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Untitled, 1963

My family’s trip to the Portland Art Museum started with a tantrum, thrown by me.

“But you said we could see Mark Rothko!” I cried. “I’m not going to the zoo, and that’s final!

It was one of those 20-something moments when you realize your Very Mature Attitude is one slip away from a ride on the teenage whaaambulance. If it’s in the name of Rothko, I say go for it.

I’m sure the (usually depressed) Portland zebras were frolicking on that sunny Saturday, but we were headed indoors. So there.

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Untitled (three women and a child with mannequins), 1936/1937

It was a warm enough afternoon that stepping off the sidewalk and into the chilly air was like deflating. Once all the hot air had hissed away, our arms and legs were rubbery and useless.

I think we looked like Rothko’s early Picasso-esque figures, with their droopy eyes and flabby limbs. My family didn’t see the resemblance and quickly proceeded, hackles raised, toward the second half of the show.

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Untitled, 1945

As we walked through, nudes were replaced with curly spiders that awkwardly hovered on abstract planes. Suddenly all form was gone, clearing the way for my family’s scorn.

“What a great painter,” said Sarah (16) with impressive ferocity, staring at a muddy stack of brown and black rectangles. My brother Jacob (11) took a look and, finding nothing of interest, drifted out of the gallery with my dad in tow.

Only my friend Julianna, who’d tagged along to Portland for other business, stuck around. She followed me for a bit, observing me observing the work.

“Why do people like this stuff?” she asked. I sighed and searched my brain for an answer.

The truth is, I didn’t actually know that I liked Rothko until that day. Looking at pictures and reading analyses left me just as confused as anyone. I mean, look at this picture of the Rothko Chapel and tell me you understand what the fuss is about.

I babbled to Julianna for a while about the ideas behind abstract expressionism: the effort to return painting to its essential flatness, to create landscapes that only our eyes can travel through, to focus on painting as its own subject. At some point, I realized that my art babble and vigorous gesticulation weren’t getting through.

“Just look at those colors!” I finally said, pulling her closer to one of the paintings.

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Untitled, 1963 (original is on left, “clarity” filter is on the right)

Color is what it’s really about, dear reader, though I’m afraid you’ll have to meet a Rothko in person to see what Julianna saw. In the meantime, take a look at my MAGICAL THERMAL IMAGE detail from the first photo.

Look at the shifting hues, as subtle and vibrant as those of a peacock feather. Forget about all the high fallutin’ theories and just let your eyes run across the brushstrokes. Are they not euphoric?

Rothko was a master of elaborate color dances. What happens when you pair red and purple? Both colors change. Now add some green. All three colors spin in entirely different directions. Feast your eyes:

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Orange on Red, 1956 (with detail)

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Untitled, 1969 (with detail)

“I still don’t get it,” said Julianna.

“Does that make you feel angry? Frustrated?” I asked.

“Frustrated, yes,” said Julianna, heading over to a bench and plopping down dejectedly.

Don’t run away, oh Rothko haters. As long as you’re feeling something, that’s good. It’s okay to love to hate Mark Rothko, but don’t stop playing the game. Just try not to spit on the art.

Housekeeping:

  • Sarah Refvem is showing next week at the Laverne Krause!! Here’s my original post on her, and here’s a profile I did on her for the Queen Bee Collective.

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What. The. Fudge.

Those are (approximately) the words that accompanied the three Kodak moments above. It’s not often that you understand something less as you get closer to it, except for maybe that one museum in Seattle.

Eventually, I remembered that someone in one of my classes had mentioned an on-campus carnival. She’d failed to note that entering said event would involve passing under the buns of a hairy man doing a squat. It all looked very freaky, so of course I had to return…

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…In the night.

Carnivals are so bland and flat in the day, but at night everything glows and tilts and swirls. It’s hard to tell if the world is about to tip over or you are.

The event turned out to be a giant promotion for Adult Swim, the cable network that has nothing to do with swimming or adults. I was disappointed, as analyzing artvertising almost always feels like selling out. Then I was distracted by this:

Yes, that is a unicorn helmet on the girl’s head. No, you didn’t see the same stunt in the trailer for Project X. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s in the sequel, though. In one corner, a drunk dude with a unicorn helmet. In the other, a high dude in a zorb ball. Who will win the duel?

I realized that I wouldn’t be reviewing the art of carnivals that night, but the art of a carefully targeted marketing stunt. The targets? Teenage boys who think they’re 20-something frat boys, and 20-something frat boys who think they’re teens.

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Unicorn Man and “Breathe if you’re horny” jellyfish (???)

The carnival world of Adult Swim is populated by a horde of bizarre cartoon characters. I’m sure they all have names, but we can just talk about them as a group. Let’s call them the Bad House Guests.

Any house guest stinks after three days, but the Bad House Guests clearly come pre-musked. They’re the kind of people who show up and claim to be friends with one of your roomies, but change the subject when you ask which. They dominate the television and watch The Real World repeats. They eat your Cheetos and leave orange streaks on your drinking glasses. They wet the couch.

Could you imagine letting one of these things stay in your home? Now imagine claiming the “Breathe if you’re horny” jellyfish as your hero, your role model. What does Unicorn Man (who appears to be about 40) say to his perma-adolescent viewers?

“Neigh. I’m an immortal unicorn. Want to play Grand Theft Auto, like, forever?”

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A rather large group of people had gathered for the carnival. They looked like they were in the end stages of a rave (dazed, crazed, spent and wet), but they were valiantly trying to win crappy Adult Swim merchandise in various carnival games.

All of the games were harbingers of the emotional spiral ensured by the couch-wetting lifestyle. There was “Baby vs. Man” (the inner struggle), “Toilet Bowel” (the post-Cheetos physical battle), and a game where you have to climb into the mouth of a giant cat:

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(Maybe this represents the discontented girlfriend?)

So perhaps this whole Adult Swim thing is actually a giant public service announcement.

“Don’t go down this path!” it says. “It will lead to bald loneliness!”

All of the warnings seemed very clear to me, but everyone else was having too much fun to catch them. Maybe I’m just a spoilsport, or a snob. Maybe I’m judging a TV network by an inflataman’s weird crotch bulge.

Or maybe I’m right. Take note, youngsters.

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Heceta Head Lighthouse

The first part of the journey to Heceta Head Lighthouse is a short plunge into the crook of the Devil’s Elbow. Once upon a time, the coastal alcove was a soft expanse of sand. There’s a black-and-white photo in the lighthouse’s archives of a group of bonnet-clad children huddling against the wind on the flat, swooping shore. Nowadays the Devil’s Elbow lives up to its name. The sand is encrusted with rocky grey scales and the surrounding cliffs bend to form a craggy, muscular plateau on the beach’s north end.

It’s hardly a spot to sunbathe, but it’s about as good a place as any to park your beach blanket on the tempestuous Oregon coast. The real draw is that tower on the hill, which gives a hopeful, blinding glint every ten seconds. Except today.

It was only after we’d mounted the first uphill swoop of the trail that we could clearly see the cage of scaffolding. My heart gave a leap. You may not have caught on, but I like scaffolding.

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Well, I liked scaffolding. Now that I’ve witnessed this pillar of spindly perfection, it’s a full-on love affair. I get overwhelmed when I try to explain this fascination. I think it’s sort of like ruin porn, or the Flamboyant Gothic style. You either get it or you think it’s deeply weird.

A group of Parks and Rec folks was outside the lighthouse, surveying the start of the renovation. One of the ladies told us that this is only the second time the 1894 tower has had to shut off its light.

That’s when I noticed the enormous sheet draped over the 2-ton lens. It looked like a giant white eyelid that had come fluttering down, giving the great stolid creature a rest after countless years of staring out at the world.

I remember taking a tour of the lighthouse when I was little. The guide let us climb a little ladder and poke our heads into the middle of the glass turbine. It’s like looking at blank stained glass- not particularly interesting unless you’re an eleven-year-old- but imagine if each pane projected a different scene in the lighthouse’s life. I’m certain I’d glimpse more than one child sitting atop the tower and dangling his feet over the edge. That’s where I would be.

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QUEST, Count Alexander von Svoboda

That winter day in Portland was pristinely gray. The clouds had molded into a seamless cap, and the light was so even that every pane of glass in the world of grids had mirrored over in the way calm water does. Passersby looked beautiful in their myriad reflections; their skin glowed like marble, their faces cooled to stone.

I was looking for Courier Coffee, but mostly drifting. Truthfully, I was lost, and resolutely wandering.

The fountain looked like a white schooner from afar. Even up close, it seemed to be cutting a wake through the canyons. The baroque tangle of nude bodies managed to show compelling forward motion and astronautical suspension at the same time.

How do you build a cathedral? Hoist a thousand tons of rock in the air, then leave it floating there. It defies understanding, but Count Alexander von Svoboda, as a minor levitationist, was surely approaching the secret.

As for me, I was content to linger for a while and frame the statue as you see it. It was christened QUEST, but all I could feel there was a long, basking rest.

I turned and looked at the statue’s reflection, and then I left.

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Sylvan Theater, University of Washington

Isn’t it strange to think that winter break is 1/3 of a summer in length? Now that it’s over, I’m grasping at hazy memories of everything I did. Just like summer’s recollections, they’ve begun to yellow under nostalgia’s warm glow.

There I am on the UW campus at the beginning of break, strolling along with my sister under a deep azure sky. I find an umbrella in the bushes and strut around like it’s one of those fancy, useless canes. We discover four Greek columns, and they’re so stark and serious and naked that I laugh.

“I’ve always wanted to know the difference between the types of columns*,” I say, reaching out to touch one. “It’s not marble!” I say, laughing again.

Oh, but in my memory, the sky has begun to shift from deep azure to robin’s egg blue, and Toy Story clouds have crept in. My sister and I aren’t alone, we’re accompanied by three giggling Muses holding a billowing cloth like a giant parachute, which threatens to lift them off the ground.

You know, kinda sorta like this:

Picture downloaded from my mind

I think that’s why we need breaks, because time is made of a different material then. There’s an added chemical in there akin to the stuff of Polaroid pictures, so that as things sit and develop we can begin to long after them (even if the sky actually was azure, and my sister’s ankle was hurting, and my hands were getting cold).

I can’t imagine ever feeling nostalgic about now, as my eyes droop and I know I have some more Spanish grammar to review and I’m facing crushing work until March.

I’ve already received a faded yellow postcard from the Muses, though, and they said they’ll be back in town over spring break. This time they’re bringing swimsuits.

*ANSWER: The pictured columns are Ionic, which are characterized by their scroll-shaped capitals (tops). Doric columns are simple columns that taper at the top, and are the oldest and strongest order. Tuscan columns are very similar to Doric columns, with simple cylindrical capitals. Corinthian columns are the weakest, and have capitals that look like leafy votive baskets. Composite columns = Corinthian + Ionic.

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Dominic Gospodor, Gospodor’s Monument

If you’ve been anywhere near Gospodor’s Monument in Toledo, WA, you know why it was accused of causing traffic jams along I-5 when it first debuted. It’s impossible not to stare at it in befuddlement.

Millionaire Seattleite Dominic Gospodor, who died last year, earned his fortune selling real estate in Alaska and spent the rest of his life using it to commission things like this:
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That’s my dad walking among the steel spires, which commemorate the Native Americans (left), Mother Teresa (right), Jesus (100 ft up) and the victims of the Holocaust (represented by a giant diamond):

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Monument to Holocaust victims

We stopped on our way to Seattle with the idea that maybe the typical passing glance doesn’t do the cluster of strange sculptures justice. If we could just get a good look at them, maybe they’d make sense.

Or maybe it’s that they make too much sense. Besides the giant diamond, every pillar’s message seems clumsy and heavy-handed. Yes, Gospodor, we understand why you attached Mother Teresa to the bottom of Jesus’ pedestal. We get it that Alaska was important to you. No need to raise an Alaskan flag 100 feet in the air under an enormous weather vane.

More perplexing is why Gospodor chose these particular people and issues to spotlight. It’s as though he asked a group of 15-year-olds “Who’s you’re hero?” and randomly chose five answers. He wasn’t done building, either. Barring a revolt from the people of Toledo, Gospodor was planning monuments to drunken driving victims, Jonas Salk, Susan B. Anthony, African-American history, William Seward and the kitchen sink. I made one of those up.

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Monument to Jesus

This fantastic Flickr post¬†on the monuments describes them as “gaudy,” which seemed like the perfect word until I got a good look at them. They’re a little too stark and industrial for that flashy description, like weird cousins of those¬†spindly, rusting ruins of the Soviet Union. The rough, chunky features of the human figures even reminded me a bit of the Lenin statue I saw last time I was here.

So maybe Gospodor’s monstrosities stir up more laughter than important discussion on difficult topics. Maybe they’re nothing but a giant-sized character study on a filthy rich man-boy. The statues’ self conscious size, awkward design and forced prominence might deserve a bit of ridicule, but perhaps it stems from envy. What if we could all thrust our strangest dreams into monumental reality? Would you hold back?

BONUS PICS: Here are a couple more shots of the weirdness.

BONUS TRIVIA: Gospodor almost built his monument in Sutherlin, Oregon. Dodged that bullet!

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Joseph McDonnell, The Bather, 1976

I didn’t need the eyes of an appraiser to know, instantly upon walking in, that these people were millionaires. It wasn’t that their walls were covered in original art, some accompanied by charming personal notes from the artists. That detail would emerge with further examination. It was the avante garde (read: bizarre) little touches that really tipped me off.

No, those aren’t twin dogs lounging on the couch. They’re explosively furry sheep hair pillows. Yes, the chandelier is a cluster of enormous glass cubes that might shatter at any moment. It’s one-of-a-kind. Oh, and now I know who buys those cowhide carpets from Ikea that I saw on my hellish journey there in October. You can’t be this aesthetically playful without very good ta$te, if you know what I mean.

It was the last day of my Seattle journey, and I’d landed at my dad’s work retreat, held at his co-worker’s chic mansion. I know I said my field trip posts were over, but the best part of this story takes place in Oregon. Just sit tight, and we’ll be far, far away from the rich and famous soon.

Besides all of the glorious pieces hanging on the walls (which included an excellent portrait of the family’s daughters… with Elphaba green skin), there was also The Bather. The sculpture sits serenely in the backyard, striking a contrast to the stunning view of Seattle’s bustling skyline.

You might recognize The Bather because a version of it was shown at the Vancouver Olympic games. As much as I’d like to relate it to the ancient Olympian sculpture Boy scraping himself or other classical works, the piece is resolutely modern and figurative. It’s all about circles and curves. McDonnell is shaping emptiness, creating an invisible ball of energy that is formed by (or holds) the bather’s body.

I wasn’t planning on writing about McDonnell’s sculpture at all, mostly because I knew the post would end up sounding like Better Home and Garden (mission accomplished). Then I went on a run with my dad at Lane Community College yesterday, and the plot thickened.

It turns out there’s an awesome network of forest paths behind the temple of questionable art that is LCC. Not far from the trail head but deep in the tangled underbrush we caught sight of a very familiar sculpture…

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LCC mystery sculpture

Okay, so it’s not exactly The Bather, but you can see McDonnell’s figure here in an even simpler form. The bottom curve looks like folded legs of sorts, while the upper twist of metal could be a bent torso. Even if you think that’s a bit of a stretch, you have to admit that the sculptures utilize spirals, curves and globes in similar ways:

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So, what landed one sculpture on the millionaire’s lawn and the other in a mass of blackberry brambles? Or maybe a better question is, which piece is better off?

“Maybe the sculptor (of the LCC work) put it out there on purpose, as sort of an interactive, natural piece,” pondered my dad. “Who says a pedestal is the best place to put a sculpture? It seems artificial.”

The abandoned sculpture has certainly gotten a lot of attention since being dumped. Though some of the marks on its skin are ugly and hateful, others are intricately crafted tattoos. It seems that, in the long run, most bent hunks of metal that we call “sculptures” will end up somewhere like this. The Lenin statue I saw the other day spent years with its face in the dirt before ending up in Seattle.

It’s an idea that makes me uncomfortable and fearful. I suppose it’s a sculpture’s final statement (or provocation): memento mori.