Thursday, March 29, 2012


Difference and desire at Tacoma Art Museum

The Weekly Volcano, March 29. 2012

The big gay history/portrait show at Tacoma Art Museum is overwhelming. I came away exhausted but wanting more. 

It would take at least three columns the size of this one to adequately review it. So don’t be surprised if I follow up with one or two or more articles in the Weekly Volcano blog Spew.
It’s a marvelous show filled with fascinating history and insights into the lives of gay and lesbian artists. 

For instance, did you know that Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg were lovers and that after they broke up Johns included encoded messages to Rauschenberg in paintings like “Ventriloquist” and “Souvenir”? Did you know that a whale was a gay symbol and that Marsden Hartley’s famous “Painting No. 47, Berlin” was a coded portrait of his gay lover, a German army officer?

Painting #47 - Berlin, by Marsen Hartley. 
Courtesy Tacoma Art Museum

There was a time when it was so dangerous to be openly gay that artists and writers used code words and symbols to get their messages to the few people they knew would understand. For instance, in Melville’s “Moby Dick” Captain Ahab and the great white whale symbolized a gay love-hate relationship. People in the gay underground knew this, which is why the whale became a gay symbol and why Johns used a barely visible image of a whale in his paintings.

There was also a time, back when Thomas Eakins and John Singer Sargent
were painting, respectively, “Salutat” and “Male Model Resting” that being gay meant something entirely different. Heterosexual men could have sex with gay men without shame so long as they played the male role and only those who played the female role were considered homosexual (the term “gay” was not commonly used). Eakins’ and Sargent’s paintings depicted homoeroticism as it was at that time, which was, to oversimplify, straight men looking at gay boys the way they looked at women.

Fortunately, all of the works in this show are accompanied by wall texts with detailed explanations so viewers can come to understand all of that, and there are many informational lectures and other events planned in connection with the show.

HIDE/SEEK traces the evolution of sexual identity through a diverse range of artworks including paintings, sculptures, watercolors, prints, photography and video beginning with Eakins and Sargent in the late 1890s through early modern pieces by Georgia O’Keeffe, Hartley, Romaine Brooks and George Bellows; to Johns, Rauschenberg, Warhol; and into the Stonewall and AIDS eras with works by artists such as Keith Haring, Nan Goldin, and David Wojnarowicz whose unfinished film “A Fire in My Belly” Was removed from the Smithsonian because it was deemed offensive, but is included in the TAM show.

And it is not just the fascinating history and the pride of finally being out and proud that makes this show superb. It is also the quality of the art. Just a tiny sampling: “Adhesiveness,” a marvelous early David Hockney from before he got all slick and commercial; the rich surface and edge quality of Hartley’s Painting No. 47”; the irony and tenderness of Robert Mapplethorpe’s portrait of an S&M couple at home; the hypnotic quality of Warhol’s screen test videos; the Renaissance-like inner glow of Paul Cadmus’ flesh tones; the strangeness of Annie Leibovitz’s portrait of Ellen DeGeneres. 

Be sure to leave yourself plenty of time to carefully study the art and read all of the wall labels. I would suggest a minimum of two hours.

[Tacoma Art Museum, HIDE/SEEK, Wednesdays–Sundays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Third Thursdays 5–8 p.m., adult $10, student/military/senior (65+) $8, family $25 (2 adults and up to 4 children under 18), 5 and younger free, Third Thursdays free from 5-8 pm., 253.272.4258,]

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The gender spectrum in art

From the Weekly Volcano blog Spew

"HIDE/SEEK": Cass Bird, "I Look Just Like My Daddy," 2003 (printed 2010). C-41 print. Collection of the artist, New York. Photo courtesy of the Tacoma Art Museum

I could write about the HIDE/SEEK show at Tacoma Art Museum every week from now until June and not exhaust the topic. I won't do it but I could. Today I want to talk about two photographs in the show, Berenice Abbott's portrait of Janet Flanner and Cass Bird's I Look Just Like My Daddy, 2. (There's a reason for the number "2" tagged onto the end of the title; this is part of a large series by that title.)
These two portraits, one from 1927 and one from 2003, are indicative of huge shifts in the way sexual orientation and gender identity were viewed in the early 20th century and how they are viewed now in the early 21st century; and that is, in essence, the theme of the exhibition HIDE/SEEK: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.
Prior to the 20th century homosexuality was hardly talked about and gender identity was an unknown concept. If heterosexual males had sex with homosexual males (they weren't called gay) the hetero partner was not particularly frowned upon, but the "gay" partner was reviled and ridiculed. This attitude, which may seem bizarre today, is illustrated in many of the paintings in the exhibition.
There was a shift in attitude in the early 20th century, and GLBT folks were forced into the closet where they had to use code phrases and images to safely out themselves to the select few. They wore masks in public. The great photographer Berenice Abbott showed this in a very stylish manner in her portrait of Janet Flanner. She is wearing not one but two masks, and not on her face but on her top hat. Her unmasked face becomes a third mask, the one she habitually wears in public. And her entire outfit is a kind of mask, men's clothing and a man's short haircut. Flanner is of ambiguous gender in this photograph. She was openly bisexual.
Abbott had been an apprentice to the great Dadaist Man Ray in his Paris studio and along with Ray and Duchamp and other Parisian bohemians of the day would have known many people who enjoyed pretending to be someone other than who they were, including gender bending (Duchamp had a female-persona alter ego named Rose Salévay).

Berenice Abbott, "Janet Flanner," 1927. Photographic print. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of Tacoma Art Museum

Cass Bird is a contemporary photographer who documents alternative lifestyles and mores. She's known for portraits of people who manipulate gender roles. The Brooklyn Museum described her photographs as portraying "the beauty and the positive existence of these individuals, their male or female origins overridden by their own will to define their gender, sexuality, and place in society."
Bird's photograph in this exhibition depicts a young person of ambiguous gender, short hair, full lips and just a hint of what may be female breasts under a checkered shirt, the photo cropped so the viewer can't tell for sure. Some of the subjects in the series are clearly transgender or of no obvious gender, while others are unmistakably male or female; i.e., cisgendered. They are all equally and unabashedly what they are.
Bird's photographs illustrate that many young people today defiantly obscure accepted gender roles and identity. Quite a change from the days of Janet Flanner.
These two photographs provide a glimpse into the complexity of themes and ideas explored in this large exhibition. The show runs through June 10 at Tacoma Art Museum.


Through June 10, Wednesdays–Sundays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Third Thursdays 5–8 p.m., adult $10, student/ military/senior (65+) $8
family $25 (2 adults and up to 4 children under 18), 5 and younger free
Tacoma Art Museum, 253.272.4258

LINK: Alec Clayton's feature story on HIDE/SEEK

Monday, March 26, 2012

Animal Farm at Olympia Family Theater

Pictured (top) Morgan Picton as Napoleon in front 
and in back Heather Christopher and Ingrid Pharris Goebel, 
(bottom) Heather Christopher as Squealer and Grant McGee as Snoball.

reviewed by Alec Clayton

I would venture to guess that the majority of the audience members at Olympia Family Theater’s production of “Animal Farm” read the George Orwell book years ago and have only sketchy memories of it. The full house opening night appeared to be thoroughly engrossed by the play, and a large portion of the crowd stayed for and reacted positively to the “forum theatre” after the show.

Orwell’s book is a simple tale of manipulative power written in a style easily appreciated by older children and adults alike. The anthropomorphic animals in the book represented revolutionaries in the Stalinist era but can easily be stand-ins today for political leaders who mislead and manipulate their followers in order to increase their own power and wealth. Orwell’s pigs Squealer and Napoleon bear a striking resemblance to … pick your corrupt politician or talk radio host or TV evangelist, and the horses and sheep clearly resemble the blindly obedient hoi polloi who attend their sermons and rallies.  

Orwell illustrates how easily people of good will can be manipulated into acting against their own best interest, and his point is made more emphatically when seen live on stage.

Olympia Family Theater is a children’s theater that once per season does a show geared toward older children and adults. “Animal Farm” was a good choice, though a challenge to produce. Helping to meet that challenge successfully was Samantha Chandler’s skillful direction, a fine cast, and a stylized set by Jill Carter and Lyndsey Nichols that placed the story in the most advantageous framework, a balance between a delightful children’s entertainment and a serious adult parable. Carter’s animation, which used collaged images reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python animations, eases transitions and carries forward story elements that would be difficult to stage in another way. When the animations are playing the actors freeze on stage creating dramatic tableaux that enhance the scenes.

Speaking of animation, Heather Christopher’s face and gestures are a marvel of animated emotion. As Squealer, PR spokes-pig, Christopher enlivens every scene she is in. Even when seen in the background as a yet unnamed member of the ensemble in the opening scene her expressions broadcast to the audience that she is going to be a character to be reckoned with.

Morgan Picton comes across blustery and proud, with a loud and commanding voice as Napoleon, the militant leader of the pigs. 

Ingrid Pharris Goebel returns to the stage after a two year hiatus to play the dual roles of Minimus and Pigeon. Her experience as a dancer and as a comic actor come to fore especially in her chirping voice and bird-like walk when she appears as Pigeon. She is a joy to watch.

Tom Sanders plays the complicated and conflicted Boxer with sincerity and restraint. Boxer is the most complex character in the story, a hard working horse who wants very much to believe in the revolution and in particular the revolutionary leaders. His repeated refrain is if Napoleon says it, it must be true. But Boxer has a hard time maintaining his loyalty in the face of indisputable facts. 

Following the performance opening night, Tim McLeod, a community health educator, facilitated the forum theatre component of the show in which audience members and the cast looked at alternative approaches to some of the challenges presented by the situations. Were there better ways the other animals could have reacted to Napoleon and Squealer? Audience members made suggestions and some of them joined the actors on stage to improvise these new scenes. It was both entertaining and thought provoking. (A retired school teacher who took part later told me he thought it should be done in schools.)

The forum theatre will not happen after every show but will be done March 29, 30, 31 and April 8. People who are afraid of audience participation can rest assured that those who do not want to take part will not be asked to do so.

Performances are 7 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays and 1 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays to April 8.
Tickets are $16 adults, $13 senior/student/military and $9 youth under 12 (this show recommended for ages 10 and older)
Washington Center for the Performing Arts, Stage II / Black Box, 512 Washington St. SE, Olympia, 360-753-8586.
Tickets available online at

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Lynn Di Nino’s 'The Survivors' at Flow Gallery

Museum-like displays of Hostess products and similar packaged food stuffs displayed in oddly shaped box-like structures

Top: “The Hostess Ark: Two by Two”
Bottom: "Puppet Love"
Assemblages by Lynn D. Nino. Courtesy Flow Gallery

In October of this year a team of British researchers is scheduled to dig down through three-kilometer-thick ice to explore Lake Ellsworth in the Antarctic, in hopes of finding new species and clues about the future impact of climate change.

But Tacoma artist Lynn Di Nino and her team of stalwart archeologists have beat them to the punch. And what did they find buried under the ice in Antarctica? Hostess cupcakes. Tons and tons of cupcakes and other Hostess products, plus many other consumer products that have been popular throughout most of our lives. Those damn cupcakes last forever, and that's the point of this art-as-archeology exhibition.

You can count on Di Nino to be cleverly relevant, and this show - like most of what she does - addresses important contemporary issues with wry humor. In this instance the issues are consumerism and environmental waste.

Called The Survivors, Di Nino's exhibition at Flow Gallery consists of museum-like displays of Hostess products and similar packaged food stuffs displayed in oddly shaped box-like structures covered with protective "glass." The "glass" being plastic packaging of the type manufacturers love to put everything from toys to apples in, the kind that clog our landfills, lakes and rivers. Di Nino's assemblages are like Pop Art versions of Joseph Cornell boxes but without the compartments. Each piece has a wall label that typically lists not only the media - concrete, wood, found objects, etc. - but also the ingredients of the food: bleached wheat flour, niacin, thiamine mononitrate (B1), riboflavin (B2), folic acid and so forth. The lists of ingredients are quite long.

"The Ark: Two by Two" has a little red Radio Flyer wagon loaded with packages of cupcakes, Sno Balls, Ding Dongs and Twinkies. "Puppy Love" has Howdy Doody on a shelf diving into a package of cupcakes. There are chocolate crumbs all over his mouth. "Ejectulation Confection" (yes, that's how she spells it) is rife with sexual symbolism. A Twinkies pack (had you ever noticed that they are phallic-shaped?) inserted into the vaginal, confetti-lined hole atop a Jack-in-the-Box.

I could go on forever. You get the idea. One more example: "Star Studded Cast" is an assemblage consisting of part of a Hills Coffee can, a yellow high-heel shoe, a Hostess cupcake and a pack of Camel cigarettes. The wall text next to it reads, in part: "These popular icons, as a group, seem to represent the U.S. in the '50s. Some have endured throughout time. Collectively they represent a walk down memory lane."

In Di Nino's art, concept overrides form. What the art says is more important than how it looks. But that does not mean she is not a fine craftsperson. These pieces are built with care, but don't go to this exhibit seeking aesthetic pleasure. Go for the message, for the clever and pun-filled wall labels and even - for those of a certain age - for the nostalgia.

The Survivors

Sunday, March 25, 1-5 p.m.
Through April 27 by appointment
Third Thursdays 5-8 p.m.
Flow, 301 Puyallup Ave., Tacoma, 253.255.4675

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Harlequin’s Enchanted April

Pictured (top) Deya Ozburn as Lady Caroline Bramble and Helen Harvester as Lotty Wilton, (bottom) Walayn Sharples as Mrs. Graves,  Aaron Lam as Mellersh, and Alexandra Novotny as Costanza. Photos courtesy Harlequin Productions.

This is the third time I’ve reviewed “Enchanted April,” and with few exceptions I could copy and paste my remarks from either of my earlier reviews and they would be equally true of Harlequin Productions’ treatment of this charming modern classic. The first time I reviewed it was when Olympia Little Theatre did it in the fall of 2005 with engrossing performances by Heather Christopher and Christina Collins. The second time I reviewed it was two years ago at Centerstage in Federal Way, which was an equally delightful show starring Caitlin Frances as Rose and featuring a stunning set by Greg Heinzle of Seattle Scenic Studios. 

More so than almost any other play I can think of the set plays a major role in this play, and that is the one area where Harlequin’s version outshines the others. OLT’s set was outstanding considering the limited budget they have to work with. Centerstage hired out to a professional scene shop and had a beautiful set. Kudos to them both. But now to Linda Whitney’s set at Harlequin. It is breathtaking. 

For readers who have never seen “Enchanted April” I have to explain why the set is so important. The play is about transformation. Act one takes place in a rainy and dreary London right after World War I. Everything, including the lives of the principle characters, is gray and depressing. But in act two we’re transformed to a beautiful castle on the sunny coast of Italy where enchantment transforms Lotty and Rose and Lady Caroline and Mrs. Graves’ dreary lives. The curtain rises on splendor at the beginning of act two (metaphorically, there’s no actual curtain). It’s like the transformation when we first see the garden in “The Secret Garden,” only elevated about ten-fold. It made me wish I had stayed in my seat to watch how they did it during intermission, but that would have detracted from the magic.

In the London scene there is a heavy gray wall with translucent windows through which sporadic lightning flashes are seen. The sparse furnishings consist of a few tables and chairs and a hard bench. The Tuscany set is a huge castle with turrets and red tile roof, a majestic, flower-strewn garden and beautiful furnishings including many luxurious pillows on the lounge Lady Caroline reclines on (and where she hides her flask). All of this is washed with gorgeous red and blue lighting (Kate Arvin, lighting designer).

The story is a period piece. It is a comedy of manners that turns into a farce. Lotty (Helen Harvester) and Rose (Maggie Lofquist) want to escape their crappy marriages to, respectively, Mellersh (Aaron Lamb), a dull and stuffy lawyer, and Frederick (Ryan Holmberg), an arrogant writer with a lover on the side. The women rent the castle in Tuscany for a month and get two other women to help them share the cost. They are Lady Caroline (Deya Ozburn), a thoroughly jaded woman who drinks a lot, and Mrs. Graves (Walayn Sharples), an elderly dowager who is disdainful of everyone. Other characters are Antony Wilding (Rob Taylor), the handsome and charming artist who owns the castle, and Costanza (Alexandra Novotny), an Italian maid who speaks no English but communicates quite well, and quite comically, through wild gestures and facial expressions.

The whole cast is very good. They play their parts mostly with restraint but become increasingly expressive and farcical as the play proceeds — the notable exception being Novotny who is outlandish from the get-go; she comes very close to over acting, but it works for this part. 

“Enchanted April” takes a while to get started. It’s hard to show the dull lives of these characters before they go to Tuscany, but that sets the stage and once they get there it is hilarious.

WHEN: Thursdays through Saturdays, 8p.m., Sundays 2 p.m. through April 7
WHERE: State Theater, 202 E. 4th Ave., Olympia
TICKETS: prices vary, call for details
INFORMATION: 360-786-0151;

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Tenderly at Centerstage

A musical love letter at an annotated night club
reviewed by Michael Dresdner  

As soon as I stepped into the Centerstage theater I felt decidedly underdressed. The floor level area that normally serves as a stage had been transformed (by set designer Ben Baird) into an early 1960’s night club, right out of the Mad Men era. A blue and white checkerboard floor rose up a short staircase to a wide stage whose back wall was draped with chiffon. An eight piece dance band, with traditional display-front music stands, clustered on either side of the stairway. That was the backdrop for Tenderly, a lovingly annotated musical tribute to Rosemary Clooney.

Folks my own age may very well recall Clooney, whose versions of popular songs were all over radio, records and movies. But don’t worry if you are too young to remember her sweet, comforting voice and bittersweet life story. Tenderly covers just that in a format strikingly similar to the enthralling Ken Burns documentary Jazz.

The story of Clooney’s life is told in narration interspersed with her songs, chosen to match the mood of the story line, the chronology, or more often, both. A screen, placed high above the stage, carries projections of  still photos showing Clooney and her associates to amplify and illustrate the story line. All told, it’s an entertaining history lesson about one of my generation’s greatest singers, done as a seamless and delightful evening of old style night club music.

Both the narration and singing is handled by two superb vocalists, sometimes singing together, as on Clooney’s famous duet Sisters from the movie White Christmas, but more often singing solo. Katherine Strohmaier, the younger of the two, covered the bulk of the songs in first of two acts, her sweet, lyric voice and equally sweet stage presence perfectly fitting the narrative of Clooney’s early career. A singing success at an early age, Clooney’s star rose until a drug fueled breakdown in 1968, the perfect spot for intermission.

The second half of the story, Clooney’s recovery and the decades long resurrection of her career, was handled primarily by equally talented Laurie Clothier. She brought the seasoned sound of a long time nightclub and stage performer, which is what Clooney was by then. Both women were perfectly suited to the task, working magic both as soloists and in several duets.

The whole was created and directed by Centerstage’s Resident Musical Director David Duvall, who also leads the band and handles keyboards. At one point, he surprised us all by picking up a microphone and joining Clothier for a Clooney/Crosby duet, while Strohmaier adroitly slipped onto his piano bench and took over the ivories.

The redoubtable perfectionist Duvall, whose musical skills and instincts are truly nonpareil, crafted this seamless melodic flow backed up by an amazing group of multi-instrumentalists; Rich Cole, Bruce Carpenter, Bud Jackson, Bill Branvold, Don Miller, Cary Black, and Bruce Simpson. They created a lovely background during narration and, of course, were the perfect dance band to showcase the delightful Clooney clones.  

Lighting by Amy Silveria, who also did the screen images, was ideally suited to the times, with spot lights and travel spots on the two women, and a multi-hued light show behind. The chiffon-like back curtain acted as a semi-translucent scrim, its color changing with the music’s mood, often several times in the same song. Ron Leamon and Donna McNeal were responsible for the stunning period gowns worn by the two women. Knowing his penchant for collecting costume jewelry, I suspect Duvall had at least a hand in the two women’s sparkling adornments.

For a nostalgic, music-loving sap like me, this was a delightful and comforting visit to my younger days. For younger viewers, it may open a window onto a sonically sweet time in forgotten history. Either way, it’s a treasure.

March 16 through April 1, 2012

Monday, March 19, 2012

Hello Dolly at Capital Playhouse

Is she really back where she belongs?

I am rooting for Capital Playhouse all the way, as shown by recent reviews of “Hair” and “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and my article “Resurrecting Capital Playhouse” But it’s hard to root for “Hello Dolly.” It’s one of those plays that epitomizes what people who love the schmaltz of Broadway musicals love and why other people hate Broadway musicals with passion. I guess I’m somewhere in the middle, and it depends on the show.

The Capital Playhouse production is beautifully staged, nicely directed and choreographed, Bruce Haasl’s set is gorgeous as are the costumes (Costumes by Ricky) and lighting by Matthew Lawrence. The red, red, red, red and sweet pink are particularly lovely. The acting is good, most astoundingly so in the work of Gwen Haw in the title role, Michael Self as Horace Vandergelder and Patrick Wigren as Cornelius Hackl. And the singing is outstanding.

So, with all that going for it, what’s not to love? The play, that’s what. After watching clips of Carol Channing in the Broadway production and after reviewing two local productions (first at Tacoma Musical Playhouse and now here), I am more than ever convinced that  “Hello Dolly” is one of America’s more overrated musicals.  The humor is weak, and it depends on lavish production numbers to hide the fact that there’s really not much there.

At least there are some great songs, and there are some great singers in this production.

Katin Jacobs-Lake, who plays Mrs. Irene Molloy, has a beautiful voice that rings out with conviction. She also looks great in her high-society, turn-of-the-century dresses and hats. She fits this role much better than she fit in her previous outings as the drug-addicted stripper she portrayed in “Rent” at both Capital Playhouse and Tacoma Musical Playhouse.

In the title role of Dolly Levi, Haw is regal and elegant but not without some down-to-earth chutzpah. And her voice is fabulous. She demonstrates great power and range in songs such as “Before the Parade Passes By” and, of course, the signature song, “Hello Dolly.”

Bailey Boyd is her usual charming and energetic self as the silly shop girl Minnie Fay. Her exuberance is outstanding.

Michael Self is quickly proving himself to be the best newcomer to South Sound theater we’ve seen in a long time. His performance as “Scrooge” in his first appearance at Capital Playhouse was mind-bogglingly memorable. Horace Vandergelder is not as heavy-duty a role, but he gives it everything he’s got, walking a tightrope between outlandish comedy and realism — especially toward the end when he becomes more human he makes you believe in Horace. And his singing is astoundingly good, with a voice that is both smooth and strong.

Speaking of believable, Sean Stinnet plays the innocent youth, Barnaby Tucker, in such a way that anyone who has ever been that innocent can relate to. Of course he is Cornelius’s sidekick and as such he is always in his shadow — and what a shadow to be in, because Wigren’s Cornelius steals every scene he is in. Not on purpose; he doesn’t upstage anyone or step on anyone’s lines, he’s just so damn good you can’t take your eyes off him. His drop-jaw facial expressions and his long-legged dance moves rival those of a young Dick Van Dyck — whom I can’t not think of while watching Wigren. What a gem. This is his best performance since he played Rooster in “Annie.”

Capital Playhouse brought in a guest director/choreographer from Boston for this one. And what credentials he has! Kevin P. Hill directed and choreographed the revival of “Guys and Dolls” on Broadway, and he has previously directed, choreographed and performed in many incarnations of “Hello Dolly” including with the great Leslie Uggams and with Carol Channing. I interviewed Hill prior to this show, and he was very excited about the cast and the theater. He said the show plays better in the more intimate space of Capital Playhouse than it does on larger stages. He said he was going back to the original version as choreographed by Gower Champion. Overall I felt that Hill’s work on this was excellent, with one exception, that being that some of the acting was overdone. Sara Flotree Beekman’s over-the-top performance as Ernestina Money and as the ridiculous Mrs. Rose needed to be toned down a notch, as did the constantly irritating crying by Ermengarde (Emma Barnes). Even Boyd in all her energetic charm could have toned it down a tiny bit.

My final complaint is that dreadful restaurant scene where they kept opening and closing curtains. I hated that scene when I saw it at Tacoma Musical Playhouse, and I hated it again opening night at Capital Playhouse. It is like an interminable bad version of a Marx Brothers scene.

So, congratulations to the cast and technical crew for doing the best they could on a property that should have been put to rest by about 1970. (I’m going to catch hell for saying that.)

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday through April 1
Where: Capital Playhouse: 612 Fourth Ave. E., Olympia
Tickets: $28-35
More information: 360-943-2744,

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Two expressionists

Gumpert and Anderson at Childhood’s End

The Weekly Volcano, March 15, 2012

"Departures No. 16" by Chuck Gumpert, courtesy Childhood’s End Gallery

Chuck Gumpert and Tom Anderson are the featured artists at Childhood’s End this month. Both are painters in the Abstract Expressionist tradition.

It seems like I’ve been seeing invitations to Chuck Gumpert’s shows for as long as I’ve been reviewing art; but unless my memory has failed me — which it does quite frequently — I don’t think I’ve ever reviewed his work, and I’m not even sure I’ve even seen any of his paintings except in reproduction. I was surprised at the small-to-moderate scale of these paintings, because on websites they look much larger. It’s his very expansive explosion of color and loosely brushed forms with no definite edges that make them look so much larger.

The paint looks like it is still wet. Everything has the feel of windswept storm clouds with bright sunlight bursting from behind the clouds. His surfaces are heavily layered with drips and splatters and scumbled paint. (It just dawned on me that “scumbled” is an art term that not everyone is familiar with. Here is the dictionary definition: “to soften (the color or tone of a painted area) by overlaying parts with opaque or semiopaque color applied thinly and lightly with an almost dry brush.”)

There are five Gumpert paintings in this show. Yellow is the predominant color. In each painting walking figures either approach the viewer or walk away in clouds and mist.  There is a nice sense of strength and mystery. The best of his works are the simplest, those with fewer figures and less color. The more complex images become too jangled.

Anderson is an Olympia institution. His work has been shown at Childhood’s End and elsewhere hundreds of times. His work is all about the scratched, beaten and layered surface and the materials on those surfaces, as he works almost exclusively on metal plates that are treated with chemicals, cut, scratched and drawn and painted upon. The main thrust of his work is the expressive use of texture and the gestural marks. His weakest point is his composition, which can be hit-or-miss, excellent in some works and random in others.

There is quite a variety of types of compositions this how, many based on repetition of almost identical forms or on a strong central element with equal balance of forms. One of the more interesting works is a triptych called “Madrid”(numbers 1, 2 and 3), which is an abstract urban scene with tan buildings and red rectangles on top that can be viewed as either brick buildings or a red sky, and a black form in the middle. References to recognizable subject matter in Anderson’s paintings are rare and are usually superfluous, but in this instance it works well.

“Blade” is a rusted, or rusted-appearing, circular saw blade perfectly centered on top of a large red circle that creates a kind of bright halo around the dull blade. This painting and “Madrid” are my favorites.

Some of the ones that are less balanced tend to lack unity, such as “Labwork,” a tall vertical painting that doesn’t quite hold together compositionally but which is, nevertheless, fascinating because of the juxtaposition of Mondrian-like boxes in primary colors with larger areas of subtle gray rectangles.

Also in this show is a large collection of ceramic sculptures by the husband-and-wife team of John and Robin Gumaelius. Most enjoyable are the four strange, exotic, humorous and highly inventive creatures on stands in front of the window.

[Childhood’s End Gallery, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday, through April 22, 222 Fourth Ave. W, Olympia, 360.943.3724]

Monday, March 12, 2012

He’s not heavy; he’s my brother

Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me at TLT
reviewed by Michael Dresdner

Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me at the Tacoma Little Theatre is definitely Great theater, with a capital G. One must realize, though, that greatness is a double edged sword. 

Plays like this, what we call classic works, offer the opportunity for incredibly good acting and directing, which this play has in spades, and the chance to truly move an audience, which it certainly does. Before it is over you will have laughed, gotten depressed, been elated, felt another’s anguish, and generally had your guts and emotions tied up in knots.

Great theater, like great writing, does that, and that is both its value and its challenge. This is not, like some comedies and musicals, a fluffy dessert to be gobbled up giddily and easily. It is a complex and challenging seven course meal, fully fleshed out with fine wines and cigars, and one must come to the table with the stomach for that.

Written by Frank McGuinness, the play takes place entirely inside a small, bare, plastered brick cell in Beirut, where three captive men are chained to the floor. None really knows why they were taken there, nor if anyone on the outside knows, nor if they will ever get out. There’s an Irish journalist named Edward (Tim Samland), an American doctor named Adam (Tim Shute) and a British college professor named Michael (Martin J. Mackenzie). They can do little more than get up, lay down, and move around to the ends of their lengths of chain.

During their interminable incarceration, they interact with one another. They challenge one another, to keep strong; console one another when they lose hope; and entertain one another with songs, stories, verbal letters to the outside, and even imaginary movies that they create, to avoid going mad. Thus, this is not a play about a prison cell at all, but rather about humanity itself, and how three disparate strangers can, with spirit, verve, imagination and determination, help themselves and one another to survive. As I said, one must come to the theater with the stomach for such fare.

If you do, you’ll be amply rewarded. To begin with, the acting is absolutely flawless. All three men are outstanding both individually and as an ensemble. This is some of the finest, most varied and nuanced character creation you are likely to see on any stage. I simply can’t say enough good things about these three actors, so I’ll leave it at that. Kudos, gentlemen. Kudos.

The same is true for director Doug Kerr. The pacing, presentation, emotional range and every other element needed to develop such a challenging play are all there, skillfully translated into superb theater. The set, lighting, costuming were all completely appropriate and unobtrusively correct.

What transpires is indeed great theater, and that is something everyone should experience. But just as you would when going to see Shindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan, go prepared for the challenge. Yes, you’ll be well rewarded with éclat and even pleasure, but it is of a sort that comes with a price; your willingness to have your emotions torqued.   

Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me
March 9th to April 1st 2012
Tacoma Little Theatre

Thursday, March 8, 2012

"Hide/Seek" at Tacoma Art Museum offers difference and desire

The big gay show comes to Tacoma

“Susan Sontag” A 1975 portrait by Peter Hujor that’s part of the "Hide/Seek" exhibition. Courtesy National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

The internationally-acclaimed exhibition Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture caused a ruckus when it debuted at The Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery in 2010. David Wojnarowicz's unfinished film, A Fire in My Belly, was removed from the exhibition, sparking a national controversy, demonstrations and renewed discussions about censorship and artists' rights. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Virginia) called the exhibition "an outrageous use of taxpayer money," and a spokesperson for House Speaker John Boehner told The Hill newspaper "Smithsonian officials should either acknowledge the mistake or be prepared to face tough scrutiny beginning in January."

Tacoma Art Museum will proudly include A Fire in My Belly along with photographs and paintings by a slew of famous American artists with an eye toward issues of gender and sexual identity over nearly 150 years of American art. Yes, this is the queer show. And despite outrage by a few people such as Cantor and Boehner, it has been a stupendous success with audiences across the country.

Minor White, Tom Murphy (San Francisco), 1948. Gelatin silver print. 
The Minor White Archive, Princeton University Art museum; 
Bequest of Minor White.
Beginning with works from the late 1870s by Thomas Eakins and John Singer Sargent, the exhibition uncovers the lives of gays and lesbians in America throughout the years.

Hide/Seek is the first major museum exhibition to address the questions of how gender and sexual identity have dramatically shaped the creation of modern American portraiture. With the cooperation of the National Portrait Gallery, Tacoma Art Museum has reconstituted the exhibition in concert with the Brooklyn Museum. It traces the evolution of sexual identities through a diverse range of artworks including paintings, sculptures, watercolors, prints, photographs and video. "The exhibition features artists and sitters with a range of identities, from exclusively same-sex to exclusively heterosexual."

Hide/Seek re-examines themes of sexual difference by depicting modern Americans and by highlighting the role of art and artists in ensuring that diverse and rich communities lead to a stronger social fabric.
"Tacoma Art Museum stands uniquely positioned to present Hide/Seek," says museum director Stephanie A. Stebich. "We sit in a diverse and welcoming community that values freedom of expression and the open exchange of ideas. At the museum we see ourselves as a safe place to present works of art that express different points of view."

When asked about A Fire in My Belly Stebich says TAM would not have agreed to the show if it was not included.

Art from the early modern era includes works by masters such as Romaine Brooks, George Wesley Bellows, Marsden Hartley and Georgia O'Keeffe. The show continues through the postwar periods with works by Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Agnes Martin and Andy Warhol. It looks at the impact of the Stonewall Riots of 1969, the AIDS epidemic and the advent of postmodernism and themes of identity in contemporary art. The exhibition continues through the end of the 20th century with major works by artists including Keith Haring, Glenn Ligon, Nan Goldin, Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Catherine Opie.

In the days of Eakins and Sargent it was not safe to be openly gay, and many depictions of gay culture were cloaked in secrecy and gayness was often revealed only through veiled code. There has been much speculation about whether or not Eakins was gay, primarily because of his many paintings of naked boys - athletes and innocently cavorting skinny-dippers - but if he was gay he never admitted it.

By the mid to late 1940s we get paintings by Paul Cadmus that celebrate homoeroticism. Cadmus' amazing allegorical painting "What I Believe" divides the world in two, with gays in a kind of homosexual arcadia on one side and straights in a kind of hell on the other. Included in the allegory are portraits of actual people including the artist and his lover on one side and historical figures including Adolph Hitler on the other.

More contemporary artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe and Keith Haring were not only openly gay, but made gayness a major subject of their art; whereas artists such as Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns were openly gay but did not make it a major theme of their art (Warhol more so in some of his films). Mapplethorpe has been censored and reviled for his graphic homoerotic photographs. In this exhibition he is represented by photographic portraits of the notorious gay political figure Roy Cohen (portrayed by Al Pacino in the HBO epic "Angels in America") and a picture of lovers Brian Ridley and Lyle Heeter dressed in leather and connected by chains.

"All of the works in HIDE/SEEK demonstrate how issues of LGBTQ identity has informed American art. Each work represents how these artists saw themselves within the larger American culture. Thomas Eakins molds beauty and desire into a visual metaphor based on classical antiquity. Cass Bird plays with the fluidity of gender. The stylistic differences from Eakins to Bird explore how individual expression provides the foundations of modern art. (This show) reaffirms the deep and enduring contributions of these influential American artists while simultaneously highlighting their personal experiences as society re-invented itself generation after generation," says Rock Hushka, TAM's curator of contemporary and Northwest art. "Importantly, these artists spoke through modernism to declare their identities, historically coded but with increasing boldness and positivity."

TAM's presentation of Hide/Seek will feature nearly all of the works included in the National Portrait Gallery exhibition. Among them are a poignant portrait of New Yorker writer Janet Flanner wearing two masks, taken by photographer Berenice Abbott; Andrew Wyeth's painting of a young neighbor standing nude in a wheat field; and Catherine Opie's early series "Being and Having (Papa Bear, Chief, Jake, and Chicken)," portraits that capture the fluidity and artifice of gender identities in gay subcultures.

And now a word about the Wojnarowicz film that was removed from the National Portrait Gallery exhibition. It is a silent film with black and white scenes of Mexican life intercut with surrealistic images. There is some mild violence, no sex and no nudity. The controversial part is approximately 15 seconds of ants crawling over a plastic crucifix.

There is very little in the show that could imaginably be called objectionable. Even the Mapplethorpe photos are mild - none of his more notorious nudes, and what nudity is shown in the rest of the show is tasteful. Mostly the show features portraits of people such as Walt Whitman and Susan Sontag, who happen to be gay, and works by artists such as Marsden Hartley and David Hockney who happen to be gay.

The National Portrait Gallery describes it as "(considering) such themes as the role of sexual difference in depicting modern America; how artists explored the fluidity of sexuality and gender; how major themes in modern art - especially abstraction - were influenced by social marginalization; and how art reflected society's evolving and changing attitudes toward sexuality, desire, and romantic attachment."
This is not a show designed to titillate. It is a show of historical and cultural importance featuring many works by great American artists. It comes to town at a perfect time in our state's history, in light of the recently passed law on equal marriage rights.


March 17-June 10, Wednesdays–Sundays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Third Thursdays 5–8 p.m., adult $10, student/ military/senior (65+) $8
family $25 (2 adults and up to 4 children under 18), 5 and younger free
Tacoma Art Museum, 253.272.4258