Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Becky Knold’s Veiled Distance and other works

A coronavirus sampler
By Alec Clayton
Veiled Distance
Art galleries and theaters being closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, I am forced by boredom to review works in my own collection.
Becky Knold’s painting “Veiled Distance” has been hanging on my living room wall for years. Recently, I moved it to the bathroom where, to my surprise, I look at it much more often and more thoroughly. I stare at it and find myself being drawn into its veiled depths. (The title does not refer to social distancing and the wearing of masks; it was painted and given that title long before the present horror.)
I have never asked the artist about the media, but I assume from the appearance that it is acrylic on paper, a heavy paper with a simulated canvas surface.
“Veiled Distance” is a contemplative and mysterious painting. There are three flat black opaque shapes floating on the surface, with a background of loosely brushed, transparent, washes of watery paint in white, orange and pink. I italicize the word background to indicate it is not really background but rather the lively, atmospheric surface upon which and over and under which the black shapes are painted. We’re seeing here mysterious organic shapes in space—outer space or perhaps under water or wrapped in layers of transparent muslin, the veil of the title. The spatial ambiguities are fascinating. At top there is a circular shape that is only partially overlapped by the muslin veil, which opens up to a deep hole in space through which a fiery sunset sky can be seen. Below that is a heavy black shape that looks like something prehistoric. It brings to mind the slung bone in the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odessey. (Here’s a reminder: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ypEaGQb6dJk) The third black shape is also bone-like. It stands upright on the shores of an orange lake. This interpretation of abstract forms evoking water, sky and bone are perhaps but one of many possible interpretations. I wish you could see it in person, because a reproduction on a computer screen can’t possibly do it justice.
"Riches Over Rags" mixed media on cardboard
"Cave Dweller" mixed media on cardboard

This is an early Becky Knold painting, typical of many works she did in the early 2000s when she first began painting fulltime after retiring from teaching. More recently she has started experimenting with little collage paintings on cardboard and other found materials. She has been posting photos of these on Facebook but has not yet shown them in a gallery. I hope she will be able to post pandem.
The paintings on cardboard are not atmospheric as the earlier works are, but have a kind of solidity, or more specifically the appearance of solidity one might associate with heavier materials. Many of these latest works appear heraldic like medieval armaments, shields or coats of arms. And they are not constricted by the traditional rectangular format of most paintings. Typically, there is a standing vertical rectangular shape topped by a horizontal shape. The colors are bolder than in her earlier paintings, and the paint tends to be heavier and more opaque. There are strong contrasts between expressive marks and flat shapes reminiscent of Adolph Gotlieb and Robert Motherwell.
I have written an in-depth profile of Knold that was recently published by Oly Arts. See it at https://olyarts.org/2020/05/05/evolving-artist-becky-knold/.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Forgotten Stories: Northwest Public Art of the 1930s

Forgotten Stories: Northwest Public Art of the 1930s
Reviewed by Alec Clayton

Note: Publication of this review did not happen as planned because of the corona virus pandemic.

Morris Graves, The Church at Index

Forgotten Stories: Northwest Public Art of the 1930s is an exhibition of mostly unknown but historically important art created under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration in Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington during the Great Depression. Curator Margaret Bullock spent decades pulling together this exhibition which fills two of the largest galleries in Tacoma Art Museum with paintings, prints, sculptures, and murals pulled from the walls of schools, libraries and post offices. Also included are little-known early works by more well-known artists such as Kenneth Callahan, Morris Graves and photographer Minor White.
During the Roosevelt presidency hundreds of artists were employed by the WPA. They created thousands of works of art even in the sparsely populated and remote Northwest, many of which have since been lost or are located in small, out-of-the way towns where few people see them, and those who do don’t know their significance. TAM’s exhibition uncovers and re-introduces to the public hundreds of these forgotten works.
“TAM is fortunate to be able to exhibit a number of works that have not been seen since their creation and also to borrow several large-scale murals that normally never leave their permanent locations in schools and post offices,” Bullock said.
The large murals were painted on canvas and glued to walls in public buildings and have been carefully removed and installed in the museum for this exhibition. Most of these works are from what is generally thought of as American scene paintings, which glorify working people and small town-life. Typical is Jacob Elshin’s “Miners at Work,” a 5-by-12-foot mural in the Renton, Washington Post Office. It depicts miners hard at work mining coal in a dark and dirty mine shaft. Like so many figures in American scene paintings, the figures appear anonymous, seen from the back or in profile. They appear rounded as in bas relief. The painting is somber and dark and quietly salutes cooperative work.
Also somber is Kenneth Callahan’s, “Dock Scene from the mural cycle Men Who Work the Ships,” depicting men at work on what looks more like girders of buildings than ship building. Like Elshin’s miners, these workers are rounded figures with some bulbous areas of clothing that bear little relation to reality. This painting is a far cry from the energetic and spiritual abstract paintings Callahan became famous for later, other than the angular structure of the beams, which lends dynamism to the composition.
Another artist in the show who later became famous is Morris Graves with his 1934 oil on canvas, “Church at Index.” It is a strong painting of a small-town church with a bridge in the foreground and odd gridwork in the sky. With hints at abstraction, this painting is a harbinger of Graves’s later work.
Aimee Gorham, Solomon, wood marquetry
Aimee Gorham made many large-scale decorative panels in wood marquetry for seven schools in Portland, Oregon. The one in this show on loan from Portland Art Museum is called “Solomon.” It is a flattened, icon-like figure of the wise man rendered in an Egyptian style with a strong ray of light angling in from top right and many subtle variations of wood tone and grain.
Dora Erickson, Dakota Hotel
The most eerily haunting painting in the exhibition is Dora Erickson’s oil on canvas “Dakota Hotel,” picturing a strange isolated hotel on an empty prairie with five lonely figures sitting on a makeshift wooden porch. The sickly green building against a star-filled night sky gives the image an otherworldly appearance.
The many works of art in this exhibition epitomize an historic era and an approach to art making that played an important role in American art in the first half of the 20th century.
Forgotten Stories: Northwest Public Art of the 1930s continues through Aug. 16.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Review: “A Chorus Line”

By Alec Clayton
Note: This review was supposed to be published in The News Tribune, but since all area theaters have been shut down due to the coronavirus it will not be. 

You might remember the 1985 movie of A Chorus Line” with Michael Douglas as Zach the director. You might have seen it on Broadway in the 1970s. Chances are you’ve forgotten just how good it was. Tacoma Little Theatre is now giving local audiences a chance to remember.
A Chorus Line” is rarely performed by community theaters for the simple reason that it is too hard to do. It requires a large cast of beautiful young people (and one middle aged man) who can sing, dance and act with knock-’em-dead skill and an incredibly talented director and choreographer. TLT’s Eric Clausell is more than up to the challenge as both director and choreographer. Add to that a fabulous set by Blake R. York and lighting by Niclas Olson, and you’ve got a show worthy of another Broadway revival.
The set is an empty stage with a back wall of mirrors that rotate to become a black wall and another set of mirrors that are brought onstage to create five stunning reflections of Whitney Shafer in the most marvelous dance performance of the night.
It’s a chorus cattle call with a stage crowded with dancers – some veterans and others starry-eyed wannabees – filling every inch of the stage while auditioning for a part in the chorus. But the director, Zach (Michael O’Hara) demands more. He wants them to open up about their personal lives, which they reluctantly do in sometimes tortured speeches and in song and dance.
Sheila (Heather Malroy), a jaded Broadway veteran who acts like she’s bored with the whole thing, reveals a sad childhood in which ballet was her only escape. She sings the haunting “At the Ballet” and is joined by Bebe (Lisa Kelly) and Maggie (Cynthia Ryan) who also used dance as an escape from a sad childhood.
A couple of the men come out as gay at a time when coming out was much riskier than it is today and when internalized homophobia was common.
Val (Melanie Gladstone) talks about how despite being a great dancer she could never get cast because she was flat chested and, in her estimation, ugly. So she had reconstructive surgery and became successful. Her tale leads to the hilarious and sassy song-and-dance number “Dance:Ten; Looks: Three” about her beautifully augmented body parts.
Cassie (Shafer), whose star shone briefly on Broadway and then in Hollywood can no longer get cast in anything and is reduced to begging for a job in the chorus, and in one of the more poignant and dramatic scenes in the play it is revealed that she and Zach have a troubled past together, which sheds light on why he is more demanding of her than of any of the others in the audition. The scene with Zach and Cassie arguing about their relationship while incongruously everyone else sings and dances behind them is a bit sappy and unrealistic, but it leads to Shafer’s wonderful solo dance.
Finally, Zach asks of all the hopefuls why they want to be in the chorus and speaking for them all, Diana (Keola Holt) sings the spellbinding “What I Did for Love” with a voice that is wonderfully clear and bell-like.
The entire cast is outstanding, each standing out as an individual while fitting in with the chorus, and their interaction in movement, song and speech is like pieces of an intricate moving jigsaw puzzle. This is a production that should not be missed. It is recommended for ages 12 and older and has flashing light effects, adult language and sexual suggestiveness.

Tacoma Little Theatre, 210 North I St., Tacoma,


It is with a heavy heart that Tacoma Little Theatre is cancelling our shows through April 23, 2020.  Based upon recommendations from the government, regional sources, and our board of directors, it is in the best interest for the health and safety of patrons, artists, staff, volunteers, students, and all who come through our doors, that all public performances and classes will be cancelled.
If you had purchased a ticket to A Chorus Line you will be contacted by the box office staff within the next few days.  We will offer you the following ticketing options:
  • A voucher to be used for any mainstage production through June of 2021
  • You may generously choose to offer your ticket expense as a tax-deductible donation to TLT
  • One bright light in our day is that we are actively working with our production team to see if we can remount A Chorus Line after this crisis has passed.

Monday, March 9, 2020

The Wolves at Lakewood Playhouse

A season of fierce women’s soccer

By Alec Clayton
Published in the Weekly Volcano
Ensemble cast of "The Wolves". Photo credit: Tim Johnston
Despite being a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize three years ago, Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves is not well known, which is probably why more than half the seats at Lakewood Playhouse were empty opening night. That’s also why community theaters are reluctant to try new or little-known plays, and that’s a crying shame. They should be rewarded, not shunned.

The Wolves is a uniquely structured play. Lakewood Playhouse’s production takes place on an almost empty stage ― the only set being artificial turf on the floor and a curtain at the back that serves as a soccer goal. It is the story of a season of a high school girls’ indoor soccer team, and it takes place on a series of Saturday practice sessions as the girls talk about life, love, war, sex, soccer and each other while getting ready for the next day’s game. As groups of people do in real life, they talk over each other with often multiple conversations going at once, and their talk happens while doing stretching exercises and kicking soccer balls and running around (in this case off stage, stage right, out into the lobby and back in stage left). Keeping up with the various conversations and story lines is challenging to the audience since there are multiple, overlapping stories and not everything they say is easy to hear. Pay close attention. But if you miss a few words here and there, you’ll still be caught up in the action.

The first practice session opens with one of the girls talking about the Khmer Rouge and their murder of millions of people. Most of the team know nothing about the Khmer Rouge. Another girl uses the word “retarded” and the team captain (Andreya Pro) says “Don’t say the ‘R’ word.” And yet another girl makes a snide comment about pregnancy and the others get upset because, as it is soon revealed, one of the girls may have had an abortion. The goalkeeper suffers from anxiety and keeps running off the field to vomit. A new girl joins the team, and there is mystery about where she came from and why she plays so much better than the others. And there is talk about wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is modern life as it is lived and talked about by teenage girls, and it is as uncompromisingly realistic as a play can get.

The Wolves is a true ensemble piece, with no stars and every actor but for a soccer mom (Elain Weaver) who shows up only in one pivotal scene. The girls do not even have names, but are listed in the program only by the numbers on their uniforms. They are, in addition to Pro: Taylor Greig, Alyssa Gries, Kaydance Rowden, Jasmine Smith, Courtney Rainer, Penelope Venturini, Mia Emma Uhl, Sierra “Max” Margullis. All but Pro, a college graduate who has performed with Tacoma Arts Live and Shakespeare Northwest, are students in high school or college who have had relatively little stage experience other than school performances, but each and every one act like professionals. They come together as a team, and each actor plays her character as a unique person with distinct character traits. The key is you can’t see them acting, not a one of them. They are simply girls being girls, talking about the things girls talk about while going through their paces on the soccer field. Through this process, they reveal a story that includes a lot of humor and coming-of-age angst and ultimately tragedy which they rise above due to their mutual support and strength of character.

Every audience member who is a parent of a teenage girl, or who has ever been a high school girl or has known high school girls will recognize these fierce warriors, The Wolves.
Congratulations to Lakewood Playhouse, to Director Indeah Harris and this outstanding all-female cast for a job well done in presenting this play.

It is not recommended for young children. Tough subjects are discussed in language typical of the characters portrayed.

The Wolves, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, through March 22, $27.00, $243.00 Military and seniors, $21.00 students and educators, pay what you can March 5, Lakewood Playhouse, 5729 Lakewood Towne Center Blvd. Lakewood, 253.588.0042, lakewoodplayhouse.org.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Susan Christian’s art at Harlequin

"Slipping Between" monoprint with accidental shoptowel, 24" x 20", 1998
I’ll let you in on a little secret. I like Susan Christian a lot, and I have since first meeting her in 1988 or ’89, but I have not always liked her art. In the early days of our acquaintance, what I saw of her work was primarily variations on a scene of a single mountain viewed from a distance across water. Just as Cezanne exhausted his view of Mont Sainte-Victoire, Susan exhausted her view of this mountain overlooking the Salish Sea.

installation view, photo by Alec Clayton

"Tripartite Oyster Bay," pastel 48" x 18" 2001, photo by Susan Christian
Now, 30 years later, she is showing some of those same pictures in the lobby of the State Theater in conjunction with their performance of The Highest Tide, the play from the Jim Lynch novel adapted for the stage by Jane Jones. And now I really love those pictures. The pictures haven’t changed; my ability to see them has. Back then, I thought them rather bland; now I see that they are deceptively simple―refreshingly and boldly reductive, painted with a sure touch and depicting mystery, majesty and barely contained energy.

New painting, "The Highest Tide," acrylic on canvas, approx. 86" x 38", photo by Susan Christian
In the many prints in the lobby, the mountain hovers just as Mt. Rainier sometimes appears to hover above the clouds. It stands at the horizon. It floats on the water or rises from the water.

They are not all of the same mountain. There’s one mono print called “Reading Your Dreams” that looks like a snow drift with a couple of mountain-peak-shaped black lines and a blue sky filled with large white dots―an abstract interpretation of the excitement of wind and cold while skiing or snowboarding (possibly, up to the viewer to interpret).

Opening reception, photo by Lynette Charters Serembe
There are two larger pictures in the box office. “Tripartite Oyster Bay” is a pastel depicting the deep blue waters of Puget Sound as seen from either a deck or a pier overlooking the sound with a mountain range in the distance. Susan lives on the water, and the scene is probably from her home. The picture is divided by a central light section that breaks the composition into three roughly equal sections with the pier jutting out at harsh angles. The blue of the water is rich and glowing, and in the section on the left looks like windowpanes between each section of the railing. It is a beautiful and sparkling painting.

The other painting in the box office is a large work in acrylic on canvas that was done specifically for this show. In a vast field of dark and stormy blue a small group of jagged red, orange and lighter blue marks create a concentrated explosion of something like lightning on the water. This is the power and the majesty of Puget Sound made palpable in abstract painting.

Although all but one of the artworks in this show were done more than three decades ago and about 20 years before Lynch’s book was published, they are the absolute perfect illustrations for the book and play.

Susan Christian will give a talk in the lobby following the Sunday matinee March 15. Free to everyone.

When the box office is open, noon to 6 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and prior to performances, 1:30-2 p.m. Sunday and 7-7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through March 21
State Theater, 202 4th Ave East, Olympia, WA 98501
Art exhibit free. Performance $36, senior, military $34, student, youth under 25 $20
360.786.0151, http://www.harlequinproductions.org

Thursday, February 20, 2020

The Naturalist & the Trickster

 Differing perceptions of nature
By Alec Clayton
 “Coyote Bone Crayons," box of cast crayons by RYAN! Fedderson, courtesy of the artists, photo by RYAN! Fedderson.
What an odd pairing: John James Audubon, the 18th and 19th century artist famous for precise drawings of birds and mammals, and RYAN! Fedderson, Native American artist now living in Tacoma known for contemporary interactive murals and mixed-media art. What they have in common is respect for nature and concern over humankind’s impact on the environment. But artistically they are as different as a wolf and box of crayons.
Audubon is most famous for his multi-volume Birds of America series and slightly lesser known for the series that followed, The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, a study of mammals, from which his art in The Naturalist & the Trickster at Tacoma Art Museum is drawn.
“Juxtaposing these two artists will present a very immersive and thought-provoking experience regarding perceptions of the natural world and relationships between humans and the environment,” says Faith Brower, TAM’s Haub Curator of
Western American Art.
Audubon’s precise illustrations of animals are important as nature studies, but as art they are boring. There is little concern for composition. His colors, though naturalistic, are dull. And what little emotion they depict seems artificial. 
Fedderson’s work, by contrast, is vivacious and playful and colorful. The pièce de résistance in this show is her 75-foot long interactive mural “Coyote Now Epic,” which narrates the adventures of Coyote, known in many Native cultures as The Trickster, a cunning prankster. In this narrative, which stretches wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling, Coyote confronts the modern world with its rules and regulations, its computers and its destruction of nature. It is a comic-book-style mural with lyrical, flowing lines in black on white. And it is interactive. Visitors are invited to color it with special crayons Fedderson cast in the shape of coyote bones and which are displayed in and in front of a crayon box. As displayed, the crayons have a pop-art flair. There are special activity times set aside for coloring the mural: Thursday from 5-8 p.m., second Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Earth Day, Sunday, April 19 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
When I visited the show, only small portions of the mural had been colored, and I loved the interaction of the colored areas with vast expanses of black and white. It should prove interesting to see how this changes over time. I hope TAM will document the progress.
Feddersen is also showing a number of glass vessels with images of Coyote and coyote bones. These are elegant in shape and simple in design, with shiny primary colors.
“Feddersen’s engaging storytelling presents a contemporary perspective on the interactions of humans, animals, and the natural world in humorous and compelling ways,” Bower says.
The Naturalist & The Trickster, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday-Sunday, through May 10, $12-$55, free Third Thursday, Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Avenue, Tacoma, 253.272.4258, www.tacomaartmuseum.org.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Review: “Oleanna”

By Alec Clayton
Published in The News Tribune, Feb. 14, 2020
Angelica Barksdale as Carol and Sean Neely as John. Photo by Lisa Monet Photography. 
David Mamet writes dialogue in such a unique way that the way his characters talk has become known as Mamet Speak. It is the way people actually talk, with stops and starts, lots of “ums and uhs” and incomplete sentences – none of which works very well when other playwrights attempt it, but lends burning realism to Mamet plays.
His intense and unsettling two-person play “Oleanna,” now playing at Tacoma Arts Live’s Theater on the Square, opens with college professor John having a one-side phone conversation while his student Carol waits for him to get off the phone. He stammers and repeats himself, paces the floor and keeps trying to signal Carol to wait, while she struggles barely successfully to remain calm and patient. In this opening scene, without Carol and the professor saying a word to each other, reams of information are conveyed through their body language. This is writing and acting of the highest order. Kudos to Angelica Barksdale as Carol and Sean Neely as John.
From this opening, the two feel each other out, circling like boxers with tentative jabs before trying to land a knockout punch. The audience can sense the knockout punch is coming, and it does, over and over, harder and harder, until Carol finally charges him with sexual harassment, and John falls apart in a most spectacular fashion.
When “Oleanna” was first performed in 1992, it was seen by some as a diatribe against “political correctness,” and audiences went away arguing about who was right and who was wrong – Carol or John. Heated talkbacks after performances became common and eventually, Mamet weighed in saying theaters that produce the shows should not allow for talkbacks with the cast and director. Today, after the Anita Hill/Justice Clarence Thomas case and charges against Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein to name a few, and the Me-Too movement, people may well view sexual harassment quite differently. Still, “Oleanna” provides no clear answers. Both John and Carol are manipulative, each has their own agenda, and each goes through many changes in the course of their meetings in John’s office.
The set by Lex Marcos is a beautiful and immaculately ordered university professor’s office with a large desk, a small table, books on shelves and two posters on the walls, each perfectly chosen for this production. One has the word harassment in stark red letters and a list of harassing actions that will not be tolerated. The other one is a quote from the poet Hafiz, “The words you speak become the house you live in.”
“Oleanna” is thought-provoking, intense and dark. The direction by Joshua Knudson and the acting by Barksdale and Neely are excellent. I saw something opening night I have never seen in my years as a reviewer. No one applauded at the end of the first act, and for a long time no one got up to stretch their legs for go out for concessions at intermission. I think they were too stunned by what they had just witnessed on stage. This is not an easy play to watch, but it is a great play.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 15, 21 and 22, 3 p.m. Feb. 16 and 23
WHERE: Theater on the Square, 915 Broadway, Tacoma
TICKETS: $19-$39
INFORMATION: (253) 591-5894, https://www.tacomaartslive.org/
915 Broadway, Tacoma, WA 98402