December notes: A world apart

Reality and fantasy mingle and pull apart and mingle on a Portland stage and Portland galleries

It is late afternoon on Monday, December 9, and the TriMet bus is packed when you board it. Packed largely with 14 or 15-ish teenagers, cleancut, perhaps from a private or a special school as one or two get off at every other stop for the length of the southbound bus route. The teens jabber back and forth all around you, the whole extent of your ride. Even the busdriver seems infatuated by the joyful atmosphere, telling two jokes. One you don’t catch, but the other goes something like this:

What do you call a cat that you find at the beach at Christmas?

The kids are quick, and call out a couple possibilities. When these die by the wayside, the driver milks the moment a little longer then answers.

Sandy claws.

This answer gets a general laugh and a couple groans, then a chorus of thank-you’s to the busdriver. The kids almost immediately returning to their contrapuntal, back-and-forth jabber, which streams like vapor trails above and around you.

No, I can’t access that site on my phone anymore.

The girl in the seat next to you calls to the boy seated just behind the busdriver. The boy wonders aloud at where the problem is.

My parents changed the password.

She explains.

Set your phone’s clock back to before when they changed it.

He tells her, logically.

I tried.

She says. She’s no idiot.

They blocked that.

The boy nods, pondering.

Talk to Philip. He knows how to get around this.

He advises her.

Which Philip? Philip Teemiter? . . .

And on to other jabber, flying in from some other direction.

The teen world is a world apart from that of their parents. A cozy reality providing a natural-seeming and idyllic sense of belonging.

Laura Berger, “Find Yourself Here”/Image courtesy of Stephanie Chefas Projects

Your mother’s cousin is married to a University of Minnesota professor, Ernest Bormann—a major figure in the fields of Communication Theory and the Theory of Rhetoric (see The Force of Fantasy: Restoring the American Dream). When Sigmund Freud talks about a “fantasy,” he is talking about how the psyche talks to itself. Bormann applies this idea of fantasy instead to cohesive groups of people, who construct between them an effective group-lingua which highlights values and ideas important to them. He describes this group private-language as a symbolic convergence or a fantasy. Everyone on the same wavelength, singing the same tune.

But is this self-assured sense of belonging a luxury everyone shares in?

It is 7 pm, Tuesday December 10. You are at a LineStorm Playwrights reading at the Triangle Productions building at NE 18th and Sandy Boulevard.

First up is the revised first act of a piece you’d heard before, Susan Faust’s Persistent World. You picture the stage as eerily lit. Two teens—or their avatars, rather—are battling their way into a cave, their swords at the ready. One avatar warns the other not to take the righthand entrance. But he is bold and foolhardy, and gets snared in some electronic spiderweb.

Use your magic pouch.

The ally tells the boy.

It isn’t actualized.

So the ally has to break off her own quest and rescue him.

Downstairs, Mother is calling him to dinner—calling the boy, not the avatar—and the stage-lighting normalizes. The kid is now alone in his bedroom. He makes a call on his cellphone. He talks to a friend from school, a gamer also and probably a bit of an outcast like himself.

I will vanquish them.

The boy tells his friend.

I will not be subsumed.

But is he talking about the game world? Or the social world at school, where he doesn’t quite fit in, finding what connection he makes there only at the social fringes?

Mom calls the boy for supper again. But the eerie light returns as he goes back into the game. He is auditioning players:

Who will go with me on a Primeval Quest?

The avatar he now interviews is a tough-talking bully.

Follow you, faggot?

The bully baldly wonders—as Mom is heard again, through the fog, calling the boy to supper. The bedroom lights neutralize, and the boy is back on the phone. His mother makes another, now more vocal, call up the stairs.

I’m on the phone, Mom.

Seeming to hear her voice for the first time. The boy is paranoid that the bully who he auditioned in the game-world might in fact be some bully he knows—knows from his school. That the guy might recognize him.

Dinner now! Or I’m taking the phone away from you.

When she finally stomps up the stairs, he hides the phone. But the hidden phone gets two beep-beep messages in quick succession.

The kid is ethnic-Korean, adopted. His single-mom is white. On his Primeval Quest, the kid’s goal is to find his real parents.

I am royal-born. But had to be hid away.

Later that evening, downstairs seated on the couch with the only mother he actually knows, the boy dozes. His head slips onto his mother’s lap. She lets him stay like this. Though when he awakens, he is deeply embarrassed. Not what a hero does. But the two have a tender talk, salving the boy’s psychic wounds…but only for the meantime. End of Act 1.

(Look for the finished version of Persistent World at the Fertile Ground theater festival, noon February 1 at Chapel Theatre, free.)

It is 5 pm December 7th. You are at Stephanie Chefas Projects in Portland’s close-in Eastside. The art opening for Laura Berger’s “Find Ourselves Here.” Moderate-size acrylic paintings, featuring schematic renditions of a group of identical females. Or cluster, more than group—as the torso and limbs of these figures intertwine in decorative patterns, like scrolling vines from Greco-Roman vases or bas-relief, or Islamic architectural motifs—but de-sensualized. A floral arrangement, an arabesque of detail-less figures, ideal types.

Black the hair, the eyes, the nose-nostrils, the mouth. Gray the body (warm gray, or each body a differing pastel shade). Body’s outer edge set against an orange backdrop. Its arms and legs, as they crisscross in the foreground, are delineated by a thin orange line—its width never varying.

The five or so figures circle through each other like a wreath or climb skyward in a pyramid. But there is looseness to these formations, no rigidity. Not cramped or architectonic.

But free-floating. As if to say:

We are here together by our freewill.

Socially confident and easygoing—like the teenagers who were jabbering all around you on the TriMet bus, joyous, untroubled. Life is simple, socialization automatic—no rough edges.

Same Saturday, an hour earlier. You are in the Goose Hollow neighborhood, just across I-405 from downtown Portland, at Fourteen30 Contemporary. Up is a collaborative exhibition by Reed College professor and poet Jae Yeun Choi and San Francisco painter Maysha Mohamedi, titled “insofar as i knew.” Everything here is not not clean and confident and sociable, but cryptic, uncertain, and introspective.

Maysha Mohamedi, “Hunting the Persian Cat”/Image courtesy of Fourteen30 Contemporary

Choi’s poem—a crude affair of sticks—is printed in all-caps, white typeface on black bands, set on white-ish newsprint (layout design by Scott Ponik). The words you read here are like a catalogue of self-questionings or emotional grievances:

INSOFAR AS I KNEW I CRIED LESS NOW . . .

INSOFAR AS I KNEW MY FATHER WAS NOT AWFUL . . .

INSOFAR AS I KNEW PREFERENCE TOOK PRECEDENCE . . .

INSOFAR AS I KNEW THE LACK OF DEFINITION WAS HELPFUL . . .

INSOFAR AS I KNEW IT WAS ABOUT COMPANIONSHIP, ABSORPTION.

No video-game hyperreality here, no Primeval Quest. This is subjective self-honesty.

But this hardfocus sometimes does devolve into near fantasia:

INSOFAR AS I KNEW I KNEW A BUTTERFLY THROUGH ITS UNBUTTONING.

Or simple word-play:

INSOFAR AS I KNEW I WAS OUT OF CURRENCY WITH A COUNTLESS OWING.

But like with the adolescent gamer, there is no self-assurance here. Rather, a conflicted desire. A search going on for one’s true inner identity.

You think this may be the proper way to read Mohamedi’s oil paintings. They are virtually illegible: hard-edge shapes of brown-paint here, black-paint there—floating free in space, looking like nothing in particular or anything in general. Gift-paper torn and scattered across a Christmas-morning floor. Lines invade some of these spaces, straight or curled or with needle-pin bobs on top—yet no clear iconic definition. But also present are linear figurative shapes—vague, only half-recognizable.

In Haunting the Persian Cat (2019), there is no cat image, just the blotches and tracings of the hunt? In Hidden Hills Sunday Service (2019) there are schematic mountains, written over by spermlike musical notes. But a church? No. Only its music.

This perhaps is the subjective key to these paintings. They exist like discrete fields of sound, more ambient than melodic. An inner chorus of information. Socially, communicationally—an ineptitude, yes. But something which nonetheless marks accurately a perceptual moment in time. Too much info to give order to what is perceived, but still…a clear noting-down. Insofar as she knew. To think about, to contemplate upon.

Like Choi’s repetitive staccato poesy.

The differing musics of our fantasies.

Laura Berger’s highly extrovert, social fantasy—singing in unison with the crowd, glorying in it. Bormann’s sense of a contrapuntal symbolic convergence.

Choi’s and Mohamedi’s archly introvert fantasies—solipsistic, introspective. More in line with Freud’s sense—of the psyche talking to itself.

Susan Faust’s adolescent boy on a quest. Naively seeking social vindication, yes. But also direly solipsistic, though lacking an adult’s introspective turn.

But, like the teenagers on the TriMet bus, what these artworks and their characters all have in common, it is clear to you, is the earnest attachment each has regarding their unique and unitary fantasy. Their sense of living in…a world apart.

Jae Carlsson is a novelist, playwright, religious-historian, and longtime visual arts, dance, and film critic.

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