brian libby

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.

ArtsWatch Weekly: Sheer poetry with Grabel and the fishing crew

Leanne Grabel and Breads & Roses, FisherPoets and the song of the sea. Plus the week's dance, drama, sight, and sound.

IT’S A BIG WEEK FOR POETS IN OREGON, and an especially big week for longtime Portland poet Leanne Grabel, who’s been named the winner of the second annual Soapstone Bread and Roses Award. The prize, given by the women’s literary organization Soapstone to honor a writer who has helped sustain the writing culture in Northwest Oregon and Southwest Washington, comes with a $1,000 award. It’ll be officially presented at a Soapstone board meeting on March 6, two days before International Women’s Day.

Portland poet Leanne Grabel, the 2020 Soapstone Bread and Roses Award winner. Photo courtesy Soapstone, Inc. 


ArtsWatch Weekly: a squeeze, a shuffle, a Fertile sprawl

Real-estate blues and a major reshuffle at RACC top the news; Fertile Ground's new works sprawl across the city; Federale's Hegna sounds off

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION, the real-estate mantra goes, to which we might add: Availability, availability, availability. Price, price, price. As greater Portland’s real-estate market heats up, prices are rising and affordable places to use for performance halls and galleries are becoming scarce: In a city that’s staked its future on the creative economy, many of its creative groups and people are finding the landscape tough to negotiate.

High-stakes space crunch: Lever Architecture has designed a new theater and office complex for Artists Repertory Theatre on half of the block it used to occupy in Goose Hollow. The other half features a large tower. Rendering courtesy Artists Repertory Theatre

In his story Arts groups play the real estate game, architecture and planning writer Brian Libby, who knows the city’s development scene through and through, takes ArtsWatch readers into the space squeeze and the many ways that artists and cultural groups are coping with it. “The erosion of small performance spaces seems to indicate how a booming economy can be a curse for struggling arts organizations as much as a blessing,” Libby writes. This is the first of several stories Libby will be writing for ArtsWatch on the complex topic of space and art: Watch for more.


ArtsWatch Good Reads 2018

2018 in Review, Part 9: A Fab 15 of ArtsWatch well-told tales worth a second look

Marc Mohan wonders if it matters that the Oscars are a flop. Martha Ullman West revisits the Big Apple of her youth. John Foyston considers sleek cars and fast motorcycles at the art museum. John Longenbaugh starts a podcast “for some very stupid reasons.” Maria Choban and Brett Campbell relate the fascinating tale of a Sri Lankan engineer determined to build the first Pandol new year’s shrine in America. David Bates dives deep into the strangest epic poem you’ve never heard of. Laura Grimes recalls a day of traffic jams, lost glasses, Ursula K. Le Guin, and … pickles. TJ Acena talks gentrification with performance artist Penny Arcade.

The world’s overflowing with stories, and in 2018 ArtsWatch writers grabbed hold of a bunch worth a second look. Here, for your enjoyment, is a Fab 15 of tales well told.



The Oscars are dying. So what?

March 9: “This year’s telecast drew record low ratings, down a whopping 20 percent from last year’s already dismal numbers,” Marc Mohan wrote in the wake of this year’s television debacle. “… As someone who religiously watches, and even generally enjoys, Tinseltown’s annual festival of self-love, I find myself, perhaps surprisingly, not the least bit perturbed.


Rothko: a tunnel runs through it

Art notes: Portland Art Museum's new pavilion proposal adds a pedestrian walkway; a Forain and a Gorky on loan at the museum

The journey of the embattled Rothko Pavilion has taken a short cut – straight through the Portland Art Museum’s proposed link between its poorly connected north and south buildings. When the project went public in 2016 the glassing-in of what is now an open plaza drew swift objection from pedestrian and bicycle advocates, as well as from critics of what would be a “super-block” on the museum’s South Park Blocks campus.

The super-block dissent never seemed to make much sense. Portland’s downtown city blocks are famously only 200 feet long – miniatures compared to the blocks in most cities – and both museum buildings, plus the proposed connector, are low-rise structures, which further diminishes the sense of mass. The pavilion’s glass exterior lightens the visual effect even more: the museum would be long but low, with far less sense of bulk than, say, Big Pink, which fits its block’s footprint yet seems massive.

Refined Rothko Pavilion design, with open passageway. Illustration: Vinci Hamp Architects & Hennebery Eddy Architects

The objections of pedestrian advocates are more persuasive, especially since so many older people live in the apartments and condominiums in the museum district. For many of them, having to walk around the museum rather than cutting through the courtyard would represent a true hardship.


Design Week Portland: A little guidance from festival director Tsilli Pines

With Design Week Portland at full throttle, Brian Libby chats with festival director Tsilli Pines about the extent of this year's event


For one week each April, most members of Portland’s design community probably don’t get much rest. Design Week Portland, taking place from April 14-21 this year, is a city-wide series of programs exploring the process, craft, and practice of design across all disciplines.

Sneaker design? They’ve got you covered. Architecture, interiors, landscape design? No problem. The festival is a kind of core sample, revealing the spectrum of designers calling Portland home and bringing them together, hopefully not just as a group of different tribes attending their own events but in a way that encourages cross-pollination.

Other cities have more wealth and are considered truer cultural capitals, but Design Week Portland may be one of the best ways to get a sense that Portland has in some ways become a design Mecca, wherein a combination of our collaborative culture and idyllic natural environments just beyond the urban growth boundary creates a pull for designers even when the might be better off basing their operations in New York, London or Los Angeles.

Tsilli Pines, festival director of Design Week Portland/Photo by Richard Darbonne

Recently the festival’s director, Tsilli Pines, agreed to answer a few questions about Design Week Portland as a primer for the festivities kicking off this weekend.

This year’s Design Week Portland has 170 events. In your mind, is there a right size for the festival? Or is it that you add as many good events as you can with the thinking that people will pick and choose events and the more choice the better?

Tsilli Pines: When you add in the open houses, we have a total of 300-plus events going on including talks, gallery showcases, tours, unique experiences, workshops and open studios.


News & Notes dips into its Aristotle

The real worlds of Amy Freed, David Zellnick, and Dennis Spaight meet their art

Michael Elich and Bhama Roget in Artist's Repertory Theater's production of "The-Monster Builder." Photo: Owen Carey

Michael Elich and Bhama Roget in Artist’s Repertory Theater’s production of “The-Monster Builder.” Photo: Owen Carey

Right, art is always meeting “life.” Aristotle tells us that art intends “to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” Now, I’m not prepared to defend that proposition against a determined attack, but accepting it just for the moment and speaking from experience, unless those outward appearances make sense to us, we have a hard time digging into those explorations of inner meaning. That means asking an artist for a report about the world she encounters is entirely plausible as a line of inquiry. And it’s also why the biography of an artist can be pertinent to the understanding of his work: The world he lived in is important.

So maybe that’s just stating the obvious! But the obvious in this case happens to pertain to today’s edition of News & Notes…

ArtsWatch pal Brian Libby engaged in a tête-à-tête with Brett Campbell about Amy Freed’s new play “The Monster-Builder” at Artists Repertory Theatre, and now he’s posted Part One of an interview with Freed on his PORTLAND ARCHITECTURE blog. You can probably guess that they didn’t talk about theater and playwriting; they talked architecture and city planning. For example, at the start Freed defends the Portland Building, which may be slated for demolition, at length: “It’s crazy but it’s not uninteresting. I hope it’s preserved. You can read the past in it and it’s meaningful in its way. Whatever goes up instead of it would be a crapshoot.”

Some other greatest hits:

  • “My hope for the play is to generate more interest in the non-architectural community about speaking up and talking back. Because the cities are such a mess, and we’re leaving a legacy of such ugliness, and such harshness, and such social dysfunction, and such class division. And it’s happening so fast and it’s happening everywhere.”
  • “San Francisco’s per square foot real estate cost doubled within a year a couple years ago. The arts are fleeing, once more. So Portland’s very attractive to serious creative types. That draws life to a city, makes it trendy, makes it attractive, and the development follows.”
  • “Have you seen these ruin-porn pictures that are coming out of Detroit? They’re not without majesty. To rebuild a city with some vision and poetry and skill as an artist, as people in architecture often aspire to be, would be to maintain these records of things that have happened: to not necessarily restore them but to allow the destruction to show. If everything turns into facelessness, that’s really where are spirits shut down and die.”

But really, the whole interview is well worth the trip. And you can take a peek at the Bob Hicks review of the play, just for a little background.

Speaking of the indefatigable Mr. Hicks, we recommend that you visit his review of Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom before or after seeing defunkt’s production of David Zellnik’s “unlikely and charming post-AIDS romantic comedy.”

“Zellnik wrote A Hundred Flowers in 2001, and even now its setup seems a little daring, a little dancing-on-skeletons, with a smart sense of the complicating fear and pain underlying the liberation. It’s a warm play, ultimately, a feel-good sort of story, but with enough nuance and emotional shadings to give it real impact.”

Leela Janelle did an excellent preview of the show for PQ Monthly.
And while we’re linking you to ourselves, take a look at Martha Ullman West’s review of the latest Eugene Ballet concert, which features Dennis Spaight’s Scheherazade and Toni Pimble’s Bolero. West’s understanding of the work of Spaight (who died of AIDS) is deep, and she’s followed Pimble and the Eugene Ballet almost from the start (the ballet started in 1978 and Martha picked up the chase at their Nutcracker in 1981). There is NO substitute for this kind of context!

In this ballet, Spaight, who was dying and knew it, packed much of his autobiography as a dancer. It has the dramatic punch and stylistic eclecticism of Maurice Béjart, in whose Ballet of the 20thCentury Spaight performed when he was young. If you look closely, you can spot steps from the classical canon, such as the battu, the fluttering beat of one bent leg against the other that symbolizes captivity in Swan Lake, to which, as a dancer with Pacific Northwest Ballet and the San Francisco Ballet, he had received thorough exposure.