Tag Archives: Stonehenge

Columbia River School: The art landscape in the Gorge

Jasper Francis Cropsey, Misty Afternoon, 1873. Collection Dr. Michel Hersen & Mrs. Victoria Hersen

“In my opinion a museum cannot and should not be showing only art by dead people.”

Lee Musgrave was sitting in his little ground-floor office at the Maryhill Museum of Art, away from the sweeping view just outside of the Columbia River Gorge and the eastern face of Mt. Hood. He’d just told me that after 14 years as the museum’s only curator he was getting ready to retire — he leaves at the end of July — and he was in a relaxed, expansive mood.

Maryhill Museum with spring lupines. Photo: NYLAND WILKINSOf course, I’d just driven the 110 miles east from Portland to see a bunch of paintings by dead people: the museum’s show Hudson River School Sojourn, which is on view through July 8.

But then, I was also curious to see the newest incarnation on the museum grounds of Musgrave’s annual outdoor-sculpture invitational, Maryhill’s lively contemporary response to its historic collection of Rodin sculptures in the indoor galleries. And if this quirky, oddly intoxicating little museum hadn’t begun to pay much more serious attention to the contemporary world in the past couple of decades, I might have just left it dozing away in the desert and never gone visiting at all.

These days, I consider it a personal requirement to drive to Maryhill at least once a year, and I freely confess that although I find the museum an intriguing place — I can’t think of any institution anywhere else, even in the wild-and-woolly West that it so quintessentially represents, that’s quite like it — a lot of the allure is simply that it offers a great excuse to make one of the most drop-dead gorgeous drives in the United States. The improbable fortress that is Maryhill, perched high on a cliff in that stretch east of The Dalles where forest has given way to desert, is the end-of-the-road payoff to a journey that’s already been its own reward.

“In my time here,” said Musgrave, who on the day of my visit was in a genial summing-up mood, “I’ve done 59 contemporary shows and exhibited the work of 258 Northwest artists.”

Those figures might come as a surprise to people who tend to think of Maryhill in response to its historical collections, an assembly of oddments that make it seem a little like a far-west cubby-hole annex to the Smithsonian Institution, “America’s Attic.” There are the chess sets, the Russian icons, the Rodin plasters, the old weapons, a good Native American collection, the road plans of visionary engineer and rural utopian Sam Hill, memorabilia of the turn-of-the-century dance sensation Loie Fuller, the Queen of Romania’s furniture, the peacocks strutting around the grounds (they scare away snakes), the nearby concrete replica of Stonehenge, the French high-fashion dioramas of Theatre de la Mode.

Francisco Salgado, Falilia, painted steel, 2009 Outdoor Sculpture InvitationalBut as crucial as those things are to Maryhill’s identity (a prominent art historian told me the other day that the museum should concentrate on its “creation myth”), they’re not the whole story. Musgrave, a practicing contemporary painter who’s been showing his own work since the late 1960s in California, the Northwest, and even Australia and Japan, has nurtured relationships with contemporary-art collectors such as Portland’s Jordan Schnitzer. He’s worked directly with a lot of artists, and he’s nurtured at least a nascent sense that in this place, time can mingle. “My favorite thing to do is to take contemporary artists and combine them with things in the permanent collection,” he says.

The annual outdoor sculpture show is a good example of how Musgrave’s connections with contemporary artists have influenced what the museum does. On his first day on the job in 1995, he says, he told his new co-workers, “I can’t believe you’ve got 6,000 acres and no sculpture outside.” So he started the sculpture program.

Continue reading Columbia River School: The art landscape in the Gorge

If stones could speak, perhaps I wouldn’t want to read

I’ve not traveled to Stonehenge, located west of London on the Salisbury Plain. Others have during the past 4,500 years; including, remarkably, the “Amesbury Archer,” a seemingly wealthy metalworker from the Swiss Alps, who made it to Stonehenge and was buried there around 2,400 BC, only to be unearthed in recent excavations, as reported in Caroline Alexander’s fascinating article in the June issue of National Geographic. Parts of the monument itself traveled far. Some 80 stones, the “bluestones,” weighing up to four tons each, were hauled in from Wales, 250 miles away. Larger stones, some weighing up to 50 tons, were hauled 20-30 miles.

How many theories dance on the head of a bluestone? We’ve studied Stonehenge enough to think it was built for a purpose, but what? Alexander summarizes the explanations, so far, of its origin and meaning:

Secure in its wordless prehistory, it can thus absorb a multitude of “meanings”: temple to the sun—or the moon, for that matter; astronomical calendar; city of the ancestral dead; center of healing; stone representation of the gods; symbol of status and power. The heart of its mystique is, surely, that it excites in equal measure both zealous certitude and utter bafflement.

Its very mystery leaves us free to steal some of its power. My favorite mystery-thriller, Joseph McElroy‘s Lookout Cartridge, has a scene set at Stonehenge, a group of late 1960s hippie-pagans exorcizing the evil spirits unleashed by the Vietnam War. East of Portland 100 miles, Sam Hill built a replica Stonehenge as a monument to soldiers killed in World War I. A pacifist, Hill thought Stonehenge a place of ritual sacrifice, and his Stonehenge is cold concrete, a bitter place overlooking the Columbia River.

“Carhenge” near Alliance, Nebraska is chief among the playful henges, to include “Foamhenge” in Virginia and “Fridgehenge” in New Mexico. My own modest proposal is a temporary public sculpture in the Park blocks, made from frozen sides of beef. In the middle of summer, Beefhenge could speak loudly if not necessarily eloquently for veganism, I think, something in the counter-spirit of Hill’s monument. And I wait for the inspired used car lot construction of “SUVhenge” or “PeakOilhenge.”

The current issue of Tin House sports a photograph of “Carhenge” on its cover, an example of “Outsider” art; that is, art created “off the grid” or outside traditional boundaries. Tin House‘s Elissa Schappel explains that Carhenge typifies the “eccentric, amateurish, maybe even laughable” art “created by folks who wouldn’t necessarily even call themselves artists.” The naive, of course, doesn’t exhaust the rather limitless possibilities of “Outsider” art. See, for example, the definitions in “Outsider” art’s institutional publication, Raw Vision. But perhaps it is true that “Outsider” art can be described and defined as such only by . . . “insider” artists and critics? And if you were to build a monument as a symbol of that kind of status and power, what would it look like? Would we recognize it had a purpose, but wonder what?