The things we see and how we see them can shift radically from year to year, and the disruptions of 2021 — a continuing pandemic, isolation, leftover devastation from runaway forest and brush fires, radical political and racial disputes, with periods of hopefulness and opening up — affected the way both artists and audiences viewed the world around them.
2021: THE YEAR IN REVIEW
From burned bark in the wilderness to “found” art at home, from galleries and museums to sculptural treks in the countryside, from celebrating Black art to redirecting the gender gaze, from the strange new world of nonfungible tokens to a doom-and-gloom autopsy for the arts, from toppled statues to potlatch for today, from the canvas to the camera lens, from a kids’ “art bus” to swimming in a sensory sea of Van Gogh images, it was a year that was, well, a sight to behold.
From January through December, a look at how the Oregon art world looked to ArtsWatch writers:
Jan. 7: Private Lives of the Trees. The year began with a look inside the remains of Oregon’s devastating 2020 fire season – a disaster brought on by drought and climate change, and that continued, although somewhat less destructively, in 2021. Blake Edwards went up the McKenzie Highway east of Eugene with photographer David Paul Bayles and retired Forest Service scientist Fred Swanson to the site of the Holiday Farm Fire, which incinerated more than 170,000 acres of forest. Bayles recorded the damage, in images that sometimes have an eerie beauty.
- April 8: From Ashes of the Echo Mountain Fire, Art. Another photographer, Bruce MacGregor, went back to the site of the fire that destroyed the town of Otis and environs, and recorded both the damage and the resilience of the people who lived there. Lori Tobias writes about an exhibit of MacGregor’s photos at the nearby Lincoln City Cultural Center.
Jan. 19: Things that Go Bump in the Light. A bit put out by his pandemic-induced isolation, photographer and writer K.B Dixon turned for a model to a fellow who happened to be hanging around the house. “The photographs here are of Phil (no last name),” Dixon writes. “He is, for all his insinuations to the contrary, an inanimate object. A phrenological head made of stone and resin, he is one of those iffy bits of bric-a-bracery that occasionally make it into my office and stay. He is both a piece of comic commentary on pseudoscience and the symbolic embodiment of a portrait photographer’s dream—a subject whose character is literally written on his face.”
March 9: The Value of Art: Cats, Cryptoart, and Morons. When art, money, and technology collide, strange things happen. “An anonymous group of tech bros-cum-speculative-art-collectors burned a Banksy print, which they’d purchased for $95,000, in an attempt to ride the cryptoart wave by turning it into an NFT and selling it for what they hope will be more money than the original,” Jennifer Rabin reports. Say what? Rabin sorts it all out.
March 12: Late Pandemic Meditations: Predator, Prey, or Family. Shannon M. Lieberman contemplates the complex and intertwined animal relationships featured in works at Antler Gallery by April Coppini, Chase Mullen, and Chris Austin. Their works, Lieberman writes, “brim with wildlife: buzzing bees, fighting foxes, coiling serpents, and watchful deer. … They are shaped not only by exploring the outdoors, but also by science, popular culture, and our daydreams. Being in the ‘family of things’ is at once beautiful and complex.”
April 13/13/15: Women of Art: A Visual Life. In a three-part series, Pat Rose explores the visions of contemporary woman photographers in Oregon, discovering bracing differences and a common commitment to making extraordinary art. Part 1 focuses on Grace Weston and her meticulously staged, keenly dramatic images of miniatures. Part 2 explores the conceptual, postmodern work of Laura Kurtenbach. In Part 3, Rose talks with Susan Bein about her conversion to iPhone photography.
May 10: A More Hopeful Apocalypse. “Images of the apocalypse tend to follow a theme: Dark skies, derelict buildings, smoldering fire,” Lindsay Costello writes about the exhibit Awake Under Vines at Elizabeth Leach Gallery. “Despite these very real threats, Ryan Pierce chooses to envision the potential for worldly change from an optimistic, anti-apocalyptic lens. What if a collective revolution could be celebratory, wild, improvisational?”
May 20: Weaving the Future: Jovencia de la Paz at Holding Contemporary. The artist, weaver and curricular head of the University of Oregon’s fibers department, Lindsay Costello writes, “reaches for conversations with the future and the unknown … tread(ing) the line between the digital and the physical, finding the tense places and holding a gaze there.”
May 25: European Art and the Baggage Claim. Art historian and ArtsWatch visual arts editor Laurel Reed Pavic looks at the landscape of art in museums and declares that the old model of lionizing historical art from Europe is, well, a thing of the past – and a past that should be shaken up. “We don’t have to cancel European art or castigate the founders of the Portland Art Museum. They were not acting maliciously,” Reed Pavic writes. But in a society striving for greater equity, “There are plenty of themes that the museum’s collections could be grouped into: death, food, spirituality, animals (to name just a few possibilities). Hanging the collection this way would require cooperation and collaboration across departments, but it would more closely adhere to the goal of creating a ‘deeper understanding of our shared humanity.’ It would also more obviously dethrone white culture.”
June 1: Balancing Acts: Dawn Cerny at Melanie Flood Projects. “Mobiles can be childlike and gentle, or precarious and uncertain,” Lindsay Costello writes about Cerny’s solo show Weeping Willow Folding Chair. “They’re a bit like miniature versions of a tightrope act—it’s thrilling to watch an object, wobbly and fragile, learn to balance. There’s suspense in suspension. This tension is constant in our lives; we are all learning to balance, endlessly.”
June 14: Autopsy for the Arts. Independent American artists are in dire straits, and the Portland writer William Deresiewicz, in his book Death of the Artist: How Creators Are Struggling To Survive in the Age of Billionaires and Big Tech, believes he knows who and what to blame. Brett Campbell dives deep into the argument (among the book’s examples are stories from several Oregon artists), laying it out as Deresiewicz sees it.
June 16: Updating Ansel Adams. Ansel Adams? The most popular photographer in America, seen in posters slapped on walls from sea to shining sea? What could possibly be new or interesting? Laurel Reed Pavic, reviewing the Portland Art Museum’s expansive exhibit Ansel Adams in Our Time, finds her head spun around: “The posters mislead by lending an impression of familiarity, an excuse to dismiss the legacy of Adams as single-issue. The excellent curation of this show demonstrates that his legacy and the contemporary conversations around his work are rich and multi-layered. I’m glad to have been wrong.”
June 17: Embracing the Bucket (and Other Overlooked Details). Blake Andrews reviews globe-trotting Portland photographer Christopher Rauschenberg’s Nine Gallery show India Pushtogethers, in which he smushes arrays of very different images into a new and vibrantly disoriented whole. “Rauschenberg’s pictures reveal an affinity for small details and overlooked detritus,” Andrews writes, “which he leavens liberally into graphic jigsaws.”
June 29: Black Art Matters. “We’re only halfway through the year, but I suspect that the new exhibit at the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg, Black Matter, will rank among my favorites of 2021,” David Bates wrote. The group show featured a dozen Black artists from Oregon, among them MOsley WOtta and the photographer Jamila Clarke. “The variety of media is rich: mixed media pieces, sculpture, digital prints, portrait and narrative painting, photography, and more,” Bates wrote. “There’s so much of it … and so much to linger over.”
July 13: Art Outside: Hiking Boots Optional But Recommended. With the pandemic keeping museums and galleries shuttered or open only to small and socially distanced audiences, Ashland’s Schneider Museum of Art turned its attention to the great outdoors as the expansive “gallery” for Art Beyond, a rambling temporary sculpture park in which 24 artists installed works in five locations in and around town, from the city’s Lithia Park to a meadow in the Siskiyou Mountains. Writer Georgina Ruff strapped on her hiking boots and hit the art trail.
Aug. 3: Water, Memory, Exchange: Marianne Nicolson at Yale Union. “Dancing shadows and a turquoise blue illusion of running water” lit up the top floor of Yale Union, Luiza Lukova writes, in A Feast of Light and Shadows, a show by Kwakwaka’wakw-heritage artist Marianne Nicolson that reframed “the artist’s Native tradition of potlatch into a modern context.” It was a fitting final exhibition for Yale Union, Lukova observes, before the contemporary art center, in “a historic repatriation of property,” turned over its large Southeast Portland building to the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation as its new home.
Aug. 16: Oregon Coast Art Bus Hits the Road in Lincoln County. “For kids living in rural areas, an art program only miles away may still be too far. … The Oregon Coast Council for the Arts is hoping a repurposed school bus will help overcome those challenges.” Lori Tobias writes about the project, a sort of bookmobile for the arts, which travels hill and dale bringing art applies and ideas to where the kids are.
Aug. 25: Making Lives Small. “What might you miss if you don’t take a tour of Portraiture from the Collection of Northwest Art during your next visit to the Portland Art Museum?” Sebastian Zinn asks. “Many clues to the minor histories of modern and contemporary art in the American Northwest – which might otherwise go undiscovered – are scattered throughout this tidy collection of artworks” curated by Grace Kook-Anderson, the museum’s curator of Northwest art, and artist Storm Tharp.
Aug. 30: Seeing Double. “Perhaps the juxtaposition of two basic images or image types in these double-exposures, photo weavings and collages is not just about the combined effect or the riffing of one image off another, but the transition itself, which can be violent but can also lead us to some kind of greater truth.” Brian Libby looks at overlapping photographs by Mike Vos, Dinh Q. Lê, and Gary Burnley, and hears them speaking to our polarized times.
Sept. 17: Ceramics take on tech. “This month at Eutectic Gallery in Portland,” Jennifer Rabin writes, “what looks to the casual observer like a small ceramics show is actually a quiet revolution.” What was going on? Beside each piece in the show New Ownership is a scannable QR code, unique to that work, that takes you to the work’s profile page on the world’s largest online marketplace for NFTs, or non fungible tokens. New Ownership, Rabin continues, is “pushing the boundaries of NFTs by using them in a new way: to verify and authenticate artworks that exist in the physical world.” Rabin deftly considers the implications and possibilities of it all.
Sept. 28: Malignant Monuments: On Permanence, “Prototypes,” and York. It’s been a tough couple of years in Portland (and across the country, for that matter) for public monuments, those big bronze images of (usually) famous men. “I was not sorry last year when the statues started falling,” Prudence Roberts writes. “While I would have chosen a different method for their removal, I can sympathize with the rage and the frustration that led to their disfiguration and their violent demise, in the days following the murder of George Floyd.” What now that they’re off their pedestals? Roberts considers the rights, the wrongs, and the possibilities of a complex and divisive public question.
Oct. 12: Herring Carnival: Paintings by Morgan Walker. “Carnivals, fairs, and farm animals are familiar fare in Walker’s work and biography: his grandmother bred show cattle and rhesus monkeys; his father was a rodeo cowboy. It’s a personal mythology that Walker relies upon to great effect and charm,” Laurel Reed Pavic writes. “Yet in this show, the works that pick up the carnival theme are a red herring for the other, more personal and urgent theme: resolve and resilience, staking a claim to continue and thrive as an artist.”
Nov. 10: Exquisite Gorge II: It Begins with Sheep. Two years ago wrier and photographer Friderike Heuer followed the making of Exquisite Gorge, a multi-artist, multi-community project by Maryhill Museum of Art that covered the lives and natures along a 220-mile stretch of the Columbia River and culminated in the printing-by-steamroller of a 66-foot-long communal print. In 2022 Maryhill is following up with a similar project along the same stretch of river, this time with fiber artists, and Heuer will follow its progress once again. She begins with a visit to – what else? – a sheep ranch, where the wool for the fiber art comes from.
Nov. 14: Stephen O’Donnell, Shifting History’s Gaze. “Something seriously, beautifully playful’s going on,” ArtsWatch observes about Re-Pose: Subverting the Gendered Gaze in the Historical Nude, the Portland artist’s expertly executed show of gender-switched echoes of famous paintings. “Only in a culture in which politics impinges on private matters of sexuality and gender identity, dictating what is acceptable and what is not – indeed, what can be outcast and criminalized – could these paintings be considered political. We live, of course, in such a culture, and so they are.”
Nov. 22: “If She Floats”: Anya Roberts-Toney at Nationale. “The title of the show, If She Floats, is a reference to the swim tests given to women suspected of being witches through the end of the 18th century,” Jennifer Rabin writes. “If a woman floated, she was proclaimed a witch and burned alive. If she sank, she was absolved, though many women drowned during the test.” Modern women, she adds, understand the predicament – and Rabin notes that the show’s ideas are free-flowing: “If I took one thing away … it’s the pleasure of seeing an artist in process.”
Nov. 24: Stage & Studio: Beyond Van Gogh. Dmae Lo Roberts takes us via podcast on an audio tour of the immersive Van Gogh show (one of several touring the nation) that’s settled into Portland’s Oregon Convention Center, and talks with Fanny Curtat, one of its art historians and curators. The show’s been a hit: Originally scheduled to run through Jan. 9, it’s been extended through Feb. 12.
- Nov. 30: Art Review: Beyond Van Gogh. “So if you’re going to go, at least go clear-eyed. This show isn’t about appreciating Van Gogh’s oeuvre. It isn’t about understanding fin-de-siecle European painting. This show uses those things to fashion a spectacle that sells tickets,” Laurel Reed Pavic writes. Still, she adds, “My (seven-year-old) daughter was mesmerized. Watching her wide eyes, I realized that to disparage this as a screensaver is to neglect the accomplishments of the animators, who genuinely did an excellent job.”
Dec. 6: No Judgment: Membership Show at Maude Kerns. What if someone did a group art show with no gatekeepers – no jurors, no curators, just a democratic come-one-come-all and show your stuff? That’s exactly what happens once every year at the Maude Kerns Art Center in Eugene: All members of the center are invited to enter two of their works in the show, no questions asked, and this year 175 people said “yes.” “I like the idea of a no juror show because it leaves control in the hands of artists,” Ester Barkai writes. “The pageantry of the entire exhibit, and the unpredictability of the whole thing, is what makes it exciting.”
Also in “2021: The Year in Review”
- Marc Mohan’s 10 Best Films of the Year. ArtsWatch’s chief film columnist picks ’em and praises ’em, from The Lost Daughter to Memoria to The Tragedy of Macbeth.
- 2021: The people who made the art. From Damien Geter and Leapin’ Louie to Bonnie Meltzer and Willy Vlautin, celebrating almost 30 artists in Oregon whose visions stood out and helped define and rethink a precarious year.
- Stage & Studio: Reflections on 2021. In her end-of-year podcast, Dmae Lo Roberts talks with ArtsWatch’s Bob Hicks, Steph Littlebird, Brett Campbell, and Amy Leona Havin about the highs, lows, and landmarks of the cultural year.
- 2021: A literary year of loss, renewal, and re-emergence. Amy Leona Havin looks back on the authors we lost and the bookish events that cheered us this year.
- 2021: A year of rethinking who we are. Amid a year of cultural clashes over who belongs, a baker’s dozen stories about artists in Oregon who thought big, told untold stories, and spread the creative net wide.
- 2021: A year of dance, up in the air. From dance on film in January to a flurry of Nutcrackers in December, Jamuna Chiarini tracks the ups and downs of Oregon’s Covid-tinged dance year.