The world is indisputably in a precarious position — not just politically and socially, but economically and even ecologically. It is a moment of crisis. Artists play a crucial role in moments like these, helping the rest of us arrive at a shared cognition of what is — of seeing, sensing, and feeling that roil of life in a way that clarifies, opens eyes, and maybe even showing us a way forward.
What struck me in compiling this year-end reading list on socially engaged art in Oregon is the extent to which artists strove not simply to see and interpret, but to peel back layers, to reveal what is largely hidden — either by design or by accident — by institutions, by geography, and even by the telling of history. There may be no “new” stories to tell, but too many stories haven’t been heard by those who need to hear them, by people who perhaps want to see, but don’t know how.
So dive into this compilation. There’s a bit of everything: visual art, theater, music, conceptual art, literature. And, of course, the usual disclaimer: The choices here are highly subjective and presented in no particular order, and obviously are not intended to be comprehensive.
Sept. 27: ArtsWatch’s Bob Hicks checked out a fall show at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem called Witness: Themes of Social Justice in Contemporary Printmaking and Photography. It featured a lineup of artists who look at the world through a lens that is both personal and cultural, and in a way that connects our present moment with history.
“The idea of art as a pristine thing, separated from the hurly-burly of the everyday world and somehow above it all, is a popular notion,” Hicks wrote. “But a much stronger case exists for the idea of art as the expression of the roil of life, in all its messiness and cruelty and prejudices and passions and pleasures and occasional outbursts of joy. Art comes from somewhere, and that somewhere is the world in which we live.”
The article is a mini-tour of the exhibition itself, with nearly 20 pieces accompanied by the artists’ personal statements reflecting the roil and rebellion of their creative processes.
July 27: “Pangæa was the single huge continent on Earth encompassed by one vast ocean over 200 million years ago – eons before dinosaurs, much less humans,” musician David Ludwig writes in the program notes for composition of the same name. “It was an entirely different planet than one we’d recognize today, lush with life of another world.” That’s the world Ludwig interpreted musically in the West Coast premiere of Pangæa, a piece inspired by the ancient Earth, and the threat of extinction as a result of human-caused climate change. Matthew Andrews talked to him about this extraordinary piece of music for ArtsWatch. Best of all: You can listen to it yourself.
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Sept. 12: What happens when Portland State University’s School of Art and Social Practice teams up with prisoners at the Columbia River Correctional Institution? A teachable moment, it turns out, for all involved. Hannah Krafcik finds that an exchange of written questions and photographic responses between the incarcerated artists-in-residence and photographers around the world reveals art’s capacity as an extraordinary medium of communication.
Oct. 11: The high-end art world has taken to chiseling street art off buildings to sell. This year, the British street artist and political activist Banksy found a way to rebel: Seconds after his painting Girl With Balloon was auctioned off by Sotheby’s for $1.4 million, a shredder the artist had built into the frame turned the piece into ribbons. You may have missed the ensuing brouhaha because you were glued to the spectacle of Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings, but ArtsWatch writer Jennifer Rabin paid attention, and she discusses the larger issues involved.
June 3: Portland’s Pearl District got a new exhibition space this year: The Elisabeth Jones Art Center opened in June at 516 N.W. 14th St., dedicated to “presenting artwork that concerns ecology, social justice and other contemporary issues.” Director John Teply opened the center with an impressive bang: The Condor and the Eagle: Moving Forward After Standing Rock. ArtsWatch’s Bob Hicks was there to report on that and an ongoing project, A World Without Ice, which looks at the horrifying plight of polar bears in a rapidly warming world.
Oct. 5: What does walking segments of the Oregon Trail yield artistically? Alumni of the group Signal Fire found out in 2016, and this year they showed some of their work at the Pacific Northwest College of Art, examining the legacy of colonialism in tandem with our current ecological moment. It’s an opportunity to see what indigenous artwork can tell us, reported by indigenous writer Stephanie Littlebird.
Nov. 3: An issue weighing on my mind over the past year or so has been the question of how artists can and should respond when confronted by political reaction. That was clearly on the mind of those who participated in The Work Continues on the Sylvania campus of Portland Community College. “The title of the exhibition works as a double entendre,” writes ArtsWatch’s Lusi Lukova. “It exists both as a literal display of how individuals can continue to produce artistically in times of trial, as well as a more subtle call-to-action aimed at a larger general consciousness.”
Nov. 30: A couple of years ago, the August Wilson Red Door Project unveiled Hands Up, a collection of seven monologues by seven different playwrights performed by seven different actors that explored the fears and anxieties of the black community around racial profiling and police violence against African-Americans. This year, Red Door artistic director Kevin Jones decided to look at the issue from a different perspective: The eyes of cops. “I thought it was time to recognize that these were human beings,” he said. “And by telling their stories we could help humanize them.” ArtsWatch writer Bobby Bermea investigates how Cop Out came together.
Nov. 19: Not to play favorites, but this deep dive by Daniel Pollack-Pelzner into the history of one of the most famous (and, as it turns out, deeply problematic) American musicals was one of the year’s most engrossing reads for me at ArtsWatch. You may know the Oregon Shakespeare Festival broke ground this year with a production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical that changed the genders in the romantic couples. On the face of it, that may sound like simply a clever way to celebrate diversity, but as Pollack-Pelzner reveals, it actually gets closer to historical truth and the spirit of the play than you ever knew. Even if you missed OSF’s production, you’ll never think about Oklahoma! the same way again.
May 8: What happens when a mostly white, well-meaning group of middle-class Portlanders gathers at a Literary Arts seminar to talk about race? Do they get it? Do they really get it? Do they even know what “it” is? Chinese-American writer Jenny M. Chu was there in November 2017 when the group convened to discuss James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and Jesmyn Ward’s The Fire This Time. After three months of thinking, remembering, and soul-searching, she weighed in with this remarkable, must-read essay about what she terms the “dead elephant”: The burden people of color bear, in varying degrees, for being non-white in America — and which white people do not.