On a gloriously sunny Thursday in March, I did what any semi-sane city dweller would be tempted to do: I headed into the deep dark woods. Metaphorically, at any rate.
First stop, along with about 10,000 whooping and hollering grade-school kids (all right, it was only about 300, but 300 nine-year-olds can make quite a racket) was downtown Portland’s Dolores Winningstad Theatre, where Oregon Children’s Theatre was putting on its first of two morning performances of that lively literary masterwork “The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales.”
Satiated with fair stupidity, I then headed southward, through the start-and-stop of several distinctly urban construction projects, to the pastoral campus of Marylhurst University in West Linn, home of The Art Gym. My target: the dual exhibits “The Misadventures of Ansel Adams,” by the photographer Todd Johnson, and “Wood Anniversary: Five years of Signal Fire.” Adams was an important environmental photographer of the American West, an agitator/aesthetician, and Signal Fire is an organization whose purpose in life is to snag artists and guide them into wilderness situations, where, theoretically, their souls will be stirred and their art changed to appreciate the still qualities of the natural and wild.
Important Issues were at hand in The Art Gym, ideas about the wild and the tamed and the way that humans do or don’t fit into the larger scheme of nature. But first things first.
In case you’ve spent the past 20 years in some alternate universe that spins through space without the aid and comfort of those peculiar small-scale beings known as “children,” Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith’s picture book (it’s adapted for the stage by John Glore) is a fractured fairy mashup of the deep and brooding tales retold two centuries ago by the brothers Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm. You know: the “I went deep into the mystic woods where the wild things are, and this is my tale of dread” brothers Grimm. Except, in the Stinky Cheese version, the monsters have pretty much been defanged, and the old stories are picked and pecked at and recombined into a fast-paced series of rim-shot jokes. Let me just mention: when a two-ton pile of cow poop drops out of the giant’s pasture at the top of the beanstalk and lands on somebody’s head on the stage below, no words can describe the sheer ecstasy that arises as one chortling voice from 300 pre-adolescent throats.
There’s a good deal of tomfoolery in this hour-plus show, which of course is the intention: book and play take the stories that kids presumably were raised on from tot-hood (Grimms, Andersen, Perrault, Ma Goose et al) and give ’em an updated, lightly knowing edge. The Stinky Cheese Man is created by a little old lady who, apparently lacking gingerbread dough, pops a little fellow made of leftover cheese into the oven. When he proceeds to run away in pursuit of his own life (“You can’t stop me, I’m the Stinky Cheese Man!”) nobody follows: he smells too bad. You get the drift. The Ugly Duckling (Joe Bolenbaugh) never transforms into a beautiful swan, but he does gain success as a rapper. Avish Menon as Jack the jaded narrator, has a tendency to be hustled offstage by his own characters as he’s trying to lay down a semblance of order; Dre Slaman goes to the races as Little Red Riding Shorts; Elizabeth Klinger high-steps between Loosey Goosey and the Wicked Stepmother; Heath Hyun Houghton will from now until forever be able to add the roles of Cow Patty Boy and Stinky Cheese Man to his list of credits. Jill Westerby strikes a pretty pose as both Cinderella and the princess who puckers up for a pair of not-so-enchanting frog lips; she also gets credit for sliding into the back end of a two-person costume and playing Cow Butt. As the old joke goes, at least it’s show biz.
It’s all bright and quick-paced (Marcella Crowson directs) and snazzily designed, and the jokes just keep flowing, much to the young audience’s delight. Nothing too grim, or even very Grimm, here: it’s all cheeky and urbanized, a comic gloss on something that once held wonder and dread. The Stinky Cheese Man isn’t the only escapist in the crowd, and Jack’s not the only clever lad. Sometimes, kids – and kids’ shows – just wanna have fun.
Down The Art Gym way I discovered not so much funny stuff, although there, too, the mood is very much less than grim. It was gallery talk day, and several of the artists were on hand, along with Terri Hopkins, the space’s longtime curator. I like to go to her shows because even when I’m not blown away by the work I know she’s thought things out and has a very good reason for presenting things the way she does.
The pairing of Johnson’s Adams-inspired photographic images with Signal Fire’s five-year anniversary show is propitious: both deal, from a culturally codified vantage, with the intersection of human culture and the wilderness – with the deep dark woods in myth and reality. As the artists were speaking the sun was bursting through the glass of the gallery’s Palladian-arch windows, descendants of those grand 16th century architectural passageways between the wild and the tame, and it seemed a perfect statement of the theme.
Johnson’s photographs sometimes revisit the sites of specific Adams photos, and juxtapose them with contemporary images – “a geotracking layer,” as he put it, echoing Hopkins’ comment that a lot of the Signal Fire works reveal “a kind of layering of information.” Other of Johnson’s photos seem wry or ironic – a vivid portrait, for instance, of a vacuum thermos purported to have been Adams’ – suggesting that Adams’ environmental images and the wilderness itself have become commodities. The work has to do with the myth of the West and the frontier in American contemporary art, which naturally raises the questions of sprawl and scarcity, and also of what the “wild” is: as Johnson noted, “82nd Avenue, Johnson Creek Boulevard, Sandy Boulevard … it’s still sort of a frontier.” The show’s full title gives a sense of where he’s coming from, which in its more abstract way isn’t all that different from the mashing-up of “The Stinky Cheese Man”: “The Misadventures of Ansel Adams: Garage Sales, Geo Tracking and General Tomfoolery.”
The Signal Fire show includes 13 artists, among the hundred or so writers, musicians, filmmakers and visual artists who’ve taken part over the past five years in one of the organization’s wilderness experiences, which range from long and sometimes rugged hiking expeditions to residencies in the woods, where artists set up camp and meet up with other artists in the evenings, but are otherwise free to simply … be, away from cell phones and conveniences and the modern world. They can do as they wish, in the hope that this quest into quietude will somehow change the way they think about the world and, as a result, the way they approach making their art. All of the treks are into public lands.
The resulting art is surprisingly varied, from the romantic (Kyle Riedel’s gorgeously photographed portraits of old-growth stumps covered with new vegetation; Kendra Larson’s big lush forest paintings) to the whimsical and lightly astonished (Guillaume Legare’s bramble of barbed wire with bright pennant flags attached; Jillian Vento’s sweet pencil drawings paired with brief verbal reports: “Found all kinds of deer bones today. Saw a coyote and a northern harrier”; “I am the deer whisperer”) to the well-crafted (April Marie Hale’s delicate sculptures made of the likes of sheep skulls, deer antlers, felted wool, even shotgun shells and a toy gun). For some the wilderness experience means amping up; for others, paring down. Dan Gilsdorf, known for his technology-heavy art, still emerged with technology on his mind, but a very stripped-down technology. Using only a manual typewriter, he created a series of small, precisely patterned images. “I think of these, really, as drawings,” he said, adding that he found the outdoor experience “very, very rewarding.”
Somewhere in the midst of this illuminating and not so stupid day, the thought struck me: there is no deep dark wood. Not any more, and not outside the human mind. At least, not any deep dark wood that most of us will ever experience, even if we’re hardy sorts who strap on our backpacks and trek into those places we call wilderness. “I’m really attracted to artists who do journeys as their work,” environmental artist Ryan Pierce, who founded Signal Fire with conservationist and public-lands activist Amy Harwood, said at the Art Gym gathering.
Inevitably, journeying is what we do. Like the particle that changes course simply by being observed, our deep dark wood has had to accommodate our presence and impact, both in the particular and the macrocosmic: the mere existence of 7 billion human beings has altered how the planet operates. Any attempt to preserve the pristine is bound to fail because in a global system, fences don’t work: everything’s connected. But the old and out-of-fashion word “stewardship” seems ever more essential. For better and for worse, we are now gardeners. Some parts of our garden are productive. Some are “wild” parts: reserves; approximations of a world outside of human touch. Gardens are about interaction. How does human intervention into nature change and shape what nature is and does?
Really, the tales of our childhood wilderness dreams have always been about journeying, which is just another word for intervention. Little Red Riding Hood straying off the path. Hansel and Gretel being led into danger. Jack braving the beanstalk and treating the giant’s country as a colony to be plucked clean of its wealth, like a voyageur going after beaver pelts. “The Stinky Cheese Man” ratchets up the old stories for an urbanized and technology-savvy generation of kids, scrambling the signals so the fun’s in recombining and reinventing. Johnson’s Ansel Adams-inspired photos explore the point of intervention – the layering of new on old and the poking-through of the old into the new. Signal Fire attempts to strip back the civilized and rediscover the wonder and the weird – if not to re-create the pristine, then at least to get people to feel again the power of the uncivilized and unknown in something like the way the Grimms felt it.
In our increasingly urban culture we live with a lot of romanticism about the wilderness as a precious place apart. In reality, we’ve made it an extension of us. We consume things. Personally, I’d have chased down the Stinky Cheese Man and consumed him with a good wine and a good loaf of bread. I consumed about a gallon of fossil fuel in pursuit of this story. Sometimes Signal Fire trips, which consume their own slice of natural resources, result in rude awakenings. Artists will ask, Pierce said, “If this is a national forest, why are all these cattle everywhere?” Well, because public lands aren’t simply set-asides: they are places that are used, whether by ranchers or loggers or outdoor sports enthusiasts. With 7 billion people on the planet, they’ll continue to be used.
The question is: when is the best use active, when is it limited, and when is the best use no use at all?
- “The Stinky Cheese Man” continues through March 24, with weekday performances for school groups and wekend performances for general audiences. Ticket information is here.
- The Todd Johnson and Signal Fire exhibits continue through April 3 at The Art Gym, on the campus of Marylhurst University, about two miles south of Lake Oswego on U.S. Highway 43. Gallery hours are noon-4 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. Admission is free.