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Portland's Pretend Picasso: Stewart Holbrook's 'Mr. Otis' On Display

Mr. Otis, the pseudonym for writer Stewart Holbrook, was a Portland painter in the 1950s whose work was the signature of the fictitious Primitive-Moderne school of art. Mr. Otis’ work is a satirical commentary of the politics of the time and of contemporary art itself.

Stewart Holbrook was a historian and columnist for The Oregonian for more than 30 years, during which time he became known for his colorful retelling of history. But perhaps the tallest tale he told was about himself — or rather, a reclusive artist named Mr. Otis, whom Holbrook purported to be.

During the 1950s, Holbrook served as an advocate for the fictional Mr. Otis, often speaking on his behalf. Mr. Otis was the so-called founder of what he called the Primitive-Moderne school of art, a painting style that strongly resembled Picasso’s. But Mr. Otis’ paintings were more satirical — of the politics at the time and also of contemporary art itself.

Mr. Otis’ works have been on exhibition at the University of Oregon Museum of Art and the World Forestry Center, but a selection will be displayed through November 24 at Portland Museum of Modern Art, a gallery tucked inside Mississippi Records. Arts & Life talked to gallery curator Libby Werbel about the exhibition.

Stewart Holbrook, aka Mr. Otis

Stewart Holbrook, aka Mr. Otis

Oregon Historical Society

Arts & Life: If Mr. Otis is actually Stewart Holbrook, why is the work still presented as by Mr. Otis?

Libby Werbel: I feel like it was Holbrook’s intention to have Mr. Otis be a self-sustaining artistic figure. It was a joke, but it was so much more. I kind of wanted to honor Holbrook’s intention with it … I thought to pay homage to the intention around Mr. Otis, it would be more appropriate to present the work as Mr. Otis and not Mr. Holbrook.

A&L: What are some of the highlights of the exhibition?

LW: A few of my favorites are the ones about James G. Blaine, a senator from Maine who was nominated for president in late 1884. One project of Holbrook’s was an organization called the James G. Blaine Society, a whole group dedicated to stopping people from relocating to Portland. He was trying to protect Oregon from overpopulation. It was basically a joke society; the James G. Blaine reference is to the presidential candidate that skipped Oregon on his campaign trail.

A&L: Why are you interested in Mr. Otis?

LW: I think when I opened the gallery — the Portland Museum of Modern Art — it was also a little bit of a satire. It’s my own commentary on modern art culture in Portland, which is growing still. It’s always been such a surprise to me that we don’t have more of a modern art institution.

A&L: Why do you think Holbrook pretended to be Mr. Otis?

LW: I think Stewart Holbrook was this amazing, interesting character. He was this people’s man that was really into alternate storylines of history. And I think he was creating a satire, this commentary on the art world. He talked about that pretty openly when he presented Mr. Otis’ work for Mr. Otis: How does an artist become an artist and how does an artist become well known? Through promotion or through status?

I think it was his hope, his big plan to have this artist reach some level of fame or success. But meanwhile, it was himself he was self promoting.

A&L: Do you think his work would have been recognized had he not used his position to promote himself?

LW: Well, that’s the beauty of it. I think these paintings are amazing. I’m thrilled to have them in the space, and I think they’re beautiful. So my answer is absolutely yes.

A&L: It sounds like the art he was really skilled at was lying.

LW: He wasn’t lying. Lots of people paint under pseudonyms or write in different pennames. That’s not uncommon. I also think the editors and writers and publishers were in on the jokes, but also saw it as an artistic project.

A&L: So everyone was lying.

They’re not liars. They’re just creating a more interesting truth.

Stewart Holbrook also created “a more interesting truth” about Portland, writing tall tales about Portland’s Waterfront district. Holbrook and some of his stories are briefly featured in an Oregon Experience special, “Portland Noir,” which examines the city’s illicit past and underworld activities in the mid to late 1800s. The half-hour special premieres Monday, October 21, 2013 at 9 p.m. on OPB TV.

Stewart Holbrook Mr. Otis