Bob Hicks

 

Strange Fruit: Arvie Smith’s seductive provocations at PAM

The Portland artist's bold paintings about race in the museum's APEX series rub together attraction and repulsion as they play with stereotypes

When Billie Holiday sang Strange Fruit, Abel Meeropol’s mercilessly beautiful song about a lynching, at Café Society in Greenwich Village in 1939 and into the ’40s, it became something of a benediction: she would close her show with it, the waiters would stop serving, the room would darken, no encore followed. It was if the audience had entered a place at once blasphemous and holy, a hollow where time stopped in the presence of the unutterable, and the thing itself was dirty but the memorization of it, the acknowledgement of its awful reality, was somehow purifying: we have seen evil, and felt its power, and by facing it we have somehow made it lesser and ourselves more.

Arvie Smith, "Strange Fruit," 1992, oil on canvas, 92 x 70 inches, collection of the artist.

Arvie Smith, “Strange Fruit,” 1992, oil on canvas, 92 x 70 inches, collection of the artist.

Arvie Smith’s 1992 painting of the same title and theme performs some of the same functions in his current APEX Northwest artists series show at the Portland Art Museum, and it also acts as an oversize calling card for the other nine paintings in the exhibition. Grandly scaled at 92 x 70 inches, it overwhelms viewers with the hyperreality of an American scene: the lynching of a nearly naked black man by a gang of white men whose muscles ripple beneath the white robes and hoods of the Ku Klux Klan. Like an American Jesus on a Southern cross, the black man lets his head slump sideward in defeat; the rope slung over the tree limb and tied around his neck seems almost as thick as his arm. The two men stringing him up seem almost to strut with pride. Near the bottom right corner, at the level where a dog might look out, two malevolent red-rimmed eyes stare from slits in a Klan hood.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: wine divine, proscenium live, Comic City USA

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

It’s the middle of August, the temperature’s flirting with triple digits, and the city sidewalks are getting hot enough to grill a veggie burger on. Time to get out of town. And if you’re going to get out of town, why not to wine country? This weekend marks the beginning of another Oregon summer music festival – a small one, but with some fine musicians and refreshing repertoire. It’s also a great excuse, if you really need one, to hit some good wineries.

The brand new Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival kicks off Friday night with a concert in the barrel room at J. Christopher Wines (think cool, like a cave) near Newberg, continues with free open rehearsals noon-3 p.m. Saturday at Artisanal Cellars in downtown Newberg, and concludes with a Sunday afternoon concert at Elk Cove Vineyards, one of the region’s most picturesque, near Gaston.

Music at the wineries: a new Oregon chamber festival goes for the gusto.

Music at the wineries: a new Oregon chamber festival goes for the gusto.

Who’ll you hear? Violist Kenji Bunch, one of Portland’s busiest composer/performers; Boston violinist (and Portland native) Sasha Callahan and her husband, cellist Leo Eguchi, who’s worked with the likes of William Bolcom and Lukas Foss; and violinist Megumi Stohs Lewis, who grew up in Portland and, among other credits, has performed with Yo-Yo Ma and toured with Jethro Tull. What’ll you hear? Two different programs including works by Bunch, Zoltan Kodaly, the contemporary Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov, and, just to keep things grounded, Schubert’s Rosamunde string quartet and Beethoven’s Op. 18 No. 1 string quartet.

Plus, of course, there’ll be wine.

 


 

PROSCENIUM LIVE. Then again, if you stick around town, this is a very good bet: some of the city’s top actors doing staged readings of a hefty handful of new plays by writers including Amy Freed, noted for the likes of Freedomland, The Beard of Avon, and The Monster Builder. Sponsored by Proscenium Journal in partnership with Portland Shakespeare Project, it runs for four days starting Thursday at Artists Repertory Theatre, and it’s free – which, as the late, great Portland TV pitchman Tom Peterson used to proclaim, “is a very good price.”

The full-length plays: C.S. Whitcomb’s Dracula’s Father, Freed’s Them That Are Perfect, Ellen Margolis’s Pericles Wet. Friday night’s one-act showcase includes pieces by Freed, Wei He, Simon Fill, and others.

Reading frenzy: good actors, new scripts at Proscenium Live. David Kinder, kinderpics photography, www.kinderpics.com

Reading frenzy: good actors, new scripts at Proscenium Live. David Kinder, kinderpics photography, www.kinderpics.com

 


 

TBA 16. The fourteenth edition of Time-Based Art Festival, Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s annual feeding frenzy of the new, the brash, the edgy, and the provocative from the worlds of performance art, visual art, film & video, dance, and multidisciplines, doesn’t run until September 8-18. But tickets and passes go on sale starting today (Tuesday, August 16), and some shows go fast: time to check the attractions, make your plans, and score your seats.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: bellying up to the barre

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

So a terrific dancer walks into a barre and decides to write down what she sees and feels and does. Six years after Gavin Larsen retired from Oregon Ballet Theatre as a principal dancer and mainstay of the company’s halcyon years, dance followers in Portland still marvel at the memory of her energy and grace onstage. She was “a superb, elegantly balanced, dramatically engaged dancer,” as I wrote about her 2009 performance in Josie Moseley’s Hold My Hand at Conduit.

You could pretty much say that about her writing, too: after all, writing is its own form of performance. Larsen has forged a new career as a writer and a teacher since leaving OBT, publishing in publications as diverse as Dance Magazine and The Threepenny Review. She’s contributed to Oregon ArtsWatch, too, training her perceptions on the role of ballet masters in the 20th century, the legacy of the late studio pianist Robert Huffman, and the path to stardom of Northwest Dance Project’s Ching Ching Wong, among other stories.

Gavin Larsen at the barre: everyday ballerina. Photo: Ashby Baldock

Gavin Larsen at the barre: everyday ballerina. Photo: Ashby Baldock

Starting Sunday, Larsen’s writing for ArtsWatch will get more personal. That’s the day we’ll begin publishing Everyday Ballerina: The Shaping of a Dancer, a twelve-part daily series of reminiscences and turning points that pulls back the curtains and gives us inside glimpses of the challenges, uncertainties, and triumphs of the dancers’ life. Just a taste of the style you can look forward to, from Gavin’s recollections of performing in The Rite of Spring: “Some people sweat a lot more than others, and even those who are not heavy sweaters begin to pour and drip as soon as extreme exertion is finished and they are slowly, stealthily, creeping and crawling and oozing their way across the stage to become part of a huge, undulating, slimy mass of dancers twister-ing themselves into the towering pile of limbs we called the Human Monolith.”

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Kids, music, and the heart’s desire

Wishes fulfilled: After 22 years, Bruce Adolphe's "Marita and Her Heart's Desire" returns to Chamber Music Northwest, where its journey began.

Chamber Music Northwest has entered its fifth and final week – the venerable summer festival winds up its 46th season on Sunday, July 31 – and on the previous Saturday afternoon I zipped over to Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium to catch a family concert, Bruce Adolphe’s Marita and Her Heart’s Desire, a show I had first seen 22 years earlier when it premiered at CMNW, with the same narrator, the terrific Portland voice actor Michele Mariana. Marita was being performed the following two nights, too, on a more formal program that also included some Milhaud, Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Suite, and selections from another Adolphe piece, Einstein’s Light. But I wanted to see the kids, and the quirkily titled pre-show “Instrument Petting Zoo” in the lobby, and so I went to the shorter and more casual daytime show.

A trip to the moon, gossamer wings not included: "Marita and Her Heart's Desire."

A trip to the moon, gossamer wings not included: “Marita and Her Heart’s Desire.”

For anyone worried about the future of great music, the petting zoo was a revelation. Kids crowded the lobby, rushing up close to the instruments while their parents lurked behind. Trombones, violins, cornets: the place was cluttered with musical noisemakers, and kids were touching, blatting, bowing, trying things out. This was the musical nitty gritty: not just listening, but making music, even in crude and elementary form, and I couldn’t help thinking that some of these kids were going to choose an instrument, and buy one (that’s where the parents come in), and start practicing, and make this a lifelong thing. That’s how you pass it along.

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‘Every Minute Counts’: a lost lens on America, rediscovered

An Oregon Jewish Museum exhibit uncovers the vibrant history-in-the-making images of photographer Katherine Joseph's 1930s and '40s

“EVERY MINUTE COUNTS,” the banner in the photograph shouts in big block capital letters, and the four women garment workers below, needles in hand and stacks of cloth surrounding them, make it clear they take the admonition seriously. Isolated and absorbed, yet also somehow bound into this activity together, they exude a serious and determined camaraderie. It’s 1942, and they’re on the home front, working in New York’s garment district, burrowed deeply in the rhythm of the duties of their small corner of the war effort.

This bold and striking image lends its title to the most recent exhibition at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education. Every Minute Counts: Photographs by Katherine Joseph, which continues through September 25, is also the final exhibition at the museum’s space on Northwest Kearney Street before it shuts its doors for several months to prepare for reopening in late spring or early summer 2017 at the old Museum of Contemporary Craft space on Northwest Davis Street, by the North Park Blocks. The new space will provide more than double the square footage, to about 15,000.

 "Every Minute Counts," garment workers on the home front, new York, photo by Katherine Joseph, 1942; © Richard Hertzberg and Suzanne Hertzberg; photograph courtesy of the Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution


“Every Minute Counts,” garment workers on the home front, New York, photo by Katherine Joseph, 1942; © Richard Hertzberg and Suzanne Hertzberg; photograph courtesy of the Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

If you’ve never heard of Katherine Joseph, don’t feel bad: in spite of the wit and presence and proximity to history of so much of her work, not a lot of people have. Her photography in the 1930s and 1940s slides her neatly into a category of humanistic documentarists that also includes the likes of Dorothea Lange, whose images of Americans in the midst of the Great Depression became iconic, and Margaret Bourke-White, one of the most imaginative and socially revealing photographers for the old Life magazine during its glory years. But Joseph’s career was shorter – less than a decade – and as the war ended, so did it: Joseph hung up her camera, settled down, and raised a family. Even her children didn’t know until relatively recent years of her photographic fling with history.

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IT’S BIG. VERY BIG. And if you want to take the whole thing in, Matt Stangel writes for ArtsWatch readers, you’re going to have to ramble all over the state of Oregon. In his opening report, Portland2016: Disjecta goes gigantic, Stangel points out the sheer massiveness of this year’s Disjecta Oregon biennial art show. Curated by Michelle Grabner, who was also co-curator of the 2014 Whitney Biennial, this latest Oregon biennial of contemporary art takes the word “Oregon” seriously, spreading the art around to 25 spaces, 15 of them outside of Portland, in locations including the Schneider Museum of Art in Ashland, Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts on the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, in Pendleton, La Grande, Astoria, and elsewhere. And Grabner mixes things up: several Portland artists showing in venues across the state, several state artists bringing their work to Portland. What’s more, many of the artists have created pieces specifically for the spaces they were assigned.

"The Silva Field Guide to Birds of a Parallel Future," digital image of imaginary avians, dimensions variable, 2014–2015, Portland2016/ Image courtesy of the artist, Rick Silva.

“The Silva Field Guide to Birds of a Parallel Future,” digital image of imaginary avians, dimensions variable, 2014–2015, Portland2016/ Image courtesy of the artist, Rick Silva.

Even in Portland, you’ll need to travel to several venues to see what’s in the biennial. But a single visit to Disjecta’s home space in North Portland will grant you a look at one piece of work by each of the 106 artists whose studios Grabner visited – a decision viewed as inclusive by some onlookers and needlessly unfocused by others. Stangel writes: “Though a bit overwhelming, bringing everyone together in one place seems to be a practical remedy to the geographical largeness of this year’s exhibition—which presents a sizable travel ask of any one person who wants to see everything. So, this bouquet of artwork serves as an invitation to find something you like and, perhaps, explore it further at a satellite location.”

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ChamberVox shakes things up

Chamber Music Northwest and BodyVox dance to the music of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

At heart, dancing is moving to rhythm, and that means it’s almost inseparable from music. There are exceptions and variations: experimental cases when dances are created without sound; the Merce Cunningham/John Cage partnership, in which movement and music were created deliberately in isolation from each other so one would not influence the other, but were performed together; contemporary pieces with more or less arbitrary music that might better be described as “specimens of sound” (which, of course, can make their own sort of music); dances in which extended periods of silence are part of the score. But on the whole dance and music are pretty much happy bedfellows, cohabiting almost by instinct.

A fairy queen cavorting with a donkey: Anna Mara as Titania and Brent Luebbert as Bottom in "Midsummer." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

A fairy queen cavorting with a donkey: Anna Mara as Titania and Brent Luebbert as Bottom in “Midsummer.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

So the relationship between Chamber Music Northwest, Portland’s premiere summer music festival, and BodyVox, one of the city’s leading contemporary dance troupes, seems like a natural, and it’s beginning to be a tradition. This year’s collaboration, which opened Thursday night at the BodyVox studio in Northwest Portland and continues through July 23, brings a third player into the mix, too: that musically savvy playwright, William Shakespeare. Titled Death and Delight, the program pairs a version of Romeo and Juliet set on Sergei Prokofiev’s R&J Suite with a new version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream danced to Felix Mendelssohn’s ravishing score.

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