What might you miss if you don’t take a tour of “Portraiture from the Collection of Northwest Art” during your next visit to the Portland Art Museum (PAM)? Many clues to the minor histories of modern and contemporary art in the American Northwest––which might otherwise go undiscovered––are scattered throughout this tidy collection of artworks. The exhibition is curated by Grace Kook-Anderson, PAM’s Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Curator of Northwest Art, and Storm Tharp (b. 1970), a celebrated, Portland-based contemporary artist whose practice lays quiet siege to the conventions of portraiture and still-life painting. One of Tharp’s own portraits from the museum’s permanent collection is included in the exhibit: Einstein, 2007, confronts viewers with a bricolage of media, representational strategies, and signifiers, which break apart just as quickly as they cohere before our eyes.
“Portraiture from the Collection of Northwest Art” does many things well. In featuring at least one work in the genre from just about every decade of the 20th century, it provides a worthwhile opportunity to gage the influence which international aesthetic movements held over a small group of portraitists, who made their lives in Oregon and California. Men outnumber women two-to-one among the artists featured on the gallery walls, but taken together, their identities span several socioeconomic and racial groups. It must be said, however, that the majority are white, and college educated.
The exhibit does not contain any artworks made before the 20th Century, advancing a history of portraiture in the Northwest which begins long after its colonization by Europeans. This could be because of limitations of space, or an effort made by Kook-Anderson and Tharp to supply visitors with a historically “focused” exhibition, or a consequence of their unwillingness to ascribe a rigid idea of genre that has been coopted by Eurocentric aesthetic traditions to Indigenous works of art and craft.
Rick Bartow (1946–2016), a member of the Mad River band of the Wiyot Tribe, is to my knowledge, the only contemporary Native American artist whose work is included here. Bartow’s After the Fall III, 1975/2006, is a small, roughly molded, painted clay mask that depicts a nonspecific human face. Its surface bears an uncanny resemblance to burnt flesh or rubber, and its half-open mouth is colored by a lively rouge. Despite its modest size, Bartow’s sculpture contributes much to the discussion of portraiture as a genre: How do we distinguish between a mask and a portrait, and what does the challenge of locating the conceptual line which divides the two have to teach us about simulacra and performance, and their shared sources of power?
An ethos of understatement pervades the exhibit as a whole, which is confined to a compact, often neglected series of galleries on the museum’s 3rd floor. Many of the paintings produced before the Second World War are rendered in muted earth tones and fall squarely under the aegis of Realism. Did the artists responsible deliberately snub the new styles of artmaking––such as Fauvism and Surrealism––which vied for prestige on the European stage during the first half of the 20th century? Perhaps, but then again, maybe Oregonians were slow on the uptake, separated as they were from Paris and New York by so much land and ocean. You can practically see these distances shrink in proportion to the expansion of telecommunication, commercial aviation, and cultural globalization during the second half of the century, as the artists adopt more varied styles and modes of composition. Louis Bunce (1907–1983), for example, would later swap the straightforward verisimilitude of his 1932 self-portrait, for successful experimentation with a variety of styles, including Cubism and Abstract Expressionism, over the course of his decades-long career.
Artists such as Bunce, Bartow, and more recently, Tharp himself, have occasionally achieved a kind of celebrity status in Oregon’s fine art scene. Others in the exhibit, such as Patrick Abbey (b. 1971)––whose signature is borne by a wonderfully textured portrait of a middle-aged man seated in his blue stocking feet against a darkened wall––verge on being un-Googleable. And yet, bygone histories are scrawled between the lines of even the most pedestrian portraits in the exhibit, and their inclusion seems decidedly intentional.
Take Abbey’s portrait: titled William Jamison, 1995, the painting depicts a gallery owner from the early days of Portland’s commercial art scene. The titular sitter (1945–1995) founded Folkcraft Gallery, a fixture of the 1980s Pearl District that sold imported craft goods from around the world, peddling a view of art that was both inclusive and highly mercantile. In 1985, Folkcraft Gallery rebranded itself as Jamison/Thomas Gallery, taking on a former employee named Jeffrey Thomas as a full partner. Together, Thomas and Jamison championed work by emerging and self-taught artists, and even expanded to New York City’s West Village in 1986. Thomas remains a dynamic presence in Portland’s art scene, but Jamison died tragically from AIDS-related complications the same year that Abbey captured his likeness in paint. Few of the museum goers who pass by Jamison’s portrait are likely to understand it as a touching (if unintended) elegy to one of the Portland gallery scene’s early progenitors, but they may nonetheless be arrested by the rich, muddled hues of Abbey’s ground, or his charming rendering of Jamison’s right hand clasping his left wrist.
What other darlings from PAM’s permanent collection are gathered here for our enjoyment? The dulcet plasticity of Bue Kee’s (1893–1985) self-portrait from 1930 frankly stuns. Kee was a multidisciplinary, Chinese American artist, who received commissions from Roosevelt’s WPA to create ceramic sculptures for Timberline Lodge and the Tongue Point Naval Air Station. As the museum’s wall-text notes, Kee was severely hearing-impaired. This personal detail finds an echo in another self-portrait, painted 18 years later by Amanda Snyder (1894–1980), and hung on an adjacent wall. Snyder suffered from Ménière’s disease, an inner ear disorder that can induce vertigo, tinnitus, and hearing loss (a fact which is also cited on a museum plaque). Snyder depicts herself as if she were outside gazing through a windowpane at a clamorous parlor or kitchen scene transpiring indoors. Her pose and mien hint at the profound sense of isolation that those who suffer from invisible diseases and disabilities may experience. Tharp and Kook-Anderson no doubt took pains in their curation of the exhibit to underscore the incidental, uncanny, and interpersonal connections such as this, which exist among so many artists of the American Northwest.
“Portraiture from the Collection of Northwest Art” is on view at the Portland Art Museum through Spring of 2022.