Suddenly, the Theater of Chaos

ArtsWatch Weekly: Insurrection at the Capitol; Barry Lopez' connected world; in the galleries; a new literary year; last word on 2020

ON WEDNESDAY THE BIGGEST SHOW IN AMERICA BROKE INTO NEW TERRITORY, adding a hard-right plot twist that raged across the nation’s television screens and Twitter feeds like a renegade character actor rushing into the spotlight and brandishing a sword. America’s actual theaters have been shut down for ten months. But the metaphorical theater – the great big blustering morality play of the body politic, screeching and bleating its lines in some hyperdrive version of a medieval drama – reached a new climax in Washington, D.C.

It had seemed, in the morning hours, that the old play had settled into its dénouement and the crew was ready to clear the stage to make room for the new show in town, the one with a familiar old star making a dramatic comeback in the leading role. In the halls of Congress the thunder sheets were rattling up one final mini-storm of protest as stock characters bellowed their closing curses to the sky, insisting to the end that night was day and the world was flat and the emperor was draped in dazzling costume. A mob of rabid groundlings, caught up in the raw fiction of the plotting and egged on by the antics of the morality play’s Ravening Beast, stormed the Capitol stage and attempted to turn the tide of the battle’s choreography with a show of brute force. But surely this was only show and tell?

Medieval mystery play, with product placement. “2nd mystery play in the Middle Ages,” from the Liebig Collectible Card series, “Theater Then and Now,” 4.3 x 2.8 inches.

AND THEN THE INSURRECTIONISTS BROKE THROUGH. It was a shocking, if not surprising, violation of the fourth wall. The performers rushed into the audience space and transformed the measured fantasy of the script into a fresh form of ugly reality, looting and vandalizing and strutting for selfies. During the storming of the Capitol a woman was shot and killed. Four others also died, making it all too plain that the passions unleashed by the cheap theatrics had very real and serious consequences.


The worlds of politics and the theater have always been intimately linked. Political leaders build their bases and amplify their power by playing to the crowd. You could see and hear it, during the long television run of the day, in the soliloquies of some of the major players. Mitch McConnell’s deft and calculated turning of the screw. Lindsay Graham’s folksy yarn-spinning. Chuck Schumer’s earnest prosecutorial delivery. Josh Hawley’s fresh-off-the-bus sophistry. All delivered with studied theatrical poise – and then 45’s astonishing wreck of a mea non culpa, so palpably defiant and self-serving that social media companies blocked it, and him, though the television networks played it over and over again. In the midst of all this I found myself thinking, theater is like politics, and politics is like theater, but they are not the same, and it’s dangerous to mix them up. At a time of gross cultural and economic inequities, and pandemic health crisis, and racial and religious animosity, and a world plummeting toward climate disaster, it seems a very good time for the ladies and gentlemen of the hallowed halls to leave the acting to the professionals and get down to the tough but necessary business of actually governing. I’d buy a ticket to that.
 



BARRY LOPEZ AND LIFE BEFORE & BEYOND POLITICS


Barry Lopez, in his element. Photo: David Liittschwager 

HOW, THEN, SHOULD THE WORLDS OF ART AND POLITICS INTERACT? We’ve been seeing a lot of specific artistic responses to the political world, some of them blunt, some of them provocative, some of them good for the immediate moment and some of them, no doubt, with longer reverberation. The best approach might be to make art that explores the depths and complexities of human situations – not offering answers so much as fresh ways of thinking, so that political decisions can be made taking into account broader and more lasting ways of looking at things.

Barry Lopez, the great Oregon author of Arctic Dreams and Of Wolves and Men, died on Christmas Day at age 75, of prostate cancer. Everything he wrote, “major” or “minor,” was graceful and direct and suffused with a sense of the interconnections of the physical and cultural worlds. Always, he sought the whole picture, the things in front of us that most of us most of the time just don’t see. He might have been, not a politician, but an unofficial advisor to lawmakers, quietly urging them to see the details and hidden truths that make for sound decision-making. The other day I found myself leafing through Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape, a geological and geographical encyclopedia of sorts that was edited by Lopez and, as managing editor, his writer wife, Debra Gwartney. It’s a book of terms, from “alluvial fan” to “bog” to “promontory” to “salt-grass estuary,” that define and illuminate very particular physical realities.

In his introduction Lopez suggests the complexity of life on Earth, and the difficulty of truly seeing, a skill as necessary in public life as in the wild: “During a long period of field research that brought me into regular contact with wild animals on their remote home grounds, and after decades of living in a place where wild animals from deer mice and dusky shrews to Roosevelt elk and black bear are common, I’ve wondered what they see that we miss. Or what we so frequently miss because we are impatient and cursory.  … Much that would be arresting to an animal’s eye is not apparent to us. How is the land we see divided and composed according to the way we see? What draws our attention?”

A little later I picked up another book by Lopez that I occasionally re-read, The Rediscovery of North America.  Published in 1990, shortly before the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s incursion into the Americas, it’s essentially a long essay about that encounter, and the savagery and misunderstandings of it, and the ways in which its brutalities ripple down to our own time and influence how we think about things in our public and private lives. Calling partly on the testimony of Bartolomé de las Casas, who arrived in Hispañola in 1502 and later became a priest, Lopez relates in brutal detail the decades of “murder, rape, theft, kidnapping, vandalism, child molestation, acts of cruelty, torture, and humiliation” visited by the Spaniards on the Indigenous population. 

Then he goes beyond: “I single out these episodes of depravity not so much to indict the Spanish as to make two points. First, this incursion, this harmful road into the ‘New World,’ quickly became a ruthless, angry search for wealth. It set a tone in the Americas. … The second point I wish to make is that this violent corruption needn’t define us. Looking back on the Spanish incursion, we can take the measure of the horror and assert that we will not be bound by it. We repudiate the greed. We recognize and condemn the evil. And we see how the harm has been perpetuated. But, five hundred years later, we intend to mean something else in the world.”

This might not make a sound bite for the Sunday morning news shows. It could make for a richer, more responsive and humane public policy. If the world of art can help the world of politics do that, maybe the Capitol won’t be stormed. 



SEEKING OUT THE PRIVATE LIVES OF THE TREES


David Paul Bayles. A burned bark abstraction from the Holiday Farm Fire (2020). Caption adapted from Instagram @davidpaulbayles

“IT’S A CHILLY DECEMBER MORNING when I pull into the parking lot tucked along the McKenzie Highway,” Blake Andrews begins. “David Paul Bayles is already here, sorting camera equipment in his truck for our upcoming exploration. We are soon joined by Fred Swanson, who will be our guide and mentor today.” Bayles, like Andrews, is a photographer. Swanson is a retired Forest Service scientist who’s been working on forest issues in Oregon since the 1970s. “We are in the heart of the McKenzie valley,” Andrews continues, “and nothing looks like it did earlier this year: September’s Holiday Farm Fire laid a path of destruction right down the valley’s gut, starting at the eponymous Holiday Farm Resort, then sweeping downwind to eventually incinerate over 170,000 acres.”

In Private lives of trees, Andrews recounts the adventure of the trek into the site of one of the state’s worst wildfires of 2020, and the beginnings of a scientific and artistic collaboration between Swanson and Bayles: “Over the next few weeks, months, and years, they will systematically document the grove we are now standing in, which spans maybe fifty acres. Swanson will pick out points of scientific interest which Bayles will photograph. There will be perhaps forty survey points total, and they will form a baseline set of data. Bayles and Swanson will revisit the same locations at regular intervals, monthly at first while the changes are very rapid, then eventually biannually. When I ask Swanson how long the study will continue he gives me a wry grin, ‘two hundred years’.” 


IN THE GALLERIES: SKIING INTO A NEW YEAR OF ART


Cross-country with Carson Ellis in her online show “Transmundane Tuesdays,” from Nationale. Image courtesy the gallery.

VIZARTS MONTHLY: NEW YEAR, NEW ART. So much for 2020 vision. On to 2021! Lindsay Costello scans the January gallery scene – both virtual and visitable – and comes up with a double-handful of intriguing ways to flip the visual calendar, from “folkloric, mystical, and imaginative” drawings by Carson Ellis at Nationale; to a peek of Almost Paradise from the curatorial team Outback Arthouse, at Carnation Contemporary; to a show of mid-twentieth century work by Japanese women printmakers, online from the Portland Art Museum; to Megan Murphy’s “quiet and mysterious” show Incarnate at PDX Contemporary; and more.


THE ART OF THE CLUTTER THAT MAKES UP A HOME


Laundry, lots of it, is a theme in Bethany Hays’ work, such as “Her Majesty” (watercolor on paper, 30 by 48 inches, 2012).


‘DOMESTIC LANDSCAPES’: EXPLORING THE RESIDUE OF LIVES LIVED. As the pandemic plays itself out, David Bates writes, “artists continue to detect and translate the roil of life, and even anticipate it. So it’s not surprising that an exhibition at the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg feels perfect for this moment.”  Domestic Landsca brings together work by four artists – watercolor painter Bethany Hays, digital photographer Zemula Barr, sculptors Colin Kippen and Rachael Zur – that reflects the spaces of what we call home. “A lot of people are talking about missing going out,” Zur notes, “but I think one of the things that we’re missing that we’re not talking about is being at home, having other people in our home, and how our home communicates for us or is this intimate little universe that we have control over.”


LET THERE BE WORDS, AND MORE WORDS, EXPERTLY PLACED


LITWATCH: A NEW READING AND WRITING YEAR BEGINS. Amy Leona Havin enters the new year with a fresh January calendar of literary events, and some advice from Annie Dillard, in her book The Writing Life

One of the things I know about writing is this:
spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, 
every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a 
later place in the book or for another book; 
give it, give it all, give it now.”

With that in mind, dive on in to a month of workshops, readings (including one by ArtsWatch columnist Lori Tobias, from her book Storm Beat), journaling, book clubbing, and more.



IN REVIEW: CLOSING THE DOOR ON 2020


“Paint got politicized this summer”: Black Lives Matter mural by Emma Berger and anonymous at downtown Portland’s Pioneer Place.

LOOKING BACK 2020: REPORTS FROM THE ORCHESTRA SEATS. “To begin,” ArtsWatch music editor and columnist Matthew Neil Andrews begins, “I’d like to share a bit of MTV Generation perspective with my younger readers, those who may have never known (for instance) a pre-9/11 world. When everything shut down this spring and it all started getting extra weird, I sat dazed in my kitchen, staring out on empty streets and clear skies, and decided to ask around–how much weirder is this than 2001-03? Or, to go a bit further back, how much weirder than ‘the end of history’ in 1989-91, when the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union collapsed and tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square and Iraq and Panama, and the New Cold War started?” Then he begins to go through the Oregon musical year, and count the ways.

2020 IN REVIEW: AT LAST, OVER & OUT. Roll out the big one: our extensive review of Oregon’s arts & cultural year, across all disciplines. As we so coyly put it in the subhead for this all-inclusive gander at the Year That Should Not Speak Its Name, “2020? Perish the thought. The ups, downs, disasters, trends, outrages, and occasional triumphs of Oregon’s arts & culture in a tortuous year.” 2021? Here’s looking at you, kid.


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