Wednesday, February 10, 2016

More Ways of Seeing

"Ah, but is it art? That old, tediously repeated question whenever bricks are laid, beds disarranged, or lights go on and off. The artist, defensively, responds: "It's art because I am an artist and therefore whatever I do is art." The gallerist talks aesthetic code, which is either parroted or mocked by the usual rogues and rascals of the press. We should always agree with the artist, whatever we think of the work. Art isn't, can't be, a temple from which the incompetent, the charlatan, the chancer and the publicity-chaser should be excluded; art is more like a refugee camp where most are queuing for water with a plastic jerry-can in their hand. What we can say, though, as we face another interminable video-loop of a tiny stretch of the artist's own unremarkable life or a collaged wall of banal photographs, is: "Yes, of course it's art, of course, you're an artist, and your intentions are serious, I'm sure. It's just that this is very low-level stuff: try giving it more thought, originality, craft, imagination - interest, in a word."
                                   - Julian Barnes in Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art


I've read so much art criticism over the years; unfortunately, much of the language seems to have been deliberately chosen to obfuscate rather than illuminate. In contrast, the essays in English novelist Julian Barnes's latest book, Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art, epitomize for me what all art writing should be. Each chapter is a little gem, written in such a way as to make the reader want to run out and see the painting immediately. The book includes quite a few color reproductions of the art he discusses, but not all. It is the latter missing images that make you realize what a wonderful master of narrative and description Barnes is. Worth the price of admission alone is the first chapter about ThĂ©odore GĂ©ricault's The Raft of the Medusa, a detailed account of all possible - and all equally harrowing - scenarios of the disaster, with the added bonus of psychological and historical interpretations of both artist and image.

In the past week, I visited The Smart Museum of Art in Hyde Park, the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College, and the Art Institute of Chicago. In all three venues, there were many examples of art whose creators embodied Barnes's plea to "...give [the art] more thought, originality, craft, imagination - interest, in a word." Entering the Smart Museum was like stepping into the living area of a thoughtful, eclectic person's private collection, very intimate, and with art representing the best examples of a healthy spectrum of periods and places. My favorite pieces were the delicate Korean celadon bowls; an intaglio plate from Goya's The Disasters of War series; Arthur Dove and Milton Avery oil paintings; and Hans (Jean) Arp, Henry Moore, and Jacques Lipchitz sculptures (fortunately for the museum, the latter pieces were displayed in protective cases; otherwise, I would have been reprimanded for trying to touch them, they are that enticing).

The Museum of Contemporary Photography (MoCP) at Columbia College is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. From its collection of more than 14,000 objects, the curators chose 155 photographs to showcase highlights from the early 19th century to the present day. The two main galleries are filled with iconic images - Elliott Erwitt's haunting portrait entitled Jackie Kennedy at Funeral (1963), Sally Mann's controversial and moody photos of her children, Dorothea Lange's migrant woman and children, and Cindy Sherman's ur-selfies. In addition, there were classic images by Julia Margaret Cameron, Alfred Stieglitz, Eugene Atget, Ansel Adams, Walker Evans, Diane Arbus, and Carrie Mae Weems. The history of photography in two galleries. On the day I visited, there were two school groups taking a guided tour; my initial impulse was to leave because the spaces were overcrowded, but I'm glad I stayed and eavesdropped, taking advantage of the docents' valuable commentary. Like the Smart Museum (which is a teaching museum), this felt like a day that the MoCP also served in this capacity.

My last visit was to the Art Institute of Chicago. My friend and I wanted to see the recently donated Edlis/Neeson Collection that is now part of the museums' permanent collection on display in the Modern Wing. While there were some objects of great interest to me (the Jasper Johns Alphabet and oddly, the Xu Bing and Ai Wei Wei "found" paintings, Wu Street), the majority of the 44 pieces (by Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenburg, Roy Lichtenstein, Jeff Koons and Andy Warhol) did not thrill me as much as I'd hoped. While the museum benefits from this addition by filling in gaps in their Pop Art collection, I had hoped to see some new and exciting pieces. But perhaps I have overdosed on these artists over the years. Once upon a time and not so very long ago, many of these artists were original and interesting when they emerged on the scene. But as time goes by and their initial groundbreaking work no longer breaks ground, they are compelled to repeat themselves. I think this is the tragedy of any artist - once that artist has shown the world everything inside his/her head, how do they go about creating new things? Should they? What if they can't?





Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Gringo Trails

Pegi Vail's documentary, Gringo Trails, gets to the heart of what I have felt whenever I've traveled to heavily-touristed parts of the world, remote outposts with nary a soul in sight, and everywhere in between. Enjoying myself more in some places than in others, the feeling that I was a guest-bordering on-intruder often nagged at me. Is this place better for my having been here? Am I better or having been here? Why did I come here? In some places, it is easier to be a part of the tableau without standing out too much, but in others, this is simply not possible. So as you are watching and observing your surroundings, others are watching you. What is it we seek when we set out to travel? What do I seek and why?

Just avoiding the snowstorm that hit the East Coast last week, I visited New York City on a day trip during a longer week with family in Connecticut. My last visit to the Big Apple was in July 2013; before that, I lived in the city from 2007-2010. It is no surprise that every time we return to a place, it has changed and so have we. I found expected changes like more cranes, new venues, but this time I had a greater appreciation for the excitement of the city that I didn't always feel when I lived there. I'm not sure why.

On this trip, my goals were to spend time with several friends (success), see the new Whitney (bust), visit Dia:Chelsea (also bust), and to walk the newer parts of the High Line (success). I wanted to see the Frank Stella black paintings at the Whitney, but the Whitney is closed on Tuesdays. I also wanted to see Robert Ryman's white paintings at Dia:Chelsea, but that venue is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays during the winter months. No black paintings, no white paintings. This girl couldn't win!

I walked north of where I'd last been on the High Line (in 2010 and just where Spencer Finch's The River that Flows Both Ways is located). It was bitterly cold, but sunny, and as I made my way from 29th Street south, I blew this way and that once I was up on the trestle amid the withered prairie grasses. A handful of intrepid idiots like me (mostly tourists, judging by their clutched guidebooks), passed under The Standard, and finally descended in front of the closed Whitney.

In Chelsea, I felt good passing by many vintage buildings housing furriers, upholstery and fabric sellers. I hope they remain in business. I met a good friend who gave me a tour of Alpha Workshops and then we had fortifying "penicillin soup" and a delicious lunch - which temporarily transported me back to Athens - at Uncle Nick's. Later, I stopped by Chelsea Market, expanded considerably in the last five years. It also appeared to be populated by tourists taking pictures of themselves and each other and the shops inside. It was like a suburban mall, but I guess cooler. Oh yes, there were guidebooks there, too.

Another friend and I stopped in to the New York Public Library to see the Women in Printmaking Exhibition, a well-curated show in an intimate setting.

New York City ranks among the most crowded gringo trails in the world, but for the most part, our footsteps there are welcomed - and more sustained - by commercial, cultural, and political interests. Not so for so many other places in the world, though they also welcome tourists and ostensibly have the infrastructure to cope with them in the short-term. But they may lack long-term solutions to the problem of what to do when the place has been traveled to death. How often do the benefits of tourism to a given country outweigh the detriments? And on a lesser, but equally important, note: to what extent do travel writers (myself included) contribute to the detriments? 

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Surrealism in Chicago

A marvelous new exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art links Surrealism to Chicago with 100
works by iconic artists such as Rene Magritte, Matta, Max Ernst, Balthus, Leonora Carrington, and Dorothea Tanning, as well as Chicago-based artists Jim Nutt, Leon Golub, and Christina Ramberg. Pieces by international Surrealist-inspired artists such as Mark Grotjahn, Wangechi Mutu, Jeff Koons, and Cindy Sherman are also represented here.

I spent two hours immersed in these otherworldly images, thinking about life in other realms, symbols, and animal totems. I left in a rather dream-like state, one which was quickly dispelled once I joined the pedestrian shoppers along Michigan Avenue, pursuing very different, and decidedly more materialistic, dreams. Kudos to MCA curator Lynne Warren for organizing this remarkable show. Surrealism: A Conjured Life runs from November 21, 2015 - June 5, 2016. You might see me there again.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Coffee with Patti

"It's not so easy writing about nothing." So begins Patti Smith's haunting, melancholy memoir, M Train. It's easy to feel as though you are swimming through her words, with simultaneous warm and cold currents, alternating between joy and sadness. This book put me into a dreamy, trance-like state that I've only ever gotten from reading W. G. Sebald. In any case, it certainly did not feel like nothing to me.

I kept wishing I had run into Patti at one of the cafes she frequented. [When I lived in New York, this was certainly within the realm of the possible; I often saw famous people.] I wished I could have sat down with her at the now-closed Cafe 'Ina or at Caffe Dante. However, I would not have been able to match her cup for cup of the Joe she seemingly drinks by the gallons (!), and I'm pretty sure that if I had seen her, I would have left her to her solitude. But man, what a conversation I had with her in my head. For one thing, I would have loved to discuss the importance of photographing totemic objects, e.g. Virginia Woolf's cane, Roberto Bolano's chair, and her own table and chair at Cafe 'Ina.

Perhaps I'll do a Patti Smith road trip, following in her pilgrimage footsteps to the sites of her beloved writers and other artists. Starting in NYC, then moving to Veracruz (a city William Burroughs told her produced the best coffee in the world) and perhaps Mexico City, then Berlin to Cafe Pasternak, and on to Zak's place on Rockaway Beach (before Hurricane Sandy swallowed it up in 2012). Then to London (where I wouldn't necessarily binge on detective dramas as she did, though I understand the impulse), Tokyo, Detroit, Los Angeles, Tangier, Buenos Aires. What a trip that would be, coffee or not!