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Utopia: Are we there yet?

Hurricane Ridge, by Jack Gunter

On Beaver Hill in Port Angeles, Washington there’s a fine arts center in a wonderful converted 1950s modern home by Northwest great Paul Hayden Kirk. The Port Angeles Fine Arts Center describes itself as “the westernmost center for contemporary art in the contiguous United States,” which conveys an appropriately Northwesty claim of both contemporary cultural refinement and remoteness. The museum is situated with a view of Port Angeles and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and is surrounded by acreage of woods filled with outdoor sculptures. By setting and history, the center embodies regional aspirations: a place where art can flourish even amid the deep forests and rattle of the mills.

It’s also the perfect setting for its current show: “Envision Cascadia: 33 Pacific Northwest artists imagine a homeland” (runs through Nov. 29). The exhibit is an eclectic collection, you could even say hodge-podge, of art on Cascadian themes. What is the Pacific Northwest of our dreams? How is the physical and culture landscape being shaped by our being here, and how are we being shaped by it?

There’s no particular ideological thrust to the art collected here, which is both a strength and weakness. The art is all over the map, from gorgeous landscapes, like a mighty black and white photographic portrait of a mountain peak in alpenglow by John Anderson, to hardly-subtle political statements like the painting “Red Tide” by Karen Heckenberg featuring a tidal still life with a plastic Tide detergent bottle in the center. One of the main view windows is filled with a sculpture by Rebecca Cummins featuring stacked water-filled goblets that divide and filter the outdoor scenery through multiple rounded lenses.

As to what’s missing, I was surprised to find very little Northwest Native art, or much that was directly inspired by its indigenous forms and symbols. That tends to re-inforce an impression that the Cascadian concept was mostly a newcomers kind of thing, an obsession of those of us who began arriving in the Northwest in numbers only a couple hundred years ago, bringing our utopian ideas around the Horn, over the Oregon Trail, via Palace Car, 707, or VW microbus.

But one impression the show conveys, I think accurately, is that the dream of a region called Cascadia, a kind of ecotopian fantasy land, is defined as much by human activity as by nature. In other words, even though Cascadia is broadly defined as a kind of Northwest bio-region, the biggest bio on the block is we humans. Cascadia draws from nature, but does not exist in nature. It is a man-made ideal laid down on the lands, waters, and critters. As such, it struggles to crawl toward perfection. Many of the works in this show capture that struggle, and the fears of Cascadians that go along with them, for instance that we’ll defile our Eden before it’s nurtured into being. Cascadia might seem mellow, but the artists see the tensions of our being here.

I was struck by one piece by Jack Gunter, called “Hurricane Ridge View Property for Sale” which features the glowing, snow-capped backdrop of the Olympic mountains; in the foreground, the artist imagines Hurricane Ridge transformed into a typical housing development of suburban estates and swimming pools. When I visited the show, I’d just returned from Hurricane Ridge (which is less than an hour’s drive from the museum) and was happy to know firsthand that it had not yet been platted and sold.

But the scary thing about Gunter’s painting is that all of us have seen that development somewhere in the Northwest, be it Snoquamlie Ridge or North Vancouver. It is the Northwest dream to die for, and one realizes how precarious and arbitrary the boundaries of our nature sanctuaries are, how many Hurricane Ridges have already been gobbled by such dreams. It’s not subtle, but it is powerful.

There were two sculptures that I really liked because of the kind of surprise and complexity they conveyed. One was by my sister, artist Barbara Helen Berger, whose piece, “Survival,” featured large blooming white rose with the small, blue-marbeled earth nestled in its center. The bouquet stands upright, surrounded by rusty barbed wire. It seems both hopeful and sobering, a lesson about beauty and durability leavened by the presence of man-made thorns, the kind of defensive fencing that both protects and imprisons.

Another standout is what appears to be an actual cedar stump in the middle of the gallery floor, but on closer inspection turns out to be a stump carefully and intricately constructed from shredded corrugated cardboard boxes by sculptor Karen Rudd. It’s a beautifully unnerving piece because of its hyper-realism and the shocking truth of its component parts, how the tightly wrapped layers of cardboard mimic the growth-rings of a tree, how the edges of cut cardboard imitate so perfectly the scraggly bark of an old red cedar. Here is the Northwest regurgitating its natural perfection: a old growth tree recycled into an imitation tree stump called art that, outdoors, could fool a weekend hiker into thinking it’s the real, dead thing. It also redefines the ordinary cardboard box as really just a different manifestation of a tree stump. And you thought paper bags were better than plastic at the local co-op?

My favorite piece in the show was a photograph by Vancouver, BC artist Nicole Dextras. It’s a portrait called “Eco-Man” that shows a barefoot businessman dressed in a suit made of leaves and grasses and carrying a bamboo briefcase. He’s posed while appearing to stride by the base of a manmade waterfall in an obviously urban setting. His hair is clipped short, he’s young, lean, and hungry like many members of the so-called “creative class,” a Cascadian fashion-plate, a man on the go. What I love about it is that Eco-Man is the current manifestation of Cascadian citizen. The Muirs and Paul Bunyans, the hippies, wild Green Men and Sasquatch are all passe. Cascadia now crawls with thoroughly urban greens who are comfortable striving in a world of glass towers, who are acclaimed in Vanity Fair photo shoots, and whose greenness is expressed by urban lifestyles and policy, not love of the wilds.

Each of Cascadia’s largest cities has a sculpture or two that attempts to capture its regional spirit in human form. Seattle has “Hammering Man,” who represents labor and industry in a town of mounting skyscrapers. Portland has “Portlandia,” a goddess inspired by “Lady Commerce,” who holds a trident and reaches down to pull Portland along the way to progress. Vancouver has the statue of runner Harry Jerome in Stanley Park, often photographed sprinting against the towered skyline as if to suggest a fast, fleet-footed city (not to mention a burg for fitness buffs). But as regional symbol of the new Cascadia, nothing matches Eco-Man, who seems elegantly, if absurdly, pointed toward a future where nature is a fashion statement for city-dwellers encased in dense concrete habitats.

We’re too cynical, too realistic these days to take utopia too seriously. We can’t help but see how we’re fully capable of letting ourselves down. Yet neither can we abandon hope that we’ll somehow find better ways to live here. One of those ways is to see ourselves through the eyes of our artists.

The Port Angeles Fine Art’s Center’s executive director, Jake Seniuk, curated the show and makes no claim that this exhibition makes a definitive statement about Cascadia. In fact, I would like to see more, rather than less, on the subject of regional identity and creative responses to it. But Seniuk’s show is an outstanding contribution to an ongoing regional conversation and well worth the trip to “the westernmost center for contemporary art in the contiguous United States.”

Port Angeles Fine Arts Center, 1203 E. Lauridsen Rd., Port Angeles, WA 98362; 360-457-3532, Wed.-Sun. 11-5.

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