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The Week: Art is where you look

From Eastern Oregon to a paint-out on the coast to queer opera and TBA in Portland to the New York streets, art is where you look.


THE ARTS WORLD MIGHT BE FINANCIALLY FRAGILE, with a tenuous toehold on the economic stepstool, but art and culture are all around us, wherever we look – and certainly, wherever ArtsWatch’s writers look. Carnegie libraries-turned-community-art-centers in Eastern Oregon. Street art and “high” art having a deep-in-the-trenches conversation in New York. Dancers in the woods near Astoria and a landscape paint-off in Cannon Beach. Queer Opera in Portland, a virtuoso theatrical solo turn in Clackamas County, Pavarotti on the radio, contemporary performance art at PICA’s TBA Festival in Portland, a great photographer imprinted on the nation’s memory. And really, we haven’t begun to scratch the surface of things.

Pendleton Center for the Arts, in a former Carnegie Library. In the
home of the Pendleton Round-Up, Randy Gundlach’s horse statue by
the entrance adds a Western touch. Photo: David Bates

In NOTES FROM EASTERN OREGON: Art centers keep culture alive, ArtsWatch’s David Bates heads east for visits to the Pendleton Center for the Arts, Arts Center East in La Grande, and, in Baker City, the Crossroads Carnegie Art Center and the Baker Heritage Museum, plus a stop at the nearby National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. Each is a thriving cultural center serving both its own community and travelers passing through. And “its own community” can have a wide definition, as Bates notes about La Grande’s Arts Center East: “For more than 40 years, the group has coordinated arts programs in rural schools and communities in a 10-county service area that includes Baker, Gilliam, Grant, Harney, Malheur, Morrow, Umatilla, Union, Wallowa, and Wheeler counties.” 

Michael Orwick and Anton Pavlenko: a paint-off in Cannon Beach. Photo courtesy Earth & Ocean Arts Festival

IN THE OPPOSITE DIRECTION, ArtsWatch’s coast columnist Lori Tobias scans the calendar and finds a few surprises, among them Portland’s BodyVox tripping out toward Astoria to dance in the woods, and, at Cannon Beach’s Earth & Ocean Arts Festival, a “dueling easels” paint-off by artists Michael Orwick and Anton Pavlenko, who’ll switch canvases several times during the “contest.” Get details on these and more in Tobias’s wrap-up Coast calendar: a little dancing, a little strumming


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“The Rich Killd NYC”: street art in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn,
New York. It echoes themes in the nearby Whitney Biennial in Manhattan.
Photo: Friderike Heuer

WHAT’S MORE AMERICAN IN THE ART WORLD THAN THE WHITNEY BIENNIAL, which has been showcasing contemporary trends in the nation’s art since 1932? Maybe, Friderike Heuer suggests in her photo essay Art on the Road: Whitney Biennial, the street art in the neighborhoods and boroughs around the Manhattan museum – and maybe, she adds, this year the two are boldly and intriguingly linked. Taking issue with several mainstream critics, Heuer praises the coded artwork of black women and other marginalized artists in the 2019 Biennial, and connects it with a lot of street-level political art by unnamed and un-galleried artists around New York.


AT ARTSWATCH WE LOVE GREAT PHOTOJOURNALISM and try to make a good home for it. We’re fortunate to have some excellent regular contributors who keep the standards high:

Heuer’s look at the Whitney Biennial closely follows her photo essay on Manhattan’s massive development Hudson Yards (“an architectural enclave for the über-wealthy”) and environs, and her fascinating 11-part series on Exquisite Gorge, Maryhill Museum’s summer-long project to create a 66-foot-long print depicting the lives and lands along 220 miles of the Columbia River.

Joe Cantrell has created celebratory and emotionally vibrant recent photo essays on such rousing cultural gatherings as Beaverton’s La Strada dei Pastelli Chalk Art Festival, that city’s immigrant-centered Beaverton Night Market (Part 1 and Part 2), and the Waterfront Blues Festival along the river in downtown Portland. He has more up his sleeve.

And keep an eye out for the latest in K.B. Dixon’s remarkable series of portraits of leading Portland cultural figures – the next one focusing on several of the city’s many writers. Dixon’s also created photo essays for ArtsWatch on topics ranging from Tuba Christmas to the Albany Carousel

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Lauren Steele in Clackamas Rep’s Queens Girl in the World. Photo: Travis Nodurft

“FROM THE MOMENT THAT LAUREN STEELE STEPS ONSTAGE as 12-year-old Jaqueline Marie Butler, all bright-eyed innocence and pin-point-polite diction, specificity is the hallmark of this terrific production,” Marty Hughley writes in his review of Queens Girl in the World at Clackamas Rep. “Written with abundant heart and loads of evocative detail, performed with winning vibrance, Queens Girl draws us in and charms us from the outset, then brings us along on a journey of surprising scope, depth and, yes, universality.”

And there’s more to the story: a play about black culture presented by a mostly white company in a mostly white community, and playwright Caleen Sinnette Jennings’ initial hesitance to grant production rights: “I should have remembered that embracing with curiosity, empathy and love the stories of those who look like ‘the other’ is the very definition of the theatrical impulse,” Jennings wrote in what Hughley calls “an unusually personal” program note. “Silly me. How could I have forgotten that the more specific our stories, the more universal their themes?”


A little song, a little dance: Knocking your socks off with opera excerpts and art songs. Photo courtesy Queer Opera

IN ADVANCE OF LAST WEEKEND’S QUEER OPERA – a trio of performances of opera excerpts and art songs that he promised “will knock your socks off” – ArtsWatch music editor Matthew Neil Andrews talked via email with several of the group’s performers and central figures. In his resulting essay To freely and fully embrace all possibilities, Andrews quotes soprano Sam Peters on what queerness means:

“Queer is resistance. It’s a rejection of heteronormativity, of gender roles, and the binaries that surround our world. It’s freedom. For me, being queer is how I describe my sexuality. It is fluid, as in I’m constantly pulled to new people regardless of gender expression, identity, sexuality, etc. It allows me to freely and fully embrace all possibilities. In opera, it’s a complete rejection of the oppressive structures set forth by its long tradition–yet, it’s also a way of transforming these innocuous traditions like pants roles into real opportunities to showcase queerness. Opera wasn’t queer because the audiences and companies refused to frame it as such. Opera’s always been queer.”


Water Will (In Melody). Photo courtesy Sarah Marguier and PICA

TBA, THE PORTLAND INSTITUTE FOR CONTEMPORARY ART’S FESTIVAL of performance and other work from the edge of the world, marches on at venues around Portland through Sunday, and writer Ella Ray dropped in for ArtsWatch on Water Will (In Melody), the final part of artist and choreographer Ligia Lewis’s BLUE RED WHITE TRILOGY. Ray summarizes Water Will as “a mission in obfuscation,” and describes part of the action: “While the puppet-like characters contort and twist their plastic and silk dressed bodies against the black stage, swampy sounds of crickets and trickling water fill the spaces between us and them. The scene is set in a way that references the outdoors and exposes the logistical aspects of theatrical production: off-stage is visible, the curtains are slightly too short, and the lighting equipment encroaches on the stage frame. The mood is still marshy and gothic as if the theater is amidst a southern swamp.” Read all about it in Ray’s essay here, where she adds: “Listen to what happens after the storm.” 

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Robert Frank, San Francisco, 1956. 

THE GREAT DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHER ROBERT FRANK, a model and inspiration for photographers and other artists across America, has died at age 94, and the New York Times has this lengthy and well-considered obituary. 

Two years ago, when several of Frank’s photos from his essential mid-1950s series The Americans were on view at the Portland Art Museum, Paul Masiar wrote for ArtsWatch that “Frank’s photographs astonished me—they had the congenial spirit you get from poets like Allen Ginsberg, partly because of their everyday vernacular and spontaneity—but also because, maybe more subtly, of their keen eye to the plight of marginalized people.”

In Robert Frank’s ‘San Francisco’: Questions and confluences, Masiar focused on one photo, San Francisco, from 1956: “The picture is of a black man and woman reclining on a grassy hillside, trying to look out over San Francisco and enjoy a sunny afternoon together. They are presently interrupted by some white creep with a camera—Frank. And they give him a look. To appreciate this photograph is to enlarge the moment: What happened right before this photo was taken; or maybe more interesting, what happened just after Frank’s shutter slammed shut? In this moment, Frank captured an encounter between two worlds, and it makes the photograph so keenly, and tragically, American.”


ALL CLASSICAL RADIO IS IN THE MIDST OF A FUND DRIVE THIS WEEK, and amid the ringing phone banks (is that you calling?) the music rolls on. Yesterday morning I got in my car and the radio broke out in mid-aria from La Boheme, at one of those turning points when things were looking bad for Mimi. In an instant I knew the voice: Pavarotti. It was distinctly, unmistakably his. How many opera voices have that sort of immediate familiarity? Quite a few if you’re an ardent opera fan. Hardly any, if you’re not. For me, at least, Leontyne Price‘s. Sometimes Callas, Anne Sophie von Otter, Bryn Terfel, Renée Fleming, Kiri Te Kanawa. Ah, but Pavarotti: instant identity, even for non-opera fans.

Such distinct styles are more commonly recognized in popular music. Elvis. Nina Simone. Patsy Cline. Sinatra. Kay Starr. Tom Waits. Nat King Cole. Ray Charles. Mose Allison. Ella Fitzgerald. Tony Bennett. You hear ’em, you know ’em. You’ll have your own (quite possibly, more up-to-date) list. It’s that little extra thing, that instantly defining sound, the stuff that can’t be learned. It’s the mystery of art.

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

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