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Social engagement: politics, resistance, and art

2018 in Review, Part 5: Oregon ArtsWatch visited creators in all media who are addressing problems ranging from racism to climate change

The world is indisputably in a precarious position — not just politically and socially, but economically and even ecologically. It is a moment of crisis. Artists play a crucial role in moments like these, helping the rest of us arrive at a shared cognition of what is — of seeing, sensing, and feeling that roil of life in a way that clarifies, opens eyes, and maybe even showing us a way forward.

What struck me in compiling this year-end reading list on socially engaged art in Oregon is the extent to which artists strove not simply to see and interpret, but to peel back layers, to reveal what is largely hidden — either by design or by accident — by institutions, by geography, and even by the telling of history. There may be no “new” stories to tell, but too many stories haven’t been heard by those who need to hear them, by people who perhaps want to see, but don’t know how.

So dive into this compilation. There’s a bit of everything: visual art, theater, music, conceptual art, literature. And, of course, the usual disclaimer: The choices here are highly subjective and presented in no particular order, and obviously are not intended to be comprehensive.



Witnesses in a churning world

Artist Hung Liu says “Official Portraits: Immigrant” (2006, lithograph with collage) is one of three self-portraits representing stages of her life.

Sept. 27: ArtsWatch’s Bob Hicks checked out a fall show at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem called Witness: Themes of Social Justice in Contemporary Printmaking and Photography. It featured a lineup of artists who look at the world through a lens that is both personal and cultural, and in a way that connects our present moment with history.

“The idea of art as a pristine thing, separated from the hurly-burly of the everyday world and somehow above it all, is a popular notion,” Hicks wrote. “But a much stronger case exists for the idea of art as the expression of the roil of life, in all its messiness and cruelty and prejudices and passions and pleasures and occasional outbursts of joy. Art comes from somewhere, and that somewhere is the world in which we live.”

The article is a mini-tour of the exhibition itself, with nearly 20 pieces accompanied by the artists’ personal statements reflecting the roil and rebellion of their creative processes.



David Ludwig: Telling the Earth’s story through music

Chamber Music Northwest performs ‘Pangæa.’ Photo: Tom Emerson.

July 27: “Pangæa was the single huge continent on Earth encompassed by one vast ocean over 200 million years ago – eons before dinosaurs, much less humans,” musician David Ludwig writes in the program notes for composition of the same name. “It was an entirely different planet than one we’d recognize today, lush with life of another world.” That’s the world Ludwig interpreted musically in the West Coast premiere of Pangæa, a piece inspired by the ancient Earth, and the threat of extinction as a result of human-caused climate change. Matthew Andrews talked to him about this extraordinary piece of music for ArtsWatch. Best of all: You can listen to it yourself.


The misdirected tizzy over shredded Banksy

Jennifer Rabin considers the target of Banksy's auction prank

Last week, during the ache and anticipation of the Kavanaugh debacle, the art world had its own to-do. Sotheby’s auctioned off a painting, Girl With Balloon, by the street artist Banksy. A split second after it sold for $1.4 million, its unassuming gold frame shredded it into what some reporters would have us believe are now worthless strips of a formerly precious work of art.

Girl With Balloon at Sotheby’s in London on Image posted on Banksy’s Instagram account

Arts writers were aflutter. What would happen next? Would this void the sale? What would it do to the resale value? “Sotheby’s has not named the client whose $1.4 million purchase was destroyed,” one article informed us, perfectly illustrating the art world’s inability, or willful refusal, to see past an object to the intention behind it.

They missed the point.


In the studio: Blaine Fontana

From his riverside workplace in a North Portland art hub, the muralist and public artist fans out around the globe

The winding sidewalk to North Coast Seed Building Studios is caught in a vice-grip between the hurried freight cars of the Union Pacific rail line and their fellow travelers, the cargo ships along the Willamette River below. Both sides are neatly ordered, and the hustle and bustle of behind-the-scenes raw materials and merchandise on the move make this industrial area between the Fremont and Broadway bridges in North Portland seem plucked from another time. Tall, bushy, and abundant dill plants spring from the space between the macadam and the gutter, fighting for space with monumental rosemary bushes. Maybe accidental escapees from the former seed storehouse, the out-of-place plants are a nice reminder of how tenacious life can be. There’s little pause between the trains as they create a small wind chamber; their weathered exteriors carry both loaded social commentary and amateur graffiti messages.

Blaine Fontana: the artist amid his art.

Blaine Fontana: the artist amid his art.

For the last seven years the artist Blaine Fontana has worked here. Inside, his studio looks like many in and around this sprawling artistic compound: projects stacked by studio doors; found pieces that look their age, but have enough of the right lines and material to deserve an eyeful. Near its high rafter ceilings Fontana’s studio has windows that face west and fill the room with an almost unfiltered light. The space is divided into sections, giving the unmistakable impression of a creative warehouse. With its stacked materials and framing of wooden beams, it’s playful, too. The smells of fresh lumber and 1950s filing-cabinet steel fill the air. Fontana is of a similar nature. He’s focused, grounded, driven, always on the hunt for something new to appreciate. He’s a tall man, with black swept hair and some well-placed tattoos. Around the edges of his thoughtful composure lurks a little of the bad boy.