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MusicWatch Weekly: Getting creative

Third Angle welcomes Oregonian composers home, Creative Music Guild improvises

The best and worst thing about Portland audiences is that they really, really listen to the music. At rock shows like the one your night owl music editor attended Tuesday night at Southeast’s Bit House Saloon, the audience stood around intently focused on listening to loud, thrashing, doomy punk and metal. It’s pretty much always like this at bar shows in this rainy, hoodied town: one hand cradling a glass, the other loosely plunged into one pocket, earplugs in, heads bobbing, but usually no dancing, no mosh pits, no movement from anyone but the musicians. Moving around too much would get you all sweaty and uncomfortable. And besides, you’re here to listen to some damn music.

Meanwhile, across town at the venerable Schnitz, enthusiastic audients got shushed for applauding the first movement of Charles Ives’ Three Places in New England last Sunday. Have a listen to that beautiful barnstormer of luscious melodic overload for yourself:

Ah, but it’s only the first of three movements, so the scattered applause didn’t really take off. It’s always a little embarrassing when this happens. There are valid psychoacoustic reasons for not applauding between movements, but it’s also sad to hear spontaneous joy being stifled.

Anyways, it was the only low point of a wonderful concert full of melodic bliss and rhythmic verve. Three Places and Stravinsky’s Firebird are both swarming with melodies, mostly borrowed from hymns and other folk musics, all given the Modern Classical twist: everything all at once in rhythmic counterpoint and overwhelming panmelodic delight. Andy Akiho’s Percussion Concerto was sandwiched tastily between these, a new work in the Ives-Stravinsky vein, comfortable treating melody and harmony and rhythm and color and texture as isomorphic layers of some Hermetic miracula rei unius.

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DramaWatch: Lighting the Fuse on Arthur Miller

A fresh look at "A View From the Bridge" highlights a busy theater week that also boasts musicals, Greek epics and scary Halloween treats.

In a drafty, uninsulated warehouse on an autumn night, the temperature can drop faster than you might expect.

But theater folk are a hardy lot. So the cast of A View From the Bridge, the latest production from Fuse Theatre Ensemble, simply goes about its work at the start of a recent rehearsal. Actors mill about the cavernous space, running lines and warming up Italian accents. Soon, Rusty Tennant, one of the show’s two co-directors, gathers the performers and outlines a few spatial issues about the set — mostly a large circle of cream-colored carpet and some surrounding chalk lines. During fight call, Tennant adjusts the action so that no one will fall into the small lamps set on the floor around the front edge of the carpet.


“John’s gonna be in a different place, so…,” Tennant says, until lead actor Ernie Lijoi looks up with an absent-minded, “What?”

“I’m so glad that you’re listening to me. Finally,” Tennant replies, to chuckles all around.


“It’s a rare occurrence,” Lijoi says, “so take advantage of it.”

The lawyer Alfieri (Michael J. Teufel, center) counsels a frustrated Eddie Carbone (Ernie Lijoi, right) in Fuse Theatre Ensemble’s A View From the Bridge. Photo: Rusty Tennant

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Wit, speed, a blast from the past

Oregon Ballet Theatre lights the fireworks with Forsythe, Balanchine, and the dazzling return of Dennis Spaight's 1990 "Scheherazade"

From the sharp angles of William Forsythe’s  In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated to the lavish curves of Dennis Spaight’s Scheherazade, Oregon Ballet Theatre celebrated the company’s 30th anniversary on Saturday night  with technical fireworks, wit, drama, and the speed, energy, and adaptability that are the hallmarks of American dancers.   

George Balanchine’s Stravinsky Violin Concerto, which contains much of the source material for Forsythe’s once-radical ballet, was the equally elevated middle piece on this highly charged sampler of works exemplifying three of the creative forces that made ballet American. The third force is Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and the ways in which choreographers such as Spaight and OBT’s current resident choreographer, Nicolo Fonte (e.g. his Petrouchka),  reacted to that tradition.

It’s brilliant programming, and OBT Artistic Director Kevin Irving is to be commended for it. Each ballet is a gift to the audience, and a gift to the dancers as well, offering them opportunities to stretch and grow, hone their technique, and refine their artistry, starting with the curtain-raising In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. This was Irving’s calling card, as a German critic once put it, referring to another artistic director’s vision for a different ballet company.  In this instance, Forsythe’s 1987 ballet, replete with revved-up classical shapes and steps mixed with insouciant, natural walking and standing, represents perfectly Irving’s vision of a contemporary ballet company supported at the box office by evening-length story ballets.   

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Brian Simcoe in William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated at Oregon Ballet Theatre. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

IT NEVER OCCURRED TO ME when I saw the company premiere of Forsythe’s work two years ago that Middle’s  relentless, high-tension propulsion of dancers across the stage, with only the walking and standing  giving dancers and audience a chance to breathe,  provides the same opportunities for bravura turns as the second act of, gulp, The Nutcracker, which will return for its annual run at OBT in December, or The Sleeping Beauty, to be seen in February.  The difference, of course, is musical: Thom Willems’s score for In the Middle ain’t pretty and it tells no stories. But as several critics have pointed out, the pounding rhythms demand as much precision from the dancers as the arias in Violin Concerto or the melodies in Scheherazade

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Bakkhai to the future

Shaking the Tree's visually ravishing new version of Euripides' ancient Greek tragedy ripples nervously down the centuries to now

Don’t aggravate the gods.

This seems like sound advice even today, when the universe is out of kilter enough without purposely sticking a thumb in its eye. How much more sage must it have seemed back in fifth-century B.C.E. Greece, when the pantheon of deities had all the flaws of humans, but were infinitely more powerful, and therefore infinitely more dangerous, and infinitely more used to getting their way?

This holds true particularly if the god in question is named Dionysus (or Bacchus, as the Romans had it), god of wine, fertility, religious ecstasy, ritual madness, and – oh, yes: that giddy and unstable illusion called theater. Dionysus could throw a whale of a party, but he was hardly known for his reasoned approach to problem-solving. He was a vindictive sort, and he bore a grudge, and he gathered devotees who were in his thrall, no matter how cruel or ridiculous or unspeakable his demands might be. If that sounds familiar – well, at a time when the world cries out for Apollonian restraint, here we are, captured in a Dionysian frenzy in our culture and politics, swept up in a foolish and destructive nightmare of blind impulse.

Bakkhai: tellers of the tale. Photo: Meg Nanna

Which may or may not have been why director Samantha Van Der Merwe chose to start the new season at her Shaking the Tree Theatre with Bakkhai, a play you might know better under the title The Bacchae or The Bacchantes, in a new version by the poet and classicist Anne Carson. Euripides’ tragedy, which premiered in 405 B.C.E. in the appropriately named Theatre of Dionysus in Athens, carries a scent of heedless yet inevitable doom that seems to have parallels to the present day, although it’s hardly a perfect fit: It’s tough to blame the gods for our all-too-human current predicament.

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Happy birthday, Street Roots

Portland's weekly newspaper celebrates 20 years as a beacon of advocacy for the city's homeless, and its crew of vendor poets


STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY FRIDERIKE HEUER


“THERE IS A LOT OF COURAGE OUT HERE,” Kaia Sand, executive director of Street Rootscommented recently when introducing women and men at a poetry reading at Gallery 114 ready to present their writing to the assembled guests. The poets were people who are living, fighting, and surviving houselessness. One should add grit, determination, persistence and talent to the notion of courage – both with regard to the presenting poets and the organization that endeavors to support them.

Symbols of the street: the right to speak out.

Many of us might be buying Street Roots on occasion or on a regular basis. The weekly newspaper is produced to provide income opportunities for people experiencing homelessness and poverty, and to act as a catalyst for individual and social change. Vendors pay 25 cents for every paper they sell for $1. For that, they stand days on end on street corners, in all weather, facing who knows how many people who avert their eyes for every one who glances at them, or engages in quick conversation while buying the paper. What stays invisible is the talent and perceptiveness of those vendors trying to connect. What stays hidden is our own timidity to face misery that contrasts with our privilege. Off we rush, having paid a token buck.

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The view from Portland2019

The fifth Biennial at Disjecta embraces politically and socially engaged art

Jess Perlitz’s Onward totters at the center of the Portland2019 Biennial at Disjecta Contemporary Art Center. The artist describes it as a “drunk tower…a fire tower that has survived, a surveillance tower that is skeletal, and a monument that is flaccid.” The object that crowns the structure she calls a  “ghost and shell of a weather vane,” but this seems a rhetorical overreach for the hollow sack with it lazily listing arrow. A weather vane confidently indicates a direction. This limp arrow points to confusion and indicates disarray.

Jess Perlitz, Onward (2019) Burnt wood, abaca pulp.
Photo credit: Mario Gallucci – Courtesy of Disjecta

Cultural disorientation runs rampant in 2019. Whether one attributes it to the protracted death throes of white patriarchal hegemony, (late) late capitalism, global warming or some unruly amalgamation—the world is a mess and certitude is in short supply. Artists and intellectuals everywhere feel an urgency to make art about pressing social and political issues. Ignorance is a bliss to which art is no longer entitled. The Portland2019 artists turn their attentions on Portland and Oregon and adroitly examine, disassemble, and remake our shared home through their art. The art offers viewers a multifaceted understanding of our microcosm. 

When Disjecta took over the Oregon Biennial from the Portland Art Museum in 2010 it made it clear that each incarnation of the Biennial would be determined by the selected curator. So each Biennial has been its own thing: 2010 curated by Cris Moss, 2012 curated by Prudence Roberts, 2014 curated by Amanda Hunt, 2016 curated by Michelle Grabner and now 2019 curated by a trio of young curators: Yaelle S. Amir, Elisheba Johnson, and Ashley Stull Meyers. The 2019 curators describe their focus as “work by Oregon based artists whose practices are rooted in a rigorous approach to socio-political commentary, presenting diverse perspectives on historical and contemporary narratives unique to the Pacific Northwest.” 

The Biennial concept often garners angst. Lisa Radon’s post for ArtsWatch from 2012 “A few questions concerning Portland2012 Biennial” rings relevant. What is a Biennial other than something that happens every two years? The 2016 Biennial was an expansive affair with the work of 34 artists at 25 venues across the state. The 2019 Biennial features the work of 17 artists plus the Harriet Tubman Center for Expanded Curatorial Practice all in the Disjecta Building on North Interstate Avenue. Half the number of artists, one twenty-fifth of the venues and three years after the last Biennial instead of two? Can it still be a Biennial if it is three years after the last installment? 

Amir, Johnson, and Stull Meyers appear to be unfazed by such handwringing. Portland2019, if you dispense with all the Biennial hoopla, is a show of work by Oregon artists grappling with pressing issues, most prominently racism, community identity, and change. 

Jovencio de la Paz, Options for a Racist (2019) Handwoven natural and synthetic fibers, Historic Textile attributed to the collection of Peter Hardeman Burnett, color laser prints on foamcore.
Photo credit: Mario Gallucci – Courtesy of Disjecta

Jovencio de la Paz uses a colonial-era weaving once owned by the writer of the Oregon black exclusion laws of 1844 (Peter Hardeman Burnett) as a point of departure for his work Options for a Racist. De la Paz offers various “weave drafts” of this textile and recombines them to make new schematics that highlight the letters “A Racist.” The new schematics are extractions, recombinations of the warp and weft pattern of the historic textile—present but not evident unless one strips away other layers of design. 

Sara Siestreem’s project deals with a contemporary variant of racism against Oregon’s Indigenous community as it unfolds in Coos Bay with the Jordan Cove LNG controversy (a proposed liquefied natural gas terminal and pipeline). There are multiple environmental issues with the project and The Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians filed a petition to protect the Jordan Cove estuary by making it Tribal Culture Property. In Siestreem’s installation, a photograph of a lawn sign against this petition reading “Stop TCP (Traditional Cultural Property) Historic District” is captioned “Overt Racism.” Siestreem’s accompanying work includes two figures, Matriarch and Tycen, composed of dance caps, skirts, and dance shoes balanced atop large wooden desks. The materials list for the composite figures is long and includes beads, leather, hide, found beadwork, and fibers executed by Siestreem and collaborators. Traditional crafts and desks as indices of bureaucracy bump together in symbiotic unease. It was the imposition of colonial bureaucracy that resulted in Indigenous expulsion, and yet now it is also bureaucracy (in the filing of the TCP petition or, on a more abstract level, the “approval” of Indigenous identity) that provides a means of protection.

Sara Siestreem, Installation at Portland2019 (2019)
Photo credit: Mario Gallucci – Courtesy of Disjecta

Also linked to issues of Indigenous cultural patrimony is Garrick Imatani’s film Drift, part of his larger project centered on Tamanowas (also known as the Willamette Meteorite). Tamanowas, a 15.5 ton sacred object for the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, was removed and sold ultimately to end up at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Efforts to return Tamanowas to Oregon have been in vain, but in 2001, an agreement was reached so that the Grand Ronde tribal members have private access once a year.

In a previous iteration of the project, Imatani accompanied the tribe on this visit and created a 3-D model of Tamanowas. The film at Disjecta was made with virtual reality software that shows Tamanowas taking leave of its pedestal in the National History Museum and returning home to Oregon and the Grand Ronde. On its journey, Tamanowas enters other institutions with items belonging to the Grand Ronde to create a record of dispersion. The film’s screen is encased in a large, foam iceberg. This helps to monumentalize the smaller screen but it is equally thematic. It is hypothesized that Tamanowas was brought to Oregon on a glacier; its return is facilitated by a theme-park-ready facsimile.

Garrick Imatani, The Drift (2019)
Photo credit: Mario Gallucci – Courtesy of Disjecta

Imatani’s work tempers outrage with poignant whimsy, but Demian DinéYazhí’s work provides no such balance and instead uses stark text to raise awareness and shake viewers out of long-cultivated complacency. There are two seemingly separate components to DinéYazhí’s A Nation is a Massacre at Portland2019: a series of prints with yellow text against blue-toned photographic images and then a series of statements in red on a glass door. While the prints are effective and affecting, DinéYazhí’s work reaches its full and devastating potential with the installation on the glass door. The door establishes the title (“A Nation is a massacre”)  and then continues with smaller font statements, including “Oregon was founded through incalculable attempts by settlers to exterminate Indigenous peoples” or “You are a product of indigenous genocide & environmental racism.” The all-caps font and use of aphorisms recall Barbara Kruger or Jenny Holzer, but DinéYazhí’s work favors even more pointed confrontation. The discomfort is the point, the forced awareness of facts that, if presented at all, have been cast more palatably so as not to offend. 

While artists exploring issues related to Oregon’s Indigenous groups have dominated the discussion here, many other Biennial artists consider the Oregon experience of other communities. Sharita Towne’s contributions include a book, mixed-process print, and video exploring what she describes as “Black geographies and imaginaries.” Lynn Yarne made a shrine that celebrates the community memory of Portland’s Chinese and Japanese inhabitants. Sabina Haque’s video installation focuses on communities of color east of Portland’s 82nd Avenue in neighborhoods known as The Numbers. rubén garcía marrufo’s work focuses on border crossings and the Latinx community (in the United States). Anthony Hudson (also known as the drag clown, Carla Rossi) considers the gentrification of Portland’s “Vaseline Alley” and the erasure of LGBTQ history that the sanitized “Harvey Milk Street” represents.

Dru Donovan, Untitled (2019)
Photo credit: Mario Gallucci – Courtesy of Disjecta

Amir, Johnson, and Stull Meyers selected some artists whose work approaches related issues in a more abstract fashion. Dru Donovan’s untitled photographs center on roofing shingles to consider construction, labor, and shelter. Ka’ila Farrell-Smith’s collage painting No Man Camps: Missing Her uses stencils and wildfire charcoal to draw attention to the issues of “man camps” erected adjacent to Indigenous lands to house laborers for LNG (liquefied natural gas) pipelines. The pipelines threaten Indigenous lands; the “man camps” further threaten the safety and health of Indigenous communities. Farrell-Smith’s gestural, looped pipeline is topped with an x-ed out LNG.

While Farrell-Smith’s paintings approach a similar subject to other works in the show from a more oblique angle, the other painter in the show is a more curious inclusion. Adam Bateman’s Field Study #12 and Field Study #14, both from 2016, are large, light-toned abstract works. They are pleasing to look at but out of sync with the rest of the more insistently messaged works in the show. Bateman’s artist statement references farming and the wall tag invokes Manifest Destiny, but the connection is tangential to the more formal paintings. They seem out of place and leagues away from “A nation is a massacre,” “The children are in cages” (from Vanessa Renwick’s you remember, you forget), or “SW Dead Faggot Street” (Anthony Hudson). It seems telling that Bateman’s paintings are from 2016, the same year as the last Portland Biennial and, for 10 months of the year at least, prior to the election of Donald Trump. Michelle Grabner, herself an abstract painter, curated the 2016 Biennial at Disjecta. Bateman’s paintings would have fit more comfortably in that show than this one.

I would be remiss not to mention outstanding contributions of the Harriet Tubman Center for Expanded Curatorial Practice. The project, shepherded by Lisa Jarrett and Harrell Fletcher of Portland State University, facilitates contributions by students from Harriet Tubman Middle School to the arts community. For the Biennial, a group of six seventh graders (Bea, Elliot, Esperanza, Joyce, Nora, and Syncier) interviewed artists, wrote wall tags, and will conduct a panel discussion about their experiences. The students’ wall tags aren’t always directly related to the works they accompany and the students clearly found some artists’ work more compelling than others, but the insight they offer demonstrates engagement and enthusiasm. 

Perlitz’s weather vane doesn’t inspire confidence that the Portland art scene has a good sense of where it is going and that trepidation seems only justified. This is the first Biennial since Blake Shell took over at Disjecta after Bryan Suereth’s ousting on New Year’s Eve, 2016. Two of the three curators are most recently from shuttered institutions and there have been a rash of venue closings in recent years. But the young(ish) set of artists assembled by Amir, Johnson, and Stull Meyers showcases a visual arts community willing to grapple with a fraught past and complicated present. The art can’t be described as pretty nor escapist nor timeless. Perhaps timeful is a better characterization—a snapshot of where we are in 2019 in all its messiness—and that does seem appropriate for a Biennial. Throw in engagement and enthusiasm from some seventh graders, and while the Portland art scene may not know exactly where it’s headed, it seems we’ll be alright. 

Portland2019
Open through November 3
Disjecta Contemporary Art Center
8371 N Interstate Avenue
Open Friday through Sunday 12-5
Free Admission

The Artist Series: Writers

In the first of a new series of portraits, K.B. Dixon concentrates his lens on the faces of 10 leading contemporary Oregon writers.


TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY K.B. DIXON


This is the first in what I hope will be a long series on local artists—in this case, writers, the unusually talented people who work in words, the most common and most difficult of mediums.

The writers here are some of Oregon’s most accomplished and decorated. Their work offers the reader that unique adventure that only the evolutionary miracle of language allows—access to other worlds, both real and imagined.

The visual approach to this new series of portraits differs greatly from my previous series, In the Frame. Here the environmental details are kept to a minimum. The subjects have the frame to themselves and do not compete with the context for attention. This provides for a simpler, blunter, more intense encounter with character.


KIM STAFFORD


Oregon’s Poet Laureate, and Director of the Northwest Writing Institute at Lewis &Clark College. His latest collection of poems is Wild Honey, Tough Salt.

“Among the many forms of wealth,
in the catalog of luxuries, I choose
the right to be forgotten on a quiet
morning such as this….”

– Excerpt from the poem “The Right to Be Forgotten,”
in the collection Wild Honey, Tough Salt

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