Thursday, July 30, 2009

What's New at the New Museum?

It's my pleasure to tell you. On the first floor, peek into Dorothy Iannone's Lioness exhibition, which features an Icelandic storyboard in which she describes the meeting between Iannone and her soul mate, Dieter Roth, aboard a freighter bound for Reykjavik. A small sign at the entrance warned that parents may need to prep their children before entering, assuming they decide to take the plunge at all. In addition to a number of graphic acrylic on canvas works, probably the most controversial piece in the exhibition is a video entitled I Was Thinking of You III, which shows Iannone's face as she masturbates until she reaches orgasm, a moment, she says "...when the soul appears on the face." I was so tempted to ask the guard if he was titillated by having this video available to him all day, but he looked bored. A young boy, however, was quite interested and had to be yanked away by his father and older brother.

Black Panther Party Artist and Minister of Culture Emory Douglas's lithographs sock you right in the face when you reach the second floor. They are quite stark and beautiful, as edgy now as when they were created 40 years ago. Some make powerful statements against oppression and some depict Black Panther Party leaders. A moving film about the history of the Black Panther Party ends with the question: What does it mean that Barack Obama is now our president?

Intersections Intersected: The Photography of David Goldblatt, quietly takes over the third and fourth floors of the museum. The South African photographer has chronicled life in that country since the 1960s, through apartheid up through the present. He addresses the uncomfortable issues of resettlement and homeland without providing easy answers, although his explanatory text enhances the viewing experience a great deal, unlike many exhibitions with wall text. All the photographs invite you to enter them as you ponder the little bits of beauty amidst the greater sadness of the country's desolate past under apartheid. This show makes you confront the terrible things that people do to one another. Particularly lovely black and white portraits, taken in the early 1970s in Johannesburg, are given two separate little rooms.

Since The New Museum opened in December 2007, I have always been intrigued, but greatly claustrophobic, about the narrow stairway (36 stairs in all - I've counted) that connects the third and fourth floors. In the past 18 months, art has always been placed in this space, and I've grudgingly (and quickly) run its gauntlet, in spite of my racing heart. This afternoon, however, I experienced the most perfect and terrifying use of that stairway to date. Rigo 23 curated The Deeper They Bury Me, The Louder My Voice Becomes, complete with cell block doors threatening to close down at each end of the stairway as well as a 6 x 9 x 12 prison cell in the middle, a replica of a cell in which prisoners were placed under CCR (Closed Cell Restriction) for 23 out of 24 hours per day for years.

What was the overall message conveyed by the juxtaposition of these exhibitions? I came away feeling differently about the New Museum than I have at any other time. These shows were thoughtfully curated and for me, the message was that restrictions on the freedom of individuals will always ensure revolt and eventual change.

Looking at art never fails to whet my appetite for food and since I found myself near Chinatown, I feasted on four delicious pork and chive dumplings and a ginger ale for $2 at Vanessa's Dumplings on Eldridge, a tiny place that used to be a lot tinier before they actually put seats in there and were able to fit more than 10 people at a time (including the cooks). I passed on Roots & Vines, although I had been there before with a friend and liked it. There are times when nothing but dumplings will do.
Every time I go down to the Lower East Side, there are new things opening up and sadly, others closing. I stopped in at the Sunday gallery and some of the work there reminded me a bit of Ms. Iannone's (above). I wanted to stop into a shop ostensibly called BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS near the corner of Houston and Eldridge (Buy One, Get One Free), but the guy who answered the door after I rang the buzzer told me hurriedly that it was not a bookstore. (It's probably another one of those speakeasies that are ubiquitous on the LES.) Or maybe it's something else. I'm just sorry that I couldn't take advantage of the book deal.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Go Figure - Gagosian on Madison

I was a little early for a meeting this afternoon in the Carlyle Galleries building at 980 Madison Avenue. It is directly across the street from the iconic Carlyle Hotel, where in fall of 2007, some friends and I enjoyed the newly redone murals in Bemelman's Bar, enhanced by martinis and piano music courtesy of Dizzie Gillespie's son. Today, I took the opportunity to visit Gagosian Gallery, which occupies space on the 4th, 5th, and 6th floors at 980 Madison.

The Go Figure show on the 6th floor had some parallels to the Haunch of Venison show I saw last week. The Haunch show explores the Freudian dynamics between the artists and their subjects, while Go Figure highlights the work of artists famous for their representations of the human body. In many cases, the artwork from one gallery's show would have looked right at home in the other's and vice versa.

One of my favorite works has always been Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, the noisy entrant which caused a riot at the Armory Show of 1913 and thereby introduced America to Modern Art. She stood (or descended) alone above the receptionist's desk with dignity. Her "explosion in a shingle factory" body was the object of criticism and scorn when it first appeared, but I love her rather frightening beauty.

There were some gorgeous Man Ray solarized nudes, Sigmar Polke's Japanese Dancers, Andy Warhol's Walking Torsos, some Robert Mapplethorpe photographs (though not the male nudes of the Haunch show), and two versions of Richard Prince's controversial Spiritual America, which feature a young, nude Brooke Shields in her Pretty Baby days and another print featuring an older Shields posed identically in front of a motorcycle - a photo which is an appropriation of an appropriation of the pre-pubescent photo of the younger Shields.

Perhaps the lawsuits filed against him and the howls of protest surrounding his appropriation techniques have persuaded Prince to go back to his painterly roots. His After Dark series, which is located on the fourth floor of the gallery, consists of richly-hued canvases with ghostly (appropriated?) figures emerging from the picture. The following exotic locales are printed above them: Casablanca, Moscow, Berlin, Cairo, Rabat, Armenia, Thailand, Abu Simbel, and Marrakesh. I noted that Casablanca and Rabat were written in Devanagari-looking script (but using English letters) and that Abu Simbel and Marrakesh were both rendered in English, when it would have been more correct - but less understandable to most viewers - to use Arabic for all four. But then of course, Moscow would have had to have been in Cyrillic, Armenia should have been written in Armenian, Thailand should have been in the Thai script, et cetera. Never mind.

A seven-piece Ed Ruscha exhibition greets you on the fifth floor. I have always liked his gas stations, which are featured here. Their cheerful colors are a stark contrast to the desolation suggested by the scene. I was reminded of the PBS special on Edward Hopper that I saw on Sunday. One of the important things discussed was the influence Hopper had on later artists including Ruscha and Eric Fischl, who were moved by his bleakly beautiful renditions of America and Americans.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Simon Says

I'm glad I had the opportunity this afternoon to catch the penultimate performance of Neil Simon's classic 1963 play, Barefoot in the Park, at Manhattan Theatre Source. I have grown fond of this tiny, 50-seat theater. The set had been radically altered from when I was last there about a month ago to see The Roses on the Rocks, a rather dark play. Today's theater was transformed into a fifth-floor (six if you count the stoop steps) walk-up in Greenwich Village in the early 1960's. The intimacy of the theater space made the audience feel as though we were also sitting in the cramped quarters of the flat - in fact, some audience members were. They were asked to move from a comfortable sofa to chairs like the rest of us between scenes!

Barefoot in the Park was adapted for the screen in 1967. It starred Robert Redford and Jane Fonda as Paul and Corie Bratter, newlyweds who have been married for six days and who have just moved to the city to set up house. Corie is the wilder partner of the two, while Paul is the "stuffed shirt" lawyer. As their apartment begins to reveal its faults one by one, the Bratters' idiosyncrasies (and possible incompatibility) become increasingly magnified. An oddball neighbor (one of many in the building), Victor Velasco, and Corie's reserved mother, Ethel Banks, are the two other characters in the story, whose themes of expectations, acceptance, and forgiveness are flavored with Simon's characteristic witty dialogue. A short-lived TV series version of the play was aired in 1970. A 2006 Broadway revival of Barefoot received mixed reviews .

There was much to admire in the Manhattan Theatre Source's Barefoot. The set and costume design details were painstakingly attended to by Travis McHale and Stacey Berman, respectively. For example, Dave Brubeck's 1961 Take Five was effective as the background music between scenes, and a particularly lovely lemon-yellow satin vintage satin dress was a nice touch . An A&P grocery bag, a rotary phone, and Life magazines placed on the coffee table contributed to the overall 1960s atmosphere.

Kate Middleton (Corie) and Guy Olivieri (Paul) were entertaining as the newlywed Bratters, but their performances would have been even better if they had absorbed the more subdued, yet powerful, energy of their co-stars, Amelia White (Mrs. Banks) and Eric Purcell (Victor Velasco). Despite Middleton's and Olivieri's impressive stage and screen credentials, they could have toned down their performances, if only because the theatre itself is so intimate that it is unnecessary (and distracting) to witness emotion and volume at such close range. By way of contrast, I remember at one point almost having to lean in to hear what Ms. White and Mr. Purcell were saying, a successful test if there ever was one for the magnetic effect of quiet conversation. It was obvious that the four actors had clicked together - their comedic rhythm made the play go along as smoothly as Take Five. However, I would say that once again, White and Purcell stood out as masters of the tricky art of comedic timing and subtle facial gestures, made all the more effective because we were only a couple of feet away.

I want to note that Brian LaFontaine as the Phone Repair Man - although his appearances on stage were brief - was excellent. He has the gift of humor.

While some aspects of the dialogue and plot are politically incorrect (e.g. Mrs. Bates wonders if dyeing her hair a darker color would make her look like a Mexican, a line which provoked a wave of nervous titters in the audience), and some seem quaint or sexist (e.g. Corie's entire raison d'être is to be the best wife ever), Barefoot in the Park still manages to stand today as a time capsule of an era that no one seemed to mind experiencing today, if only to savor for a couple of hours the thought of paying the average rent at the time of $75.63 (but it was really $125 for Corie and Paul) for a Greenwich Village brownstone walk-up near Washington Square park.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Three Galleries and a Funeral

Really it was one art gallery, one auction house, one bank, and a funeral. The Haunch of Venison gallery's current show is called The Figure and Dr Freud, and features the work of a most eclectic range of artists - Robert Mapplethorpe's naughty nudes, George Segal's Walking Man, Alice Neels' Harold and Nina Krieger, John Currin's Bea Arthur Nude, a Giacometti portrait, a Picasso pigeon, Nobuyoshi Araki's lovely Tokyo Nude, a Diane Arbus photograph of a burlesque comedienne, Chuck Close's Susan, Francis Picabia's Visage de Femme, a disorienting Skull (III) by Robert Lazzarini, Willem de Kooning's Two Women, and Brian Alfred's portrait of British/Sri Lankan singer M.I.A. The object of the show was to "...allow the observer to enter into the psychoanalytic dialogue between the artist and the subject, as well as the artist and their own inner mind." I think this is particularly true when we look at photographs taken by Diane Arbus or by Mapplethorpe, who clearly had relationships with their subjects. Other portraits were more abstract, as though the artist was rendering an already-conceived idea, e.g. de Kooning's Women paintings.

There was a rumbling in the art world in 2007 when it was revealed that Christie's, the auction house (or according to their website, "The World's Leading Art Business" - it is, after all, owned by Francois Pinault) had plans to buy Haunch of Venison. The controversy centered around the conflict of interest inherent in the purchase. Nevertheless, Haunch of Venison opened its New York location in Rockefeller Center last September with an Abstract Impressionist show.

I went around the corner to take a look at the exhibition at Christie's, not surprisingly sponsored by Gucci (also part of the Pinault empire) and the art book publisher, Taschen. The show, entitled, Soul i-D, was a confusing mish-mash of fashion, music, and art world celebrities talking about a lot of things. That's really the best way to describe it. It was not well-curated and there were sections that were difficult to read (indeed, it was A LOT to read). The result of the incestuous relationship among art, fashion, and celebrity is evident here. I am sure that there were some nuggets of wisdom, inspiration, and sincerity scattered among the tacked-up sheets of paper (lots of text, no art), but I got tired of looking for them. If you're interested, I would recommend buying the 600-page Soul i-D for $39.99.

On to the bank, UBS's lobby galleries, where I saw a remarkable 120th anniversary show featuring the work of members of the National Association of Women Artists entitled A Parallel Presence. Beautiful work by Louise Nevelson, Cecilia Beaux, Edith Prellwitz, Margaret Brassler Kane, Augusta Savage, Sylvia Wald, Sumiye Okoshi, and many others can be seen in the stately lobby of UBS, which is known for its exquisite private art collection. In addition, the bank hosts shows such as the above-described on its ground floor, always free and open to the public.

And finally, the funeral. On my way home, I walked right past the lovely St. Bart's, where mourners and press were gathered for Walter Cronkite's funeral.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Summer Reading

Since June, I've read an assortment of books that span a range of themes. I picked up Carole Maso's disturbingly brilliant Defiance at a thrift shop in Madison, Connecticut, and eagerly looked for and read both The American Woman in a Chinese Hat and The Art Lover. Told from ethnographer Sarah Thornton's perspective, Seven Days in the Art World was a nicely-rendered time capsule of that world in its most recent heyday, which coincided with my time at Sotheby's pursuing the Master's in Art Business. Reading the book now seems quaint - I wonder when/if the wheel of fortune will swing around again to where it was in 2006-2007? Laurel Corona's The Four Seasons: A Novel of Vivaldi's Venice was quite enjoyable, as were David Sedaris' When You Are Engulfed in Flames and Dress Your Children in Corduroy and Denim. I re-read Lewis Hyde's excellent The Gift. I was kind of hypnotized by Snake by former Warhol Factory and Chelsea Girl, Mary Woronov.

I've just begun exploring the Akashic Books noir series, which are set in cities throughout the world - the one I'm reading now is Manhattan Noir 2: The Classics. It features short stories by Edith Wharton, Langston Hughes, Damon Runyan, Joyce Carol Oates, and Stephen Crane, among others. According to their website , Akashic Books " a Brooklyn-based independent company dedicated to publishing urban literary fiction and political nonfiction by authors who are either ignored by the mainstream, or who have no interest in working within the ever-consolidating ranks of the major corporate publishers." I like that their stated mission is "the reverse-gentrification of the literary world" and that the founder was musician Johnny Temple.

Then there are those books that have stared accusingly at me from my bookshelves, waiting for me to read them. It's not like I haven't tried, though. For example, I hereby promise to attempt (for the fourth time) to complete Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives, a book I purchased when the translated English version first came out over two years ago. All the elements of the book seemed right up my alley at the time - I love literature, strangeness, and Mexico City, but for whatever reason, I have never gotten past page 146. The book is 577 pages long, but that sort of thing has never stopped me before! I have read and loved War and Peace, Les Miserables, and Moby-Dick, among many other lengthy tomes. Roberto, I shall give you another try in August, ¿está bien?

If this doesn't work, I will concede defeat and dive into Sarah Vowell's The Wordy Shipmates and Pulitzer-prize winning poet laureate Charles Simic's The Monster Loves His Labyrinth: Notebooks. In January 2008, a friend and I were fortunate to have heard Mr. Simic read some of his poetry at the Jazz Standard, accompanied by jazz musicians. It was very Beatnik and one of many experiences I had imagined enjoying upon moving to New York two years ago.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

A Day on Staten Island, and What I Saw There

On the ferry over to Staten Island this morning, I overheard two vapid twenty-somethings say that there was nothing to do or see on Staten Island - they were merely taking the ferry to say that they had checked that box. I believe that one of them was a transplant/native who was showing her visiting friend around the city. Well dears, you missed a lot.

On what might have been the most gorgeous day in history, we sailed by Governors Island, Ellis Island, and the Statute of Liberty on our way to Staten Island. You can't beat the view, the ride is free, and it only takes 15 minutes.

My first stop was the Staten Island Museum, a short walk from the ferry terminal. Although really more of a natural history museum, it does have an art collection as well as a contemporary art exhibition; the current show is Contact: 1609 (coinciding with the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson's arrival) and runs through January 2010. Seven artists imagine the meeting between Hudson and the Lenape Indians, native to Staten Island. I especially liked Courtney M. Leonard's piece, a wonderful blanket adorned with many varieties of shells. The Wall of Insects was creepy (but I couldn't look away), as were the jars of preserved sharks, eggs, fish, and other creatures found in the nearby waters. Glowing minerals and stuffed birds were on view, as were fossils that were found on the island. The museum also has an exhibition about the history of the Staten Island Ferry as well as a glass bottle collection, appropriately displayed in an upper room that gets plenty of sunlight. And all this for the low admission price of $2!

I'd heard that Staten Island is home to the largest community of Sri Lankans outside of that country and of course, having lived in India (and having visited Sri Lanka), I could not pass up the opportunity to dive into a $10 all-you-can -eat Sri Lankan buffet at San Rasa (226 Bay Street). I went back for full plates of seconds and thirds. Spiced and invigorated, I was happily fueled for the rest of the day.

Down the street, I stopped into Every Thing Goes Book Cafe after checking all the sale books outside (you know me with cheap books), looked around inside, and then got an iced coffee. A pleasant gentleman there told me how to get to my next destination, the Snug Harbor Cultural Center and then, after I left and was waiting for the bus, he ran up behind me and offered to accompany me. I politely declined and then boarded the bus. The driver told me that I should make time to visit the mansions on Todt Hill, where parts of The Godfather were filmed , as well as episodes of The Sopranos. He then told me that a few weeks back, a local goodfella was gunned down while waiting for the express bus into Manhattan. So it's true what they say...

Sailors' Snug Harbor was established in 1833 as a refuge for sailors at the end of their careers due to age or illness. At the time, the beautiful compound was completely self-contained, with a hospital, dormitories, a theater, and recreational facilities. Some of these structures still remain, but newer attractions include the magical New York Chinese Scholar's Garden, the Staten Island Botanical Garden, the Butterfly Garden, the Noble Maritime Collection, and the excellent Waintrob Collection which fortunately for me, but unfortunately for you, ended today. Snug Harbor reminded me a lot of Governors Island (also a former military compound), where I had the great pleasure to work as a volunteer last summer with The Emergence Art Fair.

Boarding the ferry back to Manhattan along with legions of tourists, I wondered what a weekday commute would be like. I thought of Melanie Griffith's character in the 1988 film, Working Girl. While I enjoyed my visit today, I don't think I could handle the ferry ride (especially in the winter or on rainy days), plus an additional subway ride on a regular, commuter basis. As I walked towards the Bowling Green station, I gave a dollar to a man playing his violin. He then told me to take the violin and showed me how to play it. I started with the first few notes of the chorus of The Devil Went Down to Georgia before the man grabbed the instrument back from me. (Just kidding, but it would have been funny, though, wouldn't it?) Moments after this, I found a $10 bill on the ground - and this was not the first time. I have found fivers and tenners as well as silver a number of times. Money abounds if you just look down. And that $10 paid for my Sri Lankan feast - tell me you can beat that.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Trespassing Onto History

Nicole Cohen is a visual artist who is intrigued by transporting people and objects into space and back in time, or as she says, trespassing onto history. In her talk this morning at the Decoration & Design Building's Astra Cafe, Cohen discussed her recent installation, Please Be Seated, commissioned by Los Angeles' Getty Museum and which was on view from September 18, 2007 - January 11, 2009.

The Getty's website explains that "...the installation blends footage from decorative arts galleries in the Getty Museum and three French museums with live video captured by a surveillance camera. As you sit in reproductions of the original chairs, you become part of the installation, virtually entering historic recreations of 18th-century French spaces. Cohen's installation invites you to sit in reproductions of 18th-century chairs and see yourself transported into the chairs' historic settings on the video monitors...The Getty Museum commissioned this installation to bring new perspectives to its collection of French decorative arts."

Cohen explained that the two-year project involved the coordination of numerous parties - the Getty Museum, eight subcontractors, the Louvre, and Versailles. Obtaining special permission to film and take photographs in the latter two places was a coup and Cohen's team followed on the heels of Sofia Coppola one week after she and her team were at Versailles filming Marie Antoinette. Cohen worked with a local furniture maker, Mike Fair, to build white replicas of six of the Getty's chairs, mimicking the shape and function of the originals. Cohen installed the chairs into an all-white room, inspired by Stanley Kubrick's film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Cohen's current show at Shoshana Wayne Gallery in Santa Monica, French Connection, runs through September 5th and was conceived after Cohen's visit to the town of French Azilum in Pennsylvania. The town was founded by two wealthy Philadephians who thought it would be a good investment to establish a sanctuary for French exiles after the Revolution. French furniture and other accoutrements from Europe were shipped; however, the hoped-for visitor, Marie Antoinette, never made it there.

I thought about how humans interact with spaces, whether real, recreated, or imaginary. As a child, I remember Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, and was always intrigued by Alice going through the mirror to experience life on the other side. When I left the building after the presentation, I observed how people moved on the streets and in the subways and realized how three-dimensional everyday life is. Cohen succeeds not only in transforming what is ordinarily a two-dimensional art-viewing experience into a three-dimensional, psychological one - she also makes us see how we fit into our everyday environments. She is an artist to watch.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Bastille Day in Central Park (partly)

My friend and I arrived at 5:40 pm at Turtle Pond at the lower end of The Great Lawn in Central Park last night to hear The New York Philharmonic perform Mozart's Jupiter Symphony and Beethoven's Symphony No. 7, scheduled to begin at 8 pm. By 6:40, after we had listened to a recorded version of the Jupiter, our peaceful area had become overrun with people, spreading out their picnic blankets (or tables), complete with china, food, and wine. It is quite a spectacle. Since we didn't want to lug food and drink around, we had planned to eat afterwards. Admittedly, we became rather hungry rather quickly, so we left to consume .50 sliders, cheap quesadillas and $3 beers at Lansky's on the Upper West Side. But not before walking through the Shakespeare Garden (see photo). I think we'll prepare better for the dining al fresco experience by arriving at 5pm (or earlier) with sustenance at Bryant Park on July 20th for a free screening of Harold and Maude, scheduled to begin at dusk.

New Yorkers, always on the lookout for free events, have used their increasingly unemployed time to hone their bargain-hunting spider sense even more these days. Shakespeare in the Park, The New York Philharmonic Summer Series, and the Bryant Park Summer Film Festival (all free) have become more crowded. Thankfully, the gorgeous summer weather offsets the tension of people being in close proximity to one another and everyone seems to be in a good mood. Let's see what happens in the dog days of August.

Monday, July 13, 2009

A New Orleans State of Mind

I don't think the IRS will fault me if I neglect to report the $12 I obtained on my birthday (see me at left in the French Quarter with my loot). I suppose it technically doesn't qualify as income, since I did nothing to earn it except to be born on July 10th. It is a New Orleans custom to seed the pot with a dollar of your own pinned somewhere on your person and then parade around, hoping for others to pin their dollars on you. A number of people chose not to contribute to my birthday fund - their warm Happy Birthday wishes, though, meant as much to me as the cold, hard cash. Thank you all! (And thank you, Jim Coffin, for the photos.)

At right is the front porch of the 1862 National Historic Register-slated residence in which I stayed during my weeklong visit. In May of this year, it became the landing place of five guys, two tireless border collies named Calvin and Hobbes, and one female Rottweiler-Doberman mix named Bob, all hailing from Chicago. My friends were lured by the many charms of The Big Easy - maybe it was the siren song of a tasty Lucky Dog wiener (the Ignatius J. Reilly character in A Confederacy of Dunces, set in New Orleans, worked briefly and unsuccessfully at Paradise Hot Dogs, a thinly veiled Lucky Dog). Perhaps it was the draw of the steamy weather in stark contrast to Chicago's unforgiving winters, or maybe it was the laissez faire, polyamorous nature of the city's denizens. Maybe it was the joie de vivre attitude towards eating and drinking. Whatever it was, these five men are making the Crescent City their new base of operation, renovating a historic house and reimaging their lives nearly 1,000 miles from The Windy City.

Each neighborhood in New Orleans has its own distinct character. In the immediate vicinity of my temporary home in the Garden District were lovely manses along Coliseum and Prytania, some of them with placards describing who had lived there, who had built them, and what had happened there. One exception was the house I walked by on Prytania whose little bronze placard said that on 1871, absolutely nothing had happened there. Also nestled in the Garden District is Commander's Palace, where I was treated to a birthday lunch, complete with turtle soup, balloons, and a party hat. And of course, there are the stately, Gothic-looking mansions along St. Charles Avenue that Anne Rice made famous through her Interview with a Vampire series.

Other neighborhoods: the six-mile strip of Magazine Street is host to an eclectic mix of boutiques, restaurants (please patronize Juan's Flying Burrito if you visit the city), and art galleries (try Octavia). We were invited by a friend who is involved with Project 30-90 to a benefit at Suave's on Magazine Street, where we were treated to elaborately prepared drinks like Nitrogen Mojitos. In addition to its famously decadent bars, picturesque balconies, and voodoo shops, The French Quarter has its share of notable art galleries like A Gallery, Axelle Fine Arts, Bee Galleries and The Historic New Orleans Collection. There's an excellent chapeau shop called Fleur de Paris on Royal Street, whose hatmaker reminded me of Tama Janowitz' female protagonist in Slaves of New York. The Warehouse District, also known as the New Orleans Arts District (a combination of the white boxes of Chelsea and smaller, you-need-to-look -for-them galleries of the Lower East Side), is home to the Contemporary Arts Center, the wonderful Louisiana Children's Museum, Julia Street galleries such as Jonathan Ferrara, Heriard-Cimino Gallery, Michelle Y Williams, and Arthur Roger, as well as galleries scattered throughout this neighborhood like d.o.c.s. on Camp Street. On my last night in New Orleans, my friends and I attended a group show at Studio 527, which featured artists from the St. Claude area in Bywater, a burgeoning arts community. I had the good fortune to meet and talk to artists and former New Yorkers Robert Tannen and Jeanne Nathan, intimately involved with Studio 527 and founders of the Contemporary Arts Center in 1976.

My friends and I were sobered by our drive through the Lower Ninth Ward, the neighborhood most affected by the flooding in the wake of Katrina. We were encouraged by the sight of newly-built brick houses as well as groups of United Way volunteers still cleaning up the area nearly four years later. We located the L9 Arts Center, a shotgun shack at the corner of Caffin and Chartres Streets, home to photographs taken by locals Chandra McCormick and her partner Keith Calhoun. The eerie, High Noon atmosphere was offset by residents' determination to stay on, whether out of choice or by necessity.

The people, food, music, and tempo of New Orleans worked their magic on me; I confess to being calmer, more relaxed. It took about a week for me to get to that state...just like the tub that was on the porch (now in its rightful place in the upstairs back bathroom), things get done in their own time in The Big Easy.

Friday, July 3, 2009

From the Big Apple to the Big Easy

I woke up with this phrase in my head one morning last week. Maybe a little obvious, but a good name for a book or certainly to describe my upcoming trip to New Orleans from July 4 - 12, I thought. Sure enough, some people had arrived there before me. From the Big Apple to the Big Easy: The Concert for New Orleans was a September 2005 concert held in Madison Square Garden to raise money for rebuilding efforts after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in August of that year. A simultaneous concert was also held at Radio City Music Hall.

The concerts raised about $9 million and featured performances by Ry Cooder, Buckwheat Zydeco, Lenny Kravitz, John Fogarty, Elton John, Jimmy Buffet, and Simon and Garfunkel. Local legends such as The Neville Brothers, The Meters, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and the Rebirth Brass Band also took the stage. Since most of the latter musicians had lost so much just two weeks before, their performances were all the more significant and poignant.

I have been to New Orleans twice - in 1983 and in 1994. I am looking forward to visiting Chicago friends who have relocated there. I am looking forward to spending July 4th watching fireworks over the Mississippi, to spending my birthday with friends, to eating and drinking good things, to listening to good music, to exploring the art community, and to letting the sun, heat, and slow pace penetrate my bones and psyche. I'll post again when I return on the 13th. Laissez les bons temps rouler!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Twelfth Night in the Park

Last night, my friends and I waited in the stand-by line for free tickets to see The Public Theater's production of Twelfth Night (until July 12th), one of two plays in the Shakespeare in the Park series this summer. The other play, Euripides’s The Bacchae, will feature original music by Philip Glass and will run from August 11 - September 6.

There are times when scenes outside of a theater can be just as interesting as those that take place on stage within. We waited from 5:40 - 8:00, during which time we played a game of Scrabble, talked about Michael Jackson, watched passing dogs and their owners, and ate a light supper. People typically wait for hours in the early morning and then again in the evening, hoping to secure a place in the 1,800-seat Delacorte Theater. There is no guarantee of success, no matter how long you wait in line. The most dangerous thing that can happen to you in Central Park these days is to try to join the line anywhere but at the end. Hell can break loose. [By the way, that virtual line that you can supposedly join through the Internet? It's an urban myth - I tried nearly every day all last summer with no luck whatsoever and I have never heard of anyone getting a ticket this way.]

Tension mounted as 8:00 pm neared...would we get in or not? Even with approximately 50 people in front of us, plus another fifty, each with two vouchers (these were the people who had waited in line that morning, had not obtained tickets, and were granted two tickets each for their pain), plus an unknown number of previously booked seats through patronage, etc., we thought we had a fighting chance. We reached the beginning of the line, and my two friends and I were handed three tickets. The theater employee had just two tickets left in his hand after he gave us ours. Success!

The main draw of Twelfth Night was Anne Hathaway in the role of Viola. While I confess to not having been a great fan of hers at first, I grudgingly admit to enjoying her performance in The Devil Wears Prada. Last week, I saw her in Rachel Getting Married and was moved by her intensity and the eventual power of the story. Hathaway's Viola was natural and charming; she seemed to understand the rhythms of comedic Shakespeare. As a newly-converted fan, I will be watching to see what she does next.

I'm afraid I didn't have the same enthusiasm for Raúl Esparza's performance as Orsino. In an interview with Matt Wolf, theater critic of The International Herald Tribune, Esparza said that he thought that Orsino "...needs to be very sexy." His good looks aside, I'm afraid he was unsuccessful in this endeavor. With the exception of his opening line ("If music be the food of love, play on...), every time he appeared on stage, Esparza was a tightly-wound distraction. Could it be because he is still coming down from the manic intensity of his recent role on Broadway in David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow? If so, time will relax him, I hope. In the meantime, I'll take Charles Borland's Antonio, who had my undivided attention with his character's courage and pirate grace - not an oxymoron - you have to see the play to believe me. Or maybe I just like pirates.

On to the other actors. Audra McDonald, of stage and TV's Private Practice fame, was lusty and funny as Olivia. I greatly enjoyed the talented David Pittu as Feste. The delightful dingbat knight, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, played so well by Hamish Linklater, Jay O. Sanders' Sir Toby Belch and poor Malvolio (Michael Cumpsty) were all excellent. I did not enjoy Julie White as Maria, a character responsible for cruelties perpetrated upon the admittedly pompous Malvolio. It made me wonder if he had rejected her advances at an earlier time and that her nastiness was out of vengeance. If so, I should credit Shakespeare and not fault White. Whatever the case, White's shrill, raspy voice and overacting did not win me over to her cause.

Inspired by his cross-dressing true love, Viola, Twelfth Night was the play Will Shakespeare was commissioned to do by Queen Elizabeth I in Tom Stoppard's 1999 film Shakespeare in Love. The queen asked him to write something "a little lighter" after Romeo and Juliet. Whether the story as Stoppard imagined it took place or not is beside the point - having this film in my head enhanced my enjoyment of the Shakespeare in the Park production. Somehow, I don't think the Bard would have minded.