James B. Thompson, 1951-2019

Remembering the wide-ranging Oregon artist and Willamette University professor, who has died at 68. A memorial service will be held Nov. 5.

When James B. Thompson was growing up in Chicago in the 1960s he often hopped on the Illinois Central train and headed down to the Loop to spend the day hanging out at the Art Institute of Chicago, one of America’s great museums. What he saw there added to an eclectic list of influences on his own emergence as an artist. “I had the movies and I had TV, and both were important to me,” he said. “And I had books. And radio. Baseball cards. And then, the world of music. It’s a weird world. Forms of entertainment become dominant in our lives.”

As he grew and traveled and established his own distinguished career as an artist and teacher, other experiences and influences added to his broad vision of the world of art: medieval books of hours and their free-floating sense of space, the mysteries of Neolithic stone art, the techniques and possibilities of fused glassmaking, the game of golf, the act of mapping, geological shifts, the ways in which science and nature and human beings interact, the human impact on the changing landscape, the fading of traditional cultures in a modern world, the cultural and artistic implications of the fragmentation of the universe, the liberating breakup of Renaissance perspective in contemporary art.

Thompson died on October 27, 2019,at his home in Salem, Oregon, from effects of the cancer mesothelioma. He was surrounded by his loving and supportive family. He was 68.

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Hallie Ford Fellows explore ‘What Needs to Be Said’

The Salem museum features 13 artists in a traveling exhibit emphasizing the range of visual art

The poster for What Needs to Be Said, an exhibition at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem, features an image of a stack five thick hardbound volumes by artist MK Guth, who incorporates participatory engagement into work that includes printmaking. 

These books, bearing the title of the show, are in fact part of the show. Each has a subtitle: Love, Politics, Identity, Ecology, and Art. When the exhibit opened mid-September, most of what must be thousands of pages were blank, but that’s for the viewer to rectify. Those with something to say, something they deem must be said, may say it here (anonymously or not) and know that they’ve contributed to Guth’s vision. She will seal the volumes once they are filled, making them, according to guest curator Diana Nawi, “repositories for inner thoughts, objects that index and contain critical expression without fully revealing it — an apt metaphor for the possibilities of artistic practice.”

"What Needs to Be Said," is a printmaking project by MK Guth, after which the show at Hallie Ford Museum of Art is named. Photo by: David Bates
MK Guth’s project “What Needs to Be Said” shares its title with the name of the show at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art. Photo by: David Bates

Guth is one of 13 artists whose artistic practice is featured in the show, which runs through Dec. 20 on the Willamette University campus, a few blocks east of downtown. What links them? All were recipients of the Hallie Ford Fellowship between 2014 and 2016, an award that goes to Oregon artists “based on accomplishment, depth of practice, and future potential.”

A variety of work fills the sprawling ground-floor Melvin Henderson-Rubio Gallery: photography, drawings, installation, sculpture, a soundscape (which I initially thought was the building’s air circulation system), as well as the public engagement invited by Guth’s books. A handsome, 112-page hardcover catalog with short essays by Nawi and a half-dozen arts-and-culture critics can be purchased in the lobby.

What Needs to Be Said is touring Oregon. It opened in the Umpqua Valley Arts Center and Umpqua Community College in Roseburg earlier this year. Early in 2020, it arrives at Disjecta in Portland. The show heads south again in 2021 to the Schneider Museum of Art at Southern Oregon University in Ashland.

The diversity of media on display posed, for me, a chicken-egg question. Was the show’s title selected and Guth’s piece adopted it? Or was the piece submitted before the show was named? I asked Nawi, a Los Angeles-based curator. It turns out the book stacks came first; Nawi was already familiar with them.

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‘The Dope Elf’ considers power

The Gawdafful National Theater visited Yale Union earlier this month for play about white supremacy that kept the audience in motion

By KYLE COHLMIA

“I am the dopest elf!” proclaimed Jacqueline Wright during the final monologue of her performance in The Dope Elf, written and directed by Asher Hartman and performed in three different plays by the Gawdafful National Theater at Yale Union in Portland, September 14–October 20. 

While seemingly humorous, her exclamation of identity wasn’t a joke. It wasn’t stated for the purpose of amusement or banter. It was a strong proclamation asserting power. This interactive live play/social experiment/art project is, after all, about power, specifically white supremacy, which Hartman described in the catalogue as “the underlying cause of all ills, loss, boredom, and perilous transformation.” 

The play itself experiments with elements of power between the performer and audience members. As the observer, you are not passively sitting in front of a stage, watching the actors from afar. Instead, The Dope Elf requires that the audience congregate around the actors, following them, sometimes unknowingly, from scene to scene, placing their bodies in a vulnerable position of proximity, inside the sets themselves.

Jacqueline Wright as The Dope Elf in Asher Hartman’s “The Dope Elf” for Gawdafful National Theater/Photo by Ian Byers-Gamber

Phillip Little, Gawdafful National Theater actor who plays the role of John in The Dope Elf, addresses this power dynamic in the play’s program: “If you occupy land, you occupy history, and that history talks back. Dreams, hauntings, visions are the mediums through which this history is transmitted. Personalities fragmented along spiritual fault lines. Inner landscapes are remade gradually or cataclysmically.”

His quote speaks to the “presumed safety” and privilege audience members usually hold  in traditionally white art spaces. In The Dope Elf our passive role as consumer is challenged and put into question, as we are now physically a part of the collective narrative.

The Dope Elf’s non-linear storyline of elves, trolls, ghosts, magicians, and animals, “questions popular culture’s fascination with mystical power as a substitute for political power,” as “each character grapples with their own unidentifiable psychic pain,” (Dena Beard, Curator, The Dope Elf program notes). With stage aesthetics resembling nostalgic ‘80s TV shows like “Pee Wee’s Playhouse,” the actors walk the audience through overlapping narratives with complex dialogue that switches from recognizable to ambiguous language.

As an audience member of Play 2, the second iteration of the three-part, non-narrative but sequential performance, I was initially intrigued by the stage designs that were laid out across the gallery space. The performance started out in the center of Yale Union with the Dope Elf, an aging trans man/elf, and their troll neighbor Gingy as the central characters. The two converse about their identities, interactions and everyday absurdities, moving separately and together in rolling chairs that became like a dance, a duet of fluidity, where The Dope Elf exerts their power over Gingy, setting the tone for the rest of the play. 

We are then thrown into a scene between two lovers, John and Alfred, who dramatize their contentious but loving relationship. At the end of this interaction, John seemingly dies, and as we progress into the next scene, he slowly and methodically dresses, changing from his white t-shirt and “Lucky Charms” boxers into a man’s business suit while singing an Irish song, a poetic transition from queer lover to staunch businessman.

Once he is in his new costume, he confronts The Dope Elf about purchasing their home so that new businesses can occupy their property. We are then introduced to two new characters, The Magician, a white man who lives in a glass house, and a black man, Dirk, who comes out of the audience and into the performance. Dirk interacts with The Magician and successively Alfred and John, in two separate scenes, ostensibly meant to invoke the concept of white supremacy and dramatize race relations. At the end of the play we are reintroduced to John and Alfred who turn into a violent elf and hellhound, respectively, ending on a macabre note, leaving the fate of each character open-ended and up for interpretation.

While the poetic dialogue and overlapping stories brought me in and out of consciousness, creating a blurred perception of the characters and their relationships to one another, the overall theme of The Dope Elf was clear. This is about power. 

As The Dope Elf exclaims:

“This is about power. I will sacrifice myself to
the impulse for power. As actors do… Oh yes,
I am a magical system. An elf is a magical
system. I am that. I am a system. I rearrange.
people and things. Like that. Oh yes, what
you perceive of me is true. Whatever you
think. Oh, yes, there will be blood.”

The positioning of the audience alone indicates this theme—the awkwardness of where to sit or stand or how to interact with the performers strips away the power of passive consumption. I keep going back to Little’s quote on land occupation—as an audience member, I am not separate from the landscape of psychic pain and the structures of white supremacy. 

I am the you that occupies land. I am the you that occupies a history. And while I may not be the dopest elf, I am the you whose inner landscape is gradually and sometimes cataclysmically being remade.

Kyle Cohlmia was born in Stillwater, OK. She received a B.A. in Art History and Italian with a minor in English from the University of Kansas and an M.A. in Instruction and Curriculum at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Kyle has worked at various art museums and galleries including the Denver Art Museum, Oklahoma Hall of Fame, and most recently, as Curator of Exhibitions for the Melton Gallery at the University of Central Oklahoma. She is a previous fellow of Oklahoma Visual Arts Coalition’s Art Writing and Curatorial Fellowship and has written for various art publications including Art Focus, Art 365, and Art Discourse. Kyle is currently living in Portland, OR, working toward her second M.A. in Critical Studies at Pacific Northwest College of Art. 

Amina Ross at Ditch Projects: a meander nevertheless flows

Amina Ross inaugurates the 11th year of Ditch Projects with a multimedia installation, 'When the water comes to light out of the well of my self'

Ditch Project, now in its 11th season of exhibitions in Springfield, Oregon, has kicked off this year with Amina Ross’ When the water comes to light out of the well of my self. The multimedia installation is curated by the Director of Black Embodiments Studio, Kemi Adeyemi, and continues through November 2. As the title of the exhibit indicates, to come to an understanding of the artist’s intent, full immersion is required. Yet, if one looks for a starting point for the narrative that occurs, one might find oneself lost in metaphors for and about water.

That is to say the exhibit can be a little difficult to navigate at first, at least if one tries to follow the list of pieces on the information card. The animation Refracted Rituals, for example, is first on the list, yet the piece itself, a single monitor partially draped with a blanket, is in the far back corner of the gallery. The information card then becomes something to be put aside as a guide for anything but knowing the title of a piece. And so the viewer meanders as though following a flatland stream, its bends and eddys eventually revealing the scope of the work. 

Amina Ross, Untitled (watering is a type of releasing)/photo by Mike Bray, courtesy of Ditch Projects

Two multi-colored pillows suspended from the ceiling, Hold (1) and Hold (2), are the first things one sees, although a scaffolded bed-like platform to their left and a stack of four monitors on the right side of the gallery, compete for attention. The bed, Etheric Bridge (Winter’s Grief), has two people lying on it, so I move over to the monitors. The card lists this piece as Untitled (watering is a type of releasing) with a note that reads “on top of the monitors there is water from 3 baths and a tincture made of Hawthorne and rose.” In that the contents of these jars looks more like decaying sludge, I wonder what sort of bath they are from. Certainly not the relaxing, bubbly kind. Some sort of trauma is afoot, and perhaps the multiple segments of the video will provide some clue. 

All four monitors simultaneously play a progression of shifting images: a drawing of a motherly figure with love and compassion in her expression; then someone (the artist) washes their hands with a stone that generates suds; a drain appears yet is so harshly lit that most of what we see is just white light; next, a lengthy abstract and shifting pattern that looks a bit like the bottom of a stream bed covered with freshly fallen leaves (I begin to make color associations with the jars); then, a hand (presumably the artist’s) running fingers through a white fur-like material; and finally, a still image of a hand alongside what looks like it might be river rocks, both partially obscured yet bridged by a brilliant light. Aha! The same image that covers the cushion portion of the bed piece!

I wait for my turn to lay myself down on the bed and take in the images on the four monitors above it. The thin cushion/mattress is uncomfortable for this old guy’s bones and I wish I had one of the pillows for my head. It is unclear at first what I’m looking at. Three of the four monitors show very little, except I can tell I am looking at water. The fourth monitor has a rock in the same water, and I realize the camera is inside a tub. I begin to see leaves floating, then a body, or rather parts of a body, as the monitors fragment the rather chaotic scene. Eventually, the tub drains leaving the detritus behind, and the jars sitting on the stack of four monitors of Untitled (watering is a type of release) now have a context for their contents. An emotional cleansing has occurred. 

Amina Ross, Etheric Bridge (Winter’s Grief)/Photo by Mike Bray, courtesy of Ditch Projects

Normal hygiene practices would not necessarily be an indication, yet a ritualized cleansing of the skin is another matter. The repetition of this act in various videos suggests a persistent intention on the part of the artist. I would hesitate to speculate—if I didn’t know from reading Adeyemi’s accompanying essay—that the work is significantly about race, gender and sexuality. The installation avoids a literalness or a didacticism, and that allows others to access universal symbologies that may offer a more general perspective.

The 29th hexagram of the I Ching, for example, is The Abysmal (Water).(1) It is one of the I Ching’s eight double hexagrams, meaning that in this particular instance the water trigram is on both the top and bottom. Despite the negative inference in the title, Water is considered auspicious. Think “plunging in.” Not surprisingly, then, the heart is involved as well. Danger still lingers (The Abysmal), and the I Ching cautions that one might do well to be strategic when following a passion.

Commentary for the hexagram states, “Water sets the example for the right conduct under such circumstances [danger]. It  flows on an on, and merely fills up all the places through which it flows; it does not shrink from any dangerous spot nor from any plunge, and nothing can make it lose its own essential nature.”

Water’s nature is multifarious. It is ice and steam; it drains and bubbles up; it soaks, erodes, fills and falls. We find evidence of some of these characteristics in the two remaining videos, Refracted Rituals and Onyx at sunset. As somewhat abstract single-monitor pieces, neither has the strong narrative qualities of the four-channel pieces, yet they do act as culminating vignettes, especially Refracted Rituals, as it incorporates images that we have already seen. In each, water flows in and out or up and down. It is not constrained by rules of physics, and so can also represent that for the artist, convention is also put aside. 

As the title for the exhibit subtly suggests, light plays a role in much of this work as well. Both Refracted Rituals and Onyx at sunset have changing light in the sky. The blinding white-out of a drain in Untitled (watering is a type of releasing) is quite off-putting, as if the artist does not want us to see what has been washed away (although in another scene the drain is filled with dirt that must be ushered down and away). The recurrent image of the brilliant light that bridges the hand and rocks is perhaps the most obvious, and while it does create a sense of wonder for this viewer (how was the image created?), it also may be key to why I walk away from this exhibit with a good feeling. Whether by their own doing or with the help of some outside force, the artist has managed some degree of resolve.

Amina Ross, Film Still from
Untitled (watering is a type of releasing)/Courtesy of Ditch Projects

Indeed, the coherence of the exhibit comes through the interplay of motifs and repetition of images between the various pieces, all of which becomes more apparent after patiently wandering around the room a couple times. The initial sense of melancholy that comes from Untitled (water is a type of releasing) and Etheric Bridge (Winter’s Grief) is relieved when images from the two works are incorporated in Refracted Rituals. We become aware of a new dynamic simply because this latter work (and Onyx at sun set) remove the narrative and become more of a culmination…a resolve.

It’s as if acceptance is itself a force to be reckoned with.

(1) I Ching/The Richard Wilhelm Translation, rendered into English by Cary F. Baynes, Princeton University Press. 1977.

Women of Will, and vice versa

At Portland Playhouse, Tina Packer and actor Nigel Gore dive deeply into the dramatic world of women in Shakespeare's plays

A couple of minutes into Women of Will, Tina Packer’s smart and curiously seductive play/presentation at Portland Playhouse, a virile-looking fellow named Nigel Gore strides manfully onto the stage. “I come bearing testosterone,” he announces in a slightly puckish tone, and so he does.

Packer and Gore are the sole performers in Women of Will, a quickly shifting show that alternates between intimate scenework and speculative commentary on the nature of Shakespeare’s approach to his women characters – an approach that evolves from submissiveness and victimization in his early plays, such as The Taming of the Shrew and the Henry VI trilogy, to the fully engaged women of his late romances, such as Pericles and The Tempest, in which daughters help redeem their fathers. It is, Packer proposes early on, the story of the playwright’s own “enlightenment journey.”

Nigel Gore and Tina Packer at Portland Playhouse. Photo: Brud Giles

But first, that testosterone. It’s on raw display in scenes from Shrew, in which Gore as Petruchio whips off his belt and roughly attaches it around the neck of Packer, who is playing Kate, dragging her about the stage like a dog or a mare: Kate, that fine ferocious spirit, broken to the bit. Yet another form of this unfettered manliness pops up in the second act as Gore, playing Othello, bellows in pain and self-obsessive passion at Desdemona, who despite her obvious intelligence and courage and even love has no protection against his rage. “Othello is a play about race, but it’s also a play about gender,” Packer comments, and in this sad and ghastly and strangely moving bed-and-murder scene that rings searingly true.

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DramaWatch: Fond farewell to an era in Ashland

Reflections on the end of Bill Rauch's tenure at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival; plus paranormal happening at CoHo and other Halloween theater treats.

At the opening of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of Mother Road, Octavio Solis’ 21st-century response to and continuation of The Grapes of Wrath, actors stand for a moment in a tableau vivant, swathed in dusky, murky light and harrowing sound — the swirling dirge, half howl half moan, of a dust storm. 

Mother Road by Octavio Solis stands as a highlight of the season just ending at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Photo: Jenny Graham/Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

The facile, melodramatic critical response might be to liken the scene to the larger setting of the festival itself, where prosperous stability has looked threatened by environmental damage (encroaching smoke from summer wildfires in the region), economic hardship (losses in revenue due to cancelled shows and the uncertainty of tourists) and social change (a sudden, unrelated, spike in leadership turnover).

But much like Mother Road, which had its world premiere in this just-ending OSF season, faces down hard facts on a journey to joyful, if bittersweet, redemption, so OSF appears to have the heart and fortitude to navigate its ongoing transitions with grace.

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Field of Vision

Conference introduces national organization to Portland through performance and discussion of pressing issues in Oregon arts

A group of prominent Portland artists sat around a table with representatives of some of Oregon’s heaviest hitting arts funders, and the conversation was growing tense. How do funders determine which artists receive support, one artist asked, especially individuals and small organizations that might lack resources and track record compared to better-funded and -staffed institutions? Why do funds seem to flow to the same organizations year after year, even though the art they pay for doesn’t reflect the diversity of the community the organizations and artists both purport to serve? 

Such questions have long troubled Oregon’s art scene as it evolves into a more diverse community. But we seldom hear them voiced aloud in a public event, especially with both donors and recipients present. It’s even rarer for the conversation to proceed beyond accusation to explanation and understanding.

But that’s what happened last spring when Portland’s New Expressive Works hosted the 2019 National Field Network Conference. Presented by staff members from the national organization Jennifer Wright Cook and Shawn René Graham, local Field office representatives Jen Mitas and Katherine Longstreth, and conference consultant Subashini Ganesan, the two-day event — which included performances, installation, and discussion– introduced the New York-based arts organization The Field to Portland, and offered about 200 Oregon artists and arts advocates the chance to participate in conversations about the work The Field is doing, and related issues arts organizations face here.

Pepper Pepper performed excerpts from the forthcoming ‘Noise/Data’ at The Field conference. Image: Karl Lind.

Along with putting artists and art funders around the same table for candid discussions, the first day events presented The Field’s history and explained its Fieldwork method for giving artists needed feedback on their work. The second day featured a panel of Northwest artists discussing the role of social media and digital media in their art practices, plus several performances of dance, music, installation and multimedia art — a welcome injection of actual art into the discussion of arts issues. The event raised some tough but necessary questions about Oregon’s art scene pertinent to artists, presenters, funders, and audiences.

This weekend, Portlanders can see some of the fruits of The Field PDX’s work as artists who’ve received feedback through its Fieldwork process show their work at New Expressive Works’s 12th Residency Performance, where they participated in a residency with Longstreth.

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