Roger Kukes: Many stories

The retrospective of work by Roger Kukes deftly invite us into the unsettling narratives that whirl around us

One way that art inspires recognition is with inklings of the real, counterbalanced with the unreal. The work of visual artist Roger Kukes is emphatically clever and clear. His oeuvre is characterized by an esthetic sense that resounds with the whirling of the world, the tale of it all as he’s come to know it. Like all of life, it’s a beautifully controlled chaos.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is excerpted from the much-longer introduction to the 25-year retrospective of the work of Portland artist Roger Kukes. That retrospective is in the Augen Gallery, 716 NW Davis Street, through November 2. 

Kukes works between the modes of acrylic, watercolor, and gouache painting, lithography, graphite and ink drawing. His work comprises medium- to large-format works which—like the best of our poets and experimental filmmakers—juxtapose the illogical with the utterly clear, the wryly comical with the tragic, the architectonic with the haphazard.

Roger Kukes, “Second Drawing” 1986 Ink on paper 8 1/2×14 1/4” 

This method allows the artist to move beyond intellectual or conventional narrative themes. Kukes shows the understanding that life’s indeterminacy can be a virtue when harnessed to imagination. His manner of rendering is that of the seasoned draftsman, with the facility of the magician behind a movie-camera, the poet taking you to far-off places.

His life’s work is typified by plainly relatable motifs offset by equivocal forms and settings. Kukes’s pictures reveal an effort to deeply understand himself and then, going from there, the culture and society he’s immersed in, connected to. This latter trait is evident in his recent paintings. They consider ecological degradation due to war and nuclear waste, and the killing of marginalized peoples such as the Native Americans (in the conquest of the “West”) and the Japanese (in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki). This material is not tacked on indiscriminately, but rather, it evinces a work toward, as Kukes put it, “a more public way of communicating, organically, through art.”

With hints of bearing witness, these compositions are also just as dynamic, lightly humorous as before, and even more illuminating. He is able to communicate with his viewer in terms that are both off-the-cuff (comic) and deeply resonant (tragic), with the specificity of pertinent issues. This presents a way into the human story—the tragicomedy of life, where sorrow so often brings humor its edge. 

Good fortune precipitated Kukes’s trajectory. In his formative years, he studied with the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet W.D. Snodgrass at Wayne State University, graduating in 1965. Following the completion of his undergraduate degree, he went on to study painting and drawing in graduate school at Yale, where he completed his MFA. He later came to realize, having taught himself how to paint in acrylic and through the assiduous development of his craft, that all artists are self-taught, as he asserted to me in one of our many conversations. This philosophy is characteristic of his assiduousness, his sense of openness: Anyone can become an artist, but they have to be ready to work. You can’t take no for an answer. You have to believe you can, will, and must do these things, he insisted.

Roger Kukes, “Dark Building” 1994 Five Color Lithograph 14”x19” (Made with Master Printer Mark Mahaffey)

During a subsequent five years living in New York City, Kukes taught art to children, drove a taxi, and worked as a caseworker—amid all other NYC-life activities. In the hubbub of city life and ready for a productive change, Kukes found himself somewhat disenchanted by his chosen mode: “The weird thing about painting is that you’re creating frozen images. There’s a disparity between that and honoring the reality that I was living, which was marked by constant change. The static nature of the image, when composed in those mediums, brought limitation where stimulation had been so easy to come by.”

Having asked himself, do I have anything to say as a visual artist?, Roger followed his curiosity in animation and film, discovering a path to experimental filmmaking. With a talent for drawing and painting, and a persistent desire to go beyond the effort to bring about the “absolute image,” he found a new direction. “I decided to hit the pause button and went into experimental filmmaking and animation. That was 13 years of my life, from age 23 to 36,” Kukes explained. This medium brought exciting possibilities to the rendering and juxtaposition of images, to narrative fragmentation. “You can tell multiple stories in film, just by cutting, jumping between different images. So much modern art is about form, shape, color and all of that. It’s not as much about stories, but that’s what I’m interested in. Robert Colescott is this way, his work tells stories. Peter Saul and Saul Steinberg, storytellers, too.”

In 1972, Kukes moved to Portland, the place he’d call home for good. “I had already set my own course, which was not to be aligned with contemporary art styles or buzzwords. I was out here in the wilderness! not trying to wow anybody. Living in Portland gave me the opportunity to work on my own terms. Living in the belly of the beast, Manhattan, there’s so much pressure to go to the openings and see what people are doing. I couldn’t hear myself think.”

The dive into experimental filmmaking led to a waxing interest in animation, and his co-founding of The Animation Collective in his new home of Portland in 1979. The group ran an adventurous exhibition program, taught classes, held residencies in city schools, and forged an extraordinarily supportive community for young film-artists.

Roger Kukes, “Blue Rock/Clear Cut” 2002 Watercolor on paper 11.5”x17”

Kukes’s ambitions toward mastering every aspect of image making and processing is comprehensive and an important part of his legacy. By 1985, he’d gone on to write a “how to” book on animation, The Zoetrope Book, which was followed a decade later by Drawing in the Classroom. These books proved crucial to his ability to thrive economically as a working artist in his 40s and beyond.

As it happens, Kukes’s first passions, drawing and painting, never did stop pulling on his coat. Having questioned his station in the arts, he resolved that he had to test the waters of absolute images again. I like to imagine the more lighthearted figures of his pictures friskily nudging him, cajoling him to draw them out as he tries to engage in life’s less entertaining duties.

Throughout phases that signal his transformations and attentions, Kukes’s pictures remain various in important ways. He’s able to explore abstraction and realism as it relates to his inner, subjective world. He does this bearing consideration of what he perceives of the objective reality around him. His imaginative and technical wherewithal are constant, with evident development throughout the years. Due to an ongoing rigor, a rich frame of reference and perspective (having returned to painting and drawing later in life), he’s equipped himself to merge meticulous, demanding technique with vision. I was hungry. “By the time I got back to being a visual artist, I was ready, focused, determined”. 

Roger Kukes, “Two Nukes, Three Indians” 2014 Acrylic on paper 32.5”x50”

To my eye, inklings of certain of his favorite things make appearance in the early drawings on display at Augen: the narrative impetus of Persian Miniatures; the tragicomedy and high-craft in Bruegel the Elder; the wizardly draftsmanship of M.C. Escher, as well as that of Albrecht Dürer and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres; the unique comic modernism of Saul Steinberg; the absurdism and superb drawing of MAD Magazine; and the juxtapositions of David Salle, among other contemporaries. In all these influences, a through-line can be found: the rejection of an easy explanation and, as Kukes notes, an invitation to the viewer to participate in the construction of meaning. A multivalent, all-over aspect is apparent in every single one of Kukes’s pictures, an effort to allow for discovery at every turn. He is ever balancing on an aesthetic tightrope, effortlessly so. 

Kukes’s working process has been diligent from the beginning. A preparatory pencil drawing is used as a cartoon (in the manner of Renaissance artists like Michelangelo) for the subsequent ink drawing that is then traced onto another sheet of paper, which is then painted. This is a months-long technique that he still uses today.

For Kukes, the secret is patience. “That’s what brought me back to painting and drawing: slowing down. How sweet it is to make something over a period of time, to return to it to see what I think of it now, what keeps the work moving toward something as profound as possible.”

Early Kukes is supremely playful, intelligent, masterly without being vain. Juxtaposition is a key component of the work. Having undergone intensive psychotherapy in his formative years, Kukes is able to stay curious about his interior process and the function of his mind, with its parade of thoughts and images, to the extent that whatever emerges during the picture-making process is fair-game. Openings emerge due to the new relationships that are forged: one clear thing followed by another, in loose association. I hasten to add that the operative word is clear

Roger Kukes, “Hanford #4 (Les Fleurs du Mal.)” 2018-2019 Acrylic on paper 35.25”x 51”

Kukes’s compositional approach of juxtaposition threads his works through time. Well, that tripled with his riotous hues and fertile fragments. This method has been put to use in all the arts, for seemingly all time, from poetry and painting to filmmaking and music. It yields totally exciting results when done well. By pairing or grouping ostensibly unlikely things, stories take on a variousness that proves worthy of multiple returns; they give way to various ends for various people and offer baffling truths.

The way that this features in Kukes’s later works is remarkable. Here, he is unmistakably intrigued by the strangeness of the modern world, and by working with his chosen mediums. Dealing in pressing, even heavy subjects, as in one of his Hanford paintings, Les Fleurs du Mal,  he is successfully able to unify message with exploration, to use ambiguity, to lighten things up to just the appropriate degree. It’s never outrage; he never bops you over the head with politics. Instead, Kukes makes way for it. Information draws you in, attendant to the world as we know it, and as we don’t.

Finn builds a galaxy… with help from a pro

Artist Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr. and 6-year-old Finn Connaughton collaborate on an extraterrestrial installation at the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg

The Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg features an exhibit, Finn Builds a Galaxy, that was created by two artists whose life experiences could scarcely be more different.

Artist Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr. is 32 years old, has studied art at Alfred University School of Art and Design, and is doing graduate work at Portland State University. Stevenson has worked as a figure model, a cook, a grocery store clerk, and a community organizer. Born in Gaithersburg, Md., the artist has traveled to Mexico, Canada, Scotland, Italy, and Germany. For the past 10 years, Stevenson has worked on a variety of projects while also studying.

The exhibit is named after the other artist, Finn Connaughton. He’s 6 and attends first grade at Yamhill-Carlton Elementary School. The son of a pharmacist father, Erin, and Jacki, a stay-at-home mother, he’s fond of Minecraft, building with LEGOS, and Pokémon. And, of course, art. 

Finn Connaughton, 6, and Artist Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr., 32, collaborated on an other-worldly exhibit on display through Oct. 31 at the Chehalem Cultural Center. Photo by: David Bates
Finn Connaughton, 6, and Artist Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr., 32, collaborated on an other-worldly exhibit on display through Oct. 31 at the Chehalem Cultural Center. Photo by: David Bates

At a reception last week, Finn stood on the center’s spacious lobby mezzanine gazing at his galaxy — planets, stars, LEGO spaceships, and a few flying creatures — looking a bit awed by the attention but clearly proud of his galactic creation. Below, his parents and extended family, other visitors, and staff looked up, some taking pictures.

Next to him, Stevenson grinned and offered Finn one of many compliments: “You are even more famous in Newberg than I am!”


A cityscape in crochet

Jo Hamilton's new public mural in SE Portland


Scottish fiber artist and Portland transplant Jo Hamilton endows yarn with the representational properties of paint. Using a traditional crochet technique learned from her grandmother, Hamilton creates staggeringly colorful portraits and whimsical cityscapes. Luckily for us Portlanders, Hamilton has crocheted a prodigious landscape mural out of parachute cord. Funded in part by the Regional Arts & Culture Council and installed on September 24th, it now adorns the facade of the Slingshot Lounge on SE 56th and Foster (you can view a timelapse of the installation here).

Hamilton’s new mural contrasts depictions of construction cranes and condos with longstanding Foster businesses such as the Phoenix Pharmacy, I’ve Been Framed, and Bar Carlo. Materially, the mural represents a departure from Hamilton’s previous work: she typically crochets with soft yarn up-cycled from second-hand stores, yard sales, and friends. This mural, however, is constructed from thick, weather-treated parachute cord to withstand exposure to the elements for as long as possible. Thematically, the piece represents a return to Hamilton’s roots as a crochet artist. While her focus and best-known works are human portraits, her first foray into representational crochet work in 2006 was an image of a friend’s house and cityscape including Burnside Street and the iconic Portland skyscraper, Big Pink.

Jo Hamilton with her new mural
Jo Hamilton with her new mural at SE Foster Road. Photo credit: Kevin McConnell.

The Foster mural’s installation was orchestrated on a drizzly morning by an eclectic troupe of artists and musicians from the Portland community, all friends, colleagues or patrons of Hamilton’s. The installation crew included the prolific puppet designer and sculptor Michael Curry, of Michael Curry Design, Inc.; Curry’s wife, the textile designer and painter, Julie Hannegan; Dan Gluibizzi, an observant yet soft-spoken watercolorist and sculptor, who like Hamilton, is represented by the Russo Lee Gallery in NW Portland; and John Moen, a leading member of several rock bands including The Decembrists and Eyelids (Jo’s partner, Chris Slusarenko, is also a leading member of Eyelids). Using a cherry-picker, a wire frame was first bolted into the drywall of the bar’s South-eastern exterior to support the mural, which Hamilton had crocheted in three 10 foot sections. The sections were then secured to the frame using zip ties by Hamilton and Michael Curry.

By leaving a varicolored garland of untrimmed threads around all of her crochet pieces, Hamilton pushes back against the notion that an artwork must appear finished. “I’ve discovered that the idea of being finished is a myth,” Hamilton told me. “ “Being finished just happens when you decide to stop.” Standing below her monumental cityscape mural, I felt as if a gentle tug on any of the loose threads just out of reach above me would cause the piece to unravel into a colorful puddle on the sidewalk. But Hamilton’s pieces are tougher than they look––they have the structural integrity of a well-made rug.

Hamilton’s portraits are, like Chuck Close paintings, as abstract as they are realistic. A key difference between Hamilton’s work and Close’s is that her technique can be described as more organic. Whereas Close typically applies paint to a grid to produce a photographically realistic image, Hamilton works directly from photos of her subject without using a grid, template, or computer image. She starts by crocheting the sitter’s eyes and works outward. “Nothing is planned ahead,” she says. “I make it up as I go along.” Likewise, when she begins a cityscape project, she chooses a few landmarks to ground the piece in reality, sometimes referring to a sketch, but improvises the final composition. Crochet, she tells me, has taught her to thrive in synchrony with imperfection. The medium demands that she either feel satisfied with the results, or unravel the polychrome threads and start over, embracing a process of addition and subtraction.

Jo Hamilton with her new mural at SE Foster Road. Photo credit: Kevin McConnell

While many contemporary painters fashion richly layered and textured canvases which hardly qualify as two-dimensional, Hamilton’s knotted works are fundamentally sculptural. Each individual knot has the quality of a three-dimensional, pointillistic brush stroke, with its own form, grain, and contours. Although she hasn’t worked with other media in over a decade, Hamilton said that she wouldn’t be able to do the work she makes now if she hadn’t painted for 20 years first. Painting and drawing, she claims, taught her how to express the shades of light and color she sees in real life to an audience by creating compositions from yarn. “I see tones as colors,” Hamilton says. “So, rather than simply finding a lighter or darker shade of a particular color, I tend to use different color entirely, that does the same work tonally.”

One of the awe-inspiring features of Hamilton’s work is the amount of time, energy and concentration it takes her to produce a single piece, in spite of her mastery of her craft. Over 30 feet in length and five feet tall, her Foster mural is her largest piece to date, and took over four months working to complete. When using yarn, Hamilton says, she is able to work steadily for as long as 12 hours. But with the heavy parachute cord, her hands would begin to cramp after just five. As with many fine artists, the time most of her viewers will spend admiring one of Hamilton’s pieces is drastically incommensurate with the hours of labor she actually invests in her work. In 2012, she created a 30 second stop motion video documenting her portrait-making process and uploaded it to the streaming platform Vimeo. It went viral, receiving over 150,000 views, and was reposted by The Huffington Post. The video’s popularity boosted her online presence. She began finding images of her work on Pinterest, and received requests for interviews from international periodicals based in Turkey and Eastern Russia.

detail of Jo Hamilton's mural
Jo Hamilton, SE Foster Road mural detail. Photo credit: Kevin McConnell

After graduating with a B.A. in Fine Art from the Glasgow School of Fine Art in 1993, Hamilton moved to Portland, Oregon in 1996, where she began working in the restaurant industry. In her first series of crocheted portraits, she used her coworkers as subjects. This project instilled in her the belief that fine art portraiture alters how the public views people who don’t receive much recognition from society. Over the course of her 23 years in Portland, Hamilton has deepened her connection with the city and its different communities through her portraiture and landscape works, and by volunteering on a weekly basis at organizations like OutsideIn (which provides drug addiction treatment to young houseless people) and Our House of Portland (a residential HIV/AIDS care facility). She has subsequently produced portrait series based on mugshots of people processed through the Multnomah County Jail, residents at Our House of Portland, and women she views as matriarchs in her community.

Hamilton’s portraits ask their viewers to reimagine specific demographics in their community who might otherwise remain invisible. Similarly, the Foster mural asks Portland’s ever growing population to reimagine the relationship it would like to have with the city’s roots. Troubled by the construction boom, displacement, and gentrification, Hamilton hopes to draw attention to the widening socio-economic and cultural gap between old and new Portland in her parachute cord cityscape. She hopes it will start conversations that slow our rapid descent towards a less human landscape and help us make decisions about our city’s future that we can be proud of.

Sebastian Zinn has a B.A. in Comparative Literature with an allied field in Art History from Reed College. Since graduating in the Spring of 2018, he has been working as a freelance writer and editor covering a diverse range of topics, including economics, medicine, food, music, literature, film, fashion, and visual and performance art.

Vizarts Monthly: Cozy autumn edition

October offers textiles, botanical prints, and painted memories

Summer has left us, but the colors and coziness of autumn have begun to show up while there are still leaves on the trees and some sunny days. Whether you break out your fall jacket to browse the First Thursday openings or you take a meditative stroll through the Lan Su Chinese Garden to see their exhibition of beautiful flower paintings, this October offers up a rich variety of group exhibitions, solo shows, and even a textile symposium!

Olivia Kincaid – San Diego Zoo

Olivia Kincaid: Perpetuating Family Systems
Through October 25
White Gallery
Portland State University
1825 SW Broadway

Portland State University MFA candidate Olivia Kincaid’s mixed-media paintings appropriate familiar forms of contemporary portraiture, like the family snapshot or the senior portrait, and transform them into explorations of the concept of “family” itself. PSU’s White Gallery presents Kincaid’s latest work in a show curated by Safiyah Maurice that should be both an opportunity to reflect on the ties that bind us to our kin as well as a great chance to see brand new painting by one of Portland’s emerging talents. 

Image by Nora Sherwood

Mums & More Botanical Art Exhibition
Lan Su Chinese Garden
239 NW Everett St.

As part of the American Society of Botanical Artists’ 25th anniversary, local chapter Oregon Botanical Artists presents an exhibition of contemporary botanical illustration at Portland’s Lan Su Chinese Garden. The show will focus on chrysanthemums and other plants that evoke autumn or that have significance in Asian cultures. In contrast to the usual “white cube” typical of most contemporary art galleries, this will be a chance to see the work of 17 Oregon artists in a unique setting that complements and contextualizes their subjects.

Jenene Nagy: Banner, 2019

Jenene Nagy: Box Breathing
October 2-November 2
PDX Contemporary
925 NW Flanders

Jenene Nagy’s poetic compositions are made with monochromatic graphite and  folded paper, arranged in grids and nesting squares that are simple in conception but contain surprising depths of light and texture. PDX Contemporary presents some of her latest pieces in box breathing, which will please those who are into process-based and post-minimalist artwork as well as anyone who appreciates the beauty of subtlety. 

Ancestral Connections
October 4-October 29
Multnomah Art Center
7688 SW Capitol Hwy

This multimedia group show, curated by Bobby Fouther, envisions the African Diaspora residing in Portland as an extended family, or a village, complete with elders, students, parents, and peers. At the same time, Fouther’s curation celebrates the diversity of this community by featuring artists of varying age, medium, and style. Works ranging from paintings to quilts to spoken word share individual stories that contribute to a larger picture of a shared ancestral heritage. Look for muralist Jamaali Roberts’ unique collages and the precocious paintings of Hobbs Waters.

Image via Tropical Contemporary

Somethings Together
October 4, 6-9 pm; October 5 & 12, 1-4 pm
Tropical Contemporary
1120 Bailey Hill #11
Eugene, OR

Tropical Contemporary’s October show, “Somethings Together,” is only open for a short time but is definitely worth a visit if you happen to be in Eugene during gallery hours. The artist-run space has been a platform for emerging Oregon artists since 2015 and their latest show features four artists whose work plays off each other visually and conceptually. The mediums they use vary and range from colorfully painted and shaped canvases to architecturally-informed sculpture and even fabric constructions. Surreal humor ties them all together.

Mark Flores and William E. Jones: Collaboration 3

Mark Flores and William E. Jones: Perverted By Language
October 5-November 8
Opening Reception: Saturday, October 5, 5-7 pm
Private Places
2400 NE Holladay St.

Private Places will host Los Angeles artists Mark Flores and William E. Jones for their second collaborative show. Both artists have multi-decade careers under their belts already but have departed from their usual mediums and methods to create new works that incorporate collage, painting, and 1970s pop culture icons like David Bowie and Blondie’s Debbie Harry. The result is vivid and cool. The show is accompanied by a screening of Jones’ films at Yale Union on Sunday, October 6, at 7pm.

Takuichi Fujii: Self Portrait

Witness to Wartime: The Painted Diary of Takuichi Fujii
October 19, 2019 through January 5, 2020
High Desert Museum
58900 US-97
Bend, OR

The illustrated diary of the late Washington artist Takuichi Fujii, on display this month at Bend’s High Desert Museum, is a moving personal document of the Japanese-American experience during World War II. Fujii was one of the many Americans who were imprisoned in internment camps by the United States government without charge simply because of their heritage. During his three years in the camps he wrote and painted over 400 pages that detail both despair and strength. This exhibition also includes examples of Fujii’s surreal and abstract paintings from both before and after his time in the camps, providing a fuller picture of this talented artist whose life was profoundly affected by the mistakes of those in power at the time. 

example of textile work by Feryal Abbasi-Ghnaim, featured speaker at the Symposium

Textile Connections Symposium
October 26, 10am-6pm; October 27, 12-4 pm
Pacific Northwest College of Art
511 NW Broadway

October is Textile Month in Portland, and the festivities come to a close with the Textile Connections Symposium, a gathering of international fiber artists and makers. The first day features panel discussions and keynote speakers, including Palestinian embroidery experts Feryal Abbasi-Ghnaim and Wafa Ghnaim. Sunday is “community day” which means a makers market with dozens of local and visiting vendors, demonstrations of textile tools and techniques, and plenty of opportunities to meet fellow fiber-arts lovers. This event aims to bring the regional textile community together to celebrate their achievements while fostering innovation and collaboration in the future.

Reports from TBA 2019: Eiko Otake

Linda Wysong reviews the performance artist's long-awaited return to Portland


Eiko Otake’s return to Portland, after her memorable performance with her longtime partner Koma of Offering at Jamison Square in 2003, has been eagerly awaited. In 2014, Eiko began to create as a solo artist and has developed an impressive body of work in a short time. Her work has been a highlight of the 2019 Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s Time Based Art Festival (TBA at PICA) and Portlanders have immersed themselves in her powerful visions. Eiko’s Portland schedule included a segment of her ongoing performance series A Body in Places at PNCA on September 5; performances of The Duet Project: Distance is Malleable with Ishmael Houston Jones and Iris MCloughan September 12, 13, and 14; a screening of her film A Body in Fukushima: Reflections on the Nuclear in Everyday Life at the Northwest Film Center on September 9; as well as an ongoing exhibition her prints, photography and videos at the Center for Contemporary Art & Culture at PNCA). The exhibition at PNCA is up through October 24. Additionally PICA arranged a noon-time conversation led by Portland artist Linda K. Johnson on September 13. 

Eiko Otake Fukushima
Eiko Otake, A Body in Fukushima. Yonomori, Tonomori. July 24, 2014. Photo credit: William Johnston

A Body in Places is a series around place with each performance unique in its response to the history and presence of the site. Eiko herself is the continuity and thread that activates and binds each place to the others. At PNCA, she first appeared on the upper balcony with her hair down and dressed in a kimono as she emerged slowly and silently from the folds of a purple futon. Although her slight figure might suggest fragility, Eiko emanates strength and determination. Her movements are not the stock vocabulary of modern dance but spring from the body’s core, as she reaches out and responds to the audience and the architecture. Touch is primary as her body forms both ritual-like shapes and those that evoke investigation and discovery. 

Eiko’s vocabulary comes from her body and is often reinforced by a few simple pieces of clothing. The PNCA performance incorporated black and white kimonos, a purple blanket, and a dramatic red cloth. One could be tempted to call these items “props” but somehow that suggests a dusty item from a theater closet. These, instead, are Eiko’s personally resonant mementos. The tattered and patched red cloth that frequently serves as a wrap or foil is a piece of family history made from her grandmother and great grandmother’s  kimonos and stitched together by her elderly mother, as she slipped away from this world and into another. This simple piece of fabric ties together four generations of women from Eiko’s family and by extension all women over time. A Body in Places at PNCA was not constructed as a linear composition but as a collection of provisional exploratory actions including plucking books from a library cart and seemingly impulsively sounding a piano. The performance culminated in Eiko fleeing the building entirely, racing out the door and crossing Glisan into the North Park Blocks. 

Eiko Otake PNCA
Eiko Otake, A Body in Places. Pacific Northwest College of Art, Portland. September 5, 2019. Photo Credit: Sarah Meadows

The movement vocabulary of A Body in Places: Portland is similar to the artist’s other offerings in Portland in 2019 (The Duet Project: Distance is Malleable and her powerful cycle, A Body in Fukushima: Reflections on the Nuclear in Everyday Life). These contemporary pieces are all remarkably different from the 2003 Jamison Square performance, Offering. Offering connected to the horizontal, non-hierarchical language developed with her collaborator Koma and familiar from previous works such as Fur Seal (1977) and Wallow (1984). In these works, a resonance with plants and animals and an underlying vibration infuses the slow macro movements with a life energy. Offering is performed by humans and for humans but equally refuses the vertical anthropomorphic stance of dominance.  Eiko and Koma move in concert with terrestrial and aquatic creatures of the earth as soundless slowly evolving dance sculptures that feel both familiar and other worldly. 

In contrast, the newer projects focus on the human experience, particularly loss, destruction and pain. In Eiko’s mainstage performance at PICA, The Duet Project: Distance is Malleable, the audience faced 3 large projections that illuminated and divided the space but equally allowed for the interaction of the three performers. Each of the three dancers, Eiko, Ishmael Houston Jones and Iris McCloughan each have solo moments but Eiko directs. Jones wrestles with a cinder block confronting the physical wall as well as the angst of borders and separation. McCloughan moves with and creates text around memory and loss.  Eiko screams with rage and sorrow at the death of both her mother and her dear friend, the poet C. D. Wright. The final scene of Distance is Malleable finds Eiko wrapped in fragments of flowers with a printed image of her deceased Mother, crystalizing the all too human experience of death as she mourns for others and contemplates our own.

Eiko Otake Fukushima 2016
Eiko Otake, A Body in Fukushima. Yasawa, Fukushima, No. 451. Summer 2016. Photo credit: William Johnston.

Death is also at the center of the film A Body in Fukushima: Reflections on the Nuclear in Everyday Life. Fukushima was a site of a triple disaster in March 2011: an earthquake, a tsunami and the nuclear meltdown of the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. After the tsunami caused by the earthquake, huge explosions sent plumes of radioactive debris into the atmosphere and contaminated all the towns in the wind’s path. It continues to be the worst nuclear disaster in history. The government established  a 12-mile excavation zone and removed over 150,000 people from their homes. This regional and global disaster is very personal to the individuals who lost their lives and their homes but warrants attention from everyone who considers the future global consequences. The Daiichi disaster inspired Eiko to study and learn more about nuclear power including co-teaching courses on nuclear and environmental issues at Wesleyan University with William Johnston, a photographer and a specialist in History of Medicine and Public Health with a specialty in Japan and the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

A Body in Fukushima: Reflections on the Nuclear in Everyday Life records Eiko’s visits to the evacuation zone and is a living document built on scientific knowledge that speaks from the heart. She first visited this shattered land alone, only five months after the disaster in 2011. Since then she has returned with William Johnston four times, risking the danger of radiation so others can understand the dimensions of the disaster. Returning again and again to the same places, dressed in her kimonos with the purple blanket and the memories of the tattered red cloth, Eiko explores each site as it changes over time. Heroic but futile attempts to restore a land that has been irrevocably altered for millennia are shown against still images filled with beauty, frailty and sorrow. This living document of hubris and hope is now two-and-a-half hours long. An edited version was shown at the NW Film Studies Center. The entire film can be viewed at the Contemporary Center for Art and Culture at PNCA until October 24.

Eiko Otake Fukushima 2016 2
Eiko Otake, A Body in Fukushima. Yaburemachi. August 5, 2016. Photo credit: William Johnston.

Living a long and full life has its satisfactions but it also provides insight into the many destructive behaviors that spring from greed, profit, and short sightedness. Longevity inevitably brings death and loss. With this latest body of work, Eiko Otake courageously confronts these stark truths and invites us to share the beauty and sorrow of her journey.  

Linda Wysong is an interdisciplinary visual artist whose work includes sculpture, environmental design and social practice.  She has had the privilege of collaborating with a number of Portland dancers, including Linda K. Johnson.

Wine country’s art cup overflows with studio tours

Nearly 40 artists open their studios for Art Harvest tours, Currents Gallery showcases fiber art, and a print show comments on the political/cultural moment

Before we get into the most politically incendiary and mesmerizing gallery exhibition in Yamhill County, first things first: The 2019 Art Harvest Studio Tour is upon us, so for those who have never been, here’s how it works.

Starting Friday and running all this weekend and next, nearly 40 artists from one end of Yamhill County to the other will throw open their studio doors to show their work, and in many instances, where and how they work.

The 27th annual event features artists working in a variety of media. Roughly half are painters and illustrators in oil, watercolor, acrylic, pastels, and egg tempura. Among the other half, you’ll find sculptors, potters, photographers, beaders, jewelry-makers, and more. They’re heavily concentrated and split evenly between McMinnville and Newberg, although this year there’s also a sizable showing in the vineyard-draped hills around Amity and in that city’s bustling downtown.

"Young Buck," a bronze by Steve Tyree, is part of the Art Harvest Studio Tour of Yamhill County exhibit at the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg. Photo by: David Bates
“Young Buck,” a bronze by Steve Tyree, is part of the Art Harvest Studio Tour of Yamhill County exhibit in the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg. Photo by: David Bates

The show runs Oct. 4-6 and 11-13. Tour buttons good for the entire run cost $8 and are available at all studio locations, which are listed on the website. A good way to start is swinging by the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg, where the main gallery features work by all of this year’s artists.

Kathleen Buck, who lives and works in the hills north of Newberg, is a long-time local artist who has participated in the tour for 25 years.


A month of Sundays with Shu-Ju Wang

A few friends drop by to tell tales of fear and loss and beauty during the Waterstone Gallery artist's show "Things That Don't Float."

On the second Sunday of September, at close to 11 a.m. sharp, the artist Shu-Ju Wang stood before a small crowd seated on folding chairs inside Waterstone Gallery in Portland’s Pearl District and began to tell tales. She talked about growing up in a village on Taiwan, and how her father, as a child, had almost drowned while trying to learn how to swim (a boy chasing after an errant ball discovered him flailing, and pulled him to safety), and how she herself had a reluctant relationship with water, as do most Taiwanese people of her age and older (she was born in 1960); how swimming wasn’t something people did for exercise or pleasure, but her father decided when she was a girl that she should learn to swim, anyway.

Wang had a box of props on the floor behind her, and a few strewn over a chair, and she was speaking in a room surrounded with her art in this month’s featured show, Things That Don’t Float. Among those things, as it turns out, is Wang herself, despite her father’s attempt to teach her to swim in the less than pristine river that ran behind their village: Water buffalo made a habit of using the river for nature’s purposes, and water snakes called it home. “Just float!” he told her, holding her head above the water and offering no further instruction. Oddly, the lesson didn’t take.

Artist Shu-Ju Wang. Photo: Doug Richardson

Wang, as it turns out, has an abiding fear of swimming, and has managed over nearly six decades never to learn how. She remembers the corduroy swimming suit her mother made her for that fruitless childhood swimming lesson: “It had Mondrian shapes in dark blue, pink, mauve shades. I remember how it was heavy with water as I tried to get out of the river, how it upset my balance as I tried to walk on the rocky river bank as the water swished around in the bottom of my suit. Later, when I mentioned the corduroy swimming suit to my mother, certain that she would not remember, she said, ‘oh, we didn’t know anything back then! All I could think of was how to keep you warm in cold water.’”