The longtime Portland painter Henk Pander, whose suite of four large paintings is glowing like a small insistent fire in a side gallery at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, has always been a chronicler of his times. And he’s seen some times.
Born in 1937 in the old Dutch city of Haarlem – a hop and a skip from Amsterdam, where Anne Frank, who was just eight years older, lived at the same time – Pander lived his early years during the Nazi occupation of his city and nation, in a setting of quiet and sometimes dangerous subversion. He remembers soldiers snooping and members of the resistance hiding in his family home and underground pamphlets being furtively delivered. He remembers people disappearing.
A proud upholder of the centrality of drawing and the traditions of classical painting, he is also one of Oregon’s most daring painters, an artist/reporter of his culture, an examiner of broken seams. He paints still lifes and landscapes and many portraits. He’s designed imaginative sets for theater and ballet companies. But his eye is always open to the dark corners of contemporary life. And in dark times, he does not flinch.
Pander has painted firefighters and medics doing tough emergency work in Los Angeles, and airplane graveyards in the Southwest deserts. He created a series of astonishing large paintings of the disaster of the freighter New Carissa, which in 1999 ran aground in a storm near Coos Bay on the Oregon Coast and broke apart. When the hijacked planes hit the Twin Towers in Manhattan in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, he headed to the epicenter and spent many days among the ruins, drawing and painting what he saw and felt.
With Henk Pander, the Eyewitness to History, at the Jewish Museum through May 15, he turns his attention to the very recent history of his adopted home city of Portland – to the stifling overlay of Covid, perhaps, but beyond it to the cultural clashes between protesters and local and national police that choked the city in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd. The paintings were begun and finished in 2020, amid the turmoil of the uprising against matters as diverse yet connected as racial inequity, the great upward transfer of personal wealth, and the rapid political rise of the far right. It’s no stretch to extend the paintings’ underlying starkness and unease to the recent mass shootings of protesters and slaying of one at Portland’s Normandale Park, or to the trauma unleashed this week by Vladimir Putin’s massive military attack on Ukraine. But most specifically, Pander’s eye was on the destruction and violence that hit the city’s core, and whose scars remain raw.
Each of the exhibit’s four large paintings takes up a wall in the museum’s small back gallery. Together they almost overwhelm the space, surrounding viewers in something between a comforting intimacy and a dystopian smother. Stand in the center of the room and the colors leap out at you. You can stop and consider one painting at a time. But you’re always aware of the other three, lurking, jostling, restless to horn in.
Sensations tumble. The danger of these urban scenes; the defiance, destruction, despair. The streaks and slabs of fiery orange and red: city on fire, bright and fascinating and burning all at once. The rough elegance and sheer pleasure of the paint itself, slapped and scraped and smeared across the linen, engorged and thick like sculpture: messy, but messy in a deliberate way. Things fall apart. But if the center of the subject – the confrontations on the streets – cannot hold, the centers of the objects – the paintings themselves – can and do. As an artist and a craftsman, Pander is in full control.
Each painting carries its own slice of the totality. The stark and arid “Passage,” not just lonesome like a Hopper painting but as close to lifeless as a desert moon, suggests an ancient ruin: Look on these works and despair. Depicting an outdoor passageway beneath the brute pillars of the federal courthouse, one of the epicenters of downtown clashes between police and protesters, it’s devoid of action, although signs of past disaster are everywhere. Plywood covers doorways. Dark shadows fall. The sky and pillars are as red and glowing as a Saharan sunset.
“Stain” depicts the Multnomah County Justice Center surrounded by metal barricades and mirrored in a water puddle beneath a murky sky. A gaggle of “peacekeepers,” embalmed in Star Wars-like stormtrooper uniforms, stand more or less at attention, maybe a little bored, their rifles held loosely and pointed down. A single civilian, probably a protester, gazes at them from a short distance. This is not exactly a truce, but at least it’s an inaction. This lone woman in white, imponderable as her gaze may seem, also seems the suite of paintings’ only human conveying a sense of relatable, sharable emotion: The soldier/policemen, cloaked and armed from head to toe, seem automatons. The paintings’ encompassing feeling is of large systemic failure.
“Court” is more menacing, an intense and thick-toned painting of flight and chase, with the odds stacked. The shadow of a fleeing figure races to disappear through flames in the lower left corner, escaping the painting and the seven militarized police officers chasing after, one of whom is tossing what might be a canister of tear gas or a flash bang in the protester’s wake. The paint feels wild and disturbed and ominous: a world ready to explode.
And “Triggers” goes full-on furious, returning to the dead zone of the pillars in “Passage” but this time with the bright heat of havoc and violence. Pander places us in an urban war zone, where half a dozen troopers, weapons drawn in what looks like a military search-and-destroy mission, scramble past an overturned traffic cone and through perilous and puffing cotton clouds of smoke. The utter failure of full-on cultural disintegration pervades the scene. The straining pillars shriek in orange and red. One thinks, involuntarily, of a small boy’s nightmares in Haarlem.
THE JEWISH MUSEUM HAS BEEN on a roll of late, with textile artist Bonnie Meltzer’s interactive Tikkun Olam: Mending the Social Fabric running into January (ArtsWatch’s Beth Sorensen wrote about it here) followed by the current To Bear Witness – Extraordinary Lives, a collaboration among the museum, photographer and documentarist Jim Lommasson, and The Immigrant Story that tells the stories of immigrants from a variety of places, and of what they brought with them when they made new lives. It, too, runs through May 15; Sorensen writes about it here. Pander’s show fits neatly with both.
Each of these shows is deeply enmeshed in cultural matters, and implicitly in the belief that one must pay attention. The crucial importance of social engagement has been a matter of life and death among the world’s Jews, and with an alarming contemporary rise in anti-Semitism, including fatal attacks on synogogues, it is far more than an abstract concern. It even rose its head this week in part of Putin’s “justification” for the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which he claimed was necessary as a “de-Nazificatation” measure against the elected Ukrainian government – whose president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is in fact Jewish.
In late January Judith Margles, director of the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, reported that the museum had been the object of an abusive tweet, purportedly over its requirement that visitors be vaccinated, which the social-media message compared to a Nazi ban on Jews, as if a public health safety precaution and a state-run policy of repression and mass murder were essentially the same. “Jews are not allowed here,” the sign on the right translates.
“I am feeling many things right now, but mostly I’m exhausted,” Margles wrote in an email letter to museum supporters. “I’m exhausted by the enmity, cruelty, stupidity, and thoughtlessness that abound today. … Did the person who sent that tweet ever stop to consider what the image means to anyone who has lost loved ones because of genocide?”
With that partly in mind, I walked through To Bear Witness, just a few yards from Pander’s show, and stopped when I saw the section devoted to Les and Eva Aigner, immigrants from Hungary. Above their display, these words are painted: “The lessons of the Holocaust are more important today than ever. We know what can happen when there is hate or discrimination. Hate is a little spark, and it can become a fire.”
So, too, in the spark of witness and creative response, can art find a shape.