Barry Johnson

Starting Over: It’s not about the elk, it’s all about the elk

Dear New York Review of Books, In Portland we love our Elk.

Toward the end of an engrossing New York Review of Books article, I suddenly was caught up short by a familiar image. Back in August, Brian Libby, the indefatigable author of PDX Architecture, decided to check in on the current state of Roland Hinton Perry’s Elk, which the City had  removed from its natural habitat in the middle of Southwest Main Street near the Justice Center after its plinth was damaged by fire. Libby’s photograph of the newly sheltered Elk, reduced to a column’s width square, illustrated the NY Review of Books article along with a 2-column shot of the Pergamon Altar in Berlin from the 2nd century BCE, and a 3-column reproduction of Willem Van Hacht’s splendid Apelles Painting Campaspe, which dates back to 1630.

This isn’t a story about the Elk, per se. Libby’s already told that one perfectly well. And a former colleague of mine at The Oregonian, Doug Perry, added some historical details in his story about Brian’s story. They’ve got you covered.

Roland Hinton Perry’s Elk in seclusion/Photo by Brian Libby

It’s not even a story about a correction to Susan Tallman’s NYRB article, a review of two new books about the history of art history, that I would like to suggest. It’s a small correction: Tallman says that Elk was targeted by protesters, perhaps because “its materials and manner of execution, as well as its urban position, testify to its origins in the white male power-base of turn-of-the-twentieth-century America.” The Elk, as Libby points out, was not targeted for destruction: The fires were part of a celebration of the elk and, maybe, the natural world by the protesters. The “white male power-base” was represented by the Justice Center, not this spindly legged yet large member of the deer family. In fact, protesters replaced the original with an amusingly elk-ish statue of their own. Vivo el uapití! (Tallman does give herself an out: “It may just have been in the wrong place … at the wrong time.” But the “targeted” suggestion is wrong per all accounts I’ve seen.)

“Perhaps the protesters, like Winckelmann, recognized a style and, through it, an entire worldview.” These are Tallman’s last words on the Elk. To which I would say, “definitely not.” But the words do fit into what I took away from Tallman’s article, though it isn’t quite what I think she had in mind. Her reasonable larger point is that “Art history is, inevitably, a story imposed on a selected group of artifacts by people who, consciously or unconsciously, have predilections and agenda.” I don’t disagree.

The Elk/Brian Libby

But what I took from Tallman’s review of Christopher S. Wood’s “A History of Art History” and Eric Michaud’s “The Barbarian Invasions: A Genealogy of the History of Art,” both of which she persuaded me I need to read, was about art itself. Art communicates willy-nilly. It communicates differently every time I look at it. And though I may shove my art experience into different categories based on my taste or their style or manner, those categories never contain my experience. The only category that might, would be “memories of my art experiences,” and none of us really trusts memory at this point, do we? Except maybe for a phone number or two?

Most of the time, the Elk is just a swerve I have to make as I pass on Southwest Main Street between Third and Fourth avenues. When I look at Libby’s photos of it as it is today, I’m struck by those skinny legs and proportions that don’t quite seem “right.” Libby mentions how much smaller it seems at ground level than up on its granite pedestal. Perry notes that ungrateful Portlanders objected to this gift to the City originally because it wasn’t a West Coast elk. But back before “all this,” I remember sitting in Lownsdale Square, gazing at it in all its shaded serenity and feeling myself exhale and enter a reverie—not about the Elk, surely, but along the trail my electrons blazed for me through and around the area encased by my brainpan. I did not muse about early 20th century power relationships or the way this bronze elk reflected them. 

Art is emancipatory. (All art? That’s another story.) It can lead me almost anywhere, even to thoughts about the intent of the artist, the times the artist lived in, the artist’s relationship to those times, the times and art and artists that followed and preceded the art+artist+times I’m focusing on. And, yes, if I love that way of thinking, exploring, discovering, maybe I become an art historian. Or someone who reads art historians. Who have predilections and agendas. I try to factor that into my own considerations.

Winckelmann. I left him hanging at first reference up there in the fourth paragraph. Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768) wrote “History of the Art of Antiquity” in 1764 and both celebrated and researched the art and architecture of ancient Greece and Rome. His father was a cobbler, and his mother the daughter of a weaver, so his ascent to the top echelons of European intellectual life was improbable. Historians of the history of archaeology consider him a founder of the field; historians of the history of art think of him the same way.

“Winckelmann set in play two crucial concepts for art history: style as the basis for attribution, and art as the reflexive representation of a people,” Tallman writes. She quotes Michaud’s contention that Winckelmann saw art “as a sort of bodily secretion of the nation as a whole.” I see what Michaud’s Winckelmann means, but I think of art more as a creative interaction with the life and culture of a nation, though more likely a city or state than an entire nation. It might also be a profound description of that place. Maybe I’m just squeamish, but I don’t think of  it as a “secretion.” 

The Elk, shackled so it can’t escape/Photo by Brian Libby

A little later Tallman quotes Austrian architect/theorist Adolf Loos, perhaps via Christopher S. Wood. Maybe you’ve read the quote before: “If nothing were left of an extinct people but a single button, I would be able to infer, from the shape of that button, how these people dressed, built their houses, how they lived, what was their religion, their art, their mentality.” And then Tallman points out Michaud’s alarm at this sort of thinking, how it leads to racist taxonomies. To my mind, Loos’s expansive hyperbole is the sheerest poppycock. During the past four years we’ve become poppycock experts. I personally often use a stronger word than poppycock. Now, if Loos had the full array of contemporary lab equipment and vast databases at his command via computer, that button would be more useful.

Tallman is headed toward today’s monuments of the past and how we consider them, which is how she arrives at Perry’s Elk, then to the conservative-led row over Yale’s change in its introductory art history classes to make them more global, and finally to those Yankee-forged monuments to Confederate heroes. I wonder what Loos might have inferred from those bronze buttons.

Tallman concludes her review this way: “Classical sculpture could only be loved by Christians once the gods they represented had died. Robert E. Lee is not yet a dead god.” 

The monuments to Lee, who bamboozled a series of incompetent Union generals before succumbing to the brilliant one, aren’t art to me. They are political statements by post-Reconstruction Southern white people: As long as we remember, we didn’t lose. Remembering is complex and has long tendrils that have nothing to do with remembering at all. Eventually, maybe memories become like the Elk in the road you swerve around. But like the Elk they can be summoned when called upon, in their case to support white supremacy (and in the Elk’s to celebrate the vanishing natural world, possibly). They have no place in the middle of anyone’s road or square or in front of anyone’s Capitol Building.

The Elk/Photo by Brian Libby

The Lee monuments are symbols of our continuing racism, North and South, and the persistent failure to atone for it. They represent the worst of the past—slavery and civil war. They suggest no escape from it, no constructive engagement with that dim history; instead, they pull us back toward the misery, the hopelessness of slavery, the columns of the names of the war dead in the newspaper. They are the opposite of the emancipatory aspect of art. 

The pandemic has given us some space and time. The first thing it centered in Portland was the racism inherent to the status quo here—a status quo, a racism, defended by the city’s police department. I’m hoping the upcoming election will allow new approaches to be taken. Then, the fires reminded us of the monster that awaits us. Climate change and racism are connected—economically, culturally, politically. An election or two won’t be enough to deal with them. But that’s where it starts.

Of course the protesters didn’t attack the Elk! It’s not about the Elk. It’s about way more important things than the Elk. Or maybe it is about the Elk, and protecting it is the most important thing we can do. Art is like that.

Living in a world of upside down

ArtsWatch Weekly: The pandemic is the puzzle. Adaptability is the key. Unlocking the cultural world's path to the future is the challenge.

SUDDENLY EVERYTHING’S TOPSY TURVY, and it’s seeming more and more like a mistake to think that things are going to get back to “normal” even after the health threat has ended, whenever that might happen. In the cultural world, the economic effect of the coronavirus shutdown is going to be hard on everyone and catastrophic for some. And by “everyone” I mean not just arts groups themselves but also the artists and staffers who’ve made their livings working for them, and the funders who keep them going, and the audiences who may understandably be reluctant to flock back to theaters and concert halls and museums as if social distancing were just some crazy blip that’s done and gone. Some groups, even if they do everything “right,” aren’t going to survive.
 
Barry Johnson, ArtsWatch’s executive editor, has started writing a column he calls “Starting Over,” which is about exactly those issues. How do we start over? How do we reinvent? What do we return to, and what do we move beyond? In his most recent “Starting Over,” Masks and democracy, he talks about some of the political failures that have made things worse in the United States than they needed to be, and reports on his conversation with the veteran arts consultant George Thorn, who suggests that the sort of creative, step-by-step problem-solving artists engage in every day might be a model for the society as a whole. In an earlier column, Point to point, Johnson talked with Portland Center Stage at the Armory’s Cynthia Fuhrman about practical adaptability. 

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Friderike Heuer, “The Strikers,” montage, from her series “Fluchtgedanken,” 2020. In her visual essay “Fluchtgedanken: Thoughts of Escape,” Heuer writes about manipulating images of paintings by the mid-20th century painter George Tooker, and how her adaptation of his work is a response to such disturbing issues of the Covid-19 crisis as the return of eugenics to public discussion and practice: “Took us what, only 75 years to get around to it again? What are expendable lives? The old? The diseased? The incarcerated? The poor?”

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ADAPTABILITY IS GOING TO BE CRUCIAL, and in a lot of cases, also not sufficient. Because the situation will be different for everyone, which means that while there may be smart overall strategies, they’ll have to be adapted to specific situations. And the ground keeps shifting.

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Starting Over: Enter the Dragon

Combine a pandemic and an economic crisis and you get the dragon

In the beginning, I thought that the Covid-19 pandemic would resemble something like a tornado. We take shelter in our storm cellar. The tornado passes through. Those in its direct path (and given my demographic status, that could well be me) suffer the most. And after a while, the all-clear sirens sound and we surface to rebuild what the tornado has destroyed.

I expected the damage to be severe, but I thought it might offer us a chance to get some things right that were obviously going wrong. I’m not talking about architecture.

My first Starting Over column projected forward to that rebuild, and what I wanted us to get right was our relationship to the culture in which we all must swim. I want us to build a culture that works for us instead of against us, and one of the central drivers of both the actual reconstruction process and the new culture that resulted could and should be the arts.

No, they aren’t tornadoes. /Image by Nathan Johnson

My metaphor was wrong. I suppose all metaphors are wrong at some level, but events proved this one wrong almost immediately. The tornado analogy failed at the “shelter in place” stage, and it failed both because we aren’t so deeply bunkered that we are out of communication with each other and because we’re going to have to be in that state for a lot longer. We don’t know how long.

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People & Conversations 2018

2018 in Review, Part 3: ArtsWatch goes behind the scenes for conversations with 22 creators who talk about their lives and art

By Sarah Kremen-Hicks

Theaters have their curtains. Paintings have their frames. Books have their covers. The act of presentation, of framing, of giving things edges, shifts the subject to the work itself and hides the artist away, if only a little bit. ArtsWatch’s writers have spent the past year seeking out the artists behind the frames and bringing them to you. Here are 22 glimpses behind the curtain from 2018.

 


 

Michael Brophy in his North Portland studio, 2017. Photo: Paul Sutinen

A conversation with Michael Brophy

Jan. 3: Prominent Northwest painter Michael Brophy talks with Paul Sutinen in an interview that begins with being “the kid that drew” and becomes a meditation on medium and viewership:

Where did that lightbulb come on for you to say, ‘OK, I saw all that stuff in London and now I want to go to art school.’

I knew the minute I saw paintings, like in the National Gallery. The scale of things—my mind was blown by the size of things. An artist I don’t think about much, Francis Bacon, there was a room of Bacon’s paintings [at the Tate Gallery] and it terrified me. I didn’t know that art could do that. I had to leave the room. I had a kind of like a panic attack.

I think they call it ‘epiphany.’

Yeah, so after that I just knew what I was going to do. Just as simple as that.

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ArtsWatch’s hit parade 2018

2018 in Review, Part 1: Readers' choice. A look back at Oregon ArtsWatch's most read and shared stories of the year

When we say “hit parade,” that’s what we mean. In the first of a series of stories looking back on the highlights of 2018, these 25 tales were ArtsWatch’s most popular of the year, by the numbers: the most read, or the most shared on social media, or both. From photo features to artist conversations to reviews to personal essays to news stories, these are the pieces that most resounded with you, our readers. These 25 stories amount to roughly two a month, out of more than 50 in the average month: By New Year’s Eve we’ll have published roughly 650 stories, on all sorts of cultural topics, during the 2018 calendar year.

 



Like ArtsWatch? Help us out.

We couldn’t bring you the stories we bring without your support, which is what keeps us going. Oregon ArtsWatch is a nonprofit journalism publication, with no pay wall: Everything we publish is free for the reading. We can offer this public service thanks to generous gifts from foundations, public cultural organizations, and you, our readers. As the year draws to a close, please help us keep the stories coming. It’s easy:



 

And now, the 25 of 2018, listed chronologically:

 


 

Legendary jazz drummer Mel Brown. Photo: K.B. Dixon

In the Frame: Eleven Men

Jan. 2: Writer and photographer K.B. Dixon’s photo essay looks graphically at a group of men who have helped shape Portland’s cultural and creative life, among them jazz drummer Mel Brown, the late Claymation pioneer Will Vinton, Powell’s Books owner Michael Powell, gallerist Charles Froelick, and the legendary female impersonator Walter Cole, better known as Darcelle. Dixon would later profile eleven woman cultural leaders, a feature that is also among 2018’s most-read.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: enemies of the people

Plus: ceramics shows all over town, Brontës and Carnage onstage, Shakespeare on Avenue Q, madrigals and music from the Holocaust

I’ve been thinking about my new status as an enemy of the people, which, because I am a longtime member of the press, the leader of the nation has declared I am. I’m not sure what this means (Adrienne LaFrance in The Atlantic has a few ideas), but I suspect that while we’re all getting hot and bothered about the president’s use of the term “enemy” – a word that, in this construction, implies the harsher “traitor” – we might also be thinking long and hard about what he means when he says “people.”

As I have never considered myself an enemy of the many categories of people who make up this nation (although I have certainly resisted the ideas and actions of some, particularly those of an autocratic, opportunistic, violent, or rigidly ideological bent) I inevitably wonder which people these are to whom I am an enemy. And the conclusion I draw, at least tentatively, is that they must be the people who adamantly declare “my country (or my president) right or wrong,” those whose modes of thought and belief are primarily binary, who see a white and a black in every situation with no recognition of the vast shadings and illuminations between. And although I don’t deny I am not fond of their hard-line ideas, it is less true that I am their enemy than that they consider me theirs.

In Ibsen’s play the newspaper editor is a collaborator and the “enemy” is a whistleblower.

This is a far, far smaller definition of the American people than my own old-fashioned idea of a populace enriched by its multitude of backgrounds, talents, experiences, expressions, and beliefs. The president’s declaration, it seems to me, is a siren song to know-nothing insularity, a constricted, self-defeating, fear-driven, and exclusivist view of the American ideal of what a “people” is (or are). Under its sway a belief in a middle ground of understanding over ideology, even when the understanding must come by asking hard questions and seeking answers from alternative sources when the primary ones hide or lie about what they know, becomes a ground of treason. It is thinking that divides the country into “real” Americans – the true believers – and, well, enemies. Including those members of the press who point such things out.

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Responding to crisis: Artists will do what artists do

Artists may not have a special responsibility to address bad times, but they tend to do it anyway

On Saturday night, I went to Disjecta’s annual art auction, and I even snagged an artwork. It was made by Colin Kippen, who takes discarded hard plastic packaging and uses it as a mold, into which he pours a mix of cement and perlite. This stuff captures the curves, grooves, dents and “decorative” flourishes on those abandoned plastic containers perfectly, and then Kippen paints them with pretty, seductive acrylics, and affixes the concrete to various objects. In this case, it was the business end of an old rusty shovel (without the handle).

The first time I noticed a lot of Portland artists using discarded objects in their artwork was in the late 1990s. Other artists in the 20th century had done the same, but these were the first artworks I’d seen that were explicitly about recycling or re-use—and not just about re-use. They were re-use. Around the same time, local architects seemed to focus on green designs, before that became a national trend. And a little later, Portland passed its recycling initiatives, without really much opposition. I think these things are related, and so I date our deep cultural acceptance of the importance of environmental sustainability to that time.

Colin Kippen, Reap/Sow I, cement, perlite, shovel, wire mesh, binding wire, acrylic paint, 20” x 16” x 9”, 2016, Portland2016, Project Grow, Portland. Courtesy of Disjecta Contemporary Art Center and Colin Kippen.

Colin Kippen, Reap/Sow I, cement, perlite, shovel, wire mesh, binding wire, acrylic paint, 20” x 16” x 9”, 2016, Portland2016, Project Grow, Portland. Courtesy of Disjecta Contemporary Art Center and Colin Kippen.

Anyway, I was drawn to Kippen’s piece because it reminded me that the ubiquitous disposable plastic containers that surround us have all been “designed” by someone—actual care and consideration, even “art,” have gone into them. Kippen points out and then emphasizes their surprising beauty with his treatment of them. I could get into the political and social “meaning” of the piece I bought, but this column isn’t about that.

At the auction I was introduced to a woman who had been working in swing states for the Clinton campaign. She looked exhausted and shell-shocked (she wasn’t the only one, either), and we talked just a little about what it had been like out there. Then she asked me a question: What special responsibility do artists have at a time like this, she wanted to know. It was an actual question. People ask so few real questions these days—so often we ask a question just to give you our answer. Or as a rhetorical device, often dripping with sarcasm. This women wasn’t that kind of person.

I launched into a discourse on the various roles the arts play inside societies generally, not just in times like these. I started with consolation, because I thought someone working on behalf of the Clinton campaign probably needed that. Music, for example, can console us when we are sad and somehow move us to other emotions, without losing the sadness. I had just started in on how the arts can preserve our most important cultural values, help us generate a common meaning of what our society is like, even help us understand that we ARE a society, when the patient campaign worker was saved by the arrival of my wife. I was a long way from answering her very specific question. What can we rightly expect of our artists now?

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