Bob Hicks

 

At Artists Rep, ‘The Price’ is right

Arthur Miller's old-fashioned American realist drama bridges the decades and makes itself unsettlingly at home in today's culture

Watching Artists Rep’s finely pitched new production of Arthur Miller’s play The Price is like listening to a classic piece of chamber music you haven’t heard in a long time: four voices, integrated yet distinct, rising and falling and weaving, sometimes in harmony, sometimes strikingly dissonant, each voice surging into the lead, then receding, in a constant interplay. It’s a welcome reminder of the beauties of the mid-20th century American realist theater, those works from the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s by the likes of Miller, Tennessee Williams (whose Suddenly, Last Summer has also just opened in town, at Shaking the Tree), Lillian Hellman, William Inge, the latecomer Edward Albee and the like, each drawing in his or her own way from the pattern set by Eugene O’Neill. As different from one another as they were alike, these writers nevertheless shared some crucial qualities. Shaped by the Great Depression and World War II, they were engaged socially, concerned with the links between private and public behavior: “Mendacity!,” Big Daddy’s roar in Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, might have been a unifying cry. They believed in the lyrical and persuasive power of language. And they made well-crafted plays, dramas that were structured to seem inevitable both emotionally and theatrically.

Costa (left) and Elich, calculating values. Photo: Owen Carey

Costa (left) and Elich, calculating values. Photo: Owen Carey

The Price, whose title is meant both literally and metaphorically, arrived a little later than Miller’s run of great plays, opening on Broadway in 1968. It lost that season’s Tony Award to Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, perhaps signaling a shift in public appetite toward a brighter, more playful and irreverent style of show. Stoppard, Pinter, Shepard and others still knew their Greeks, who were essential to O’Neill and the post-O’Neill generation, but they were tipping toward postmodernism: rearranging the pieces, joking with the verities, dabbling in creative destruction. The Price still has a ’50s earnestness in its voice, that sense that every thought and action has intense moral significance. It’s a play of slightly before its time, and as I watched the four fine actors at Artists Rep I was aware that (a) I was watching a period piece, and (b) it was a thrilling experience. Good theater can fuse the past and present into a vital contemporary moment.

The play is something like a Bartók quartet, an immersion into intimate dissonance, in which clashing ideas are bound into an exciting tension tinged with sadness, and resolutions are fleeting but profound. It opens in a well-worn New York walkup apartment, stuffed with furniture from an earlier age (the set is by Jack O’Brien), the muted bleats of city traffic (sound by Sharath Patel) seeping in from the outside world. Victor Franz (Michael Elich), a lean and tired-looking New York cop, walks in, looks around, cranks an old Victrola, puts on a comedy record that consists of peals of laughter. He’s soon joined by his wife, Esther (Linda Alper), wearing a stylish dress suit that looks like one of Nancy Reagan’s (costumes by Alison Heryer) and an air of exasperation. We’ve dropped in on an old argument, a long-brewing disappointment; years of affection and regret underlie a conversation we know is intense, even if we’re not sure immediately what it’s all about. Soon enough, we learn it’s about money: at long last Victor’s getting ready to sell off the contents of his dead parents’ apartment, and Esther, who is tired of living on a policeman’s pay, dearly hopes he’ll push for a good price. She wants some nice things and freedom from worry. Victor, who believes he could have been a big man in science if he hadn’t left college to care for his father, wants his pride.

Mendelson (left), Alper, Elich: all in the family. Photo: Owen Carey

Mendelson (left), Alper, Elich: all in the family. Photo: Owen Carey

Victor and Esther are joined by the booming brass presence of Gregory Solomon (Joseph Costa), an almost nonagenarian furniture appraiser and dealer, who wheezes up the stairway with an air of bumptious authority and a briefcase packed with snacks. Solomon knows the business; Solomon knows about people; Solomon wants to cut a deal. And just about when things are settled, in walks the fourth member of this dissonant quartet: Walter Franz (Michael Mendelson), Victor’s ultra-successful doctor brother, whom he hasn’t seen or spoken to in 16 years, and whom Victor blames for the way his life went sour. Walter has a deal to offer, too, a plan that would pad the price considerably.

Miller’s setup is expert, his balancing of the economic and emotional scales keen. Prices, as it turns out, aren’t always measured in coin, and a modest cost in capital terms might be a very steep one in morality and pride. Things get knotted up, and some things don’t show up on the balance sheet. From this point, it’s up to the director and actors to carry the play, and Artists Rep’s ensemble, directed sensitively by Adriana Baer, does it beautifully.

A huge amount of experience is on this stage, and the sum for the audience is an uncommon amount of pleasure: these are four veteran actors who’ve been around, and grown, and ripened well, and know how to burrow deeply inside a role and play it full. Elich carries a slump of anger and repressed pride to go with Victor’s genuine sense of righteousness. Alper is somehow sharp and soft at once, warm and capable and just about an inch from an explosion. Mendelson, who grows ever more graceful with age, is surprisingly embracing in what could be (but is definitely not here) a cool and curdling role. And Costa dances just this side of caricature as Solomon without ever crossing the line: a bit of a shaman, a bit of a snake-oil salesman, a bit of a Borscht Belt comic, a bit of a chastened and lonely ancient man, the unlikely and exuberant outsider straw that stirs this volatile family drink.

This is Victor’s story, in the end, his discoveries and decisions to be made, and as the play ends it’s uncertain what price he has and hasn’t paid; what’s he’s cost himself and what he’s gained. The composition concludes with more dissonance than resolution, and strangely, that feels right: something deep has happened. The questions hover, and do not settle. Victor, and Arthur Miller, and this production, ask: What matters? What is the truth? What should be done? In that old-fashioned and ever-contemporary American realist way, the questions linger long after the light fades, unanswered and unanswerable.

*

The Price continues at Artists Rep through April 26. Ticket and schedule information are here.

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‘Belleville': down & out in Paris

Amy Herzog's stage thriller about modern Ugly Americans in decline gets fine performances from Third Rail, but to what end?

Belleville is something of a head-scratcher, and not because it’s structured like a mystery-thriller. Third Rail Rep’s new production of Amy Herzog’s tense drama, which premiered in 2011 at Yale Rep and opened off-Broadway a year later, has so much going for it: a good director, a fine cast, a simple but smartly playable set by Kristeen Willis Crosser in the intimate CoHo Theatre, a space designed to slash the distance between audience and performers and heat things up. But Belleville, it seems, is just by nature a chilly play.

Lamb and Lingafelter: in love from tip to toe? Photo: Owen Carey

Lamb and Lingafelter: in love from tip to toe? Photo: Owen Carey

The irony of the title is that Belleville isn’t such a beautiful town, if by “beautiful” you mean sweet and safe and predictable. It’s a vibrant, multiracial, working-class district of Paris, the sort of place where people tend to make a life instead of visit on vacation. Abby (Rebecca Lingafelter) and Zack (Isaac Lamb) are doing both, sort of. Young married Americans in their late 20s, they’ve uprooted from New Jersey so that Zack can take a job with Physicians Beyond Borders. Every day he heads in to do vital work on AIDS research, except when he doesn’t. Amy, who’s an actress, starts giving yoga lessons to keep busy and make a little money, but that’s not working out so well, maybe because she’s stopped taking French lessons (her language instructor kept laughing at her accent) and so can’t really communicate with her students. Plus, as the play begins she walks into their apartment and discovers Zack deep in a solo encounter with a porno internet site. This doesn’t help Abby’s mental state, which is already a little off-kilter because she’s gone off her anti-depression meds. And, as things turn out, Zack, who spends an inordinate amount of time with his pot pipe, hasn’t paid the rent in four months, and although Abby doesn’t know it, they’re about to get the heave-ho. So, no: not so beautiful.

Continues…

NW Dance Project: new home, new show, high hopes

The Portland company moves into a sparkling new space, hires a rising star resident choreographer, and gets ready to rock the Newmark

March is busting out all over for Northwest Dance Project.

  • Fresh from a sold-out tour of Germany with stops in Neuss and at Aachen’s Schrittmacher Just Dance! festival, the rising contemporary company is about to embark on Louder Than Words, a home-stand program of three works running Thursday through Saturday at Portland’s downtown Newmark Theatre.
  • It’s just hired its first resident choreographer, London-born Ihsan Rustem, whose new piece Yidam is part of Louder Than Words, and whose earlier works with the company have been major hits.
  • And on March 30, when its spring classes begin, it’ll officially open its new home space, a refurbished 1940s industrial classic a couple of blocks north of Burnside in Northeast Portland. The 8,500-square-foot building, at 211 Northeast 10th Avenue, is in the midst of a rapidly revitalizing slice of the inner East Side, within a warm whiff of the giant Franz bread factory, and in easy walking distance of Imago Theatre and the elevated restaurant Noble Rot, with its sweeping view across the Willamette River to downtown.

The new building is a huge leap forward for the dance project, especially at a time when other Portland dance companies are under the gun to find new spaces fast. After 20 years in downtown’s Pythian Building, Conduit has been evicted and is scrambling to find an immediate alternative space. Polaris is also losing, to redevelopment, its small building near Artists Rep and the Hotel DeLuxe, and is in negotiations for a new space. And Oregon Ballet Theatre, which last fall sold its school and studio building to an apartment developer to help ease its long-term debt, has been searching for a very big and reasonably priced alternative space – not an easy thing to find – that it will need by this fall. The process is made more complex for everyone, Polaris’s artistic director Robert Guitron says, because spaces that work for dance are often also ideal for indoor marijuana farms, and with legalization, small-scale industrial pot grows are sprouting up all over.

Samantha Campbell and Elijah Labay in Sarah Slipper's "Casual Act." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Samantha Campbell and Elijah Labay in “Casual Act.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Northwest Dance Project’s dancers, who had been in temporary residence in studios at Portland State University since last summer, already are using the new building at 211 N.E. 10th Avenue for rehearsal, even as workers are still finishing lobby, office, and other spaces. I visited the new space on Monday afternoon of this week, after a morning fog had lifted, and the early-spring sun was bathing the 3,200-square-foot main studio with soft natural light. It’s a long, sparkling-white, clean-lined single-story building, with generous stretches of metal-paned windows and an arch to the roof where the open space soars high to the rafters. The building’s more utilitarian than art deco, but it shares deco’s belief in simple elegance, and is a handsome example of its architectural type.

Executive director Scott Lewis, who’s spent months overseeing, negotiating, and raising money for the project (he stayed home while the company was touring in Germany), met me at the front entry, a gleaming glass portal that, he quickly pointed out, replaces an old rolling garage door. He’s learned about alarm systems, and building codes, and pouring concrete, and requirements for the length and rise of ramps in hallways. “I’ve felt like a general contractor,” he said ruefully but, on this end of things, with a smile of obvious satisfaction. “You have no idea how consuming this thing’s been. I’d wake up in the middle of the night worrying about things like how to make the floor heights match.”

The project will cost about $700,000, including some reserve funds, he said, and the majority is in hand. Even with a bit of work still to be done, the interior is sparkling – a dream space for a small resident and touring company, as inviting and adaptable as BodyVox’s dance center in Northwest Portland. It’s a huge upgrade from NDP’s former space off the Mississippi strip in North Portland, an attractive but cramped studio that gave rise to some fine intimate performances but was inadequate in most other ways. The 10th Avenue building has a lot of amenities the Mississippi space couldn’t begin to touch: a welcoming lobby space, a small kitchen, changing rooms, a walk-in shower for the dancers, a big office and conference space, lots of storage, expansive restrooms, lots of windows for natural light. The main studio and a smaller second studio that will be used for classes have banks of south-facing windows that will let in light and warmth in the winter months, and can be shaded during the summer. Everything, from the hallways to the door openings to the water dispenser, is ADA-compliant. And perhaps best of all, NDP has a long-term commitment ­– a 10-year lease with a five-year renewal option. Lewis saw other spaces that offered two-year deals, but he turned them down, he said: It wouldn’t have made sense to spend this kind of money on a short-term deal.

Unlike BodyVox, whose remodeled industrial space has become hugely popular and is used constantly for performances, NDP isn’t planning to perform in its new studio, at least for now. Instead, it’ll be a home space for the company, the way Oregon Ballet Theatre’s old space in inner Southeast was: a place for rehearsals, classes, offices, meetings, storage, and the regular business of the company. NDP has had success performing in spaces such as the Newmark, Lincoln Performance Hall, and the Vestas Building. The building’s larger studio is plenty big enough for performances, although its large dance floor leaves a relatively narrow strip for audience risers. But artistic director Sarah Slipper doesn’t want to move too fast, if at all, on adding performances there: Everyone’s new to the building, she points out, and it’ll take at least a year to get to really know the space.

After that, who knows? One thing’s obvious. Even in its not-quite-finished state, it’s already starting to feel like home.

The main studio during construction. Courtesy Northwest Dance Project.

The main studio during construction. Courtesy Northwest Dance Project.

*

Ihsan Rustem, the company’s newly named resident choreographer, wandered into the studio while Slipper was rehearsing her piece on this week’s program, a remounting of 2013’s Casual Act. Rustem is a muscular, compact man with an easy grace, soft humor, and startling eyes. A rising star internationally, he’s a native Londoner with Turkish roots, and his 2012 piece for NDP, Mother Tongue, grew out of a visit to Istanbul, Turkey, which, he said at time, “is my motherland, but a land I had never lived in. … I felt an overwhelming sense of calm and belonging in the realization that this is where I come from.” Reviewing the premiere of Mother Tongue, I wrote that it “seems a model of contemporary choreography – a piece very much of its own time but also fiercely focused and sure of itself. It doesn’t meander, it doesn’t settle for the first idea. Like all good dances, it cuts through space with a conviction that this is the only possible way this particular piece could be.”

Rustem

Rustem

Rustem’s dance career included stops at Ballet Theatre Munich, the Netherlands’ Introdans, Bern Ballet, and Switzerland’s Tanz Luzerner Theater, among others. His first produced work of choreography, Twist of Fate, came in 2009 for Bern Ballet’s choreographic workshop.

The next year, Slipper invited him to create a piece for NDP, and an extraordinarily fruitful partnership began. That piece was State of Matter, which became an international hit: It won the Audience Choice Award at the 2011 International Competition for Choreographers in Hannover, Germany, and the 2011 Sadler’s Wells Global Dance Contest in England, and was performed by Northwest Dance Project’s dancers in London in 2012 as part of the Cultural Olympiad. It also marked the fully professional beginning of what has become a busy choreographic career in Europe and at such North American centers as Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. “I got my start here,” he said Monday. “The first check I ever received as a choreographer, Sarah gave me.”

The news of his appointment was still fresh on Monday, and Rustem still seemed sky-high. He had a meeting with Slipper, he said, expecting a brief check-in about a couple of passages in his new dance Yidam. Instead, she popped the residency question. He was shocked, and thrilled. It’s a three-year appointment, beginning this fall (he has several international commitments between now and then), and, like traveling to Istanbul, accepting the post feels like something of a homecoming. Over his five-year relationship with the company, he’s worked with all eight of NDP’s current dancers: “I know this company better than any other now.” During his three-year residency, he’ll work even more deeply with the dancers, and create at least one new work for NDP each year. For Rustem (and the dancers, who seemed hugely pleased), everything was still sinking in. “I might buy an apartment here,” he said, smiling widely. “Do you know of anything?”

*

Besides Slipper’s Casual Act and the world premiere of Rustem’s Yidam, which he suggested will be very different from his previous work for NPD, this week’s Louder Than Words program includes a remounting of Blue, a popular piece that Lucas Crandall created for NDP in 2008, and which the company also reprised in 2011. Crandall, yet another international dancemaker who’s made connections with NDP, is ballet master at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, and among other stops, a former dancer and repetiteur at Nederlands Dans Theater.

I sat in for part of Slipper’s rehearsal of Casual Act and was struck, once again, by the focused work ethic and relaxed professionalism of the whole enterprise. Even Hank, dancer Franco Nieto’s boxer/bulldog and unofficial company mascot, seemed to know what was and wasn’t appropriate: he trolled the bystanders, looking for a pat or a scratch, but stayed rigorously away from the dance floor, where his person was working. The current company of eight dancers – Samantha Campbell, Elijah Labay, Lindsey McGill, Nieto, Andrea Parson, Ching Ching Wong, Julia Radick, and Viktor Usov – make up a highly skilled, athletic, and flexible team. Three of them (Parson in 2010, Nieto in 2012, Usov in 2014) are Princess Grace Award winners, and the dancing maintains that level across the board. These dancers know what they’re doing and are sure of their skills. They’ve performed internationally to acclaim. And now, at home, they have a space that works and opens new possibilities. The company’s had success touring in Canada, California, and Europe, and more touring seems a distinct possibility. “Oh, gosh, yeah,” Slipper said. “We’d love to tour a lot more.”

Rehearsing "Casual Act" on Monday in the new studio on 10th Avenue.

Rehearsing “Casual Act” on Monday in the new studio on 10th Avenue.

Slipper sat at the sidelines and took notes while the dancers went through Casual Act, moving slowly in and around the revolving set with its narrow door opening and wide window. Casual Act is a highly dramatic piece – not narrative, exactly, but drenched in emotion and hints of passions, betrayals, psychological twists and shouts. Dancers embrace and break apart, sometimes furtively. Sometimes, they climb the walls. The revolving stage and romantic entanglements suggest the emotional round-robin of Arthur Schnitzler’s fin-de-siècle play La Ronde. Against the drone of recorded music Slipper spoke softly, like a patient coach, with just enough volume to be heard. “Where’s your music cue?” she asked at one point. At another: “Easy. Let her walk.” The dancers are focused. They know each other, they know this material, they’re just keeping it in their muscles and bones. It’s languid and energetic at once, a strenuous, torso-stretching reverie.

Maybe, on this afternoon, it was a little too languid. “It feels slow today,” Nieto said during a break, and Slipper agreed. She pushed for something sharper: a key step backward didn’t seem sudden enough or big enough to convey the emotional impact, she noted.

The dancers understood. Just a few small adjustments to make, really. It would be fixed, well before Thursday’s opening. And in their sparkling new home on 10th Avenue, they had a place to fix it. Calm, confident, ready to bust out once again.

*

Louder Than Words will play at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, March 19-21, at the Newmark Theatre, 1111 S.W. Broadway, Portland. Ticket information is here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the chopping block: everyone’s culture

The ISIS destruction of ancient cultural sites in Iraq reaches beyond politics to the very idea of free and open thought

The world is filled with wonders I’ll never see. I take some comfort in this. We are a social species, more interesting together than apart, and I like the idea that discoveries I’ll never make are still out there, waiting, for someone. Until a few days ago, those wonders included the ancient cities of Nimrud, Hatra, and Dur-Sharrukin, sites of incalculable archaeological and art-historical importance.

No more. The three have been largely turned to rubble, the latest victims in a devastating series of crimes against memory by the zealots of the Islamic State, or ISIS. As each site fell, a small but vital slice of human knowledge disappeared with it.

"The Palaces at Nimrud Restored," as imagined by the city's first excavator, A.H. Layard (A Second Series of the Monuments of Nineveh, London 1853, pl. 1 detail, after a sketch by James Fergusson). Wikimedia Commons

“The Palaces at Nimrud Restored,” as imagined by the city’s first excavator, A.H. Layard (A Second Series of the Monuments of Nineveh, London 1853, pl. 1 detail, after a sketch by James Fergusson). Wikimedia Commons

Continuing reports of the destruction of irreplaceable archaeological sites in Iraq and Syria leave us here at ArtsWatch feeling, like much of the world, frustrated and helpless. What can we do? Not much, except to continue to exercise our curiosity about the life around us, and ask questions. Headlines sometimes refer to the ISIS actions as “vandalism,” but what’s been happening goes far beyond that: vandals use cans of spray paint, not bulldozers. These latest targets had held some of the oldest seeds in the memory bank of human culture: Nimrud was established in the thirteenth century B.C., Dur-Sharrukin in the eighth century B.C., Hatra in the third or second century B.C. All three are in or near ancient Mesopotamia, the “cradle of civilization.”

The cradle has rocked. What’s going on here, it seems, is not just an act of war against people, or even a war of ideas. It’s a war against the very idea of ideas, aimed at obliterating thought itself. ISIS militants, as Anne Barnard reports in the New York Times, call ancient art “idolatry that must be destroyed,” and have gone about doing so. (She also reports that what the militants do not turn into rubble, they sell on the black market to help finance their operations.)

All of this seems far off from what we do here at ArtsWatch. And the destruction of cultural sites in the volatile Middle East, while lamentable, seems of vastly lesser consequence than the unconscionable loss of life, via beheadings and more modern means of slaughter, in a shifting and seemingly never-ending war. But we’re all connected, and ISIS has targeted ancient art and artists for a very specific reason: because art trades in ideas, and ideas are the enemy of an aspiring religious-totalitarian regime. At ArtsWatch we think and write about what our artists think and do in the theater, dance, museums and galleries, music stages, and movie palaces: small potatoes in the larger geopolitical scheme of things. Except, while the stakes are lower (and thank goodness for that), the potatoes aren’t so small. Our art reflects our culture, questioning it, prodding it, affirming it, poking at its edges in sometimes uncomfortable ways. For our artists, The Other looms big: what it means to be different and the same, who’s included in what and how, what the nature of a multiple society is, how belief and accommodation coexist. And sometimes, our art simply expresses the unexpected loops and rambles of an unfettered mind. In other words, precisely the sort of free-wheeling thinking that can drive a zealot rooted in a strict medieval mindset nuts. And so, the zealot cries enough.

In a way, the calculated destruction of cultural sites is an act of perverse utopianism – a belief that if only the world is scrubbed free of all ideas except those set down in a particular magical text, everything will be all right and the world will live in harmony. That sort of savage puritanism goes beyond merely rewriting history for political or ideological ends, a familiar corruption that takes place daily in legislative halls and pulpits and the editorial offices of partisan publications. The destruction of art and cultural sites by ISIS seeks to wipe out history – or any history that deviates from the prescribed history. These latest acts of cultural annihilation take their place alongside other such atrocities of the imagination as the smashing of shrines in Timbuktu in 2012, and the Taliban’s blowing up of giant Buddha statues in Afghanistan in 2001, and on and on, at least as far back as the fervid friar Savonarola’s 15th century bonfires of the vanities, and maybe to the consuming hellfires of Sodom and Gomorrah: destroy knowledge and expression, control minds.

Against this blunt force in the Islamic State-controlled territories of northern Iraq, brave individuals have been making lists and surreptitiously taking photographs of endangered sites, hoping to preserve at least a memory of the obliterated memories. They follow in the steps of many others who have taken pains to protect cultural treasures during wartime, among them the curators of the Hermitage Museum who smuggled valuable artworks to the comparative safety of the countryside during World War II’s Siege of Leningrad. And the National Museum of Iraq, looted and vandalized in 2003, has just reopened in Baghdad after a dozen years of repatriation and repair, this time with thick protective iron bars.

Here at ArtsWatch, we often champion the new – art that breaks from tradition, embarks on new ways of reflecting a rapidly changing culture, gives old questions fresh spins. We believe in that: Life is change, and art should change with it. But we also believe firmly in the wealth of cultural expression we’ve inherited. Cloaked in the armor of comparative stability, we are free to debate which parts of the past to keep, and which to let go. Should the city fix and keep Michael Graves’s troubled but iconic Portland Building, or cut its losses and tear the thing down? What about Memorial Coliseum: retrofit, or level? Build a new bridge across the Columbia River, or scrap the whole idea? As individuals, we may not agree with whatever decision comes down, but as a culture we have a choice in the matter: no one’s blowing things up because they feel like it, or their concept of a deity told them to.

Assyrian Lamassu at the Oriental Institute Museum at the University of Chicago. From Khorsabad, entrance to the throne room Neo-Assyrian Period, ca. 721-705 B.C. Wikimedia Commons

Assyrian Lamassu at the Oriental Institute Museum at the University of Chicago. From Khorsabad, entrance to the throne room Neo-Assyrian Period, ca. 721-705 B.C. Wikimedia Commons

We don’t want to be trapped in the past, but we believe that understanding the past is key to understanding the present and future, and any attempt to destroy access to the past is at heart totalitarian. So we pay attention to Shakespeare, and Haydn, and Austen, and Leonardo, and Palladio, and Homer, and Virgil, because they shape us: what they were, we are, at least in part. And we have the advantage of viewing them from our now as we try to understand them in the context of their now. We don’t need to believe in ancient Assyrian deities, for instance, to be awestruck by carved-stone depictions of the eagle-winged, bull-bodied, human-headed lamassu that guarded ancient gates, and to wonder over what aspect of the emerging cultural mind created such a being, and to believe that such remnants of early culture and belief should be kept in our collective consciousness. That’s what culture’s about. Without the old, there would be no new. Kill the past, kill the future.

Nobody’s coming to get us at ArtsWatch. We’re free to think what we think, write what we write, explore with our readers the peaks and valleys and waysides of the cultural world as it expresses itself in the relative safety of the Pacific Northwest. Lucky us. But isn’t that the point? Whether we make art or write about it, we enjoy a freedom of expression that for much of the world is little more than a tantalizing dream – or a threat to theocratic purity of thought.

We are more interesting together than apart. That’s the wonder of the world. And when anyone takes that splendid, messy, infuriating, provocative, compelling variety away from us, anywhere, we all lose. So: to Nimrud, Hatra, and Dur-Sharrukin, places I’ve never seen, and never will. Your loss is yours mainly, and the people of Iraq’s, who bear the brunt of war. But in some vital way it’s my loss, too. We’re all diminished. And that’s not vandalism. It’s a crime against modernism, a repudiation of the very concept of the open mind, and an assassination of the multiplicities of the past.

Lahti wins 24th Bronson Award

The veteran Portland sculptor takes this year's Bonnie Bronson award, legacy of the sculptor who died in a climbing accident

Every year about this time, Oregon art insiders keep their eye out for the latest news: who’s this year’s Bonnie Bronson Fellowship winner? Today, word came: It’s sculptor Cynthia Lahti, who’s been a familiar force on the Portland art scene for 30 years since returning to her hometown after earning her degree from the Rhode Island School of Design.

The Bronson Award is a big deal for artists around here. Named for the Oregon sculptor, who died in a mountain-climbing accident in 1990, it includes a no-strings cash award plus the purchase of work to add to the ever-growing Bonnie Bronson Collection of art by fellowship winners, housed at Reed College. The award always arrives with a bit of mystery attached: you can’t apply for it, chances are you don’t even know you’re up for it, and notification comes through a simple phone call. Plus, selection puts the winners in a sort of honor roll of working artists in the region.

Left: "Foie Gras," 2007; raku fired ceramic sculpture, 18.5 x 9 x 9 inches. Right: "Brown Bathrobe,"  2014; print on archival paper, broken ceramic sculpture, wood base, epoxy, 18 x 13 x 9 inches.

Left: “Foie Gras,” 2007; raku fired ceramic sculpture, 18.5 x 9 x 9 inches. Right: “Brown Bathrobe,” 2014;
print on archival paper, broken ceramic sculpture,
wood base, epoxy, 18 x 13 x 9 inches.

Coincidentally, Lahti has a new exhibition of sculptures and collages, Battle, on view at her Portland gallery, PDX Contemporary Art, through March 28. A release from Terri Hopkins, recently retired curator of The Art Gym and co-chair of the Bronson fellowships committee, quotes Lahti talking about her current work in small ceramic and paper sculpture: “There are so many figures out there in the world, wearing so many poses and costumes; I find those that resonate and interpret them in clay. Each sculpture expresses an intense inner psychological state, its surface effecting a fluctuating quality, part beautiful, part grotesque.”

The awards have been annual beginning with the first, to sculptor Christine Bourdette, in 1992. Winners since then, chronologically, have been Judy Cooke, Ronna Neuenschwander, Fernanda D’Agostino, Carolyn King, Lucinda Parker, Judy Hill, Adriene Cruz, Helen Lessick, Ann Hughes, Malia Jensen, Christopher Rauschenberg, Kristy Edmunds, Paul Sutinen, Bill Will, Laura Ross-Paul, MK Guth, Marie Watt, David Eckard, Nan Curtis, Pat Boas, Wynne Greenwood, Vanessa Renwick, and Lahti.

 

Let the ‘Night’ light shine

Conor McPherson's 'The Night Alive' at Third Rail: amid a shambles, a triumph of an anti-Pinter play

There’s a bad guy, a barging-in stranger, who swings a mean and brutish hammer. There’s a woman of unkempt virtue, which of course means there are men of unkempt virtue, too. Squalor, booze, little dodges and petty thefts, things that just seem to happen, abruptly, because that’s the way life is on the seedier side of the great economic divide. And dark laughter at extreme deeds performed and witnessed in head-slapping, matter-of-fact ways.

No, it’s not a Harold Pinter play. Irish playwright Conor McPherson, whose scruffily romantic drama The Night Alive has just opened in a sparkling, intensely intimate and satisfying production by Third Rail Rep, no doubt knows his Pinter well. You can tell from the leaps and elisions and question marks and absurd juxtapositions, and by that odd theatrical sense that, even if you’re not quite sure what’s happening or why, the thing is shaped the way it ought to be: this is its story, and it’s sticking to it.

Kupper (left) and O'Connell: friends to the finish. Photo: Owen Carey

Kupper (left) and O’Connell: friends to the finish. Photo: Owen Carey

But something very unPinterlike is also going on in The Night Alive, and for lack of a better word I’ll just call it grace. McPherson’s characters, for all their flaws and foolishness, are moral strivers, yearning to become their better selves. That posits that there is a better self, something beyond the purely animal and self-preservative, and that achieving it is both worthy and possible. This is not territory that Pinter treads. In McPherson’s world, unlike Pinter’s, something lies beyond.

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Friderike Heuer’s spaces between

At Blackfish, the photomontage artist's series "Zwischenräume" considers a world under constant surveillance

In February, metal sculptor Steve Tilden and glass artist Jen Fuller’s collaboration Stories, a series of works rooted in Greek myths, fills the main sections of Portland’s Blackfish Gallery. It’s augmented by Free Fall, a large selection of photomontages by Friderike Heuer based on air disasters (think Daedalus and Icarus), each one incorporating an image from one of Tilden and Fuller’s pieces, as well. Blackfish’s intimate back room gallery is given over to another of Heuer’s photomontage series, The Spaces In Between, dealing with the ever-presence in the contemporary world of surveillance. For the past few months I’ve been looking at the images from Spaces, off and on, and thinking about them. In January I sat down with Heuer, and we talked about the series and the ideas woven through it.

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“I want to be alone,” actress Greta Garbo famously sighed in the 1932 movie Grand Hotel.

Fat chance, artist Friderike Heuer seems to reply in her series of montages Zwischenräume.

In Heuer’s world, which is also ours, everybody watches everybody, and there is no true alone.

The images in Zwischenräum – which translates from the German as Spaces, or, as Heuer more loosely has it, The Spaces In Between – are fraught with the realization that we are relentlessly, inescapably, seen. Created with analytical precision from her own photographs and remnants of mostly 20th century northern European paintings, they are teeming with portents of spying and entrapment: infrared cameras, piercing eyes, chain-link fences, metal locks, microphones. Sometimes the implements of surveillance are prominent: brute reminders of conformity through force. Sometimes they’re almost unnoticeable: the hidden persuaders of advertising; the quiet collators of computer and cell phone data mining. Always, they are there, even as the people in these fascinating and nervously crowded images seek to dodge them – to find “the spaces in between,” those private refuges from the probing eye.

"Rotkäppchen"

“Rotkäppchen”

Heuer’s 24” x 18” archival jet prints on German etching paper are seductively combined, and narrative but fractured – pieces of story with the plots cut out. Her images, overlaid and manipulated and streaked with lines of paint, are like collages, but not quite. “I do everything on the computer,” she says. “It makes it easier and harder at the same time. What’s harder is making it seem like a coherent piece. In collage, no one expects the jags and breaks not to be there. There’s a fluidity to these that you don’t ordinarily see in collages. People look at them and often don’t see that they’re montages. They’re like paintings.”

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