Bob Hicks

 

ArtsWatch Weekly: Sunny days

Punched-up Mahler, the Yo Yo Ma of ukulele, the dubious stand of "Virginia Woolf," Vanport tales, tap dance legends, and more

ArtsWatch World Headquarters has moved temporarily to the front porch, where the sun is shining and the computer is juiced up and the cat is staring down the squirrel and the squirrel is chattering back and the crows are cawing the play-by-play. With the temperature heading for a balmy 82, visions of summer festivals are dancing in our heads. The Oregon Bach Festival. Chamber Music Northwest. The Astoria Music Festival. The Britt Festivals. The (continuing) Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and more.

Emil Orlik, portrait of Gustav Mahler, drypoint on vellum, 11.5 x 7.9 inches, 1902; Galerie Bessenge/Wikimedia Commons

Not that it’s been all sunshine and lollipops in Portland, even with Monday’s surprise impersonation of a mid-August day. In the evening as we drove toward Schnitzer Hall for the final performance of the Oregon Symphony’s final classical concert of the season, Mahler’s still-astonishing Symphony No. 2, a barricade of fire trucks and police cars just north of Burnside Street rerouted us several blocks: a massive power outage had hit a long swath of downtown, and among many other disruptions, nearly all the traffic lights were out. Fortunately the Schnitzer kept its power (the nearby Portland Art Museum didn’t, and was forced to close on Tuesday while repairs were being done), and the orchestra proceeded to pretty much blow the roof off the joint. Conductor Carlos Kalmar, over roughly eighty muscular minutes, punched up the big moments, and with large choir, several soloists, a bevy of brass, and more kettle drums than you could shake a passel of sticks at, there were a lot of big moments to punch up. Mahler’s swaggering masterwork, which premiered in 1895, is among other things a grand mythical and actual counterpoint of violently competing forces, and it was his genius (a genius that the Oregon Symphony’s leader and musicians convincingly conveyed) to somehow bring those competing forces into a united and coherent whole. The whole thing reminded me at times of our current deep cultural/political divide, which threatens never to reunite, and got me to wondering, half-idly: Might Mahler be available for office in 2020?

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Words of loss, words of love

Portland Playhouse's "The Language Archive" deftly dives into the mysteries of language and the subtexts of love

As the guttersnipe turned singing elocutionist Eliza Doolittle put it, “Words! Words! Words! I’m so sick of words!” And as the playwright Julia Cho responds in her nimble, playful, sometimes deeply touching drama The Language Archive, “What is language but an act of faith?”

It must be an act of faith – and as Eliza notes, a frustrating one at that – because, as every writer and every would-be lover knows, words fail us. Constantly. They fail us almost without fail. Words attempt to describe the indescribable, and because it’s indescribable, they can only rudely approximate that thought, that feeling, that thing or chain of events that the speaker is trying to communicate. The heart, the soul, the nub of the thing is always beyond language. And yet the beauty of language is that as it bungles things, it also creates a new reality, a metaphorical parallel universe that becomes the repository of the constantly evolving story of what it means to be that particular kind of social animal we call human. Language is a beautiful map, and only through it can we explain ourselves, as imperfect and misleading as our explanations may be. Without words we are nothing. With words, we are an aspiring mess.

Greg Watanabe, lost in the language of facts. Photo: Brud Giles

Nobody in The Language Archive, which is getting a sweet and crisp and revealingly fragile production directed by Adriana Baer for Portland Playhouse, is more of an aspiring mess than George (Greg Watanabe), a brilliant linguist who studies the world’s lost and disappearing languages – those codes of communication and behavior that define an entire culture and so, in disappearing, represent the catastrophic loss of an entire way of life. What is it about each language that is indefinable, incapable of direct translation, understood fully only by those who speak it, and live it, and therefore know it before it becomes words?

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ArtsWatch Weekly: Really big show

Going big: Perséphone with puppets, an American in Paris, Mahler's grand sweep, the sounds of Cuba and Lou Harrison

At the Portland Showtime Bistro, audiences like things well-done, but often served small to medium. We enjoy our intimacy, from compact ensembles like Portland Baroque Orchestra and FearNoMusic to closeup theater spaces like CoHo, the Back Door, the Ellyn Bye Studio, Shoebox, and Shaking the Tree. Summer’s coming, and with it, once again, that sprawling celebration of good things in small packages, the Chamber Music Northwest summer festival (with a welcome emphasis this year on women composers).

But sometimes you want the whole darned smorgasbord, and only big will do. Portland can provide that, too, and lately it’s been doing so … well, big-time.

Big night on the town: Portland Opera’s “La Bohème.” Photo: Cory Weaver.

Portland Opera’s just completed its grand-scale production of Puccini’s overflowing romantic potboiler La Bohème (Terry Ross reviewed it for ArtsWatch here) and is saddling up for a June musical-theater adventure in giant-windmill territory with Man of La Mancha (featuring Grimm star Reggie Lee as one of the best sidekicks in history, Sancho Panza).

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ArtsWatch Weekly: Great Graham

Revisiting Martha Graham's potent power of the past; a Wanderlust Mother's Day; Michael Curry's "Perséphone" with the Symphony; Brett Campbell's music picks

Martha Graham created her legendary American modern dance company in 1926, and it’s difficult to imagine, more than 90 years later, just how earth-shattering her early works must have seemed. Graham carved legends out of time and space: intense, pristine, pared to the bone. She created a hyper-expressionist, essentially American style of dance, built on the works of Denishawn and other pioneers but reimagined in the movement possibilities and theatrical impulses of her own body.

She collaborated with many of the great composers and visual artists of her time, which was long and artistically fertile: born in 1894, she created her final dance in 1990, the year before she died at age 96. Her bold, emphatic approach to dance can seem overstated to contemporary audiences. Yet it carries the intensity and hyper-expressionism of the great silent movies, and if you just give it a chance, something of the pure rawness of her glory years comes through, as if it were new all over again.

Martha Graham in “Dark Meadow,” 1946. Reproduced with permission of Martha Graham Resources, a division of The Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance, www.marthagraham.org. Library of Congress.

No company built by a daringly original dancemaker – not Graham’s, or Balanchine’s, or Alvin Ailey’s, or José Limón’s – can survive on memories of its founder alone, and it can be a tricky business to balance the tradition of what was once radical with the need to remain in the contemporary swim of things. The Graham company, under current artistic director Janet Eilber, mixes things up boldly. When the company performs Wednesday evening in Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall as part of the White Bird dance season the program will include works by a couple of high-profile contemporary dancemakers: the Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato, who now runs the Berlin State Ballet, and the Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. But the core of the program will be two of Graham’s own works, 1948’s Diversion of Angels and Dark Meadow Suite, a distillation of an ambitious 1946 work that ran 50 minutes in its original form (the suite is much shorter).

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ArtsWatch Weekly: bohemians & other artists

"La Bohème" at the opera, George Johanson & other gallery shows, Brett Campbell's music picks, Miss Julie and Satchmo onstage

Here they come again, those tragic bohemians. Rodolfo with his poems. Marcello with his paintings. Musetta with her songs. Mimi with her consumption. All of them as poor as church mice. Fortunately they can also sing like angels, or like the devil himself, who seems to have it in for them. It’s been eight years since Portland Opera last produced La Bohème, Puccini’s 1896 grand musical potboiler (Toscanini conducted the world premiere in Turin), which is one of opera’s greatest weepers and most enduring hits. Now Portland Opera’s brought it back again, beginning on Friday at Keller Auditorium and continuing for three more performances through May 13. It’ll feature Vanessa Isiguen as poor doomed Mimi, and the young Italian tenor Giordano Lucá, in his American debut, as Rodolfo. Let the singing, and the dying, begin.

Vanessa Issiguen, Mimi in Portland Opera’s “La Boheme,” performing in the opera’s Big Night special in April. Photo: Cory Weaver

 


 

THE MAY FIRST THURSDAY ART GALLERY OPENINGS are this week, and one of the shows we’re looking forward to is at Augen, where George Johanson has an exhibition of recent paintings going up. If we gave artists the sort of titles we used to hand out, Johanson would be a Portland Old Master: Born in Seattle in 1928, he came to Portland in 1946 to attend the old Museum Art School (now Pacific Northwest College of Art), and with some breaks in New York, London, and Mexico he’s mostly been here ever since.

George Johanson, “Studio with Bunce Mask,” 2016, acrylic and oil on canvas , 40 x 60 inches.

Adept as a printmaker and a painter, he’s chronicled pretty much everything from the city’s rivers to its music to his own studio to other artists (in his 2002 book of quick portraits Equivalents: Portraits of 80 Oregon Artists) to Mt. St. Helens blowing its stack, often with a rabbit or a cat streaking across the image. As he approaches 90 he seems as active and creative as ever. His show opens Thursday and he’ll speak at the gallery at noon Saturday, May 13.

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Among the many openings and continuing gallery shows, a few other likely bets:

Yoonhee Choi and Roya Motamedi at Blackfish. Choi’s installation Sift uses bright colors and recycled plastic cups, straight pins, and the like to contemplate consumption and detritus. Motamedi’s Aptitude of Kindness includes collages of fabric and birch on paper.

James Allen’s Northwest Bound at Russo Lee. Allen “excavates” books in search of history and image – in this show, including a large altered set of bound newspapers from the old Oregon Journal in May 1914. Also: Michelle Ramin’s takes on tourists exploring architectural ruins; Amory Abbott’s charcoal drawings.

Mar Goman and Dayna J Collins at Guardino. Goman’s highly crafted, outsidery images (she calls it “curious art”) have a folk art feel and are made from just about anything she can get her hands on. Collins paints abstract images emerging from the waterlines of rivers and ocean.

Alex Lilly’s Razor Blade Rain at Michael Parsons Fine Art. May Day turned into a pitched battle in downtown Portland, and that’s an extension of what Lilly’s vivid and disturbing paintings are about. This new show is based on drawings and photographs he made while watching earlier Portland protests.

Margaret Lindburg’s Resolution at Karin Clarke Gallery. The veteran Salem artist has a new show of paintings at Clarke’s gallery in Eugene, and Randi Bjornstad has this interesting profile of Lindburg in Eugene Review.

Alex Lilly, “Riot Cops – 3rd and SW Madison,” 2017, oil on composite block, 6 x 6 inches, Michael Parsons Fine Art.

 


 

BRETT CAMPBELL’S MUSIC PICKS OF THE WEEK:

 

The four-time Grammy-winning ensemble, one of the top performers of contemporary American classical music, joins the quirky indie folk singer/songwriter (real name Will Oldham) in his own songs, plus Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang’s learn to fly and Frederic Rzewski’s fierce 1971 American classic Coming Together, which sets a heart-rending text by an inmate killed in the Attica prison uprising. The centerpiece, Murder Ballades, is a fascinating mashup of ancient English/Appalachian folk tunes like “Pretty Polly” along with original music inspired by them, all put together by Bryce Dessner, best known to rock music fans as the guitarist in The National but recently emerging as a formidable contemporary classical composer with music for Kronos Quartet and others. Wednesday, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.
Why, when performers today sing the so-called “American Songbook,” do they seem to stop in about the late 1950s — just as they did when those numbers were actually new? It’s not like they stopped making musicals then. Eugene singer and a cappella music titan Evynne Hollens’s project has been bringing the hits from today’s musical theater — including the hottest new Broadways shows like Hamilton, Waitress, Kinky Boots, School of Rock, and more – to the Shedd and beyond for three years. Performers include professionals from LA & Portland as well as Eugene talent, including a multi-racial chorus of local UO & high school students. Thursday, The Shedd, Eugene.
A multiple winner of all the jazz awards on her instrument, the Israeli clarinetist fell so hard for Brazil and its music that she learned Portuguese, formed her own band with Brazilian musicians, and made several albums of both traditional and original music in Brazilian styles. Stay tuned for Angela Allen’s preview of this PDXJazz show. Thursday, The Old Church.
Maybe the leading classic jazz pianist brings back his wonderful trio with Kenny Washington and Peter Washington celebrating their 20th anniversary. Charlap has worked with Wynton Marsalis, Tony Bennett and so many more of jazz and pop’s finest. “The Bill Charlap Trio is a chamber group of a quality customarily found only in equally long-lived classical ensembles,” wrote eminent jazz journalist Doug Ramsey upon their last appearance in Portland. “In their years together, pianist Charlap, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington have achieved singleness of purpose and unity of thought to a degree rare in any musical idiom.”
Friday, The Shedd, Eugene.
The acclaimed Vancouver, B.C.-based men’s choir, now led by Portland’s own Erick Lichte (a co-founder of the terrific American choir Cantus), sings a Baltic-oriented program of some of the hottest choral composers from one of the coldest areas on earth, including Estonian composer Veljo Tormis, Finland’s Jaako Mantyjarvi, Latvia’s Eriks Esenvalds, and American and Canadian composers, including Leonard Cohen. Read Bruce Browne’s ArtsWatch previewFriday, First United Methodist Church, 1838 S.W. Jefferson St.
For its 10th anniversary concert, the superb women’s vocal ensemble briefly welcomes back co-founder Tuesday Rupp, but also looks forward by commissioning world premiere performances of new music by Oregon composers John Vergin, Andrea Reinkemeyer and Robert Lockwood, to go with 20th and 21st century music by Kay Rhie, Ivan Moody, and Gustav Holst, plus a Renaissance classic by Perotin.
Friday, St. Mary’s Cathedral, 1716 N.W. Davis, Portland and Sunday, Proto-Cathedral of St. James, 218 W 12th Street, Vancouver.

Everybody knows The Four Seasons, but Italy’s greatest Baroque composer, Antonio Vivaldi, wrote literally hundreds more concertos than just that quartet of them for violin, and so did his Italian contemporaries. Violin virtuosa Monica Huggett leads her band in Vivaldi concertos for lute, bassoon, and more, along with concerti by Pergolesi (best known for his Stabat Mater) and Giovanni Mossi.
Portland Baroque Orchestra, Friday & Saturday, First Baptist Church, and Sunday, Kaul Auditorium, Reed College.
New York composer Debra Kaye’s Ikarus Among the Stars was commissioned in memory of former PYP musician Benjamin Yaphet Klatchko by PYP and his parents. Based on Klatchko’s own melodies, Kaye’s 16-minute electro-acoustic composition takes its shape from the Ikarus and Daedalus myth about the boy who flew too close to the sun and plunged to his death in the sea. In this world premiere, clips of Klatchko’s music are woven into the finished composition, with the orchestra sometimes imitating, sometimes accompanying, and at one point resting while a recording of him singing alone plays. The concert also features Dvorak’s popular Symphony No. 8 and the excellent youth orchestra’s concerto competition winner, Annie Zhang, performing Elgar’s Cello Concerto.
Sunday, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 1037 SW Broadway.
The Portland new music ensemble’s Young Composers Project, which connects budding composers ages 10-18 with professional musicians to play their music, is one of Oregon’s most valuable musical education ventures. The only program of its kind in the country brings students from all over the United States to work with director Jeff Payne and five professional musicians in a yearlong series of workshops. Over the course of nine months, the young composers complete a piece for the ensemble which includes clarinet, violin, cello, percussion and piano. You might be surprised at how accomplished and appealing many of them can sound. Sunday, Eliot Chapel at Reed College.

 

CURTAINS UP: NEW ONSTAGE

Satchmo at the Waldorf. Salim Sanchez stars as the great Louis Armstrong in the Oregon premiere of Terry Teachout’s drama. Opens Thursday, through May 27 at Triangle Productions.

Miss Julie. Samantha Van Der Merwe directs Craig Lucas’s adaptation of Strindberg’s taut and explosive drama at Shaking the Tree, with Beth Thompson as Julie, Matthew Kerrigan as Jean, and Kelly Godell as Kristine. Friday through June 3.

Pinkalicious. Oregon Children’s Theatre brings back its musical hit about a girl who seems to have eaten too many pink cupcakes. Well, haven’t we all? Saturday through June 4, Newmark Theatre.

The Martha Graham Company. The modern exemplars of the legendary American modernist choreographer come to Schnitzer Hall next Tuesday, May 10, in the White Bird series.

“Miss Julie” in rehearsal at Shaking the Tree. Photo: Megan Nanna

 

 


 

ArtsWatch links

 

Gerald Clayton, family man. Angela Allen talks with jazz pianist Clayton, who plays The Old Church on Wednesday, and is carving his own place among a family of jazz bluebloods.

Mary’s Wedding: a retro refuge. A.L. Adams reviews this Canadian romance, a “refuge from the tempests of modern complication,” at Portland Center Stage.

Fire and Ice: accessible adventure. Brett Campbell talks with three woman composers (Stacy Philipps, Jennifer Wright, Lisa Ann Marsh) who are shaking up Portland’s music scene. “We’re all up for anything,” Wright says. “We found each other because we wanted to do things that don’t look like the traditional thing.”

Medea brings new meaning to catharsis. A.L.Adams reviews Imago Theatre’s fresh take on the ancient Greek classic, whose precarious balances are measured on a constantly tilting stage.

Cascadia Composers: lights, poetry, music. Composer Matthew Andrews takes readers inside the works of some recent contemporary concerts.

Talented. But are they universal? Hailey Bachrach reviews the world premiere of Yussef El Guindi’s The Talented Ones at Artists Repertory Theatre.

Pop goes the Oregon Symphony. Claire Sykes looks at all that “other” programming on the symphony season. Pops concerts? They’re not Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops anymore.

It’s another busy week on Portland stages, so let’s just jump into the thicket:

Oye Oyá at Milagro. With a book by Rebecca Martinez based on a treatment by Rodolfo Ortega, who also wrote the music and lyrics, the world premiere of Milagro’s new Spanish-language musical play has good bloodlines. Estafanía Fadul directs this tale about a boat, a storm, and the beaches of Cuba, based loosely on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Thursday through May 27.

“Oye Oyá” at Milagro: a world premiere. Photo: Russell J Young

Contact Dance Film Festival. The Northwest Film Center and BodyVox collaborate on this cinematic exploration of the world of dance, with screenings at both locations. Thursday-Saturday.

The Talented Ones at Artists Rep. The world premiere of a dark comedy by Yussef El Guindi, whose last show in town, Portland Center Stage’s co-premiere of Threesome, went on to a successful Off-Broadway run. Saturday through May 21.

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Susan Seubert’s days of the dead

The Portland photographer's "Not a Day Goes By" at Froelick Gallery opens a door to thinking about suicide and its roots

They are masks, topographies, transparencies, transient spirits floating between being and nothingness, human faces shrouded in veils of plastic like a second skin. Composed and startling in their alabaster absences, they are images of the dead. And not just any dead, but the self-chosen dead. “If you Google ‘asphyxiation’,” the Portland photographer Susan Seubert notes with a hint of bemusement, “it’s not something you want to see.”

Nevertheless, she did. What she discovered, among other things, is that asphyxiation is the number one method of suicide in the West: cheap, relatively easy, relatively unmessy. And so it became the focus of her most recent show, Not a Day Goes By, which is running through May at Portland’s Froelick Gallery. Selections from it also will travel to the global showcase of the Venice Biennale in mid-May, a prestigious career boost: She’ll be in the collateral exhibition Personal Structures at the Palazzo Bembo, and by coincidence, she says, in the same space Oregon painter James Lavadour had in the 2013 Biennale, “a beautiful, big, nice space that’s got window light.”

Susan Seubert, “Asphyxiation #8,” digital photographic print on aluminum, 40 x 30 inches, 2017. Edition of 10

Death in Venice. Death in Portland. Death in the Arctic, in the Antarctic, on the high seas. Death wishes, death trauma, inevitable death. Death glorified, sanitized, hidden away. Death by one’s own hands. Seubert’s exhibit on a subject most people don’t like to think about includes two series: Asphyxiation, a grouping of 40 x 30 inch images printed on aluminum, and Method of, another series of smaller prints, 12 x 12 inches each, depicting various methods of taking one’s own life. They are passionate and controlled and free of irony. The larger images in particular are unsettling and revealing. These ghostly images of faces misshapen by clinging bags of clear plastic are confrontational, and yet they’re not. The photographs are beautiful, simple, gorgeous in a way that seems strangely moving and serene, like Pietàs of the underworld.

It’s this beauty, I think, that makes the Asphyxiation photographs so remarkable and close to heartbreaking. They are overt expressions of a mute muddle of anger, sorrow, confusion, and tears that have been purified into single images that are both stark and overflowing with intimation. Who are these people? Who were they? How did they get here? Why?

Seubert is a highly respected veteran fine art photographer who also has a successful career as a photojournalist, often traveling the world on assignment for National Geographic and other magazines. It’s her global perspective, partly, that put her in the frame of mind to dive into the meanings and metaphors of suicide. “It came from a very dark moment in my life,” she says. “It started last July. I’d just got back from somewhere … North Pole, South Pole …” she stops for a moment to laugh. “I’ve been so many places for my work I lose track.”

It was also about the time the national presidential race was beginning to tighten up, and she found herself both angry and despondent about it. “I was very depressed about a lot of things, but one was how far backward we’d gone culturally. I thought we’d moved past this as a human race. I found myself deeply saddened by that. … the rise of Trump and this utter disdain for restraint.”

Susan Seubert, “Asphyxiation #1,” digital pigment photographic print on aluminum, 40 x 30 inches, 2017. Edition of 10.

And so the photographs have a political impulse. But their intimations run broader, and deeper, than mere electoral issues or personalities, unsettling as those may be. The images of suicide suggest as well the willingness, almost the compulsion, of contemporary humans to commodify and destroy the larger world that keeps them alive, evidences of which Seubert has witnessed in her travels to the far reaches of the globe. “All of the dead animals I’ve seen, all the trash, up in the Arctic,” she says. “Mainly plastic. Plastic, plastic, everywhere. No matter where I go on the planet, it’s everywhere. Most of it travels on the oceans. And it does not decompose. It breaks down into smaller and smaller bits.” She’s seen whales entangled in fishing nets, and animals – like sea lions – growing in grotesque deformities around plastic six-pack rings that trap and squeeze them: “They’re just bulging.” The stubborn continuation of practices that imperil crucial environmental balances, and the push to strip away what safeguards exist, suggest a kind of human death wish, or at the least a willful denial that actions can have lethal consequences.

Looking at the Asphyxiation portraits up close got me to thinking of other artistic responses to death in this culture that is both obsessed by and, well, deathly afraid of it. I thought in particular of the exhibition Securing the Shadow: Posthumous Portraiture in America, which I saw a few months ago at the American Folk Art Museum in Manhattan, and which seemed almost the inverse of Seubert’s Not a day Goes By ­– not a contemplation of death as a reaction against life, but a celebration of life in spite of death. The paintings in Securing the Shadow, mostly from the early and middle 19th century and mostly made by naïve artists (there were also many postmortem “mourning portrait” daguerreotypes, the old technology giving way to a new and cheaper one), tended to be vividly colorful, unlike Seubert’s palette of cool receding whites and blacks and grays. Looking at them I had the clear sense that they were attempts to keep the dead alive, at least in memory, not as faded beings of sorrow but as vibrant everyday presences. If they were children, as so many were, they seemed active; ready to play. With childhood mortality so high, a relatively prosperous family might have three or four of these posthumous portraits on the wall, along with three or four or more surviving children: everyone together, dead and alive. Many of the paintings, if you strip away their circumstances, seem cheerful: bright pieces of Americana that you might hang on your wall next to a folk art weathervane or a painted wooden flag.

Death for sale: Items in the shop from the “Securing the Shadow” exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum.

The deaths addressed in Not a Day Goes By are different, because they are not deaths of disease or age or accident or even war but deliberate deaths, chosen by those who carry them out on themselves. Yet the act of suicide is both a response to and a negation of the world outside the self, and so what that world does and how it treats the matter of life and death are inevitably pieces of the process. And we are living in a carnival of death. As it happens, I saw Seubert’s show on the day the United States dropped “the mother of all non-nuclear bombs” on Afghanistan, a country that has been known as “the graveyard of empires” since long before American involvement in it. It was also three days before Easter, the day that much of the world celebrates the miraculous rising from the dead of a man-god. And it was scant days before, oh, let’s see: a triple slaying in Fresno by an apparent religious extremist; a “lost” U.S. aircraft carrier heading for a confrontation with a nuke-threatening North Korean despot except it turns out it wasn’t; and the apparent suicide in his jail cell of a onetime NFL football star convicted of murdering a friend after a tiff in a bar. Death is in the air, and it seems that much of the world is in love with it, even if it sometimes seems the love that dare not speak its name. As the old song goes: everybody wants to get to Heaven, nobody wants to die.

Leonardo Alenza, “Satire of the Romantic Suicide,” ca. 1839, oil on canvas, 14.4 x 11.2 inches, Museo Romantico, Madrid

Death, of course, is a natural part of life and regeneration. But violent death – by war or catastrophe or murder or suicide – tends to fascinate us. Maybe it’s the idea of the natural order being accelerated, or interrupted; of some violation in the ordinary progression of things, and wondering, considering the blunt force of private trauma and human history, whether the violation isn’t itself part of the natural progression. Artists have always responded to death, from the cave paintings of prehistory to the anti-vivisection jeremiads of Sue Coe’s paintings and the slice-and-pickle body counts of Damien Hirst’s cynical sculptures. The evidences in art history are too many to count. A million Crucifixions, corpus Christis, martyrdoms of the saints. Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith hacking off Holofernes’ head. The heroic martial images of Delacroix. Jacques-Louis David’s bathtub-murder scene The Death of Marat. Léon Cogniet’s piercing Tintoretto Painting the Portrait of His Dead Daughter, a heart-shattering study for which is in the collections of the Portland Art Museum. Images of suicide abound, too, from paintings and sculptures of the deaths of Cleopatra and Sappho and Socrates to Leonardo Alenza’s Satire on Romantic Suicide, an 1839 painting of an artist teetering over a cliffside. Many of these involve action, drama, even some sort of heroism, all of which are notably absent in Seubert’s portraits of quietude. The Catalonian sculptor Damia Campeny’s 1804 Dead Lucrecia, with its alabaster stillness and slumped absence of gesture and expression, comes much closer to matching the endgame mood of Seubert’s portraits.

Damia Campeny, “Dead Lucrecia,” 1804, marble, 53.1 x 49.2 x 24 inches, Llotja de Mar, Barcelona

Seubert’s aesthetic skill separates the photographs in Not a Day Goes By from purely political, and certainly from sensationalist, art. There is, to use an old-fashioned word, a strange lovingkindness to them; a sense of dignity and honor in spite of their contortions. The curves and crevices and striking whites leaping out of shadow give them a feel of marble: “The whites are what define the image,” Seubert says. The heads themselves are 25 percent larger than real life, so they dominate but don’t overwhelm. And crucially, printing the images onto luminous metal creates a shimmering, shifting, mirror effect, so that when you view one of the portraits you also enter into it. Seubert worked closely with digital expert Phil Bard and the San Francisco area lab Bay Photo to get the precise effect, which couldn’t be clearly anticipated earlier in the process. Until mid-December all of the images were digital, and Bard helped match the prints in color, tone, and treatment.  What Seubert refers to as “that performative aspect of seeing yourself in the image” creates a connection to, and so perhaps an empathy with, a person who has chosen to disconnect.

Susan Seubert, “Manner of: Tonto Sword (Seppuku),” digital pigment print on Thai silk tissue paper, encaustic medium, clayboard, 12 x 12 inches, 2017. Edition of 10

The smaller Method of prints that make up the second part of Not a Day Goes By are also technically precise, but with a very different layered approach that makes them look a lot like graphite drawings. “I decided they should be very dreamy,” Seubert says of these quiet images of the many methods of taking one’s life, from the ritual disembowelment of seppuku to syringe to razor blade, noose, handgun, bullet, pills, a bridge to leap from, a convenient tub for drowning. Each photograph is printed on Thai silk tissue paper (“I used that because it has a very drawn quality”), and coated via encaustic, or wax, to further the illusion of aesthetic separation from the reality they represent. Although they aren’t angry or satirical in the same way, and the images are much simpler, they remind me in approach of Goya’s The Disasters of War series, which is blunt in its depiction of atrocities but worked and shaped into contradictorily pleasing final form. I don’t see overt anger in either of Seubert’s series, although the expert craftsmanship may suggest a calculated fury.

Susan Seubert, “Manner of: Drowning,” digital pigment print on Thai silk tissue paper, encaustic medium, clayboard, 12 x 12 inches, 2017. Edition of 10

Creating a series about suicide is bound to be controversial, or just unnerve people for whom the subject is too close or disturbing. “I’ve gotten a number of personal messages from people who refuse to come see the show. And I understand that,” Seubert says. Yet in the end, what might have seemed a closing-off of conversation became instead a beginning. Not a Day Goes By, Seubert says, “opened up this odd door. Everyone was really open to it.” The covered faces in the Asphyxiation series belong to models, several of them Seubert’s friends, who agreed to be part of this photographic journey into the macabre: “It was such an interesting process. It made me realize I was not as isolated as I thought I was.”

Introduced to the project, people began to tell their own stories about suicide – of family members and friends who killed themselves; of helping a frail and dying friend hasten the end. “I didn’t ask people to share it,” Seubert says. “I showed them, and they shared it.” Not a Day Goes By, like most art, is not a suggestion or a prescription but an invitation to a conversation: a strange and fascinating transformation, this melting-down of pain and isolation into something embracing and somehow beautiful. It is, of course, one of the things art does. Things mystify and also open up. Even viewed though a glass darkly, there is a piercing of the light.

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Susan Seubert’s Not a Day Goes By continues through May 27 at Froelick Gallery, 714 N.W. Davis St., Portland.