Piece at Portland Art Museum depicts child abuse in graphic fashion

Piece at Portland Art Museum depicts child abuse in graphic fashion

PORTLAND, Ore. – It is a piece of art that is supposed to spark a conversation – and that’s exactly what it’s doing.

Edward and Nancy Kienholz’s “The Bear Chair” is a graphic depiction of child sexual abuse that is currently on display at the Portland Art Museum.

The installation features a bear in a position of sexual power over a young girl represented by a mannequin. The museum said it is “purposefully unsettling to look at as it explores a terrible aspect of contemporary life – the physical abuse and sexual exploitation of children.”

The bear, which represents an abusive father, has also scrawled a note saying “if you tell anyone I’m going to hurt your mama really bad.” The bear also has an exposed human phallus. | See an uncensored image of the piece

The Bear Chair is displayed in a partially walled off section of the museum. Visitors in the contemporary art section must pass a red sign that says “some works in this gallery present content that is socially and emotionally charged. Parental and personal discretion is advised.”

“I believe very strongly that it belongs here,” museum curator Bruce Guenther said. “We are a place that you come to discover, to engage, to question.”

He explained the artists made the piece as a statement against child abuse. He said the museum wants people to “walk out the door and say ‘not in my home, not in my community, not in this lifetime.’”

Guenther said since the exhibit opened last August they have only had a handful of complaints.

We here at KATU first learned about the exhibit when a parent contacted us to complain about the graphic nature of the art. She was concerned that unsupervised children have access to the piece.

“I felt like I was kicked in the stomach,” she wrote on the museum’s Facebook page and emailed KATU. “There were a lot of children that should never see it.”

“It’s the role of art historically and traditionally to teach us about life, about spiritual values, to record history, to talk about political change to open up the problems and the joys of daily life,” Guenther said.

He said high school and college groups have seen The Bear Chair and discussed its meaning, as have younger children with their parents.

“People have come away talking about an issue that faces us every day and vowing to make a difference,” Guenther said.

The Bear Chair will be on display at the museum until August. The piece was created in 1991 and has been displayed around the world.

It belongs to a private collector who has a connection to child abuse herself and feels strongly that the piece opens a conversation about something that is too often a silent horror.