Sunday, August 22, 2010

Environmental Art at Willamette's Hallie Ford Museum

There might be no more quintessentially northwest record than Sleater-Kinney's The Woods.

The main element of its cover is a painting by Michael Brophy. Its kinship to another painting is clear.

The Tree Curtain, and many of Brophy's other paintings ask questions about our relation to our environments, built and natural, and the difficult and complicated borderlands between the two.

Literally, the clearcut is on a road to nowhere. At the same time, in our parks we stage vistas and views for recreation, creating "natural" scenes that depend on cars and roads and everything else from civilization. There's little that's all natural or all artificial. Salmon, river, tree and forest are seemingly wired in our bodies here as Salemites and northwesterners. No matter how urban we get, we always talk about the ways we are equidistant between ocean and mountain. Insistently we locate ourselves in relation to them.

Starting this Friday at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art is Critical Messages: Contemporary Northwest Artists on the Environment.
Co-organized with the Western Gallery at Western Washington University in Bellingham, the exhibition explores how 26 contemporary artists respond to a host of environmental issues confronting the Pacific Northwest: growth management; waste management; land and sea; mass production and consumption; transportation; preservation of wilderness and wetlands; biodiversity; climate change; and energy. Included in the exhibition are works by artists from Oregon, Washington, Idaho, California, and British Columbia.

Two of the works in the show touch directly on transportation.

Roll Hardy, Uphill Battle, 2008
Oil on canvas, 10 x 23”
Collection of Ron Kloepfer, Portland, Oregon

If you've spent much time at all in Portland, this should seem familiar. It is painted from below the on-ramp system of the Fremont Bridge. You are looking north, up Mississippi Avenue from a point a block or so north of the Widmer Gasthaus on North Russell.

The City of Portland maintenance has a truck fleet there, and accommodating bicycle and truck traffic has been sometimes difficult. Recently a new bike lane was striped, and in this story you can see some of the signs visible in the painting!

This is a reductive reading of the painting, of course. The painting also suggests the disruptions created by urban renewal and highways. Tom Robinson gave a lecture and slide show of north Portland and a century of highway development and urban renewal. Over at the Mercury, Sarah Mirk has a piece on the "Dead Freeway Society," the Robert Moses plan and the efforts to remove Harbor Drive (for Waterfront Park) and halt the Mt. Hood Freeway.

Why should this matter to Salemites?

Because right here there's an effort to land an equally disruptive set of on-ramps in our neighborhoods. The Salem Rivercrossing is a project to land a highway bridge across the river and to cut up our neighborhoods.

There are several different bridge alignments being proposed, and it is difficult to understand how this one wouldn't ruin the Union St. Railroad Bridge. The other alignments disrupt other neighborhoods and parks.

While the movement of freight and goods is crucial, there are other ways to solve our capacity problems. As the outgoing President of Metro, David Bragdon, said in May about another over-sized bridge project
highway divisions unilaterally define the problem (auto congestion at certain times of day) and then define the solution (more physical capacity) using a very limited range of tools from a small toolbox, without regard to economic cost or environmental externalities or impacts outside the narrowly defined problem area.
The same is true with the Salem Rivercrossing.

A second work is a sardonic comment on our love for the SUV.

Chris Jordan, Denali Denial
from Running the Numbers: An American Self-Portrait series, 2006
Pigmented inkjet print, 60 x 99”
Courtesy of the artist, Seattle and Kopeikin Gallery, Los Angeles

From the exhibit text:
There are more vehicles in the United States, some 250 million, than there are licensed drivers. The Earth Policy Institute estimates each car requires a fifth of an acre in roads or parking space – bigger than many modern building lots – and that the nation’s 61,000 square miles of paving consumes almost as much land as the planting of wheat. With fuel costs rising, road taxes onerous and paradise paved, our love affair with the automobile is cooling as we flirt with shoe leather, the bicycle, and mass transit. Light rail is supplementing buses in Vancouver, Seattle, Tacoma and Portland. California voters have approved a 200 mph train. Here, artists capture this onslaught of concrete, asphalt and even – in a view of Denali – the 24,000 SUV logos that equal six weeks of global sales of the GMC Yukon Denali.

(Detail from Running the Numbers)

So what's the point of the art? If it merely refreshes the spirit, or entertains with its painterly qualities, its purpose is completed only half-way. At the same time, the art cannot only preach to the choir. The art, if it is to be successful, should also have a persuasive quality. Do these works persuade? Will they persuade someone to bike or walk instead of drive to the show or to a future destination?

Go see the show and weigh in! Hallie Ford is a gem, and it's not surprising it regularly gets more ink in the Oregonian than the Statesman. It is one of the really fine things in Salem!

Update: The show is rich and complete. It is inspiring, beautiful, ugly, repellent, angering - it runs a complete set of human feeling. Just go!

1 comment:

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

The Denali image is - doh! - based on one by Ansel Adams.

Can't wait to go back...clearly more and more interpretive detail will emerge with time! The art will have a conversation with you!