IN HIS ESSAY "WHAT IS ART?," noted 19th century author and critic Leo Tolstoy postulated that art's mission is to create an "emotional link" between artist and viewer that would ultimately "infect and unite them" in a shared feeling/experience. In this regard, no other public work of art in Portland accomplishes this task like Peacock Lane. Stretching for four blocks between SE Stark and Belmont, the denizens of Peacock Lane have been using their homes and lawns as a holiday-themed canvas since the 1920s—and as Portland's largest group art show, it "infects" thousands of visitors every year. Therefore, the Mercury has unleashed its most astute critics on Peacock Lane to explore, examine, and dissect a few of the street's more popular installations and hopefully answer what viewers on this illuminated path have been asking for almost 100 years: "It's shiny... but is it art?" Let's find out.
- Photo by Eliza Sohn
"Untitled": Snoopy as Munchausen Surrogate
Artists/Residence: 817 SE Peacock Lane
Of all the houses/art installations on Peacock Lane, none is as anticipated as the one designed by the artists/residents of 817—the often-controversial artists behind 2008's infamous "American Requiem (Part 1)" and 2009's "Piss Christ." Thankfully, the Portland lawn art community's most notorious enfants terrible haven't lost their trademark mix of heady pop surrealism and scathing social critique that made them critical darlings in the first place.
This year's "Untitled" borrows from Charles M. Schulz—of all people!—transporting classic Peanuts characters from the newspaper page and sadistically forcing them to ice skate through a muddy lawn. Even the most philistine Peacock Lane visitor would have to make an effort not to grasp the subtext of what "Untitled" says about consumerism and modernity vs. tradition. Indeed, the image of Linus, Sally, and Lucy skating through a section of grass made ethereal with blue lights, while seemingly unaware of the futility of such an effort (Dante's Purgatorio, anyone?), is quite "on the nose." Like the wrestling nudes in Pierre Puvis de Chavannes "Doux Pays," Charlie Brown—Schulz's everyman and 817's obvious audience surrogate—is the key to the emotional undercurrents at work here. Unbalanced on his skates, he struggles not to topple into the dirt (both literal and metaphorical) that this "winter wonderland" conceals.
This is no vision of sugarplum fairies but rather a holiday irreparably scarred by the scalpel of our collective cultural addiction to the tacky, to the "Now." "Untitled" sees our society's tastemakers (whose hand is felt here through the empty, symbolic trees and presents surrounding the central scene) as mother birds with Munchausen by Proxy spitting predigested ideas of a bright, but ultimately hollow Christmas down our throats. This is take-no-prisoners lawn art at its most pointed. A+. DAVE BOW
- Photo by Eliza Sohn
"Peace on Earth": Ironicism and the Art of Landscaping
Artists/Residence: 611 SE Peacock Lane
Emblazoned on the lawn of this overly bow-festooned submission in the Peacock Lane suburban-urban group show is the phrase "Peace on Earth"—a sentiment ringing with such falsities as to render it a painfully effective reminder of the inherent indignities of human life in a time of war, environmental calamity, and dangerously self-destructive trends in popular society. The crimson daggers that drive the irony of the piece are the relentless repetitions of tidy, just so red velvet bows that rope around the lawn and extend to the median that divides street with public walkway, as though embracing every snatch of its own private property with an outwardly defensive—yet superficially pleasant—gate.
The inequities of our world are such that "peace on earth" in any remotely tangible form is impossible, much less something that could be achieved without tremendous bloodshed and casualty-ridden upheaval. This darker underbelly—some might call it the truth—is subtly reflected in the placement of the installation's lighting. Anonymous angels representative of the people's call, of the liberal media, are depicted trumpeting the ridiculously futile "peace on earth" cause, perhaps deploring some of the surface qualities of our collective misery—but they are oblivious to the royal purple lights of monarchy strung high above their heads. Meanwhile the hemorrhaging of the red-lighted mother earth, here represented by a sadly solitary tree, carries on without so much as its glow casting shadow on its tormenters.
The final, and perhaps most subtle, focal point of the installation's macabre message is the blinking, distressed star affixed at the height of the house's front peak. Its gaudy repetitions call to mind a representation of the consumerism that dominates the perception of the public, perched high above the conflicts causing actual, emotion-worthy response. Meanwhile, far below on the ground, "peace on earth" remains, languishing in irony. MARJORIE SKINNER
- Photo by Eliza Sohn
"Christmas Beach Party": Christ-abunga, Dude!
Artists/Residence: 545 SE Peacock Lane
You know what sucks about Christmas? Apart from all that Jesus stuff, I mean. That's right: the COLD. Why does Christmas always have to be so damn cold every year? And what's with all the snow? The icicles? The goddamned sleighs? I have a friend who once hooked up with this girl from Australia and she said that down there, they celebrate Christmas in the summer. How amazing is that?!?
Let's ignore the fact (FACT!) that Jesus was not actually born on December 25, but rather some time in September (Virgos repreSENT!), and take apart the idea of Christmas being a winter holiday—a notion brought to vivid life by the display at 545 SE Peacock Lane. Yes, there are snowmen, and yes, that's a penguin among the inflatable doohickeys and whatchmits all over the front lawn. But do you see that? There, in the back? Yes, that is an inflatable PALM TREE—actually, there are TWO palm trees. Yep! Surf's up, broheim, 'cause this year we're celebrating Christmas tropical style! To prove it, that inflatable Frosty giving the high five to the penguin is totally wearing sunglasses. Cowabunga, dudes!
It's time to bring Christmas in from the cold. Everyone talks about how amazing and magical this holiday is, but how amazing and magical is freezing your nutsack off? Christmas needs to be more like Weekend at Bernie's. Shut up, I'm totally seriously here! Think about it: Christmas is a holiday about a dead guy who gets up and walks around for a few days, and throws killer parties with all the babes! Sounds just like Weekend at Bernie's to me. And didn't Jesus live in the desert or something? The desert's like one big beach!
So kudos to you, 545 SE Peacock Lane, for shattering the status quo, for challenging the Old-Man-Winter idea that Christmas has to be cold. If you need me on December 25, I'll be catchin' some tasty, tasty waves. NED LANNAMANN
- Photo by Eliza Sohn
"Christmas Chaos": Too Much Means Too Little
Artists/Residence: 715 SE Peacock Lane
Regardless of the artist(s) intent, this work is a directionless disaster. Peering at the decorations of neighboring installations, it is clear each have chosen a theme, an area of Christmas lore to meditate on: candy canes, Santa, Snoopy, snowmen, ad infinitum. This singularity of vision is a wise and effective choice. Only through focus and attention to detail can true artistic greatness be achieved. This house, unfortunately, falls far short of holiday decoration greatness. There is no cohesion here. Christmas decorations have been indiscriminately flung together without any seeming regard for context. Santa is on the porch, but what's this? So too is the Abominable Snowman. A solitary reindeer stiffly straddles the roof with no sleigh, no team, not even a red nose. The blue wreath at the house's peak clashes so horrifically with the red and green aesthetic, one can only conclude it was an insultingly feeble bid to include Hanukkah in an overwhelmingly Christian display—an idea which once again serves as a detraction from the whole.
The blaring plea for a "MERRY CHRISTMAS" above the door seems laughably redundant, as it is placed directly behind the same phrase arching across the walkway between two candy canes. A puny, unnecessary, almost unnoticeable sign on the lawn reads "Santa Land Here," close to an impotent wire sculpture of a Christmas tree which itself is dwarfed by the deciduous trees towering above. A red bow attached to a window hints at presents—yet is unable to make a very convincing case.
Sadly, the untrained eye of wandering neophytes will be so dazzled by the pandemonium of multi-colored lights, they won't notice the extensiveness of flaws too numerous to count—though I saw many gawkers gathered on the sidewalk in front of this residence, drowning in mouth-gaping confusion and anxiety. In trying to be everything to everyone, the artists have created a hopelessly and impenetrably meaningless mélange. Next year one hopes they can hone in on one central theme and discard the chaff. VIRGINIA THAYER
- Photo by Eliza Sohn
"Santa's Village": Where, Exactly, Are the Elves?
Artists/Residence: 532 SE Peacock Lane
The words PEACE and JOY stand starkly in the front yard of 532 SE Peacock Lane, bridged by a candy-striped awning inviting one and all to mainline themselves straight into the raw, beating heart of Christmas Cheer: Santa's Village, the sign announces. This is it. You have arrived. In a season where "cheer" is the only relevant cultural currency, Santa's Village is the Vatican, the Mall of America, and Ground Zero, all rolled in to one.
But linger for a moment on the sidewalk outside this ostensible holiday hotbed, taking in the confidently declarative red-and-green letters, framed in non-denominational white lights, and it soon becomes clear that all is not right at Santa's Village. The house and yard present a pretty façade, but... where are the elves, 532 SE Peacock Lane?
WHERE ARE THE ELVES?
Once the question is posed, it only leads to further questions: Where's fat Mrs. Claus, the snow, the heaps of toys? The eight carb-loading reindeer, nervously preparing for their upcoming journey? Where's Santa himself, that benevolent Pied Piper of greed and early onset diabetes?
Perhaps Santa's Village had all of these things, once—perhaps Peacock Lane once housed a community humming with cheer—but what stands today is a chilling husk, a monument to absence. As if to reinforce that very point, a single green ball dangles forlornly from a tree in the front yard, an illuminous stand-in for all that's missing from the sinister shell of Santa's Village. Irony ricochets from the very rooftops—the promised "Peace" and "Joy" serve as Orwellian signifiers of their own absence. War is peace. Freedom is slavery. And at Santa's eerily deserted village, all is peace and joy. ALISON HALLETT
- Photo by Eliza Sohn
"House at the End of Peacock Lane": The Darkness Awaits
Artists/Residence: 870 SE Peacock Lane
Carry on your daily drudgeries, residents of "Candy Cane Lane" or "Arctic Avenue" or "Rudolph's Folly" or whatever it is you trivial creatures call this garish street upon which you've chosen to waste your few remaining years. Every year, you truss it up like some kind of Vegas-showgirl-slash-Jesus-freak harlot, strangling and choking her with lights, tinsel, and needless frivolity. Go ahead: Make a show of stringing up your lights. Release orgasmic "Mmmmmm"s as you sip your hot cocoa. Take cold rest upon your merrily lit porches. Dance and frolic with what little time you have left, begging for attention—pathetically wishing for someone, anyone, to pay heed to your petty, mutilated street.
And then—once you've finished gorging on your sweatshop-fashioned advent calendars, once you've received your first PGE bill, once you've realized a slack-jawed neighborhood scoundrel has gleefully knocked out the "P," "E," and "A" lights from your elaborate "PEACOCK LANE" display—then, and only then, should you be able to spare the briefest of moments... then, and only then, behold 870 SE Peacock Lane.
870 SE Peacock Lane's windows, dark as pitch, stare emptily at your bustling street, like nothing so much as hollowed-out eyeholes in a long-frozen skull. Mere feet away, your eagerly tacky homes glimmer and gleam—but here, the monolithic 870 SE Peacock Lane merely stands, enduring and eternal, hiding sinister secrets and bleak truths. Its front door, cloaked in ominous shadow: No children here, it silently croaks, the words clawing themselves not into your ears but deep into your bile-filled gut. Utter futile wishes for your Santa Claus elsewhere. Warble your strained carols where human ears might hear. But what is that near its porch, you wonder? Could it be—could it possibly be, even here—the tiniest of Christmas trees?!
No. It is a weary, long-forgotten houseplant, shoved, like a rambling geriatric, out into the unforgiving cold, where it grimly awaits the siphoning away of its last dregs of life.
There are no pathetic light displays here. You will hear no too-loud insistences of holiday cheer. You will see no emptily grinning families. All that is here remains, and all that shall be is 870 SE Peacock Lane—eternal and infinite, shrouded in despair. It shall outlast you all. ERIK HENRIKSEN
Peacock Lane is located between SE Stark and Belmont, east of 39th Avenue. Viewing times are December 15-31, 6-11 pm, peacocklane.net.