VISUAL ART

A safe space for deep criticism of art

manuel arturo abreu discusses home school, a free pop-up art school in Portland, and its upcoming "field day," June 23

In a recent discussion with manuel arturo abreu (they/them) the co-founder of a Portland-based pop-up art school called home school, a fundamental question surfaced—a question that directly relates to the relevance of this very platform: Why would someone hate art?

For abreu, a poet and artist from the Bronx, the answer is ready and waiting: “Because art sucks. It’s really violent. It’s a violent colonial enterprise. How do we reclaim it?”

In the following discourse, which centers the labor and thinking of home school and its organizers, nothing is sacred. Readers with a love for art, academia, and many of the institutions and frameworks designed to support these, might find themselves set off—but please take that response as definitive sign to keep reading.

Image courtesy of home school and MoMA PS1

The way home school came to be is “a classic story” within the home school-community, said abreu. Victoria Anne Reis (she/her), who now runs home school with abreu, previously lived in New York City and studied at New York University, an institution infamously known for being inaccessible to many students without the aid of punishing loads of student debt.

In search of a different option than “the very marketized education that she was paying for,” Reis began taking classes with the Bruce High Quality Foundation University, an alternative arts education structure that self-identified as “a learning experiment” and “New York’s freest art school.”

BHQFU—which is now defunct—was started by several Cooper Union graduates who, initially, remained anonymous and who derived inspiration from German artist Joseph Beuys’ concept of social sculpture. “Rather than an artist working with paint or cardboard or noise or language, an artist is constructing an aesthetic experience from the social interactions of others,” an unnamed source from Bruce High Quality Foundation said of social sculpture in an interview with Social Text Journal.

Social sculpture is “sculpture where society and community is the medium for the art,” abreu explained.

As the story goes, Reis eventually had a child and moved back in with her parents in Boring, her childhood home, east of Portland. Upon settling in the Pacific Northwest, she reached back out to BHQFU to ask if resources were available that would allow her to continue studying remotely. The response was surprising.

According to abreu: “They kind of categorically shut it down, and were like: We don’t do that. We don’t have any distance learning. Remote learning is not part of our concept. The social raw material of the project is local. It’s in New York.”

The shutdown Reis experienced opened up an avenue for something different to emerge. Upon sharing her disappointment at BHQFU’s response with abreu, the two decided to collaborate on running what we now know as “home school.” This free pop-up art school offers a multimedia curriculum, including artist talks, exhibitions, classes, poetry readings, and physical education.

Of course, baked into its mission is an impetus toward distance learning. Now in its third year, home school is building an archive of material (see the website), and live streaming events, “so someone in New York could just click a link and feel like they’re in the room,” said abreu.

Home school has also created a “field day” series, riffing off the classic term, which takes place “in former and current educational institutions as a platform for questioning and reimagining the methods, purposes, and dynamics that connect art and education.” After organizing the first field day of the year at MoMA PS1 in New York City, home school is now bringing the series to Portland’s Reed College this Saturday for field day #2, organized in collaboration with Diné artist Kevin Holden and the Cooley Gallery, with support from black apotrope.

Image courtesy of home school and MoMA PS1

As evidenced by its programming, home school’s mission, curriculum, and pedagogy have been crafted with intentionality, criticality, and nuance. For example, abreu noted, the difference between certain other alternative education models and home school is that “We’re not art; home school is not art. It’s just an art school. There’s no social sculpture.”

In abreu’s view, pedagogical practice as performed by projects such as BHQFU is disingenuous. “They still can fail their students but be good art. In some cases the failure toward students is the goodness of the art—because it’s still a social sculpture. At the end of the day, the pedagogy subsumes under aesthetics. It becomes aesthetic.”

Something becomes aestheticized when it goes “from being normal life, to having the value that art has and operates within the market in the way that art does,” abreu explained. In this sense, alternative arts education models that invoke social sculpture or identify as a kind of larger artistic endeavor are still plausibly falling into the trend of marketization, which is all too familiar in American liberal arts education.

Because home school does not identify as social sculpture or an “art project,” so to speak, it also should not be construed as social practice art, a field with growing history, prominence, and currency in Portland.

“Let’s bring this all the way back to social practice,” said abreu when the subject arose, “That’s what we’re fighting against.” abreu’s inquiry raises the question: Under what circumstances should any kind of labor be defined or branded as art—and, when it is, who benefits from this? Moreover, whose labor is being capitalized upon? “There’s almost a market incentive to brand yourself that way, to even make that kind of work in the first place,” abreu mused about social practice art, continuing, “The dynamics are weird…They’re very white dynamics.”

Image courtesy of home school and MoMA PS1

Speaking of white dynamics, this comes to bear on the environment in which home school was conceived, and the fact that Portland is “whitest big city in America.” Abreu talked me through the mission of home school, which includes providing “welcoming contexts for critical engagement with contemporary art and its issues.” Part of home school’s mission stems from what abreu observed as a distinct lack of space for critique in Portland.

“We wanted to create a space for it, where someone could actually, earnestly, and semi-safely be like f*ck art, f*ck all this white shit, f*ck the PAM, f*ck Fourteen30 Contemporary, f*ck Elizabeth Leach [Gallery],” said abreu, adding, “You can’t say that here [in Portland]. You cannot. People are offended, and people are like, what do you mean? They’re cultural creators. They’re community resources. And I’m like, to what community? What resources?”

In actuality, critical engagement can be a form of generosity. “The fact that someone is paying attention to your work in a critical way is a gift, and it’s not a threat. It’s not toxic,” abreu reflected. “It’s actually generative and can form community.”

“A big part of the project for me has been just creating that cathartic space,” said abreu; and cultivating a welcoming and cathartic space has been an ongoing process that entails something of a paradox. “To actually truly be welcoming you have to be exclusionary,” abreu continued. “You have to consciously construct and facilitate a space that excludes toxic beliefs and behaviors—to not welcome racism, misogyny, ableism, queerphobia, all this stuff. The success of our work in that context is obviously up for debate. No space is safe. But we are committed to creating that context.”

Questions around power dynamics and censorship never cease to surface in any learning environment, which begs for careful consideration around who is being elevated through home school’s programming. Take, for example, the fact that no white man has given a talk at home school. “Very explicitly, we don’t want that,” said abreu, “They have other platforms. They’re good.” And while home school events are open to the public, the invitations are often very targeted to trusted circles of home school’s community who, presumably, are interested in engaging in critical discourse.

Abreu emphasized that the important artists who present work through home school—artists such as Demian DinéYazhi´, Melanie Stevens, and sidony o’neal, to name just a few—deserve a rigorous, critically engaged space and community where their work can exist and be experienced.

However, rigorous critical engagement also entails a level of reckoning with greater forces at play in our world.

As we moved on to discuss artistic medium and ephemeral work, abreu suggested: “If we accept that we can’t necessarily escape the market, we can [still] face up to it.” For abreu, this entails “taking, at face value, the claims of these tragic white art movements,” and facing up to the market by turning a critical lens toward art historical myths.

“When modernism, for example, or conceptualism talk about the political ramifications of themselves, you can take those claims at face value, take them seriously, but in a way that undermines the movements or kind of reveals their violence,” said abreu.

This might entail asking: What were the radical claims have been made by these art movements? What did these movements accomplish, and for whom, and, ultimately, to what end?

At this point in our conversation, I laughed and could not keep from remarking on the heartbreaking nature of it all. To this, abreu replied, “It’s only heartbreaking because we have a covert investment in it, and that’s exactly what I think needs to be drawn out.”

*****

You can support home school’s work by donating via Paypal to portland.home.school@gmail.com.

field day #2 is presented by home school, Diné artist Kevin Holden, and the Cooley Gallery, with support from black apotrope. field day #2 will take place 2-8 pm Saturday, June 23, at Reed College in the Psychology Building in rooms 102/103, and continuing throughout the day in the Psych building and Eliot 314. Schedule and rooms will be clearly posted.

field day #2 orients itself around medium-nonconforming, medium-agnostic, and medium-antagonistic gestures and practices in performance. For more information, visit the Cooley Gallery website.

Fast wheels, modernist dreams

The sleek cars and motorcycles in the Portland Art Museum's "Shape of Speed" reflect the swift rise of Modernist design in the 1930s and '40s

The striking black-and-silver 1934 BMW motorbike in the Portland Art Museum lobby sits in front of a digital reader board that intermittently displays an image of one of Monet’s Water Lilies – an apt reminder of the The Shape of Speed’s leitmotif: vehicles can be art.

Certain vehicles. Not Toyota Camrys or Dodge minivans or even split-window ‘Vettes; but these 17 cars and two motorcycles most definitely. The Shape of Speed: Streamlined Automobiles and Motorcycles, 1930-1942 is the latest exhibition in the Portland Art Museum’s design series, guest curated by Ken Gross, former director of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. The show is open now and runs through September 16.

Beauty meets beauty: Monet water lilies and 1934 BMW. Photo: John Foyston

Gross previously curated the Museum’s 2011 exhibition The Allure of the Automobile, which celebrated automobiles as kinetic art. This never-before seen collection celebrates Modernism as expressed by the streamline dreams of the 1930s, when the ever more slippery shapes of airplanes influenced everything from architecture to steam locomotives, radios and automobiles; even Raymond Loewy’s gorgeous – and it could be said – essentially pointless chrome teardrop of a pencil sharpener. (Not that I wouldn’t feel like Tommy Tomorrow himself if I had one on my desk…)

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Killjoy Collective makes space for ‘Children of Revulsion’

The Killjoy Collective exhibition is for people who feel marginalized, regardless of the reason

To get to Killjoy Collective, you have to go through what curator and artist Tabitha Nikolai calls the “airlock”—a set of closely-spaced, rattly and slightly-rusty doors on the side of the handsome but mysterious Troy Laundry Building,at 221 SE 11th Avenue in Portland.

It’s a bit of a dance for two people to enter at the same time, but once inside you descend into a basement warren of studios. The established spaces are clearly very active, and the scent of drywall and sawdust and the piles of power tools indicate the building’s attempt to grow and attract new clientele to freshly-partitioned units. Even just five or six years ago, you were likely to hit a space like this if you chucked a rock off any rooftop in inner Southeast Portland. Now, with closures of places like Towne Storage and Recess Gallery, it’s one of the few remaining concentrations of DIY and community art spaces in this fast-changing neighborhood.

children of revulsion – opening night

Killjoy’s space is close to the bottom of the stairs, and with the front doors open, it presents a remarkably spacious world all of its own in what could easily feel like a cramped basement. It’s a fitting home for a show that describes itself as follows:

“Children of Revulsion is about living inside media when you can’t go home again.

It’s about making a house from virtual trash, lashed together with scraps of code, and uploading it to your dear ones, wherever they are. Big enough for everyone, you dwell in it together, replay and reply. Every pixel a good night kiss on the forehead. Every beat a tender hand-squeeze in the dark.”

It’s an ambitious group show featuring more than a dozen artists, musicians, and meme-makers. Multiple large monitors featuring homebrew videogames and digital environments ring a central bench that invites you to sit, don a pair of headphones, and pick up a wireless keyboard where the control keys are indicated by textured flower stickers. In the far corner, a modern LCD screen is housed in the skeleton of a small 1980s CRT TV set, perched atop a dresser. This echoes the homey, inner-sanctum vibes broadcast from the squishy, colorful installation of blankets, stuffed animals, and fabric creations at the front of the room on the same wall.

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Tim Stapleton: Call and response with paint

After a diagnosis that at first sounded like a death sentence, the Portland theater designer decided to live without fear—and return to painting

Tim Stapleton lives these days in a little house set back below an out-of-the-way Portland residential street not far from the Columbia Slough. Despite the years worth of blackberry vine overgrowth he’s hacked away, he’s still surrounded by vegetation, and the tiny runnel a few yards from the front door just adds to the sense of being in the country. He refers to the place only half-jokingly as “the holler.”

That nickname is a fitting reminder of his upbringing in southeastern Kentucky, in a hamlet known to the locals as Haymond. It also underscores how far he’s come in a lifetime, from one holler to another: In the 1950s and ‘60s, he was one of seven children in a coal miner’s family, poor, gay, and at a certain point, sexually abused. Now, he’s one of Portland’s most respected and beloved theater artists—best known as a scenic designer of what might be termed poetic efficiency, but also liable to show up as actor, writer or teacher—the recipient of a 2017 Drammy Award for Lifetime Achievement for decades of work with the historic Storefront Theatre, Artists Repertory Theatre, Profile Theatre and countless other companies and projects.

Tim Stapleton’s set designs have been evolved into spare but intense distillations of their plays/Photo by Gary Norman

However richly deserved that award, its timing owed something to an unwelcome development. In March of 2017, Stapleton was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, the motor neuron disease that leads to progressive weakening of the muscles and loss of body control. Near the end of a particularly busy 2016, he’d noticed some difficulties working on a set for a production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. A bit later, he was at the home of his friend, the photographer Owen Carey, when another bad sign appeared. “Owen and I often trade Negronis [gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth] for painting. So I was over there, up on a ladder doing some texture work or something, and I couldn’t raise my arm up.”

“I went from diagnosis to acceptance immediately,” he said in April of last year, sitting in his cozy holler home. “I refuse to live for the end. I refuse to live in fear.”

Instead, Stapleton has continued to live for, or at least through, his art. He continues his theater work, including the scenic design for Artists Rep’s current production of Lauren Gunderson’s I & You. Perhaps more importantly, he’s rededicated himself to his first love: Painting.

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‘Faust’ review: giving the devil his due

Portland Opera’s dazzling new co-production lends depth and color to Gounod’s take on Goethe 

by BRUCE BROWNE and DARYL BROWNE

“Music,” the saying goes, “is the language of the soul.” But when that soul is sold to the Devil, as in Charles-Francois Gounod’s opera Faust, even some of the most beautiful musical lines ever written could not prevent the hell-bound downward spiral. In a slowly unraveling demonic mode, Portland Opera Association’s artistic forces presented an interdisciplinary Faustian wonderment on opening night last Friday at Keller Auditorium.

Setting Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s massive Faust to music, let alone opera, is a huge undertaking. Gounod took several passes at getting his produced. When it was finally tweaked to his satisfaction in 1859, distilled to the dramatic essence, the five act opera went 19th century viral and has since become one of the most often staged operas of all time. New York’s Metropolitan Opera opened its doors in 1883 with a production of Gounod’s Faust.

Angel Blue and Jonathan Boyd in Portland Opera’s ‘Faust.’ Photo: Corey Weaver.

You might think Faust is the only reason his name is known, but wait: 1) Who superimposed a Catholic “Ave Maria” chant over the top of a Bach C major prelude to create one of the most loved works of all time; 2) Who wrote the ‘National Anthem’ of Vatican City (the Papal Hail to the Chief, as it were); 3) Who wrote the original theme to the Alfred Hitchcock television program? The answer to all three: Charles Gounod.

Gounod was born in Paris almost exactly 200 years before the June 17 closing performance of POA’s 2018 Faust production. He received composition awards in his early years at Paris Conservatory and in Rome. A devoted Catholic and family man who loved the music of Palestrina and Bach, Gounoud was an admirer and friend of Berlioz. He wrote symphonies that are not widely performed, a large number of choral works and one other opera of note, Romeo and Juliet.

With a handful of major singing roles, large mixed chorus and large orchestra, the story (libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carre) is a balanced and dramatic work. An artist, Faust, his body and creativity degraded by old age, is contemplating suicide. He is enraged by young women outside singing of nature and God and calls out for Mephistopheles, who takes it from there.

Crossing Faust’s pathway to doom are Marguerite, paragon of feminine purity; Siebel, young boy, love-struck over Marguerite; Wagner, a soldier off to war; Valentin, also a soldier, and brother of Marguerite; and Marthe, a matronly friend of Marguerite. And for all except Marthe, Gounod has written arias that have become staples in solo vocal literature.

Portland Opera’s ‘Faust’ closes this weekend. Photo: Corey Weaver.

It wasn’t just the language of music, however, that told the tale at Keller Auditorium. The prodigious visual stagescape was the collaborative work of a troupe of stage-craft artists taking their artistic vision from California sculptor John Frame. (Read Paul Maziar’s ArtsWatch interview with Frame.) David Allen Moore (projection design) targeted images, some 3D, onto the stage with eerie precision. Vita Tzykun (set and costume), Duane Schuler (lighting) and stage director Kevin Newbury. colored, textured and shaded the drama.

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Designing ‘Faust’

In Portland Opera's new production of Gounod's classic, visual artist John Frame relies on collaborators to bring the audience inside the mind of the man who made the original deal with the devil

by PAUL MAZIAR

This June, the new Lyric Opera of Chicago-Portland Opera co-production of Charles Gounod’s Faust, directed by Kevin Newbury, will fill the Keller Auditorium stage for four performances, the production’s West Coast premiere. The visual artist John Frame —whose vignettes, sculptures, score and installations were a distinct hit when exhibited at the Portland Art Museum back in 2012 for his Three Fragments of a Lost Tale show — is the opera’s production designer. For Faust, Frame’s novel approaches to composition and his visionary aesthetic manage to locate the production inside Faust’s mind—and soul.

A scene from Portland Opera’s ‘Faust.’ Photo: Corey Weaver.

Although Gounod’s Faust is familiar, the Lyric Opera version was widely anticipated, in large part because of Frame’s reimaging of it, which includes sculpture, 3D projections, and a live video feed. It’s a production that, however augmented by contemporary technology, presents a world that’s of its own unique timeframe—neither present nor past.

“His art sees the world in a completely different way, reflecting the human condition in a way that’s poignant, dark and funny,” director Newbury told the Chicago Tribune about Frame’s work on the opera. “Our production team is taking his work as our inspiration. Because much of the opera is about Faust’s search for knowledge and truth, we portray him as an artist, searching for truth through his art.”

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VizArts Monthly: Canoes and ice cream are involved

A big Richard Diebenkorn show at the Portland Art Museum, R.B.Kitaj at the Oregon Jewish Museum, and a host of other shows

There’s no denying it—summer is here (well, technically, maybe not)! And what better way to enjoy the precious, fleeting sunny months in Portland than to look at art in small indoor spaces? OK, there might be more appropriate summertime activities, but in between all the biking and lounging in parks and rafting on rivers, the seasonal blooming of events and shows has plenty to offer. In addition to the following list, take note of S1’s anniversary party weekend, June 8—10, with details available at http://s1portland.com/.

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