Hockney and a fresh start as Maryhill season wanes

As the Gorge museum tries on its new extension for size, it's the home stretch for Hockney's take on the Brothers Grimm

Plaza, Mary and Bruce Stevenson Wing. Foreground: Alisa Looney (Portland, Or.), “Roll & Play,” 2007, powder-coated and flame cut mild steel, 36″ x 75″ x 48″. Gift of the North Star Foundation, 2008.06.001. Photography: Scott Thompson

To everything there is a season, and Maryhill Museum of Art’s is about to come to a close. The museum, in Northwest visionary Sam Hill’s old concrete mansion at the dry end of the Columbia Gorge, makes an annual concession to the inevitable wind and snow of winter, shutting its doors on Nov. 15 and reopening in the spring – next year, as usual, on March 15.

That means you still have a couple of weeks to shake Puddletown off of your galoshes and make the trek, a little more than 100 miles eastward on the Washington side of the river. (Travel hint: Excellent coffee awaits just off the freeway in Mosier, 5 miles east of Hood River, at 10 Speed East Coffee. You can then either return to Interstate 84 or take the gorgeous Historic Columbia River Highway about 18 miles through the hills into The Dalles, where you can rejoin I-84. High and winding, with stunning interior views that you never see from the riverside freeway, the old highway’s a favorite loop for bicyclists and motorcyclists, and a treat for the occasional motorcar, too.)

This year in particular there are good reasons besides the drive itself to make the Maryhill trip before the season ends.

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First, this is the first season you can see the museum’s expansion into the new Mary & Bruce Stevenson Wing, centerpiece of a $10 million remodel and extension that opened this spring. The project, which delivered a lot of bang for the buck, helps the museum feel less like an overstuffed closet and more like a well-planned display space. It adds some gallery areas, gives others more room to breathe, offers some fine new educational space and an extended deck that has you hanging quite breathtakingly over the edge of the cliff. Unseen but perhaps most significantly, it adds desperately needed storage space. And although the expansion sounds huge – 25,500 square feet – it’s deliberately slung low, near or below ground level, so it won’t fight visually with the original building, which began its long and laborious construction process in 1914. About half of the additional square footage is in the form of a sweeping new plaza that covers underground rooms and is highly adaptable for big-crowd events. Since it feels more like landscaping, it further lessens the visual impact of the new wing.

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“The Boy Hidden in a Fish,” from €”The Little Sea Hare,€” in “Six Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm,” 1969, etching. © David Hockney. Used with permission.

A second good reason to make the trip now is to catch the special exhibition “David Hockney: Six Fairy Tales,” which opened in mid-September and closes with the season. The exhibition has the delicious shudder of a chill autumn day. It consists of original versions of Hockney’s 39 etchings for a 1970 book that included six stories collected by the Brothers Grimm: “The Little Sea Hare,” “Fundevogel,” “Rapunzel,” “The Boy Who Left Home To Learn Fear,” “Old Rinkrank,” and “Rumpelstilzchen.” For the most part the illustrations are allusive, not so much off-topic as off-action, looking for moments of stillness that freeze the characters and their quizzical psyches in space. Simplified and cut close to the bone, they suggest the strange ritualistic timelessness and eerie hyperrealism that make the worlds of fairy tale and magic so potent and memorable. The tales, and Hockney’s illustrations, reside in that enthralling, floating, slightly frightening space where childhood glimpses adulthood, and adulthood slips back into childhood. “They’re fascinating little stories,” Hockney wrote, “told in a very very simple, direct and straightforward language and style; it was their simplicity that attracted me. They cover quite a strange range of experience from the magical to the moral.”

The prints can seem idyllic, as in “The Lake,” a view for the tale “Fundevogel” of a glacier-carved landscape remarkably like the one that spreads below the museum. Or they can seem impossibly stop-action, like the image of an uncoiled cat springing fiercely toward the expressionless face of a calmly seated boy, in an illustration for “The Boy Who Left Home To Learn Fear.” All 39 prints are in black-and-white, and the exhibition enjoys unusually informative and engrossing wall labels that give excellent background on the Grimms and their stories and quote liberally from Hockney on how he approached the project. They’re written by the show’s excellent curator, Robert Flynn Johnson, curator emeritus for the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and something of a legend in Bay Area art circles.

The etchings in “Six Fairy Tales” seem far removed from the photomontages and big richly colored paintings of Southern California swimming pools that most people think of when they think of Hockney. But even though his work has played around the edges of Pop and even Cubist ideas he’s almost always been a representational artist of sorts, and that’s meant that drawing skills have been crucial to his work. The link between these etchings and his much more famous paintings is, literally, the line.

One of the reasons to like this show is that, without really saying anything about it, it helps tear down the often artificial wall between art and illustration. These are book illustrations. Yet we accept them as art because they were made by an artist. If some people think Hockney was slumming on this project, he declares decisively that he didn’t: “They’re a ‘major’ work in that they took a long time, nearly a year, to make, just from the artistic point of view; if you’d worked on a painting for a year, you’d think of it as a major work.”

The last previous major show of a single illustrator’s work I saw was “The Bible Illustrated: R. Crumb’s Book of Genesis,” which sprawled across the Portland Art Museum’s special-exhibition galleries in 2010. Created by the great and feverish underground comix illustrator Robert Crumb, the guy behind Mr. Natural and Fritz the Cat, it approached the artificial wall from the opposite side: Instead of an “artist” doing “illustration,” like Hockney, it revealed an “illustrator,” Crumb, doing “art.” And it made an impressive case that art was what Crumb had been doing all along. Crumb’s vital, sometimes ribald, action-driven style puts him in the same illustrative camp as N.C. Wyeth and Gustave Dore. Hockney’s more still and contemplative approach is closer to Barry Moser’s and Rockwell Kent’s. In one sense, though, “Six Fairy Tales” works better than “Genesis” as an exhibit. Crumb’s mass of illustrations for all 50 chapters of the book of Genesis were uniformly sized, without exception, making it all but impossible to create any sort of rhythm or variation in the installation: You read the walls exactly as you’d read the book the illustrations came from, except the prints on the walls were a little bigger. By contrast, the prints in “Six Fairy Tales” have a pleasing variation in size, allowing a little syncopation to the installation, and the cozier confines of the relatively low-ceilinged spaces in Maryhill’s special-exhibit galleries make the encounter a more intimate and involving experience.

“Old Rinkrank Threatens the Princess,” from —Old Rinkrank— in “Six Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm,” 1969, etching. © David Hockney. Used with permission.

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Also continuing through Nov. 15, and well worth taking the time to see, is “Gifts From Our Ancestors,” the result of work between Native American artists on the Washington and Oregon sides of the Columbia and Snake river system and about 2,000 schoolkids of varying ages. It’s in the museum’s nicely proportioned new education center, below the plaza, which allows both work and display space for the many students whose visits are such an important part of what the museum does. This exhibit shows off some very fine student work in a range of traditional media, and also offers a concise explanation of the Confluence Project, the ambitious geographical and historical art project among Columbia River Basin tribes, environmental artist Maya Lin, regional artists, architects, landscape designers and civic groups to create a 300-mile-long “story” of the river basin, concentrating on installations at six spots. One will be within eyeballing distance from Maryhill, downriver at Celilo Park, where Celilo Falls was the region’s chief native fishing and cultural center for thousands of years until 1957, when the switch was pulled on the engineering marvel that was The Dalles Dam and the ensuing flood of water engulfed the falls and turned the river into something like a lake. Lin, best known for her Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., will design a piece called the Celilo Arc to mark that history.

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Ceramics from the permanent collection and the view out the glass walls to the Columbia River Gorge below, from the new connecting galleries on the plaza level. Photo: BH

To anyone who’s spent time in the fascinating but technically antiquated and undeniably outgrown original museum building, the advantages of the new wing are obvious. Plainly put, the museum badly needed to expand – it was like a family with two bedrooms and four kids that needed to add a dormer to the back of the house – and the Stevenson Wing solves a huge number of problems. The Loie Fuller dance collection and the museum’s oddball yet marvelous collection of chess sets, for instance, breathe much more freely and naturally. The very good Rodin collection, one of the museum’s most significant attractions, gets the digs it deserves without the clatter of the coffee shop that had intruded on its space. A new small plaza-level gallery in a glassed-in connecting space that juts out toward the gorge offers various possibilities: right now you can see a display of ceramics from the permanent collection, along with a drop-dead view through the glass walls to the gorge and hills beyond.

A few people have criticized the project for not being bold enough or making a big architectural statement. I don’t agree. This was a practical project undertaken on an extremely tight budget in difficult economic times, and it had very specific goals. Lead architect Gene Callan of Portland’s GBD Architects made the right decision by keeping the lines clean and simple and low-slung. He didn’t try to hide that this is a contemporary addition. But he made sure it didn’t jockey for attention with Hill’s concrete house. The addition recognizes that the original mansion is the main visual attraction, and it does what it needs to do quietly and serenely. It provides some new gallery space, but not a lot: other needs were more pressing. Maryhill may well need more gallery space at some point. Right now, the new wing offers several elegant, even exciting touches, from its lovely plaza to its brashly cantilevered excursion into space that can leave you teetering, perfectly safely, over the edge of the cliff. Its simplicity and sense of scale make it work. This is what the museum could afford and sustain. It fits its site, does its job, provides some splendid views of the natural attractions that surround it, and delivers frankly much more than $10 million worth of service to the museum. It’s possible that someday a second large building will become both desirable and financially possible. If and when that happens, the museum has room to burn on its 5,300 acres of land.

In the meantime, a few small things could help. Most of them involve signage. The new walkways lead naturally toward the plaza, which is on a lower level than the main entrance, which remains up the long ramp that used to bring automobiles up to Sam Hill’s door and out the other side. Your eyes and feet naturally want to head down the easy slope to the plaza, not up the steep slope to the entrance, and once you discover you’re in the wrong place you need to either retrace your steps or walk up a steep and clumsy set of outdoor stairs. Better signage inside would help guide visitors more easily through the multi-floor maze of galleries, too.

One of the problems that Maryhill faces, given its isolation from large population centers, is how to get visitors to come back a second and third and fourth time. It’s a long trek from Portland, longer from Seattle or Spokane or Eugene, and people need a reason to return. In fact, Maryhill offers a decent selection of interesting temporary exhibits. But it’s tough to tell. Once you walk in the main entrance, the first-floor attractions are pretty much the same every time you visit. The Sam Hill memorabilia. The Queen Marie of Romania furniture and decorative objects and artwork. The little gift shop around the corner. The mostly undistinguished collection of mostly American and mostly 19th century paintings. Like it or not, the main floor is the face of the museum, and it basically never changes. “Six Fairy Tales” is an attractive show, and it happens to fit the confines of the special-exhibition galleries quite nicely. But those galleries remain tucked away and, for many visitors, either largely forgotten or never discovered on the main museum’s top floor. What’s different is also hidden. So, for that matter, are Rodin and Fuller and the chess sets and another of the museum’s greatest attractions, its significant collection of Native American art.

You can’t fit everything on the main floor, of course. But maybe it’s time to rethink what goes where. Could that 19th century painting collection, for instance, head up to the third floor, where visitors who are truly interested in it could peruse to their hearts’ content? Might the special-exhibition galleries move into their space, or even into the more forward galleries where the Hill memorabilia is now, with Sam shifting to the main-floor back galleries? The main space is pretty large, and devoted to Queen Marie. Might that collection, as charming as it is on first encounter, be consolidated a bit – might it even be made a little smaller, with some of its pieces moving in and out of rotation – to make room for some “teaser” pieces from the other collections? Given that the big main-floor gallery is the one that makes the big statement, might it be used in part to introduce the charms of the more hidden galleries? Might (a) the special exhibits at least sometimes be featured in the main-floor side galleries, and (b) part of the main space be used to lure visitors into the harder-to-reach galleries on other floors? A rotating piece from the Native American collection, perhaps, next to a single Rodin, next to a piece from (or even a good photograph of) one of the odd but beguiling Theatre de la Mode dioramas? Can this space be used to (a) show off what’s genuinely new and temporary, and (b) provide some rotating “movie trailers” to the coming attractions to be found deeper inside what remains, despite its improvements, a somewhat warrened and burrowed building? Those warrens and burrows provide a good deal of the museum’s charm. They also define a good deal of its problems. So: can Maryhill do a better job of packaging and selling what it has? Yes, I can hear the shouts of outrage: a museum isn’t a supermarket or an online retailer, and shouldn’t be tarted up and marketed like one. Still, if you have something to sell – and a museum experience at one level is a product that needs to be sold – you should do your best to sell it.  Or, as my Sunday school teacher put it many decades ago, Don’t hide your light under a bushel. You may file your protests against the crass commercialization of the art world now.

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Well, maybe so, maybe not. Still, the conversation’s worth having, even if the ideas turn out to be impractical or undesirable. In the meantime, Maryhill has collections that are genuinely worth seeing, and a modest but highly successful and much-needed expansion, and some spectacular views of the surrounding countryside, and, for just another couple of weeks, those intriguing Hockney prints. If you’re feeling adventurous, drive a little farther, just north of Goldendale, to the St. John the Forerunner Greek Orthodox Monastery for a little lunch and browse and maybe a take-home bag of baklava. Lots to do, lots to see, great drive, just a couple of weeks left. And that’s no fairy tale.

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NOTES:

D.K. Row wrote extensively for The Oregonian on Maryhill and the Stevenson Wing shortly before it opened in spring 2012.

In August 2011 I wrote about the museum’s expansion project during construction, also for The Oregonian.

In May 2012, William Yardley wrote for The New York Times about the museum, the new wing, and the wind power that helps pay museum’s bills.

 

 

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