Keys to the Koop
Bill Long 10/29/04
Humor and Satire in Contemporary Printmaking
One of the hidden jewels of Salem, OR is the Hallie Ford Art Museum of Willamette University. Founded about five years ago through the diligent effort of Professor Roger Hull and others, the Museum has developed a sizable collection in Northwest art and also has periodic traveling exhibits of note. The latest of these, which has been and will be shown in other West Coast venues, is a portion of Jordan D. Schnitzer's collection of contemporary prints. This exhibit featuress the work of sixteen artists, including Roy Lichtenstein and Claes Oldenburg of the last generation and current artists Tad Savinar, Enrique Chagoya, Ellen Gallagher, David Gilhooly, Jeff Koons, Kara Walker and others. The space of this review only permits brief mention of a few striking contributions.
Munching on Munch
Roy Lichtenstein began his career in the 1950s with his signature comic strip characters, Ben-Day dots and conversational bubbles. He abandoned this mode in the 1970s and 1980s, returning to it in the last few years of his life, especialy in the noteworthy "Reflections Series." The one that most caught my eye was the "Reflection on the Scream," the "Scream" being Edward Munch's famous 1894 portrait of a terrified person fleeing down a darkened road with mouth grotesquely contorted into a scream. Lichtenstein's humor comes out here for in his "Scream" we have "Sweet Pea," the Popeye Cartoon character, yelling from its bed for attention. The same coloration and Ben-Day dots proliferate; now, however, irony and humor dominate. This is a pleasant image from the last decade of the artist's life.
Claes Oldenburg's 1982 lithograph "Colossal Flashlight in Place of the Hoover Dam," is probably the most arresting print in the exhibition. The public power movement, driven by the country's insatiable desire for cheap energy in the 1930s and humanized by the plangent lyrics of Woody Guthrie, led to the building of the massive dam structures, mostly in the West, of which Bonneville and Grand Coulee in the Northwest and Hoover in the Southwest were examples. The Dams bring power. Until Ever-ready decided to make batteries. Oldenburg lays an enormous flashlight over Lake Mead and the surrounding Nevada desert, replacing the Dam in his imagination, making us smile with the realization that subsequent inventions often make obsolete (though the Dam was not made obsolete) large exertions of a previous generation's "energy."
The entire exhibit is called "Keys to the Koop," after Kara Walker's 1997 "Keys to the Coop," depicting the silhouetted figures of a black woman, holding a key in one hand and a chicken's head in the other, and that same chicken, which is running away "like a chicken with its head cut off." Kara is one of the youngest of the 16 artists, born in 1969, but her evocation of the silhouette form in "Keys" and especially in "I'll be a Monkey's Uncle," takes us back to a 19th century artistic form for portraiture. In addition, the depiction in the latter of a monkey-like black man, separated from the silhouetted woman by a phallus-shaped whip, evokes memories of the Darwinian "natural selection" philosophy which began to flourish in the late 19th century as well as the "intelligence testing" movement in the early 20th century. We don't escape the past; sometimes we wonder whether the past not only continues to define but also to determine us. Walker's work, though having risible dimensions, has a serious undercurrent of historical determinism in it.
I could go on at length. Let's not. Memorable also in the exhibit were Gilhooly's "How to Make Jackson Pollock's Dogs," where layer after layer of color was added to subsequent plates made by Gilhooly as a dog finally took shape in "Pollockian" terms. It immediately called to mind a "concert" I attended by a distinguished organist in San Francisco, whose culminating work for the evening was "Toccata and Fugue on the 'Pop Pop Fizz Fizz Oh What a Relief It Is'" commercial. You just have to laugh and celebrate the comedic talent of an artist who can, with the stroke of a pen or the glissendo on a piano, carve a lifetime memory into our minds.
Jeff Koons' "Michael Jackson and Bubbles" was complemented by a more intriguing "Inflatable Flower." I read an online review of his work, but the author was so caught up in trying to be a cool postmodern reviewer that I never understood what she was trying to say. I think I need to look at more of Koon's work before I say anything.
Then, in conclusion, I must note Enrique Chagoya's "Enlightened Savage" and Tad Savinar's work. Chagoya, who teaches at Stanford, has given us a hugely ironic twist on Andy Warhol's Campbell Soup cans by labelling the cans "Critic's Tongue" or "Art Historian's Alphabet." Certainly as an artist he has probably felt "devoured" by critics. Now, he can get back at them by neatly placing their remains in a sanitized can of soup. Ah, doesn't revenge "taste" sweet?
Savinar is a Portland-born artist (b. 1950) whose works included a "night sky" of terms from intimate life to civic life as well as his "Left Brains/Right Brains" piece, poking fun at the cliche we have all uttered (sometimes muttered) about the sources of creativity or dullness. I couldn't suppress a laugh when I compared the similarity of painting when it was the "left brain" painting "while holding the brush in toes" and the "right brain" painting while holding the brush in the teeth." No category is safe when Tad Savinar begins to create!
It was a delightful meal, then, of artistic creativity. Jordan Schnitzer is to be thanked for a fine collection and the Brown Museum for its care in presenting these comedic (and serious) prints. A smile and laugh is really what a professor needs by the time late October rolls around.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long