Tumbling statues, voices heard

ArtsWatch Weekly: A culture in crisis clashes over the past; a museum reopens; photos & films; singing amid the vines; a bookstore steps out

THE BIG NEWS IN PORTLAND THIS WEEK has been Sunday night’s downtown rumble through the cultural district, a highly focused and rigorously carried out protest – declared by its organizers to be an Indigenous People’s Day of Rage – in which activists toppled public statues of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, vandalized the Oregon Historical Society to the tune of an estimated $25,000 or more, did lesser damage outside the Portland Art Museum and at Portland State University, smashed store windows, and shot bullets inside an empty restaurant. Police declared the protest a riot, but took no action until after the damage was done. And the story was immediately picked up by President Donald Trump, who tweeted his desire to rush federal officers into the Portland fray. “Put these animals in jail, now,” he tweeted, referring to the protesters, and quickly followed up: “Law & Order! Portland, call in the Feds!”

David Manuel’s “The Promised Land” was controversial when it was installed in 1993 and is even more controversial now after months of racial and political unrest. It was removed for safekeeping from downtown Portland’s Chapman Square in July.

ArtsWatch’s Laurel Reed Pavic was working on a story about the issue of politically and mythologically charged public monuments and how to deal with them when cultural values and understandings of history shift. She quickly updated her analysis after Lincoln and Roosevelt – not the most obvious of targets, although each had specific issues about Indigenous rights – came tumbling down. The symbolic overthrow of monuments, she notes in her essay After the Statues Come Down, is nothing new: “Defacing or damaging public art has always gone hand-in-hand with putting it up in the first place. It happened in the city-states of ancient Mesopotamia and continues to happen today. The visual impact of a former leader face-down on the pavement hasn’t lessened over the past 5,000 years.”

What follows in her essay is a nuanced and considered exploration of the issues and their consequences, well worth reading. “Let’s take the sculptures down,” she writes of works that are now considered offensive, “but let’s put them somewhere still accessible and explain why they were made in the first place. Budapest put its monuments to communism in a park. Outliving its raison d’être doesn’t mean there is no historical or cultural relevance. The monuments can’t be ‘lost’; we have to acknowledge the history that they represent. … The works can help teach the complicated past: stolen land, Black exclusion laws, white privilege. These need to be discussed and taught openly, not to encourage self-loathing but because ignoring them doesn’t make them go away. The drive to reinvent ourselves can’t come at the expense of a full acknowledgment of the past.”



AS OLD STATUES FACE THE WRATH OF ANGRY MOBS, new works of art that seek to expose and understand the cultural inequities and entrenched violence of the day are being created. In his ArtsWatch essay ‘Silent Voices’: A Movie for Moose, Bobby Bermea tells the story of one such new creative work. Silent Voices tells the story of Quanice “Moose” Hayes, a 17-year-old Black Portlander who was shot and killed by a Portland police officer in 2017, and eight other Black victims of killings by police, giving back the voices that were taken from them. The voice behind those voices belongs to Donna Hayes, Quanice’s grandmother, who didn’t want her grandson’s story to be buried beneath a neat official version of things. She began to write an article, and, with the urging of a friend, longtime theater professor Kathryn Kendall, began to turn it into a play. When the pandemic hit, Hayes and Kendall shifted to turning the story into a film, which is now available via the Portland community media center Open Signal. Silent Voices is a work of art that helps make clear why Black Lives Matter matters. 

Donna Hayes, grandmother of slain teenager Quanice Hayes, makes her voice heard at an Oct. 1, 2018 rally for Patrick Kimmons, who was shot nine times and killed by Portland police officers. Photo: Kathryn Kendall

***

WE ARE AT A MEETING PLACE of culture, history, race, and politics – a reckoning in a deeply divided time. How do the events of Sunday night fit in? Curiously, at the very least. The targeting of statues and cultural institutions for destructive action took the events beyond ordinary protest. Portland’s almost nightly protests since the slaying by Minneapolis police of George Floyd on May 25 have been largely peaceful and lawful, with a regular sprinkling of property destruction. They have almost without exception been deeply documented, with video, photographs, and words, by professional and independent journalists, participants, and observers. This one was different. Organizers warned people not to take videos or photos. These actions would be undertaken under a veil of anonymity: It’s still not certain who the organizers were or what their motives were. The takedown of the statues was not spontaneous but well-planned, with heavy equipment at hand. 

And what of the targets? Museums historically have a lot to answer for in terms of how they acquired certain objects, whose objects they deem worthy of displaying, and the ways they interpret history. But the museum world is actively dealing with these issues, and the Oregon Historical Society and the Portland Art Museum in particular have been ahead of the game, actively addressing issues of inequity and rethinking their connections with and commitments to Black, Indigenous, and other communities. What, besides the historical society’s windows, was damaged? At the society, the Afro-American Heritage Commemorative Quilt, conceived and carried out by 15 African American women in Portland on the occasion of the 1976 United States Bicentennial (a piece that was featured in this column last week), was stolen and then abandoned several blocks away, with water damage. Across the street at the art museum, protestors ripped down and damaged the large Black Lives Matter banner hanging from the building’s exterior. The restaurant shot up a few blocks away is owned by a Black man. And scant weeks before a crucial election the provocations were greeted with anger by many ordinary citizens, and almost inevitably prompted cries for Law and Order, a phrase often used as a racial dog whistle. It’s enough to make you wonder whose side the protesters were on. 

More deeply, who gets to decide what stays up and what goes down? Who determines what a person is allowed to think? How are those decisions made? Can they, in a society that at least purports to be a representative democracy, be decided by a small group by fiat? Laurel Reed Pavic’s essay discusses some of these issues. If we are a civil society, institutions such as the art museum and the historical society are part of the exploratory process, as important in their ways as the political sector. Maybe there are better, more inclusive, ways to decide these things.



MOZART AMID THE VINEYARDS, WITH LIVE AUDIENCE


Mozart takes to the great outdoors. Screen shot from the production’s promotional video.

“INDISPUTABLY BEAUTIFUL”: TAKING THE MAGIC FLUTE OUTDOORS. What if somebody gave an opera and you were able to see it in real time and space? While opera houses from the Portland Opera in Oregon to the Metropolitan Opera in New York are shut down by the health and economic realities of the pandemic, smaller and nimbler companies are better able to adapt and reinvent. Charles Rose writes about one such adeptly scrambling success – a bare-bones but sprightly and satisfying production of Mozart’s comedy The Magic Flute in Oregon wine country. It was set to open Sept. 19 at Newberg’s Utopia Vineyards, a performance scuttled by wildfire smoke. Then, on Sept. 27 at Lady Hill Winery in St. Paul, it happened – “the first full opera production in Oregon since March.” Rose talks with the small group of young singers who made it all happen, and about what it felt like to be in a real, live audience, appropriately spaced, in the great outdoors. Why Mozart? he asked soprano Angelica Hesse. “She told me, ‘Mozart is indisputably beautiful, and right now that’s what we need more than anything.’”



IN ASTORIA, A BEACON FOR THE PHOTOGRAPHIC ARTS


Above left: Joni Kabana, “Yohan,” 2013. Right: Sam Blair, “Girl from Ethiopia,” 2019.

CHASING THE LIGHT. Like almost every art gallery, photographer and ArtsWatch contributor Pat Rose writes, Astoria’s 11-year-old LightBox Photographic Gallery – “a beloved institution among photographic artists and patrons of the arts” – has faced hardships during the pandemic. Yet it endures, says Rose: “This is the story of how LightBox has grown, how it has withstood the pandemic, and what it has meant to many of its members over the years.” Rose talks at length with Michael Granger, co-founder with his wife, Chelsea, of the gallery, and with an all-star lineup of 11 of the gallery’s many photographer-members about how it all works and the community of artists that’s coalesced around it.

“Nothing beats a gallery full of people interacting and sharing their experience with fellow photography enthusiasts,” Granger tells Rose. “The best part of LightBox for Chelsea and me has been greeting visitors to the gallery and interacting with everyone participating in our events, workshops and exhibition openings. Every single day of sharing the gallery with the public has been a pleasure for us. Then the pandemic stopped everything cold.” Exhibits continue online, and the gallery has reopened for limited hours and a limited number of visitors. But Granger longs for the pre-Covid days of big crowds and mingling. The photographers feel much the same, as veteran Stu Levy notes: LightBox “has also created a community of photographers reaching from the northwest corner of the state to Portland and beyond.”

Chasing the Light is a companion piece to Weathering the Storm, Rose’s profile of Portland’s Blue Sky Gallery and the steps the photographic arts center has taken to ride out the pandemic crisis.

Laura Kurtenbach, “Lured,” 2020.


BACK IN BUSINESS: PSU’S ART MUSEUM REOPENS


Daniel Duford, “Abolitionists in a Flood,” oil on canvas, 2019, from his exhibit “John Brown’s Vision on the Scaffold” at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at Portland State University.

THE NEW JORDAN SCHNITZER MUSEUM OF ART opened last November and barely had a chance to get its artistic feet wet before coronavirus restrictions forced it to shut its doors in March. On Thursday, Oct. 15, it finally reopened – to PSU students, faculty, and staff, at any rate – with sharp restrictions, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays. For those who can’t see them in person, the exhibits are also available online. 

The museum reopens with a continuation of two linked shows that were being exhibited before the shutdown, and if anything they’re even more pertinent now, after months of racial and political unrest, than they were when the museum closed. Arvie Smith: 2 Up and 2 Back II is a selection of the veteran Portland artist’s brightly confrontative satirical paintings based, in the artist’s words, “on the concept of race and the normalization of social inequities born solely out of privilege based on skin tone.”

Daniel Duford’s series John Brown’s Vision of the Scaffold dives deeply into the legend and continuing influence of the fiery abolitionist Brown, who was hanged in 1859 after leading a raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Duford joins a long line of artists as varied as Jacob Lawrence, Thomas Hovenden, John Steuart Curry, and Horrace Pippin to depict Brown’s story. The timing’s also pertinent because of the new Showtime series The Good Lord Bird, based on James McBride’s National Book Award winning novel and starring Ethan Hawke as Brown.

Arvie Smith, Untitled (Portrait), oil on canvas, 1988, from the series “What’s the Matter Man? Ain’t You Listening?” The portrait is part of Smith’s exhibit “2 Up and 2 Back II” at the PSU museum.


IN SHORT, McMINNVILLE’S FILM FEST MARCHES ON


The short animated comedy “The Plumbers,” by Portland filmmakers Christian Bergmans and Clark Soll, will be on view in this weekend’s McMinnville Short Film Festival online fundraiser.

McMINNVILLE SHORT FILM FESTIVAL MARCHES ON – PANDEMIC OR NO. In its nine years this annual festival in Oregon wine country has become a destination event for film enthusiasts. This year’s edition, ArtWatch’s David Bates writes, got in under the wire in February before coronavirus shutdowns began, and festival organizers are determined that the 10th anniversary festival will take place in February 2021 – one way or another. Festival founders Dan and Nancy Morrow, Bates writes, “actually are planning two events. A tentative scaffolding is being prepared in case the 2021 main event can be held, in part or full, in person. The more likely scenario is that it’s all or mostly virtual, with the social aspect of the festival — meeting the filmmakers — Zoomed into people’s living rooms.” In the meantime, a virtual fundraising event Friday through Sunday will present a greatest-hits show from festivals past, with most films introduced by their makers, and webinars with filmmakers also available. Click on the link for details.



AH, TO RUN A BOOKSTORE ON THE COAST – NOW?


Manzanita’s Cloud & Leaf Bookstore has weathered the pandemic through phone orders, home deliveries, and being available when other book sources were not.

DEBORAH REED: JUMPING INTO THE DEEP END. Novelist Deborah Reed discovered the Oregon Coast village of Manzanita nine years ago when she was invited to take part in the Manzanita Writer’s Series. “I fell in love and kept coming,” she tells ArtsWatch columnist Lori Tobias. “It became a writer’s sanctuary for me.” One thing led to another, and Reed moved to Manzanita full-time. Then, a year and a half ago, she bought the city’s much-loved Cloud & Leaf Bookstore. And then the pandemic came. Reed talked with Tobias about what it’s like to be a new bookstore owner in a time of a global health crisis that’s cut deeply into vacation travel and hurt small businesses everywhere. There are many stresses, Reed notes, and also compensations: “The only thing I have been surprised about is the outpouring of emotion that takes place in this bookstore. … People come in and divulge things. There’s something about being around books. People just feel comfortable, like you’re a bartender or something.”



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