Salem’s Hallie Ford Museum of Art has become such an important fixture in Oregon’s visual arts world that it’s a bit of a shock to realize it’s only 25 years old. In that time the museum, part of Willamette University, has built itself into an innovative space for Northwest art, from contemporary and historical Indigenous artworks to a home for serious exploration of the artists and trends that make up the elusive, ever-shifting “style” of art in the Northwest.
A pair of current exhibitions underscore the museum’s commitment to recording and revealing Northwest artistic history in the making. Both are fascinating expressions of the lively variety of artistic impulses, including the regional importance of craft in art, that have imprinted themselves like tattoos on the idea of contemporary Oregon art.
Tom Prochaska: Music for Ghosts, on display through Aug. 26, explores the significant and surprising variety of work by a still-active artist who’s been creating work in Portland since the late 1970s, from prints to paintings to kiln-formed glass to some wonderfully conceived papier maché sculptures.
Jim Hibbard: Back in View, on display through Aug. 12, is a fascinating revival of attention to the work of a once-prominent Portland master printmaker and cofounder of the still thriving artist-run Blackfish Gallery who largely fell off the local map after retiring from a teaching gig more than 30 years ago and moving to Mexico.
Tom Prochaska’s lively ghosts
Left: Tom Prochaska, “You Know Who,” 1993, monotype. Right: Tom Prochaska, “Boy with Accordion,” 2017, oil on panel. Both courtesy of the artist and Froelick Gallery.
THE PLEASURES IN MUSIC FOR GHOSTS spring both from familiarity and surprise. Spreading from the museum’s large first-floor foyer to its expansive main special-exhibit galleries, it amounts to something of a 40-year retrospective for Prochaska, who was born in 1945. Expertly selected by curator Jonathan Bucci and installed with a vivid and playful sense of contrasts, it speaks eloquently to a life well-led in the fertile fields of art and craft.
I’ve long been aware of Prochaska’s successful career as a printmaker, creating smudgy, sort-of-figurative, usually black-and-white images that are easily recognizable but also containing a pleasing variety. And I’ve known, to a lesser degree, his work as a painter of works in which color often comes more into play. The big surprise for me in this show is the considerable number of quite wonderful papier-maché figurative sculptures, which vary from quite small to not quite life-size, and which occupy a transitional territory between comedy and tragedy, or perhaps simply eloquent expression of the complex state of humankind.
“My work continues to be connected to the human form and psyche,” Prochaska writes in his artist’s statement for the show. “The figure is my point of reference — whether the source is my diary, my memory, my fantasy, or drawn from life … As free and open as that sounds, I know I’m tied to the spirit of Goya, James Ensor, Callot, and the compositions of Courbet and Manet. I have looked at art, taught and educated myself. In my early searches, while living in Georgia, the figure was more that of an animal: a dog or a pig. Perhaps I fancied my friends and myself as primitive, raw forces. As the years progress, the figure has matured into a more complete, complex being. Now it dances through relationships, introspection, violence, guilt, and fear. As my experiences, craft, composition, and formal qualities have matured, I hope (and I know) that the figurative surprises and little miracles have grown older, stranger, and richer.”
In other words: wonderfully, terrifyingly, human.
Left: Tom Prochaska, “Circus Magic,” 2003, kiln-formed glass, 40 x 24 inches, collection of Bullseye Glass Company. Right: “Hollow Stick,” 1999, etching, 8 x 6 inches, collection of Hallie Ford Museum of Art, gift of James Archer.
Like many artists in Oregon, Prochaska arrived in the Northwest circuitously, from a variety of previous stops. And like a lot of other Oregon artists, his route was a combination of the conventional and unconventional. He was born in Chicago, curator Bucci writes in his essay for the exhibit’s soon-to-be-available catalog, grew up in nearby Des Plaines, and went to the University of Wisconsin, where he studied printmaking with the excellent Warrington Colescott, Robert Colescott’s older brother.
He then went to the Pratt Institute, in Brooklyn, and immersed himself in the resurgent printmaking scene, working in several fine-art print shops and learning from master crafters. Moving to Switzerland, he worked and learned again in a fine print studio, Atelier de Saint-Prex. After a couple of academic teaching stops back in the U.S. he wound up in Portland, and eventually taught at Pacific Northwest College of Art from 1988 until he retired in 2012.
He also was active in those early years as mostly a printmaker on the Portland art scene, establishing the old Inkling Studio co-op with fellow artist Liza Jones, and, less conventionally, setting up shop at Portland’s then-young Saturday Market, selling prints of fish (a few of those prints line a wall in the Hallie Ford show) and even having them printed on T-shirts to sell at the market.
Printmaking is a demanding art form, requiring a high degree of craftsmanship and attention to detail, plus, if you’re going to be truly good at it, an ability to project spontaneity and surprise in a medium that demands a careful step-by-step process and can seem, as a result, highly formalistic. To bring swiftness and movement to a print is a matter of balancing skill and imagination, and is not easily mastered.
Prochaska has managed it, and although his work expanded to oil and acrylic painting, sculpture, and even fused glass, calling on both tradition and a contemporary sense of openness to the life around him, the magic of the printing press lay beneath it all. The paintings often took on a free-flowing and more colorful countenance; the sculptures gave three-dimensional form to the figures that in almost all of his work were not quite fully formed but ambiguous; tentative around the edges; deeply feeling yet elusive question marks: little stories with unfinished endings.
The making of lines is essential to the art of printmaking. Prochaska has mastered the line by obscuring it, giving it a scrawling edge, smudging it to make it more mysterious (yes, maybe even a bit “ghostly”) yet also rendering it with a firm vitality that takes it into areas of not-quite-there. As expertly formed as they are, these lines seem to shrink away from the urge to seal in ideas or emotions with firm borders. The world leaks, they seem to imply: It’s messier than that.
Rediscovering Jim Hibbard
UNLIKE PROCHASKA’S SMUDGY LINES, Jim Hibbard’s are as sharp and clear and clean-cutting as the just-honed edge of a chef’s knife. He, too, is a master of the printed line, but in a completely different way. His lines are sometimes minimal, creating vivid shapes out of a seeming void, and sometimes (as in Edge of the Sea. Night, above) piled one upon another in a mad scramble, stuffing a universe of shapes and observations and juxtapositions onto a small sheet of paper.
Left: Jim Hibbard, “Coffered Heads,” 1981, watercolor and gouache on paper, 29 x 21.25 inches. Photo: Dale Peterson. Right: Jim Hibbard, untitled, no date; small electrical part on cast plaster block, 5.875 x 4.25 x 1.25 inches. Both courtesy of the artist’s estate.
Hibbard, who was born in 1936 and died in 2022, was of a slightly older generation than Prochaska, and perhaps also more comfortable with the formalities of modernism. You get the sense, walking through Jim Hibbard: Back in View in the Hallie Ford’s upstairs Study Gallery and Print Study Center, that each of his prints was a little experiment in design: less involved with the question marks of humanity, more involved with the natural patterns of the world.
The Hallie Ford exhibit is called Back in View for good reason: It represents a revival of attention for Hibbard, an artist who taught printmaking to emerging artists at Portland State University for many years but after moving to Mexico had fallen largely out of view in Oregon.
Left: Jim Hibbard, Untitled, no date; proof; etching and chine collé on paper, 26.5 x 20 inches. Right: Jim Hibbard, “Machines and Channels,” 1988, edition 13/16, lithograph on paper, image 19.75 x 13.5 inches; printed at North Light Editions, Master Printer Myrna Burks. Both courtesy of the arist’s estate. Photo: Dale Peterson
“Hibbard was an important figure in the Portland art world as a co-founder of Blackfish Gallery, a teacher of printmaking at Portland State University for 24 years, and a founding member of Print Arts Northwest,” Christy Wyckoff, the exhibit’s curator, said. “But when he retired from PSU in 1991 and moved to Guanajuato with his wife, Jenny, he effectively dropped out of sight in Portland.”
Wyckoff, a distinguished veteran Portland artist in his own right who for many years chaired the printmaking department at Pacific Northwest College of Art, added that the exhibit “pays special attention to the work that he produced in Mexico while including earlier work from his Portland years.”
Hibbard could have a delicate sense of color and its effect on shape, as in his 1982 watercolor and pencil piece Ancient City, a study in almost hieroglyphic pastels. And sometimes he used color almost brawlingly, as in his untitled etching at left above (next to his lithograph Machines and Channels), with its punch of red, its golds and yellows, its hints of pink and purple, and its single smear of blue. Based on the works in this show, he was attracted to the forms of simple natural and human-made shapes, such as pristine tree leaves, or hieroglyphic symbols, as in 18 Glyphs, Light Gray, above.
And he could turn flesh-and-blood creatures into studies in almost pure form, leaving them lurking and ready to be found amid a welter of lines, little puzzles at play, a bit like finding Waldo. Horses in particular seemed to appeal to him, as in the now-you-see-it now-you-don’t engraving Jerusalem, above. It’s almost like a mirror image of Hibbard and his Portland disappearing act: For more than 30 years we didn’t see him; now we do. The reintroduction, as it turns out, is a good thing.
A quick visit to the permanent collections
Left: Sara Siestreem, “tl’exech (winnowing basket),” 2014-17; spruce root, huckleberry, and mud dye; Hallie Ford Museum of Art, the George and Colleen Hoyt Weaving Acquisition Fund. Right: George Rodriguez, “Dreamer,” 2017, Hallie Ford Museum of Art, stoneware with glaze, the Maribeth Collins Art Acquisition Fund.
WHENEVER I VISIT THE HALLIE FORD I like to pop in for a few minutes to a couple of its permanent exhibitions — Ancestral Dialogues: Conversations in Native American Art, in the upstairs Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Gallery, and Northwest Perspectives: Selections from the Permanent Collection, in the main-floor Carl Hall Gallery — to revisit a few old favorites or see what might stick out as somehow echoing or being in conversation with the art in the temporary exhibits.
On this trip I found two, both in the Carl Hall Gallery, a small treasure chest of mostly Northwest historical and contemporary works. Both struck me because, like Prochaska’s and Hibbard’s art, they seem to be traditional and contemporary at the same time — timeless, in a sense — and both approach what they do with exquisite craftsmanship.
Sara Siestreem (Hanis Coos) has a thriving career creating paintings that reflect traditional cultural images in contemporary terms. She also works in purely traditional basketry, making pieces as close a possible to the ways they’ve been made for centuries, gathering natural materials and dyes and weaving them. Her 2014-17 weaving tl’exech (winnowing basket), made of spruce root, huckleberry, and mud dye, has in addition to its practical use that enduring quality of the well-crafted object, the sense of being at the magical point where ancient and modern meet and join.
And George Rodriguez’ 2017 glazed-stoneware figure Dreamer, although stylistically different from Prochaska’s papier-maché figures, shares with them a devotion to craft, a precarious balance between character and caricature, and a sense of human mystery: What are this graduation-dressed dreamer’s dreams? Is that expression a hope or a worry or a frown, or some complex combination of them all? What will happen beyond the crossroads of this moment in which he’s frozen? How can he seem so contemporary and so eternal at once?
Art talks to art, and invites us in to join the conversation.
- “Tom Prochaska: Music for Ghosts,” through Aug. 26, 2023
- “Jim Hibbard: Back in View,” through Aug. 12, 2023
- Address: 700 State St., Salem
- Open: Noon-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; closed Sundays-Mondays
- Admission: $8 general, $5 ages 55 and up, free for ages 17 and younger, and for educators and stuents 18+ with I.D.
- Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts Biennial. Prints by Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists from the renowned art center on the Umatilla Reservation near Pendleton. Aug. 26-Dec. 2, 2023.
- The Hallie Ford Museum of Art: Highlights from the Permanent Collection. A celebration of the museum’s first quarter-century. Sept. 19-Dec. 16, 2023.