Portland, Oregon, my home for the past 21 years, is in the midst of a historic spike in violent crime. There have been nearly 900 shootings and more than 60 murders so far this year. On September 23 alone there were seven shootings with a 15-hour period. That’s not our only problem. Once-spotless streets in this erstwhile ecotopia are now littered with detritus and fouled with human feces in the wake of an ongoing surge in homelessness. Vandalism is rampant; downtown businesses are boarded up, many closed for good, and no car is safe from theft or random window bashing. Boundaries between political expression and sheer hooliganism are blurring. Statues of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln have been toppled; even a beloved statue of a decidedly apolitical stag (“Elk,” 1900, by Roland Hinton Perry) which once guarded our Plaza Blocks like a sentry, had to be moved into storage after it was defaced last year. Peaceful and not-so-peaceful protests this year and last — and opportunistic looting that followed into the witching hours after those protests had concluded — have led to violent clashes between protesters and police, while street brawling between antifa and Proud Boys continues to break out. This is not the Portland I moved to in 2000, and it’s not the Portland you’ll see in Beth Kerschen’s artwork.
Although she isn’t a household name, Kerschen’s photomontages are well known here and beyond our borders, in large part because they’re reproduced on products sold by Powell’s Books. The images are inventively composed digital collages presenting an idealized version of Portland, heavy on nostalgia, light on contemporary vérité. Literary-minded tourists who flock to Powell’s eagerly snap up postcards, greeting cards, towels, coffee thermoses, mugs, coasters, and posters emblazoned with these halcyon tableaux, which buttress the Portlandia-esque mythos of a crunchy, caffeinated mecca for cyclers, foodies, weed enthusiasts, all things vegan and organic, all creatures inked and pierced. This vision of “Little Beirut”-cum-Shining City on a Hill is at least a decade and a half outdated, if it ever had much credibility to begin with. The mean streets of today’s Portland are also nowhere to be found in Kerschen’s impressive array of public-art and commercial projects, such as her large-scale prints above the beds in the trendy Jupiter NEXT Hotel and her murals adorning hipster-friendly apartment buildings. Let’s face it, mean streets, excrement, and crime-scene tape are not picturesque. They don’t fit the formula that has made Kerschen’s works so ubiquitous: a calculated mélange of iconic Portland signs, buildings and sundry landmarks, all spliced and diced together into whimsical architectural mash-ups.
Here, then, is an artist at the intersection of aesthetic choices, commercial aspirations and civic realities.
As an art critic and a Portlander, I find Kerschen’s oeuvre a fascinating case study. Last fall, when I saw her work during a staycation at Jupiter NEXT, I recognized her imagery but not her name. How could I have covered the visual arts in this town since 2002, I wondered, without knowing the author of these works? After her July exhibition at Sidestreet Arts, I visited her studio in southeast Portland and was impressed by the breadth of her practice and the perfectionism of her technique, honed over the course of a prior career in graphic design. I admire the savvy with which she juggles creative and commercial concerns, which, as long since demonstrated by the likes of Andy Warhol and Keith Haring, are anything but mutually exclusive. And I like her under-the-radar humility, her focus on the work rather than self-indulgent “Je suis l’artiste” posturing.
Still, I have a hard time with the incongruity between her utopian vistas and a city in the midst of unprecedented growing pains and challenges. Doesn’t an aesthetic decision have sociopolitical repercussions if the artist’s selective focus puts a disingenuous spin on thorny civic conundrums? Isn’t a cityscape more than just a discrete freeze-frame of a locale if it whitewashes painful truths in favor of a rose-colored alternative universe? True, Kerschen is a photographer, printmaker and entrepreneur. She never called herself a photojournalist or documentarian. Her thematic selectivity is her sovereign prerogative. So can any case be made that she’s being somehow irresponsible for soft-pedaling Portland’s eyesores and the deep inequities and systemic malfeasance at their root?
Beth Kerschen, “I Can’t Fall Asleep, I Can’t Wake Up,” archival pigment print
Beth Kerschen, “East Portland Landmarks,” archival pigment print
As it turns out, Kerschen herself wrestles with these very issues. When the Great Recession of 2007-09 lifted and Portland commenced a period of metastatic commercial and residential development, the artist trained her lens on towering construction cranes and overcrowded blocks with zero lot lines encroaching upon what once was green space. These pictures are what the French call jolie laide: pretty/ugly, impeccable yet unsettling. They are not the ones sold at Powell’s.
After Black Lives Matter protests dispersed and apolitical hoodlums roamed downtown — starting fires, lobbing rocks and trash cans into myriad Starbucks, and smashing the monumentally scaled windows of the Pioneer Place Apple Store — Kerschen again pulled out her camera. Pointedly, rather than clicking her shutter on scattered shards or graffiti shouting, “Fuck the pigs!” or “Every Cop is Chauvin,” she zoomed in on spray-painted admonishments to “SPREAD LOVE and HOPE” and “LISTEN.” One of her more provocative photomontages shows a protestor holding one of those signs reading “I CAN’T BREATHE” and draws a visual parallel between the political flames roiling the nation and the climate change-driven forest fires that raged through the American West last summer. But with her “Keep on the sunny side” optimism, the artist softens the piece’s darker aspects by including a different graffito, “MAY THE THINGS WE BURN LIGHT THE WAY” (a paraphrase from a no less august source than actor Luke Perry in a 1994 episode of “Beverly Hills 90210”). Again, her choices of inclusion and exclusion highlight art’s ability to underline or obfuscate messages along the spectrum of idealism, realism and cynicism.
I appreciate this artist’s reckoning, however incremental, with how to critique as well as celebrate the city she chronicles. It’s likely that if she produced work, for example, that implicitly or explicitly condemned far-right extremists who caravan into downtown Portland from rural Oregon and Idaho to wreak havoc, she would become their target. It’s equally plausible that if she made a series implicating antifa activists for some of their own transgressions, she could very well be shouted down by righteous progressives, many of whom never have marched for a cause in their lives. It’s unfair to expect any one artist to seize upon the role of moral crusader, even as the decimation of local newspapers has left a tragic vacuum of objective photojournalism, which used to expose corruption and mismanagement in city and county governments. But if artists in aggregate don’t step in to fill this void, who will, social-media influencers? Don’t hold your breath.
How to solve Portland’s, let alone the nation’s problems is a daunting question beyond the scope of any given artist or writer to address, but this much is clear: Kerschen’s conundrum is ours, too. Playing Pollyanna and singing “Kumbaya” are not going to stop shootings and stabbings in broad daylight, help impoverished or mentally ill people find safe places to live, or banish armed right-wing extremists from our midst. The late Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Tip O’Neill was fond of the adage, “All politics is local.” Well, it’s arguably true that all art is political. What are the big-picture implications of seemingly small formalist decisions? What is cropped out or left in? How much gleam and how much grime winds up in the final cut? It’s often been argued that art doesn’t change the world, it just reflects it. It does both, whether the artist intends it or not. It is impossible to divorce aesthetic considerations from their political implications. Kerschen is making a living off a tightly curated fantasia of her city, but she’s also wrestling with that city’s intractable dilemmas. More of our artists and citizens-at-large should aspire to that level of self-awareness.
Beth Kerschen, “Welcome to the Neighborhood,” archival pigment print