Shannon M. Lieberman

 

Accounts to follow: Natural refreshment

The Instagram accounts of artists Katy Abraham, Stirling Gorsuch and Aimée Brewer offer viewers the chance to engage with Oregon's natural beauty from anywhere

This is the first in a series of stories about outstanding Oregon-based artists to follow on Instagram. The series focuses on accounts that are regularly updated with engaging content and high-quality images that allow followers to enjoy artwork regardless of location. Curated by the artists themselves, Instagram accounts offer a relaxed opportunity to view completed and in-progress artwork and to get a glimpse into the artists’ ideas, process, and studio practices.

Georgia O’Keeffe knew a thing or two about nature. Among American artists, no one is as closely associated with capturing the vitality and brilliance of the natural world as O’Keeffe. In 1937, she said of her work, “I had to create an equivalent for what I felt about what I was looking at—not copy it.” I was thinking of O’Keeffe while thumbing through Mark Getlein’s Living With Art, in which the author outlines six functions artists perform. The last of these is “artists refresh our vision and help us see the world in new ways.” It is by no means a new idea, but the language is still striking; that art could “refresh” us seems to capture so many possibilities at once. It could imbue us with energy, capture the feeling of a specific place or moment, maybe even help us see as if through someone else’s eyes. As O’Keeffe understood, artistic explorations of the natural world can help us rediscover what is already there, and to feel what we cannot always articulate.

Katy Abraham, Stirling Gorsuch, and Aimée Brewer explore the beauty and wonder of the natural world, reimagining it in watercolor, ink, and porcelain. They do not just capture the image of nature, but the feeling of a particular landscape, the character of a flower, animal, or tree, and the sense of how we are part of the Earth’s rhythms. Their Instagram accounts capture both the teeming energy and quiet strength of nature and allow us to experience a sense of the outdoors wherever we may be.

watercolor sea and sky with birds
Katy Abraham. Where You Left Me. Watercolor on paper. 9” x 12.” Image courtesy of the artist. Instagram account: @cascadiaartproject.

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Celebrating connection in many forms

Aleksandra Apocalisse's images foster conversation and imagination at Portland's Saturday Market and beyond

Self-taught, Portland-based artist Aleksandra Apocalisse started painting on a whim when she was 21. “Before that I wasn’t even much of a doodler,” she says. “I don’t know why. I just didn’t really engage in that when I was a kid.” It started when she decided to play with an unopened paint set she bought as a gift for her partner. Astonished by how much fun she had creating images, Apocalisse started to teach herself basic art skills with pens and pencils. Her friends, many of them artists or musicians, encouraged her at this crucial point of development: “They were telling me I should be an artist professionally before I had ever even considered that.” 

After a series of unusual jobs, including farming, teaching children circus arts, and stint as a camp science instructor, Apocalisse reached a turning point while interviewing for graduate programs in neuroscience. Unable to stop thinking about how she would balance the demands of graduate work with her desire to make art, Apocalisse realized that her hobby had become her passion–but could she turn it into a career?

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And then Sasquatch was serenaded by a rooster

A pair of virtual exhibitions from NE Alberta's Antler highlight the virtues of play

Have you ever wondered what Sasquatch does in their free time? Granted, it’s a strange question, but then again, we are living in strange times. Physically distanced from one another with all of the usual structures and routines of daily life suspended, fluid uncertainty reigns.  We are navigating life in a liminal space. The question I keep hearing—on social media, from activists and politicians, from artists, curators, and institutions—is what will the world be like once this is over? Could this be a watershed moment in which we imagine and bring about a new kind of future?  

This month Antler, one of two galleries on Northeast Alberta St. co-owned by artists Susannah Kelly and Neil Perry, offers exhibitions that explore the collision between reality as it is and as it could be, even if only in the farthest corners of our minds or parallel dimensions. During the isolation period the gallery is only open by appointment, but the works can be viewed on the gallery’s website through April 25th or via virtual tour on Antler’s Instagram account (@antlerpdx). Atypically for Antler, both of the exhibitions this month feature works by Portland-based artists: Tripper Dungan and Lori Damiano in the joint exhibition Psychic Cinema and Kim Slate in the solo show All Around the World. Collectively, the works in these exhibitions got me thinking about the value of both the quotidian and the absurd, and the dynamic, generative spaces where they merge.

The artwork offers rich phantasmagoria—vibrant colors, quirky characters, unusual spaces, and improbable scenarios. The strangeness of the works invites us to explain them, not in the conventional sense of analysis and interpretation but in the sense of, well, play. Their whimsy invites us to concoct preposterous narratives to explain what we see, imagine what else might happen beyond the frame, or even project ourselves into the works. The works elicit a sort of playful, curious engagement that is not only fun and refreshing but that, according to researchers, enhances our creative and adaptive capacities and is part of our wellbeing. 

Raccoon serenading Sasquatch on a lawn chair in front of a campter.
Tripper Dungan, Chicken Songs. 28 x 11. Acrylic on wood. Image courtesy of Antler Gallery

Psychic Cinema and All Around the World brim with color, movement, and fun. The larger exhibition, Psychic Cinema, features Dungan’s painted wood wall hangings and sculptures as well as Lori Damiano’s gouache on paper paintings. In Dungan’s work, fantastical creatures are not fantastical at all, but rather going about their ordinary lives. A pipe-smoking gnome rides atop a running bear in Gnome Getaway. Snow Globe Powers depicts a figure with a snow globe for a head conjuring lightning between its outstretched hands. In Chicken Songs, Sasquatch sunbathes outside a camper while serenaded by an enormous rooster. This is no retelling of a myth or debate about the existence of the giant forest dweller. Here the world of mythology is a given; Dungan simply pulls back the veil so we can see it in its technicolor brilliance. In Dungan’s world, it simultaneously makes no sense and perfect sense for an octopus and a whale to smoke underwater (Bubble Smoke), for a hot dog to have a face and legs (Hot Dog), and for a hat-doffing crow to hold a suitcase full of bones (Bone Collection).

Dungan’s Magic Carpet Vacuum Ride is particularly striking, distilling several elements of the artist’s style into a wacky yet cohesive work. At the top of the image, the head of a woman wearing rose-colored glasses acts as a kind of finial. Her brown and rainbow striped hair is parted down the center and cascades down the sides, framing the rest of the scene. A gridded, 3-D head with generic features, like one from a rendering program, floats in the sky amid stylized, tricolor clouds. Also afloat is a woman in purple and green vacuuming a bright red, tasseled rug. This is the Magic Carpet Vacuum Ride of the title, a riff on the classic Steppenwolf song. While the protagonist in Steppenwolf’s Magic Carpet Ride goes on a fantastic journey, telling us, “on a cloud of sound I drift in the night,” Dungan’s figure floats to the imagined droning of the vacuum. Lips slightly parted, one arm posed awkwardly behind her, perhaps she’s lost in a private fantasy that is nonetheless rooted in the reality of singing and dancing her way through the housework. Beneath these floating figures, a cowboy with salt and pepper hair rides a bicycle, his arms outstretched in the classic balancing pose children strike just before yelling, “look ma, no hands!” He rides over bands of undulating color, through a desert populated by saguaros, a geometric turtle, and a series of jungle gyms. The overall effect is of a psychedelic playground: a Neverland in which people have aged but not forgotten the joys of acting like children. We can see in the painting what the character in the Steppenwolf song tells us: “fantasy will set you free.” 

Imaginative vacuuming scene
Tripper Dungan, Magic Carpet Ride. 20 x 26. Acrylic on wood. Image courtesy of Antler Gallery.

It’s no accident that Dungan’s and Lori Damiano’s paintings go together so well; it was Dungan’s suggestion to pair the two. Damiano’s paintings are brightly colored and have a similar playfulness to Dungan’s but employ more patterning and a higher degree of abstraction. Damiano describes her work as joining references to her life with “lo-fi utopian visions.” The results are strangely charming. In Supercross, five motorcycle riders await the start gun, poised to enter a snaking track filled with yellow and green hills, pink and green plateaus, and accordion-folded ridges. These colorful obstacles create eye-catching, but impossible geometries to navigate on the quest for glory. This idea becomes more literal in Snake Skate Break, in which two cowboys skateboard across the rippling back of an enormous black-and-white rattlesnake. 

Cowboy skateboarding in a parking lot surrounded by purple decorative border
Lori Damiano. French Fry Park-n-Ride. 24 x18. Gouache painting on hot press Arches watercolor paper. Image courtesy of Antler Gallery.

French Fry Park-n- Ride feels like another variation on this same theme and features a cowboy skateboarding in a parking lot while his dog and steed look on. There’s no dramatic or dangerous course here, but the title of the piece imaginatively transforms the yellow parking space markers into salty fried foods and lends an extraordinary twist to a relatively ordinary moment. In Snake Skate Break and French Fry Park-n-Ride, Damiano creates striking borders around the central imagery, filling the spaces with larger-than-life flora. The patterns of towering cacti that frame the central image in Snake Skate Break and the looming palms that have the same effect in French Fry Park-n-Ride enhance the otherworldliness of the scenes, distorting the scale and the space in which these tall tales unfold.

The smaller exhibition in Antler’s second room is All Around the World, which features painted clay and epoxy animal sculptures by Kim Slate.  In addition to sculpture, Slate is an animator and illustrator who has worked on many LAIKA studio films (Coraline, ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls, Kubo and the Two Strings and Missing Link). For this exhibition, Slate sculpted a pair of animals from six of the world’s continents, plus a grouping of three penguins to represent Antarctica and a pair of Central American sloths. Slate’s animals all have narrow, oblong eyes and extremely thin, elongated grins that stretch almost the full length of their heads. These grins waver between mischievous and unsettling, as they reveal rows of sharp, pointy teeth. The impishness of Slate’s Raccoons, whose poses suggest greater movement than any of the other animals on view, infuses the figures with character and reminds us that there are very good reasons why the internet has given these North American mammals monikers such as “trash panda” and “furry bandit.” Like Dungan’s and Damiano’s work, Slate’s animals seem to invite viewers to craft stories about their imagined adventures.

Kim Slate. Raccoons. 8 x 4 3/4. Clay, epoxy, wire, and gouache. Image courtesy of Antler Gallery.

The work at Antler this month is fun, and I think we all need a bit of that these days. Psychic Cinema and All Around the World invite us to take a playful leap into works that are compelling and inventive without being simplistic. Dr. Stuart Brown, the psychiatrist who founded the National Institute for Play, argues that his decades of research have taught him that “play may be pretty important for our survival.” In the context of Dungan’s, Damiano’s, and Slate’s art, Brown’s contention is a reminder that there is value in the suspension of disbelief, and in the kind of playfulness that allows for different characters, ideas, and references to converge in unlikely ways and in strange places. Works that do not appear to be serious still inspire. Dungan’s, Damiano’s, and Slate’s work—especially shown together—has tremendous capacity to evoke joy, creativity, and expansive thinking.

As you embark on your journey through Dungan’s, Damiano’s, and Slate’s work, I recommend beginning with the virtual tour on Instagram. Viewers can see how the works are arranged, hear some of Perry’s thoughts on specific pieces, and then go to the gallery’s website to look at the work more closely. Kelly and Perry, with whom I communicated via email, said, “The virtual tour was nerve-wracking to do as we aren’t experts in the technical side of things, nor are we particularly confident about being on camera.” It’s true that the virtual tours are a bit rough and tumble. There’s no music, graphics, or editing. There are moments when the camera is a bit shaky, or when we see the reflection of Perry as she filmed, or other works, or the overhead lighting in the glass of the featured painting. Still, something of the character of the gallery comes through in the tour, and the focus is emphatically on the work rather than slick institutional branding. 

Just as the work on view contemplates life– however surreal–without being purely escapist, the virtual tour reads as an adaptation to our current, collective predicament. It doesn’t need to be seamless to have appeal. In fact, Antler’s virtual tour got over 7,000 views in just two days. Citing “extremely positive” feedback, Kelly and Perry are now thinking about how the virtual tours could become a consistent part of their work, and a way to improve accessibility across geographic boundaries and mobility barriers. It’s a perfect example of how being put in an isolation period can lead to a creative expansion of business as usual. I think Dr. Stuart Brown would say this looks like a playful way of surviving, perhaps even thriving. Kelly and Perry have created an opportunity to delve, virtually, into works that ask us to suspend the strictures of reality and wonder, “what if?” The exhibitions remind us that, in the words of Carl Sagan, “Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were, but without it we go nowhere.” Who knows what we might collectively dream up next?


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.

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

The political prints of John Buck

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


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 exhibiti 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.