Roger Hull

Clifford Gleason: Early Oregon modernist

Hallie Ford Museum of Art continues its justly celebrated retrospectives of Oregon artists with the late Clifford Gleason

“Painting is hard work. It’s work, sure it’s work. When you are using all your faculties for one thing—standing in front of an easel—you don’t realize it because it is inspiring, but you are exhausted at the end of the day, you are bound to be, because you are using everything.” — Clifford Gleason

If you go to see the Clifford Gleason retrospective at Hallie Ford Museum of Art at Willamette University in Salem, you will be rewarded if you enjoy impressive abstract painting and traveling through an artist’s career. It is ironic that Gleason’s big show, now 42 years after his death, occurs when people hesitate to even leave home (here are the museum’s guidelines for visitors). Gleason (1913-1978) was not one of the big names of mid-century Oregon art—just a well-respected painter. This exhibition demonstrates why he was well-respected and why he should be newly remembered.

Clifford Gleason in his studio, Salem, Oregon. 1960s.
Photo by Bob Crist. Collection of Bob Crist.

Clifford Gleason: The Promise of Paint takes us through Gleason’s roughly 40-year career, beginning in 1938. As we move through the exhibition we can imagine what it might have been like to figure out how to be a painter was in step with his time. As with recent Hallie Ford retrospectives for Louis Bunce and Lucinda Parker, this one has been organized by Roger Hull, and is accompanied by a catalog with a fascinating, detailed essay that weaves Gleason’s life/career with great documentation of the times. 

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A long and inimitable painting career

Lucinda Parker's Force Fields at Hallie Ford Museum

Lucinda Parker is the premier Portland painter of her generation. Lucinda Parker—Force Fields is a 50+ year retrospective at the Hallie Ford Museum in Salem through March 31. Though the year has just started, there is unlikely to be a better or more important painting show in Oregon in 2019.

The show begins with two of the artist’s early works. Self-Portrait was painted around 1957 or 1958 when the artist was only 16. A serious looking young woman looks out at the viewer. The brushwork is surprisingly sophisticated for such a young artist but Parker had been taking art lessons since she was in elementary school. In Waterfall at Garland Pond, Putney, Vermont from 1959-1960, actively brushed flowing water foreshadows the dynamism of Parker’s works in the decades to come. The bold colors, dynamic paint (flowing, knifed, brushed), and aggressive scale will come later; these early works are dark, closed, in, and mysterious.

Lucinda Parker, “Waterfall at Garland Point, Putney, Vermont,” (1959-1960), oil on Masonite, with modern frame (acrylic), 30 x 42 in., courtesy of the the artist. Photo: Jim Lommasson.

Parker came to Portland in 1960, right after high school at Putney School in Vermont. She was attracted to a combined Reed College/Museum Art School (now PNCA) program. At Reed she, “took my humanities, my chemistry, my French and all that. I got [to the Museum Art School] and I thought it was the best thing in the world to be in a school like that—six hours a day in the studio every day. At night you’re tired. You can’t stay up all night.” She studied with (among others) Mike Russo, Mel Katz, Harry Widman, George Johanson, Dorothy Yezerski, and Louis Bunce. After completing her undergraduate degree program, she went on to get an MFA at Pratt Institute in New York, returning to Portland in 1969.

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Louis Bunce: Catalyst for making Portland a city of modern art

A retrospective of Louis Bunce's at the Hallie Ford Museum makes the case for the artist as the catalyst for modern art in Portland

There is a retrospective exhibition of paintings by Louis Bunce at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem, running through March 26. It is an important show. It is a great show. It is accompanied by a monograph on Bunce by Roger Hull. It is important. It is great.

The importance of Louis Bunce to the development of art in Portland (and Oregon) cannot be overstated. As Hull says in his introduction: “Arguably Louis Bunce was the major Oregon modern artist of the twentieth century—a claim that can be substantiated on the basis of his enormously skilled production in many styles and modes, his friendship with artists on the New York scene that provided links between the Big Apple and the Rose City, his imaginative will to make Portland, Oregon, a city of art as well as roses, and the sheer force of his amiable, extroverted personality.”

Gerald Robinson, “Portrait of Louis Bunce,” 1955, gelatin silver print//Courtesy Hallie Ford Museum of Art

The exhibition certainly demonstrates “his enormously skilled production in many styles and modes.” Born in Wyoming in 1907, Bunce graduated from Jefferson High School in Portland. He attended the School of the Portland Art Association (later called the Museum Art School and later the Pacific Northwest College of Art), and spent four years in his early 20s in New York attending classes at the Art Students League. Early on he was enthralled with the paintings of Paul Cézanne, and the early landscapes in the exhibition have hints of Cézanne.

He then seems to have been inspired by the surrealist Giorgio de Chirico in the 1930s, with works like Along the Waterfront, 1939-1940. Here is a view from the seawall along the Willamette, looking north. Two figures lean on the wall, gazing across the river, but the rest is a simplified still life of objects: timbers, post, wheel, bridge and the towers of the Portland Public Market Building (later the Oregon Journal Building, demolished in 1969 for the construction of Waterfront Park). It has the bleakness of de Chirico, but maybe that’s also the bleakness of the Great Depression.

Louis Bunce, “Along the Waterfront”, 1939-1940. Oil on canvas. 34” x 30 ½” /Courtesy Hallie Ford Museum of Art

By the 1950s Bunce, in the spirit of the times, was making abstract expressionist style paintings. For me these are his most powerful works. Bunce combines freedom of form making with explorations of paint application—typical abstract expressionist attributes—with the feeling (not really “depiction”) of the land and sea of Oregon. Burned Land No. 2 relates directly to the series of massive wildfires known as the Tillamook Burn. Other titles such as Bay Composition No.2, Beach—Low Tide, Soft Rocks, Cliffside, or Lava Field, make it clear that Bunce was looking locally for (oh, I hate using this word, but…) “inspiration.”

Landscape-inspired-abstraction continued to be Bunce’s motif of choice through the end of his life, with a few side tracks into “pop”-inspired, paintings of enormous apples and roses, and a series of collages and serigraphs with strange furniture-like motifs (unfortunately not in this exhibition, but in a show of Bunce paper works that just closed at Hallie Ford).

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Three more Oregon Arts Commissioners resign

The Oregon Arts Commission still deals with repercussions from the firing of its executive director

Michele Russo, "Bathers," 1960/Portland Art Museum ©1960 Michele Russo

Michele Russo, “Bathers,” 1960/Portland Art Museum ©1960 Michele Russo

Late last week I heard that three more commissioners had resigned from the Oregon Arts Commission—Jean Boyer Cowling of Medford, Maurizio Valerio of Union and Roger Hull of Salem. This mass resignation might have pushed me into the journalistic equivalent of the Red Zone. Yet MORE trouble at the arts commission? But in interviews with OregonLive’s David Stabler and Barbara Curtin of the Statesman Journal, Hull, the only departing commissioner who was reachable, apparently, said he was leaving because of old business.

“I was uncomfortable with the circumstances surrounding the termination of Chris D’Arcy,” Hull told Curtin. “After thinking about it for a while, and watching the makeup of the arts commission evolve, I decided it was time for newer members to take the leadership of the discussions and that I would step aside.”

Stabler quoted from Cowling’s resignation letter to the governor:

“I strongly disagree that Ms. D’Arcy’s termination was warranted but I recognize that any evaluation of an executive director’s performance can be disputed. My concern is board governance. It appears that a few people, including the Oregon Arts Commission chair, were actively involved in this termination. Unfortunately, this action occurred without notice to or consultation with the commission.”

Christine D’Arcy was fired by Business Oregon’s Tim McCabe back in October after 19 years at the commission. In the state bureaucracy, the arts commission executive director reports to the head of the agency charged with economic development in the state. The board chairs of both the little arts agencies  D’Arcy supervised, Julie Vigeland of the arts commission and Bob Speltz of the Oregon Cultural Trust, signed off on the decision, but the final decision was McCabe’s: the arts commission does not hire or fire its executive director. Two arts commission commissioners resigned immediately, Henry Sayre and Royal Nebeker, and they were replaced (and another opening filled) by three new commissioners.

At the time I wrote two stories analyzing the situation. The first argued that the twisted bureaucratic circumstances of the executive director of the arts commission and cultural trust made the position essentially impossible: too many legislative and government bureaucracy masters on top of two separate citizen commissions. Only the fact that the arts were almost invisible and powerless in state government made the position survivable at all. But the commissions’ invisibility and relative powerlessness made the executive director a target for the arts community, which wanted more aggressive policy formulation and representation in Salem than was possible. A more aggressive executive director would have found herself in the cross-hairs of various administrations and legislatures over the years. (In the second, I argued for a much more visible, policy leadership position on the governor’s staff, a Secretary of the Arts, and a revised, more democratic, citizen involvement in policy development.)

That analysis, however, doesn’t explain personal friendships and loyalties on the commission. Or for that matter different policy ideas. If Vigeland and Speltz are hoping their commissions can have more impact in the future (and my conversations with Vigeland suggest they do), figuring out how that can happen and in what areas will be debatable. So, change in the commission was inevitable, I think, and inevitably painful. (I think D’Arcy’s contribution to the arts in the state is gigantic, and I always found her to be personable: My first reaction to the news last fall was surprise and sadness.)

Anyway, this would be an interesting time to be an Oregon arts commissioner, and if you feel the call, then you can apply online. The commission is also surveying the public to help figure out what qualities are most important in an executive director, and that survey is also online. I just filled it out myself.

 NOTE

The unrelated painting by the late Portland painter Michele Russo, above, comes from the Portland Art Museum’s digital collection.