On a recent Saturday afternoon I dropped in to the Portland Art Museum and immediately encountered a crowd at the entrance, lined up waiting to get in. That’s odd, I thought. Nice, but odd. Then I heard a bit of chatter in line, and remembered: the cars. It was prime visiting time for the museum’s megashow of slick beauties, The Shape of Speed: Streamlined Automobiles and Motorcycles, 1930-1942, and the traffic was still lively and thick.
It wasn’t quite like working your way around a pileup of tourists snapping selfies with the Mona Lisa, but once I threaded through the Bugattis and Talbot-Lago Teardrop Coupes and Chrysler Imperial Airflows things thinned out a bit to a nice steady pace. It was the first weekend day after the August heat wave had broken and the forest-fire smoke had begun to lift, and people were beginning to get out and about again: It felt as if a good chunk of the car crowd had peeled off to see what else there was to discover in the museum.
There are at least a couple of ways to go about visiting a museum. If it’s a new museum to you, sometimes the best thing to do is just to wander around and see what you find: Let serendipity be your guide, at least at the start. If it’s a museum you’re familiar with, your visits are probably more targeted: to see a special exhibition, for instance. At the Portland Art Museum right now, that might mean taking a last whack at the splendid show of early Richard Diebenkorns, arranged by the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento and hanging around Portland through Sept. 23. (The door-busting Shape of Speed ended Sunday.)
Or you might go to check in on some old favorites in the permanent collections. Special exhibitions serve a lot of purposes besides selling tickets. They can fill in gaps in a museum’s collection, or capture an important social or historic moment, or expand on strengths a museum already has. And they can get people interested in a museum, and its art, and encourage them to become regular visitors. But you can find the soul of most museums in their permanent collections, and how they’re displayed and rotated, and the way they allow people to visit over and over again, getting to know specific pieces or collections, or finding something new they hadn’t noticed before. This is where the Deep Museum exists.
I had headed down that afternoon partly to take another look at an old friend and fascination, Philip Guston’s small untitled 1969 painting of a hooded Klan-like figure with its huge hand pointed at a blood-red smudge and a rope dangling from the top of the frame. At once beautiful and deeply disturbing, it provides the sort of question mark our contemporary times seem to be posing, and I felt like contemplating it again.
BUT THE GUSTON WASN’T on display: It had been taken out of rotation. And at any rate I’d stopped beforehand at Michael Parsons Fine Art, the small gallery just about a block and a half from the museum, and my visit there shifted my priorities. Walk in the front door at Parsons and you find yourself immediately perched beneath a long Louis Bunce on one side and a Mike Russo on the other, with an Amanda Snyder at eye level a few steps in and a small shiny Rene Rickabaugh, its frame gorgeously and meticulously decorated so it becomes part of the painting, hanging above the desk. “It’s really light, too,” Parsons says of the Rickabaugh frame. “Papier-mâché.”
Parsons’ five-year-old gallery is devoted to historical art of Oregon and the Northwest, with some contemporary work as well: It’s a place that embraces what was, and the continuing impact of what was on what is. A lot of contemporary-art followers might look on it as an old curiosity shop, but the curiosities of the past are the building blocks of the present. And a lot of the names of the artists whose work is here are familiar to anyone with even a passing knowledge of Oregon art history, from the 19th century to the near-present: There’s a Michael Brophy nudging up close to the Russo on the wall, too. You can get a sense of the territory as early artists saw it: an 1884 painting of Mt. Rainier by James Everett Stuart, for instance, or a 1945 seascape near Depoe Bay by Peter Winthrop Sheffers, a traditional work that tiptoes into more modernist waters with its horizontal strips of paint. The gallery’s main show right now features the early Oregon impressionist painter and printmaker Melville T. Wire (1877-1966), who balanced a long career as a Methodist minister with trips around Oregon, from desert to valley, to paint the lonely places that he saw and loved.
SO AFTER SEEKING AND NOT FINDING Guston once I’d moved on to the museum, I decided to take another walk through Picturing Oregon, the central attraction right now in PAM’s Northwest galleries. There, in a spacious installation of thirty-plus paintings and a wall of large photographic prints, I found works by several of the same painters I’d just seen at Parsons, and quite a bit more. Wire, the Methodist minister, is here, with Meeks, Oregon, a small 1929 oil, not quite a foot wide, of an Eastern Oregon desert scene (and roughly the territory of the 2010 movie Meek’s Cutoff) – astonishing really, to give a sense of such a wide-open landscape in such a small frame.
So, too, are the always interesting Amanda Snyder, with a large oil-on-wood forest scene from about 1970 that’s more dense and closer to abstract but reminiscent of some of Gustav Klimt’s linear tangles of birch trees; and the restlessly inventive Oregon abstractionist Bunce with his 1948 oil on paperboard Seal Rock, a piece that hovers, like so much of his art, somewhere between pure form and an intense evocation of physical space; and Brophy, with a painting capable of sucking the air out of a room, the theatrical and unsentimental and very large 1995 oil Harvest, a scene of a cloud-scudded fresh clear-cut littered with stumps, a lone bird of prey flying over the devastation.
The installation is divided into several geographical sections: the Willamette Valley, Mt. Hood and the Columbia Gorge, Central Oregon, Southern Oregon, the Coast, Eastern Oregon, Greater Portland. All of the works are drawn from the museum’s collections, including the iconic Childe Hassam Afternoon Sky, Harney Desert, the spare and bright 1908 landscape that was the first painting the museum bought, shortly after it was completed, and a painting that ordinarily holds pride of place in the museum’s American galleries. The oldest is William Samuel Parrott’s ca. 1885 postcard-handsome view of Mt. Hood, a pristine vision with no sign of intruding civilization. The most recent is Roll Hardy’s long, lean, and compelling 2006 strip of a painting Pirate Town, a sparse chilly industrial scene of a no-nonsense working place by the river, where the land is to be used, not looked at. Hardy’s painting, and Brophy’s, move beyond the romanticism of the early landscape painters, who saw an empty paradise, and toward a more calculated contemporary vision of nature and humans embedded, and how each influences the other. Taken together the installation’s works give a clear sense of the geography of Oregon, the history of painting in the state, and the astonishing pull that the land itself continues to have on artists.
A COUPLE OF WEEKS LATER I returned to the museum and sat down for coffee with Grace Kook-Anderson, the Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Curator of Northwest Art, who assembled Picturing Oregon. The installation has been up a little over a year – it opened August 19, 2017 – and will stay up almost another year, through August 2019. It’s Kook-Anderson’s first major installation since arriving at the museum from California in January 2017, just a few months before Picturing Oregon debuted – months in which she familiarized herself with the museum collections, and also with the territory of her new home. “This first one is perfect in a way, because it’s learning the terrain,” she said. “I wanted to look at, what are the hits of the landscape in our collection? It’s been kind of a way to learn the collection, really.”
It’s proving also to be an excellent way for new visitors to learn the collection, or this slice of it, and for museum regulars to refresh their understanding of Oregon’s brief but fascinating artistic history of coming to terms with the land. The celebrated relationship between Hassam, the prominent American impressionist, and the polymath C.E.S. Wood – who besides being a lawyer and painter and civic leader who hobnobbed with the likes of Mark Twain and Emma Goldman and Charlie Chaplin and Langston Hughes was one of the founders of the Portland Art Museum and came up with the idea for the Portland Rose Festival – is prominent in Kook-Anderson’s selections. Wood’s own 1908 Harney Desert landscape, painted when he and Hassam went to the desert together, is included, along with a 1906 Snake River scene, and a 1912 Steens Mountains landscape, bright and dry and billowy. Hassam, who was born in Boston, liked to visit Oregon, and besides Afternoon Sky he has a 1904 scene along the Snake River, a 1908 view of Mt. Hood, and a 1908 view of Catlow Valley in the remote southeast part of the state. “I have to say, the Eastern Oregon is my favorite” section of the installation, Kook-Anderson said.
There are also excellent pieces from other regions. Among my favorites are Carl Hall’s 1949 oil Coast Rhythms, a scene of a rocky shoreline that is both undulating and jagged, with a geological thrust that you can almost smell; Charles C. McKim’s 1910 view of Cascade Head, in an elusive flit of light and color reminiscent of the French neoimpressionist Henri-Edmond Cross; and Arthur Runquist’s chilly and moody and briskly charming ca. 1950 oil on paper Fishing from the Rocks, which hangs next to his brother Albert’s Northwest Wind, a ca. 1942 oil that seems to capture the enveloping speed and action of a thing unseen. From Hassam the visitor to the almost lifelong Oregonian Charles Heaney, the paintings in this collection are at once regionalist and aware of the larger art world: the curves and thrusts of Heaney’s rambling, undulating 1939 Hills, John Day Country seem a bit like what Grant Wood might’ve done if he’d lived in Oregon and not Iowa.
Photographs and works on paper do not take well to prolonged exposure to gallery lighting, and Kook-Anderson rotates the photographic section of Picturing Oregon to preserve the prints. Works by the masterful Myra Albert Wiggins (born in Salem in 1869) and Lily White (born in Oregon City in 1866), for instance, have already come and gone. In rotation now are several more contemporary prints from Eastern Oregon, by Drex Brooks, including a terrific black and white image of a group kicking back in a desert hot springs, Rick, Barb, Jackie, and Michelle at Hot Springs – Juntura, Oregon. Bubble up.
Kook-Anderson is beginning to think of what comes next. She’s planning a solo focus on the Portland contemporary urban African American painter Isaka Shamsud-Din. And faces are on her mind: “I want to put a more contemporary twist on it, so I’ve asked (Portland artist) Storm Tharp to go through the collection with me. We have some great portraits in our collection.”
Until then, the land rules. And it’s a good place to be.
AMONG THE MANY THINGS I LIKE about Picturing Oregon is how well it plays with others. The installation seems bigger than it is because it flows naturally into nearby galleries that seem in many ways to expand and extend its themes. Acting so much like a doorway to Picturing Oregon that it could be a part of it is The Art and Artistic Community of Lillian Pitt, an installation organized by Deana Dartt, the museum’s former curator of Native American art. The juxtaposition is apropos in many ways. First, Pitt, who is Warm Springs, Wasco, and Yakama, is a central figure among contemporary native artists in the Northwest, a deeply admired gatherer and inspirer of artists and ideas. Second, her art, and that of her friends, is directly connected to the land in ways that predate and are often fundamentally different from the connections that European-tradition artists have had. Third, the story of art in the Northwest simply can’t be told without the art of the region’s original inhabitants. This is where it begins, and where a vital and compelling strand of it continues.
You are greeted at the gallery by Pitt’s 2009 lead crystal and copper sculpture She Who Watches, depicting the great Columbia River petroglyph Tsagaglalal, a being whose image and story Pitt has been central in bringing back to prominence. Visible behind are a Wasco totem by Pitt and a series of connected abstract landscapes by James Lavadour (Walla Walla). The installation includes prints and multimedia masks by Pitt, and does not stint on work by her friends. In addition to Lavadour it includes such vivid images as Give Me Back My Father, a 2009 acrylic painting by the late Rick Bartow (Wyot), and the haunting stare of the 2011 close-up oil portrait After Boarding School: In Mourning, by Kaila Farrell-Smith (Klamath, Modoc). Such works are not only of the land, but also of the buried history of it, and the determination to tell it true.
IN A STRING OF EXPANSIVE GALLERIES to the side of Picturing Oregon and opening onto it is a collection of works, by five Oregon modernist women artists, that tie in easily, perhaps most naturally the sculptures of Hilda Morris and Bonnie Bronson, which seem shaped directly from the land. They are abstract yet so profoundly physical that you almost feel you might bump into them on a hike in craggy terrain. “That’s one of the things that immediately resonated with me in the collection,” Kook-Anderson said of the works by Morris, Bronson, Mary Henry, Sally Haley, and Maude Kerns, each an artist who made her career when being a woman artist was not an easy thing to do. “They all had such interesting biographies of how they carved out time to make their art.”
Henry’s hot and minimal 1977 Apollo’s Trip might be an abstracted landscape from the desert; Kerns’s 1943 Composition #22, Sharpness, a Klee-like imaginary landscape of subtly anthropomorphic geometric shapes, is sly and clever and pleasurably buoyant. At some point on your ramble through these connected galleries you realize that something’s changed; you’re not quite in the same territory anymore. But it really doesn’t matter. The shift was gradual, and the scenery’s fine.