April 02, 2021  •  Leave a Comment

                                   DOODLE #1 : FINAL VERSION

Today I'd like to discuss the loaded topic of art criticism, and its relationship with photography. Most people do not care that much about art criticism, but then they are neither critics nor artists. They appreciate art, visit museums, sometimes hang posters on their walls of art they enjoy, but do not engage in debates about what is art, or how it can be exhibited, or commented on by other artists. As an artist who likes to think he creates art of some value, and hopes others will appreciate my work, maybe even purchase it, I am cognizant of the problem of people using other people's artistic creations without attributing the original artist. While I do recognize the various levels of "commentary"  on art by other artists, I do not think that this is all part of a slippery slope. After all, I am a photographer whose principal subject has always been my appreciation of the work of other architects, (who I would claim are artists) it would be hard for me to say that my photographs of their work should not be "allowed", or that I am "using" them in the pursuit of monetary gain that clearly does not exist when you peruse my Schedule C. To various degrees in the examples that I will show here, I firmly believe that my photographs show my appreciation of this artistic work, and my interpretation of that work - which makes them my art, even if it is based on theirs. To the degree that my art diverges from documentary work, its value becomes based on my viewers appreciation of what I have to say about the art, rather than the original work of art.

The first photo is my interpretation of a piece of glass art that is a feature of the lobby of the Portland Center for Performing Arts, part of our attempt at a more modest Lincoln Center. This skylight over the lobby is embellished by both its pattern of structural framework, and the colorful pieces of mostly blue glass bars seemingly casually strewn over said framework. I think it is a beautiful piece, and a wonderful example of "1% for art" which funds art in public buildings. The artist,  James Carpenter, is one of the most famous glass artists in the world, which means that he is not really that famous, since this kind of work, like large sculpture, usually requires public funding - you can't pick one up for your home. It sometimes causes conflicts with those other artists, the building's architects, who might not like the art chosen to embellish their work or at least might be jealous of its power in their space. Once I was volunteering in this building and encountered the architectural detail of the skylight. I just couldn't stop laughing when I realized that that pattern of glass was supposedly specified in the drawing. This implied that the workers were actually following a plan when they laid these strips, when in all probability they at most responded to the artist's desire to move  that piece "a little to the left" as he guided construction from five stories below.

Now I happen to love this particular piece of art, and as a photographer I "transformed" it in several important ways. I removed the context, the extent, and the scale of the piece. While you might not have to be an architect to realize that you are looking at a skylight, there are no clues to its placement, overall shape, or size. My framing is my interpretation of the art, changing its circle to my square, using only a portion of the whole work, and placing the center of the "spider web" where I want it in my frame. I also made a personal exposure decision, "over-exposing" the scene by 2-3 stops, to bring out the glass of the blue bars and mostly to render the Portland sky as white instead of the usual dull grey. I am arguing that this image is my take on Carpenter's art, and I truly do not understand why my photographic interpretation is somehow less pure than a critical essay in an art journal. My title is actually my wife's comment on my art - she does not  understand it at all, so I of course used her less than enthusiastic reaction as its title.

                                    BEAT-UP FORD : FINAL VERSION

This is what the purists would reduce photographer's "proper" subjects to. I am creating art (you don't have like it) out of thin air, suggesting the beauty in an old rusted truck. I don't think the Ford Motor Company would attempt to challenge my copyright violation in this case, but most people would clearly recognize this as my art. In writing this essay I have actually realized how interesting it can be to actually discover the origins of the public art that I have noticed, and how easy it often is to acknowledge the creators. Yet my Google research has also led me to realize how much my art is my art. As my research into the public art has shown  me how much my photographs have changed the documentary, straight-up  view of the art, its convinced me that few viewers would argue that I have not put enough of myself into my commentaries of other people's art.

                                   BIKE CITY : FINAL VERSION

Uh, owe, grab those handlebars, we are heading down the slippery slope. I made this image a few years ago of a clearly recognizable mural in Old Town. I do not remember if there were any words attached, but I clearly responded to the Portland branding efforts on the old brick wall. Do I know the muralist? No. Again do you know the murals location (four stories up) or how big it is - only if you count the bricks. You do know that some artist, or at least sign painter,  better than me, used a recognizable traffic symbol on a bare brick wall in Portland, Oregon. It actually was originally a mural advertisement for a neighborhood bike rental store, Pedal Bike Tours. The city made the owner Todd Roll (how's that name for a bike shop owner?) remove the words proclaiming Portland the bike capital of the USA because the sign was "too big", so I never saw the words. The art was copied off the store's t-shirt logo so there the artistic trail ends. Recently the mural has been covered by a five-story office building, so now my art is one of the only records of this piece of public art. Does this enhance its value?

                                   ORANGE MONSTER : FINAL VERSION

Another mural, somewhere in Portland. I was scared, and not showing the full extent of the jovial monster just increased my apprehension, as did my inability to interpret those curious symbols below his mouth. This is public art, out in public, designed to elicit a public response. It doesn't matter if it wasn't part of a 1% of art program - yes I didn't pay for it with my taxes, but to say that my 4" x 4" photo coaster is an unfair use of this wall-sized art piece is somehow infringing on the original work is a little too much for me. It turns out that the artist goes by Yoshi47 and has painted numerous monsters on walls around the world. This one is on the ADX Building in SE Portland, and it was only when my research showed me the horizontal block-long original that I realized how much I had changed it.

                                   OREGON TRAIL : FINAL VERSION

Now lets move away from "folk" art to maybe more serious works. The image above is my take on what should be a famous piece of wall art, a mural at a party wall adjacent to The Oregon Historical Society that shows various symbols from the settler's journey along the Oregon Trail, as well as the Lewis and Clark Expedition. This is a portion of a "trompe de l'ioile" painting, a "fool the eye" work done by one of the current world masters of the art, Richard Haas. None of what you are looking at is real. The party wall is mostly tan concrete block and some brick, but that sculpture, its setting in a curved alcove, those shadows - are all fake; it's just a painting, a remarkable one. There is one real window in the wall, and I don't even remember if that is the real one, or one of the fake ones, and I hesitate to declare that curtain real or artistic. All I know is that this piece is wonderful, I responded by showing one portion, and that I can't even take credit for being there when the light was "best" since even the light is fake.

                                    STREETS OF HOPE : FINAL VERSION

Another piece of "trompe de l'oile", this one a full block long near Portland State University. It obviously has something to do with the PSU library, but I don't know its origins or purpose except for making a bare wall beautiful. I picked a particular portion for it's colors, and its collection of seemingly unrelated volumes - and included a portion of the real street so my viewers could appreciate the art's deliberate out-of scale reproduction of the pile of books. The work was conceived by Harrell Fletcher and Avalon Kalin, and the resultant piles of books, selected by PSU faculty and students, were photographed and enlarged by Motoya Nakamura. It is actually entitled "The Knowledge."

WAVY RAIL                                                                TANNER SPRINGS : FINAL VERSION

On to sculpture. This is a small portion of a block-long, 15-foot-tall sculptural wall at Portland's Tanner Spring Park in the Pearl District. This work is composed of 368 or so pieces of the railroad rails that were part of the railroad yards that formerly covered our attempt to convert an industrial wasteland into SOHO West. The rails curve and rise out a pool to form a fence at street level a story above that adjusts for the change of grade across the Portland block that became the park. The pond represents one of the existing creeks covered by the growing city - this one no doubt heavily polluted by the tannery that stood by it, thus Tanner Springs. I love the sculpture, and my framing divorces it from its surroundings, especially the walkway across the pond, which i personally think is the park's only real mis-step. The rails really look somewhat like this if you catch them when I did, when the western sun is rally beating down and lighting them up. I haven't been able to find an artist, so credit must go to Peter Walker & Partners, the lanscape architecture firm for the park.

                                   SWIMMING UPSTREAM : FINAL VERSION

Okay, I like orange a little more than the next guy. This very creative and amusing sculpture bursts through a corner of the Park Blocks above a seafood restaurant. It took dozens of questions from tourists for me to finally realize that this was a corner of Salmon Street. I isolated the sculpture, as I usually do. since I didn't see how how the adjacent industrial windows, or it's real location above the street, enhanced my take on the sculpture. The sculpture is called "Transcendence" and is by Keith Jollum, who seems to lkie obscure titles as much as I do. This is one of the few images that does not improve with much enlargement at all - it's not that the sculpture is not great, it's just that as the salmon gets too large it gets too ugly.


Now let's talk about fame. Sometimes we forget that a symbol is also just a piece of art, which deserves to be looked at closely and interpreted even though we all know what it looks like, or at least think we know it, since it seems to have been seared into our collective brains. Few know who the sculpture was, and until you visit you can't even appreciate its enormous scale or its placement on an island in New York harbor. Leave it to me to focus on her back, maybe to emphasize that it is a sculpture that does have a back, or maybe because that's where the ferry went. I also converted it to black and white to emphasize detail and form, and because I dislike the particular shade of green that the largest copper statue in the world has become  after more than a hundred years of humidity. Does this toga make me look fat?

                                   PORTLANDIA : FINAL VERSION

This is the second-biggest hammered copper statue in the world. It is Portlandia, a representation of the mythical queen of the mythical kingdom of Rosaria, which if you can believe it was conjured up by upstart city boosters to preside over our annual Rose Festival. What a load of hooey, but 1% for art bought the good citizens of Rosaria, uh Portland, this statue by Raymond Kaskey to preside over the front of our misbegotten Municipal Government Center. This building, a Post Modern monument by Michael Graves, was the result of a rigged and under-funded architectural competition that saddled us with a leaky, unstable structure never even lived up to Graves' original conception and made life miserable for the city workers stuck in there. Don't get me started. The only good thing that came from the whole affair was this statue, but ever since Mr. Kaskey, bless his heart, has made life miserable for every other artist in town. He seems to think that this piece of public art, paid for by the public, can never be interpreted, or even recorded, by any one on the street. So I long since stopped exhibiting this image, or selling coasters which carefully acknowledged Kaskey on the back. It just doesn't seem worth it, because this guy doesn't seem to be mollified by the idea that a sculpture by Raymond Kaskey can be interpreted in a photograph by Richard Lishner. He doesn't respect my ability to comment on his art, so to hell with him - I won't put his sculpture before the public, who know that my photo is probably better than the one they took..

                                    CLOSE BUT NO CIGAR : FINAL VERSION

I thought this was a Henry Moore sculpture. After much research it turns out to be a work of an Australian sculptor Clement Meadmore.  It stands outside the Portland Art Museum, so it's about as public as art can get - you don't even need a ticket, although I'm sure some guard would eventually respond if you circled around on the raised lawn to see how the other side looked. The work is entitled "Split Ring" and is actually a twisted ring of Corten Steel in real life. Meadmore found some way to resist the usual orange tinge of Corten Steel, so I guess he didn't like orange as much as yours truly.I love the way the two strands almost touch but don't, and my interpretation ignores the other facets of the work. So while I know that Meadmore  thought that this was really important, I feel that it is REALLY important, so I can try to draw my viewers attention there. So much so that the nature of the actual sculpture is actually lost.

I like the image even better in black and white, which seems to be even more graphic - the bricks are just a field of texture, and I no longer remember what color or colors the two segments are in reality - it now seems to be even more about light. Especially since the steel is only one color.

                                    REBAR MEMORIES : FINAL VERSION

Finally we come to a special case of the critical question of "whose art is it anyway?" I have what at best might be characterized as a love/hate relationship with this example of public art.  In this I am unusual, because for most Portlanders, to know it is to positively hate it. This is one of three sculptures that stand at the East end of the Hawthorne and Morrison Bridges across the Willamette River. They are collectively titled "Inversion: Plus Minus" and were created by Annie Han and Daniel Mhalyo They represent the memory of the warehouses that once stood in the district, and well, I guess I can understand that. I am sure that Annie and Daniel are very nice people. They  got the money for the sculptures from a 1% for art program although I don't remember what project they were 1% of.  I do know that my fellow citizens think that they are the most god-awful waste of money, especially their money, in living memory. You see, they are made of various sizes of rebar, and they almost can't help being ugly, no matter how historically inclined your memories can run. Rebar strengthens reinforced concrete, and no matter how ugly you might think concrete is, the hidden rebar is even uglier. The sculptures are huge, and they are rusted rebar, and while I am waiting for the light at the end of the bridge, my thoughts frequently  involve what might happen if an errant semi-truck happened to hit the sculpture - as long as there was no injuries, would it matter? They are that ugly.

Now I actually love this image, and so do most people who notice it in my booth. They cannot believe what is pictured once they realize its subject. They HATE the sculpture, but they love the photograph. They are actually almost shaken in their hatred of the original work of art. You see my image is all about the light - the beginning of a sunset through the sculpture. My exposure rendered the sculpture as the silhouette that who knows, maybe the artist actually had in mind - and renders the rebar invisible. The rebar that so repels is now just a series of intriguing black lines. I've created an ink sketch on a golden background.  And I honestly can say that this particular work of art will never look as good in real life. This is as good as it gets. In my humble opinion, my work of art has actually elevated the original that some would say I have no right to interpret in a photograph. Intriguing.