Bully pulpit: One more punch to the theatrical chops

“Why do I feel it is important to impress upon young readers their right to freedom of speech? Because so many of them don’t know they have freedom of speech. I’m not sure their peer group leaders give them freedom of speech. And I do know that the school library of the school they attend is under heavier attack than the public library just down the street. I think they are in the thick of the battle and many of them are not aware of it.”

Richard Peck
Newbery Medal-winning novelist, quoted on tallmania.com

If the kids at Sherwood Middle School in suburban Portland didn’t know they were in the thick of the battle, they found out with a thud last week. As Oregonian writer Maya Blackmun reported in two excellent stories — Feb. 21 on the uproar, Feb. 22 on the outcome — you can think what you say but you can’t always say what you think. At least, not from a school-sanctioned stage.

In brief: Principal Anna Pittioni postponed the winter play, “Higher Ground,” after last-minute complaints about its contents by parents of a few students involved in the show.

And that content was?

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“At Freedom’s Door”: Novels in paint, provocations in fabric

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.

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Molly Vidor and the Elephant in Bonnard’s Garden

What do you do with the elephant in the room? Do you feed it? Nourish it in other ways? Try to talk it down off the wall? Coax it into a deeper relation with furniture and family? You don’t ignore it, that’s for sure. You wouldn’t want it there in the first place if you could simply ignore it.

mv-elephant.jpgIn this case the “Elephant,” left, and a rather pinkish one to boot, is one of Molly Vidor’s five mostly abstract paintings in a show called “Destroyer” now at PDX Contemporary Art (February 5 – March 1, 2008). “Destroyer” is a curious title for the show given the peaceful, reflective nature of the paintings and the fact that in her artist’s statement Vidor correlates her work with that of Pierre Bonnard, who made the most beautiful paintings I’ve ever seen – landscapes, still lifes, and nude portraits of his wife.

But he didn’t paint one abstract that I can recall, although he eschewed naturalistic color and flattened perspective in a way that makes the composition seem like a patchwork of colors. He wanted his work to be intimate and decorative at once. The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., has an amazing number of Bonnards, and they have such presence that they create their own space in the narrow confines of the converted residence where they are housed.

I have a theory about why and how Vidor’s shimmering paintings echo Bonnard’s, but it follows from my broader theory that we enter into deeper relations with abstract paintings – or, rather, the abstract quality in painting – than we do with landscapes, or still lifes, or figurative work.
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Putting the PDX in the Portland Jazz Festival

A quick note to the Portland Jazz Festival: Thanks for making the “Portland” in this year’s festival more prominent. The cluster of “outlying” shows at the hotels and clubs seemed better organized and feature more of the best local players. And featuring both the new-ish Portland Jazz Orchestra and legend Nancy King — that was sweet. In all possible ways.

images4.jpgLet’s start with Nancy King,who played Friday night. The Oregonian’s Marty Hughley turned me on to Nancy King: Live at the Jazz Standard with Fred Hersch a couple of years ago, and things started to fall into place for my relationship with jazz, specifically with jazz vocalists, whom I used to find irritating — at best. King brought me in from the cold. I listened to that CD — a lot. I’m listening to it right now (she’s scatting a chorus of “Ain’t Misbehavin'” as I type), and it’s still a delight.

King’s singing style is so unadorned — easy on the vibrato, light on the pyrotechnical displays — that it’s tempting to call it “unpolished,” as Nate Chinen did in a variable review in the New York Times in 2006. But Chinen got the basics right. Her voice is expressive from the “raspy” bottom to the “reedy” top. And she scats with the best of them (including Kurt Elling who sang with King on Friday night at the Newmark Theater), thanks to superior pacing and musical logic.
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Friday recap: Week two

Our advanced detection devices (OK, so they’re not THAT advanced) registered (OK, someone called me up and mentioned it) that more and more of you are visiting us (thanks to all of Vernon’s extended family! and thanks to Vernon for buying them all laptops so they could visit!). Some of the comment threads were pretty interesting this week. The Portland theater community was IN THE HOUSE. And the Portland Jazz Festival, among others, linked to the Wisdom of Ornette post.

Howard MandelOur first weekly Cultural Hero award goes to jazz writer Howard Mandel. After managing the feat of interviewing Ornette Coleman in a productive way, he then had to deal with alto sax magician Tim Berne on a couple of panels. I saw half of the first of those, and it was enough.

The first question was about the reception Coleman’s music received when he started playing his free jazz at the Five Spot in New York in 1959. Berne piped in early on that he didn’t know anything about that (a perfectly fine response) and was dismissive of the question (a little less fine), but the rest of the panel dug in, cited the scholarship on the matter (notably David Lee’s The Battle of the Five Spot) and sketched for the audience the rough way he was treated.

Cool. Berne then piped up again and disputed this account. Not that he had any competing information about the period to offer (he’d already professed his ignorance), and he was too young to BE there. But based on the musicians he knows now in NY, he just couldn’t imagine that musicians then behaving that way. Musicians jealous of another’s success? A concept foreign to Berne, apparently. Even if we believed him about the utopia known as the NY jazz scene now, it would have no bearing on the NY jazz scene then. “It’s all bullshit,” he muttered.

Later on, according to Tim DuRoche (Portland jazz drummer, cultural theorist and about the busiest guy I know), who moderated a second panel, Berne argued (or ranted) that writing about the arts was actually harmful to artists and audiences. Which managed to get under Mandel’s skin, since he’s dedicated his life to the proposition that such writing is actually useful to both. And he fired back. With both barrels. And things got heated.

You KNOW where we stand. But it’s not a philosophical position, really. It’s just an observation: Thinking about art improves its appreciation more often than not; the thinking of others can add to the pleasure of our own thoughts (using “pleasure” broadly); language is faulty in this regard, inevitably incomplete, but it’s what we have.

So. Three cheers for Mr. Mandel, the winner of our first Cultural Hero award, for standing up for the idea of historical evidence, reasonable argument and the creative act of listening (in this case).

Get even with the nasty Mr. Berne and read Howard’s work! There’s his book Miles Ornette Cecil: Jazz Beyond Jazz available through your favorite bookstore or online purveyor. And there are his websites, his personal site and the blog he does for one of our favorite arts news sites, Arts Journal. Full disclosure: Mr. Mandel said nice things about Art Scatter’s account of the Ornette lecture below AND he linked to us from his blog. He’s a nice guy!

The Menil Collection, Pat Barker and How Artists Draw Blood

“I am a painter and I paint with nails.”

-Kurt Schwitters

sargent_sketching_in_the_alps_t.JPGI’ve been reading Pat Barker’s novel Life Class (Doubleday, $24), set in the early years of World War I. It’s the story of several young art school students whose lives and ideas about art are altered dramatically by the war.

I’d read Barker’s World War I trilogy published in the early 1990s – “Regeneration,” “The Eye in the Door,” and “The Ghost Road” – and was deeply affected by the historical and psychological realism of Barker’s writing, and by her knowledge of the era and keen sympathy for her characters. She portrays real figures such as the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen and the psychiatrist W.H.R. Rivers to explore the devastation wrought by the war on a generation of British men and women, both at home and on the front in Europe. Rivers is a commanding presence in “The Ghost Road,” in charge of treating and rehabilitating shell shocked soldiers to return them to the war.

“Life Class” has a similar real-life figure, Henry Tonks, a surgeon and anatomy teacher turned artist (his sketch of J.S. Sargent sketching in the Alps is above), who teaches life drawing at the Slade School of Art, a class attended by the young artists, women and men, we follow through the rest of the novel. Tonks is present only briefly in the narrative, but his spirit looms over the whole. In real life Tonks worked with a plastic surgeon pioneering techniques used on young men whose faces were mutilated in the war. In the first chapter of “Life Class,” on the eve of the war, he instructs art students on the relation of drawing to anatomy. Drawing is all about physicality, finding a way to “convey what lay beneath the skin.” “Drawing is an explication of the form,” he would say, meaning a mirror of what is there to be observed in the real world. A “real world” that will be turned upside down and inside out by the war.

I happened to be reading the book last week when I was in Houston visiting the Menil Collection (http://www.menil.org/). (For a description of the Menil, see my post “The Pilgrim in Houston: Surreal Rhymes with Menil.”) I was struck in particular by a new exhibit, “How Artists Draw,” curated by Bernice Rose, formerly a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and now the Menil chief curator responsible for the development of a new Menil Drawing Institute and Study Center, which will be “dedicated solely to the collection, exhibition, and study of modernist drawing, including its role in contemporary artistic practice.” The emphasis on “modernist drawing” separates what the Institute is about from the philosophy and classroom practice of Henry Tonks. What replaced explication of form in drawing followed irrevocably from artists’ experience in World War I and its aftermath.

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Carl Morris, early paintings

“Ascending Forms,” Carl MorrisIt seems unfair to write about an art exhibition that has already been taken down, but that’s exactly what’s about to happen. Sorry!

For a variety of reasons I haven’t been able to get to Carl Morris: figure, word, light at Marylhurst University’s Art Gym until now. But I want to say a few things about it, and Morris will come up again on Art Scatter. All of us are interested in his work; I wrote the catalog essay for his retrospective at the Portland Art Museum in 1993; and just last summer I wrote about the sublime show of his 1959 History of Religions paintings at the University of Oregon’s art museum, organized by Lawrence Fong.

So, maybe you saw the show (the Saturday I went, the Art Gym was crowded), maybe you didn’t but wanted to, or maybe you just want to start jumping on the Carl Morris bandwagon with the rest of us.

The show was described to me originally by one of the behind-the-scenes organizers as a look at Carl’s work from the 1940s — those dark, symbolic, angular paintings, with their heavily painted surfaces. That sounded promising. These paintings hadn’t really been gathered together in numbers since an art museum show in the early ’50s. A chance to give them a good look again, struggle to reconnect to their iconography, test their power to affect us, place them in their context of Northwest painting, is an excellent idea.

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Ginsberg goes to the Portland Jazz Festival

Maybe if your weekend started out, as mine did, listening to “Howl” and then winding its way toward the Portland Jazz Festival, you’d be figuring out a way to combine the two, too. Not that it’s THAT difficult. Ginsberg, we know from his early journals (“The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice,” edited by Juanita Lieberman-Plimpton and Bill Morgan), listened to jazz — it was unavoidable at Columbia College in the ’40s and Manhattan in the ’50s. His tastes were pretty broad. He lists Lionel Hampton and Glenn Miller. Billie Holiday and Pearl Bailey. Dizzy Gillespie and Artie Shaw. Coleman Hawkins and a bunch of classical stuff (Mahler, Bach, Beethoven).

“Howl” itself has some jazz references, though none more direct than in Ginsberg’s introduction. He says “Howl” was “built on a bop refrain” — “the ideal being, say, Lester Young in Kansas City in 1938, blowing 72 choruses of “The Man I Love” until everyone in the hall was out of his head.” Which leads us back to Billie Holiday. Who was NOT performing at the jazz festival, more’s the pity.

We did have Ornette Coleman on hand, of course (in the clip it’s Spain 1987 and he’s playing with Don Cherry, Billy Higgins and Charlie Haden), though it’s hard to imagine him blowing 72 choruses of “The Man I Love.” It would have violated his Prime Directive against repetition, for one thing. I imagine him exploding the first chord of the first chorus and then spending the rest of the evening picking over the debris field for sounds he hadn’t heard before. Which would have been hard to capture in a poem, at least one that made sense in a representational sort of way.

That’s what Ornette did on Friday night, and if it didn’t strictly “follow” (see below) in the way we’ve come to expect from our music, that’s our problem: He’s been blowing this way since 1960 or so. We’ve been warned. Sharp objects are involved and the sweetness of the sound means that projectiles coming your way may seem closer than they appear.

“Holy the groaning saxophone! Holy the bop apocalypse!” Ginsberg writes in the “Footnote to Howl.” And here he might have referred to the SFJazz Collective, which played after Ornette’s concert on Friday, but not really. They are smart, savvy, and they’ve dedicated their season to Wayne Shorter, who could groan, I suppose, but maybe not the apocalypse part. More quicksilver or thoughtful, even caring, which is how Joe Lovano played his 1964 “Infant Eyes,” a melting opening solo.

OK, the key jazz lines of “Howl,” at the end of Part I: “…the madman bum and angel…rose reincarnate in the ghostly clothes of jazz in the goldhorn shadow of the band and blew the suffering of America’s naked mind for love into an eli eli lamma lamma sacthani saxophone cry that shivered the cities down to the last radio/with the absolute heart of the poem of life butchered out of their own bodies good to eat a thousand years.”

Mercy! As carnivorous as The Bad Plus seemed Saturday afternoon, big and, well, hungry, hunting down big game with their covers of Ornette Coleman, Milton Babbitt (!), David Bowie and Nirvana songs, firing salvos of percussion (thank you David King) and a general lurching, staccato approach that re-loaded mid-song and emptied the clip — even as aggressive as they were (and in fairness, they could also be sweet as pie (thank you Reid Anderson and Ethan Iverson), and the audience loved them for it), Ginsberg’s naked desire for ecstasy and deliverance outstrips them.

Maybe not Ornette, though. You just can’t tell about Ornette.

The Pilgrim in Houston: Surreal Rhymes With Menil

Dateline Houston . . . but no Houston skyline as we dart off the freeway, lose the skyscrapers looming over downtown, and slide off into a mixed through street – specialty furnishings and pawn shops – and then onto a narrow side street, Sul Ross, home to the Menil Collection. My brother-in-law has driven forty minutes in heavy traffic to bring me here; I have four, maybe five hours before he returns. I head past the furious landscaping being done to complete the new Michael Heizer sculpture that sweeps across the 400 foot front of the museum building, enter the door and walk past the front desk in the broad, bright foyer (there’s free admission at the Menil), turn right down the central corridor, and pause before the first doorway: SURREALISM.

I hardly dare breathe. It is just as I remember from a visit a few years back. Outside of books, this museum is my only true experience of what Surrealism means. Dozens of works: de Chirico, Magritte, Ernst, Picabia and Cornell. Striking images, especially Magritte’s visual puns familiar to folks with no idea what Surrealism means. The large gallery space is divided into smaller rooms of a dozen or so paintings each. Each space has two, sometimes three entrances, so you circle back through areas, peek around corners, compare paintings, view pieces from a longer perspective – intimacy and distance, the vague unsettling dis-ease induced by Surrealism. Claustrophobia and open-endedness. It’s dreamwork, what Andre Breton called “the interpenetration of the physical and mental to resolve the dualism of perception and representation.” It’s the uncanny that rises like perfume from the most familiar objects in your world. This vast Surrealist space is one of my spiritual homes.

I have that space is back in Portland, too, if only in my head, but still I’m incredibly envious of the Houstonites who have daily access to its physical space.
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Portland Jazz Fest: Ornette the Wise

I tried to keep up with Ornette Coleman’s onstage conversation Friday with jazz writer/historian Howard Mandel, one of the many Portland Jazz Festival activities this week.

It wasn’t easy. Was what he was saying at any given time actually making sense? Was there a thread to his interview, a philosophy embedded somehow? Was he answering the questions, or questioning the answers? Was he here with us, and if so, could I remember enough of what he said, once I’d figured out what it was, to record it in my notebook? Ornette, you are one tough cookie to convert to print. And the heroic Mandel was by turns bewildered and frustrated as he attempted to corral Ornette’s responses into something the rational mind might contemplate without throwing up its hands.

As I was squeezing the things that made sense out of my notes and reciting them to Marty Hughley, longtime arts writer for The Oregonian (after Ornette’s evening concert but before the SFJazz Collective played Friday night), a music fan behind us piped up: “I can’t believe you got all of that from the talk.” And another friend had earlier described what Ornette had said as “gibberish.” But come on! Ornette Coleman! Even random sonic expressions are going to have meaning! Aren’t they? Yes, they are…

Five life-changing things Ornette said on Friday.

1. “You don’t have to make a sound to hear, right?”

2. “We’re all breathing life, but what is life breathing?”

3. “I don’t think I’m making music. I’m translating something because of what I feel.”

4. “Everything we do is about being better and more precise… We would never exchange creativity for repetition.”

5. Mandel: “Is your music improving?” Ornette: “Every day (emphatically). The only thing I have to do is learn how to play it.”

6. “We cry and we pray because that’s all we know how to do. I cry because of the meaning I can’t express of the quality of the thing that’s making me feel that way.”

OK. I know. That was six. A bonus! It could have been 10. Maybe. Some sentences in my notes started out promisingly but dwindled into nothing as I struggled to make sense of Ornette’s thoughts. We can look at them one by one.

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