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News & Notes: Arvie Smith gets a Guggenheim

The Portland artist's paintings are steeped in American pop-cultural images and deal satirically with race relations. Plus: Hannah Krafcik's "Gender Deconstruction"; Portland arts tax due.

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Arvie Smith, “Fact Checker,” 2019, oil on canvas, 72 by 60 inches.

Arvie Smith, one of Oregon’s best and most prominent painters, has been named a 2024 Guggenheim Fellow, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation announced Thursday. Smith is one of this year’s 188 fellowship winners, in 52 disciplines ranging broadly from mathematics to environmental science to genetics to writing and a range of artistic fields.

Smith is one of 50 artists in this year’s class. His award was underwritten by the actor Robert De Niro in honor of his father, the painter Robert De Niro Sr., who was a Guggenheim Fellow in 1968. This year’s fellows were chosen from among more than 3,000 applicants.

Smith’s brightly colored, intimately detailed paintings are steeped in American pop-cultural images and deal with race relations, often searingly, and always with a satiric thrust. They can seem playfully inviting, even humorous, inviting viewers in and then, on closer examination, delivering an almost ribald fierceness – a scabrous, funny, lush, and somehow lovingly satiric vision pocked with vulgar and uncomfortable images from American history. Echoes of minstrelsy find their way into his paintings, from Aunt Jemima to Little Black Sambo to Bojangles to Mickey Mouse.

Portland artist Arvie Smith. Photo: K.B. Dixon, 2019.

Smith’s paintings can play with time, too, and the comfortable mistaken notion that racism in America is largely a thing of the past. His 1992 painting Strange Fruit — the same title as Billie Holiday’s signature song about a Southern lynching — depicts in brutal terms the lynching of a Black man by a gang of Ku Klux Klansmen, and at first it seems like a historical reminder. But beneath the robe of one of the Klansmen a pair of very contemporary, everyday casual athletic shoes sticks out, catapulting the time frame on beyond Michael Jordan and into the contemporary world.

“To take in any one of the 26 paintings in Arvie Smith: Scarecrow is to confront a visually bold and audacious potpourri of imagery that is alternately beautiful and horrifying, and sometimes even buoyant and whimsical, as it unpacks the legacy of slavery and racism in the United States,” ArtsWatch’s David Bates wrote of a 2022 exhibition of Smith’s paintings at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem.

Bates continued, quoting Smith on his 2019 painting Fact Checker, shown above: “’I can’t just go into the studio and spit in the wind,’ Smith says in the catalog’s discussion of Fact Checker, in which ‘a cacophony of institutional abjections’ is presided over by the painting’s central image: Adam and Eve. The 72-by-60-inch 2019 oil features dozens of images crammed together, including two former American presidents. The world’s first parents are flanked in the top corners by Abraham Lincoln slapping a slave on the left and Donald Trump, depicted as a clown trapeze artist, on the right. ‘I have some narrative I’m trying to get across,’ Smith says. ‘Sometimes I try to fit in quite a few narratives in one piece. Someone described my work as ‘crowded canvases’ — well, they’re crowded with ideas.’”

Smith has also been the recipient of an Oregon Governor’s Arts Award in 2017 and a 2022 Hallie Ford Fellowship, and in 2022 he had an auxiliary exhibition at the Venice Biennale.

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The Guggenheim’s announcement said the awards are meant to “further the development of scholars and artists by assisting them to engage in research in any field of knowledge and creation in any of the arts, under the freest possible conditions.” It did not release this year’s monetary amounts. A report in ArtNews said that in previous years fellows have been awarded between $30,000 and $45,000.

Hannah Krafcik’s “Gender Deconstruction”

Selfie photograph by Hannah Krafcik, author and photographer of the ArtsWatch “Deconstructing Gender” series, which is now an exhibit at Friendly House through May.

A year ago, in March 2023, dance artist and ArtsWatch writer Hannah Krafcik embarked on an ambitious project: to interview and photograph a variety of gender nonconforming Oregonians, listen to their stories, and relate them for readers. The project became a 10-part ArtsWatch series, Gender Deconstruction, which you can read here.

“In developing stories for Gender Deconstruction, I strive to remain an open conduit for whatever my interviewees want to share,” Krafic wrote in their initial story. “Trans and gender-nonconforming individuals continue to be policed, denied proper care, and robbed of body autonomy. It is dangerous to be gender nonconforming, to be out and to transition—especially for People of Color as well as Disabled and transfeminine folks. And so the interviewees of these stories do not owe any explanation of their gender experience by agreeing to participate in this project.”

Over the course of 10 months Krafcik met with, photographed, and related the stories of people ranging from actor Treasure Lunan to video game designer Olive Marion Gabriel Joseph Wick Perry, dance teacher and Contact Improvisation devotee Carolyn Stuart, and others.

Now the fruits of Krafcik’s labor, and the stories they learned, are gathered together in a photo exhibition that continues through May at the nonprofit community center and social service agency Friendly House, 2617 N.W. Savier St., Portland. The center is open daily except Sundays.

A zine of the project, designed by Wesley Muller, one of the co-Founders of Berm Magazine, is also available for free at Friendly House. 

Portland Arts Tax Deadline

The City of Portland has sent a reminder to city residents: The $35 city arts tax is due by Monday, April 15. The annual tax, which largely funds arts programs in Portland area schools and also helps underwrite local arts organizations, was approved by city voters 10 years ago and has raised more than $124 million since.

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Payment can be made online here or in a variety of other ways detailed here.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."

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