Category Archives: Visual Art

Al Souza: The Puzzler’s Dilemma

I’m just trying to do this jig-saw puzzle
Before it rains anymore

– M. Jagger / K. Richards “Jigsaw Puzzle”

Ours is a family of re-puzzlers. Last holiday our sons, both in their mid-twenties, spent two days working through our old puzzles, beginning with the extra large-piece “Masters of the Universe,” a “battle royal” featuring He-Man and two dozen other trademarked Mattel heroes of the day (circa 1983). From there they moved to “G.I. Joe Battles Cobra Command,” four puzzles that, when completed, can be interlocked to form a large mural depicting all-out war on land and sea and in the air. These boys have always been deliberate, methodical re-puzzlers. As youngsters they would build them, tear them down and build again. As adults they are also deliberate about seeming disengaged; they are handling memories, after all, not puzzle pieces.

My wife and I joined them on the adult puzzles, some we’ve had since the late 1960s, when we were first married and a bottle of wine and a good puzzle were an evening’s entertainment: “Fisherman’s Wharf,” in Monterey, California, the way it looked when we lived there; “Five-Clawed Dragon,” a detail from an embroidered Chinese Imperial robe; and “St. George and the Dragon,” a photograph of a statuette owned by a Bavarian duke who lived during the time of Shakespeare.

Oh, we’ve had other, one-time puzzles, more than I’d want to count, but these are the ones we’ve kept and re-puzzled time and again. Life is like a jigsaw puzzle, I’ve thought. Not like a box of chocolates. The puzzle worked over and completed, and then un-puzzled and tossed back into its box, is the seven ages of man – the first youthful stammering returning to reclaim incoherence from the modest settled principles an adult pieces together once, maybe twice, in a life.

So I was curious to see Al Souza’s sculptural jigsaw puzzle collages showing at Elizabeth Leach Gallery this month. He uses commercial puzzles gathered from thrift stores and on E-bay, and some that acquaintances around the country find and assemble for him. He layers and juxtaposes parts of the puzzles in large scale works such as “Italian Dressing” (72” X 72”, above), creating an explosion of slick images and bright colors that are the hallmark of commercial puzzles. Animals, clocks, landscapes, famous paintings and buildings, loopy holiday ribbon candy, toys and sports memorabilia – jumbled together in odd, surprising ways.
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The capitalist and the art museum

For the past month, I’ve been trying to make sense of the politics around the opening of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, the new wing of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Since Eli Broad (whose fortune is $7 billion per Forbes magazine) told the New York Times’ Edward Wyatt that he intended to keep his art holdings (which are considerable) in his foundation rather than give them to the new wing he’d spent $50 million trail bossing to completion, the sparks have been flying in LA.

A lot of prominent art observers, notably Christopher Knight of the LA Times and Adrian Ellis of The Art Newspaper, saw Broad’s decision as an act of betrayal against LACMA, which had allowed itself to be “bought” by Broad and had then been dumped when he’d gotten what he wanted out of the museum.

At first my reaction was a lot like that of the NY Times editorial page, which argued that a lot depended upon how the foundation conducted itself — much of the work might find itself on the walls of LACMA after all. Over at PORT, Jeff Jahn said that it might actually be good for the Portland Art Museum, because our curators would likely have better luck dealing with Broad’s foundation than with LACMA. These are sensible positions.

But somehow, the matter didn’t feel right somehow. And in the March 20 New York Review of Books, Martin Filler (who frequently writes about architecture for NYRB) explains why (he cites both Knight and Ellis’ responses above). It has to do with the tyranny of Broad and the likelihood that he (and others like him) will run roughshod over the museum for their own purposes, Filler says, and his deft argument establishes a series of contrasts that are powerful: Broad v. public-spirited patron Anna Bing Arnold; Renzo Piano (architect of the new wing) v. Rem Koolhaus (whose design was discarded); Broad’s narrower collecting habits v. those of the Museum of Contemporary Art in LA. And he embeds the argument against Broad within a convincing narrative of the troubled history of LACMA.

It’s hard to see much of a connection between Broad’s maneuverings in LA and what goes on in Portland. But what about the affect of Broad as a model of philanthropy? Are we inoculated against that? I don’t think so. Gifts nearly always come with strings; they don’t have to come with chains.

“At Freedom’s Door”: Novels in paint, provocations in fabric

Ropes and chains and the piercing masts of slave ships at harbor pop up as boldly as the brilliant colors that command Arvie Smith‘s paintings in the exhibition “At Freedom’s Door.” Smith’s big oils of slave auctions and lynchings and other aspects of the bleak side of antebellum life are like jam-packed chapters in a vast historical novel bursting to be told. Some of his more satiric images are reminiscent of Robert Colescott, and his brown-yellow-red palette brings to mind some of the color combinations of fellow Portland artist Isaka Shamsud-din. But in their narrative urgency, their invocation of historical moment and their sometimes quizzical snatches of story (you get the feeling that you’ve been dropped into the middle of something, but you’re not quite sure where it started, although you have a good idea where it’s likely to end) Smith’s paintings also have a novelist’s sense: They make me think of Charles Johnson and his great American slave story of the beginnings of things, “Middle Passage.”

“At Freedom’s Door,” which also includes fabric art by Baltimorean Joan Gaither and the admirable Portland artist Adriene Cruz, was originally shown last year at Baltimore’s Reginald F. Lewis Museum, where Smith and Gaither were artists in residence. Now in the Feldman Gallery of Pacific Northwest College of Art through March 8, it’s one of a pair of provocative exhibits in Portland noncommercial galleries that commemorate Black History Month. The other, on view through March 2 at Reed College’s Cooley Gallery, is “Working History”, which features work by such nationally notable artists as Kara Walker, Io Palmer, Faith Ringgold, Kianga Ford, David Hammons and Nick Cave.

The combination of these three artists in “At Freedom’s Door” plays a nice ping-pong in your head, knocking you back and forth among varying aspects of the African American experience. And they represent three intriguingly different artistic sensibilities.

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Molly Vidor and the Elephant in Bonnard’s Garden

What do you do with the elephant in the room? Do you feed it? Nourish it in other ways? Try to talk it down off the wall? Coax it into a deeper relation with furniture and family? You don’t ignore it, that’s for sure. You wouldn’t want it there in the first place if you could simply ignore it.

mv-elephant.jpgIn this case the “Elephant,” left, and a rather pinkish one to boot, is one of Molly Vidor’s five mostly abstract paintings in a show called “Destroyer” now at PDX Contemporary Art (February 5 – March 1, 2008). “Destroyer” is a curious title for the show given the peaceful, reflective nature of the paintings and the fact that in her artist’s statement Vidor correlates her work with that of Pierre Bonnard, who made the most beautiful paintings I’ve ever seen – landscapes, still lifes, and nude portraits of his wife.

But he didn’t paint one abstract that I can recall, although he eschewed naturalistic color and flattened perspective in a way that makes the composition seem like a patchwork of colors. He wanted his work to be intimate and decorative at once. The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., has an amazing number of Bonnards, and they have such presence that they create their own space in the narrow confines of the converted residence where they are housed.

I have a theory about why and how Vidor’s shimmering paintings echo Bonnard’s, but it follows from my broader theory that we enter into deeper relations with abstract paintings – or, rather, the abstract quality in painting – than we do with landscapes, or still lifes, or figurative work.
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The Menil Collection, Pat Barker and How Artists Draw Blood

“I am a painter and I paint with nails.”

-Kurt Schwitters

sargent_sketching_in_the_alps_t.JPGI’ve been reading Pat Barker’s novel Life Class (Doubleday, $24), set in the early years of World War I. It’s the story of several young art school students whose lives and ideas about art are altered dramatically by the war.

I’d read Barker’s World War I trilogy published in the early 1990s – “Regeneration,” “The Eye in the Door,” and “The Ghost Road” – and was deeply affected by the historical and psychological realism of Barker’s writing, and by her knowledge of the era and keen sympathy for her characters. She portrays real figures such as the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen and the psychiatrist W.H.R. Rivers to explore the devastation wrought by the war on a generation of British men and women, both at home and on the front in Europe. Rivers is a commanding presence in “The Ghost Road,” in charge of treating and rehabilitating shell shocked soldiers to return them to the war.

“Life Class” has a similar real-life figure, Henry Tonks, a surgeon and anatomy teacher turned artist (his sketch of J.S. Sargent sketching in the Alps is above), who teaches life drawing at the Slade School of Art, a class attended by the young artists, women and men, we follow through the rest of the novel. Tonks is present only briefly in the narrative, but his spirit looms over the whole. In real life Tonks worked with a plastic surgeon pioneering techniques used on young men whose faces were mutilated in the war. In the first chapter of “Life Class,” on the eve of the war, he instructs art students on the relation of drawing to anatomy. Drawing is all about physicality, finding a way to “convey what lay beneath the skin.” “Drawing is an explication of the form,” he would say, meaning a mirror of what is there to be observed in the real world. A “real world” that will be turned upside down and inside out by the war.

I happened to be reading the book last week when I was in Houston visiting the Menil Collection ( (For a description of the Menil, see my post “The Pilgrim in Houston: Surreal Rhymes with Menil.”) I was struck in particular by a new exhibit, “How Artists Draw,” curated by Bernice Rose, formerly a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and now the Menil chief curator responsible for the development of a new Menil Drawing Institute and Study Center, which will be “dedicated solely to the collection, exhibition, and study of modernist drawing, including its role in contemporary artistic practice.” The emphasis on “modernist drawing” separates what the Institute is about from the philosophy and classroom practice of Henry Tonks. What replaced explication of form in drawing followed irrevocably from artists’ experience in World War I and its aftermath.

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Carl Morris, early paintings

“Ascending Forms,” Carl MorrisIt seems unfair to write about an art exhibition that has already been taken down, but that’s exactly what’s about to happen. Sorry!

For a variety of reasons I haven’t been able to get to Carl Morris: figure, word, light at Marylhurst University’s Art Gym until now. But I want to say a few things about it, and Morris will come up again on Art Scatter. All of us are interested in his work; I wrote the catalog essay for his retrospective at the Portland Art Museum in 1993; and just last summer I wrote about the sublime show of his 1959 History of Religions paintings at the University of Oregon’s art museum, organized by Lawrence Fong.

So, maybe you saw the show (the Saturday I went, the Art Gym was crowded), maybe you didn’t but wanted to, or maybe you just want to start jumping on the Carl Morris bandwagon with the rest of us.

The show was described to me originally by one of the behind-the-scenes organizers as a look at Carl’s work from the 1940s — those dark, symbolic, angular paintings, with their heavily painted surfaces. That sounded promising. These paintings hadn’t really been gathered together in numbers since an art museum show in the early ’50s. A chance to give them a good look again, struggle to reconnect to their iconography, test their power to affect us, place them in their context of Northwest painting, is an excellent idea.

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The Pilgrim in Houston: Surreal Rhymes With Menil

Dateline Houston . . . but no Houston skyline as we dart off the freeway, lose the skyscrapers looming over downtown, and slide off into a mixed through street – specialty furnishings and pawn shops – and then onto a narrow side street, Sul Ross, home to the Menil Collection. My brother-in-law has driven forty minutes in heavy traffic to bring me here; I have four, maybe five hours before he returns. I head past the furious landscaping being done to complete the new Michael Heizer sculpture that sweeps across the 400 foot front of the museum building, enter the door and walk past the front desk in the broad, bright foyer (there’s free admission at the Menil), turn right down the central corridor, and pause before the first doorway: SURREALISM.

I hardly dare breathe. It is just as I remember from a visit a few years back. Outside of books, this museum is my only true experience of what Surrealism means. Dozens of works: de Chirico, Magritte, Ernst, Picabia and Cornell. Striking images, especially Magritte’s visual puns familiar to folks with no idea what Surrealism means. The large gallery space is divided into smaller rooms of a dozen or so paintings each. Each space has two, sometimes three entrances, so you circle back through areas, peek around corners, compare paintings, view pieces from a longer perspective – intimacy and distance, the vague unsettling dis-ease induced by Surrealism. Claustrophobia and open-endedness. It’s dreamwork, what Andre Breton called “the interpenetration of the physical and mental to resolve the dualism of perception and representation.” It’s the uncanny that rises like perfume from the most familiar objects in your world. This vast Surrealist space is one of my spiritual homes.

I have that space is back in Portland, too, if only in my head, but still I’m incredibly envious of the Houstonites who have daily access to its physical space.
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Sculpture meltdown (not for scrap metal)

This report from my wife, Laura, who was walking in the South Park Blocks near the Portland Art Museum this morning, Tuesday, Feb. 12:

An elderly gentleman is standing beside that stern, sorrowful, loving statue of Abraham Lincoln. A bouquet of flowers is resting by the pedestal.

“Today is Abraham Lincoln’s birthday,” the gentleman says.

“Did you put the flowers there?” Laura asks.

“Yes,” he replies. “I do it every year.”

“Oh,” says Laura. “Let me get a picture.”

But by the time she has her cell phone out of her purse and in her hand, the gentleman has disappeared.

Now, that’s public art.

— Bob Hicks

James Lavadour: Landscapes of Change

“What does not change / is the will to change,” as the poet Charles Olson said, meaning that, wherever we look, change is fundamental, continuous, and irrevocable. We know this but often forget it in broad prospect as we round our own daily planet.

James Lavadour’s recent paintings are landscapes of such change. Now on view at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art at Willamette University in Salem (February 2-March 30), are several of Lavadour’s large-scale works formed from nine, twelve or fifteen small, intricately-painted panels. The paintings are essentially abstract, and yet in their depths they suggest the great forming cataclysms of the Pacific Northwest: exploding mountains, lava floods, draining seas, massive dragging glaciers and the great Missoula floods that carved the Columbia Basin. These convulsive geologic images are echoed in the painting process visible on the wood surface of the paintings, showing how Lavadour has scraped, dripped and wiped the layers of paint.

Lavadour 3

The paintings are astonishingly beautiful. Most of the individual panels range in size from 12 x 18” to 24 x 30,’’ and yet they draw you into what are really monumental landscapes, as if glimpsed through and framed by a car window on a drive up the Columbia Gorge, the mountains, cliffs and falls just out of focus through clouds, mists and rain splatter rendering the view from the window a blear. Continue reading James Lavadour: Landscapes of Change

Balletptomaines at the museum


In Paris they were called abonnes.

In Moscow and St. Petersburg they were balletomanes.

Lincoln Kirstein, the impresario who founded New York City Ballet with George Balanchine, rolled his eyes and referred to them waspishly as “balletptomaines.”

One way or another, they are nuts: nuts for the ballet, for the dancers, for the social swirl, the easy access. The ones who know every step, and know better than the choreographers how the steps ought to be combined. The ones who give money to the company and assume they’ve bought the right to make decisions about how it’s run. The starstruck, the shoulder-rubbers, the bedazzled. The gents who love the bodies — in an entirely aesthetic sense, of course. The best friends a ballet company can have, and a bane on its existence.

Degas' Dancer Looking at the Sole of Her Right Foot

The Portland Art Museum’s current exhibition “The Dancer: Degas, Forain, and Toulouse-Lautrec,” which continues through May 11, 2008, gives an almost unseemly amount of attention to the abonnes, those wealthy and well-connected Parisian gentlemen of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who, by virtue of their season subscriptions to the Paris Opera and other performance halls, had unprecedented access to the backstage life. Some of Degas’ prints in the exhibition touch on the subject, but they are the compulsion of Forain and to a certain extent the exhibit as a whole, throwing the thing into a curious imbalance: Forain, by far the least important of these three artists, becomes the defining figure in the show.

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