Portland art blog + news + exhibition reviews + galleries + contemporary northwest art

recent entries

2019 1st links
2018 Summary
End of 2018 Links
PNCA + OCAC Merger Off
Loss of Material Evidence at Hoffman Gallery
Hoffman Gallery Changes at Lewis and Clark?
1st Weekend Picks
Meow Wolf The Movie
Giving Thanks Readings
Meet RACC's new leader Madison Cario
November Reviews
Early November Links

recent comments



Book Review
Calls for Artists
Design Review
Openings & Events
About PORT

regular contributors


Tori Abernathy
Amy Bernstein
Katherine Bovee
Emily Cappa
Patrick Collier
Arcy Douglass
Megan Driscoll
Jesse Hayward
Sarah Henderson
Jeff Jahn
Kelly Kutchko
Drew Lenihan
Victor Maldonado
Christopher Moon
Jascha Owens
Alex Rauch
Gary Wiseman



Guest Contributors
Past Contributors
January 2019
December 2018
November 2018
October 2018
September 2018
August 2018
July 2018
June 2018
May 2018
April 2018
March 2018
February 2018
January 2018
December 2017
November 2017
October 2017
September 2017
August 2017
July 2017
June 2017
May 2017
April 2017
March 2017
February 2017
January 2017
December 2016
November 2016
October 2016
September 2016
August 2016
July 2016
June 2016
May 2016
April 2016
March 2016
February 2016
January 2016
December 2015
November 2015
October 2015
September 2015
August 2015
July 2015
June 2015
May 2015
April 2015
March 2015
February 2015
January 2015
December 2014
November 2014
October 2014
September 2014
August 2014
July 2014
June 2014
May 2014
April 2014
March 2014
February 2014
January 2014
December 2013
November 2013
October 2013
September 2013
August 2013
July 2013
June 2013
May 2013
April 2013
March 2013
February 2013
January 2013
December 2012
November 2012
October 2012
September 2012
August 2012
July 2012
June 2012
May 2012
April 2012
March 2012
February 2012
January 2012
December 2011
November 2011
October 2011
September 2011
August 2011
July 2011
June 2011
May 2011
April 2011
March 2011
February 2011
January 2011
December 2010
November 2010
October 2010
September 2010
August 2010
July 2010
June 2010
May 2010
April 2010
March 2010
February 2010
January 2010
December 2009
November 2009
October 2009
September 2009
August 2009
July 2009
June 2009
May 2009
April 2009
March 2009
February 2009
January 2009
December 2008
November 2008
October 2008
September 2008
August 2008
July 2008
June 2008
May 2008
April 2008
March 2008
February 2008
January 2008
December 2007
November 2007
October 2007
September 2007
August 2007
July 2007
June 2007
May 2007
April 2007
March 2007
February 2007
January 2007
December 2006
November 2006
October 2006
September 2006
August 2006
July 2006
June 2006
May 2006
April 2006
March 2006
February 2006
January 2006
December 2005
November 2005
October 2005
September 2005
August 2005
July 2005
June 2005

contact us


Contact us






powered by


Movable Type 3.16

This site is licensed under a


Creative Commons License

Saturday 10.10.15

« Portlandia at 30 | Main | Weekly Links »

Seeing Nature at PAM

Detail of Gustav Kimt's Birchenwald (1903) at PAM (all photos Jeff Jahn)

Today, Seeing Nature drawn from Paul Allen's collection opens to the general public at the Portland Art Museum. The traveling exhibition originated with PAM in conjunction with the Seattle Art Museum is a kind of survey of landscape paintings throughout history and as such maps the shifting expectations that viewers have for looking at what we consider the outdoors. One thing I very much like about the exhibition is the way it treats cityscapes as a part of nature and the landscape, thus to "See Nature" we have to see our own role in it. Though not every work is a "masterpiece", everything is very very good and several are of that caliber... the Cezanne, Hockney, Ruscha, Moran and Klimt in particular are paragons in their respective artist's ouvres. The excellent Monets will receive a lot of attention but I particularly like how this is not yet another impressionist show, it's a historical tour of painting the outdoors. It isn't comprehensively exhaustive (no Kirchner, Klee, Constable, Rubens, Lorrain, Mondrian, de Stael, Homer, Wyeth, Franz Marc, Picasso or de Kooning... but that's a billion+ shopping list and a lot of the best work is already in museums. (That's why contemporary art is a better bet and its inclusion in the show gives it scope, the Ruscha was a smart, even crucial inclusion).

Like any single collector show Seeing Nature presents some of the particular tastes of one person... in this case a tech pioneer. As such it concentrates on the fictions we want and need to believe in... nature as an escape from ourselves. Thus, this is the anti-selfie show and with its background in the neuroscience with landscape being good for our mental acuity there is a twist here. Neuroscience and art rarely speak to each other (mostly because contemporary art are does a lot of navel gazing) but this exhibition makes a great case for itself. You will want to see this show again and again as it reveals the limits of using a computer screen to stream life into. I don't want to spoil the show so I'll bring out a few piquant thoughts and only show details of the works here. Every painter should see this exhibition. You should also check out Arcy's very topical essay on Art and Nature here.


Seeing Nature is refreshingly sited in the original Belluschi designed European art galleries. Well installed, it also feature copious amounts of comfortable furniture, running counter to annoying museum blockbuster trends which are focused on moving as many bodies through space as possible. This resurrection of the old pleasures of extended and uncluttered viewing at museums is exciting and commendable. These are among the best galleries at PAM.

Detail of Jan Breugel the Younger's The Five Senses: Smell (1625). The exhibition kicks off nicely with a suite of paintings copied from Breugel the Elder by the younger. This establishes the sense of tradition and the sensual element that all painters must contend with. In those days "Nature" was a backdrop or a tablecloth on which to set the visual meal and a way to foreground morality. Painting was an exercise in allegory.

This detail of Pierre-Jacques Volaire's depiction of Vesuvius erupting (1770) is still in high allegorical mode but Nature gets to clear her throat so to speak. More romantic tinges are creeping-in as nature is portrayed as potent and impossible to control.

This detail of Gustav Klimt's Birchenwald (1903) comes from a very important time in his development. From 1901-1904, during the artist lived at his Lake Attersee summer retreat where he would get up early and wander the woods... a bit like Thoreau or John Muir. Apparently, the locals dubbed Klimt a "Waldschrat" or woods hermit but his time there produced a number of forest scenes, each copse focusing on a different type of tree. By the time he painted Birchenwald or birch forest he had completely removed the horizon and sky from his pictures (something Monet does very late in his careeras well). Instead of expansive landscape there is a dense almost claustorphobic or presentness to the woods... not oppressive but but it gives a sense of the repeated density one gets when alone in the woods. It is almost like stained glass at a cathedral as everything is flat. In fact the trees are painted with very flat texture but the leaves are full of painterly scumble... thereby catching the glint of light in the room the viewer apprehends the painting from. The effect contrasts the trees, making them act like silhouettes without being dark. The close proximity and condensed space later becomes a hallmark of his best known figurative work but in many ways these are my favorite works by the artist.

By the time of this John Singer Seargent depiction of a chess match (1907) there is a sense of leisure within the contest yet the background of the stream and the figures in the foreground are treated as aesthetic analogues. Man is no longer separated from nature but everything is part of a game.

This Mount Sainte Victoire (1888-1890) painting by Cezanne is perhaps the most art historically important work in the exhibition. In the detail here you can see how Cezanne has deconstructed landscape into painterly proxies of mottled color. Cezanne painted many of these and as a group they are crucial to the history of Western Art. Instead of treating the history of painting and nature as separate they are equivalents. Cezanne is also noted for constructing a visual path or road through his works but here it becomes only something vaguely implied. It is the viewer which finds their path through the work. There is no more allegory and the painting is a painting, the mountain is a mountain in the mind of viewers... for the painter there is only painting. Painting is nature as a function perception. To this day these Cezannes are some of the most radical artworks ever produced. Their influence on Picasso, Matisse and Klee (perhaps the three most influential artists of the 20th Century) cannot be overstated.

By the time we get to this great Max Ernst from 1940 we can see how the surrealist has employed a somewhat mechanical process of lifting glass off the surface creating fractal induced fingerings of instability to manufacture something we visually recognize as landscape. It also looks a lot like a Star Trek set. Later computer programmers would employ mathematical algorithms that produce similar effects for video games. People do not readily make the connection between surrealists like Ernst and science fiction but sci-fi absolutely draws upon it. I'm certain Paul Allen knew this immediately though. One of the reasons tech and the art worlds don't communicate much is the art world is often uninterested in what bleeding edge tech is up to. Instead you have curators which follow curatorial trends rather than looking at the sort of art that is in communion with deep technology and cognition. Message... pay attention to the geeks art world. Max Ernst certainly would have.

By The time Ed Ruscha paints this great standard gas station image we can see landscape as a series signs and signifiers we see from a car. Everything is labeled and branded from the road and the diagonal of the sign and building remind us we are exploring a forced perspective. We forget that human activity become landscape but Ruscha foregrounds it. Read our interview with Ruscha here.

Last but not least is Gerhard Richter's Vesuvius (1976)seen in detail here. It is explicit in the way the viewer cannot fully comprehend or experience what they are seeing. It is an expression of limitations which 21st century man takes for granted, our powers of perception are limited only to the degree that we acknowledge our limitations.

Seeing Nature runs through January 10th 2016

Posted by Jeff Jahn on October 10, 2015 at 12:01 | Comments (0)


Post a comment

Thanks for signing in, . Now you can comment. (sign out)

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Remember me?

s p o n s o r s
Site Design: Jennifer Armbrust   •   Site Development: Philippe Blanc & Katherine Bovee