Saturday, August 27, 2011

Loving "The Help"

I can’t help it, I loved “The Help” – both the book and the movie – in spite of some obvious flaws. The biggest flaw was the whole concept of the snooty bitches club (not the real name) – a bunch of spoiled, rich, self-centered and superficial women lorded over by a despicable and underhanded queen bee. Sure, it’s fun to pepper the film with a bunch of socialites we can love to hate, but it’s been done way too often and it’s not realistic. Not even for Jackson, Mississippi when JFK was in the White House and KKK-and White Citizens Council-loving Ross Barnett was occupying the governor’s mansion. Even for that time and place it is a gross exaggeration. But Bryce Dallas Howard is wonderful as the hateful queen bee, “Hilly.” It’s such a joy to see her get her comeuppance. And boy, does she ever get it!

The story is set at about the time I was a senior in high school or maybe a freshman in college in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, 90 miles south of Jackson. Ours was a middle class family. Like most middle class families in the South back then, we had a maid. But no one in our family and, as best I can remember, none of the families of my friends ever treated their maids so horribly. I’m not saying it didn’t happen in some homes, but I never saw it. What I did observe and what I believe most white Southerners of my generation can attest to is that there was a kind of paternalistic relationship between whites and their black hired help that was for the most part unintentionally demeaning but not mean spirited.

I certainly can’t deny that racism was rampant. It was every bit as bad as depicted in this and other films about the South from “To Kill a Mockingbird” to “Mississippi Burning.”  But as rampant and institutionalized as racism was, we have to realize that books and movies have to be dramatic; they tend to take the exception and present it as the norm, so a few rednecks and a few sleazy politicians stand for society as a whole. “The Help” does it in spades.

The white families I knew were nothing like the white families in “The Help.” But I didn’t grow up in Jackson and I’m aware that there was a segment of society in parts of Mississippi, most notably in Jackson and the Delta, that was totally different and maybe a little more extreme than the rest of the state. So maybe the society Kathryn Stockett wrote about was more typical than I think. I did run into one or two women in Mississippi who were almost as snooty as Hilly and her friends, but none who were quite so mean. None of the people I knew were quite as wealthy as some of these families, and maybe the upper crust were more like these people; but I had an aunt and uncle who lived in Jackson and were extremely wealthy, and my aunt did all the cooking and house cleaning herself. If they even had a maid she was part-time, and I never saw her on any of our many visits.

In the book much more than in the movie it was shown that not all white-black relationships were so demeaning. There were a few healthy relationships as well, which was barely implicated in the movie when all the maids came forward to tell their stories.

Another thing that didn’t ring true was the army of maids in their identical uniforms catching the bus every morning to go to work for their white women. That was almost surrealistic. I never saw any such thing in Mississippi. When I lived there maids wore simple house dresses – more often than not hand-me-downs from their employers – not uniforms.

Yet another thing that seemed something of a cliché and not realistic was the repeated establishment shots of a lone car racing down the dirt road between fields on the way to Skeeter’s ancestral home. Weren’t there scenes like those in “Hud” and in “Giant”? I can’t remember for sure, but it seems I’ve seen those scenes many times in other movies, and it looked more like the Delta than anything close to Jackson.

Throughout the movie I kept thinking of Steven Spielberg. It wasn’t directed by Spielberg but it seemed to me that the director, Tate Taylor, was highly influenced by him. It had the same look and style as many of Spielberg’s films, most notably “The Color Purple.” Taylor, by-the-way, was born and raised in Jackson.

One final personal observation:  The idea of forcing maids to use separate bathrooms may have been something a person as nasty as Hilly would have done, but if the implication was intended to be that it was a common practice, that’s a huge exaggeration. Our maid used the same bathroom we used for the simple reason that it was the only one we had. Separate public bathrooms were the law of the land, but not typical in private homes. On the other hand, the crazy myth that blacks had special Negro diseases that could be caught by white folks if they weren’t careful… that and similar myths were common when I was growing up in Mississippi. I even heard, as a worst case example, that black men were more afraid of knives than guns because they had thick skulls that bullets wouldn’t penetrate. Why anyone would believe such an absurd thing is now beyond me. But that and similar myths were fairly common. Which leads me to the realization that maybe I’m totally wrong after all and nothing that could be said about white society in Mississippi in 1960 could possibly be too absurd to be believed.

Enjoy the movie, but don’t eat the pie.

Take that, you (expletive) philatelist!

Brian Hatcher as Sterling and Dennis Rolly as Phil in Harlequin Productions' "Mauritius" - photo by Roderick Campbell

The News Tribune, Aug. 26, 2011


When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays through Sept. 10
Where: State Theater, 202 E. Fourth Ave., Olympia
Tickets: prices vary, call for details. 360-786-0151;

Billed as a comic thriller and “a funny, fascinating and riveting excursion into the dangerous world of stamp collecting,” Theresa Rebeck’s “Mauritius” is a wonderful contemporary drama filled with psychological twists worthy of the best of whodunits. It has elements of a mystery, but it’s not a mystery. It’s an emotional clash of wills between two almost estranged sisters and a trio of philatelists, each one probably out to con the others out of a fortune.

Rebeck, one of America’s up-and-coming playwrights, cut her teeth on crime dramas writing for “NYPD Blue.” That experience shows in her tight plot construction and her ability to create mesmerizing characters.

Writing for The New York Times on the occasion of the Broadway premiere of “Mauritius” in 2007, Robert Simonson said there was at least one betrayal per scene. He quoted the playwright as saying, “I’m actually interested in poor behavior. ... I’m interested in what drives people to poor behavior. I do believe that there are monsters out there, and that they are monsters.”

There’s a lot of bad behavior and a lot of, shall I say, colorful language. Rebeck uses certain words so liberally that Harlequin Productions repeatedly refers in their promotional material to the use of an often-censored word. Artistic Director Scot Whitney refers to it in his curtain speech, and there is even an essay on the meaning and use of the word posted on the wall in the lobby. So if you’re easily offended by gritty language, don’t see “Mauritius,” but if you can take it when it is not just gratuitous, then take a chance because it’s part of what makes these characters real.

Three of the five outstanding cast members are making their Harlequin debut in this play. Duane Deering, who plays Dennis, comes from Dallas, Texas. Kelli Mohrbacher, as Jackie, recently returned to the Seattle area after spending time in Los Angeles. And Alexandra Novotny, as Mary, majored in theater at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. Brian Hatcher, who plays the gangster-businessman Sterling, is known locally for his performance in Harlequin’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and Dennis Rolly as the cagey stamp appraiser, Phil, may well be the best known actor in Olympia, having performed in nearly 70 shows up and down the Interstate 5 corridor (including a recent amazing performance in “Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol” at Olympia Little Theatre).

Jackie, who is nowhere near the nave lamb as she at first seems to Dennis, inherits a stamp collection from her grandfather. She asks Phil to appraise it, but Phil – who does his best to ignore her despite stubborn insistence on her part – refuses to even look at her stamps unless she pays a substantial fee. Then his friend Dennis steps up and says he’ll look at her stamps and not charge her anything. He quickly discovers that she has two rare stamps worth more money than she can ever dream of.

The plot thickens when Jackie’s half-sister, Mary, claims the stamps belong to her and when Sterling enters the picture. He’s the slick and seedy businessman Dennis contracts with to buy the stamps. Dennis warns Jackie not to cross Sterling, who is passionate and dangerous. Everyone throws verbal barbs, and even a couple of fists are thrown as the tension builds to the boiling point. Soon it seems that almost everybody is trying to con everybody else and it’s almost impossible to tell the good guys from the bad guys. Yet, with all these twists, it is easy to follow the plot.

Finally, everything is resolved in a twist ending that is both satisfying and uplifting.

This is a terrific play, well written, well acted and nicely directed by David Nail.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

"Parenthetically Speaking"

Mildred Howard punctuates the Museum of Glass

Punctuation. Mildred Howard knows it’s important. Photo by Duncan Price/courtesy Museum of Glass
The Weekly Volcano, Aug. 25, 2011

The problem with conceptual art is that it usually expresses a single idea, and once you get the idea there's not much left to look at. That is almost but not quite what happens with Parenthetically Speaking: It's Only a Figure of Speech, the new Museum of Glass exhibition of work by San Francisco-based artist Mildred Howard - known to MOG patrons as the artist who did the red glass house and pool full of red glass apples that was installed outdoors when the gallery first opened.

Like her earlier installation, Blackbird in a Red Sky (a.k.a. Fall of the Blood House). this show is very, very red. And very stark. The gallery walls are filled with 40 glass punctuation marks, proofreading symbols and musical notes, all in deep candy apple red and black and done in a Pop Art-minimalist fashion.

What can be more emphatic than a bright red exclamation point hanging on the wall? What more than a red semicolon inside a pair of curly brackets can cause you to stop in your tracks, if even for just a moment?

These works are attractive and intriguing in small ways. They make you wonder. The show, taken as a whole, can be viewed as a single statement conveying a single thought, or individual pieces can be viewed separately or in various groupings to convey other possible meanings. For example, ellipses lead the viewer around a corner and into the gallery as if the whole show is a follow-up to a partial statement. Along one wall there are opening and closing quotation marks with a lot of space in between - quoting nothing. And there are groupings of marks that if read out loud or mentally pronounced constitute little concrete poems. Noticing these things is fun. But the joke is ultimately on us because they don't say anything. Or maybe we just don't get it.

The works in this show were inspired by the poem "At the End" by Quincy Troupe. The poem uses punctuation as metaphor. A comma, a pause, perhaps to regroup; a period at the end, death or perhaps a new beginning. If Howard's glass punctuation marks are metaphors their meanings are less obvious. "Life is a series of questions," she says.  "As soon as you answer one, you're on to the next."

Are they a big joke? Do they relate to and add to the iconography of Pop artists the likes of Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg? Do they question the very meaning and purpose of art and life as did works of similar pseudo banality such as Duchamp's "Fountain" and Magritte's "Ceci ne'st pas un pipe"? Or are they just cute and playful and devoid of any greater meaning? Howard wants viewers to decide for themselves. I vote for cute and playful.

Also showing at MOG is a wonderful installation by Ingalena Klenell and Beth Lipman, Glimmering Gone. This wonderland of glass should be seen by everyone. The museum is also continuing with the very enjoyable kid's glass show, not to mention Fertile Ground: Recent Masterworks from the Visiting Artist Residency Program. Finally, check out a new group of photographs by Tacoman Peter Serko of the museum itself as seen in various seasons and lighting conditions and with varying installations from the museum's founding in 2006 until the present time.

Parenthetically Speaking: It’s Only a Figure of Speech
Through April 2012,10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday
Noon to 5 p.m. Sunday, $5-$12
Museum of Glass, 1801 Dock St. Tacoma

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Trees and bodies

Vladimir Shakov and Chris Wooten at Sandpiper Gallery

Silver gelatin print from the Drawing Room series by Vladimir Shakov Photo courtesy Sandpiper Gallery

You get the feeling husband and wife artists Vladimir Shakov and Chris Wooten inspire and influence each other - even though their artworks have nothing in common. In their joint exhibition at Sandpiper Gallery, Shakov shows shimmering photos of nudes wrapped in semi-transparent fabrics complemented by Wooten's wire tree sculptures.

As pure art this show is not as impressive as, say, the Mark Bennion show at Traver or the Virna Haffer show at Tacoma Art Museum. It's a different kind of art that needs to be judged by different criteria. Wooten's sculptures are more in the line of decorative craft objects (and viewed as such are very well done), but do not stand up as pure sculpture. Shakov's photos fall more in the line of pure art. In fact, they compare favorably with some of Haffer's more experimental works as well as in comparison with other contemporary photographers. After seeing five or six of them, however, you begin to think, "OK, I get it" and you want to see something more.

By wrapping his models in shimmering materials and printing the photos with an equally radiant silver gelatin process, Shakov gives his figures an otherworldly and futuristic look. We get the feeling we're looking at naked alien women emerging from death into life on some distant planet. The metallic material distorts the figure in fascinating ways while the slight transparency allows the viewer to see it's still human.

Shakov draws into many of his photographs, juxtaposing drawn figures with photographed figures. In the best of these the drawn figures reflect without actually mimicking the poses of the photographed models. The strongest of the ones without the addition of drawing are "Chic in Sheets #2" and its companion piece on the opposite wall, "Chic in Sheets #4." The placement of the figures, the balance of figure and ground, and the strong and simple vertical composition in these are very nice.

Wooten's sculptures are of trees - made of twisted wire, beads, shells, feathers and other materials. She writes that each recalls a specific time, place or tree "of personal significance."

Many of Wooten's sculptures are tree people with faces that are not noticeable at first glance and branches and leaves sprouting out of shoulders and heads. The most person-like of all is "Memory of Trees," featuring beautiful iridescent blue, purple and green leaves made from beetle wings. Another piece I like a lot is "Tropical Canopy Tree," which has parrot feathers for leaves. The color choices on this one are very nice.

Vladimir Shakov and Chris Wooten

Through Sept. 3, noon to 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday or by appointment
Sandpiper Gallery, 2221 N. 30th St., Old Town Tacoma

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The hills of Sumner are alive with The Sound of Music

The Sound of Music
August 13 – 28, 2011
ManeStage Theatre Company

by Michael Dresdner

All things considered, “The Sound of Music” at ManeStage has more to recommend it than mar it. In the face of weak acting and some awkward blocking, what saves it is the fact that it is a musical, and this production’s strength is definitely in its staged musical numbers.

“The Sound of Music,” for the five people left in North America who are not familiar with it, is the lavish Rogers and Hammerstein musical roman a clef featuring the Von Trapp family just before their escape from Austria in the face of the Nazi Anschluss of 1938. Mostly through song, Baron Von Trapp and his seven children quickly warm to a very musical ex-postulant turned governess. The well known play, later movie, boasts a slew of now famous show tunes, including “My Favorite Things,” “Do-Re-Mi,” “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” “The Lonely Goatherd,” “Edelweiss,” “Climb Every Mountain” and the title number “The Sound of Music.”

ManeStage’s huge cast of over 40 performers, a sizeable pit orchestra and a large production team makes it impractical to call out all of them, but I will indulge in mentioning a few by way of some of the standout scenes. In general the cast shines when singing and dancing, especially in ensemble numbers. However, at least three characters, Maria, Mother Abbess and Liesl, all obviously trained vocalists, shine especially brightly in their various feature and solo songs.

The first gem of a number is “Maria,” sung by three nuns (Breanna Edwards, Shelleigh-Mairi Ferguson, Amy Onstot) and the vocally impressive Mother Abbess (Lindsay Delmarter). The simple but realistic blocking and four well blended voices is beautiful, the first of more well executed numbers to come.

Lindsay Hovey sings the lead character Maria with consistent power, clarity and beauty, and manages to impressively carry a heavy load of simultaneous singing and choreography. She does a fine job throughout the play. 

Equally impressive is Brittney Stout, as Liesl, in all her numbers. Her song and dance to “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” paired with an excellent Rolf (Bryce Smith) is arguably the best number in the show. Their singing, dancing and chemistry are just about perfect.  

Her siblings are no slouch either; the rest of the Von Trapp children (Hunter Roy, Anna Wulfekuhle, Seth Remington, Maggie Barry, Montserrat Fleck, and Abigale Schwendeman as tiny Gretl) fill out an impressive ensemble. In their first major number they blend complicated choreography with beautifully meshed singing in “Do-Re-Mi,” then do it again in “So Long, Farewell.” It’s an outstanding ensemble even without considering that most of these fine performers are children. 

This is a true musical in that it is largely a series of staged numbers with very little straight acting in between. That’s a good thing, because frankly, the acting outside of the musical numbers was weak across the board, even among the leads. Leisl was a possible exception and was better than most, but to be honest, the best straight-out acting came from Kori Smith in an exceptionally short but delightful turn as the giddy, exuberant second-place winner of the folk festival.

Clearly, the musical director (Jennifer Garretson) and choreographer (Brenda S. Henson) deserve kudos for their work. Add to that spot on costumes (Judy Brooks, Joelle Collings, Jodi Josephson), very well executed and inventive sets (Delaney Knottnerus, Darlene Limanni), and perfectly appropriate lighting (Bethany Larson) and you have a show with decidedly strong production values. This is no small achievement for a relatively new theatre just wrapping up its fourth season and still using a borrowed space, the Sumner High School auditorium. 

My one large misgiving is somewhat personal. Everyone who spoke or sang was equipped with a microphone. As a theatre purist, I find sounds coming from a speaker instead of directly from the actors themselves a distancing phenomenon that diminishes the value of live theatre. I understand how hard it is to project while singing and dancing in an auditorium that large, but it would have made a more intimate and, in my mind, a better experience.

In spite of its length, about two and a half hours, a series of well crafted musical numbers coupled with good pacing and high energy made this a largely pleasant evening of musical theatre. If you are a “Sound of Music” fan, it’s worth your while to go.

Trivia bonus: In the movie version, it is implied that Edelweiss is a traditional Austrian anthem when it was in fact written specifically for this musical.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Zen painting

Mark Bennion lights up Traver Gallery
The Weekly Volcani, Aug. 11, 2011

It may be difficult to write about Mark Bennion's frescoes at Traver Gallery, but they're not difficult at all to enjoy. That is if you're willing to give them the long and concentrated attention they deserve.

They're hard to write about because they're so minimal and there's so little variety. The frescoes are all very subtle variations on a simple theme: a flat surface in monotone divided into sections that look like flat stones or concrete blocks with scratched and drawn marks and, in many of them, smaller blocks or rectangles of a contrasting color. They look like sections of plaster or stone walls from an archeological find from a buried city like Pompeii-whose walls were decorated with fresco, Bennion's media of choice and a media rarely used by modern artists. The combination of modern abstraction and media seldom used since the Renaissance lends to Bennion's paintings a timeless quality.

The following statements from the gallery website tell a lot about Bennion's art:

"Following in the tradition of Northwest artists such as Mark Tobey, Paul Horiuchi, Morris Graves and William Ivey, all of whom shared an affinity for painting on paper as well as a deep reverence for eastern art, Mark Bennion sees his frescoes as a ‘confluence of eastern and western techniques and traditions.' Like the frescos of Pompeii, Bennion's paintings themselves convey a sense of history and tradition.

"A practicing Buddhist for much of his adult life, Bennion is not as concerned with the specific story each painting or sculpture tells, as the moment of inner peace and meditation he hopes they inspire within the viewer."

The frescoes are modest in scale, the largest being 42 inches square and the smallest 12 inches square. Two of the largest immediately draw your attention the moment you walk in the gallery, one on the back wall and another on the face of the panel that separates the two areas of the main gallery. It is the brilliant light blue color that demands attention. Since none of his works are titled, it is hard to distinguish which paintings I'm referring to, but you'll know these immediately from the brilliant blue light emanating from the surface as if shown from the depths of a clear blue sea. This is the most brilliant glow I've ever seen from a painting without the use of neon or electricity. I love these two paintings.

I also love the series of four 12-inch by 12-inch frescoes on the back side of the room divider. These work beautifully as a unified set. Each is a solid surface in a dull color - gray, green, brown and some other earthy color I can't quite put a name to - with a few bands of slightly contrasting colors brushed on in broad dry strokes. They have the look of a dried-up lake bed. Cracked mud.

The one piece in the show that is not a minimalist fresco is an untitled installation (no media listed on the identity tag) consisting of a two-part sculpture and two drawings. My guess is that the sculpture is steel. There are two long bars, one rising from the floor and one projecting outward from the wall, each tapered to a point. The drawings are mounted on the wall on either side of the sculpture, and they appear to be preliminary sketches, one in each drawing, of the two parts of the sculpture. The simplicity, the sensitive use of space and the Zen-like resonances between the parts make this a fascinating piece.

This is a show that should be seen by anyone who loves pure abstraction, contemplative art; and the marvels of space, balance, color and surface.

Also showing is a group exhibition celebrating the 40th anniversary of Pilchuck Glass School.
Mark Bennion

Through Sept. 11, Wednesday-Saturday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday noon to 5 p.m.
William Traver Gallery, 1821 E. Dock St., Tacoma

Monday, August 8, 2011

A break of sorts

I plan to take a break from blogging this month. Or at least blog less frequently. Relatives are coming in from California this week and our son’s wedding is Sunday, so I might be a little busy. Besides which, most of the theaters in the area are on their summer schedules.

I wrote my art reviews for the Weekly Volcano in advance and sent them in already.

Coming up this week, a review of the Mark Bennion show at William Traver Gallery in Tacoma – an excellent show, review to be published Aug. 11.

Coming next week, a review of an exhibition at Sandpiper Gallery of works by Vladimer Shadov & Chris Wooten – Shadov is showing black and white photos of nudes wrapped in shimmering, semi-transparent sheets and Wooten is showing wire sculptures. The review comes out Aug. 18.

While my brother- and sister-in-law are here from California, we’re going to take them to the Museum of Glass to see the glass punctuation marks (quote marks, exclaimation points, etc.) by Mildred Howard, and I plan to review that show for the Aug. 25 Volcano.

My only scheduled theater review for August is “Mauritius” at Harlequin. I’ve never seen it. It’s billed as “a funny, fascinating and riveting excursion into the dangerous world of stamp collecting.” You can read my review in The News Tribune Aug. 26.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Little tornadoes

"Helixes" and other prints by Bill Colby

The Weekly Volcano, August 4, 2011

"HELIX VII": A print by Bill Colby currently on display at Flow. Photo credit: Flow/Bill Colby

Featured at Flow through August is printmaker Bill Colby. The show also features a collection of wearable artwork by Jan Karroll, including handcrafted pins and necklaces that can be displayed as art in their own display frames or worn as unique jewelry. And in the back room there is a smaller exhibition of sumi paintings by gallery owner Andrea Erickson.

For those not yet in the know about Flow, it is in the space previously occupied by Mineral Gallery.

Bill Colby is practically an institution in Tacoma. He's a master print technician who often combines various printing, drawing and painting techniques and media, fully exploiting the unique properties of each - like the wood grain in wood block prints and the smooth flow of watercolor.

The works in this show combine media such as woodcuts with intaglio or lithographs with watercolor and embossing. The surface quality tends to be sharp and brittle, sparse in places with an emphasis on a variety of textures and spatial ambiguity. Everything is stylized or semi-abstract, with colors, shapes and subject matter influenced by the Northwest land, sky and water, and a lot of imagery that appears to be influenced by Northwest Native American art. There also seems to be a lot of Asian influence in some of these works. Colby is nothing if not eclectic.

There is an iconic quality to even the most natural of his landscapes. That iconic quality is most clearly in evidence in his Helix series, sparkly energetic prints of the spiral helix form seen in such things as coil springs or spiral staircases. Colby's helixes spiral vertically like multi-colored tornadoes in the center of the page. There are five helix prints in this show, each a slight variation on the other. "Helix V," for instance, is in watercolor and woodcut with wood grain markings on a light gray background, and the red, blue and yellow swirls of the helix look like fern leaves or some other kind of natural fronds or leaves. "Helix VII" is almost identical but has a light blue background with wood-grain markings that overlap and partially obliterate a sea of little multi-colored moons.

Many of the others have one or more of these moonlike circular forms of various sizes either placed on top of the helixes or floating in the background. These are like the signature symbols used in much Asian art. There is an enigmatic quality to these that evokes space and science and mysticism.

"Escarpment" is a traditional landscape in black and white intaglio with a strong use of dark and light contrast and very subtle shading in the background like soft smudges of graphite. "Rock Falls II" is a similar high-contrast print of a dramatic landscape.

"Feather Escape," another intaglio print, is much more abstract and, like the Helix series, emblematic and mysterious. A white feather floats downward on the left while different kinds of white feathers float downward on the right. The subdued use of high-key colors in this one is very nice.

The strongest use of imagery with both a Native and Asian influence can be seen in "Spirit Cove," woodcut and acrylic, which depicts a row of tree trunks lined up like sentries in water, and in front of them a large disc or moon like the ones in the "Helix" paintings.

Both Colby and Karroll will be on hand for an artists' reception Aug 13.

Through Sept. 5,Third Thursdays 5-8 p.m. and by appointment
artists' reception Aug. 13, 2-5 p.m.
301 Puyallup Ave., Tacoma

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Something Extraordinary

New World Waking at South Puget Sound Community College

 Chorus and guest soloists with Steve Schalchlin on piano

I witnessed something extraordinary at the New World Waking fundraiser concert for PFLAG-Olympia. Yes, of course, the whole concert was extraordinary – not just a musical concert and not just a theatrical experience, but something else new and indefinable. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about lights of comprehension coming on.

At one point in the show the chorus members all stand up. Before the second show one of the chorus members suggested that they not stand together but one after another in a kind of random pattern as if each in his or her turn got the message of the song and was moved to stand. Witnessing that was not only a powerful theatrical moment, but it stood as a metaphor for the entire show and the process that went into bringing it together.
You see, none of the performers knew quite what they were going to do when they came together for the first time on the day before the first show. They knew that a singer/composer was going to come to Olympia and do a one-day workshop with them and then put on a show in the Black Box Theater at The Kenneth J. Minnaert Center for the Arts at South Puget Sound Community College. The composer, Steve Schalchlin, had emailed them some sheet music and told them to let him know if they wanted to solo and if so on which songs. They didn’t really have a clue as to what was going to happen when they first gathered together for the workshop. 

I was there to witness it. Steve told them they were going to put on a show, and he started rehearsing them. I could see it in their eyes. They didn’t know what was expected of them, they didn’t know the songs, they knew nothing of the stories inherent in the songs. Over the course of four hours that afternoon and then again when they got together for a final run-through an hour before the first show began on Friday, I could see the light come on in one person after another. For some it was not until the second night that it began to dawn on them that they were a part of something special. From my seat in the audience I could see the lights come on, come on, come on.
In addition to the students from SPSCC, local theater luminaries Josh Anderson (aka Saul Tannenbaum), Christina Collins and Lauren O’Neill were invited to sing. Since they were working day jobs they did not have an opportunity to rehearse until an hour before showtime.

There were still a few rough spots Friday night, but it was an amazing difference from the Thursday workshop, and by Saturday you would have thought they had been rehearsing the show for months.
Act One was Steve alone performing songs from his musicals “The Last Session” and “The Big Voice: God or Merman?” and telling stories about being the gay son of a Southern Baptist preacher in Arkansas and about almost dying of AIDS and how writing music and then new drugs brought him back from the edge of death.

Steve’s songs are narrative and theatrical. Each song tells a story, and the stories weave together into a tapestry of tales about love and life and death, about war and religion and triumph over adversity. Most of his musical stories begin with tragedy and end with hope, and they are all infused with humor. Musically they blend elements of pop, jazz, blues and church music.

In Act Two the students and guest singers were brought on to sing the songs of his “musical insurrection” New World Waking – a kind of rock-gospel operetta in three parts: part one: violence in the community; part two: violence in the world; and part three: the awakening suite. These songs were performed by the chorus and soloists with Steve playing piano and joining in on the singing on only a few of them. 
Highlights included student soloist Jennifer Woodruff’s powerful singing on the bluesy “Brilliant Masquerade,” a song about the jazz musician Billy Tipton. No one knew that Billy was a biological woman until after he died.

Woodruff was also fabulous on another hard rocking blues number, “William’s Song,” which tells the true story of a young boy from Arkansas who was attacked after school and of his mother, the late, great Carolyn Wagner, who successfully sued the school. This song contains the memorable chorus line “Why does it take five great big guys to beat up one little queer?”

Saul Tannenbaum brought an unexpected bit of comic insanity with a song with equally insane lyrics about the absurdity of war and the people who wage war called “Franco Ate the Paperwork.”
Also outstanding were Collins and O’Neill, and student soloists Misha Excell-Rehm and Eliza Fowler, Zachary Busto, Kevin Burch.

For those who missed this once-in-a-lifetime show, take heart. Steve is coming back. He’ll be here in January for another PFLAG fundraiser, and then he will be performing with the great Righteous Mothers. We don’t yet know if they’ll do a repeat of New World Waking or something entirely new and different, but we can promise it will be great.
CLAYTON ON ART: Farewell to Lucian Freud

The Weekly Volcano blog Spew, Aug. 2, 2011


Last week I wrote about sculptors who specialize in the human figure and spoke of works that were "almost too lifelike to be sitting in a gallery" - the prime example being sculptures by John DeAndrea. What I failed to mention is that DeAndrea is a pimp. His lifelike naked figures are salacious, intended as objects of erotic fantasy (my opinion, I'm sure DeAndrea would disagree).

Lucian Freud, who passed away last week, was a painter known for his uncompromising and unflattering portraits and for his equally uncompromising and unflattering naked figures. His paintings of nudes were as far from being objects of erotic fantasy as any such paintings could possibly be. Freud was known for making his subjects pose for ungodly long periods of time, working on portraits over months and even years. It was said that his subjects got so tired of posing that they eventually let their guard down, that the painter saw into their souls and bared those souls on canvas. That may or may not be an exaggeration, but Freud - grandson of Sigmund Freud in case you're wondering - certainly didn't flatter his subjects.

He painted pictures of people with craggy lined faces, uncombed hair and intense, vacant stares; naked people splayed unflatteringly across unmade beds; people with legs spread to expose genitals; and horribly obese people with their blubber hanging in folds like tires tossed on a pile. The skin of his subjects often looked bruised and discolored. His paint was slathered on in expressive globs, not quickly painted but worked and reworked incessantly and obsessively.

When I was studying art back in the 1960s and '70s, Lucian Freud was barely mentioned in standard art history textbooks. When he was mentioned at all it was as a kind of maverick oddball. His fame was slow to come, and even now when he is considered one of the world's great modern figure painters, his paintings are still very hard to take. We can admire his intensity, his passion and - perhaps somewhat reluctantly - his skill. But it is pretty much impossible to actually like his paintings.

Why? Because we're human beings and so are the subjects of his art. All too human human beings, in fact, and we're not comfortable with that.

The other artist many consider, along with Freud, to be one of today's greatest figure painters is Phillip Pearlstein. Comparing and contrasting Freud and Pearlstein can be very interesting. They are very much alike in many ways and exact opposites in others.  Their figures are painted in unflattering light, often with multiple light sources and odd cast shadows on their bodies. Both tend to use severe cropping, and neither of them makes their subjects look pretty. But whereas Freud exposes the souls of his subjects, Pearlstein dehumanizes his. He sacrifices their humanity for the sake of visual design.

Pearlstein treats his models like porcelain dolls, stuffing them in densely crowded rooms packed with ladders and mirrors and patterned rugs and stuffed animals so that the people, even while painted in a hyper realistic manner, almost vanish among the shadows and reflections and patterns.  He has spoken of himself as an abstract painter, and there is a lot of truth in that. His paintings are all about pattern and design and the interplay of light and dark; yet in the middle of all these purely abstract formal manipulations of paint on canvas it is impossible to ignore naked women with sharp hip bones and sagging breasts.

Whereas many of Freud's figures are obese, Pearlstein's tend to be boney and angular, with well defined musculature and large veins. Whereas Freud's paint is heavy and expressive, Pearlstein's is smooth and cool with hardly a brushstroke visible.

Both became famous at a time when figurative painting was reemerging after a period in which abstract art ruled the market. They resurrected figurative art and saved it from being sentimental and false and clichéd.

Freud is dead. Pearlstein is 87 years old. I wonder who the next important figurative artists will be and what direction the art of the figure will take.