Has he always been an old man, Wailing?

Before you heard any music you saw Charlemagne Palestine’s stuffed animal shrines, their votive candles providing the only light in Yale Union‘s long basilica-esque space. It was dark and eerie with the reflections of people  in the windows and the glittering eyes of the animals. People wandered from shrine to shrine, the children often skipped. Around 9’clock the performance began with Charlemagne toasting, playing, and drinking a couple cognac glasses before moving on to the piano.

I’ve heard my fair share of experimental music, especially on percussion instruments, but I’m no music critic so I’m quoting a friend here to back up my feeling that the work wasn’t the most challenging I’ve had to listen to, which isn’t to say it was bad. “He shares styles of minimalism, but he also carried a rhythm melody for most of it and he stayed fairly on key. Neither was there a lot of dissonance. In many way he resolved his melodic moments.” For me, the stuffed animals and the wailing were the most interesting bits. I also would have enjoyed it better if it had been billed less as a performance and more as an installation.


As an installation the audience/viewers would have been more free to leave offerings at the shrines while his piano playing and wailing reverberated up and down the hall.  Instead there was a crowd of an audience in the chairs surrounding his piano, and it was obvious that people felt bound to the convention of not leaving in the midst of the performance even while others did just that. When I turned away from the tableau with about ten minutes left I noticed many people still in the hall, roaming the space and lounging about. They seemed to be having an entirely different kind of experience than what was possible by remaining tethered to the performer.

Afterwards I considered the stuffed animals, the votive candles, and the wailing. I wondered if this was a mourning of lost youth, an expunging of childhood demons, or an attempt to recognize the incomprehensible humanity of those youngest among us, skipping among the shrines.

What’s Currently on View at the Portland Art Museum?

Shortly before I moved to Portland, I visited the MoMA to see “Inventing Abstraction: 1910-1925.” While moving through the galleries I remember recognizing a familiar work by Marcel Duchamp, and with an appropriate amount of blasé  expertise saying to my brother “Oh, I’ve seen that work so many times! They bring it out for every one of these modernist exhibitions.” I realized as soon as the sentiment left my mouth how pretentious I sounded, and I knew I needed to get out of there quick before New York’s own style of provincialism made me unable to appreciate the privilege of living in a city so rich in history and culture. But before we left that day, I dragged my brother and his friends to see one of my favorite installations of the permanent collection at the MoMA. The Migration Series, by Jacob Lawrence, shows the Great Migration of African-Americans to Northern cities during the 20th century in simple, geometric shapes over the course of 30 panels, like an art historical comic-book that takes up a whole wall.

Jacob Lawrence (American, 1917-2000), The 1920’s…The Migrants Cast Their Ballots, 1974, screenprint on paper, Gift of Lorillard, © artist or other rights holder, 76.4.8 “During the post World War I period millions of black people left southern communities in the United States and migrated to northern cities. This migration reached its peak during the 1920’s. Among the many advantages the migrants found in the north was the freedom to vote. In my print, migrants are represented expressing that freedom.” Interview with Jacob Lawrence from the Kent Bicentennial Portfolio: Spirit of Independence. New York: Lorillard, a Division of Lowes Theatres, 1975.

You might be able to tell that Jacob Lawrence is one of my favorite artists, so I was excited to learn that the Portland Art Museum has a nice dozen of his works in their collection. Rightly so considering what a significant and prolific artist of the 20th century he was in addition to living and working in Seattle for 20 years.  All of these reasons are why I was surprised when searching the online collections to see that none of his works are currently on view.  It seemed to me quite a disservice to not have his legacy accessible to Portland audiences, but knowing that room in the galleries to display work is never enough compared to all the works that are in the collection I figured it was an anomaly or some other temporary situation. That was until I started doing research to write an essay on African American art history and, wanting to connect it to Portland, looked into what works readers could go see that represent the trajectory of American art history over the past century.

It was what I didn’t find that shocked me. Not just no Jacob Lawrence on view but no Elizabeth Catlett, Hale Woodruff, Carrie Mae Weems, Kara Walker, or Romare Bearden! Not even works by Diego Rivera or Jose Clemente Orozco are on view, and that’s when I started wondering what kind of story about who makes art in America is the Portland Art Museum telling to its audiences without these and many other artists on their walls. To continue with even more research, I realized I’d need an outlet for my efforts. Thus was a new blog conceived, and a few weeks later notcurrentlyonview.tumblr.com was born. I decided to think of Not Currently on View as a Public Art History project, meaning that I’m interested in questions revolving around public access to art and in bringing the cloistered field of art history into the light of public scrutiny. As a public art institution where art history is done thanks to taxpayer support, the Portland Art Museum is the site for how these questions play out in our own communities, or to quote my own about page:

Not Currently on View is meant to create a forum to discuss the role and responsibility of public art institutions in the 21st century. This includes questions such as who is included in the ‘public(s)’ that museums serve; what kind of art historical narrative is being presented to these ‘public(s)’, and how does that narrative reinforce or undermine entrenched ideas about audienceship and engagement?

I hope you will join me in asking these questions, and I look forward to conversations that will deepen our understanding our how art serves our communities.

Jacob Lawrence (American, 1917-2000), Confrontation at the Bridge, 1975, screenprint on paper, The Vivian and Gordon Gilkey Graphic Arts Collection.                                             In 1965 hundreds of civil rights marchers left Selma, Alabama, on a peace march to Montgomery. Just outside Selma, at the Edmond Pettus Bridge, the marchers were met with resistance from local law enforcement officials and townspeople. The marchers, led by the Revered Martin Luther King, Jr., and others, were repeatedly turned back. After several days of stalemate and verbal and physical abuse, the determined marchers were allowed to continue. Regarding the choice of subject batter for this work, Lawrence has commented: “I thought it was part of the history of the country, part of the history of our progress; not just the black progress, but of the progress of the people.”                                        – Peter T. Nesbett, Jacob Lawrence: The Complete Prints (1963-2000), (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001), 32.

On the Front Lines, or in the Back Room?

This is a post I’ve held off publishing for a cascade of reasons, but with the recent Joint Statement from Museum Bloggers & Colleagues on Ferguson, written by the Portland Art Museum’s own Mike Murawski, I think now is the right time to contribute to the conversation around what is the role of Museums – “as institutions that claim to conduct their activities for the public benefit — in the face of ongoing struggles for greater social justice both at the local and national level?” The following are some of my reflections on our institutions and communities that came to a head in the wake of the deaths of Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice and too many others. You’ll notice that I’ve ruminating for long enough for some of my commentary to be dated.

I take the bus around town, and back in August one of my frequent stops was advertising the Portland Art Museum. The bench informed me that surveyed museum-goers would rather a “collective museum”, than a “museum of collections.” On evenings when I sat there waiting for my bus I wondered about what this advertisement meant. On the one hand I “know” what it means from my study of art history and contemporary art theory. On the other hand, I’m beginning to think I paid for a degree in mythology wrapped prettily as knowledge. The mythology I refer to is regarding the progressiveness of the art world, and of art’s inherently progressive values.

Questionnaire from 'Would You Rather', a hybrid game/research initiative by GUESTWORK
Questionnaire from ‘Would You Rather’, a hybrid game/research initiative by GUESTWORK

There is a notion found wherever the contemporary art world is that art is on the right-side of history. The idea that art pushes history forward, dragging people, economies, and politics with it is not a new idea, or even a bad idea, but it is a dangerous idea. It’s not new because it can be traced back to the notion of the “avant-garde” in 19th century France. It’s not a bad idea because certainly some part of history lends it the gravitas of truth. But for both these reasons it is a dangerous idea in the present day. It is no coincidence that new, unorthodox, and experimental art practices began to be described as ‘avant-garde’ during the bloodiest period in modern French history. Read More «On the Front Lines, or in the Back Room?»

Does Social Practice Belong in Art Museums?

fighting words

When I was asked to stake my side in this debate I chose the OUTside, and at the end of the debate I’m still on the OUTside, and while I’ve been rethinking my answer since then I think I’m still on the OUTside.  BUT, the debate, Fighting Words hosted by Ariana Jacob as part of Assembly: An Art and Social Practice Get-together, seriously challenged why I think this, and made me realize that my position in the debate has everything to do with my role in the art world.

Social practice is the kind of art critics, curators, and historians all love-to-hate to define. So ephemeral! Much engaged! Wow, dialogical!  But for real, social practice is art that deals with social relationships and/or socio-political issues through performance based interventions that are historically rooted in Institutional Critique and revolutionary rhetoric.  Despite its genealogy we’re all still grappling with what it is, and what is its significance – alone, in a dark closet. Not the awkward excitement when you’re playing 2min in the closet; more like the fumbling with film in a darkroom.

Jokes aside, what I took away most from being a part of the debate, including staking my position with a yellow card and making a stuttering closing statement on behalf of the OUTside, regards the role and relative power of museums, and the role and relative power of critique. First, when I say “museum” you probably think of a large institution like The Met, MOMA, or the Louvre, but as Phaedra Livingstone emphasized, the size and the power these intuitions yield are anomalies. Most museums DON’T have significant collections, budgets, or space. In that regards our own PAM exerts an influence belied by Portland’s notion of itself as a regional city. Read More «Does Social Practice Belong in Art Museums?»

Inside/Outside the Portland14 Biennial

If you read my last post, you may have noticed I don’t write fluff. I love art well enough to take the derided-as-silly seriously, and the proclaimed-as-serious critically. I’m not going to applaud Disjecta for Portland14 and list the work I enjoyed best because you can find that kind of art writing from any publication these days, if they still offer art “reviews”, and because I’m not so pompous as to think my personal taste is always interesting to my readers.

As the Biennial comes to a close I do want to share with you what I’ve been noticing and thinking about for the past month, and that is Portland14’s geographic distribution. Despite Disjecta’s spacious location in the North Kenton neighborhood most of the exhibition and events venues are in proximity to the Northwest Pearl district. Fortunately, Disjecta published a Portland14 guide that included a map of their dispersed exhibition landscape. Before we get into that though, let’s go over the groundwork.


The Portland14 Biennial, curated by Amanda Hunt from Los Angeles, “celebrates Oregon artists who are defining and advancing contemporary art practices”. As Jeff Jahn over at Portlandart.net points out, the gender ratio is imbalanced and the list reads like a who’s who of who’s already gotten a ton of institutional recognition.  In light of Oregon/PDX history and its impact on institutional preferences, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised Portland14 lags even farther behind on representing artists of color. Read More «Inside/Outside the Portland14 Biennial»

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