PORTLAND, Ore. (Portland Tribune) — Well-known Portland artist Henk Pander has spent the past year working on a series of epic paintings. He does not believe they will ever be shown.
The paintings are his response to the earth-shaking events that swept the city, country and world since last March — the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed nearly 3 million people, the resulting recession that threw millions out of work, and the racial justice uprising sparked by the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man in the custody of the Minneapolis police. The large oil and water color paintings are filled with gloom, violence and suffering, including diseased and dead bodies.
“Nobody wants to see them,” Pander recently told the Portland Tribune, standing in front of several of them in his Southeast Portland home and studio.
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A master of traditional Dutch art and more modern expressionism and surrealism, Pander has been a presence in the Portland art scene for many years. In addition to producing an astonishing number of drawings, paintings and prints, he also has been an art teacher and theater set designer. Among other works, Pander was commissioned to paint the official portraits of former Oregon governors Tom McCall and John Kitzhaber. He also has painted such large-scale public works as the wall-length mural at the Portland Center for the Performing Arts that is visible through the westside windows. His works have been acquired by museums and private collectors, including many prized traditional still lifes.
But Pander also has provoked controversy over the years. His first solo exhibition at Portland State University in 1969 included paintings and drawings created at the height of the Vietnam War protests and sexual revolution that were denounced as “pornographic” and “depraved.” He also has produced large-scale works of war and destruction that are very difficult to sell.
But the paintings produced over the past year are arguably darker and more disturbing than anything he has done in the past. Pander said he quickly realized COVID-19 would kill an unimaginable number of people and wreck economies. He quickly self-isolated because, at age 84, he is at high risk of dying if he catches it. Then the protests hit.
About the only times Pander ventured out during the pandemic was to accompany Jacob, one of his two artist sons, to document some of the nightly demonstrations in downtown Portland. There he was shocked by the violent responses from the federal officers guarding the barricaded Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse. But he also was appalled by all the surrounding plywood-covered and graffiti-defaced businesses, and by the sheer number of homeless people living downtown.
“Things that happened here in Portland are linked to the rest of the world,” said Pander, who was born in the Netherlands in 1937 and moved to Portland in 1965.
The plague then; the pandemic now
Holed up in his studio, Pander channeled his growing despair into three series of huge paintings over the past 12 months. The oil paintings are 60 inches high and 72 inches wide. The water colors are still large at 40 by 60 inches. All evoke fear, if not outright horror.
One series is called “The Siege of Caffa,” inspire by the ancient city in Crimea decimated by the Black Plague in 1347. Pander said they are his way of addressing COVID-19 without painting everyone in masks.
The plague swept through Europe in the 14th Century when the city, which was established by Genoa in 1266, was under siege by the Mongols. The disease hit the Mongols first, striking most of them down. Before they withdrew, the Mongols used their catapults to hurl infected corpses over the high walls and into the city, where it quickly spread. Historians believe it is the first example of biological warfare. Pander said the series is based in large part on the book about the plague titled “Great Mortality” by John Kelly.
The watercolors include “Plague Pit,” which shows corpses being dumped over a horse-drawn cart into a mass grave, and “Bacillus,” with a blood red apparition depicting the deadly disease that also symbolizes COVID-19. An oil painting titled “Plague Ships Fleeing the Burning City of Caffa” reveals another way the plague was spread.
War zone: Portland
A second series, which Pander has not named, are based on numerous photos he took of the downtown protests. In some ways, they are similar to other politically inspired paintings Pander has done over the years. Three years after he was born, Germany invaded and occupied the Netherlands, creating a life-long opposition to authoritarianism. “The Floor,” painted in 1992, shows a Jewish youth hiding beneath floorboards as Nazi soldiers enter a private home.
“I remember everything about the Nazis. That’s why the rise of Trumpism was a very unsettling experience,” Pander said.
But the downtown protest paintings are even bleaker. One, titled “Triggers,” shows federal officers emerging from the courthouse to confront protesters in a cloud of gas. Another, titled “Stain,” shows a lone Black female in a white dress standing outside the fence around the courthouse where the officers are gathered. Many have no people in them at all, but emphasize buildings familiar to most Portlander, painted to look ominous and oppressive.
“What really struck me was the militarization of the buildings. Basically, I painted the city itself,” Pander said.
Pander started the third series in 2019 but continued it through the last year as events continued to unfold. Titled “The Amsterdam Series,” it features both historic and contemporary apartment buildings that currently exist side-by-side in neighborhoods there, but which now are vacant, gloomy and empty of all life. That is because they were Jewish neighborhoods, and all the residents were rounded up and shipped off to death camps by the Nazis when they invaded the Netherlands in 1940. Pander painted them as though that is happening now, not 81 years ago when he was 3 years old.
“You can see the connection between the past and present,” Pander said.
Despite his previous visibility and success, Pander said he now feels alone and unwelcome in the Portland art scene. He has not had a show in years and is no longer represented by an agent or gallery, which suits him fine.
“I always sold my own art. Agents and galleries took their percentage without doing any work,” Pander said. “I don’t need the art scene. I just need to make a living.”
Editor’s note: The headline comes from “The Painter of Battles,” a 2006 work of fiction by the Spanish novelist Arturo Pérez-Reverte.