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Austin Chronicle Exhibitionism

DECEMBER 29, 1997: 

FROM THE GROUND UP: MORE THAN CLAY

Austin Museum of Art at Laguna Gloria, through January 4


Clay is a kiss-and-tell medium that seems always to retain a trace of the artist's touch. Wheel-thrown or coil-built, it's hard to peruse the surface of an earthenware or porcelain construction and not imagine a human hand, poking, patting, or pinching it. From the time we are children stomping and raking through mud puddles after a warm rain, we know that clay allows us to make our mark with ease.

But what the artists whose clay works are included in this Austin Museum of Art exhibition have done with the medium is not so easy. The forms may in some cases be simple, but the techniques required to produce this work take years to master. Knobby, striated, smooth, rough, and multi-colored surfaces adorn stacked, hand-built, and wheel-thrown forms. Ceramic objects are displayed on the wall, on pedestals, in the middle of the floor. They push forward to greet you as you walk into the first gallery, which contains the first part of this exhibition, Selections from the San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts, featuring 30 small works from that museum's permanent collection. Part Two, Contemporary Clay in Texas, includes 40 works by Texas artists from Lubbock to Houston, with a fine representation of Austin's finest including Tré Arenz, Richard Bonner, Marian Haigh, Janet Kastner, Claudia Reese, and James Tisdale. The entire installation tends to be claustrophobic, but I sympathize with curator Jean Graham's reluctance to cull one teapot or totemic sculpture. There is something to learn from each.

For one thing, if the labels had been left off the walls, many of these works would not be easily identifiable as clay; they appear to have been made of metal, wood, or glass. It's too bad that visitors can't touch the works so the hand could confirm what the mind knows but the eyes disbelieve. Barbara Tipton's Bronze Cup and Saucer with Blue Interior, a metallic slash on the wall, is actually porcelain. Elsie Azadian's quiet installation in the upstairs gallery appears to include carpet swatches, a cup of tea, books, and a small stool, but it's made entirely of clay. Nicholas Wood's Houses in Motion #7 looks to be anything other than terra cotta with paint. Michel Conroy, Barbara Frey, Margaret Bohls, and Alex de Leon make teapots or vessels but stray far afield of traditional forms and surfaces. And Janet Kastner's white porcelain installation of a dozen identified (and yet utterly mysterious) forms against a burnt orange wall seems to have absolutely nothing to do with craft world antecedents and everything to do with contemporary sculpture. The final word on this exhibition I'll leave to Michel Conroy, whose artist's statement on the wall speaks eloquently about the exhibition, as well as to her own work represented in it:


conversation
ambiguity
memory
touch
tap
skin
spring
intuition
association
impression
complexity
perplexity
substance
symbols
trigger
tactile
form
key
inside
surface
non-word
manythingsatonce --Rebecca S. Cohen


ROCKIN' CHRISTMAS PARTY: GLISTENING AND THRUMMING

Paramount Theatre, through December 31
Running Time: 2 hr, 10 min


At any other time of year, saying that I'd seen Andra Mitrovich croon, "I love the nightlife, I love to boogie" while preening about the stage in a kelly-green wig topped by a two-foot tree might lead some folks to suspect that either I've spending a tad too much time under the stage lights lately or I've been experimenting with themain ingredient in my mushroom omelettes. However, since it's the holidays, everyone just shrugs and says, "Rockin' Christmas Party."

Now in its fifth year, this Zachary Scott Theatre Center production has become noted ñ or notorious ñ for the almost surreal spin it puts on celebrations of the season. Top 40 hits of the Sixties and Seventies are resurrectedon a fantasy landscape fusing Santa's Workshop with Caesar's Palace: the disco hit "Bad Girls" belted by a diva in a scarlet bouffant accented by white poinsettias; Skeeter Davis' plaintive "End of the World" warbled by a gal in a fringed suit the shade of new-fallen snow before a frosty blue wreath as big as a bank vault door; the ubiquitous rendition of "Rudolph" featuring acorps of prancing "does" in Kris Kringle jackets, ruby red skirts, and tiny antlers. The visuals imposedon these soul, rock, and pop staples by director Dave Steakley, costume designers Michael Raiford and Leslie Bonnell, wig maven Willa Kaye Warren, and light master Don Day transport them to another world, a winter wonderland no less bright and flamboyant, spangly and glitzy, than a Bob Mackie Nutcracker.

This Party is a sight, and it still has the power to dazzle, even after multiple viewings. But what you see isn't all you get ñ not by half. The show is about sound: the sound of our pop past brought roaring into the present by an ensemble of high-octane performers. In every tune, without fail, the singers find the beat, the hook, the groove, and work it for all it's worth. You're hard put to sit still when Kenny Williams hits his Sam Cooke stride in "Twistin' the Night Away." And no way can you stay stiff as Roderick Sanford ñ whose legs go boneless on command ñ slipslides across the stage chanting "Land of a Thousand Dances." And you are positively inspired to stand up and testify when Jacqui Cross sings she's "Saved."

Alas, the recent performance I saw was notall it could have been. The fine Felicia Dinwiddiewas suffering from hoarseness and did not sing, and whether it was because the cast was thrown slightly by that or because it was a Sunday matinee or some other reason, some of the group numbers seemed to be runningon auto-pilot; the smiles were there, the moveswere there, the pace was there, but that spark when everyone is connected was absent.

Even so, the show contains more goodies than the big bag of old St. Nick. Lisa Holmstrom proves herself adept at coaxing laughs from the show's lighter numbers, such as the aforementioned Skeeter Davis hit. Andra Mitrovich gives us a "White Christmas" blue with the pain of lost time and regret, then pulled off a comic rendition of "Ode to Billie Joe" so crisp and funny, she's ready to start rehearsals for Love, Bobbie. And Jacqui Cross delivers a "Jesus, What a Wonderful Child" so feeling and pure, she seems on a direct line to the Redeemer. As these gifts are unwrapped and handed to you, each sparkling in its own remarkable way, as the tinsel and glitter keep glistening and the beat keeps thrumming, it becomes clear that this is one Yule tradition that still measures up: It's still a party, and it's still rockin'. ñ Robert Faires


THE BEST SALVAGE VANGUARD HOLIDAY EVER: KICK TO THE HOLIDAYS' HEAD

Little City Downtown, December 13

Round about mid-December, the nation's airwaves and stages get crowded with holiday crap. I have nothing against holiday crap ñ there is nothing like a tear-drenched evening spent with the Heat Miser, Rudolph, Frosty, and Jimmy Stewart to remind me why I need to celebrate ñ but there are just so many fluffy little pieces of holiday schmaltz out there, waiting to play your heartstrings like a cheap violin, that it gets a little old. Tiresome, even.

Enter Salvage Vanguard. Their evening of short holiday plays, which ran December 12 & 13 at Little City, was refreshingly absent of tears, infants, and reindeers while surprisingly full of well-done pieces of unusual theatre. Granted, it is not surprising that the pieces were unusual ñ this is Salvage Vanguard, after all. But it is surprising that the overall quality was so high, given that each playwright was given a scant week to write a five-minute play about "holiday," the actors and directors were given four hours of rehearsal, and the plays had to be performed in a coffeehouse filled to the brim with people. A tough order, particularly when every muscle in every holiday celebrant is just aching to sit before a roaring fire, roast some chestnuts, and not do any real work until after the first.

But you can see the hours of concentrated effort that went into all the shows. Everyone involved seems to have pushed the plays and themselves to the absolute limits of time and ability. It was rewarding to see how far concepts could go in so little time. As in any large presentation of pieces, some were able to go farther than others. Largely, it was the scripts, which ranged from highly polished to rough about the edges, that told the tale.

Local playwrights produced some of the strongest scripts. Julia Edwards' Urban Stillness pushes the audience into a bleak mid-winter in a bus station, and director Katie Pearl used the Little City architecture to heighten the script's sense of ignored but vital space. Kirk Lynn's Jonquil's Day Day looks at the utter silliness of the rituals that we undertake every year at about this time, and actors Jason Phelps, Betsy Boyd, and Mike Saenz reveled in the absurdities handed to them by Lynn.

Local playwrights weren't the only writers to turn in strong scripts, though. Erik Ehn's Muffle is a fierce play, full of Ehn's dense poetry, and it was marvelously brought to fierce life by actor Andi Teran. Ruth Margraff's The Angel Ate the Little Book is full of lyric language of which director Joseph Meissner and actors Phelps and MargerySegal could only artfully scratch the surface, given the truncated rehearsal time. And Adam Sobsey's Bill Sunday Sees the Light is a touching piece of text that stopped just short of saccharine sweetness through the performances of Kevin Madden, Travis York, and Chad Nichols.

All of which proves that there still is something interesting happening in holiday fare, and this evening of theatre may be just the kick to the head the season needs. -- Adrienne Martini


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