Saturday, October 19, 2013

Mr. Otis Returns to Portland, Oregon. You Must Go Visit!

Where: Portland Museum of Modern Art, 5202 North Albina (located in Mississippi Records)

 When: Now through November 24, 2013

  “The man who made Grandma Moses blush.” (Joseph Rambo) “Van Gogh had one ear, Mr. Otis has two.” (Bennett Cerf)“I am convinced this character uses a brush while painting.” (Therese Pol, L’Art Magazine)

The Portland Museum of Modern Art

I have written about Stuart Holbrook in this blog before, and some may have the idea that I don’t hold him in admiration. Nothing could be further from the truth. Just because I am opposed to writers of history taking his fictional folk tales as fact does not mean I didn’t enjoy reading them. The man was, above all, a caricaturist, and the hyperbole he poured out on Portland—past and present—was very entertaining, and meant with a sly wink and a nudge (figuratively speaking). It is highly unlikely that anyone would have heard of Joe "Bunko" Kelley had Holbrook not immortalized him in the folk lore that came to him in a literary fit of some sort.

When I first saw some of the oil paintings that Holbrook did under the pseudonym, “Mr. Otis,” I laughed out loud. They were intended to be funny, in the same way as a cartoonist intends his work to be funny (and much of Picasso’s work, in my opinion). They are also very much more than cartoons. Holbrook is a genius of the surreal, creating primitive, richly colored, commentaries on the region, the dying pioneer spirit, the greed and hypocrisy. Many of these paintings are the sort of thing that I could look at for years and not grow weary of them.

It is my great pleasure to announce that a good collection of Mr. Otis paintings is now in town for Portlanders to admire. They are home, for a season, loaned through the generosity of University of Washington, Library of Special Collections. They are on view at the infant Portland Museum of Modern Art, located in the stairwell and basement of Mississippi Records 5202 Albina. Like all good art, they more engaging when viewing the real work, instead of a photograph. 

I suggest purchasing a brochure for $5 (it looks like it cost more than that to make), with largeish prints “suitable for framing.” You could hang them in your guest room for your visitors to ponder. 

Mr. Otis paintings will make a bit more sense if you Google some of the names of the human subjects, such as: Joachim Miller, the Oregon poet laureate with the patriarchal beard, and Zeus-like countenance, or James G. Blaine, reformist Republican politician. These paintings were mostly painted during the 1950s and early 1960s, but mostly refer to earlier periods.

One thing that makes me enjoy his work even more is knowing that he was ostracized by many of the Portland art community. Holbrook, who also wrote for the Oregonian, was viewed as some sort of self-made, bumpkin/Cretan, who traded in his chainsaw for a paint brush. The joke turned on them when the Carlton House Gallery in New York City did a showing of his work. Once again the proverb rings true that a prophet may have great honor, but not in his own village. 

The image of Portland that Holbrook left us in his books is indelible enough to outlast the more complex realities of history. His gift works just as well, or better, in his art. Someday he will be “discovered.” If this world rolls on another thirty or forty years his art will be priceless, or at least this is my prophecy. I do not expect any honor for this—except maybe in Tokyo, or Milan.

As to the name "Mr. Otis," I was browsing the Oregonian archives to find articles on the artist, and I noticed that the artist is preceded and greatly outnumbered by the advertisements of a real estate man who used the name "Mr. Otis." It can never be proven, but if Holbrook liked the name as much as I do, he may have lifted it.