Alexander Craghead, January 10, 2010
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The transitory nature of art has always been fascinating. Photographs can fade, negatives can stiffen and crack and slides can succumb to color shifts and mildew. Sculptures fair little better; it has been suggested that the features on the statues of St. Mark's Square in Venice have softened over the years, eroding away from acidic rainfall. And paintings? Even in the care of the greatest museums, many of the masters of the Renaissance onwards have developed crackled surfaces. The resulting revealed lower layers of paint are known as pentimento, but they are not confined to great canvases in the museum halls of Europe. In Oaks Park Pentimento: Portland's Lost and Found Carousel Art, photographer Jim Lommasson explores an example of this effect on a Portland landmark, the carousel at the Oaks Park amusement park. The results, far from trivial, create a fascinating juxtaposition of Edwardian and Mid-Century cultures, as well as provide a unique encapsulation of the temporal nature of the arts.
Lommasson's book is almost the result of an accident. During an assignment from a photography class in 1970, the photographer noted that the paintings on the central pillar of the carousel at the Oaks were peeling away, the victim of age, exposure to elements, and occasional flood waters. Lommasson only shot a single frame in black-and-white, but he returned to the Oaks over a decade later and recorded all the central panels, this time in color. It was a prescient decision: a few short years later, the panels were "restored" to their scenes of northwest scenery by a local painting club, covering over the Edwardian imagery that had been bleeding through in the pentimento.
The slim volume opens up with an introduction by journalist Inara Verzemnieks, who writes lyrically about the nature of time and art. She describes the roots of the park as a competitor to the Lewis & Clark Exposition of 1905, a place of excitement and perhaps moral danger, where young women would cozy up to young men in the darkness and be frowned upon by the local clergy for so doing. The original paintings on the carousel mimic this somewhat naive sense of adventure, with Arabian sheiks on camels, befeathered Indian chiefs, and beautiful women exhibiting a range of behaviors from stately and elegant (strolling under a parasol) to scandalous (can-can- dancing). By the 1940s, such images were dated and old fashioned, and the park had them covered over with scenic vistas of the Columbia Gorge and other northwest scenes, all far more family friendly and far more in keeping with the highway-centric provincial boosterism notions of the era. Yet, as the surface images degraded, they began to merge with the lower layers, almost as if they were interacting with each other, a process that Verzemnieks relates in a haunting way.
Following the excellent introduction, Lommasson provides a short text describing how and why he shot the images of the carousel's central riding panels, and then come the 18 large color plates. The most striking image is perhaps that of the woman with a parasol, with the Columbia Gorge Highway circling about her legs leading to the Vista House located rather provocatively between her thighs. It is such a strange image, almost like an intentional double-exposure on film, and yet, there was no artist for these images. Yes, there were the artists who painted the original panel of the woman, and also two later artists -- the eccentric Chase brothers -- who painted the scene of the highway and river. But who painted this image, this amalgamation? Time, nature, God? No human hand with intent created this image. For that matter, is the art in question here the painted panels themselves, or Lommasson's photographs? Who is the artist, and what is the art? The lines all blur here in ways that are similar to graffiti art. Everything about the panels is provocative.
The book wraps up with an afterword by art historian Prudence Roberts. Roberts tells the story of the panels, from their creation by anonymous immigrant artistis at the carousel factor in 1912 to their repainting by off-beat brothers Waldo Spore and William Corbin Chase. The Chases were painters and wood-block printers, part of the larger arts-and-crafts movement. They were also highly unconventional, living for a time in a teepee in the woods of Western Washington State. The text is accompanied by images of the park and works of the talented Chase brothers.
Overall, the book succeeds in placing the carousel panels in a much larger context of art and regional culture. The texts are rich, and the images largely thought provoking. If I had any critical comments, it would be that there is not enough. I would have welcomed more information on the chases, as well as on the original anonymous painters who created the Edwardian imagery. Then again, in the words of circus promoter P. T. Barnum, who would no doubt have felt at home at a place like the Oaks, "always leave them wanting more."
The book is the typically shelf-awkward size that photography and art books assume, and it also feels rather slim. This makes it seem, at first glance, a bit pricey for its size. Although time spent pouring over the work ought to dismiss those concerns, it does remain slim enough that it just doesn't feel good to hold in your lap and flip through. I always felt like the book was awkward and wanting to slip from my hands or lose its dust jacket. It is far easier to view set on a table top, and while that's probably the recommended way to view any book of art or photography, I really like to relax in a nice chair with my books, and with Pentimento you just can't do that. The images themselves are all crisp and the entire book is printed on a thick, high quality paper with a satin sheen to it.
Pentimento is a volume that explores history, artistic philosophy, and Pacific Northwest culture through a unique lens. It is far more than a book about an amusement park ride. It should prove valuable to those interested in the esoterica of Portland history, as well as those with a passion for documentary photography and painting in general.