The eyes have it: Art of the camera

ArtsWatch Weekly: Photography gets (beyond) real, the art museum reshuffles the deck, true tales of equity, Ashland's indie film fest, more

“IF ONLY I HAD THOUGHT OF A KODAK!” H.G. Wells’s vexed and haunted Time Traveller exclaims in the classic science-fiction novel The Time Machine. “I could have flashed that glimpse of the Under-world in a second, and examined it at leisure.” Ah, to create in a moment and examine at leisure. Photography, in the popular imagination, is the utilitarian art, the engineer of art forms, a documenter of what already exists: As Sgt. Joe Friday is supposed to have said laconically on the radio and television series Dragnet, “Just the facts, Ma’am.” In fact, though, while documentation is a crucial element of the photographic art form, it is rarely “mere” documentation. A photo has a frame, and a frame provides, quite literally, a point of view. What’s more, that “perfect accident” of a shot might have taken hours of preparation and years of experience to achieve. In the 180-plus years since the introduction of the daguerrotype in 1839, photography has developed into a full-fledged art form, with rich and varied approaches that include but are far from limited to literal description of the physical world. A photographer’s limits are roughly the same as any other artist’s: How far can her skills and imagination take her?

Left: “Falling Apart” (self-portrait), Laura Kurtenbach. Right: “House of Atlas” (from the series “Short Stories/Tall Tales”), Grace Weston.

The Pacific Northwest is fertile territory for photographers of all sorts, from devoted amateurs to photojournalists to fine-arts photographers. Many are attracted by the physical spaces of the West; others by the opportunity to live among a broad community of all sorts of artists. Several regular contributors to ArtsWatch are photographers who walk easily between journalism and fine arts, and who know their way around the language of words as well as images. Check the work of Joe CantrellFriderike HeuerDee Moore, Blake Andrews, and K.B. Dixon (and watch for Dixon’s photo essay Hat Dance, Friday on ArtsWatch).

This week be sure to examine at leisure, as Wells has it, Women of Art ~ A Visual Life, by photographer and writer Pat Rose, yet another ArtsWatch artist/contributor. Her new three-part series features interviews with a trio of Portland’s finest art photographers about their work and technique and goals. Part 1 focuses on Grace Weston and her meticulously staged, keenly dramatic images of miniatures. Part 2 looks at Laura Kurtenbach and how, among other things, she uses images of herself in her work. In Part 3, Rose talks with Susan Bein about her conversion to iPhone photography.

Left: “Chester” (from the series “The Belmont Goats”), Susan Bein. Right: Dorothea Lange, “White Angel Bread Line,” 1933 (negative), 1940/1950 (print), gelatin silver print, Portland Art Museum, Gift of the Westgate Family.

Rose begins her series with a quote from Dorothea Lange, the great American documentary photographer known for her unsparing yet deeply empathetic photographs of life in the Great Depression: “The visual life is an enormous undertaking, practically unattainable. I have only touched it, just touched it.” It’s a lament no doubt understood by any artist in any art form.

Lange’s 1933 photo White Angel Bread Line, above right, is from the collection of the Portland Art Museum, and this is a good time to remind you that the museum reopened to visitors last weekend: Check the museum website for rules and regulations. And speaking of photography, one of the museum’s first big new shows now that it’s open will be Ansel Adams in Our Time, a large overview of the work of the great photographer of the West, informed by another eighty photographs by artists working before and after him. It’ll open May 8 and continue through August 1. Adams, too, had his say on the mysteries of art and photography: “When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.”

Ansel Adams, “Cemetery Statue and Oil Derricks, Long Beach, California,” 1935, gelatin silver print, in the exhibition “Ansel Adams in Our Time,” opening May 8 at the Portland Art Museum. Image: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Lane Collection. © The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust. Courtesy the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.



… and now, after we were so rudely interrupted

Frida Kahlo (Mexican, 1907-1958), “Diego on My Mind,” 1943, oil on masonite, courtesy of the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection. The painting will be in the exhibit “Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Mexican Modernism,” which after a long Covid delay has been rescheduled to open at the Portland Art Museum on Feb. 19, 2022.

AMONG THE MANY DISRUPTIONS LARGE AND SMALL caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, museum exhibition schedules were thrown into havoc internationally. Large blockbuster shows in particular – the ones expected to attract big ticket-buying crowds – were tossed for a loop, because they often travel from museum to museum on schedules set years in advance. When shutdowns happen, it’s like dominos falling. A museum can’t just reshuffle its own schedule: It has to do it in concert with several other museums, all eager to get that Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera show (for instance) back on the boards.

On Thursday morning, after many months of replanning, the Portland Art Museum and Northwest Film Center announced their new schedule for 2021 and ’22. The Ansel Adams show, as noted above, opens very soon, on May 8. The Kahlo show, Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Mexican Modernism – originally to have run in Portland last year – will draw its crowds Feb. 19-June 5, 2022.

A few other highlights from the new schedule, which you can see in full here:

  • Queen Nefertari: Eternal Egypt. A litttle bit of ancient Egypt never hurt a museum box office. This one’s centered on “The One for Whom the Sun Shines,” royal wife of Pharaoh Remesses II. She died about 1255 BCE, during Egypt’s 19th Dynasty. Oct. 16, 2021-Jan. 16, 2022.
  • Private Lives: Home and Family in the Art of the Nabis, Paris, 1889-1900. A look at work by Les Nabis, one of the more fascinating groups of French-based artists in the late 19th century, including, in this show, Edouard Vuillard, Pierre Bonnard, Félix Vallotton, and Maurice Denis. Oct. 23, 2021-Jan. 23, 2022.
  • Constructing Revolution: Soviet Propaganda Posters from Between the World Wars. A show of 84 posters from the people’s-art movement that grew out of the 1917 revolution. (It’d be interesting to compare some of these with public art from the WPA’s Federal Art Project in the United States during the Depression years.) July 2-Oct. 9, 2022.
  • Black Artists of Oregon. One of the potential highlights of the next couple of years. The terrific Portland artist Intisar Abioto will curate a show that will include work by such key figures current and past as Al Goldsby, Thelma Johnson Streat, Isaka Shamsud-Din, Ralph Chessé, Arvie Smith, Shedrich Williames, Harrison Branch, Robert Colescott, and Carrie Mae Weems. Oct. 1, 2022-April 9, 2023.


We could’ve danced all night (at least, onscreen)

Oregon Ballet Theatre dancers in the United States full-production premiere of August Bournonville’s “Napoli,” October 6-13, 2018, at the Keller Auditorium. Photo: James McGrew.

THE YEAR OF LIVING CAUTIOUSLY, PART TWO. In the second part of her series of stories about experiencing a dance world stopped in its tracks by the pandemic, veteran critic Martha Ullman West explores the pleasures and drawbacks of taking in an essentially live-action, real-time art form onscreen. “Before Covid, I watched dancing on screen for several reasons, none of them related to recreating the experience of watching live performance, or as a substitute for it,” she begins, and concludes: “Work filmed or streamed that is performed with a live audience present cannot replicate the exchange of energy, delight, sorrow, laughter, and tears of being physically present in the theater – yet it does satisfy somewhat my craving for watching dancing.” She then proceeds to offer other devotees of dance several recommendations of particularly good dance on film or video.

This seems an excellent time to mention that West’s new book Todd Bolender, Janet Reed, and the Making of American Ballet will be published in May by University Press of Florida, and is available for pre-order now.  A double biography of ballerina Reed, who grew up in Portland, and dancer/choreographer Bolender, both of whom originated a number of roles in the work of George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, the book also traces the growth of ballet in the United States, and her subjects’ key roles in the process as dancers for Agnes de Mille, Catherine Littlefield, Lew and Willam Christensen, and other choreographers.




Taking true tales about equity from stage to screen

Shareen Jacobs in Josie Seid’s play “Being Me in the Current America.” Photo courtesy MediaRites

THE ENDURANCE OF THE – ISM PROJECT. “In a world where racism, sexism, and homophobia are often discussed in coldly abstract terms,” Bennett Campbell Ferguson writes, “The –Ism Project attempts to show audiences what it feels like to be a Black woman whose life is threatened by a white police officer, or a Latinx mother whose daughter is languishing in a detention center.” Ferguson writes about how the project’s series of monologues shifted from stage to screen in response to the pandemic, taking its stories of real life in an often dangerous world to a place where they could be heard and seen. To The –Ism Project‘s producer, MediaRites Executive Producer Dmae Roberts, the shift was important: “(H)ow do we build empathy, how do we build understanding, how do we get people to talk and to have open minds? The art is important, of course, but I don’t believe in art for art’s sake.” 

If Roberts’ name sounds familiar, it should. A highly respected cultural journalist, she’s equally at home on the other side of the microphone, as an artist and producer in her own right. The veteran producer, writer, and theater artist, who’s won two Peabody Awards for her radio work, recently moved her longstanding Stage & Studio podcast interviews to ArtsWatch, where she’s conducted wide-ranging conversations with costume designer Wanda Walden, artist and rights advocate Roberta Wong, and prominent Native American artist Lillian Pitt.



Streamers: In Ashland, the kids are OK

 

A scene from the documentary “Youth v. Gov” at the Ashland Independent Film Festival, which opens Thursday, April 15, for its 20th season.

ASHLAND FILM FESTIVAL CELEBRATES THE POWER OF YOUNG PEOPLE. ArtsWatch film columnist Marc Mohan scans the lineup of the 20th-anniversary season of the Ashland Independent Film Festival and finds a lot to like, from the opening-night, filmed-in-Oregon feature The Water Man (the directing debut of Selma actor David Oyelowo) to a particularly strong collection of documentaries, including several about young people flexing their political and cultural muscles. One of those, Youth v. Gov, tells the story of a national group of students who sued the U.S. government for allowing the fossil fuel industry to endanger their futures, a case led by the Eugene nonprofit law firm Our Children’s Trust. The festival opens Thursday, April 15, in a hybrid virtual and live-event format.



In praise of Dennis Cunningham, 1949-2021

Dennis L. Cunningham (American, 1949-2021), “Sauvies Island,” 1970/1991, linocut on paper, The Vivian and Gordon Gilkey Graphic Arts Collection, © Courtesy of the artist and Froelick Gallery, 91.84.641

DENNIS CUNNINGHAM: THE LAST CATCH. You can tell a Dennis Cunningham print in an instant. His linocuts are part of a family, as imbued with a distinct look and quiet resonance as if it were a matter of their DNA. Cunningham, who died April 3 after a long illness, was “a committed regionalist,” as Sue Taylor notes in her admiring memorial for ArtsWatch. That region was his native Pacific Northwest, where he was born and lived and created his art and fished, a pastime that often played a central role in his relief prints: For Cunningham, the land and the art and the relationship with the land were all wrapped together in a kind of everyday utopia of the commons. As Taylor puts it, “Cunningham married his art to the place he loved.” You can tell you’re looking at a Cunningham, often, by the little pictures worked in and around the larger picture. “Cunningham’s insets often turn static vignettes into narratives, suggesting memories of or hopes for the past or future respectively, complicating time,” Taylor writes in discussing a 1990 fishing print titled End of the Line. It is, in a way, a summary: “End of the Line offers, at least for this admiring viewer, a consoling fantasy of the artist arriving in his own fisherman’s paradise.”




Around & About: Dog days, devils, how music looks

Pacific City author Ben Moon and Denali, the dog central to Moon’s memoir “Denali: A Man, a Dog, and the Friendship of a Lifetime,” an Oregon Book Award finalist.

THE STORY OF A MAN AND HIS DOG. Lori Tobias tells the fascinating tale of Pacific City filmmaker and writer Ben Moon, his dog Denali, and their extraordinary journey together through cancer – first Moon’s, then Denali’s. Moon’s short film Denali gathered 8 million hits in its first week online, and in January, Penguin Books published his memoir, Denali: A Man, a Dog, and the Friendship of a Lifetime. Now the book is a finalist for the Oregon Book Award in creative nonfiction. Winners will be announced May 2.

A YEAR OF HOPE AND RESILIENCE. Big things are happening in Eugene. Gary Ferrington gets the details on the University of Oregon Composer Forum’s Music Today Festival, a biennial event that this time around is pre-recorded and being webcast to audiences anywhere and everywhere. Eugene’s a hotbed of contemporary composition, and by the festival’s end in June, Ferrington notes, more than 60 new works created by University of Oregon composers will have been premiered and webcast.

IN SEARCH OF A LAUREATE. The City of Portland is looking for its next Creative Laureate, and you – or someone you know – might be just the ticket. Applications are open through April 30; check the link for details. The laureate is essentially the city’s advocate for culture, someone who can bring people together, make connections, find out what’s needed and help get things done. The post was established in 2012 and photographer Julie Keefe filled the role until January 2018, when dancer, choreographer, and producer Subashini Ganesan succeeded her. 

THE DEVIL, YOU SAY. Remember, back in the Before Times, when Saturday night meant going out? This Saturday you can go out by staying home and live-streaming Portland Columbia Symphony’s fresh take on Stravinsky’s rattling-good musical adventure The Soldier’s Tale, with a seven-member ensemble setting the musical scene. The fine actor Vin Shambry is the Soldier, Robert McBride (whose voice you may remember from his many years on All Classical Radio) is the Devil, and Stephanie Cordell is the Narrator. 

THE LOOK OF MUSIC. Yet another ArtsWatch contributor who’s also an artist is the critic, photographer, artist, and former Chicago gallerist Patrick Collier, who has a pair of shows on view through April 25 at the Truckenbrod Gallery in Corvallis. The mixed-media installation Music Saves (which includes a soundtrack compiled by Collier’s wife, Jill Hearst) is “an ode to music, an essential part of my life, especially so during lockdown,” Collier says. In the back room is Suite: Isolation, consisting of paintings on that highly topical subject.

Patrick Collier’s twin shows “Music Saves” and “Suite: Isolation” are at the Truckenbrod Gallery in Corvallis through April 25.


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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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