Artists of the Year
Having failed to assassinate Henry Clay Frick with two gunshots and a makeshift dagger, anarchist Alexander Berkman took his fight to the tycoon’s legacy. “Henry Clay Frick was a man of the passing hour,” Berkman’s companion Emma Goldman said, having learned of Frick’s natural death on the eve of their deportation. “Neither in life nor in death would he have been remembered long. It was Alexander Berkman who made him known, and Frick will live only in connection with Berkman’s name. His entire fortune could pay not for such glory.”
Hey, some people don’t just forgive and forget. Berkman’s curse aside, the steel magnate had an awful lot of fortune. He devoted a goodly chunk of it to a peerless collection of masterpieces by the likes of Titian, El Greco, Rembrandt, Vermeer. In 1912, Frick built a gilded Fifth Avenue mansion to house it all. The museum, which bears Frick’s name, remains one of New York’s great cultural attractions, drawing a quarter of a million visitors each year. Surely, almost no one gazing at the placid sailing scenes of Aelbert Cuyp is thinking of the barges Frick hired on the Ohio River to deliver 300 Pinkertons to the city of Pittsburgh. There, in 1892, the rifle bearing strikebreakers confronted a crowd of protesting Homestead steel workers, killing 10 of them. Some 8,000 state militia would be needed to still the violence.
One of Minnesota’s modern day moguls found his name on the front pages this year, and not to his pleasure. Dr. William McGuire left his megalithic HMO, UnitedHealth, after the outbreak of a stock option scandal. The man who Forbes identified in 2005 as the third best paid executive in America stands accused of having fudged a few dates to augment the value of his holdings.
McGuire’s pillorying by the press is no match for Berkman’s point blank fusillade although it’s worth noting that Frick returned to his desk within a week and McGuire seems unlikely ever to return. (On a real tangent: A former UnitedHealth janitor once claimed to City Pages that McGuire kept a Kevlar lined bathroom at corporate headquarters, lest the spirit of Berkman seize an enraged employee. Crazy enough to be true?) Though the executive has forfeited some $200 million in stock options, more than a $1 billion more remains in dispute. And McGuire could still face criminal charges. With an estimated net worth of $1.2 billion, he should be able to scrape up a decent attorney.
In time, of course, these front page stories will sink into the musty recesses of the business section. And then they’ll disappear altogether. But McGuire, like Frick, won’t be forgotten. There’s a new 385 seat theater with his name on it in Walker Art Center and a $2 million commissioning fund for groundbreaking new performance pieces. Those whose dramatic tastes run toward the traditional can see the classics on the McGuire Proscenium Stage in the new Guthrie Theater. Groundlings and other plebes will be able to linger outside the riverfront building in the newly developed McGuire Park. Call it a meet and greet with mortality. So far, I’m not terribly proud of how I’m handling it. I tend to cover my ears and look the other way when the C word is mentioned. A certain epidemiologist’s gleefully dire warnings about tomorrow’s pandemic make me nauseous with fear. I don’t listen to KQ anymore. You never know when “Dust in the Wind” might take its turn in the rotation.
On one level, it’s ridiculous, given all I’ve been blessed with. And yet, at this stage, I can feel the full existential weight of Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is” bearing down. It might be some kind of genetic inheritance. For a brief period in the late ’60s, that song was a radio staple. We’d be driving back from my grandparents’ at night and I couldn’t tell whether it was my mom, Mary Lee, or Ms. Lee chatting nonchalantly about the emptiness of life. The chorus would start, and the two would croon in unison. I was startled to hear Mary Lee and Peggy Lee deliver a song of deep resignation with such conviction.
They’re topics to explore in a journal the personal melodrama lingering in a ’70s prog rock band; and the instant when it seemed like my mother and Peggy Lee were interchangeable but, alas, I don’t keep one. Yet in Agnes Smuda’s writing circle, I might have the makings of an audio autobiography. She and her artistic cohorts, 78 year old Joan Calof and Nancy Cox, who’s 68, released a CD this year that demonstrates how our lives are stitched together by songs.
On Songstories, the three recount some of their formative experiences and sing the songs that have become attached to them. It’s part scrapbook and part testimonial, presented like a homespun cabaret. Calof tells of growing up Jewish in Winnipeg in the ’30s and ’40s. Cox pays a loving tribute to her musician father. Smuda poetically recollects how the WWI era anthem “The Long Long Trail” became embedded in her family history.
By taking it off the page and into the studio, Smuda and her fellow performers have created a new, more economical model for the memoir. These three women have somehow managed to create an intimate portrait of their lives on a CD that contains only nine tracks. They’ve made the idea of passing on your life story more manageable, even for those of us still struggling to come to terms with the fact or is it just a vicious rumor? that our lives will end some day.
Even as a part time teacher who is well versed in the ways that fatuous notions sometimes hold sway in academic criticism, I was a bit shocked that David Treuer had to write Native American Fiction: A User’s Manual. But he did. Though he convinced me early in the intro, I read on, largely for the pleasure of seeing him demolish the false metric.
But this City Pages package celebrates artists, not scholars, and it’s The Translation of Dr. Apelles that proves Treuer’s mettle. His third novel published, like NAF, by Graywolf in September is an intoxicating confection, grounded in Treuer’s extensive knowledge of Native lore and customs. Just as central to its appeal, though, is a narrative complexity that recalls the likes of Jorge Luis Borges and Vladimir Nabakov. The second recounts the adventures of the manuscript’s subject: two extraordinarily gifted Indian kids who have a knack for getting out of jams that become more gloriously harrowing as the narrative progresses and less likely. While he’s great at complexity, characterization, and charm, nobody tells a better American tall tale than David Treuer. And he’s full of ’em.
“Dessert” may be the last label you’d give to the rough hewn carpentry of St. Paul artist Chris Larson (a termite might feel differently). Yet at the opening of his current Minneapolis Institute of Arts solo show, “Crush Collision,” exhibition coordinator Stewart Turnquist called Larson’s lumber constructions just that. Perhaps Turnquist was referring to Larson’s sweet countenance, because in truth this artist is best known for cooking up a formidable main course. With his penchant for cultural and physical collisions, Larson has brought forth such imagery as a wooden Dukes of Hazzard car careening into Ted Kaczynski’s hate shack, and a cardboard clad house buoyed for months on a Wisconsin lake.
“Crush Collision” includes the weather beaten house itself as well as a 10 minute film featuring Minnesota musicians Michael Bland, Grant Hart, and gospel group the Spiritual Knights, along with performance artist Britta Hallin. The film (originally shot on 16mm, shown on DVD) is a miracle of concision: How many performance art films beg to be longer? In it, we see Larson’s machine creaking and oozing at the hands of Hart and Hallin. The end product is a large, white ring of wet clay. On display in a nearby gallery, the now dry, hardened ring suggests a sort of visceral, primeval recording one that could possibly be remounted in the machine that created it and played back like a giant long playing record.
Showing across town at Northeast’s Creative Electric Studios is “Shotgun Shack,” another full scale Larson installation. “Shotgun Shack” is partly the aftermath of an opening night performance with Hallin and Hart, partly a photo and video exhibit. The performance the stuff of future Minneapolis lore is available from the gallery on DVD.
With both shows running through the first week in January (and “Shotgun Shack” heading to Milan, Italy) Larson has been busy of late. But he has already enjoyed concurrent shows on opposite sides of the Atlantic. Curiously, Larson’s drawing and photo show in Berlin sold out completely, while its New York counterpart lagged behind (until European collectors bought out that show, too).
Some viewers of Larson’s work describe references to torture, slavery, class, and race. Others see only raw materials, physical effort, and ambiguity.
February found Greenwald portraying Don Quixote in Nautilus Music Theatre’s Man of La Mancha, lending a booming voice and daft presence to a stripped down production. The next month he took the stage in Jeune Lune’s stylish opera Mefistofele, his hair dyed shield your eyes blond, swaggering in the title role with demonic magnetism.
While Greenwald has long established his credibility as a classical and early music vocalist, his appearance at the Jungle in I Am My Own Wife beginning in June was nothing less than a breakout acting performance. Here Greenwald took on the elderly Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a survivor of both the Nazi and East German regimes, and a lifelong transvestite. He also tackled more than 30 other characters in the one man show, carrying the story with a mix of delicacy and power.
In the fall, Greenwald reprised a role in Minnesota Dance Theatre’s Carmina Burana, but it was December that put a bow on his gifts to Twin Cities audiences. Currently appearing as the Grinch in Children’s Theatre Company’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Greenwald slithers and snarls hilariously. And his operatic vocals fill up the big room nicely: I should know, having caught the show at the last minute and sat in the back row of the main floor, where none of Greenwald’s gestures were lost.
This year dancer Eddie Oroyan has found himself in a few hair raising situations, including dangling by a rope from the rafters of the State Theater in the Metropolitan Ballet’s Dracula: A Ballet of Passion, Life and Death. Fortunately, the 27 year old, who just as fearlessly works as a substitute teacher by day, has the ability to jump “like a flea,” according to the New York Times. This particular gift for Tigger style bounding has helped him spring in and out of many unexpected positions.
Since arriving in the Twin Cities in 2002, Oroyan has caught the attention of the dance community for his often playful, Labrador like approach to movement. He’s not a big guy: Oroyan has the efficient build of a gymnast, muscular enough to pull off the hard work but also unfailingly agile. What really amazes is his seemingly superhuman ability to engage his muscles into acrobatic jumps that transfer him from one place to another before your brain even registers his change in location. Oroyan’s performance with Carl Flink’s Black Label Movement this August provided ample opportunity to showcase his athleticism, as did his wonderfully twisted turn as Renfield in Dracula. Here, Flink’s choreography offered the spirited dancer a juicy opportunity to descend into full on madness.
At the same time, Oroyan can button down his natural springiness and magnetic presence to deliver serious and tender moments. This is the mood that guided him throughout Shapiro Smith Dance’s celebration of heartland dreams, Anytown: Stories of America.
Oroyan has been fortunate to work with savvy choreographers who know how to harness his unique energy without turning him into a glorified acrobat. Which is to say that this is a dancer who is just as comfortable in flight as on terra firma. He may jump like a flea but he also knows how to soar.
“Banking and farming don’t mix” becomes a gentle refrain in Ali Selim’s Sweet Land, a film about independent farmers that was financed entirely through private investment and tended like a precious crop before the harvest. Banking and filmmaking mix incestuously all the time (as do banking and farming these days), but not here. Even when the film was finished, after 24 days of shooting around southern Minnesota, and it had begun to garner well deserved acclaim at festivals around the world, Selim continued to clutch his hard work as tightly as his characters Olaf and Inge hold onto their land and each other in 1920. As good fortune comes to those in Sweet Land who wait (for the honeymoon not least), the many lessons of Selim’s simply profound film include these: Be patient. Don’t value convenience over community. Keep going. Breathe.
Therefore it might sound inappropriate to observe that Sweet Land earnest, playful, exceedingly tender, rich in detail and emotion has earned more than half a million dollars in fewer than 10 weeks of release in cities around the country. But the box office gross is the sweet epilogue of a story that is in every way about the benefits of defying convention in the name of love. To indie dreamers in Minnesota and well beyond, Sweet Land has borne fruit, and that fruit gives hope. And we need it.
Rob Nelson is film editor at City Pages.
For years I’ve endured hoo hah about “craft brewing” and how it would do for beer what California had done for wine. In part the hoo hah has come true: A decent beer now costs more than it ought to; there are enough of them out there in sufficient varieties to make your head hurt before the first sip; and a whole new era of snobbery’s begun. I’ve belched my way through any number of stanky concoctions of various malt backbones and specific gravities, rarely to find anything consistently drinkable.