Friday, January 02, 2009

Umbrella Man

Umbrella Man

Umbrella Man

A few photos of the "Umbrella Man" statue in Pioneer Courthouse Square. He's a local icon, and people seem to like him, for the most part. I think it's that he sort of captures the "everyday civic virtue" aspect of Portland's self-image. Just a regular guy in a suit, seeing someone in need and trying to be helpful. I guess that's what it's about. The central location probably helps too.

I didn't really know anything about the Umbrella Man, so being who I am, I thought I'd dig around a bit, see what I could find out, and do a post about it, since that's what I always do. The strange thing this time is that I think I liked the Umbrella Man better before I started researching him.

Umbrella Man

Everybody just calls him the Umbrella Man, but his real name is "Allow Me", and he's by the sculptor J. Seward Johnson, Jr., who we'll get to in a bit.

But first, I was surprised to discover that our Umbrella Man is just one of several Umbrella Men scattered here and there. There's one in Philadelphia -- although being in Philadelphia, his gesture is less of an "Allow Me", and more of a "Stop, Thief!", I think. Philadelphia's Umbrella Man was moved a few years back, the article saying:

But in late May the oft-maligned statue, a J. Seward Johnson work titled Allow Me, disappeared. And to the chagrin of those who routinely molested the immovable man by placing cigarette butts, onion rings or trash between his open fingers, he won't be returning to his shady sidewalk spot.


They trash theirs, we make ours a civic icon. This shows that either they, or we, are uncultured philistines. But I'm not sure which is which right now. I do have a sudden hankering for onion rings, though. Mmm... onion rings... Anyway, the article goes on to note:


Philly's work is just one in a series of seven casts. Chicago, Portland, Ore., and Bath, N.Y., all have copies of Allow Me on public display; the remaining three are in private collections in Los Angeles, Port Smith, Ark., and Hamilton, Ohio.


Here's a photo of the Chicago Umbrella Man. The Waymarking page about our guy suggests there's at least one more out there, somewhere in New England, although that may be the Bath, NY one.

Updated: We now have linky-linky from this story about Philadelphia's Umbrella Man. Seems he's just returned to his new home after being damaged in post-World Series drunken rioting. Portland has many sterling qualities and all that, but we do have an unfortunate lack of drunken rioting. Even on Fat Tuesday and St. Patrick's Day, when drunken rioting is practically a patriotic duty. Ok, and we also have an unfortunate lack of a major league baseball team. And an NHL team, more importantly. But I digress.

Umbrella Man

It seems Mr. Johnson happens to be a disinherited (but still very, very rich) heir to the Johnson & Johnson family fortune. I gather he's sort of your basic wealthy, generous patron of the arts, who does a bit of sculpting of his own on the side.

Thing is, though, I gather his work isn't everyone's cup of tea. Art critics, in particular, seem to generally look down their noses at Johnson's works. This is the part that sort of makes me unhappy. I just thought of our statue as the Umbrella Man, a well-known piece of local public art. I never stopped to consider whether he might be ...gasp... bad art! I guess the painted shirt and tie ought to have been a big kitsch alert, but things only start to sink in once you've looked at some of his other stuff.

Johnson may be best known (outside Portland, anyway) for "Beyond the Frame", a controversial (but popular) show at the Corcoran Gallery in DC. "Beyond the Frame" showcased a series of Johnson's sculptures based on famous impressionist paintings. The Washington Post's art critic hated it with a passion. His review's worth a read -- you don't often encounter quite this degree of invective in a family newspaper, and when you do, it's rarely as entertaining as this. There's also an interesting (and much calmer) discussion of the show in this post on IONARTS, a DC art blog.

On the other hand, the National Review loved it, or they say they loved it, for solid ideological culture-war reasons. It was a golden opportunity for conservative elite types to once again trot out their pretend allegiance to the unrefined tastes of the common man. When they're not busy sending the common man off to die in the Middle East, or exporting his job to China, I mean.

Umbrella Man

I also ran across a 1989 article about Johnson's works in Interior Design magazine, titled "Norman Rockwell in 3-D". Unfortunately the article's only available on HighBeam, which I don't subscribe to, but it begins with the sentence "Seward Johnson, Jr., is not the worst sculptor in the U.S., though he may be trying."

I get the impression Johnson remains unfazed by the critics. I think it's like what George Lucas said when the Star Wars prequel trilogy came out, something to the effect that his stuff is critic-proof, and he can afford not to care what they think.

I see the Umbrella Man kind of like how I see the aforementioned onion rings. I know I'm not supposed to like onion rings. Educated, civilized, cultured persons such as myself shouldn't like such things. It simply isn't done. But I still sort of do anyway.

Umbrella Man

Umbrella Man

Not a big "from the interwebs" section this time, but a few items

A About.com page insists he can't be a real Portlander, because he's wearing a suit and using an umbrella. I've never gotten the no-umbrella thing some people have here. I've lived here most of my life, and umbrellas are a basic quality-of-life amenity. Nobody gives you points for getting rained on when you don't have to. You do know that, right?

Ricardo's Blog also has a post about Umbrella Man, with a couple of photos.

On Indymedia, a photo of the Umbrella Man during a war protest, looking as if he's joined in.

And, lastly, someone's poem about him.

Umbrella Man

Umbrella Man

Umbrella Man

1 comment :

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