reed college

DanceWatch Weekly: Inside and outside the bubble

The Oregon dance scene extends beyond Portland, we are happy to report, and a ton's happening in town, too

When I lived on the East Coast, New Jersey specifically, it took about an hour-and-a-half of driving to get anywhere—to New York, Philadelphia, even to southern New Jersey. That was the norm, it was accepted, and we did it obediently, with occasional grumbling here and there. But I’m glad I did it because New Jersey did not offer the artistic communities, resources and variety that I craved. Don’t get me wrong, Jersey isn’t ALL bad, it does have the best pizza and bagels in the land, and it’s home to a magical place called Grounds For Sculpture, a 45-acre outdoor sculpture park, inhabited by a pride of peacocks.

Because of this experience, I was relieved when I arrived in Portland five years ago to discover that everything I wanted and needed was just 10-15 minutes away from home. But now, in the process of scouring the internet for dance performances, I am learning a lot about dance communities outside of Portland, and my original concept of Portland’s community has broadened to include them. I see these communities as opportunities for exchange and partnership, and a way to break out of the Portland bubble and connect to other dance communities. It’s time to get back in my car.


Nathaniel Mackey: Black breath matters

African American poet, essayist and academic Nathaniel Mackey gave us an extended consideration of breath—in poetry, music and black life

Gregg Popovich, the best and most innovative coach in professional basketball, responded physically to the election of Donald Trump. It made him “sick to my stomach,” he told NBA beat reporters before the Spurs played on Friday.

He wasn’t alone. The election took a physical toll, if my Twitter and Facebook feeds are any indication, sometimes attacking the gastrointestinal apparatus and sometimes the nervous system. Or maybe your windpipe became scratchy and your chest constricted with the enormous weight of the political events, compressing your lung and interfering with your respiration.

Maybe you couldn’t breathe.

“I can’t breathe.” “I can’t breathe.” “I can’t breathe.”

Eric Garner said it 11 times, face down on the sidewalk on July 17, 2014, as a New York City policeman applied a chokehold to his neck. Then he passed out, and neither the gathered squad of policemen nor the EMTs who responded to the call attempted to revive him. The cause of his death, according to the medical examiner: “compression of neck (choke hold), compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.” Garner couldn’t breathe.

Poet/academic/music writer Nathaniel Mackey mentioned Eric Garner several times at Reed College this week, both in his poetry reading Thursday night and his lecture, “Breath and Precarity,” Friday, a talk that linked the advanced jazz explorations of black jazz musicians in the ‘50s and ‘60s—Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, Roscoe Mitchell—to experimental poetry at the same time, to Amiri Baraka, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley and Charles Olson, among others. Maybe the common theme of lecture and poems was simply that Black breath matters, a phrase Mackey used.

Nathaniel Mackey, the Reynolds Price Professor of Creative Writing at Duke University, spoke at Reed College this week.

Nathaniel Mackey, the Reynolds Price Professor of Creative Writing at Duke University, spoke at Reed College this week.

The common language the poets and musicians of the ’50s shared, the common physical link, involved breath. Ginsberg famously organized “Howl” with the idea of breath: “Ideally each line of ‘Howl’ is a single breath unit,” he said. “My breath is long—that’s the measure, one physical-mental inspiration of thought contained in the elastic of a breath.” As Mackey pointed out, it doesn’t quite work out that way in practice, neither with Ginsberg nor with Olson, here in his 1950 essay, “Projective Verse.”

“And the line comes (I swear it) from the breath, from the breathing of the man who writes, at the moment that he writes, and thus is, it is here that, the daily work, the WORK, gets in, for only he, the man who writes, can declare, at every moment, the line its metric and its ending—where its breathing, shall come to, termination.”

Breath is funny. I can control my breath to a certain extent. I can huff and puff until I make myself light-headed, for example, or slow my respiratory process to a level barely perceptible. But then, most of the time, I am breathing without thinking about it at all, autonomically, firing up under stress and damping down during rest. I like the effort to connect creation (in Olson and Ginsberg’s case, poetry) to breath, both to acknowledge its importance and to employ it consciously. I do have to say that it seems…abstract. Idealized. Theorized. Both Olson and Ginsberg would have hated that characterization, because they were so interested in linking mind and body, maybe even to argue the primacy of body.


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).


Lahti wins 24th Bronson Award

The veteran Portland sculptor takes this year's Bonnie Bronson award, legacy of the sculptor who died in a climbing accident

Every year about this time, Oregon art insiders keep their eye out for the latest news: who’s this year’s Bonnie Bronson Fellowship winner? Today, word came: It’s sculptor Cynthia Lahti, who’s been a familiar force on the Portland art scene for 30 years since returning to her hometown after earning her degree from the Rhode Island School of Design.

The Bronson Award is a big deal for artists around here. Named for the Oregon sculptor, who died in a mountain-climbing accident in 1990, it includes a no-strings cash award plus the purchase of work to add to the ever-growing Bonnie Bronson Collection of art by fellowship winners, housed at Reed College. The award always arrives with a bit of mystery attached: you can’t apply for it, chances are you don’t even know you’re up for it, and notification comes through a simple phone call. Plus, selection puts the winners in a sort of honor roll of working artists in the region.

Left: "Foie Gras," 2007; raku fired ceramic sculpture, 18.5 x 9 x 9 inches. Right: "Brown Bathrobe,"  2014; print on archival paper, broken ceramic sculpture, wood base, epoxy, 18 x 13 x 9 inches.

Left: “Foie Gras,” 2007; raku fired ceramic sculpture, 18.5 x 9 x 9 inches. Right: “Brown Bathrobe,” 2014;
print on archival paper, broken ceramic sculpture,
wood base, epoxy, 18 x 13 x 9 inches.

Coincidentally, Lahti has a new exhibition of sculptures and collages, Battle, on view at her Portland gallery, PDX Contemporary Art, through March 28. A release from Terri Hopkins, recently retired curator of The Art Gym and co-chair of the Bronson fellowships committee, quotes Lahti talking about her current work in small ceramic and paper sculpture: “There are so many figures out there in the world, wearing so many poses and costumes; I find those that resonate and interpret them in clay. Each sculpture expresses an intense inner psychological state, its surface effecting a fluctuating quality, part beautiful, part grotesque.”

The awards have been annual beginning with the first, to sculptor Christine Bourdette, in 1992. Winners since then, chronologically, have been Judy Cooke, Ronna Neuenschwander, Fernanda D’Agostino, Carolyn King, Lucinda Parker, Judy Hill, Adriene Cruz, Helen Lessick, Ann Hughes, Malia Jensen, Christopher Rauschenberg, Kristy Edmunds, Paul Sutinen, Bill Will, Laura Ross-Paul, MK Guth, Marie Watt, David Eckard, Nan Curtis, Pat Boas, Wynne Greenwood, Vanessa Renwick, and Lahti.


TBA:13: Waiting for Isenstein

At the Cooley Gallery: Absence in the form of entertainment

It makes sense that Jamie Isenstein’s “Will Return” at Reed College’s Cooley Gallery is part of PICA’s Time-Based Art Festival. It’s right there in the title of the exhibit, a time marked by absence and anticipation. The most ephemeral of the ephemeral, Limbo, waiting in our theater seats or the remembering as we get up to leave after the applause has died. There is also an element of performance in this exhibit: Something has happened/might happen/happen again. Not a bad concept to center an exhibition upon, especially at one’s alma mater.

I mean, I get it, but I wish I didn’t quite so readily. The show presents a long-standing consideration of what it means to entertain and be entertained, and in that this exhibition has been curated as a survey show, it might also by default represent what happens when a student shows promise, someone sees that potential, accountability and investment to follow.

Magic Fingers/Andrew Kreps Gallery

Magic Fingers/Andrew Kreps Gallery

So, I put myself into a time frame, consider what in the show is early work, and I am prepared to ease up a bit. Yes, “Magic Fingers” (2003) has an appeal, making the frame a small stage for the artist’s disembodied hand (The Addam’s Family’s Thing), or in her absence, a hanging sign that gives us the title of the exhibit. Yet, other pieces like “Inside Out Headshots (Skeleton and Lotion),” which was made the following year, or “Eyehole,” done the year after that, are as straightforward and humorous as one-liner jokes that could be dropped from the set.



Cross-cultural musical ecstasy came to the zoo.

Lazy, hazy? Hardly. Crazy? You bet! Summer used to be the dry time for music as well as everything else ’round these parts. That’s all changing, of course — ask your local farmer — and the same goes for the once-somnolent summer classical music scene.

Now, along with the always appealing Chamber Music Northwest summer festival (about which I’ll have much to say soon), August’s William Byrd Festival, and Portland Piano International (ditto), we have the Oregon Bach Festival‘s welcome incursion into Portland, and tonight, that poses the kind of dilemma that drives PDX music fans madder than Gesualdo.

Do you swing by the Schnitz to hear festival founder and artistic director Helmuth Rilling lead a performance of Beethoven’s mighty Symphony #9, AND see possible Rilling successor Matthew Halls conduct a performance of Handel’s magnificent Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day, which drew rapturous raves from well informed music fans who caught it in Eugene last week? Or do you head down to Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium to hear the Brentano Quartet play some of classical music’s most famous unfinished works — augmented by completions of/responses to those works that the ensemble commissioned from some of today’s finest contemporary composers? It’s a real poser, but you really can’t lose either way. It’s the kind of problem most American cities would love to have.

All this comes on the heels of a week in which music maniacs faced similarly tough choices. Wednesday night’s sizzling (in both musical and atmospheric senses) Bach Festival concert by the incomparable Schola Cantorum de Venezuela at near stifling Trinity Cathedral deprived me of the always engaging 3 Leg Torso, among other attractive shows. A stimulating vocal recital (including the premiere of an ambitious new work by a promising young Portland composer, Justin Ralls) by a potential future star baritone, Nicholas Meyer, at the Old Church (again, more soon) forced me to miss a really appealing CMNW show.

And the very next night, I had to skip the same program AGAIN, thanks to a spectacular Oregon Zoo performance, teeming with the sort of unbridled joy that make music and dancing an essential part of human experience, unleashed by what’s undoubtedly the finest aggregation of so-called “world music” stars on the planet: AfroCubism. The occasional all-star band amalgamates the immense talents of a trio of Africa’s greatest and most influential musicians — kora master Toumani Diabate, Rail Band guitarist Djelimady Tounkara and ngoni virtuoso Bassekou Kouyate, plus lesser-known but no less accomplished fellow Malian music masters — AND Buena Vista Social Club legend Eliades Ochoa (still indisputably one of the finest singers on the globe) and his corps of crack Cuban compatriots. Any one of those luminaries would be worth seeing alone, and together they were absolutely incendiary, exhibiting the kind of joyful cross cultural connection that has always energized music.

At times, I felt as though I were experiencing a musical Rorschach, like those images that look like a lips kissing if you focus on the black part, like two swans or something when you look at the white. I’d listen to a piece and concentrate on some elements, and it sounded like familiar Malian blues, and then focus on, say, the horn section or Ochoa’s voice, and it was suddenly salsa. Which, I guess, was the point. A couple of pieces started off with the same rhythmic figures (it all comes from Africa, like humanity itself), but what the musicians added on top made them sound like they came from two entirely different traditions. It was a fascinating musical and cultural experience. Disappointingly, it was one of only two world music shows at the Zoo this summer, snapping a summer tradition of family friendly global performers that leaves the city’s summer soundscape less diverse.

Nevertheless, though temperatures may be often be cooler than usual out there, musically speaking, we’re already in the midst of one hot summer. The weekend isn’t even over; tomorrow night brings what may be the most appealing — and, alas, sold out — CMNW program of the summer.

And though the most invigorating Bach festival in years is winding down, Tuesday kicks off what may be the most exciting Portland Piano International Festival ever — easily one of the year’s most attractive classical music events.  So maybe this late-arriving summer thing isn’t so bad after all. I mean, geez, have you tasted the strawberries this year?

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