Art School Confidential

THE PORTLAND ART MUSEUM'S latest is a French import: Gods and Heroes: Masterpieces from the École des Beaux-Arts, Paris, a rare exhibition of epic masterworks from one of the world's oldest art schools. With large-scale paintings based on Greco-Roman mythology (the Trojan War! Socrates! Apollo and Diana!) and beauty ideals pulled from antiquity, Gods and Heroes invites that classic bored-kid-in-a-museum urge to make up alternate captions for these very old works. Using the stock photo meme "Women Laughing Alone with Salad" as inspiration, here are some I came up with: "Ladies Being Kidnapped and/or Murdered," "Princely Men Resting Comfortably Among 1,000 Attendants," and "Serious People Struggling to Keep Their Togas on While Flying and Shooting Arrows." If you go to Gods and Heroes, I suggest you do the same.

All joking aside, the paintings are epic for a reason, and it's not often you get to see classical masterworks like these up close (and it's nearly never you get to see these ones specifically). But what's really interesting about Gods and Heroes is the glimpse it gives into the practices—some of them totally bizarre—of Paris' ancient art school. At a press preview, Portland Art Museum's curator of European art, Dawson Carr, provided some context. The École des Beaux-Arts goes all the way back to King Louis XIV, he explained. Petitioned by art students to open up a royal academy of art, the king agreed, trading patronage for art that glorified him, as one did in the 17th century.

The school taught nearly every kind of representational painting you could think of—landscape painting was the least trendy, but would go on to have a huge influence on American painting—and operated on cutthroat competition: Students took part in regular painting and drawing contests. These had some delightful names, like "the torso competition" (exactly what it sounds like) and "the expressive head competition," which was a little weirder, and required students to construct portraits to match emotional states picked by their instructors.

A wall full of these expressive heads is one of the exhibition's most interesting displays, and the most inadvertently funny, because only a few of the portraits look anything like the emotions that appear on their corresponding labels. One that does, William-Adolphe Bouguereau's 1850 expressive-head winner "Disdain," features a very grouchy-looking young woman. "In 1850, disdain, like melancholy and boredom, was a sentiment associated with idle females," reads the accompanying label. From one disdainful young woman to another, this irritated lady was a welcome punch of goofy realism amid trumped-up scenes of valor.

Unsurprisingly, Gods and Heroes is something of a sausage fest, as the École presumably was (women weren't admitted until 1897). So it's good to know that one of the exhibit's tie-in events is a lecture on French women artists of the 17th to 19th centuries from University of Oregon art history professor emeritus Kathleen Nicholson, scheduled for July 26. And should you be scared away by the show's high stodge factor, the museum's also hosting a Monster Drawing Rally featuring more than 75 local artists on August 21, and on July 16, an outdoor screening of a very different sort of epic, 1963's Jason and the Argonauts.

Book of Dreams

WHILE HARDCORE ART history buffs will flock to Gods and Heroes at the Portland Art Museum, fans of contemporary art would be well advised not to miss Portland Institute for Contemporary Art's (PICA) new show, No Boundaries: Aboriginal Australian Contemporary Abstract Painting, up now through August 16.

Some of the first works to be designated contemporary art, these paintings have their roots in Aboriginal Australian mysticism, called the Dreaming, with social, spiritual, and political underpinnings. To an outsider, these can't be observed by looking at the images themselves—none are representational. In fact, the paintings' abstraction is more intentional than most abstraction; the aim is to allow outside viewers to sense the power of the tradition they come from, while keeping the contents of that tradition secret. In other words, these are paintings to be experienced, not understood. Art historian Henry Skerritt puts it this way: "I think you are meant to look at these paintings and be bowled away by their beauty, while also recognizing that they contain depths that will always remain beyond your understanding."

That call for appreciation without perfect understanding applies to most non-representational art, but here it's especially charged. As Western viewers, we're invited to see a culture and belief system not our own, albeit one protected by its messengers. Often, art is cryptic for the sake of being cryptic. Here, it's cryptic for a reason.

As it is, there's plenty to see. The paintings are abstract, but not without signage to guide you. There are Tommy Mitchell's extremely bright, layered dots in synthetic polymer paint, and Boxer Milner Tjampitjin's repeated square motifs that lend a fractured visual to the properties of water. Some of the most striking images in the show aren't on the wall at all, but "ground paintings" displayed on the floor, the better to notice their gestures at a hidden topography. Spend some time with the ground paintings, and the effect is not unlike what you might see from the window of an airplane; you'd perhaps be able to identify shape and texture, but you'd have no way of sharing your coordinates with someone on the ground. The show's least representational pieces contain almost obsessive patterning, their geometry laid on in thick strokes. As with the ground paintings, these images are about texture. In one, Billy Joongora Thomas' "Untitled" from 2002, a semblance of depth is achieved without representation and with little color (Thomas uses a limited palette of natural earth pigments), through heavily textured layers of white over rust.

The exhibit's home at the Mason Erhman Building Annex, which used to be a factory, is a big, bright space that gives the paintings room to breathe—some contain patterning so intricate it's borderline nauseating, so the ability to move freely between the pieces is no small thing. The generous size of the room also makes it easy to step back and observe the repeated geometry and bright colors of the paintings on display, as they play off of one another, like pages in a codex you can't read, but can only see.