Paul Sutinen


Art review: What do you mean by THAT?

Some thoughts on Tad Savinar’s political provocations

To everything there is a season… Ecclesiastes 3:1

We are right in the final innings of our quadrennial playoffs—in the seventh inning stretch. A Report on America’s Weather 2016-2020: Selected Works by Tad Savinar on the Eve of an Election at the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation Exhibition Space, invites speculation on the fundamental nature of the American democratic enterprise itself. In these prints and sculptures Savinar gives us “political” works, but absent sloganeering or cliché melodramatic imagery.

Tad Savinar, America 2019/Courtesy of the artist

For example, AMERICA 2019, with “America,” one word, floating in a clouded sky. Just a word. “America” not as a place, but as an idea. Is the “America” we imagine here a concept only—that elusive “pursuit of happiness?” Or is it the America of “America—love it or leave it?”—the America unquestioned. The America depicted here will never be graspable. Always beyond reach.

It feels romantic, dreamy—the America of America the Beautiful. Maybe the “American Dream”? What is the American Dream? 

James Truslow Adams said that the “American dream” is “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement…It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”  (The Epic of America, 1931) 

But what of those who are innately in-capable, physically or mentally, or maybe because of their un-fortuitous “circumstances of birth or position?”  “That’s why they call it the American Dream, because you have to be asleep to believe it”—George Carlin.

In America 2016 there’s another word: DЕМОКЯАCY, a combination of Latin-script and Cyrillic fonts—foreign and domestic, but we can read it. Why the combination? Colors from the flag of the People’s Republic of China, letters from the “Russian alphabet,” a visual oxymoron.  Why? Is “democracy” important in Russia or China? 

Tad Savinar, America 2016/Courtesy of the artist

“Democracy.” What is democracy? There are many kinds of democracies, past and present, and some are pseudo-democracies—democracies in name only (e.g. Democratic People’s Republic of Korea [North Korea], Lao People’s Democratic Republic [Laos]).

DЕМОКЯАCY leads us to question that “democracy” of which we are so proud. We believe in “one person, one vote.” But what about voter suppression (“a practice commonly employed by the US Republican Party to stop voters who are more likely to vote against them because of cultural reasons”—Wikipedia) or gerrymandering (and now the postal service!)? What about money=speech?

In 2018 an Axios poll found that only 51% of Americans have faith in democracy.

“A citizen of America will cross the ocean to fight for democracy, but won’t cross the street to vote in a national election”— Bill Vaughan

With AMERICA 2017 we have a version of the statue of seated Abraham Lincoln by Daniel Chester French—a small, cast stone, touristy souvenir—on the wall, upside down. A martyr inverted. 

Lincoln upside down! Sacrilege!  The Lincoln Memorial is the American equivalent of the Mona Lisa. Every American knows what it is and brings their own meaning to it. It is ubiquitous, not on scarves and postcards, but on our money. From 1959 (the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth) to 2008, the memorial, with statue visible through the columns, was depicted on the reverse of the penny, and it has been on the back of the five dollar bill since 1929. The Lincoln Memorial has the aura of a sacred place. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his I Have a Dream speech from its steps in 1963.

Tad Savinar, America 2017/Courtesy of the artist

How dare he do this to a national icon? (There is something disrespectful about the cheap little reproduction itself.) Upside down—some kind of distress signal? According to the United States Flag Code, an American flag (certainly an icon) upside down means a sign of distress or great danger—perhaps this is another kind of distress signal. 

The title, AMERICA 2017, matters. This is America in 2017, after the inauguration of a new regime. Lincoln is turned upside down. Picasso would not allow Guernica to be sent to Spain until the Franco regime ended. Will this Lincoln ever be righted? 

Lincoln, the first Republican president, in the midst of the most divided time for our union, sought, “malice toward none, … charity for all” (second Inaugural Address, 1865). Things are topsy-turvy now. But as Lincoln also noted, “It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: ‘And this, too, shall pass away.’ How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction!” 

Several of Savinar’s images here predate the current regime. In CHAMP, 1983, a lavender map silhouette of the lower 48 United States is superimposed over a vertically divided black (left) and red (right) field, the letters C H A M P spaced out across the map. The superimposition of the word over the map implies equivalency. The USA is the CHAMP. Like many of Savinar’s best political pieces this is a one-worder. It’s all about choices, of the word and of the image, and, in this case, unfamiliar colors.   

Tad Savinar, CHAMP/Courtesy of the artist

I first saw this CHAMP image as a 12-foot-tall wall painting in 1983. It seemed glib to me then. That was in the midst of the Reagan years (the first president to say, “Let’s make America great again”). Thirty-seven years and a lot of conflict later I find more in the image.

It’s the presentation of the word in this visual context—not just in the middle of an otherwise blank page. We know the outlined shape means “USA” and it is labeled CHAMP as if “United States of America” or even just “America” has been replaced by the new nickname. The image could become a lapel pin or a T-shirt. But then it would have a different meaning, because the context would sloganize the image, making it a less questioned one-liner. It is as “fine art” that the image stimulates inquiry.

Who says it’s the champ? Why is it the champ? How did that happen? Is it the champ? What is a champ? Are there winners and losers? Most importantly who believes it’s the champ?

USA, the champ! We won! Who lost? The USA is our team, and we root for our team. We want to be able to say, “We won!”—but we are not really the winners unless we are on the field. We want to identify with “our team.” It’s human nature. Two thousand years ago the Roman emperor Caligula rooted for the “Greens” chariot racers. The team is our surrogate tribe. WE are THE CHAMP. We want to be the “champ” even as couch potatoes.

Maybe we’re the CHAMP because the USA is “The greatest country in the world!” Therefore “champ.” 

How so? According to the latest U.S. News & World Report Best Countries ranking, the United States is #8, ranking #1 only in the category of Power.  Power could be considered an aspect of muscular athleticism, so maybe our team of armed forces is powerful—but while we continue 19 years of stalemate in Afghanistan? Can we be “great”—the “champ”—if we have millions without healthcare (and 200,000+ Covid-19 deaths)? Or is healthcare just beside the point? What about ever-expanding homeless camps? People who cling to the idea that the USA is “champ” ignore the inconvenient categories. “Give me your tired, your poor” was believable when it was our ancestors who were tired and poor, and once upon a time a president encouraged a “kinder gentler” nation.  How about now?

CHAMP is an empty slogan, but people like slogans. Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative. Be happy with the hubris.

And so it goes—no rants, no sloganeering, no truisms, no platitudes. It’s rare to make political art without a “message.” Savinar turns down the volume, seeing how far it can be lowered before it clicks “off.” Here are some great examples of something Bruce Nauman spoke of: “There is a tendency to clutter things up, to try to make sure people know something is art, when all that’s necessary is to present it, to leave it alone. I think the hardest thing to do is to present an idea in the most straight-forward way.”  

So, these pieces do not editorialize or criticize. By withholding a stance, or even identifying clear issues, they tease the viewer’s mind to wander into questions of political philosophy, to push outside the clichéd stances—if that mind allows that kind of consideration—with no clear implications, leaving open our inferences. Not “What does he mean by that?”—but, “What do I think by that?” 

We view these covertly political works through the lens of our particular views of the political situation today. We look at Savinar’s works, like all art as critic Peter Schjeldal recently wrote, “with contemporary eyes, the only kinds of eyes there ever are.”


The entrance to the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation Exhibition Space,
3033 NW Yeon Street

Note the limited hours: Noon-4pm, October 4, 6, 13, 18; or by special appointment: contact the artist

Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation Exhibition Space, 3033 NW Yeon Street. Though the address would imply otherwise, it is at the traffic light intersection at 26th Avenue. Look for the small green “Savinar” arrow.

Clifford Gleason: Early Oregon modernist

Hallie Ford Museum of Art continues its justly celebrated retrospectives of Oregon artists with the late Clifford Gleason

“Painting is hard work. It’s work, sure it’s work. When you are using all your faculties for one thing—standing in front of an easel—you don’t realize it because it is inspiring, but you are exhausted at the end of the day, you are bound to be, because you are using everything.” — Clifford Gleason

If you go to see the Clifford Gleason retrospective at Hallie Ford Museum of Art at Willamette University in Salem, you will be rewarded if you enjoy impressive abstract painting and traveling through an artist’s career. It is ironic that Gleason’s big show, now 42 years after his death, occurs when people hesitate to even leave home (here are the museum’s guidelines for visitors). Gleason (1913-1978) was not one of the big names of mid-century Oregon art—just a well-respected painter. This exhibition demonstrates why he was well-respected and why he should be newly remembered.

Clifford Gleason in his studio, Salem, Oregon. 1960s.
Photo by Bob Crist. Collection of Bob Crist.

Clifford Gleason: The Promise of Paint takes us through Gleason’s roughly 40-year career, beginning in 1938. As we move through the exhibition we can imagine what it might have been like to figure out how to be a painter was in step with his time. As with recent Hallie Ford retrospectives for Louis Bunce and Lucinda Parker, this one has been organized by Roger Hull, and is accompanied by a catalog with a fascinating, detailed essay that weaves Gleason’s life/career with great documentation of the times. 


Memories of Michael Bowley

Paul Sutinen remembers his friend artist Michael Bowley, who died in November

High on my living room wall, above and left of the TV, is a drawing depicting three rectilinear shapes distributed randomly on the white paper. Below them is, handwritten, “These are not birds flying, nor are they boomerangs.” It’s a work by Michael Bowley from 1977. I first saw it on his apartment wall when it was brand new, and we lived a few blocks apart in Northwest Portland. I was immediately intrigued by the piece because of the caption. It first made me think of folks who look at non-representational art and ask, “What’s that supposed to be?” And Michael was saying what wasn’t depicted. A few years later Michael saw a small simple found object sculpture of mine and suggested that we trade artworks. I immediately knew what I wanted and I’ve had These are not birds flying, nor are they boomerangs for about 40 years now. It still makes me think and it makes me smile.

Michael Bowley,  These Are Not Birds Flying Nor Are They Boomerangs, 1977/Photo by Paul Sutinen.

It was Wednesday morning before Thanksgiving that I learned of Michael’s passing at age 72. I appreciate the invitation to remember him here. We met in 1975—both young artists, he 28, me 26. Only a few seeds of the now burgeoning Portland art community had sprouted. Portland Center for the Visual Arts was founded in 1972. Blue Sky Gallery would open in the fall of 1975. There were a couple interesting commercial galleries, and a few college spaces. It was Michael who initiated two-person shows for us at the Wentz Gallery at the Museum Art School (now PNCA, 1977) and Buckley Center at the University of Portland (1979). We made artworks especially for those spaces. It was the thing to do back then.

In 1976 a new “artists’ space” non-profit gallery opened, kind of a local art version of PCVA. It was the Northwest Artists Workshop. It was founded by a handful of young artists fresh from the Portland State University art program. Michael was one of them. 

It seems like it was in the late 70s that Michael was a studio assistant for Mel Katz. Mel was working on his “Post” series, tall wall-mounted fiberglass sculpture/paintings. I remember Michael talking about sanding the pieces. That was an insight for me—that Michael might just enjoy the monotonous meditative meticulousness of the sanding process.


A long and inimitable painting career

Lucinda Parker's Force Fields at Hallie Ford Museum

Lucinda Parker is the premier Portland painter of her generation. Lucinda Parker—Force Fields is a 50+ year retrospective at the Hallie Ford Museum in Salem through March 31. Though the year has just started, there is unlikely to be a better or more important painting show in Oregon in 2019.

The show begins with two of the artist’s early works. Self-Portrait was painted around 1957 or 1958 when the artist was only 16. A serious looking young woman looks out at the viewer. The brushwork is surprisingly sophisticated for such a young artist but Parker had been taking art lessons since she was in elementary school. In Waterfall at Garland Pond, Putney, Vermont from 1959-1960, actively brushed flowing water foreshadows the dynamism of Parker’s works in the decades to come. The bold colors, dynamic paint (flowing, knifed, brushed), and aggressive scale will come later; these early works are dark, closed, in, and mysterious.

Lucinda Parker, “Waterfall at Garland Point, Putney, Vermont,” (1959-1960), oil on Masonite, with modern frame (acrylic), 30 x 42 in., courtesy of the the artist. Photo: Jim Lommasson.

Parker came to Portland in 1960, right after high school at Putney School in Vermont. She was attracted to a combined Reed College/Museum Art School (now PNCA) program. At Reed she, “took my humanities, my chemistry, my French and all that. I got [to the Museum Art School] and I thought it was the best thing in the world to be in a school like that—six hours a day in the studio every day. At night you’re tired. You can’t stay up all night.” She studied with (among others) Mike Russo, Mel Katz, Harry Widman, George Johanson, Dorothy Yezerski, and Louis Bunce. After completing her undergraduate degree program, she went on to get an MFA at Pratt Institute in New York, returning to Portland in 1969.


Judy Cooke: The birth of an artist

Paul Sutinen's interview with Judy Cooke focuses on the Portland painter's development as an artist

Since her first exhibitions here 45 years ago, Judy Cooke has been a leading artist in the realm of “painting” in Portland, though paint is just one aspect of her materials palette. All of her works in the current exhibition Conversation: Aluminum, Oil, Rubber at the Elizabeth Leach Gallery were completed this year. However, the range of sizes, formats, materials and motifs—ten inches to eight feet, polygon, square, skinny rectangle, found sheet metal, wood panels, rubber sheeting, tape, oil paint, line drawing, brushy painting—samples her interests over the length of her career.

Portland artist Judy Cooke

Cooke had a retrospective exhibition at The Art Gym in 2002, Judy Cooke: Celebration After the Fact: a retrospective, 1973-2001 (the catalog essay is by Bruce Guenther), and she has also been the recipient of numerous prestigious grants, including the second Bonnie Bronson Fellowship Award in 1993.

The exhibition at the Elizabeth Leach Gallery continues through October 27. She will be speaking about her work at the gallery on Saturday, October 13, at 11 am.

When did you decide that you wanted to be an artist?

Probably when I was about eight.

Interesting. Some people have that very early thought. Did you know what an artist was when you were eight?

No. When I was six, I had a fabulous first grade teacher. The art part of that first grade was always the best part. It was kind of unusual. This was in Bay City, Michigan, a small school. There were two very large blackboards in the room. Every week she would let two kids go up and paint on those blackboards, with chalk or whatever—something you could remove. The whole class got to do this. At the end of the week they’d vote on whether one of those pictures could stay up. It was a fairly big blackboard. So that was where I had a chance to see something on a very large-scale. And I always drew when I was a kid—tended to be large shapes. The crayons that everybody used were very thick. At school they tended to use these big materials.

The black and the blackboard are still in your work.

Somewhere, yes. I think I tended to work more abstractly, at an early age, than concrete observation. I mean really paying attention to space and three-dimensionality.


Art review: Richard Diebenkorn figures it out

In the Portland Art Museum's "Richard Diebenkorn: Beginnings, 1942-1955" we witness the development process of the Bay Area master

Thirty years ago I saw The Drawings of Richard Diebenkorn at the Museum of Modern Art. It was an amazing show of works that seemed effortlessly done, works that left me wondering how he could always, (at least in those drawings) always stop at the perfect point, often with just a few marks on paper. So, I was excited to find that the Portland Art Museum was having a big exhibition of Diebenkorn’s work, Richard Diebenkorn: Beginnings, 1942-1955, paintings and drawings from the first phase of his career. These works show the development of Diebenkorn as an abstract painter. His next phase would be 12 years of figurative painting, and then, for the rest of his career, he returned to abstraction with his iconic Ocean Park series.

Richard Diebenkorn, Untitled, 1945. Watercolor on paper, 15 ¾” x 12″/Courtesy Portland Art Museum

The works in the exhibition illustrate Diebenkorn’s progress from age 20 to 33. But equally important is the exhibition catalog ’s essay by Scott A. Shields. Like Roger Hull’s essay for the Hallie Ford Museum’s Louis Bunce retrospective in 2017, the essay is highly readable and does what good biography does: puts the subject in the context (of the people, institutions and ideas) that shapes them.


Sherrie Wolf: The freedom of the still life

Paul Sutinen talks to master painter Sherrie Wolf about her explorations of the still life, which in her hands contains universes

Painter Frank Stella said, “In great art all the relationships sparkle, radiating coherence.” In Sherrie Wolf’s still life paintings there is marvelous rendering of fruits, flowers, reflections in glass and copying of old masterworks, but the key element in her work is the musicality of the relationships among all the objects depicted—the loud, the quiet and the spaces between them. Wolf takes a genre with a 2,000 year history and keeps it fresh and new. Her new paintings are at Russo Lee Gallery through May.

Sherrie Wolf, Self Portrait with Red Drape, oil on canvas, 90″ x 60″ , after Charles Wilson Peale, 1741-1827

You were at the Museum Art School (now Pacific Northwest College of Art) in the early 1970s when minimalism and process art were in fashion. You probably studied with painters steeped in abstract expressionism. Were you planning to be a realist painter when you went to school?
It was hard to be a realist painter then because it wasn’t the thing, except I saw Jim Dine, David Hockney, Wayne Thiebaud, and I went to a huge retrospective of Georgia O’Keeffe’s work when I was a first-year art student. I wouldn’t say it was minimal. It was all abstract expressionism.