BY BRIAN LIBBY
Thirty-three years ago, Portland visual artist Tad Savinar met performance artist Eric Bogosian and became inspired to collaborate. Nevermind that Savinar wasn't a playwright; the pair co-wrote Talk Radio, which would become both an acclaimed play and an Oliver Stone film of the same name.
But that was only the beginning of Savinar's journey across disciplines: today he juggles art making with urban planning in a way that few others have attempted. This month, for example, has brought his latest exhibit at PDX Contemporary Art, "I Wonder," even as Savinar continues as a member of the city's powerful Design Commission. Some of the exhibited artworks imagine public buildings such as a stadium and a home for disadvantaged children. Other sculptural pieces, mounted on cheekily classical wall pedestals, play with intersecting basic representational forms, such as a bridge and a bucket in "Crossing," or a spoon and a tree in "Sustainability."
"I am interested in creating a dialogue between my work and the viewer," Savinar writes in his artist's statement. "Not a one-way diatribe, but a genuine back and forth conversation. In order to achieve this I use the tool of visual beauty to bring the viewer closer, language to engage them, content that is relevant to their lives, and irony to soften the blow."
Recently Savinar sat down to discuss how artists can serve a role in city-building that goes beyond making things, as well as how architecture and art are meant to foster dialogue.
PORTLAND ARCHITECTURE: Your artist statement for the new gallery show talks about the desire to prompt dialogue. Is that what connects your artistic, theatrical and design-oriented backgrounds? How did you arrive at this mix of disciplines and interests?
TAD SAVINAR: If I look forward, sometimes I can’t tell you what I’m doing next. But if I look back, it all makes perfect sense. One thing leads to another to another. So those things I’ve ended up doing, there’s not necessarily a plan. But I’ve been very open to what the opportunities I can pursue rather than defining what it is I do.
In the 1970s and early ‘80s I was focused on the visual arts. Then in 1980 I met Eric [Bogosian] and we started working together and that kind of catapulted me into the theater, to the point where I quit making visual art for three years. When I came back, it was with a different set of ideas that coincided with my introduction to architecture and planning. There are times when I focus on one thing more than another. The art’s always been constant. I haven’t written for the theater in years. I had one piece I worked on for far too long, and I killed it. For the past twenty years or so, the focus has really been on urban design projects. But you’re right: it’s trying to have a dialogue, trying to acknowledge that the viewer or user is considered, that it’s not a faceless, “This is all about me” kind of thing. It’s trying to engage them.
Was there any particular impetus for crossing over into design and planning?
Yes, I remember the minute it happened. I was hired along with four other artists by Trimet to work on west side light rail in 1991. The lead architect for that project was Greg Baldwin [of ZGF]. We were having our first meeting and he started talking about the nature of planning. I’d never heard anyone talk about it like that, and I thought: that’s what I want to do. Greg was certainly responsible for helping me along.
In general artists who are engaged in public art or architecture collaborations still are focused on what they can make for that place, or what they can affect. I’m not driven that way. I’m driven by, ‘How do I use my brain to make this a better place?’ That’s regardless of whether I have my hand print on a surface or an object or whether it’s merely, ‘Why don’t we move the tree 20 feet?’
What are the challenges or opportunities for artists getting involved like this with design and planning issues beyond their own artwork?
Artists are amazing problem solvers. They wake up and think, ‘Okay, I’ve got an idea to make this piece.’ Now they’ve got to decide: is it a painting, sculpture, or a bumper sticker? Maybe they narrow it down to a painting. But is it 40 feet or is it two feet? Is it acrylic, or is it oil? Is it abstract or representational? They have to go through all of that, make the piece and challenge their technical abilities. Are they good enough to make the thing they saw in their head from a technical standpoint? Then after they’ve fought all those battles of self-doubt and getting it done, when the thing is done they have to look at it and ask themselves, ‘Is it any good?’ Because they’re bringing something onto the planet that didn’t exist before. In that process there is a huge amount of problem solving, self-judgment, questioning and consideration. I think that is inherent in artists, and writers, and anyone who’s creating something from scratch. I’ve just taken that problem-solving obsession and transferred it to the architectural world: ‘Is there a better way? Should it be bigger? Should it be smaller?’ All those things an architect goes through. But sometimes an architect is constricted by fashion, or by functional issues, or client issues or costs. I like to use the artist’s problem-solving brain, but I use it more for the problem more than for the thing, if that makes sense.
That’s the thing that remains constant both in my planning work and my visual work: they both deal with trying to bring organization to complex systems: a kind of obsession, an understanding that it can’t be done, but oh heck, let’s give it a try.
Part of what we’re talking about here seems to be the notion of an individual creating something versus a group. Art and design disciplines often seem to require the vision of a singular creative author balanced against the expertise of a larger group of collaborators.
That’s very valid and it comes up all the time. In both visual art and architecture it was theater that expanded my understanding of how to work, because in the theater if you write a play there’s still a director, an actor, a stage manager, everybody. One has to be very clear and fight for a vision, but there’s also a point where other people who have a certain skillset that you don’t are empowered to take your vision forward. It’s the nature of it. Previous to that I’d made every object with my own hands. In some ways that was a lovely meditative act. Yet I was confined to my skills. What I learned in the theater is you can write a play, you can get an actor to play the lead, and you can get a director. I though, why can’t I do that with my art? If I have an idea for an etched glass piece or a painting I can’t paint, why should I limit it to what I personally can do? The theater experience really opened up my artwork, and of course that notion of collaboration, going from the isolated creative individual in the studio to one who has to communicate with others about your ideas.
How does this show continue the ideas you've explored over a career, or how does it represent a departure?
What’s interesting is I’ve been working for 41 years in January as an artist in town. My work has always included text. It was just so odd for me to realize this show doesn’t have any words in it. It wasn’t a conscious decision. So I’m kind of saying, ‘What’s going on here?’ Because I’ve never been driven stylistically to make ten pieces of this or that. I’m really wondering what this grouping of works is. Maybe it’s really a foot in the past and a foot in the future.
I was particularly captivated by your building models and illustrations, each pairing architecture with a representational form fused to the façade.
I went to Italy this summer, and I kept saying, ‘I want to see where the old meets the new.’ That got me to thinking about this. Certainly my goal always is to make environments, buildings, public spaces and transit systems more human. So I was wondering about the nature of architecture. Those things are like doodles. They aren’t really designs for buildings. It’s kind of, ‘I wonder if you did this: what if?’
The buildings portrayed seem to resemble the Portland Building and how it’s paired with the Portlandia statue.
They’re very Portlandia-esque. The difference in my mind is the Portlandia statue is separate from the building. I’m trying to merge these forms. Although there’s a history of heroic statuary and fascist architecture or important academic architecture, I wanted to see if there was a way to engage architecture and the figure with the spirit that translates to the humans’ experience. It’s not as symbolic but actually somehow connected.
I would have thought symbolism was a big part of it.
It’s about the notion of being protected by those figures, or those figures acknowledging, ‘This is what’s going on here: keep up the good work,’ or, ‘Let me protect you.’ Some kind of relationship with the person on the street. It’s not about architecture. Those buildings are just stand-ins. It’s more, is there a way to actually make the building talk in some way?
Despite the visual similarity to the Portland building, I felt like these works were explorations of how to merge statuary and architecture more sincerely than postmodernism seemed to allow. Perhaps it says something about postmodern architecture: that even though the re-imagining of historical and classical forms was compelling, sometimes the irony got in the way.
Absolutely. The Graves building is supposed to be completely humanist, but you walk in and the moldings are twice as big as your head. I feel like Graves is a fantastic creative thinker. His drawings are beautiful. But nothing he ever makes is human. It always ends up awkward and about itself. Even the teakettles [for Target] are that way. There’s almost a passive-aggressiveness to it. I certainly don’t feel that postmodernism did what it was supposed to do.
In ‘Arena for Proud and Respectful Fans,’ for example, I’m using the classical image of the lion, but there’s a little hook. Can we have a little rest on the air-horns? In other words, can you instill in the fans before they enter the building that they’re important? Can you instill in the office workers for a nonprofit that they are doing work that is being watched over by a presence larger than themselves? That’s what I’m trying to get at, to actually change the human experience as one transitions into the building, so it affects the contents of what’s going on in there: that those kids feel watched over and safe. It’s very sappy.
As a member of the Design Commission, I know you’re prevented from talking about current projects, but is there anything in town that you’re particularly a fan of?
I cite the 937 building [by Holst Architecture] all the time, for 50 reasons, whether it’s the landscaping, the brick, the red balconies. It just kind of upped the ante for that model in Portland.
That and The Metropolitan condos are my favorite Pearl District buildings
They’re both very different than the traditional product. A lot of times on Design Review, when a project comes in and someone says, ‘We explored X, Y and Z but it was too expensive,’ I think inside, ‘What does that mean? Does it mean it’s too expensive so you have to scrap the whole project? Or does it mean too expensive in that you won’t be into profit until another year down the road? Or too expensive that no one will rent the place?’ I say, ‘Look at 937.’
937 condos (photo by Brian Libby)
There are many good design firms in the city, but Holst’s design in Northwest for the Conway property apartments is also phenomenal. These guys are doing four to five-story buildings, they’re using real materials, and it works. So why are you bringing me corrugated metal?’ It’s a fine line to walk, but how do we maintain quality materials that also maintain or increase the quality of our built environment without scrapping the developer or the residents? In some ways, if there’s a neighborhood and a developer comes in to place a new building there, are they as goo das what’s there, or are they taking it down? If they take it down, the next person will take it down a little further.
What do you make of the unprecedented national attention Portland has received in recent years?
Definitely the city has really had a burst of wonderful growth. To get to observe it is really pretty fantastic. I always say don’t get too proud of yourselves. It was two guys who when they platted this city realized the 200-foot block is the way to go. We’re all benefitting from that. They were the smart ones. But I also feel like there was an intersection of that 200-foot walkability, the Internet, coffee, biking, where it just happened. It didn’t happen in Los Angeles. They’re still struggling. It didn’t happen in Phoenix or Houston. But this is the city’s time. Who knows? Maybe we’ll be on rocket sleds in 20 years and it’ll be some other city in the spotlight. But right now it feels like we’re in a petri dish. All those things: the attention to slow food, to community, to recycling: we were ripe for it because we had the foundational element of that grid.
There’s also just a spirit here. You can see the mayor. You can still do that. You can stand up and talk in city council hearings. That sounds a little Pollyanna-ish, but it’s there: the sense of being able to be heard is kind of present in all of this. I can open up a restaurant. I can see the mayor. I can teach a class at my kids’ school. I can plant a tree.