Review of Portland Art Museum’s “Volcano!”

Ryan Molenkamp’s 2017 painting, “Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!” Molenkamp’s artwork is part of “Volcano!”, an exhibit at the Portland Art Museum in honor of the 40th anniversary of the Mt. St. Helens eruption. Photo by Abe Nelson.

For the 40th anniversary of the Mount Saint Helens Eruption, the Portland Art Museum has put together an exhibit of art focused on the mountain. There are a variety of art styles from time periods both before and after the eruption. The exhibit, titled “Volcano!” is around until May 17, 2020, the day before the start of the eruption on May 18, 1980.

“Volcano!” opens with a ceiling-high photograph of the eruption, which conveys the enormousness of the mountain. Throughout the exhibit, there are informational signs that tell the story of the eruption. The exhibit is organized chronologically, and the peaceful pre-eruption art guides you into the destruction that was to come. These pieces of art, some dating back to the 1800s, depict Mt. St. Helens in its pre-eruption form. This is really interesting to see because it makes you think about how much St. Helens changed during the eruption. The mix of mediums and styles express the event in unique and fascinating ways. They range from photographs to artwork made up of tissue paper and glitter. Most of the artists live in the Portland area, and the captions often contain stories of the artists’ lives, and how they were inspired by the eruption.

While the artwork depicting St. Helens mid-eruption is stunning, the most interesting section shows the destruction left behind. There is a part of the room dedicated to showing the fallen trees in the aftermath of the eruption. There are aerial photos, paintings, and sketches. One particularly interesting piece is a sculpture by Charles Arnoldi. It is an abstract work that was made up of real wooden sticks pointing in jarring directions. This piece does a great job expressing the chaos and destruction that was left in the wake of the eruption.

The photography is also amazing. Because the photos depict real scenes, it makes the magnitude of the disaster more apparent. Different photos send different messages. Some try to find beauty in the disaster, while others express the devastating effects of the eruption. One really interesting piece of art by Barbara Noah, Tag III, combines photography and painting, turning a photo of the eruption into an ominous monster. Art pieces like this emanate emotion and are able to put you into the shoes of the artist.

The art captions, which often contain quotes from the artist, are also interesting and often poetic. Late Portland author and artist Ursula Le Guin, whose work is featured in the exhibit, explains the contrast between “the complexity of flourishing life into the awful simplicity of death” in one of her captions. Many artists got first-hand experience of the aftermath, such as artist Lucinda Parker, who wrote a poem describing, “A thousand feet of mountain shot off sky-high right before our eyes.” Some artists even reflect on bigger topics, such as Henk Pander, who commented, “America has long held a war-like attitude toward dominating the sublime natural world.”

All in all, “Volcano!” is a great exhibit, especially if you appreciate the outdoors. The exhibit is an amazing and immersive way to learn some of Portland’s history, and I highly recommend seeing it. The variety of artists each have a unique style, and the exhibit is very inspiring. Admission to the Museum is free for people under eighteen. Bring your friends, and check out Portland Art Museum’s other exhibits while you’re there.

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