A month of Sundays with Shu-Ju Wang

A few friends drop by to tell tales of fear and loss and beauty during the Waterstone Gallery artist's show "Things That Don't Float."

On the second Sunday of September, at close to 11 a.m. sharp, the artist Shu-Ju Wang stood before a small crowd seated on folding chairs inside Waterstone Gallery in Portland’s Pearl District and began to tell tales. She talked about growing up in a village on Taiwan, and how her father, as a child, had almost drowned while trying to learn how to swim (a boy chasing after an errant ball discovered him flailing, and pulled him to safety), and how she herself had a reluctant relationship with water, as do most Taiwanese people of her age and older (she was born in 1960); how swimming wasn’t something people did for exercise or pleasure, but her father decided when she was a girl that she should learn to swim, anyway.

Wang had a box of props on the floor behind her, and a few strewn over a chair, and she was speaking in a room surrounded with her art in this month’s featured show, Things That Don’t Float. Among those things, as it turns out, is Wang herself, despite her father’s attempt to teach her to swim in the less than pristine river that ran behind their village: Water buffalo made a habit of using the river for nature’s purposes, and water snakes called it home. “Just float!” he told her, holding her head above the water and offering no further instruction. Oddly, the lesson didn’t take.

Artist Shu-Ju Wang. Photo: Doug Richardson

Wang, as it turns out, has an abiding fear of swimming, and has managed over nearly six decades never to learn how. She remembers the corduroy swimming suit her mother made her for that fruitless childhood swimming lesson: “It had Mondrian shapes in dark blue, pink, mauve shades. I remember how it was heavy with water as I tried to get out of the river, how it upset my balance as I tried to walk on the rocky river bank as the water swished around in the bottom of my suit. Later, when I mentioned the corduroy swimming suit to my mother, certain that she would not remember, she said, ‘oh, we didn’t know anything back then! All I could think of was how to keep you warm in cold water.’”

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Carving her own path

Two pieces by woodcarver Monica Setziol-Phillips will be installed at Salishan, within steps of work by her famous father, Leroy Setziol

It’s been a struggle for artist Monica Setziol-Phillips to escape the shadow of her famous father, Leroy Setziol, often referred to as the father of woodcarving in the Northwest.

“It’s challenging,” Setziol-Phillips said. “Because people look at me, especially people who knew him, and think of my father. It’s a bit of a fight.”

But with the installation of the latest works of art at Salishan Resort in Gleneden Beach, Setziol-Phillips will literally take her place next to her father, on the grounds of the resort where 15 of his teak carvings are showcased.

The pair of wood carvings, 7- and 8-feet tall, will be celebrated Oct. 4 at the Salishan lodge with an opening talk at 5 p.m. by Setziol-Phillips, followed by a reception. The freestanding columns are carved on four sides from yellow cedar. They will be outside the lodge, visible from the reception area.

Monica Setziol-Phillips carves at the same bench her father, Leroy Setziol, used. A resident of Sheridan, she is former president of the Yamhill County Cultural Coalition. Photo by: Stuart Eagon
Monica Setziol-Phillips carves at the same bench her father, Leroy Setziol, used. Photo by: Stuart Eagon

Setziol-Phillips described the pieces as mostly abstract, but with a recognizable cloud form and sun form. “They come from the energy of the ocean, the abstract patterns that form in the sand, the weather,” she said. “To me, it is a very coastal piece. It has to do with referencing the attitude of the ocean, because it’s always amazed me that the ocean can be so fearsome and yet so soothing. And something to be grateful for. It’s somehow puts you at one.”

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A little ‘Medea’ in modern clothes

Seattle playwright Yussef El-Guindi, known in Portland for "Threesome" and "The Talented Ones," sets off a domestic war in his newest play

SEATTLE – So much has happened to our nation, and to the world, since the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003 under President George W. Bush.  So much that many Americans have simply lost track of the misery, the devastation and the lasting consequences – from mass post-traumatic stress to tides of international terrorism and a scarily destabilized Middle East – that still radiate from that military misadventure.

But anyone with battle scars obvious or invisible hasn’t forgotten. Nor has Seattle-based playwright Yussef El-Guindi.  In his new People of the Book, now in its world premiere run at Seattle’s ACT Theatre, he sheds a sharp light on that war’s intimate effects on two couples whose battlefield becomes the home front.

From left: Quinlan Corbett, Sydney Andrews, Wasim No’mani, Monika Jolly in People of the Book. Photo: Chris Bennion

Egyptian-born, U.K.-educated and now a U.S. citizen, El Guindi is one of a very few playwrights of Middle East heritage to gain a national audience. Since the 1990s he has been crafting intelligent, unsettling dramas that investigate the tricky cultural, political and interpersonal dynamics between contemporary Americans and Middle Easterners.

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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

A new festival addresses dire conditions for dance

Union PDX - Festival:19 opens on Thursday with an agenda that goes beyond the onstage performances

“As Portland (dance) artists, we aren’t provided the opportunities that we really need,” Portland choreographer Samuel Hobbs says. “ We are all scrambling for the same scraps…we need visibility and accessibility.”

Hobbs was explaining both the dire condition of local dance artists and the reason he created Union PDX – Festival:19, a brand new contemporary dance festival. Union PDX debuts September 26-29 at the 180-seat Hampton Opera Center on the river in Southeast Portland, close to MAX with ample free parking also available.

The festival, curated and directed by Hobbs, will feature world premieres by Portland choreographers Amy Leona Havin—artistic director of The Holding Project, choreographer Carlyn Hudson, and Hobbs, who also directs his own company, push/FOLD Contemporary Dance Company

“Doing your own show is great, but maybe there’s a way that we can come together and lift each other up,” Hudson said when I met up with her, Hobbs, and Havin to hear about the festival and their work. 

Artistic director of push/FOLD dance company, Samuel Hobbs, rehearsing his new work, Ash, to be debuted at his new festival, Union PDX – Festival:19, from September 26-29 at the Hampton Opera Center. Pictured left to right are Holly Shaw, Briley Jozwiak, Ashley Morton, Samuel Hobbs, and Liane Burns.
Photo by Jingzi Photography.

Hobbs has commissioned both Havin and Hudson to create new work for the festival on his company’s four dancers—Holly Shaw, Briley Jozwiak, Liane Burns, and Ashley Morton. ”Right now funding is huge! Funding and platform. To be commissioned by established institutions and to receive funding are the two biggest things that would absolutely change the game for me at this point,” Havin said.

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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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The family that vanished

Author JB Fisher talks about a 61-year-old Portland mystery, this week at Third Street Books in McMinnville

On Thursday evening, Portland author JB Fisher will return to his one-time home of McMinnville to read from and discuss his latest book, Echo of Distant Water: The 1958 Disappearance of Portland’s Martin Family. You’ll find him downtown at Third Street Books, which has proved over the years that small-town indie bookstores can not only survive, but thrive. The Sept. 26 event begins at 6:30 p.m., and the store has a plentiful supply of copies for purchase.

Fisher is the author of another Portland true-crime book, Portland on the Take: Mid-Century Crime Bosses, Civic Corruption & Forgotten Murders, written with JD Chandler and published in 2014. That volume tells the tale of how gangsters gained control of some of the city’s unions during the Red Scare that followed the 1934 West Coast waterfront strike.

It turns out his new book was born right under my nose.

The author, teacher, and historian and his family used to live around the corner from us in McMinnville before they moved to Portland about six years ago. Our kids played together occasionally, so it turns out that I’ve actually visited the house where Echo of Distant Water has its origins.

Portland author JB Fisher came to true-crime via a background in Shakespeare and English Renaissance literature. He notes that popular literature of that time is “full of sensational stories: infanticides and hangings and the seedy underworld of ‘rogues, vagabonds, and sturdy beggars.’”
Portland author JB Fisher came to true-crime via a background in Shakespeare and English Renaissance literature. He notes that popular literature of that time is “full of sensational stories: infanticides and hangings and the seedy underworld of ‘rogues, vagabonds, and sturdy beggars.’” Photo by: Robert Delahanty

Digging through boxes in the garage of the ranch-style home, Fisher found a stack of newspapers left behind by the previous owner, and that was where he first learned about the Martin family. That story goes back to 1958, and boiled down to the most basic facts, it goes like this:

A few days before Christmas of that year, Ken and Barbara Martin of Portland and their three daughters climbed into their 1954 Ford station wagon and headed up the Columbia Gorge to find a Christmas tree. (Their 28-year-old son was stationed in New York with the Navy.) They had lunch at a Hood River diner, then apparently headed back to Portland.

Then they vanished.

Evidence emerged about a month later suggesting that the car had plunged off a cliff into the Columbia River near The Dalles. Early in May 1959, the bodies of the two youngest girls were discovered — one in the Columbia Slough near Camas, Wash., and the other near the Bonneville Dam spillway. The car was never found.

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