• Eugene Weekly Loves You!
Share |

Eugene Weekly : Culture : 04.08.04

Visual Art:

Spontaneous Surrealism

Sculptor Jerry Harris at the Jacobs.


Six Young Visionaries

In a troubled world.


Mammoth Task

Lord Leebrick wrestles with Wilder's absurd epic.


Super Sages

Hardy perennials make good companion plants.


Spontaneous Surrealism

Sculptor Jerry Harris at the Jacobs.


The Executioner's Song, sculpture by Jerry Harris.

Playfulness and humor — such is the first impression Jerry Harris' sculptures impart — an absurdist, surrealistic, cerebral and often dark, playfulness and humor. Harris's exhibition of collage and sculpture at the Jacobs Gallery closes this Saturday, April 10.

Harris himself describes his work as surrealist. One should not think of Dali or Magritte's naturalistic surrealism, however, but rather of Miró and Jean Arp's abstract surrealism with its biomorphic shapes and its predominant concept of automatic or intuitive work mode. "I totally work from the subconscious," Harris said, "with no preconceived ideas about my sculpture."

The Jacobs Gallery's exhibition of Harris' recent work includes a dozen collages and some 15 sculptures. The latter are constructions assembled out of variously combined media: polished carved wood; sculpted clay encased in fiberglass and painted uniformly brown; manufactured objects such as string, wooden utensils and wooden knobs, dowels, rods, staffs, buttons, pins, spools in all sizes and shapes. Many of the sculptures stand on long thin legs like a new breed of tall wading birds.

Although Harris warns us to not take his titles too literally or read too much into them — they are often spontaneous in the tradition of the Surrealists — their connotations are nonetheless inescapable even when there is no obvious link with the piece itself as in Dogon Mother and Child. On the other hand, Tic-Tac-Toe is more clearly derived from the piece itself with its three blocks of wood and knobs illustrating in the Surrealist tradition how the mind free-associates.

The Executioner's Song combines both carved wood and clay forms. A slim rod hangs from a beam surmounting two poles and ends with a clay shape that evokes a stylized cow-head (and Picasso's bike saddle of a bull). Two parallel strings stretched between knobs frame the central rod. This is a powerful piece and strikingly similar to Harris' earlier Homage to the Muscogee Indians War Of 1812-13.

Lady Sings the Blues: Homage to Billy Holliday includes a single stalk covered with rounded clay protuberances which are easy to anthropomorphize into tiny breasts or slight buttocks while wooden knobs evoke the keys of a wind instrument.

Because Harris' sculptures are conceived and created as constructions, the artist finds collage to be a similar process. "It's a building process," he explains, "using the same additive and subtractive sequence of sculpture."

Harris' collages are mostly triptychs with bold color schemes using one or two dominant colors beside black and white, often combining primary colors (red and yellow) or complementary ones (red and green). They combine abstract and figurative elements, organic and geometric shapes into abstract compositions that sometimes acquire a cubic edge.

Lady Sings the Blues: Homage to Billy Holliday, sculpture by Jerry Harris.

Repetition on a triple beat is used as a basic structural device for the triptychs. Nausea is an example of this general pattern. Harris created a first collage, which here includes a title-page fragment from Sartre's Nausea and cutouts from images of Francis Bacon's paintings. He scanned and printed this collage in triplicate then built over each print a second layer of mixed-media marks and collaged materials. This second layer adds similar but not identical elements to each "panel" of the triptych – here fragments of French poetry. The finished collages were then affixed to black and white paper frames placed over a black background. In Dance Theater of Harlem, another triptych, a single image repeated at different angles and enclosed in geometrical shapes succeeds in evoking ethereal bodies in movement.

Dizzy G Playin High Yellow follows a different format. Prints of a collage are placed side-by-side over an off-white background to create a single landscape format. The collage elements include fragments from music sheets and texts and are repeated in a series of panels of unequal width that function like measure bars. A face-and-wind-instrument cutout is altered in a Cubist manner and further transformed from measure to measure. The overall effect suggests high energy, rhythm and syncopation; it captures at once the repetition inherent to rhythm; the variations necessary to music and the fantasy at the heart of improvisation.

Beyond literature and the arts, Harris' work also invokes a variety of socio-cultural issues, from the question of a future shaped by technology to cultural minorities and racial issues. Windows of Old New York Ca. 1937 is a particularly successful example. Three prints of the same collage are juxtaposed landscape-wise over an off-white background. The dominant color is black with some with, red, orange and green accents. The prints appear to be based on a photograph of ads for the Dixie Theatre posted on a facetted cylindrical structure: "Strike in the Mines! Coal Police! Men, Women and Children Die of Hunger! The Greatest Show Ever Made About Miners: 'Black Fury.'"

The text allows Harris to refer to the plight of both miners and African-Americans through the connotations of the word "black." Harris has drawn a grid of window panes over the prints and added bits of color into some of the windows creating the illusion of a cityscape at night. We are looking into a series of visual and cultural frames; whatever social reality is hinted at has been transposed and transmuted through various media.

Harris thus succeeds in weaving an elaborate multicultural web that brings together America, Europe and Africa. Harris' artistic background is indeed international. He studied in London and the US and lived in Sweden until recently. His work is in the Swedish National Art Collection and he has exhibited throughout Europe and the US: "My work doesn't say 'African-American.' It's universal." If some of his sculptures show African influence, so does much of modern art. "I was influenced by Henry Moore, whom I met in the '70s in London, and he was himself influenced by African art."

In the end, though, there is one determining factor, deceptively simple, that fuels Harris' art: "I think," he says, "what I have kept in a certain way is my vision as a child — that sort of surprise in front of things."



Six Young Visionaries

In a troubled world.


THE MIRACLE DETECTIVE: An Investigation of Holy Visions by Randall Sullivan. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2004. Hardcover, $25. Eugene reading at 7 pm on April 20 in the Knight Library Browsing Room, UO campus.

Calling his new book "a reconciliation of faith and doubt," contributing editor to Rolling Stone magazine, Randall Sullivan, further noted to a Publishers Weekly interviewer, "You don't have to give up doubt to have faith."

I had never seen the loaded terms "doubt" and "faith" used in this way before, much less deployed in the same sentence. But I was willing to give Sullivan the opportunity to dispel my skepticism in his thoroughly researched investigation into contemporary holy visions and apparitions of the Virgin Mary. In the spirit of full disclosure, I must tell you that I have read only a quarter of this fascinating, 442 page account. I intend to finish the book before Sullivan's 7 pm, April 20 reading at UO Bookstore.

Based on the publisher's notes, I have not yet read far enough to learn what happens to Sullivan when a short information gathering trip to Bosnia at the end of the 1990s war in the former Yugoslavia turns into a seven-week-long visit. It took Sullivan another eight years to digest his experience in Medjugorje (Medge-you-gor-yi-a) and put it in the largest possible context. Randall's experience rests on his extensive understanding of the history of the region, the history of religious sightings, and hundreds of hours of interviews with theologians and historians with expertise in the study of holy apparitions. Sullivan had access to the Vatican's postulators from the Sacred Congregation of the Causes for Saints, for example.

Sullivan's account of the six teenagers who witnessed the first of the apparitions in Medjugorje is fascinating, even to a non-believer. These kids were not the devout Catholics whom the priests might have believed, They were regular teenagers, sneaking cigarettes for a clandestine smoke, hurrying to grow up. Their reports were given in plain language. And yet, when questioned separately, each described the visions using the same words.

My attention was arrested by two specific details each of the kids reported after the first appearance. Lights signaled the approach of the image, then they saw a woman, wearing a robe. She held a baby in her arms. First, she uncovered the baby, then covered it, and uncovered it again before she left. Second, none of them could see her feet. She seemed to hover in the air.

The unusual, ritualistic activity of showing and covering the baby remind me of the strange, mystical details that occur in dreams that contain numinous figures. Likewise, the figure's invisible feet seems authentic to me, not something kids would make up. Sorry I can't tell you more about the book. But this is enough to keep this skeptic reading for another 300-plus pages.

Portland resident Sullivan is the author of numerous short pieces and two other books, The Price of Experience: Power, Money, Image, and Murder in Los Angeles and LAbyrinth, A Detective Investigates the Murders of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G..


BOOK NOTES (April 8 through May 6): Harriet Rubin (Dante in Love) reads at 7 pm on April 13 at Barnes and Noble. …UO Honors College professor Henry Alley reads his short story, "The Rembrandt Brotherhood," at 7:30 pm on April 13 in the Robert D. Clark Library. …Michael Curtis Ford (The Last King: Rome's Greatest Enemy) reads at 7 pm on April 13 at Borders Books. …Literary historian Paul Collins (Not Even Wrong: Adventures in Autism) reads at 7 pm on April 14 in the UO Bookstore…Poet Maxine Scates and her workshop students read at 5 pm on April 17 in Tsunami Books. …Friends of the Eugene Public Library's Annual Book Sale April 17 (9 am-4 pm) and April 18 (9 am-4 pm), Lane County Fairgrounds, Wheeler Pavilion. …Local poets Jill Linninger, Jose Chavez and Karen Ford read at 4 pm on April 18 in Tsunami Books. …Investigative reporter Randall Sullivan (The Miracle Detective) reads at 7 pm on April 20 in the Knight Library Browsing Room, UO campus. …Poet Maurya Simon (Ghost Orchid) reads at 7 pm on April 20 in the Eugene Public Library, downtown. …UO medievalist Warren Ginsberg reads from Chaucer and Dante at 4 pm on April 20 in Alumni Lounge Gerlinger Hall, UO. …National Book Award for Poetry finalist Carol Muske-Dukes reads at 7:30 pm on April 21 in Wieden+Kennedy Atrium, Portland. Tickets: (503) 227-2583. …Novelist Frederick Busch (A Memory of War) reads at 8 pm on April 22 in the Knight Library Browsing Room, UO. …Barbara Erhenreich (Nickel and Dimed) speaks at 7:30 pm on April 22 in LaSells Stewart Center, OSU campus, Corvallis. …Neal Bascomb (The Perfect Mile) reads at 2 pm on April 25 in UO Bookstore. …William L. Sullivan reads from his book, Cabin Fever and shows slides
of building a long cabin from scratch at 7 pm on April 28 in the Knight Library Browsing Room. …Garden columnist Amy Stewart (The Earth Moved) talks about earthworms at 1 pm on May 1 in Down to Earth Home and Garden. …Ariel Gore (Whatever, Mom), editor of Hip Mama magazine, reads at 7 pm on May 4 in the UO Bookstore. …Poet and recent National Book Critics Circle Award-winner B.H. Fairchild (The Art of the Lathe) reads at 8 pm on May 6 in Knight Library Browsing Room, UO campus. …Dawn G. Stuart talks about book marketing in the 21st century at 6:30 pm on May 6 in Baker Downtown Center.

Mammoth Task

Lord Leebrick wrestles with Wilder's absurd epic.


The Skin of Our Teeth, Lord Leebrick, through April 17.

The Skin of Our Teeth is the kind of production one wishes one could study in print before watching on stage. Challenging and full of incongruities, Teeth is a play-within-a-play that's too baffling to see only once, too long to see again, too dark to be funny and yet too meaningful to dismiss.

Fully aware of its own absurdity, Teeth frequently stops itself while the "actors" debate the script. "I don't understand a word of this play," frets the beautiful Miss Somerset (Victoria Blake), an irked actress playing the maid Sabina. "Why can't we have plays like we used to have?"

In a fabulously flamboyant yet sympathetic performance, Blake's character peremptorily calls for time-outs, stopping the action onstage while struggling to understand and then explain the play to the audience. It's a complicated set-up held together by strong chemistry between Blake and Ken Hof, and supported by solid performances from most of the cast. This meta-theatre is what gives Teeth its comic bite, but its overarching theme is of human destruction and renewal.

Director Craig Willis presents the Antrobuses as a "typical" American family with two kids and a house in the suburbs. The Antrobuses survive thousands of years through the Ice Age, a biblical Great Flood, and a shattering world war. Each time they face extinction only to circle back, armed with the same skills as before, to make a new try at living.

Thornton Wilder wrote the Pulitzer-prize winning Teeth during World War II, a time when everything depended on people's ability to start over. The worry that the lessons of wartime would dissolve in the frivolity of peacetime underscores the play. "When we're at war, we think of a better world," explains Hof as Mr. Antrobus. "When we're at peace, we think of a more comfortable one."

In a wonderful performance, Hof plays the red-faced, volatile Mr. Antrobus with barely concealed impatience. Ariel Pearlson as Mrs. Antrobus suffers it all with brittle dignity.

Things get weirder when a baby mammoth (Sarah Fischer) and a dinosaur (Elena Stylos) frolic in front of their fireplace. The amateurish animal costumes and some coarsely lettered wooden sets provide the main quibbles with an otherwise skilled production.

The Antrobus children nicely juxtapose the dual potential of human nature in the face of adversity. Teresa Koberstein glows with innocence and vulnerability as daughter Gladys, growing into a young protective mother. Johnny Ormsbee as son Henry — formerly known as Cain — matures dramatically from a slingshot-happy boy to a bitter killer in army fatigues.

"Every good and excellent thing in the world stands on a razor's edge of danger and must be fought for," says Mr. Antrobus. The Skin of Our Teeth plays at Lord Leebrick through April 17.



Super Sages

Hardy perennials make good companion plants.


New sages for the garden have been introduced so fast in recent years that books on the topic are obsolete as soon as they hit the shelf. Many of these new Salvia varieties — and some of the most glamorous— are generally frost-tender plants from Mexico and South America, to be grown, in our area, as annuals. There are, however, many perfectly hardy perennial sages that have a lot to offer as part of a sunny border's supporting cast. By that I mean that while you would not grow them on their own as you might, say, a fine day-lily, they make terrific companion plants. Some are also reasonably tolerant of drought: they do need water in summer, but don't demand consistently moist soil.

Hardy sages are a reliable source of blue and purple. Only a handful have flowers of pure, spectrum blue; most are purple, lavender or violet. A few are pink or white. Some form rosettes of leaves the first year and bloom the next, and after that they are not good for much; but the real workhorses of the salvia world grow in slowly expanding clumps that can be left in the ground from year to year or divided to make more plants. I won't spend time on the rosette-formers, except to say that everyone should grow Salvia argentea at least once! The rosette is big and covered with brilliant silver fur. The following spring, if it survives the winter wet, it explodes in a mass of bloom about three feet high.

The true perennials among herbaceous (non-woody) sages carry their small, hooded flowers on vertical spires that look wonderful intermingling with lilies, day-lilies, phlox, kniphofia and daisies. Some of the best are hybrids that you will find labeled Salvia x sylvestris as well as a variety name. Probably best-known of these is 'May Night.' For years it was called 'Mainacht,' and it was a connoisseur's plant. Then some bright nursery person translated the name and promoted it as Plant of the Year.

Once May Night became popular, some unscrupulous growers began to stick the name on any variety they wanted to move, and you may now find at least two distinct plants under this name. The one I currently understand to be the genuine article has pronounced, sturdy basal leaves so pungent that deer usually leave them alone. Violet flowers in dark calyces are carried on two-and-a-half foot stems. 'Indigo' (not to be confused with 'Indigo Spires,' below) is more vigorous, and a little taller. The flowers, carried on a more open branch pattern, are light violet and the calyces are green.

There is a group of smaller sages that are useful near the front of a flower bed. Salvia nemerosa ("East Friesland") has many parallel stems bearing purple flowers with reddish calyces, a vibrant color combination. "Blauhugel" ("Blue Mound") is exceptionally compact with flowers more blue than purple. "Snow Hill" has pure white flowers. Last year I enjoyed a new variety of S. nemerosa named "Caradonna," with purple flowers on stems that are almost black. The clumps are coming back strongly. When S. nemerosa stops blooming, cut the plants down within a few inches of the ground and feed them. They will soon bush out and flower again.

According to the gardening literature, Salvia nemerosa varieties are supposed to grow to two feet, but they never do so in my garden, which does not have the light soil they prefer. Clumps expand slowly (they are among the few border plants that I almost always plant in groups of three or more) but they will grow more vigorously if you divide them now and then. Slugs love to eat the new shoots of sages, so in late winter it's a good idea to clear the crowns of any accumulated debris where slugs could hide out.

A relatively recent introduction, Salvia verticillata ("Purple Rain") seems to be particularly tolerant of dry soils. For me it grows about 15 inches tall and twice as wide. The leaves are fuzzy, and the deep purple flowers are arranged in distinct whorls on the stems. Even newer is a hybrid named "Indigo Spires." I have never grown this one, but it is creating a bit of a sensation in the Pacific Northwest, where it appears to be winter-hardy, in spite of having as one parent mealy sage, a familiar tender perennial that most gardeners know in the form "Victoria Blue." "Indigo Spires" makes a bushy, leafy plant from three to five feet tall, and blooms all summer.

Rachel Foster of Eugene is a garden writer and consultant. She can be reached at rfoster@efn.org