Moving Through Monuments: Sun Ra at Portland Art Museum

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Moving Through Monuments: Sun Ra at Portland Art Museum

By Melanie Stevens February 6, 2019

In-depth, critical perspectives exploring art and visual culture on the West Coast.


It’s the music of the Earth
The music of the sun and the stars
The music of yourself
Vibrating
Yes, you’re music too
You’re all instruments

— Sun Ra, Space Is the Place (1974)

We.Construct.Marvels.Between.Monuments. has been an ambitious year-long collaboration at the Portland Art Museum (PAM) between the city’s artists, collectives, and visiting artistic director, Libby Werbel. This multimedia series culminates on the fourth floor of PAM’s Jubitz Center of Modern and Contemporary Art with Monuments., a thoughtful collection of images, sounds, and ephemera by, or inspired by, Sun Ra, an artist, poet, philosopher, and theologian who is widely regarded as one of the architects of Afrofuturism.

I come to the exhibition armed with a mass of expectations and skepticisms: those borne of a certain kind of protectiveness inherent with an artist such as Sun Ra. His is a career which has spanned decades across land and politics and has defied and challenged classification, genre, commodification, and legibility. It is a fugitive art practice, one charged with the kinetic vigor and energy of a person who is stealthily aware of the dangers of the white gaze. I juxtapose this understanding with the concept of monuments: static representations of ideologies, frozen in time and designed specifically for nomenclature. The tension between these seemingly contradictory ideals between subject and intention are difficult to reconcile.

I am immediately greeted by an ample, golden, 3-D bust of Sun Ra in his emblematic pharaoh's headdress with otherworldly embellishments. It is surrounded by tall, verdant plants and a feast of ornate soundscapes calling out from various directions. The colorful abstract designs on the bottom wall molding further indicate that this is not meant to be a traditional retrospective but rather something more fluid and playful.

Sun Ra. Monuments., 2019; installation view. Courtesy of the Portland Art Museum.

A series of memorable stills from Sun Ra’s cinematic socio-political thesis, Space Is the Place—in which he plays an interplanetary expatriate—cleverly recall the golden bust while guiding me through a dimly-lit circular configuration of The Brotherhood of Light Egyptian tarot cards encased in glass. While this is an engaging reference for anyone who has seen Space Is the Place, it is also one of the few items on display that explicitly represent Sun Ra’s abundant interest in theology and mysticism. The engrossing combination of line illustrations and Egyptian hieroglyphics provide compelling insight into the aesthetic decisions throughout his art practice, as well as his lifelong study of symbols, ideas, and systems.

Across the darkened room is a single-channel projection of some of The Sun Ra Arkestra’s performances, with their 1978 appearance on “Saturday Night Live” featured most prominently. I am immediately spellbound with these musical productions: —their never-ending kaleidoscopes and endless bursts of purple, fuchsia, blue, and orange hues; the array of Brown faces painted with gold insignia; the stunning combinations of ritual and symbol. These are truly communal achievements of sound and theatricality that transcended the limitations and visual savvy of the time in which they were created. They exist as epic space operas that provided commentary of the ongoing methodologies in which Black people embed the refusal of violent structures of classification and allocation into their daily existence, as a survival mechanism.

Sun Ra. Monuments., 2019; installation view. Courtesy of the Portland Art Museum.

In the opposite wing of the exhibition are glass-encased displays of ephemera, ranging from graphite drawings from Sun Ra’s notebook to photographs of the various stages in his progression from “Sonny” Blount to Sun Ra, as well as designs of business cards and album covers. The poetry of his mythologized application to NASA is as striking as the overwhelming design of the record wall, which showcases 80 of the 270 releases of The Sun Ra Arkestra in a tile formation that almost spans the perimeter of the room.

At the gallery’s center is a reimagining of Sun Ra Arkestra attire designed by Britt Howard of Portland Garment Factory. I find myself circling the three ensembles (at once a stunning collision of metallics, sequins, transparencies, and textures) repeatedly, trying to decipher each symbol. The vinyl text on the baseboard reads as a lullaby: “Astro Black American the Universe Is In My Voice.” The purple pyramids and dangling planets appear as a hyper-personalized iconography that would come to exemplify the artist’s work on site.

Tucked into the darkest corner is a listening aisle made of spare black walls, punctuated by original album-cover designs, black-and-white photos of the Arkestra, and several earphones looping sound compositions from various time periods. There is a certain amount of intimacy required to fully engage a Sun Ra musical arrangement that cannot be attained in an institutional space, regardless of how dark the walls are painted. Sun Ra’s ventures, ranging from pedagogy and graphic design to science and music, were focused sharply on lines of inquiry, an often highly personalized journey that pulled from a variety of mediums and cultures. These wanderings were not designed for mass consumption or mainstream palatability, and to place them within spaces that subsist on these things compresses their very form and embodiment.

Sun Ra. Monuments., 2019; installation view. Courtesy of the Portland Art Museum.

I suspect, however, that my reticence to fully listen lies more with my overall inability to place the music within the historical context in which it was created. This is an underlying issue throughout the entire exhibition. Monuments. is a retrospective spanning six decades that centers on and reflects the oeuvre and seems less concerned with the historical events in which these works were manifested. There is no purposeful reflection of the fluctuating socio-political framework of the multiple time periods in which this work exists nor the manner in which it affects the artists who maneuver within it: how it bends their ideologies and changes the way they see and hear and reshapes their understanding of what they do.

Here, on the fourth floor of the Portland Art Museum, there is no analysis of time. It is but a series of loops and aesthetics, sounds and patterns, folding inward and refracting outward, reoccurring beyond the implied logic and assumptions of yesterday or tomorrow. It leaves more questions than answers, more musings than conclusions.

Monuments. was on view at the Portland Art Museum through January 27, 2019.

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