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Friday, December 28, 2012

The Photography of Michael Kenna at Tacoma Art Museum is Andidote to Hectic Holiday Season

The photo of two piers extending onto a calm lake was small, less than eight inches on a side. I needed to slow down and move up close to see it and contemplate what I saw. And when I did, the print became the portal to another world, one of silence and stillness, a world where I forgot my own, and at the same time, remembered what it is to simply observe, be present, and breathe.

Michael Kenna, Two Piers, Imazu, Honshu, Japan, 2001 Sepia-toned gelatin silver print, 7 5/8 x 7 3/4 inches. Courtesy of the artist and G. Gibson Gallery, Seattle.

Part I of an exceptional exhibit called Memories and Meditations: A Retrospective of Michael Kenna's Photography is at the Tacoma Art Museum, until January 6, 2013. If you haven't already seen it, please take the time in the next week to do so, as a gift to yourself this season. Kenna is a highly renowned photographer whose work has been collected by numerous museums worldwide, and this is his first U.S. retrospective in nearly two decades.
Michael Kenna, Kussharo Lake Tree, Study 1, Kotan, Hokkaido, Japan, 2002. Sepia-toned gelatin silver print, 7 5/8  x 7 1/2 inches. Courtesy of the artist and G. Gibson Gallery, Seattle. 

Just before the exhibit opened on October 6, 2012, I had the opportunity to see a preview and the privilege of meeting and speaking with Michael Kenna. Both experiences left me with my own memories and meditations, from which I drew moments of serenity to keep me going through the three months of busy days since.

Michael Kenna Frozen Fountain, Belle Isle, Detroit, Michigan, U.S.A., 1994. Sepia-toned gelatin silver print, 7 1/2 x 8 inches. Courtest of the artist and G. Gibson Gallery, Seattle.

"My work is about the relationship between the structures that humans leave behind and the sheer beauty of this world of ours," Kenna said that day. He spoke of being "struck by the simplicity" and the "profound, beautiful mysteriousness of this world." I never thought I would see beauty in eerie images of a nuclear power plant in England, or a factory in France, but I did. In his work, the viewer sees the mark of mankind but never mankind itself.

Michael Kenna, Ratcliffe Power Station, Study 40, Nottinghamshire, England, 2003. Sepia-toned gelatin silver print, 7 5/8 x 7 5/8 inches. Courtesy of the artist and G.Gibson Gallery, Seattle.

Kenna has lived in the United States for decades but was born in England. He and his wife now reside in Seattle. Since the 1970s, he has photographed subjects in places ranging from urban to remote, as far away as Asia, Egypt, Mexico, Easter Island, and Russia, and as close as Portland, Oregon, often returning to the same locales year after year. His photos interpret and share the simplicity in which he finds beauty. They reflect his own spirituality and his patience. Instead of digital images, Kenna still makes sepia-toned gelatin silver prints. And he make them small. On purpose.

Michael Kenna, Lace Factories, Study 21, Calais, France, 1998. Sepia-toned gelatin silver print 7 5/8 x 7 5/8 inches. Courtesty of the artist and G. Gibson Gallery, Seattle

"I want people to be engaged with the image," he said. "I want people to go quite close to the image to become part of a conversation with the image. In fact, I almost want people to wander into the image to become part of that single world." Kenna likes the element of surprise involved with his process. He photographs at odd times of day or sometimes makes exposures as long as ten hours, through weather changes and whatever happens. "Things move. Things change, and they're recording on the film. I'm not in control, and that's good," he said.

"So when I see the contacts, I see the world again. I have the new world in front of me. It's a very similar experience to going out into the landscape in the first place." He then creates a little album and lives with the images for a while until he decides which are the strong ones. "This is a new experience now, between me and this image. And then, I'll go in the darkroom and print." He does every bit of the printing himself, and calls it "an essential part of the creative process."

Rock Hushka, the museum's director of curatorial administration and curator of contemporary and Northwest art, brought up the quirky coincidence that Michael's first exhibition in the United States (1978) was in a Seattle gallery owned by Chase Rynd, who became the director of the Tacoma Art Museum a few years later. By now, Kenna's work has been in 600 exhibitions around the world and more than 50 books have been published about his art. "So to have such a treasure here in the Northwest," Hushka said, "that was one of the reasons for us to do the show, to make sure that we honor such a distinguished artist in our midst."

Rock Hushka, Director of Curatorial Administration and Curator of Contemporary and Northwest Artat the Tacoma Art Museum (left) and Michael Kenna (right) posed for a photo at the preview. Photo by Candace Brown.
While images of Asia, many of which are winter scenes, seem to dominate the current exhibit, Part 2 of the retrospective will be entirely different and will include more representation of the United States and Europe, as well as haunting images of World War II concentration camps. Those, too, will draw viewers into a different world. But until January 6, 2013 you can experience what I experienced last fall: serenity. Maybe that is just what you need right now.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

"ELF- the Musical" at The 5th Avenue is a Gift of Merryment — a review

I expected good entertainment when I took my seat at The 5th AvenueTheatre to see ELF—the Musical, but no one warned me that it would include time travel. As if swept away by a Christmas blizzard, I suddenly found myself back in childhood. And I liked it.

L-R Santa (Seán G. Griffin) and Buddy (Matt Owen), with the company of ELF – The Musical at The 5th Avenue Theatre.
Photo: Mark Kitaoka

If I could have pulled my eyes away from the dazzling sets long enough to glance around, I might have seen others in my generation showing signs of the same childish delight. I probably embarrassed myself with my gawks and grins and unsuppressed laughter. And it wasn’t even the same nostalgia we’ve all felt as our children or grandchildren discovered the sights, sounds, colors, and symbols of the secular version of Christmas. It was better. It was real. It was my own, a thrill almost forgotten but then exactly as first experienced, once ELF brought it all back to me.
The fact that the story takes place in modern times, complete with modern technology—Santa’s list exists on an iPad and the humor is of the 2012 New York variety—did nothing to lessen the sensation of childish joy. It made me wonder why growing up too often means giving up our sense of magical excitement.
Buddy (Matt Owen) and the company of ELF – the Musical at The 5th Avenue Theatre.
Photo: Mark Kitaoka
Matt Owen as Buddy the Elf went way, way, over the top, throwing himself into the part with such abandon that I felt catapulted along with him into the forgotten dimension of sublime and unapologetic silliness. So what if the plot is totally impossible? So what if a grown man (who acts like a kid) was raised by elves at the North Pole and thinks he is one of them until he discovers the truth, then rides an iceberg to NYC to find his real father, Walter Hobbs (Allen Fitzpatrick) who never knew he existed until the elf appears in his office?

So what if it uses the familiar theme of Scrooge, as workaholic Hobbs comes to finally prioritize his family and the joy of Christmas? Owen freed the free-wheeling kid still hidden inside me, and for a couple of hours, the world of adult logic and cynicism ceased to matter. A lesser actor might have just looked foolish playing a goofy elf in middle of New York, but not Owen. My admiration for the job he did goes beyond words.

L-R Jovie (Kendra Kassebaum) and Buddy (Matt Owen) from ELF – The Musical at The 5th Avenue Theatre.
Photo: Tracy Martin

Seán G. Griffin, as the perfect Santa and the first character on stage, set the tone of the show and the fresh, truly funny humor to follow, humor suitable for children but worthy of adult appreciation. Kendra Kassebaum’s dry delivery of one-liners had me laughing and balanced the poignant side of her character, that of Buddy’s girlfriend, Jovie. Cynthia Jones as the Macy’s store manager added sparkle and energy to all her scenes as did Jessica Skerritt as the delightful Deb, Hobb’s secretary. Nick DeSantis as Hobb’s boss, Mr. Greenway, was the boss you hope never to have, only funnier.
L-R Buddy (Matt Owen), Santa (Seán G. Griffin), Michael (Grayson Smith), Walter (Allen Fitzpatrick), and Emily (Kim Huber) from ELF – The Musical at The 5th Avenue Theatre.
Photo: Mark Kitaoka
I thought both Allen Fitzpatrick and Kim Huber (as Walter and Emily Hobbs, respectively) in addition to delivering witty lines with style, managed to give their characters depth and believable personalities, even in this unbelievable story. Noah Barr as their son, Michael Hobbs, impressed me not only with his confidence and acting ability but also his voice. I’ll be watching for future appearances by this young talent.
L-R The Store Manager (Cynthia Jones) and Buddy (Matt Owen), with the company of ELF – The Musical at The 5th Avenue Theatre.
Photo: Mark Kitaoka
I’m not a reviewer who feels obligated to find at least some little fault, but I don’t know that I’ve ever been able to state that I loved every single aspect of a musical. With this one, I honestly did. And it goes beyond praising this talented cast or the keen sensibilities of their director, Eric Ankrim, an outstanding actor himself, and proudly claimed as a native son by other residents of Tacoma.(See this feature story by Matt Nagle of the Tacoma Weekly) It goes beyond the book, music, choreography, hilarious lyrics, or delightful interpretation of David Berenbaum’s film by the same name. Throughout the entire show, my mind kept going back to the respect I have for the almost incredible amount of talent and teamwork at The 5th Avenue. In addition to admiring the work of those whose names end up shown boldly in the program, I thought of every single person behind the scenes who helped to make this such a success.

Buddy (Matt Owen) and the company of ELF – the Musical at The 5th Avenue Theatre.
Photo: Mark Kitaoka
I could never overstate the visual appeal of this production. It zings. The first thing that delighted me was simply the colors. Make that the colors and the lighting. Matthew Smucker’s stunning—and I mean stunning—set designs deserve awards. I always appreciate the work of Lighting Designer Tom Sturge, and the gorgeous hues popped and sparkled thanks to him. Clever costumes, like those of the elves especially, with their shoes projecting from the actors’ bended knees, added to the fun, as did the tasty servings of tap dancing. As usual, Music DirectorAndy Grobengieser’s fabulous orchestra—too easily taken for granted—served up a flawless musical backdrop to all the action on the stage.
In the letter Executive Producer and Artistic Director David Armstrong wrote for the program, his words about holiday productions acknowledge their importance to the theater’s fiscal health and all that, but at the same time he said this show was “a gift to our 5th Avenue family.” It’s a gift I accepted with gratitude and glee.
Congratulations to everyone involved and to anyone considering whether or not they should go see ELF I say, “Get those tickets before they're gone!” And take a child with you. I guarantee you will be giving the gift of happy holiday memories.

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