The opening moments of Friday night’s Oregon Painting Society show were dark. With the stage lights off, three women in shiny shirts and leotards crossed through the audience crowded onto the cement floor close to the stage. The three women took their places on the step leading up the stage and raised three brooms. Together they brought the brooms down with a “boom!” and from the stage voices spoke, “It’s a spiritual crisis.”
Slowly, lights came up and the crowd was able to see the spooky performance collective that is the 10-member Oregon Painting Society. What distinguishes this crew of art school kids who wear strange costumes and create collaborative experimental music performances from the hundreds of other Portland art school kids who wear crazy outfits and play dissonant music, too, is that Oregon Painting Society is defined by a profoundly serious quality. Their movements, music and recitation of words feel funny and spontaneous, but their performances are obviously carefully orchestrated and highly intentional. When the 10 young Portlanders donned witch hats and home-sewn white headscarves and formed a circle chanting, “Why must I be a teenager in love?” the effect was comic but startlingly spiritual.
Another moment of bizarre awe came midway through the work, when the Society knelt in pairs around three plants placed in the center of the stage. As soon as the performers touched the plants, it was revealed that the plants were not props or decoration but instruments themselves. Wired to amplifiers, the plants emanated sounds when the performers touched their leaves and stems. The electric, dissonant noises changing pitch and strength depending on the performer’s touch and the Washington High School auditorium resounded with sounds that can never be recreated, since they were audio artifacts of unique interactions.
For people disillusioned with Portland’s laid back, collaboration-oriented experimental performance scene, Oregon Painting Society is a refreshing reaffirmation that sincere innovation is always possible.
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