CULTURE

A Cascadia Composer in Cuba

A Portland composer brings her music to Havana, and returns with a new perspective on music in everyday life

by CHRISTINA RUSNAK

Editor’s note: with Cascadia Composers bringing Cuban contemporary classical music to Portland for a Friday concert performed by FearNoMusic, we’re sharing Cascadia Composer Christina Rusnak’s experience exploring the Havana music scene and recording her music there last year.

Politics may divide us, but music unites us. In 2015, I was invited by Parma Recordings to come down to Cuba with four other American composers to record our pieces in Havana, Cuba. The focus of much of my musical work is at the intersection of place and culture. To experience Cuban culture and music at this historic juncture – it seemed like destiny called! Along with supervising the recording two of my compositions, I was able to explore Havana and gain some insights on Cuban music, art, and life.

Approaching Havana. Photo: Christina Rusnak.

The piece I submitted was a short work to be sung by the women’s choir Vocal Luna. Written for a wedding, Parma asked if I could I write a companion piece for them to sing. “Yes” is a composer’s best friend, so I finished a funeral piece in January and sent them both off to be rehearsed for the Havana recording session in April 2016.

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The Meaningful Manners of Miss Julie

Strindberg's erotic drama probes the link between beliefs and behaviors, and cracks into the rift between rich and poor

One must never leave the theater mid-scene. And certainly not just to go pee. It’s simply not done. Perpetrators must be chastised or shunned.

At Shaking The Tree last weekend, my seatmate violated that firm principle of etiquette at the very climax of August Strindberg’s* drama of manners, Miss Julie. Before the show, she’d chatted with me affably, managing to mention that she’s a homeowner in a pricey neighborhood. But after her faux pas (which included a hoarse whisper, a departure and a return midplay) I could barely look at her. In my eyes, she was fallen.

This real-life scenario actually handily illustrates the playwright’s key thesis: that our notions of social propriety often run too deep for our shared humanity to overcome. Certain social mores are at least baked and sometimes beaten into our psyches from childhood, and whenever someone breaks an ironclad convention—even if no further harm would seem to be done—they can cause intense distress, shame, and pain.

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Conversation with Cuba

Cascadia Composers' journey to Cuba opened eyes and ears to musical and cultural riches

By DANIEL HEILA

When Havana Contemporary Music Festival president Guido Lopez-Gavilan wrote to David Bernstein inviting the Cascadia Composers association (northwest chapter of the National Association of Composers, USA) to his festival as guests of the Writers and Artists Union of Cuba, he included this entreaty:

“As is well known, our country is going through a difficult economic period, and therefore, we would appreciate it if you could communicate with us, regarding the possibility that you could obtain funding for your trip.”

What a profoundly gracious understatement. As if nearly 60 years of economic sanctions were nothing to go on about between potential friends. Bernstein got busy and procured the help of Project Por Amor to arrange for safe passage of six Cascadia composers (David Bernstein, Daniel Brugh, Ted Clifford, Paul Safar, Jennifer Wright, and Art Resnick whose work was performed though he did not attend due to illness) to Havana for the festival, held Nov. 14-22, 2016.

This Saturday, the Cascadians reciprocate with two concerts, the first featuring new music from Cuba performed by FearNoMusic, the second showcasing the sounds of the Pacific Northwest. In October, Oregon musicians performed the music the Cascadians took to Cuba in a concert at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall called “A Cuba con Amor — To Cuba with Love.”

Wright rehearses with Cuban musicians for a performance of her “Loopers” in Havana. Photo: Matias Brecher.

I invited each composer to offer their perspectives on the trip and was pleased by the commonality of their responses. All mentioned the warmth and friendliness of the Cuban people and the tragic beauty of Havana. All marveled at the brilliant, sensual, passionate musical environment. And all were blown away by the artistic commitment and passion of the festival players.

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By LAUREL REED PAVIC

I have been thinking about Costumes, Reverence, and Forms currently at the Center for Contemporary Art and Culture for the better part of a week. When I first saw the show, I was perplexed. Partially, the reaction can be chalked up to the gallery map provided at the entrance that identified the artist and title for each work. The map was based on a building blueprint with confounding layout features—a hidden staircase, an unseen office, a set of what look like four stove-top burners nowhere to be found. But beyond the map, I felt intimidated by the work, concerned that I just didn’t get it.

But once I made peace with my spatial inadequacies and considered the show further, my initial hesitation faded. So what I want to tell you is what I wish I had known going into gallery and what has helped me move beyond my initial “huh?” reaction.

Tabitha Nikolai’s “Sick Transex Gloria,” part of “Costumes, Reverence, and Forms” at the Center for Contemporary Art and Culture/Photo by Mario Gallucci

The exhibition is a curatorial exchange between CCAC in Portland and Vox Populi in Philadelphia. Vox Populi is an artist-run space and the curatorial group that participated in the exchange included Mark Stockton, Bree Pickering, Chad States, and Suzanne Seesman. CCAC is part of the Pacific Northwest College of Art. The Center’s director, Mack McFarland, and assistant director, Ashley Gibson, were the curators from Portland.

The Portland and Philadelphia curators each generated a list of about 100 artists in their respective cities to give to their counterparts in the other city. The curators then looked through the artists’ websites and culled the field to about 20 artists they wanted to do studio visits with on a visit to the other city. From the “semi-final” group of studio-visit artists, each set of curators selected four artists to be in the show. This all took the better part of a year and involved many conversations between the curators and artists. The “guiding principle” terms—costumes, reverence, and forms—were chosen after the roster of artists had been determined. There was an iteration of the show in Philadelphia in January of 2017 and the show opened in Portland in April.

The curators didn’t select individual works but instead selected the artists whose practices they were most struck by. Both sides were surprised by some of the other’s finalists. The selection of works for the shows was much more fluid and artist-directed. Some of the artists wanted to show newer work than the curators had seen in the studio visits, and others wanted to respond specifically to the exhibition space. While the shows in both locations included all of the same artists, the roster of works included is not identical.

The Vox Populi show had an entry archway that clearly identified which artists were from which city. The CCAC version didn’t indicate this except in the gallery brochure. Portland artists were identified with a small blue arch and Philadelphia artists with a small pink arch. There was no “key” for these symbols though (and I actually just figured it out now, leaving me again feeling a little slow). Marianne Dages, Beth Heinly, Anna Neighbor, and Kristen Neville Taylor are the artists from Philadelphia. Avantika Bawa, Tabitha Nikolai, Jess Perlitz and Ralph Pugay are the artists from Portland.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tear down (or build) that wall

Robert Schenkkan's political provocation "Building the Wall" at Triangle pokes into the Trump Effect and a possible American future

Building the Wall, Robert Schenkkan’s quick-out-of-the-gate stage response to the American political and cultural shift of the past year, is a well-timed last-minute addition to the current season at Triangle Productions. A protest play that questions whose America this will be in the wake of the Trumpian political revolution, it runs for a brief engagement through April 29 at The Sanctuary.

On the surface Building the Wall, which is directed at Triangle by company leader Donald Hornis a conversation between two people who seem like polar opposites. One man sits in an orange prison jumpsuit. Opposite him is a history professor, who is also a black woman. The prisoner dropped out of school, got a GED and entered the military. The professor is a liberal. The prisoner is a modern-day Republican.

Gavin Hoffman and Andrea Vernae: over the wall. David Kinder/Kinderpics

But the conversation isn’t just between this unlikely pair. It’s the conversations we’ve been having at the dinner table with family, on the bus with strangers, in our social media feeds, in an explosive era of journalism, overflowing town halls, and packed activist meetings. The conversation between Rick and Gloria is also with us.

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The Oregon Visual Arts Ecology Project: Examining the culture

The Ford Family Foundation and the Oregon Arts Commission have founded a new website that focuses on art in the state

At this moment, any effort to preserve our shared culture is a noteworthy event. This is especially true of the arts parts of the culture. As Oregon Arts Commission’s Meagan Atiyeh noted at a symposium that introduced one such effort, the Oregon Visual Arts Ecology Project, the state’s media has abandoned its commitment to full-time critics writing about the arts. And that means that both contemporary conversations about the arts and future investigation of our culture are/will be limited. What happens to a culture that doesn’t understand its past or its present? We are perilously close to finding out.

Backed by the considerable resources of The Ford Family Foundation and the Oregon Arts Commission—more than $50,000 since early 2014, according to Atiyeh, not including lots of staff time—the project intends to be an informal archive and an online magazine that takes the measure of the visual arts in the state. “The partners’ shared wish is to create an accessible, permanent, virtual collection documenting Oregon’s visual arts landscape,” the mission statement says, “and, to continue the metaphor, the interconnected realms of artist, institution, patron, curator, arts writer… which become that ecology.”

Ryan Pierce, From the Pockets of the Wanderer, 2014. Flashe on canvas over panel. Courtesy of the artist and Elizabeth Leach Gallery, Portland

According to Atiyeh (in an email interview), the website hopes to reach a broad public. “We designed a site that I hope can be rewarding for a highly invested artist or a curator who is looking for research materials and also a casual arts viewer in Oregon (or any spot on the globe, honestly).”

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