Bruce Guenther

Connecting in a time of isolation

ArtsWatch Weekly: As the world turns, will real reality replace virtual reality? Plus: The mountain blows its top – this time, virtually.

EVEN AS OREGON BEGINS TO MOVE CAUTIOUSLY TOWARD REOPENING its social and commercial activities – today Gov. Kate Brown announced a loosening of restrictions in 28 of the state’s 36 counties, though not in the greater Portland metropolitan area – the new reality of social isolation remains with us. This holds true in the cultural world in particular: The reopening of theaters, concert halls, museums, and cultural centers is likely months in the future, and for many people the experience of the past two months has prompted a rethinking about the importance of art and what, in fact, “art” means.

In the Pacific Northwest in particular, art has long had a deeply rooted connection with the land itself, from the days of Indigenous stone paintings and carvings to the place-inspired work of contemporary artists and, presumably, the work of future artists grappling with the stark realities of environmental crisis and climate change. You can feel it even in the work of Oregon giants of abstract art, such as Lucinda Parker and the late Carl Morris and Mark Rothko, all of whose paintings are intellectual yet also deeply, unashamedly physical. At a time when the long lockdown and the world’s resulting switch to virtual reality have people yearning for a reconnection with real reality, the region’s stubborn insistence on connecting to the land seems suddenly to put it ahead of the game.
 

Aleksandra Apocalisse, “Grow” (2015). 11 x 14 inches. Watercolor and pen on paper. Image courtesy of the artist. 

Oregonians also have long been open to the idea of outsiderism, in a positive sense: Where you come from or who you trained with seem less important than what you do. And in a time of deep economic and structural insecurity the rigors of the academic and deep-pocket Wall Street pipelines don’t dominate the region’s artistic hierarchy the way they do in more heavily populated art centers. Here, if you Just Do It, as one local corporate juggernaut likes to put it, you stand a fair chance of being seen.

In Oregon, an artist might arrive from anywhere. That’s the case, for instance, with Aleksandra Apocalisse, who, as Shannon M. Lieberman writes for ArtsWatch in Celebrating connection in many forms, “started painting on a whim when she was 21.” Apocalisse’s interests, Lieberman continues, were both broad and focused: “After a series of unusual jobs, including farming, teaching children circus arts, and a stint as a camp science instructor, Apocalisse reached a turning point while interviewing for graduate programs in neuroscience. Unable to stop thinking about how she would balance the demands of graduate work with her desire to make art, Apocalisse realized that her hobby had become her passion–but could she turn it into a career?”

Yes, she could – and her route was not art school but the deeply populist, and popular, Portland Saturday Market, a grand communal gathering of all sorts of people with all sorts of interests. It was connecting at street level, taking art to the people in a way similar to the WPA art projects of the 1930s, except on an individual basis, not government-run. “It has been a good fit for Apocalisse, who thrives on talking to people,” Lieberman writes. “… In her explorations of connection, Aleksandra Apocalisse’s work does not call for change per se. Yet it powerfully implies that we all have tremendous power to forge the kinds of connections we want to see in the world.  Maybe we’re already making them. And if not, what are we waiting for?”

Bruce Conkle, “Quarantine,” 2020. Image courtesy of the artist.

More established Oregon artists are taking a turn in their work during the shutdown, too. As Martha Daghlian writes in Artist Bruce Conkle: Isolation as meditation time, Conkle has been doing a series of drawings inspired by the great turn of events taking place beneath our noses – or at least by the headlines and news feeds of a world turned upside down. At the same time, Conkle says, in a strange way the shutdown fits right in: “Artists in general thrive having a lot of time alone, to be inside their own head, so I think in a way we are getting through this house arrest a lot easier than people who constantly need external stimuli. The creative mental state is a type of meditation—one loses track of time, of place, and of self. I draw mandalas as meditations on a certain subject. After a few minutes (of drawing) you become unaware of the subject itself.”


WATCHING MOUNT ST. HELENS BLOW HER TOP


Lucinda Parker, “Magma opus,” July 1980. Mixed media on paper. Collection of Stephen McCarthy, L2019.69.1. Image courtesy Portland Art Museum

SPEAKING OF PHYSICAL REALITIES: Monday, May 18, will be the fortieth anniversary of the big blow that shook the Pacific Northwest to its foundations and sent clouds of ash from the Mount St. Helens eruption scurrying around the globe. And Volcano! Mount St. Helens in Art, the sprawling exhibition at the Portland Art Museum that opened with a bang in February and was packing ’em in until the museum’s forced shutdown in March, was scheduled to close on Sunday the 17th. The museum, of course, is already closed for an undetermined time. But you still stand a decent chance of seeing Volcano! in the flesh. “After much work with cooperative lenders, we can now confirm that we expect Volcano! to reopen when the museum does (whenever that may be),” museum spokesman Ian Gillingham said in an email exchange on Tuesday. “We expect it to run through sometime in January.”

Now you can get about as good a virtual experience of the exhibition as is possible. The museum staff has assembled and made available online a virtual tour of the exhibition, beginning in prehistory and continuing through early European American paintings, images of the explosion itself, and paintings and photographs from the aftermath. There are even a few examples of ceramics made of Mount St. Helens ash, which for several years formed the basis of a vibrant souvenir cottage industry.

This week’s edition of Willamette Week features a very good, lavishly illustrated guide to the exhibition, We Brought a Piece of Mount St. Helens to You, that’s well worth your time.

And at 3:30 p.m. Sunday – the day before the anniversary – museum curator Dawson Carr, who brought the exhibit to fruition, will host an online event, Mount St. Helens: A Landscape Across Time, with several guests discussing aspects of the show: Seattle artist Barbara Noah, whose excellent painting Tag III is featured in the exhibit; Nathan Roberts, an ecologist and interim director of cultural resources for the Cowlitz Indian Tribe; and director Ray Yurkewycz and science education manager Sonja Melander of the Mount St. Helens Institute.

Barbara Noah, “Tag III,” 1981. Oil on photolinen. Collection of the artist, Seattle, ©1981 Barbara Noah, for changes and additions to a Mount St. Helens image courtesy of USGS, L2019.93.1.


IN TOUCH: KEEPING A LINE ON WHAT’S ONLINE


Elizabeth Woody, part of May 20’s “Who Gets To Be an American?” online conversation in the Vanport Mosaic 2020 Virtual Festival. Photo courtesy Oregon Cultural Trust

IF YOU HAVE A KEYBOARD AND A CONNECTION (and if you’re reading this, you do) the world’s at your fingertips. All right, not the real world: These days it’s prety much all virtual, all the time. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of good stuff to plug into. Here’s just a sampler:

VANPORT MOSAIC 2020 VIRTUAL FESTIVAL. We wrote about this vigorous and positively provocative festival in last week’s ArtsWatch Weekly, and the online attractions just keep coming through May 30, the 72nd anniversary of the Memorial Day flood in 1948 that wiped the city of Vanport off the map, killing 15 people and leaving 17,500 homeless. Among the upcoming attractions (check the full schedule in the link above): taiko artist Michelle Fujii in conversation with Douglas Detrick on “the constant state of otherness,” Friday, May 15; a conversation with Sankar Raman of The Immigrant Story and writer Ramiza Koya about “becoming American,” Sunday, May 17; a Confluence Conversation among Patricia Whitefoot (Yakama Nation), former Oregon poet laureate Elizabeth Woody (Warm Springs) and Chuck Sams (Umatilla) about “who gets to be an American,” Wednesday, May 20.

THE TURN OF THE SCREW. The Beaverton-based Experience Theatre Project is offering an encore performance of its live-screened production of Jeffrey Hatcher’s two-actor adaptation of Henry James’s classic ghost story on Friday, May 16. The original screening on May 1 played to a stay-at-home audience of 7,000. You need to register to get your virtual seat; click on the link above.

BROADWAY ROSE AT HOME. The Tigard theater company, which is the metro area’s most prominent home for musical theater, is going virtual with its new series Midday Cabaret, at 1 p.m. every Wednesday. It’s just what it sounds like: livestreamed cabaret shows, hosted by Broadway Rose’s Dan Murphy and featuring stars from past company shows. Right now, performances by David Saffert and Benjamin Tissell are available, with more on the way.

MOMENTARY JOYS, WITH HENK PANDER AND BRUCE GUENTHER. Two lions of the Oregon art world – painter Pander and curator Guenther – talk in a webinar sponsored by the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education about how, in the museum’s words, “bad times can produce great art. Dadaism grew from the tragedy of the First World War; the Depression sparked a social realist movement and Jews created art in ghettos, concentration camps, and in hiding during the Second World War. … Momentary joys, if you will, that help us get through confinement.” Noon Wednesday, May 20, and you need to register: Once again, click on the link above.


ISOLATIONISTS ARE LOOKING FOR A FEW GOOD READS


Alison Dennis is executive director for Sitka Center for Art and Ecology near Otis.
Alison Dennis, executive director of the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, on the Oregon Coast, says in “I am Still here … it still is a time for singing” that she feels both more isolated and more connected than ever.

‘I AM STILL HERE … IT STILL IS A TIME FOR SINGING.’ In the latest in our “Oregon in Shutdown: Voices from the Front” series, Lori Tobias, ArtsWatch’s Oregon Coast columnist, talks with five key coastal arts figures about how the pandemic has changed what they do and think. It’s not all bad news.

MY APPETITES: ON EATING AND COPING MECHANISMS, CHILDHOOD AND SELF-CONTROL, CRITICISM, LOVE, CANCER, AND PANDEMICS. Jerry Saltz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic for New York Magazine who is married to Roberta Smith, art critic for The New York Times (imagine their conversations over coffee), writes a beautiful, searing, and sometimes heartbreaking personal essay about the accumulations of experience and realities we carry with us into the time of plague.

SAFE DISTANCE SOUNDS, PART 2: CHAMBER TERROIR. “With live performances temporarily out of the picture, I’ve been fulfilling my jones for homegrown sounds by listening to recent releases from Oregon-based or -born musicians that caught my ear,” Brett Campbell writes. This compilation, which features ambient and other contemporary sounds (including Kenji Bunch’s fresh score for Eugene Ballet’s The Snow Queen) follows his first Safe Distance Sounds, a roundup of recent Oregon jazz recordings.

INTERVIEW IN A TIME OF SEQUESTRATION. Alone with his camera and his keyboard, photographer and frequent ArtsWatch contributor K.B. Dixon resorts to desperate measures: He interviews himself. His resulting essay in Q&A form (which is illustrated with several of his portraits of Portland arts figures) is both illuminating and amusing. Think the mysteries of shadows, and native soil, and “that much revered Southern snake-charmer, William Faulkner.” 

WHAT SHAKESPEARE ACTUALLY DID DURING THE PLAGUE. Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, who teaches at Linfield College and is an occasional ArtsWatch contributor, manages two difficult tasks with aplomb in this short humor piece for The New Yorker: He makes light of Shakespeare and of the Plague Times that Shakespeare lived through, and makes us laugh at both. “Day 13: You’ve been wearing the same doublet and hose for two weeks.” 

OZZIE GONZÁLEZ: STAGING A RACE. The theaters have shut down for the duration. But Portland actor González has moved onto a much bigger stage, as a serious candidate to become mayor of Portland. Bobby Bermea talks with him about why he’s running, what his goals for the city are, and how the world of theater and the arts is good preparation for politics.

MUSEUM CURATOR GRACE KOOK-ANDERSON: FIGURING IT OUT. Martha Daghlian talks with the Portland Art Museum’s curator of Northwest art about working from home, the economic impact of the pandemic, and how things are changing: “There’s a huge emphasis on the extreme local right now that I think is really interesting. … The DIY culture that is celebrated here is evident in many art spaces, and I see that reflected in the ways they are adapting to this situation.”


QUOTABLE (THE NEW BROADWAY VERSION)


Corey Brunish, the Broadway and Portland theater producer who we wrote about last week, was challenged online a few days ago to develop some ideas for updated musicals to fit our shutdown times. He came up with a few:


The Pajama Game All Day Long
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to 2021 
Into the Woods for a Walk
Bye Bye Income
Annie Get Your Face Mask
How To Succeed in Business by Washing Your Hands
HAIRcut

– Your turn. Create a Broadway Quotable of your own!


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A Diasporist, etc.,etc.

R.B. Kitaj's striking and memorable exhibition "A Jew, Etc., Etc." at the Oregon Jewish Museum splays open the experience of exile

Last summer the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education celebrated the opening of its new home with a stunning exhibit, Grisha Bruskin’s ALEFBET: The Alphabet of Memory. In case anyone was wondering if such quality could see repeat performances, the answer is a resounding: Yes!

The current exhibit, R.B. Kitaj, A Jew, Etc., Etc., is a marvel in more ways than one. Smartly curated by Bruce Guenther, whose deep knowledge about and passion for the artist can be heard and felt during his exhibition tours, the art on display covers a wide range of Kitaj’s changing preoccupations. But it also brings home the underlying constant in his works since the 1970s, his identification as a Jew in the diaspora and his embrace of commentary, the historical means of keeping knowledge intact and learning alive for all Jews, no matter where.

R.B. Kitaj, “The Jew, Etc., Etc.,” 1989–2004, oil on canvas, 36 ¼ x 36 ¼ inches, R. B. Kitaj Estate.

 

R.B. Kitaj, “Self-Portrait (Black Sheep),” 2001-2003, oil and charcoal on canvas, 24 x 24 inches, R. B. Kitaj Estate.

Kitaj was born in 1932 in Cleveland, Ohio. His mother remarried an émigré Austrian Jew after her divorce who took the boy under his wing. It was not a religious household but one that cherished culture in the vein of the Central European middle class. After some years in the merchant marine, Kitaj began to study art at Cooper Union, moved on to the Akademie in Vienna, and eventually ended up in London, where he soon joined a circle of up-and-coming painters, Hockney, Freud, and Auerbach among them. Alone with two small children after the suicide of his first wife, he eventually remarried a 15-year younger woman, a gifted painter in her own right, Sandra Fisher, with whom he had another son.

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A bigger, bolder Jewish Museum

The Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education takes over the old craft museum space with a broadened vision and a vibrant Russian art show

In a crowded second-floor gallery at the corner of Northwest Davis Street and Park Avenue, the joint was jumpin’. Television cameras whirred in the new home of the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, a small jewel of a museum location that had been sitting vacant for many months. Reporters cornered curators and scribbled notes. Early birds wandered up and down the stairs of the 15,000-square-foot space’s two stories. The Russian artist Grisha Bruskin, outfitted in black from his close-cut coil of hair to his sleek sneakers, was talking about his new exhibit, ALEFBET: The Alphabet of Memory, which was spread like a giant quilt across the main-floor gallery below. Preparations for Sunday’s free public grand opening were in full swing, and the mood was jubilant.

Bruce Guenther, curator of inaugural exhibition, and Judy Margles, director of Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education. Photo: Palma Corral

It was Wednesday in the prime Pearl District space, which had been home to the Museum of Contemporary Craft until that museum was abruptly shut down by the board of the Pacific Northwest College of Art more than a year ago, shocking both the city and a tightknit national craft art scene that had considered MoCC a pacesetting institution. After several months of hammering, sawing, painting, and reshaping spaces, it’s been reborn as the new home of the Jewish museum, which has moved from a space half its size and far less strategically located. Judy Margles, the museum’s longtime director, addressed the preview-day crowd. The designers took a bow. Bruce Guenther, the former chief curator of the Portland Art Museum who is curating the museum’s first season of exhibitions, introduced Bruskin, whose ALEFBET he praised as taking “its place with the tapestry masterworks.” And if the bubbly wasn’t flowing (it was a Wednesday morning, after all) the coffee was: Suddenly a space that had housed an important cultural center that had died before its time seemed alive with hope and possibilities again.

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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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Bruce Guenther, chief curator and The Robert and Mercedes Eichholz Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Portland Art Museum, announced his retirement today, according to a press release from the museum.

For the past 14 years, Guenther has led the museum’s curatorial department, serving under former museum director, the late John Buchanan, and current executive director Brian Ferriso.

“It has been an honor to have worked with Bruce,” Ferriso said in the press release. “As chief curator, he has played a critical role in helping define not only our modern and contemporary program, but also our larger curatorial vision and aspirations. His years of experience, knowledge, and deep commitment have left an indelible imprint upon our institution and community. Bruce will be missed.”

Guenther’s last day will be October 20, following the anticipated opening of his latest exhibition, In Passionate Pursuit: The Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Collection and Legacy.

The museum says it will launch an international search for a chief curator and curator of modern and contemporary art.

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