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ArtsWatch’s Bob Hicks visited Eugene on Friday to see “Don’t Leave Me,” the newest work from DanceAbility. Founded in 1989 by Alito Alessi, the company employs dancers we might consider “disabled” until we saw them move, dancers in wheelchairs or on crutches, perhaps partially paralyzed or with mental or emotional differences.

“Don’t Leave Me” was a collaboration between the company and Francis Bronet, dean of the University of Oregon’s School of Architecture and Allied Arts, and the dance is shaped by 15 cubes made of fir, each cube 2 x 2 x 2 feet with five sides open and the sixth solid, designed by Bronet. It’s a successful meeting, as Hicks writes: “’Don’t Leave Me’ is a very good piece that touches on such essential modern issues as speed and slowness, constraint and release, closeness and distance, cooperation and conflict, and the nature of time.”

And like any successful work of art, it gets the viewer thinking.

“And I thought of it again after I’d parked at the Lane Community College campus and was walking toward the theater for the performance. [Assistant dean Karen] Johnson and I hooked up with a young woman in a wheelchair who was also heading to the theater, and of course, sitting in her chair, she saw the world from a lower angle, as Daly later would see it peering out from that floor-level cube. She also traveled a great distance out of her way to follow the ramp access through the campus – I’m guessing we covered about three times the territory we would have if we’d walked straight across using stairs – and that prepared me for one of the points of the dance: How do we arrange space to encourage the freest, most practical, and most encompassing movement through it? And why must those for whom travel is the most difficult travel the farthest? In such matters, dance, DanceAbility, and architecture seem like ideal exploratory partners. Dance poses questions of extreme importance to architects. Architecture does the same for dance. And DanceAbility is at the fulcrum, pointing out what often gets forgotten and reminding both sides of what’s at stake. Plus, of course, making good dance.”

All squeezed in and someplace to go. Photo: DanceAbility

All squeezed in and someplace to go. Photo: DanceAbility

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Art serves many purposes, as we’ve written before. Like good journalism, one of them is to afflict the comfortable by showing that there’s more than one way to look at the world. And that’s why, along with school teachers and journalists, artists are always early targets of totalitarian systems. All of which is to provide the briefest of contexts for the discovery of a huge store of “degenerate art,” once confiscated by Nazis in Germany.

Uncovered in the shabby Munich apartment of the son of a German art collector, who managed to snag the collection of 1500 confiscated pieces (the collector, Hildebrand Gurlit may have also bought work at a fraction of its worth from Jews, desperate for money in the Third Reich), the trove includes work by Picasso, Chagall, Matisse, and the German Expressionists, and included dada, Cubist, and Surreal art. From the Guardian report by Philip Oltermann:

“The artworks are thought to have been stored amid juice cartons and tins of food on homemade shelves in a darkened room. Since their seizure, they have been stored in a safe customs building outside Munich, where the art historian Meike Hoffmann, from Berlin university, has been assessing their precise origin and value. When contacted by the Guardian, Hoffmann said she was under an obligation to maintain secrecy and would not be able to comment on the Focus report until Monday.”

In our own market-obsessed time, the question immediately raised was the Euro (or dollar) value of the work, and the answer is an estimated $1 billion, which is what drove a lot of the news coverage. But this question of value is rarely reducible to dollar amounts: How much is a Chagall or Beckmann worth that so frightened the Nazis that they felt compelled to steal it and hide it away?

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Julie Taymor's "A Midsummer Night's Dream"/NYT photo by Sara Krulwich

Julie Taymor’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”/NYT photo by Sara Krulwich

After the spectacular crash and burn of “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” I was more than usually interested in director Julie Taymor’s version of “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which opened the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, the new Brooklyn home of Theater for a New Audience. Would Taymor pull in her sails? Um, no. In fact she spread a gigantic one above the playing area, which served many functions in the aerial production. Ben Brantley of the New York Times wrote that it ” confirms Ms. Taymor’s reputation as the cosmic P. T. Barnum of contemporary stagecraft,” even though it was produced for a tiny fraction of the $75 million “Spider-Man” cost and for a 299-seat theater. About those sails:

An immense sheet rises, falls and twists itself to become a confining roof, a vast sky, a writhing forest floor and an amorous bower fit for a queen of the fairies. Swatches of gauzy white cloth morph into transporting wings. And when the play’s central romantic quadrangle of Athenian youths turns vicious, the myriad sprites who are always standing by provide the squabblers with an endless supply of pillows to fight it out.

And speaking of the Broadway “Spider-Man,” one of the principals, Glen Berger, has written an account of that particular sinkhole that was published just in time for Taymor’s newest show, “Song of Spider-Man.” Mark Harris in the Times says, “Part sigh, part shrug, part snicker, Mr. Berger’s book is a coroner’s report signed, sealed and delivered by one of the parties responsible for the victim’s demise.” I’m not sure how much value an autopsy of a Broadway flop has, speaking of value, except maybe to remind us that spectacle is hard.

 

ArtsWatch News & Notes: Dance week, music research, more!

Oregon Ballet Theatre, BodyVox and Maguy Marin, exciting symphony data, football players gone bad, etc.

Oregon Ballet Theatre's "Midsummer Night's Dream"/Blaine Truitt Covert

Oregon Ballet Theatre’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream”/Blaine Truitt Covert

If you were a stranger to Portland landing in town this weekend, you could be forgiven for thinking the city was completely dance-obsessed. Oregon Ballet Theatre, BodyVox, and White Bird all open big shows, and it’s going to be hard to put off the ones with longer runs to another weekend—another batch of concerts hits the following weekend. Maybe we ARE dance-obsessed. At least in October.

A quick rundown:

Maguy Marin's "Salves"/Jean-Pierre Maurin

Maguy Marin’s “Salves”/Jean-Pierre Maurin

White Bird is bringing Compagnie Maguy Marin to the Newmark Theatre for three performances starting Thursday night. I’m not even going to bring up the company’s last visit in 2002, which sent a steady stream of patrons out the door. We’ve grown up a lot as a dance community since then, I think, just because White Bird has brought lots of other challenging work to town since then. (Well, I guess I DID mention it.) The company will perform Marin’s “Salves,” a theater-movement piece that will be no less disturbing. It’s going to be loud, chaotic, full of images and movements that start to make sense and then are replaced by others, then repeated again.

The same night, BodyVox opens “Body Opera Files” in the NW Industrial Warehouse, 2448 NW 28th Ave., not their home base on Northwest 17th. The concert is adapted from 2009’s “Foot Opera Files,” which took a batch of Tom Waits songs of the downtrodden, asked opera singers to give them a sonic ride and then choreographed the stories they told. The company has broadened the music to include Elvis Costello, gospel and Americana, but the basic idea is the same. And the more tenderloin district-like warehouse should be an excellent setting for the stories. It runs through Oc. 26.

Body Opera Files Rehearsal Video 1 from BodyVox on Vimeo.

And then on Saturday, Oregon Ballet Theatre introduces the Kevin Irving Era to the city’s ballet fans. Irving is the new company artistic director, and his first program, “Dream,” includes his predecessor Christopher Stowell’s version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” as well as Nacho Duato’s “Por Vos Muero.” ArtsWatch’s Martha Ullman West previewed this one nicely already, so for more information click the link.

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Of all the classical art forms, classical music seems the most at risk these days, which is why ArtsWatch keeps talking about it here, and on Twitter and Facebook. The problems are varied, almost as varied as the number of orchestras in the country, in fact, but fortunately, so are the ongoing experiments in keeping the orchestras and the music vital to the culture.

One of the most innovative orchestras in the country is the New World Symphony in Miami, overseen by Michael Tilson-Thomas of San Francisco Symphony fame. He has used the NWS as a lab to test various programming ideas, and like any good scientist, he has measured the results. Well, probably not him personally.

The NWS measured audience response over time to several of its innovative series—micro-concerts (30 minutes each, three a night, $2.50 admission), Encounters (60 minute concerts with a specific educational focus), Journeys (three-hour concerts that examine individual composers in depth), and Pulse performances (combining dance music and edgier contemporary classical fare). The report itself is fascinating reading for anyone interested in the fate of classical music, primarily because it shows how effective non-traditional formats can be in building interest and creating great experiences for audiences, especially new audiences.

The New World Symphony is not a traditional American orchestra It was started to give young musicians right out of music conservatories the opportunity to play and develop. It’s facility was designed by Frank Gehry, and the educational component was built right in, small studios and a large public rehearsal hall. And Miami’s audiences are likely less “traditional” than those in more northerly classical hotbeds, more willing to accept new things. Nonetheless, the data is fascinating.

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The Detroit Symphony endured a strike and major financial problems, but all along it has tried various ways to reach its community. And the payoff finally arrived: The orchestra balanced its budget and raised a whopping $18.9 million in contributions during the past year. Detroit has actually decided it wants to fund a major symphony orchestra! (I followed the 2010-11 strike closely on my old Arts Dispatch blog. Those posts and a somewhat shorter set around the troubles at Philadelphia shaped my thinking on what a successful approach to the modern symphony might look like.)

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Around 20 members of the Ole Miss football  taking a beginning theater class thought that heckling a performance of “The Laramie Project,” close to the 15th anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s murder at the hands of bigots, was a good idea.

Artist Jennifer Dewalt decided she wanted to learn to code, so she created 180 web pages in 180 days, some of which are pretty amazing.

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EVENT OF THE DAY:

Hard to go wrong with the Kronos Quartet at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium tonight. The program couldn’t be more deliciously wide-ranging.

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What’s another word for “fierce?”

Photography from the PAM collection and Walton Ford’s wolf paintings

“Fierce” may describe our dedication to animals as beloved pets, and to some extent, our desire to keep working animals healthy and dependable. We wouldn’t necessarily apply the adjective to our dependence on them as food nor our appreciation of their inherent aesthetic value. All of these elements are represented within the photography exhibit, “Fierce” at Portland Art Museum. But what is largely missing is a representation of the what makes these animals ferocious. Actually “fierce.”

I do not recall seeing any particularly fierce animals in this grouping from the museum’s archives. Cats, donkeys, goats, birds, yes; maybe a couple of pissed-off dachshunds, but no lions, tigers or alligators. The reason for this might very well be because humans don’t really have a relationship with the latter other than an adversarial one.

I have to backtrack a little on that assertion. Not the adversarial part, but the representation of predators. There are two bobcats: one limp and being held up by the scruff for the camera (Mark Barnes, “Devery Freeman, Rogue River, Oregon) and a taxidermied specimen in a display cabinet (more on this later). These animals are just prey.

I suppose if one is unaccustomed to seeing dead animals on a semi-regular basis, the dead, scrawny cat in Barnes’ photo might draw the eye to it, much the way the gaze of the young boy in Carol Yarrow’s “Boy and Bird” contemplates the dead animal he holds in front of his face. After all, death allows a comfortable distance from which to contemplate such beings.

Continues…

Hello, Dalai! Portland Welcomes Buddhist Icon

How His Holiness' appeal transcends religion.

Photo by Mark Sakamoto.

Photo by Marc Sakamoto.

Portland’s biggest cultural event of this week will probably not be a play. It will not be an art show, a comedy set, a symphony performance, or even a local journalists’ live tweets from “Falstaff.” The biggest cultural event kicked off yesterday and ends tomorrow: suffice to say the Dalai Lama is in town. Hosted by Maitripa College in Southeast Portland and emceed by KGW anchor Laural Porter, Mayor Charlie Hales and Think Out Loud’s Dave Miller, the “Environmental Summit” features several sold-out events from college symposia to publicly-accessible talks that will also be broadcast online.

At yesterday afternoon’s forum, His Holiness spoke at length about compassion, education, and the universal oneness of all human beings, but the talk was hardly a seminar-style lecture about prescribed topic the environment—nor was it a sermon, per se, lacking citation from any religious text. The Dalai Lama’s extemporaneous speaking style wafts along on a current of soft, humble wit. His talking points are oft repeated, and in his broken English, cryptic intangibles float outside their connective framework, lending the phrases to broad interpretation. (“Want happy life,” for instance, as a declaration, has to be true.) The Lama’s submissions work best as a meditative mantra, or even a folk song with many verses and one chorus: “We are all one.”

A Seattle-based Tibetan opera singer and a Native American choir opened the show with ruminative, raw vocals that bespoke their humanity and lulled listeners into patient contemplation—at which point the Dalai Lama made a rather playful entrance, approaching one of the Native singers mid-note to examine his necklace pendant. Sitting down behind the still-singing group and fully aware of his show-stealing status, he courted crowd laughter by conspicuously unfolding a royal blue Portland Pilots visor and popping it on his head with a deft flourish. In another life, His Holiness might’ve made a great magician or mime.

Lest such a comparison raise your hackles, bear in mind that a) this is not an insult if we are all one, and b) the demand for showmanship comes standard with a political and/or religious position. As a technically religious figure in a largely secular city, why would the Dalai Lama be so broadly well-received? To my observation that he’s entertaining, my colleague Barry Johnson adds another insight: “Maybe it’s just that the world needs someone who represents what he represents: the possibilitiy of of release from the ‘stress’? I see it as a manifestation of loss/desire. We want a spiritual life that redeems our pain, not one that reminds us that we cause the pain ourselves…which of course Buddhism does when you study it for a minute.”

Yesterday,  Laural Porter reverently ran her fingers over a traditional Tibetan scarf that His Holiness had gifted her. Such treasured artifacts from Eastern tradition are prized in Portland; as local comedian Marcia Belsky recently joked, prayer flags on white people’s porches are enough of a phenomenon to be “a bit much”.

This prevalent co-opting of Eastern totems invites, at the very least, a thought experiment: Imagine, concurrently, a Portland homeowner’s garden with a Buddha statue in it. Easy, right? Now imagine a home garden in China adorned with a large statue of a crucifix, in the same aesthetic and exotic spirit. Imagine each of these two homeowners saying, “Isn’t it beautiful? It’s an antique. I picked it up during my travels.”

In each case, the artifact is divested (or disabused) of the set of religious dictates that originally inspired its creation. Installed in its own cultural context, it would conjure memories of past generations of believers: meditating grandfathers, Hail-Mary-muttering mothers, or monk uncles. It could also serve as a palpable enforcer of an ongoing daily religious practice. But imported into a foreign space, it’s simply an aesthetic object with, at best, a faint aura of general importance. If you’re really spiritually attuned, you may research it a bit and reflect upon it. If not, you just make sure it matches your drapes.

To be fair, the Lama’s temporary installation in Portland is spearheaded by the city’s devout. Under the banner of Maitripa College, which teaches Buddhist studies, a group of men and women monastically dressed in crimson robes yesterday brought a formal Buddhist presence to the Catholic university campus of University of Portland. But only 2% of Oregon identifies as Buddhist, and overall Oregon has the smallest percentage of any type of church-goers in the nation. For every dyed-in-the-cloth Buddhist that’s following the Lama, there are probably more new-agers and secular humanists padding the ranks.

A world-renowned spiritual figure who hardly ever places specific lifestyle demands on his flock, the Dalai Lama seems to have less in common with at least the out-going iteration of the Catholic Pope than with fantasy Jedi figurehead Yoda. Favoring approachability over authority, he admitted a desire to disarm audiences. “If I come here with a strong feeling ‘I’m Buddhist,’ or ‘I am the Dalai Lama, his Holiness,’ that attitude creates some distance from you.”

Further tailoring his message to his audience, His Holiness contended, “Races, faith, these are secondary. Seven billion human beings are same human being, emotionally, mentally, physically.” However, he also stroked our city’s sense of personal style with an observation better suited to Lauren Weedman’s recent Portland-preening: “The right of people…different dress!” was his opening remark.

All specific theology swept aside, His Holiness obviously brings a calming and inspiring influence to his crowds, from true Buddhist believers to lookie-loo would-be Padawans. His narrative pace at first demands patience, but eventually inspires it. The words unfurl slowly, like a row of prayer flags offset with open spaces that pique listeners’ anticipation. Here and there, he offers surprising, amusing asides—a mention of alien life forms, a joke about sex with monkeys—but never breaks his slow stride toward universal harmony. “The 21st century needs to be a century of peace,” he contends. Hard to argue with that.

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A Banner Week for Talk

Lend your ears to comedians, storytellers, or a Homeric rapper on the east side this week.

funches

Ron Funches will appear with some 200 other comics at Bridgetown Comedy Festival later this week. He’s one of a growing list of talents who’ve moved to the LA area after a strong start in Portland.

Do you sometimes need a break from figuring out what contemporary vis-artists are trying to say with neon and triangles? Have you experienced fatigue or ennui while trying to scry rare dance films for explicit meaning? Do you find yourself longing for some artists that speak for themselves, out loud, in discernible words?

Well, guess what? This week on the east side, from Hawthorne to St Johns, Portland’s all talk, in the form of comedy, narrative, and—believe it or not—Greek rap. In the next few days, these literally hundreds of big talkers will no doubt make themselves perfectly, verbally clear.

Bridgetown Comedy Festival

200+ world-class comedians converge in Portland for a four-day multi-venue onslaught of mirth. A quick look at the roster reveals a slew of TV-familiar faces (Oscar Nunez from NBC’s “The Office,” Peter Serafanowicz from brilliant Brit-com “Spaced”, PDX-pat Reggie Watts of “Comedy Bang-Bang”, Natasha Leggero of too many shows to list). Along with classic stand-up showcases (including  a Curious-curated mini-redux of All Jane No Dick), Bridgetown hosts outlandish comedy theme shows like the Pictionary-esque “Picture This” the Mystery Science Theater 3000-ish “Crappy Cinema Council“,  and TED sendup “CHAD Chats“. For the performers themselves, the atmosphere’s both competitive and collegial—”like summer camp for comics” according to local comedian/volunteer Rebecca Waits—and relationships forged at the fest continue to aid Portland’s comedy trade relations year-round.

Curious Comedy’s Fit to Print/Instant Comedy

If you like to put performers on the spot, then you’ll love Curious Comedy Theater’s “Fit to Print”, which asks comics to riff from the current week’s headlines, and Instant Comedy, which forces its funnypeople to craft a set strictly from audience-suggested topics.

Portland Story Theater’s Singlehandedly

For audiences who take their talk with fewer punchlines, more earnestness, and a longer span of narrative arc, Portland Story Theatre hosts its annual set of hand-picked storytellers. This year, Vagabond Opera accordionist Eric Stern reveals his clepto past in “To Catch a Thief”, veteran yarn-spinner Lynne Duddy confronts the complexities of adoption in “Twice Born,” and more.

Eurhapsodoi’s Potomomache

It may seem that all the above public-speaking forums have plenty of precedent while this one’s more of a wild card: A hiphop performance of Homer’s hexameters. Much in the vein of The Metal Shakespeare Company’s “bardcore,” Thomas Dietzel’s project, debuted at PAM’s “Body Beautiful” exhibit,  infuses modern musical life with ancient poetry.

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holly-andres-main-3

Portland Photographer Holly Andres’ lush images often explore “feminine introspection and the complexities of childhood.”

SEMI PERMANENT PORTLAND

Cue a babble of youthful friendliness. Flashes of casual finery. Subtle smartphone-checking. Last Wednesday morning, the faction of Portland artists best dubbed “creatives” milled into the Armory for Semi Permanent, an Australia-based visual artist speaker series devoted to “spreading art and design inspiration.” In its eleventh year, SP has long since installed itself New York and LA, rotating venerable culture-makers like Banksy and Shepard Fairey through its roster—but this year marked its first stop in Portland. Cue eager tweets and furtive program-flipping.

Semi Permanent PDX featured two Portland artists, ten total speakers, and nine total talks. For those who missed it—or were too busy updating their Tumblrs to tune in completely—here are some crib notes:

Holly Andres, photographer, Portland

Dead-serious little girls, Nancy-drew-style mystery scenes, and fiercely protective church mothers abound in Andres’ earlier photo series. The youngest of 10 in a staunch Catholic family, Andres used her initial works to reinterpret her own childhood experiences, maximizing her memories’ dramatic impact with actorly subjects who affect “mannered” gestures (spread fingers, furrowed brows) and off-frame gazes in pristine retro 60’s settings (think Wes Anderson). Andres’ more recent commercial work retains, at turns, the retro aesthetic or the fascination with the world of women and girls. An engaging speaker, Andres used her photos as visual aides for personal storytelling, her authenticity and humor only enhancing an already-impeccable portfolio.

Rei Inamoto, CCO of AKQA, New York

Recently tasked with hyping mega-game Halo:Reach, Inamoto described his company AKQA’s unique innovation: an interactive social-media forum that let users prompt a virtual robot arm to sketch constellation-like star-scape “monuments” of game characters, one point of light at a time. (Follow all that? No? Well, at least 162,000 facebook users did.) Though lasers and starscapes hold some undeniable allure, the game launch’s wild success probably owed more to Inamoto’s instincts about a present-day hunger for community and hero-worship.

Sean Petersen, Instrument, creative director, art professor, Portland

The PNCA and PSU educator admitted feeling a little lost without his teaching partner, but soldiered on with a surfing metaphor: A wetsuit is something its maker invented purely so that he could keep doing what he loved. “Passion + Tinkering = Innovation.” Briefly indulging his core audience with inside jokes and reminiscences about defunct fonts and design platforms, Petersen proceeded to a sales pitch for Instrument, his rapidly-expanding local design house. “We’re kind of like a cult,” he admitted while spewing group-speak about the firm’s shared hobbies. “We build tipis,” he said, sharing images of hand-cobbled forts whose space-within-space concept mirrors Wieden + Kennedy’s legendary nest. We ride Googley bikes. We like to have fun.” Specializing in guerilla youth marketing campaigns, the firm is undoubtedly drinking the Red Bull (a client) rather than the Kool-Aid.

Bradley G. Munkowitz, Design Director and motion graphics designer for GMunk, San Francisco

Of the many presenters who got their big break at a young age, GMunk is apparently the last to grow up. His impressively intricate, luminous CAD graphics including a hologram sequence from the recent remake of Tron were unfortunately upstaged by his frat-boy persona and offensive jokes. GMunk’s projects may be futuristic, but his attitude’s clearly in retrograde.

Chuck Anderson, NoPattern, designer, Grand Rapids (w/ Terry White, Adobe, San Francisco)

Anderson’s colorful works often immerse sports figures in rainbow motion blurs and exuberant paint splashes, and his portfolio typifies the kinetic, ribbon-y flow that’s dominated the last few years of commercial design. (Was he an innovator or imitator? Hard to say.) NoPattern could as easily be called NoEgo; Anderson, looking sporty in an oversized black t-shirt, is accessibility personified. No wonder Adobe chose him as a pitch-man for their new user-friendly web-design software, Muse. Alongside Adobe spokesman Terry White, he let images from his portfolio serve as visual aides for an infomercial-style demo.

Gary Baseman, cartoonist, toy designer, LA

gary-baseman-main-1A

Gary Baseman’s skewed cartoons help the artist grapple with difficult emotional processes. In this case, the oozing, squishy figure represents intimate self-sacrifice.

Sometimes you don’t appreciate the art until you meet the artist. Basemen’s repeated motifs of naked girls and twisted teddy bears could dismiss him as a less-disciplined Mark Ryden’—similar madness, sans egg-tempera lushness. But as Baseman paced the stage, a painfully earnest presence as ill-at-ease in his own skin as his fashion-forward red jeans, any cynical take on his work became impossible. The conference’s closest associate with “outsider” ouvre, Baseman uses his cartoons’ complex mythology to process love, loss, and his parents’ Haulocaust survival. Like Henry Darger’s Vivian Girls, Baseman’s naïve apparitions of creepy, cuddly creatures have evidently become his foot-soldiers in an internal emotional war.

Stephen Smith, Neasdon Control Centre, visual artist, London

Despite being a Londoner, Smith’s visual sensibility would be equally at home in Portland: an exploratory, intuitive approach combining quick sketches, zine-like sharpie scribbles, and graphs to imply linear thought as skewed through a right-brained lens. “The subconscious never lies,” he mused, sharing pictures of prominent London installations, including one that presented him the unique challenge of drawing directly onto the walls of a mirrored hallway. Having recently joined a group of artists on an inspirational trip to explore the ravaged Chernobyl site and view a rocket launch, Smith shared the resultant snapshots and abstract minimalist sketches. The gestural deconstruction of a tattered noticeboard and a burst of rocket fire could hardly be traced back to their source images—but these things, it seems, needn’t be over-explained.

Holly Wales, illustrator, London

A pragmatic marker-pen illustrator whose work appears regularly in the New York Times, Wales ranges from well-composed, photorealistic WYSIWYG to “work that looks like it’s made by someone who can’t draw.” Descended from 2 generations of art teachers, she seems a natural and advises from that perspective: “Do stuff now; don’t wait and don’t think about it.”

Michael Muller, Hollywood/wildlife photogapher, LA

michael-muller-main-4

LA Photographer Michael Muller expressed excitement about his latest underwater lighting techniques and mentioned “tickling” sharks to get better shots for Shark Week.

“Actors, musicians, they’re all so scared,” confided Muller, a longtime student of human nature thanks to his 27-year career that has dually focused on celebrity portraiture and action-sports capture. Himself confessing but not displaying nervousness, Muller revived some early shots he’d taken of actor peers in LA (a coltish, brooding Leo DiCaprio, a coquettish young Drew Barrymore) breezed through his strikingly star-studded portrait collection, and landed on his latest passions: wildlife preservation and humanitarian documentary work in refugee communities. Having recently wrapped a Shark Week shoot, Muller also nerded out about underwater lighting, gleefully anticipating a time when he can shoot surfers against internally-illuminated waves. “I can already see it in my head, so I know it can happen,” said the self-assured, surprisingly mellow 42-year-old.

A MIXED BAG

Unified by their world-class credentials, the speakers diverged in all other possible ways. Some were timid, others cocky. Some rhapsodized about their past, while others reveled in their present projects or evangelized “the future of” their various media. With no discernible formula, speeches ran the gamut from concrete to abstract, from emotional to cerebral, from fine art to commercial craft. Listening all day and comparing notes, I tucked the following takeaways into my Semi Permanent branded tote-bag:

Trade Secrets

Should artists demystify their processes, or protect them? The jury’s out.

Inamoto asked that the specifics of his talk “not leave this room, or I could be out of a job tomorrow. For real.”

On the other hand, Adobe spokes-artist Anderson was completely forthcoming, demonstrating several of his processes and sharing the Photoshop settings he applies to his paint layers. He even provided the audience with a url where they could share his Photoshop file and “play with” the layers.

RIP, Music Industry

Is the music industry dead? Three speakers seemed to give its eulogy:
Smith, who showed his work for rock band TV on the Radio, grudgingly reported, “I don’t do as much music stuff lately since the ass has fallen out on the budgets.”

Muller, having recently snapped Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke and Rihanna, echoed him: “In the last five or 10 years—until really recently—I haven’t done a lot of work in the music industry. You guys know what happened to the music industry, right? It will be interesting to see what happens with the other [entertainment] industries in the next few years….”

Inamoto described an interactive musical platform AKQA proposed for a joint YouTube and Coldplay venture. A seeming unattributed variant of Eric Whitacre’s much-beloved virtual choir with less universal appeal and a mercenary twist, the platform invited undiscovered musicians to chime into Coldplay’s hit song “Fix You” with their own flourishes. In the project’s demo reel, gutsy (and obnoxious) young self-promoters piled on, rapping and shredding all over the ideally minimalist pop tune. The spiritually-bereft project was thankfully scrapped on the drawing board. “We just got a call that he band wasn’t feeling it,” was Inamoto’s wisely restrained summary of a work that had obviously put social-network schmooze before artistry.

Special Effects

How much should photographers rely on reality, versus their capability to “fix it in post” via digital photo editing?
“If there’s, like,fire involved, I’ll really light it on fire!” exclaimed Muller, showing off an image of Joaquin Pheonix lighting a cigarette with a flaming guitar.

Andres, a former film purist, admitted that her switch to digital processing made her “go crazy” with effects. Her dabbling was especially evident in an image that places Jerome Kersey in a pumpkin field full of digitally copied basketballs. But a more recent photojournalistic shoot of womens’ tumbling forbade touch-ups, bringing Andres’ approach back to basics.

Wales, who recently edited a booklet about simple special effects, reported that she and her boyfriend had had a blast buying matchbook cars, setting them on fire, and superimposing a blue fade background for a “How to Fake a Car Fire” feature. The result—with hilariously oversized flames engulfing the tiny cars—proved less realistic than playful.

Social Media

Seemingly oblivious to how alien he’d sound to non-industry ears, Inamoto uttered the following: “The words ‘digital’ and ‘social’ are the most-used words when we talk to clients. Those words are interchangeable these days.” (In what universe does “digital” = “social?” Well, he’d already admitted to working with some robots….)
GMunk traced his inspiration to a practice of “constant exposure to images” on Pinterest and other forums. For him, drinking from the proverbial fire hose is tantamount to creativity.

Smith expressed worried fascination with the phenomenon known as “bit rot”—a form of digital data degradation. Some of his recent work speculates about what happens when supposedly-essential information gets lost in translation through successive software updates.

Social Conscience

Do commercially successful artists retain higher-minded motivations than money? And do they keep in touch with the less fortunate? It varies vastly:

Inamoto and Muller have both worked on campaigns for wildlife preservation, and Muller has gradually shifted more of his creative focus toward humanitarian concerns, shooting African refugee camps to build awareness. Despite trading in traditionally masculine images (sports, X Men, sharks) Muller was also up-front about his feminine influences: “I have three daughters, so I’m surrounded by feminine energy; a lot of emotion, a lot of talking.”

What Muller expressed verbally is Andres’ aesthetic wheelhouse. Her validation of “female introspection and the complexities of childhood,” is feminism in its purest form.

In stark contrast, GMunk, despite his relative youth, repped for the old boys’ club, punctuating his talk with internet images that were intended to be humorous, but weren’t really. The crowd was expected—nay, encouraged, to laugh at an animé orgy (ha?), blow-up dolls (haha?), nude Asian women (hmmm…) the overweight (um…) the deceased (uh…), and a black man with possible mental retardation (hurl). In all cases, the joke seemed to be simply: Look at these inferiors! We win, fellow successful white Guys! (Gross.) A domineering, leering sense of “humor” poses a figurative if not literal liability to a designer’s talents, as evidenced by a more recent scandal with Ford ad creators.

THE FORBIDDEN ARGUMENT: COMMERCIAL v. FINE ART

The tension between the commercial and fine art worlds is inevitable, even as battle lines are constantly crossed by thinkers and makers who—however reluctantly—have to live in a material world. The cruel truth is, every artist has a client.

Purely personal art is a myth. From the boldest gallery strokes to the most obscure cave doodles, almost all art intends to communicate with an audience—an Other. At the very moment that Other experiences the art, the project ceases to be purely “personal” for the artist.

From there, both commercial and fine artists seek patrons, intermediaries who can expose their work to a broader audience. In both sectors (yes, both) these patrons weigh artists’ work against their perception of public demand. But where commercial gatekeepers ask, “What does public WANT?” fine-art curators posit, “What does public need, but not KNOW it needs?” To secure a place at either tastemaker’s table, an artist’s work should fulfill one or both of these parameters.

But, hey, tastemakers can be fickle. Sometimes they wrongly assess their artist’s capabilities or their public’s wants and needs, and sometimes they get it spot-on. Sometimes they favor well-connected artists with experience and pedigree, while other times they whimsically embrace mysterious outsiders—the less known, the better.

Regardless, these parties decide what the public will HAVE, and cut the checks to make it happen.

Because public “want” can be roughly gaged by stats, commercial art providers find themselves on the hook to meet numeric goals. Because “subconscious need” is slipperier, fine art providers tend to put less credence in number-crunching and hinge their work’s value on their perceived contribution to a cultural conversation.

But neither the commercial nor the fine art sector has a lock on artistry, power, pleasure, or philosophical profundity. Hell—neither sector even has a lock on its artists! The perceived dividing wall between worlds is very porous, with many of the most active artists traveling freely between fine and commercial modes. It’s only natural, then, for fine and commercial art to cross-pollinate. Why, then, is the stuff that originates in the commercial field considered “pollution,” and the stuff from the fine-art field more often credited as “inspiration?” Idealism? Social snobbery? This is the question that baits the snake that swallows its own tail—but make no mistake: every artist has a client.

 

 

How Portland Paints Itself

Two Portland-themed art shows exemplify the last decade's visual evolution.

Guest-edited by “Portland as F*ck” columnist Ian Karmel.

For the month of February and a bit beyond, Peoples Gallery and Compound Gallery have played host to concurrent Portland-themed group art shows. Compound’s “Portland as F*ck” cooperated with the Portland Mercury, showing mainstays like Brett Superstar, Tripper Dungan and Mercury art director Justin “Scrappers” Morrison. Peoples Gallery featured poster artist Dan Stiles, and wrangled a huge collection (300+) from artist/curator Chris Haberman’s many friends.

Though the works are incredibly diverse and the shows are full of surprises, a few pieces in particular seem to exemplify the last decade’s prevailing local art trends. Each of these broadly-defined styles emerged in turn—but subsequently, none of them went away. Now they all coexist and converse at the same time the latest iterations are evolving. Here, then, is a review of two current shows, reframed as a broad retrospective of visual schools.

The Comicbook Punks

TripperDungan

Tripper Dungan’s brand of cartoon and graffiti fusion is representative of a look that dominated Portland’s viz-arts subculture in the early to 2000s. Here he even references a contemporary—Scott Wayne Indiana—with the iconic tethered toy horse in the right lower corner. (Peoples)

Alex Chiu's "Yeti at a Cafe"—though modernized by its crisp white background—is at home in the cartoon creature ouvre explored by Dungan and by the influential Justin "Scrappers" Morrison.

Alex Chiu’s “Yeti at a Cafe”—though modernized by its crisp white background—is at home in the cartoon creature ouvre explored by Dungan and by the influential Justin “Scrappers” Morrison. (Compound)

 

In the early 2000s, young Portland artists created a wave of cartoonish, creature-centered, graffiti-and-comic-infused juvenalia. For a time, cartoon animals dominated the Alberta arts district, young artists’ collectives, poster design and even graphic novels like Craig Thompson’s “Goodbye Chunky Rice” before bubbling up into more mainstream use mid-decade, probably thanks locally to the increasing popularity of Alberta’s Last Thursday and the growing influence of Portland Zine Symposium and Stumptown Comics Fest. Meanwhile, artists like Scrappers served as fire-bringers to locally-based ad giant Wieden + Kennedy, who took these viz trends national around the same time that NYT writer Christopher Noxon published generational manifesto “Rejuvenile.”

The December-ish

BrookeWeeber_FlockofBeards

Brooke Weeber’s “Flock of Beards” features the low-contrast palette, the curlicues, and the seafaring motifs most closely associated with the Decemberists’ viz-arts wave. (Compound)

Jennifer Parks' "Portland You Have My Heart"

Jennifer Parks’ “Portland You Have My Heart”: again, curlicues, ribbon, a subdued palette ruled by ivory and black. (Compound)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As Portland literary prog-rock band The Decemberists rose to prominence mid last decade (even earning “the Colbert bump” by 2009), so did their aesthetic, largely penned by then poster artist and later children’s book illustrator Carson Ellis. Still highly stylized but much more subdued and romantic, these works incorporated more human subjects, embellished with ribbons, cursive, seaworthy scrimshaw patterns, and other flourishes of faux-antiquity. This neo-romantic style adorned so many album covers nationwide that it even started to reverse-engineer fashions, reviving the market locally for dandy fitted suits from Duchess and erstwhile-extinct accessories like bowler hats and watch fobs.

The Hybrids

AdamCook

Adam Cook uses illustrative technique to lend complexity to his critter-plus-Portlander motif. Composition-wise, he seems to borrow from an “American Beauty” movie poster image. (Peoples)

Similarly, Derrick Villalpando's "Hipster Folk" is PDX self-awareness that stops just shy of self-parody.

Derrick Villalpando’s “Hipster Folk” evenly splits the difference between the two aforementioned styles, with  PDX self-awareness that stops just shy of self-parody. (Peoples)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Somewhere between the cartoonish and the ornate, vibrant color has started bleeding back into the mix. Creature whimsy is blending with neoromance and a new breadth of technical acumen. One theory: though Portland artists remain whimsical and self-referencing, an extremely saturated market has galvanized a new level of compositional and realism skill, especially among painters and patrons newer to town. The rise of this style seems to have loosely coincided with the last few years’ developments in the Backspace/Compound blocks near the Pearl—venues that seed their collections with internationally-recognized graffitists and illustrators of the Juxtapoz Magazine ilk. The recent rise of “Portlandia” probably also plays in; these works do a great job of “pulling the Portland aesthetic together” to peddle recognized motifs abroad to newly-minted Portlaphiles.

The New Impressionists

Quin Sweetman's rendering of a Northwest Portland Taqueria practically channels Van Gogh.

Quin Sweetman’s rendering of a Northwest Portland Taqueria has such a  pastel palette and such romanticized blur, it practically channels Monet. (Peoples)

If not for the mark on its arm, Janet Amundsen Splidsboel's "Her First Tattoo" could as easily have been rendered by Cassatt.

The subject’s arm tattoo in Janet Amundsen Splidsboel’s “Her First Tattoo” may be the biggest tell that this is not a Cassatt. (Peoples)

 

 

 

 

Oddly enough, Portland artists’ newest inspiration seems to be drawn from old-world aesthetics, particularly European impressionism. While the above styles continue to thrive among their own devotees, neo-impressionist works are gaining an ever-more-noticeable presence. Less about symbols and more about beauty itself, these works soften Portland  motifs to the edge of recognition through a rose-colored, blurred nineteenth-century lens, lending an aura of timelessness and universality to local tropes.

Though a thousand Photoshop filters have tried, impressionism remains a difficult art style to digitally approximate. On an ever-dwindling list of formats where the painter’s vision and craft are still considered essential, impressionism is a last refuge for the human touch. As digital effects artists suffer in a down economy, perhaps this painterly mini-renaissance is a backlash? If this new impressionism can become de rigueur, its artists will have deftly painted their specialized skills back into the economic picture.

The Takeaway

Though many impulses contribute to a given art movement (novelty, politics, fashion) this progression of styles could be seen as our oversaturated art market’s (albeit unconscious) impulse to thin the competition.

A quick thought experiment to demonstrate: Take 100 artists who have come to Portland after hearing that the town is “artistic.” Ask, “How many of you can paint me a three-color sasquatch monster?” Maybe 80. “How about drawing me an architecturally accurate square-rigger ship and a dandy gentleman festooned in ribbons, surrounded by delicate forest fauna?” Maybe 50. “Now how many of you can combine those two ideas and compose and shade it so it’s ready to run in Juxtapoz?” That might bring us down to 30 or 20…or less. “Now how many of you went to art school, studied the old masters, and can approximate classic impressionism?” Five? Ten? With every new technical refinement, the pool of participants gets slightly smaller. But if this winnowing process is happening, it’s a distinct departure from our town’s traditionally come-one-come-all arts attitude. Maybe that’s why none of the styles that have come before seem to die. Regardless of the latest “look,” monster paintings are still invited to the Portland party.

It almost goes without saying that this assessment of 2-D vis-art trend is a non-comprehensive art discussion, notably excluding the impact of major forces like TBA, the DIY craft movement, social practice, PAM’s contemporary curation, and  the applied design movement (introduced locally by the likes of John Grade, and now basking in MoMa‘s international spotlight.) Still, for those of us who’ve spent the last decade vibing Portland zeitgeists (especially in coffee shops, small galleries, and people’s homes) these aesthetics seem like viable highlights. Feel free to comment on these, or other visual movements you’ve seen around town.