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Untitled, 1963

My family’s trip to the Portland Art Museum started with a tantrum, thrown by me.

“But you said we could see Mark Rothko!” I cried. “I’m not going to the zoo, and that’s final!

It was one of those 20-something moments when you realize your Very Mature Attitude is one slip away from a ride on the teenage whaaambulance. If it’s in the name of Rothko, I say go for it.

I’m sure the (usually depressed) Portland zebras were frolicking on that sunny Saturday, but we were headed indoors. So there.

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Untitled (three women and a child with mannequins), 1936/1937

It was a warm enough afternoon that stepping off the sidewalk and into the chilly air was like deflating. Once all the hot air had hissed away, our arms and legs were rubbery and useless.

I think we looked like Rothko’s early Picasso-esque figures, with their droopy eyes and flabby limbs. My family didn’t see the resemblance and quickly proceeded, hackles raised, toward the second half of the show.

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Untitled, 1945

As we walked through, nudes were replaced with curly spiders that awkwardly hovered on abstract planes. Suddenly all form was gone, clearing the way for my family’s scorn.

“What a great painter,” said Sarah (16) with impressive ferocity, staring at a muddy stack of brown and black rectangles. My brother Jacob (11) took a look and, finding nothing of interest, drifted out of the gallery with my dad in tow.

Only my friend Julianna, who’d tagged along to Portland for other business, stuck around. She followed me for a bit, observing me observing the work.

“Why do people like this stuff?” she asked. I sighed and searched my brain for an answer.

The truth is, I didn’t actually know that I liked Rothko until that day. Looking at pictures and reading analyses left me just as confused as anyone. I mean, look at this picture of the Rothko Chapel and tell me you understand what the fuss is about.

I babbled to Julianna for a while about the ideas behind abstract expressionism: the effort to return painting to its essential flatness, to create landscapes that only our eyes can travel through, to focus on painting as its own subject. At some point, I realized that my art babble and vigorous gesticulation weren’t getting through.

“Just look at those colors!” I finally said, pulling her closer to one of the paintings.

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Untitled, 1963 (original is on left, “clarity” filter is on the right)

Color is what it’s really about, dear reader, though I’m afraid you’ll have to meet a Rothko in person to see what Julianna saw. In the meantime, take a look at my MAGICAL THERMAL IMAGE detail from the first photo.

Look at the shifting hues, as subtle and vibrant as those of a peacock feather. Forget about all the high fallutin’ theories and just let your eyes run across the brushstrokes. Are they not euphoric?

Rothko was a master of elaborate color dances. What happens when you pair red and purple? Both colors change. Now add some green. All three colors spin in entirely different directions. Feast your eyes:

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Orange on Red, 1956 (with detail)

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Untitled, 1969 (with detail)

“I still don’t get it,” said Julianna.

“Does that make you feel angry? Frustrated?” I asked.

“Frustrated, yes,” said Julianna, heading over to a bench and plopping down dejectedly.

Don’t run away, oh Rothko haters. As long as you’re feeling something, that’s good. It’s okay to love to hate Mark Rothko, but don’t stop playing the game. Just try not to spit on the art.

Housekeeping:

  • Sarah Refvem is showing next week at the Laverne Krause!! Here’s my original post on her, and here’s a profile I did on her for the Queen Bee Collective.
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I like to think the pocket camera (a.k.a. iThing) has democratized rather than cheapened the art of photography. If the blurry distinction between amateur and master photographer floats somewhere in the realm of 100,000 photographs, we’re all much farther along than we might have been a generation ago.

Of course, part of the intrigue of instant photography is its function as a mousetrap that strangles quality. An iThing’s mean little eye is sharp, but when paired with our shaky hands and half-formed compositional skills, its products become near-exact replicas of their ancestral Polaroids (with dashes of pixels to mark the digital divide). Last century’s pop artists routinely threw themselves into this trap with results that still fill us with superficial but alluring nostalgia. Hello, Mr. Warhol.

I pondered all of this as I stood in front of the photo booth at Holly GoSlugly’s decadent Midnight in Manhattan bash at the JSMA on Saturday. In its minimalistic incarnation, the “booth” was a tall white box with an iPad stuck to its side and the Pocketbooth app running.

The booth was set at the edge of a staircase where sweaty party animals would routinely escape for some fresh air. I flipped through the evening’s frivolous photographic experiments and discovered an interesting reaction to the iWorld’s limitless exposure.

Here were dozens of Instagram savvy people working resolutely against the photo booth’s built-in spontaneity, posing and preening like the reality TV stars we’ve all become. It was a sort of backlash against the whiplash of an instant society.

The photos I’ve presented above are exceptions, candid moments that are so often deleted to make room for more plastic smiles. A kiss provokes a sloppy grin, a brow furrows in surprise, a mustache falls, spectacles obscure and masks slip. The mistakes give us a glimpse into what our thousand-gigabyte clouds of digital snaps might be missing.

Take a moment and consider the beauty and rarity of the (truly) candid camera.

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Ecosex goddess with a bullhorn

“Lick the ground! Lick it!” called Annie Sprinkle to the small group clustered under an enormous sequoia. She’d already directed us onto our knees and had us press our foreheads to the earth. Now our little yoga class was getting weirder.

“Taste Mother Earth, or maybe just caress her. Run your hands across her curves,” said Sprinkle, her voice wavering excitedly. “But only if you feel comfortable.”

I suppose I should have expected this from an “Ecosexy Walking Tour” run by a former porn star, but I didn’t have much time to prepare myself. Just a few minutes before, I’d bumped into a graduate teaching fellow from my art history class.

“Are you going on the ecosexywalkingtourwithanniesprinkle?” she said, looking at me like I was a delicious tofu patty.

“The… wait, what?” I said.

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Ceremonials

Now, as I pretended to French kiss a patch of pine needles, I was getting a bit worried. Ever wonder if you could have resisted the Kool-Aid? I had my answer, and it wasn’t good.

Sprinkle was a porn star in the 70’s, a porn director in the 80’s, has been in a monogamous relationship since the 90’s, and is now an environmental crusader. Or should I say dominator? Only with the tree’s consent, of course.

None of this interested me very much, at least past an initial vulgar curiosity about Sprinkle’s self-proclaimed “ecosexuality.” What really held my attention was that my GTF had described Sprinkle (with utmost seriousness) as a performance artist. The fact that she’d been invited by the UO Department of Art upped her cred even more. Having just studied the Fluxus movement, I had to bite.

Fluxus was a disparate group of 1960’s artists that saw no boundary between art and life. To them, every mundane moment was a work of art. Their pieces had less to do with producing a final product (like, say, a painting) than experiencing an event. They called these events “happenings,” which could be anything from building an ice palace on a blazing hot day to licking jam off the hood of a car. You know, everyday stuff.

Sprinkle’s eco-neo-Fluxual performance, clearly organized into a series of happenings, felt like strange serendipity. Actually, it felt rough, like the bark of a tree.

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The Sprinkle-Stephens Scale of ecosexuality

The first few happenings had been orientations. We’d picked earth names (my new brothers and sisters: Damp Soil, Caves, Mowed Grass, Jellyfish), looked over the Ecosex Manifesto (“I promise to love, honor and cherish you Earth, until death brings us closer together forever”), and reviewed the Sprinkle-Stephens scale (based on Kinsey’s, but greener). Now we were taking the relationship to the next level.

“You really want it to be a full-body hug,” explained Sprinkle’s co-host, Portland eco-sex shop owner Kim Marks. Sprinkle nodded, keeping an eye on us as we approached the tree. You’d better not be giving Mother Earth no side hug, child.

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Hugging the sequoia was what you might call my transcendent moment. It was warm and comfy, and there was a spectacular view of the canopy. For a second, I stopped wanting to giggle or roll my eyes and existed within the happening. This is the whole point, I think. Or it would be the point if there was one, but that’s not the point.

I had class, so I cut out early while Sprinkle lead her followers off to find their “e-spots.” My departure was probably a good thing, as everyone had started complaining about last month’s “treeicide” and my earth name happened to be Snow.

As a gimmicky performer, Sprinkle was pretty good. She can spin out ecosex jokes like only a porn veteran could, and she slipped in some good messages about environmental stewardship and safe sex.

As a performance artist, at least in the Fluxus sense, Sprinkle left something to be desired. The Fluxus folks definitely had a sense of humor, but they fiercely believed in their art. Sprinkle’s happenings were all gags- bizarre, yes, but far from the brink of true Fluxus absurdity. Her imagined ecocult with its rituals, charts and chants was ludicrously intricate, but seemed a bit flat and overdone when dropped in the hippie hotbed of Eugene.

On the other hand, famous Fluxian Yoko Ono has probably been an ecosexual at some point in the last eight decades.

BONUS: Earth Day is comin’ up. Learn 25 ways to love the earth from Annie Sprinkle herself…

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Just inside the Laverne Krause Gallery stands the ambassador of this week’s show, a hinged white box with two tiny explosions of tangled hair erupting from it. The abstract figure embodies everything that the “BROSHOW(FOSHO) SHOW” is at first glance: playful and a little heavy-handed.

Witness the pile of tire shreds, the video montage of dubbed-over action scenes and the field of ripped and melted dolls, and you’re bound to feel shell-shocked… or maybe just numb, like that hairy box.

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Ew.

I actually had to view the BROSHOW twice before writing this. Manhood is, despite (or because of) the boxy stereotypes, a very complex state of being.

Next to the box art is a long printout of a Google image search for “manly man.” If you click that last link, you’ll see how little wiggle room there is in the definition of an ideal man. The leader of the pack is a retro gent holding a beer. “Being an a**hole is all part of my manly existence” says the accompanying text.

I will never be like the aggressive musclemen who populate this list, and I try to make myself believe that I don’t want to be. But I do but I don’t but I do.

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Of course, if you peel back those onion layers, there’s usually a sweet, bromantic center. Two low-key photographs form the heart of the show.

The first, an image of a TV screen showing a tuxedoed man with flowers, reminded me of my parents’ wedding photos. In those pictures, my 20-something dad doesn’t look rugged or mean, but he does look strong and handsome. Could this picture be making a similar comment on a more real, graceful state of manhood?

Something tells me the use of a second frame (the TV screen) is pointing us toward the media or advertising. It’s still a refreshing meditation amid the carnage, though.

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The second image is something of a mystery. A blindfolded man gets a shave from his buddy, who is naked but for a pair of Nike short-shorts and spectacles. It’s a vulnerable moment that digs deeper than any other piece in the show. Brotherly love is, by nature, largely undiscussed among men. The brilliantly composed shot shines a touching light on it.

All in all, I’d call the BROSHOW one of the most striking exhibitions I’ve seen at the Krause. If only the show’s multifaceted heft could have been matched by a little more attention to detail. That last photo was hung with paper clips, and none of the pieces were titled. That’s men, I guess.

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Gold face + ALESTINE

The thing I most love about graffiti is the layers. To create something new, you’re forced to cover and destroy the old. I suppose it’s been done forever- Greek bronzes were melted down to create Roman statues- but never with such a graphic, cluttered punch to it.

These are reflections that bubbled up as I peered through the non-haze of my candy cigarette on a trip to the Skinner’s Butte (legal) graffiti walls. In other words, anything written before or after (or between) this should be taken with the most least seriousness, in that hipster kind of way.

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Haze

Anyway, back to layers. Whenever I tag, I always wonder what might be under the surface of the ever-shifting canvas. All of the pictures ever painted on these walls exist within a multicolored millimeter of paint. What if I could peel it all back one layer at a time?

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The Living Banksies

It turns out no one looks very good in a straight-on shot late at night while tagging, which makes that creeptastic photo of Banksy (?) more understandable.

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Viking

I’m starting to, like, totally not care about this post. What does it even mean, you know?

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Did I mention I was wearing a tutu at the time?

I was.

Finite.

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Joseph McDonnell, The Bather, 1976

I didn’t need the eyes of an appraiser to know, instantly upon walking in, that these people were millionaires. It wasn’t that their walls were covered in original art, some accompanied by charming personal notes from the artists. That detail would emerge with further examination. It was the avante garde (read: bizarre) little touches that really tipped me off.

No, those aren’t twin dogs lounging on the couch. They’re explosively furry sheep hair pillows. Yes, the chandelier is a cluster of enormous glass cubes that might shatter at any moment. It’s one-of-a-kind. Oh, and now I know who buys those cowhide carpets from Ikea that I saw on my hellish journey there in October. You can’t be this aesthetically playful without very good ta$te, if you know what I mean.

It was the last day of my Seattle journey, and I’d landed at my dad’s work retreat, held at his co-worker’s chic mansion. I know I said my field trip posts were over, but the best part of this story takes place in Oregon. Just sit tight, and we’ll be far, far away from the rich and famous soon.

Besides all of the glorious pieces hanging on the walls (which included an excellent portrait of the family’s daughters… with Elphaba green skin), there was also The Bather. The sculpture sits serenely in the backyard, striking a contrast to the stunning view of Seattle’s bustling skyline.

You might recognize The Bather because a version of it was shown at the Vancouver Olympic games. As much as I’d like to relate it to the ancient Olympian sculpture Boy scraping himself or other classical works, the piece is resolutely modern and figurative. It’s all about circles and curves. McDonnell is shaping emptiness, creating an invisible ball of energy that is formed by (or holds) the bather’s body.

I wasn’t planning on writing about McDonnell’s sculpture at all, mostly because I knew the post would end up sounding like Better Home and Garden (mission accomplished). Then I went on a run with my dad at Lane Community College yesterday, and the plot thickened.

It turns out there’s an awesome network of forest paths behind the temple of questionable art that is LCC. Not far from the trail head but deep in the tangled underbrush we caught sight of a very familiar sculpture…

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LCC mystery sculpture

Okay, so it’s not exactly The Bather, but you can see McDonnell’s figure here in an even simpler form. The bottom curve looks like folded legs of sorts, while the upper twist of metal could be a bent torso. Even if you think that’s a bit of a stretch, you have to admit that the sculptures utilize spirals, curves and globes in similar ways:

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So, what landed one sculpture on the millionaire’s lawn and the other in a mass of blackberry brambles? Or maybe a better question is, which piece is better off?

“Maybe the sculptor (of the LCC work) put it out there on purpose, as sort of an interactive, natural piece,” pondered my dad. “Who says a pedestal is the best place to put a sculpture? It seems artificial.”

The abandoned sculpture has certainly gotten a lot of attention since being dumped. Though some of the marks on its skin are ugly and hateful, others are intricately crafted tattoos. It seems that, in the long run, most bent hunks of metal that we call “sculptures” will end up somewhere like this. The Lenin statue I saw the other day spent years with its face in the dirt before ending up in Seattle.

It’s an idea that makes me uncomfortable and fearful. I suppose it’s a sculpture’s final statement (or provocation): memento mori.

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Julia Holtzman, “Don’t Look @ Me”

I just saw Me and You and Everyone We Know by Miranda July for the first time. If you haven’t seen it, watch this goldfish death scene, and you’ll get the gist. The movie was a perfect addendum to a day full of strange encounters and interesting characters.

Six of those people live in the same woman, whose name is Julia Holtzman. These identities, from a police officer to an Amy Winehouse lookalike, are tacked in a quirky lineup along the wall of the Laverne Krause this week. They’re connected by a long red line of lipstick, and point to a television screen.

On it is an old woman hobbling along a busy sidewalk. She turns toward the camera and reveals a smooth face. It’s Julia. She starts to cross a street but drops her cane, and a passing gentleman scoops it up for her. For a second he seems to look into her eyes, but then he has vanished from the frame. Did he even see her at all?

With every flicker of the television screen, Julia’s identity fractures. Suddenly she’s a spy of some sort, sitting conspicuously at a cafe in a fake mustache and fedora. Then she’s just Julia, peering into a mirror and scribbling the apparent title of the piece, “Don’t Look @ Me.”

In the row of portraits, every character stares straight into the camera- and nearly leans out of the frame- except Julia herself. She stares into a mirror, pensive and vulnerable. The message seems to be, “Don’t look at me, look at them.” But her worried eyes reveal a person who, above all, wants to be seen for exactly who she is.

Holtzman has promise as an actress (her often manic characters would fit perfectly in an SNL skit), but someone who can so confidently be me, you and everyone we know has a bigger challenge first. She must learn to be herself. And she knows it.