African American artists

Perry Johnson’s shining light

A Eugene artist's "outsider" work goes to the Portland Art Museum in a new series designed to expand the museum's reach into the region

By RACHAEL CARNES

EDITOR’S NOTE: We.Construct.Marvels.Between.Monuments opens Friday, Nov. 17, in the Portland Art Museum’s Jubitz Center for Modern and Contemporary Art. A series of five exhibitions developed with artists and art collectives, it’s designed to explore how the museum can engage with a broader and more inclusive array of artists in the region. The series, which will continue through December 2018, begins with an installation through Feb. 25, 2018, that includes artists who make prolific work, yet often face barriers to inclusion in galleries and museums. Co-curated by Libby Werbel and Public Annex, it will show work from Perry Johnson, Ricky Bearghost, Kurt Fisk, Elmeator Morton, Lawrence Oliver, and Dawn Westover.

Johnson, who makes his art at the OSLP (Oregon Supported Living Program) Arts & Culture Program in Eugene, will have six works in the series’ first show. Rachael Carnes’ essay ran originally in Eugene Weekly on Oct. 1, 2015, under the title “Shining Like the Sun: A photographic memory infuses the brilliant art of Perry Johnson.”

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Artist Perry Johnson at OSLP in Eugene.

Eugene artist Perry Johnson has a gift. His work is inquisitive and multidimensional, at once rooted in a folk art tradition while branching out towards something more visceral and visionary.

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Black art: a neverending story

The Portland Art Museum's survey of African American art "Constructing Identity" tells a sprawling and many-sided tale

Wandering through Constructing Identity, the lavish exhibition of African-American art from the Petrucci Family Foundation Collection that sprawls across several upstairs galleries at the Portland Art Museum through June 18, I found myself looking for a unifying theme.

With work by more than eighty artists ranging in time from an 1885 landscape by Edward M. Bannister and Grafton Tyler Brown’s 1891 painting of a geyser in Yellowstone National Park to very contemporary pieces, it wasn’t easy.

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As I moved slowly from room to room I began gathering impressions and testing ideas.

Might the theme be the dominance of figurativism in 20th and early 21st century African American art?

Plenty of evidence for that, including Frederick D. Jones’s probing ca. 1945-50 oil portrait of a downcast woman holding a platter of fish, and Charles White’s black-and-white 1965 etching Missouri C., which stretches more than four feet wide and fairly leaps to life with the arresting image of a capacious black woman in profile staring toward a wide-angle emptiness of striations and spots.

Frederick D. Jones (American, 1914–2004), Untitled (Woman with a Fish), ca. 1945–1950, oil on canvas, 12 x 10 in. © Frederick Jones

Then again, might it be the depiction of community, of a people overcoming?

Good evidence here, too. Palmer Hayden’s small oil painting Madonna of the Stoop, for instance, from about 1940, captures in vivid folkish shapes and colors a quiet urban domestic scene, a moment of small happiness: a mother and baby sitting on the stairs of a brownstone building; a bigger girl smiling and playing with the baby, reaching out to touch it; a boy on the lower step reading a book; another boy sliding down the wide stair railings; a dog and the lower half of a second woman standing in the doorway at the top of the frame; a couple of cherub faces with wings floating in little clouds. The mother and the baby are the glue of it all, and their heads are circled, almost as afterthoughts, with thin halos.

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Strange Fruit: Arvie Smith’s seductive provocations at PAM

The Portland artist's bold paintings about race in the museum's APEX series rub together attraction and repulsion as they play with stereotypes

When Billie Holiday sang Strange Fruit, Abel Meeropol’s mercilessly beautiful song about a lynching, at Café Society in Greenwich Village in 1939 and into the ’40s, it became something of a benediction: she would close her show with it, the waiters would stop serving, the room would darken, no encore followed. It was if the audience had entered a place at once blasphemous and holy, a hollow where time stopped in the presence of the unutterable, and the thing itself was dirty but the memorization of it, the acknowledgement of its awful reality, was somehow purifying: we have seen evil, and felt its power, and by facing it we have somehow made it lesser and ourselves more.

Arvie Smith, "Strange Fruit," 1992, oil on canvas, 92 x 70 inches, collection of the artist.

Arvie Smith, “Strange Fruit,” 1992, oil on canvas, 92 x 70 inches, collection of the artist.

Arvie Smith’s 1992 painting of the same title and theme performs some of the same functions in his current APEX Northwest artists series show at the Portland Art Museum, and it also acts as an oversize calling card for the other nine paintings in the exhibition. Grandly scaled at 92 x 70 inches, it overwhelms viewers with the hyperreality of an American scene: the lynching of a nearly naked black man by a gang of white men whose muscles ripple beneath the white robes and hoods of the Ku Klux Klan. Like an American Jesus on a Southern cross, the black man lets his head slump sideward in defeat; the rope slung over the tree limb and tied around his neck seems almost as thick as his arm. The two men stringing him up seem almost to strut with pride. Near the bottom right corner, at the level where a dog might look out, two malevolent red-rimmed eyes stare from slits in a Klan hood. Beneath the robe of one of the Klansmen, a pair of very contemporary, everyday casual athletic shoes sticks out, catapulting the time frame on beyond Michael Jordan. 

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