Thursday, May 24, 2012

Visions from the other side

Surrealistic portraits at Fulcrum

The Weekly Volcano, May 24,2012

reviewed by Alec Clayton 

Pictured: "Anemone" by Larkin Cypher

Strange creatures both human and animal lurk in the front rooms of Fulcrum Gallery. The show is called Visions from the Other Side Surrealistic Portraits, a Group Show. Featured are works by Larkin Cypher, Kelsi Finney, Jeremy Gregory and Keith Carter.

The work is inventive. Each artist has a personal, sometimes warped and often funny vision of the world or of worlds beyond this world. The craftsmanship, drawing and painting skill is undeniable. The strongest works visually are Gregory’s black jesso, pencil and aerosol paintings; Finney’s gouache, watercolor ad pencil drawings; and Cypher’s elaborate, homemade frames. Carter’s drawings of bears and gorillas and a cricket and a goldfish are skillfully executed but not particularly inventive or interesting in terms of color, composition or paint application. I do, however, give him credit for anthropomorphizing his animals in a delightful, children’s-illustration fashion, and I must say I got a kick out his picture of Santa Claus drinking Jack Daniels whiskey. 

About Gregory’s paintings: First, I don’t know what jesso is. A misspelling of gesso, or maybe a painting media of his own invention. I’m also not sure about what he means by aerosol. Spray paint, I guess. But I do know that there is a wonderfully dark, chalky and brittle look to his paintings. They are full of mystery and seem to illustrate stories without giving enough information about what’s going on. There’s one in which a large ghostlike or masklike face emerges from the shadows and another in which can be seen resist writing or writing that appears to have been burnt into the surface of a picture as if etched by acid. There is one called “The Day It All Changed” that is dark and ominous — actally they are all dark and ominous — yet simultaneously very tender. It pictures what I interpret to be a father and his daughter tending an injured bird person.

Gregory is also showing some horror-show puppets that are designed so that you, if you buy one, can pose them any way you want. They come with their own settings and props — ready-made theatrical scenes. My favorites are a couple with black faces and hands and long, white fangs riding an old rusty skate as if it’s a convertible car. They’re called “The Creepy in love Couple.” There’s also a rodeo clown sitting on top of his dressing room/trunk with a chicken in one hand and a whiskey flask in the other that I really like.

Cypher is showing fantasy paintings of dark creatures in tones of charcoal black and sepia with wonderfully elaborate frames made of woven fabric.  

Finney’s drawings are delicate with finely drawn details and rich impasto surfaces and a wonderful glow to the yellow tone that predominates.

In the back room is a photographic installation by Sharon Styer called Nightwatchman, which deserves a review all its own. I’ll grant it that favor next week in this column.

[Fulcrum Gallery, Visions from the other side, noon to 6 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and by appointment, through July 14, 1308 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Tacoma, 253.250.0520]

Here's more on this show
from The Weekly Volcano blog Spew

Surreal history
Visions from the other side

Surrealism was born in the early 1920s and soon became majorly popular throughout the world —popularized to a large extent by Salvador Dali, who was more showman than artist. The rallying cry of the Surrealists came from a line in a poem by Comte de Lautr├ęamont: "beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella." 

The guiding principle of Surrealism as exemplified by that line was the juxtaposition of things that could not logically go together in the so-called real world.

Combined with influences from the movies, from graphic novels and science fiction, Surrealistic art has become more popular today than ever, especially among young people. Somehow — although I can probably never fully understand this phenomena — the popularity of this trend in art (and I do see it as a trend or a fad as opposed to an art movement as such have classically been known) seems to be related to the popularity of zombies and vampires, the Twilight series, PBR and mac ‘n’ cheese. Yes, yes, that’s it. Surrealism today is the mac ‘n’ cheese of art.

When I was teaching art in the mid 1980s almost 99.9 percent of freshmen art students came to college with portfolios of Surrealist art or drawings and paintings right out of the pages of graphic novels. I’ve been out of touch with students all these many years since, but I have a suspicion this has never changed. 

I have tremendous respect for the pioneer Surrealists and for the artists of their sister movement Dadaism (begrudgingly so in the case of Dali). Without them and without the parallel movement of Cubism we would never have had Abstract Expressionism or Pop Art or anything that has come since. 

The one thing that made Surrealist art popular from the beginning was its tendency to present unreal images in a hyper-realistic manner. Dali’s melting clocks and Magritte’s strange inventions and odd juxtapositions of dream imagery and reality struck a chord with a vast public, and such imagery continues to strike the public fancy, even more so today when modern technology in movies and on the Internet has made such imagery commonplace.
This is the one drawback I see to contemporary Surrealism; everything that was once shocking has become routine. Nobody gives a second thought to buildings turned upside-down and trains flying through the clouds and men growing horns.

What got me thinking about all this was the current show at Fulcrum Gallery, Visions from the Other Side: Surrealistic Portraits, a Group Show. It may prove to be one of Fulcrum’s most popular show ever. It’s far from their best, but it’s a good show. The images are hardly even startling, hardly even strange or inventive. A lizard or a bear wearing a suit is no big deal. From the movies to tromp l’oeil murals, we’ve all seen so much fantasy art that even the most casual observer must be jaded by now, which means for this art to stand up to critical judgment it must be measured according to aesthetic criteria; it must be judged by the same yardsticks we’d use to measure the worth of a landscape or an abstract painting. That is color, composition, the use of rhythm, harmony and contrast. Actually I think it’s a good thing that it’s come down to this. I think the show at Fulcrum measures up pretty well. I enjoyed it.

 March 12th - April 19th

Thursday, May 17, 2012

She’s arrived

The Weekly Volcano, May 17, 2012

"Nearness" (top) and "At Rest" acrylic paintings by Becky Knold
courtesy Flow Gallery

Becky Knold at Flow

reviewed by Alec Clayton
Late blooming artist Becky Knold has landed on the scene, and I suspect we can look forward to seeing much more of her. On July 19, 2011 I wrote about her in an article for the Spew blog called “Becky Knold: The Great Unknown.” The opening sentence was: “Attention area art galleries: You need to show this woman's work.” Since then she’s been in quite a few gallery exhibitions, the latest just opened at Flow Gallery.

There are 18 small acrylic paintings in the show, many with other media such as charcoal or pastel. The average size is about 20x20 inches. These are paintings that evoke the land and atmosphere of the Pacific Northwest and bring to mind such things as big rocks, streams, caves and galaxies without actually looking like anything. In other words, she captures the essence of nature — the feel of walking down a path on an overcast day or beachcombing when the tide is out and fog rests on land and water — without actually attempting to imitate the forms of nature on paper or canvas. Her paintings may encapsulate the feel of nature but what they are about is shape and texture, harmony and contrast, and mark-making. This is what abstract art is supposed to be.

Her colors are muted. White predominates, often with darker forms peeking out from beneath swaths of semi-opaque white. Her paintings are atmospheric, yet her forms are often solid and rock-like. Typically she will group a few elliptical shapes on a white or gray ground, or there will be a surface of loosely painted brush marks with a few seemingly random spots of color or contrasting value. There is little or no illusion of space; everything rests on the same surface or there are a few overlapping planes in shallow space. 

“Into the Desert” looks like a road or a stream running through a desert. The dirt is a rich burnt sienna or red clay color. It’s a simple, strong painting.

“Inclination” looks like a huge bolder resting on the crest of a hill. There is an interesting sense of scale in this one. It evokes the feeling of seeing something huge. It also brings to mind the myth of Sisyphus.

“Chaos I,” acrylic, pastel and metallic pigment is a circular form drawn with loose brush strokes on a white ground. It is like the doorway to another land. Such circular doorways or cave entrances are common in her paintings. Interesting here is the subtle contrast between layered impasto paint on the outer edges and the smooth wash of white in the center.

“Peripheral Vision” is like a Sumi painting and, simultaneously, like one of Franz Kline’s big, bold, black and white paintings.

“Coiled Energy,” acrylic and charcoal, has seven overlapping elliptical shapes hovering above ground in the fog. They are dark purple. There’s a sense of mystery here.

“Tempest” is a well-named painting that pictures a pure, stormy eruption of energy.

Knold’s one shortcoming, seen in only a couple of paintings, is when she defines her shapes too precisely, such as in “Moon Blossoms” and “Orientation.” “Orientation” also suffers because one clearly defined shape overlaps everything else in such a way as to disrupt the integrity of the picture plane. This one shape is clearly in front of everything else, and the viewer cannot see the whole for the part. This is the only painting in the show that fails to nicely integrate figure and ground.

[Flow, Shapes, Surfaces, and Atmospheres, Third Thursdays and by appointment, through June, 301 Puyallup Ave., Tacoma, 253 255-4675]

Monday, May 14, 2012

Going all the way

The Full Monty at Capital Playhouse

reviewed by Alec Clayton


Photos courtesy Capital Playhouse


The Full Monty at Capital Playhouse is a lot of fun. The almost sold-out audience Friday night came to be titillated and tickled and they got their wish — some more so than others as there was a hilarious wardrobe malfunction in the final scene that not everyone caught. I heard stories from cast members of similar malfunctions during rehearsals; so from rehearsal through opening weekend the whole thing must have been a blast for everyone involved, and all because six men took their clothes off for a one- or two-second glimpse of skin.
Really, that’s what the whole thing was all about. Six rather average looking working men played Chippendales for one night only, outdoing the famous male strippers by going all the way, or as they say in Britain, going the full Monty. There was an almost three-hour buildup to the climactic moment — which was actually almost anticlimactic. But the buildup to that moment was what it was all about — the fear and helplessness of proud men who have lost their jobs and their courage in pulling off this one big event, all told in a humorous vein through the medium of song and dance.
Along the way they have to struggle with self-doubt, with wives that may or may not stand by them, with custody disputes, depression, suicide, obesity and coming out as homosexual in a macho man’s world that’s been turned upside down now that the women have become the breadwinners.
First time director Jerod Nace, who played Malcolm in The Full Monty at Tacoma Musical Playhouse five years ago, summed it up nicely in a program note. He wrote:
“For most of its history the American musical aspired to nothing more than a mild and amusing evening’s worth of entertainment with laughs, pretty girls and snappy songs. All of life’s problems could be solved with a bit of clever plotting and a catchy tune. Contemporary musicals aim to be more profound, offer social commentary and make a serious statement. The Full Monty is a happy marriage of both.”
This show leans a bit more toward the snappy songs than toward the profound social commentary, but it at least acknowledges the seriousness of many of the big issues of the day, which are even more relevant today than when the film version was released in 1997.
It’s an evening of rousing funky music that starts out with two scenes played out simultaneously: angry men on the right arguing about their pitiful plight and ecstatic women on the left going wild over the male stripper Buddy “Keno” Walsh (Jeff Barehand, who wowed audiences as Woof in Hair) in a very funny and sexy dance.
Musical highlights include a beautifully touching duet with Gregory Conn as the boss, Harold Nichols, and Gwen Haw as his wife, Vicki, and an equally touching duet performed at a funeral by Bruce Haasl as Malcolm and Leland Brungardt as Ethan, two men who quietly discover their love for each other. The overall comedic tone is restored at the end of this touching scene when Chris Serface as Dave Bukatinsky comes over to his friend Jerry (Patrick Wigren) and says in a hilariously funny tone of voice, “They’re holding hands.”
Another movingly tender scene is presented earlier with great sincerity when Malcolm attempts suicide and Jerry and Dave come to his rescue. The comic skills of all three are abundantly in evidence here, and the old VW bug is a great touch.
Probably the biggest show-stopper of the whole production is when Noah “Horse” T. Simmons (Geoffery Simmons) shows up at the audition. He’s an old black man who looks like he can barely walk, much less dance, but when he cuts loose on the rocking “Big Black Man” everyone goes berserk. Great makeup and costuming by Ricky German convincingly transform the handsome Simmons into an old man and his great dancing skills and expressive acting do the rest.
Other actors of note in this production are Christie Murphy as Dave’s wife, Georgie; Bailey Boyd as the flirtatious Estelle; and Clark Hallum as Jerry’s son, Nathan.
Wigren is outstanding as Jerry. Regulars at Capital Playhouse have come to expect nothing but the best from Wigren. He first wowed me as Rooster in Annie and again as Leaf Coneybear in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. He plays the complicated Jerry with conviction and humor. His love for his son is palpable. He’s strong on rocking tunes like “Big-Ass Rock” and “Michael Jordan’s Ball,” and he solos with distinction on “Breeze Off the River.”
There were a few microphone problems the night I attended and a very few moments when the band drowned out the singers. There were also way too many set changes that could not be handled without disruption in such a small space. Some of the blocking was difficult, again attributable to the tight space and large cast, but all of these problems are minor and easily overlooked. There was also, as I mentioned, a wardrobe malfunction, but this only added to the delight of the play. Keep malfunctioning, guys.

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday through May 27
Where: Capital Playhouse: 612 Fourth Ave. E., Olympia
Tickets: $35-$39 for adults, $30-$34 for seniors (60 and older) and youths (16 and younger)
More information: 360-943-2744,

My Old Lady

My Old Lady at Harlequin

Reviewed by Alec Clayton

Top: Karen Nelsen as Mathilde and
Jason Haws as Mathias;
bottom: Haws and Laura Hanson as Chloe.
Photos by David Stein

Once again Harlequin Productions and Israel Horovitz team up for an outstanding play.
My Old Lady opened at Harlequin on Thursday. This is the fourth Horovitz play in four consecutive years Harlequin has produced. By now local audiences have come to know what to expect when this particular duo of playwright and director (Scot Whitney) team up.
But Whitney says this one is different. So does the playwright.
Horovitz wrote:
“When I began writing My Old Lady, I wanted to break away from the sort of plays I’d been writing during the previous ten years… working-class dramas set in my adored and adopted hometown, Gloucester, Massachusetts. After twelve full-length Gloucester-based plays, enough was becoming too much. I never intended to be the Bard of Gloucester.”
Prior to seeing the show I interviewed Whitney for an article in  Thurston Talk. He said, “I think people are going to be really surprised by this play. It’s a wonderfully sweet play. It’s his Valentine to Paris.”
Sweet? A valentine to Paris? Well yes, I guess you could call it that. But don’t let that fool you. It’s classic Horovitz all the way, which means comedy that lulls you into relaxing into an expectation of a laugh fest before slamming you with gut-wrenching drama and then once he’s got you writhing in your seat in agony, easing back into comic relief. That’s what Horovitz does, and what better director to present his plays than Whitney — who loves going all out with comedy and drama as indicated by his obsession with Shakespeare, from the insane humor of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the murder and mayhem of Hamlet and Macbeth? Not a season goes by without a Shakespeare and a Horovitz.
My Old Lady is a three-character play starring Laura Hanson, Jason Haws and Karen Nelsen. It is set in one room of a large Paris apartment with windows overlooking the Jardin du Luxembourg (elegant set by Linda Whitney with lush lighting effects by Nat Rayman).
Mathias (Haws) is a loser, an unpublished poet and novelist, flat broke and down on his luck after three failed marriages. He inherits this luxury apartment in Paris from his father, whom he hated. He arrives with no money, intending to sell the apartment, only to discover that there is an old lady living in his apartment, 90-something year old Mathilde (Nelsen). Under the strange provisions of an arcane French law she has the right to stay there until she dies. Mathilde and Mathias are oil and water from the get-go, but she invites him to stay there while he sorts things out. She seems to get some sadistic pleasure out of playing with his emotions. Then her 55-year-old daughter Chloe (Hanson) shows up, and she immediately and virulently despises Mathias.
Gradually Chloe and Mathilde reveal to Mathias that they already know a lot about him as layer after layer of their life stories are peeled away.
All three actors are captivating.
Last seen at Harlequin in Under a Mantle of Stars, Nelsen is much younger than the character she plays. Intelligently, they did not make her up to look 94 (Mathilde claims to be 92 but Chloe says she lies about her age). Her facial expressions and manner convey a spry elderly woman, and extreme makeup would draw attention to the makeup instead of to the character. Nelsen doesn’t need the makeup.
Hanson is convincing as the self-possessed Chloe. She maintains a balance between emotional outbursts and tight self-control. Her portrayal of Chloe is realistic. Her timing, and especially her hesitant pauses, say a lot about Chloe’s conflicted feelings about Mathias.
Haws is simply amazing. He is outrageously funny and bumbling at first and then increasingly becomes wracked with self-loathing, fury, pity and pain, drinks to excess — managing to believably play a drunk without being clich├ęd — and finally becoming almost loveable despite his many flaws. Such a tour de force job of acting is seldom seen on stage or in the movies.

The title of my Thurston Talk article was Harlequin’s Love Affair with Israel Horovitz. Readers who saw Sins of the Mother, Six Hotels or Unexpected Tenderness understand why Harlequin loves Horovitz. If you see My Old Lady you’ll understand too. Plus you’ll see why this internationally celebrated playwright keeps asking Harlequin Productions to produce his plays. It’s because they have proved they know how do it right.

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