Saturday, March 29, 2008

AIAM revised

My newly revised and expanded version of As If Art Matters is now available from The book is twice as big as the original version - expanded from 64 to 113 pages - with a lot of new reviews and some of the older reviews and essays expanded and updated.

As If Art Matters is my book of art criticism including selected reviews of regional, national and international artists that I have written for Art Access, the Weekly Volcano and other publications over the years.

For more information, go to ClaytonWorks Publishing or As If Art Matters on

Friday, March 28, 2008

Superb performances make ‘Side Show’ a main attraction

Published in The News Tribune, March 28, 2008
Pictured: Megan Rozak (L) and Elyssa Samsel (R, courtesy of Capital Playhouse

Chris Serface graces the Capitol Playhouse stage with the best performance I’ve seen from him since his wonderful turn in “Beauty and the Beast” at Tacoma Musical Playhouse a year ago. Bruce Haasl also turns in what may be his best performance ever, and Matt Posner and Geoffery Simmons continue to astound audiences with their singing and dancing – and those are just a few of the supporting actors in Capital Playhouse’s production of the stirring musical “Side Show.”

The lead actors are two women from New York, Megan Rozak and Elyssa Samsel, in their first Northwest performances.

“Side Show” is a musical loosely based on the true story of Daisy and Violet Hilton, conjoined twins who began their entertainment careers as “freaks” in a sleazy sideshow and became popular vaudeville stars.

Both Rozak (playing Daisy) and Samsel (as Violet) have performed in national tours as well as off-Broadway cabarets in New York. Also from New York, director and choreographer Keith Andrews has more than 50 shows to his credit, including national tours of “The Full Monty” and “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah.”

Following on the heels of the successful run of “Sweeny Todd,” this is the second time this season that Capital Playhouse has brought in major New York talent, but the local talents in this production hold their own and then some.

This show uncovers a dark side of show business: the exploitation by carnival shows – and to a lesser degree – vaudeville, of people of other races and cultures and those who are born different than the so-called norm. The freaks in the sideshow are put on display like specimens in a museum, under the ruthless rule of the carnival boss (Serface). A tattooed man (Simmons) acts as if he is a wild and vicious cannibal king whose handlers are barely able to subdue him in a performance put on for the delight of audience members seeking the thrill of a good fright.

Among the sideshow performers are a sheik (Jerod Nace) and a geek (Adam Randolph), a fortuneteller (Sara Flotree), a harem girl (Heather Christopher) and even a man with a false beard playing a bearded lady (Matt Flores). But the big stars are the Siamese twins Daisy and Violet, who are forced to strip for men, including private performances for extra pay (which goes to the boss).

Promoter Terry Connor (Haasl) hires the sisters, saving them from the sideshow and making them into glamorous vaudeville stars.

Love comes into their lives in the person of Connor and the sisters’ voice coach, Buddy Foster (Posner). But love with conjoined twins presents problems, and the question arises: Do Connor and Foster really love the sisters, or is theirs just another more subtle and insidious form of exploitation?

Rozak and Samsel are well cast as the twins. They are lovely to look at and have powerful voices. But where they really stand out is in the dance numbers, which are kept simple but are beautifully choreographed. And they do it all while joined at the hip.

Serface is the perfect overblown bad guy. He’s a big man with a growl in his voice and an evil leer.

Posner, known for his standout performances in “Damn Yankees” and “Urinetown” at Tacoma Musical Playhouse, comes across as sincerely in love and sincerely conflicted, and once again his singing is a power to be reckoned with. And Simmons, the man who did the amazing “Viper” song in “Ain’t Misbehavin’” both at Capital Playhouse and Tacoma Little Theatre, rocks the house on “The Devil You Know” and tears at heartstrings in the big ballad “You Should Be Loved.”

Andrews’ direction and choreography, Matt Lawrence’s lighting, costumes by Tom Hudson and, above all, the music by Troy Arnold Fisher’s orchestra all come together to make for an uproariously spectacular evening.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through April 5
WHERE: Capital Playhouse, 612 E. Fourth Ave., Olympia
TICKETS: $27-$33 for adults, $21-$27 for seniors and youth 16 and younger
INFORMATION: 360-943-2744,

Pure form

Cory Ryman at William Traver Gallery.

Published in the Weekly Volcano, March 27, 2008
Pictured: "Scattered," acrylic and enamel on wood by Cory Ryman, photo courtesy William Traver Gallery.

If you’re bored by the art of Donald Judd and Richard Serra — and Carl Andre and Agnes Martin and Robert Ryman, and even Hans Hoffman — and especially if you don’t even know or care who these artists are, then don’t bother to visit the Cory Ryman show at William Traver Gallery in Tacoma. On the other hand, if you appreciate pure form and color, you may agree with me that Ryman’s show is the best thing to hit Tacoma in quite some time.

It’s not easy to make art in a tradition derived from minimalist sculpture and color field paintings some 40 years after the movements began to die out and still make it fresh and exciting. But Ryman does just that. He comes by it honestly, too, being the son of abstract painters Robert Ryman and Merrill Wagner. Wagner, by the way, is a Tacoma native.

Showing at Traver are paintings (or perhaps more definitively, painted constructions) in acrylic and enamel on wood. They are bold and deceptively simple. In most of them, there is much more than meets the eye. Remember the old saying “what you see is what you get”? Ryman’s paintings are that and more. Look long enough and you keep finding little surprises: slight color changes you didn’t notice at first, a peekaboo line of dots, a change of direction, a bright red edge. Painting on wood panels, two-by-fours and found scraps of wood, he displays a tremendous awareness of the natural properties of his materials, bringing out unexpected elegance in coarse materials. The way he slavers the paint on looks more like a house painter than an artist — and a sloppy one at that. But there is a certain kind of finesse in the way he paints.

His colors of choice are 1) a DayGlo red-orange that burns the eyes and 2) muted off-whites and cream colors tinted gray, blue and green. In other words, he uses contrasts of the dullest and most intense colors. His red is as expansive as the glow of fire, and the muted tones seem to soak up every other color and put out the flames. The work is all about contrast and tension barely held in check.

Look at Scattered, pictured here (and sold, by the way). Chunks of red wood like primitive children’s blocks line the left and right sides. In the middle are flat painted shapes that mimic the wood blocks. The color is almost unbearably intense. Then there are little surprises such as a series of peach colored dots and the watery glow of the background color and a triangular shape on the right that is not noticeable at first. Upon further examination it becomes clear that Scattered is not scattered at all but carefully structured.

Staple Snake has the look of a finely crafted piece of sculpture despite being made of rough chunks of wood that are stapled together with very crude joints and painted in dull tones of gray, blue and silver. The thin line of wood gently curves out from the wall and casts a shadow that becomes part of the form.

Strap Slope is two flat rectangles painted peach and dull green with a burnished metal bar laid across it and unexpected hot zips of fuchsia. This is minimalist painting at its best.
Particles contrasts bands of rough particle board coated in glossy varnish with flat, white shapes outlined with black contour lines and chunks of red, blue and green wood. Here it is the smallest element — the contour line — that has the strongest impact, as if all of the other highly contrasting stuff is there just to disguise the fact that there’s some good line drawing going on.

Finally, the most astounding piece of all is an installation called Wave, which goes from floor to ceiling and stretches across a 17-foot wide white panel. It is made of two-by-fours attached in angular L-shapes and leaned against the wall forming a subtle wave pattern that turns upside-down halfway across the wall. The fronts of the boards are painted dull gray-green, white and peach, and parts of the insides of the boards are painted hot DayGlo red. The undulating wave form is almost disorienting in the way of a Richard Serra sculpture, and the color effects are simply beautiful. It is impossible to tell whether the color changes behind the boards are painted on or reflected.

To heck with my opening statement. Go see this show. If you don’t appreciate it, that’s your problem.

[William Traver Gallery, Tuesday-Sat 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday noon to 5 p.m., through April 6, 1821 East Dock St., Tacoma, 253.383.3685]

Friday, March 21, 2008

‘The Sisters Rosensweig’ gets off to rocky start

Published in The News Tribune March 21, 2008
Pictured, left to right: Maureen O’Neill Stull, Sariah Murdock and Erich Brown. Photo by Toni Holm.

Wendy Wasserstein’s “The Sisters Rosensweig” received uneven reviews when it premiered in 1993. Frank Rich of The New York Times called it “a generous group portrait,” and Jeremy Gerald of Variety called it “mean-spirited.” This seems to be typical of critical reaction to Wasserstein’s plays. According to BookRags literary criticism, critics have called her characters colorful and engaging but stereotypical and predictable.

I was disappointed by the Olympia Little Theatre’s current production of “The Sisters Rosensweig,” but I noticed that some people in the audience seemed to react with enthusiasm. Perhaps it’s one of those plays you either love or hate.

I felt there were two major problems with this production. The biggest one had to do with the play itself. I think Wasserstein tried to do too much with too little, attempting to wrap together humor and drama with political and social commentary. She attempted to deal with class and religion and world politics in what was essentially a drawing room romantic comedy. A good editor could have cut out about half an hour and made it into a much better play.

The other major problem was that the cast needed more rehearsal time. There were far too many moments when I saw actors visibly struggling to remember lines in this way-too-wordy play.

Still, some of the comedy bits were fun, and with the clash of generations, Jewish tradition, family drama and a gay theatrical producer dating a straight woman, there is certainly a little something for everyone in this play.

Sara Goode, née Rosensweig (Maureen O’Neill Stull) is an American expatriate living in London. She’s an international banker, a woman successful in business but not in love.

It’s Sara’s 54th birthday, and her two sisters come to London to help her celebrate. The youngest sister, Pfeni (Sariah Murdock) is a writer and world traveler who occasionally writes meatier pieces than her usual fluff travel stories. Her boyfriend, Geoffrey (Erich Brown) is a flamboyant theatrical director who claims to be bisexual but is really gay. After declaring his love for Pfeni, he confesses that he “misses” men. The other sister is a housewife and talk show “counselor” – a kind of female Dr. Phil – who can’t resist giving advice whether it’s wanted or not and who rambles interminably about her desire for expensive clothing.

Also in the house are Sara’s daughter Tess (Carey Penn) and her activist boyfriend, Tom (Bryce Matthews).

Into this stew come Geoffrey’s friend Mervyn Kant (W. Steve Nuehring) and a snotty British gentleman named Nicholas Pym (Derek Werrett). Mervyn is a Jewish furrier from the Bronx who insinuates himself into the family in ways that would get him kicked out of most households, yet all three of the Rosensweig sisters seem to love him – most reluctantly Sara, who ends up sleeping with him and then drops him like yesterday’s flavor.

By far, the most interesting characters in this play are Geoffrey and Mervyn. Nuehring is the most accomplished actor in the cast. He plays Mervyn as a complex character who is alternately slimy, ingratiating and insightful, effortlessly gliding in and out of a variety of expressions and accents. Matthews does a good job in his small role, portraying the revolutionary youth, Tom. And Brown minces his way through comedic and musical camp in ways that verge on the edge of bad gay stereotyping (mentioned in other reviews, indicating a problem beyond the actor’s interpretation). Some of his comic antics are grand – especially dancing in his underwear while imitating Motown girl singers – but I can’t help but think Geoffrey would be more effective overall if played seriously.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Cool neon

Impractical Luminescence opens at the Fulcrum Gallery.

Published in the Weekly Volcano, March 20, 2008
Photo: neon art by Galen Turner, courtesy of the artist

“My new artist is a local guy who does some pretty avant-garde neon work. He is that guy who drives that Volvo station wagon with the rocket on top. … This guy is pretty cool.” That’s what Oliver Doriss from Fulcrum Gallery has to say about his latest featured artist.

The guy is Galen Turner, a mostly self-taught neon artist who is a teaching assistant in the neon program at The Evergreen State College and whose work Neon Missile Car was featured on the cover of the 2008 Pilchuck catalog.

Turner describes his work as very untraditional neon. He says he has learned from working with Doug Hitch at Evergreen and from “exploring the medium, playing with colored gasses, trying to make light actually move and squiggle.”

When you touch one of his pieces, the light moves. You will have to actually see it for yourself at the opening reception at the Fulcrum Gallery tonight, March 20, from 6 to 10 p.m.

The show is called Impractical Luminescence and is described by the gallery as “a charged selection of rare gasses.”

There will be approximately 18 neon pieces in the show. When I spoke to Turner a week prior to the opening, he did not know how many pieces would wind up in the gallery. He was still putting some of them together. Some of the works are wall sculptures, and others are interactive, portable works that people are encouraged to pick up and handle.

Pictures will be taken of people handling the neon art at the opening, and the pictures will be raffled off to earn money to purchase a vacuum pump, which is the last piece of equipment Turner needs to make his studio complete. So enter the raffle to help an innovative neon artist complete his work.

Like most of you readers, I have not yet had an opportunity to see any of Turner’s work. But he did e-mail me a few photographs. One picture was of what appeared to be a mounted neon fish — a salmon on a typical oval mounting board with an actual salmon head and a neon body. Very strange.

Another looked like a mechanical insect with red-tipped blue neon arms and an array of circular objects that look like speakers. Yet another looked like a neon tree with orange balls on the tips of limbs. All were beautifully aglow with soft luminescence.
This looks like a not-to-be-missed show.

Also, mark your calendars for an artist’s lecture in the gallery Thursday, April 17, from 7 to 9 p.m.

[Fulcrum Gallery, Impractical Luminescence, neon art by Galen Turner, through May 11, open by appointment and Sunday noon to 6 p.m., 1308 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, 253.250.0520]

It’s about time

Erica Lord, Matt Hamon and Kirk Lang show at Black Front Gallery.

Published in the Weekly Volcano, March 20, 2008
Pictured: Matt Hamon mixed media drawing, Erica Lord self portrait, photos courtesy Black Front Gallery

The art in Black Front Gallery’s latest show is more conceptual than visual.

Erica Lord, a visual arts teacher at The Evergreen State College, is a photographer, sculptor and installation artist who brings a mixed-race heritage to her identity-based art. And when I say mixed race, I mean really mixed. Try Athabaskan, IÒupiaq, Finnish, Japanese, Swedish, and English decent.

According to a gallery statement, her art explores race, ethnicity, and gender. Take, for example, a group of some 25 Polaroid self-portraits arranged in a diamond shape on the gallery wall. The photographs, each about four inches square, are priced individually but really should be viewed as a single multi-part work of art. Different hairstyles and color, changes of clothing and a range of facial expressions make these look like portraits of 25 different people, each of whom looks a little bit like Lord. The arrangement, by the way, makes it hard to count the photos. I tried three times and came up with three different numbers.

Also on this wall are a human hairpiece and two black-and-white negative photographs of the hairpiece. I don’t get it at all.

Two long photos of extended arms with mysterious numbers printed on them make for a striking image, but (again) I don’t get the significance of the numbers.

Lord’s most striking pieces are two very large prints documenting a woman placing pieces on what looks like a stone totem. The woman (possibly the artist?) is seen in silhouette against a sunset sky, as is the totem, which looks like a section of Stonehenge. It is called Trash Totems, Fairbanks, AK.

What I found most interesting in this show was Matt Hamon’s mixed-media photo-drawings. There are about 20 of these. They are photograph transfers combined with drawing and printing techniques and a thin varnish that looks like it was puddled on the paper, creating an uneven coat of a waxy, transparent, yellow-brown color. The photographic images are of faces. They appear to be very old, possibly found images (my guess would be from the first half of the 20th century). Some of the portraits are subtly manipulated, and others are combined with drawings or prints of animals and human organs (hearts, for instance).

Among my favorites are three portraits of the same man displayed side by side with slight variations picture to picture. They are titled Croon, Chimera and Ambergris. In Croon, the man’s lips are red as if wearing lipstick. In Chimera, one eye is bruised, red, and swollen almost shut. In Ambergris, a red trickle of blood drips from his nose. What make these interesting are the slight variations and the real-but-not-real look.

A similar kind of surrealism can be seen in Corona, a man’s face with a superimposed pink bunny. This one is also real-but-not-real because the bunny face would be impossible. But it could be a mask.

Finally, there are a few mechanical sculptures by Kirk Lang that feature gears and wheels and tightly wound springs that look like the inner workings of old windup clocks. These are interactive pieces that can be wound up and played like musical instruments. They tease the mind with elements of time and motion — time being something that is perceivable only in the presence of motion or change. To see them move, you have to ask a gallery attendant to wind them up, and with one piece in particular, you have to be very patient because it rings out like a chime only once every 15 minutes.

These are works that I find to be more interesting to think about after the fact than to actually look at, but you may react differently. Drop by and see what you think.

[Black Front Gallery, through March 31, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sunday-Thursday, 11 to 6 on Friday-Saturday, 106 Fourth Ave., Olympia, 360.786.6032]

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Time flies in appealing ‘Intimate Apparel’ play

Time flies in appealing ‘Intimate Apparel’ play

Published in The News Tribune, March 14, 2008
Pictured: La VonHardison as Esther Mills, photo by Tor Clausen

As the play opens, a demure woman walks out on stage and sits down at her sewing machine. She is Esther Mills (LaVon Hardison), the daughter of freed slaves from North Carolina. The year is 1905, and the setting is her room in Mrs. Dixon’s (Vanessa Lichty) rooming house, where Esther has lived and worked since coming to New York as a teenager 18 years earlier.

Behind her is an old brass bed covered with a patchwork quilt. At stage right, we see the dressing room of Mrs. Van Buren (Deya Ozburn) an upper-crust white woman. At stage left is an upright piano and a four-poster bed in the home of a black prostitute named Mayme (Amber Wolfe). Upstage center is the modest Garment District shop of Mr. Marks (Jason Haws), a Romanian Jew. And on a balcony high above center stage is the jungle setting of the Panama Canal, where we find a proud working man, George Armstrong (David Dear).

Mrs. Dixon comes in all aflutter about the upcoming wedding of one of the girls in the rooming house, but Esther confesses it only makes her sad because she is 35 years old and has probably lost any chance of finding a husband. Through much struggle and patience, Esther has found a way to make a living for herself designing and sewing fancy undergarments – primarily corsets – for wealthy white women and black prostitutes in the Tenderloin District. She has a dream of someday owning a beauty parlor, and throughout all the years she has been sewing undergarments she has been hiding away money inside her quilt to open that business.

Quietly honest, smart and unassuming, Esther builds highly personal and complex relationships with Mayme, Mrs. Dixon, Mrs. Van Buren and even Mr. Marks, from whom she buys fabrics. Each of them love her in his or her way, and she them. Most achingly poignant of all is the unexpressed love between Esther and Mr. Marks, because they each know the other is untouchable. (He is engaged to a woman back in Romania whom he has never even seen – an arranged marriage – and his religion prohibits a betrothed man from even touching another woman.)

Then George Armstrong comes into Esther’s life via romantic letters written to her all the way from Panama. George is sweet and loving, but there comes a time when he is revealed as being not at all what he seems to be. But then neither is Esther or Mrs. Van Buren.

Written by Lynn Nottage and winner of the Drama Critics Circle and Outer Critics Circle Awards for 2004, this play is destined to become a modern classic, and Nottage is surely destined to join the ranks of such noted African American playwrights as James Baldwin and August Wilson.

The Harlequin Production cast is top-notch. Hardison and Dear shine, Hardison for her quiet dignity and Dear for his volatile temper, convincing personality changes and a spot-on Caribbean accent. Haws is radiant. He comes across as an utterly sincere and loving man, and he does a good job capturing the speech patterns of a Jewish immigrant.

Linda Whitney has outdone herself as both director and set designer. Her blocking of the action is unique and effective. There are no set changes, but numerous scene changes are done with movement and with lighting by Carolyn Arnold. Often, scene changes and movement through time are created symbolically through silent tableaux that are beautifully done. Throughout the play, realism is skillfully interwoven with stylized and symbolic staging, a kind of theatrical accomplishment that can happen only when cast, crew and director are in true harmony.

Special notice must also be given to costume designers Darren Mills and Asa Brown Thornton, especially for their corsets and nightgowns and the wonderful long gray coat Esther wears when she goes out.

“Intimate Apparel” runs two and a half hours including a 20-minute intermission, but the time went by so quickly for me that I had to check a clock as I left the building to see if it was really 10:30 p.m.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays through March 22
WHERE: State Theatre, 202 E. Fourth Ave., Olympia
TICKETS: $24-$33, rush tickets $12-$15 half-hour before curtain
INFORMATION: 360-786-0151;

Thursday, March 13, 2008


Jiji Saunders’ encaustic paintings brighten Childhood’s End.

Published in the Weekly Volcano, March 13, 2008

Pictured: "Tree Worship No. 157," encaustic, by JiJi Saunders, photo courtesy Childhood's End Gallery

This week I dropped by Childhood’s End in Olympia where the featured artist is Jiji Saunders. She does colorful landscapes in encaustic on wood. She makes good use of the encaustic media with rough textures and murky depths. Her landscapes are kind of Wolf Kahn-esque. Each painting features a single leafy tree standing in an open field at sunset (or dawn — anyway, lots of fiery orange). In many of the paintings the single tree is centered on a wood panel. The leaves are either bright orange or green with grass and skies painted orange, yellow, blue or green. Mostly, the trees stand on the horizon line and often near the top of the format. The compositions are simple and nicely balanced with the exception of two paintings in which almost everything is either orange or yellow but each with a white cloud that comes into the picture plane from the right edge. Without the clouds, these two paintings would have been among the best in the show. But it’s as if she couldn’t trust herself to be that minimalist and just had to add the clouds.

The painting with the strongest impact is Tree Worship No. 157 (pictured here), which is tall and thin at 72 by 20 inches. I like the hazy glow of orange leaves next to the clear blue sky, but not so much her handling of the ground.

Best in the show is a group of 17 small, square paintings. This seems to be the ideal format for Saunder’s style and subject matter. Some of the paintings in this grouping are excellent, and they look good as a group. There are also a few paintings on constructed wooden boxes with a recessed square in the middle. The painting in these is nice, but the square-in-a-square is just gimmicky.

Also showing are ceramic and metal sculptures by John and Robin Gumaelius. These are funny, funky, birds and bird men that the husband and wife team creates together. There are men with bird heads and men with birds on their heads, and there are fat birds perched on stick-thin legs (which is, of course, very birdlike). These ceramic sculptures are very elaborate with kind of art nouveau surface decoration. They’re a lot of fun, and any one of them would probably be a terrific conversation starter sitting on someone’s coffee table or mantel.

[Childhood’s End Gallery, Monday-Thursday and Saturday 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Friday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., through March 31, 222 Fourth Ave. W., Olympia, 360.943.3724]

Monday, March 10, 2008

New reviews

Finally, The Wives of Marty Winters is posted on

Here are quotes from the customer reviews that have been posted so far:

"Wives is easy to read, moves along with a collection of offbeat, imperfect characters rendered with unsentimental affection by an author who delivers time and place (and the changes of his characters through time) credibly and immediately. ...quite a few laughs and some poignant loss, to boot," - J.R. Callner

"... develops emotional and intellectual journey from the 1960s to the present with admirable candor and sometimes luminous humor." - L.E. Johnson

"Although it contains its share of tragedy, the book is fun to read." - Van B. cook

You can read the complete reviews and post your own here.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Laughs, thrills, twists fill outstanding ‘Nightmare’

Published in The News Tribune, March 7, 2008

Pictured, top: Yvonne (Lisa Viertel) background, and Anita (Helen Harvester); bottom: Anita (background), and Gordon (Bob DeDea) in Alan Bryce's "Nightmare of a Married Man," photo by Michelle Smith-Lewis.

In the late ’80s, Alan Bryce wrote and produced a thriller in the Grand Guignol, or theater of the macabre, tradition called “Nightmare of a Married Man.” It was a hit in London’s fringe theater, the equivalent of New York’s Off-Broadway.

Now, 30-some years later, he has updated the play and moved it from England to America in an unspecified but contemporary setting (people watch “Wife Swap” on a flat-screen television and Barack Obama is running for president).

“I had always felt that stage thrillers never addressed the real world,” Bryce said. “Whether it was Agatha Christie and her high-society types or the assortment of artists, playwrights and theatrical caricatures that seem to populate more contemporary thrillers. I wanted to write a play with all the twists and turns of the genre, but set in a world most theatergoers could relate directly to. So I set it in the suburban world in which I grew up.”

Bryce’s revision of his earlier play is much more than a genre thriller. There are also elements of contemporary adult drama reminiscent of Edward Albee. (Lisa Viertel and Bob DeDea bring to mind Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”) And although it is played as straight drama with no obvious comedic twists, it is laugh-out-loud funny.

The four-person cast led by DeDea in an acting tour de force worthy of Burton in the aforementioned play is terrific.

Greg Heinzle’s set is beautiful and comfortable. Everything takes place in the dining and living rooms of a single suburban home with upper-middle class furnishings. A realistic backdrop and translucent drop-ceiling panels with soft lighting provide a comfortable and welcoming atmosphere. There are also a couple of surprising special-effect props that are worthy of note, but which I can’t mention without giving away plot twists (props by Maya Borhani, Seattle Scenic Studios).

Adding considerably to the overall effect is music by Dawn Clement, which sets just the right mood (lush and inviting in contrast to the macabre elements of the play).

But most outstanding of all is Bryce’s script. It not only tells a good story with all the twists you’d expect of a thriller, but also it is good literature with well-chosen metaphors and attention to character quirks and lots of foreshadowing, such as the repeated references to cutting and slicing. Even if this play were not labeled a thriller, there are enough hints to keep the audience in suspense knowing that sooner or later somebody is going to be killed.

Some of the plot twists are so critical that I can’t even fully identify the characters without giving something away. Suffice it to say, two couples, Yvonne and Gordon (Viertel and DeDea) and Steven and Anita (Jeremy Topping and Helen Harvester) live next door to each other. Beneath a scrim of respectability and good humor, they absolutely despise one another. Any one of the four could be capable of murder. Equally, any one of the four might deserve to be knocked off.

One of the men is a clueless idiot who lives for reality TV and sports. He is far more than merely insensitive to other people; he is totally oblivious to them. One of the women seems sweet and innocent, but it becomes evident almost from her first words that her innocence is a mask for a devious heart. The other man seems to have a heart filled with love and devotion, but he is a heartless man who uses other people to bring cheap thrills to his boring life. His wife finds him disgusting, which he is, so she finds solace by sleeping with other men. Both couples are childless, and they rarely if ever have sex (at least not with their own spouses).

There is a murder, but the play is not a whodunit. Who did the deed is not as important as how and why he, she or they pulled it off. It is gruesome and shocking, but there is only a hint of blood, and everything is done in ways that would not upset any but the most squeamish of theatergoers.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

The magnificent way

Photographer Chuck Close and poet Bob Holman do it differently.

Published in the Weekly Volcano, March 6, 2008

Pictured: Chuck Close, Andres Serrano, 2006. Courtesy of Pace/MacGill, New York, and the artist. © Chuck Close, courtesy the Aperture Foundation.

Chuck Close is something of a one-trick pony, but he does that one trick magnificently. He does portraits of his friends in an almost endless variety of media and techniques, usually close-ups with sharp focus on the center of the face and fading along the edges. This internationally famous artist who grew up near Tacoma and went to school at the University of Washington first became famous in the 1960s for his stark, in-your-face photographic realism — images of faces seen so close and in such gigantic scale that every pimple, scar and wrinkle was seen in almost microscopic detail.

From the beginning, he used an enlarged grid to painstakingly paint in the details. In the ’80s and ’90s he began filling the grids with scribbled marks and decorative patterns that looked wavy and out of focus up close but became crystal clear when seen from a distance. This was a highly idiosyncratic and personal way of updating pointillism. His approach to the subject never changed, but his methods evolved, constantly finding new ways to do the same thing and doing it in a range of media from oil paint to holograms to silk screens to tapestry and even paintings in which every “brushstroke” was a fingerprint.

Now showing at Tacoma Art Museum is a collaborative project two years in the making between Close and the poet Bob Holman — visual and word portraits of themselves and their friends — titled A Couple of Ways of Doing Something.

Close based these portraits on experiments with daguerreotypes — an antiquated photographic process updated as digital prints, tapestries, and photogravures. According to a museum press release, the photographs were taken especially for this project although I’d be willing to bet my house that the photo of composer Phillip Glass is one originally taken in 1969, from which he has created perhaps hundreds of images. Among the friends pictured in this exhibition are the late, great Elizabeth Murray (Holman’s wife), Laurie Anderson, Andres Serrano, Cindy Sherman, James Siena, Lorna Simpson, Gregory Crewdson, Carroll Dunham, Kiki Smith, James Turrell, Ellen Gallagher, Cecily Brown, Lyle Ashton Harris, Elizabeth Peyton, Terry Winters, Lisa Yuskavage, and Robert Wilson. Plus there are self-portraits of Close and Holman. Each photograph is accompanied by a praise poem by Holman.
This show “underscores the importance of collaboration in Close’s recent projects” and “honors the long friendships and mutual respect he shares with his subjects,” says Rock Hushka, curator of contemporary and Northwest art.

“People think that if you have a photographic image, there is pretty much only one thing you can do with it, that because of its iconography, it is fixed,” Close has said. “But changing the medium, the method of mark-making, and the scale transforms the experience of that image into something new.”

The images are dramatic, especially the tapestries, which I’m told have upwards of 10,000 lines of thread each. They all appear black and white and from a distance have the antique look of the daguerreotypes they are taken from. But seen up close there is subtle coloration, mostly red and brown threads in the shadows. Stand inches in front of these tapestries and you are drawn into clouds of depth in the shadows and edges. The gradual changes from sharp focus to edges that look like out-of-register printing and fade to fog create an almost dizzying visual illusion.

And as you are looking at these images and reading Holman’s praise poems (his version of an ancient African tradition), you cannot help but feel that you are being granted a private look into the subjects.

The poems are witty and inventive. If you happen to be familiar with Glass’ music or Murray’s paintings and Sherman and Serrano’s photographs, then the poems will have enhanced meaning. One of the funniest is Holman’s poem in praise of himself, which is presented as a letter to him from “the rest of the world except for you.”

[Tacoma Art Museum, A Couple of Ways of Doing Something: Photographs by Chuck Close, Poems by Bob Holman, Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Third Thursdays 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Sunday noon-5 p.m. through June 15, 1701 Pacific Ave., Tacoma]