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Eugene Weekly : Culture : 10.13.05

Visual Art:

The Greater Reality

Intuitive paintings by Miao Hui-Xin


Mosaica De Danza at the Hult


Deadly Delights

New Grateful Dead book launches parties.


Tantalizing Tapas

El Vaquero raises the bar.


Good Gourd!

Yes, hard-shell beauties can be grown here.



The Greater Reality

Intuitive paintings by Miao Hui-Xin


Vital energy that emanates from vibrant colors and rhythms first strikes the visitor upon entering the White Lotus gallery, where The Greater Reality: Intuitive Paintings by Miao Hui-Xin (b. 1959) is currently on view through Oct. 22.

Family Compound II, gouache by Miao Hui-Xin

Miao has worked as a farmer his entire life and still does. He began painting when the Chinese Communist regime was actively encouraging peasant art by sending trained artists to teach classes in rural communities. So-called Chinese peasant painting, a relatively recent genre, emerged in the late 1950s as a government-promoted, nationwide peasant art movement that led to the creation of rural art communes sometimes known as "painting villages" or "peasant artist colonies."

However, Miao's work has little to do with this mainstream Chinese peasant art. The two superficially share some traits, to be sure: bright colors (although Miao's wide-ranging palette also includes sober, muted tones); a strong sense of compositional design; narrative elements; frequent use of a bird's eye view; indifference to perspective; and spatial realism (in keeping with Chinese tradition but to a different effect).

Nonetheless, fundamental characteristics of Chinese peasant art are entirely absent from Miao's paintings, especially the idealization of daily life into prettily happy scenes and the absence of individuality. But themes of everyday life in Miao's works are intimate and personal rather than collective and ideologically sanctioned. A mainstream peasant artist, after coming up with a design, will paint it again and again, thus mass-producing his or her "originals" for the tourist trade. In contrast, Miao's work is remarkably varied and keeps evolving.

Seven Sculptures in front of the Portland Art Museum, gouache by Miao Hui-Xin

The American label "outsider art," though sometimes stretched as a marketing ploy to include all but mainstream art, strictly speaking refers to works by marginal individuals, such as the mentally ill, the institutionalized, recluses, antisocial characters. It was coined in 1972 as an equivalent for the French term Art Brut ("Raw Art") and has been applied to Miao's work, wrongly. Miao, a well-integrated member of his community, was from the start aware of the peasant art produced around him. He considers himself an artist and has a successful relationship with the art world at large.

Moreover, Miao's is not an art turned obsessively inward but instead is inspired by and revels in the social world around him — family members, friends, musicians. It is also about emotions such as love and its corollaries (togetherness, tenderness, sadness) as well as exuberance and exultation in life (dancing, making music, feeling the wind, tasting corn).

Folk art, often functional, draws upon a community's cultural traditions and indigenous crafts for its techniques and motifs. It is thus inherently conservative. Miao, in contrast, has worked out formal solutions of his own. His pictorial representations are highly eccentric. Indeed, if one considers that pursuit of individualism is not in and of itself part of traditional Chinese culture, Miao does appear to possess a rebellious streak. (He was the first in his village to wear jeans.)

Miao's work is rooted in the artist's experience of his everyday culture, rather than in that culture's traditional means of expression. Indeed, along the way, Miao's painting has evolved into an art that reinvents the journey of prominent modern European painters.

Mother and Daughter, gouache by Miao Hui-Xin

It is astonishing to discover, in this largely self-taught artist, echoes of Matisse in the treatment of color and picture plane (Fruits), Picasso (Upon Departure, Seven Sculptures, Love, Red, Family), Chagall (Mother, A Few White Clouds, Cellist), German Expressionism and African art.

Miao combines Chinese and Western perspectives and often playfully distorts both. Gravity sometimes appears defied, people and trees airborne. From Family Compound I to II, the complexity of planes has increased from representing a whimsical architecture within the realm of possibility (see Piet Blom's cube houses in Rotterdam) to depiction of an impossible space in a loosely Escherian sense.

Miao breaks up the surfaces of garments and bodies into angular geometric facets of colors. some of them reminiscent of a Harlequin's costume. He also breaks them into decorative patterns and patchworks or into free-form areas of color. As a result, his work suggests a playful three-dimensionality. In Wind the characters and their background are all broken into bands of different colors, as if people, land and air shared the same essence which the wind refracts into colors like a prism.

Facial expressions achieve great emotional subtlety despite often exaggerated facial features.

This highly original work touches us emotionally with the humanity, poetry and sincerity of its content as well as with the freshness and energy of its execution.



Mosaica De Danza at the Hult


Ballet Fantastique, under the artistic direction of Donna Marisa Bontrager, recently received a grant through the Lane Arts Council to produce a collaborative Hult Center performance with Traduza Dance Company, a modern group based in Roseburg. Coupling classical ballet with a Spanish flair and the bossa nova beats of Truduza director Valéria Ball's native Brazil, Mosaico de Danza, looks for a new rhythm that hovers between the traditionally lyrical and the rambunctiously sexy. Performance is at 7 pm on 10/15 in the Hult Center's Soreng Theater.

Spanish Jump

Spanish-inspired ballet variations bridge the evening's work. Ballet Fantastique shows off its plumage with excerpts from Don Quixote, one of the most famous works of ballet great Marius Petipa. Originally billed as a farce, Don Quixote receives a fresh treatment by this company, even as they lovingly emulate the Kirov's artistry.

Threading among the classical pieces, Traduza Dance Company's brand of Brazilian modern dance enlivens with accessible sensuality and verve. The company's choreography falls short of heavyweights like Petipa, but it's likeable nonetheless.

Gia Kourlas, The New York Times dance critic, recently (7/12/05) lamented that contemporary ballet serves no one, that it simply combines the hubris of both modern dance and ballet. Shocking many but pleasing some, too, Ms. Kourlas wrote, "As regressive as it sounds, choreography might be in a healthier place if the ballet world went back to despising modern dance."

Ballet Fantastique and Traduza Dance shimmy around this roadblock by offering a new perspective: allow audiences to find the connections between the old and the new, by showing ballet and modern in stark relief.



Deadly Delights

New Grateful Dead book launches parties.


THE COMPLETE ANNOTATED GRATEFUL DEAD LYRICS: Annotations by David Dodd. Original illustrations, Jim Carpenter. Foreword, Robert Hunter. Edited by Alan Trist & David Dodd. Free Press (imprint of Simon & Schuster), 2005. Hardcover, $35.

This handsome book from the Grateful Dead is every fan's delight. David Dodd meticulously annotated the lyrics to the band's original songs sung in concerts and/or recorded in studios for more than 40 years.

Dodd's research included e-mails from legions of devoted followers of the band. This encyclopedic information is colorfully detailed and enhanced by more than 200 original illustrations from Eugene's own Jim Carpenter. Also on the home front, Eugenean Alan Trist worked with Dodd to edit the nearly 500-page volume for publication.

Tsunami Books will host a love fest for the trio at 4:30 pm Friday, Oct. 14, with book-signing, wine-tasting and congratulations all around. At 7 pm the festivities continue at the McDonald Theatre with music by Dark Star Orchestra and more book-signing by Carpenter, Dodd and Trist. One of the season's literary highlights, these shindigs are not to be missed.



Tantalizing Tapas

El Vaquero raises the bar.


On a seemingly ordinary Thursday night, El Vaquero was bustling. The new restaurant in 5th Street Public Market has only been open a few weeks, but clearly word has gotten around that there's something special going on here. Owners Katie Marcus and Sara Willis, who also own Red Agave, have hit the mark in every regard with this spacious, comfortably elegant tapas restaurant. Dark wood and warm gold tones make the space inviting; the simply designed menu lists dishes in Spanish with an English translation beneath; and the service is impeccable.

El Vaquero has two menus, one for entrées with delectable-looking side dishes, and a tapas menu with an incredible array of small plates. It can be hard to tell how many small plates you'll need (or crave), but you can hang on to your menu and order in stages. Five tapas plates for two people (with two miniature desserts) left us happily stuffed.

Garlic scallops, crab crepes, Red Agave's grilled baby back ribs, artichoke tamale — how's a person to pick? We started with a cheese plate, taking our waitress's suggestions of Mt. Tam, a soft, triple-cream California cheese, and garrotxa, a tart, hard goat cheese from Spain. Served with two slices of bread and a handful of almonds, the cheeses — along with the cucumber, lime and guacamole tasting plate that arrived before we'd even ordered drinks — nicely set the stage for the heartier dishes to come.

The coconut prawns were succulent, lightly fried, the sauce zingy but not overwhelming. Lobster meatballs, so tender they fell apart in the mouth, made for an unusual texture and flavor combination. The sweet potato fritters, crispy outside but soft and moist inside, were lightly spiced, with a faintly Indian tang.

But without question, the most stunning dish was one not on the menu. We'd planned to order the sashimi aquachile, fresh ahi tuna with serrano chiles, but for the night the dish had changed to a tuna steak on a bed of Dungeness crab mashed potatoes, topped with braised fennel. Each element alone was delicious, but together they created virtual perfection. The buttery, falling-apart fennel sweetened the tuna, and the crab gave the potatoes a distinct texture and a last kick of flavor.

We opted to end with two tapas dessert plates: a tiny pot of chocolate and peanut butter topped with whipped cream and one solitary peanut, and a seashell-sized key lime tartlet with the same mildly sweetened cream. Both were so luscious we could hardly have eaten more.

The true appeal of El Vaquero isn't just that the dishes are an utter taste treat. It's the fun of anticipating each plate, comparing one to the next and sharing them all with your dining companion(s). This is food to linger over, to savor, to have fun with — and definitely not to miss.

El Vaquero. 296 E. 5th Ave. (5th Street Public Market). Lunch, 11:30 am-4:30 pm. Dinner, 5:30 pm-10 pm Su-Th; 5:30 pm-11 pm F & Sa. Tapas, 11 am-1 am. $$$-$$$$.



Good Gourd!

Yes, hard-shell beauties can be grown here.


One day this past summer I stopped to buy a few early chanterelles from the only stall at the Lane County Farmers Market that had any. I did not tip them into one of the recycled plastic bags I carry on trips to the market. I knew if I did I'd be gently rebuked by Freeman Rowe, the stall's proprietor, who says you never put mushrooms in plastic, not even just long enough to get them home. He supplies small brown bags so you don't have to.

Freeman Rowe with a large bottle gourd

Rowe's is the stall that displays cured, tan-colored hard-shell gourds, the kind people use for bird houses. I've always been mildly curious about his gourds, because hard-shells are tropical in origin and I didn't know they could be raised successfully in climates as cool as Eugene's. Recently, on a whim, I went online and typed in "hard-shell gourds Oregon." The sole result was a query from some land-deprived person who wondered if she could grow them in a pot on her balcony.

I stopped by the gourd and chanterelle stall again, to ask if these were indeed locally grown gourds. Rowe didn't seem surprised by the question. "When I moved here I heard that you couldn't grow and ripen hard-shell gourds. I took that as a challenge and tried some." That was about 15 years ago, and he's been growing them ever since. "I can mature all but the biggest, and that's the bushel gourd," he said. He once ripened a couple of good sized bushel gourds and thought they were mature, but they collapsed during the slow drying process.

Gourds are related to cucumbers, melons, squash, and pumpkins; they all belong in the family Cucurbitaceae. Hard-shell gourds make up the genus Lagenaria. They come in a great variety of shapes and sizes, and indigenous cultures around the world have used them as utensils, flotation devices and for personal adornment, most famously in Papua New Guinea as penis coverings. Whereas most 'cucurbits' have yellow flowers and bloom in the daytime like zucchini, lagenarias are distinguished by white flowers that open at night. The gourds Rowe grows and ripens range in size from whopping bottle gourds down to tiny Nigerian jewelry gourds one or two inches in diameter.

Hard-shell gourds need full sun and lots of room, Rowe says. They also need a long growing season, and if you plant them in cold, wet soils the seeds may rot before they germinate. "You need to start them inside the first week of April and set them out the last week in May." As the fruits ripen, Rowe sets them up on the flower end, "on a generous layer of newspaper. I take none off the vine until they are frozen to the ground. Ideally that would be late November, but this year it's already happened. That means I won't be able to cure all my gourds this year." He'll put them in his 'rot room,' where the good ones will dry by next summer. Those that still appear sound will be power washed, and any that survive that ordeal are good, strong ones!

Rowe regularly hangs gourd bird houses for birds to nest in. Gourds anywhere from five inches to a foot in diameter will suit a variety of birds. He gets violet green swallows, English sparrows (though often despised, they are industrious insect hunters, he says), chickadees and the occasional Bewick's wren. Violet greens prefer a hole (cut with a keyhole saw) one and a half inches in diameter. For the others it's an inch and a quarter. Hang gourds out of the rain, if possible, and clean them out carefully each year to thwart over-wintering parasites. Rowe uses a long handled spoon for this purpose.

Maeve Sowles, current president of Lane County Audubon Society, suggests that, in many locations, house wrens are the most likely occupants of small gourds. If you happen to live near water where there are purple martins, you might persuade those to nest as well. Sowles referred me to the website of the Purple Martin Conservation Association, which is loaded with helpful information on the topic.

Rowe adds: "People may ask where to get gourd seeds. If they have access to the Internet they should locate the American Gourd Society and they will find several places that offer seeds for sale."

Rachel Foster of Eugene is a garden consultant and author of All About Gardens, a selection of past EW columns. She can be reached at rfoster@efn.org