PORTLAND — With a new Mark Rothko retrospective (and some even more eye-catching surprises) at the Portland Art Museum, Portland has plenty of visual-arts stimulation to offer – as well as music, dance, theater, literary happenings and film events.
Cultural life is singularly concentrated in Portland. Walk just 20 blocks and you can hit most of the city’s major museums, galleries and performance venues, plus scores of restaurants and cafes.
Sure, there’s arts activity happening elsewhere in the city. But for the out-of-town visitor, especially anyone arriving by train, it’s a great feeling to exit Portland’s Union Station and know so many attractions are in strolling distance.
Here are some highlights of what’s happening in the downtown core this spring and summer:
Portland Art Museum
“Mark Rothko” is the big-name draw here, but “John Frame: Three Fragments of a Lost Tale” is the unexpected knockout. Both exhibits run through May 27.
The Rothko retrospective reveals that before Mark Rothko was “Mark Rothko,” he was Marcus Rothkowitz, and before he was an abstract expressionist he was a figurative painter. He came to Portland from Russia at age 10 in 1913 and spent about a decade in the city before heading for New York. In 1933, the Portland Art Museum gave him his first one-man museum show, and he had family ties to the city for most of his life (1903-1970).
“Mark Rothko” starts with a rather tame still life from 1926 and ends with two black/gray abstract canvases from 1969 that all but spell “dead end” (Rothko killed himself the next year). In between, however, there’s an energizing evolution of visual ideas, gradually morphing from fanciful, distorted figures to ever-bolder abstractions. By 1950, he finds his signature style: huge pulsating lozenges of color that seem almost to vibrate off the canvas while pulling you into shadowy realms.
As illuminating as the Rothko exhibit is, the John Frame show is even better. Frame is a California artist who works with puppets, photography and stop-action animation. The show is theatrically spot-lit in the dim gallery. Oddball hybrid creatures made from found materials come to spooky life as a soundtrack scored by Frame plays in the background.
The Portland Art Museum is at 1219 S.W. Park Ave. (503-226-2811 or www.portlandartmuseum.org)
Oregon Historical Society
Located across the street from the Portland Art Museum, the Oregon Historical Society features both permanent exhibits on Oregon’s history and geography and temporary exhibits. Among the latter is “Culture Captured: The Photography of Marian Wood Kolisch” (through Sept. 2). Kolisch (1920-2008) made it her mission to photograph and interview key figures on the Oregon cultural scene, including author Ursula K. Le Guin, filmmaker Gus Van Sant and Portland Art Museum architect-designer Pietro Belluschi. Excerpts from Kolisch’s interviews with some of them are featured in the show. (1200 S.W. Park Ave., 503-222-1741 or www.ohs.org)
Museum of Contemporary Craft
A large two-story gallery with a gift shop and a studio for hands-on craft activities, the Museum of Contemporary Craft is located on the edge of Portland’s artsy Pearl District.
Its big draw this spring and summer is “Generations: Betty Feves” (through July 28), a survey of the career of an Eastern Oregon ceramic artist (1918-1985) strongly influenced by the landscape that surrounded her. Feves worked in a variety of styles: figurative, abstract, refined, primitivist. The exhibit is brilliantly enhanced by recorded interviews with Feves and home movies of her making her “bonfire pots.” (724 N.W. Davis St., 503-223-2654 or www.museumofcontemporarycraft.org)
Blue Sky: Oregon Center for Photographic Arts
Around the corner from the Museum of Contemporary Craft, Blue Sky is Portland’s headquarters for the camera crazy. Along with the monthly exhibits, Blue Sky’s Pacific Northwest Photography Viewing Drawers – a juried, public archive of original prints by photographers living in the region – are the big draw here. (122 N.W. Eighth Ave., 503-225-0210 or www.blueskygallery.org)
Many smaller galleries are in the Pearl District. See www.padaoregon.org for information on exhibits and First Thursday art walks.
Garden of delights
Are gardens cultural? They are when they bring a whole cultural tradition into focus.
The Lan Su Chinese Garden is a case in point.
Opened in 2000, it’s a quiet sanctuary in Old Town/Chinatown, formerly one of the city’s grittiest neighborhoods, although somewhat gentrified now. It’s a place of winding pathways, covered pavilions and peekaboo vistas that make it feel much larger than the square block it covers.
A waterfall, a tea house and artfully placed “penjing” (miniature landscapes of rock, moss and bonsai-like trees) round out the attractions. (239 N.W. Everett St., 503-228-8131 or www.lansugarden.org)
It couldn’t be simpler: Go to Powell’s City of Books and stay for a day – or a lifetime – at this Shangri-La of bookstores, which comes with a color-coded map to help you navigate its vast multistory premises. Huge selection, helpful clerks, nightly readings, a busy cafe … it has everything. (1005 W. Burnside St., 503-228-4651 or www.powells.com)