Oregon ArtsWatch

 

Rennie Harris, moving pure

The hip-hop dance legend talks about his roots, black dance, and his group Puremovement's four shows this week at White Bird

By RACHAEL CARNES

According to Lorenzo “Rennie” Harris, the three laws of hip-hop culture are “innovation, individuality and creativity.”

“Hip hop comes from the word ‘hippie,’ which means to either open your eyes or re-open your eyes — to be aware,” Harris says.

Kickstarted in the South Bronx as early as ’72 — at jams in parks, schools, community centers and clubs — and led by DJ Clive “Kool Herc” Campbell, Afrika Bambaataa and Pete DJ Jones, the global phenomenon we’ve come to appreciate as hip hop has many progenitors, each adding his or her own original spin to graffiti, deejaying, b-boying and emceeing.

Harris is one of them.

Rennie Harris Puremovement’s “Lifted.” Photo courtesy Brian Mengini

Harris founded his dance company, Rennie Harris Puremovement, in 1992, and in ’96 I spent a week driving Harris and his entourage to outreach events around Seattle. Twenty years later, it’s fun to catch up with him by phone all the way from Japan, where he’s currently in artistic residence.

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Art among the plants: a lament

Across the globe, botanical gardens are luring crowds with sculpture. An artist asks: Is the art undermining the mission of the gardens?

By FRIDERIKE HEUER

What’s wrong with this picture?

Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, Coral Gables, Florida

“Nothing?” the astute observer might reply. “I see some pretty glass in beautiful surroundings. Say, don’t you like Chihuly?”

Let’s try again: What’s wrong with this picture?

San Diego Botanic Garden, Encinitas, California

“A version of ‘Is that art, or just something that got tossed in the flower bed’?” the discerning viewer wonders. “Give me some context!”

Context it shall be: Have you set foot into a botanic garden lately? Not a sculpture park, not a designated area for environmental or land art, not a private or semi-private garden, but a botanical garden? I dare you to find one that has not been invaded – or graced, depending on perspective – by frequent, ever-changing sculpture shows. Just try to google “Botanic Garden” and you’ll find a list of famous sculptors for the big ones and less familiar names for all the others, advertised as their new visitor attractions. The gamut runs from celebrated Segals to melancholic simians.

San Diego Botanic Garden, Encinitas, California

Atlanta, New York, Denver, Tuscon, Phoenix, to name just a few botanic gardens, have succumbed to the “Wow” factor. As Sabina Carr, Atlanta Botanical Garden’s vice president for marketing, succinctly put it: “Wow, you have to see this.” Ever-changing attractions are aimed at getting people to attend on a recurrent basis.

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Kellen Chasuk: Inventiveness triumphs over gloom

Kellen Chasuk's lively exhibition at Stephanie Chalfas Projects is full of the still lifes of our time

By PAUL MAZIAR

One of my favorite things about art-making, in any medium, is that the initial subject matter can be totally incidental—without prescribed meaning whatsoever—and yet deeper implications are invariably discovered, by both the artist and whomever is there to experience the thing they’ve made. I love the indeterminacy that creativity can entertain, and the comfort to be found in not knowing—for both artist and viewer.

Taking a couple of separate walks through Plastic Flowers, the new exhibition of Kellen Chasuk’s paintings at Stephanie Chefas Projects through January 27, I find an unmistakable joy in Chasuk’s paintings, an inventiveness. Taken as a whole, the show exemplifies the protean aspects of meaning and experience in contemporary life—related to joy, sorrow, boredom, and anxiety for anyone alive today in these confounding times—and it entertains the concerns and tropes of artists and art history. The readily accessible, familiar passions seen in her tableaus—living, growing things—the bright hues and lighthearted forms, the playful modelling of Kellen’s paint, all of these belie a story of gloom. That’s not quite it—a kind of story opens up, shown in its variation, like life. Here, it’s a relatable gloom, for sure, and given the year we just had, such a lively exhibition is also a triumph.

Elements of Kellen Chasuk’s “Plastic Flowers” exhibition at Stephanie Chefas Projects, through January 27, 2018

Chasuk’s work is palatable in its simplicity and strangeness. You have, on the one hand, all these vivid, humorous interior (i.e., indoors) scenes that show the simplicity of playing around with paint and the rendering of space and form; and on the other, these personal or metaphysical (i.e. the person’s inner life) aspects that are gently implied by the very same means. It’s interesting to me the way that these things become interchangeable, with the possibility of even more depth of meaning through the familiar, simplified forms devoid of pretension, and in many cases even verity.

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‘The Last Hot Lick’: American quirk

Filmmaker Mahalia Cohen reached back to her Portland roots to make a film based on the life of Portland musician and former Hot Lick Jaime Leopold

by MATTHEW ANDREWS

Award-winning director Mahalia Cohen developed The Last Hot Lick while trying to fund another film she had written. “In 2015, for awhile I’d been trying to get a movie made, get funding,” the Portland-born, New York-based filmmaker said about Thinner Than Water. (You can watch the charming visual study she shot for it in Oregon right here.) “Money comes and goes and falls through, so I decided I just wanted to make something and thought about what I could make that would be accessible. I came up with three options, and working with Jaime was one of ‘em.”

“Jaime” is Jaime Leopold: star of The Last Hot Lick, original bass player for cult crossover band Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks, and for the last several years the primary singer-songwriter behind the local “Folk / Country / Acid Memory” band Jaime Leopold and the Short Stories. Cohen reached back to her Portland roots to make The Last Hot Lick, screening Saturday in the Portland Art Museum’s Whitsell Auditorium as part of Reel Music 35, the Northwest Film Center’s annual celebration of music in film.

Leopold, right, with Short Stories.

Leopold plays Jack Willits, a 60-something singer-storyteller playing “a never-ending tour of small gigs in Eastern Oregon,” which sounds pretty great to me and just about right for the founder of Portland’s favorite “American QuirkTM” band. Short Stories vocalist Jennifer Smieja evokes The Muse as a mystery woman Willits puts his hopes in, and both will perform at the screening. Director Cohen will be in attendance to talk about her film with Smieja and Leopold, whom she’s known since childhood.

Mahalia Cohen: Natural Filmmaker

Cohen got her start as a filmmaker right here, not just in Portland but at NWFC. “I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker from a very early age,” she recalls. “I started saying I wanted to be a director when I was about 10, and I took my first classes at Northwest Film Center when I was 13.”

In 1998 Cohen left Portland for New York City and film school. “I loved the nature and the landscape in Oregon growing up, but had a real feeling that I wanted to get away, go to New York, someplace bigger,” she remembers. “[Oregon] became embedded in my imagination and my artistic life; even though I’ve lived away half my life, it’s grown in importance. It’s always been there. It’s in my brain.” One of the various scripts she has in development takes place in ‘90s Portland, although Cohen notes that it “couldn’t be shot in Portland anymore, [because] the Portland of the ‘90s doesn’t exist anymore.”

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Lil Buck and Jon Boogz: ‘Love Heals All Wounds’

Yes, jookin is as elemental as earth, air, water and fire

By ELIZABETH WHELAN

I remember scrolling mindlessly through Facebook about a year ago when I first came across Lil Buck. Flying past a fair share of one-minute recipe videos, the latest pictures of those people I used to know, and my daily dose of Facebook politics, Lil Buck popped up, swirling around my screen to a piano ballad. The short video finished. Wait. What? Rewind. Retwatch.

Lil Buck has that effect…he makes you stop in your tracks and look closer, questioning if what you’re seeing is possible. There’s just something about the way he floats through space with his limbs unfolding like calligraphy on a crisp white page that leaves you entranced. After maybe 30 seconds of watching him dance, I was heading down the cyber-world rabbit hole sifting through videos and reading interviews. That same virtual trail led me to find his partner in dance, Jon Boogz, and I proceeded to follow the pair for the past year, completely mesmerized by their capability to capture the essence of life, hardship and unwavering hope through their artistry in movement.

In a stunning performance this past Friday at the Newmark Theatre, Buck and Boogz presented their work Love Heals All Wounds. Following suit to their theme of social justice works, the show began with a cold, hard look at where we are at today in America. Last year, the duo created a dance film entitled The Color of Reality, in which they paired with body paint artist Alexa Meade to address gun violence and police brutality in our country (if you haven’t seen it yet, watch it HERE). The chilling subject reappears in Love Heals All Wounds, in which Boogz and Buck demonstrated a hauntingly beautiful dedication to the victims of racial injustice. They’ve got a knack for entwining life and art, making it clear that there lies no distinction from one to the next.

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Angelo Xiang Yu & Andrew Hsu review: Brahms’s indiscretions

Hit Chamber Music Northwest duo deliver soul-warming performance of the German master’s heartfelt works for violin and piano

by JEFF WINSLOW

Johannes Brahms and his music both have forbidding reputations. Yet on his rambles around 19th century Vienna, the great Romantic composer would give away candy to children – who would keep on the lookout for “Papa Brahms.” And he wrote two of the sweetest, most amiable violin and piano sonatas you could ever hope to hear, plus a third bursting with passion. Brahms may have realized how much he let his guard down writing them; in a letter to a close friend he called the first sonata “my latest indiscretion.”

Andrew Hsu and Angelo Xiang Yu performed at Portland’s Old Church concert Hall. Photo: Kimmie Fadem.

The last Sunday in October, that most amiable of duos, international prize-winning violinist Angelo Xiang Yu and rising star pianist Andrew Hsu, offered up all three plus a youthful scherzo as part of Chamber Music Northwest’s 2017-2018 season. CMNW artistic director David Shifrin tried to let on that the pair were, unbeknownst to him, only joking when they suggested the all-Brahms program as an encore for their standout performance at CMNW’s 2016 summer festival. Maybe so, but the full house at the Old Church in Portland was obviously glad he took them seriously. Yu and Hsu gave us an afternoon of serious beauty, holding at bay all thoughts of upcoming Halloween spooks. It might have been transcendent, but for one consistent problem.

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Oregon Symphony reviews: immigrant songs

Fall concerts include a world premiere theatrical commission and 20th century works by immigrant American composers

by MATTHEW ANDREWS

An orchestra handles like a steamship, where a jazz band (even a big one) handles like a motorboat, and genre-crossing tends to breed monsters as much as angels. What kind of hybrid might the Oregon Symphony Orchestra produce in performing George Gershwin’s jazz-meets-classical  Rhapsody in Blue alongside Arnold Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto and a newly commissioned play-with-orchestra last November?

As it turned out, soloist Kirill Gerstein’s clever two-concerto gambit smoothly navigated the tricky course, chiefly by virtue of his own witty and informed virtuosity (he actually began his career as a jazz pianist). Throughout Rhapsody in Blue, he made a point of emphasizing the most avant-garde, “outside” sounding notes, as if to say “speaking of atonality, you ever notice how edgy this note is?” I’d heard my share of the Rhapsody already this year, but Gerstein’s performance made it fresh for me. Any decent concert pianist can finger their way through the tricky bits, and any hack can hammer out those iconically familiar themes, but it takes a special artist to improvise something completely new in the middle of a revered classic. Gerstein’s choice to solo in an especially outré and swinging way, stretching surreal blues licks all around a steady left hand groove, sounded quite legitimately like the sort of thing I’d expect to hear in one of the old-fashioned jazz clubs that Portland keeps closing. It’s the sort of musical witticism and daring that makes veteran jazz audiences chuckle knowingly over their martinis. I’m not sure how well it went over with the symphony crowd, but I loved it.

Gerstein, Kalmar and the orchestra delivered dynamite Gershwin and Schoenberg. Photo: Leah Nash.

My only real complaint is the usual one: Rhapsody in Blue, again? Gershwin composed his perfectly lovely (and considerably more classical) Concerto in F the following year, and I’d rather have heard that one for the first time than Rhapsody in Blue for the hundredth. To be perfectly frank, at this point Ellington’s version is about all we really need.

Where Gerstein brought out Gershwin’s modernity, he brought out what jazziness he could find latent in the Schoenberg. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what he was doing to make it sound so much more immediate and clubby than, say, Pierre Boulez’s excellent recording with Mitsuko Uchida (or his earlier one with Daniel Barenboim). I dunno, maybe just putting these two on the same program was enough to prime my ear for the connections. Conductor Carlos Kalmar certainly reinforced the relationship in the audience’s mind, joking about Gershwin and Schoenberg’s famous tennis partnership in 1930s Hollywood and reminding us of Gershwin’s early connections to the European avant-garde.

Kalmar also joked, when explaining the unorthodox program order, that we should not leave the premises “after the Schoenberg, nor before the Schoenberg, nor during the Schoenberg.” It’s a pretty audacious move putting Big Bad Schoenberg on any program, and although the OSO and their audience are pretty open minded, the Godfather of Horror Music ranks pretty high on the list of Forbidden Composers. The presence of Gershwin—and the stirring, heartfelt performance of the Prokofiev concert opener—smoothed all that over, recontextualized the music as different sides of a story about American immigrants, and made it all considerably more palatable. Hell, I like Schoenberg a lot and this was probably my favorite live performance of his music to date.

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