… and oddly, as a pitched political battle sweeps the nation, life goes on. How will the arts world respond to the extraordinary events of the day? How, if at all, will this most divisive and pugilistic of administrations respond to the world of art? Shoes could drop at any moment: the administration has already stated its intent to kill the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities, and to end federal funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. While Nero threatens to cut off the fiddles, here are a few highlights of what’s going on in and around town.


IT’S FIRST THURSDAY this week, when many galleries open their new monthly shows, so visual art is on our minds. The Portland Art Museum has opened Rodin: The Human Experience, a major show of 52 bronzes, and Constructing Identity, an important overview of historical and contemporary work by African American artists.

Louis Bunce, “Apple”, 1968. Oil on canvas. 41” x 48”//Courtesy Hallie Ford Museum of Art

And the invaluable Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem has opened Louis Bunce: Dialogue with Modernism, a retrospective on the late Oregon artist, who Paul Sutinen, in his ArtsWatch review of the show, identifies as a key figure in the city’s cultural life, the catalyst for making Portland a city of modern art. “It is an important show,” Sutinen declares. “It is a great show. It is accompanied by a monograph on Bunce by Roger Hull. It is important. It is great.” And then he explains why. See the sort of thing that the Savonarolas of the federal purse are eager to upend.


‘We’re All Mad Here’…so let’s party

Shaking The Tree's fresh take on Lewis Carroll applies his lessons to our times, and it's a huge relief.

What do you do with your existential frustration?

If you boil it down into its purest form, you get either despair or rage—which then has to be dealt with.

But if you chill it out and mix in some humor, you end up with absurdity. And that can be played with! O Frabjous Day!

From last weekend to this, I took in two plays that both sprang from the same premise: our modern world warps us.

Matthew Kerrigan reinterprets Lewis Carroll’s White Rabbit, with a fleeting attention span ruled by a smartphone.


“Well, then, it’s hopeless. We should end it all,” Matthew Zrebski’s Carnivora bleakly bemoans.

“Ah! Then we might as well party!” Shaking The Tree’s We’re All Mad Here exclaims.

Mind you, those aren’t direct quotes, just the sentiments I took away—what I imagine the plays might say if they were people. Oh, wait—one of them pretty much is. We’re All Mad Here is, if not exclusively, at least predominantly conceived and performed by Matthew Kerrigan, in homage to Alice In Wonderland author Lewis Carroll.

And why is Carroll’s work so timeless? Any drug-addled dodo could dream up a different world, but that wasn’t the crux of Carroll’s vision. Like his forebears Aesop and Chaucer and Jonathan “Gulliver” Swift, Carroll was a satirist as well as a fabulist.


Fertile Ground reviews: Young bloods

Broken Planetarium's 'Atlantis' and Orphic's 'Iphigenia 3.0' show the promise of today's young Portland theater companies

At a Fertile Ground panel discussion called Building a Musical last weekend, Portland theater maven Corey Brunish, who’s produced impressive shows in Oregon and New York and beyond, noted that most Broadway shows are aimed at “well educated women in their 60s.” His observation  will come as no surprise to anyone who’s attended a Broadway show — or most other theater, in New York or elsewhere. Judging by the usual audience demographic, you’d be forgiven for thinking that even Portland theater is for old people. But at two performances at this year’s Fertile Ground festival, I found young companies drawing relatively young audiences in plays that pulsed with 21st century attitude and energy. They left me optimistic for the future of theater in Portland and beyond.

After the Deluge

Set in a not so distant future in which the climate change denied by the Con-mander in Chief has now, ironically, inundated (thanks to melting polar ice) most of his properties, Atlantis takes place atop a New York skyscraper rooftop. By day, its characters watch the waters rise inch by inch, and by night participate in an early ‘60s-style Greenwich Village open mike amateur folk song showcase —providing a perfect excuse for characters to periodically burst into song. Not that operas or musicals (which, despite the subtitle, is really what this is, as it eschews traditional opera’s sung recitatives in favor of a musical’s alternating songs and dialogue) have ever needed one.

Natasha Kotey in ‘Atlantis.’ Photo: Laura Hadden.

Thankfully, the enormously entertaining show, which completed its short Fertile Ground run at Portland’s Clinton Street Theater last weekend, seldom slows to harangue us about politics; the impending flood is just an ominous if inevitable fact of life. So adaptable are these New Yorkers that, evolutionary theory be damned, they grow gills to adapt to their submerged future. It’s one of the cheerfully wacky touches that keep Atlantis’s mood light while never flinching from the gravity of its subject matter. We soon learn that this greatest of our generation’s challenges is also a metaphor for one of its other generational crises, one that unfolds through the story of one of its central characters. That’s a classic application of speculative fiction, yet there’s nothing remotely preachy or political or sentimental about this realization.

In fact, several songs (written by Laura Christina Dunn, Brigit Kelly Young, Kendy Gable, Monica Metzler a/k/a Forest Veil, Frank Mazzetti and Maggie Mascal) could be described as sharp musical comedy, and their sly, smart lyrics are one of the show’s major assets. The audience chortled and even howled through numbers like Dunn’s song about the land of lost dates, and cheered Sofia May-Cuxim’s dynamite belting out of “Hymn to the End of the World.” The other vocal performances could be charitably described as authentically scruffy indie, which suits the story but may occasionally trouble listeners who prioritize accurate pitch, range greater than a few notes, and audible lyrics over dramatic authenticity, although that last problem might be addressed by amplification in the bigger, better funded full production that I dearly hope will follow.


Louis Bunce: Catalyst for making Portland a city of modern art

A retrospective of Louis Bunce's at the Hallie Ford Museum makes the case for the artist as the catalyst for modern art in Portland

There is a retrospective exhibition of paintings by Louis Bunce at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem, running through March 26. It is an important show. It is a great show. It is accompanied by a monograph on Bunce by Roger Hull. It is important. It is great.

The importance of Louis Bunce to the development of art in Portland (and Oregon) cannot be overstated. As Hull says in his introduction: “Arguably Louis Bunce was the major Oregon modern artist of the twentieth century—a claim that can be substantiated on the basis of his enormously skilled production in many styles and modes, his friendship with artists on the New York scene that provided links between the Big Apple and the Rose City, his imaginative will to make Portland, Oregon, a city of art as well as roses, and the sheer force of his amiable, extroverted personality.”

Gerald Robinson, “Portrait of Louis Bunce,” 1955, gelatin silver print//Courtesy Hallie Ford Museum of Art

The exhibition certainly demonstrates “his enormously skilled production in many styles and modes.” Born in Wyoming in 1907, Bunce graduated from Jefferson High School in Portland. He attended the School of the Portland Art Association (later called the Museum Art School and later the Pacific Northwest College of Art), and spent four years in his early 20s in New York attending classes at the Art Students League. Early on he was enthralled with the paintings of Paul Cézanne, and the early landscapes in the exhibition have hints of Cézanne.

He then seems to have been inspired by the surrealist Giorgio de Chirico in the 1930s, with works like Along the Waterfront, 1939-1940. Here is a view from the seawall along the Willamette, looking north. Two figures lean on the wall, gazing across the river, but the rest is a simplified still life of objects: timbers, post, wheel, bridge and the towers of the Portland Public Market Building (later the Oregon Journal Building, demolished in 1969 for the construction of Waterfront Park). It has the bleakness of de Chirico, but maybe that’s also the bleakness of the Great Depression.

Louis Bunce, “Along the Waterfront”, 1939-1940. Oil on canvas. 34” x 30 ½” /Courtesy Hallie Ford Museum of Art

By the 1950s Bunce, in the spirit of the times, was making abstract expressionist style paintings. For me these are his most powerful works. Bunce combines freedom of form making with explorations of paint application—typical abstract expressionist attributes—with the feeling (not really “depiction”) of the land and sea of Oregon. Burned Land No. 2 relates directly to the series of massive wildfires known as the Tillamook Burn. Other titles such as Bay Composition No.2, Beach—Low Tide, Soft Rocks, Cliffside, or Lava Field, make it clear that Bunce was looking locally for (oh, I hate using this word, but…) “inspiration.”

Landscape-inspired-abstraction continued to be Bunce’s motif of choice through the end of his life, with a few side tracks into “pop”-inspired, paintings of enormous apples and roses, and a series of collages and serigraphs with strange furniture-like motifs (unfortunately not in this exhibition, but in a show of Bunce paper works that just closed at Hallie Ford).


Kid power: Fly Guy, Teen Musical

Staged!'s "1980's Teen Musical" and Oregon Children's Theatre's "Fly Guy: The Musical" bring some fresh young blood to Fertile Ground

When in doubt, check the kids out.

Portland’s 2017 Fertile Ground Festival, the city’s annual explosion of new plays, dances, solo shows, musicals, circus acts and other performances, ended Sunday after a 10-day run that coincided with an extraordinary stretch of contentious and possibly cataclysmic national upheaval, when attention was riveted on other things.

I’ve been thinking about all the shows I didn’t get to: probably a dozen I really wish I’d seen, but the big mess of life got in the way. Several held promise of speaking more or less directly to the issues of the day: Bonnie Ratner’s Blind, about race and neighborhood control; Eliza Jane Schneider’s Displaced, about world homelessness; Tim Blough’s Badge of Honor, about race and politics; Rich Rubin’s Left Hook, about urban renewal and disappearing black neighborhoods and the fight game. The bad thing is that I missed them. The good thing is that, given Fertile Ground’s nature as a trial lab and launching pad for new works, they might pop up again.

So what did I get to in the festival’s final weekend? Two kids’ shows: the premiere production of Fly Guy: The Musical at Oregon Children’s Theatre, and if we can stretch the definition of “kids” just a little bit, the staged reading/singing of Staged!’s work-in-progress 1980’s Teen Musical.


Riverside Chamber Symphony preview: River lullaby and seasonal abstracts

Community orchestra premieres new works by Oregon composers influenced by Oregon seasons and North American indigenous cultures


Editor’s note: Part of this preview originally appeared last month, when Rall’s piece was scheduled to be performed at the Riverside Chamber Symphony’s December concert at Wildish Theatre. That performance was rescheduled due to weather, so we’re reposting it now, and with additional news: The RCS will perform another nature-influenced work by another  member of the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance’s Oregon Composers Forum, Martin Quiroga, Jr. at its March concert. More information on that piece follows.

Oregon composer Justin Ralls has dedicated his newly composed chamber orchestral work, Water is Life, to the Standing Rock Lakota, who are engaged in an on-going effort to protect the tribe’s sacred lands and water supply from possible contamination by spills from an oil pipeline now under construction near their reservation.

Water is Life was inspired by the same values and indigenous American traditions as those expressed at Standing Rock. The new one-movement, 10-minute “river lullabye,” as conductor Philip Bayles calls it, receives its world premiere on February 3 by the Eugene/Springfield-based Riverside Chamber Symphony.

Riverside Chamber Symphony, conducted by Philip Bayles. Photo: Philip Bayles.

“It is an incredibly personal work,” Ralls says, “created from a spirit of healing, resilience, and solidarity” with the Lakota, who have been at the forefront of his thoughts since their Dakota Access Pipeline efforts began.


Orchestra Becomes Radicalized review: Instruments of resistance

By weaving diverse voices into cohesive musical collaboration, musical collective models artistic opposition to oppression


As long as there is oppression, there are resisting voices singing out, instruments played in fervor, and messages transmitted in many different ways. With the upwelling of resistance to our current conservative political climate, how will artists step up to express their own resistance? What would that music sound like? What form would it take? Which genres would step up to the plate the most? In this new resistance, who would these artists be?

I received an answer to those questions when I heard Orchestra Becomes Radicalized’s November 29 show at Portland’s Holocene. With some of the most outstanding musicians in Portland on stage, drawing performers from local experimental, jazz, and classical scenes, the nonet, led by John Niekrasz, played a fantastic set. Personnel included Holland Andrews on voice and electronics, Luke Wyland on keyboard, Brian Mumford on guitar and electronics, Sage Fisher on harp, voice, and electronics, Jonathan Sielaff on bass clarinet, and electronics, Madelyn Villano on violin, and electronics, Andrew Jones on double bass, Ben Kates on alto saxophone, and video contributed by Vanessa Renwick. John Niekrasz took the wheel, steering the ensemble’s performance through his drum set and composition.

Orchestra Becomes Radicalized performed at Portland’s Holocene.

The orchestra demonstrated a level of awareness that tends to escape experimental groups of this size. While each musician played off each other’s melodies and improvisations, they also demonstrated an adept and tactile ability to be part of a larger whole, structurally anchored by John Niekrasz on the drum set.

The overall effect of this single long composition was like being immersed in a musical ecosystem, with each performer occupying a specific niche. The music would ebb and flow, and change in its complexity each time a new soloist came to the fore. Eventually the orchestra’s music would melt into a space of silence or come to a crashing conclusion with only one player holding onto a single, quiet note to signal a new section. Sometimes new sections would begin at the end of a drum solo, the transition executed by Niekrasz.