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Paintings

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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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untitled, Ariel Michelson

Once upon a time, a long time ago, I had a blog about my life as an intern at the Springfield Times. Every week I would hop on the EMX and head across the river to cover high school dodge ball games (beaned in the head), Springfield’s recycling day (beaned in the head… with garbage) or the perpetual struggles of Springfield’s downtown (beaned in the head with garbage… by a pimp*).

*Okay, that last one’s a lie.

The accompanying blog was so boring that only my mother read the thing. Years later when I was starting the blog you’re reading right now, I found a very helpful article that would have saved me a lot of time. Its basic advice was, “Never blog about writing. It’s redundant.”

Anyway, the very first post on that blog sported a picture of a Birkenstock and an old brown boot. Guess which one represented Eugene and which stood for Springfield.

When I started out at the Times, my only real experience with Springfield had been going to the Splash! wave pool and looking with fearful amazement at the industrial wasteland that lines I-105. Though it was often eerily empty, Main Street showed me an entirely different side of Springfield. Here was a place filled with plucky small businesses and sweet, feisty people.

My cold Eugenean heart was slowly melting in the hot Springtucky sun, and a lot of it had to with Springfield’s art scene. Surprise, surprise.

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untitled, Danyelle Hintz

Springfield’s small but fierce arts community could be mapped like a zipper along Main Street.  First there’s the Academy of Arts and Academics, an alternative high school filled with creative (and sometimes pierced) kiddies who routinely cover every window of their building with art. AAA has a new contract with the Wildish Theater across the street, a pretty little venue that routinely produces very fine plays. Then there’s the Springfield Museum, which shows local art in its front room and has a history display upstairs.

When my sister Sarah and I attended a birthday party in Springfield yesterday, I couldn’t resist swinging through the museum. That’s how I found this wonderful exhibition by students of the Springfield School District.

Take another look at the moody psychological portrait in the first photo. Its pensive subject peers into the sun but is simultaneously being swallowed by a starry infinity. Observe the eerie, powerful gaze of the creature in the second portrait. It reminded me of some of the cover artwork for Eva Ibbotson’s novels.

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untitled, Christina Bergman

This was my favorite piece. The landscape is painted on a humble square of cardboard, but the artist has a confidence with color and shading that belies her years. The composition is equally as brilliant. A steep bump in the slope balances the weight of the dark shrub.

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After our artventure we headed up the windy staircase and tried to take in the history exhibit. It’s as good a display as anyone could make about the history of Springfield, but is unfortunately overshadowed by that Simpsons prop the town scored during the battle of the Springfields. I gathered very few facts about Springfield, but I did discover how goofy my sister gets when she hangs out with Homer and the gang.

In the end, I suppose I’d still call Springfield a boot next to Eugene’s Birkenstock. But really, there’s not much difference there. Both are made of comfy old leather.

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Promenade, Anne Teigen

“This costs $4,000,” said my little brother. My jaw dropped. I’d been too busy trying to figure out what was on the other end of the Yellow Queen’s leashes (I’m going to say rabbits wearing winter jackets) to glance at the caption.

We had an hour to kill in downtown Eugene, so of course an art rumpus had started. Promenade hangs with several other Teigens on the ground floor of the Hilton. It caught my eye because I’d never seen a graffiti wall depicted in a painting, but the price tag instantly turned me off. The four thousand dollar lady was clearly turning up her little bourgeois nose at the democratic mentality of street art. Promenade indeed!

I decided that we’d have to exit through the gift shop and hit the streets. We would seek tags that weren’t trapped in oil. We would demand our art en plein air.

A couple steps into the shadowy downtown, I started to wonder whether this was the best thing to do with an 11-year-old. Then we took a detour through a parking garage and I realized just how prepared my little hooligan was:

Being a big brother is all about scuffing the line between lazy supervision and mischievous camaraderie, which is how we ended up behind Smith Family trying to climb up the side of a building using balcony railings as a ladder. Don’t worry, we only got a couple feet off the ground.

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We discovered the work of an amateur typographer in the same alleyway. Here, my little brother tries to pick a lock with a leaf stem. You might call him a debonair burglar in that he could hardly care whether he gets in. You couldn’t call him a debonaire burglar, though. He aces all his spelling tests.

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Next we swung through Park Blocks, site of the original Occupy Eugene camp. It turns out the movement is still organized enough to do angry sidewalk chalk scrawling, which is more than I expected of them. Along with all the usual Occupy slogans was this delightful message. We approved.

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Wind-Rain Song, Weltzin Blix <;;;–another fantastic name!

Between the Hult Center and the Hilton is this downed windmill of a sculpture. It’s always been a mystery to me, so I asked my little brother for his interpretation.

“What is it saying to us?” I said.

“It’s a place to sit,” said my bro, plopping himself down.

There you go.

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The last stop on our tour was the Hilton again, where we crashed a meeting and sipped (presumably) expensive water from crystal goblets. Mischief managed, I’d say.

BONUS: Click here for Anne Teigen on those mysterious leashes, graffiti and the costs of artmaking!

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Red Tulip with David, Sherrie Wolf

“This is my least favorite piece,” I said.

“It’s certainly… a conversation starter,” said the desk lady at the Jacobs Gallery.

I’d returned roughly one month after seeing Red Tulip with David for the first time. That was during February’s First Friday Art Walk after my Eugenean identity crisis, so maybe I was in a bad mood. All I know is that something about Red Tulip deeply irked me.

The painting hangs at the very front of Eugene Collects, which proves once and for all that Eugene art collectors aren’t quite as rare as unicorns. The exhibition is what you’d imagine a wealthy art connoisseur’s attic might look like. There are the hidden treasures (Renoir! Dürer!) and then there are the castoffs like Red Tulip.

It’s a great juggling duel between two contemporary styles. Caravaggio’s Baroque David with the Head of Goliath tangos with a Dutch/Flemish still life. The melodramatic macro is mimicked and eclipsed by the intricate micro. Do you see how the leaning flowers create a similar shape to that of David’s chest and arms? Did you notice how Goliath’s massive head is dittoed by the fragile glass orb?

In the end, the tulip wickedly subverts David using tricks from Caravaggio’s own bag. The artist has placed the edge of the tulips’ shelf at the bottom of the picture plane, a very Baroque trompe l’oiel– a trick of the eye. By pushing the flowers out into the viewer’s space, Wolf has declared victory for the Dutch.

I know, I know. I just broke the nerd barrier. I might be dorkily fist pumping except that… I’m supposed to hate this painting. I’ve been frustrated with it all month. At first it was the color of the flowers, which have a lurid red glow but cast no light on the orb. Then it was the territorial composition with its hoity-toity interplay of ideas.

And now I find that this painting is intriguing in a good sort of way. It has won me over, which somehow makes me hate it even more. I love it I hate it I love it I hate it…

I stared down the piece, the poor little desk lady hovering beside me.

“I thought maybe the artist was just trying to show off her skill,” she said consolingly. “You have a portrait, a still life, lots of different textures and surfaces…”

I wasn’t buying it. Sherrie Wolf and I were having a meta-nerd battle, and only one of us could win. Who would be David, and who would be the ugly tulips? I had a feeling that the Wolf was dressed in red. Dang.

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Mannerist mannequin (can you see it?), American Apparel

In my first year of college, I joined the staff of a short-lived campus newspaper called the Weekly Enema. I’ve never trumpeted this achievement on a resume, but at the time I was happy to be publishing somewhere, even if my articles were squeezed between the sex advice column and the poop dispatch.

One of my first assignments at the Enema was to parody hipster life from the perspective of a hipster. Hipsterdom is genetically shackled to post-post-irony, which is to say that any joke about it is as stretched as the elastic on a vintage flower headband. Based on that zinger, you can imagine how the article turned out.

The piece’s climax was a visit to the American Apparel on 13th street, where my hipster self idolized the shiny white mannequins and aspired to enter the “crushing tsunami of generic sameness” of hoodie fashion.

Fast forward to senior year, long after the Enema flushed away.

This Friday’s art history lecture was on Mannerism, which is apparently pretty difficult to define. My teacher’s description was full of buzz phrases like “It’s the Stylish Style” and “It’s, you know, scherzo.” He spent a lot of time on a slide of Parmigianino’s Madonna with the Long Neck, which shows a space alien-style Virgin clutching her Voldebaby Christ.

I took a peek at Wikipedia for clarification, and learned that, “The definition of Mannerism, and the phases within it, continues to be the subject of debate among art historians.” Great.

My teacher finally (somewhat) pinned it down:

Mannerism is the willful distortion of figure and space for aesthetic or spiritual effect.

So to understand is to revel in confusion? This was all sounding très hipster.

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On my run that afternoon, Mannerism kept bugging me. When I can’t grasp something inside the ivory tower of art history, I usually take it to the streets. Where was Mannerism’s real-world parallel?

Then I passed American Apparel. There hung three photocopies of alien Madonna’s long, pale body dressed in different shades of cardigans and stockings. The figures were perfectly twisted into the extreme contrapossto of Mannerist works like Raphael’s Galatea. Was this a coincidence, or some sort of post-post-ironic reference?

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Either way, reconnecting with my old Enema friends helped me understand Mannerism through the lens of modern advertising. The Mannerists verged away from the High Renaissance obsession with accurate scientific depiction, warping their figures in the pursuit of “superhuman” beauty, as my teacher would say. Magazines and ads do the same thing in our post-post-modern world, albeit with a very neo-Mannerist tool called Photoshop.

As I stood in American Apparel and took these shots, I wondered if the horde of shoppers realized how abstracted the slender white goddesses towering around them were. Do they aspire to be these freakish beings? Based on American Apparel’s ads, maybe so.

Not to worry: my moment of cultural awareness was soon replaced by post-cultural awareness. I wrote that Enema article in the aughts. When will American Apparel hoodies go out of style? I thought ironically. Cuz, you know, they’re actually so out that they’re back in.

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Haunted wine cellar?

The Excelsior Inn‘s restaurant is so far out of my price range that I usually don’t bother to look past its beautiful gate when I pass by. In Harry Potter speak, you might say the building has a Secret-Keeper, and their secret is a platinum credit card.

Of course, the real trick is to know someone who has a platinum credit card. Just snag a rich uncle, or a scholarship donor like mine. He gives all of his recipients dinner at the Excelsior one night a year.

That’s how I found myself plodding through the quaint garden and up the steps of the Italian ristorante in wet Dockers and mismatched socks last night. I can never quite nail down the dress code.

The interior was lavish and beautiful, and also possibly haunted. On one of my donor’s tipsier years, he told us that the wine cellar was home to spirits, and that once a glass had gone flying off the fireplace all on its own. People have also heard “mysterious” footsteps upstairs, but that’s where the hotel rooms are.

The art was surprisingly less fine, at least in some corners of the establishment.

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Karla S. Chambers, Sunspot II

Karla S. Chambers’ Sunspot II was lurid in color and crude in style. Our waitress was quick to defend her, though.

“She has had good things in here before,” she said, looking very concerned. It’s funny to ask waiters at fancy shmancy restaurants to fix problems they can’t. An intense fear of getting fired by the stuffy management is always bubbling under the surface.

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James Moon, Rest Stop

There were some pretty great watercolors in the place, though, including some wonderful portraits by James Moon. Can’t you just see Moon setting up a little chair in front of this snoozing gentleman and leaving just as he wakes up?

I love the chaotic shadows on the ground, which subtly change our understanding of the subject’s surroundings, and the even line of bushes behind him. Moon has expertly dropped a whimsical character (his little red bag says “supermercado” on the bottom) into a vaguely ominous location. Do those shadows actually belong to scraggly-armed monsters?

After some I-have-to-close-my-eyes-because-otherwise-they-will-pop-out-of-my-head-and-knock-out-the-lenses-of-my-spectacles delicious desert, I went home and googled Moon. According to Bob Keefer, he’s a former dentist who has traveled through Mexico and Italy. Too bad “supermercado” means the same thing in both Spanish and Italian. I would like to imagine this little gent as a hispanohablante, mostly because he reminds me of Don Quijote in some of his more tired, curmudgeonly moments.

FLASHBACK: The Excelsior guest starred (kind of) in the second photo I ever posted on this here blog! Do you remember Proginoskes?

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Emil Vlenkov, Vladimir Lenin (decked out for Hannukah and Christmas, with my sister Becca)

I’m sitting in my dad’s co-worker’s car right now, and we’re lurching through Seattle on our way to the tow truck lot. Yes, dear readers. I have once again done something very foolish in Seattle involving my dad’s car.

Last time, I was conned out of my parking money and then ticketed for not paying. This time, I didn’t see a little sign that said, “No parking between 4 and 6.” 4 and 6?? Really!?

Of course, neither of these things would have happened if I had read the art omens right. My sister and I have been receiving messages all day.

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Steve Badanes, Will Martin, Donna Walter, and Ross Whitehead; Fremont Troll 

First, we searched out the famous Fremont Troll, which has a hubcap for an eye and a VW Beetle in its clutches. Look at this creeper eye and tell me it’s not some sort of crystal ball. “Watch your bumper,” it says. Why couldn’t I see my future in it?

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The troll hides in the crook of a bridge that is currently under construction, which put it in an even more interesting context. It was as though the workers were building a giant cage around the fantastic beast.

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My sister Becca being kidnapped by the Fremont Troll

After a stop at nearby Theo Chocolate Factory (Tip: DON’T take the tour, you can get all of the free samples in the gift shop anyway), we discovered the largest Lenin statue in the United States, which is also in Fremont.

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Yes, you read that right. Not only is this the largest Lenin statue in the country, but there are apparently other ones too. I wonder where the second and third-largest Lenins reside. Possibly around the corner?

I should have realized that I had some dark hours ahead of me as Lenin pointed his massive finger at me, but I was too busy reading about how the copper hulk got there in the first place:

“Lewis Carpenter, an American veteran teaching in Poprad (Slovakia), found the sculpture lying face down after it was toppled in the 1989 Revolution. Carpenter recognized Venkov’s skill and craftsmanship and the boldness of his portrayal, and was determined that the statue be preserved. Carpenter mortgaged his house to acquire the scultpure…”

The inscription explains that this is possibly the “only representation of Lenin surrounded by guns and flames instead of holding a book or waving his hat.” In other words, artist Emil Vankov was injecting his own ideas into the commissioned work. Awesome.

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My dad and I were starting a run when I realized that the car, parked near his office building, was missing. The moments after your car has been towed are full of frustration and denial. You hope yourself into believing that you parked in a different space, that you’re just incredibly absent-minded.

Then it turns out that you’re incredibly absent-minded, but not in the way you were hoping to be. We went back into the office building and my dad called the towing company. There was this abstract painting in the hall that modtastically represented my emotional state. You can see it behind my sister’s disapproving face. I was especially drawn to the pointless blue maze and painful red splotches.

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And so we ended up at this lot, where my dad’s little Camry sits sadly in row number 64.

I’m realizing that maybe I need to pull my head a little ways out of the clouds sometimes…………….. but that spray-painted “64” sign is kind of sweet. Wouldn’t it be hilarious if the towing guy was a street artist by night?

P.S. Check out my new STREETS OF EUG Tumblr, which will shortly be chock-full of street art pics from my Seattle field trip!