Alan Sonfist

ArtsWatch Weekly: a Will and a way

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

The first thing we do, let’s count all the layers. He’s been updated, squeezed down, rethought, rewritten, cleaned up, dirtied down, worshipped unabashedly, reviled occasionally, shrugged off as a front man for some more sophisticated writer (Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, is the latest in a long line of contrarian candidates), quoted out of context ’til the cows come home.

Shakespeare's funerary monument, Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, England. Wikimedia Commons

Shakespeare’s funerary monument, Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, England. Wikimedia Commons

And still, four hundred years after his death, old Will Shakespeare’s a survivor. In a lot of ways, it seems, he’s never been healthier. He’s translated into pretty much every language of any size on Earth, and adapted into everything from ballets to symphonic musical scores to teen-movie comedies. And he’s an economic powerhouse: towns from Ashland, Oregon to Stratford-upon-Avon, England are built on the sturdy foundation of the money and visitors he draws in.

So, happy anniversary, Will. No one’s absolutely sure of the precise date he was born, but he was baptized on April 26, 1564 (probably three days after his birth), and died on April 23, 1616, and April 23 – this Saturday – is the day that much of the world will be celebrating his legacy. In Portland, the biggest party might be Shakespeare at 400, an all-day event (8:30 a.m.-5 p.m.) at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall. It’s presented by PSU, the Portland Shakespeare Project, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s “Play On! Project” of contemporary “translations” of the plays (that word’s caused a lot of ruckus in the Church of Shakespeare), with input from the Folger Shakespeare Library’s The Wonder of Will celebration. There’ll be lectures, and readings, and a sonnet slam, and excerpts from three of OSF’s controversial translations by contemporary playwrights. Come see and hear for yourself what Amy Freed’s done with The Taming of the Shrew, Ellen McLaughlin with Pericles, and Douglas Langworthy with Henry VI: fresh approaches, or sacrilege?

Everything’s free, but organizers want to know how many people will be showing up, so click that link above and send in your RSVP.

"Oberon, Titania, and Puck with Fairies Dancing," William Blake, ca. 1786, watercolor and graphite on paper, 18.7 x 26.6 inches, Tate Britain, London / Wikimedia Commons

“Oberon, Titania, and Puck with Fairies Dancing,” William Blake, ca. 1786, watercolor and graphite on paper, 18.7 x 26.6 inches, Tate Britain, London / Wikimedia Commons



Once upon a time the woods were mighty, and so were the men who worked in them. Paul Bunyan could clear-cut a hillside with a single swing of his ax (such activities are frowned upon these days) and hard-working, hard-living woodsmen were memorialized in folk songs: I see you are a logger, and not just a common bum, for nobody but a logger stirs his coffee with his thumb.


Alan Sonfist: in the nature of things

At Cooley Gallery, the artist isolates aspects of nature to "give the viewer an awareness that can be translated into a total unraveling of the cosmos”

Lee Krasner told a story about the meeting between venerable painter Hans Hofmann and Jackson Pollock.

Hofmann asked, “Do you work from nature?”

Pollock replied, “I am nature.”

Some might consider that an arrogant reply. On the other hand, Pollock might have been humbly saying that he was only a part of nature like any tiny insect, that human versus nature was a false dichotomy, that human action is natural action.

Pollock’s expression of his nature was found best in his grand dripped abstract expressionist paintings. Painting was the forward-looking medium that was available to him. He died in 1956 at the age of 44. In 1956 Alan Sonfist was 10 years old. Another decade later he would find that the idea of what a forward-thinking art “medium” could be was wide open. The exhibition Alan Sonfist: Natural History through June 12 at the Cooley Gallery at Reed College documents some of his works from 1960 to 1980.

Alan Sonfist, "Myself Becoming One with the Tree," 1969

Alan Sonfist, “Myself Becoming One with the Tree,” 1969

When I first heard of the show, I immediately thought of the essay Nature as Artifact: Alan Sonfist, in the November, 1973, issue of Artforum magazine. The first illustration in the article is Army Ants: Patterns and Structures, a photographic top view of hundreds of army ants marching in a tight galaxy-like pattern, “following a circular trail of chemical secretions.” I’ve always considered this picture as a “drawing” that utilizes the unknowing cooperation of the ants. As it turns out this was a detail view of a 400-square-foot installation for which “Sonfist rearranged four separate food sources for the ants, carefully videotaping and drawing their changing movement patterns.” In the Cooley show there are two graphite on paper drawings, Army Ant Movements, 1972-1973, related to Sonfist’s study of these ants that he had collected in Panama and brought to New York (more than a million of them).


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