At this point, most Portland residents are familiar with the story of James Chasse‘s tragic, unconscionable death in police custody. Out-of-towners and those who are a little hazy on the details can read about the incident here.
As a teenager in the late 70’s and early 80’s, Chasse was a friend of several longtime members of the local art scene, including Eva Lake and Randy Moe. In his late teens, Chasse changed dramatically after developing schizophrenia, which he struggled with until his death on September 17th, 2006. When Moe and Lake learned that Chasse had been killed, they were already preparing for an exhibition of Moe’s portraits at Chambers Gallery, which Lake manages. Presciently entitled, It’s a Sad, Sad, Sad, Sad World, the show has been expanded to include a portrait of Chasse and a binder filled with photocopies of The Oregon Organism, a zine Chasse created while in his early teens. Moe used an old polaroid photograph of a 14-year old Chasse, affectionately known as ‘Jim Jim,’ as the source for his memorial portrait.
The art of portraiture has always been intertwined with the fundamental human concerns of empathy and mortality. These issues are brought to the forefront in Moe’s portrait of Jim Jim, which he created while working through feelings of grief, frustration and regret. Upon first encountering the momento polaroid–which Eva posted on her blog shortly after Chasse’s death–I was struck by just how important a sympathetic portrait’s illumination of its subject can be. News images of Chasse had been small, mug shot-style records of a man’s appearance.
This image showed much more: a sensitive soul, playful but with an underlying melancholy. Eva and Randy have both commented that Jim Jim was shockingly bright and philosophical for someone his age. Both kept artwork created by Chasse, and their recollections inform an article that subsequently appeared in The Oregonian, Losing ‘Jim Jim’: a story of schizophrenia, authored by Maxine Bernstein.
Some of the most striking passages from Losing ‘Jim Jim’ involve former classmates’ recollections of Chasse’s odd behavior, elucidating the tenuous boundaries between artistic creativity, the imaginative world of childhood, and the pain of delusional paranoia:
“(Jason) Renaud called his classmate a ‘bit of a mystery.’ He remembers his obsession with putting his hand in a fist. ‘He’d say if he opened his hand, the world would cease to exist,’ Renaud said. ‘It was clear the weight of the world was on his shoulders.’
Another classmate, Ani Raven, remembers Chasse as a student who kept to himself. But she and her best friend often sought him out because they liked him, and they’d find him in Couch Park near the school.
‘Sometimes he told me that he talked to Saint Francis . . . he wanted to be like him, gentle to all beings,’ Raven wrote in an e-mail about Chasse. Chasse, Raven said, gave her a white crayon, with a thread tied to one end, saying it represented purity in a corrupt world. More than 20 years later, she still has the crayon.”
Eva Lake stresses the importance of Jim Jim’s creativity, an aspect of his personality that she believes is deserving of more attention. Lake comments, “Jim Jim was an artist: someone who did drawings very similar to what is hot now ~ very juvenile yet sophisticated. This was Jim Jim to the core. Yet the drawings were very spot-on… he drew the Ramones and the Wipers to perfection. Jim Jim was in a band later on, the Possum Society. The name came from the fact that police were caught throwing possums at black-owned businesses and homes back in the early 80’s here. Odd that even then he had this strange relationship with the police.” A perusal of The Oregon Organism reveals ominous foreshadowing on par with that in Elliot Smith’s last album. The police and death are both mentioned frequently, occasionally in the same sentence. While he seems to have had his share of demons at a tender age, the Chasse of The Oregon Organism was willing and able to take a playful swipe back at them.
Chasse was the embodiment of the early punk rock ethos, a bold, wry social observer who wasn’t afraid to make light of himself or others, a passionate fan of The Wipers and The Ramones, a frequent attender of concerts who raged against the unfairness of ’21 and over only’ shows, a DIY writer, artist and organizer. Far from the work of a self-absorbed loner, his “letters from the editor” show how eager he was to collaborate with other artists and writers and to spread good news about his favorite bands. By turns provocative, enthusiastic, and absurdist, Chasse always wrote in his own distinctive voice.
As a critic, I particularly enjoy his reviews. As with his illustrations, Chasse takes a standard format and makes it his own by subtly undermining its logic or carrying a traditional tone to laughable extremes. From a review of Public Image, Ltd:
“Public Image first issue–a lot better than the Pistols album for the simple reason it’s just better, in every aspect…..’Fodderstompf,’ my favorite cut on this LP, is a disco takeoff, with castrato vocals, et al!…’Annalisa’ seems to be a love song (?), what are we coming to Mr. Lydon? BUY THIS RECORD it is under urging recommendation.”
He lampoons both the adult world of traditional newspaper writing and the conventions of busywork literature for kids. Instructions on how to draw Debbie Harry show three stick figures, each with slightly more detail with the last, then a finished picture of Debbie that looks nothing like the stick figures. “Find the mistakes:” commands a banner over a pencil drawing of an idyllic scene. The mistakes, it turns out, are:
1. molecules in left hand corner are blue!
2. man has no legs.
3. the cumulous clouds are too thin!
I could cite many more examples of young Jim Jim’s adorable sense of humor, but I encourage everyone to check out The Oregon Organism at Chambers Gallery and behold it for yourselves. I also encourage everyone to check out Randy Moe’s striking portraits at the same location.
At a candlelight vigil held for James Chasse on October 27, Eva Lake read a few of his poems. His poetry, she says, “was probably where he shined the most.” The following poem, previously featured in The Oregon Organism, seems to capture something of both the enthusiastic teenager he was and the troubled man he would become.
silent snow, secret snow by jim
crush my radio, wreck my t.v. oh no! what’ll i do! i see snow
the mailman doesn’t come anymore
oh no! i see snow
snow in my room, snow in my room
reality stays away from my front door
i just can’t relate anymore
the mailman doesn’t come anymore
took my telephone off the hook
on my bed, i see snow
what will i do? oh no! snow in my room, snow in my room
silent snow, secret snow
reality is my only foe
It’s a Sad, Sad, Sad, Sad World will remain on view at Chambers, located at 207 SW Pine St. No. 102, through Nov. 30. Hours are Wed.-Sat. 12-6pm and by appointment. For more information, call the gallery at 503.227.9398.