Exquisite Gorge 5: The Alchemist

Snippets of words, sounds, slivers, shreds, scraps, slices, morsels and fragments: Artist Mike McGovern transforms a stretch of the Columbia


STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY FRIDERIKE HEUER




Alchemy – noun : a power or process that changes or transforms something in a mysterious or impressive way.” (Merriam-Webster) 

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THE ENGLISH WORD ALCHEMY has its historical roots in the Greek term chēmeia (the Arabic article al was added later when the word traveled across the Mediterranean world), referring to fluids and pouring. Long before the science of chemistry entered the scene, alchemists mixed liquids to create gold or cure diseases, seeking some sort of transformative power.

Mike McGovern, printmaker and professor in the art department at PCC Rock Creek Campus.

The term came to mind when I visited with Mike McGovern, yet another artist selected by the curatorial committee at Maryhill Museum for the Exquisite Gorge project, tasked with providing a wood block print representing a particular part of the Columbia Gorge. He will be among all those who gather on August 24 at the museum for the public printing of the aligned 8×6-foot blocks by means of a steamroller.

Mike McGovern

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THE EXQUISITE GORGE PROJECT

“…a collaborative printmaking project featuring 11 artists working with communities along a 220-mile stretch of the Columbia River from the Willamette River confluence to the Snake River confluence to create a massive 66-foot steamrolled print. The unique project takes inspiration from the Surrealist art practice known as exquisite corpse. In the most well-known exquisite corpse drawing game, participants took turns creating sections of a body on a piece of paper folded to hide each successive contribution. When unfolded, the whole body is revealed. In the case of The Exquisite Gorge Project, the Columbia River will become the ‘body’ that unifies the collaboration between artists and communities, revealing a flowing 66-foot work that tells 10 conceptual stories of the Columbia River and its people.”

 Louise Palermo, Curator of Education at Maryhill Museum

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McGovern sure mixes it up. Not liquids, mind you, but everything else you can think of. Snippets of words, bits and pieces of sounds, slivers, shreds, scraps, slices, segments, morsels and fragments of ideas or visual impressions, all bent into new configurations. The evolving amalgam could be a page out of a graphic novel (on steroids, given the size of his work) with a large inventory of ideas, but also an invitation to detect the various style elements derived from generations of prior artists. Add to that aesthetics borrowed from his more contemporary passions – the world of heavy metal, skateboarding, tattoo and graffiti – and voilà: there emerges a transformation that is indeed, if not mysterious, quite definitely impressive.

Section 8 of the Exquisite Gorge Project.

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BORN IN PORTLAND, OREGON AS ONE OF NINE CHILDREN into an artistically inclined family, McGovern attended the Pacific Northwest College of Art, where he studied photography and printmaking and earned a BFA in photography in 2004. He graduated in 2009 with his MFA in printmaking from Northern Illinois University, where he studied under Michael Barnes and Ashley Nason. For the last 10 years he has been teaching art at Portland Community College Rock Creek Campus, and has spent summers in residencies working, among other things, with young people from underserved populations.

Carving Tools

His board, covering the Columbia River Section 8 from John Day to Arlington, is highly stylized. Part of that can be traced back to the earliest influences on him as a budding artist. From his father, Donlon McGovern, who carved wood since he was initiated into the craft by Native American artists, McGovern adapted a version of the Northwest style that finds its place in a border pattern. His mother’s influence reveals itself in repeated work with linear demarcations, absorbed when watching Jean McGovern make stained-glass windows during his childhood.

Wind Turbines and Smoke from the 2018 Substation Fire.

Imagery gleaned from the Gorge, the wind turbines, the smoke from last year’s substation fire that he happened to be witnessing during a residency in The Dalles, fill the board. Representations of quails, raptors, sturgeons, cherries, and wheat form a rough-hewn quilt.

Witty representation of a cherry sizer, the real thing shown above – I was first perplexed thinking it was about sizing giant knitting needles – shows you where I come from …

A bee, a moon, and a sunflower are adapted from drawings by Sebastian and Issa, students at Wahtonka Community High School, which is a community partner in the project.

Carvings from designs made by students from Wahtonka Community High School.

The school approaches education for some sixty 9th to 12th graders with a hands-on, project-based learning environment, a strict code of rules and clear behavioral expectations, providing a chance to gain a regular Oregon State Diploma when other avenues of education have been closed off for good. McGovern must be a good fit with the reportedly intensely dedicated teachers and staff, having much to offer that the teenagers can relate to.

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IN ADDITION TO THE IMAGES, ubiquitous words are carved all across the board. Many of them emerged from conversations with the students. Others came about as free associations while starting to carve, dipping into a stream of consciousness bubbling up from the immersion in the Gorge environment.

Central to everything is, of course, the river that runs through it all. It contains two faces or masks that seem to be breathing important words across the water: confluence; trust; voice; community. I don’t know if this was intended, but they struck me as the essentials that one wishes could redefine relationships among the diverse populations of the Gorge in light of a difficult history – if that history can be overcome at all.

The Columbia River in blue with sturgeon below, raptor and quail above.

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McGOVERN IS FASCINATED WITH MASKS, prevalent in Native American and indigenous Polynesian art, and also feels a strong affinity to the work of another European group of artists: the German expressionists, first and foremost Max Beckmann, Karl Schmitt-Rottluff, Emil Nolde, and Käthe Kollwitz.

Faces are a recurring pattern in McGoverns printmaking.

The influence of a movement devoted to convey subjective experience rather than to copy reality is clearly visible in McGovern’s work. The Expressionist method of using lots of contrast, flat shapes and jagged contours is echoed in his style of carving: a raw treatment of the material rather than traditional refinement, chunky slashes rather than subtle illustration.

Within the context of their time, the first decades of the 20th century, Expressionists were set on reflecting the political reality of the European suffering associated with the war that was and the next war yet to come. At the same time they were set on distorting reality in their art, focussed on emotional reaction instead.

Printmaking lent itself to the political aspect of the Expressionists’ work: It was cheap, quick, and posters could be easily multiplied and distributed. Pictures combined with words were thus spread amongst a population that had no access to the floods of imagery that we are overexposed to these days. It was a tool for information, for warning about warmongering, for calling on solidarity during a time where nationalism in the service of fascism was on the rise. As a means of communication to promote or condemn political causes it went beyond the original goals of the artists who rejected naturalism and impressionism in their predecessors: the goal to delve deeply into the emotional core of human experience beyond the surface of aesthetics. (Here is a link to a comprehensive introduction to Expressionism, published in the context of the 2011 MoMa exhibition German Expressionism: The Graphic Impulse.)

Words appear all over McGovern’s wood print (I inverted the photograph to make them legible).

Perhaps it is no coincidence that printmaking experiences such a revival in our own political times, with artists willingly resuming the burden of all those who undertook protest against forces that were overwhelming and seemingly invincible.

Drawings in preparation for the carving.

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THERE IS, OF COURSE, ALWAYS the question of appropriation: where does one cross the line from affinity to copying, from reverence to disregard for ownership? The question has actually become much less of an issue for me after a visit earlier this month to another printmaking show at the Rhode Island School of Design: Vision and Revision, at the RISDMuseum in Providence, Rhode Island. Brilliantly curated and thoughtfully explained, the exhibition presents work of printmakers and those in their footsteps, delineating the ways old work has been adapted to new times. I learned much. Here is the blurb from the catalogue:

Visions and Revisions tells the story of the invention, reuse, and revival of traditional printmaking techniques throughout the history of that groundbreaking medium. From the very beginning, printmakers have been keenly aware of their artistic lineage, repeatedly confronting and transforming earlier achievements. In addition to emulating their contemporaries, printmakers have consistently revived historic techniques, often overcoming considerable technical challenges to adopt an established aesthetic and adapt it to their own needs. With artists ranging from Albrecht Dürer to Mary Cassatt, from Rembrandt to Kara Walker, this exhibition highlights the astonishingly creative results of repeated encounters with authoritative precedents, celebrating the enduring dialogue between “old masters” and modern and contemporary artists.

Francisco Jose de Goya Y Lucientes The Men in Sacks (Los ensacados) plate 8 from the series The Proverbs or The Follies (Los Disparates) 1816-to 1824, printed 1864 (the white dots are reflections on the glass).
Enrique Chagoya
The Men in Sacks (Los ensacados), 2003.

Adopting an aesthetic while mixing it up with a modern twist or contemporary content, envisioning, revisioning – there’s alchemy for you!

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IN THE LATE 1970s SOME FRIENDS AND I REGULARLY FLED the harbor city of Hamburg, Germany, to take up residence on a working farm in Tating (pop. 983), a hamlet near the North Sea. In exchange for serious labor, on the fields and milking cows – yes, I once milked cows, and no, it’s not romantic – we were fed and housed for days on end by the aging parents of one of us, who direly needed help. The woman of the house was goddaughter to Emil Nolde, the expressionist painter. Several of his oil paintings hung in the entrance hall and living room; because insurance costs were astronomical, the uninsured art was tied to nails in the wall with heavily knotted metal wire to prevent theft. When the thatch-roofed farmhouse went up in flames in the early ’80s, few of them could be rescued because the wires could not easily be disentangled.

I don’t remember the paintings in detail, just that I was in awe of the emotional power of the color. I was also, at the time, completely unaware that Nolde was a Nazi and anti-Semite, notwithstanding the fact that his own work had been banned as degenerate. New scholarship around his political stance recently led German chancellor Angela Merkel to dispose of two of his paintings that hung in the chancellery and to return them to some museum when an occasion arose to do so without too much fanfare.

I do remember clearly, however, how restorative it was to spend time at a place filled with beauty, away from the daily stress of my professional life.

Dylan McManus, the artistic director for the Exquisite Gorge Project, provides exactly that opportunity for artists who need time to focus and immerse themselves without distractions. He and his wife and children live on a working cherry tree farm in the hills above The Dalles. His LittleBearHill studio offers residencies to printmakers and other artists, enhanced by the fact that they can not only work in peace with the relevant equipment but also have the chance to talk to a like-minded artist. It was here where I met with McGovern to talk about his approach to the wood print.

View of the Gorge from the Cherry Farm.

McManus’s work has focused on how perceptions and expressions of masculinity are shaped by culture, how self-image embraces attributes that are seemingly demanded by the stereotypes we absorb, and how behavior is ruled by cultural expectation. Exploration of violence is a topic of great interest to him.

The artist’s father worked for long stretches in Africa, and reports of atrocities committed even by under-age soldiers preoccupied McManus from early on. His series on child soldiers uses ground diamond dust as a medium reflecting back on one of the many sources of internecine violence. In other work, he has portrayed war veterans, often using gun powder that he sets on fire to accentuate contrasting edges and fields.

Dylan McManus, Child Soldier
Dylan McManus, Portrait of a Veteran

McManus’s interests and knowledge of the world of printmakers, his facility with the craft, his hospitality and the way he is deeply tied into many aspects of the Gorge community make him a linch-pin to the Exquisite Gorge project. In my two short visits out at LittleBearHill I experienced him as a tender and attentive father to his young children. The same can probably be said for his shepherding the project along.

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ON MY WAY HOME AFTER THE INTERVIEW I decided spontaneously to stop by at the Bonneville Power Dam and take a close look at the locks and the Columbia River. It had, of course, to be the day where my old vacuum cleaner was stashed in the car boot – having been declared defunct that very morning at the repair shop by a depressed-looking clerk eager for a sale. The security guard at Bonneville looked annoyed with me wanting in some 20 minutes before closing time. Then he had to check out that my old Shark was not a drone in disguise, despite my emphatic denial that I transported either those or weapons. He eventually waved me grudgingly through when vacuum-hood was securely established.

His suspiciousness, my amusement: The river didn’t care.

The river doesn’t care if we are a violent species, or an industrious one, or one that makes art. The river doesn’t care about what we do to it, or how we represent it or exploit it or guard it, what we feel toward it or how we write about it. The river will run, dammed or not, for much longer than we all will be around. It will seek its course, it will face sunrise in silver and sunset in gold, no alchemy needed. It will echo the seasons, it will rise and fall, it will nourish.

What a comforting thought.

Columbia River at sunrise looking east.
Columbia River at sunset looking west.

This is Part 5 in a series of stories and photographs by Friderike Heuer, published on Oregon ArtsWatch in collaboration with Heuer and her web site YDP – Your Daily PictureIt is also published on YDP, on Monday, July 29, 2019.

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