PPH Passing Strange

Weather as metaphor for everything

The exhibition "Strange Weather" at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon brings together a diverse roster of artists and perspectives.

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Leonardo Drew (American, b. 1961), Number 215B, 2020. Wood, paint, sand. Size variable. Installation view. Image courtesy of the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon.

“You don’t have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”  -Bob Dylan

In cognitive linguistics, there is a theory that posits that metaphors create cultural knowledge: Connecting previously unrelated phenomena builds new categories of thought. You don’t have to be a linguist to practice this concept. Bob Dylan famously did this in his song Subterranean Homesick Blues when he used the wind to speak about politics and, in so doing, created a new category for thinking about the way politics worked. 

The group show Strange Weather on display through April 7 at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon in Eugene uses the metaphor of weather, too. It unites the wind – and other weather patterns – with concepts of culture, race, the environment and climate change. In other other words, the show frames a diverse group of artists and concerns under the umbrella or metaphor of atmospheric conditions.  

Located in the tripartite space of the Barker Gallery, the exhibit was co-curated by Dr. Rachel Nelson, director of the Institute of the Arts and Sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and by Art History and Visual Culture Professor Jennifer Gonzalez, also from the University of California at Santa Cruz. All the art is on loan from the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation, a nonprofit organization housed in Portland that contains more than 20,000 works of postmodern art. Established in 1997, the foundation has organized over 160 exhibits and as curators, Nelson and Gonzalez had full access to the collection.  

photo of two men with arm around shoulder smiling
Artist Leonardo Drew and Jordan Schnitzer. Image courtesy of the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon.

After pouring through scores of images, they decided on the double-theme show of climate change and the effects on land brought on by colonialism. The two themes converge at times, but not always, which kept me trying to make connections of my own. 

Included are prints, sculpture, paintings and one monumental installation. The subject matter is as diverse as the media, but the portraits mostly focus on artists whose cultures or race have been historically marginalized. Wendy Red Star’s self-portraits, for example,  reference how people of European ancestry have stereotypically depicted Native Americans. Hung Liu’s prints depict Chinese peasants with dignity they may not have been afforded in their lifetimes. A wall-sized, double-portrait of young Black men by Kehinde Wiley (who painted President Obama’s portrait for the National Portrait Gallery in 2018) is included as well.  

Gonzalez said, on a phone call in November soon after the exhibit opened, that as curators interested in art made by people who have been traditionally underrepresented, she and Nelson had an extraordinary number of artists to choose from. In the end, they decided on Carlos Amorales, Leonardo Drew, Joe Feddersen, Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds, James Lavadour, Nicola Lopez, Hung Liu, Julie Mehretu, Wendy Red Star, Alison Saar, Lorna Simpson, Kiki Smith, Charles Wilbert White, Kehinde Wiley, and Terry Winters.

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Viewing Leonardo Drew’s monumental installation Number 215B, you might be tempted, as I was, to believe it is made of recycled materials. The multi-colored segments that make up the large-scale work look as if they could have come off buildings during a storm. Using wood, paint, and sand, and a variety of processes including oxidation, Drew created the materials that comprise this work to look as if they have been left outside exposed to the elements, perhaps once a part of some other structure. 

Number 215B is on such a grand scale, I noticed people walking into the room tentatively. Most likely because, in addition to its size, the art appears to be in the process of exploding. Drew said the core of the work is arranged the same each time it’s installed, with museum or gallery employees following a template, but then whoever assembles it is given freedom to complete the rest. 

The art is different every time it’s shown.

I met Drew on February 21 when he was there, along with Jordan Schnitzer, to give a talk. In the catalog to the show, he said of his process making decayed-looking materials, “I am the weather.” I asked about his metaphor and got the feeling he’d rather let the work speak for itself. And why not, since standing in the shadow of his towering art, it was communicating quite loudly.  

He did say though, that as an artist he is “nature making nature.”  

Unlike Drew’s all-over installation, James Lavadour’s paintings hang neatly on the wall, gallery style. Yet, the two artists’ feelings about making art are remarkably similar. Like Drew, Lavadour equates art with nature. 

9-part grid of brightly colored landscape images
James Lavadour (Walla Walla, b. 1951), Deep Moon, 2005. Oil on wood. 72 x 90 inches. Image courtesy of the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon.

In the description alongside his contribution Deep Moon, he states: “I realized that what I was looking at and what I was doing were the same thing… as a physical being, I was an event of nature myself. I could become a conduit for making art, a conduit of nature, a conduit of the extraordinary event.” 

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Lavadour’s Deep Moon is a series of nine brilliantly colored landscapes grouped into one composite image. The central picture is of  green fields and atmospheric mountains, the type of landscape you might commonly see driving on the Interstate from Eugene to Portland. It is highly realistic, though with parts of land represented by bold brush strokes. In other of the nine scenes, brush strokes take over and the representational style turns abstract–at which point the land disappears.       

Speaking with Jordan Schnitzer about his life as an art collector, he described it in stages. He is now a collector in the stage of “old age,” he said. Then he proceeded to take me on a whirlwind tour of the exhibit, where I had to jog a bit sometimes to keep up. Pausing at various artworks, he identified each artist, their subject matter and delved into the meaning of their imagery. 

black shapes of continental maps with excess divisions
Carlos Amorales (Mexican, b. 1970), Useless Wonder Maps 1, edition 4/7, 2010. Relief 39 1/2 x 52 1/2inches. Image courtesy of the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon.

Looking at Useless Wonder Maps, a black and white relief series by Carlos Amorales, Schnitzer observed a similarity between the way Amorales’ maps were coming apart and Drew’s installation. 

Amorales’ images are flat representations of the globe. In the first one of them, the silhouettes of continents are somewhat recognizable. But they break up and move around as you travel through the series. By the time you arrive at the fourth image, the earth is going to pieces. 

Each of the maps become more abstract, not unlike Lavadour’s landscapes— except everyone knows what the continents are supposed to look like. So when they devolve into smaller land masses, the effect is arresting. 

Useless Wonder Maps keep you searching for the familiar shapes and patterns you know.    

Four Seasons by Wendy Red Star is also a series of four, in this case archival prints. Schnitzer spoke about the way the images deceive. Each one is a self-portrait of the artist in nature. Identifying as Crow, Red Star wears a traditional Crow garment in each picture: Winter, Spring, Indian Summer, and Fall. You think you’re looking at a photograph of the artist in natural surroundings, Schnitzer said, but then you realize something isn’t right. 

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Wendy Red Star (Crow, b. 1981), Four Seasons: Indian Summer, edition 12/15, 2006. Archival pigmentprint. 31 1/2 x 36 inches. Image courtesy of the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon.

The flowers aren’t real. The plants aren’t either. Hardly anything in the picture is, not even the deer. It’s a blow-up.  

These self-portraits speak to long-held stereotypes about Native Americans, and to historical representations such as those created by photographer Edward S. Curtis (1868 – 1952). Curtis captured volumes upon volumes of images of Native Americans as part of an effort to record vanishing cultures, which in his time mirrored the work of social scientists who were practicing Salvage Anthropology. 

Curtis has long been admired for the visual record he created but is now criticized by some for altering what he saw. For instance, he would ask his subject to remove a watch or some other material from “civilization” to depict what he thought was a more authentic image.  

Red Star’s work looks bright and sunny at first, but almost immediately, as Schnitzer pointed out, you recognize something is off kilter. Much of the art in this exhibit works this way. It seems straightforward at first, then comes at you differently. Even Drew’s installation, which is as in-your-face as can be, has a different impact upon learning the weathered-looking pieces were constructed by him. 

It is not surprising that artists think of themselves or their art in terms of metaphor. Neither is it unexpected that an art show should be framed by metaphor, even one as all-encompassing as “Strange Weather.” But equating anything with weather these days has a different impact now than it did, say, when Dylan wrote his famous line about which way the wind blows. Being in the Anthropocene, in the first geological period defined by human interference, the weather takes on new meanings.  

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Ester Barkai is a freelance arts writer. She’s written for The Magazine in Santa Fe, New Mexico and for Eugene Weekly in Eugene, Oregon. She got her start working for publications as a fashion illustrator in Los Angeles and then New York City. She has worked as an instructor teaching a variety of art history, drawing, and cultural anthropology courses.

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