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Artlandia: A Portland culture tour

PORTLAND — With a new Mark Rothko retrospective (and some even more eye-catching surprises) at the Portland Art Museum, Portland has plenty of visual-arts stimulation to offer — as well as music, dance, theater, literary happenings and film events.

Cultural life is singularly concentrated in Portland. Walk just 20 blocks and you can hit most of the city's major museums, galleries and performance venues, plus scores of restaurants and cafes.

Sure, there's arts activity happening elsewhere in the city. But for the out-of-town visitor, especially anyone arriving by train, it's a great feeling to exit Portland's Union Station and know so many attractions are in strolling distance.

Here are some highlights of what's happening in the downtown core this spring and summer:

Portland Art Museum: "Mark Rothko" is the big-name draw here, but "John Frame: Three Fragments of a Lost Tale" is the unexpected knockout. Both exhibits are up through May 27.

The Rothko retrospective reveals that before Mark Rothko was "Mark Rothko," he was Marcus Rothkowitz, and before he was an abstract expressionist he was a figurative painter. He came to Portland from Russia at age 10 in 1913 and spent about a decade in the city before heading for New York. In 1933, the Portland Art Museum gave him his first one-man museum show, and he had family ties to the city for most of his life (1903-1970).

"Mark Rothko" starts with a rather tame still-life from 1926 and ends with two black/gray abstract canvases from 1969 that all but spell "dead end" (Rothko killed himself the next year). In between, however, there's an energizing evolution of visual ideas, gradually morphing from fanciful, distorted figures to ever-bolder abstractions. By 1950, he finds his signature style: huge pulsating lozenges of color that seem almost to vibrate off the canvas while pulling you into shadowy realms.

As illuminating as the Rothko exhibit is, the John Frame show is even better. Frame is a California artist who works with puppets, photography and stop-action animation. The show is theatrically spot-lit in the dim gallery. Oddball hybrid creatures made from found materials come to spooky life as a soundtrack scored by Frame plays in the background.

The Portland Art Museum is at 1219 S.W. Park Ave. (503-226-2811 or www.portlandartmuseum.org)

Oregon Historical Society: Located across the street from the Portland Art Museum, the Oregon Historical Society features both permanent exhibits on Oregon's history and geography and temporary exhibits. Among the latter is "Culture Captured: The Photography of Marian Wood Kolisch" (through Sept. 2). Kolisch (1920-2008) made it her mission to photograph and interview key figures on the Oregon cultural scene, including author Ursula K. Le Guin, filmmaker Gus Van Sant and Portland Art Museum architect-designer Pietro Belluschi. Excerpts from Kolisch's interviews with some of them are featured in the show. (1200 S.W. Park Ave., 503-222-1741 or www.ohs.org)

Museum of Contemporary Craft: A large two-story gallery with a gift shop and a studio for hands-on craft activities, the Museum of Contemporary Craft is on the edge of Portland's artsy Pearl District.

Its big draw this spring and summer is "Generations: Betty Feves" (through July 28), a survey of the career of an Eastern Oregon ceramic artist (1918-1985) strongly influenced by the landscape that surrounded her. Feves worked in a variety of styles: figurative, abstract, refined, primitivist. The exhibit is brilliantly enhanced by recorded interviews with Feves and home movies of her making her "bonfire pots." (724 N.W. Davis St., 503-223-2654 or www.museumofcontemporarycraft.org)

Blue Sky: Oregon Center for Photographic Arts: Around the corner from the Museum of Contemporary Craft, Blue Sky is Portland's headquarters for the camera crazy. Along with the monthly exhibits, Blue Sky's Pacific Northwest Photography Viewing Drawers — a juried, public archive of original prints by photographers living in the region — are the big draw here. (122 N.W. Eighth Ave., 503-225-0210 or www.blueskygallery.org)

Many smaller galleries are in the Pearl District. See www.padaoregon.org for information on exhibits and First Thursday art walks.

Classical, jazz, rock — take your pick. Portland has a varied and rich music scene. Visitors wanting detailed guidance to the fine arts — dance, theater, classical music — should check out www.artslandia.com, which doesn't just list new shows but gives background on each company.

Jimmy Mak's: I knew I'd hit it right when the Mel Brown Quartet took the stage at this comfortable jazz club in the Pearl District. Brown, who played with Diana Ross and the Temptations before he moved into jazz, is the dapper drummer-in-residence at the club, leading a septet most Tuesday nights, a quartet on Wednesdays and a "B-3 Organ Group," reveling in the sounds of the Hammond organ, on Thursdays. I caught the quartet (with out-of-town vibraphonist Chuck Redd) delivering sometimes playful, sometimes moody and always virtuosic takes on classics by Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Cole Porter and others. (221 N.W. 10th Ave., 503-295-6542 or www.jimmymaks.com)

Oregon Symphony: The Portland orchestra still has a few programs left in its 2011-2012 season. Symphony music director Carlos Kalmar conducts on May 12-14 (pianist Arnaldo Cohen as soloist on Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1) and May 20-21 (Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring," Dvorak's "Nocturne" and two works by John Adams). (Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 1037 S.W. Broadway, 503-228-1353, 800-228-7343 or www.OrSymphony.org)

Portland Opera: The city's resident opera company presents Leonard Bernstein's "Candide," with tenor Jonathan Boyd in the title role, May 11, 13, 17 and 19. (Keller Auditorium, 222 S.W. Clay, 503-241-1802, 866-739-6737 or www.portlandopera.org)

Rock clubs: Portland musician/disc jockey Maggie Vail, who is (full disclosure) my niece, reports on rock/dance venues that appeal to her in the city's busy music scene.

At East End (203 S.E. Grand Ave., 503-232-0056 or www.eastendpdx.com) "the show space is in the basement," she says, "and it actually feels like a house party every time."

— Holocene (1001 S.E. Morrison St., 503-239-7639 or www.holocene.org) is in a large converted warehouse and has multimedia events, rock shows, electronica and DJ nights, plus a 5-8 p.m. happy hour on Fridays with free appetizers.

— Valentine's (232 S.W. Ankeny St., 503-248-1600 or www.valentineslifeblood.blogspot.com) is "a little place hidden in the alley near Voodoo Doughnuts downtown," Vail says. There's live music Sunday-Wednesday, DJs other nights of the week, along with art exhibits and film screenings.

Are gardens cultural? They are when they bring a whole cultural tradition into focus.

The Lan Su Chinese Garden is a case in point. Opened in 2000, it's a quiet sanctuary in Old Town/Chinatown, formerly one of the city's grittiest neighborhoods, although somewhat gentrified now. It's a place of winding pathways, covered pavilions and peekaboo vistas that make it feel much larger than the square block it covers. A waterfall, a tea house and artfully placed "penjing" (miniature landscapes of rock, moss and bonsai-like trees) round out the attractions. (239 N.W. Everett St., 503-228-8131 or www.lansugarden.org)

Portland is home to some terrific dance companies, several of which have events coming up.

Oregon Ballet Theatre: Portland's answer to Seattle's Pacific Northwest Ballet, directed by Christopher Stowell (son of former PNB directors Kent Stowell and Francia Russell), has a lively looking program running through April 28. Titled "Chromatic Quartet," it features a world premiere by Matjash Mrozewski, along with works by Balanchine, Wheeldon and Caniparoli. (Newmark Theatre, 1111 S.W. Broadway, 888-922-5538 or www.obt.org)

White Bird Dance: The city's primary presenter of touring shows brings American troupe Lar Lubovitch Dance Company (www.lubovitch.org) to town on May 2 and French/Brazilian troupe Compagnie Kdfig (www.kafig.com) on May 9. (Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 1037 S.W. Broadway. 503-245-1600 or www.whitebird.org.

BodyVox: This antic, playful modern-dance company has produced lively pieces both on stage and in film — so it makes perfect sense that its next production, "The Cutting Room" (May 3-19), will "mash up" scenes from classic movies with live movement and an original score. (1201 N.W. 17th Ave., 503-229-0627 or www.bodyvox.com)

Portland, like Seattle, is a bustling theater town. Two picks:

— Portland Center Stage is midway through a run of "Anna Karenina" (through May 6), distilled from Tolstoy's 800-plus pages into a three-hour stage show by Kevin McKeon of Seattle's Book-It Repertory Theatre. Next up are two musicals with African-American roots: "Black Pearl Sings!" (April 24-June 17) and "It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues" (May 22-June 24). (128 N.W. 11th Ave., 503-445-3700 or www.pcs.org)

— Artists Repertory Theater just closed the Northwest premiere of David Mamet's controversial "Race" and isn't taking it any easier by bringing the Tony- and Pulitzer-winning musical about bipolar illness, "Next to Normal," to the stage (April 24-June 3). (1515 S.W. Morrison St., 503-241-1278 or www.artistsrep.org)

It couldn't be simpler: Go to Powell's City of Books and stay for a day — or a lifetime — at this Shangri-La of bookstores, which comes with a color-coded map to help you navigate its vast multistory premises. Huge selection, helpful clerks, nightly readings, a busy cafe ... it has everything. (1005 W. Burnside St., 503-228-4651 or www.powells.com)

Portland has a thriving film scene with an accent on independent taste. Downtown venues offering venturesome fare include the Northwest Film Center (1219 S.W. Park Ave., 503-221-1156 or www.nwfilm.org) and the Living Room Theaters (341 S.W. 10th Ave., 971-222-2010 or www.livingroomtheaters.com), a multiplex across the street from Powell's that serves food and drink with your movie.

Powell's Books in Portland is the largest independent used and new bookstore in the world. - Ellen M. Banner/Seattle Times