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Quills & Queues: Raising the art bar

The Oregon Center for the Arts at Southern Oregon University has announced the opening of its fall exhibition, “Terrain: The Space Between — from the Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation.” The show will be curated by the Schneider Museum of Art’s Scott Malbaurn, who has extensive relationships to the Portland art community and to many of its significant players, including PDX Gallery’s Jane Beebe and Charles Froelick of Froelick Gallery.

Malbaurn himself has shown work at David Richard Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico, as well as at Brooklyn’s Janet Kurnatowski Gallery and others. He holds an MFA from Pratt. His gallery and institutional relationships have lead to a steady raising of the bar at the Schneider, with a range of compelling shows over the last couple of seasons.

Jordan D. Schnitzer, of course, is the current scion of Portland’s most preeminent steel and real estate family, the only child of Arlene and Harold Schnitzer, whose names are emblazoned — either as a result of outright ownership or philanthropic largesse — across many of Portland’s most august buildings. Arlene Schnitzer has been a mover and shaker within Portland fine art and philanthropic circles since at least the mid-1960s, when her Fountain Gallery became an incubator for creative and cultural synergy in the city. Mrs. Schnitzer still presides over the cultural landscape of Portland, although — at 90 — she had long since left the role of standard bearer for fine art in the city to the recently deceased Laura Russo. Nowadays, depending on your aesthetic preferences and social proclivities, the crown of influence in Portland fine art circles is generally passed back and forth between Jordan Schnitzer et Cie and the prominent and perennial queen of the Portland gallery scene, Elizabeth Leach.

Schnitzer has been a strong force for good beyond the Portland city limits, too, having endowed a museum at University of Oregon in Eugene. Much of the museum is made up of work either loaned or gifted by Schnitzer and his foundations, and can include anything from a cache of Morris Graves paintings to the occasional late Picasso — I saw one recently on loan at the bucolic on-campus museum that was imbued with the telltale blacks and muddy greens of that period. More importantly, the influence that Schnitzer brings to any regional show can lead to such Oregon “art moments” as the astonishing arrival of internationally-acclaimed artist Ai Weiwei’s “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads” at the museum’s elegant basilica for a display that ended just this past summer — lending an air of international authority to a campus better known as the birthplace of Nike and a significant beneficiary of sports related endowments at the hands of Phil Knight.

This show, then, will be unlikely to disappoint, since the sheer luxury and scope of the Schnitzer collection — and even portions thereof — should be of sufficient sheen to give even a minor public university a certain sparkle. Malbaurn has shown an uncanny ability for positioning the venue as a Southern Oregon hub when it comes to assembling shows that are well-pitched politically, socially and aesthetically. The exhibit will include works by Vija Celmins, Judy Pfaff and Ed Ruscha — he of the iconic and deceptively simple “word paintings” — and will, no doubt, bring a good dollop of foot traffic to the venue.

I’m not sure how adventurous this show will really be, compared to recent exhibits mounted by Malbaurn, but his consistent programming — that of emerging talent and established but unusual contemporary painters, interspersed with banner artists and works on loan from celebrity philanthropists — would indicate an ever-deepening understanding of his role as the primary honcho for aesthetic guidance in an area where commercial dreck and mediocre decor masquerading as fine art is the order of the day at regional galleries.

We look forward to seeing what the Malbaurn/Schnitzer collaboration will look like when it opens on Thursday, Sept. 27. The show continues through Jan. 5 at the Schneider Museum of Art, 555 Indiana St. in Ashland.

Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at gillespie.jeffrey@gmail.com.

Jordan Schnitzer (Image courtesy of Oregon Jewish Life/Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation)