VISUAL ART

VizArts Monthly: February lights

Lighten your February load with the Portland Winter Light Festival and an abundance of visual arts exhibitions

Nearly everyone within earshot of these words already understands that one of the implications of the dramatic uptick in the cost of real estate and rents we’ve experienced lands directly on artists and the arts.

At City Hall, it’s apparent that Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioners Chloe Eudaly and Nick Fish understand it, too. “Nothing is inevitable about what we’ve achieved around the arts and culture,” Fish said at a January 9 public workshop on the issue of artists space. Fish, the commissioner responsible for the Regional Arts and Culture Council, has been working on a set of proposals—23 separate items were on his list as of January 9—to address the problem.

That plan will hit city council on February 28, and we’ll be writing about it both before and after that political event. None of the 23 items on the list require any capital expenditure by the city, which makes their passage more likely. Why the city budget is always tight is the subject for a vast treatise on political economy (I’d recommend Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire) and an analysis of where tax money goes. Don’t worry: I’m not going there. The pressing question for artists and arts groups priced out of Portland right now: how soon and how effectively can they alter the market and demographic forces creating the rent squeeze. So, we’ll have LOTS to talk about.

That’s one of the backdrops for this month’s First Thursday and First Friday art openings. The other is the passing of Portland’s Ursula K. Le Guin, a very great artist of the word, whose books did what every great piece of art does: connect us mind, body and spirit to our present reality and propose, directly or indirectly, alternate ones for us to consider. All of this while engaging us so completely that we aren’t thinking about any of this as we experience the work. Le Guin is a model for the artist in all of us.

OK, then, death and government policy: Not such a jolly way to enter the month’s art openings, maybe. I assure you, though, there’s less bread and circus and more serious grappling with our current dire political condition in the shows of our art galleries these days.

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Kellen Chasuk: Inventiveness triumphs over gloom

Kellen Chasuk's lively exhibition at Stephanie Chalfas Projects is full of the still lifes of our time

By PAUL MAZIAR

One of my favorite things about art-making, in any medium, is that the initial subject matter can be totally incidental—without prescribed meaning whatsoever—and yet deeper implications are invariably discovered, by both the artist and whomever is there to experience the thing they’ve made. I love the indeterminacy that creativity can entertain, and the comfort to be found in not knowing—for both artist and viewer.

Taking a couple of separate walks through Plastic Flowers, the new exhibition of Kellen Chasuk’s paintings at Stephanie Chefas Projects through January 27, I find an unmistakable joy in Chasuk’s paintings, an inventiveness. Taken as a whole, the show exemplifies the protean aspects of meaning and experience in contemporary life—related to joy, sorrow, boredom, and anxiety for anyone alive today in these confounding times—and it entertains the concerns and tropes of artists and art history. The readily accessible, familiar passions seen in her tableaus—living, growing things—the bright hues and lighthearted forms, the playful modelling of Kellen’s paint, all of these belie a story of gloom. That’s not quite it—a kind of story opens up, shown in its variation, like life. Here, it’s a relatable gloom, for sure, and given the year we just had, such a lively exhibition is also a triumph.

Elements of Kellen Chasuk’s “Plastic Flowers” exhibition at Stephanie Chefas Projects, through January 27, 2018

Chasuk’s work is palatable in its simplicity and strangeness. You have, on the one hand, all these vivid, humorous interior (i.e., indoors) scenes that show the simplicity of playing around with paint and the rendering of space and form; and on the other, these personal or metaphysical (i.e. the person’s inner life) aspects that are gently implied by the very same means. It’s interesting to me the way that these things become interchangeable, with the possibility of even more depth of meaning through the familiar, simplified forms devoid of pretension, and in many cases even verity.

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The Original Tesla

Harmonic Laboratories' multimedia production in Eugene, Portland and Bend brings the eccentric genius to life

Clean energy. Wireless charging. A world connected by invisible communication technology. For many, they’re today’s reality, tomorrow’s hope — but they were first realistically envisioned more than a century ago by a a Serbian-American immigrant whose name most of us only know because a new car is named after him.

Nikola Tesla, born in 1856, conceived some of the crucial underlying technology that makes it possible for us to flip a switch in our homes and light and heat and the internet and Game of Thrones magically appear. Dubbed “the man who invented the 20th century,” his nearly 300 patents include early contributions to radio, alternating current, and more. Some speculate that had his visions been realized, we’d have much cleaner, cheaper, non climate-change-inducing energy today, using renewable sources like wind, magnetism and hydro power and requiring less expensive infrastructure.

But Tesla’s quirky personality, perhaps even on the autism spectrum, made him a difficult fit for relationships both personal and financial. Many of the eccentric genius’s most visionary ideas (he had some crackpot notions too) were swiped, subverted or suppressed. Contemporary legends like Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse gained riches and renown, while Tesla, after achieving worldwide notoriety and his own fortune, died penniless in 1943, his closest friends being the pigeons he consorted with in the various New York City hotels he called home.

Tesla’s tumultuous story has been told in books and documentaries (including one now running on the Discovery Channel called “Tesla’s Death Ray”), but a life so colorful and complex invites a similarly multidimensional representation. In Tesla: Light, Sound, Color, premiering January 10-11 at the Hult Center’s Soreng Theater and repeating January 13 at Portland’s Newmark Theatre  and January 15 at Bend’s Tower Theatre, Eugene’s Harmonic Laboratory explores the trailblazing scientist/inventor’s world and works through a combination of dance, music, animation, and onstage physics experiments.

“He’s an unsung hero,” says Brad Garner, who choreographed and directs the show. “We wouldn’t have cell phones and power in our homes without his work. He was an immigrant with an American dream who changed the world.”

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VizArts Monthly: Revolving by degree

A new year opens, inch by inch, and lines of flight are revealed

The Earth inches around the sun a fraction less than one degree between December 31 and January 1, and yet somehow I still believe that something momentous has occurred. “Thank the far-flung heavens that 2017 is over,” I exclaim aloud to myself and anyone within hearing distance. People roll their eyes in agreement, make the universal gesture of disgust (raising the index and middle fingers toward the mouth), even snarl audibly—these are the times we live in. We are hoping for better, or at least no worse, a psychological imperative, maybe.

I resolve, I resolve, I resolve. And for some minutes, hours, days, under the spell of those resolutions, I may feel a new lightness in my step. All the same, I know that the environment that produced those universal gestures of disgust hasn’t changed very much during that one degree of revolution (will someone out there check my math?).

Fortunately, the culture itself, our local culture, still has the elements that offered me support during 2017, no matter how grotesque it seemed. I’ll paraphrase Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in “A Thousand Plateaus” (and pardon me if it’s wildly inappropriate here): In 2017 there were “lines of articulation or segmentarity, strata and territories”; but I also found “lines of flight, movements of deterritorialization and destratification.” Mostly I found them manifest and represented in the creative acts of art I bumped into during the year, and even in the society itself occasionally, often prompted by a state of mind initiated by the arts.

Lines of flight. Movements of deterritorialization and destratification. Deleuze and Guattari’s book was published in 1987. And yet…I’m sifting through the experiences the culture offers looking for those same things some 30 years later. Degree by degree, as the Earth revolves. Which maybe itself is a line of flight.

Some art exhibitions opening in January that may destratify your consciousness?

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Q and A: A conversation with Michael Brophy

Paul Sutinen interviews painter Michael Brophy about drawing as a kid, the beginning of his clear-cut forest paintings and his practice as a painter

Overlooking the Council Chamber in Portland City Hall is an eight-foot tall, semi-circular painting by Michael Brophy. Brophy’s description of the painting is quoted on the Regional Arts and Culture Council public art web page: “Portland is a city founded on a river in the middle of a forest and my intent is to depict the sweep of the river valley with a nod towards its history. Stretching from the lower left across the canvas, up river, the 20th, 19th and pre-settlement centuries are presented. The foreground trees are Douglas firs, the state tree, and rise like columns supporting the region, and defining its character and prosperity.”

Michael Brophy, Council Chambers in Portland City Hall, “Lower Willamette Arch: River and Forest,” acrylic on canvas, 95” x 192”

His best known paintings embody a romantic attitude—whether the majesty of the old forest or the tragedy of the clear cut. An exhibition of his paintings will be at Russo Lee Gallery during January.

This conversation took place in his spacious studio in north Portland in late November. A large painting was in progress on one wall and on another wall a large set of drawings was pinned up.

You do a lot of drawing.

I do. I draw all the time. There’s tons of sketches. There’s boxes of this stuff. At one point I did all these big charcoal drawings, about 50 of them or so.

You made a bunch of big pain-in-the-neck charcoal drawings—what do you do with them, because they’re too big to frame? But they need to be protected.

I just put them in cardboard and they’re here somewhere.

Yeah, drawing’s really important. That’s the first thing I ever did as a kid. I don’t remember not drawing. I was “the kid that drew.”

You were known as “the kid that drew?”

Pretty much, from cousins…

I just did it for myself, didn’t take any classes, mostly just copying comics and superheroes, trying to draw the room, make the angle—why does it look like that? I read Cindy’s [Lucinda Parker] interview. She said she always knew she was an artist. I didn’t until I was 20 years old. I didn’t even think about doing anything like that.

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The ArtsWatch year in Visual Arts

This year the arts fought back by finding space for everyone and creating spiky work that reminded us where we are

We live in the best of times—at least measured by the profusion of visual arts in Portland and the state. The number of artists and the places they have found and created have both continued to grow. The thin infrastructure of existing institutions and galleries hasn’t been able to keep up, and so 2017 found us in the middle of a boomlet of new alternative organizations, cooperatives, groups and galleries. Many of these had a social and/or political bent to them, which makes perfect sense in this year of political tumult. The best form of resistance, both to the short-term national political condition and to the long-term drift away from democracy, is to develop new ways and platforms to share art-making, which itself can be a call to reflection and an appeal to shared experience and values. We will get out of this together, and when we do, we want to bring everyone with us.

As I wandered through the ArtsWatch visual arts stories of 2017, I was struck by two things. The first was that our resources were entirely insufficient to keep up with all that was going on. The second? The stories that our arts writers—all freelancers—created in response to what they encountered still managed to sketch an outline, an abstract, of what was going on. Hannah Krafcik, Paul Maziar and Nim Wunnan wrote about new galleries, new organizations and new artists showing in alternative locations. Paul Sutinen produced a series of interviews with some of our most decorated artists. Bob Hicks wrote compelling stories about the Portland Art Museum’s programming and the reimagining of the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education in its new Pearl District digs. And we had several one-shot reports—about an artist collective in Cuba, art made from the detritus washed ashore in Bandon, Oregon, and the back-and-forth between a model-photographer and the painter recreating her on canvas.

If you scroll through our visual arts category, you can find these and lots of other posts, most of them longer-form, all of them committed to grappling with art, artists and the culture in which they operate. The list that follows isn’t my peculiar assessment of the “best” visual arts stories of 2017. It just illustrates what I’ve been talking about, in one way or another.

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10,000 Roses Later: Sarah Meyohas’s ‘Cloud of Petals’

Sarah Meyohas’s film and Virtual Reality installation at Disjecta asserts the beautiful at a time and with technology we've begun to consider terrifying

By PAUL MAZIAR

It’s easy enough to rely on traditional painting and sculpture to be the go-to vehicles of creativity—to show, maybe, what’s it’s like to be alive in the world, or at least what it’s like to look at it. But what is the world anymore, and are those modes sufficient to show how complex and strange it all is, how “cloud-based”? Trompe-l’œil seems more and more a fat chance. It goes without saying that conventional art mediums and the old idyllic scenes aren’t enough. And, like it or not, technology is as much a part of life today as, well, oil and clay. We’ve seen it all, we’ve felt it all, and now it’s being played back to us in every media there is. But what does it want from us, this tech? Our big data, our little faces, our identities? What do we give up to the people who run it, to get to use or convene with it; who are we now? New York artist Sarah Meyohas seems to be considering these things in her new exhibition at Disjecta, Cloud of Petals, her first show in Portland.

In Cloud of Petals, virtual-reality, film, and sound-scape come together as an orchestration, a symphony that, no matter how mediated (media can be rendered moot in such an immersive experience), is intensely pleasurable. This feat is achievable because of Meyohas’s consideration of living forms in their relation to each other, and relative then to technology and its ramifications. The exhibition explores concepts that hinge upon the supremely familiar, “natural” subject of roses—redolent of “love” to the point of the most persistent cliché, thanks, poets—as well as human bodies.

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