Dust and the Promise of Water
Maryhill Museum of Art's Insane, Longing Mirage
Through Oct 1, second and fourth Sundays every month, noon to dusk.
The sign says "Rattlesnake Country," and we pass it, scuffing across a dusty trail toward the edge of a north Oregon bluff overlooking the Columbia River, the Washington border, and, most importantly, the Maryhill Museum of Art, probably this state's best, most unheralded monument to queerness—a place that Time magazine declared, when it opened in 1940, "the world's most isolated art museum."
The path winds gently upward as our destination, Maryhill Double, comes into view like a watery blue mirage bleeding into the watery blue sky. Maryhill Double is a replica of the three-story, monolithic Maryhill Museum, but instead of Mary-hill's steel-reinforced concrete, the Double is made of scaffolding open to the scouring winds. In place of walls is a glistening skin, made of translucent blue construction netting. Behind it, across the gorge, is Maryhill, now looking terribly small, the way the Double does when you're at Maryhill. Actually, they enclose an interior space of the same size. They're mirror images, one stony and built for the ages, the other ethereal and shivering in the wind.
Seattle artists Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo, who operate under the name Lead Pencil Studio, made the Double on a grant from Creative Capital Foundation. The artists originally planned to erect it on the lawn of the museum, but the museum refused them, so they went across the river, where a private landowner helped them get it zoned as a temporary billboard (it's up through October 1).
It is an oddity overwhelmed by competing spectacles all around. There's the stunning landscape, the river that carves apart miles of hilly yellow-brown brush bracketed by incongruously snow-capped mountains. In the background is Maryhill.
The Double is devoted to its subject, locked in an embrace. The way Gordon Matta-Clark's cuts out of urban buildings in the 1970s were archaeological as well as formal, the Double reveals the eccentric museum by simulating and abstracting the experience of being inside it. When you're perched high on the third story of the double, buffeted by whirring winds, both afraid and emboldened by the swaying scaffolding, and humbled by the views, the question arises if it hasn't before: What was museum founder Samuel Hill thinking, building that Flemish-style concrete mansion and thicket of hellaciously irrigated greenery in the middle of this harshness, this barrenness?
If you go to the Double, go to the museum. There, none of the tourists seem to notice that this building and its verdant lawns are as misplaced as the peacocks that occasionally terrorize visitors. But the Double in the distance, as incorporeal as Hill's ashes buried under his replica of Stonehenge a mile from the museum, is a visible reminder of the rowdy, invisible spirit waiting there to be discovered.
Hill was a Harvard-educated lawyer and Seattle millionaire who bought the 7,000 acres of scrubland in 1907 to create a Quaker farming community, but the climate and land were inhospitable, and nobody came. He laid the state's first paved roads there, and set out to build a mansion, much like the one he had put up on Capitol Hill (814 East Highland Drive, which is currently on the market for $4.5 million), named after his wife and schizophrenic daughter. But his wife and children deserted him long before construction began in 1914. He had three more children with women he didn't marry, and never lived in the house, instead converting it into a museum.
Its oddball collections include Romanian royal and peasant artifacts, plaster casts of famous sculptures, an assortment of Rodins (mostly casts), American academic paintings, and chess sets from around the world. The most significant of these were acquired through a trio of Hill's female friends: modern dancer Loie Fuller, San Francisco art patron Alma Spreckels, and Queen Marie of Romania.
The architecture is as faceless as its collections are quirky. Made of gray concrete not so different from a road's surface and rising 50 feet, the building focuses haughtily inward, away from the gorge it overlooks, with driving ramps and wide doors so guests of old could pull cars in one side, drop off the ladies, and drive out the other side.
The vast hills and majestic gorge pitilessly embarrass the architecture. It's a case study of the puniness of the human gesture amid larger forces, a marvelous failure of architecture to assert itself in the landscape.
But the Double sympathizes with it, restoring some of the dignity of Hill's manic desire to make a lasting mark in this dusty place. Just like Hill's plans, the Double strains credibility. When the sun-sparkly panels of blue netting bow like sails in the wind, the shadows of the straight scaffolding bars curve as if the structure is melting. The environment pushes the architecture beyond its physical reality, into a realm of pure potential.
This story has been updated since its original publication.