Eugene Weekly : Coverstory : 1.22.2009


Museum Morsels from East and West
An insiders’ guide to the Jordan Schnitzer Museum’s ‘first 75 years’ 
by Suzi Steffen

“With art, you brace yourself for the unknown,” says Lawrence Fong, associate director of the UO’s Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art.

True — or else you become one of those people snorting, “My 5-year-old could do that.” Not your style of art criticism? Excellent. Still, you can know a few things before pouring into Friday night’s opening reception for the J-Schnitz’s 75th anniversary show, “Lasting Legacies.”

Curator Charles Lachman in the “Lasting Legacies” exhibit.  photo by todd cooper
Curator Lawrence Fong and Carl Morris’ Light Breaking Through Darkness. photo by todd cooper
JSMA Director Jill Hartz and Harry Bertoia’s Floral Spray. photo by todd cooper
East Sussex, by Bill Brandt
Untitled Hand, by Roy Lichtenstein

You’ve probably been to the museum since it reopened in early 2005 after a renovation that more than doubled its square footage. After all, there’s coffee at the Marché Café and iTours (downloadable at so your Pod can talk you through the galleries, most of which you’ll take an elevator or climb the 30 stairs to see.

The EW walked through the new show with several museum folks whose insights can give you pointers for and ideas about the exhibit, which is both rambling and a bit unfocused. That’s natural, for the show surveys decades of museum acquisitions and donations. But guides like Fong and exhibition interpreters like Maggie Gontrum can provide a sense of order and delight, giving EW readers insider info about the show and the museum itself. 

For this show, Fong and co-curator Charles Lachman, the museum’s curator of Asian art, created various spaces with pieces that speak to each other — for instance, a semi-religious space, with Buddhist art and a Russian icon, and what Lachman laughingly calls “the animal area.” There, a 12th century funerary camel from China stands next to a decidedly late 20th-century Deborah Butterfield horse.

But before you get to the show, there’s the matter of music, friends and food. You might enjoy the food and friends, if it’s not raining too hard, in one of the most attractive features of the building. Museum Director Jill Hartz says that she loves the Prince Lucien Campbell Memorial Courtyard, the “heart of the museum.” Staffers took photos of the courtyard looking gorgeous during the recent snow. and Hartz assures fans that the koi in the pond survived the cold snap just fine. As for the show, the director says she’s especially happy about the recent acquisition of our cover image. It’s a print called La Coqueta VII (Mujer Embarazada) by Cuban artist Agustin Bejarano.

Contemporary art from both Asia and the Western world meets ancient Asian work in this show. Fong points to the sculpture Floral Spray by Harry Bertoia, near La Coqueta and opposite Robert Rauschenberg’s whimsical Cardbird, as an example of how artists began to experiment with different, often factory-grade, materials in the mid-20th century. Floral Spray may be made of factory materials instead of the traditional sculpture materials of marble or bronze, but, Fong notes, “it’s a beautiful constellation, a starry night.” Rauchenberg’s Cardbird also suggests a democratic approach to artistic materials, but with a different outcome. “When you look at Cardbird,” Fong says, “beauty is probably not the issue.”

Indeed, that’s one of the connections between the Asian and contemporary American themes of the exhibition. Lachman seems particularly enthusiastic about some works that look odd at first glance: four pieces of pottery by Otagaki Rengetsu, a late 19th-century Japanese Buddhist nun. “It’s crude-looking and misshapen, a quality that’s prized in the Japanese tea ceremony,” he says. If you look closely, you’ll see poetry incised on the garlic-shaped incense burner.

That incense burner — a recent acquisition — is but one of the more than 13,000 items in the collection at the J-Schnitz, up from the 3,000 items that Gertrude Bass Warner gave to start the museum in the 1920s. Warner’s focus lay in Asian art, and collector Virginia Haseltine balanced the collection with Northwest artists, Jill Hartz says. “Women have been important to this museum,” Hartz adds. Lachman notes that  much of the regular Asian collection comes from Warner’s bequest, so the exhibit focuses more on other items, like the two new paintings of the Diamond Mountains by North Korean artist Seon U Young. “We may be the first museum in North America to exhibit North Korean art,” Lachman says. 

Maggie Gontrum, a longtime exhibition interpreter, says the two new pieces remind her of her favorite exhibit from the pre-renovation days, “The Fragrance of Ink.” Because of limitations in controlling the climate inside the older building, she says, that exhibit “was the most high-quality art we were ever able to show.” 

Sometimes, the museum receives surprising presents like the Frog Drum that comes from Southeast Asia. Lachman describes the tall, well-traveled piece as “an unexpected gift.” 

Then there are donors like Portland-area doctor Robert Shiomi, whose chauffeur pulled up to the security door one day and offered Charles Lachman two 17th-century Japanese screens. “He just knocked on the back door, and in the rain, brought in these two screens, wrapped in blankets,” Lachman says. “He said Dr. Shiomi thought I might like to have them.” Though those screens, Scenes in and Around Kyoto, are on display in the show, you’ll only see a fraction of the collection at any one time — 5 to 7 percent, usually. Like many of the J-Schnitz’s shows from its collection, “Lasting Legacies” provides the opportunity for curators to rotate what’s on display.

Fong, who specializes in post-WWII American art, doesn’t want you to miss a new group of prints hanging in the American art gallery just off of the main exhibition space. The prints, including images by Roy Lichtenstein, Louise Nevelson, Nam June Paik and Richard Serra, show the flexibility of the medium and demonstrate an awareness of color that balances some of the Korean calligraphy in the main hall. Also in the American art gallery, two Aaron Siskin photos demonstrate the importance of technology to late 20th century art.

Though there aren’t any ultra-contemporary multimedia pieces in the show, Fong is particularly glad to display Reflecting Pool, a video by artist Bill Viola that makes the challenges of editing on acetate tape look as easy as today’s digital manipulations. 

Editing or creating a story provides a subtext to much of the artwork, including the Japanese pottery with incised poetry and Heaven, Earth and Men, a contemporary piece of Korean calligraphy that refers to the invention of the Korean alphabet and reflects several layers of meaning. Scenes in and Around Kyoto gives viewers a different look at entertaining stories, with tiny archery competitions, wrestling matches, bell-ringing and a variety of other human activities that take place in a capital city.

Some of the juxtapositions make for interesting visuals. One of the few pieces of Indian art owned by the museum, Shiva Nataraja (Shiva as Lord of the Dance), sits near the wall of photography, where a tough French porter, arms folded, stares at the Hindu god. 

The photography collection, Fong notes, is huge, and he could only choose only a few photos for this show. Fong picked “interesting photos that I didn’t have any idea we owned,” Gontrum says. Those include British photographer Bill Brandt’s startling East Sussex and two images by Andy Warhol, part of a recent gift of more than 100 original Warhol black and white photographs. Fong says the photos show Warhol’s eye instead of his genius at reproduction and color.

Museum director Hartz says that she’s excited about new acquisitions not only in “Lasting Legacies” but some that will soon be up in one of the downstairs galleries. A Dalí print, some contemporary Chinese photographs and a Rembrandt etching “will be all up in a row,” she says. She reminds visitors coming for this show to take a look at the rest of the musuem, especially the area called “Iconicities,” which includes one of her favorite pieces, Long-Bin Chen’s Sotheby’s Buddha. “The room unites the West and the East,” she says, “ancient and modern China and 20th century American art.” 

That’s what “Lasting Legacies” does as well. “The founding vision is that the art world helps us speak to things unknown to us,” Fong says. Whether the show surprises you with its newly acquired 5,000-year-old Chinese Neolithic vessel or with a bright Robert Motherwell painting, there’s always something new to rotate in from the museum’s collection. “I’m intrigued by so much of the art because it’s ours,” says interpreter Gontrum. “In this time when we’re having to tighten our belts, I’m delighted that there’s an excuse to delve into what we already own. We have a lot of stuff that’s so far undiscovered by people who have been here for years.”

Discover some of that art at the opening reception of “Lasting Legacies,” 6 pm Friday, Jan. 23. The show stays up through April 12. More info at or 346-3027.