Friday recap: Week one

James Lavadour: structures in landscapes (panel from “River”)The first week of Art Scatter is littered below us! There were takes on great Oregon painter James Lavadour, “The Dancer” exhibition at the Portland Art Museum, the discovery at Reed College of the earliest known tape of Allen Ginsberg reading “Howl,” a defense of sorts of Herbie Hancock’s River, some observations about Portland theater and, yes, more. And some interesting comments — thanks! Really, for us, Art Scatter is about the conversation. Without it we sink into curmudgeonly ranting, which might be amusing at first, but loses any possible charm with repetition.

Ornette Coleman/Wikipedia Commons/Frank C. Muller Looking ahead: This weekend the Portland Jazz Festival honks into life, with Ornette Coleman looming ahead tonight. We’re going to try to be there and at his “lecture” this afternoon. A few words will be forthcoming. And Reed is releasing the Ginsberg tape on its website today: we’ll give a listen. One of our company is in Houston, rich with art bought with oil money. We’re all reading something, too. And really, Portland is bristling with SO much activity right now that it’s hard not to take aim at something.

So, to both of you who’ve been here from Day One and those joining now, stay tuned… and join the fun.

Second rate? Second rank? A snarky dispute

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

Herbie Hancock v. Ben Ratliff

I’m listening to River: The Joni Letters, Herbie Hancock’s interpretation of Joni Mitchell songs that won the Album of the Year Grammy on Sunday. This was a surprise, if only because this little album had sold so few copies (50,000 according to Soundscan) and was facing the twin Goliaths of this year’s Grammy awards, Kanye West and Amy Winehouse. OK, calling Winehouse a Goliath is perhaps going too far.

herbie hancock
But apparently it wasn’t a surprise to Ben Ratliff of the New York Times with whom I’m about to have an argument. Which isn’t smart on my part. Ratliff is knowledgeable about music, I bet even obsessive. Worse for me, from reading him, you can tell that he hears music with the keenest of ears. And finally, he writes about it clearly and intelligently. I’m a fan of his book “Coltrane: The Story of a Sound.” So I have no doubt that this is going to go badly…

OK. Tina Turner is singing “Edith and the Kingpin,” Wayne Shorter is finding some impish sax lines and Lionel Loueke has this funny clucking going on his guitar, while Hancock himself is enjoying himself by finding some chords that clearly amuse him. Tina Turner? Yeah, and she’s just fine, thanks.

Ratliff’s argument in the Tuesday New York Times: If a “jazz” album was going to win Album of the Year, it’s predictable that it was an album like River, because it resembles the non-jazz albums that frequently win — “soft-edged, literate and respectable.” And these are fighting words for jazz fans, though Ratliff also praises elements of River. But it’s not REAL jazz, he implies; it’s a combination of jazz and singer-songwriter. And jazz fans shouldn’t take any comfort in Hancock’s victory, by considering it some sort of sign of the form’s return to the middle of the musical discourse.
Continue reading Herbie Hancock v. Ben Ratliff

Listening for Allen Ginsberg

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,/dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,/angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night… “

Man. Once you start quoting “Howl” it’s hard to break it off. You could read it every night for weeks, perfecting the flow of breath needed (inhale/exhale) to keep its phrases flying skyward, to the “starry dynamo.”

Ginsberg HowlSo, what are we to make of the news today that a tape has surfaced from 1956, a tape of Ginsberg reading Part One of “Howl” to a small gathering at Reed College, where his reading mate that night, Gary Snyder, had gone to school? My first reaction: Not much. We know Snyder and his connection with the Beats and Ginsberg. We know “Howl.” The priority of this reading over the one that was taped a few weeks later in Berkeley doesn’t seem like such a big deal.

But I haven’t heard the tape, either. And as I sit here scanning that first page (“who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in wastebaskets and listening to the Terror through the wall..”), I want to hear Ginsberg reading it. Young Ginsberg, hot on the trail, with Snyder, who’d been with him during its composition in San Francisco the previous year. Ginsberg digging into it at Reed, surrounded by 20… what? Students? Faculty? Early Portland Beats? I don’t know, but I want to hear them breathing in the background and try to imagine what they made of it all, huddled together against the Ice Age of mid-’50s Oregon.

Proximity matters. And some part of Portland still draws from the Beat past, maybe, the part that rejects the coercion that regulates us — whether it originates in the government or the economic system or our own minds. I want to listen to the freedom in “Howl” and the sorrow, too, and see if I can smell us in there somehow. Reed is going to deliver: We can listen to the tape on Friday at the Reed website.

Meantime, here’s Jeff Baker’s interview with Snyder from Oregonlive about the night of Feb. 13, 1956.

Sculpture meltdown (not for scrap metal)

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

James Lavadour: Landscapes of Change

“What does not change / is the will to change,” as the poet Charles Olson said, meaning that, wherever we look, change is fundamental, continuous, and irrevocable. We know this but often forget it in broad prospect as we round our own daily planet.

James Lavadour’s recent paintings are landscapes of such change. Now on view at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art at Willamette University in Salem (February 2-March 30), are several of Lavadour’s large-scale works formed from nine, twelve or fifteen small, intricately-painted panels. The paintings are essentially abstract, and yet in their depths they suggest the great forming cataclysms of the Pacific Northwest: exploding mountains, lava floods, draining seas, massive dragging glaciers and the great Missoula floods that carved the Columbia Basin. These convulsive geologic images are echoed in the painting process visible on the wood surface of the paintings, showing how Lavadour has scraped, dripped and wiped the layers of paint.

Lavadour 3

The paintings are astonishingly beautiful. Most of the individual panels range in size from 12 x 18” to 24 x 30,’’ and yet they draw you into what are really monumental landscapes, as if glimpsed through and framed by a car window on a drive up the Columbia Gorge, the mountains, cliffs and falls just out of focus through clouds, mists and rain splatter rendering the view from the window a blear. Continue reading James Lavadour: Landscapes of Change

Balletptomaines at the museum

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.

Degas' Dancer Looking at the Sole of Her Right Foot

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

Film festival: Enjoying “Flight of the Red Balloon”

“Flight of the Red Balloon” is part of the Portland International Film Festival (70 some films, 44 shorts, Feb. 7-23), a movie made in French by Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien as a sort of homage to “The Red Balloon,” Albert Lamorisse’s famous 1956 short film about a balloon with a life of its own. It’s the sort of movie that you have to decide, do I like this sort of thing or not? And if you don’t, it’s going to be excruciating — it obeys none of our storytelling conventions about pacing, action, climax, denouement, resolution. Maybe it’s all denouement, but even that’s stretching it. It’s highly unlikely that it will be one of the PIFF movies picked up for a regular run at one of Portland’s commercial theaters, even though it has a star in the cast, the incomparable Juliette Binoche.

So if you find yourself watching it all the way to the end with some pleasure that might even involve periods of inattention? If it’s not “unbearable” as The Oregonian’s Shawn Levy describes it, then what is going on? A pure form of naturalism leavened by some whimsy. And the lives of others responsibly depicted have a certain appeal, an invitation to consideration, that doesn’t have much to do with entertainment. And that’s exactly the criticism most frequently leveled at Hou: He’s not entertaining.

Continue reading Film festival: Enjoying “Flight of the Red Balloon”

What is Art Scatter?

Art Scatter is an ongoing assemblage of our cultural material, our occupations and preoccupations, our hand print and shadow on the wall of the cave.

In archaeology the term “scatter” refers to the distribution of evidence of human activity. In archaeological resource surveys, a lithic scatter site denotes the haphazard arrangement of chipped stone flakes struck from obsidian or flintstone during the production of tools such as knives, arrowheads or scrapers. The arc of scatter shows us where the toolmaker squatted; the size and shape of the fragments reveal his craft. A more general artifact scatter may include the maker’s finished tool, as well as pottery, bone or other evidence of habitation, diet or culture of the tribe. A trash scatter – a dump – will include successive layers of discarded or abandoned items, a record of things disused, broken, forgotten. Scatter is thus at once the thing made, how it was made, and its history of use.

Art Scatter is our surface reconnaissance of the contemporary arts and culture landscape (with some subsurface burrowing as well), the arc of our own scatter as we examine the scatter of others.

Art Scatter is thus not to be confused with so-called “scatter art,” those minimalist installations or found environments of randomly collected materials that have aesthetic meaning only by virtue of their chance arrangement.

No, Art Scatter is about the purpose and meaning we bring to creation and observation. We gather, we carve, we leave marks, we study marks. We observe culture, we are part of culture.

— Vernon Peterson

a Portland-centric arts and culture blog