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Starting Over: The arts fight back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo First: Social distancing

We know. It's tough. But some Portlanders have been practicing it for a long time. K.B. Dixon's camera catches an abiding state of solitude.


TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY K.B. DIXON


As part of the effort to combat Covid-19 we have been advised by pretty much everyone to practice social distancing. It is important to slow the spread of the virus, to “flatten the curve,” as statistical analysts put it. As a concept it is not something entirely new to Portland. There are those predisposed among us who have been practicing it for years. They have it down.

2019
2014

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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.

Corona corona, where you been so long?

Dispatch from the social distance: The great shutdown begins. What’s next?

Well, what a week it’s been. It began ordinarily enough, although of course we all knew the coronavirus was lurking somewhere back there, not quite out of sight. Italy was looking nasty, and things were picking up steam in Seattle, a little too close to home. But here in Oregon, life was going on pretty normally.

For me, business as usual meant jumping from this to that to the other thing, trying to find connections and tie them together. A little over a week ago I went to see Blood Brothers, the revival of Willy Russell’s 1981 musical, at Triangle Productions. Marty Hughley, ArtsWatch’s theater editor, and I talked about it and decided it’d make a good pairing with the newest version in town of The Odd Couple, Neil Simon’s evergreen comedy, at Lakewood Theatre: How would this pair of nostalgic shows hold up in a time when theatrical eyes have largely moved on to other styles and concerns? I caught the Simon play last Sunday afternoon, then let the two shows simmer in my mind overnight.

Meanwhile, I was juggling a lot of other things for ArtsWatch. I edited a few stories and conferred with some writers on a few others. I created some posts for our Facebook page. I made some phone calls and exchanged a lot of emails. I tracked what was opening and closing, spent some time talking with other editors and writers (some virtually and some in person) about a long-range statewide project we’re keen to do. I okayed a couple of story pitches, and gathered information for my next ArtsWatch Weekly column. I forwarded a lot of emails and press releases to writers or editors who I thought might be interested in them. I talked a bit with Laura Grimes, our executive director, and Barry Johnson, our executive editor, about budgets.

On Tuesday afternoon I went downtown to the Portland Art Museum for my second walkthrough of the expansive and fascinating exhibition Volcano! Mount St. Helens in Art, this time in the company of Dawson Carr, its curator and the museum’s curator of European art. It’s Carr’s final large show at the museum before he retires at the end of the year, and a labor of love, and we spent a long time touring it and talking about it. On my first visit, on a previous Saturday, the galleries had been packed. This time a smaller crowd was ambling loosely through the show; Carr mentioned that things had been busier that morning with a lot of school tours going through. When we greeted each other we laughed a bit about what decorum we should adopt considering the COVID-19 threat, and decided to elbow-bump rather than shake hands.

In the meantime I’d been slowly putting together my essay on Blood Brothers and The Odd Couple. Then, late Wednesday of last week, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced a statewide shutdown of all public gatherings of more than 250 people. A day later, Brown also ordered all public K-12 schools shut down. No more school tours of the art museum, and no more Volcano! to see, anyway, at least for a while: The museum also decided to close its doors.

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Nora el Samahy in “9 Parts of Desire,” one of many shows canceled because of the coronavirus crisis. Photo: Kate Szrom/Courtesy Portland Center Stage at The Armory

SUDDENLY EVERYTHING CHANGED. For the Oregon Symphony, Portland Opera, touring Broadway shows, all sorts of concerts in any hall of size, dance concerts and plays in moderate-to-bigger-sized halls like The Armory, Lincoln Performance Hall, and the Newmark Theatre, things came to an immediate halt. As the days swiftly ticked down more and more closures were announced, many by companies that performed in spaces smaller than 250 seats but decided the health risks were too great to go on. Art galleries called off a slew of artists’ talks and other events; some shifted to appointment-only status. Museums assessed the meaning of the state order and what “250” actually meant: If they spaced out their crowds and limited the number of people admitted at any one time, could they keep their doors open? Soon most decided “no”: In addition to the Portland Art Museum, the Oregon Historical Society, Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, Salem’s Hallie Ford Museum of Art, Eugene’s Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, the Maryhill Museum of Art in the Columbia River Gorge, and the High Desert Museum in Bend all decided to close their doors. In Portland, some independent movie houses – Cinema 21 and the Hollywood Theatre – elected to close down. A little later the live-music venue Aladdin Theatre went on hiatus.

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Eine Kleine Strassemusik

A Little Street Music (or, Remembering Portland as It So Recently Was)


TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY K.B. DIXON


In Austria the hills are alive with the sound of music. In Portland—in normal times—the streets are. The photographs here are a look at the recent past. They are excerpted from an archive of “musicians without borders”—the street performers who have provided the soundtrack to everyday life in this city. On a good day even a dabbler with a dulcimer could make a living wage. As an audience member I might have petitioned for fewer brain-cleaving trumpets and more gut-massaging cellos, but that was just me. When it came to guitars, the numbers always seemed just right. This year, with the COVID-19 contretemps, those numbers will not be what they used to be. I will, however, be thankful for whatever they are. Right now, when it comes to a live performance, I would be happy with a chorus of kazoos on the corner of Fourth and Couch.


TRIO, 2013

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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.

At PCS, a season for all sorts.

From "Hair" to "Hedwig" to "Emma" and August Wilson's "Gem," a broad range of stories populates Portland Center Stage's 2020-'21 season.

As is the case with pretty much every large theater company in America, Portland Center Stage is trying to broaden the variety of people whose stories are presented in the plays it produces. For the 2020-2021 season, that variety will include long-haired hippies, passionate painters, Latino wrestlers, German rock singers, ancient African-American healers, Asian-American immigrants, bayou brothers, small-town young lovers, and plenty of whatever you want to call Jane Austen’s characters.

PCS recently announced its programming for next season, and there’s something for, well, perhaps not everyone, but for many sorts of folks.

Portland Center Stage will again celebrate the holidays Austen-tatiously with “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley.” Photo: Russell J Young

Looked at another way, the ten productions that will be on offer range from musicals to satires, cultural commentaries to intimate glimpses into history, to whatever you want to call light-hearted adaptations of Jane Austen stories.

Season-ticket renewal is open now, and new season tickets become available Friday, March 13. So here’s a quick look at what’s coming (Note: The dates listed likely refer to the full slate of public performances. Official opening of each production may occur later than the first date indicated here.)

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