with high costs and limited income. Some of the best art comes from the creative challenge of making the most from the least. In the performing arts, that often means finding little spaces, in out-of-the-way neighborhoods, and making a virtue of simple and small.

In Portland and a lot of other towns, theater and dance thrive in small spaces that pose creative challenges, like the aptly named Shoe Box Theater in inner Southeast Portland, which has room, if you stuff it like a bulging burrito, for forty people in the audience. Against all odds, this tiny space has been home to some terrific theater over the years. So it was with some chagrin that I saw the news, in Marty Hughley’s most recent DramaWatch column, that both the Shoe Box and its main tenant, Theatre Vertigo, are on the ropes. 

Hughley writes: “With rent prices skyrocketing, The Shoebox in dire need of upgrades and repairs, and theatre attendance dwindling, this Portland theatre icon is in jeopardy of not being able to continue on to year 23,” begins the plea on a recently created Save Theatre Vertigo page at “This campaign will help us cover the immediate costs of closing out our first show of the season, rent and expenses for The Shoebox for November and December (approximately $5,400), much needed repairs to our electrical system, and initial funding for our January show.”

Up close and in your face: Don Alder (left) and Grant Byington in Waiting for Godot in the Shoebox Theater in 2015. Photo: Northwest Classical Theatre Collaborative


ArtsWatch Weekly: past imperfect, present tense

In the Northwest, images of horror and hope from the past and present. Plus a West Side story, a flamenco flourish, and a divine voice.

ARTSWATCH IS ABOUT ARTS AND CULTURE IN OREGON: It’s embedded in our name. But culture is a fluid thing, coming at us from all corners of the world, and, through our libraries and museums and musical notations, from the enduring fragments of previous times and places. It comes to us. We go to it. Everything mingles in the process. One of our number is on the nothern tip of the Olympic Peninsula right now, a ferry ride across the Strait of Juan de Fuca from Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, where depending on the weather she might be greeted on the shoreline by a bagpiper in a kilt (although the Unipiper remains a resolutely Portlandian attraction, rain or shine, sleet or snow). Another ArtsWatcher is working her way across Andalucia, taking hundreds of pictures as she goes. Our music editor is settling back into the gentle rains of the Pacific Northwest after a sojourn in Bali with some masters of the gamelan.  

Parmigianino, Antea, ca. 1535, oil on canvas, 53.7 x 33.8 inches, Museo di Capodimonte, Naples; at the Seattle Art Museum through Jan. 26, 2020.

On occasion we indulge in a quick trip north to Seattle, and in case you do the same, you might want to drop in on the Seattle Art Museum, where the exhibition Flesh & Blood: Masterpieces from the Capodimonte Museum opens today and hangs around through January 26. It time-travels through Renaissance and Baroque Europe, and includes 39 paintings and a single sculpture from the collections of the Naples museum.