LOOK AROUND. What we value most is what we save. And whether the treasure is a knickknack on a shelf, the great old house with a plaque, or a valuable work of art, they all have one thing in common: a good love story—sometimes deep and warm, sometimes tough.
That’s the basis for the Portland Art Museum’s new, continually expanding installation, Object Stories. Inspired by National Public Radio’s “StoryCorps,” in which people from all walks of life share and record recollections of friends and family, the museum’s director of education, Tina Olsen, is inviting the wider public to bring a cherished object to the museum—or pick out a work of art inside—and videotape a story about it.
In the museum world, that’s a bold move. Because as much as museums are about what’s inside, they are equally about what’s kept out. And the stories told in their wall plaques and audio guides are almost always in the voice of the museum. But for a few weeks, Olsen is blasting the borders between inside and out, official and personal, to invite everybody to share.
In that spirit, we invited some well-known Portlanders to share their personal stories (and in a couple of cases, songs) about the works of art they are most drawn to in the museum’s collection.
12th century, bronze
Dr. Sanjiv Kaul is head of cardio-vascular medicine at Oregon Health & Science University. Kaul pioneered the use of microscopic gas bubbles in cardiovascular imaging and, more recently, in breaking apart blockages in the blood system.
When I came to Portland, I was surprised to find this Shiva and no other Indian piece in the whole museum. It’s a beauty: Chola Dynasty, South India, 12th century—the pinnacle of the bronze-casting art form. In the Indian philosophy there is an eternal reality called “Brahman”—the energy of the cosmos. Brahman is impossible to touch, so humans need forms, because that’s how they perceive the world. There is the creator, the preserver, and the destroyer. Shiva is the destroyer. Here, he is doing a tandav dance and trying to destroy the demon, ignorance. It’s the ignorance of accepting everything around us as real.
I am interested in what it took during that period to make something so gorgeous. I come back to see it because I want to have it. There is such a glow and movement in this figure. It’s as good as you can get in a Shiva Nataraja.
I’m not religious by nature. I don’t follow rigid principles. I’m pretty original in my thinking. Hindu is not exactly a religion. You can worship Shiva or Ganesh, or you can be an atheist. Since you can’t know Brahman, you try to reach it through something you feel comfortable with. That makes you very flexible in your thinking.
Rape of Europa
Michael Spafford, 1967
Lucinda Parker taught painting at the Pacific Northwest College of Art for 32 years. Her own large-scale abstractions can be found in many private and public collections and, most prominently, at the northwest entrance of the Oregon Convention Center.
Michael Spafford has spent almost his whole life on mythological subject matter. Europa, of course, was just one of Zeus’s many lady friends that he took without asking. Why would a Northwest painter paint myths? To say, “I know something about the ancient history of mankind.” But the painting also references how human beings treat each other.
We’ve had a shocking number of homicides of males killing females: husbands killing wives, boyfriends killing girlfriends—there were 23 of them in Oregon last year. Spafford might not worry about being relevant. He might just like to paint this. But the painter Titian put Europa draped atop a bull swimming in water. She looks like she’s enjoying it. It looks festive. This looks like she’s fighting back—like a feminist version. He cuts off the feet and hooves, so it’s all about the torsos.
People always say that, in a painting, you can have shape or gesture, or you can have speed or clarity. But this painting has it all. There’s an ad hoc quality. Yet it’s finished enough to make an impact on you. As a painter, I like seeing another artist take a risk. This is unapologetic. It isn’t trying to please anybody.