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Dancing Across Genres, Medium Serving Message
Editors’ Roundtable
Column by Richard Speer

"Elegy" by Sherrie Wolf, performed by BodyVox, Portland, Oregon. Photo credit: Jingzi Zhao Photography

When artists have something intensely personal to express, sometimes they do so in a medium different from the one they're most associated with. This has happened twice in Portland this past week. Sherrie Wolf, who exhibits her luxuriant still-life paintings at Russo Lee Gallery, was recently approached by BodyVox, one of the region's most dynamic dance companies, to choreograph a movement piece for their performance "Pearl Dive Project" at their BodyVox Dance Center. When the company's artistic co-directors, Jamey Hampton and Ashley Roland, gave Wolf carte blanche to choose her subject matter, she decided to create a dance paying homage to her brother, Daryl Wolf, who died of AIDS in 1992. Because Daryl was an avid student of art history with a special fondness for surrealism, Wolf employed motifs associated with René Magritte, such as dressing dancer Brent Leubbert, as Daryl, in a bowler hat.

On opening night, April 4, the dance, titled "Elegy," began with Daryl lying inert in a black suit, as if in a casket, attended by a group of sylphs (air spirits) angelically attired in white silk. Daryl — or perhaps his spirit in the memories of those who loved him — magically comes to life, and as the sound of raindrops pitter-patter, white-clad dancers enter, twirling umbrellas in another nod to Magritte. Daryl walks upon the male dancers' shoulders, then falls in an allusion to his death. There is a crowd-pleasing coupe de théâtre in which he joins the dancers behind a moving wall of umbrellas, only to emerge in a white suit, having joined his angelic cohorts. In a triumphant finale, he powerfully lifts a chain of dancers off their feet, his strength once against restored. It's a poignant achievement for Wolf, a still-life painter, to paint with movement instead of stillness. She has given her late brother an ecstatic tribute. Susan Seubert (another local artist set to open a new exhibition at Froelick Gallery also contributed a piece to "Pearl Dive Project" titled "Grief," which was devastatingly poetic, tender and emotionally raw.

It's a not-quite-perfect analogy to compare "Pearl Dive Project" with a recent project by artist and activist Marne Lucas, but it's close enough, and important enough to also call to your attention. A longtime Portland fixture now based in New York City, Lucas is a multidisciplinary artist fluent across a gamut of media but arguably best known within Portland gallery circles for her photography exhibitions at the now-defunct Mark Woolley Gallery. But it wasn't photography that Lucas recently deployed to address important personal themes, it was film and performance art. Her devotion to cinema stretches back to the 1990s, when her erotic art film, "The Operation" (1995), became a cult classic. That film used infrared black-and-white photography to depict scenes of eerily voyeuristic sexuality. Now fast-forward to last weekend, when the artist's "Haute Flash: An Infrared Ode to Menopause" (2017) was screened at Portland's historic Hollywood Theater as an entry in the POW Film Fest. The feminist and sex-positive Lucas, who also makes work under the moniker CuntemporaryArtist, has returned to thermal photography to address menopause, which she herself, now 50, experienced from age 45 to 48.

"It is a great disservice to women that menopause is a culturally invisible phenomenon," Lucas told me in a recent email exchange. "Instead we are sold youth and child-bearing age as the only viable, desirable states of being. I'm being vocal about menopause to provide some insight and humor about the subject and to embrace the wisdom it brings."

The film was shot using a military-grade heat-sensitive rifle scope. The center of all the imagery is therefore in crosshairs, a reference to feelings of being targeted, as a woman of any age, by objectification during youth and ageism later in life. The uncanny infrared effects, with hot areas appearing white and cool areas black, also reference the literal heat generated by hot flashes, ergo the play on words in the film's title. One year after her final period, as a farewell to menstruation, Lucas did a performance art/video piece called "Tamponificate" (2018), during which she ritually burned leftover tampons she had in her purses, makeup bags, and jackets. She posted the video on social media and got an enormous response, especially from women grateful to see menopause proudly and publicly celebrated rather than stigmatized and closeted.

Wolf's "Pearl Dive Project" and Lucas' "Haute Flash" demonstrate, if there were any doubt, that the artistic impulse will not be contained by strictures of medium. The talents of Wolf, Seubert and Lucas transcend static visual arts and extend into dance, film, and beyond, into perhaps the highest arts of all: compassion and empowerment.

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