Thursday, October 29, 2015

Revisiting Art AIDS America

Published in the Weekly Volcano, Oct. 29, 2015

“Untitled Memory (projection of Axel H.), 1998,” Ektacolo photograph by Shimon Attie, Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

I must return to Tacoma Art Museum at least one more time to slowly peruse the Art AIDS America exhibition, which is likely the most affecting exhibition ever mounted at TAM and the most thorough exhibition on the AIDS epidemic ever mounted anywhere in America. There is simply too much to take in on a single visit. Plus there are many planned discussions, workshops and other events in conjunction with the show, including an artist talk and performance by notorious performance artist Karen Finley and a rare opportunity to talk with members of the artist collective Gran Fury.
One of the first things to strike my eye upon entering the first gallery was a little photo by Peter Hujar of his bedroom, “Ruined Bed, Newark.” Hujar was closely associated with Andy Warhol and famous for his book Portraits in Life and Death, featuring portraits of Susan Sontag, Candy Darling, Devine, and his lover, David Wojnarowicz. This photo is gripping, dark, moody, and beautifully composed. Hujar and Wojnarowicz both died of AIDS-related related illnesses.
Similar to Hujar’s photo but even more disquieting is Shimon Attie’s photo of a bed with the ghostly projected image of Axel H., a friend of the artist who also died of AIDS.
David Lebe’s photograph, “Morning Ritual 29,” is a self-portrait of the artist injecting his morning medicine. It is gut-wrenching.
Easily overlooked but powerful is Charles LeDray’s untitled teddy bear in a casket. LeDray, who was born in Seattle, made many of these little boxes with padded interiors and teddy bears representing people who died of AIDS. It is much more moving than can possibly be conveyed in words.
Izhar Patkin’s “Unveiling of a Modern Chastity, 1981” is a large yellow panel with huge, gaping eruptions like Kaposi sarcoma lesions. It is breathtaking.
These are but four of 125 works by both famous and unknown artists.
Special events in conjunction with the exhibition include:
     The AIDS Memorial Quilt with Julie Rhoad, Project Director of the NAMES Project Foundation, Sunday, Nov. 15, 2 p.m. Rhoad will share the quilt’s history and evolution from personal memorial to the world’s largest example of folk art. $10, $5 members/students.
     Drop-In Art Workshop: activism and Printmaking, Thursday, Nov. 19 at 5:30 p.m. This printmaking workshop with University of Puget Sound art professor Janet Marcavage focuses on making creative, bold graphic statements. $15, $10 members/students.
     Faith and Positivity: An Interfaith Panel about HIV/AIDS, Thursday, Nov. 19 at 6 p.m. This discussion with Tacoma-area faith leaders is free.
     Art Salon: A Psychoanalytic Perspective on Art AIDS America, Sunday, Nov. 22 at 2 p.m.
     World AIDS Day program with Pierce County AIDS Foundation, Tuesday, Dec. 1.
     Artist Talk with Karen Finley, Saturday, Dec. 5 at 2 p.m. $10, $5 members/students.
     Closing Celebration featuring “condom couture” fashion show, Sunday, Jan. 10, noon to 4 p.m. with discussion by Gran Fury at 3 p.m. $10, $5 members/students.
Art AIDS America, Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., through Jan. 10, 2016, $12-$14, Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave. Tacoma,

Sunday, October 25, 2015

What Kind of Books Do You Write?

Musings after the Puyallup Book Festival
At Local Authors Day at the Puyallup Book Festival people kept asking me what kind of books I write. God, I hate that question! Even though, if the table were turned, that’s exactly what I would ask. As a matter of fact, I did ask that of a lot of the other authors who were tabling. They wrote Sci-fi, horror, political intrigue, and so forth. One of them wrote Jane Austin Fan Fiction. I guess that’s a genre now.
The thing is, if you say you write sci-fi or mysteries everybody knows what kind of books you write.
I write literary fiction, and nobody knows what the hell that is. Hell fire, even the people who write it don’t know what the hell that is.
Marketing experts say that if you want to sell your work you need to be able to say in a few words just what it is you’re trying to sell. You’ve got to be able to give a synopsis as an elevator speech. I’m not very good at that. Sometimes I say I write contemporary fiction, sometimes family sagas. Yesterday I told someone I write situational fiction. I also sometimes try giving examples of other writers who write similar types of books. The writer I refer to most often is Pat Conroy. We tell similar types of stories in similar styles. I was very flattered when reviewer Linda Linguvic wrote, “Move over Pat Conroy. There’s a new Southern writer in town” and followed up with, “Frankly, I loved this book and actually found it better than Pat Conroy's latest.” Thank you, Linda. (Interestingly, she had no interest in reviewing any of my later books; oh well, you can’t please all of the people all of the time.)
Another writer whose books might serve as a good example of the kind of books I write is Richard Russo. I aspire to his level of comic writing, but I’m not all about comedy by any means. I write about love and death and sexual harassment and racism. It’s deadly serious, but I do try to inject a dose of humor as well.
In addition to Conroy, reviewers have compared me to Eudora Welty, William Faulkner and Carl Hiaasen, and my books have been called Southern Gothic. I think those reviewers were really reaching to find some way to define my work; really, the only thing those writers have in common is that they are Southerners (although Hiaasen’s Miami is more New York/Cuban than Southern).
When it comes down to it, I guess what I should tell people when they ask what kind of books I write is that I’m just a story teller. Old timers sit around and tell tales about when they were young, about all the crazy characters they met or were. That’s what I do; I just tell tales.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

[title of show]

 Published in the Weekly Volcano, Oct. 22, 2015

from left: Deya Ozburn, Zach Sanders, Amanda Norman and Joel Dominico. Photo by Clickery Photography.
I went to see [title of show] (brackets and lower case letters intentional) thinking it was the dumbest play title I had ever heard but also with the expectation, based on what little I had heard about it, that it was probably going to be pretty good. It was, much, much better than pretty good. It was fantastic —smartly written and a top-notch performance by an outstanding ensemble cast.
The only cast member I knew going in was Daya Ozburn. The director, Jen Tidwell, and three of the four actors are new to Tacoma, and they all have impressive resumes and come to Tacoma Actors Repertory Theater from mostly Seattle theaters. Let’s hope they become regulars down here.
Jeff (Joel Dominico) and Hunter (Zach Sanders) are actors who are not exactly winning the best roles in the world. Or any roles at all for that matter. So Jeff decides on a whim to write a musical he and his friends can perform, and he wants to enter it in a play festival. They recruit Susan (Ozburn) and Heidi (Amanda Norman) to help write and perform in his musical, which he titles [title of show] because that’s what the blank on the festival competition asks for. That’s a clue right off the bat that it’s either going to be a brilliant parody or the dumbest play ever. In another stroke of genius (or stupidity?) he decides that the way to write it is simply to write down everything he and his friends say, and put it to music. For musical accompaniment they recruit their friend Larry (Gregory Smith).
To everybody’s surprise, the play gets accepted into the festival and is such a hit that they get a producer and open Off-Broadway to great success. Any further commentary on the plot would constitute a spoiler.
It is a brilliantly written comedy and a fun insider’s look at the world of struggling actors — and playwrights, directors, and even keyboardists (representative of all the key behind-the-scenes folks who are rarely applauded. And it is an insightful look into the hearts of people who yearn to succeed in show business, their insecurities and their dreams.
The musical is performed with minimal sets consisting primarily of four chairs and Larry’s keyboard in the background. The music and lyrics by Jeff Bowen are upbeat, toe-tapping, feel-good tunes performed with gusto by the entire cast. The acting by all four is outstanding as they are each outlandishly expressive, and each in extremely personal ways. It is as if these four actors have taken almost stereotypical types and brought them to life as strong individuals.
There is also dancing that is hard to describe. All I can say about it is that it is not what you think of as dancing, but often odd movements that are fun to watch, including a bit where Ozburn plays airplane while the others push her around on a rolling chair and a surprising moment when Norman does absolutely wild when she thinks the guys aren’t watching (choreography by Kendra Pierce).
[title of show] is contemporary musical theater that proves you don’t need big Broadway-type sets and full orchestras and lavish production numbers to bring the house down. It’s small scale, intimate, and as enjoyable as anything you might see this year.
Tacoma Actors Repertory Theater is a brand new theatrical group. They opened their first season (hopefully the first of many) with the critically and popularly successful Three Viewings. For the holidays, they will present Dickens' A Christmas Carol, performed by guest artist Byron Tidwell as a one-man show. It will run in repertory with the comedy The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate’s Townswomen’s Guild Dramatic Society’s Production of a Christmas Carol by David McGillivray and Walter Zerlin, Jr. That’s a mouth full, and the title alone makes me want to see it.
I can’t recommend [title of show] highly enough. Tacomans should welcome TARP with open arms and standing ovations.
[title of show], 8 p.m., Oct. 22, 24, 28, 30, and Nov. 5 and 7, 2 p.m., Oct. 25, 31, and Nov. 8, $22.50-$25, The Historic Tacoma Armory, 715 S. 11 St., Tacoma, online tickets at tacomarep.lorg.

Michael Dickter’s ‘Fear of Flying’ at Salon Refu

Published in the Weekly Volcano, Oct. 22, 2015

“History of Flight,” pastel by Michael Dickter. Photo courtesy Salon Refu.

Michael Dickter comes soaring into Olympia’s Salon Refu with a show of paintings of birds and flowers, subject matter that is often snubbed with various “nesses” such as sweetness and preciousness. But there is little of the saccharine in Dickter’s birds and flowers. The subject matter of his paintings is almost totally irrelevant. They could be paintings of rocks or weeds or frogs, or of nothing recognizable at all, and they would still carry the same impact. Because his paintings are all about the marks, the drips, the texture, and the arrangement of images on a flat surface. These are abstract paintings that happen to picture birds, flowers, a couple of boats and some very odd flying chairs. The subject matter is subservient to the painting but adds an extra layer of meaning.
Imagine Cy Twombly if he painted recognizable subjects or even Eva Hesse if she was a painter rather than a sculptor. I admit that comparisons with Hesse may be going too far, but there is that feeling to much of Dicker’s work, or could be if his birds were not so Audubon-like.
One thing I find fascinating about this show is the comparisons between the older paintings (around 2005) and the latest (done this year).
The newest works are represented with a group of 14 small, square paintings of birds strategically placed on backgrounds that are all texture with no imagery, created by an application of some plaster-like material and paint in a combination of gray that is so light as to be seen as white and a dull olive green. This surface looks like old weathered stone or the sides of whitewashed barns. The birds are drawn and painted with delicate and expressive lines, drips of paint and fine color accents. The contrast between sharp marks and dull surface and the often out-of-balance and oddly placed images of birds is fascinating.
Also among these newer works are two works on paper with birds arranged in a grid that are quite attractive. My favorite of these is an oil and pastel drawing called “9 Black Birds” with intense, deep black smudging into soft grays, and small accents of intense color that drip downward in watery blue, orange, red and gray.
The older works include “History of Flight,” a large pastel of a man with black wings, intense and smudged like the black pastel in “9 Black Birds,” two boats seemingly floating in air and a boxy chair with seats facing in two directions that also seems to be flying. And there is a ghostlike reflection of the winged man, who is probably intended as Icarus. This painting has a dreamy quality and amazing mark-making and contrasts of dull and intense color.
“Fear of Flying” is a similar work with the same images plus a set of blue footprints that march from the bottom to the top of the 80-inch- tall drawing, fading as they ascend. I’m reasonably sure this was done by stepping in paint and walking across the paper. These two are by far my favorite works in the show, precisely because they are not as highly finished as the later works. His earlier works are more concerned with drawing than painting, and there is more complexity to the images. They’re risky, with a gutsy flavor that is lost in more recent works like the group of 14 bird paintings.
I get the impression that Dickter is a wonderfully talented painter whose sensitivity to space, texture and color is second to none, but who has become a bit too concerned with pleasing the public.
Salon Refu, Michael Dickter Fear of Flying, Friday-Sundays 2-6 p.m., and by appointment. through Oct. 24,114 N. Capitol Way, Olympia,

Monday, October 19, 2015

Another Pop-up Show at B2

Published in the Weekly Volcano, Oct. 15, 2015

“Transformation” oil on canvas by Anna Hoey, courtesy B2 Gallery.
B2 Gallery is jam-packed with art for its fall pop-up show. Pop-ups? What are they anyway? It’s a new thing instituted at B2 this summer where between the main or regular shows they have exhibitions that are up for a shorter duration and sometimes with art that is priced more reasonably. They’re like the B-team, even though artists such as Becky Frehse are definitely A-team all the way. Some of the others may be seen a B-team artists who are ready to step up to the A-team such as sculptor Alan Newberg.
Newberg’s massive carved-wood sculptures are sensuous. His “God of Black Holes: Up Looks Down” is a huge, dark abstract bird shape that dominates the front room of the gallery. His “Natural Urges” is a soaring form atop a polished-metal pyramid base that blends smooth, carved shapes with convoluted forms of wood in its natural state. These are outstanding. He is also showing a number of paintings in a pop-art style based on images from the book Weegee's New York: Photographers 1935-1960.  These paintings harken back to early American works by artists such as Guy Pène du Bois and George Luks. They’re a bit too crudely painted with garish red frames.
Anna Hoey’s oil paintings of people wearing masks are fierce and beautifully rendered. One of the more fascinating aspects to these paintings is that the faces of the mask wearers can be partially seen beneath the masks, and these faces are youthful, soft and gentle in marked contrast to the masks. I counted thirteen of these pictures, including a drawing in graphite and colored pencil called “Breaking Barriers” picturing a nude somewhat awkwardly seated within an oval mirror with a rope frame, all in black and white except for two thin red lines and the woman’s bright red lips. This one is beautifully composed.
Frehse, the only well-known Tacoma artist in the show, has three large paintings in the center gallery. They are abstract-expressionist depictions of musicality using primarily rhythmical repetition of shapes to represent music. The only recognizable objects are drums, cymbals and triangles in a painting called “Ensemble.” These are great paintings  I so wish B2 would feature more of her work.
"Adrianople" by Brian Fisher, monotype print  with gold leaf. Photo courtesy B2 Gallery.
Some of the most impressive work in the show can be seen in a group of four Brian Fisher monotypes and  a similar group of rust monotypes also by Fisher, some with gold leaf, on the theme of the Greek legend of Jason and the Argonauts. All of these combine strong, graphic linear elements laid on top of or intertwined with flat shapes of solid color representing men and boats. These works are minimalist and dramatic. They remind me a lot of Michael Spafford’s powerful paintings of similar themes, but they are more decorative and delicate.
I was told that Fisher was a student of Ilse Reimnitz, who is represented in this show with stylistically similar monoprints and acrylics of flowers and figures. Her influence on Fisher is clear, but based on these few works I venture to say the pupil has eclipsed the teacher. I do admire her use of multiple overlapping transparencies and soft colors.
Also showing  are seascape paintings by Karla Fowler; realistic but bland paintings of birds and other animals by Bill O. Walcott (the best being a picture of a bunch of chickens); and overly cluttered fauvist city scenes with strange animals by Bethany Woodward.
This is an interesting show, uneven but with a lot to see.
Fall Pop Up at B2, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, till 9 p.m. Third Thursdays, through Oct. 24, 711 St. Helens Avenue, Tacoma, 253.238.5065.