Stretching from cultural borders to the state’s borders

In Salem, George Rodriguez's ceramic sculptures comment on community and identity; in Newberg, Brad Isom's watercolors explore the glory of Oregon

We have another gallery show in Newberg this week, but before that, please indulge a brief diversion as we drop in on Salem.

My ArtsWatch colleagues may write more about this later, but for now you should know that the Hallie Ford Museum of Art on the Willamette University campus opened a new show last week that’s worth a visit: Embellished Narratives by Seattle ceramics artist George Rodriguez, a native of El Paso, Texas.

The show, which occupies several rooms in the Melvin Henderson-Rubio Gallery, is an exploration of the artist’s Chicano heritage and the myriad of political and social issues bound up with the U.S.-Mexico border — both metaphorically and literally. The largest single piece, Instrumental Divide, is a row of nine larger-than-life musicians, sculpted with glaze, steel, and vinyl, lined up in such a way that they form a wall cutting across the room.

"Instrumental Divide" by George Rodriguez (2009, stoneware with glaze, steel, and vinyl). Photo by: David Bates
In “Instrumental Divide,” artist George Rodriguez turns a group of musicians into a wall (2009, stoneware with glaze, steel, and vinyl). Photo by: David Bates

Organized by curator Jonathan Bucci, this is a major exhibition. There is much to take in, and the detail work invites close scrutiny. From the program notes:

“Ideas of ceremony, ritual, and cross-cultural mythology all combine in Rodriguez’s bold yet whimsical artwork. Inspired by childhood memories, international travel, border politics, and the history of art, his richly decorated and tactile sculptures draw the viewer in with a mixture of humor and gravity to address concepts of community and identity in our global culture.

“Included in the exhibition are works based on quinceañeras dresses; portraits of the artist as various famous Georges, including George W. Bush and Boy George; a 20-foot-long mariachi band doubling as the border wall; and a Mexican version of the zodiac featuring animals indigenous to Mexico.”

"Dreamer," by George Rodriguez, greets visitors at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art as they enter the chamber featuring the sculpture series "Sanctuary" (2017, stoneware with glass, courtesy of the artist and the Foster/White Gallery in Seattle). Photo by: David Bates
“Dreamer,” by George Rodriguez, greets visitors at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art as they enter the chamber featuring the sculpture series “Sanctuary” (2017, stoneware with glass, courtesy of the artist and the Foster/White Gallery in Seattle). Photo by: David Bates

I’ll venture a guess that Bucci and Rodriguez elected to save the best for last. In the rear chamber is Sanctuary, a series of sculptures that “make a righteous statement about who we are as Americans. Created in 2017, a year of political and cultural upheaval in the United States with increasing attacks on immigrants and transgender people, these works proudly represent the strength and shared humanity of oppressed groups in our country.” Among them are Dreamer, a young woman in graduation regalia, Battle Ready (a soldier saluting), and Mexican American Gothic, which depicts a domestic worker and her farm-hand husband in the same pose as the couple in Grant Wood’s famous 1930 painting.

The show runs through Aug. 25, with a free talk on Aug. 11 by Bucci.

WE NOW RETURN TO NEWBERG, for the latest at the Chehalem Cultural Center. In the Founders’ Gallery is work by Oregon painter Brad Isom. As is my custom, I looked at the work before I read the exhibition statement, which includes the sentence: “When you view Mr. Isom’s work, you will find it hard to believe he has had no formal training in the arts, and is completely self-taught.”

“Tulip Farm,” by Brad Isom. (2016, watercolor)
“Tulip Farm” by Brad Isom (2016, watercolor)

That’s perhaps not entirely fair, either to the viewer or the artist. I have no formal training in visual arts either, but it was fairly apparent to me that Isom was likely self-taught. That said, some of these landscapes are remarkable and, given that he didn’t start painting until he was well into middle age, delightful and inspiring.

All the more so because of the show’s subject: Oregon, from Eastern Oregon to shining sea. The Glory of Oregon features Isom’s watercolors of landscapes from around the state. Most interesting is his selective use of color, which the artist explains this way in the notes:

“My style leans toward realism, but when the painting is finished, I never quite get there,” he writes. “My style incorporates strong color, often overexaggerated, a love affair with light and shadow, and total control of the pigment on the paper.”

Accordingly, most of the work, if you look closely, highlights the color elements that Isom was (I suspect) most taken by while painting, so the boldness isn’t always uniform across the canvas.

"Haystack Rock" by Brad Isom (2019, watercolor)
“Haystack Rock” by Brad Isom (2019, watercolor)

But in the best pieces, he goes bold all the way. After looking at my own reference photographs, I noticed that a few, particularly Haystack Rock and Lonesome Juniper-Central Oregon, almost resemble the realism of a photograph, with the crisp lines and bold colors.

The show runs through Aug. 3, and is accompanied by several other new shows in the center: Stratifying the Unknown, which closes June 28, and Unconditional, both of which here link to our articles about them.

ARTS JOURNAL: I have long been interested in comics, but it wasn’t until this year that I took an interest in the admittedly vast and uneven genre of superheroes. My wife and I were casual fans of the Marvel Comics Universe films that concluded with Avengers: Endgame, but then I started poking around the print world of Marvel. Beyond the storytelling in three ongoing series I’ve started reading (never mind which), I’m fascinated by the opportunity to watch the construction of a mythology, one that’s cosmic in scale and where various plot threads, characters, and events cross over into other stories. It’s virtually impossible to track it all, but even my admittedly limited view has been an education in one sugary strand of American popular culture.

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This story is supported in part by a grant from the Yamhill County Cultural Coalition, Oregon Cultural Trust, and Oregon Community Foundation.

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