A Three-Ring Circus of Art

With a triple opening, Eugene holds its first Visual Arts Festival Week

I didn’t notice the man in the box at first. In my defense, a lot was happening around me Friday night at the Hult Center Plaza: a band, a bar, a gathering crowd, and across 7th Avenue in the middle of Willamette Street someone was playing a steel drum.

Not to worry: Seth Christman was asked to play his drum in the middle of the street, and traffic was blocked to kick off Eugene’s first Visual Arts Festival Week. 

The festival was created by Isaac Marquez, director of Eugene’s Cultural Services Division, and featured the return of the Mayor’s Art Show and separate Salon des Refusés, which hadn’t taken place since 2015, as well as the two-year-old Eugene Biennial. 

Outside the Hult Center, Marquez introduced Mayor Lucy Vinis, who offered the crowd of art lovers a quote by a math professor. I thought she might lose some of her audience, but she reeled everyone back in comparing artistic skills to creative problem-solving in general.  

“Here’s to art!” she toasted at the end of her speech.

Glittery balls were thrown down to the audience, rock-concert style, and tossed around. The crowd cheered, the wine flowed, music played. 

Among it all a man wearing black sat inside a transparent box.

Farhad Bahram is the artist behind Intersecting Bodies, one of the contemporary art pieces presented as part of the festival by Eugene’s inaugural BRIDGE Exhibitions. Off to the side of the plaza I noticed dancer Bryant Henderson, but his casual dress — denim shorts and top — fit in with the fashion vibe of the audience so well it wasn’t clear whether he was part of the performance. 

He was. 

Henderson’s interaction with Bahram intensified as he approached the artist in the box, apparently mimicking Bahram and interacting without words. Courtney Stubbert of Eugene Contemporary Art, an exhibiting artist at the new Mayor’s Art Show, watched as the performance by Henderson and Bahram grew intense. I asked Stubbert what he thought. 

 “This is big,” he said, referring to the festival in general. 

It’s clear that big is exactly what Marquez had in mind. He spearheaded the 20×21 Eugene Walls project last summer, which continues during this week’s festival. You can’t aim much bigger than paintings the size of buildings created by artists from around the world.

Marquez’ vision for the festival is all-encompassing, too. The BRIDGE Exhibitions, located between the Hult Center and the Eugene Biennial, which had its opening reception Friday night at Karin Clarke Gallery, serve as a metaphorical bridge as well: Eugene embraces contemporary art as much as it does traditional institutions. 

Since I moved to Eugene just after the Jacobs Gallery closed, I haven’t felt the sense of loss the community shares over losing the Mayor’s Art Show. Attending Friday’s opening, or re-opening, I finally got it. The event brought together people from different areas of Eugene’s art community as no other event has, at least since I’ve been here.  

The mayor’s show was held in the Maurie Jacobs Community Room at the Hult Center. It features works from a wide variety of genres — figurative sculpture and hyper-realistic painting, abstract art and assemblage.

I gravitated to a large artwork on the far wall titled This is Not a Test that had a group gathered around considering it. “I find it scary,” onlooker Michael Perkins said. “All the wasted electronics.”

The woman with him, who identified herself as his “sweetheart,” said she thought it was social commentary. 

The artwork was constructed largely with circuit boards and features a collection of lenses that appear to be staring at you as much as you are at it. 

At the New Zone Gallery, the Salon de Refusés presents works rejected by the mayor’s show, though not all of them. Gallery manager Steve La Riccia explained that not all artists want to have their art associated with “losers.”

Perfectly understandable, though it might help to be reminded the original Salon de Refusés presented works rejected by the Academy in France, and those artworks are now commonly thought of as ushering in the era of modern art.   

Karin Clarke Gallery was abuzz, too. Clarke started Eugene Biennial in 2016 in response to the demise of the Mayor’s Art Show. She decided to keep it going this year even with the return of the mayor’s show. The more opportunities for artists the better, is her thinking. She plans to continue this new tradition, with off years exhibiting those artists who won awards the previous year. 

Craig Spilman served as one of the jurors for the Biennial. Spilman taught art at Lane Community College for 30 years and shows at Clarke’s gallery. I asked if he cared to share any favorite works from the show. He thought about it but said no, they hadn’t announced which artists would receive awards yet, and he didn’t want to spoil the awards ceremony. 

The awards ceremony, ARTiculate, will announce winners from both the Mayor’s Art Show and the Eugene Biennial at 7 pm Aug. 2 at the Hult Center; host will be performance artist and art writer Vicki Amorose. For a full schedule see Eugene-or.gov/VAF.