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


YOUNG, FIT, AND ‘FANCY FREE.’ “April 18, 1944, the opening night of Fancy Free, JeromeRobbins’s first ballet, was the stuff of artists’ dreams. Nobody, least of all Robbins; Leonard Bernstein, whose first theatrical score it was; or any of the cast members, including Janet Reed, imagined they would take more than twenty curtain calls and make American ballet history. ‘We all knew something very special had just happened,’ Todd Bolender, who was in the audience, said decades later.” So begins this excerpt from Todd Bolender, Janet Reed, and the Making of American Ballet, the new book by dance critic and regular ArtsWatch contributor Martha Ullman West. Fancy Free, which would inspire the Broadway and movie musical hits On the Town, was a smash for all of its young participants, including Reed, the ballet star who was born in the little town of Tolo in southern Oregon and graduated from Lincoln High School in Portland, and who became a central figure in the shaping of a distinctly American approach to ballet. That’s the focus of West’s book, which is the fruition of a 20-year project. What began as a profile of Reed expanded to include her friend and frequent collaborator, the choreographer and dancer Bolender, and then broadened into the making of American ballet itself. Part of that story is the creative leaps the art form took outside of New York, and Reed and Bolender, who helped establish major ballet companies in places like San Francisco, Kansas City, Portland, and Seattle, were very much part of the revolution.



FORGOTTEN PLACES, REMEMBERED SOULS


Rich Bergeman, “Attic no. 2, Frenchglen, Oregon.” Image courtesy of the artist.

IMAGINED NARRATIVES FOR PAST LIVES. Blake Andrews has a conversation with photographer Rich Bergeman about The Vanishing West, Bergeman’s exhibit at Eugene’s White Lotus Gallery of images taken over the past 30 years from forgotten places – the lost or sparsely populated settlements of eastern Oregon and Washington. What he’s trying to do is to “make art out of history,” Bergeman comments: “It’s about the feeling of loss and melancholy. It’s about a suggested narrative of past lives, curiosity about time gone by — ruins, cemeteries, abandoned buildings and the like are just stand-ins for that feeling. In my early years I was instinctively drawn to such things, but in the past decade or more I’ve more consciously pursued projects about episodes in the history of the Northwest, and of course, the remnants left from those times are often relics of man-made things, like homesteads.”

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 Crystal Meneses says she decorated altars with found objects from the garbage or thrift stores. The one in Nesika Park is called the “Golden Chachkie,” because it is filled with trinkets. “It kind of reminded me of my grandma,” she says. “She loved antiques.” Photo: Crystal Meneses

LAST WORDS: TALKING, THINKING, AND MAKING MUSIC ABOUT DEATH. Lori Tobias talks with Lincoln City musician, visual artist, and arts activist Crystal Meneses about her work as a death doula, which in Tobias’s words “is essentially about helping people who have lost a loved one.” Meneses, whose approach includes creating artistically conceived altars such as the one above, expounds: “The work I do is about putting death back into the community’s hands. We used to take care of our loved ones after they died. We used to witness bodies at the end of life. I feel we had that taken away by the death corporations. That’s why we have such a hard time with the grief.”



THEATER: A WHOLE-IN-ONE ACT, DRAG CLOWN, IRISH PROUD BOY


Bitty Garrett (left) and BreeAna Miyuki Eisel in “The Beginning of Everything,” by Monica Cross, showing Thursday and Saturday at the Oregon One Act Festival. Photo: Owen Carey

RETURN OF THE OREGON ONE ACT FESTIVAL. Longtime followers of Portland theater may be forgiven a sense of déjà vu at the announcement that Beth Harper and The Actors Conservatory are opening the Oregon One Act Festival this weekend. Harper and the Conservatory’s predecessor acting school launched the original One Act Festival in 1989, and it remained a highlight of the city’s theater calendar into the mid-’90s. Harper believed in the power and sheer entertainment value of the often undervalued one-act play, and the festival proved her point over and over again. Now she’s launched it again, with two live-streamed performances each of two programs: Portland-raised playwright Tanya Barfield’s Bright Half Life and a quartet of shorter plays on Thursday and Saturday; and the commissioned piece Lore Drop, by Calista Rodríguez in collaboration with Diana Burbano and Dámaso Rodríguez, along with several other shorts, on Friday and Sunday. Will lightning strike again? Check it out and see. 

THE CARLALOGUES. Artists Rep offers a one-time Zoom listening party for Anthony Hudson’s new audioplay, featuring his alter ego, drag clown Carla Rossi, who, starved for an audience after all these Covid months, appears to be up to no good: She’s holding a crowd captive, thanks to duct tape and blindfolds. The horror! 7 p.m. Saturday, May 22; click the link for ticket info.

PRETTY PROUD BOY. Corrib Theatre, the Portland company that specializes in contemporary Irish drama, is back in the game with a world premiere – a streaming audioplay of Rosaleen McDonagh’s tale that brings together a young Irish Traveller man and his mother, Covid, Black Lives Matter, the far-right movement, and the volatile blend of it all. “Over 80% of our people are unemployed. Only 2% of our children go on to second or third level education,” the playwright, herself a Traveller, comments. “Our suicide rates are eight times higher, particularly for men. So I wanted to play with the idea—if you’re up late at night and you’re watching videos of the alt-right and you’re a very isolated young Traveller man, what does that do?” This could be a good one. Opens Friday, May 21, and continues through June 20.


BY THE WAY, MEET VERA STARK. As we noted here last week, Profile’s onstage production of this racially knotted Hollywood Golden Age play by Lynn Nottage (RuinedSweatIntimate Apparel) was canceled a year ago because of pandemic restrictions. It’ll be produced instead as a pair of free livestreamed readings on Saturday and Sunday, May 22 and 23, directed by Chip Miller, Portland Center Stage’s associate artistic director. 



AN ARTIST WEAVES THE SPACE BETWEEN DIGITAL AND ANALOG


Jovencio de la Paz, “Bionumeric Organisms” (2020). TC2 handwoven cotton and canvas. 24 x 36 inches; at Holding Contemporary.

WEAVING THE FUTURE: JOVENCIO DE LA PAZ AT HOLDING CONTEMPORARY. Lindsay Costello considers de la Paz’s exhibition Cumulative Shadows at Holding Contemporary and wonders, what if the space between digital and analog isn’t a divide, after all. De la Paz, the curricular head of the fibers department at the University of Oregon, uses both traditional looms and pattern-creating software of his own design, injecting a sense of speculation into his work. “Why shouldn’t we think carefully about our relationship to the machines of this world?” Costello asks. “Cumulative Shadow shows us that we do have some control over how we engage with and shape technology—de la Paz’s software remains a tool while also taking on its own creative life. … Weaving has always been connected to language, movement, and history. In de la Paz’s work, it also forecasts our future.”



AROUND & ABOUT: ART FROM ALL OVER


A Chinese funeral on SW Second Avenue in Portland’s Old Chinatown, 1882. Oregon Historical Society Library.

HIDDEN HISTORIES: NEW LIGHT ON PORTLAND’S OLD AND NEW CHINATOWNS, 1851-1950. Back in virtual land, the Portland Chinatown Museum will offer an online walkthrough with historian Dr. Jacqueline Peterson-Loomis of its permanent exhibit  Beyond the Gate: A Tale of Portland’s Historic Chinatowns, along with personal recollections of New Chinatown from the 1920s to 1950 by Chinese American elders Bertha Saiget and Norman Locke.  It’s at 11 a.m. Saturday, May 22; check the link for details.


HIGH DESERT MUSEUM SNAGS A PRIZE. The Bend museum learned this week it’s one of six recipients of the 2021 National Medal for Museum and Library Service, honoring institutions that serve their communities through “dynamic programming and services that exceed expected levels of service.” The award, from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services, cites the High Desert’s efforts during the coronavirus crisis: “This has particularly been true since the start of the pandemic, during which the Museum started a daylong elementary program for La Pine students so caregivers could go to work during online school; provided free memberships to St. Charles Health Care System front-line workers; and is launching an initiative to provide tablets and WiFi hotspots to households for children who might not be otherwise able to participate in online educational programs.” The Bend museum had been one of 30 finalists for the award.

TRY DIFFERENT PATHS. Lizzy Ellison talks with Robert Ham about her move away from Portland after the breakup of her band Radiation City, her time in L.A., her return to Portland with fresh ideas, the music she’s been releasing under the name Cardioid, and her mentoring of young songwriters: “I talk about the universe a lot, which, I guess, for me is the unknowing thing that seems to be in charge. “I tell them, ‘That’s the universe telling you, ‘If you try different paths, you will find your answer.’”

VANPORT MOSAIC FESTIVAL 2021. This annual festival, timed to remember the flooding and destruction by Columbia River waters of the city of Vanport on May 30, 1948, has been a highlight of Portland’s cultural calendar in its six years, blending history, culture, arts, and activism into a living and highly creative memorial. Vanport, the most racially and ethnically blended community in Oregon in its time, sat on land that now includes Delta Park and the Portland International Raceway. This year’s festival, which runs May 26-June 30, will be a blend of live and virtual events. Keep an eye on ArtsWatch for more information.

ASHLAND’S BIG OUTDOOR ADVENTURE. It’s not all Shakespeare & Friends in this mountain cultural capital of southern Oregon. Southern Oregon University’s Schneider Museum of Art has just opened an “outdoor art adventure” called Art Beyond, a sprawling exhibition of sculpture and installation art that’s transforming five sites around the city: Lithia ParkMt. AshlandScienceWorks Hands-on MuseumVesper Meadow, and Willow-Witt Ranch. Two dozen artists are involved in the project, which will be in place through July 18, and which strikes us as just the sort of thing that some art ought to be doing: getting off the walls and out in the open, where the people are, nudging possibilities, opening eyes and integrating in surprising ways into everyday life.

Ashland’s Lithia Park, part of the Schneider Museum of Art’s “Art Beyond” project. Photo courtesy Ashland Parks & Recreation.

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About the author
Senior Editor

Bob Hicks has been writing about arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki OhtsuJames B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Prologue, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series “Today I Am.”

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