Making music for the love of it

ArtsWatch Weekly: A very different kind of orchestra, a weekend of horrors, board moves, toppled statues, farewells, flicks & how we see

SOMETIMES, IN THE UNDERSTANDABLE QUEST FOR EXCELLENCE AND EVEN PERFECTION in the arts, performers and artists can lose sight of something that should be at the core of the entire enterprise: a love of the game. That happened, Brett Campbell writes in ‘Orchestrating change’: healing music, to Ronald Braunstein, an up-and-coming orchestral conductor whose promising career was derailed, despite his prominent and obvious talents, by the stress and pressure of the job. “Anxiety, distraction, emotional ups and downs paralyzed him,” Campbell writes. “He couldn’t keep it all together.” 
 

For the love of it: Dylan Moore, a bassist with Me2/Orchestra. Photo courtesy of Me2.

Eventually Braunstein discovered that he had a crippling bipolar disorder, and that might have been the end of the story – except it wasn’t. He still had all of that talent, and a growing appreciation for the love that attracted him to music in the first place. And he discovered that there were a lot more people like him: professionals, amateurs, in-betweens who genuinely loved the music but not the pressure that goes along with a fast-track career. He discovered he had a simpatico with those among them who also had some form of mental illness. And so was born the Me2/Orchestra, a place where people could go for the simple joy of playing. It’s an amazing story, a genuine joy to read, and the original Me2 has spawned offspring groups, including one in Portland. It’s also a timely reminder of the genuine pleasures of amateurism – a word derived from the Latin amare, which means, simply, to love. Whether you’re a professional or an acolyte, it’s where it all begins.


A PAIR OF FIRST-RANK ARTISTS JOIN THE MUSEUM BOARD


Left: Carrie Mae Weems, Photo by Audoin Desforges, courtesy of the artist. Right: Marie Watt. Photo by Sam Gehrke, courtesy of the artist.

THE PORTLAND ART MUSEUM MADE IT OFFICIAL Thursday afternoon: Two nationally celebrated artists with Oregon ties, photographer and contemporary artist Carrie Mae Weems and textile artist Marie Watt, who’s noted for her blanket installations, are joining the museum’s 70-member board of trustees. Weems, who is African American, was born in Portland and lived here into her teen years before leaving to study dance and then embarking on a storied career in art. Watt, an enrolled member of the Seneca Nation, was born in Seattle and has long lived and worked in Portland. Both explore cultural identities and issues deeply in their work.

They are among nine new museum trustees announced today, a list that also includes Phillip T. Hillaire, a longtime Oregon arts figure and member of the Lummi Nation. Those three appointments begin to meet a couple of movements among American museum and cultural boards – to include artists’ voices in the oversight of cultural institutions, and to break the traditionally mostly white membership on those boards in an attempt to share power and begin to reflect, finally, the actual cultural makeup of the nation. Nationally, Black museum board members have made it plain that they expect to have actual influence and authority, as The New York Times reported earlier this month

Also joining the Portland Art Museum board will be Catherine Blanksby, an investor and venture fund participant for local entrepreneurs; Kirk L. Dobbins, a vice president and counsel for Kaiser Foundation Hospitals/Health Plan; Brue McHayle, a senior product director for Nike; Rolando Pozos, a merger & acquisitions managing director at Bank of America Securities and a founder of Nostra Causa, which helps homeless children in Mexico; Greg Tibbles, a retired energy industry executive; and Cheryl Tonkin, a longtime Portland volunteer leader. 

ArtsWatch will be writing more about Weems’ and Watt’s appointments.

 



HORRORS: MUST BE THE SEASON OF THE WITCH


BodyVox dancers in the “Under Taken” sequence of this year’s BloodyVox.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

THE HORROR SEASON IS UPON US (no, not the elections – Halloween), and on the Portland performance front, nobody’s quite so well-prepared for it as BodyVox, which is in the midst of the latest version of its annual BloodyVox extravaganza, a sort of mock-gruesome, comical Dance of Death. BloodyVox: Lockdown, which is entering its second and final weekend at “an exciting drive-in location” to be revealed when you buy a ticket, is dance, humor, and film. Film and dance are increasingly popular partners – especially in the pandemic era, as Amy Leona Havin noted in her recent wrapup for ArtsWatch of the Portland Dance Film Fest – but BodyVox has been ahead of the curve, deftly blending film and dance for years with performative wit and cinematic style. Six more performances, through Saturday night. If past BloodyVoxes are any measure, it’s to die for. (For more late-October dance, check Jamuna Chiarini’s DanceWatch Monthly.)
 

  • Or maybe you’re in the mood for some good old-fashioned (if virtual) scares. Experience Theatre Project sets the graveyard table for you with The Tower of Terror, a live-streamed scarefest at 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday that promises an “interactive elevator” to transport you from creaky floor to creaky floor, a “horror-filled basement,” and a “screaming room to watch clips of classic horror films and past dark stories presented by ETP actors.”
     
  • Or maybe The Theatre Company’s podcast of Caryl Churchill’s Vinegar Tom gets down to the nitty gritty of your sort of terror. Set in the 17th century and involving “witches, protests, and feral cats,” it takes on the terrors of an uncompromising patriarchy.
     
  • And although it’s very different from Halloween, Mexico’s Dia de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, deals with the passage from life into death and comes at about the same time. KGW-8 TV has a good brief piece on some of this year’s celebrations in Portland, organized by Maria Garcia of downtown’s Revolucion Coffee Shop and being held at The Armory, home of Portland Center Stage, and outside the Portland Art Museum. 


IN NYE BEACH, FLYING AN INTERNATIONAL FLAG


Left: Newport’s signpost is the subject of a banner by Japanese artists Asuka, Yuka, and Kurumi. Right: A team of students created this banner, each student filling in the feather images on one of six swatches, then drawing their own picture on the opposite side. The fabric pieces were then grommeted together to form the banner.

NYE BEACH BANNER PROJECT GOES INTERNATIONAL. In its dozen years, the annual banner project in Newport’s oceanfront community has become a welcome tradition, drawing artists and visitors alike with its bright visions of neighborhood celebration – and in the process, raising money for arts education with a fall auction of the year’s banners. This year, Lori Tobias writes, the tradition goes international with the addition of banners created by artists in Newport’s sister city of Mombetsu, Japan. Newport artists have sent banners across the ocean in return to join Mombetsu’s own community celebration. 



ANOTHER STATUE TOPPLES. SHOULD IT STAY DOWN?


Sibling rivalry: Abigail Scott Duniway was Portland’s most prominent suffragist and advocate of women’s rights; her brother Harvey W. Scott, as editor of The Oregonian, was a powerful conservative with stern and outspoken views on who should be in charge of things. The two clashed often on political matters. He has a statue, recently toppled. She doesn’t. (Abigail image, ca. 1870-1900, from the Library of Congress; Harvey image from “Oregon: Her History, Her Great Men, Her Literature,” by B. Horner, 1919; both via Wikimedia Commons.)

ANOTHER ONE BITES THE DUST. Monuments to historical figures have been having a rough go of it in Portland in the past few months of social protest. Public statues of Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, and George Washington have been torn from their pedestals, and other statues have been tucked away in warehouses for safekeeping. The most recent historical-eminence-in-statuary to be toppled – he even lost his melodramatically pointing arm in the process – was  Harvey W. Scott, the once powerful and often reactionary editor of The Oregonian, whose monument had presided over Mount Tabor Park since 1933. Laurel Reed Pavic had argued earlier for keeping controversial monuments available to see somewhere “so that the history they represent isn’t glossed over or conveniently forgotten.” With Scott, she offers a caveat: “(I)t’s naive to think we’re going to keep every sculpture. … Who or what the sculpture represents matters … It should be a case-by-case decision, and in this case, I’m advocating for Harvey Whitefield Scott to go.”



STREAMING: CHOICE FLICKS, ON BEYOND CABLE


Josh Melrod’s indie feature “Major Arcana.” Image courtesy Good Deed Enterttainment.

STREAMERS: MORE MOVIES FOR THE PANDEMIC. In his latest “Streamers” column, Marc Mohan checks what Portland’s independent movie houses are offering via streaming (and even, in a few cases, on their actual, physical theater screens). It’s an intriguing lineup, from an Italian take on the Jack London novel Martin Eden to a timely documentary about “the American government’s disastrously ostrich-like reaction” to the coronavirus pandemic, an indie debut feature about a wandering soul returning to his Vermont hometown after his father’s death, and a fascinating outlier – not streaming via one of Portland’s movie houses, but available through other sources – about a Big Brother-like nightmare in contemporary Turkey.



A FINAL SHOWING FOR A BELOVED ARTIST


Tim Stapleton, the stage designer, writer, actor, and visual artist, in 2013. Photo: Owen Carey

FAREWELL TO THE TANGERINE WINDOW. In his final days, the Portland stage designer and visual artist Tim Stapleton greeted a steady stream of visitors to the “Tangerine Window,” a brightly decorated passageway from a courtyard to his room in a nursing facility in Multnomah Village, where he was living because he was nearing death from the debilitating effects of ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Marty Hughley talks with many of those visitors from the theater and art worlds and creates a warm and loving group portrait of a man who left his mark through his art, his life, his friendships, his stories, and his sometimes wicked sense of humor. Says playwright Steve Patterson: “I have to think Tim wears his halo at a jaunty angle.” This weekend, friends and fans can see his final artworks on display, in timed visits to his studio.


IS THE PANDEMIC CHANGING THE WAY WE SEE?


Sherrie Wolf, “Pomegranate with Niagara Falls,” 20 x 24 inches, Russo Lee Gallery, Portland. Wolf’s vivid overlays of contemporary-realist oversized objects over art-historical backdrops have a clarity of line that helps them pop in reproduction. But Wolf’s paintings are also richly textured, with a very physical presence, an aspect that’s harder to see in reproductions. 

 ONE OF THE THINGS I DO EVERY WEEK is decide what works of art to run with this column. Often the nature of the stories essentially makes that decision for me. But other times I have a lot of choice, and I’ve realized that often I choose what I choose at least partly because it works in an online format: As Marshall McLuhan put it, the medium becomes the message. What that often means is that naturalistic, readily recognizable images – illustrative, whether or not they’re actual “illustrations” – have a built-in head start. Newspapers and magazines tend to pick the same sorts of things. Clarity counts.

Galleries and museums have reopened, and although that’s a good and welcome thing, they have many restrictions, and many people are still reluctant to go out. For the most part we’re still experiencing our art second-hand, through a virtual lens. After eight months of lockdown, almost all of our visual-arts encounters come to us via an intervening medium that skews the immediacy of the one-on-one interaction, as almost all of our theater and dance experiences come through the funnel of film or audio recording: It’s like what it used to be, but it isn’t what it used to be.


 Think about the ways you look at a painting in a museum or gallery. First you stand at a distance, taking in the totality of it. Then you walk up close, slowly, telescoping your view as you approach. You begin to see the painting sectionally, and, the closer you get, in more detail: the brushstrokes, the texture, the layers of paint, the way that light plays against dark, the craft and method of the composition. Then, perhaps, you step back to a medium view, with the knowledge of fresh inspection still in your mind, and look again with an appreciation of how the large and small and subtle and obvious work together.

Now, think of how you look at a work of art on a magazine page or a computer screen. You take it in, as a whole, maybe lingering for a moment or three, and then move on. It’s a quicker, less complex interaction, more involved with surface shape and color than texture. Things that are illustrative and recognizable – realist or figurative, with clear lines and sharp edges – tend to catch our eyes more quickly. Some very good art reproduces well: prints, drawings, scenes. It’s not that they don’t lose something in the transition – they have subtexts, too – it’s that the losses are less noticeable because of the storytelling inherent in the compensating familiar shapes.

Where will art go from here, once the virus passes and we’re out and about again? Will our isolation accelerate the art world’s move into neorealism? Will we react with a new appreciation of subtlety and abstraction? Will we look for one sort of art on our screens and something quite different in our physical spaces? Will we embrace a broader variety of style and expression? How will we see what we see? Will a new restlessness create something we can’t anticipate? I don’t know the answers. But the questions keep popping up. What next?

Helen Frankenthaler (American, 1928-2011), “Spaced Out Orbit,” 1973, acrylic on canvas, 43 x 73 inches, The Clement Greenberg Collection; Museum Purchase: Funds provided by Tom and Gretchen Holce. Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon, 2001.1.44. Frankenthaler, a master of abstract expressionism, created shapes that were simply themselves, and that found their energy in the juxtapositions within their own frames. A huge amount of their impact comes not from their “recognizability,” but from the texture and application of the paint itself – aspects that bring her work to life and are extremely difficult to appreciate in virtual representations, which are attractive but can’t convey the paintings’ vitality when encountered in person.


IN APPRECIATION: MING CHO LEE, 1930-2020


IN THE WORLD OF PERFORMING ARTS we tend to think of transformative figures as being actors, dancers, singers, writers, composers, choreographers. But the visual arts are a vital partner in the process: Think of Isamu Noguchi’s legendary set designs for Martha Graham’s dance company, or William Kentridge’s outrageously amusing designs for Shostakovich’s absurdist opera The Nose, or the innovative sets designed by animation artist Rose Bond for Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia and glass-art legend Dale Chihuly for Bartók’s opera Bluebeard’s Castle in the Oregon Symphony’s SoundSights series of performances.

The great stage designer Ming Cho Lee, who died last Friday at age 90, was one of the very best – an enormously creative and deeply influential artist who chose the theater, opera, and dance stages as his collaborative canvas. Born in 1930 in Shanghai, he became one of the creative pillars of American performance, from his celebrated collaborations with Joseph Papp in the early years of the New York Shakespeare Festival (including the original production of the musical Hair) to his enormous influence as a teacher at the Yale School of Drama, training generations of designers.

Neil Genzlinger, in his obituary for The New York Times, noted Lee’s particular fondness for dance: “‘Dance demands the purest kind of designing,’ he told The Times in 1975, ‘because you’re dealing with the abstract essence of a dramatic statement, which I express either in sculpture or painting. There are no hours of dealing with props or cigarettes or where the ice box should go, as you must with a play. Next to dance, I enjoy designing opera and Shakespeare, which also take design away from the literal situation.'”


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