Ropes and chains and the piercing masts of slave ships at harbor pop up as boldly as the brilliant colors that command Arvie Smith‘s paintings in the exhibition “At Freedom’s Door.” Smith’s big oils of slave auctions and lynchings and other aspects of the bleak side of antebellum life are like jam-packed chapters in a vast historical novel bursting to be told. Some of his more satiric images are reminiscent of Robert Colescott, and his brown-yellow-red palette brings to mind some of the color combinations of fellow Portland artist Isaka Shamsud-din. But in their narrative urgency, their invocation of historical moment and their sometimes quizzical snatches of story (you get the feeling that you’ve been dropped into the middle of something, but you’re not quite sure where it started, although you have a good idea where it’s likely to end) Smith’s paintings also have a novelist’s sense: They make me think of Charles Johnson and his great American slave story of the beginnings of things, “Middle Passage.”
“At Freedom’s Door,” which also includes fabric art by Baltimorean Joan Gaither and the admirable Portland artist Adriene Cruz, was originally shown last year at Baltimore’s Reginald F. Lewis Museum, where Smith and Gaither were artists in residence. Now in the Feldman Gallery of Pacific Northwest College of Art through March 8, it’s one of a pair of provocative exhibits in Portland noncommercial galleries that commemorate Black History Month. The other, on view through March 2 at Reed College’s Cooley Gallery, is “Working History”, which features work by such nationally notable artists as Kara Walker, Io Palmer, Faith Ringgold, Kianga Ford, David Hammons and Nick Cave.
The combination of these three artists in “At Freedom’s Door” plays a nice ping-pong in your head, knocking you back and forth among varying aspects of the African American experience. And they represent three intriguingly different artistic sensibilities.
Continue reading “At Freedom’s Door”: Novels in paint, provocations in fabric
The thing I miss about most opera is raffishness.
You know, that music-hall, theatrical-underbelly, up-from-the-depths, cut-loose, anything-but-grand collaboration with the audience: the sly wink.
Wagner’s a mighty guy, but he’s no winker. Puccini’s plenty theatrical, but he wouldn’t wink if a butterfly fluttered past his eyeball. OK, Mozart winked. A lot. And I suppose you could call the elephant stomping around the stage in “Aida” a wink, but really, that’s more of a giant-size goggle.
There’s plenty of joy in the music: Listening to Leontyne Price or Maria Callas or Renee Fleming or Jessye Norman or Dawn Upshaw can transport me to places I love to visit again and again. But so often the staging (especially in the cavernous halls where most opera is performed), and the Deep Seriousness of the composition (I’m talking to you, Ring of the Nibelung guy), seem designed to dwarf the audience into a state of insignificance.
Still, I can’t help thinking things were somehow looser in opera’s early days, in those intimate Baroque halls where you didn’t need opera glasses to see the expressions on the singers’ faces, and where gilding the lily — essentially, making a virtue of the showy art of ornamental improvisation — kept things loose and lively and less High Art than living entertainment. Show biz, if you will.
So when I saw last weekend that a group called Opera Theater Oregon was presenting Georges Bizet’s glorious-sleazy “Carmen” at a downtown Portland nightclub called the Someday Lounge as live accompaniment to Cecil B. DeMille’s 1915 silent-movie version of the 1875 opera, I was there.
And I wasn’t disappointed.
Continue reading Charmin’ “Carmen”
By BOB HICKS
Maybe you spotted it, near the end of a generally mild-mannered editorial urging people to help pay down the debt at Portland Center Stage’s Gerding Theater at the Armory, in the Saturday, Feb. 9, Oregonian: a throwaway insult guaranteed to boil blood.
“Portland has long been recognized,” the editorialist sniped, “as a first-rate place to see second-rate theater.”
That didn’t get past Oregonian reader Mary Starrs, who replied angrily in a letter to the editor on the Tuesday, Feb. 13, op-ed page, and if the original editorial hadn’t happened to run on a Saturday, by tradition the least-read edition of any daily newspaper, it might have raised more of a ruckus.
Now, there probably isn’t a writer in history who hasn’t experienced the clever line coming back to bite him on the behind, so I’m not going to toss too many pebbles at the anonymous editorial writer: glass houses and all that. Nevertheless, this particular cute line is a big mistake in a couple of ways.
First, it muddies the main message of the editorial, which is that Portland Center Stage is still almost $11 million short on its $37 million rehab of the Armory — a troubling figure that hasn’t much budged in the past year. The whys and wherefores of the company’s inability to pay off its debt — you always want to have bricks and mortar paid for before a new museum building or performance hall opens, while there’s still some excitement about the project — are fit subject for some serious analysis, but that’s another story.
Second, if the editorial writer actually meant what he or she wrote, it displays a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of local and regional theater. What exactly does “second-rate” mean? (And isn’t the reference to Portland as a “first-rate place” just another example of this city’s increasingly annoying habit of overestimating its own charms? — but that’s another story, too.) Continue reading Second rate? Second rank? A snarky dispute
This report from my wife, Laura, who was walking in the South Park Blocks near the Portland Art Museum this morning, Tuesday, Feb. 12:
An elderly gentleman is standing beside that stern, sorrowful, loving statue of Abraham Lincoln. A bouquet of flowers is resting by the pedestal.
“Today is Abraham Lincoln’s birthday,” the gentleman says.
“Did you put the flowers there?” Laura asks.
“Yes,” he replies. “I do it every year.”
“Oh,” says Laura. “Let me get a picture.”
But by the time she has her cell phone out of her purse and in her hand, the gentleman has disappeared.
Now, that’s public art.
— Bob Hicks
By BOB HICKS
In Paris they were called abonnes.
In Moscow and St. Petersburg they were balletomanes.
Lincoln Kirstein, the impresario who founded New York City Ballet with George Balanchine, rolled his eyes and referred to them waspishly as “balletptomaines.”
One way or another, they are nuts: nuts for the ballet, for the dancers, for the social swirl, the easy access. The ones who know every step, and know better than the choreographers how the steps ought to be combined. The ones who give money to the company and assume they’ve bought the right to make decisions about how it’s run. The starstruck, the shoulder-rubbers, the bedazzled. The gents who love the bodies — in an entirely aesthetic sense, of course. The best friends a ballet company can have, and a bane on its existence.
The Portland Art Museum’s current exhibition “The Dancer: Degas, Forain, and Toulouse-Lautrec,” which continues through May 11, 2008, gives an almost unseemly amount of attention to the abonnes, those wealthy and well-connected Parisian gentlemen of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who, by virtue of their season subscriptions to the Paris Opera and other performance halls, had unprecedented access to the backstage life. Some of Degas’ prints in the exhibition touch on the subject, but they are the compulsion of Forain and to a certain extent the exhibit as a whole, throwing the thing into a curious imbalance: Forain, by far the least important of these three artists, becomes the defining figure in the show.
Continue reading Balletptomaines at the museum