Remembrance of things past: Art that pays its respects

One of my most vivid memories from a visit to St. Petersburg, Russia, almost a decade ago is of walking into a ramshackle room in a tumbling old palace and seeing, as if they were ghosts, long-smocked artisans painstakingly copying old masterworks: eerily antique-looking men and women making giant decorative objects based on the art of the past.

St. Petersburg is and always has been something of a museum city, hermetically sealed in its own royalist aesthetic. Even in the late 1990s, as the new thuggery of the ascendant Russian opportunist class was evident everywhere, the urge to re-create the glories of the past was also busily hammering away around every corner. By rebuilding with obsessive accuracy so much that the Germans had destroyed in the Siege of Leningrad, Petersburgers weren’t just taking their central city back to the glories of the days before World War II. They were replicating the age of the czars.

Is this art, or mummification? My guess is, yes and yes. It is what it is, for better and for worse, and in St. Petersburg, which like few other big European cities has resisted the hard edge of modernism (although it does have its share of Soviet Brutalist architecture) there was an abundance of each.

The urge to retreat into the verities of the past is strong, especially when you’re not sure about the present or the future. The past in one sense is a popular commodity, with eager buyers looking for a patina of instant heritage and sellers willing to feed their nostalgic fantasies. So the art world has a furtive underground market in fakes (read Robertson Davies‘ sly and very good novel What’s Bred in the Bone for some sharp insights into the mind of a brilliant forger), and the American and English antique-furniture markets are in an uproar right now over purportedly fraudulent high-end pieces cobbled together (with exceptional skill, it must be admitted) from old pieces of semi-junk.

An obsession with the past can also rise from uncertainty over our ability to make contemporary decisions. In its early years the only art in the collection of the Portland Art Museum was cast reproductions of ancient Greek and Roman statuary: Citizens of the pioneer city were invited into a sacred space to see knockoff versions of the foundations of Western art and accomplishment, as if the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, for instance, let alone the crude vigor of the American frontier, had simply never existed.

Yet it’s equally true that to ignore the past is to fundamentally misunderstand the present. What we are is built on everything that’s come before, and one of the objects of art is to explore that past in light of the present. That’s the great gift of a good museum. And it’s what makes Homage: Re-enactments, Copies and Tributes, which continues through Dec. 7 in The Art Gym at Marylhurst University, such an intriguing experience.

Curator Terri Hopkins built Homage around Sherrie Wolf‘s giant re-creation of Gustave Courbet‘s 1855 painting The Painter’s Studio: Allegory of Seven Years of My Artistic and Moral Life. It’s crucial that Courbet’s painting isn’t just any old Courbet. It’s a painting about painting, a lively and affecting treatise in oil on the nature and context of making art. And Hopkins has done with it the sort of thing good curators do: She’s surrounded it with other pieces that approach the same general question from different angles. To Wolf’s audacious act of reinvention she added a liberal smattering of photographer Christopher Rauschenberg‘s passionate pursuit of Eugene Atget‘s Paris, plus a pair of largely academic projects that, while they don’t add much to the visual pleasures of the exhibition, nimbly frame it and give it context.

That context? The flexibility of time, and the fugitive nature of imitation. The past is all around us. We live with it daily, from the built environment we walk through to the ideas that shape the way we act and think. We breathe it, and with every breath we subtly alter our relationship to it. We can hide it or hide from it. Still, there it is, waiting.

So, Brad Adkins peels historical onions. His contribution to Homage is a re-enactment of an earlier piece, from 1991, in which Nate Slusarenko had sanded away a portion of the gallery wall to reveal part of an even earlier work painted beneath, Tad Savinar‘s Champ from 1983. This is truly art that depends on the past: If you don’t know its precedents, you have no idea what it’s about. It’s an intellectual game, but with an intriguing purpose: Adkins lets the ghosts breathe.

And Michelle Ross plays around with the idea of originality and imitation — or, perhaps, the idea of the fluidity of improvisation and adaptation. Inspired by her own copying of Tantric meditation drawings, she created several abstract paintings on paper, then asked 18 other artists to copy each image in a series she calls Small Wild Things. The resulting copies are rather like mimeographs, fading and diffusing from the crispness of the original: It seems stamped in the blood that each copyist will bring something of himself or herself to the process, subtly changing what is, after all, not completely reproducible.

But Wolf and Rauschenberg are where the action is. Wolf has been playing the art-history card for a long time in her paintings, but never on such a grand scale, and always before with much more obvious personal incursions. Here, her own touch is more subtle. She reproduces Courbet’s grand original in size – 12 by 20 feet – and detail, altering it only in minor ways: adding a spotted dog from another Courbet painting; “borrowing” a woman’s face from yet another painting to put on a body from this one; changing some landscape details; throwing in a wine glass and some grapes on the floor.

In a sense, Wolf is playing around in the same territory that Portland movie director Gus Van Sant was playing in when he re-shot Hitchcock’s Psycho pretty much frame by frame. What’s going on here, I think, is a celebration of representational art’s rediscovered vigor in the wake of the abstract hurricane. By its nature the Courbet revisitation wears an academic perfume — what, really, are we looking at when we look at this 21st century antique? — yet Wolf finds freedom in the cunning achievements of a master from the past, and she encourages us to reconsider them with contemporary eyes. She offers us old-fashioned pleasures to rediscover: the almost 3-D angle of the ear sticking up on the cat in the center foreground, for instance, or the look of pleasure on the artist’s face as he works on his landscape, contrasted with the more anxious look on the face of the nude model gazing over his shoulder: She might be shivering in the studio cold.

The center panel is truly the center of the painting – compositionally and perhaps, in Courbet’s word, morally: the domestic happiness of it all, with the cat, the child, the idyllic landscape scene, even the nude with her crumple of clothes on the floor. She seems a natural part of this family unit. Outside the center, life on the fringes goes on: public life, community life, that which is part of the artist but not the most intimate part. And he’s most intimate not with the people, but with his art. Storytelling, Courbet and Wolf tell us, is alive and riveting.

Rauschenberg’s project approaches time from a different tack.
Long an admirer of Atget’s brilliant, almost mystic photographs of Paris that he shot from 1888 until his death in 1927, Rauschenberg decided to see if that world was still there and how, if at all, it had changed. On three trips to Paris in 1997 and 1998 he rephotographed 500 of Atget’s scenes, plus a few dozen more that Atget hadn’t shot but seemed as if he might have. (You can see the results in Rauschenberg’s excellent book Paris Changing: Revisiting Eugene Atget’s Paris.)

There is a see-and-compare quality to The Art Gym’s pairings of Atget’s and Rauschenberg’s views of the same places. Look how the landscaping’s changed; see how the trees have grown; those are cars, not carriages; the sun was out more clearly today; oh, the cobblestones are paved now. The little gestures, the subtle shifts, matter.

But more important is the mood, the timelessness, the strangely opaque clarity of these images. What counts is Atget’s way of looking at the world, which Rauschenberg has sought to emulate and make at least partly his own. There are differences. Rauschenberg’s lens tends to be crisper; Atget often revels in a mist that shrouds his city. His images recede into the unknowable. Rauschenberg’s pierce as far as technically possible. They are the same, and not the same.

One thing this exhibition brings home is how quickly the contemporary becomes the antique — and how, if you blink, the differences seem to fade away. As cautious as the Portland Art Museum was when it was founded in 1892, it began to sing a different song after Anna Belle Crocker took over as curator in 1909. Four years later the Portland museum was exhibiting, just months after their sensational debut at the 1913 New York Armory Show, some of the most important icons of modernism, including Marcel Duchamp‘s then-inflammatory Nude Descending a Staircase. Less than a century later the brash modernism of 1913 is stuff for the history books, and Duchamp’s Nude seems not so radically different, after all, from the Courbet that Wolf has brought back from the semi-dead: We’ve learned the language of both. Time plays tricks. Past and present and maybe even future stir themselves into the same stew.

As I walked out of the Art Gym exhibition to my car my eye was caught by hundreds of shadow images of leaves on the sidewalks,
gray and smudged by rain and dirt and time yet utterly recognizable as the imprints of the real, fallen leaves scattered around them. Would I have noticed this at all if I hadn’t  just spent time with this exhibit? I don’t know.

Yet clearly, copying is all around us. And just as clearly, every copy brings a change.


A much shorter version of this story ran in The Oregonian’s A&E section on Friday, Nov. 28. If you want to cut to the chase, go here.