Category Archives: Barry Johnson

Scatter considers the Nabokov Dilemma

Let’s just say your mother is a potter, an accomplished potter, a demanding potter. At the end of her life she started work on a new approach and made some progress. But then she took ill and joined the ceramic guild in the sky. Her last request? Destroy that last pot. What would you do? Honor her request by breaking it into a thousand pieces or honor her life’s work by keeping it?

That’s the dilemma faced by Dmitri Nabokov, son of Vladimir. To destroy his father’s last manuscript, actually the 138 index cards on which was assembling his last novel in typical Nabokovian fashion, or keep it and perhaps publish it. Perhaps you already know about this, yes? It’s made the mainstream media and the literary blogs, and the New York Times had an interview with Dmitri on Sunday.

So, should Dmitri burn The Original of Laura as Vladimir asked, light index card number one (with what, a kitchen match? a lighter made especially for the occasion? toss it into a good wood fire?) and watch the stack of them turn to ash? That’s what he said he wanted. Oops. Did you catch that “he said”? That’s a crack in the door through which Dmitri inserted his foot. Because what did Vladimir really want? Because sometimes he said things that he didn’t mean. We all do. And what we say can run counter to our deepest desire. And the request seems like such a gesture, a Romantic gesture. Dmitri knew his father (he even visited him recently to help him resolve the dilemma!). And he has decided to publish Laura. Scholars and the literary public rejoice!

Personally, I imagine that Vladimir meant what he said: Burn the damn thing. It’s caused me nothing but trouble. I keep getting sick. It’s not done. It’s not good. Yet. (I give him the “yet”.) It will be a weight off my shoulders, and I need to be unencumbered as I pass across the River Styx. Actually, I ‘m sure he wouldn’t say “weight off my shoulders” and I don’t know what his views on the afterworld are. But you get the idea. It’s a reasonable point of view. Dmitri defied his father.
Continue reading Scatter considers the Nabokov Dilemma

It’s the end-of-the-week scatter

By the numbers now:

1. Sister city Oregon has its tweakers, we know this because they steal our sculpture and sell it for scrap. (Well, we know it for all kinds of worse reasons, too.) Is it any consolation that we aren’t alone? The city of Brea, California, which has an active public art program, has had three bronze sculptures stolen in the past 18 months. The Wall Street Journal explains the problem as only the WSJ can (at least until Rupert Murdoch makes mincemeat of it): The main component of bronze is copper; three years ago, the price of copper was $1.50 a pound; today, it goes for $4. Walk off with a 250 pound sculpture as thieves did in Brea, and that’s a pretty nice haul.

A good source for local art theft news? Portland Public Art, a blog that’s a little more various than its title suggests (it takes time out for other sorts of cultural history and is devoted to local indie music), has tracked the theft of Sacagawea in Astoria, for example, and the theft of sculptures by Tom Hardy and Frederic Littman from the Vollum estate. The site also has a rockin’ blogroll, though it’s a little out of date: Art Scatter isn’t on there!

2. Walk in the garden I am still mesmerized by the notion that Sigmund Freud and Gustav Mahler spent four hours chatting together in the Dutch town of Leyden for the express purpose of improving Gustav’s marital, um, relations with Alma. And that Freud decided that Gustav had a mother fixation. Gustav later said that he didn’t agree with Sigmund, but there had been therapeutic benefits in any case. The story pops up in the entry below. They may have even walked through the botanical gardens, at left!

3. Save the past The Guardian newspaper has championed the preservation of artifacts in Iraq. In the latest development Iraqi officials are calling for a world-wide ban on the sale and purchase of Iraqi antiquities, hoping to remove their commercial value to looters, who have stripped 15 percent of the archaeological sites in the country, according to experts. We’ve talked about this before: Whatever your position on antiquities (should they always be returned their country of origin or not), this sounds like a good idea.

In other artifact news: German police uncovered 1,100 pre-Colombian antiquities — Mayan, Incan and Aztec — in a Munich warehouse. Several South American countries are claiming ownership, though a Costa Rican doctor insists that he obtained them all legally. Masks, gems and sculptures were part of the treasure trove. Der Spiegel has the report.

Note on sources: We visit the ArtJournal site every day, as we’ve said before. These stories were aggregated on the AJ site (which contains an impressive list of blogger/columnists as well).

I’ve got the Mahler in me

When tickets to Sunday night’s Oregon Symphony performance of Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony fell my way, the Classical Music Critic’s left eyebrow arched, he peered over his spectacles and with absolutely no edge in his voice to betray him, said, “It’s long.” Long, my brother? Long? I know long. Long is when the stream of time starts to puddle up … and then flow backward, away from me. (Like the Mississippi River after the New Madrid earthquake of 1812.) You look down at your watch and it’s 8:43. Hours pass. Look again and it’s 8:37. Have you been going the speed of light? No, you’ve been in an excruciating play or concert or movie that you can’t escape, a time eddy. Having canoed through these treacherous timestreams before, and survived, “long” does NOT deter me. And the Classical Music Critic, let’s call him Stevie, realized my firm resolve, brought out a reference book that sought to de-mystify the Mahler Nine, from here on known simply as Nine, and improperly prepared, I folded my body into the torture device known as a seat in the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

Nine trembles into life as a low, intermittent murmur, conductor Carlos Kalmar motioning to the deepest horns and strings to begin. And immediately Mozart’s Quintet in C Major comes to mind, the contrast of it, that deep cello rising confidently, a growly friction that emerges as a melody of sorts, one of my favorite openings. This is apropos nothing really, though Mahler’s wife Alma recounted that the composer died with Mozart’s name on his lips. (See how we grasp at the slightest biographical evidence to “understand” both what we hear and how we think about what we hear? This thought will escape from parentheses before you know it.) So, low and intermittent, emphasized by plucked notes. Some Mahler analysts claim to detect an irregular rhythm in this, and perhaps it really is there: They say it’s a musical reflection of Mahler’s heart problems, an arrhythmia captured in the beginning of his Death Symphony. (See previous parenthetical!) And then tremulousness subsiding, the heart steady, horns call us to a lush, stringy, sweet orchestral melody, pastoral even.

If we were in a story ballet, the happy shepherd would be gesturing to his happy bride-to-be from a nearby hillock. But this being Mahler, truly, we know this happy harmony will not last, and as I examine my notes afterwards, sure enough:”then darkening and bang we speed along darker, pulsing, too loud for sweet, too brassy, a crescendo and then back to the lush beginning.” In the long first movement, there are serious complications, returns to the melody, more complications. The trombones make a weird, throaty sound, competing musical lines clash and resolve in drumming, the simplest, quietest moment is abruptly overtaken. Sometimes it sound “exotic” like a Conan, to my ears both kitschy and cinematic (more on cinematic later). And then it ends, quietly, fewer and fewer resources of the orchestra invoked, heading for one high, barely audible note.
Continue reading I’ve got the Mahler in me

Friday hyper-scatter

So, what’s Art Scatter doing this weekend, you might ask… One-third is headed for Willow Lake, South Dakota, to visit its aunts and relive childhood memories. One-third is headed for the Hood Canal and oysters, glorious oysters. But what about the third that stays at home, what about that third, the third that blew his travel budget on an all-day TriMet pass last week?

1. The Ceramic Showcase 2008: We are admitted suckers for crafts — making something from the essentially nothing (clay, tall grasses, etc.) just gets us excited. It’s like alchemy! Plus they align us with John Ruskin and William Morris and the craft traditions of Asia… sweet. And actually we need a serving bowl (crash — “sorry!”) and four plates. Fire in the kiln… at the Convention Center.

2. The Stumptown Comics Fest: When we were a little kid, see, there were these three giant boxes of comic books collected by our uncle (are you starting to see the limitations of the 1st person plural? we are…), and every time I visited my grandparents, well, you get the idea. This is the most important comics event in Portland this year (and Portland is a serious comics town). Just about all of our local stars will be there, and we have lots! You don’t have to be totally geeked out to go, either. I have a feeling the “spotlight” sessions with the likes of Mike Richardson (Dark Horse Comics), Craig Thompson (long-form graphic autobiography), Brian Michael Bendis (comic book supernova), etc., will be jammed, so pick a couple and get there early. To get you in the spirit, here’s Mike Russell’s comics introduction(published in today’s Oregonian) — it’s a beauty. The convention is at the Lloyd Center DoubleTree hotel.

3. Mahler’s Ninth Symphony: The Oregon Symphony takes on the last finished Mahler symphony. It’s long (90 minutes without intermission), but I will prepare: I’ll eat right, plenty of exercise and do some puzzles for my mental agility before arriving. Maybe I’ll also drift over to Music Millennium and buy a recording of it before heading in. I like the idea of a massive Mahler overlay of the comics convention! Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall

4. Portland Timbers v. Seattle Sounders: And if the weather behaves itself at all, those mighty Portland Timbers will play a bit of footie (that’s soccer) against their hated Northwest rivals. We love Chris Brown! PGE Park

George Johanson, printed and embossed!


The busy, intersecting circles and lines of Milton Wilson paintings catch the eye first at Pulliam Deffenbaugh Gallery — they are on the wall opposite the door after all and their hum is hard to ignore. But this isn’t about Milton Wilson. Take a few steps more and pivot to the right and the maneuver leads to a set of seven sweet prints by George Johanson.

Maybe they won’t read as Johansons to many of us who own Johanson prints — those great Portland night scenes, with the river below us full of rowers, the volcano erupting in the distance, a cat streaking across the frame, full of interesting textures and visual delights. The prints at Pulliam-Deffenbach date back to 1970 — no night scenes, no cats and, of course, no volcanoes. There are seven of them — part of the 10-part Juxtapositions series, that Johanson created on an Arts Advocates grant in London at the Birgit Skiold studios — consigned to the gallery by their owner. And, not to make too big a deal out of them, they make a great case all by themselves for what has made Johanson so much fun to follow during his career, namely, his skill with line, his happy refusal to allow any “school” to limit him, and his imagination, which we already know about from his later prints and paintings. (No one I can think of has re-imagined Portland to the extent Johanson has, a theatrical Portland, filled it with sensual mysteries and a taste of the surreal, where the carnival never stops, all staged on a deck somewhere in the hills above the city.)
Continue reading George Johanson, printed and embossed!

Mary Oslund: the wonder of the dance

bete-3.jpgAt the conclusion of Bete Perdue, Mary Oslund’s beautiful new dance, singer Lyndee Mah, still in the glow, said it was like a symphony. I think she was talking about how it cascaded by, sometimes in unison, all eight dancers carving space similarly, according to his or her “voice,” sometimes in solos or duets or trios that mixed, matched and reformed, sometimes in pairs of duets or even four duets, weaving in and out, occasionally interlocking. It swept by, pulsing with action, small moments and large, establishing its own time. When it was over, how long had it been going on? It was hard to guess, it was so absorbing. And so, yes, like a symphony.

If someone had taken a psychogram of audience members during the performance it would have registered many different states, and that’s like a symphony, too. Let’s see: delight, reverie, anxiety, keen attention, even a series of undifferentiated states that could turn into almost anything, from aggression to love, the stem cells of all our emotions. But mostly satisfaction, not as in “fat and happy,” but as in this typifies the complexity, tension and release, and ultimate harmony of great art.

That’s not a claim I make lightly. But building on the great success of last year’s “Sky,” this dance finds Oslund creating something amazing at both the smallest and largest levels, micro and macro. A shoulder shrug from dancer Keely McIntyre sends a shiver of recognition and contains deep expressive possibilities. So does the rush of multiple dancers, arriving and departing, lifting and being lifted, sliding past each other in erratic orbits. Like a symphony, it’s too much for the brain to process, but you can “understand” it in your own particular way as a whole.

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Joplin, Ditto, Duchamp, Machu Picchu, more!

A few random events that caught our eye.

images-2.jpg Is writing about visual art just getting worse and worse? That’s what Eric Gibson, the Wall Street Journal’s Leisure and Arts feature editor, contends
in a column today
. Look, I know what he means, and I don’t disagree with his primary charges (actually, he employs several other writers to make his case for him) — that arts writing often takes hundreds, if not thousands, of messy, imprecise words to make the very simplest points. Use fewer words and/or have better thoughts.

But I don’t buy the conclusions he draws from reading impenetrable criticism (the Whitney Biennial catalog is the case study). First, he blames the “unwitting” Marcel Duchamp for the current state of affairs. Come on, was Duchamp ever unwitting about anything? Gibson suggests that Duchamp introduced “philosophy” into “art,” and that gave critics the license to abandon good old-fashioned aesthetics for philosophical riffs. Decay then set it. Then obfuscation. We note that Gibson uses the word riff here as a pejorative, and so Art Scatter must take offense. After all, we are nothing if not a collection of riffs! We’re just trying to make the clear riffs, no matter how half-baked. And we love to read riffing in others, something maybe that applies Lacan, say, to Invasion of the Body Snatchers: Long live Slavoj Zizek!

Admittedly, since the recent discovery of very early human DNA in the Paisley Caves of south-central Oregon, which we, um, riffed on in Cave doings, Art Scatter has had artifacts on its mind. So, we were attracted to the announcement yesterday that Peruvian researchers have counted more than 40,000 objects in the collection of Machu Picchu artifacts taken by Hiram Bingham in the early 1900s (after he “re-discovered” the site) and delivered to his alma mater, Yale University. That would be about 10 times what Yale said it possessed. The university and Peru reached a complex agreement last year that involves repatriation of the objects, the construction of a museum, research rights for Yale, etc., and the first step was this cataloging. So, it’s too bad things that Peru has reason to be immediately distrustful of Yale, still, more than a century later. Just for the record: Our new arts-based foreign policy initiative would have directed the U.S. to help Peru preserve, study, display and otherwise broadcast its Incan art heritage once we learned about it, not colonize the best bits. Here’s hoping, along with Eliane Karp-Toledo (writing in the Times in February), that Yale acts responsibly from here on out.
Continue reading Joplin, Ditto, Duchamp, Machu Picchu, more!

Cave doings

The news last week that archaeologists rooting around an Oregon cave found coprolites containing human DNA and dating back 14,000 years has shaken Art Scatter right down to the toes of its foundation myth. Art Scatter emerges from lithic scatter, the circle of rock shards and shavings that stone-age men and woman created as they bent themselves to the task of making objects.

photo25.jpgThe findings in the Paisley Caves in central Oregon on what were then the shores of once-great Summer Lake, connect us to that image — and expand it. Because along with flaked stone spear points, grinding stones and other tool-making remnants, the archaeologists based their most important claims on the coprolites, a word we use to avoid the less elegant “dried dung” or worse. Art Scatter’s concept of itself, it turns out, was a sanitized idea, and the shudder generated by the new evidence involves the implications of this addition to our “image.”
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