david eckard

Getting to know you: Whiting Tennis at Hallie Ford Museum of Art

And a little extra for the sake of contrast

It is sometimes difficult to look at a particular artist’s exhibition and not have a cascade of forerunners’ names wash through one’s mind. Of course, whether readily perceptible or not, every artist has been influenced by someone who came before; likewise, a viewer’s appreciation of said art may rely on and benefit from a knowledge of that art history. Yet, much like this writer trafficking in the comfort of truisms, that influence resonates louder and longer in the work of some artists than it does in others.

The Whiting Tennis exhibit, “My Side of the Mountain,” is at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem through March 23. The title for the show comes from Jean Craighead George’s book of the same name. The book tells the tale of a young man who leaves his city home at a young age to make a new life for himself on some family acreage, where he proceeds to make a living off the land. Written for a young audience, it comes from a time when this country was still making the dramatic shift from a largely agrarian to urban society, and the skills the main character develops to survive were becoming lost to the larger culture.

When Jenni Sorkin reviewed Tennis’s 2008 exhibit at Derek Eller Gallery in New York, she made mention of this book. I also find some comfort that Tennis’ work reminded Sorkin of the artist David Smith’s work. But Tennis’s drawings, paintings, and in some instances, his collages at Hallie Ford brought Smith to mind for me, not his sculpture. Then again, it wasn’t just echoes of Smith; a whole generation of artists sprung to mind, from Picasso to Smith and even the Northwest’s very own Louis Bunce. Nor would I be too far out of line to suggest that Tennis’s sculpture echo some work by his contemporary, Cris Bruch, or owe a debt to the likes of Martin Puryear, but only in Bruch’s and Puryear’s more architectural pieces.


TBA:13: Linda Austin, misinterpretation and meaning

Does a little girl ride the 'Three Trick Pony'? How about the ghost of the little girl?

At one point early in “Three Trick Pony,” soloist/choreographer Linda Austin paused mid-stream to braid her longish hair quickly, not that it stayed braided long. And I thought, “Just like a little girl.” She had just sung a snippet from “My Fair Lady” and another from “Mary Poppins” came along soon. She bounced and cavorted, tried and repeated various little hops and steps, sank into deep squats, paused and lolled around. And once that first thought had lodged in my brainpan, I couldn’t shake it.

In fact, I elaborated on it! Austin was playing the movements a little girl might make, one on her own, maybe during a purported nap time. It’s the early ‘60s, maybe the girl is six or seven. She goes to various stations/play areas in her room, which in “Three Trick Pony” have been supplied by the strange devices/sculptures created by David Eckard, and she “plays” with them. Once she’s completed a circuit of those stations, she repeats it, although her exploration of the devices becomes deeper, more creative and more “destructive.”

It seemed to make sense, this idea of the little girl at play in a pocket of time.


“Three Trick Pony” has several “logics” at work within it. It has the devices (a weird mattress rolled up and suspended above the floor, a strange contraption with a screen on which Austin leaves little kisses and traces words, three heavy rectangular boxes knitted together with straps, a large whisk-like object and a cylinder in which it fits, and a long tray-like affair that is filled with corks), some of which have movable parts and all of which can BE moved in certain ways. Like all the other “logics” here, it takes some exploration to figure out the details.

It has the logic of its musical score by Doug Theriault, which at first seems random until you start to connect the sounds with Austin’s choreography. It has the essential choreographic structure: the three circuits of the devices on the macro level and a number of phrases which are repeated from circuit to circuit. It has the choreography itself, which seems sprawling and immediate at first and then reveals itself to be carefully considered, second by second. And finally it has the logic of Austin’s specific body as it negotiates the dance, a difficult proposition physically, especially because of the big boots she wears.

I think it’s just fine to call it a day right there, at this abstract level, where the human body meets the structure, the choreography, the various logics at work.

But once I started understanding “Three Trick Pony” as a memory dance, what it felt like to be a little girl alone and staring a lengthy stretch of time in the face, left to her own devices (as it were), I found that the psychological logic made the other ones more interesting to me. The dance became funnier, yes, and full of insights about the behavior of little kids, how they amuse themselves, their spasms of activity, their obsessions, their fondness for repetition, their play-acting (pretending to be both older and younger), their creativity.


The childhood memory idea was pure speculation, of course, and I’m not suggesting that Austin was herself playing a seven-year-old. I thought she may have been recovering that time, though, mulling it over as an artist, concentrating it and bending it to her purposes, creating around it and through it. For a seven-year-old (of a certain time and social class), the only purpose is to make it through seemingly endless stretches of time. Austin’s purpose is to make a dance for the Time-Based Art Festival, and somehow to capture that delicious feeling of purposelessness in the child.

Picasso is famous for his pronouncements about the importance of that sort of recovery: “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” For me, Austin wasn’t choreographing as a child; her choreography successfully describes a child.

Although I’m no expert on Austin’s work, I’ve seen a good bit of it over the years. What I’d say is that it contains elements of (or at least reminds me of) the unfettered, the improvisational, the purposeless. Art on some level might be purposeless sometimes, but we can apply even that art to our own purposes. Austin suggests that we aren’t part of hard-and-fast equations, that we can upset the apparent determinism of our lives in the our culture. Among other things.



But what would Austin think of this hypothesis? I decided to check, asking her simply by email, whether she had a child or a childhood memory in mind when she created “Three Trick Pony.” She graciously replied to a question some artists would find impertinent. Her answer?


“As the oldest of nine kids (one born every year) there was no being “alone in your room” in my family when I was young. And my earliest childhood memories of play–granted, more from age of 4-5 onward–were of the pleasures of unsupervised wandering and exploring outdoors, going to the creek, smearing berries on lips and cheeks, catching tadpoles etc. Stuff that kids today don’t seem to be allowed to do. We had few actual toys that emerged from Christmas time unbroken, much less play stations. And the toy culture wasn’t as crazy as it is now. We had a wagon, a bucket, basic things like that. And then later, much of free time was nose in a book to escape the commotion and the surfeit of irrepressible personalities and energies around me.”

So much for that idea? Maybe. But she added something later in the email that made me think.

“…your question seems to be an example of the cultural conditioning that makes us frame play and playfulness in terms of being a kid. Part of my relationship with objects certainly is akin to a child’s “pure” exploration of the physical world. Yet, if that’s the direction we’re going to go, a closer analogy would be a toddler pulling out pots and pans from the cupboard or taking a toy or tool or household item and exploring it both tactilely and then deploying it in a way other than its intended use, or activating it in games of let’s pretend.

So the analogy to kid’s play is there, but wasn’t an explicit intention. I’m more likely to engage in that kind of play right now as an experienced artist, and it is a result of dance and arts training and research that teaches how to engage with the world through the senses and being able to suspend notions of what is the right way and wrong way to use something or do something.”

We’re squarely in the middle of that Picasso quote now. One more thing, about her play as a kid and her process now.

“We did put on shows in our backyard. We did have an empty space for a while, an outbuilding that later was converted into bedrooms. When it was still empty, it was the prototype for my current studio, a place for the imagination and playacting.”


So, I don’t feel so bad about my speculation. Basically, I give everyone, including myself, free rein to engage a work of art and find meaning in various ways. I think that’s a form of play in itself, creative play, that can take us in profitable directions, even though it doesn’t necessarily “explain” the artist’s intent very well. When we speculate, we have to accept the possibility that the act of speculation may be fun and rewarding and also wrong in the particular case.

In this case, the playfulness I thought I detected wasn’t as literal as I thought. Though it runs through Austin’s process, it wasn’t the result of particular conscious memories.

See how I cheated there? I slipped in that word “conscious.” I completely believe what Austin wrote me, and I’m pretty skeptical by nature and training. Nonetheless, I’m not letting go of that little girl ghosting the performance. Just now, I see her embedded in Austin’s own process and in her performance. In some ways, it’s more impressive than the specific way I was imagining it.

At this point you may well want to read Nim Wunnan’s review for ArtsWatch, just to wipe the little girl out of your mind. Of course, she’s still hanging out in mine.


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Read more from Barry Johnson on ArtsWatch

TBA:13: Guns, mantelpieces, tricky ponies

Linda Austin and David Eckard's 'Three Trick Pony' touches the forbidden devices...

Linda Austin explores the David Eckard universe in "Three Trick Pony"/Photo by Chelsea Petrakis courtesy PICA

Linda Austin explores the David Eckard universe in “Three Trick Pony”/Photo by Chelsea Petrakis courtesy PICA


If you’ve followed the arts in Portland for more than a few years, “Three Trick Pony” probably has some wish-fulfillment to offer you. For those of us who have only seen David Eckard’s sculptural devices, prevented from playing with them by social conventions or gallery staff, choreographer/dancer Linda Austin’s extended romp in this piece is very satisfying. In a very broad way, the piece is an extended, abstract embodiment of Chekhov’s over-quoted line about guns and mantelpieces (if a gun is on the mantelpiece in the first act it must go off in the third).

If that were all the piece had to offer—some objects that can do things, someone who does things with them—I might agree with the visiting student I talked to after the show. He thought it was long and obvious. He added that his attention span was too short, as if that wasn’t part of the original problem laid out in the first half of his statement. Possibly he was deaf too, because he didn’t mention Doug Theriault’s score.

Having listened and paid attention to the show, I found much more on offer. So, maybe this is a necessary reminder for the viewing public at TBA—if you go, you have to pay attention.

The way Austin enters the stage demands it—not really moving like a dancer, she’s more like another sculpture finding its position among the others on the stage. Once in position, she begins a cycle of movements and actions that engender lots of whys, whens, and hows. Every curve, knob, and latch on Eckard’s sculptures is a possible destination or strategy for Austin. In overlapping cycles, you can watch Austin prove or refute your theories on what those things will or can do. Austin thwarts and distorts Eckard’s object plans with enough variety that no one could guess everything she’ll do. The argument and debate between performer and sculptures deploys a rich vocabulary of movement and device, and that’s where you get your wish fulfillment.


Whatever the student thought, there’s much more to the piece than that. Austin’s first cycle of movements doesn’t touch the sculptures at all, and when they first repeat, it’s a permutation, not just a copy. As the objects provide a physical framework, the sequence of her movements lays out a chronological cycle to explore a deep sense of displacement and confused function, and a willingness to work it out that ranges from cartoonish to elegant.

Linda Austen in "Three Trick Pony"//Photo by Chelsea Petrakis courtesy PICA

Linda Austin in “Three Trick Pony”//Photo by Chelsea Petrakis courtesy PICA

There’s a nervy affection that runs through the whole thing, keenest when Austin tells the corner “I like you,” or writes “Loverly” with her own spit, or tries to be heard through the indifferent pendulum of one of the sculptures. She visits one of the pieces twice, just to gently stroke it, before making it do something on the final round. It makes sense that the accelerating development of the sculptures’ physical potential would start cautious and gamely-awkward before becoming ambitious and fluid. The remarkable thing about this collaboration is how well it demonstrates the way Austin can drive her own, known body through the same sometimes-absurd cycle of invention demanded by Eckard’s sculptures. How that plays out rewards a close watch.

I was surprised to notice that the score also rewards attention. Anyone who’s been to another TBA-like thing can situate it among other aleatoric, plinky-plonky soundscapes that you hear at performances. Having heard my share of that, and owning Aphex Twin’s “Selected Ambient Works II” for more than a decade, I was honestly impressed at the range of mood the soundtrack visited, and how relatively infrequently it settled into the unsettling/vaguely-creepy default for that kind of thing. What really kept me listening was how, out of its rambling and sampling and Austin’s experimentation, suddenly the score would align perfectly with something she or a sculpture did, often signaling a significant shift in action or tone.

This was definitely not chance—Austin’s first significant contact with a sculpture happened at exactly the same moment that conventional musicality entered the score. These synchronized transitions and the many beats her actions shared with the score belied the incredible thought that there was a solid framework hidden within what could be mistaken, at times, for noise.


“Three Trick Pony” concludes at 6:30 Monday and Wednesday at Con-Way, and is highly recommended.

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