Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Henk Pander: Painting outside of the outside

"The Father":Henk Pander dislocates a Dutch interior.
By Barry Johnson

Since arriving in Portland from Amsterdam in 1965, Henk Pander has documented the city, the state of Oregon and the American West in greater detail and with more industry than any other painter I can think of. Roger Hull didn't quite say it like that at PNCA last night, but he implied it, I think, and Pander's retrospective at the Hallie Ford Museum in Salem bears out the implication. Portland cityscapes, rescue workers in eastern Oregon, abandoned relics of America's industrial production in the deserts of the West, sometimes in the same frame with a new technological marvel -- they are all there, along with Portland people, Portland still lifes and more genial Oregon landscapes. Head upstairs (until Sunday anyway, the rest of the show will be up through March 27) and his set designs for the late, great Storefront Theater and Portland Dance Theater, sketch books and more of his deft watercolors of the same subjects are on display.

Hull's lecture (and his catalog essay for the exhibition in Salem) give us an excellent starting point for considering Pander's work here since he arrived (so does Bob Hicks' review of the show in The Oregonian), but maybe they don't explain why this show -- the most complete appraisal of his career to date -- is in a small museum in Salem.  And that's just another way of saying that Pander, despite his industry, skill and concern for our place and people, has always been an outsider here, rarely included in insider lists of the best Oregon artists.

We could debate that list -- what painters are more widely celebrated than Pander -- but let's not for the moment. Let's just accept that the artist who painted the official state portraits of governors McCall and Kitzhaber is still an outsider, almost 50 years after his arrival, despite the apparent incongruity. Or maybe because of the incongruity.

Burning the oil off the beached New Carissa.
I think of Pander as both the most radical and most conservative major artist operating in the city, and neither has helped him.  Pander's conservative side has to do with his training. His father was a commercial artist and illustrator in Amsterdam, and Pander learned enough from him to be admitted into the five-year program at the art academy in Amsterdam, which was founded on the enduring principles of Dutch art -- a couple of intensive years of drawing, the gradual introduction of watercolor and finally oil painting, a rigorous course of study that also included anatomy, iconography and art history, and even set design.

Pander didn't lay this all aside to embrace abstract painting when he graduated in 1961. As he said last night after Hull's lecture, he liked painting the world around him too much for that. And though his work has veered occasionally toward the surreal as opposed to the real, it has remained essentially "narrative" -- his subjects are identifiable, the paintings make a point (or several).  And though his work, as Hull pointed out, is in constant conversation with the history of Dutch painting, it isn't about an investigation of art practices themselves as a way of thinking about the world. It's more direct than that, more taken with the phenomenon around him, more concerned with depicting that world as compellingly as possible -- not that he doesn't manipulate and dramatize that world on occasion.

So yes, conservative. And conservative in an art world dominated by modernist and then post-modernist considerations. Without going into the entire history of professional, institutionally sanctioned mark-making in America since the '60s, let's just say that Pander's approach to art put him out of step with most curators in most parts of the country.

 One giant leap for mankind? Detail from a Pander drawing.
But surely Pander's conservatism appealed to audiences outside the confines of the art community proper, right? That's where his radicalism comes in.  Pander's critique of American society is profound, starting with the paltry way it supports artists. Last night, Pander observed that when he arrived in Portland, the city was in the process of destroying vast swathes of itself to make way for its system of freeways, a proposal he'd watched Amsterdam turn down emphatically.  He finds American consumerism and waste alarming. He landed here during the Vietnam war and opposes our continuing bellicosity around the world -- and in our everyday lives at home. He finds our puritanical and authoritarian streaks ridiculous.

All of that has emerged in his work over the years, the essential anti-authoritarian streak that underlies his thinking, perhaps originating in his childhood in occupied Holland during World War II. I personally own a Pander drawing of goose-stepping humanoids marching through a devastated classical cityscape, with a line of street dogs in hot pursuit. This isn't the stuff for conservative tastes in art, any more than Francis Bacon's paintings are. I'll take it one step further: Even when Pander's subjects are comparatively tame, the overlushness of his colors and even the thickness of his paint attack somehow gives them a feeling of the over ripe, a quarter turn away from decay. Hull pointed out last night that mementi mori occur frequently in Pander paintings, the skulls of animals in a still life, say. But I would argue that even more frequently he implies death in this way -- all that rich oil application to depict draperies or flowers can be washed away in a second, like the flowers or draperies themselves.

This radicalism has alienated Pander from the public, just as much as his conservatism has from the art world. We shouldn't go too far, though. Pander has painted and sold hundreds of drawings, watercolors and oil paintings in his life, and he's gotten important commissions -- those portraits of Oregon governors, pictures of landscapes and rescue workers in state buildings, even one to document the Galileo space project. His skill over a wide range of subjects is apparent. But for me, bowled over by the large watercolors in the Hallie Ford exhibition, paintings spanning decades, his relative lack of acclaim was suddenly startling. This is great work; we should treasure it.

Now, I'm back at that list of "painters more famous than Pander." Which in a way is crazy. Why make a list in the first place? How could you measure it?  And how could you tell if Pander "deserved" to be higher? A career around the arts has taught me how subjective these judgments are. My best argument for Pander's work, my most careful and convincing description, wouldn't make him what you need at this moment. Or ever. Really, all I'm trying to do here is draw your attention to a perplexing dichotomy between obvious artistic achievement and the reception of that achievement. And in the process, maybe help you get a foothold in the paintings themselves, though Hull's catalog essay does a far more thorough job.

But what really makes the list crazy is this: We haven't given enough attention to any of our greatest artists, given them a chance to enter our dreams, see our world in new ways, make us think and feel things we've never thought or felt. They have the ability to repair us, inspire us, gather us around common values at the same time they encourage our own private creative processes -- and responsibilities.  Pander does this for me, when I give him the chance. So do a lot of other artists. Maybe Hilda Morris will do it for you or C.S. Price or Sally Haley, just to name a few artists from the state's history. But the key phrase is "give them the chance." Because way too often my attention is elsewhere. But I'm hoping that makes it all the sweeter when I stumble back upon them again.

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