Spot On goes fishing for Corey Arnold

By PATRICK COLLIER

“Pink and orange. A lot of pink and orange.” This was the initial assessment of a female painter friend of mine regarding Corey Arnold’s latest exhibition of photos, “Graveyard Point,” at Charles A. Hartman Fine Art. I didn’t particularly want to hear this, making associations with those colors in a way that will only get me into trouble should I make them explicitly known. After all, Arnold’s photos are so manly. But yes, the rain gear the fishers wear is orange, sometimes pinkish, and the sunset sky has a pink tinge mixed in with an array of other colors. And yes, we’re supposed to be beyond all of that blue/pink thing, right?

But man oh man, Arnold must be a man’s man.

Corey Arnold’s “Ben and King”/Charles A. Hartman Fine Art

Intended to be humorous, this assessment, I know, is too simplistic, and were I to persist, I would be doing Arnold and his photos a great disservice. However, if “Ben and King,” the large format photo of a jubilant fisherman (who looks a bit like Arnold) embracing a large, bloody and rigored salmon is not an image that screams maleness, in a very traditional way, I don’t know what is. Or rather, I’ll back off again, admit to a desire to catch a salmon that size and suggest the political complexities of the world Arnold photographs are not limited to ones of gender representation on fishing vessels.

And where salmon are concerned, this is merely the tip of the political iceberg. Consider our own local conflicts in Oregon: Sea lions are maligned for eating salmon at the bottom of the Bonneville Dam and allegedly are shot by sport fisherman. The tribes maintain rights to fish on the Columbia River and the sport fishermen kvetch. The commercial fishing vessels offshore bring in tons of fish that would otherwise make their way into the rivers, and again the sport fishermen, and probably the tribes, grumble. Dams, mining and logging have also greatly diminished salmon runs. Even the fish hatcheries, the folks who struggle to keep the rivers alive with fish, albeit with supposedly less genetically diverse strains, do not escape the blame game. And, of course, there was a time when sport fisherman knew no bounds to the length of their stringers. Everyone wants a piece and no one wants the blame for the diminishing fish runs.

My plumber fishes. He also hunts. He saw my fishing gear and asked me where I fish. I wouldn’t tell him. He saw my gun cleaning kits as well, and assuming I hunt, showed me photos on his smartphone of the big blacktail buck he harvested last season, as well as a black bear, both with him posed alongside his kill, his handmade rifle just as much part of the picture in each. (The sculptural equivalent is taxidermy.) I learn that he is part of a volunteer organization that takes disabled veterans and the terminally ill on hunting trips.

Now, while I am sufficiently cynical to formulate an irony around this kindness, namely, the hunter as the hunted or a death before a death (some animal rights folks might be even less generous), that does not completely negate the compassion involved in such gestures. Add to this a kind of kinship some hunters and fishers will say they feel with their prey (contrasted with the attitude of those who prefer not to consider where their fleshy protein originates), and we can readily stray into the realm of archetypes readymade for artists to make of them what they may.

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Corey Arnold, “Billie and the Seabird”/Charles A. Hartman Fine Art

Although Arnold’s photos document the Alaskan commercial fishing culture, that industry extends down the coast to Oregon, which allows us some level of identification with those northern communities. For the average urban gallery-goer, I would imagine the relationship is more romantic, as in “this is the spectacle that is part of what makes living in this region special.” Indeed, all one has to do is take a trip out to the coastal galleries to see how this idealization plays out in an iconic way: dolphins, sea gulls, shorebirds, salmon, whales and their habitat are portrayed in various media, all as a scenic celebration of an ecosystem. Such art is sold as talismans of the fantasy of the shore, but is also is a service provided by another industry that might fall under the category of interior design.

The common denominator between coastal artist and commercial fisherman is that both are working in order to keep food on their tables. Judging by the breadth of scenes and people depicted in Arnold’s photographs, he understands this. He captures the economics at work, and in a manner that retains an element of humanity, giving as much weight to documentation of the fishing as he does to portraits of the people who make a living from fishing, all with a backdrop of economic decay.

On a good day, with the one hundred or so sockeye salmon fishers camping out, Graveyard Point must be more desolate than the smallest Oregon resort town in early January. Amidst a wall full of photos at Hartman, one small photo stands out: Simply titled “Graveyard Erosion,” it shows a wooden cross that is about to lose its footing in the soil as the bank gives way. Whether the casket it marked has already slid away or remains behind the cross is unknown. What is certain is that folks have long given up on caring about this sanctified ground as a more persistent force has its way.

Not that this collection of Arnold’s photographs is all depressing (just ask Ben with his fish). Many show the people at play or hard at work hauling in gill nets full of fish. Sometimes both. Yet, perhaps the most powerful photos are the portraits of lone individuals, most notably, “Fish Hunter ” and “Billie and Seabird” (both formatted to be among those highlighted in the exhibition) that capture a gravity of purpose for each of the subjects in this place.

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The young man in “Fish Hunter” reminds me a bit of my plumber. Despite the cumbersome rain pants, and perhaps enhanced by the large bore, long gun slung across his chest, his stance and gaze into the distance tells of a surety in the face of what may come. And while we might find it a bit odd that someone is able to hold and caress a wild, perhaps injured sea bird, Billie’s face (those blue eyes!), slightly disheveled hair and choice of tattoos suggest that she and the bird are ancient, kindred spirits.

Corey Arnold’s “Karate Wave”/Charles A. Hartman Fine Art

If there are few women in these photos (in two group photos, one has three women and fifteen men and the other four women and twenty-one men), there are even fewer children. I wonder why there would be any kids at all, yet also also assume these young ones are no less resilient than the adults, and therefore in training. The boy in “Karate Wave” speaks to this by showing Arnold his fiercest defense posture. Still, I worry for the boy.

No doubt there are stories to be told by all of the people who come to Graveyard Point. Tales of adventures that didn’t always turn out well but also of the fortitude to withstand them. Camping in and slogging through the mud, the dragon-sized mosquitoes, and the back-breaking labor of hauling loaded nets eighteen hours a day may pale in comparison.

My plumber grew up in Alaska. He tells me the fishing there isn’t what it used to be, either. If this is the case, and there comes a time when the rivers hold as few fish as our Oregon rivers do, and this happens before I get a chance to try my luck up there, I will mourn and scorn.  But I can, for a moment anyway, put those concerns aside to be a just little bit romantic and quite awestruck by Arnold’s Alaska.

Notes:

For more on Corey Arnold’s time in Alaska, see “Marty, Corey and Sarah Palin’s Alaska”  and Portland Monthly’s “Red Sea.”

 

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