"Retro Mode" by Yuji Hiratsuka

Subverting and Diverting

Two art shows downtown this month range from Sharply political to imaginatively elegant

In honor of the World Athletics Championships, which are to take over much of Eugene for 10 days starting July 15, New Zone Gallery has mounted a splendidly sardonic exhibition by three local artists, Panem et Circenses.

That’s “Bread and Circuses” to you non-classicists out there, and the show serves as a sharp comment by artists Ralf Huber, Sandy Sanders and Asante Riverwind on the propriety of staging a huge and expensive athletic event in a city where hundreds of people sleep in tents, on sidewalks and in their cars, in a state where the rate of COVID-19 infection remains high, and in a nation that has yet to do anything significant to combat climate change.

To enter the exhibition, you walk through an ornamental arch with a sign that makes the question explicit: “Should a new $270 million stadium and $40 million of public funds have gone toward an international sports spectacle when society has millions of unsolved social problems worsening every day?”

Inside the small Klausmeier Room at the gallery, you find yourself surrounded by paintings by Riverwind, objects crafted by Huber and clever concoctions made of painted corrugated cardboard by Sanders.

The best of these is on the floor. Sanders’ “The Disposables” is a life-size depiction of a homeless man sleeping on the sidewalk, surrounded by trash.

While I’m not always a fan of political art, this exhibit underscores its politics with imagination, wit and craftsmanship, and is clever enough to invite multiple trips around the room to ferret out details. I left only after plunking down $2 for a faux race bib that says “Bread Not Circuses, Eugene, Oregon 2022.”

A few blocks away, you can journey to a completely different world of deep imagination at White Lotus Gallery, which is showing Contemporary Narratives, an exhibit of Corvallis printmaker’s Yuji Hiratsuka’s recent work exploring a gorgeous world of elegant, eyeless women who could have popped out of a stylish comic book from the 1950s.

Recently retired from teaching printmaking in the art department at Oregon State University, Hiratsuka has spent decades mining this same imaginative vein, combining an interest in fashion, color and society — and traditional Japanese ukiyo-e prints from the 19th century.

Hiratsuka’s finely produced etchings on Japanese paper range up to 24 by 36 inches in size, and freely combine Eastern and Western visual influences while telling stories that are difficult to sum up in words. In “Koban Angel,” a seated woman wearing a black cocktail dress and red high heels seems to be admiring herself in the cell phone she holds in front of her face. And in “Retro Mode,” a woman with butterfly wings on her back, making her look a bit like an angel, seems to be using a rope to pull in a flock of birds, including a large crane. 

“Japan is a land of contrasts,” Hiratsuka explains in an artist statement. “On the surface it might appear that the culture of Japan has taken on thoroughly American and European characteristics, but behind this Western façade, Japan’s ancient and traditional philosophies have survived.”

Panem et Circenses continues at New Zone Gallery, 110 E. 11th Avenue, through July. Hours are noon to 6 pm daily. Contemporary Narratives continues at White Lotus Gallery, 767 Willamette Street, through July 30. Hours are noon to 4 pm Tuesday through Saturday.