Monday, May 2, 2016

Kerry, Andy* and Cindy

I saw the Chicago-based artist Kerry James Marshall's show, Mastry, at the Museum of Contemporary Art last week. A 35-year retrospective of his moody portrait paintings, Marshall fused references to contemporary black culture and civil rights history with sly homages to artists as diverse as Piet Mondrian and Velazquez. This show continues through September 25th. Also at the museum, I enjoyed the British artist Phil Collins's film about Bogota musicians who recorded an instrumental version of The Smith's 1987 album, The World Won't Listen.

Later in the week, I went to The University Club to hear PEN American Center president and acclaimed author Andrew Solomon speak about his latest book, Far and Away: Reporting from the Brink of Change. In this collection of travel essays spanning the past 25 years, Solomon described his interactions with Russian, Chinese, and South African artist in the 1980s, when those countries were on the brink of change and when those artists had the most to lose by making art. I was particularly moved by his essay on Greenland, a country (also the world's largest island) with the lowest per capita population, but one which has the highest suicide rate and neither the vocabulary nor the tradition to discuss isolation and loneliness. In Indonesia, Solomon spent time in an unusual community, many of whose members are deaf due to a recessive gene. He said that everyone (hearing and non-hearing) communicated with each other with a sign language unique to that group alone. In another remarkable passage, Solomon tells of searching for his Jewish roots in Romania. When gazing at the stooped farmers in the field and the uninspiring village, he was struck with the realization that the ancestors of those very people had chased away his ancestors...and what a good thing that actually was in the end, despite the obvious negatives. In Senegal, Solomon was persuaded to undergo an exorcism for his depression - this involved quantities of ram's blood, among other things. In the final chapter of the book, Solomon's near-death diving experience in Australia sent chills down my spine. In conclusion, the author expressed his belief that "...if everyone in the world could spend two weeks in another country, 2/3 of the world's diplomacy problems would be eradicated."

Then I met a friend at Cindy's, located at the top of the Chicago Athletic Association, newly-restored and opened one year ago. It's a trendy place, fun, crowded, with interesting elixirs to choose from. I had a Golden Bear and afterwards, my friend and I went out to the safety of the patio to gaze at the NFL Draft hordes down below.

* Although I had the opportunity to talk with Andrew Solomon, we are not even close to a place where I would refer to him as Andy. This post's title was contrived - with perhaps unsuccessful results - but there it is.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Extreme Neighborhood-Hopping

The other day, a friend and I explored The 606, a 2.7-mile elevated walkway (somewhat like New York City's High Line) that opened last June and connects several neighborhoods northwest of Chicago's Loop. We entered at an eastern point in Wicker Park/Bucktown and walked for a bit and then took a bus to Logan Square, where we entered the trail again from the western side. Quite pleasant, this trail - walkers, joggers, bikers, dogs, and children moved along with no altercations, and pretty (albeit stinky) Callery pears lined the route while other landscaping held the promise of blooms in the coming months. It was fun to look down at the streets as we passed above and to see the residences abutting the trail. I also appreciated the clear signage. I'm a big fan of this attention to detail which, when absent or incompetently done, can make for a frustrating experience. Though not without controversy, I think The 606 is a good use of an abandoned rail line.

We took another bus or two for 14 miles down to the Seminary Co-op in Hyde Park to listen to Michael Phillips (film critic of the Chicago Tribune) and A.O. Scott (film critic for The New York Times) discuss the latter's book, Better Living Through Criticism. Topics included the difference between opinion and criticism, the Disney film Ratatouille, film festivals, and the importance/relevance of film critics today amidst so much amateur criticism via social media, and the pressure to review films and other art quickly. Phillips and Scott agreed that restaurant and theater critics wield more power than film critics do insofar as "making or breaking" a new venture are concerned, whereas people will see a film (or not) irrespective of criticism.

Yet another bus + train combination (the Brown Line, one of my favorites because instead of being underground, you ride several stories above the world, moving through an Escher painting of buildings) to another destination 15 miles away - this time, all the way up to the Music Box theater in Wrigleyville to see The Invitation, one of the best, scariest films I've seen in a while. The sound editing and set design in particular were superb, but the acting and pacing of the story made for an edge-of-your seat thrilling escape. My seat neighbor had his T shirt pulled up to cover the lower half of his face for much of the film and it alleviated the tension somewhat to count the number of times people jumped or gasped throughout our 99 minutes together in the dark. I admit to being among those spooked.

On the Brown Line again south to Printer's Row and Cafe Meli for a hamburger and glass of red wine, a good way to end a day of intense neighborhood-hopping. 

Monday, March 21, 2016

Your People

Recently, I submitted a sample to a company that specializes in autosomal DNA testing. I wanted to see how the results matched what I had been able to unearth while researching my family tree in 1990, before I went to live in Poland. I was able to gather paper evidence and successfully confirm relations four generations back on my mother's and father's sides. In addition to family oral histories, I grew up believing that I was Polish. But what does that mean exactly?

The other day, I got the results of my DNA test and the results were both surprising and unsurprising. Not surprising: I am 100% European. 

But here were the surprising percentage breakdowns: 74% East European; 9% West European; 9% European Jewish; 6% Scandinavian; and 2% Trace Regions (in my case, Great Britain).

Over the centuries, the geographical region of the country we know as Poland was "visited" by many tribes; therefore, the Eastern and Western Europe and European Jewish data are not surprising. However, I really thought that I would have had some Asian ancestry (courtesy of Mongolian "visitors"), but according to the DNA test, that is not the case. I was quite intrigued by the Scandinavian and Great Britain information. 

I've been thinking a lot about the results of this test, wondering if my intense need to travel, explore (if that is, in fact, genetic) may have been inherited from roving Vikings, Celts, Teutons and/or wandering Jewish souls in my makeup. Since the data supposedly goes back 1,000 years, I will never know who these people that left their imprint on me were, but I think perhaps their lives have already been manifested in mine. 

Sunday, March 13, 2016

In Memorium

Polish film maker Krzysztof Kieslowski died 20 years ago today. I'd like to pay a brief tribute to him by listing some of my go-to, comfort films, many of which were his creations.

I have seen most, if not all, of the films the prolific directyor made during his too-short career as first a documentarian and then in feature films. My favorites, in no particular order, are: The Double Life of Veronique; The Decalogue; the Three Colors trilogy, and Blind Chance. I have turned to these movies frequently over the years to reaffirm the beauty and sadness of life. Their pervasive undertow of melancholy, interspersed with dark humor and contrasted with sensual beauty, underscore the ironies of life. They uplift, while leaving behind a wry smile, and reinforce the emotions I experienced while living in Poland for two years as several of these films were conceived and shot.

For some, but not all, of the above reasons, I add these favorite comfort (desert island?) films to the list: Roman Holiday; The Unbearable Lightness of Being; Wings of Desire; and Happy-Go-Lucky, and Before Sunset.

In the near future, I'll write about go-to books and songs.

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?