APEX

‘Harmony through dissonance’: Steven Young Lee’s ceramic sculptures

The latest offering in the APEX series includes smiling dragons and slumping vases

By RACHEL ROSENFIELD LAFO

When Steven Young Lee was invited by Grace Kook-Anderson, the Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Curator of Northwest Art, to exhibit as part of the APEX series, the artist made a trip to Portland to study the museum’s collection of 19th-century Korean Joseon dynasty art. As an American of Korean descent, the collection was of particular interest. Lee’s practice explores issues of identity and belonging by borrowing images, designs and forms of artwork and imbuing them with his own interpretations. For the APEX exhibit, Lee chose two works from the museum’s collection: a 19th- century Korean Storage Jar with Design of Two Dragons Chasing Flaming Pearls and a late 19th-century Korean Tiger and Magpie painting. The works serve as touchstones for the exhibition; they are objects of beauty and reference points for the ideas the artist explores in his own work. His approach is respectful yet at the same time irreverent, referencing historical traditions and time-honored techniques of glazing and decoration but adding unexpected surprises and a sense of humor to his ceramic sculptures.

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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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