VISUAL ART

Portland Art Museum sets reopening

The museum, shut since March 14, will begin a phased reopening in July. Beset by lost income, it also announces a round of layoffs.

The Portland Art Museum, shuttered since March 14 because of Covid-19 pandemic restrictions, is making plans to reopen in the second week of July. The reopening will be phased, with limits on the number of visitors allowed inside the building at any one time, and many details are still being worked out. “We’ll have more information in coming weeks, but we know museum operations and visitor numbers will need to be smaller at first due to precautions and restrictions for community health, including ongoing gathering restrictions that may prevent Northwest Film Center programs and museum event rentals from reopening for some time to come,” museum spokesperson Ian Gillingham said in an email Thursday afternoon.

Bad news arrived with the good: Effective July 1, the museum will lay off 51 full-time and 72 part-time workers. The cuts will reduce staffing costs for the cash-strapped museum by roughly one-third, and the museum hopes many of the layoffs will be temporary, Gillingham said.

“These layoffs are directly related to the COVID-19 pandemic and in no way reflect upon the dedication and talent of those who are affected,” museum Director Brian Ferriso wrote in a letter to staff that was sent Thursday. “I very much value and appreciate every member of the staff, your patience and your continued dedication to this institution.”

The museum had refrained from fully laying off staff earlier in the shutdown by using staff leaves, federal pandemic relief, and private emergency support that kept workers on the books through June. That effort has now ended.

“We can begin to rehire some of the laid-off staff as business needs allow, and as funding is available,” Ferriso continued. “We have been and will continue to be committed to advancing racial equity in our staffing and programming. I am deeply sorry to those impacted by this, and remain hopeful that we will be able to bring many people back as the crisis subsides and restrictions are lifted.”

Robert Colescott, “Knowledge of the Past is the Key to the Future: Upside Down Jesus and the Politics of Survival,” 1987, acrylic on canvas. Portland Art Museum purchase: Robert Hale Ellis Jr. Fund for the Blanche Eloise Day Ellis and Robert Hale Ellis Memorial Collection. © 1987 Robert Colescott. A Colescott retrospective will be on view when the museum reopens in July.

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Things begin to stir at the Coast

In Newport, films will be shown outdoors and symphony members play online, while the Lincoln City Cultural Center has reopened to the public

The Newport Performing Arts Center remains dark, but that doesn’t mean nothing is going on.

Friday, June 5, marks the start of the PAC Picture Show. Due to licensing restrictions that I don’t quite understand, the Performing Arts Center cannot reveal what the coming films are, beyond describing them as nostalgic, but you can find the titles by going to the website.

The films will be shown outdoors in socially distanced “Parking Lot Theatre style” at the Performing Arts Center on Friday and Saturday nights. The sound is broadcast via FM radio, so you’ll need a working FM radio if you want to hear the film. A $15 donation is requested for admission, which guarantees a parking spot. Space for SUVs, trucks, vans, and minivans is very limited, organizers say, so best if you can drive a smaller vehicle.

The picture show is sponsored by the Oregon Coast Council for the Arts, which is also sponsoring the ongoing online art show at the Visual Arts Center.  

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Final call for a Newport original

Art by the late Juergen Eckstein is included in an online sale and show at the Newport Visual Arts Center

A three-month online art exhibit at the Newport Visual Arts Center will showcase Oregon artists and raise money for the artists and the center. It also is likely to be one of the last opportunities to buy a piece of art by the late Juergen Eckstein, who died Oct. 31 at age 77, following a stroke.

“Juergen’s art is just stacked downstairs,” said his wife, Dianne Eckstein. “He has so much work. It seems to me it should be in a good place.”

Juergen Eckstein invited all of Newport to join “The Yellow Umbrella Project” in 2004. “First individuals, forming trickles as others join creating streams of yellow umbrellas as they move closer towards the center of Nye Beach where they gather as a sea of yellow,” he wrote on his website. Photo courtesy: Gary Lahman
Juergen Eckstein invited all of Newport to join “The Yellow Umbrella Project” in 2004. “First individuals, forming trickles as others join creating streams of yellow umbrellas as they move closer towards the center of Nye Beach where they gather as a sea of yellow,” he wrote on his website. Photo courtesy: Gary Lahman

Eckstein, who is considering a move, gave two paintings and one sculpture to the city to be displayed in Newport City Hall.

Juergen Eckstein was a German native who traveled the world before settling with Dianne in Newport in 2000. A familiar presence around Newport, he co-founded the For ArtSake artist co-op and created the driftwood sculptures that stand outside the Newport Performing Arts Center and the Visual Arts Center. He was self-taught and worked in almost all mediums, including oil wash, wood, and pottery, his wife said.

“If he found a stone or piece of wood, he’d see something in it and go from there. He’d find something on the beach and make something of it,” she said. “He was always seeing something in an object that I wouldn’t. I think he just had a very wonderful imagination.”

The Oregon Coast Online Art Show, open to artists who have shown previously at the center, who live on the coast, or who are members of the Oregon Coast Council for the Arts (OCCA), received more than 120 submissions. All of the work has been organized and presented remotely. The show goes live Friday, May 29, and continues through Sept. 7.

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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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The ironic allure of corporate chic

Chaz Bear's fictional company, Corporate Solutions, generates lots of buzz, merchandise, and even some paintings

On a damp night in early February, fans of all ages packed cheek-by-jowl into FISK gallery to view a selection of acrylic paintings and screen printed collages created by Chaz Bear (AKA Toro y Moi). In many respects, Bear’s show, titled Corporate Solutions, exceeded the confines of FISK (a small, non-traditional gallery in NE Portland run by a graphic design firm of the same name). The paintings and screen printed images comprised one feature of a multimedia project, which also included merchandise and marketing content disseminated by a fictional company (also called Corporate Solutions) through Bear’s and FISK Gallery’s Instagram profiles: @chaz.wick and @fiskgallery. The marketing content––which consisted of “stock-photos” of Bear and his “coworkers” sporting polo shirts and hard hats bearing the Corporate Solutions logo––amounted to a kind of performance piece. They are shown striking stilted poses, consulting with clients and producing, shipping and installing Bear’s artwork in nondescript office settings. The fictional company’s mission statement reads: “Production – Transportation – Sales.”

Chaz Bear, Corporate Solutions “stock photo.” Image courtesy of FISK Projects.

It’s difficult to know whether or not one should make a distinction between the persona of Toro y Moi, the music artist, and the persona of Chaz Bear, the painter and performance artist. Critics have identified aesthetic similarities between the childlike shapes and vivid colors of Bear’s paintings and the “psychedelic, vibrant textures of [Toro y Moi’s]” melody-driven, synth-pop music. Bear’s personas don’t share the same Instagram, but they occasionally endorse one another’s content on their respective platforms: @chaz.wick and @toroymoi. In any case, it’s worth prefacing this article by citing a lyric from Toro y Moi’s most recent mixtape, Soul Trash (‘19). On the track “zeiss_hifi_v2,” Bear confidently asserts that he’s “Got the fans, I don’t need reviews/Got the bands, get my mama food.” I’m not operating under the assumption that what I write here will have any bearing on his popularity as an artist, but my interest was piqued by Bear’s self-satirizing multimedia project.

Bear received a BFA in graphic design from the University of South Carolina in 2009. He has maintained his studio and design practice since then, even as he’s established an international reputation as the music artist, Toro y Moi. In 2014, he founded a graphic design studio (Company Studios) and a record label (Company Record Label) of his own, in Oakland, California. His artwork has previously been shown at New Image Art Gallery in Los Angeles, California, and Commune Gallery in Tokyo, Japan.

Chaz Bear, Installment view of Corporate Solutions. Photo credit Mario Gallucci, courtesy of FISK Projects.

The crowd’s mood during the opening night of Corporate Solutions was palpably aspirational. Everyone seemed to be trying to catch a glimpse of or a private moment with the elusive artist. From what I could glean, they almost universally settled for the artist’s merchandise: a flurry of gold dust from the higher echelons of social prestige, which included mugs, graphic shirts, pencils and calendars. By merchandising products and producing social media content under the same, enigmatic brand name (Corporate Solutions), Bear managed to collapse the distance between a physical gallery show in Portland and his multi-national audience. What’s more, he did so back in February, just before the age of social distancing, when having a platform to share one’s art virtually suddenly became imperative, and brick-and-mortar cultural institutions were forced to reevaluate their business model.

Corporate Solutions’ opening night was not the ideal context for viewing art. Like concerts, a gallery thronged with visitors inspires a pleasing sense of collective euphoria, but the difficulty of navigating the space can detract from any one viewer’s ability to focus on the artwork. When one is surrounded by other people, it’s much easier to feel overly self-conscious about the unexpected pathways of introspection our minds may take in response to a work of art.

Perhaps two-hundred people visited FISK gallery during Corporate Solutions’ opening night, but tens of thousands of fans have viewed and interacted with images of these paintings on Bear’s Instagram. On the @chaz.wick Instagram page, responses to Bear’s paintings were mixed. In the comment section of an image depicting an untitled canvas from the Corporate Solutions show, R&B and neo soul star, Erykah Badu, remarked, Great Shit [*heart-eyes-emoji*].” Other users free-associated (as one might expect): @360mctwist commented, “who’s your favorite author[?]” Whereas @jose._.morales took the opportunity to self-promote, commenting: “CHECK YOUR DMS I DREW A PICTURE OF YOU PLEASE.” That said, those unable to view Bear’s paintings in person (most everyone, presumably) will miss out. His canvases are rich with evidence of overpainting. Earlier compositions protrude beneath their surfaces, adding texture and a subcutaneous record of the artist’s process to his paintings.

Chaz Bear, Against the Grain (7/8), (2020), collage on paper
21×24 inches. Image courtesy of FISK Projects.

Most of the paintings in the Corporate Solutions show were untitled abstractions rendered in monochromatic pastel colors: pleasing, straightforward arrangements of ovals and rectangles, with a spattering of recurrent, relatively amorphous motifs including wave patterns, checkerboards, and flowers. One series, titled “Against the Grain,” encompassed eight silkscreened collages on paper composed of various iterations of Bear’s signature forms. Amid the recognizable repertoire of abstract squiggles and flowers, one could easily discern a silhouette of a very flexible human figure (reminiscent of the superhero, Elongated Man); a four-legged animal; printed text of the word “HISTORY” in all capital letters; and a donald-duck-style illustration of a crow accompanied by the subtext, “NO JAZZ!” (Possibly a decontextualized reference to the intersecting histories of jazz and Jim Crow laws).

Tip-toeing my way through the teeming crowd at Corporate Solutions’ opening night, I was reminded of Andy Warhol’s Flowers (1964 and 1967), a series of silkscreen prints depicting four ebullient yet ghostly hibiscus flowers suspended against a ground of newsprint-photo quality grass blades. It was not Bear’s screen printed series, but a recurrent motif in his paintings – an elastic, petaloid shape – which reminded me of Warhol (who is credited with establishing screen printing as a fine art medium). Bear’s colors are less neon and more pastel than Warhol’s, but both artists’ flowers are opaque and flat, making them float above their almost monochrome backgrounds. 

Comparisons have already been made between Bear and Keith Haring and Henri Matisse. Bear’s obsession with the flower motif signals a tendency shared by pop artists to plaster over the alienation, narcissism, elitism and violence of consumer culture with gaudy hues, pleasing melodies, and spurius affirmations that one is thriving, even when surrounded by a tempest. Or, as Bear puts it on the album Outer Peace (‘19): “Maximize all the pleasure/Even with all this weather/Nothing can make it better/Maximize all the pleasure” (“Ordinary Pleasure,” Toro y Moi).

Chaz Bear, Untitled 8 (2020). Acrylic on canvas. 24 x 24 inches. Image courtesy of FISK Projects.

Bear doesn’t produce many finished paintings; he thrives on iteration. The works displayed in Corporate Solutions were tries, attempts, or essays in the French sense of the word. A large part of the pleasure one takes in looking at them comes from discerning the pentimenti – the feints and improvisations, the fits and starts – which underlie their surfaces. There is one image-making technique which Bear used to produce the Untitled canvases 3, 5, 6, 8, 9 and 18 which I find endlessly absorbing. He first lays down a gradated wash that transitions from ochre and burnt orange to turquoise, lilac and cobalt, then paints an opaque stencil of a wave pattern or an amoeba-like figure over the wash, allowing the negative space of the stencil to frame the wash underneath. This compositional strategy has the effect of blurring the distinction between figure and ground, and it lends these paintings unanticipated depth.

Paintings don’t really “do” anything. People’s minds and bodies do things in response to paintings (hopefully). As the art critic Peter Schjeldahl pointed out in April, physical works of art are basically “inoperative without the physical presence of attentive viewers.” Many of the audience members at Corporate Solutions were buying things, satisfying an acquisitive impulse. Were they doing so in response to the paintings or in response to Bear’s celebrity status? I suspect the latter, especially after speaking with Bijan Berahimi, the gallery’s owner. Berahimi acknowledged that “FISK [Gallery] doesn’t sell that much art, really. Corporate Solutions is selling well because Chaz is Chaz.” Bear is by no means the first music celebrity to try their hand at painting. Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, David Bowie and many others painted with varying degrees of intensity and attained different levels of success as visual artists.

Chaz Bear, Untitled 9 (2020). Acrylic on canvas. 24 x 24 inches. Image courtesy of FISK Projects.

I’m not trying to suggest that every painter should boost their career by moonlighting as a pop musician or a graphic designer. However, Bear’s example suggests that diversifying one’s creative portfolio, curating one’s social media identity, and merchandising can work in an artist’s favor. A Marxist critic like Walter Benjamin might deplore the fact that Bear sells highly reproducible, “entry-level” merchandise like mugs and T-shirts alongside his paintings. Most consumers, however, have been desensitized to that sort of thing by the omnipresent museum gift shop, where museum-goers in every major city can buy umbrellas, fridge magnets and playing cards adorned by reproductions of masterpieces. Bear has at least reclaimed the surplus value generated by his own brand, if not the means of production. Hip consumers, for their part, seem to be shopping for more exclusive merchandise: the fine art world equivalent of a band tour T-shirt. Bear and FISK are merely capitalizing on consumer demand.

Like many contemporary musicians, Bear is keenly attentive to his relationship to the market. On the track, “New House” (Outer Peace), he expresses frustration with his own limitations as a consumer: “I want a brand-new house/Something I cannot buy/Something I can’t afford.” The Corporate Solutions logo is composed of two abstract forms: a turquoise squiggle shaped like an italicized letter N and a crimson dot which sits in the valley formed by the shoulder and arm of the N-shape. The logo recalls the graphic print which decorated those wax-treated “Jazz” cups, popular in the ‘90s. It could be pure abstraction with no figurative value whatsoever, but it bears a striking resemblance to a silhouette of a human torso. The figure’s head and shoulders appear to hunch forward, as one arm extends towards some alluring object as yet unprocured. Read figuratively, the logo suggests the very act of consumption. It could also represent a landscape, a lambent celestial body suspended over an undulating mountain range.
We often use beauty and entertainment as means of escapism. The durability of beautiful objects can be a comfort in a world in which any one source of happiness is fleeting. Entertainment absorbs one’s attention and stimulates one’s sensory palate. Hence the popularity of streaming platforms like Netflix and social media platforms like Instagram. Bear excels at using different media and technologies to create beauty and provide entertainment.

If you’re bored at home, check out the landing page for Company Studios’ Record Label. The page allows visitors to create their own art, Chaz Bear-style. Your cursor becomes a wide, house-painter’s brush. The page itself becomes your “canvas.” Two symmetrical vertical rectangles of opaque complementary colors occupy your browser window. When painting on one canvas, your “pigment” is the color of the other canvas and visa versa. The best part? Whenever you press your cursor down to “paint,” an ambient musical composition begins to play through your computer speakers. It’s magic. I don’t know when this was developed, but it seems like a timely antidote to the moratorium placed on public gatherings. It’s accessible from the privacy of a home computer, and it communicates the same spirit of delighted naīveté that Bear’s paintings do.

Chaz Bear, Corporate Solutions “stock photo” (2020). Image courtesy of FISK Projects.

Toro y Moi’s ability to anticipate the caprices of his listening audience and tailor his sound accordingly is one aspect of his music which I deeply admire. (Bear even created an alter-ego, “Les Sins,” so that he could release experimental electronic dance music without “alienating” fans of Toro y Moi.) Over the course of his career, he has transitioned from chillwave to disco to pop to indie rock, and more recently, to house music, rap, R&B and “sad-trap,” where his technical facility as a producer shines. With Samantha (‘15), Outer Peace (‘19), and Soul Trash (‘19) Toro y Moi tapped into the sublimity inherent in the human voice’s endless malleability, inserting ad-libs and liberally applying autotune and other sensationally freakish vocal distortions to bewitching effect. His dexterity and willingness to experiment as a vocalist is all the more refreshing because of the tendency among popular musicians to codify their voices according to genre, rather than subjecting them to constant changes.

There are moments in Toro y Moi’s last two albums which are overwhelmingly beautiful. Bear hasn’t quite gotten there with his painting. But his efforts show that his creativity is not in decline. Far from it, he won’t allow his success in music to winnow out his enterprises in other media. The myriad components of the Corporate Solutions project are by turn amusing, sincere, ironic, and utterly Delphic. If you’re the sort of person who enjoys these kinds of postmodern stunts, you’ll find it endlessly entertaining.

Patrick Collier: Not another pretty picture

The artist, quarantining at home, sings the blues about art and the fire outside

The last art review I wrote for ArtsWatch was about an exhibit I saw the day before I went on lockdown. In that essay I wrote about the difference seeing art in person makes, as opposed to seeing its digital representation, as there were subtleties I would have missed had I just seen the work online. And if one holds to the rule that art needs to be seen in situ in order to be properly reviewed, I don’t foresee getting much art writing done for quite a while, given the risk factors for myself plus the mounting drive to make genocide by default the national coronavirus policy.  

Keith Haring, Ignorance = Fear (1989)

Not that there is a dearth of art online worthy of review. Not that there wasn’t an overabundance on social media before the pandemic, and in the last two months it has increased exponentially. As a response to the stay at home orders and closing of brick and mortar venues, artists are doing virtual studio visits or posting mini-retrospectives. Galleries do video tours of their exhibits, and museums are opening up their collections to view on their websites. Dance ensembles, chorales, and other musicians of all sorts are performing remotely, all gathered together in frames on Zoom. Indicative of various needs that may or not be obvious, and may or may not be met, I find it both a bit tragic and heartening (although I have to work at any positives that come out of this crisis) at the same time. 

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Artful solutions to foster community

Dana Lynn Louis's newest project transforms chain-link fence into a collage of clouds and waves

Dana Lynn Louis’s large-scale installations are affecting, altering the way viewers perceive and experience space. Many petrify the fractal ephemera of the natural world (root systems, raindrops, flowers, even patterns of sunlight) in man-made spaces using durable materials such as glass, metal, paint, silk tarlatan, sewing thread and fiber optic lighting.  In her latest project, Ripple Effect, Louis has instead enhanced an all too familiar feature of urban life, a chain-link fence, with printed photographs of water and sky.

Louis’s multidisciplinary practice has been documented and reviewed in Arts Watch, Sculpture magazine, Artweek, Glashaus (DE), Culture Now, The Willamette Week, and The Examiner. A fantastic article by Helen Hill was recently published in Street Roots, describing how Louis’s practices as an artist and activist intersect and inform one another. In addition to her studio practice, Louis runs a nonprofit organization called “Gather: Make: Shelter” (founded in 2017), which provides art-making workshops and art supplies to Portland’s unhoused residents.

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