The Portland Art Museum is the home of fantastic works by masters such as van Gogh, Monet, Cezanne, and Renoir. It also hosts a variety of different traveling exhibits. When a young man moves to the city and visits the museum for the first time, he finds works of art that challenge his perception. As time goes on, the museum proves its ability to challenge him further.

Chuck Close, Monet, three giant heads and a possessed woman

From across the room I could see what appeared to be some sort of three dimensional, psychedelically colored self-portrait-statue that was lying on the ground and sort of melting up toward the sky. At a distance, I was completely convinced of its multi-dimensionality, but as I approached it began to level off and flatten. By the time that I stood directly in front of it, the portrait revealed itself to be completely horizontal. I have no idea how he manipulated the colors to produce this effect, but my guess is that Chuck Close is just a naturally multi-dimensional kind of guy, probably more so than most of the rest of us.

The Chuck Close exhibit came to the Portland Art Museum just as I made my move from Washington to the sales-taxless, brewery-bursting, stripper-friendly state of Oregon. When I first arrived in town I was staying with a friend whose apartment was directly down the street from the museum, so it was one of the first places I visited.

As the oldest art museum on the West Coast, it has had sufficient time to acquire a fairly substantial permanent collection. As a transplant from Seattle, where the art museum is decidedly short on masterpieces, I was more than a bit delighted to find an array of prominent names from a variety of movements—Inness, di Pietro, van Gogh, Monet, Renoir, Cezanne, and a variety of others. The place is filled with strange modern sculptures, one of my favorites being the stack of televisions that slowly repeat a video of the sun setting.

The museum never seems empty, but one never feels stifled or rushed by a crowd. Its attendees represent a wide range of people from the Portland community. There are college students and stoned professors from the university down the street, young professional couples out for a weekend of culture, the occasional family from the suburbs, and of course the street punks and the elderly, both of which are just looking for something to occupy their time.

While the museum always hosts at least one traveling exhibit, these fluctuate in appeal. Generally, however, one can expect to find something visiting from outside of the permanent collection that is worth spending some time on. The Chuck Close was certainly a standout exhibit. I left that day vowing to return with regularity.

But I didn’t keep that promise. I dropped by a few times and glanced around, but as aforementioned, there isn’t always something coming through that catches my eye. One exhibit that did draw not only me but a large accompaniment of people I knew to have excellent tastes was the Disquieted collection, which was comprised of jarring and often shocking pieces from a variety of modern artists.

One of the first pieces we saw consisted of three giant, illuminated heads that frowned at one another across a bed of stones. Then there was the statue of the mostly naked boy who is holding himself in a fetal position while staring into a mirror with bared teeth. Perhaps the highlight was Shirin Neshat’s short film entitled “Possessed”. It starts with a woman walking along a barren, stone wall, her mouth moving in nonsense syllables, her eyes darting around without focus, and all the while there is a haunting, howling soundtrack that filled the small projection room and each of the viewers with unease. As she walks on she enters a market. At first she goes unnoticed, then a crowd gathers. Like worshipers before their speaking messiah the listeners hang on her every utterance, they reach out to touch her, they seem to beg for her blessing. She lets out a prolonged shriek, and suddenly the crowd erupts into violence, shoving and arguing. As the chaos builds the woman slowly passes through the crowd unnoticed, then disappears from the market.

As we made our way out of the exhibit and into the main collection, nothing could dispel the discomfort and angst that each piece had helped to develop, not even the soothing Water Lilies of Monet. We made our way through the rest of the museum without stopping to look at much, as we’d all seen it before. Once outside, we walked a few blocks east to the Lotus where we discussed what we’d seen over cocktails.

It’s not a bad way to spend an afternoon, and in fact it is probably one of the better.

Have you visited the Portland Art Museum? What did you think? Or can you recommend any other museums to the rest of us? We’re all looking for a nudge in the right direction.


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