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Nationale art gallery sums up its year

At the Southeast Portland gallery the smells are good and the dirty jokes are funny

As of this recent solstice, Nationale is 5 years old. In 2008, the gallery and shop opened on East Burnside and 28th Ave. in a tiny barber shop, then in 2010 moved to the north-facing side of the complex of boutiques, galleries, and salons at SE 8th and Burnside, before relocating o the sunnier, easier-to-find side facing Burnside in 2011.

In this time, owner/director May Barruel, (who also curates some of Stumptown’s exhibitions) has developed a stable of eight represented artists, a handsome catalogue of past exhibitions that includes some of Portland’s most interesting young artists (some of whom even still live here), and an always charming store full of a curated collection of books and objects that, according to Barruel’s longtime friend Jon Van Oast, “is what May’s brain would look like if you could walk into it, which you can now”.

Examples of wares from their holiday newsletter:

“lots of stocking stuffers from France (cute candy, La Peruche sugar cubes, harissa cans, good mayo, etc.), art books on everyone’s wish list (Mike Kelley, Peter Doig, Marcel Dzama, Wes Anderson, David Shrigley, etc.), braille greeting cards by Amber W. Smith, 2014 lunar calendars, and Nationale’s favorite store staples: OLO perfumes, Apartamento magazine, and Marseille soaps…”

(Those perfumes and soaps seem to play a sort of aromatherapy-optical-illusion within the space of the small shop, somehow making it feel much breezier and expansive.)

For the past few years, Barruel has picked a  selection of work from that year’s artists (sometimes leaving out favorites that have been sold). This year’s selection is on view now through December 31, with extended holiday hours on the 23rd and 24th (closed the 25th).

Inside Nationale: A wall featuring work by Delaney Allen/Nim Wunnan

Inside Nationale: A wall featuring work by Delaney Allen/Nim Wunnan

Curated loosely and fondly, restricted to what can fit in the corner and what will hang well together, this year’s selection features photos by Delaney Allen, paintings by Brandon Chuesy, Ty Ennis, Jaik Faulk, and Lindsay Kennedy, and sculptures by Aidan Koch. The show is a sort of incidental cross-section of the last year. These pieces in particular seem to have come from a mostly-purple-and-pink chunk of 2013, but the accidentally matched palette is close enough to work and tempered enough not to be cloying.

Kennedy’s “Wave Tempo” radiates from the back wall, its lavender glow visible from the burger joint across the street. Inside, you can see that it’s flanked by her smallest piece and one of Chuesy’s paintings, which—and I do mean this as a compliment—is what I would imagine Francis Bacon would produce had he been a character on the “Muppet Babies.” These two pieces echo each other with patches of pink so close that you’d think the two shared a studio.  The darker-purple, “Autumnal II / Fred Miller’s Hat” by Ty Ennis balances the lightness of the wall and contributes its own careful hand to a conversation started by the hundreds of precise, distinct brush strokes of “Wave Tempo.”

Koch’s small, ceramic sculptures sit on a low corner shelf, pink and white and grey, possibly grumbling over what they will do to the store when they come alive at night, which they obviously do. You can follow a sort of arc that carries their same irreverence, scale, and humor across the other wall, connecting the dots between Chuesy’s layered color-blots and Ennis’s cartoonishly pornographic watercolors, ending with a small diptych by Kennedy. Dense, small, collected, and thickly painted, the two page-sized canvases balance each other like entangled particles—the light one is so springlike and pastel and the dark one spikily dark. Easy to imagine them spinning off and wreaking eccentric havoc on the room if their bond was severed through some kind of nuclear studio-physics.

The wave of these smaller paintings routes around three of Delaney’s most devious photos from his last show at Nationale. All studio works, they’re charged with a glossiness that plays well against their otherworldliness. One of the eight artists Nationale represents, Allen’s images from his current and past series are also available in three books published by Publication Studio, stacked near fellow Nationale-alum Carson Ellis’s “Dillwood’s Revenge”.

A wall at Nationale featuring work by Lindsay Kennedy./Nim Wunnan

A wall at Nationale featuring work by Lindsay Kennedy./Nim Wunnan

On the opposite wall, Jaik Faulk’s “The Girl Who Drank Gold” broods by itself. Like Allen, Faulk’s last few years have been very productive, each marked by an excellent solo show at Nationale. Barruel’s very engaged curation of regular shows by the artists in the orbit of Nationale gives Portlanders an opportunity to follow the development of emerging artists with uncommon focus—even if you just stop in for a magazine or some soap. Having followed both Faulk and Allen’s shows, I was interested to see them hung with their alumni when I heard about the end-of-year collection.

It’s not meant to be as intense or considered as the solo shows that the collection draws on (Nationale only shows solo artists otherwise). Since it’s not meant as a retrospective, some strong work from 2013 is missing (notably Marie Koetje), but it’s a good chance to see or re-see some highlights from a growing, extended family of artists. It’s like an impossible holiday party—everyone is charming or interesting or both, it’s full but not crowded, the dirty jokes are funny, and it still feels relaxed even though everyone there is sharp as a tack.  Also the shop smells really good.

Dealing with Francis Bacon and all that money

The exhibition of “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” at the Portland Art Museum

The Portland Art Museum put itself on the international art map by snagging the first post-auction exhibition of “Three Studies of Lucian Freud,” which famously (or notoriously) brought a world-record auction price of $142.4 million last month. Even Philip Kennicott would have to admit that.

I can’t imagine that Kennicott, who writes about art and architecture for the Washington Post, has ever written about anything to do with the Portland Art Museum until now. Or that he knows much about Portland artists, collectors or the little art market here. I could be wrong.

I bring up Kennicott the day the exhibition of “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” opens here, because he does know the international art world and its market, and as we look at those three paintings, lined up just so, we have to deal with his criticism of the Portland Art Museum’s decision to display the triptych, whether we’ve read it or not.

“By celebrating the painting with a specially organized exhibition, the museum aligns itself with the commodification of art and effectively endorses the idea that the price tag is a valid a marker of quality. Museums don’t just house art, they place art on display in such a way that the viewer is compelled to ask a fundamental question: Why am I looking this? Why here, why now, why in this room, next to these other paintings rather than some other room? That process of interrogation is fundamental to the museum experience.”

In Portland, we know exactly why we’re looking at this painting, and the interrogation is over before it even begins.”

As Lady Catherine de Bourgh might say: “Heaven and earth, are the shades of the Portland Art Museum to be thus polluted?”

Kennicott is arguing both that the art museum has aligned itself with dark forces, and that we, its visitors, can’t look past the $142.4 million and see the painting behind it. The price tag answers all of our crucial questions about the art before we encounter it.

I don’t happen to think he’s right, and I’m about to argue against the monkish way he looks at art, but that doesn’t mean I’m not sympathetic to the critique that much of what we hold dear and meaningful has been “commodified”—and cheapened in the process—including art. After all, the hyper-capitalist society reduces every object and experience it can to a price, and those of us living in that society of prices can hardly ignore them. The great paintings of a major American art museum, the Detroit Institute of Arts, in a major bankrupt American city have just been assigned a dollar value, after all. But perhaps we can prepare our defenses against this society of prices. Perhaps we already have.

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Francis Bacon, Three Studies of Lucian Freud, 1969. © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. / DACS, London / ARS, New York / Christie's Images Limited 2013

Francis Bacon, Three Studies of Lucian Freud, 1969. © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. / DACS, London / ARS, New York / Christie’s Images Limited 2013

The three paintings are large, 78-by-58 inches each. After seeing them in tiny digital reproductions, I wasn’t prepared for their size, their weird grandeur, framed in gold and hung on top of the deep burgundy wall the museum chose for them. A perfect color, that burgundy (or deep maroon), because it sets off both Bacon’s favorite mottled olive green bottom background color and the mustard yellow top color. Look closely and maybe you can get a glimpse or a “vibration” of that burgundy in the green.

Those colors: I find myself in disagreement with the catalog description for the 1999 American tour of “Francis Bacon: A Retrospective,” which insists that the mustard is a “sharp lemon yellow.”

And that calls to mind Bacon’s comment to interviewer Michel Archimbaud: “Basically, I believe that you simply cannot talk about painting, it just isn’t possible.”

Well, we’ll just let that one drop…

Back to the paintings, each of them set up the same way, same background, same cane chair, same geometric structure around the figure, same bedboard, presumably the same subject, the painter Lucian Freud, who wears the same white shirt and gray slacks, but different shoes and socks. The three form a sort of brief montage, views of the subject from different angles, though sometimes Bacon does a Cubist move by showing us different perspectives within the same painting. The pose is the same: seated, right leg crossed over left, hands in lap. The feet seem to escape the front imaginary plane of the geometric figure, but the rest of the human figure resides within it.

By this time in the history of modern art, we aren’t totally unsettled by the face, right? Which is rather “monstrous”? Maybe it has mask elements: the noses have a sort of beastly prominence. The eyes peer out from behind glasses, or the sockets are vacant. The mouths aren’t scary, exactly, but not quite human either. Those faces are beautifully painted, though, the effects achieved economically, the ambiguity in them completely intentional. They disconcert without repelling.

What I said about the faces extends to the rest of the figure. I love their economy, how they obey a logic of form that isn’t bio-logic, though it’s instantly recognizable.

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Yes, Kennicott is right about one thing. When I walked into the foyer where “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” is displayed, I thought about the money. Mostly, I thought that $142.4 million was probably enough to set up lots of little arts centers around the city where neighbors could make their own art and experience the art made by others and how great that would be.

And I was there to satisfy my idle curiosity about a painting that was newly famous because of its pricetag. What does it look like in person? How do I “experience” it? And I intended to write something about it, if something occurred to me, because that’s what I do.

“Why am I looking this?” Because the art museum managed to nab it. “Why here, why now, why in this room, next to these other paintings rather than some other room?” Honestly, I don’t even understand that question. I think Kennicott’s asking something like: “What’s at stake in this room that makes you want to be here?” But even then, I don’t get it. Maybe they are critics questions and I’m not a critic.

I’m in this room now, but I will be in another room soon. I don’t know what’s at stake until I get there. And what’s at stake is variable. Sometimes it’s personal, even intimate. Sometimes it’s abstract, in the sense that my understanding of Bacon, “Three Studies of Lucian Freud,” modern art, the art market, and the society in which it’s all embedded is abstract, an analysis or narrative I’m assembling in my head.

I don’t demand anything of “Three Studies of Lucian Freud.” Either I get something from it that I need or I don’t. If all I need is the ability to say to someone, “Hey, I saw the most expensive painting in the world,” then that’s easily satisfied (though if I were honest, I might add, “ever sold at auction”). We can imagine a brief exchange.

— How was it?
— Oh, I don’t know. OK, I guess. I don’t see the big deal.

And then it’s on to subjects more pertinent.

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For me, the Bacons worth the big bucks would be the earlier ones, the paintings that seemed to be in revolt against the world, acidic, nihilistic reductions of “human” to monster or beast or meat. The ones that said we are insane carcasses of grotesque desire.

Francis Bacon, "Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion," 1944/Tate Museum

Francis Bacon, “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion,” 1944/Tate Museum

I’m partial to a 1944 triptych, “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion,” with their gaping mouths, bulbous shapes and ghastly colors. They are based on The Furies (or Eumenides), the revenge gods of the ancient world, who drive guilty men insane, including Orestes, who killed his mother Clytemnestra, who had killed his father, King Agamemnon, who had killed his daughter and Orestes’ sister, Iphigenia.

Elektra: What’s wrong with your eyes? You’re slipping away again!
Orestes: O Mother I beg you—Don’t send the bloodyfaced women down on me!—ah
they are here!
Elektra: Stay quiet, poor mad one, there’s nothing there.
Orestes: Apollo! Here they come like killer dogs, goddesses hot with the glow of hell!

That’s Anne Carson translating Euripides’ “Orestes,” and Bacon’s painted version of The Furies seems to have emerged from Orestes’ worst nightmare.

Bacon’s paintings of screaming popes, wrestling and tortured men, sprawling figures, hanging meat, have some of the same power as The Furies, if you’re open to them. Maybe if you’re not.

The triptychs of the 1960s of his friends and lovers seem tame by comparison, almost sweet, if you could call those distorted faces “sweet.” He’s a better painter in those paintings (and the subsequent ones), more accomplished as a colorist and composer, but maybe he isn’t as sensitive a lightning rod for the larger culture.

Don’t get me wrong. I like these intimate paintings, including “Three Studies of Lucian Freud.” And in some ways they represent an audacious turn for Bacon as he turns his swords into plowshares. OK, that’s going too far. Maybe all he’s saying is that we can learn to live with the beast within, along with proving that his vocabulary and style is appropriate to an entirely different sector of representation.

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Francis Bacon, "Study for a Self Portrait," center panel/Wikimedia

Francis Bacon, “Study for a Self Portrait,” center panel/Wikimedia

Bacon’s life was novelistic, spent in the gay demi-mondes of Berlin, Paris, London, drinking and gambling and, um, other things, with the inhabitants. He came to painting late, without formal education, but his painting shows that his art influences were wide and profound, beginning perhaps with Picasso and going backward and forward from there. Lots of biographical resources exist, not the least, Wikipedia.

Lucian Freud was an old friend of Bacon’s and a frequent subject of his painting. Freud (the grandson of Sigmund Freud) was also a figurative painter, though of more realistic, less overtly expressionist bent. Were they “rivals,” did they argue about art, does it matter now? Freud was heterosexual, and had at least 14 children, two by his first wife and the rest by several mistresses.

If we know more about the lives of the artist and his subject, does it help us very much with “Three Studies of Lucian Freud”? I’m not sure it does for me, though I’ve done some research in the past on both of them, back in the 1980s when figurative art made a comeback and America realized that very large and important careers had been lived by figurative artists in Europe, such as Freud and Bacon. Let’s just say that Bacon was a complex character and that complexity reverberates in his art in his selection and treatment of subjects, mostly in subterranean ways, I suspect.

In the center panel there’s a perfect little circle yellow circle on the elongated left leg of the figure. How do we read it? Why is it there? Does it refer to some event in Bacon and Freud’s friendship? I’m just not convinced that’s a profitable way to proceed, and no, I don’t mean profitable in terms of money.

But then again, maybe we understand the bedboard in the paintings better if we know it represents Freud’s actual bedboard and refers to Lucian’s prolific sexual life. By the way the other primary elements are prevalent in earlier Bacon paintings: the triptych, the bare imaginary space, the geometric “room,” the large sections of color, the human figure.

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Are there museums in America, major ones anyway, that don’t somehow align themselves with the commodification of art? That’s Kennicott’s specific charge against the Portland Art Museum.

Aren’t they all funded by donors who participate in the marketplace from time to time? And build their collections from art supplied by those donors? Don’t they buy paintings directly in that marketplace? Aren’t their exhibitions frequently underwritten by those donors or the corporations they control? At a museum aren’t we nearly always seeing something that has an appraised value and an endorsement from the market?

So, Kennicott’s list of offending institutions must be extremely long. And their accomplices in the apparatus of value generation, curators and, gulp, critics? What of them? How often does Kennicott find paintings that exist outside this circle to write about for the Washington Post?

So, that charge is hard to take seriously, just on the face of it, unless it’s intended as the beginning of a general indictment.

Is the Portland Art Museum especially evil for seizing the opportunity to exhibit this particular and spectacular example of commodified art? Or is it doing its visitors a service by showing them what all the fu$$ has been about? We don’t get a chance to see art commodified at this high a level very often, after all, here in Oregon. But maybe the museum is polluting our experience, not just of “Three Studies of Lucian Freud,” but through neglect, all the other art in all of the other rooms.

I don’t think Kennicott is picking on Oregonians, specifically, having decided that we are particularly susceptible to the process of commodification. I think he’s saying that no one can look at it without being thus polluted. This is an interesting proposition, and I wish he had a shred of empirical evidence to back it up. Maybe he should come to Portland, observe people in front of the painting, talk to them about it, and then attempt to ascertain the extent of their pollution.

We know how that would go!

— How was it?
— Oh, I don’t know. OK, I guess. I don’t see the big deal. I’m mostly here for the Samurai show, and then I want to check out the Native American galleries.
— Why are you here now?
— I have the day off from work.
— What’s the meaning of art?
— ??????

All I’m saying is that the audience for “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” in Portland is likely to be skeptical of any claim for it based on its auction price. The same money would buy the total production of all Portland artists since Asian tribes crossed a land bridge into North America and made their way down to the Columbia River. We wouldn’t trade all that art, from the basalt sculptures of the Chinook tribes to the latest First Friday profusion, for that painting. Just to make that clearer: For me, there are hundreds of artworks produced in Oregon that have more value than the Bacon triptych does. Which doesn’t mean that I’m not interested in looking at it and taking from it what I can.

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Enough. The article was short, and there’s only so much fun in pointing out false purity. Our art experiences are compromised, by the art marketplace and by the bad clams we had at lunch, and we attempt to allow for that. And it’s not confined to art experiences.

“Three Studies of Lucian Freud” has been assigned a dollar value. That’s one of the least interesting things about it. That value is higher than any other painting ever sold at auction. That just shows the absurdity of the system. What’s the deal with the different colored shoes in the central panel?

I’m glad I got to see “Three Studies of Lucian Freud,” that Chief Curator Bruce Guenther tracked down its anonymous buyer and convinced that very wealthy character to lend it to us for a little while. I enjoyed my time with it, if you consider “enjoyed” in a broad sense, because, sure, that aggregation of painting strokes is a little disturbing.

I wish that the museum had a bit more time to prepare for the triptych, which is part of its Masterworks/Portland series of one-painting shows. It might have assembled a show from the Gilkey prints and drawings collection, for example, that expands our thinking about “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” by showing the work of related contemporary artists or artists his work connects to—Lucian Freud, for one, and Picasso, but also Giacometti, Van Gogh, Frank Auerbach, Velazquez, Soutine, George Grosz, Leon Kossoff.

I don’t think that my sensibilities, coarse as they are, have been injured by the experience. And I don’t think I’ve become any more inured to the commodification Kennicott’s talking about than I was before I saw it. In fact, I’m maybe more skeptical, if that was possible.

Mostly, I think it’s a good thing when we turn our attention to art, for whatever reason. This painting will likely attract both the casually interested art crowd and the diehards to the art museum. We can’t begin to predict what their experiences will be like or what the consequences of those experiences will be, but I don’t think it’s naive of me to think it will be positive.

Portland Playhouse keeps ‘Christmas Carol’ classic

Amid plentiful variations of the play, this one sets the standard.

“Let all mortal flesh keep silent,” commands one of many hymns in Portland Playhouse’s “A Christmas Carol“—but these actors don’t need divine help. Even the peers of Tiny Tim in the front rows sit still and stifle their every peep. That’s how riveting and reverent this production is, thanks to a well-considered story adaptation by Rick Lombardo and crisp, deft direction from Cristi Miles.

Plenty of local theaters are currently presenting a take on this classic. PCS’s “Twist Your Dickens” comically riffs on the story with a Second City sketch show. The Old Church will host a reading by veteran Thom Bray. Post5 offers two versions: Phillip J. Berns’ one-man recitation with all the voices, and “No One Likes Scrooge: A Bouffon Christmas Special.” Even Wanderlust Circus has one, “A Circus Carol,” accompanied by 3 Leg Torso. Each of these shows brings its own charms, but none carries the torch for a traditional ensemble play with all the trimmings like Portland Playhouse.

portlandplay

In a way, this nod to tradition is surprising. This time last year, Playhouse was showing August Wilson’s “King Hedley II,” set in the crumbling infrastructure of 1980’s Pittsburgh. The year before, it was the equally edgy “Angels In America,” at the heart of the New York AIDS epidemic. And before that? “Dying City,” a portrait of a Gulf War casualty. As a Victorian relic, “Carol” is the odd show out. However, as an unflinchingly sympathetic look at marginalized lives, the story is very much in this theater’s mode.

The music alone could make for a beautiful holiday concert, with brilliant arranger Anna Lackaff seemingly challenging herself to never use the same instrumental mix twice. For “Mortal Flesh,” the piano drones an ominous octave and the players sing a bleak, beautiful unison, diffusing into harmonies as they shift into “O Come Emmanuel.” A dramatic cymbal simmers, a tom booms and snow begins to sift down from the rafters. In lighter moments than this, peasants’ instruments are sprinkled in like so many spices. Bodhran, recorder, bells, and accordion are ushered in by the various players who double as narrators and characters.

Ensemble is a feature of this show by necessity. The stage is too small and too exposed (with audience on both sides) for elaborate set changes, so actors pilot furniture on and offstage like props. Four narrators uphold the four posters of Scrooge’s bed. Two confront him with his door handle and knocker. Musicians, too, inhabit the stage in drifts, or work the piano and drums from very close in the wings. The effect of such a peopled space is twofold: it makes the show that much more haunted, with characters more at the mercy of “unseen” forces than they care to acknowledge. It also directly checks Scrooge’s egocentric misperception of the world—namely, his erroneous presumption that he’s ever alone in it.

Of course, there are some standouts. Joshua Weinstein (recently seen in Artists Rep’s Foxfinder) is a magnet for audience eyes even while roving through bit roles and singing and speaking with the chorus. As the past’s Young Scrooge, he revives the pleasure/propriety struggle he addressed as a main character in “Foxfinder.” But as the present’s Topper, a bawdy bachelor at Scrooge’s nephew’s party, he shows another side: relaxed and randy, with no moral compunctions. Ashley Williams is the show’s reigning “Mrs.”, playing both Cratchit and Fezziwig’s better half with a warmth that occasionally flares into fiery. Danielle Purdy plays Belle with the same rueful, vulnerable intensity she brought to JAW’s “Mai Dang Lao” this summer.

The role of Scrooge goes to “rookie” Drew Harper, who holds his own from curmudgeon to changed man with veteran panache. But the Spirit Award goes to Jen Rowe—meaning, she plays ALL of the four spirits: Marley, Past, Present, and Future. Her Marley seems, in the interest of precision, a little clipped and rushed. Her other ghosts, however, are strong within their various traditions of character, and distinct from one another: Past has a high, flutey voice and a silvery laugh; Present is beatific and jocular with a holly headdress and a hearty guffaw; Future—as typical—is silent, but Rowe’s face is visible and stern rather than concealed as she trains a spotlight on various specters. Rowe plays Present particularly well, tethering lines that sometimes seem oblique directly to the concept of “the present” to imbue them with maximum meaning. Lombardo’s adaptation also helps. Ignorance and Want cling to the Present. The Present’s rapidly aging, and his time upon this earth grows short. The Present has more than 1800 “brothers”—the years A.D. in the time of Dickens. The distance between concept and character is especially well bridged here.

Dickensian hardscrabble can be tough to depict in a dignified, believable way, without seeming hammily maudlin or “awright guv’ner” cockney clichéd. Christmas music, too, can be hard to keep interesting. Even English accents and period costumes are no cinch to perfect, especially from a range of social classes and regions. But Playhouse manages all this gracefully, while preserving the humanist heart of the story. If you’re putting all your holiday shillings in one “Christmas Carol”‘s coffer, this version is your surest bet.

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A. L. Adams also writes the monthly column Art Walkin’  for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine. Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch | The Portland Mercury
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News & Notes closes a busy week of arts business with a few items of general interest, assuming the “general interest” actually exists. How about: “a few items that aggregate various narrow interests”? You guys are SUCH sticklers for a Winter Solstice Weekend!

And off we go…

For the past several years I’ve been reading Dave Allen’s takes (these days mostly on his blog for North) on the intersection of the music business with digital technology and marketing. Allen (best known in post-punk circles for his work with Gang of Four) has argued that the internet and its various platform inventions doesn’t mean death for musicians, though it has had major negative repercussions for the big entertainment conglomerates that control them. In this latest story for Salon, he writes about Beyonce’s social media-based “marketing” of her new album, and notes that David Bowie got there first (Allen has convinced met that it’s often a safe bet that Bowie got there first!).

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Echo Theatre Co. begins life with "Tess on an Alien Planet"/  Photography of Russell J Young

Echo Theater Company begins life with “Tess on an Alien Planet”/ Photography of Russell J Young

ArtsWatch salutes Echo Theater Company on its first show, “Tess on an Alien Planet,” which opens tonight!

The company resulted from a division earlier this year of Do Jump! Extremely Physical Theater into two non-profit organizations: The Echo Theater Company (which continues to operate the Do Jump School and facilitates additional programming, performances and events created by its staff and community) and Robin Lane’s professional performance company Do Jump!

“Tess,” a “science fiction adventure,” will feature the humor, acrobatics and aerial work that we have come to expect from a Do Jump! aesthetic, and stars Sara Fay Goldman (Associate Artistic Director of Fuse Theatre Ensemble, Director of Education for Portland’s Original Practice Shakespeare Festival, and a performer with Jewish Theatre Collaborative) as Tess, a scientist “stranded in a surprising, lonely, and wondrous place.”

The all-ages show runs through December 30 at the Echo Theater, 1515 SE 37th Ave, Portland; $15-$22 with discounts for children, seniors, group sales of 10 or more tickets.

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If you’re interested at all in music with a classical inflection, Brett Campbell’s Weekend MusicWatch will steer you toward the best and the brightest. So what’s happening on Oregon music stages and spaces this weekend? Cellos, mandolins, fab fiddles, ugly sweaters, and beautiful voices.

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ArtsWatch is a fan of the Regional Arts & Culture Council’s Work for Art program, which gives companies and their employees a good way to donate to arts groups in the area. Now in its eighth year, Work for Art has raised $4.7 million for the arts, all of which goes to local organizations.

Sometimes corporations give directly to the program, and Cambia Health Solutions just made a $50,000 grant to Work for Art, the largest in the program’s history. It’s easy to enroll your company in Work for Art!

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I’m trying to imagine a Portland proposal for something similar to the Bezos Balls in Seattle, part of Amazon’s massive new Seattle HQ.

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Sticking with architecture, will Northwest Natural Gas cancel the wrecking balls scheduled to demolish the Portland Gas & Coke building? Maybe more likely: Will the company ever at least acknowledge that the building might have some value to the public and the architectural history of the city before it knocks it down?

Fiddle phenom Mark O’Connor’s ensemble plays Christmas music and more Friday at Portland’s Scottish Rite Center.

Portland Cello Project, Saturday, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland. In its most “classical” project so far, the ever-inventive ensemble enlists superb Oregon Symphony principal cellist Nancy Ives, along with its customary collection of indie folk and rock singer/songwriters (Portland faves Laura Gibson and Laura Veirs, and former Giant Sand frontman Howe Gelb), to help deliver wintry music from its new EP, and more. Don’t forget to wear your ugliest holiday sweater!

106 Keys, Saturday, Portland Piano Company. Portland pianist Beth Karp (who’s impressed audiences at Classical Revolution PDX stage shows) and flutist Amalia Blumberg debut their new project devoted to Jewish music with a splendid program including works by Philip Glass, Erwin Schulhoff, Darius Milhaud, Paul Ben­Haim, and, happily, Portland composer David Schiff’s delicious “After Hours” suite.

Oregon Mozart Players, Thursday and Friday, First Christian Church, Eugene. The chamber orchestra’s popular Candlelight Baroque concert features J.S. Bach’s ever-popular Cantata #51, Exult in in God in Every Land; a suite from Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas; Corelli’s Christmas Cantata; a  sinfonia by another great Italian Baroque composer, Alessandro Scarlatti; a lively oboe concerto by still another wonderful Italian Baroque master, Tomaso Albinoni, and more.

Mark O’Connor, Friday, Scottish Rite Center, Portland. Possibly the world’s greatest fiddler, the Seattle-born star of country, folk, and classical (including composing string quartets, concertos, and symphonies) music brings the sound of his popular “Appalachia Waltz” combo, this time with a sextet featuring a pair of excellent roots-oriented singers, to holiday music.

Oregon Symphony, Saturday and Sunday, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland; Friday, Smith Auditorium, Willamette University, Salem. Friday and Sunday’s program features the orchestra and acclaimed tenor Dominic Armstrong performing seasonal favorites, with an audience participation Christmas medley sing-along. On Saturday, after the orchestra plays holiday favorites in the first half of the program, nine time Grammy winner Natalie Cole sings holiday songs, standards and new songs from her album, “Natalie Cole en Español.”

Wildwood Consort, Sunday, 2 pm, Collins Gallery, Multnomah Central Library, Portland. The estimable historically informed early music ensemble plays the glorious Baroque chamber music of Jean-Philippe Rameau, along with poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke read by Brian Myers.

Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble, Saturday, Secret Society Ballroom, Portland. One of Oregon’s most valuable young music institutions debuts four new works of partially improvised chamber music (by  James Miley, Ryan Meagher, Thomas Barber, and Lars Campbell), along with music by a welcome recent arrival, pianist Kerry Politzer and her quintet featuring Barber, David Valdez, George Colligan, and Essiet Essiet.

Oregon Mandolin Orchestra, Friday, Walters Cultural Arts Center, Hillsboro. If cellos work for holiday sounds, why not mandolins? Lots of them, in various sizes and ranges.

CHORAL

In Mulieribus, Friday, Proto-Cathedral of St. James, Vancouver, and Sunday, St. Philip Neri Church, Portland. Maybe the top recommendation of the entire season, some of the Northwest’s finest female voalists, drawn from Portland’s top choirs, sing rarely heard Advent and Christmas carols and songs from medieval England and the world premiere of a new piece the group commissioned (yay!) from one of today’s finest choral composers, Ivan Moody, whose music you might have heard on Cappella Romana concerts.

Portland Chamber Orchestra, Choral Arts Ensemble, Friday, St. Matthew’s Catholic Church, Hillsboro; Saturday and Sunday, Lewis & Clark College, Portland. PCO’s historically informed performance of a 1744 version of Handel’s “Messiah” features a formidable lineup of soloists, including top Northwest singers Angela Niederloh, Brian Tierney, Anne McKee Reed, and Anton Belov.

Bach Cantata Choir, Friday, Rose City Park Presbyterian Church, Portland. The chorus sings cantatas by their namesake, fellow Baroque composer Johann Kuhnau, and Vivaldi’s ever-popular “Gloria.”

Portland Symphonic Girlchoir, Saturday, Zion Lutheran Church, Portland. The award-winning K-12 chorus, now celebrating its quarter-centenary, sings holiday favorites and less familiar yet equally appropriate fare, including one of their signature “Eclectic Masses,” this time including music from Africa, the Caribbean, Bernstein and Chilcott.

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RACC project grants head for the outskirts of art

RACC's $660,000 in project grants finds artists in an inventive mood

I think of the Precipice Fund, PICA’s way of rewarding alternative ideas about making and showing art, as a great supplement for the Regional Arts & Culture Council’s project grants. Precipice needs RACC to answer the question “alternative to what?”, after all.

RACC has just announced $661,543 in project grants to 60 arts groups and 88 artists, and a quick run-through the list of recipients and a capsule of their projects leads me to a re-consideration. Sure, the arts group projects are pretty straight-forward. Conduit, for example, received a grant to support its successful Dance+ program, and Disjecta found RACC support for its Portland2014 Biennial of Contemporary Art, just to name a couple of deserving events (that locate and exhibit exciting contemporary art) with good track records.

Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble, here in 'Song of the Dodo,'  was funded for its version of Chekhov's 'Three Sisters.'/Gary Norman

Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble, here in ‘Song of the Dodo,’ was funded for its version of Chekhov’s ‘Three Sisters.’/Gary Norman

But artists are artists, and as I scrolled down, I found projects that might have felt right at home at Precipice, too. So, Gabriel Liston’s project is a Guide to the Lafe Pence Ditch, “an exhibit of paintings, drawings, and text based on research into and along an old canal on the side of the Tualatin Ridge overlooking NW Portland,” which sounds truly fabulous. And Susan E. Peck was funded to “to produce, rehearse, and conduct a festival concert performance of the full-length choral work “Missa Gaia/Earth Mass,” written by members of the Paul Winter Consort, in partnership with a local environmental group like Friends of Columbia Gorge or Portland Audubon Society.” Amen!

Anyway, have a look through the list of projects and plan your 2014 accordingly. Art here is moving inexorably toward the creative edge of art practices, and we’re following right behind.

A one-man ‘Christmas Carol’ that spotlights Dickens

From playing Tiny Tim to reciting the whole show off-book, Phillip Berns relishes the role(s) he's grown into—most notably, narrator.

What “The Nutcracker” is to dancers, “A Christmas Carol” is to actors: a show presented regularly in almost every town, that you can do every year, and gradually grow into. You start off as a young Cratchit (ideally—gender irrelevant—Tiny Tim). Next you’re Ignorance or Want, or Fannie or the boy who buys the turkey, then you’re Martha or Peter or Boy Ebenezer or (provided you’re mysterious enough) Christmas Past. By high school, you can be Belle or Young Man Ebenezer…and finally, all the remaining roles open up to you.

Phillip J. Berns and Chris Beatty perform at Picnic House.

Phillip J. Berns and Chris Beatty perform at Picnic House.

Phillip J. Berns’ experience of “A Christmas Carol” follows this model. He began acting at age nine in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, playing Tiny Tim in his town’s production, and picking up other roles in subsequent years.

“My dad also used to tape every version that aired on TV,” he explained at the show’s Post5 opening night. “We had a drawer full of VHS’s of it.” Such prolonged, immersive exposure to Dickens’ well-worn text might inoculate other actors against the story’s power, but it only enriched Berns’ appreciation. “I love this story,” he gushes, “I never get tired of it.” Hence the one-man show he’s been refining since 2011, “presented for the first time off-book!”

If Berns loves “Carol” as much as he claims, it certainly shows. And if he doesn’t…feigning this much enthusiasm for the material makes him the best actor ever. Naturally, he “does the voices”: His Scrooge is imperious with rolled R’s, nasal and wheezing with age. His Ghost of Christmas Past has a hollow, almost echoey timbre; Present is jocular save sudden flares of blustering temper. Marley’s Ghost is, as yet, a bit undelineated from Scrooge—but rattles, thrashes, and whips a real chain for emphasis.

Despite the inherent blocking challenge for one man playing multiple parts, Berns uses the whole stage and even ventures into the seating. He gives animated performances, confident that his own unflappable command of who’s who in the script will pull the audience through any confusion. About 90 percent of the time, he’s right, and we see a multiplicity of characters interacting where he’s placed them in his mind’s eye. The other 10 percent shows some flailing, but he coasts through on charm and comedy.

Berns, himself, is an interesting character—not, as some others at Post5, a natural lead, but rather a studious observer, a tireless supporter, and a nimble, exacting mimic of other, broader personas. He’s slight of stature and one of his eyes is inclined to rove—though with each successive performance this past year, he’s reined that tendency in tighter. Now barely perceptible, it’s less a flaw than a unique tool in his character kit. Berns has dabbled in drag, but eschews sexiness in favor of funny, careworn characters like Phyllis Diller and Carol Channing. In keeping with this pattern, Berns plays all the “Christmas Carol” characters, including women, well—but none better than the story’s narrator, Charles Dickens.

It’s typical for narration to play some role in stage versions of “Carol,” but much of Dickens’ original wit is too frequently pared away in favor of simplicity. The author has a (bad? good? undeniable) habit of contradicting or complicating his main premise with quippy asides. He starts almost as soon as the story, using the popular simile “dead as a doornail” to describe Marley—then in the next breath, challenging it! Coffin-nails actually seem deader, he says, but who is he to argue with conventional wisdom? Only after resolving this petty semantic self-argument does he proceed with the tale.

This pattern of questioning his own (and also society’s) assumptions persists throughout Dickens’ voice; in fact, it’s almost as “Dickensian” as wage inequality. Dickens routinely admonishes his readers to think twice—sometimes via moralistic rhetoric, but almost as often by the cagier means of example-setting. His way of reframing various arguments, of self-second-guessing, becomes a model one can follow to correct for bias and think more broadly. Berns leaves most of these asides intact, and dispatches them with meaningful inflection, proving he really gets it.

As of opening night, the actor and his keyboard accompanist, Post5 music director Chris Beatty, were still working out a few wrinkles. The music behind the first scene was unsuitably sentimental and warm, full of the kind of wafty arpeggios, major sevenths, and uncertain resolves with which a pianist fills space while puzzling. After the first cue (a bell, I believe) the soundtrack smoothed out into well-timed clock chimes, ominous rumbling, and a set of Christmas tunes, variously major and minor to meet the story’s changing tone. “He’s so great to play for; he has such a particular cadence,” says Beatty, who, though part of the show, doubles as a responsive audience, laughing, clapping, and occasionally toasting Berns with a beer. (Pro tip: a pint glass might be more suitable than a PBR can).

“It’s the first night I’ve worked with the robe,” Berns confided of a baggy piece of Scrooge costumery while he and Beatty tended the theater bar at intermission. “A few minutes in, I was like, “I definitely can’t wear THIS the whole time.” Not noticeably hampered, he’d shucked the garment off mid-scene as if the change was planned. Berns also polled friends about whether or not to announce the staves at future shows. “I didn’t do it this time,” he told fellow actor Chip Sherman. “I didn’t miss it,” Sherman assured.

Already scheduled for 8 performances at Post5 and two dinner theater shows at Picnic House, up from just 6 shows last year, this engaging solo act could foreseeably become Berns’ holiday bread and butter. Good thing he’s developed a taste for it.

carol_berns

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A. L. Adams also writes the monthly column Art Walkin’  for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine. Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch | The Portland Mercury

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