Saturday, June 28, 2008

Clever ‘Tempest’ suffers from miscast lead

Published in The News Tribune, June 27, 2008
Pictured (top)
Christopher Cantrell as Caliban; (center) Cecelia Nixon as Miranda and Josh Anderson as Ferdinand; (bottom) Pug Bujeaud, 2nd from left, as Prospero with the four spirits. Photos by Michael Christopher

Tonight and tomorrow's matinee are your last chances to see this entertaining play.

Shakespeare’s plays have been updated in countless ways, apparently in an attempt to keep them fresh – as if that were needed. They’ve been set in modern times and future times, turned into rock ’n’ roll musicals and done with women in men’s roles.

Theater Artists Olympia’s latest Shakespearean performance is no exception. In its version of “The Tempest” (adapted and directed by Michael Christopher) the ship that wrecks on Prospero’s island is a spaceship a la “Star Trek” and Prospero is a woman (Pug Bujeaud). Originally the only woman in the play was Prospero’s daughter, Miranda (Cecelia Nixon). But in this version Prospero’s brother, Antonio (Christina Collins) is “her” sister, and the jester Trinculo (Raychel A. Wagner) is also a woman.

And in a really clever bit of adaptation magic, the spirit Ariel is played by four different actors, two male and two female, representing aspects of his/her personality as well as the four elements: Fire (Heather Christopher), Earth (Abby Wells), Water (Dennis Worrell) and Air (Josh Behn).

Adaptations of a more experimental nature are typical of this theater company whose mission, as defined in the play program, is “producing materials that are thematically more provocative and interpretations of classics more experimental” than what is generally found in the area.

I applaud their work on this production for many reasons, not the least of which is the excellent set designed by Christopher and the artistic set changes, which must be credited to Christopher and stage manager/choreographer Jenny Greenlee. Set pieces are not simply moved about; they are danced about by two belly-dancing nymphs with green skin and harem dresses (Karma Shannon and Laura Eaton) and two hooded and unidentified stagehands. Seldom have I seen set pieces moved about so gracefully and without expensive effects.

The story line is too complicated to outline here, but I would suggest people who are unfamiliar with it read it before seeing it or, at the very least, study an online synopsis. It helps to know the story beforehand.

In skimpiest outline, it is the story of the sorcerer Prospero and his (her) daughter Miranda, who were exiled to an island 12 years ago by Prospero’s brother, Antonio (sister in this adaptation). Prospero causes a storm to wreck Antonio’s ship on the island. Also on the ship are King Alonso (Patrick McCabe) and his son, Ferdinand (Josh Anderson), who falls in love with Miranda; the king’s drunken butler, Stephano (played marvelously by Dennis Rolly) and Trinculo the jester. Stephano and Trinculo plot against Prospero with a monster called Caliban (Christopher Cantrell).

These three, Stephano, Trinculo and Caliban, steal the show. The funniest scene in the whole play is when Trinculo crawls on top of Caliban, causing Stephano to think the pair are a single four-legged monster. This scene is funny beyond words and worth the cost of a ticket all by itself.

Another actor who warrants special notice is Anderson as the silly, lovestruck Ferdinand. Seldom has a lover been so undeserving of a beautiful woman’s love. Anderson interprets this bumbling lover as effete and overly excitable.

I think the “Star Trek” parody – especially the lurching on the bridge – is silly but fun, as is the insertion of a certain well known television theme song. My only other criticism – and it is major – is that Bujeaud is miscast as Prospero. She is a terrific actor, I’ve loved her in many another role, but I simply do not think she is right for this part. It calls for someone more magisterial or mysterious, perhaps an older man in the Patrick Stewart mold or a more statuesque woman with a booming voice.

The entire production is a technical tour de force for Christopher and his crew, including lighting designer Marc Mixon, electricians Greenlee and Stephanie Yanton, assistant stage manager Heather Matthews and sound board operator Sarah Jolley.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday

WHERE: South Puget Sound Community College Center for the Arts, 2011 Mottman Road S.W., Olympia

TICKETS: $12 at the door or at

INFORMATION: 360-357-3471

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Naked Tacoma

New gallery puts it all on the line

Published in the Weekly Volcano, June 26, 2008

photos by Paul Uhl

Surely you’ve seen the posters by now: Naked Tacoma. 20 participants, 32 breasts, 16 vaginas, four penises, two butt cheeks.

Attention grabbing, isn’t it? It’s the opening show of Paul Uhl’s new delight gallery inside Sanford & Son, and it’s the first of three similarly themed shows planned for the gallery. By the time autumn comes, Tacomans may be sick and tired of naked bodies, or at the very least, they might view naked bodies differently.

The term “Naked” in the show’s title is revealing (pun very much intended). The British media critic John Berger has fascinating things to say about the differences between the terms “naked” and “nude.”

“To be naked is to be oneself” Berger says. “To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself. Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display. To be naked is to be without disguise.”

By this definition, Uhl’s photographs are of naked bodies, not nudes. Nudes are coy and titillating, a kind of sexless striptease. Uhl’s photographs are unashamedly naked.
They are also art as opposed to, say, the photos on a Penthouse calendar, which are not art. His photos are all about visual effects, contrasts and harmony of forms, balance of dark and light; whereas the calendar photos are all about the body as object of sexual desire — but without even a hint of intimacy.

In this show, the photographer focuses on extreme close-ups of the normally objectified parts of the body, mostly nipples and vaginas. It is the many nipple close-ups (most from the same model) that best illustrate what the photographer is up to in these works. Starting with images shot in such extreme close-up that they are almost abstract, he then manipulates the images, adjusting contrast, double printing, solarizing the images and so forth so that they become even more abstract. Many of them look like photographs we’ve seen of planets as taken from cameras in space. There is one image that looks like the surface of the moon and others that look like the halo effect of the sun rising over the crest of a moon or planet.

One other thing these photos bring to mind: Gulliver’s Travels. Remember when Gulliver was made a plaything by the giant Brobdingnag women and how repulsed he was by monstrous breasts and vaginas? Yes, there’s a little bit of that in evidence in this show.

Uhl’s life partner and business partner, Deborah Page, was responsible for the unique display of the photographs, which are hung on clotheslines and clothes hangers with panties and bras draped between them. “She is responsible for the look and feel of the gallery,” Uhl says.

The next show in the series, scheduled to open for the July Art Walk, will be called Peep Show Tacoma. It will feature full-body photos mounted inside black boxes visitors have to view through peepholes. The August show will be Flawless. It will contrast seemingly flawless bodies with large photos of the same models showing imperfections that were not so apparent: stretch marks, crooked teeth, birthmarks, and so forth. Yes, everybody has them, but they can be beautiful nevertheless.

Uhl says he will showcase his own work in the gallery for approximately the first six months and then will feature other artists.

[delight gallery, Naked Tacoma, Wednesday by appointment, Thursday-Friday 1 to 6 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday noon to 5 p.m. through mid July, inside Sanford & Son, 743 Broadway, Tacoma,]

Friday, June 20, 2008

‘Fabulous Fifties’ revue might improve with age

Published in The News Tribune, June 20, 2008

Tacoma Little Theatre has undertaken a gargantuan challenge – and almost pulled it off.

When the national touring company of “The Pajama Game” decided to yank production rights away from regional theaters, TLT was left holding the bag with a cast already in place and no show to produce. So artistic director David Duvall wrote an entirely new musical review to highlight the talents of the cast, and Chris Nardine, who was slated to direct and choreograph “The Pajama Game,” put his talents to work on this new musical review.

It is daunting to even imagine what a huge job it must have been to arrange 40 show tunes and to have each one fully staged – not just soloists coming out and singing songs, but fully choreographed ensemble song-and-dance numbers. I have nothing but praise for the cast and crew, but the result that I saw on opening night fell a little bit short of being the big entertainment it should have been and may well now be.

There was nothing wrong with the performance, but it lacked a little spark that it may have gained with repeated performances. It felt to me like a high school musical.

The set by John Parker and Jason Ganwich is a simple riser with three sets of steps and a back curtain upon which various colored lights are cast. It is simple and effective. Ganwich’s lighting is excellent.

The cast members all do a good job. Most outstanding are Stephanie Leeper and Jennifer Littlefield. The two of them demand attention whenever they are on stage. Leeper’s comic chops are terrific, and she proves that she can also be terrifically sultry and sexy. Littlefield stands out even when she is buried in the chorus. Perhaps more than anyone else in the cast, she seems to really feel the music. You can see it in her fluid and rhythmical movements. Leeper and Littlefield are particularly outstanding on “America” from “West Side Story,” one of the more rousing tunes in the show.

Doug Fahl is the quintessential romantic lead. Tall and handsome and with a mellow voice, he stands out on such songs as “Hey There” (ironically from “The Pajama Game”), which he sings in duet with Rachel Boyer.

Major comedic strokes are provided by Sam Barker on such silly songs as “Big D” from “The Most Happy Fella” (a duet with Ashley Middleton, who really knows how to belt out a tune) and on the big finale, “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” from “Guys and Dolls.”

Another comic stroke was a running routine in the form of James Thomas Patrick repeatedly coming out on stage to sing verses from “Progress is the Root of All Evil” from “Lil’ Abner.” It’s kind of silly but fun to watch the “progress” of his song.

All-in-all, there were five or six very entertaining songs in this show, and although none of the performers really knocked my socks off, I think they all show talent. But I’m afraid a lot of the shows and tunes from “Broadway’s Fabulous Fifties” are not really so fabulous. Shows such as “West Side Story” and “My Fair Lady” are certainly great, but a lot of what passed for musical entertainment in that decade is pretty boring stuff now, and two-and-a-half hours of 1950s show tunes without a story line is tough for me to sit through, although I know a lot of people eat it up. For those who have fond memories of the era, I can recommend this show.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through June 29, ASL performance June 29
WHERE: Tacoma Little Theatre, 210 N. I St., Tacoma
TICKETS: $22 adults, $20 seniors/students/military and $18 children younger than 12
INFORMATION: 253-272-2281,

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Exploiting glass

The de la Torres brothers invade Traver
Published in the Weekly Volcano, June 19, 2008

pictured: "The Mexican Budda," mixed media by de la Torre brothers.

The de la Torres brothers’ motto must be anything worth doing is worth over-doing. They exploit the transparency and glimmer of blown and cast glass the way a bad comic exploits a cheap laugh. Similarly, their art celebrates and parodies Mexican and Mexican-American culture.

Mexicans who immigrated to Southern California as young boys, Einar and Jamex de la Torre borrow from traditional Mexican and Aztec myths and wrap them in American commercialism. They are the bastard twin sons of Andy Warhol and Frida Kahlo.

The brothers’ show at Traver Gallery, Tacoma, is called Vitrolic Compliments. It consists of relief wall sculpture and freestanding glass sculptures that are wildly eccentric with overly bright colors and loaded with imagery that is often funny and filled with social, political and sexual references. Three years ago they had a show at the Museum of Glass with a complimentary small exhibition at Traver. The works they showed then were loaded with sexual imagery. There is little of that in the current show other than two small wall sculptures called Anime and Bethlehem Porn Star that are remindful of Georgia O’Keefe’s flowering vagina paintings. In each of these, the central image is a flaming or flowering vagina that is simultaneously an alter.

This show seems to be more concerned with the culture of advertising and rampant commercialization. Images that show up repeatedly are soft drink bottles and beer bottles, hearts and other bodily organs, swords and other weapons, religious symbols of all kinds, and pig heads. I’m not quite sure what some of the images are supposed to represent. Further explanation by way of wall texts might be helpful, but 1) art should be able to stand on its own without explanation and 2) since I saw a preview before the show opened I don’t know whether or not further explanation is provided. Anyway, from my limited fund of knowledge, I presume the pigs symbolize greedy corporate executives.

Visually, many of the pieces are crude looking (intentionally) and overly gaudy. Some of the pieces are downright ugly. Like Killing the Inner Child, blown glass and mixed media, which is pictured on their invitation cards. It is a crude statue of some kind of primitive god — probably Aztec — standing on top of a cake with a spear struck through his ear and holding a little pink child’s hand mirror. This creature is disgustingly ugly.

Among the most attractive works are a group of six wall pieces that were untitled when I saw them. Each has flat cut-out metal shapes, a couple of which are in the shape of birds and all of which have brand names painted on them: Tide, TDK, Coke, etc. Clear transparent faces and figures cover each of them. These pieces are bright and quite beautiful. Similar transparent faces and figures show up on many of the works and are among the most beautiful of the brothers’ visual tropes. They look like melted globs of glass that are barely visible.

Other favorite pieces are Mexican Buddha and Organ Exchange. Mexican Buddha is a freestanding sculpture of a fat seated Buddha-like figure with a big pig head sitting on top. What appears to be crushed beer and soda cans are embedded in the body. Like the transparent faces mentioned above, these crushed cans (if that’s what they are) are hard to see, and it is the hard-to-see imagery in many of the works that most successfully and beautifully exploit the transparency of glass. Organ Exchange is a large, wall-hanging mandala with jeweled and mirrored diamonds circling the outer rim, a god’s head in the middle with a crown of clear glass figurines that look like praying priests, four brown faces that look like nurses with Red Cross hats, and a circle of starbursts stuffed with dollar bills.

[Traver Gallery, Vitrolic Compliments, through July 6, 1821 East Dock St., Tacoma, 253.383.3685]

Friday, June 13, 2008

Harlequin ‘Horror Show’ is raunchy, rocking hoot

Published in The News Tribune, June 13, 2008
pictured, top: Bret Beaudry as Frank 'n' Furter and the ensemble cast; bottom: Adrian David Robinson as Rocky, photos by Tor Clausen

Depending on your taste in musical entertainment, Harlequin Productions’ “The Rocky Horror Show” may be the best musical you’ll see this year or any other year. But it is not for people who are faint of heart or easily offended.

This show is loud and raucous. It is one of the sexiest plays I have ever seen, skirting right up to the edge of what is allowable in public. The sets, costumes and lighting are outlandish and fabulous (kudos to scenic designer Jill Carter; lighting, Nat Rayman; and costume designers Darren Mills and Asa Brown Thornton). There are revolving platforms and a working elevator that lights up like the Las Vegas strip, projected film and cartoon images, strobe lights, trap doors and lots of smoke. The sets and lighting are comparable to those of “Young Frankenstein” and “Spamalot” but on a smaller scale, and don’t lose much in the comparison even without the million dollar budgets those extravaganzas had.

Every summer Harlequin presents a rock ’n’ roll show that has the audiences on their feet and dancing in the aisles. The tradition began with their first production of “Rocky Horror” in the summer of 1995. I didn’t get to see that one, but I know it was a smash hit that was talked about around Olympia for years after. Most audience members have seen the movie version, which has been a midnight cult staple in movie houses all over America since 1975, with audiences coming in costume, shouting out lines before the actors say them, opening umbrellas, flashing lighters and in general making the audience participation into an even more campy entertainment than the film itself.

The stage version, which preceded the film by two years, is nothing like that. And yet, in some ways it is exactly like that. One of the unnamed “Transylvanians” opens the play by warning the audience that certain things will not be tolerated – such as spraying liquids or throwing things on the stage, which could endanger the live actors or damage expensive electronic equipment. The Transylvanian also demands that the audience shout out key words whenever certain characters are mentioned.

On cue, the narrator (Jason Haws) appears on a revolving balcony and the audience shouts out “Boring!”

Haws is a terrific narrator, ad-libbing to audience taunts and jeers with style and wit. He is droll and inventive, and, at one point opening night, he cracked up at a particularly clever comment from someone in the audience. Which brings up another point: It is impossible to tell whether his comments are ad libs or scripted or whether or not some of the hecklers are plants. But you don’t have time to contemplate that in this fast-paced musical.

For anyone who has never seen the movie or the play, here’s the story line: A young couple, Brad and Janet (Casey Raiha and Melissa Fleming) have a flat tire on a deserted road and walk to a nearby castle to see if they can use a phone. A monster named Riff Raff (Russ Holm) ushers them into the castle, where they meet Dr. Frank-n-Furter (Bret Beaudry) a mad transsexual who is creating a man in his laboratory. It’s a rather obvious takeoff on Frankenstein and, less obviously, as the program points out, the Adam and Eve story with Frank-n-Furter as the snake in the garden. The creature is Rocky (Adrian David Robinson, a short, muscular man wearing a revealing baby-blue costume). Frank-n-Furter forces Brad and Janet to stay overnight, and a lot of people in the castle have sex with one another. That’s about it plotwise. It’s basically a plotless parody of all the bad horror and sci-fi movies of the ’50s with a lot of sex and a lot of rock ’n’ roll.

Brad and Janet are nerdy innocents. Raiha is the perfect dorky Brad. (Remember him as a similarly dorky Seymour in “Little Shop of Horrors” at Capital Playhouse?) Fleming is dainty and sweet-looking with a just-right mixture of sexiness and innocence – until she loses her innocence. Fleming and Raiha both have wide ranging knockout voices.

Beaudry, an actor from Chicago who has never before played on a South Sound stage, is marvelous as Dr. Frank-n-Furter. He is tall and handsome, and he struts and minces in his high heels and goes all sweet and lovable and then screams with a demanding voice that will not be ignored.

Also outstanding are Megan Carver as Columbia, Sara Flotree as Magenta, Holm as Riff Raff and Robinson as Rocky. In fact, the entire cast and the orchestra, and the dancing choreographed by Nikki Womac, are all marvelous.

They brought down the house opening night, ending with a long and loud standing ovation while many audience members leapt on stage to dance with cast members.

Warning: there is simulated sex and raunchy humor

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays through July 6
WHERE: State Theater, 202 Fourth Ave. E., Olympia
TICKETS: $34-$38; rush tickets $12-$20 half-hour before curtain
INFORMATION: 360-786-0151;

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Multipurpose house

Add Art House Designs to successful galleries list

Published in the Weekly Volcano, June 12, 2008
pictured, untitled oil on paper by Janet Richardson Baughman

I didn’t mention Olympia’s Art House Designs in my cover story about avant-garde galleries last week, and it does warrant mentioning as a South Sound gallery that has been very successful. Not as much on the cutting-edge as some of the other galleries mentioned in that article, it nevertheless has had some shows that make you sit up and take notice. Plus Art House offers top-notch entertainment and presentations on topics of current interest and a large framing business onsite. It has not one but two showrooms for gallery exhibitions. The front gallery is small and intimate, and the back gallery, which doubles as a performance space, is huge by local standards.

I stopped by Art House to see what’s on the walls and saw a large display of art by local and national artists, mostly modernist decorative art. I won’t write about all of it; there’s too much for that, but I will mention three artists whose work I enjoyed: Jean Tudor, Phyllis O’Gara Currens and Janet Richardson Baughman. Tudor and Currens are local; Baughman hails from Michigan.

Tudor is an enamel artist. She makes decorative and colorful little enamel pieces that are inspired by the Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi whose famous buildings Casa Mila and Casa Battla in Barcelona are so famous for their strange shapes and modern gothic decoration that his name gave rise to the word gaudy (look it up if you must). Unlike Gaudi’s ceramic decorations, however, Tudor’s enamels are pretty and jewel-like. They are semi-abstract forms based on architecture in circular shapes mounted on what appears to be either black enamel or marble boxes. They also have an early American crafts feel about them but are more highly polished. I don’t think the early American look is intentional; it’s just the feeling I get from them.

Currens is showing a group of mixed-media collages inspired by landscape. They consist of densely packed and somewhat rough and jagged shapes painted in bright hues and cut out of canvas and collaged in patterns that simulate rock-strewn scenes without actually looking like specific scenes. As landscapes go, these represent untrammeled and hard-to-traverse terrains filled with rocks and fallen limbs, not the kind of bucolic landscapes we see too much of in popular art. My favorite is one called Stones from Spain. It depicts in abstract terms a forest scene with a kind of window in the sky opening onto yet another scene with a bright blue sky.

Speaking of bucolic, Baughman’s oil on paper paintings are just that. She has three paintings on display; each of them is long and thin, one vertical and two horizontal. They are simple abstract forms broken into square shapes in soft colors. The paint is applied like a thick paste, scraped and gouged in some areas and slick as an ice skating rink in other areas. Her paintings look almost like polished ceramic surfaces, which makes sense because she is a ceramicist as well as a painter. I particularly like the rough, Zen-like circular shapes in a couple of her paintings, which remind me of Robert Motherwell, and the soft glow of red and violet against white and cream backgrounds. They are contemplative and restful.

Tudor and Curren’s work will remain up through the month, and they will be showing with local artist Laraine Wade beginning June 27. That show will be kicked off with a performance Friday, June 27, by R&B recording artist and Broadway musical star Shoshana Bean. There will be an artists’ reception that night from 5 to 7 p.m., and Bean’s performance will start at 8 p.m.

[Art House Designs, through June 27 with Currens, Tudor and Wade continuing through July, 420 B Franklin St. S.E., Olympia, 360.943.3377]

Friday, June 6, 2008

Lakewood Playhouse deftly handles ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’

Published in The News Tribune, June 6, 2008
pictured, top:
Randy Clark as Martini, Scott C. Brown as R.P. McMurphy, and Julie Wensel as Sandy; bottom: Mark Wenzel as Billy Bibbit and Alison Monda as Candy Starr.
Photos by Dean Lapin

" One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” at Lakewood Playhouse is an amazing play.

For any number of reasons, it must be one of the most difficult of all modern comedy-dramas to produce. For starters, Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Brad Dourif and Will Sampson so thoroughly defined the roles of R.P. McMurphy, Nurse Ratched, Billy Bibbit and Chief Bromden in the 1975 movie that nobody can possibly play those roles without inviting comparisons. Patterning the roles after these actors would be an obvious folly, and yet to play them any other way would risk destroying the characters as Ken Kesey wrote them.

It’s an almost impossible tightrope to walk, but Scott C. Brown as McMurphy, Jenifer Rifenbery as Ratched, Mark Wenzel as Bibbit and Nathan Daniel Hicks as Bromden do it masterfully; they bring these complex and larger-than-life characters to life without making them seem like caricatures of the roles as defined by Nicholson and company. Kudos to all of these fine actors and to director Marcus Walker – and to the fine ensemble cast with terrific work from Michael Sandner, Randy Clark, Jack House, Alison Monda, Joseph Grant and others.

The storyline is familiar to just about everyone. Randle McMurphy is a fun-loving gambler and womanizer in prison for statutory rape. He feigns insanity and is sent to a mental hospital where he becomes the leader of a band of inmates at war with an evil and power-mad head nurse, Nurse Ratched, who is in many ways more insane than some of the inmates, as are two cruel aides: Williams (Samuel Kyles) and Warren (Joseph Kelly).

Like the book by Kesey but unlike the movie version, the play is narrated in an unconventional manner by Chief Bromden, who is catatonic and supposedly deaf and dumb, but who talks at night, when he is all alone, to his deceased “Papa.” This is a character who might easily seem stilted and unrealistic, but in this version, he is utterly believable as a spiritual being who struggles to emerge from his catatonic state. He is also, as written, a giant of a man, and Lakewood Playhouse was fortunate in finding an actor, Hicks, who looks the part and can act as well.

Transitions between sets are beautifully handled by otherworldly lighting by Kris Zetterstrom and eerie music by sound designer Scott Campbell while the chief talks to his Papa and, when necessary, actors quietly move props in slow motion.

Other reasons this play is difficult to produce include the necessity of walking a fine line between caricature and reality in depicting patients in an insane asylum. The director told me that he had consultants from Western State Hospital train them on the unique ticks and speech patterns of specific types of mental illness.

Finally, there is a fight scene that must be handled with the greatest dexterity to come across as real. It was so realistic that I can only hope they make it through the run of the play without injuring any of the actors.

This is a play that is extreme in its emotional impact, ranging from outlandish comedy to painful reality. It will surely leave you exhausted but satisfied. Due to the intensity of subject matter and harsh language, it is not recommended for young children.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through June 22
WHERE: Lakewood Playhouse, 5729 Lakewood Towne Center Blvd., Lakewood
TICKETS: $20 general, $17 seniors and military, $14 ages 25 and younger, $12 younger than 12
INFORMATION: 253-588-0042,

Thursday, June 5, 2008

The Neddy

Neddy Fellowship winners and nominees at Tacoma Art Museum

Published in the Weekly Volcano, June 5, 2008

pictured: Akio Takamori, Female Dwarf, photo courtesy James Harris Gallery, Seattle
Randy Hayes, Ruins, Aprhrodisius, TTurkey / Pass Christian, Mississippi, 2008. Courtesy of the artist

The Neddies are here again. The Neddy Fellowships are among the most prestigious art awards in the state and are granted each year to two worthy Washington state artists in honor of longtime Seattle painter Robert “Ned” Behnke, who died in 1989. Every year for the past four years Tacoma Art Museum has shown works by the winners and nominees (this year two winners and eight nominees). Ostensibly the winners are among the very best artists in the state. I don’t always agree with the jurors’ choices. In fact, I don’t think I have ever agreed with the top choices. This year is an exception. I think Randy Hays, fellowship recipient in painting, and Akio Takamori, winner in ceramics, are both fully deserving of the awards.

I am less excited, however, about some of the other nominees.

Takamori’s ceramic figures combine modern sensibilities with ancient forms in a marriage of Western and Asian art traditions. His figures draw on memories of his childhood in Japan, on traditional Japanese sumi techniques, and on his knowledge of Renaissance art from Italy and Spain. His Female Dwarf and Princess are reinterpretations of figures from the 17th-century Spanish painter Diego Velásquez in stoneware. Female Dwarf is based on Velasquez’s Las Meninas (Maids of Honor). She is an almost life-size ceramic sculpture glazed in dull tones of black, white and gray, and she has a flat face not unlike that of the dwarf in the Velásquez painting. Princess is a figure that combines Japanese features with Renaissance fashion, most notably the big ruffled collar. What I most admire in Takamori’s figures is the way his glazes look like ink painting on stone, especially the way creases in the face such as around the nostrils and under the chin are painted in and the drippy-rosy cheeks.

TAM visitors will remember Takamori for his wonderful one-person show Between Clouds of Memory in 2006.

TAM visitors also will remember Hays’ The Ferry to Eagle Lake from the Building Traditions show. To oversimplify his method, Hays prints photographs on canvas and paints other images over them with loosely brushed washes of transparent paint. His large diptych Ruins, Aphrodisius, Turkey and Pass Christian, Mississippi, 2008 is a two-panel painting of ancient ruins painted over a field of similar and related photographs from Aphrodisius, Turkey, and Pass Christian, Mississippi, one of the coastal towns that was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. His watery transparencies give his pictures a ghostly quality, and the similarities and contrasts of his images are fascinating. They prod memories and evoke thoughts, and his painting style and color choices are lovely. In this one, the photos are a dull blue-gray and the overpainted images a brilliant, fiery orange with areas of light violet — sunset colors and images seen as if through water.

The most startling, disturbing and mesmerizing work in the show is Doug Jeck’s stoneware sculpture Cain and Abel. Jeck modernizes and humanizes heroic figures from Rome and Greece. And when I say he humanizes them, I mean that figures based on idealized classical statues are flawed in very human ways. He often breaks apart and recombines parts of figures in disturbing ways such as in Cain and Abel (a single figure, not two figures as the title implies) whose hands and forearms are too small for his body. This figure is disturbingly all too naked in body and spirit, a powerfully muscular man who seems to be cringing in fear.

These are the best works in the show. The rest are worth looking at but probably not worthy of being singled out as among the very best of Washington state artists.

[Tacoma Art Museum, through June 15, Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Third Thursdays 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Sunday noon-5 p.m. 1701 Pacific Ave., Tacoma, 253.272.4258]