Spilling across the rooms of the main floor of the Hallie Ford Museum of Art, a hundred pieces of art — in all shapes and sizes, in different media, from different periods and different continents — offer something, it seems, for everyone.
A viewer who didn’t know the occasion for this show might not grasp what it is about — and that’s allowing for the conceit that art needs to be “about” something at all.
It’s about the Hallie Ford Museum of Art, it turns out.
The Willamette University-affiliated museum is marking the occasion of its 25th anniversary this year by an almost disorientingly eclectic mix of intriguing and sometimes mesmerizing art that curators hauled up from the institution’s permanent collection. Through October, admission is free to this best-of-the-best, or perhaps “greatest hits,” exhibition in Salem.
The “greatest hits” vibe seems especially apt for those who have caught one or more of the excellent shows Hallie Ford has hosted the past few years. Beautiful and bold pieces that thrilled in past exhibitions greet the viewer like old friends, including Portland artist Arvie Smith’s 2015 oil Blondie and Richard Hunt’s 2007 vibrant cedar carving of Eagle Transforming into Sisuitl. In that regard, The Hallie Ford Museum of Art at 25: Highlights from the Permanent Collection recalls another show from the fall of 2021, Time and Place, which set out to tell a story about Oregon art with 60 pieces spanning a 9,000-year period. A few gems from that show make an appearance here, too, including Henk Pander’s bold 2000 oil on linen, The Burning of the New Carissa, and Blanket Stories: First Teachers, Wallamet, Crow’s Shadow by Marie Watt (Seneca).
The permanent collection lives behind locked doors in the basement, where a ramshackle of storage units, including several long mobile shelves moved on tracks by a hand crank, house the roughly 10,000 pieces the museum has amassed since it opened in 1998. That was where curators looked to find the art in this special show, which runs through Dec. 16.
“We decided to do a history of the Museum of Art’s permanent collection,” said John Olbrantz, who has directed the institution since the beginning. “We thought our 25th anniversary would be a great chance to highlight some of the treasures that are on view, and some of those that are not on view.”
Several art specialists, including head curator Jonathan Bucci, came up with their top 20 items, with the caveat that most be pieces that had either not been seen by the public or had made only brief appearances in past shows. Bucci teamed with the museum’s education curator, Elizabeth Garrison, to review the resulting list of nearly 300 items, and their mission then became narrowing it down to about 100.
“It’s not organized thematically or chronologically,” Olbrantz said. “It’s a visual dialogue [organized] by the visual relationships that these objects have with one another.”
The sheer variety — ancient, traditional, and contemporary art, including pieces from the recently acquired Museum of Contemporary Craft, with all major media represented — makes a description of the show as a cohesive whole virtually impossible. Even the half-dozen pieces in the lobby, including a 1979 abstract painting by Portland artist Lucinda Parker, a dance skirt by Siletz artist Robert Kentta, and indigenous artwork from New Zealand, hints at the eclectic riches to be found in the Melvin Henderson-Rubio Gallery.
The conversation begins with the beginning: The viewer is greeted by none other than an image of Roger Hull, the Willamette University art historian and champion of Pacific Northwest artists who played a crucial role in founding the Hallie Ford. Hull, who died last week at the age of 80, was painted by George Johanson, and here is seen overlooking some of the earliest pieces given to the museum, including a haunting nocturnal scene rendered in blue oils, Edward Steichen’s 1910 painting Across the Valley of Morin — Clouded Night, and two baskets — one Klamath Modoc and one Siletz — made around 1900.
Each of the gallery’s four major spaces includes artwork sure to rivet the viewer’s attention. The muted reds and oranges in the Hull portrait dominate another Johanson piece that demands engagement. Black Rabbit’s Red Room, an acrylic from the late 1970s, is among the artist’s “autobiography” paintings. Although not necessary to enjoy the piece, notes in the online digital collection tell us exactly what we’re looking at:
In Black Rabbit’s Red Room, the banner across the composition is Johanson’s Boy Scout bandana. The cast of characters includes, from the lower right, the painter Louis Bunce, the sculptor Manuel Izquierdo in a Halloween costume, a blur of the head of the painter Jack McLarty in profile, the semi-nude figure of Johanson himself wearing a green eye-shade, George as a chubby baby in a high chair, George’s elderly mother, George again in the striped shirt, and George’s parents from a photograph taken when they were young. At center is a Dutch rabbit, a pet in the Johanson household who made periodic appearances in Johanson’s paintings of the 1970s.
On the same wall is a spectacular, floor-to-ceiling display of carbon pigment prints glazed with acrylic by Stu Levy that depict none other than the renowned Oregon arts educator Gordon Gilkey, seen here during his tenure as the Portland Art Museum’s prints curator. Gilkey’s claim to fame, long before he landed at PAM, includes his personal mission during World War II to protect European artwork from the Nazis. On the wall at the Hallie Ford in a grid of 20 squares, he is as large as life in three images that click together like pieces of a puzzle.
In reference to another piece that includes considerably more panels, I asked Garrison where such pieces are stored when not on display. Stacked with supreme care in boxes, she said, although talking with Bucci later, he indicated that when these pieces are repacked, they will be stored on their sides, like books on a shelf, so the weight distribution is even.
There is so much here — one could file a lengthy report just on pieces in the space Gilkey and the Black Rabbit preside over. One wall showcases work from the museum’s voluminous print collection, including one of 18th-century Italian artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s richly detailed “imaginary prison” images. Pottery fills the center of the room, including the museum’s oldest piece: a painted ceramic jar from Yangshao culture, dating from between 3000 and 2000 BCE. The top half of this magnificent piece is slip painted with what looks like bands of rope that encircle it, a reminder of art’s centrality to even life’s basic utilities thousands of years ago.
These are but a few of the pieces in an expansive show, although one might as well include the dozens more that fill the Northwest Collection gallery. Olbrantz told me most of the pieces in here were rotated into the mix fairly recently, so those who haven’t visited in a while will likely find “new” work they’ve not seen before.
Upstairs are more collections and another show. In the print center, Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts Biennial has on display more than 20 contemporary prints by Emily Arthur, Jeremy Okai Davis, John Hitchcock, Lehuauakea, Cory Peeke, Ralph Pugay, Wendy Red Star, and Fox Spears, most of whom are Indigenous, and all made during recent residencies at the institute on the Umatilla Reservation in Northeastern Oregon. The show runs through Dec. 2.
Several more guided gallery talks, lectures, and film screenings associated with The Hallie Ford Museum of Art at 25: Highlights from the Permanent Collection are scheduled for the balance of October through December, including a Nov. 9 lecture by Olbrantz. All are listed on the website.