Ch-ch-ch-changes: ghosts in the machine

ArtsWatch Weekly: As the culture moves toward an uncertain future, new art is in the making – and the art of the past shifts with the times

DEEPER AND DEEPER WE DIVE INTO THIS STRANGE NEW WORLD, shifting priorities, scrambling in place, adapting on the virtual run. Everything’s well and truly shut down now. Well, not everything: You can still trek out to the liquor store or pot shop, or get your groceries, or fill ‘er up with bargain-basement gasoline, although my car’s been sitting unused for close to a month now, and maybe yours has, too. But if you’re a going-out person, the going’s gone out. Theaters, concert halls, galleries, museums, restaurants and cafes, coffee shops, even churches and ballparks: See you in June, maybe. Or July, or if paychecks don’t start rolling in again soon, maybe next year.

Much of what we call our cultural life is suspended, and if and when it comes back it’s unlikely to look the same. ArtsWatch’s Barry Johnson makes the case in Starting Over: Enter the Dragon, the second episode in his new “Starting Over” column. The disrupter that is the pandemic, he writes, has changed things in fundamental ways: “I now think of it as a dragon, swooping in and out of our lives, destroying markets, fields, workshops and houses, and threatening all of us with misery and death. … it even gets into our dreams. We will respond with myths and legends, new survival techniques and methodologies, songs and histories, solos and duets, household singing groups and mask-making projects, and new ways to convey comfort, solidarity, sorrow—new words, gestures, dances, music. Those things? They will stay after the dragon leaves.”


Dragons over Portland, and most of the world. Image by Nathan Johnson


THE DRAGON’S KICKING UP QUITE A STORM. Livelihoods in the arts are disappearing left, right, and in between – the Portland Art Museum, for one, has gone through a massive round of layoffs while its doors stay shut – and I worry about those people, and the people who make their livings in theater or dance or music or movie halls, and the librarians and bookstore workers and restaurant workers, too. I worry that many of the companies that so recently employed them won’t survive, and that we’ll wake one day, when the dragon’s gone, to a very different world.

So, yes, I worry about the arts. But to paraphrase John Donne, no art is an island. It’s a piece of the continent, a part of the main – an expression of the life and health of its culture, which it mirrors and helps shape. And in times of crisis the always blurry line between art and culture becomes even more smudged: their broad goals edge closer and closer to the same. If it doesn’t somehow address the issues of the broader culture, what does art mean? So I worry about the grocery clerks and stockers and deliverers. I’m deeply concerned about the welfare of immigrant workers and others who have to work under dangerous circumstances or lose their jobs and then their homes. I worry about the people who rely on the food pantries that, as Rachel Monahan reports in Willamette Week, might start running out of supplies in as little as two weeks. I miss the three Street Roots vendors I’ve been used to buying papers from, and, at least as importantly, touching bases with: three men living on the economic edge but doing something about it; what they can. Where are they now? Are they sleeping? Eating? I miss the weary but plainspoken and polite Vietnam veteran who often held a panhandling spot outside the grocery store I haven’t been to in a month, a man in his 70s who worked until retirement and then saw his life slowly unravel, but who was hanging on, and honest about where life had taken him. An art world that doesn’t embrace such people and circumstances as vital to its concerns is a false art world.

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Left: Philanthropist Arlene Schnitzer. Right: Sherrie Wolf, “Tulips with Concert of Birds; Reference: Frans Snyder, 1579–1657,” 2008. Collection of Arlene and Harold Schnitzer, from the 2014 exhibition In Passionate Pursuit.

TWO DEATHS IN THE PAST WEEK BROUGHT HOME THE REALITY OF TRANSITION that the time of pandemic is unfurling in our presence. The great American songwriter John Prine, an everyman voice of the nation for close to fifty years, died from effects of COVID-19, at 73. And the outstanding Portland art collector, patron, and philanthropist Arlene Schnitzer died, of natural causes, at 91. For decades Schnitzer and her husband, Harold, who died in 2011, were omnipresent figures on the Portland cultural scene, and Arlene’s death in many ways marks the true passing of an era. A couple of nights ago I pulled out the catalog for In Passionate Pursuit: The Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Collection and Legacy, an expansive 2014 exhibition at the Portland Art Museum. The breadth of the collection, from early Chinese art to silver to works by fused glass stars such as Klaus Moje to a cogent selection of traditional Native American beadwork and basketry, is impressive. And the concentration on work by modern Northwest and West Coast artists, from pioneers such as C.S. Price, Robert Arneson, Morris Graves, Guy Anderson, Carl and Hilda Morris, Louis Bunce, Michele Russo, and Alden Mason to a generation of now senior stalwarts including Lucinda Parker, George Johanson, William Morris, Jay Backstrand, Laura Ross-Paul, René Rickabaugh, Henk Pander, Fay Jones, Katherine Ace, Tom Fawkes, Mel Katz, Gregory Grenon, Mary Josephson, Joe Feddersen, Sherrie Wolf, Marie Watt, and the late Robert Colescott, Rick Bartow, and Manuel Izquierdo defined a vital strain of 20th and 21st century West Coast art.

And the Schnitzers didn’t just collect. Through her seminal Fountain Gallery, Arlene also nurtured many of these careers and seeded the birth of other important galleries. “My heart is totally broken!” Laura Ross-Paul wrote in a comment on ArtsWatch’s story about Arlene’s death. “Arlene and Harold WERE the hearth upon which Portland’s cultural fires burned. We’ve lost a great lady and I’ve lost a mentor and dear friend.” Sherrie Wolf added: “She was a friend and patron for me and so many artists. She was our champion. She had great wisdom, humanity, and a true sensitivity and love for the visual arts and music. Words cannot express our loss.” You can feel the wheel turning, turning, turning. 

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Transitions: Rick Bartow, “Big Wolf Dancer,” 2005, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 48 inches, courtesy of Froelick Gallery and the Richard E. Bartow Trust.


IF ART AND CULTURE HAVE DRAGONS, THEY ALSO HAVE GHOSTS. We are, of course, living in a time of literal deaths and transitions, heightened by the pandemic, and it’s difficult to keep up: The late, great Rick Bartow’s art, so much of which explores the shifting, churning, transformative nature of life between human and animal spirit, seems made for this time. News and vital statistics tumble over one another, annotating, multiplying, a very avalanche and burial of information that at bottom can only stand in, weakly, for true flesh-and-blood loss. News moves fast. Art moves more slowly, but also, at its best, more deeply, probing time and space and human passion for themes.

Art moves the past into the present and future, agile enough to shift its meanings with time and circumstance. Who can seem so suddenly representative of the age of social distancing as Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, the minor Russian nobleman of Amor Towles’s novel A Gentleman in Moscow, who finds himself for decades under house arrest in a Moscow hotel after the Bolshevik revolution? As dragons and ghosts roam the land, how fitting are the hordes of wandering zombies in Colson Whitehead’s canny novel Zone One as stand-ins for the crumbling and possible dissolution of the social structures a civilized culture relies on?

Art and history have seen pandemics before, and can make connections: Boccaccio’s great and witty story cycle The Decameron, written in the 14th century and a thematic and structural forerunner to The Canterbury Tales, is told by a gathering of men and women secluded in a villa outside Florence to escape the Black Death of 1348. Its voice echoes down the centuries, a benevolent and inspirational haunting of life and literature in our own times. Art can also make the spirits of the past predictive, as in Russell Hoban’s brilliant comic novel Riddley Walker, set in an English countryside centuries after a nuclear holocaust and building an entire religious mythology (Punch and Judy shows included) based on false deductions made from discoveries of artifacts from pre-holocaust life.

Some ghosts are debatable, as in Henry James’s stealthily creeping The Turn of the Screw, which is a crackling-good read, and which you can also see in a May 1 live-stream performance of Jeffrey Hatcher’s stage adaptation from Experience Theatre Project. Metaphorical ghosts, the persistent memories and sway of people and situations from the past, stride potently and freely through the plays of August Wilson: PassinArt’s covid-forced cancellation of its production of his Seven Guitars remindedme of Wilson’s magnificent character Aunt Ester, who takes a main role in Gem of the Ocean and whose spirit is invoked in a handful of his other plays: She’s 285 years old, or maybe older, or maybe younger, and the stuff of living, recurring myth: a spirit of African American endurance and experience. Thinking about Aunt Ester got me thinking, in turn, about Laila Lalami’s vivid historical novel The Moor’s Account, about a 16th century Moroccan slave taken by his gold-seeking Spanish owner to the “New World,” where the Moor flourishes, finding commonality with the land’s Indigenous people while the Spaniards flail, and providing an alternate mythology of Black freedom and independence in the Americas.

Some ghosts are literal, like the narrator of the country ballad Long Black Veil, hanged for a murder he did not commit, and whose illicit lover “visits my grave when the night winds wail.” Thinking about that beknighted graveyard ghost turned my mind toward Spoon River Anthology, Edgar Lee Masters’ novel-length portrait of a Midwest town, told in verse as narrated by the residents of the local cemetery, who in death are finally able to tell the unpolished truth about their lives when they were among the living.

The great art of our current Plague Age will emerge slowly, I suspect, as artists search its deeper meanings and consider the voices they will give it. In the meantime we have a plentitude of ghosts and zombies and dragons willing and ready to shape-shift to our current needs, and music and comedies and paintings and films to provide their necessary balms. A little Bach or Bernstein can be medicine for all sorts of ills.

We’ve always had dragons, going back to the serpent in the Garden and other Beginning myths. In Western cultures the dragon has been a loathsome, destructive beast to be slain by heroes. In East Asian cultures it’s been a creature of benevolence and celebration and good luck. We have the ability, apparently, to choose our dragons. Which ones will we take with us into this newest version of our endless parade of futures?
 


CHICKENS, SASQUATCHES, AND OTHER GOOD READS


Tripper Dungan, “Chicken Songs,” acrylic on wood, 28 x 11 inches. Image courtesy of Antler Gallery


AND THEN SASQUATCH WAS SERENADED BY A ROOSTER. The Alberta Street gallery Antler is hosting a pair of virtual exhibitions that highlight the virtues of play. Shannon M. Lieberman takes a virtual look, discovers some intriguing cultural connections, and declares: “The work at Antler this month is fun, and I think we all need a bit of that these days.”

LOOKING FOR LEADERSHIP. Brett Campbell talks with Roger Saydack, the classical music enthusiast and veteran talent-finder who’s leading the hunt to find a new artistic leader for the Oregon Bach Festival and get the Eugene festival’s ship sailing again after its recent missteps.

LINCOLN CITY THEATER OWNER ACES CELEBRITY NAME GAME. Seems like everybody’s playing the Facebook celebrity name game: List a bunch of celebrities you’ve met, throw in one you haven’t, and let people guess which one you’re fibbing about. Betsy Altomare, co-owner of the Bijou Theatre in Lincoln City, used to work in West Hollywood, and she gives Lori Tobias the lowdown on some of her celebrity moments. (Paul Newman didn’t believe in signing autographs. Elton John did.)


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