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Man on a Mission

“Bernstein’s Wall” will screen Saturday afternoon at the Aspen Filmfest. (Courtesy Aspen Film)
IF YOU GO …

What: ‘Bernstein’s Wall’

Where: Aspen Filmfest, Isis Theatre

When: Saturday, Sept. 25, 2 p.m.

How much: $20-$25

Tickets: aspenshowtic.com

More info: The screening will be followed by a pre-recorded Q&A with director Douglas Tirola; proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 test result required for all attendees; masks required during screening; aspenfilm.org

Leonard Bernstein was a proud social justice warrior who sought — on his conductor’s podium and off — to change the world. Yes, he was arguably the most important American musician of the 20th century, but as the new documentary “Bernstein’s Wall” argues, the music itself hat may not have been his most important work.

Directed by Douglas Tirola, the film looks at Bernstein’s life and work through the lens of his activism.

The Boston-bred composer and conductor was an early and active figure in the civil rights movement, working with Martin Luther King, attending the 1965 march in Selma and performing in support of the cause. He traveled to Jerusalem and advocated bringing down walls between Arabs and Israelis. Bernstein was also an early and outspoken opponent of the war in Vietnam.

“Art never stopped a war, it never got anybody a job,” he says in the film. “What it can do is it can move people whereby they can wake up and be active.”

Bernstein was most famously ridiculed for his activism by the new journalist Tom Wolfe, who in 1970 wrote about a fundraiser Bernstein hosted for the Black Panther Party and coined the term “radical chic” based on the event. It put him in the center of the era’s culture war — which looks a lot like today’s — but it didn’t bend Bernstein’s will, the film shows.

“Protesting pollution and poverty is hard, not easy. Opposing the military industrial complex is hard, not easy,” he tells an anti-war Times Square crowd in the film. “I’m here to say ‘I’m with you.’”

“Bernstein’s Wall” will screen Saturday afternoon at the Aspen Filmfest. (Wikimedia Commons)

Bernstein himself narrates nearly all of the film himself, with clips stitched together from interviews and television programs, much it delivered powerfully in a direct address to the camera from a late-in-life profile. They’re supplemented by some of his written correspondence, which runs across the screen in text with music in the background. And there are some thrilling supercuts in the film of Bernstein conducting, drenched in sweat and leading the New York Philharmonic in his signature high-drama style.

As he puts it in the film, he is “possessed by the ideas and ideals of music,” and he indeed looks like a man possessed.

The film premiered in June at the Tribeca Film Festival and played Telluride before coming to Aspen Filmfest, where it will screen Saturday afternoon.

THIS WEEKEND AT ASPEN FILMFEST

FRIDAY, SEPT. 24

2 p.m.: ‘Breaking Bread,’ Isis Theatre

5: ‘A Hero,’ Wheeler Opera House

7:30: ‘The Electrical Life of Louis Wain,’ Crystal Theatre (Carbondale)

8: ‘Spencer,’ Wheeler

SATURDAY, SEPT. 25

2 p.m.: ‘Bernstein’s Wall,’ Isis

5: ‘Flee,’ Wheeler

5: ‘Breaking Bread,’ Crystal

7:30: ‘The Guilty,’ Crystal

8: ‘The Many Saints of Newark,’ Wheeler

SUNDAY, SEPT. 26

2 p.m.: ‘Petite Maman,’ Isis

4: ‘Bergman Island,’ Wheeler

5: ‘Flying Boat,’ Crystal

7: ‘The Worst Person in the World,’ Wheeler

Triola, best known for his 2015 National Lampoon documentary “Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead,” found in Bernstein an avatar who could express the filmmaker’s perspective on today’s divided and divisive culture.

“It’s incredibly personal,” Triola said Monday in a phone interview. “I wanted to use his story to express a number of things I was feeling at this moment in the world.”

He fell into the Bernstein story while researching a film about New York in the 1980s. Triola stumbled upon footage of Bernstein’s historic concert in Berlin on Christmas Day 1989, celebrating the Berlin Wall’s fall a month earlier. Triola remembered seeing the broadcast on television as a kid, but seeing it anew piqued his interest as he saw how relevant Bernstein’s social justice work was to today.

“It led me on this journey of looking at things he said on YouTube and things he’d written and I was really more interested in how he talked about life and politics and religion,” Tirola said. “I wanted to find a way to make a movie where I could express these ideas.”

It is striking, in the wake of the “build the wall” years under the Trump Administration, to note how many times and how powerfully Bernstein talks about walls — metaphorical and physical — and his mission to bring them down.

“We have never before in our human history had so many boundaries, barriers, walls, dividing lines on such highly unrealistic maps,” Bernetein says in the film. “David, Jesus, Schiller, Beethoven. How you must be suffering.”

Archive-diving to find footage of Bernstein to create the sense of narrating his own life, Tirola found a treasure trove including revelatory footage from late in life with Bernstein talking directly into a camera about his core believes.

“That is why I conduct and write music,” Bernstein says, “because I love people. I am praying for the years and the energy to make the contribution that I ultimately want to make.”

With its focus on social activism, “Bernstein’s Wall” places emphasis in some surprising areas. For instance, it spends more time on Bernstein’s later, lesser political musicals like “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue” and “MASS” — which drew the ire of President Nixon himself as revealed in White House tapes played in the doc — than it does on “West Side Story,” which gets just a brief treatment in the film. His influential and acclaimed film scores go nearly unmentioned.

“Bernstein’s Wall” will screen Saturday afternoon at the Aspen Filmfest. (Courtesy 4th Row Films)

Of course, Bernstein’s life and career was so huge, a documentarian could (and maybe should someday) make 10 features about him and not cover it all. For Triola, focusing on the activism made his choices clear.

“My interest was Leonard Bernstein trying to answer the question, ‘What’s the role of an artist? And what’s the role of the artist to create change in the world?’” Triola said. “I was trying to figure out how to tell the parts of the story that you expect to hear but then to deliver some moments that are unexpected.”

The biographical details — his father’s emigration from Russia to the U.S., education at Curtis Institute and first summer at Tanglewood, his marriage, his kids, his male lovers, his relationship with Aaron Copland, his massively popular Young People’s Concerts — are intertwined with the activism that remains center stage in Tirola’s documentary.

The viewer witnesses Bernstein on the front lines of social justice work for decades, showing little doubt about his concepts of right and wrong and no compunction about using his public platform in the name of progress. At times, that means supporting Duke Ellington or spotlighting a Black soloist at the New York Phil, or going behind the Iron Curtain after the Berlin Wall went up in 1961 to give a series of lectures and concerts in Russia.

“It was a mission of friendship sponsored by the State Department,” Bernstein says in the film at the beginning of a fascinating section detailing his friendship with John F. Kennedy.

Bernstein fought on, through the last months of his life in 1990. As to the question of whether artists could have an impact, Bernstein concluded: “The artist can change the world but he can’t necessarily do it through his art.”

Remembering Norm Macdonald in Aspen

Norm Macdonald at the Aspen Laugh Festival in the Wheeler Opera House in February 2020. (Hal Williams/Courtesy photo)

This might be the smallest footnote of all the footnotes in the grand, weird, hilarious and uncompromising career of Norm Macdonald, who died last week at 61, but it’s worth noting around here: he told the best Aspen joke I’ve ever heard.

Just about every stand-up who comes through here feels obliged to ridicule the ridiculous resort a little bit. Usually they offer a lame and lazy few lines about the oxygen tank backstage or the billionaires up the block, rote and forgettable bits of local material.

The best of outsider’s Aspen jokes came from Macdonald during a 2014 set at Belly Up. In his signature deadpan, Macdonald — sparking a lighter and mouthing a cigarette he never quite lit throughout the night — went through the litany of common sense deterrents to human life in Aspen, from the thin air to the common black bear home invasions (the visit came during a particularly wild bear season), drawing it out in extended storytelling style and eventually buttoned it up by noting how cheap one would assume it would be to live in a place where you can’t breathe and wildlife might rip your front door off and such. The absurdity of Aspen’s existence, and the fact that its homes are ludicrously expensive despite it all, delighted Macdonald.

The joke (murderously funny in his telling, of course, but never when I try to explain it) spoke to something at the core of Macdonald’s work: he paid attention more than all the other comics, even when scoring a local laugh.

Macdonald played Aspen occasionally across three decades, going back to the old HBO Comedy Fest days (“I don’t like festivals much, but I like Aspen,” he told me). While other comics would ski and après-ski during their visits, Macdonald the nonconformist and consummate Canadian instead was known to drop in and skate at local rinks when he was in town.

His last show here was among his final gigs before the pandemic hit – a sold-out, envelope-pushing headline spot in February 2020 at the Wheeler Opera House for the Aspen Laugh Festival.

Norm Macdonald at the Aspen Laugh Festival in the Wheeler Opera House in February 2020. (Hal Williams/Courtesy photo)

I once asked him about his string of (short-lived) post-“Saturday Night Live” TV shows and (scant) film projects and asked why he kept going as a road comic rather than following his former castmates and friends on the road to Hollywood. His answer was blunt: “It’s the only one I’m good at. … I’m pretty good at being a guest on shows, but stand-up is the only one that I’m good at. The other ones I just stumbled into from stand-up.”

Seeing the YouTube clips bounce around in the days following news of his death – he’d reportedly been sick with cancer for nine years but kept his illness private from even his closest friends – it’s evident that he was indeed one of the great contemporary talk show guests, showing up for classic moments beside Conan O’Brien and David Letterman.

His brief stint as a host also hints at what could have been. In 2018 Netflix premiered the first and only 10 episodes of “Norm Macdonald Has a Show,” a sort of anti-talk show deconstruction of the form that opened with David Spade, Macdonald and sidekick Adam Eget talking for 20 minutes about how Macdonald didn’t know how to do a talk show (he had campaigned publicly to replace Craig Ferguson as host of “Late Late Show” before the job went to James Corden).

On the second episode, when guest Drew Barrymore doesn’t get Macdonald’s Dracula joke, Macdonald says with a wide smile: “I love when people don’t get it,” which is the closest thing you’ll hear to a Norm Macdonald mission statement. He never cared if he got the laugh, and that’s what’s made him timeless (and made for some frustrating stretches as an audience member).

His stand-up could turn dark, with its comedic possibilities turned up by Macdonald’s matter-of-fact delivery and what he called his “weird voice” – a mix of North Country accent and adopted old-timeyness – in a style that defined his “Weekend Update” years and in more recent stand-up sets somehow carried bits as grim-seeming as one about his grandfather’s suicide.

Norm Macdonald at the Aspen Laugh Festival in the Wheeler Opera House in February 2020. (Hal Williams/Courtesy photo)

On “Weekend Update” in the ‘90s, Macdonald memorably blew past the era’s standards of good taste with his O.J. Simpson jokes and he used non-sequiturs and random references — David Hasselhoff, for instance, and Frank Stallone — to pepper the segment, which he made a surreal weekly performance. That free-association-as-comedy style has been widely influential, most readily seen in shows like “Family Guy” since then.

He wasn’t philosophical about stand-up or comedy and he easily cut through the bullshit when asked about the craft: “It’s weird,” he said. “You’re just talking to yourself for an hour.”

Review: ‘The Electrical Life of Louis Wain’ at Aspen Filmfest

Claire Foy and Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain.” (Courtesy Aspen Film)
THURSDAY AT FILMFEST

2 p.m. “My Name is Pauli Murray,” Isis Theatre

4 p.m. Ellenfest Reception, Wheeler Opera House

5 p.m. Ellenfest Program, Wheeler

7 p.m. “Flying Boat” Meet & Greet, Wheeler

8 p.m. “Flying Boat,” Wheeler

aspenfilm.org

The illustrator Louis Wain drew whimsical cats who played games and threw tea parties, creating the original cat memes back in Victorian London and — as the new biopic “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” argues — paving the way for the mercurial animals to be accepted as domestic pets.

The film, which screened Wednesday night at Aspen Filmfest, stars a winning Benedict Cumberbatch as Wain in a performance that is as deeply committed to playing the artist’s eccentricities and quirks the tragic turns his life took even as his cats were celebrated in Britain and the U.S.

“Louis Wain devoted his life to making all of our lives happier and cattier,” the two-time Oscar winner Olivia Colman says in her arch and playful narration early on. “He raised up the cat in society and changed the world for the better.”

Yet the film, directed by Will Sharpe from a script he wrote with Simon Stephenson, isn’t all that interested in the cats or their creation. Wain’s most famous drawings are incidental to the on-screen action here, focused instead on who Wain was rather than what he made. It devotes its first half to his many follies and attempts to financially support his abusive mother and five unmarried sisters and his courtship of Emily Richardson (a charming Claire Foy).

The frenetic stretches of the film that do show Wain drawing show him as a genius illustrator, working with pencil in each hand to create fast and accurate portraits — a skill that lands him a coveted job on the staff of the Illustrated London News.

Wild-haired and over-the-top British, Cumberbatch stomps delightfully through the Victorian scenes — we see him doing old-timey boxing, splashing in a Turkish bath, hobnobbing awkwardly in a billiards hall. “Lous Wain” is never stuffy or staid, despite the waistcoats and bustles and the late 19th century setting. In its clever tone and in those deliciously rendered period scenes, it could work as a double-feature companion to Armando Ianucci’s criminally overlooked 2020 adaptation of “David Copperfield,” both of them British period comedies filmed with a vibrant contemporary energy, staged with luscious production design and performed with a welcome playful sense of humor.

As the whimsical touches in the film stack up — cats do get subtitled dialogue in a few well-timed spots — the film, and Wain’s life, steadily grow more complicated and often tragic. As Wain falls deeply in love, suffers a crushing loss, becomes a famous artist and loses all his money and much of his mind, Sharpe handles the dark turns of the film gracefully, deftly managing the tone through the heavier passages and through thorny terrain of depicting mental illness, avoiding what could have become a wildly uneven feature.

Along with Colman’s narration, the film attracted some of the great weirdos of current cinema to pop up in cameos: Taika Waititi as a buffoonish newspaper editor and Nick Cave as the author H.G. Wells.

 

IF YOU GO …

What: ‘The Electrical Life of Louis Wain’

Where: Aspen Filmfest, Crystal Theatre (Carbondale)

When: Friday, Sept. 24, 7:30 p.m.

More info: aspenfilm.org

The film might be viewed as a superior entry in the tradition of behind-the-scenes artist biopics like “Finding Neverland” or “Big Eyes,” but it benefits from the fact that most viewers — American viewers at least — likely won’t know who Louis Wain was, allowing the story to surprise and delight and saving Sharpe from slavishly spending much time on Wain’s signature artworks or career milestones.

Before Aspen Filmfest, it premiered at the Telluride Film Festival earlier this month and is due for a limited theatrical release Oct. 22 before going to Amazon Prime Video for streaming in November.

Cumberbatch’s gem of a performance here is likely to be overshadowed by his turn in Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog,” which critics are hailing mightily and which many are already pegging as an Oscar front-runner. And in pop culture, both that film and “Louis Wain” are likely to be drowned out by Cumberbatch’s next turn as Doctor Strange in the latest Marvel Cinematic Universe “Spider-Man” release, due out in December. But those who find it and make time for it will find “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” may be the pick of the litter in this Cumberbatch-packed fall movie season.

atravers@aspentimes.com

Aspen filmmaker to screen ‘Flying Boat’ at Filmfest

Aspen filmmaker Dirk Braun shooting “Flying Boat.” (Courtesy Dirk Braun)

One pilot in the film calls it “a ship of dreams,” another a “dream machine.” There is nothing in aviation like the Grunman Albatross, an antique plane that moves between air, land and sea, according to the romantic pilots profiled in the new documentary “Flying Boat” by Aspen filmmaker Dirk Braun.

The film will screen Thursday at Aspen Filmfest.

Braun, best known locally for his commercial film work with his Red Mountain Productions, spent more than five years on “Flying Boat,” researching the aircraft’s history and finding people who fly and preserve them today. A passion project from the start, the scope of “Flying Boat” widened and grew more interesting to Braun the more he learned.

“The subject just kept getting more rich with more to discover,” Braun said in a phone interview from California. “It’s a tight-knit group of people that still operate and maintain the Albatross. I was following them and their stories, and I was on a quest.”

The Grunman Albatross in flight in the new documentary “Flying Boat.” Filmmaker Dirk Braun used helicopters to capture the plane in the air. (Courtesy Dirk Braun)

The film follows planes from scrapyards into the sky and profiles passionate owners like the novelist Tom Casey and a diverse lot who’ve been drawn to the aircraft.

“The Albatross owners are an eclectic group,” pilot Joe Duke says in the film. “Very different, all slightly crazy. The one thing we all have in common is that same romantic notion, that sense of adventure, flying these old boats around the world to remote locations. I really admire that.”

The Albatross pilots tend to be philosophical, as evidenced in the film, speaking fluently to the spiritual, intellectual and physical freedom they’ve found flying the planes. Its utilitarian uses also have a dark side: The film recounts its notorious use as a drug smuggling vehicle and, in one memorable segment, the notorious cartel kingpin El Chapo makes an appearance in “Flying Boat.”

 

Aspen filmmaker Dirk Braun’s “Flying Boat” will screen Thursday at Aspen Filmfest. (Courtesy Dirk Braun)

Originally designed for search-and-rescue missions, the flying boats can take off and land on water and on the ground. Last used commercially in the 1950s by PanAm, going out of production in 1961, they are a throwback to the golden age of aviation and a ticket to some of the most remote and rarely seen places in the world. Filming over the course of more than five years, Braun followed pilots to icy oceans and into the tropics, flying the Hudson River and circling the Manhattan skyline, venturing to the Bahamas and a heavenly stretch of alpine waterways in the Adirondacks — even going wake-surfing on the back of the plane at one point.

“As a filmmaker, I wanted to go to all of the exotic locations that one couldn’t get to any other way,” Braun said. “That was the mission.”

The “Flying Boat” production crew at work. (Courtesy Dirk Braun)

Visually, there are spectacular sections of “Flying Boat” where Braun harnesses his passion for the plane and the skills he’s honed making commercials. Filming from a helicopter, he follows the Albatross and creates some astounding and slick portraits of the machine in flight and on water.

The film had its premiere this summer at the 68th AirVenture Fly-in, a Wisconsin aviation festival, screening outdoors to a crowd of thousands.

“It feels great to get to see it on the big screen,” Braun said. “It’s wonderfully satisfying at this point.”

His hometown premiere is particularly meaningful.

“I credit Aspen so much,” he said. “This is where I honed my skills and my filmmaking, and I am so appreciative of how supportive this community has been.”

Braun is hoping to get the film into more film festivals and into theaters in the months to come.

“I don’t want to go straight to streaming,” he said.

For the hometown screening, Braun will take part in a meet-and-greet reception before the show and he will display and sell a series of his “Flying Boat” photographs, with proceeds going to Aspen Film’s Ellen Fund for film education.

atravers@aspentimes.com

42nd Filmfest includes tribute to founder

Ellen Kohner (Hunt) photographed in her office in September 1985. (Aspen Historical Society/Aspen Times Collection)

 

The 42nd annual Aspen Filmfest includes some of the year’s most anticipated independent films, thought-provoking documentaries, foreign language titles and a spotlight on a local filmmaker, carrying on the vision of its founder, Ellen Kohner Hunt, who died early this year.

The festival program itself, which opens Tuesday night with the Jessica Chastain-led drama “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” is a tribute to the founder. To further honor Hunt’s memory, Aspen Film also is producing “Ellenfest” on Thursday evening, gathering friends at the Wheeler Opera House and showing an hour-long compilation of tributes and film clips.

“My goal was never that people need to like what we showed,” Hunt says in the film. “I just didn’t want anyone to be hopelessly bored.”

With recollections from friends and filmmakers, the film recounts how Hunt started Aspen Filmfest with a group of committed volunteers — all women — and grew it into a launchpad for independent filmmakers with Filmfest, later creating an incubator for new and marginalized voices at Aspen Shortsfest.

“I would like to see Aspen be a place for hosting short subject filmmaker, to be the place that supports and identifies new talent up and coming in the motion picture world,” she says in the film.

Documentarian Aviva Slesin recalls how Filmfest nurtured her and shares a short comedy she made with a young Bill Murray — co-starring an array of costumed parrots — in Filmfest’s founding year.

“Ellen was at the core of this sisterhood,” Slesin recalled. “She was warm, she was generous, she loved and was very knowledgeable about film and she was easy to laugh with.”

Local figures in the tribute include Aspen Film stalwarts Gail Holstein, Judy Royer, Joyce Semple, Steve Alldredge and former Isis Theatre owner Dominic Linza.

 

IF YOU GO …

IF YOU GO …

What: Aspen Filmfest

Where: Wheeler Opera House; Isis Theatre; Crystal Theatre

When: Through Sunday, Sept. 26

How much: $20-25/single tickets; $300/full pass

Tickets: aspenshowtix.com

More info: Proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 test required at Isis and Wheeler; Crystal Theatre requires patrons to be fully vaccinated; full lineup online at aspnfilm.org

*

What: Ellenfest

Where: Wheeler Opera House

When: Thursday, Sept. 23

How much: $9.23/program only; $125-150/reception and program

Tickets: aspenshowtix.com

More info: The reception will begin at 4 p.m. followed by the program at 5 p.m.

With Hunt at the helm, the organization resisted commercialization or growing too much — staying focused on locals even as festivals like Sundance and Telluride expanded to become international events.

“We wanted then, and still do want, to be an intimate experience,” Hunt says in the film.

Filmmakers include directors like Edgar Boyles, Bill Plympton and Adam Collis, interspersed with some of Hunt’s favorite shorts of years past. Locally based Hollywood figures, including Robert Wagner and Jill St. John, also make appearances.

Hunt herself sums up her volunteer work on Filmfest as an act of gratitude for a community that she loved and that supported her and her family.

“I felt that I wanted to give something back,” she says. “That sounds really corny, but it’s just the way it was. … There were a lot of filmmakers whose work was not being seen, and I thought it would be wonderful to have a film festival where we could promote and support the work of independent filmmakers and expand the horizons of our somewhat insular community.”

The six-day, all in-person 2021 festival includes films like the Kristen Stewart-led Princess Diana biopic “Spencer,” which will screen Friday night at the Wheeler, the “Sopranos” prequel “The Many Saints of Newark,” director Antoine Fuqua’s new thriller “The Guilty” starring Jake Gyllenhaal and the locally produced documentary “Flying Boat” from Aspen documentarian Dirk Braun.

The Isis Theatre also will host daily documentary matinees through Saturday, including “Chasing Childhood” on the phenomenon of helicopter parenting, “My Name is Pauli Murray” from the directing duo that made “RBG,” and the Leonard Bernstein doc “Bernstein’s Wall.”

Foreign titles include Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi’s acclaimed “A Hero,” Mia Hansen-Love’s “Bergman Island” and Joachim Trier’s “The Worst Person in the World” — all three already darlings of the festival circuit since their premieres at Cannes.

This Filmfest marks the first all in-person festival for Aspen Film since Academy Screenings in early 2020. Due to the pandemic, last year’s Filmfest was hosted both virtually and in-person, with distanced screenings hosted at the Isis Theatre. Aspen Film canceled last winter’s Academy Screenings series and hosted the 2020 and 2021 Aspen Shortsfest virtually.

Khruangbin makes Aspen debut

Courtesy photo

 

IF YOU GO …

Who: Khruangbin

Where: Belly Up Aspen

When: Wednesday, Sept. 22, 8 p.m.

Tickets: Sold out

More info: bellyupaspen.com; Pachyman opens

Before becoming a global phenomenon, the members of Khruangbin — a trio of guitarist Mark Speer, bassist Laura Lee and drummer Donald Ray “DJ” Johnson — were friends.

The friendship started when Speer and Johnson began playing in church together. They would rehearse Tuesday nights to prepare for the church service Sunday. After practice, the two would have a burger at a local joint called Rudyard’s in Houston.

“Mark and I became friends, and I crashed their Tuesday night hangouts one week and I never left,” Lee said in a recent phone interview from her home in Austin, Texas. “We had burgers together every Tuesday night for three years before we were ever a band and before I ever played bass.”

Khruangbin (pronounced KHRUNG-bin) will make their Aspen debut at Belly Up Aspen on Wednesday evening.

When listening to Khruangbin’s psychedelic, mostly instrumental sound, it’s evident that each member contributes something entirely different.

“I mostly come from a church background, so a lot of my influences come from gospel music,” Johnson said. “I also listen to a lot of hip-hop and R&B. I would say a lot of what I infuse comes from that side of things that have influenced me over the years.”

Speer’s influences are largely from non-English speaking aritsts, Johnson said.

“You can find him in the world music section of the record store,” Johnson said. “He’s our guru on that end. He’s always finding stuff in just weird corners and pockets of the planet that are unheard of that are hidden gems. Playing the guitar, the lead instrument of Khruangbin, he’s kind of like our vocalist in a sense.”

Khruangbin released a new album in August called “Mordechai Remixes” — its first full remix record.

“Personally, I always wanted to have remixes of our stuff,” Speer said. “Growing up, going to record stores, there was always the section where it was just full of white labels — 12-inch dance edits or dance mixes. The idea is that it’s designed to be played by a DJ. It’s meant to make the DJ’s job easier. In the remix world, you make sure that stuff is all lined up so you can keep that party going. Just one never-ending beat.”

When it came to selecting partners to do the remixing, Lee explained, they hand-selected artists who know the band personally.

Courtesy photo

“If you are asking someone to do a remix, I think the only way to really do it is to let them have full creative control,” Lee said. “Otherwise, you’re not really letting them fully express themselves.”

The band’s highest-charting collaboration is their song “Texas Sun” with Leon Bridges, released in February 2020. The whimsical tune is essentially a love song to their home state.

“It was a beautiful experience working with Leon,” Johnson said. “We met touring in 2018. When you tour with another band or another artist, you get to spend a lot of time with each other on the road. That birthed the ‘Texas Sun’ project. It was a natural fit for collaboration. We’re both Texans (Leon being from Fort Worth and us from Houston). Since we’re a primarily instrumental band and Leon has a world-class voice, I think it was a match made in Texas.”

As for the Belly Up show, Johnson said, “Expect the unexpected.”

Lee concluded by saying, “We tend to play to the room. Whatever the room is bringing to us, we’re going to bring it right back.”

Words, images and ‘Ineffable Green Thing’ at the Red Brick

Anders Johnson, “God Proposed, Man Disposed.” (Courtesy image)

Ruins and the declines and ends of civilizations have been on the painter Anders Johnson’s mind in recent years for obvious reasons in our apocalyptic moment.

IF YOU GO …

What: Anders Johnson and Kristy Odelius, ‘Ineffable Green Thing’

Where: Red Brick Center for the Arts

When: Through Oct. 28

More info: redbrickaspen.com

For an exhibition at the Red Brick Center for the Arts, the Gunnison-based artist teamed with poet Kristy Odelius to explore what happens when one society falls and another begins and what recycled artifacts pass between them. Their joint show, “Ineffable Green Thing,” opened last month and runs through Oct. 28.

Johnson studied poetry with Odelius at North Park University in Chicago. The class proved pivotal for him creatively because her workshop approach often involved putting specific limitations on the form of an assignment, what Johnson calls the “obstructions” that have become a key part of his process. For example, he said, he might challenge himself to make a series of paintings that have to use a certain orange.

“I was learning to make art through her poetry class,” he said. “It’s a great way to get unstuck if you have artist’s block or anything like that.”

So when Red Brick director Sarah Roy approached Johnson about doing a show here and mentioned her hope to bring in a writer for an exhibition, he immediately suggested he team with his former teacher and mentor.

As they began the collaboration, Odelius sent Johnson new pieces she had been working on, mostly things written since the pandemic began, and he began pairing them with his paintings.

“I think we’re getting at some similar ideas in different mediums,” he said.

Odelius’s poems often accrue imagery of seemingly mundane things to build meaning — “Tapestries of owls / fold their wings over / diamonds, tepid water, hot jaw / blink blank in a jar.” — much like Johnson has piled things up in his paintings. His “Luxury Ruin,” for example, shows a haphazard collection of junked classical sculptures, plants, pots and mosaics in what seems like a storage room with stained glass portrait windows.

Through his work, there are ruins and remnants of things past — classical sculpture and broken columns, prehistoric fertility totems, echoes of the high times in European and American history alongside more current signifiers like a Peloton and an InfoWars news van.

Anders Johnson, “Megaron.” (Courtesy image)

Johnson was inspired for this body of work by a 2016 trip to Turkey.

“I was struck by how cultures unfolded on top of one another,” he said. “How different objects were reused, like how when Constantinople turned into Istanbul there were these sculptures and heads of Medusa, for instance, that would be repurposed as architectural pedestals and things like that.”

Odelius also wrote a handful of new poems inspired by Johnson’s paintings for the show.

“It was a lot of emails and Zoom meetings and talking about the similarities we were seeing in each other’s work,” he recalled.

The show opened with a reception and reading in August.

Made between 2019 and this year, the works here offer a playful depiction of an imagined not-so-distant world.

Among them is Johnson’s “God Proposed Man Disposed,” which was among the works selected for the 2020 Colorado Juried exhibition at the Red Brick in January 2020. That juried show was Johnson’s first foray into the Aspen and Roaring Fork Valley art scene. The work in particular caught the eye of Roy, who soon began talks about hosting more of Johnson’s work.

Based in Gunnison for the past four years, Johnson has been honing his vision, planting roots in the regional art community, working out of his garage studio and thinking about how it’s all going to end.

“There’s a lot of societal collapse that we look back on and think about in history,” he said, “and how does that relate to what is happening in America right now?”

atravers@aspentimes.com

Ashcroft Ghost Town alive with artist Kaitlyn Tucek’s installation

Kaitlyn Tucek stands in the doorway of a building at the Ashcroft Ghost Town that is now housing paintings from her two-day ‘The Lilac Hour’ exhibition in Aspen on Friday, Sept. 17, 2021. There is a $5 donation to enter the Ghost Town. The exhibition will be available to view through Sunday, September 19th with a poetry reading from Tucek at 3 p.m. on Saturday, September 18th. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

As the morning sun crested the mountains and finally started hitting Ashcroft Ghost Town around 9 a.m. on Friday, the Denver-based artist Kaitlyn Tucek had already been at the remote historic site for several hours placing canvases and unwrapping artwork in aspen groves and abandoned buildings.

It marked the unceremonious opening of her installation “The Lilac Hour,” which will run through Sunday at Ashcroft.

Tucek has more than 20 works spread across the historic town’s mining era buildings and environs, mostly paintings but also fabric and paper works and one sound piece. Presented with support from the Aspen Historical Society, which manages the site, “Lilac Hour” is an off-the-grid installation that Tucek hopes allows people to experience the art purely and without the baggage an art gallery or museum show might carry. In this remote stretch of mountains, Tucek hopes he can meet viewers, as she put it, “at neutral.”

 

“There’s no electricity, there’s no lights, there’s no power,” Tucek said. “There’s no (cell phone) service out here, which is which kind of plays into the idea of ‘meeting at neutral.’ Nobody has to play on social media and nobody has to post these things immediately and tell people they’re here. You can be here for a while and actually just experience it, which I think is wonderful.”

In Ashcroft’s old hotel, she has installed 10 paintings on the second floor, playing with the quality of light in the space where beams poke through gaps in walls and windows and floorboards. In an adjacent dirt floor structure, she has a fabric work juxtaposed against antique textile materials tattered on the walls. Another piece will be raised on a flagpole-like structure outside in the field.

“There is a summer camp-like feeling that I want to play with,” Tucek explained.

Her gallerist has made up a map and legend to hand out to visitors, so that they can find artworks this weekend in treasure-hunt style.

IF YOU GO …

What: Kaitlyn Tucek, ‘The Lilac Hour’

Where: Ashcroft Ghost Town

When: Through Sunday, Sept. 19

How much: Admission to Ashcroft is a $5 donation

More info: Tucek will give a poetry reading at 3 p.m. Saturday

Those playful elements co-exist with an emotional depth in Tucek’s “Lilac Hour” works, evident after spending just a little time with them, that explore longing and loss. The works are filled with images of hugs and couples in intimate embraces, but rendered with many unfinished lines and swaths of white space that infuse them with the feeling of a fading memory or a daydream. There are also images of flowers and oysters, which Tucek plucked from childhood memories of experiences at home on Long Island or on vacation in West Virginia with her father (detailed also in new poems that she’ll read onsite Saturday afternoon). The short two-day run of the show amid the gorgeously dying September leaves surrounding it are of a piece.

“I like to push the idea that nothing lasts anyway,” Tucek said. “These things and this experience is ephemeral and I love that. I’m personally excited about actually seeing it all here for a few days.”

Showing outdoors was a pandemic-bred idea for Tucek, and the open-air experience allows viewers to gather without masks or COVID anxiety. But the exhibition is no escape from the pandemic – the show’s content was inspired, in fact, by Tucek’s experience as a Colorado transplant missing family members who are a plane flight away.

“I started to really question, over the pandemic, not being able to go back to New York much, where most of my family still lives,” she explained. “I was looking at that longing, wondering about it, but then also recognizing how incredible Colorado has been for me.”

Over the past eight years in Colorado, she has found creative opportunities that include representation by Denver’s Leon Gallery, which is producing the Ashcroft show. Tucek and gallery owner Eric Nord saw the ghost town exhibition as a way of breaking out of the gallery walls and making an experience true to the Colorado spirit in the open air amid the changing fall leaves and surrounded by mountains.

“It’s been a wonderful experience exploring this idea,” Nord said Friday as he assisted with the install. “People might have a real, immediate, visceral reaction.”

The space and spirit of the mountain west have served Tucek well, raising two young children here and simultaneously breaking through creatively.

“It calms you,” she said, looking up at a grove of quaking aspens. “I think it seeps into your mind and your soul, your body — you gain a sense of peace from it and I think it helps you move through life a little better.”

Showing in Ashcroft this weekend, Tucek hopes the work will surprise and delight and maybe challenge visitors, most of whom, she recognized, will be there for sightseeing or leaf-peeping and won’t be expecting an art show (certainly the case for a rambunctious wedding party crowd of dozens that unloaded off of three mini buses to tour the site Friday morning).

“To me, the ultimate audience is those people who do not expect it,” Tucek said.

Due to the historic nature of the structures, Tucek couldn’t hang art with nails or permanently alter the landscape, so she has casually leaned paintings against walls and trees and hung others with fishing wire.

A field mouse ran by as she discussed the installation with a reporter, highlighting the risk of leaving these pieces at the historic site for the weekend. Tucek is embracing the elements and their risks, she said. If morning dew, mouse, fox or bear damage a painting, she said, so be it.

The outdoor pieces include a portrait of a couple that’s positioned in a thick aspen grove — viewable from Ashcroft’s main pathway — and a stunning painting of a night sky that is dramatically positioned in an open field, setting its intense blue against the changing yellows and oranges of leaves here.

Tucek’s show follows a string of ambitious outdoor pandemic art projects here, including Anderson Ranch Arts Center’s ongoing “Sculpturally Distanced” open-air show and artist Ajax Axe’s “Aspen Space Station” on the backside of Aspen Mountain, which is staging its final public events this weekend through Wednesday (and for art-inclined visitors, makes an ideal double feature with “Lilac Hour,” as it is accessed via Midnight Mine Road down the Castle Creek valley from Tucek’s Ashcroft exhibition).

atravers@aspentimes.com

Hexton Gallery opens Tania Dibbs and Richard Carter show

Painter Richard Carter’s work from the new Hexton Gallery exhibition with Tania Dibbs opening Saturday, Sept. 18.
Courtesy Richard Carter

The Hexton Gallery in Aspen this week announced a new initiative showcasing work by locally and regionally based visual artists.

It will open with “The Solace of Open Spaces,” a joint exhibition by longtime Roaring Fork Valley painters Tania Dibbs and Richard Carter opening Saturday and running through Nov. 2.

Hexton’s Local Artists Program Colorado Collective initiative will include two shows per year, aimed at “bringing national and international exposure to a select group of Colorado’s most talented artists.”

Along with the shows, according to the gallery announcement, the program will include critical dialogues, portfolio reviews, artist interviews, studio visits and curatorial projects.

“From a conceptual standpoint, this ongoing exhibition series will deal with the intricacies of being an artist in Colorado, how the landscape of the American West impacts the work, and the connection between our local communities and their accessibility to exhibition opportunities.”

Both longtime Aspenites, Dibbs and Carter — a co-founder of the Aspen Art Museum — moved their studios to Basalt in recent years and shown in midvalley galleries more often than Aspen ones.

Hexton will host an opening reception on Saturday from 5 to 7 p.m.

DanceAspen aims to keep contemporary ballet alive

Sammy Altenau in Danielle Rowe’s “The Old Child.” (Rosalie O’Connor/Courtesy photo)
IF YOU GO …

What: DanceAspen, ‘The Pieces Fall’

Where: Wheeler Opera House

When: Friday, Sept. 17, 7:30 p.m.

How much: $35-$55

Tickets: aspenshowtix.com

More info: Learn more about the new ballet company at danceaspen.org

A group of passionate and committed Aspen-based dancers are hoping to keep the flame of locally based contemporary ballet burning with a new company.

Founded by a group of former company members from Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, which shuttered in March citing the pandemic’s devastating effect on performing arts, the new nonprofit DanceAspen will make its debut Friday at the Wheeler Opera House.

The seven-member company is making a bid to continue the tradition of world class contemporary dance in Aspen, aiming to keep Aspen Santa Fe’s loyal local audience and raise enough funding to support full-time dancers and a year-round public performance schedule.

“It was devastating and surprising news to us in March when we were told the company was not going to come back,” said DanceAspen executive director Laurel Jenny Winton, who joined Aspen Santa Fe Ballet in 2018, coming here from the touring company of Broadway’s “Dirty Dancing” and, before that, performing with the Joffrey Ballet.

At a rehearsal at the Wheeler this week, Winton said she and other dancers looked at the prospect of leaving Aspen, or of finding positions in the COVID-decimated professional dance world, or retiring from the artform, and instead decided to stay here, follow their passion and continue producing cutting-edge new works for their committed local audiences. She was joined by Aspen Santa Fe alums Katherine Bolanos, Sadie Brown, Anthony Tiedeman and Kaya Wolsey along with newcomer Sammy Altenau.

“A lot of us have planted roots here,” she said, noting company members are ingrained in the valley, have bought homes, and are starting families here. “It was not really easy for us to just pick up and leave. And we didn’t want to because we love this community.”

So this summer, Winton – who performed as Jenny Winton with Aspen Santa Fe – field the papers to incorporate DanceAspen as a 501c3 nonprofit, started fundraising and they kept dancing.

“We were all talking about it and decided, well, someone has to do it,” she recalled.

Katherine Bolanos and Anthony Tiedeman in Danielle Rowe’s “The Old Child.” (Rosalie O’Connor/Courtesy photo)

Working with San Francisco-based choreographer Ben Needham-Wood, they started work-shopping in June and started trying to raise seed money.

“We did a little fundraiser in July and raised enough money to cover our entire budget for the summer,” Winton said. “Based on that, I realized how important this was for the community and how people were just really so eager to have live performance back.”

They had hoped to raise $50,000 to support the company through summer, quickly hit that and have now topped $100,000. Winton believes they can support a 2022 DanceAspen schedule if they can raise $350,000.

Local suppporters started writing checks, big and small, and the wider dance community also showed support. Choreographer Danielle Rowe reached out and offered her work for public performance for free – it’s among the seven short pieces in Friday’s program – as did Penny Saunders.

“They knew us as dancers with Aspen, Santa Fe Ballet, and they knew how wonderful that company was and how world-renowned it was,” Winton said. “And they didn’t want to see that disappear.”

Winton and her cohort have raised enough to support DanceAspen through the end of year and are looking ahead to 2022, when they aim to produce six ballet works across three programs, including the premiere of a new work by Rowe. By 2023, Winton is hopeful that they can support eight full-time company dancers – “We want to pay the artists well enough that they don’t have to work other jobs – or they don’t have to work that many other jobs” – and hire an administrator to take that burden off the dancers and, perhaps, give Winton time to dance herself (she is sitting out “The Pieces Fall” as she’s been largely focused on behind-the-scenes work).

Kaya Wolsey and Anthony Tiedeman in Danielle Rowe’s “For Pixie.” (Rosalie O’Connor/Courtesy photo)

“We are looking long-term for this because it’s just so apparent that the community wants us to stay here and wants us to be a thing,” Winton said. “And there’s definitely enough support out there.”

To get the company going, the artists have had to do more than dance. Wolsey, for example, is also overseeing its marketing and serving as company manager. They’ve all helped with fundraising asks, and they’ve all helped put up DanceAspen posters around town.

“It’s a huge group effort,” Winton said.

The grassroots effort and wearing of multiple administrative hats is a new experience for the dancers, who were allowed a pure creative artist’s existence as dancers with Aspen Santa Fe Ballet – daily ballet class, rehearsals, world tours and the like. Coming down from that pedestal into this scrappier experience has been fulfilling, Winton said.

“I feel more connected to this community than ever because I’m out there passing out posters,” she said. “It’s a very intimate and personal experience to build a nonprofit here.”

Winton said they are open to collaborating with any other local groups on programming and they welcome the possibility of other new dance companies forming here. Bolanos and Tiedeman were also part of a group of performers, unaffiliated with DanceAspen, who debuted the new work “Phoenix Rising,” at the Aspen Fringe Festival in June. It also included Fringe Fest choreographer Adrianna Thompson and Aspen Santa Fe alum Seia Rassenti Watson.

DanceAspen’s premiere performance adheres mostly to the contemporary dance style that audience came to know through Aspen Santa Fe productions over 25 years. But Winton said the company will be open to performing some more neoclassical or slightly more traditional works.

Winton and her DanceAspen team did receive the blessing of longtime Aspen Santa Fe Ballet directors Tom Mossbrucker and Jean-Philippe Malaty, who have continued to run the company’s schools and have said they will support other dance companies through grants and guest presentations in Aspen.

“I actually am very thankful to them for creating this platform for us because I think it elevated the audience in their understanding of what dance is,” Winton said. “It’s really a tribute to them that people want us to stay here.”

The premiere program’s title, “The Pieces Fall,” might sum up the dancers’ life- and career-altering pandemic experiences and this hopeful moment of rebirth for them in DanceAspen.

“We all realized that the pieces are going to fall into place as we’ve been trying to figure out our lives,” Winton said. “The glue is now solidifying. That’s happening right now. It’s very exciting.”

atravers@aspentimes.com