Soul of Black Art

ArtsWatch Weekly: Bluebeards, villain kings, black art’s soul

The feminine mystique of "Bluebeard's Castle," Shakespeare's "Richard III," the trouble with Tiger Lily, black art and meaning in America

The naked truth about Bluebeard’s Castle, Béla Bartók’s astounding hour-long opera that the Oregon Symphony performed Saturday through Monday nights, is … well, let Elizabeth Schwartz explain it, in her typically erudite program notes:

“Bartók worked on the opera over the summer of 1911, when he and his wife Márta spent their holiday at a Swiss nudist colony near Zurich. [Librettist Béla] Balázs, who visited the colony that summer, noted in his diary how the industrious Bartók would spend hours in the solarium, wearing nothing but sunglasses, as he worked on the score.”

Viktoia Vizin as Judith, with Chihuly glass, in "Bluebeard's Castle." Photo: Jacob Wade/Oregon Symphony

Viktoria Vizin as Judith, with Chihuly glass, in “Bluebeard’s Castle.” Photo: Jacob Wade/Oregon Symphony

John and Yoko have nothing on that. And in a way, Bartók’s curious compositional strategy made sense: emotional nakedness is essential to the Bluebeard tale as Balázs retold it. The opera has just two singers: the aging, mysteriously private Bluebeard himself, and his new (fourth) bride, Judith, who insists on bringing some sunshine into the castle, and her new marriage, by demanding that Bluebeard open the seven locked doors that hide his secrets. Maybe not the best idea. At a talk Friday night with symphony director Carlos Kalmar, Christopher Mattaliano of Portland Opera, and the Portland Art Museum’s Bran Ferriso (the show’s set included marvelous glass works by Dale Chihuly), stage director Mary Birnbaum talked about Castle as Judith’s quest for knowledge and openness, which Bluebeard is loath to grant, and I’m inclined to agree that it’s really Judith’s story. Contrary to popular opinion, her soul sisters Eve and Pandora seem the heroes of their stories, too, the ones who provide the essential spark of humanness: How can one be fully human without curiosity and the compulsion to learn? Remember: the last bee to escape Pandora’s bonnet was hope.

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At Upfor, the Soul of Black Art

The gallery's third-anniversary show, curated by collector John Goodwin, digs to the roots of black art in America and contemporary cultural divides

The Soul of Black Art: A Collector’s View, up through October 15 at Upfor Gallery, is a smart, sophisticated show, both socially and aesthetically, and you really don’t want to miss it. For its third anniversary show, Upfor gave over curating duties to the collector John Goodwin, who’s put together a stimulating small exhibit that reverberates with history while also feeling contemporary.

Drawing from his and Michael-Jay Robinson’s own collection and other sources, Goodwin concocts a vibrant mix of paintings, prints, photographs, video, and mixed-media works that probe the black American experience from inside and out, in highly personal and broadly cultural terms. Works by the likes of Romare Bearden, Marion Post-Wolcott, Devan Shimoyama, Andy Warhol, Arvie Smith, Marian Carresquero, and Zig Jackson dance in and around the essence of blackness in America, providing a multiplicity of views that defy political platitudes and easy headlines.

Arvie Smith's "Manumissions," left, and Devan Shimoyama's "Adjusting to the uminous Black." Collection of John Goodwin and Michael-Jay Robinson. Upfor Gallery.

Arvie Smith’s “Manumissions,” left, and Devan Shimoyama’s “Adjusting to the Luminous Black.” Collection of John Goodwin and Michael-Jay Robinson. Upfor Gallery.

Upfor’s exhibit – which coincides with the eagerly awaited opening of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, D.C. – quietly but provocatively sets up the show with a scattering of casually racist pop-cultural objects that were once pretty much everywhere, providing cookie-jar comfort to everyday white lives, and still can be found: jockey lawn statuettes; cheerful fat-lipped ceramic figurines. They help set the stage for one of Warhol’s two pieces in the show, his 1981 screen print Mammy, which fascinatingly plays with and defies the stereotype, lending a kind of quizzical dignity to a comfortably submissive icon of the white imagination. And Arvie Smith’s two big 2006 paintings, collectively titled Manumissions (they could easily fit into his current APEX exhibition, through November 13 at the Portland Art Museum), play on his smart, satiric, almost gleefully horrific view of history: a carnival atmosphere at the scene of a lynching. Check the news, and, if you can stomach them, the spatter of crude anonymous comments below online stories about Black Lives Matter rallies and the latest police shootings of unarmed black men. We really aren’t far removed.

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