Guest Editor Blair Saxon-Hill
Originally published December, 2017
This month, the Visual Arts Ecology Project kicks off the first in an ongoing series of guest editor spots with artist Blair Saxon-Hill. Blair is co-owner of Monograph Bookwerks, a contributor to the Visual Arts Ecology Project. It is hard to think of a more earnest, spirited or articulate conversant on Northwest art of any decade. A working artist with a booming list of recent exhibitions in Portland, Los Angeles, Japan, and elsewhere, she is also a 2016 Hallie Ford Fellow and 2016 Oregon Arts Commission Fellow. We think Blair is the best possible art mind from which to mirror the contents of our archive. Enjoy her picks:
Rarely do you meet a woman so wholly dedicated to collage. A Portland resident since the late 1930s, Eunice Parsons became a full-time artist at the age of 34. Her paper archive is one of lore, as is her attic studio and love of a good game of scrabble.
Today, having broken the 100 year mark, Eunice Parsons is the only remaining living artist included in Terri Hopkins’ 2004 group exhibition, Northwest Matriarchs of Modernism, presented by Marylhurst University’s gallery – The Art Gym. The exhibition included numerous strong painters, printmakers and sculptors, many of whom also served as Oregon arts leaders: LaVerne Krause, Maude Kerns, Mary Henry, Sally Haley (a personal favorite) and Hilda Morris.
I first encountered Eunice’s collage works at the 12X16 Gallery located in SE Portland. Eunice is a founding member of the artist run co-op gallery, established over thirty years ago; she still exhibits there today. Although she also served as professor at the Museum Art School, Eunice’s life project does not typify what is often characterized as Northwest art. Instead, she has a more obvious kinship to European artists such as Kurt Schwitters or Miró, Eunice selects from handmade and industrially printed or produced papers, which are left pristine, crumpled or faded to compose and integrate muted tones with brilliant reds, blues, pinks and yellows and blacks. She seeks out color fields, photographs of structures, letterforms, shapes and patterns which she then tears, paints and portions into being. Eunice is quoted as saying “Edges, edges are the story of my life.”
To Northwest artists over the age of 60, a reference to the “Art School” would likely mean the Portland Museum Art School – a locus point of education for men and women who went on to define the history of the Oregon art scene. Beginning in 1909, at SW 5th and Taylor Streets, the school was housed in the Portland Art Association building, later moving to SW Park Street where its classrooms were integrated into the architecture of the Portland Art Museum. In 1981, the institution was renamed Pacific Northwest College of Art. While an art student at Reed College, I wanted to participate in the “Art School” legacy. I was permitted to study there only what was not offered by the Reed Art Department at the time – and so, alas, I studied photography! At night, I hung out on the upper back balcony of the museum between breaks in the darkroom. This particular photograph of the art school challenges my understanding of the building, a disorientation I also felt while I was inside PNCA when it was housed in the museum. Perhaps the museum will always retain this vertiginous architectural confusion. I wonder: is this a photograph of the less known and more rarely photographed backside of the building, near the balcony?
Tom Cramer is a Portland-based painter and woodcarver. He made his mark about town with his graphically painted cars, Vespas, concrete barriers, and totems, before returning to more traditional wood surfaces that he intricately carves and paints. To visit the home of a true Northwest art collector or “old Portland” artist is typically accompanied by some time spent with a piece by Tom Cramer. Whether you like his work or not, he is someone you want to support. His mind is as inquisitive and playful as it is melancholy – all this is permeated with Tom’s generous spirit. Tom is the kind of guy whose laugh you enjoy recalling even if you haven’t seen him in years. And that’s the thing about Tom: he’s a recluse, maybe you haven’t seen him in years – and then he shows-up in some charming outfit at the least likely art event. He is a focused conversationalist, not one to flit around at an opening. When I run into him, two things come to mind – first, a giant pile of wood shavings under his table, and second, Leroy Setziol – one of the greatest monumental woodcarvers of the Northwest. I had managed to find a Setziol postcard and saved it to give to Tom at his opening one year. What followed was what I was hoping for – a story from Tom about his connection to Leroy and a discussion of our shared love of his work. Tom is knowledgeable about the history of Northwest art and ready to chat about it. And he is part of a generational bridge between those who taught or studied at the Museum Art School and those who were mentored by, exhibited with, or were surrounded by those several generations of Northwest artists. So although this is an interview with Lucinda Parker, for me, it is a chance to listen to how Tom’s mind works and to indulge in a discussion that weaves between NW and national art history through two artists central to Oregon’s visual culture.
The Portland Center for Visual Art (PCVA) is a real source of pride for many in the Oregon arts community when reflecting on our history. This is in part because PCVA’s programming worked to connect the Northwest to a larger national conversation and fostered a broad engagement with contemporary art and artists. It exemplified a successful artist-curated alternative exhibition space and created a platform for many nationally renowned artists, dancers, musicians, and curators to engage with the region: Agnes Martin, Donald Judd, Daniel Buren, Trisha Brown, Dexter Gordon, Philip Glass, Anna Halprin, James Turrell and Lucy Lippard, among many others. In the 2011 reprint of 1989 PCVA catalogue, republished by Publication Studios, the Dill Pickle Club and Yale Union, critic, poet and artist Lisa Radon wrote an excellent forward that unearths some of the lesser known aspects of the Center’s history.
I woke up the other day thinking about Laurie Anderson. I wondered what she was up to these days; I read in the New York Times that archives are on her mind – public access to archives, in particular. PCVA’s archive is open to the public and currently accessible at the Crumpacker Family Library located in the Portland Art Museum’s Mark Building. The last time I visited the library’s Northwest archive, I was given a small boom box, headphones, and a cassette tape of a lecture Leo Castelli gave in Portland. As Lisa Radon points out, there is more to be told of the PCVA legacy and the region’s intersection with the national art scene. This new edition of the catalogue and the manila folders and recordings at the Crumpacker Library are great places to begin.
Archives are fragmented by nature, linear by fault, inevitably idiosyncratic, and constantly in the process of becoming. As the Oregon Visual Ecology online archive begins to take shape, and a selection of contributing partners continue to provide content – an increasingly expansive vision of the Oregon art scene and its community comes into being. This vision also includes the work and histories of marginalized people throughout the region. One example of this is the inclusion of the 1995 Blue Sky Gallery / Interstate Firehouse exhibition document “A Portland Family Album: Self-Portrait of an African-American Community.” The catalogue consists primarily of a series of candid B&W photographs of the Black community in Portland from the early to mid – twentieth century. Although the photographers and their subjects are unnamed in the document itself, the catalogue provides an invaluable counter-narrative to a too-often white-washed perception of Oregon.
-Blair Saxon Hill
Blair Saxon-Hill is a collage and assemblage artist working in Portland, Oregon. In 2016, she was awarded fellowships from both the Oregon Arts Commission and the Hallie Ford Foundation. More recently she exhibited at the 500 Meter Museum in Sapporo, Japan, Venus Over Los Angeles, and Artist Curated Projects (ACP). Additionally, her 2017 solo exhibition at JOAN in Los Angeles received both an Artforum Critic’s Pick and the LA Weekly’s Critic’s Pick. In July and August of this year, Saxon-Hill was an artist-in-residence at Sierra Nevada College during the low-res summer MFA programming cycle. Her next solo exhibition will be at the Nino Mier Gallery in Los Angeles in October 2018. Her work is currently available through Artist Curated Projects in Los Angeles.