Mount St. Helens

The arts moment: back, or ahead?

ArtsWatch Weekly: We're emerging, but into what? The culture, and the arts world, consider the possibilities and make plans.

LIKE MOST OF THE NATION, OREGON HAS ENTERED SOMETHING OF A STATE OF SUSPENDED ANIMATION. Are we in or are we out? Do we shrink or do we grow? Scurry back, or look ahead? In the immortal words of The Clash, should I stay or should I go? Large stretches of rural Oregon, apparently, are eager to go – out of Oregon and into Idaho. Meanwhile, we are free to go unmasked into public spaces if we’re fully vaccinated, but not everywhere and not all the time – and we either are or aren’t on an honor system: Grocery store and restaurant workers and others dealing with the public are being left to police the unmasked to make sure they’re not cheating, and to live with the consequences of their customers’ anger. Businesses that live and breathe on public access, such as the sweet Oregon-scaled Enchanted Forest amusement park south of Salem, have eagerly reopened – and then shut down again in the face of threats from unvaccinated would-be visitors over being required to wear masks. We are one state, it appears, deeply divisible, with liberty and justice dependent on your point of view.

Back to the future? Melvin Van Peebles’ 1968 debut feature “The Story of a Three-Day Pass,” about a Black American G.I. and a white woman who meet and hit it off in France, came two years before his breakthrough hit “Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song.” And it is, Marc Mohan writes, “the most revolutionary ‘new’ movie to hit Portland this week.”

Still, the trend appears to be toward motion – moving ahead – and that includes the worlds of culture and the arts. Museums have reopened, with restrictions. Music and theater and dance are once again among us, if mainly via video stream or on outdoor stages. (But not completely: Portland’s Triangle Productions is entering the final weekend of its production of the comedy Clever Little Lies, live and on an indoor stage, with a quarter-of-the-house capacity of 50 people at a time.)

Here at ArtsWatch we’re shifting with the tide, too. For instance, we’ve renamed Marc Mohan’s movie column, which has been called “Streamers” through the pandemic because movies have been available only via streaming, as “FilmWatch” – because, as Marc notes, movie theaters are beginning to open up again, and whether it’s in a popcorn palace or streaming to your living room screen, a movie is a movie. Even then, as he writes in his latest film column, this whole moving-forward thing can be a confusing muddle of present, past, and possible future. “The most revolutionary ‘new’ movie to hit Portland this week is from 1968, of course,” he writes. That movie is The Story of a Three-Day Pass, the debut feature of maverick filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles, “a sneakily acerbic takedown of American racism, particularly its internalized effect upon the psyche of Black Americans.” A story ripped, or so it seems, from the headlines of pretty much any year you choose.



FRIDA’S POPPING UP ALL OVER, IN OPERA AND IN ART


LEFT: Catalina Cuervo as Frida and Bernardo Bermudez as Diego Rivera in Anchorage Opera’s 2020 production of ‘Frida’. They’ll repeat their roles this summer at Portland Opera. Photo by Kathleen Behnke, courtesy of Anchorage Opera. RIGHT: Kahlo and Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky are among the figures in artist Molly Van Austen’s 175-foot scroll weaving around the Chehalem Cultural Center. Photo: David Bates

SUDDENLY IT’S FRIDA KAHLO SEASON IN OREGON: Onstage and via stream from Portland Opera, and on paper in a fascinating art exhibition at the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg. One of a handful of 20th century cultural figures whose work can draw a crowd just about anywhere, the ever-fascinating Mexican artist is either central to or an integral part of both shows. Here’s the word on each: 

  • PORTLAND OPERA’S BOLD NEW SEASON. As we noted here last week, Portland Opera will present Frida, its long-anticipated production of Robert Xavier Rodríguez’s opera about the life and times of Kahlo, in combined outdoor and streaming performances in June. This week, Angela Allen takes us beyond with a broad discussion of the big new changes brewing in the opera company’s new season, which ranges from its still-streaming Journeys to Justice concert of music about the Black experience to the coming traditional Tosca and the contemporary operas The Central Park Five, a Pulitzer Prize winner with music by Anthony Davis, and the “dystopian chamber opera” When the Sun Comes Out, which was commissioned by the Vancouver Queer Arts Festival. “Opera is for everybody, not just for millionaires and folks who get all dressed up,” Damien Geter, one of the company’s artistic advisors, told Allen. “People want to see things about real people, about real things, things that happened in recent times.” Soprano Karen Slack, Geter’s co-artistic advisor, added: “I am both a lover of grand traditional repertoire and new works. Having made a solid career on both sides, I know the power they both possess. A healthy mix of classics reimagined and new works is always exciting. A little something for everyone.”
     
  • ART FROM THE QUARANTINE LIFE. “Cultural life in Yamhill County hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels of activity, but the engine is revving louder these days,” David Bates writes. “People are making plans, holding rehearsals, scheduling summer art camps.” And at the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg, he adds, a “delightful new exhibit” addresses the question of what artists will make of the Shutdown Year: “How will a historic, life-changing pandemic translate to the stage, page, and canvas?” The show features suggestions from two artists: Joe Robinson, owner of the East Creek community art studio and anagama kiln near Willamina, who declares that the “large, beautiful pots” scattered around the gallery “can only be accomplished when many hands come together,” and Molly Van Austen, whose 175-foot scroll snaking around the gallery comprises something of a diary of her memories and imaginings during the pandemic. It’s a cavalcade of people: “Each image in this long drawing is a meditation on some dear person in my life. That brings me joy and sadness. Memories prolong life and intensify our emotions.” Among the crowd is a portrait of Kahlo with the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. Frida seemed to know everybody – and as likely as not, everybody was at least as eager to be around Frida as Frida was to be around everybody.


PEAK EXPERIENCES: GOING TO THE MOUNTAINTOP


From left: Taylor Feldman, Ryan Stee, Stacey King and Shanita King on the trip to the top of Mt. Hood in Devin Fei-Fan Tau’s documentary “Who’s On Top?”

DEVIN FEI-FAN TAU: WHO’S ON TOP? In her newest Stage and Studio podcast, Dmae Roberts talks with Portland’s Devin Fei-Fan Tau, a gay Taiwanese-American filmmaker, about his new documentary Who’s on Top?, in which he and his crew follow four LGBTQ+ climbers – only one of them with previous climbing experience – in their quest to get to the top of Mt. Hood. It’s not just a physical journey, but an emotional one, too, and Roberts’ interview includes the voices of each climber talking about what led them to this pursuit. As Roberts puts it: “Historically excluded and ostracized as not belonging to the adventurer community, the climbers tackle not only a mountain, but assumptions about who they are and how they belong to the world of outdoor sports.” Bonus: The film is narrated by the great George Takei.

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Lawrence Shlim (American, born 1954). “Volcanic Ash, Centralia, Washington,” 1980. Gelatin silver print. Portland Art Museum, Gift of the artist, 81.41.2

TUESDAY, MAY 18, WAS THE 41st ANNIVERSARY OF THE ERUPTION OF MOUNT ST. HELENS, one of the signal events in the history of the Pacific Northwest. (It was a Sunday morning in 1980, and I was in Seattle, waiting at the depot to board the train back to Portland, which didn’t happen because the tracks were wiped out somewhere south of Centralia). The mountain’s cataclysmic explosion was the focus of the Portland Art Museum’s terrific exhibition Volcano! that opened last spring, and that in turn lost most of its run to another catastrophe, the coronavirus pandemic. Fortunately, the museum assembled this excellent online version of the exhibition, which you can still access. It’s a grand-scale show, with historic paintings going back as far as the 1850s, some wonderful post-explosion paintings by Henk Pander, George Johanson, Lucinda Parker and others, and many photos documenting both the devastation and the recovery that followed. If you click the link, you’ll find your own favorites. One of mine is the photo above, by Lawrence Shlim, of a street scene in Centralia, looking out a window at a man walking through a blizzard of ash. It seems to speak both to 1980 and the plague year of 2020: life enduring and moving on in the midst of disaster. A town staying, and going, too.



THE NIGHT JANET REED DANCED INTO BALLET HISTORY


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Derek Chauvin, George Floyd & the art of crisis

ArtsWatch Weekly: A Portland Oscar nod; Dawson Carr's big day; diving into dance; conversation with a laureate; musical BRAVO; fish tales

ON TUESDAY, THE BIGGEST CULTURAL NEWS OF THE WEEK – maybe the biggest since the January 6 insurrection in the nation’s capital – came down. Derek Chauvin, who almost a year ago, as a Minneapolis police officer, pressed the life out of George Floyd with his knee, was found guilty of second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. It was a rare case of a police officer being held accountable in the killing of a citizen – even, as with Floyd, of an unarmed citizen – and it seems, at least for now, to have topped off a year and more of intense cultural division. Any other decision by the jury most likely would have set off a firestorm across the nation.

The political and cultural fissures of the past year have pulled the arts & cultural world into the fray, perhaps inevitably: If art reflects its culture, how can it possibly stay uninvolved? In Portland, public statues have come tumbling down and institutions have been under attack: Two men were arrested and charged with smashing another $10,000 or more worth of windows at the frequently targeted Oregon Historical Society during rioting last Friday. The window-smashing and other acts of destruction came during protests against recent national killings of Black citizens by police, and a police killing in Portland’s Lents Park of a man with a history of mental illness.

George Floyd was the focus of a Black Lives Matter mural painted by Emma Berger and others last year at downtown Portland’s Pioneer Place.

In the past year a rapid growth of public protest art has transformed the sides of many buildings in the city and the plywood covering boarded-up storefronts. Across the nation, in arts and cultural organizations large and small, racial equity has become the issue of the day, an overdue conversation in search of action, and an issue that is unlikely to be resolved by a single decision in a single courtroom on a single day.

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Portland Art Museum sets reopening

The museum, shut since March 14, will begin a phased reopening in July. Beset by lost income, it also announces a round of layoffs.

The Portland Art Museum, shuttered since March 14 because of Covid-19 pandemic restrictions, is making plans to reopen in the second week of July. The reopening will be phased, with limits on the number of visitors allowed inside the building at any one time, and many details are still being worked out. “We’ll have more information in coming weeks, but we know museum operations and visitor numbers will need to be smaller at first due to precautions and restrictions for community health, including ongoing gathering restrictions that may prevent Northwest Film Center programs and museum event rentals from reopening for some time to come,” museum spokesperson Ian Gillingham said in an email Thursday afternoon.

Bad news arrived with the good: Effective July 1, the museum will lay off 51 full-time and 72 part-time workers. The cuts will reduce staffing costs for the cash-strapped museum by roughly one-third, and the museum hopes many of the layoffs will be temporary, Gillingham said.

“These layoffs are directly related to the COVID-19 pandemic and in no way reflect upon the dedication and talent of those who are affected,” museum Director Brian Ferriso wrote in a letter to staff that was sent Thursday. “I very much value and appreciate every member of the staff, your patience and your continued dedication to this institution.”

The museum had refrained from fully laying off staff earlier in the shutdown by using staff leaves, federal pandemic relief, and private emergency support that kept workers on the books through June. That effort has now ended.

“We can begin to rehire some of the laid-off staff as business needs allow, and as funding is available,” Ferriso continued. “We have been and will continue to be committed to advancing racial equity in our staffing and programming. I am deeply sorry to those impacted by this, and remain hopeful that we will be able to bring many people back as the crisis subsides and restrictions are lifted.”

Robert Colescott, “Knowledge of the Past is the Key to the Future: Upside Down Jesus and the Politics of Survival,” 1987, acrylic on canvas. Portland Art Museum purchase: Robert Hale Ellis Jr. Fund for the Blanche Eloise Day Ellis and Robert Hale Ellis Memorial Collection. © 1987 Robert Colescott. A Colescott retrospective will be on view when the museum reopens in July.

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Connecting in a time of isolation

ArtsWatch Weekly: As the world turns, will real reality replace virtual reality? Plus: The mountain blows its top – this time, virtually.

EVEN AS OREGON BEGINS TO MOVE CAUTIOUSLY TOWARD REOPENING its social and commercial activities – today Gov. Kate Brown announced a loosening of restrictions in 28 of the state’s 36 counties, though not in the greater Portland metropolitan area – the new reality of social isolation remains with us. This holds true in the cultural world in particular: The reopening of theaters, concert halls, museums, and cultural centers is likely months in the future, and for many people the experience of the past two months has prompted a rethinking about the importance of art and what, in fact, “art” means.

In the Pacific Northwest in particular, art has long had a deeply rooted connection with the land itself, from the days of Indigenous stone paintings and carvings to the place-inspired work of contemporary artists and, presumably, the work of future artists grappling with the stark realities of environmental crisis and climate change. You can feel it even in the work of Oregon giants of abstract art, such as Lucinda Parker and the late Carl Morris and Mark Rothko, all of whose paintings are intellectual yet also deeply, unashamedly physical. At a time when the long lockdown and the world’s resulting switch to virtual reality have people yearning for a reconnection with real reality, the region’s stubborn insistence on connecting to the land seems suddenly to put it ahead of the game.
 

Aleksandra Apocalisse, “Grow” (2015). 11 x 14 inches. Watercolor and pen on paper. Image courtesy of the artist. 

Oregonians also have long been open to the idea of outsiderism, in a positive sense: Where you come from or who you trained with seem less important than what you do. And in a time of deep economic and structural insecurity the rigors of the academic and deep-pocket Wall Street pipelines don’t dominate the region’s artistic hierarchy the way they do in more heavily populated art centers. Here, if you Just Do It, as one local corporate juggernaut likes to put it, you stand a fair chance of being seen.

In Oregon, an artist might arrive from anywhere. That’s the case, for instance, with Aleksandra Apocalisse, who, as Shannon M. Lieberman writes for ArtsWatch in Celebrating connection in many forms, “started painting on a whim when she was 21.” Apocalisse’s interests, Lieberman continues, were both broad and focused: “After a series of unusual jobs, including farming, teaching children circus arts, and a stint as a camp science instructor, Apocalisse reached a turning point while interviewing for graduate programs in neuroscience. Unable to stop thinking about how she would balance the demands of graduate work with her desire to make art, Apocalisse realized that her hobby had become her passion–but could she turn it into a career?”

Yes, she could – and her route was not art school but the deeply populist, and popular, Portland Saturday Market, a grand communal gathering of all sorts of people with all sorts of interests. It was connecting at street level, taking art to the people in a way similar to the WPA art projects of the 1930s, except on an individual basis, not government-run. “It has been a good fit for Apocalisse, who thrives on talking to people,” Lieberman writes. “… In her explorations of connection, Aleksandra Apocalisse’s work does not call for change per se. Yet it powerfully implies that we all have tremendous power to forge the kinds of connections we want to see in the world.  Maybe we’re already making them. And if not, what are we waiting for?”

Bruce Conkle, “Quarantine,” 2020. Image courtesy of the artist.

More established Oregon artists are taking a turn in their work during the shutdown, too. As Martha Daghlian writes in Artist Bruce Conkle: Isolation as meditation time, Conkle has been doing a series of drawings inspired by the great turn of events taking place beneath our noses – or at least by the headlines and news feeds of a world turned upside down. At the same time, Conkle says, in a strange way the shutdown fits right in: “Artists in general thrive having a lot of time alone, to be inside their own head, so I think in a way we are getting through this house arrest a lot easier than people who constantly need external stimuli. The creative mental state is a type of meditation—one loses track of time, of place, and of self. I draw mandalas as meditations on a certain subject. After a few minutes (of drawing) you become unaware of the subject itself.”


WATCHING MOUNT ST. HELENS BLOW HER TOP


Lucinda Parker, “Magma opus,” July 1980. Mixed media on paper. Collection of Stephen McCarthy, L2019.69.1. Image courtesy Portland Art Museum

SPEAKING OF PHYSICAL REALITIES: Monday, May 18, will be the fortieth anniversary of the big blow that shook the Pacific Northwest to its foundations and sent clouds of ash from the Mount St. Helens eruption scurrying around the globe. And Volcano! Mount St. Helens in Art, the sprawling exhibition at the Portland Art Museum that opened with a bang in February and was packing ’em in until the museum’s forced shutdown in March, was scheduled to close on Sunday the 17th. The museum, of course, is already closed for an undetermined time. But you still stand a decent chance of seeing Volcano! in the flesh. “After much work with cooperative lenders, we can now confirm that we expect Volcano! to reopen when the museum does (whenever that may be),” museum spokesman Ian Gillingham said in an email exchange on Tuesday. “We expect it to run through sometime in January.”

Now you can get about as good a virtual experience of the exhibition as is possible. The museum staff has assembled and made available online a virtual tour of the exhibition, beginning in prehistory and continuing through early European American paintings, images of the explosion itself, and paintings and photographs from the aftermath. There are even a few examples of ceramics made of Mount St. Helens ash, which for several years formed the basis of a vibrant souvenir cottage industry.

This week’s edition of Willamette Week features a very good, lavishly illustrated guide to the exhibition, We Brought a Piece of Mount St. Helens to You, that’s well worth your time.

And at 3:30 p.m. Sunday – the day before the anniversary – museum curator Dawson Carr, who brought the exhibit to fruition, will host an online event, Mount St. Helens: A Landscape Across Time, with several guests discussing aspects of the show: Seattle artist Barbara Noah, whose excellent painting Tag III is featured in the exhibit; Nathan Roberts, an ecologist and interim director of cultural resources for the Cowlitz Indian Tribe; and director Ray Yurkewycz and science education manager Sonja Melander of the Mount St. Helens Institute.

Barbara Noah, “Tag III,” 1981. Oil on photolinen. Collection of the artist, Seattle, ©1981 Barbara Noah, for changes and additions to a Mount St. Helens image courtesy of USGS, L2019.93.1.


IN TOUCH: KEEPING A LINE ON WHAT’S ONLINE


Elizabeth Woody, part of May 20’s “Who Gets To Be an American?” online conversation in the Vanport Mosaic 2020 Virtual Festival. Photo courtesy Oregon Cultural Trust

IF YOU HAVE A KEYBOARD AND A CONNECTION (and if you’re reading this, you do) the world’s at your fingertips. All right, not the real world: These days it’s prety much all virtual, all the time. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of good stuff to plug into. Here’s just a sampler:

VANPORT MOSAIC 2020 VIRTUAL FESTIVAL. We wrote about this vigorous and positively provocative festival in last week’s ArtsWatch Weekly, and the online attractions just keep coming through May 30, the 72nd anniversary of the Memorial Day flood in 1948 that wiped the city of Vanport off the map, killing 15 people and leaving 17,500 homeless. Among the upcoming attractions (check the full schedule in the link above): taiko artist Michelle Fujii in conversation with Douglas Detrick on “the constant state of otherness,” Friday, May 15; a conversation with Sankar Raman of The Immigrant Story and writer Ramiza Koya about “becoming American,” Sunday, May 17; a Confluence Conversation among Patricia Whitefoot (Yakama Nation), former Oregon poet laureate Elizabeth Woody (Warm Springs) and Chuck Sams (Umatilla) about “who gets to be an American,” Wednesday, May 20.

THE TURN OF THE SCREW. The Beaverton-based Experience Theatre Project is offering an encore performance of its live-screened production of Jeffrey Hatcher’s two-actor adaptation of Henry James’s classic ghost story on Friday, May 16. The original screening on May 1 played to a stay-at-home audience of 7,000. You need to register to get your virtual seat; click on the link above.

BROADWAY ROSE AT HOME. The Tigard theater company, which is the metro area’s most prominent home for musical theater, is going virtual with its new series Midday Cabaret, at 1 p.m. every Wednesday. It’s just what it sounds like: livestreamed cabaret shows, hosted by Broadway Rose’s Dan Murphy and featuring stars from past company shows. Right now, performances by David Saffert and Benjamin Tissell are available, with more on the way.

MOMENTARY JOYS, WITH HENK PANDER AND BRUCE GUENTHER. Two lions of the Oregon art world – painter Pander and curator Guenther – talk in a webinar sponsored by the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education about how, in the museum’s words, “bad times can produce great art. Dadaism grew from the tragedy of the First World War; the Depression sparked a social realist movement and Jews created art in ghettos, concentration camps, and in hiding during the Second World War. … Momentary joys, if you will, that help us get through confinement.” Noon Wednesday, May 20, and you need to register: Once again, click on the link above.


ISOLATIONISTS ARE LOOKING FOR A FEW GOOD READS


Alison Dennis is executive director for Sitka Center for Art and Ecology near Otis.
Alison Dennis, executive director of the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, on the Oregon Coast, says in “I am Still here … it still is a time for singing” that she feels both more isolated and more connected than ever.

‘I AM STILL HERE … IT STILL IS A TIME FOR SINGING.’ In the latest in our “Oregon in Shutdown: Voices from the Front” series, Lori Tobias, ArtsWatch’s Oregon Coast columnist, talks with five key coastal arts figures about how the pandemic has changed what they do and think. It’s not all bad news.

MY APPETITES: ON EATING AND COPING MECHANISMS, CHILDHOOD AND SELF-CONTROL, CRITICISM, LOVE, CANCER, AND PANDEMICS. Jerry Saltz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic for New York Magazine who is married to Roberta Smith, art critic for The New York Times (imagine their conversations over coffee), writes a beautiful, searing, and sometimes heartbreaking personal essay about the accumulations of experience and realities we carry with us into the time of plague.

SAFE DISTANCE SOUNDS, PART 2: CHAMBER TERROIR. “With live performances temporarily out of the picture, I’ve been fulfilling my jones for homegrown sounds by listening to recent releases from Oregon-based or -born musicians that caught my ear,” Brett Campbell writes. This compilation, which features ambient and other contemporary sounds (including Kenji Bunch’s fresh score for Eugene Ballet’s The Snow Queen) follows his first Safe Distance Sounds, a roundup of recent Oregon jazz recordings.

INTERVIEW IN A TIME OF SEQUESTRATION. Alone with his camera and his keyboard, photographer and frequent ArtsWatch contributor K.B. Dixon resorts to desperate measures: He interviews himself. His resulting essay in Q&A form (which is illustrated with several of his portraits of Portland arts figures) is both illuminating and amusing. Think the mysteries of shadows, and native soil, and “that much revered Southern snake-charmer, William Faulkner.” 

WHAT SHAKESPEARE ACTUALLY DID DURING THE PLAGUE. Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, who teaches at Linfield College and is an occasional ArtsWatch contributor, manages two difficult tasks with aplomb in this short humor piece for The New Yorker: He makes light of Shakespeare and of the Plague Times that Shakespeare lived through, and makes us laugh at both. “Day 13: You’ve been wearing the same doublet and hose for two weeks.” 

OZZIE GONZÁLEZ: STAGING A RACE. The theaters have shut down for the duration. But Portland actor González has moved onto a much bigger stage, as a serious candidate to become mayor of Portland. Bobby Bermea talks with him about why he’s running, what his goals for the city are, and how the world of theater and the arts is good preparation for politics.

MUSEUM CURATOR GRACE KOOK-ANDERSON: FIGURING IT OUT. Martha Daghlian talks with the Portland Art Museum’s curator of Northwest art about working from home, the economic impact of the pandemic, and how things are changing: “There’s a huge emphasis on the extreme local right now that I think is really interesting. … The DIY culture that is celebrated here is evident in many art spaces, and I see that reflected in the ways they are adapting to this situation.”


QUOTABLE (THE NEW BROADWAY VERSION)


Corey Brunish, the Broadway and Portland theater producer who we wrote about last week, was challenged online a few days ago to develop some ideas for updated musicals to fit our shutdown times. He came up with a few:


The Pajama Game All Day Long
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to 2021 
Into the Woods for a Walk
Bye Bye Income
Annie Get Your Face Mask
How To Succeed in Business by Washing Your Hands
HAIRcut

– Your turn. Create a Broadway Quotable of your own!


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