Friday, December 14, 2012

Historic Carl Morris paintings glow at U of O

 One of 9 huge paintings by Carl Morris painted for Oregon's Centennial Exposition in 1959.

Editor's Note: I'm using Arts Dispatch these days to re-post for linking purposes articles I've written in the past. This one was written for The Oregonian in 2007.

They practically glow: nine great abstract paintings by the late Carl Morris in the hush of the main gallery of the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in Eugene. No one has seen them together since they were removed from the Hall of Religious History at the Oregon Centennial Exhibition in 1959. And they are as bright and fresh, shimmering, as they must have been then: fields of perfectly modulated color, calligraphic gestures, irregular shapes, even a few figures confined to tight spaces.
Painted when Morris (who died in 1993) was 48 and arguably at the height of his powers as an artist, the set acts as a divide in Morris' career. It summarizes important currents in his work up until then and suggests some of the paths he followed later.
But really, that's not as important as the glow, the luminescence, in the paintings themselves. From almost the beginning of his career, Morris' work was lit by a spiritual dimension, nothing explicit, perhaps, but always implied. In his paintings of the 1940s it came from the  trapped figures, then the focus of his work—limited, tragic, but somehow maintaining an essential dignity. Later, as his work became more and more abstract, it came from the artistic impulse itself and the acceptance of the impossible challenge to represent the multiplicity of the world, a spiritual quest. And the pursuit of light, the glow.
Lawrence Fong, curator of American and regional art at the museum, understood the power of the 8-foot-by-10-foot paintings, seven of which have been in storage at the museum since the centennial, the other two on display at the University of Oregon's music school. And once the remodel of the museum created a gallery large enough to give them and their viewers the contemplative space they needed, he reassembled them and gathered a small exhibition of other Morris paintings from earlier in his career to provide context.
It's a cause for celebration -- these paintings, by Oregon's most-decorated artist (Morris was included in multiple Whitney Biennials as well as major group shows at the Metropolitan Museum, Art Institute of Chicago, San Francisco Museum of Art, among many others, and his work was collected by major American museums) are finally out of the basement and back into our consciousness.
Emphasis on the abstract 
By 1959, when the centennial commission finally offered him the commission to fill the Hall of Religious History, Morris was exclusively an abstract painter; these paintings blend abstract and figurative elements, with the emphasis on the abstract. Still, as you follow the paintings through the cycle, each of them has some recognizable elements. The first, "Light Breaking Across Darkness," contains a sun (though highly symbolic), for example. The next, groups of human bodies within rough rectangles of color -- drawn with the merest of gestures but still recognizable. Continue along and there are lots more figures, suggestions of Gothic arches and spires, a huge book, maybe even a city.
At its best, Morris' work had a transcendental quality, a lot like that of his wife (and in the case of these painting, collaborator), the sculptor Hilda Morris. Even today, it lifts us out of the here-and-now and deposits us . . . somewhere else. The nine paintings invite us into the almost infinitesimal marks that the Morrises made on canvas, each a little universe of its own. And they suggest the far greater, if inexplicable, whole that integrates each of these tiny gestures, cuts, spots, into patterns and then pictures. They surprise us: Nothing on these canvases is predictable.

Taken together they don't tell a story, certainly not the tale of circuit-riding preachers bringing the gospel to the deepest reaches of the state that the commission first envisioned for the cozy modernist structure, a little like a tepee, that housed them. The ecumenical committee overseeing the hall started exchanging ideas with Morris, though, and must have been persuaded by his questions about their idea for a narrative, WPA-style mural. How could the literal origin of a religion be depicted? For that matter, what does a Roman Catholic look like? How can these things be represented "realistically" in good conscience?
Morris found an answer for an inclusive set of paintings about religious history in the approach to abstract art he was pursuing. He would paint what all religions in the state had in common: "The land; The color; The spirit." He continued: "This is my theme— The light, The people, Light intersects people, The word, The Structure, Across the universe."
This is the language of the time and of Abstract Expressionism. From the beginning, such Abstract Expressionist heroes as Rothko, Newman, Motherwell, Kline and Pollock believed the form could be used to pursue the big questions of existence: psychology, philosophy, even politics. The ecstasy of Pollock, the authenticity of Kline, the ability of Rothko to invoke the spiritual with his color fields (specifically in the Rothko Chapel in Houston) -- this is the way we think about Abstract Expressionism and part of why Pop Art satirized it out almost out of existence. The paintings became so freighted, the ideas so pompous, the orthodoxy so rigid, that a reaction was inevitable. Was it really possible that artists would never again represent the human figure and the world around them?
Whatever we think about the inevitability of aesthetic developments or their advisability, Morris' paintings make the case for themselves as we look at them. We understand what he means by light, spirit, structure. We sense his absolute commitment to the revelatory act of painting.
Two working together 
Morris characteristically began a canvas by establishing its structure in quick, large calligraphic strokes. From conversations with him, I think that deep down he believed that at that moment he was channeling something important, something bigger than himself, something that somehow elucidated the nature of the universe for him and potentially for viewers of his finished paintings. His friend, painter Mark Tobey, felt the same way, and so did Hilda: If we devote ourselves completely to this task, something important will happen.
Does it? Specifically, does it in these paintings? Do we need the representation of a circuit-riding preacher, Bible in hand, to say "religion in Oregon"? Or is the luminosity of Morris' painting, the miracle of its particularity, the tension it captures (among those separate human religious tribes, perhaps) enough?
The Morrises themselves believed that was a subjective judgment. They believed that abstract art was like music: Some people are going to respond in a profound way to Mozart's Quintet in C Major, and some people aren't. Not that they ever would have presumed to compare themselves with Mozart.
Created in a mere six weeks, the paintings have some shortcuts, passages that haven't had as thorough a scrutiny as Morris habitually brought to his work. On the other hand, the speed, the excitement of the deadline, maybe even working hand in hand with Hilda, give them a fresh quality. There aren't second thoughts. That first impulse is clear and pulsing in each of the paintings.
How did Oregonians visiting the centennial's exhibitions react to the paintings? I suspect that they were puzzled by the absence of specific religious content and symbols. But it's possible that the glow worked on them, too, the deftness of Morris' color combinations, the muscular structure, the transience suggested in his sketches of people.
In any case, I like to think so.

Monday, October 3, 2011

'Lips Together,' circa 1993

[Editor's Note: This story was published in The Oregonian in 1993, while I was serving as the paper's theater critic.]

As the cast and crew of "Lips Together, Teeth Apart'' file into their first meeting before rehearsals begin, they are chortling. Someone, it seems, has just called the Oregon Shakespeare Festival box office seeking tickets to the Terrence McNally play.

"I want four tickets to 'Lips Together, Legs Apart,' '' the guy says.

The startled ticket-seller quickly corrects him, but too late: Visions of the X-rated parody already are sprinting through everyone's head.

In a way, the joke is a stroke of luck, helping to break down the reserve among this disparate collection of friends, acquaintances and strangers. And the tone is right. McNally's play is no "Debbie Does Dallas'' or even "Oh, Calcutta!'' but it has its ribald moments. Think of it as a darkly comic exercise in the existential and the absurd, with some naughty words thrown in.

More than 20 actors, costumers, administrators, techies and other assorted theater folk gather in the rehearsal hall of the Portland Center for the Performing Arts as director Penny Metropulos takes the lectern. It's late January, five weeks before the Feb. 24 opening night, and Metropulos is clearly ready to roll.

Short, curly haired, with a green knit sweater and an animated face that dances and smiles as she talks, Metropulos packs considerable voltage. It's easy to see why, after giving up a successful career as an actress, she's become such a hot directorial property. She's also open, even to the possibility of allowing a journalist into the normally closed world of the rehearsal process.

Will the production suddenly come alive one moment in the rehearsal hall — a pretty worm, wriggling toward the light? Or will it be a gigantic exercise in legerdemain, an elaborate sleight-of-hand, an illusion carefully wound and sprung on the audience? The journalist will be allowed to drop in from time to time over the next five weeks to find the answers. Make that, to learn that the reality is a lot less glittery and magical than one imagines.

Metropulos zips through the opening meeting. She describes the script ("I think the play is about fear and courage''), talks about the set, supplies some key words and images from the text, and discusses acquired immune deficiency syndrome and how it figures in the play. ("The AIDS epidemic makes us think about destiny.'') Then she predicts what the play's painful, personal nature will mean for her and the actors: "Although we'll be getting into some nasty places, we'll have some laughs, too.''

Metropulos extends an invitation to the extended group to come in and watch rehearsals, but asks that they clear it with her first. "It's a small cast,'' she explains, "so you feel pretty exposed out there.''

Tony DeBruno, one of the actors, picks up the cue and returns the discussion to its ribald beginnings. "Especially when I take my shower.''

"Oh,'' Metropulos retorts, "everybody is invited that day.''

Act One: Details, details, details

"Lips Together, Teeth Apart'' has only four characters. That made Metropulos' auditions in Ashland last August crucial. With only four actors, a casting error would be disastrous.

What was she looking for? The right physical types, perhaps, to fit the play?

"I was looking for an inner rhythm,'' Metropulos answers.

At first that seems like so much mumbo-jumbo — the theater-world equivalent of "whatever feels right.'' But then it starts to make sense.

"We all have rhythms that are our natural rhythms,'' Metropulos continues. "Fast, slow, smooth, jerky. That inner rhythm is where you live. It's not that we can't shift from there — good actors can — but it's where you live. For ' Lips' you don't want a lot of slow Southern rhythms. This is set in the Northeast. You need drive and speed.''

The group she has assembled sports three Ashland regulars — Linda Alper (who worked with Metropulos on "Restoration,'' last season's critical hit, among other starring roles on Ashland stages), DeBruno (another "Restoration'' vet who has acted all over the country, often in comic roles) and Bill Geisslinger (whose list of Ashland credits is far too long to fit here).
The fourth, Amanda Carlin, has major New York and Los Angeles experience and appeared in the festival's Portland version of "Season's Greetings.'' Trying to find a fourth for her trio, Metropulos remembered that performance in the dark Alan Ayckbourn comedy and invited her to join the show.

Despite the actors' differences in experience and approach, they are a warm and funny group. And they do have a similar rhythm: quick, to the point, alert.

DeBruno has a long face, expressive eyes and a flair for comedy. A veteran actor who has spent the last four years at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, DeBruno's Everyman sort of appearance fits well with Sam, the middle-class character he plays in " Lips Together, Teeth Apart.'' Sam has some homophobic feelings and he's irritated by people who can identify Schubert, but he's not an Archie Bunker. He's much more sensitive than that.

Carlin brings zest, insouciance, sensuality and a flair for the theatrical to Chloe, Sam's sister and the wife of John. Chloe seems to be the least complex character, primarily because she always says what's on her mind. She is overt, vulnerable, always taking care of everyone's culinary cravings. "You get a clearer take on Chloe instantly,'' Metropulos says. "Then you start looking more deeply into it.''

As John, Geisslinger plays the role of a cynic. John is ailing, physically and emotionally. He can be prickly and nasty. He doesn't try to get along. "John makes me sad,'' Metropulos says. Geisslinger must be closed and flinty one moment, closed and blissful the next, then closed and aggravating. It's a serious role, though Geisslinger is determined to find some leavening in it.

Alper, who has spent seven of the last 13 years working in Ashland after training at Julliard and working for 10 years out of New York, gets the complexities of Sally. Sally is dealing with the death of her brother and his gayness, and with a lot of other things: her affair with John, her pregnancy or lack of same, her general feelings of separateness and alienation. Things affect Sally deeply, and they show up in Alper's expressive face, her shoulders, her posture.

Besides choosing the cast, the Ashland-based Metropulos had hundreds of other choices to make before the operation moved to Portland. Theater people are always talking about choices. They think of the finished production as the culmination of a series of choices, managed by the director.

"You try to be as specific as you possibly can about what you show out there,'' Metropulos says. "There isn't time for just ' kinda, sorta.' On the stage for 2 1/2 hours it all has to be specific work that opens the point of the play. It's about specific choices.''

Many of the essential choices have been made before rehearsals start. The play has been chosen (by Henry Woronicz, artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival) and assigned to a director (Metropulos). The director has cast the play, worked with the designer (Robert Brill) on the set, talked about costumes (Sarah Nash Gates), lights (Derek Duarte) and sound (David Maltby).

The play's the thing

The play itself is where everything begins, of course, and Metropulos is a big fan of McNally's work. She remembers reading "Lips'' for the first time:

"I read it the way I would watch it. I read it to see if it did anything for me. I laughed out loud. It moved me. It talks about things that are very real and very important. It's extraordinary that he's done a play about AIDS without it being a play about AIDS. He focuses on what the disease has done to confront us as a culture; our fears and bigotries. You don't want to believe that you would wash your hands after being with someone you love. But we're here; we're scared.''

Even talking about it, Metropulos gets misty. It's something she obviously feels deeply about.
"Lips Together, Teeth Apart'' takes place at a beach house on Fire Island, a resort getaway near New York City. Sally and Sam have inherited the place from Sally's brother, David, who has died of AIDS. It's the Fourth of July, and they've invited Sam's sister, Chloe, and her husband, John, to spend their first weekend with them in their new vacation spot. Very quickly we learn that Sally and John have had an affair, that Sally and Sam have been having problems connected to her inability to have a child, that John has cancer, and that Chloe is beginning to crumble under the strain of life with John.

A quick summary misses McNally's humor: "Lips'' is a very funny play. It also presents very complicated technical problems. Music swells onto the set from the offstage houses on either side of Sam and Sally's new place. Very specific music: Mozart, Gluck, Schubert, Ellington, music from Broadway musicals, even some pop stuff. The house must have a working kitchen. The set must also have more than a suggestion of a swimming pool.

All of these problems involve choices. But by the time rehearsals begin with a first read-through on Jan. 22, many of the decisions have been made. There's just this little matter of figuring out what the actors are supposed to do with their lines onstage, and then waiting for the magic to happen.


Act Two: Say it again, Sam

Rehearsal is not glamorous.

Repeat after me, rehearsal is not glamorous.

To the visitor, it resembles death by a thousand cuts: a sophisticated and cruel torture that lacerates text, actors, director, stage manager.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival rehearsals take place in a large, high-ceilinged room above the Intermediate and Winningstad theaters of the Performing Arts Center. It's full of banners and sports some large windows, but it hasn't been finished. Several of the walls are bare concrete. Still, it doesn't look like a torture chamber.

The rehearsal setup for "Lips'' is pretty simple: deck chairs and a table, a line marking where the house starts, a makeshift kitchen and two bedrooms. The actors wander around this space, trying to figure out where they are and what comes next.

In front of them is a long table crowded with stuff for the play: two cassette players, Big Red gum, Calistoga water, pencils and pencil-sharpeners, coffee cups, blueprints of the set, masking tape, a phone, variously marked scripts, watches, diagrams, a model of the set, Post-Its. Behind the desk sits stage manager Joanne Fantozzi, who coolly figures out all the cues for the play as she keeps up with Metropulos' instructions to the cast and makes sure everyone keeps to the schedule.

Jerry Montoya, production assistant, supplies props as they are required and prompts the actors when they draw a blank on their lines. He and Fantozzi are quiet and efficient, amazingly attentive and emotionally balanced.

Metropulos sits and watches — and takes notes. Lots of notes. When she sees something she really likes, she expresses approval enthusiastically. When something is going wrong, really wrong, she jumps up and intervenes. She tells the actors what she's seeing, asks them questions ("What are you thinking there?'' or "Why do you think Chloe wants to talk to Sally woman to woman?'') If it seems warranted, she lightly bounces through the physical gestures, demonstrating for the actor.

A Sisyphean task

Late one Friday afternoon, a couple of weeks into the rehearsal period, the actors are going over the end of Act Two. And suddenly it all comes clear: THESE GUYS ARE WORKING ON THIS ALL THE TIME!

It can be snowing, the Blazers can be fooling around in Salt Lake City, the Legislature can be fumbling away our future in Salem, and these seven people will still be up here going over "Lips Together, Teeth Apart'' — again and again, eight hours a day, six, count 'em, six days a week. They finish the final act, and then they start over at the beginning.

During the rehearsal period they will work on a particular scene dozens of times — learning the lines, working out the physical action, then trying to apply what they are learning about their characters to both the lines and the action. The changes seem minute. Gestures are cleaned up. Inflections change. The tempo is increased. An emotion — in this play, anger or sadness — is allowed to dissipate or increase.

Even Metropulos, who is cracking the whip, uses the word obsessive to describe the process.

"It seems to me as a director that you try to answer as many questions as you can,'' she observes. "But you never seem to have enough information. That's why it's such an obsessive kind of thing. You will spend eight hours rehearsing a play, four hours reading it and then go out to coffee and talk about it. You start relating everything to it — even the war in Yugoslavia. As (director) Peter Brooks says, with this one word, ' interest,' we could go very far.''

Later on, in a different context, she adds: "Ever since rehearsals started I've been dreaming about death.''

A tireless director

Throughout the rehearsal period, Metropulos is tireless. She keeps worrying a scene, answering questions (should Chloe put the cover on the grill if she's going to cook hamburgers, how should Sam hand a packet of pictures to Sally, how bleak is John at any particular time).

Instead of groaning under this assault, the actors actually seem to appreciate it. "She's intelligent and she has a lot of energy,'' DeBruno explains. "Actors often take on the mood and energy of the director. She gives you a lot of room. If you try something new, she sees that. You aren't acting in a vacuum up there.''

Alper, who has had to grapple with the ambiguities of Sally for weeks, is just as enthusiastic about Metropulos. "She's my favorite director ever to work with. She's very specific, and she's just dogged at keeping at the work. She has a good eye and she just keeps working. Penny doesn't get tired at draft 30: She goes on to draft 50, if that's what it takes.''

Gradually, the play takes shape. The actors give birth (Metropulos' term) to their characters. The connections between scenes begin to make sense. The "prop hell'' in which Chloe finds herself begins to work itself out. It doesn't happen all at once, and the changes are rarely radical. Slowly, after much effort, the production begins to breathe. No magic. No wriggling worm. One step at a time.

Then it's ripped out of the rehearsal room and plopped onto the stage of the Intermediate Theatre.

Act Three: The real thing

At the tech rehearsals, which start a week before opening night, the actors attempt to translate onto the stage the things they've been doing in the rehearsal hall. At the same time, Metropulos and Fantozzi work with the lighting and sound crew to make sure all the cues are right — that the Gluck comes wafting in at exactly the right moment to shade the action of the play, or the right actor is illuminated during a monologue.

Metropulos is running a marathon. She dashes constantly from stage to production table and back. Talking over a scene quickly, putting her imprimature on a lighting decision, pointing out a propping problem, she seems to be everywhere at once. Fantozzi sticks to the table, earphones connecting her to diverse sound and lighting centers.

Two issues become paramount. Can Chloe deal with all the serving, cooking, cleaning and household chores with the way the house is set up on stage? After a while, it's apparent that she can.

The second issue is starker, and involves the pool. The pool is a rectangle, five inches deep, filled with a ton and a half of water. The question is, how will Geisslinger manage to plunge his head into the water, exhale enough bubbles so that the audience in the balcony can see them, inhale some water, be pulled from the pool and placed on Chloe's lap, and then spit the water in her face? How will he do it tonight? How will he do it night after night?

Cold reality

Geisslinger is visibly nervous about it. When he dangles his feet in the water for the first time, he stops the action abruptly. It's cold. Really cold. Not only is he going to be drenched, he's going to be cold and drenched. The first time he dunks his head, the rest of the actors proceed through their lines at a normal pace. Suddenly, he emerges spluttering from the water, dripping and gasping for air.

"We're going to have to speed this up,'' Metropulos says. She's concerned. Geisslinger had only wanted to have to stick his head under once, because of the chill. Now, it looks like more chlorinated water is in his future.

Into the water again. This time Sam and Sally get him into Chloe's lap, but he hasn't been able to inhale any water. Again. But not enough bubbles. Again.
And finally it works.

Far from wanting to do it only once, Geisslinger is now eager to try new methods to get the right effect. In fact you can't keep him out of the water. He submerges himself continually. He becomes the master of this watery domain.

The next night is dress rehearsal. And Metropulos is still fussing with the sound, the lights, finding the cleanest, most natural way for the actors to find their places onstage. But really, things are looking quite beautiful. Brill's set is a shining thing. Duarte's lighting effects range widely over what is possible, including a reflected fireworks display. Maltby, Metropulos and Fantozzi have figured out the tangled complications of the music and the sound of the ocean. Geisslinger is a porpoise in the pool, and all the actors seem fresher and more polished than they have before. In a moment of exhaustion, Metropulos even manages a confident smile.

Opening night

But it's still a leap from dress rehearsal to last Wednesday's opening night — and the leap is illuminating. In between, the actors have had three previews to tighten things further. For the journalist who has missed the previews, one thing on opening night is shocking: gales of laughter.

The audience finds this grim existential play howlingly funny. It has seemed funny at times throughout rehearsals, especially Carlin's Chloe. But now Sam is getting laughs, big guffaws. Even Sally and John are getting laughs.

During the serious moments — the monologues, when each character muses over his or her circumstances — the audience quiets. After a particularly nasty exchange during which Chloe has been banished for six hours by John, Chloe tells the other three: "I think we are all pathetic.''

And there is applause.

Up to this point the characters haven't been noble, and we recognize that. Then Chloe says, "Sally, will you clean up? We'll have bugs galore. Pussy Galore! Remember her?'' And there's laughter again. The deftly rehearsed bantering onstage is reminiscent of that off-the-cuff ribaldry of five weeks ago, when the cast and crew of "Lips'' first met.

At Wednesday's opening night, the whole evening is a triumph: A funny, complicated contemporary play shines on stage, and has the audience bubbling at intermissions. It's an adult play with adult themes, intelligently written and produced. At the first intermission a woman in the audience says, "This is good,'' and heads for the lobby. At the second intermission, she's revised her opinion. "This is really good,'' she says, and waits for the third act.

The journalist, able to recall when the actors were bumping into things up in the concrete rehearsal room because they had to hold the script in their hands, is frankly amazed.
Nuts and bolts have turned to gold, after all.

This story first appeared in The Oregonian. Publication Date: February 28, 1993  Page: C01  Section: LIVELY ARTS    

Monday, August 8, 2011

Weekend Wrap: Elizabeth Leach at 30, Terry Toedtemeier, etc.

 Helen Frankenthaler's Sun Rain
By Barry Johnson

The very first thing I wanted to do this weekend was drop in on the Elizabeth Leach Gallery, which opened 30 full years ago, when, as Elizabeth Leach herself reminded me, we were still young, she and I.

Thirty years in the commercial art gallery business is quite a feat, and Leach celebrated by packing her gallery full of art by some of the bigger name artists she’s represented in Portland over the years. So, for example, Louise Bourgeois, from whose multi-panel piece Leach borrowed the name of the whole celebration, “The Shape of the Problem.”

Many of those big national names come from Bourgeois’ generation. Robert Rauschenberg is represented, along with Mark di Suvero, Sol LeWitt and Helen Frankenthaler, among others. As a group, they all play with the idea of how art communicates, what its essentials really are. I was beguiled by the soft gestures of the Frankenthaler in the show, lines and curves and color in a sea of white space. Certain simple elements, a particular comma of a line or shade of blue, can stop us in our tracks for reasons we can’t fathom, and the Frankenthaler piece did that for me. (A little later, I revisited the effect in a Frankenthaler print at the Augen Gallery.)

Leach has also nurtured local artists, of course, and helped project them into national careers of their own. In the show at her gallery, a set of Melody Owen collages on glass based on “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” may transport your thinking on Lewis Carroll’s great story. And Malia Jensen has created a very realistic bronze fork of a tree, with a white cast cotton paper “pillow” hung between the limbs, another of the surreal, poetic juxtapositions she seems to relish.

“The Shape of the Problem” spills over to the Feldman Gallery at Pacific Northwest College of Art, which is primarily devoted to more regional artists. If you follow the local scene (and I’m not-so-subtly arguing here that you should, if you don’t), the artists are immediately recognizable: Christine Bourdette, Robert Hanson, MK Guth, Chris Rauschenberg, Matt McCormick and many others, some of whose work is more legible in this sort of survey format than others.

Terry Toedtemeier's Rock Cairn
Just down the street from the Elizabeth Leach Gallery, a gallery full of Terry Toedtemeier photographs waited at PDX Contemporary Art. Toedtemeier was the greatest historian of the photography of the Columbia River Gorge (you can see for yourself in “Wild Beauty,” the book he and John Laursen worked on together, right before his death), and also one of its greatest photographers himself. But these photos aren’t from the Gorge. They fit into a wider geography of the American West with a side trip to Maine.

I liked the wit of some of these photographs, especially the one of a little business at the edge of the vast Arizona desert, one with a sign that says “Dinosaur Tracks.” Was the proprietor selling peeks at the tracks? Casts of the tracks? Water to those drawn to this parched place by a savvy ad campaign? I have no idea. And the set of shots from Native American ruins in Chacon Canyon have the same melancholy majesty, to me at least, as Greek or Roman ruins. Most of these images weren’t developed by Toedtemeier (his longtime friend, Phil Bard printed them), though one corner holds four that he printed himself, meticulous but no more so than the ones by Bard. One of those is called “Rock Cairn (shot-up bucket),” with its carefully, even artfully stack of rocks and embedded bucket, riddled with bullet holes. And again, I was asking questions, though the big one was, “Huh?” Toedtemeier liked questions and riddles, and he didn’t mind leaving them unanswered and unexplained.

After leaving PDX Gallery, I walked over to Blue Sky Gallery (celebrating its 35th anniversary as a non-profit photography gallery, and which Toedtemeier helped to start, though Chris Rauschenberg has been its driving force.) Paul D’Amato (another early figure in the history of Blue Sky) was showing portraits of the residents of the Chicago projects, Pilsen and Little Village, big and beautiful images that I found affecting. The empty project grounds behind the subjects are almost as desolate as Toedtemeier’s desert scenes, but the people themselves burn with life and their own private stories.

I jumped next door to Charles A. Hartman Fine Art and landed in a mini-exhibit of modern photography masters. Brett Weston’s desert, I realized, is altogether softer than Toedtemeier’s, practically watery and gestural (like that Frankenthaler!). I’m a fan of Frantisek Drtikol, and he’s represented by a small beautiful portrait of a young woman from early in the 20th century. Garry Winogrand? Andre Kertesz? Photographic gold.

By this time I was almost running through the galleries: I wanted to see more, but I already had seen too much. At the Augen Gallery, the front room was full of a survey of prints by more great 20th century artists — Calder, Picasso, Hockney, Lichtenstein, Motherwell, Lawrence, Bearden. And then I paused for a bit longer to take in a new set of Rick Bartow’s transformations at the Froelick Gallery. Bartow’s figures are caught between the human and the animal — coyote, bear, buffalo — smeary, in a state of flux or transition, moving forward and back at the same time.

That was my course on one afternoon. It could have been entirely different: The city has so many galleries now. Friday night I visited some Eastside galleries, and I have several more shows on my list this month. Maybe I’ll see you out there.


This post appeared originally on the Arts and Life page of the Oregon Public Broadcasting site.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Weekend Wrap: The jazz edition with Devin Phillips, Dave Friesen, Ken Ollis

Devin Phillips

Listen to KMHD for a bit and it becomes apparent that Portland has a thriving jazz scene with lots of clubs, musicians and fans. I make a point of tuning into Lynn Darroch’s Bright Moments show on Friday afternoons, specifically to catch up with what the locals are doing, though several of the DJs make a point of touching home base during their programs.

For some psychic reason, this weekend I decided to catch some live jazz, and I had a ton of choices. I ended up going to hear Devin Phillips’ “Impressions of John Coltrane” show at the Mission Theater, Dave Friesen at the Camellia Lounge and a boundary-pushing trio led by Ken Ollis at the Blue Monk, but I could have gone several completely different routes through the weekend.

Thursday night, Devin Phillips

When Phillips arrived in Portland several years ago, displaced from New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, I liked his energy, his spirit and his ability to fit into various sorts of music ensembles, from soul to straight-ahead jazz. Almost from the start, he was something of a star here — a young, talented, good-looking sax player.

Time has changed him for the better, and he now seems to be making that difficult transition from “sax player” to jazz artist. After the show at the Mission Theater, I exchanged emails with Darroch, who had served as emcee, and he said that to his ear, Phillips had developed a “magnificent sound” while he’s been here, and then explained how this is the holy grail for jazz players. (I once asked Pharoah Sanders when he knew he’d discovered his sound; Pharoah said, “I haven’t found it yet.”)

In Phillips case that sound is warm and buttery, and “finding” it, I think, has changed his approach. Instead of the rapid sound assault he unleashed before, now he’s more apt to let those round tones take center stage. And that has simplified his playing, made it more thoughtful, not that he isn’t still capable of a mad cascade of scales.

Applying himself and his quartet to Coltrane songs was a challenge. It’s possible for a musician today to have “Impressions” of Coltrane, but it’s impossible to get much closer, to get inside the volcano, one of the metaphors of choice when it comes to Coltrane. If you can’t reproduce his subterranean creative processes, you really can’t reproduce the rough, elemental quality of Coltrane and his various bands.

Phillips’ take on the famous Coltrane songs — “My Favorite Things,” “Naima,” “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes,” “Impressions” and “A Love Supreme” medley, among others — was slightly introverted, studied, earnest, tuneful and balanced. He took his time establishing the melodies before rushing into his improvisations, and he frequently deferred to his bandmates, especially pianist Ramsey Embick and drummer Alan Jones. Embick’s light, quicksilver solos set the tone: The band wasn’t reproducing Coltrane; it was sketching its own music around him. Jones supplied the explosions and Eric Gruber supplied the grounding on bass.

Dave Friesen, Camellia Lounge

Friday night, I dropped in to the Camellia Lounge behind The TeaZone in the Pearl District to hear the extraordinary bassist Dave Friesen, who has had a long and illustrious career playing alongside the likes of Marian McPartland, Joe Henderson, Chick Corea, Dexter Gordon and Dizzy Gillespie, among others. Personally, I’m partial to his work with guitarist John Stowell.

The Camellia is a small club, and at the start it was barely one-third full, though as time went on it started to fill rapidly as keen-eared young musicians began to fill the seats. Which is just to say that the first set, at least, was pretty informal and experimental. Kansas City guitarist Jerry Hahn sat in with Friesen and sax player Rob Davis (speaking of sound), and between songs Friesen would tip him off on how they intended to approach “My Funny Valentine” or “Black Orpheus” or one of Friesen’s new compositions. And then they were off.

They traded off a lot, especially as Hahn began to warm to the music at hand. That meant we heard a lot of Davis’ forays, complicated figures that still seemed to explain themselves as they moved along and entirely enjoyable. And at the center Friesen’s own solos were intense, full of clever moments, propulsive, muscular, deeply creative.

You could just wander in off the street, pay six bucks and hear this? Amazing.

Ken Ollis, The Blue Monk

On Sunday nights, The Blue Monk on Belmont Street does jazz. (I’ve never been there for the belly-dancing, but now that I know it’s there...) And this particular Sunday Ken Ollis, Dan Gaynor and John Savage were there -- a long way from Coltrane and “Black Orpheus” and into the farther reaches of new composition, where at least some of the exploration concerns what exactly you need to hold a musical expression together.  In short, I don’t think I heard a chorus during the set I caught.

That’s not bad necessarily. Sometimes I happen to need something that doesn’t fit into my templates, something fundamentally unpredictable, and Ollis/Gaynor/Savage brought that to the Blue Monk’s basement. Sometimes the action was on Gaynor’s keyboard where first his right hand might construct a figure and then turn it over to the left hand. Savage’s flute runs were happily improbably, often running dissonantly against the grain of the piano. And Ollis, who composed most, if not all, the songs I heard (there was not much commentary from the bandstand and what little there was, was inaudible to those of us in the back), has a protean drumming approach that draws on jazz and rock, though here was in service to something I’d almost label alt-classical, not that labeling is all that important.

This turned out to be exactly what I needed — new ears, a brain re-set, oh, and an Arnold Palmer. It started to get warm down there.

Next Up:

PDX Jazz @ The Mission: Tomasz Stanko (Sept. 22)

Camellia Lounge: 9 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 2, Jazz Jam with Noah Bernstein & Blake Lyman with Akila Fields, Jim Prescott, Sam Foulger, 9 pm

Blue Monk: 8-11 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 7, Ocular Concern (Andrew Oliver, piano/keyboards; Dan Duval, guitar; Steve Pancerev, drums); first set, all ages; sliding scale, $3-$7


This post appeared originally on the Arts&Life page of Oregon Public Broadcasting.