Thursday, July 28, 2011

The motherlode


Walter Isaacs "Horse in Paddock," 1945. Oil on board, 27 5/8" x 31. 5/8" , Tacoma Art Museu, gift of Safeco Insurance, courtesy Tacoma Art Musum

Tacoma Art Museum shows off new gifts from the Safeco collection

The Weekly Volcano, July 27, 2011

Over the past four years, Tacoma Art Museum has acquired more than 400 new works. Many of them were gifts from the Safeco Insurance Company collection, and many of those are currently on exhibit.

Check it out. There's some good stuff here.

The first thing to catch the eye is a large oil painting by Pacific Northwest icon Guy Anderson called "Skimming the Sea." At 6 feet by 6 1/2 feet, with bold, oblong, white forms marching like an army of fish nets across the surface, this is a strong image to welcome viewers to the show.

Works of many styles and media are included: photos, paintings, glass, sculpture; and various degrees of realism, surrealism and abstraction.

There is a nice glass piece by William Morris that stands out because it is so atypical of Morris's work. It is called "Rocks," and it consists of a group of smooth glass stones in a clear green color with incised images of fronds and hieroglyphic-like markings.

The best sculpture by far is a wall-hanging glazed ceramic piece by Paul Martinez called "Bird Series: Cup #3." It is a flattened cup in a large Plexiglas frame that looks like a regular coffee cup, only huge, that has been squashed flat. The surface markings are varied and expressive.

By far the most striking of the abstract paintings in the show is William Ivey's untitled painting that dominates the back wall. It's also the largest painting in the show at nearly 7 1/2 feet by 9 1/2 feet. The sparkling flat surface modulations and subtle color changes in this painting are a feast for the eyes.

I also enjoyed Walter Isaacs‘ "Horses in Paddock." This large painting is like one of Degas' famous racetrack paintings, except that the forms are flatter and there is a tight interweaving of horses and riders as everything juggles jigsaw-like for position in shallow space. Parts of figures and animals seem to separate out and then come together again as you're looking at it. There's a horse to the left that separates into two separate figures; the tail and hind legs become one form that overlaps the separate form of the horse's head and neck. Next to it stands a jockey whose legs and feet look like a horse's legs and hooves. I'm looking at a photo of the painting as I write this, and the longer I look at it the more little surprises I find.

There's a very funny and beautifully composed black and white photograph by Paul Dahlquist called  "Rounds (Michael Taylor)." It is a picture of a nude man seen from the back standing in front of a table full of ceramic pots. The reason it is funny is because the man's butt looks like another of the pots. That's also why it is beautiful, because that is an inspired composition that creates artistic harmony by juxtaposing totally unlike objects (flesh and clay) that nevertheless look very much alike.

William Hoppe's "The Mute Siren" is another excellent abstract painting which interweaves a number of similar forms - forms within forms. There is a square made of smaller light gray and white squares inside a field of light brown, and it is overlapped and interspersed with rows of red, yellow and orange squares, and behind all of this are almost invisible circles.

A similarly effective hard-edge abstraction that is more luminous and which creates an impression of fast movement arrested is Francis Celentano's "Alternating Curve of Isis." I also very much enjoyed the Matisse-like "Untitled (Seated Woman)" by Peter Camfferman, though it is derivative.

There are a lot of marginally good artworks by a lot of marginally famous artists in this show. The show is not intended as a survey of Northwest art of the past century, but it serves as such pretty accurately given the omission of a number of major figures. There are no Mark Tobeys, Fay Jones or Michael Spaffords, for instance, but there is that marvelous William Ivey and the big Guy Anderson.
Collecting for the Future: The Safeco Gift and New Acquisitions

Through January 2012. Wednesday– Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
$8-$10, children 5 and younger free. Third Thursdays free
Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave., Tacoma


Reprinted from the Volcano blog Spew

A friend posted a link on Facebook to an article in Juxtapoz about sculpture by Greek artist Vally Nomidou. When I looked at Nomidou's work the first thing I thought was that her life-size paper figures are like the life-size and larger cardboard figures by Seattle sculpture Scott Fife, who did the giant puppy dog at Tacoma Art Museum.

The opening paragraph in the Juxtapoz article reads, "Using just paper and cardboard, Greek artist Vally Nomidou creates these life-sized sculptures of people. The results are somewhat creepy three-dimensional figures that look almost too lifelike to be sitting in a gallery."

That's a very inaccurate description. Nomidou's figures do not look lifelike at all. But they do look creepy and yet strangely beautiful. If you want to see figures that are "too lifelike to be sitting in a gallery" take a look at works by John DeAndrea or Duwayne Hanson. I once almost bumped into a Hanson sculpture of a workman in the Museum of Modern Art and said "Excuse me" before I realized it wasn't a real person.

Being lifelike does not necessarily make art good, and it's no secret that I get very huffy about people who go all ga-ga over art based on nothing more than the fact it may be made from some unusual material. A piece of sculpture should be judged on how good it is as art not on whether it was made from clay or marshmallows or aardvark intestines.

Nomidou's figures are both creepy and beautiful, lifelike and surrealistic. She has a figure of a standing woman in a bikini wearing some kind of open weave beach jacket over her swimsuit. She is attractive and fashionable, but there is something machine-like protruding from her leg and her neck appears to have been cut and sewn back together a la Frankenstein's monster. There's another one of a little girl sitting on what looks like a weird hospital examination table. She is also broken and stitched back together, and there are strange strands of thread (or something threadlike) all over her body. As Juxtapoz said, these figures are creepy. But there are also newsprint type and dots and floral patterns that can be seen through layers of glass-like transparencies that are quite beautiful.

Seattleite Scott Fife makes portraits of celebrities and historical figures and animals that can also be quite creepy - especially since many of them are just heads detached from bodies and sometimes lying face down. Heads will roll, and in Fife's sculptures they come to rest in sometimes strange ways. As portraiture they are easily recognizable. There's no mistaking Elvis or Winston Churchill or Picasso with horns.

Like the online articles I found on Nomidou, the articles about Fife stress how lifelike his sculptures are and how unusual that they're made from cardboard. What makes them interesting to me is not that they're realistic - they're not - but that they're surrealistic. They're death images regardless of whether the subjects are dead or alive. And the surfaces are intriguing in that they look like clay that hasn't been fired, made of slabs of clay held together by brads. Again, as with Nomidou's figures, there's a Frankenstein's monster quality to these works.

If you haven't seen the big puppy at Tacoma Art Museum, you're missing something pretty amazing, although I think his portraits are more interesting (the best thing about the puppy is its size). If you get a chance to see his work in person, please do. You'll be glad you did.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Four photographers

Among the art exhibits that I wish I could review but can't is the current photography show at Tacoma Community College featuring work by Melanie Johnson, Alice Di Certo, Kyle Dillehay and William Mitchell. You might remember these names from shows at the old Art on Center Gallery (and, if memory serves correctly its successor, AOC Gallery, and that very nice co-op gallery that took its place in the space next door to the Grand after CJ Swanson and David Goldberg migrated to Seattle and before the Grand took over -- one gallery in three incarnations that is greatly missed). Anyway, I remember reviewing these artists before, and I recall that they were quite good.

Although I am unable to review this show, Rosemary Ponnekanti did review it for The News Tribune. You can read her review here.

William Mitchell sent me a digital image of one of his photos. It is called "Tangle With Bracken Fern." It is a close-up of twigs and leaves, and it looks like a Jackson Pollock painting. So much so, in fact, that it seems too obvious to mention. I've seen a lot of attempts at painting Pollock knockoffs, and as easy as it looks like it should be, they never even come close to having the density spatial layering and lyricism and sparkle of a Pollock. Yet this photograph does.

When: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays through Aug. 11

Where: The Gallery at Tacoma Community College, 6501 S. 19th St. (use entrance on South 12th and Mildred streets), Tacoma

Critics Choice

The News Tribune, July 22, 2011

My selections for Critic’s Choice of the best in community theater in South Puget Sound are selected from performances I have reviewed in this column over the past season. My point in doing this is to acknowledge those who are commendable without making it into a winner-takes-all competition, so in many categories I have chosen more than one person or show.
Best Actor in a Musical (male): Glenn Guhr as Sweeny in “Sweeny Todd” at Lakewood Playhouse.
Best Actor in a Musical (female): Co-stars Sharry O’Hare and Emilie Rommel-Shimkus for their work in “Always… Patsy Cline” at Tacoma Little Theatre. Beautiful singing from Rommel-Shimkus and great comic acting from O’Hare.
Best Direction of a Musical: Jon Douglas Rake for “The Drowsy Chaperone” at Tacoma Musical Playhouse.
Best Musical: “The Drowsy Chaperone” at Tacoma Musical Playhouse, with special nod to director Jon Douglas Rake for stepping out of his comfort zone to do a non-singing, non-dancing role.
Best Dramatic Actor (male): Christian Carvajal as the professor in “Oleanna,” a Theater Artists Olympia production at Olympia Little Theatre. Sharing this honor is Steve Tarry as Richard M. Nixon in “Frost/Nixon” at Tacoma Little Theatre.
Best Dramatic Actor (female): Maria Glanz as Emily Dickinson in “The Belle of Amherst” at Centerstage and Samantha Camp as Artie in “Eleemosynary” at Tacoma Little Theatre.
Best Direction of a Drama: Marcus Walker for “My Name is Asher Lev” at Lakewood Playhouse, with special recognition for Pug Bujeaud for “Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol” at Olympia Little Theatre.
Best Drama: “Eleemosynary” at Tacoma Little Theatre.
Best Comic Actor (male): Scott C. Brown as Herb in “The Last Schwartz” at Harlequin Productions. It would be a stretch to call “Schwartz” a comedy but Brown’s comic bits were hilarious. Sharing this honor is Christian Doyle as Alferd Packer in Theater Artists Olympia’s “Cannibal the Musical.”
Best Comic Actor (female): In the no-small-roles category, Christine Goode as LiAnne the horse in Theater Artists Olympia’s “Cannibal the Musical.”
Best Comedy: Theater Artists Olympia’s “Cannibal the Musical.”
Best Supporting Actor: Ryan Holmberg as Bogle in “Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol” at Olympia Little Theatre.
Best Youth Actor in a Drama: Danielle Elizabeth Powell as Echo in “Eleemosynary” at Tacoma Little Theatre.
Best Youth Actor in a Musical: Sierra Campbell-Unsoeld as Carmen in “Fame” at Capital Playhouse.
Best Choreography for a Musical: Jon Douglas Rake for “White Christmas” at Tacoma Musical Playhouse.
Best Set Design: Jill Carter for “Boom" at Harlequin Productions and Will Abrahamse for “Cats” at Tacoma Musical Playhouse.
Most innovative set designs: Scott Campbell and Brie Yost for “Frost/Nixon” at Tacoma Little Theatre and Jill Carter for “Boom” at Harlequin.
Best Lighting: Richard Schaefer for “The Woman in Black” at Centerstage.
Best Costumes: Kathleen Anderson for “Summer in the Sixties” at Harlequin.
Best Ensemble: “The Last Schwartz” at Harlequin Productions: Ann Flannigan, Scott C. Brown, Deya Ozburn, Alison Monda, Casey Brown and David Brown.
Most outstanding singer (female) in a musical or music review: Alison Monda for her performances in “I’m Into Something Good” at Centerstage and “Summer in the Sixties” at Harlequin.
Most outstanding singer (male) in a musical or music review: Stretching this category beyond the world of musical theater, Gregory Conn for his outstanding performances onstage at Capital City Pride in Olympia.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Hot Fusion

“Passage of the Americas-triptych”: Oil on canvas by Scott J. Morgan currently on display at B2 Fine Art Courtesy B2 Fine Art Gallery

Hot summer abstract paintings
The Weekly Volcano, July 21, 2011

Hot colors in bold abstract configurations are the order of the day at B2 Fine Art Gallery/Studio in Hot Fusion: Explorations into Abstraction. Hot Fusion, part one of a two-part show, is currently on display and features works by Todd Clark, Yvette Neumann, Judy Hintz Cox and Scott J. Morgan.

The art is beautifully crafted and well designed, but a wee bit too perfect for my taste - a little too slick and commercial. I prefer a little more rawness, unless it's purposefully cold with a machine-made look such as in hard-edge abstraction, which is a whole different animal from what we see here.

Of the four artists, Neumann has the most expressive style. Her large, two-panel painting, "Inflection," is controlled action in bright colors, with organic shapes flowing as though in a fast-moving river from upper left to lower right. Less bombastic but more nicely unified are a group of three smaller pieces that are predominantly yellow in color. Best of all are a couple of paintings with fields of loosely brushed white and gray with little bits of jagged shapes in many colors of rough and gritty paint that look as if they've been covered with a blanket of snow with little hints of what's hidden underneath peeking out here and there.

Morgan is showing a large group of paintings of interconnected ovoid and other organic shapes in various tones of mostly burnt sienna or brick red contrasted with dull greens and blues and woven together with dark contours, which lends these paintings the look of stained glass windows. There is a wonderfully subdued light effect in many of these.

Cox is showing paintings from two distinct series, one in oil on canvas with heavy impasto, and the other in oil and resin. The oil-and-resin paintings are globs of liquid-like contrasting colors in thick paint that looks as if it has been poured out of a big vat to divide the canvases into one or two large shapes. They are extremely high-gloss. A couple of these suffer from being hung in spaces where you can't get back and view them from a distance, and on these the high gloss surfaces are too reflective. The best of Cox's resin paintings is one with a very subtle field of green in the middle of a huge expanse of white.

Cox's best oil paintings are a couple of very large pieces in which heavy paint breaks the canvas into square and rectangular grids with very subtle collage elements. I didn't make note of the title, but it's the largest of the big, predominantly white paintings in the hallway going toward the back of the gallery. You'll surely recognize it when you see it. Look for large expanses of white with edges made of piled-up paint and small transparent areas with newsprint showing through.

I would encourage architects and decorators to take a look at this show because there are paintings here that would be perfect for banks or corporate headquarters or medical facility waiting rooms - they are very attractive and easy on the eye without being provocative.

Part two of this show, Cold Fusion, will open in November and feature the same artists working with cool tones. And, by the way, if you like the cold look of hard-edge abstraction check out the Safeco collection show at Tacoma Art Museum, which will be the subject of my column next week.
Hot Fusion

Through Aug. 6, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday–Saturday
until 8 p.m. Third Thursdays
B2 Fine Art Gallery/Studios
711 St. Helens Ave., Tacoma

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Elvis in Egypt

Justin Thornton as Joseph and Cherity Harchis as the narrator (right). Photo by Bob Baltzell

“Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” at ASTRA
Over the past four summers I have been privileged to enjoy the annual dinner theater shows from All Saints Theatrical Repertoire Association in Puyallup. For an all-volunteer, small town theater company that does shows in a school gymnasium, they are quite amazing. It’s obvious that they’ve been able to raise a lot of money for their productions over the years, and with hundreds of volunteers (they said over 300 this year) and almost a year to prepare each show, it shouldn’t be a surprise that they go all out.

I remember my initial reaction the first time I went to one of their shows was that they were almost in league with big city theaters like Seattle’s 5th Avenue and Paramount – with a catered dinner to boot.

Having said all of that, I was disappointed that this summer’s production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” was not up to the standard of excellence I’ve come to expect. There were some fun costumes, and the children’s chorus was fun to watch – lots of exuberance and talent – and the lead actors, Justin Thornton as Joseph and Cherity Harchis as the narrator, were marvelous. Beyond that, unfortunately, this show fell flat.

The popular play by the successful team of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice has an interesting history. When first performed in a school in England in 1968, it was only15-minutes long. It was Webber and Rice’s first musical, but not the first to make it to Broadway. There were many, many earlier incarnations of "Dreamcoat," both in England and America. When the music was first released it was billed as a sequel to “Jesus Christ Superstar” (also by Webber and Rice) even though “Dreamcoat” was written first and had very little in common with “Superstar” other than they were both based in Bible stories.

It was a huge hit, and is now a favorite show for many community theaters, schools and churches. Its popularity can be attributed to the wholesome, family-friendly and uplifting story, to its quirky humor, and to its wide variety of musical genres, from calypso to cowboy songs.

Some things such as a parody of Elvis Presley in ancient Egypt can be a delightful surprise the first time you see them, but after the initial surprise wears off it takes some top-notch acting and singing to bring it off, and that doesn’t always happen in this production.

The set designed by Nancy Morris is weak in comparison with the marvelous sets she designed for “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Oliver,” but there are some nice touches to the backdrop paintings, and the lighting by Greg Scott works well.

The orchestra conducted by Mike Lewis is excellent.

The costumes by Diana Scott and Sue Van Slyke run the gamut from outstanding to just silly. Joseph’s coat is wonderfully colorful and fans out like peacock feathers. Among the just silly costumes are the camel (the typical two actors inside with too much of the actors showing) and a little kid as a sheep. Both of them look like something you’d expect to see in a middle school production. Perhaps that was intended as camp, but it didn't work that way.

Harchis is a good narrator. In this version, the narrator is a modern day story teller, perhaps a librarian or school teacher (the script allows for various interpretations of the narrator’s role), and she seems to truly love working with the kids and is very convincing as a mother figure; and she has a strong voice, singing clearly and passionately on tunes such as “Any Dream Will Do.”

Thornton in the lead role as Joseph is amazing. This is a young man who should have a shot at a successful career in musical theater if he wants to pursue it. He has a beautiful, well controlled voice, and he acts with confidence, throwing himself into the role.

The old fashioned cowboy hoedown number "One More Angel in Heaven" is fun but should be more exuberant. The calypso parody of Carmen Miranda, “Benjamin Calypso,” is nicely done. The humor in it rests on the Miranda-type headgear and the oddness of a Calypso number in a Biblical story.

Thornton’s plaintive solo on the soulful "Close Every Door" is a real showstopper. But the songs that are meant to be comic highlights, the seduction scene with Potiphar’s wife and Pharaoh’s Elvis imitations, are not well done at all. The seduction scene is not seductive, and PJ Sirl as Pharaoh does not have the voice or the moves to pull off a good Elvis parody.

Overall, it’s a colorful, big stage spectacle, and Thornton’s performance alone is worth the price of admission.

Dinner shows July 22 and 23, doors open a 6 p.m., dinner served at 6:15, curtain at 7:15
Evening dessert shows (dessert and coffee) July 21 and 27-29
Sunday matinee (dessert and coffee) July 24, doors open at 6 p.m., curtain at 6:30, dessert at intermission.
Tickets $10-$50

O'Brien Hall - the Parish Center and Gym
506 - 3rd Street SW
Puyallup, WA
(253) 579-6192

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


paintings by Becky Knold

Attention area art galleries: You need to show this woman's work.

Published in the Weekly Volcano blog Spew July 19, 2011

Olympia artist Becky Knold is a beginner and pretty much self-taught as a painter. She started painting seriously only five or six years ago, and her only formal training has been a few classes at The Evergreen State College. And now she's one of the best unknown painters in the South Sound area.

I first met Knold about 15 years ago when she came to see my work during a studio tour. She wasn't an artist then and I didn't know she had started painting until just a few months ago when she began posting a few photos of her paintings on Facebook. I was impressed with the few pieces I saw, and I asked if I could see more, and she invited me to visit her home. So my wife and I drove to her home where she had a dozen or so paintings spread out along a dining room wall in preparation for delivery for one of her first ever shows, a group show at Lower Columbia College with three or four other artists.

There were also a number of her paintings hanging on her walls along with paintings by other artists including one by Ron Hinson and another by Gail Wharton Ramsey, two painters whose work I greatly admire. Knold is not only a good painter, she has excellent taste. Oh yes, there was also one of my paintings on her wall, the one she bought at that studio sale 15 years ago. I'd be willing to return the favor and buy one of hers if I wasn't so poor and cheap.

Knold's paintings are abstract and often atmospheric and mysterious, usually very simple in design with a few organic shapes arranged on the canvas, or often landscape-based designs with a ground and horizon line but without recognizable objects, and many made up of roundish and squarish shapes stacked close together. What is most striking about her paintings is the rich surface quality and her awareness of the picture plane and sensitivity to the placement and spacing of objects on a flat surface. These are things that most artists do not develop until after many more years of study and practice than Knold has had since she took up painting.

She also does some fun and funky sculptural figures made of natural materials such as twigs, shells, cloth and hair.

The show at Lower Columbia College runs Aug. 15 to Sept. 15.

In closing I repeat my plea to area art dealers. You need to take a look at this woman's work. It should be more widely exhibited. See more on her website here.

Added notes: I was limited in space for this article. Below are some comments not included in the original. 

Look at the paintings above.  Notice the atmospheric and mysterious qualities. What are these forms? Where are they? Are they floating in space, atmospheric but two-dimensional space or the vast expanse of extraterrestrial space? Notice the contours of the strange pod-like forms at top and how they are simultaneously enclosed and open. Notice the similarity of colors between the pink at top and the red band at the bottom and how the drips and marks in the bottom half resonate with similar marks at top. In the lower painting, notice how the three dark forms are on three different planes: the circular form at top is behind a veil, the dark horizontal shape is flat on the picture plane, and the lower dark shape is on top of the picture plane.

It's sometimes hard to explain what makes some abstract paintings work and others not. It's not just a matter of putting fun shapes and colors on the canvas. It's much more complex than that, as, hopefully, the above paragraph illustrates. Whether consciously thinking about it or reacting intuitively, I have no doubt that Becky Knold, on some level, was aware of those things while she was making these paintings.

New World Waking

“New World Waking” stars composer Steve Schalchlin with Josh Anderson, aka Saul Tannenbaum; Lauren O’Neal of Tush Burlesque fame; Christina Collins, aka Mona Van Horn; and students from South Puget Sound Community College. It is a fundraiser for PFLAG-Olympia.

As a professional theater critic I must be unbiased in writing about this upcoming show even though I am the current president of PFLAG-Olympia, and even though Steve is an old friend. My professional reputation is at stake.

To hell with that. I love Steve Schalchlin, and I can’t wait to see him perform again, and if you miss this show you’ll be missing a rare and amazing show.

Steve first made friends with my wife, Gabi, about 15 years ago when he was searching online for information on PFLAG. She mentioned she was a member of the organization on her single page website dedicated to the memory of our son Bill, and they began exchanging emails. At the time Steve was a singer/songwriter who had written the lyrics for an autobiographical musical called “The Last Session” about a singer/songwriter who is dying of AIDS (the book of the play was written by his partner, Jim Brochu). Steve sent Gabi an audio tape of his music; we listened to it and were blown away. The lyrics were hilarious, heartbreaking and angry; and the music was a blending of gospel, rock and show tunes.

Soon after that he found a producer for his play and it opened off-off Broadway. The play got rave reviews and was extended. Steve started on new AIDS medications that brought him back from the edge, to what he refers to as “Living in the Bonusround” and eventually TLS went to an off-Broadway theater and then toured the country with performances in Laguna Beach, Los Angeles, Houston, Baltimore, Denver and other cities.

“The Last Session” was nominated for Best Musical by the New York Drama League and the New York Outer Critics Circle. It received five Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle awards including Best Production, Best Book, Best Music & Lyrics and Best Supporting Actress in a Musical, Michele Mais. It also received Outstanding Los Angeles Theatre Production by the prestigious GLAAD Media Awards along with the PFLAG-LA Oscar Wilde Award for promoting understanding through the arts. And Steve was nominated for an L.A. Ovation award for Best Lead Actor in a Musical.

I saw “The Last Session” in Laguna Beach. By then we had already become close friends with Steve, so I was not unbiased. The show rocked.

Following TLS, Steve and Jimmy wrote and starred in the hit two-person musical, “The Big Voice: God or Merman,” about a Catholic boy torn between wanting to be the next Ethel Merman or the first American Pope, and his partner, a gay Missionary Baptist from Arkansas. 

This will not be Steve’s first performance in Olympia. He’s performed here three previous times for PFLAG fundraisers, and each time his performances were electrifying. His music and his story telling are funny and passionate.

In 2007 he also came to Olympia to play the piano John Lennon composed “Imagine” on -- a little cigarette-scarred upright -- for an intimate audience of friends on a sunny day in May underneath a tree on our front lawn. The singer George Michael and his partner, Dallas gallery owner Kenny Goss, bought Lennon’s piano and sent it on a peace mission to places where acts of violence have occurred on the anniversary of that occurrence, such as Dealey Plaza in Dallas, where John F. Kennedy was shot, and the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City that was blown up by Timothy McVeigh. Among those sites was our home where our son Bill committed suicide as the result of a gay bashing. When Michael and Goss read Bill's story on the Internet  they were touched and wanted to bring the piano here.

When Steve played “Imagine” and the song he wrote about our son Bill, “Will It Always Be Like This?” he turned a memorial to that moment of tragedy into a moment of shared joy. And he said it was that moment that inspired him to write a suite of songs dedicated to peace which became “New World Waking.”

“New World Waking” was first presented in 2008 by the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus at Davies Symphony Hall with Academy Award-nominated actress, Piper Laurie and Tony award-winner Jennifer Holliday. It has since been performed in both major concert halls and small cabaret-style settings in Miami, New York and other locations.

In Olympia, Steve and guests will do the complete score of “New World Waking” and favorites from his hit musicals, “The Last Session” and “The Big Voice.”

WHEN: Friday July 29th and Saturday, July 30th at 8 p.m.

WHERE: The Kenneth J. Minnaert Center for the Arts Black Box Theater, South Puget Sound Community College, 2011 Mottman Road SW, Olympia, WA 98512

TICKETS: $20 general admission, $10 SPSCC students.

More information about Steve and these concerts:

The benefit is for PFLAG, the nation's foremost family-based organization committed to the civil rights of gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender persons and promotes the health and well-being of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons, their families and friends through: Support to cope with an adverse society, Education to enlighten an ill-informed public, and Advocacy to end discrimination and to secure equal civil rights. PFLAG-Olympia welcomes all allies, straight and GLBTQ.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

A bit of foolishness

I don't know what moved me to write this. Just some random thoughts that came to me while taking my morning bath.

I love a certain kind of silly hyperbole in musical lyrics. Trivial things given ridiculous importance. Such as when Neal Young wails with soulful intensity that a man needs a maid. Or, on a smaller scale but definitely one of my favorite silly lyrics: when The Roches, singing of romantic longing, sing "I'd like to think of you as somebody I'd put my teeth in for."

Or the greatest absurd lyrics of all time, from "MacArthur Park":

Someone left the cake out in the rain
I don't think I can take it
'Cause it took so long to bake it
And I'll never have that recipe again.

There's nothing subtle about ‘Cats'

Chris Serface as Bustopher Jones and the cast of "Cats" 
Photo by Kat Dollarhide

The News Tribune, July 15, 2011
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats” is one of the most popular musicals of all time.

It won six Tony awards and had the second longest run on Broadway. It is also the most joked about musical ever, the epitome of everything outlandish and presumptuous about Broadway musicals, and has been called the most overrated musical of all time – even by the person who is now producing and directing it for Tacoma Musical Playhouse.

It’s easy to see why people love it, and it is equally easy to see why so many make fun of it.

The music, dancing, costumes and set are all big in every sense of the word, combining for the kind of spectacle that TMP thrives on. But the story, while filled with high drama and quirky playfulness, is almost impossible to follow, a problem that is made worse because many of the lyrics are hard to hear. Among the huge cast, only Micheal O’Hara, Chris Serface, Karen Christensen and one or two others can be clearly heard. The rest are often either drowned out by the orchestra and chorus or they garble their words.

The music by Webber and David Cullen is wonderful and wide-ranging in style with hints of every musical genre from jazz to opera, played flawlessly by Jeff Stvrtecky and his orchestra.

The costumes designed by Janet English are wild, with multi-colored, skin-tight tights, long tails, big hair and even bigger coats.

The lavish set by Will Abrahamse is one of the biggest and best ever seen at the Narrows Theatre. The set is a junkyard at night with a huge moon and bright stars in the background. Everything from junk cars to tires and an old-fashioned child’s drum are hung to give the impression of how they would look to the cats. Never mind that the scale is totally out of whack – with, for instance, a car tire almost as big as the car next to it and a drum of the type used in the Revolutionary War that is even bigger than that monster tire – the overall effect is stunningly beautiful. It is like the barricade set in “Les Misérables” if done with whimsy.

Also outstanding are the lighting by John Chenault and the choreography by director Jon Douglas Rake with assistance from Lexi Scamehorn.

“Cats” is a poetic and musical re-interpretation of T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.” It’s not so much a play as it is a musical revue with lots of dancing and a bit of magic. There is even one number near the end of the first act, “Song of the Jellicles and the Jellicle Ball,” which begins with a singer then turns into a long instrumental song with elaborately choreographed but abstract movement.

The cast is huge with 28 named cast members, many of whom have solos. None of the characters can quite be said to have lead or starring roles, but there are a few who stand out. Among these are Christensen, O’Hara, John Kelleher and Steve Barnett.

Christensen plays Grizabella, the old gray cat who left the junkyard they call home only to later return and find herself ostracized by the others. Her solos on “Grizabella: The Glamour Cat” and later on “Memory” with Mauro Bozzo as Munkustrap and Kim Lavoie as Demeter are among the saddest and strongest musical numbers in the show. Interestingly, Grizabella is the only character in the play that doesn’t look like a cat. Despite her tail, she is costumed not as a cat but as a bag lady with a ratty fur coat.

The only other time when the cats step out of their catness is when O’Hara as Gus, The Theatre Cat, and company perform as cat actors playing human roles. O’Hara is breathtaking in this show-stopping, two-part production number. With yowling and screeching and lovely singing, O’Hara shows that he’s a consummate actor as well as a great singer. Beginning as a palsied former actor way past his prime, he transforms himself back to his former glory in a highly stylized swashbuckling scene with pirates and Chinamen.

John Kelleher as Old Deuteronomy sings beautifully on the climactic number “The Ad-dressing of Cats,” and Barnett as the sexy tomcat Rum Tum Tugger has campy moves that are a joy to watch.

Many performances are already sold out, so call for tickets early. If you go to the theater without advance tickets, you may not get in.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday through July 31.
WHERE: Tacoma Musical Playhouse at The Narrows Theatre, 7116 Sixth Ave., Tacoma
TICKETS: $20-$27
INFORMATION: 253-565-6867,

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Lost and found

Mina Quevli, circa 1930. Gelatin silver print. Collection of the Washington State Historical Society, gift of the estate of Virna Haffer

"Franz Brasz, the Artist." A Virna Haffer photo from 1937. Collection of the Washington State Historical Society/Gift of the Virna Haffer Estate

Tacoma photography legend Virna Haffer
The Weekly Volcano, July 13, 2011

The exhibition of photos by Virna Haffer at Tacoma Art Museum is a marvel. I had no idea what to expect heading into the gallery to see these works by an artist I had never heard of, and it was like wandering into a studio shared by the greatest photographers of the early modern period, including Alfred Stieglitz, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Diane Arbus and Man Ray.

Haffer, a self-taught artist from Tacoma whose career began in the 1920s, gained international prominence and then was lost to history. The TAM curatorial team of Margaret Bullock, Christina Henderson and David Martin searched through more than 30,000 of Haffer's negatives, prints and woodblocks to put together this astonishing exhibition.

Other than the overall excellent quality of the work, two things impressed me: first, Haffer's wide range of styles and her wild innovation and second, the graphic quality of her photographs. There is a brittle quality to these mostly high-contrast black-and-white photographs that make them look like drawings or etchings. This graphic quality is enhanced because there are some woodblock prints in the show and at least one photo of an artist, Franz Brasz, posed in front of one of his drawings. The Brasz portrait looks more like graphic art than photography, even though his face is clearly a photo. The artist's pained expression and wildly mussed hair, along with his pose in relation to the drawing, make this photo a precursor to the work of more recent portrait photographers such as Annie Leibovitz.

Haffer produced documentary photographs and almost conventional portraits and beautifully composed studio nudes with washed-out features and dark edges that make them look like strong contour drawings or dramatic silhouettes. And she produced a range of amazingly inventive surrealistic photographs.

She created many photograms, a process of creating images without a camera by placing objects on chemically treated paper and exposing them to light. Haffer called the process painting with light. Some of the photograms are surrealistic, and some are purely abstract, such as "Abstract #2," which looks like a Franz Kline painting with a big eye in it.

She also experimented with many odd angles and light effects and distortions, thus making many of her photos look like modernist paintings. Some are so wildly distorted that they seem to have been Photoshopped before there was any such thing.

Some of the more experimental works look a little dated now but were obviously out there on the edge when first created. The best works in the show are not the more experimental works, they are the portraits and the nudes, which, although apparently conventional, are beautifully and dramatically composed. One of the most striking of these is "Mina Quevli," a 1930 portrait of a beautiful woman with short hair lighting a cigarette. This image seems to me to capture the spirit of the jazz age.

This is a wonderful show, and it is just one of three new exhibitions at TAM. I'm also told, although I haven't seen it yet, that there is a catalog available. A catalog of Haffer photos would be something wonderful to have and hold.
A Turbulent Lens

Through Oct. 16, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday
10 a.m. to 8 p.m. third Thursdays, $8-$9
Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave., Tacoma

Old folks

"Six": Papermate pen and pencil by Bob Gillis, 
courtesy Art House Designs.

The Weekly Volcano blog Spew, July 12, 2011

The name of the latest show at Art House Designs in Olympia is "Three old guys and one old lady."

The good thing about old folks is they've been at it long enough to get good. Olympia painters Dale Witherow, Bob Gillis, Ron Hinson and Georgia Munger prove it with this show.

Witherow is a pure abstract expressionist. Young people might think that AE died way back in the '60s, which by now is also ancient history, but I'm one old guy who thinks the Abstract Expressionists were the best painters America ever produced and the movement will never die. Witherow paints light and movement - not angst, which AE is known for, but unbridled joy, with heavily layered and exuberantly brushed impasto and sparkling glazes. I've seen a lot of Witherow's paintings over the years, but there are some in this show unlike any I've seen before, including a painting of a single flower in a long-stemmed vase (imagine a flower as painted by Cy Twombly if you can) and a repetitive pattern of squares with letters reminiscent of some early Jasper Johns paintings.

The best of his work in this show is one called "Faded Glories," which has random blotches or circular marks both painted and scratched into the surface  of a pattern of overlapping white-on-white glazes (actually pink and gray, but it feels like layered sheets of snow and ice) and the mark making is like that of the above-mentioned Twombly, one of the last of the greats who died just last week.

Hinson is represented by a series of highly inventive and humorous illustrations from "Alice in Wonderland" and two powerful charcoal drawings from his series of mythology drawings, "Birth of Adonis" and "Prometheus Bound." These have been shown in other exhibitions, and I've reviewed them before. They are outstanding in both conception and execution.

Gillis is showing a suite of eight pencil and ink drawings titled "One," "Two," "Three"... and so forth up to "Eight."  These are totally unlike anything I've ever seen from him, more like graphic illustrations than the abstract paintings he's known for. They are highly stylized, high-contrast, black and white pictures of fronds, trees, flowers, and one of a flock of birds.

Munger is known around Olympia for her paintings of crows, but there's nary a crow in anyone of her little pastel drawings in this show. There are, however, one of two other birds and a horse, and a lot of abstract paintings with bright colors - some of which are based on landscape and remind me of Wolf Kahn and others which are arrangements of organic and geometric forms on a flat surface. My favorites are the landscapes, although there's something really enjoyable about that silly looking horse.

Art House Designs has expanded and renovated its gallery space in the past year providing a nice venue for some good art from three old guys and one old lady. See them at the corner of Fifth and Franklin in downtown Olympia through July 21.

[Art House Designs, Three old guys and one old lady," 420 Franklin St SE # B, Olympia, 360.943.3377]

Monday, July 11, 2011


Theater Artists Olympia does Mamet's "Oleanna"

In his book of theater criticism ““How Good is David Mamet Anyway?” John Heilpern writes:

“…the occasional hand to hand combat that broke out among warring factions in the audience following his drama of sexual harassment, ‘Oleanna,’ provocation seems to be the name of the game. …Mr. Mamet infuriates us knowingly. His psychological power plays, the repressed undercurrents of anxiety and simmering violence, the oblique, disjointed Mametspeak that has become his signature style, are meant to dislocate and disturb us.”

Yes, there have been reports of hand to hand combat among patrons following early performances of Mamet’s “Oleanna.” And yes, “Mametspeak” is an accepted term common among people who discuss theater.

“Oleanna” is a deliberately provocative play. It was written purportedly as a sympathetic look into sexual harassment in academia, but Mamet, who has been called chauvinistic, has been accused of turning the victim into the victimizer and patrons have waged war over the two characters.

A female college student, Carol (played by Deya Ozburn in Theater Artists Olympia’s production at Olympia Little Theatre) accuses her professor, John (Christian Carvajal) of sexual harassment. Since the play first opened in 1992 audiences have argued about which of these characters is right. Carol accuses her professor of harassment and attempted rape, an accusation that will surely destroy his career. Is he guilty or innocent? Is she a victim or has she falsely accused him, and if so for what purpose?

Director John Munn said that most productions have weighed more heavily in favor of the professor as the one who is being wronged, and Carol as a manipulative woman who is making false accusations, but Munn presents it in a more evenhanded way through directorial choices without changing Mamet’s words, letting the audience decide whose side they are on. He even asks audience members to vote their choice in the lobby after seeing the play.

Before writing more about this particular production, a few words about Mametspeak are called for. Obviously the term refers to a manner of speaking (or more literally writing dialog) that is so strongly associated with Mamet that it has taken on his name. In normal conversation, and most especially when confused or upset, people seldom speak in clear and logical sentences. They stammer, they repeat themselves, they cut sentences off midway and they interrupt one another. It’s not pretty, but it’s real.

It can be very frustrating to sit through two hours (with two 10-minute intermissions) of two characters arguing, misunderstanding each other, shouting at each other and being constantly interrupted not only by each other but by a constant stream of infuriating phone calls (Munn updated this version to use cell phones, thereby allowing his actors to be more mobile). It may be frustrating, but it is highly charged dramatic entertainment. And I use the word “entertainment” in its broadest sense.

Mametspeak must be hard to memorize, and with only two actors to share the burden learning their lines must have been an almost impossible task. But the nature of their speech patterns with all their backtracking and repetition and broken sentences makes it such that if either of them dropped lines it would be hard to tell, and Carvajal and Ozburn are good enough that they could easily cover for each other. I noticed only one tiny moment when Carvajal seemed to have stumbled on a line and quickly recovered. But who knows? Mamet may have written it that way.

Both actors do a great job. I expected them to because they’ve each proven their acting abilities in other performances, Ozburn most recently in “The Last Schwartz” at Harlequin and Carvajal in “Frost-Nixon” at Tacoma Little Theatre. I must say that they did not let me down - they exceeded my expectations in thoroughly inhabiting these difficult roles. Anyone who has been to college has known people just like Carol and the professor, and Carvajal and Ozburn play them so naturally and with such spot-on gestures, voices and body language that we feel we know these people. We can picture John at home with his wife and Carol at ease when she is with her fellow students, and feel the tension and confusion and anger as they confront one another in the electrified atmosphere of his office.

I’ve seen “Oleanna” only one other time, at Evergreen Playhouse in Centralia with Sara Henry as Carol and John Pratt as the professor. In that performance the characters went through noticeable changes in posture and demeanor with costume changes to enhance these changes. At the beginning Carol was hesitant and shy, and the professor was arrogant and full of himself; and as the play progressed she became more self-assured and he fell apart. In this version similar changes take place, but they are much more subtle and more natural.

This is some of the best acting I’ve seen this year.

This is an intelligent play that explores complex issues and opens up a multitude of possible interpretations. The language is harsh but without the over use of curse words which Mamet is known for - as in “Glengarry Glen Ross” as a prime example. There is also some violence that might be shocking to some viewers. It is not a play for children nor is it a play for squeamish adults.

When:  8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, through July 24
WHERE: Olympia Little Theatre, 1925 Miller Ave., NE, Olympia
Tickets: $12 at the door or at

See Molly Gilmore's article in The Olympian.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Bare-bones painting

Break O' Day" A painting by Susan Christian 
on display at Childhood's End Gallery. 
Photo courtesy Childhood's End Gallery

Susan Christian at Childhood’s End Gallery
The Weekly Volcano, July 6, 2011
I've been keeping up with Susan Christian's career for more than 20 years, and during that time I have watched her art change so gradually that it's like watching a mountain grow. I think she has finally reached her maturity as a painter. Her latest works - simple, bare-bones, abstract paintings of doorways and windows and corners of starkly empty rooms - are by far the best I have seen from her yet. They are now on display, along with brass and copper sculptures by Ron Hinton, at Childhood's End Gallery.

Also on display from Christian are a number of other paintings of curtains from a couple years back - odd little paintings of edges of curtains, some placed at extreme distances on either end of absurdly long canvases and others in conjunction with, in one painting, a pair of cut-off legs, and in another a window opened to a view of a black sea and a peach colored sky. These two are the best of the curtain paintings. The long paintings with so much space between the curtains are uncomfortable to look at because the viewer is forced to mentally connect objects that are too far apart in the painting to be part of a single composition. I don't know if that is the intention or not, but it doesn't work for me.

But the sparse interior scenes of windows and doors work wonderfully. They affect me in the way of an Edward Hopper painting or an Adolph Gottlieb or a Barnett Newman. They are minimalist to an extreme, in some cases no more than two flat rectangles centered in white space. But they offer mystery, a sense of deep spirituality, a playfulness of spatial relationships and a consummate artist's sensitivity to paint handling and awareness of edge.

This last quality, awareness of edge, is something I've come to associate with maturity as an artist. It is something artists develop only after years of work, and it's something I seldom saw in Christian's work prior to this latest series of paintings.

"The Upside of Loss" and "The Morning" each picture a flat rectangle that seems to be standing upright on an invisible ground with its shadow or another rectangle of a different color on a different plane jutting outward underneath it. In one of them there is the most subtle of hints of a line indicating the junction of floor and wall, as if the upright rectangle is standing against a wall and its reflection is on the floor. Paint is applied in a variety of ways within the parts of these pictures. Flat here, brushy there, scumbled and scraped in one area and liquid and mottled in another area.

"The Wound" and "Chagrin D'Amour" are pictures of partially opened doorways painted on dark backgrounds with hints of reflections as if they are standing on glass. These are portals to nowhere, mysterious doorways to infinity afloat in space. In these paintings the colors are darker and slightly heavier than in the others.

One of the best is "The Squirrel," an abstract painting of a part of a wall and floor with wonderfully scumbled white-on-white paint application.

The variations of hue and value, and contrasts of paint application and edge are so subtle in these paintings that they have to be seen in person and studied carefully to be appreciated.

Ron Hinton's sculptures are small etched brass and copper pieces with angular planes of metal and decorative surface etchings. They are well constructed but seem to me like studies rather than finished work. They look like they should be much larger and the surface decoration, while interesting in itself, seems superfluous.

through July 24, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday–Saturday
11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday
Childhood’s End Gallery
222 Fourth Ave. W., Olympia