Virtual art show goes viral

An online exhibition at Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg explores artistic responses to COVID-19

The Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg, like every other gallery and cultural venue in Oregon, is closed to the public, but the nonprofit’s resolve to stay on task with showcasing art, bringing artists together, and building a cultural community is unbroken.

Last week, the center unveiled an extraordinary and ambitious online exhibition brilliantly curated (presumably from her home) by Carissa Burkett, who keeps the center’s multiple galleries full year-round. It answers, at least in a preliminary way, a question that’s been on my mind since mid-March when COVID-19 shut everything down: How will artists respond to a pandemic?

“A dream of flying,” by Stan Peterson of Portland (carved and painted basswood on birch panel, 11 by 14 by 4 inches, April 2020). Peterson says of his piece: “The reclining figure emanating the yellow light of sky rests in a boat adrift. There is a sort of reverie to sheltering in place. I’m also feeling adrift, waiting to fly again.”
“A dream of flying,” by Stan Peterson of Portland (carved and painted basswood on birch panel, 11 by 14 by 4 inches, April 2020). Peterson says of his piece: “The reclining figure emanating the yellow light of sky rests in a boat adrift. There is a sort of reverie to sheltering in place. I’m also feeling adrift, waiting to fly again.”

A global trauma like COVID-19 will surely reverberate through the art world in coming years and even decades in ways we can’t predict. But Our Changing Context: Initial Artistic Response to COVID-19 at least provides an expansive snapshot of what artists are up to right now.

The show’s emotional resonance is all the more powerful thanks to two personal notes Burkett includes in the program’s description. She credits her father, Phil Burkett, for “planting the idea for this exhibit in my mind and for continually nurturing my creative spirit.” Also: “My work on this exhibit is in loving memory of my grandmother, Arlene Sue Conner, who passed away this past weekend on 4/18/2020.” 

“Curating this online exhibit has been a unique experience,” she writes. “Arranging images and text on a screen instead of lugging around my hammer and nails has allowed me to spend more time looking at, thinking about, and arranging these artworks than any physical exhibition I have ever put together. This allowed me the opportunity to bring together artists from across the country who work in widely different mediums but share the common experience of a pandemic that leaves every life continually grieving a new context, one in which needs cannot be met.  However each person chooses to make it through each day during this crisis is unique and how each of these artists have created is a testament to humanity.”

The exhibition features work by more than 20 artists, from Oregon and around the country, and includes digital photography, collage, drawing, poetry, painting, and video.

It is not immediately obvious with each piece that it is “about” or was even inspired by COVID-19. A beautiful oil portrait by Portland artist Dannika Sullivan, for example, titled Worse, seems no more than a portrait of a woman gazing intently at the viewer. Until you read the notes:

Artist Dannika Sullivan also made a 12-minute time-lapse video documenting creation of her painting “Worse” (oil on panel, April 2020). “We didn’t think it could get much worse,” she writes, “and somehow it has.”

“This piece connects me to the many overwhelming feelings I’ve experienced throughout the last few months and even throughout the process of its creation,” Sullivan writes. “It expresses emotions of disbelief, sadness, anger, anxiety, and hopelessness as we struggle to hold ourselves and our communities together whilst people in power continue to fail us and even hurt us to hold onto their pride and wealth. We didn’t think it could get much worse, and somehow it has.”

Amazingly, it is possible to watch the creation of Worse. With time-lapse photography and editing, Sullivan squeezed 15 hours of painting into an absorbing 12-minute video on her YouTube channel, which I highly recommend watching. It’s for anyone who has ever looked at a painting and wondered, “How did they do that?”

To its credit, the show is international in character. A film short by Chicago artist Kio Zhu, conveyed a piece of the COVID-19 story I’d not heard. Before the virus killed him, Chinese doctor and whistleblower Li Wenliang was (along, apparently with several other doctors) questioned by police. Two of the questions (“Can you do it?” and “Do you understand?” which were interpreted as, respectively, a requirement and a threat) blew up on Chinese social media. This inspired Zhu to make an unnerving multi-channel projection film that runs little more than two minutes, “using [the] material to create a confrontational experience and critique the power controlled by the authority.”

“At Home no. 2,” by Linden Eller of Phoenix, Ariz. (collage with watercolor, pastel, and pencil on paper, April, 2020)
“At Home no. 2,” by Linden Eller of Phoenix, Ariz. (collage with watercolor, pastel, and pencil on paper, April, 2020) is included in the “Our Changing Context” online show at Chehalem Cultural Center.

The variety of material included in the exhibition is remarkable. There is art of all kinds, some subtle, some not. A few pieces are overtly political; most are not. But Our Changing Context does illustrate one of the paradoxes of COVID-19. Even though the pandemic has shut down the brick-and-mortar art world and left the rest of us sheltering in place in our homes, artists have found ways to keep producing work and getting it in front of people, even if it’s on a screen. And quite possibly, in front of people who might otherwise not have sought out or seen art.

This exhibition was created for viewing on a screen, though some of it undoubtedly would be enhanced by seeing it in person. We can’t do that right now, but it’s all online. It’s free, there are no passwords or registration. Just go and see. And while you’re there, check out the center’s Art From Home Instagram series, also a product of our changed context.

IT HARDLY COMES AS A SURPRISE, but last week Aquilon Music Festival founder Anton Belov finally made the tough, inevitable call: This year’s opera-centric event in Yamhill County has been canceled.

JUST A QUICK REMINDER THAT CULTURAL LIFE IN YAMHILL COUNTY has not ground to a complete halt. As detailed last week, Third Street Books (also the McMinnville Public Library) continues to deliver to McMinnville residents. The Merri Artist downtown is still keeping artists supplied with the tools they need, so long as UPS and USPS keep up. Also, this is as good a time as any to visit online galleries that you’ve perhaps not seen before, including Marilyn Affolter, the McMinnville Center for the Arts, and The Gallery at Ten Oaks.

ARTS JOURNAL: I helped contribute to the nationwide explosion of sidewalk art this month with a bucket of years-old chalk I found in our garage. Decorated most of the sidewalk in front of our house. Rain has washed it mostly away, but I’m ready for another round as soon as I can put my hands on more chalk. Along with toilet paper, it’s tough to find in stock. Current quarantine reading includes the first of Simon Winchester’s two books about the Oxford English Dictionary, The Professor and the Madman, and Alan Moore’s ground-breaking run of Swamp Thing for DC comics.

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This story is supported in part by a grant from the Yamhill County Cultural Coalition, Oregon Cultural Trust, and Oregon Community Foundation.

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