Inversion: Plus Minus — Plusses and Minuses

Inversion: Plus Minus has been up for almost two years now, but I’ve just gotten around to really looking at it. Really looking at it means not just driving by on Grand Avenue, or passing it going on or off a bridge.


Here’s the basic description from RACC:

Inversion: Plus Minus  is a set of towering site-specific sculptures created by artists/architects Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo of Lead Pencil Studio. Using weathered steel angle iron, the artists are presenting “ghosts” of former buildings at two similar sites along SE Grand Avenue. One site, at Hawthorne Boulevard, will feature a matrix of metal that almost appears as a solid building. The second, at Belmont Street, will render an enclosure around the perimeter of a “building,” emphasizing the negative space of the subject. In the artists’ words, “The sculptures reference the outer shells of ordinary industrial buildings found in the Central Eastside Industrial Area like those that once existed on the project sites.” [’s-east-side]

Richard Speer went gaga for it in Willamette Week:

“With its open composition and oxidized materiality, the work evokes the gritty past of the Industrial Southeast waterfront. It also suggests an abstracted banyan tree or the ghostly outline of a barn, its perpendicular planes dancing midair in a complex visual fugue. As you walk or drive around the sculptures, their forms seem to change shape in a rapturous, ever-evolving dialogue with negative space. Although architectural in scale, the work’s conspicuous lack of any roof opens it up, leading the eye skyward. It is a cathedral with only clouds or stars for a ceiling. Sublimely elegant…” []

And after walking around the pieces the other day I found a lot to like about them, but there are fundamental problems that, for me, are lessons for public art in general.

What I liked: The scale, the downright ambitiousness of the work, the overall sculptural qualities, how it is put together just feels “right” (because nothing felt “wrong”).

The basic problem:

Speer said, “As you walk or drive around the sculptures, their forms seem to change shape in a rapturous, ever-evolving dialogue with negative space..”

The basic problem is walking or driving around the sculptures. First of all, drive-by art is a waste of art. Something as complex as Plus Minus cannot be caught in glimpses. You might be stopped at a light, but it is unlikely that you are in a mood to look at art at that point.

IMG_5264And, the work’s form, its openwork (which is important to its sculptural interest), camouflages it.

IMG_5254IMG_5247Someday there might be pedestrians who walk this uninviting stretch of Grand Avenue (a few cross the bridges), but nobody was there when I was looking.

IMG_5252If nobody is there to see the art, is the art being used? Is this working as something more than art storage in public? A very few, like Richard Speer, or me (finally after a couple years), might make a point to go check it out, but then is it functioning as “public art” should?

So, interesting sculpture placed so that it is difficult to look at. Like the Oregon Symphony playing next to a rock concert (or vice versa).  Back on October 18 I wrote about Nepenthes in the Pearl District. As sculpture those pieces are nowhere near as interesting as Plus Minus, but they also would be served better by improved placement.

Some might say that context is important for Plus Minus as they are “ghosts of former buildings,” but although there are architectural references (some clear, most obscure), there is nothing in the work that says the “former buildings” were at these sites, so the architectural reference could work anywhere — even on a green lawn in a park.

Some little nitpicky stuff:

Big strong mighty steel sculptures — what’s with the dinky rocks in holes at the base? Why isn’t a firm attachment to foundation celebrated?


And why not just have concrete paving around the works if the “planting” is allowed to become weeds and trash?

IMG_5248But, these little things are like repeating typos in an interesting novel. The novel is good enough to enjoy anyway — if you can force yourself to deal with it.

Public art doesn’t need the equivalent of a quiet library, but careful siting is crucial to making public art useful. In this case, the siting just isn’t working.


Looking at Bruegel

I remember The Harvesters by Peter Bruegel from a projected slide in the first-year art history class I took decades ago. Recently I viewed the original again at the Metropolitan Museum in New york.


It is an impressive, important painting, about four by five feet in size.


Hey look! Here it is on the spine of an art history survey book:


What I remember from the original art history lecture was how, even that long ago, artists liked big abstract shapes.

FBK Abst IMG_5206

But when I saw it this time, I finally looked past that big shape to see  marvelous little things.


Of course we see the group having lunch, one guy snoozing. But check out this little detail of pears, dish, spoon.


Another intriguing detail, a jug, just inside the edge of the uncut wheat. Maybe compositionally necessary.


And the folks carrying sheaves up the road, an ox drawn wagon further along.


Further in the distance, folks seem to be playing some kind of game, and there are spectators. The details of the houses are pretty cool.


And far off, a couple ships on the water.


Bruegel tells quite a story in this picture, not just the harvest, but something about the happenings of the day beyond the scything of wheat.




Portland Parks Vandalism

Recently I was on my way to play volleyball in Laurelhurst Park when I came upon this park sign with a bit of spray painted vandalism. It reminded me of something that’s bugged me for awhile.


I’ve liked the classic design of these wooden park signs for as long as I can remember. They used to look like this:

Laurelhurst BLANK

As I recall the background used to be a forest green, but this color seems OK. What bothered me was when some idiot in the Parks Department decided that since they got a new logo, they needed to post it everywhere, including screwing up the design of these signs.


Which, for me, is just institutional vandalism by some clueless bureaucrat. It wrecks the sign just as much as…

Spray only

But maybe the parks logo tag is worse, since it won’t get painted out.

See my post of January 27, 2013 for other institutional vandalism.

Drawing, painting, sculpture?

Recently I heard another conversation that reminded me of the problem of identifying an artwork as  a “drawing”, a “painting”, or a “sculpture.” An example of this categorization challenge is this work in the “sculpture” collection of the Portland Art Museum:

1976 Eskimo Curlew mixed media on aluminium

Frank Stella (American, born 1936), Eskimo Curlew, 1976, litho crayon, etching, lacquer, ink, glass, acrylic paint, and oil stick on aluminum, Museum Purchase: Funds provided by Mr. and Mrs. Howard Vollum, © artist or other rights holder, 79.36

For PAM, with the need to decide on a category, it seems the expression of the third dimension is what moves this wall-bound work to “sculpture.” But, for me, this work, at this stage of Stella’s career, is so bound to working with painting ideas that it is essentially a “painting.” Later on Stella moves on to works that completely leave the wall and are first and foremost “sculpture.”

In his best known works Morris Louis expressed the fluidity of paint and celebrated color as in this work from his so called “veils.”

1958 Tet magna on canvas 241.3 x 388.6 cm

Morris Louis (American, 1912–1962), Tet , 1958 magna acrylic on canvas 241.3 x 388.6 cm

These works evolved into more direct expression of color in the “unfurleds.”


Morris Louis (American, 1912–1962), Alpha–Pi, 1960  Acrylic on canvas; 102 1/2 x 177 in., Arthur Hoppock Hearn Fund, 1967 (67.232), Metropolitan Museum of Art

I remember how surprising it was to me when in some film either Kenneth Noland or Clement Greenberg (I don’t remember which and maybe it was someone else) said that in the  “unfurleds” Louis “showed that he could draw.” It occurred to me then that “drawing’ could be found in places I hadn’t thought about before. In the Louis, some aspects of drawing become expressed in an important way—composition and line—and I suppose those were the aspects that showed that Louis “could draw.” However, Louis was “drawing” in what still is essentially a “painting,” not a  big colored drawing. But, I’m splitting art hairs.

Since then I’ve come to the idea that we do not have hard and fast guidelines for deciding whether something is a drawing, painting or sculpture, but that there are attributes that belong to these categories (I might be forgetting some attribute here and there):


  •       Composition (the fundamental arrangement of whatever we think the “parts” are)
  •       Line
  •       Shape
  •       Value (issues of light and dark)


  •       Color
  •       Surface quality
  •       Viscosity (so oozing glue in a collage could be a “painterly” aspect)
  •       Texture


  •       Third dimension
  •       Form (including holes)
  •       Volume
  •       Mass
  •       Materiality (e.g. metal vs. ceramic)
  •       Connections (that would make the addition of materials in a collage a “sculptural” aspect)

And in many contemporary works there are architectural issues:


  •       Shelter
  •       Space that can be occupied

So, when we categorize a work as a drawing, a painting, or a sculpture, we are deciding what set of attributes is most important.

A drawing could be made with paint. A painting can be made with ink.

As has been pointed out many times, David Smith made “drawings in space” in steel.


David Smith, Hudson River Landscape, 1951. Welded painted steel and stainless steel, 49 15/16 × 73 3/4 × 16 9/16 in. (126.8 × 187.3 × 42.1 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase 54.14

But we think of them as sculptures because of the importance of the third dimension, form (including holes), volume, mass (we can tell it is heavy), materiality and connections. More important, for the purpose of categorization, than the beautiful lines.

But, Hudson River Landscape would look good in a drawing show.

Selling Bacon

Shoen Library at Marylhurst University has just received a copy of the Christie’s catalog for the auction where Francis Bacon’s Three Studies of Lucien Freud sold for $142 million. (The Jeff Koons Balloon Dog (Orange) on the cover went for only $58.4 million. Just FYI, it is ten feet tall.)


This ten pound (estimate) catalog is pretty amazing. Here’s how the cover opens.


There’s charming Jeff Koons on the inside flap of the dust jacket.


And a Roy Lichtenstein (Seductive Girl, 1996, estimate $22-28 million) on the flyleaf. But wait! Here’s the book cover with Lucio Fontana’s Concetto spatziale, La fine di Dio, 1963 (est. $15-20 million). And inside the dust jacket, De Kooning, Untitled VIII, 1977 (est. 20-30 million), and Rothko, No. 11 (Untitled), 1957 (est. $25-35 million).


But wait!

The “cover” unfolds!



And there’s the big star!

You need a three page foldout for a painting like this. But wait! There’s another one inside!


And…after 10 pages of copy about the painting…one more fold out!


Now that’s how you promote a painting!