VISUAL ART

VizArts Monthly: Streaming at home

Venue closures may be the new normal but some local arts organization forge ahead

Putting together arts listings for April 2020 was… challenging. First, it was a challenge to sit down and focus as the awful, endless headlines kept breaking. Then it was a challenge to figure out what to list as events were cancelled and galleries shuttered in observance of social distancing guidelines. How can you see art when you can’t leave the house? When the galleries and museums are closed? Do people who are juggling remote work with childcare, or applying for unemployment, or risking their health as essential workers have the energy or desire to engage with art? 

Personally, I think we all still need art in our lives, maybe even more than usual. It’s okay if what you need right now is to binge on goofy television shows or stay in the bath until the water gets cold, then fill ‘er up again. But when you’ve had enough of that, Portland’s artists, galleries, and museums are ready for you. Our local arts community has shown incredible motivation and creativity in finding ways to make art happen despite the scary, surreal situation we are all in. Take a minute to check out what they’re up to — it might give you a little extra inspiration to face the challenges of the days ahead. 

Gallery hallway hung with many framed pictures including watercolor paintings in a large grid formation, and black and white collage works hung side by side
What Needs to be Said, installation view, image courtesy Disject

Disjecta
Disjecta’s exhibition of work by the thirteen Hallie Ford Fellows, titled What Needs to be Said, has been up since February, and was scheduled to run until April 5. If you were like me and put off visiting the gallery figuring there’d be plenty of time to see the show in March, you’ll be relieved to know that a fantastic video walkthrough of the exhibition is now online, and is accompanied by extensive information and documentation of each artist in the show. The video is just under ten minutes long, and includes close up shots revealing the details and textures of the show’s many paintings, drawings, and sculptures. Disjecta has put in a lot of effort to translate What Needs to be Said for digital viewing, and the results are surprisingly engaging and even beautiful.

Continues…

The Unknown Exhibition

A show exploring anonymity, craft, and art takes on new meaning amidst social distancing

The Unknown Artist, a group exhibition curated by Lucy Cotter at PNCA’s Center for Contemporary Art and Culture, is an investigation of the value of art and its intricate relationship to authorship and visibility. Cotter brings together ceramics and textiles from the collection of the CCAC (formerly held by the now shuttered Museum of Contemporary Craft) along with work by contemporary artists from Portland and around the globe. The show reveals new patterns of meaning and deep connections between seemingly disparate practices. 

The Unknown Artist at the Center for Contemporary Art and Craft, installation view, image courtesy CCAC and Mario Gallucci

Continues…

Gallery shows shuttered but not forgotten

You may not be able to see this work in person at Nationale and Third Room but it remains attention worthy

by SEBASTIAN ZINN

I’m about to do something I’ve never done before: review two gallery shows which were scheduled for March, then abruptly shuttered, due to precautions taken to reduce the spread of COVID-19. The moment feels ripe for experimentation. Under normal circumstances, the objective of a review is to promote or critique a significant cultural event. This review, however, will serve as a reminder of what we will inevitably miss out on, if we don’t support our cultural institutions during this crisis. While fears about the pandemic were still emerging here in Oregon, Nationale launched a month-long retrospective featuring a series of paintings by the late Carola Penn, titled, Who Am I, Anyway. Around the same time, Third Room––a non-traditional gallery in Northeast Portland operated by a board of patrons––unveiled a solo-show of work by Alexis E. Mabry, an emerging multidisciplinary artist from Austin, Texas, titled Static Age

Penn’s retrospective at Nationale was curated by May Barruel, the gallery’s owner and director, while Mabry’s show was curated by Third Room’s founder, Kalaija Mallery. Both of these galleries excel at offering a great deal to look at in a very small space. Taken together, these shows underscore the collaborative achievements of female curators and artists working in Portland, as well as the significant contributions that small, independent and non-traditional galleries continue to make to the contemporary art scene.

I learned of Carola Penn’s local reputation only after her death, which feels like a betrayal given that Portland’s artistic community has long revered her fidelity to her creative practice, and her facility with a paintbrush. Penn’s key themes are time, its effect on identity, and the incompatibility of natural and urban environments. She spent a significant portion of her career in Portland reflecting on the construction boom’s impact on the natural environment. Lauded for her ability to integrate pastiche and collage into her work, she showed as much concern for how a painting was displayed in relation to other paintings, as she did for its content. 

In sauvie island road, (2013-2018) for example, Penn bisects a landscape of a marshland with another painting depicting an abstraction of a road––two vertical orange lines against an asphalt-colored wash. The left and right panels of the triptych golden state (2014) depict dreary images of an oil field overpopulated by oil wells. The center panel portrays a lush California hillside planted with Eucalyptus trees, bathed in golden afternoon light. Exquisite brushstrokes of yellow ochre and Prussian blue delineate the shadows rippling across the hillside’s gentle slope. The same palette of blues and yellows can be found in the surrounding oil fields, but in this terrain, they lose their vibrancy, appearing muted and macabre.

Penn has a gift for dovetailing private, firsthand observations with universally accessible themes. That said, her paintings reflect a consistent shift away from communal spaces––the urban sprawl of San Francisco and Portland––towards a life of quiet reflection in concert with nature. The series on display at Nationale focuses on her childhood as a second-generation American growing up in the U.S. in the 1950s. The show’s title alone, Who Am I, Anyway, signals introspection. Attuned to the fragmentary nature of human memory and perception, these works feature snapshots from Penn’s early life, coalescing with motifs derived from folktales, mythology, old master paintings, pop culture, and the visual language of advertisement.

Little Lulu sleeps in Van Gogh's bed
Carola Penn, Van Gogh’s Room (2003-2016). Acrylic on wood. 16 x 14 inches. Image courtesy of Nationale.

Two of the paintings at Nationale––Van Gogh’s Room and Van Gogh’s Chair (2003-2016)––reimagine scenes excerpted directly from Vincent van Gogh’s paintings. In one, a small girl (Penn’s autobiographical double, Lulu) sleeps soundly in the master painter’s flaxen bed. The figure of Lulu is appropriated directly from the work of the trailblazing, mid-century comic-book artist and media mogul Marjorie (‘Marge’) Henderson Buell. After her debut in the Saturday Evening Post in 1935, Buell’s comic character, Little Lulu, became wildly popular. Little Lulu was adored by readers of the Post for almost a decade, and later developed an even more far-reaching reputation, earning her creator a fortune in film and advertising deals. In another of Penn’s paintings, we see Lulu climbing up the crossbars of a wicker chair, which first appeared in Van Gogh’s Gauguin’s Chair (1888), preparing to usurp the old master’s seat. Like Van Gogh’s juxtapositions of resonant greens and reds and yellows and blues, all of Penn’s compositions––either in some small detail or in the figure-ground as a whole––contain an unexpected contrast of pastel colors. Her Van Gogh paintings in particular, communicate a deep appreciation for the capacity to see in color, and for the sensation of finding oneself surrounded by it.

Carola Penn, Van Gogh’s Chair (2003-2016). Acrylic on wood. 16 x 14 inches. Image courtesy of Nationale.

Penn makes deep gouges into layers of acrylic paint to physically sculpt the hard edges and contours of her figures. In Van Gogh’s Chair, the wicker seat is rendered in thick blankets of green and yellow paint. The individual wicker slats are vigorously etched into the impasto, forming deep grooves in the painting’s surface, and heightening its mimetic force. Likewise, in Van Gogh’s Bedroom, the hard lines of a pillow are hewn into the paint, giving the cushion an uncanny volume. One can easily imagine the sensation of resting one’s head on the soft, ivory cloud of paint at its center, just as Lulu, the sleeping girl in the painting does. These, unfortunately, are features of Penn’s paintings which must be seen in person to be appreciated.

It’s easy to imbue Penn’s images with meanings. They lend themselves to narrative. In today’s context, an untitled painting of a woman pushing a shopping cart heaped with paper goods which tower above her, looks like a mother diligently preparing for a pandemic. Other images in this series depict matriarchal figures performing superhuman, often surreal feats. One woman in a rose-colored dress flexes eight deft arms, juggling three apples, five eggs, a baby, a butcher’s knife, a bottle, a clock, a typewriter, a pot, and a whetstone. In another painting, Lulu strides confidently through a department store aisle filled with male figureheads, pushing a shopping cart in front of her. Sporting a fiendish grin, she has filled her cart with various countenances plucked from the shelves: potential spouses, or perhaps identities she could grow into.

woman with towering shopping cart
Carola Penn, Shopper (2003-2016). Acrylic on wood. 16 x 14 inches. Image courtesy of Nationale.

Most awe-inspiring among the paintings in Penn’s retrospective is a massive triptych depicting a modern-day Adam and Eve, aptly titled Losing Paradise (2006). It’s here that the artist’s dexterity as both a figurative and abstract painter is in full view. In the left panel, the proverbial couple sits side-by-side on a fallen log. Eve conceals her genitals with her knitting work, whereas Adam screens his with a mug of coffee. In the center panel, we witness a confrontation between the duplicitous serpent and an antique Hoover vacuum cleaner. In the third, a man in a suit and a woman in a red dress regard each other with scepticism or apprehension. Behind them, Penn provides a grim depiction of the fate many married couples are confined to: overcrowded suburbs, ghostly, congested motorways, and a few remaining trees from the garden of original sin, jockeying for a position among colossal telephone poles in the urban skyline.

Carola Penn, Losing Paradise (2006). Acrylic on wood. 6 x 12 feet. Image courtesy of Nationale.

Like Penn’s impasto paintings, the large-scale tapestries in Alexis E. Mabry’s Static Age are exceedingly sculptural. The work on display explores the detritus, substances, social postures and performances of a generation which oscillated between a light-hearted pursuit of pleasure and uninhibited nihilism. Mabry implements a rich cocktail of media, including paint, textiles, and upcycled craft materials. In respect to both form and content, she is a free-spirited bricoleur, often stitching hard lines into the surface of her canvases to define the contours of her figures. These include hieroglyphic depictions of Element, Korn, Marilyn Manson, and Handsome Boy Modeling School T-shirts, adidas shoes, Huffy BMX bikes, and Honda hatchbacks. By appending small sculptural elements to her tapestries’ surfaces, she brings them into the third dimension, further eclipsing the distinction between painting and the plastic arts. The smoke from a cigarette, for example, is recreated as a wisp of synthetic stuffing.

Installation view of Static Age at Third Room. Image courtesy of Third Room.

Set in the mid 90s and early aughts, Mabry’s tapestries impart micro-narratives of communal buffoonery and substance abuse, punctuated and contextualized by still-life ensembles of soft-sculptures, scattered throughout the intimate gallery space. These sculptures physically reproduce the dross of a specific strain of fringe consumerism: a lifestyle cultivated by aspiring skateboarders and BMX bikers, fueled by dimebags, synthetically flavored corn chips, and cheap consumables loaded with caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol. Mabry’s surprisingly vibrant soft-sculptures include 40oz malt liquor bottles, Doritos bags, PlanB packages, Dasani water bottles, traffic cones, Camel cigarettes, and Rust-Oleum spray-paint canisters. “You don’t have to know Alexis personally to relate to the work, or to care about the imagery she is depicting,” remarks Third Room’s former curator, Kalaija Mallery. She continues: “The Portland scene has been waiting for an experimentation with textiles that is not inherently ‘twee’…Alexis is making a crumpled pack of Camel 99s into a precious art object. It is important to remember that art can be playful too, and that artists from other places can still impart sincere “punctum” (piercing of the heart) onto artists they don’t know or relate to.”

soft sculptures of spray paint, camel box of cigarettes and doritos
Alexis E. Mabry, Krylon Green (2020) Fabric, quilt padding, chicken wire, thread, aerosol paint, acrylic paint. Image courtesy of Third Room.

Mabry’s meditations on her own personal history suggest that what we consume materially, no matter how benign or inconsequential, can leave as dense a residue on our psyche as the experiences we share with our closest human compatriots. Mabry invites viewers to ask: What are the indices of my behaviors as a consumer? Which scraps and fragments would I gather and stitch together to recreate my past?

Static Age is as much about what endures within us, as it is about what remains after we’ve exited a stage of life. The show’s title suggests that nostalgia entails looking back on a fixed or rigid view of one’s personal history. Yet the work implies that our memories of our early years are much more malleable than the experiences themselves. Mabry’s choice of materials, for example, intimates that our impressions of our young-adult life may eventually lose their hard edges, softening over time. Even our most discordant experiences and self-destructive years can eventually become a source of inspiration, or even comfort. But it takes deliberate, intentional work to get to that point. We are tasked with fabricating a coherent sense of self from a tangled, fragmentary set of experiences. The stitches in our patchwork spirit are the traces of that commendable enterprise.

We may not be able to attend exhibitions or performances in person for a while, but some galleries are making their shows available digitally. Supporting local arts venues is now more crucial than ever. If institutions like Nationale and Third Room don’t receive financial support, we may lose them. Established cultural institutions in Oregon are already struggling financially. A few, including the Portland Art Museum, are making some of their services available virtually, but the majority of their revenue comes from ticket sales and concessions. Fortunately, Nationale has other revenue streams. You can support the gallery directly during this time by purchasing original works of art, artist prints, or goods from their webstore

Third Room’s future was uncertain even before this crisis. Since its creation, its founder Kalaija Mallery has been the gallery’s primary source of funding. It is currently supported by the members of its patron board, most of whom are students or recent graduates. Mallery recently moved to St. Louis, Missouri, to pursue a position at The Luminary, and laments that the gallery may not be able to pay rent after this year. You can support Third Room by making a one-time donation, or by becoming a monthly contributor.

Since the first salons, the art world has relied on communal exhibitions to share new work, foster conversation, celebrate bright stars, and precipitate paradigmatic shifts. It’s a shame that my readers may not have the opportunity to see these shows. In the face of a growing pandemic which may incite a global economic recession (or a political revolution, or both), it may also feel inconsequential. As others in the cultural sector have pointed out, this is a fantastic opportunity to make art and devise new ways to share it. Mabry’s and Penn’s work has moved me to look forward, to anticipate how I will look back on this event, and potentially tell its story.


Nationale has plans to extend Carola Penn’s solo-retrospective, “Who Am I, Anyway,” through mid April. Please check www.nationale.us or follow them on Instagram @nationale for updates.

Check in with http://thirdroom.net or follow them on Instagram @thirdrooomproject for details about workshops, conferences, and upcoming shows.

Celebrating mundane interiors

Leslie Hickey's photographs capture the enigmatic appeal of the everyday

Those familiar with photography over the last sixty years or so will recognize the genre of Leslie Hickey’s photographs at Holding Contemporary. The work harkens back to the minimal interior shots of William Eggleston — a style emulated by a slew of photographers ever since. The primary goal of such photography, simply put, is to find something special about the mundane. Hickey’s photographs manage to celebrate the mundane and, at least in one case, convey a mood as well. (The lighting in the gallery may have been a factor, for each piece was dimly lit, not so dim as to lose details of the work, but enough to encourage only soft-toned conversations opening night.) 

When photographing mundane subject matter, that to which we typically are oblivious or wouldn’t otherwise think to document, the goal is not to have the final image appear as a manipulated/staged vignette, but instead use framing and technical abilities of the camera to elevate that which is seen. Success comes in how well one illuminates the extraordinary that lingers within empirical reality. The hope is that mediation by the photographer, and then contemplation by the viewer of the scene somehow replaces the superficiality with something more complex, perhaps even sublime, even as it remains matter of fact. And as in many other art forms, visual irony and/or paradox play a role in determining success.

rotary phone with note cards and wite-out
Leslie Hickey, Grandma’s Phone (Tacoma) (2019/2020). Pigmented inkjet print. 19.2×24. Edition of 3. Image courtesy of Holding Contemporary.

Notably, Hickey’s photographs do not contain people, and therefore narrative qualities are subdued. Nevertheless, we can read a story in Grandma’s Phone (Tacoma). A rotary phone (the image was taken in 2019) hangs on the wall above a corkboard full of index cards held with push pins.  A bottle of Wite-Out sits on a small ledge, and an electrical cord neatly runs along that ledge to a point out of frame. We recognize the old plastic wall tiles as something from our own grandma’s house. Based on this corner of her room, we get a good sense that while still in an analog world, she is as sharp as one of those push pins. Yet it is significant that Grandma is nowhere to be seen. We have no idea if she is still alive, which may answer why I feel a certain melancholy when I look at the image.

flowers leaning against glass on a plinth with sandpaper
Leslie Hickey, SACI still life, angle (2018/2020). Pigmented inkjet print. 11×14. Edition of 3. Image Courtesy of Holding Contemporary.

Hickey’s photo, SACI Still Life, Angle, while narrative in that it has a sense of place, is less specific than Grandma’s Phone (Tacoma). It could be a scene from any art school.. (SACI stands for Studio Arts College International in Florence, Italy. Hickey attended the school in 2004 and had an exhibit there in 2017.) The configuration of flowers and glass set up on an old, beat-up plinthe is likely for a painting class, yet Hickey has usurped it with her camera. To what end? While the flowers arranged against the light green glass is pretty enough, and we presume that it is the focus of a painting exercise, its arrangement strongly contrasts with other elements in the photo.The piece of easel, the used sandpaper, and most significantly, a foreground emphasizing the textures of the ragged plinthe, bring contrast and friction to the image. (Sandpaper!) 

A similar contrariness exists in Wire (Rockaway). The wire and its shadow presents as a simple drawing, largely due to the texture of the paper or whatever the wire rests on.Then again, in that we know this is a photograph, the raised bumps make the photo appear to be printed on rough handmade paper. Hotel Alla Salute bed (diptych) employs the same illusion, only this time it looks as though the walls in the photos have been hand colored, when in actuality, whoever painted the walls did a fairly uneven job. One can get a sense of these illusions from the images posted with this essay, yet seeing the work in person will bring another degree of appreciation, and the close engagement will find the viewer getting inches away and at an angle to see if there is indeed a manipulated surface. 

wire on a white background
Leslie Hickey, Wire (Rockaway) (2019/2020). Pigmented inkjet print. 11×14. Edition of 3. Image courtesy of Holding Contemporary.

Holding Contemporary is a small gallery and Hickey shares the space this month with Erin Murrray’s drawings as part of a two-person show, What We See and What We Know. With limited exhibition space, we can assume that Hickey’s six photographs in this exhibit were carefully chosen (especially given that the dates for the work span a four-year time period, and a photographer generally takes a lot of photos). I commend the gallery and artist in their curation.

Finally, I cannot resist relating these photos to this particular moment, our life in the time of Covid-19. Perhaps by nature and profession, visual artists are figuratively and literally some of the most self-isolating people one will know. If not lost in thoughts primed by the eye, they are in the studio realizing those ideas through a medium of choice. A day or two, a week or three, distraction-free and confined to the studio or house, is a blessing not often afforded. (However, this “free” time may come with great financial loss, so please, if you can, buy some art and support your local art institutions now.)  We might all do well to adopt this attitude and not only slow down to appreciate the simple things around us, but attend to what is important that has until now been put aside.


Holding Contemporary is open by appointment only. The gallery will also be amplifying its digital presence by having artists “take over” the gallery’s Instagram feed (@holdingcontemporary) and tag photos of interior architecture/still life.

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.

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.

The symphony animated and illuminated

A collaboration between artist Rose Bond and the Oregon Symphony in a SoundSights performance of Luciano Berio's 1968 work "Sinfonia"

Tucked away in a Northwest Portland apartment is a tiny doppelgänger of the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Made of foam core and photographic prints, the model faithfully captures every facet of the theater’s rococo stage. The owner of this mini-Schnitz is Portland artist Rose Bond, who had the model built in order to rehearse her new work, a live-projected, multi-channel animation created to be shown with the Oregon Symphony’s performance of Luciano Berio’s 1968 composition for orchestra and eight amplified voices, titled Sinfonia. The performances will be March 14, 15, and 16.

Artist Rose Bond seated in front of a scale model of the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Bond wears black athletic gear, black-rimmed glasses, and close cropped light gray hair, the model concert hall sits on a folding table in the gray room
Rose Bond in her studio, image courtesy the artist

The event is part of the SoundSights series, which pairs visual artists with orchestral performances. Past performances in the series have featured artists like Michael Curry and Dale Chihuly, as well as Bond herself, who returns to the series four years after creating visuals for Olivier Messiaen’s romantic Turangalîla. For Sinfonia, Bond has worked for over a year to produce a series of hand-drawn passages that mine the visual history of the 1960s in a dreamlike interpretation of Berio’s avant garde masterpiece. The performance will also feature the renowned vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw performing the vocal portion of the composition. The collaboration promises to be intensely immersive, and Bond hopes that it will allow both new and returning audiences to connect with the music at a visceral level. I visited her studio to discuss her work on Sinfonia and how the now fifty year-old composition fits with her decidedly contemporary visual art practice.

Bond has been developing her distinctive visual language since the early 1980s when she began using a technique called direct animation, in which individual frames are hand-drawn onto film strips. The result is organic-looking motion that trembles and pulsates as the reel unspools. “I think I fall somewhere between art and film,” she explained, neither fully narrative like a movie nor as abstract as some video art. Some of Bond’s early works explored various folk traditions viewed through a feminist lens. Bond’s The Celtic Trilogy reimagined traditional Irish mythology from the perspective of the witches and goddesses. This interest in the overlaps between collective culture and political consciousness has expanded as her work has evolved. 

A mock up of projected animations at the Arlene Schnitzer concert hall, depicting stylized representations of 1960s era protests in France, the orchestra performs below.
A still from Rose Bond’s Sinfonia, image courtesy the artist

In 2002, Bond produced her first site-specific animation installation, Illumination #1, which highlighted the historical inhabitants of Portland’s Old Town neighborhood with a series of silhouetted figures projected in the second-floor windows of the historic Seamen’s Bethel Building. The project was received with glowing reviews (and was even re-installed in 2014 as part of the Old Town History Project), and since then, Bond has made large-scale and site-specific works across the globe that bring local histories to life and shine a light on stories not often told. Although she now uses contemporary video and animation technologies and works with a professional studio assistant, her works are still grounded in her hand-drawn animation methods which lends an intimate quality even at a monumental scale. 

Image of the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall during performance, symphony plays onstage while colorful animations are projected on theater facade surrounding musicians
Still from Bond’s Turangalïla, performed with the Oregon Symphony in 2016, image courtesy Oregon Symphony

Monumental is an apt descriptor for both the symphony and the location of this multimedia event — the three-part orchestral composition will be performed by the Oregon Symphony in one of Portland’s most elegant venues, the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. The warmth and directness of Bond’s simple line drawings of people and architecture provide a satisfying counterpoint to any potential grandiosity. Her open-minded curiosity is especially evident in conversation: “I didn’t know anything about symphonies but I’ve learned a whole lot (through this process).” Bond explained her research process in detail: she has taken a year-long sabbatical from teaching at PNCA and now has an entire filing cabinet stuffed with notes on the composition, historical references, and vast quantities of storyboard drafts and sketches. 

Hand drawn animation still depicting young man about to throw a rock or other object during protest in gritty urban environment
Still from Bond’s Sinfonia, image courtesy the artist

In 1968, the year Berio composed Sinfonia, social upheaval and civil unrest were erupting all over the world. The assasination of Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4 of that year inspired the second movement of the symphony, titled O King. Berio built the first and third movements around this a deeply moving centerpiece. Excerpts of writing by Claude Levi-Strauss, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and others, along with phrases from graffiti and slogans used during the contemporaneous protests in France, are scattered throughout the piece, each syllable dragged out into abstraction by the eight singers in Roomful of Teeth. The third movement appropriates portions of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, and also includes snippets from works by well known composers like Debussy, Ravel, and Stravinsky. 


Berio referred to his compositional strategy as “quotations,” and Bond sees them as analogous to sampling in contemporary music. It was a radical creative approach at the time of Sinfonia’s creation, but was entirely in keeping with Berio’s experimental tastes, which later led him to work in the newly emerging category of electronic music. Bond calls Berio “one of the first pre-post-modernists,” in reference to this blending of text and music quotations.

Bond’s animations share this patchwork approach, as she collages together images derived from archival sources like newspaper photographs and television footage. “I chose to respect the quotation form… by sampling well known pictures,” she explained. The title Sinfonia alludes to the literal meaning of the word symphony, “sounding together,” both in the sense of the many instruments and voices playing in harmony, and in the sense of bringing together disparate fragments to form a unified picture. Bond’s visuals act as another set of fragments contributing to the whole experience.

View of artist's studio, with computers on a desk, many projectors, stands, and wires, and a scale model of the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in the far corner
A view of Bond’s studio, image courtesy the artist

Bond’s suite of three movements will be projected onto the multi-planar proscenium arch of the Schnitzer live during each performance. The cueing of her piece will occur simultaneously with that of the musicians and vocalists, hence the scale model of the theater — Bond and her technicians will need to have their timing just right in order to match the music. But this is not a literal illustration of the words being sung or the notes being played. Instead, Bond says, “the visuals are sort of like a dancer who sometimes takes the lead and sometimes backs off,” in other words, a collaborative performance. “The music has an unpredictability, and likewise, the visuals hold the potential for surprise.”

Bond let me sit at her studio monitor to preview a digital mockup of the work as it will look in the theater. The animations are projected onto darkened walls as opposed to the typical bright white screen. This has the effect of collapsing visual depth, while creating unexpected illusions of ambiguous three-dimensional space that contradict Bond’s assertively two-dimensional drawing style in a transfixing manner. Certain passages commandeer the theater’s architecture for their own purposes. During the second movement, the arched space above the stage transforms into the trusses of the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama, the site of the infamous Bloody Sunday attack by police against Civil Rights protesters. At other times, the entire space becomes an endless void, brightened by ethereal apparitions dancing on either side of the orchestra pit. 

Black and white hand drawn animation still featuring two silhouetted figures standing at night under an umbrella, a Parisian "Metro" sign is illuminated by a streetlamp in the foreground
Still from Bond’s Sinfonia, image courtesy the artist

Although the visuals unfolding before me were on a screen a fraction of the size of their destined venue, they somehow managed to feel immersive, sometimes almost overwhelming, in their emotional intensity. Even the most ubiquitous images of the era felt new as they moved through Bond’s dream-like world of delicate lines and muted colors, in time with the haunting sounds of Berio’s composition. I understood what Bond meant when she said that at times during the piece “it feels like the whole room is spinning.”

Bond hopes that her work with the Oregon Symphony will entice new audiences to take an interest in such performances. She acknowledges that, like the opera and the ballet, the symphony is an older institution that is in some ways defined by tradition, and whose challenge now is to make itself relevant to younger people who are constantly immersed in the present moment through streaming platforms and social networks. 

Sinfonia may have been on the cutting edge of culture when it debuted in 1968, but to some, Berio’s work might seem as old as orchestral music itself. Through her ingenious use of popular imagery and her deft fusion of digital and analog media, Bond’s visuals revivify the qualities that made Sinfonia famous and offer both an entry point for newcomers and a fresh take for connoisseurs. Furthermore, she has made the work’s political nature more accessible to concert-goers through her rigorous research and smart visual references. The resulting experience of intermingling pictures, words, and music promises to be a powerful tribute to the ability and the responsibility that art has to reflect upon the culture of its time — both in Berio’s time and in our own. 

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There will be three performances of this multimedia concert event at the Arlene Schnitzer Concern Hall: 7:30 PM on Saturday, March 14th; 2:00 PM on Sunday, March 15th; and 7:30 PM on Monday, March 16th. Tickets start at $24 and are available here.

*** Due to the restriction of all public gatherings over 250 people as part of COVID-19 containment efforts, these performances have been cancelled.