Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Taking a Break

Despite invitations to attend and/or review many arts and cultural events this month, it is time to take stock and enjoy family and friends. Karen 5.0 will be back in January 2010. Happy Holidays!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Meg's New Friend

Meg's New Friend is a timely examination of how we (try to) talk about race today. Coincidentally enough, David Mamet's Race opened on Broadway this Sunday. One reviewer noted that Race did not probe deeply enough into the subject matter and that Mamet's dialogue was not as biting as usual.

I invite that reviewer to see Meg's New Friend, which will continue through December 20th at Manhattan Theatre Source, a tiny, 50-seat venue in a former brownstone in the Village. Every time I've been here, the set designers manage to create a completely new environment with few props and small stage.

Meg is played by Megan McQuillan, who was excellent in The Blood on the Rocks and is excellent here. She is a local New York TV reporter who meets an African-American yoga instructor. The problem is that he is involved with Meg's boyfriend (Sam)'s sister, Rachel. Meg realizes that she does not have any African-American friends and wonders if her attraction to Ty (the marvelous Damon Gupton) is because he is a charismatic man or if it is because he is African-American or both.

Playwright Blair Singer said that his inspiration for the play came from a conversation he happened to overhear in which a white woman was pleading with an African-American man to come to her Super Bowl party. Singer got the distinct impression that she was pleading with him so desperately because she wanted her family and friends to see that she had diverse friends.

Singer has a gifted ear for dialogue. He does not shy away from plumbing the characters' most intimate thoughts and prejudices. All four actors are riveting as they form alliances, break apart, and then come together uneasily at the end after facing themselves and each other. What they discover is not pretty, but it is real, and reflects the way many of us approach the subject of race. Plays like this one call our attention to the fact that we are far from feeling easy about this topic; it also encourages dialogue and a deeper examination of a subject we thought we ought to have been comfortable with by now.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Visitor and Other Buskers

Yesterday afternoon, I was on the train headed to see a play in the Village (review to come). All of a sudden, I heard cello music. There he was, this musician, complete with a little folding seat. A cello! How hard was that to lug down into the subway? How hard is it to keep your balance AND play with one of those things between your knees as the car lurches spasmodically towards its destination. The music drowned out the screech of the train and calmed me and the other riders, too, if I may speak for them. I gave this man $1. I think I was the only one who gave him any money.

There was an elderly Chinese man who used to play music regularly at my station. His choice was the erhu, another favorite stringed instrument of mine. I always gave this man money, too. I wonder where he is these days. His sad but lovely music reminded me of my time in China.

There was a man who played in the underground passageway of the railway station in Opole, Poland. I served in that city as a Peace Corps volunteer for two years, from 1990 - 1992. He had a beautiful singing voice and played the guitar. I gave him many zlotys over those two years, and each time I did, he bowed deeply to me while continuing to play and sing.

Busking is an important theme in an excellent film I saw recently, The Visitor. I think it was premiered at Sundance last year. It is one of those rare films that I think about every day, especially when I hear music in the subway. Would it be too much to ask for piped-in music if there aren't any good buskers playing? Things always seem to go better when you are surrounded by pleasant sounds.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Antagonist Art on Avenue A

If you want to see interesting, emerging art in an informal setting, head to Niagara in Alphabet City on Thursday nights beginning at 9pm. Antagonist Art organizes this weekly event (and many others) to offer artists an opportunity to showcase their art, music, poetry, etc. 

Thursday evening's exhibition, entitled 25p, was curated by Pittsburgh-born, Berlin-based Fridey Mickel. According to Ms Mickel, "...[the show] uses a concept of film-making (more specifically found-film material and old super8) as a key to understanding art. The underlying concept of the show is based upon establishing a personal connection and dialogue with the visitor, by taking a closer look at the element of narration in art and how it interacts with the narratives of the other pieces to make a bigger story...The show takes 25 positions of drawing, painting and video works, examining the visual (and non-visual) elements making up each piece, in a way that the viewer can consider for themselves what the complete narrative is." The artists in this show are, for the most part, based in Berlin. 

I spoke with Elizabeth White, whose piece, Finding, intrigued me. Ms White said that she chose the images in her work by doing key word searches on the Internet using the words "borders" and "boundaries." She then arranged the elements she found in thematic groupings that suggest habits, processes, interiors vs. exteriors, and the progression of individuals as they move through the world of images. Every time Ms White installs Finding on a wall, it is a different artwork, based on her perception that day. 

For those of us who look at a lot of art, it is easy to stay with the tried-and-true (and prohibitively expensive for most collectors) galleries in Chelsea, for example, or in the older, established spaces on 57th Street or on the Upper East Side. I think it is always more rewarding to seek out smaller, lesser-known venues like those that you can find scattered throughout the Lower East Side. Although a growing number of the latter are smaller outposts of the larger Chelsea galleries (and therefore showcase blue-chip artists), there are still plenty of venues in which to see younger, less-established artists. It is important that these artists be given the chance to exhibit their art. It is admirable that groups like Antagonist Art allow this to happen.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A Sri Lankan Architect at Asia Society

When most people think of architecture, they picture creations by Frank Gehry, I.M. Pei, Philip Johnson, Frank Lloyd Wright, Zaha Hadid, and Mies van der Rohe, to name just a few. Not too many (including me, until last night's lecture at Asia Society) conjure up Sri Lankan architect Chelvadurai Anjalendran.

Anjalendran said that he prefers blending his creations with the landscape, resulting in organic buildings as opposed to iconic structures which are characteristic of traditional Western architecture. He designs with harmony between man and nature in mind. The Sri Lankan architect has created homes which incorporate banyan trees (because "trees are human, too"), stones, and various-colored earth and mud found in the immediate area. Anjalendran also incorporates Hindu and Buddhist elements such as stupas in his design. He said that Buddhist architecture always inspires tranquility.

In the spirit of "life can be more than just a box," and "creating magic from nothing," Anjalendran is perhaps best known for his remarkable SOS Children's Villages, or orphanages, which are as far from Dickensian orphanages as you can imagine. The architect is also committed to creating buildings for the Youth and Farm Projects, which provide work for boys and young men. Anjalendran believes that architecture can heal and that it can greatly influence the way people interact with each other. In war-torn Sri Lanka, this is a welcome and much-needed improvement in quality of life.

Anjelendran credits architect Geoffrey Bawa, the man behind "tropical modernism," as his most important influence. Serving a ten-year apprenticeship under Bawa prepared the Sri Lankan to forge his own style. From Bawa, Anjelendran embraced two critical ideas - to cut down on pretensions, and to realize that architecture should be the background from which you view the landscape. Unfortunately, he told us that buildings designed for a tropical zone have not fared well in colder climes. It would be a lovely surprise to see one of these creations in Manhattan one day, if only to prove that our jungle does not always have to be concrete.