CULTURE

Perry Johnson’s shining light

A Eugene artist's "outsider" work goes to the Portland Art Museum in a new series designed to expand the museum's reach into the region

By RACHAEL CARNES

EDITOR’S NOTE: We.Construct.Marvels.Between.Monuments opens Friday, Nov. 17, in the Portland Art Museum’s Jubitz Center for Modern and Contemporary Art. A series of five exhibitions developed with artists and art collectives, it’s designed to explore how the museum can engage with a broader and more inclusive array of artists in the region. The series, which will continue through December 2018, begins with an installation through Feb. 25, 2018, that includes artists who make prolific work, yet often face barriers to inclusion in galleries and museums. Co-curated by Libby Werbel and Public Annex, it will show work from Perry Johnson, Ricky Bearghost, Kurt Fisk, Elmeator Morton, Lawrence Oliver, and Dawn Westover.

Johnson, who makes his art at the OSLP (Oregon Supported Living Program) Arts & Culture Program in Eugene, will have six works in the series’ first show. Rachael Carnes’ essay ran originally in Eugene Weekly on Oct. 1, 2015, under the title “Shining Like the Sun: A photographic memory infuses the brilliant art of Perry Johnson.”

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Artist Perry Johnson at OSLP in Eugene.

Eugene artist Perry Johnson has a gift. His work is inquisitive and multidimensional, at once rooted in a folk art tradition while branching out towards something more visceral and visionary.

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Profile doubles the impact

Richly rewarding productions of Quiara Alegría Hudes' "Water by the Spoonful" and "The Happiest Song Plays Last" open in rep

“The songs are pretty, but make no mistake. Each song is a revolutionary song. Each song is a protest. An affirmation of what is truly ours. ‘We are Puerto Rican. Period.’ Today, ‘Somos Americanos. Punto.’ “

— Agustín, The Happiest Song Plays Last

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To conclude its 20th season, with Pulitzer winner Quiara Alegría Hudes as the season’s playwright, the ambitious Profile Theatre has taken on the daunting task of putting on two plays – Water by the Spoonful and The Happiest Song Plays Last – in rotating repertory, with a single cast of nine actors, four of whom are in both plays.

These plays are contemporary – Hudes won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Water by the Spoonful, and The Happiest Song Plays Last premiered in Chicago in 2013 – and they feel even more so in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria and the devastation it has wreaked on Puerto Rico, which – as Agustin so eloquently says in the quote above – is part of America: “Somos Americanos. Punto.”

These two plays centered on Puerto Rican American cousins Elliot (played with passion and youthful energy here by Anthony Lam) and Yaz (given life and warmth by Crystal Ann Muñoz) feel both intimately realist and larger than life under the direction of Josh Hecht, Profile’s artistic director. Elliot and Yaz are from North Philly, but they travel (separately or together) to Los Angeles, Puerto Rico, Arizona, Jordan, and Egypt over the course of the two plays (and two other characters in Spoonful travel to Japan).

Duffy Epstein, Julana Torres and Akari Anderson in “Water by the Spoonful.” Photo: David Kinder

Water by the Spoonful is about two seemingly disconnected storylines: addicts in a chatroom, and Elliot and Yaz’s connecting over their respective struggles: the emotional and physical toll his time as a Marine in Iraq took on him and her “failure” in the form of divorce and not knowing what she wants in life. Lam and Muñoz have the type of stage chemistry actors long for. Their banter is natural, in the way of real family members, and you will love each of them through each other’s eyes.

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At White Bird, ‘Attractor’ is magnetic

Australian dance talent meets Javanese musicians, and the result is transformational

Attractor could rightfully be called Condenser for how much talent is concentrated into a single show. First we have Lucy Guerin and Gideon Obarzanek. Though partners in everyday life, they don’t collaborate professionally very often—about every six years by their own account. Portland’s seen some good work by Lucy Guerin Inc., and as one of the founders of Chunky Move, Obarzanek has brought some amazing work through town. However, they’ve never been to Portland at the same time. When the directors of White Bird noted this in the Q&A after the performance, they suggested that they might kidnap them and keep them here. I hope Guerin and Obarzanek didn’t sense how much the audience seemed to support the idea.

Any collaboration between these two is worth noting, but joining forces with Dancenorth brings a whole new artistic dimension. Created when Ann Roberts placed $100 on the table during a public meeting because she was tired of seeing talented dancers leave Australia or gravitate to the more populous south to pursue their careers, Dancenorth has become an artistic center in Queensland near the Great Barrier Reef. A multifaceted program, the company produces new work, hosts classes, and provides professional development opportunities, putting northern Australia on the map for contemporary dance. They seem to bring with them some of the coastal wildness of their part of the world.

Dancenorth and Senyawa joined forces for ‘Attractor’/Photo courtesy White Bird

Ok, so we have two award-winning choreographers in a rare collaboration and an acclaimed dance company. That’s enough Australian talent to stuff the stage, but those are just the dancers. The musicians knock this one out of the park.

Javanese duo Senyawa are not just central to the stage and the performance. Their work was the inspiration for the entire piece, and they were full creative partners in the development of the choreography. As they developed the show, sometimes the music led the movement decisions, and at other times it followed. This exchange is central to the performance itself, and belies an incredibly fruitful collaboration between these talented groups.

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I Am This: Jewish artists in Oregon

A new exhibit traces the history and variety of Jewish art in the state. A second show tells the tale of a painting that saved lives.

It’s both easy and hard to wrap your head around I Am This: Art by Oregon Jewish Artists, the elegant small new exhibit at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education.

Easy because the choices of artists are mostly familiar to Portland art followers, and because they share curator Bruce Guenther’s taste for modern and contemporary works that deal, whatever else might be going on in them, with the notion of beauty.

Hard because the questions the exhibit asks – What does it mean to be Jewish? What does it mean to be a Jewish artist? What does it mean to be a Jewish artist from Oregon? – are so elusive, with so many different answers, and ultimately with so many unanswered and perhaps unanswerable question marks. “Here we are, looking inward,” museum director Judith Margles remarked at a press preview last week, and maybe that’s at least a large part of what being Jewish means.

Frederick Littman's sculpture "Torso" (1968. Bronze, 46 x 22 x 12 inches, The Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Collection, Portland) and Mark Rothko's 1928 painting "Beach Scene" (oil on canvas mounted on board, Reed College, Kaufman Memorial Art Collection, gift of Louis and Annette Kaufman in memory of Isaac and Pauline Kaufman). Oregon ArtsWatch photo

Frederick Littman’s sculpture “Torso” (1968. Bronze, 46 x 22 x 12 inches, The Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Collection, Portland) and Mark Rothko’s 1928 painting “Beach Scene” (oil on canvas mounted on board, Reed College, Kaufman Memorial Art Collection, gift of Louis and Annette Kaufman in memory of Isaac and Pauline Kaufman). Oregon ArtsWatch photo

Guenther, the former longtime chief curator of the Portland Art Museum who is curating the first year of shows at the Jewish Museum since it moved into the old Museum of Contemporary Craft space in the Pearl District, spoke of the sometimes uneasy relationship between group and individual identity: “We live in an age of individualization, identity as core, as shield, as conflict.”

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Portland’s Grand Central Station

Everybody comes to Powell's, and photographer K.B. Dixon's new exhibition and book find volumes in the mix of people and place

Photographs by K.B. DIXON

Powell’s City of Books is Portland’s Grand Central Station, the teeming crossroads of the city’s cultural life: not just one of the nation’s great commercial repositories of literature and language, but a busy transit center of people and ideas. Kids, teens, singles, doubles, parents, grandparents. Locals who drop in for an hour and spend the day. Serious scholars doing research. Tourists who treat it like a shrine. Foreign visitors looking for something in their native language, or something to help them brush up on their English skills. People on their way to someplace else. People on their way back from someplace else. Browsers, buyers, passersby. Like Rick’s, it seems, eventually everybody comes to Powell’s.

 

Entering the temple: the south entrance on Burnside.

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IT IS ALSO, LIKE THE MULTNOMAH County Central Library just a few blocks away, one of Portland’s best people-watching places, an almost endless fascination of faces, connections, and enthusiasms. Something about a great bookstore encourages people to be very public and very private at once – lost, publicly, in the obsessions and curiosities of their own minds. Portland photographer and writer K.B. Dixon believed Powell’s was an ideal spot to pursue his own obsession for creating interesting and culturally telling black and white images. He gained permission to spend hours and hours in the aisles, following his eye where it led. The results of his project are now on view in a sort of meta-exhibition: images of Powell’s at Powell’s, in the bookstore’s Basil Hallward Gallery, upstairs in the Pearl Room, through October. Images here are from the exhibition or the larger selection of photographs in Dixon’s accompanying book, titled simply The Bookstore.

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Caught in a lie, or a truth

Artists Rep's installation and performance "Caught" flirts with the boundaries of fact and fiction. Is it "real"? Who do you trust? Why?

As I walked into Artists Repertory Theatre I was greeted by the sight a Chinese man dressed as Chairman Mao, surrounded by dozens of automated maneki-neko (those little cat-statues you find at Chinese and Japanese restaurants). Together, they stared off into the mid-distance and waved, all slightly out of synch. The effect was strangely welcoming and unnerving at the same time. This is how Caught begins, a facsimile of Chairman Mao. A lie.

This was not the only lie the evening held.

 An usher handed me a guide for the gallery, attributed to Chinese artist Lin Bo, and encouraged me to take in the exhibit before the house opened. Throughout the lobby were Meditation Stations for the Consumed, circular curtains of blank price tags viewers could walk into and contemplate their existence as cogs in the machine of capitalism. Up on one of the walls was an interactive installation called Cloud Memory, which projected text messages from participating audience members onto a rustling field of white sequins.

Greg Watanabe with Mao on the wall in “Caught.” Photo: Russell J Young

By now it should be apparent that Caught is not a traditional theater performance. Nor a traditional art show. The visual art works in tandem with the performance, creating a space that opens the audience up to being led somewhere new.

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Spotlight on: Samantha Van Der Merwe and ‘Caucasian Chalk Circle’

Myth, story, and a striking visual sense have been the hallmarks of Shaking the Tree's creative force. Now she's taking on a Brecht classic.

Every year in the Rose City, a Shaking the Tree production is one of the most hotly anticipated events of the theatrical season. Samantha Van Der Merwe, Shaking the Tree’s founder, artistic director, and primary engine, has built a sterling reputation for work that is visually striking, thematically powerful and dramaturgically daring. She is perhaps our most adept magician, with an eclectic and facile command of the theatrical vocabulary. Her singular visual sense is part and parcel of her storytelling oeuvre. She has a knack for making simple choices that feel audacious. Van Der Merwe’s special gift is knowing the one specific detail that will alight the audience’s imagination, and make its members her intimates in the act of creation.

Samantha Van Der Merwe, Shaking the Tree’s driving creative force. Photo: Dmae Roberts

Now, Van Der Merwe has turned her attention to one of her most ambitious projects yet: Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle, which opened in her company’s Southeast Portland warehouse space October 6 and continues through November 4. At first glance Brecht, the famed modernist and “epic theater” proponent, would seem an uneasy fit for Van Der Merwe’s particular brand of spell-casting. But if you look a little deeper, the pairing of the two disparate sensibilities seems almost inevitable.

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