Bob Hicks

 

Picturing Oregon: wide open space

In the collections: The Portland Art Museum's survey of Oregon landscapes gives a history of the shifting territory as artists imagine it

On a recent Saturday afternoon I dropped in to the Portland Art Museum and immediately encountered a crowd at the entrance, lined up waiting to get in. That’s odd, I thought. Nice, but odd. Then I heard a bit of chatter in line, and remembered: the cars. It was prime visiting time for the museum’s megashow of slick beauties, The Shape of Speed: Streamlined Automobiles and Motorcycles, 1930-1942, and the traffic was still lively and thick.

It wasn’t quite like working your way around a pileup of tourists snapping selfies with the Mona Lisa, but once I threaded through the Bugattis and Talbot-Lago Teardrop Coupes and Chrysler Imperial Airflows things thinned out a bit to a nice steady pace. It was the first weekend day after the August heat wave had broken and the forest-fire smoke had begun to lift, and people were beginning to get out and about again: It felt as if a good chunk of the car crowd had peeled off to see what else there was to discover in the museum.

There are at least a couple of ways to go about visiting a museum. If it’s a new museum to you, sometimes the best thing to do is just to wander around and see what you find: Let serendipity be your guide, at least at the start. If it’s a museum you’re familiar with, your visits are probably more targeted: to see a special exhibition, for instance. At the Portland Art Museum right now, that might mean taking a last whack at the splendid show of early Richard Diebenkorns, arranged by the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento and hanging around Portland through Sept. 23. (The door-busting Shape of Speed ended Sunday.)

Philip Guston, Untitled, 1969, acrylic on panel, bequest of Musa Guston. Portland Art Museum

Or you might go to check in on some old favorites in the permanent collections. Special exhibitions serve a lot of purposes besides selling tickets. They can fill in gaps in a museum’s collection, or capture an important social or historic moment, or expand on strengths a museum already has. And they can get people interested in a museum, and its art, and encourage them to become regular visitors. But you can find the soul of most museums in their permanent collections, and how they’re displayed and rotated, and the way they allow people to visit over and over again, getting to know specific pieces or collections, or finding something new they hadn’t noticed before. This is where the Deep Museum exists.

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Rothko: a tunnel runs through it

Art notes: Portland Art Museum's new pavilion proposal adds a pedestrian walkway; a Forain and a Gorky on loan at the museum

The journey of the embattled Rothko Pavilion has taken a short cut – straight through the Portland Art Museum’s proposed link between its poorly connected north and south buildings. When the project went public in 2016 the glassing-in of what is now an open plaza drew swift objection from pedestrian and bicycle advocates, as well as from critics of what would be a “super-block” on the museum’s South Park Blocks campus.

The super-block dissent never seemed to make much sense. Portland’s downtown city blocks are famously only 200 feet long – miniatures compared to the blocks in most cities – and both museum buildings, plus the proposed connector, are low-rise structures, which further diminishes the sense of mass. The pavilion’s glass exterior lightens the visual effect even more: the museum would be long but low, with far less sense of bulk than, say, Big Pink, which fits its block’s footprint yet seems massive.

Refined Rothko Pavilion design, with open passageway. Illustration: Vinci Hamp Architects & Hennebery Eddy Architects

The objections of pedestrian advocates are more persuasive, especially since so many older people live in the apartments and condominiums in the museum district. For many of them, having to walk around the museum rather than cutting through the courtyard would represent a true hardship.

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Labor Day: The Art of Work

From Oregon artists and museums, a look at the world of work and the varieties of labor

Today is Labor Day, the day we celebrate the American labor movement and its drive to guarantee living wages and safe, decent working conditions for all workers. It’s been an official federal holiday since 1894, through boom times and hard times, strikes and strike-busting, and massive shifts in technology and public/private economic strategies that have weakened the labor movement that inspired the holiday. A historic transfer of wealth away from the working and middle classes and into the bank accounts of the superrich threatens much of what the labor movement has accomplished in the past century and more. Nevertheless, the movement persists.

Art is skilled labor, and quite naturally, artists often depict work and workers in their art. Here’s a selection of Oregon pieces that celebrate labor in its many forms. The second and sixth images are from the exhibition Strength and Dignity: Images of the Worker from the Permanent Collection, at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem through October 21.

IN THE FACTORIES, where the labor movement took root: Joseph Stella, Factories at Night, ca. 1936/1943, oil on canvas, 36 x 36 inches, allocated by the U.S. government, commissioned through New Deal art projects, Portland Art Museum.

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PAM’s temporary Turner

Art notes: A high-priced Turner is on short-term loan at the Portland Art Museum; Vancouver B.C. art at Leach; Carola Penn's 'Disruptions'

Hanging in a corner of the second-floor European galleries in the Belluschi Building of the Portland Art Museum is a painting that doesn’t usually live there – and not just any painting, but a masterpiece from J.M.W. Turner’s latter period, an 1835 work titled Ehrenbreitstein, or the Bright Stone of Honour and the Tomb of Marceau, from Byron’s ‘Childe Harold’. On short-term loan from an anonymous private collector, it arrived in mid-June and will be in Portland until mid-October.

J.M.W. Turner, “Ehrenbreitstein, or the Bright Stone of Honour and the Tomb of Marceau, from Byron’s ‘Childe Harold’,” 1835, oil on canvas, 48.4 x 36.6 inches.

The painting was included in an Old Masters auction at Sotheby’s London on July 5, 2017, where it was offered with an estimated sale price of $18.7 million-$31.2 million, and sold for $25 million. It had last sold in 1965 for $113,250. “Sotheby’s would have been hoping to get a bit more for the work, which was tipped to have the potential to break Turner’s auction record. But it’s still a good price for such a significant work,” Nicholas Forrest wrote for Blouin Artinfo on the day of the auction. Forrest continued: “One of the greatest works by J.M.W. Turner still held in private hands, Ehrenbreitstein is from a period that is widely considered Turner’s best. The painting depicts the ruined fortress of Ehrenbreitstein near Coblenz, and according to Sotheby’s is the most important oil painting of a German subject that Turner ever painted.”

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Neil Simon, 1927-2018

America's most successful playwright, whose nervous comedies defined an era and helped make a golden age of entertainment, has died at 91

Neil Simon, maybe the most successful playwright in American history, died today at 91, leaving behind a little piece of who we are and how we got this way. Not quite a year ago, in a piece on the Portland Civic Theatre Guild (the old PCT, like the old Mark Allen Players, had often thrived on Simon’s plays), I tried to give Simon and his singular approach to theater and comedy a little context:

“On Tuesday the object of their affections was I Ought To Be in Pictures, the 1979 sentimental comedy by Neil Simon, who is considered something of a ghost of theater past these days but not so many decades ago was the toast of Broadway, and the movies, too, a figure who so dominated the Broadway real estate that younger writers and audiences rebelled against virtually everything about him – his jokiness, his eagerness to please, his devotion to craftsmanship, his middlebrow-ness, his upper-middle-class-ness, his self-congratulatory sentimentality, his sometimes clueless maleness, his unseemly success, his belief that maybe the theater was entertainment and not so much art.

“Well, those battles have been fought, and now, maybe, it’s possible to consider Simon’s plays the way we think of other works from a specific style and period: like Restoration comedies, for instance, in which the artificiality and reliance on coincidence were part of the joke. It’s all artificial, from Shakespeare to Ibsen to Mamet to Shepard to Lynn Nottage to Lisa Kron to Suzan-Lori Parks to Lin-Manuel Miranda and beyond. That’s why they’re called ‘plays,’ not ‘life.’

“Simon was a crown prince in a golden age of American entertainment, especially comedy, when Jewish writers and performers, calling on their recent-immigrant family status and their urban identities and the awful astonishment of having emerged on the other side of the Holocaust, recast the American idea of humor in their own image: Mel Brooks, Mort Sahl, Carl Reiner, Sid Caesar, Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Mike Nichols, Elaine May. It was a takeover of sorts of the WASPish mainstream, and it cracked the culture open for further change.”

The full piece, Tuesdays at the Theatre Guild, is here.

 

Saints and sinners toss the dice

Broadway Rose's bright and brassy "Guys and Dolls" revives an American ritual and plays it out with splendid comic verve

During intermission Sunday afternoon at Broadway Rose’s mostly swell revival of Guys and Dolls, a high-powered musical-theater vehicle driven deftly by Ryan Reilly’s mellifluous Sky Masterson and Emily Sahler’s comic knockout of a Miss Adelaide, I found myself thinking, oddly, of the opening paragraphs of Katherine Dunn’s grand and slyly heartbreaking novel Geek Love, the story of a family of genetically mutated circus-sideshow performers and their adventures in the world.

The Binewski kids would sit around enchanted as Papa told the family story, a tale both bizarre and familiar, and would make sure Papa stayed the course:

“We children would sense our story slipping away to trivia. Arty would nudge me and I’d pipe up with, ‘Tell about the time when Mama was the geek!’ and Arty and Elly and Iphy and Chick would all slide into line with me on the floor between Papa’s chair and Mama.

“Mama would pretend to be fascinated by her sewing and Papa would tweak his swooping mustache and vibrate his tangled eyebrows, pretending reluctance. ‘Welllll …’ he’d begin, ‘it was a long time ago …’

“ ‘Before we were born!’

“ ‘Before …’ he’d proclaim, waving his arm in his grandest ringmaster style, ‘before I even dreamed you, my dreamlets!’”

I thought of Dunn’s novel not only because both Geek Love and Guys and Dolls are uncanny dreams, tales of outrageous characters and situations in search of a normalcy they can call their own, but also because the Binewski kids, wrapped and rapt in the magic of a familiar story that is also their story, seem like stand-ins for almost any audience at a show like Guys and Dolls.

Brandon B. Weaver, Will Shindler and Jesse Cromer in “Guys and Dolls.” Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer

By this point in its life – the musical debuted on Broadway in 1950, based on already familiar stories by the wise-guy story spinner Damon Runyon – there is no surprise to be sprung; or rather, the surprises come not in the tale itself, which most everybody knows (and bless you if you’re a newbie: there’s nothing like the first time), but in the unveiling of the particulars of this particular production in this particular performance. The warmth and pleasure come not in the shock of the new, but in the communal ritual of revisiting a story known and loved. In a theater world possessed by an overwhelming and necessary urgency to create something new, it’s a good reminder that theater is also built on ritual and repetition, on the familiar fascination of listening once again to a well-told tale. Even if it’s about gangsters or geeks. Tell us again, Papa.

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A Cinderella story for modern times

Portland Opera's sly and witty version of Rossini's "La Cenerentola" sparkles with raffish theatricality and hints of power used and tamed.

While the temperature in downtown Portland was inching toward 100 degrees on Sunday afternoon something cool was happening in the Newmark Theatre, and it wasn’t just the air-conditioning. Portland Opera was kicking into the second performance of its current run of Gioachino Rossini’s splendid little comedy La Cenerentola (it has four remaining performances, July 19, 21, 25, and 28), and it felt just a little like good old-fashioned populist show biz: music-hall stuff, bright and gaudy and smoothly polished and pleasingly antique, like a visit to the Moulin Rouge or D’Oyly Carte. The band was brassy and cheeky and the acting was brisk and impeccably choreographed, an effect accidentally underscored by the coincidental scheduling of auditions for those high-kicking goddesses of the basketball court the Blazer Dancers in the Winningstad Theatre downstairs. The Blazer aspirants had their own contingent of enthusiastic followers, and the blend of opera lovers and sporting fans led to an interesting mixture of audiences and sometimes skimpy costuming in the lobby beforehand.

Caught in the frame: Stepsisters Tisbe (Laura Beckel Thoreson, left) and Clorinda (Helen Huang) primp and preen. Photo: Cory Weaver/Portland Opera

La Cenerentola is a retelling of the Cinderella story, without the fairy godmother or the magic mice and pumpkin but with some terrific melodies, and after the lengthy overture (William Tell wasn’t the only overture Rossini wrote) the opera opens with the two spoiled stepsisters popping about the stage like bright-cheeked marionettes, or maybe floppy rag dolls in their skivvies, while Cenerentola, poor cinder maid, slumps morosely in the corner, singing a sad song that only irritates her petulant sisters as they primp and fuss.

Fatuous step-pappa Don Magnifico (there is no stepmother in this version) is snoozing out of sight in the background, and pretty soon a beggar shows at the doorstep: He is roundly reviled by the stepsisters but treated kindly by Cenerentola (or Angelina, as she comes to be known for her sweet spiritual goodness), who feeds him while the sisters aren’t looking. Let that suffice for setup. There is a prince, there is a ball, there are disguises, there is a search (not for a glass slipper, but a matching bracelet), and love, of course, triumphs. Love, and a friskily told, slyly comic story.

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