Thursday, March 23, 2017

Hecho en Pilsen

Earlier this week, a friend and I spent a frosty, sunny afternoon in the Chicago neighborhood of Pilsen. We had lunch at Dusek's, a Michelin-starred restaurant named for the owner of the adjacent 100-year-old concert venue, Thalia Hall, the locus of what had predominantly been a Czech enclave about three miles southwest of Chicago's Loop. Over time, the area has become inhabited by Latino residents, mainly from Mexico. The cuisine at Dusek's reflected this reality and the chilaquiles was delicious. The restaurant has blended into the area, but not without controversy; its management was at the center of a firestorm recently (since resolved) for firing a Mexican-American dishwasher who had walked out as part of last months' A Day Without Immigrants restaurant workers' boycott.

Up and down 18th and 19th Streets, which form the core of Pilsen, you can find many traditional, long-term Mexican bakeries, restaurants, and stores. But newcomers in recent years have upset some long-term residents who have expressed their anger in the form of anti-gentrification graffiti. Bow Truss Coffee Roasters bore the brunt twice in 2015 and earlier this year, it closed all its locations for other business reasons. It is unclear if one thing led to the other.

Other relative newcomers, though, like the charming Modern Cooperative, Verdant Matter, The Spoke and Bird Bakehouse and Pilsen Community Books have not drawn the ire of the denizens; perhaps it's because many of these business were established by people living in the community?

Anchoring the western end of Pilsen, don't miss the always-free National Museum of Mexican Art, whose permanent collection is worth a visit on its own. Several current exhibitions are of interest - my favorite was Francisco Toledo's Hecho en CaSa, a tribute to the artist's Zapotec heritage and a marvel of copper, woven materials, and...large insects. Also worth seeing is Time to Get Ready: Fotografia Social, Chicago native Maria Varela's evocative 1960s black-and-white photographs taken while she actively participated in the Civil Rights movement in the South. Memoria Presente: An Artistic Journey opened March 24th.

It was fun to spot the Trump Loteria-style El Maligno decals placed strategically throughout Pilsen. I think that all residents agree on this designation.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Breakfast in Paris + Miscellany

It's interesting how something we desire becomes even more desirable the harder it is to find. Breakfast in Paris (BiP), created by the 45-year-old Portland, Oregon-based Stash Tea Company, has quickly become my new favorite tea. It's a black tea, flavored with lavender, bergamot (the citrus fruit which gives Earl Grey its heavenly scent/flavor), and a dash of vanilla. If you are in a blah mood, you will get a boost; if you are in a good mood, it will get even better. I searched the company's web site to see which of my local "dealers" could provide this particular kind of tea; after some footwork, I learned that although some stores stock certain kinds of Stash Tea, BiP is not among those. So where did I try it originally, you ask? At my local train station. I have now been back there twice just to buy a handful of precious bags each time and each time I get a kick out of requesting a few bags of the Stash.

Elevated by BiP, I went to the Museum of Contemporary Art to hear a lecture on the Merce Cunningham exhibition currently on now through April 30th. In one of the rooms, you are surrounded by screens projecting a variety of dances from different periods of the modern dancer's career. It is magical and inspiring.

More BiP and a visit to the Cultural Center, where my favorite show on now through April 9th is 50 x 50 Invitational/ The Subject is Chicago: People, Places, Possibilities.  Fifty artists, one from each of Chicago's 50 wards, is represented in this exhibition. Some haunting photographs in the Coptic in Chicago series, a large gold-leaf with magnet piece, and the Modern David photo series.

Beware the ides of March tomorrow and Happy St. Patrick's Day~

Saturday, January 28, 2017

A Friday in Chicago + Trump's Shadow


A forlorn, freezing fellow paced about across the street from Grant Park in the bitter cold yesterday with a placard that read "Stop Sexism/Stop Trump." In addition to the day's extreme temperature difference (last Saturday, it was in the 60s and sunny compared to a barely-reached, raw 30), his lone presence made a striking contrast in light of the Women's March on Chicago, which drew 250,000 people in support. A friend showed me a great photo she'd taken of the crowd that day, the Trump Tower rising in the background. The protest in Chicago was said to have been the largest in the city's history.

Earlier, this same friend and I visited the nearby Art Institute. Many Chicago museums are free to Illinois residents at this time of year and it was certainly a treat to wander the warm halls gratis. Our timing was slightly off because some exhibitions had been either recently deinstalled or were under installation. So we eavesdropped on a docent lecture about how northern light inspired certain painters. We also browsed a textile/tapestry show, the new Islamic Art gallery, and the museum's collection of Modern chairs created by such famed designers as Charles and Ray Eames and Eero Saarinen.

At the Cultural Center, only two shows were up; others were similarly being installed or deinstalled. In the Sydney R. Yates Gallery (my personal favorite room in the whole place), they had the marvelous doors Eugene Eda had painted for Malcolm X College. I wonder if the Trump protester had a chance to visit this exhibition, whether to get warm or get inspired.

We liked Dutch artist Viviane Sassen's just-opened show, Umbra, at Columbia College's Museum of Contemporary Photography. Many of the images were startling, requiring a second or third look to determine what it was we were actually seeing. The artist played with light and shadow (umbra) in order to draw attention to Jung's views on the shadow aspect of our psyches.

It made me wonder about President Trump's shadow side. Is he really just a complete shadow? According to Jung, "where there is light, there must also be shadow." To the extent that he is aware of this dichotomy, Trump gleefully embraces his shadow. But I fear that his is a shadow with no hint of light.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Agnes Martin at the Guggenheim

A couple of days ago, I went with a friend to see the Agnes Martin show at the Guggenheim in New York, which originated at the Tate Modern in London. I've been to both of these museums often enough to guess that the latter was probably a better place for Martin's gentle squares, grids, stripes and luminous colors, which demand quiet contemplation, solitude if possible and natural light (not the CFL/fluorescence that washes out everyone and everything). There are places that do justice to Martin's work; the Guggenheim is not one of them. Even Peggy Guggenheim, the founder Solomon's niece, referred to the building as "...my uncle's garage." Although Peggy didn't collect Agnes Martin, Martin's works would have benefited enormously by being shown at Peggy's Venice Museum - a lovelier setting would be hard to find (more water, more light), except perhaps for one venue I describe below.

I've long felt that the Guggenheim in New York is a good place to visit for the "building itself" experience. Frank Lloyd Wright - its architect - would have agreed: he maintained that the spiraling bricks and mortar were/should be the highlight and not the art. It is hard for the art to hold its own in this structure; perhaps the best way is to embrace its oddity, i.e. don't fight with it and don't affix square-framed art to the sloping walls. I agree with a friend who commented that it always appeared as though the art was "clinging to the walls." I have seen great shows there, though: the James Turrell show was fantastic, other-worldly; filling the entire space with ever-changing and magical light. Another good exhibition was the Cai Guo-Qiang show, featuring hanging cars and stuffed snarling tigers. In both cases, the building co-existed comfortably with the art.

In January 2016, I eagerly showed up at the doors of the new Whitney, but it was closed that day (a Tuesday, so now I know). From what I have seen online and been told by friends who have visited, it is quite magnificent, lots of natural light, views of the Hudson River. I think that Agnes Martin - a former resident of the artists' colony on Coenties Slip on the East River - might have preferred this place for this retrospective of her work.

I loved the obsessive gentleness of all of the pieces in the Agnes Martin show, but one painting stood out for me: Gratitude, both the beautiful composition of it and the intention behind it. Nancy Princenthal's excellent biography of Agnes Martin, Mary Lance's documentary, Agnes Martin: With My Back to the World, and Agnes and Me, the memoir of one of Martin's confidants, all shed light on the enigmatic artist. To really see her, though, you need to get close to the works, breathe them in, and then step back to fully appreciate her greater vision.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Walking Along, Singing a Song

Throughout this year - and especially lately - I've been thinking that what the world needs is more musicals, or rather, the world of the musical in which unfettered happiness and joy (not hate and rage) burst forth naturally from ordinary conversations or walks in the park. The characters may be heartbroken, overjoyed, or rhapsodic all in quick succession, but the one thing they are not is malevolent.

I confess here to disliking most musicals, though there are exceptions: Cabaret, The Sound of Music, The Wizard of Oz, Singing in the Rain, West Side Story, Funny Face - the last three I think because of the dancing (more on that later).

Recently, a friend and I went to the Oriental Theater to see Fun Home, a Broadway musical performed on stage in a beautiful, historic venue in Chicago. I enjoyed it, but it did not move me like the ones mentioned above. Why not? Though the story was good and the music, too, I couldn't relate to it on the emotional level that was required.

Yesterday, another friend and I saw the new film La La Land at a different historical venue. This time, I WAS moved and enchanted by the Cinemascope, the color, the singing, the dancing, the story. All in one package. In a similar fashion, Zadie Smith's latest novel, Swing Time, grabbed me and wouldn't let go until I reluctantly finished. It's about the power of dance, but a lot more, too.

Naive yes, but I want to enter and live in these worlds of song and dance - at least for a couple of hours at a time - after the soul-killing events and deaths of 2016. I want the opportunity to believe that everything will work out fine if you can just sing and dance your way to the lovely resolution of Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse in that beautiful Central Park scene in The Bandwagon (1953), where the troubles of the world finally disappear and what remains is the sublime joy of being alive.

                       Happy Holidays and here's to a peaceful 2017~