Sketching ‘Volcano!’ at the museum

ArtsWatch Weekly: Big crowds & small artists take in the Portland Art Museum's big boom, March's new art & dance, a fresh film fest

ON SATURDAY I DROPPED BY THE PORTLAND ART MUSEUM to spend a little quality time with Volcano!, the sprawling exhibit designed to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the eruption of Mt. St. Helens. (The mountaintop blasted sky-high on May 18, 1980; the museum’s show closes on May 17, a day before the anniversary.) On a rainy afternoon the place was packed with curious or nostalgic visitors. Some came to revisit their experiences of one of the most memorable days in modern Pacific Northwest history. Some came eager to learn a little more about a cataclysmic event they didn’t live through themselves but knew was a Really Big Deal. And most seemed engaged: The crowd wasn’t just walking through quickly with a glance here and a glance there – people were studying the paintings and photographs, sometimes doubling back to take a closer look at something they’d already seen. One way or another, this show seemed a part of their lives.

Lucinda Parker, “The Seething Saint,” 2019, acrylic on canvas, in the exhibition “Volcano!” at the Portland Art Museum. Courtesy Lucinda Parker and Russo Lee Gallery

I’ll write much more about the exhibit later. But on Saturday I was delighted to see a lineup of elementary-school-age kids sitting with sketchpads on their laps, staring up at a wall-sized photograph of the mountain in full explosion. They were looking and drawing, taking in the almost unthinkable magnitude of the thing and forming their own impressions of it with quick flurries of their pencils. Seeing something vast, reassembling it in their minds, and creating.

People with sketchpads or even easels used to be not uncommon sights in art museums, where the practice of copying the masters was considered one of the best ways to learn technique. It doesn’t happen much anymore. Maybe the proliferation of easy-to-find digital online images has something to do with that. Maybe the fear of being stuck in the past, of not being original but a mere copyist, factors in.

There are copyists, of course, and it’s a not insignificant skill – a craft built on an art built on both tradition and innovation. In 1999 I traveled to Russia to report on the making of a sprawling exhibition that opened the following January at the Portland museum, based on the rich collections of the Stroganoff dynasty over several centuries. Walking one day through the upper spaces of the old Stroganoff Palace in St. Petersburg I suddenly felt as if I’d stumbled onto a workshop in Renaissance Florence. Splattered canvas splayed out on the floors. Soft light streamed through the tall arched windows. A wondrous industriousness filled the gallery as a chorus of painted angels gathered for flight. Young art copiers, cloaked in long white smocks, were patiently reproducing these grand-scale angels in oil, reinventing the forms and methods of an ornate style several centuries old. The meticulous copies were destined to hang in the grand Kazan Cathedral; the originals to return home to the State Russian Museum. There was something intoxicatingly antiquarian about it all, as if the world might return to a beautiful, mythical past.

Or maybe a prelude, because to reexperience the past from a contemporary perspective is also to envision the future. That is surely what some of those kids with sketchpads were doing as they scribbled their variations of a giant photograph of a mountain’s fury from a day long before they were born. Copying? Sure. It’s an essential part of learning. First you discover how it was done, making mistakes along the way. Then you begin to find the shape of your own voice. You let it build, slowly, a pressure ready to burst. Then you speak it, fresh, like lava flowing. The sound might blow your mind.


HERE’S LOOKING AT YOU: PORTRAITS & MARCH ART


K.B. Dixon, portrait of Henk Pander, from “The Artists Series 3: Visual Artists.”

K.B. DIXON CONTINUES HIS REMARKABLE COLLECTION OF ARTIST PORTRAITS this week with The Artists Series 3: Visual Artists, closeup black-and-white photographs for ArtsWatch of ten prominent Portland artists. The portraits are remarkable for their formal structure, exquisite clarity, and exploration of character. For me, something else is going on, too: Each portrait is an emergence from shadow, a creation from out of the void – an echo of the artistic process itself. The artists are Henk Pander and Lucinda Parker (both featured prominently in the Portland Art Museum’s Volcano! exhibit), Lee Kelly, Samantha Wall, Katherine Ace, Laura Ross-Paul, Stephen O’Donnell, Arvie Smith, Sherrie Wolf, and Matthew Dennison. Dixon’s series of photographs of writers, Portraits: 20 Oregon Writers, will show April 1-May 9 at Michael Parsons Fine Art, where new paintings by Brigitte Dortman are on view through April 11. 

***

Romare Bearden, “Girl in the Garden,” 1979, color lithograph, 24.75 x 19.25 inches, edition of 50. At Augen Gallery in Portland through March 28.

IT’S A NEW MONTH, WHICH MEANS NEW EXHIBITS IN MOST of Portland’s art galleries. In Fill March with art and sunshine, Martha Daghlian scopes out the month’s offerings and finds an array of likely suspects, from the late, great Romare Bearden at Augen to a storytelling quintet at Ford Gallery, a trio of shows featuring work by the late Carola Penn, a Black Art Ecology pop-up at PICA, and more.
 


A FILM FESTIVAL GETS A FRESH NEW FACE AT 43


Amy Dotson, director of the Northwest Film Center, is putting her own stamp on the venerable Portland International Film Festival.


THE 43rd ANNUAL PORTLAND FILM FESTIVAL UNREELS BEGINNING FRIDAY, with a new director, Amy Dotson, who took over last year as director of the festival’s parent Northwest Film Festival after longtime director Bill Foster retired. Dotson has brought fresh ideas and a more concentrated, 10-day focus, Marc Mohan writes in PIFF hits fast-forward at 43. There’ll be stars on hand, including John Cameron Mitchell and Todd Haynes, and while there’ll be plenty of world cinema, there’ll also be an increased emphasis on Northwest filmmakers. At least one thing isn’t changing: With its worldwide lens, PIFF is far from just another showcase for Hollywood blockbusters. “It’s not going to be robots and lasers!” Dotson tells Mohan.


CATCHING UP ON A WEEK OF GOOD READING


Alissa Jessup and Ramona Lisa Alexander in Dominique Morisseau’s “Pipeline” at Portland Playhouse. Photo: Shawnte Sims

Theater

‘PIPELINE’: LOOKING FOR SPACE. “He doesn’t belong anywhere”: Daniel Pollack-Pelzner reviews Dominique Morisseau’s “heart-rending” play Pipeline, getting a “searing” and “deeply felt” co-production from Portland Playhouse and Confrontation Theatre.

WHY ‘WEST SIDE STORY’ ABANDONED ITS QUEER NARRATIVE. For The Atlantic magazine, Pollack-Pelzner takes a deep look inside the political, cultural, and artistic choices of Broadway’s new and provocative revival of the classic American musical.

DRAMAWATCH: ‘JAMES X’ MARKS THE SPOT. Darius Pierce nails a challenging performance in a riveting Irish play from Corrib Theatre, Marty Hughley writes in his weekly theater column. Plus news, notes, openings, and a little lesson in British accents.
 

Music

MUSICWATCH WEEKLY: LOOK BEFORE YOU LEAP DAY. Why, yes, February DID have an extra day tacked to its end. All the more time for good music, Matthew Neil Andrews writes, and proceeds to find a whole bunch of it. Leap on in.

KEEPING THE WINTER ALIVE. A Charlie Parker opera, “Onegin,” and the PDX Jazz Festival stir up the Northwest musical mix. Angela Allen delivers the downbeat.

LIVING TRADITIONS, PART ONE: AMERICAN SYMPHONICA. “If American orchestras don’t play music by American composers, no one will,” Matthew Neil Andrews quotes Portland Youth Philharmonic conductor David Hattner. Andrews relates how PYP, Metropolitan Youth Symphony, and Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra are keeping the American Symphonic Tradition alive in Portland.

MUSICWATCH MONTHLY: AMERICAN MESTIZAGE. Matthew Neil Andrews looks at the breadth of what “American” means, through Caroline Shaw, nyckelharpa and hardanger fiddle, Carnatic voice and violin, harps and drums, and American gothick.

What’s cookin’

MAKING THE WORLD SMALLER THROUGH FOOD. Two Mississippi chefs are bringing a taste of the Deep South to Astoria as part of Chef Outta Water, a program to expand cultural horizons by cooking. And don’t forget to hang around for the Delta soul and blues. Lori Tobias will be your literary server.
 

Dance

STRIKING A RECKONING WITH DEATH. Elizabeth Whelan talks with choreographer/ performers Jess Evans and Lyra Butler-Denman, creators of the paired solo pieces Delicate Fish and BARDO, which take a tender look at grief, pain, and death.

DANCEWATCH: DEAR MARCH, COME IN! In her monthly look at what’s coming up on Oregon’s dance scene, Jamuna Chiarini discovers March marching in like a lion, a tango, some ballet, some butoh, some funk, some bootleggers, and more. Tap into it weekly to keep up on the beat.

White Bird brings Rennie Harris Pure Movement to the Newmark Theatre for performances Thursday-Saturday, March 5-7, of “Funkedified.” Photo courtesy White Bird

QUOTABLE


“I’m reluctant to call myself an Abstract Expressionist or a minimalist. I call myself a painter. What I can do is paint and make things that are powerful. Galleries want to codify you. Every time you move away from the doctrine, you get questioned. Being unruly is my nature. As for doctrinaire, I had to blow it up.”

– Artist Mary Lovelace O’Neal, 78, as quoted by Wendy Moonan in A Painter and Social Activist With an ‘Unruly Nature’, New York Times online, March 1, 2020


Join the discussion

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.