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~

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Neutrinos in a New Light - Art at Fermilab

The proof that mysterious, invisible neutrinos exist lies in the "aftermath" of their collisions with other particles and substances. Ghost-like, neutrinos can pass through objects, leaving a mark that the naked eye cannot see, thus inspiring both scientists and artists. Things we cannot see leave the most indelible impression.

The result of  Ellen Sandor and (art)n's year-long artist residency at Fermilab is a fascinating exhibition entitled Neutrinos in a New Light, on view now through March 17, 2017. Art and science collide gently to form elegant PHSColograms - Sandor's term for the synthesis of photography, holography, sculpture, and computer graphics. The works in this show the AIDS and Ebola viruses as well as the brain of an autistic person; some pieces highlight the influence artists such as Alberto Giacometti, Jackson Pollock, and David Smith have had on Sandor and her collaborators. A friend of the artist commented that the art captured the "tragic beauty" of life. Perhaps my favorite piece was The Magnificent Micelle, 2013

Physicists and art lovers, young and old enthusiastically engaged with the virtual reality component of the show in order to create their own 3D art. I was excited by the way art once again enters into everything, everywhere if you let it.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Things I've Enjoyed This Week

Despite recent personal sadnesses and the general Weltschmerz, these things have made me smile this week:

1. The super moon.

2. The Nollywood portrait exhibition at Columbia College's Museum of Contemporary Photography.

3. Beautiful, atypical Chicago weather.

4. The lunch special at Thai Spoon.

5. The Norman Lewis painting exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center.

6. Michelle Dockery in Good Behavior (because where else will you see Lady Mary toting a stainless steel shotgun, grifting with glee, and smoking meth from a hand-fashioned pipe?)

7. Jo Malone's new fall fragrance, Basil and Neroli.

8. Being immersed in Diana Thater's hypnotic animal world at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

9. Going behind the scenes at Susanin's Auction House.

10. Discovering Open Books, a non-profit bookstore promoting literacy.

11. Being tempted to visit Los Angeles (finally) by the lovely portrait food critic Jonathan Gold paints in City of Gold.

12. Being reminded of the delight that is Buenos Aires, one of my favorite cities, in the moving documentary Our Last Tango.

13. Thinking about going to see Morrissey on the 27th.

14. Ha Jin's The Boat Rocker.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Vanishing Streets

Admirers of W.G. Sebald will believe he has come back to life in the melancholy, beautiful book called Vanishing Streets: Journeys in London by J.M. Tyree. Reading this book may lead you (as it did me) down a delightful rabbit hole that included watching all of the British Film Institute and Ford Motor Company-funded Free Cinema films as well as reading Tyree's Our Secret Life in the Movies, written in collaboration with Michael McGriff. And I will likely soon re-read Austerlitz and The Emgirants, two of my favorite Sebald masterpieces.

The Free Cinema Films were conceived, filmed, and produced in the black-and-white 1950s of post-war London and other parts of Britain. Unlike the more traditional films of the time, the credo of the Free Cinema directors called for a celebration of ordinary citizens enjoying themselves, living life, working. Downton Abbey/E.M. Forster/Merchant Ivory stories these are not, but for me, they are all the more exciting and fresh for it. You are really there at that time in history, observing people speak, move, live. You are taken into worlds that lie beyond the static, still (though beautiful) black-and-white images of photographers like Dorothea Lange, Alfred Stieglitz, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Eugene Atget, Walker Evans, and Diane Arbus.

Watching the Free Cinema films gave me the same thrill I got when I entered the black-and-white 1950s Rome of Roberto Rosellini and Vittorio Seca. Ditto the French New Wave films of Francois Truffault, Agnes Varda, Chris Marker, and Eric Rohmer. Antonioni captured 1972 China in La Chine; Wim Wenders did the same with Berlin, pre-Wall fall, in the magnificent Wings of Desire. And Kieslowski documented 1960s-1980s life in Poland in his masterful black and white films of the era before making the permanent shift to fiction, starting with his splendid Dekalog, newly released by Criterion.

In Vanishing Streets, Tyree pays homage to Robert Vas's 1962 Free Cinema film, The Vanishing Street. We spend 20 minutes among the inhabitants of London's Jewish East End, specifically Hessel Street, just before the buildings there are razed to make way for "improvements." Like Vas, Tyree depicts the inevitability of the constant cycle of destruction and construction, lamenting what is lost, never (or poorly) to be replaced. Like fellow author Sebald, Tyree illustrates the disconnection and loss felt by many in the modern world by juxtaposing odd, haunting photos within the text. Some worlds can only be seen second-hand now (via books, photos, films) rather than with our own eyes. But at least we have that.

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Life, Death and Rebirth of Buildings and Things

Whenever life doesn't find me elsewhere, I take advantage of Open House Chicago, an annual October event sponsored by the Chicago Architecture Foundation. For the past several years, friends and I have peeked behind off-limits curtains and doors, into vaults, snuck up and down staircases, onto rooftops, and into lobbies and hidden spaces of buildings scattered throughout the city. Last year, we toured Ukrainian Village and this year, it was Ravenswood, originally a planned suburb in 1868, but later annexed to the city in 1889. But first...

...After Vietnamese food on Argyle Street in Uptown, my friend and I went down the street to visit Vintage Garage Chicago, a flea market held on the third Sunday of the month from April - October. We looked at and touched objects that had been loved, used, and discarded perhaps many times, perhaps in the past 100 years. Who owned these things and how did the previous owners make that final decision to lighten their loads? Who wants what we decide to let go? Cocktail sets, vintage furs, crusty LPs and 45s, brass door knobs, leather belts, 1960s guides for fathers to use in discussion with their sons about the etiquette of dating, tiny leather baby boots, chunky jewels, shimmering silk and cashmere items.

Still in Uptown, we went by the historic Green Mill, still going strong after nearly 110 years. But next door, the architectural gem, Uptown Theater, stands in sad contrast, boarded up; its interior beauty and legendary status have to be read about or viewed on videoShake, Rattle, and Read, the rock and roll used book and record store (and the Uptown's neighbor of 50 years) shuttered earlier this year. Its most frequent customers were attendees of concerts at the nearby music venues and architectural gems of the Aragon Ballroom and the 100-year-old Riviera, which still stand.

In Ravenswood, we stopped in at All Saints Episcopal Church, the oldest wooden church in the city of Chicago, and a lovely example of a structure that continues to exist today (despite threat of destruction in the 1990s), thanks to the efforts of a devoted community. Afterwards, we walked on cobblestone streets between two train lines (one train happened to go one way and the other roared the other way simultaneously - we yelled for fun) to reach the Airstream Building, another structure saved from the wrecking ball 30 years ago when architect Edward Noonan bought the space for his growing firm. Formerly an industrial plant, the building now house three floors of designers, educators and artists, all of whom can use the roof top and sit inside the silver 1962 Airstream Trailer placed there by crane. Views of the city are great and there was a nice breeze..

Encompassed by Ravenswood, we next went to Lincoln Square, an area originally settled by German and Swiss immigrants, whose influence can still be felt at Cafe Selmarie and Gene's Sausage Shop as well as in apothecaries and other specialty shops. It is the kind of place Jane Jacobs (The Death and Life of Great American Cities) would have approved of: "eyes on the street," mixed-used zones, plenty of people engaged in various activities, and bits of nature here and there.

This is the centenary of Jane Jacobs' birth; much has been published this year in commemoration. Jacobs' philosophy regarding the preservation of cities and buildings has had its share of detractors over the years, but I find that her words often accompany me when I interact with cities and buildings of the world. It seems to me that every city has elements worth saving, if only to maintain a continuum of the living history of people's efforts to be surrounded by beauty. 

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Call of Elsewhere

"Never take no cutoffs and hurry along as fast as you can." - Virginia Reed (one of the survivors in the Donner-Reed Party) to her cousin, quoted in Joan Didion's Where I was From.

Happy Fall! It is in fall and spring that I feel most restless, a sense of impending change or that I MUST change something, must move or keep moving. Now that I think of it, my European trips since returning to the States have indeed happened in May and October.

The white egrets and blue herons have left one of the ponds I pass on my bike rides. Red leaves have begun to appear, the light has become more focused, and there are more acorns and horse chestnuts that I need to swerve around so that I won't be pitched to the ground.

Never take no cutoffs: Joan Didion (one of my favorite writers) was descended from pioneers who made their way west across the country in the 1800s to settle in Sacramento; in fact, they were among the first settlers there. She questions the impetus for this movement from the south and east and wonders what the ultimate effect was, both on her and her family and on the very essence of what California came to be.

Earlier this year, The Criterion Collection released Wim Wenders' Road Trilogy which includes: Alice in the Cities, Wrong Move, and Kings of the Road. I watched all three recently and they moved me (as all his films do) with the melancholy experienced by his protagonists even after they have reached their often-nebulous goals. More movement, whether running away from or towards something or a bit of both.

The Call of Elsewhere: I also recently watched Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words, another Criterion documentary just released last month. I have always admired in Bergman her fortitude, self-respect, and of course, her acting. Among other highlights of this film, we hear Swedish actress Alicia Vikander read the words Bergman wrote in her diary as a young girl in Stockholm and then as she matured, went to Hollywood, and eventually back to Europe. Although our circumstances couldn't be more different, I identify strongly with the pull she felt - even when at the height of her success - the restlessness that she defined as "the call of elsewhere," and responding to it like the flyttfagel (migratory bird) she often said she was.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Low Humming of Bees

The title of this post comes from "Orpheus and Eurydice," a Czeslaw Milosz poem I was reading as I sat in De Revolutionibus, a bookstore off of Krakow’s Main Square. I could hear the clop-clop of horses’ hooves, violin music drifting in from somewhere, birds chirping, church bells ringing, and people softly murmuring. You can’t blame me for drifting off for a nap, during which I dreamed that I lived in a place where I would hear only these sounds, feel gentle breezes and smell summer sun for the rest of my natural life. I was so happy when I woke up!

My nap arrived at the end of a full week of activities and fun, which produced similar euphoric moments. I attended the European Mensa Annual Gathering last week in one of my favorite cities in the world: Krakow, Poland. In addition to taking part in a number of stimulating events and intellectual pursuits, I gave a presentation about smart and thoughtful travel. The attendees were astute, funny, and lively and my talk gradually morphed into a discussion about how best to go from one place to another (and why we do so) while making the most of the experience. It was a learning exchange on both sides as we shared thoughts gleaned from adventures around the world.

You should want to get lost in Krakow’s cobble-stoned medieval streets, even if you know the city well. I have visited several times over the years, but still found new things to discover during a tour of the Jewish Quarter of Kazimierz again (this time, with a historian guide who informed us, among many other things, that the Gucci family had built one of the synagogues there), the Jagiellonian University, a couple of historic pharmacies, a 14th-century bourgeois home, gold-laden Baroque churches, innovatively-curated art exhibitions, and an ever-growing range of restaurants featuring Polish cuisine of course, but expanding outward, too. Luck would have it that the Pierogi Festival was taking place during our visit; we/I partook in the Ruskie variety made with potatoes, onions, and farmer’s cheese. I also indulged in parowky (a.k.a. hot dogs), zapiekanki (a.k.a. pizza), and delicious lody (a.k.a. ice cream). But it did not end there: we/I also enjoyed French, Indian, Italian, Japanese, Thai and vegetarian/vegan food.

On this trip, I stayed in Podgorze, a fascinating area south of the Vistula that once contained the Jewish ghetto and still retains many original buildings, like the significant Apteka Pod Orlem. The street on which my hotel was situated – Ulica Piwna – was the main street which ran through the ghetto. Somewhat jarringly from a historical perspective, you can also find lots of street art in the form of graffiti and murals, empty lots, new apartment buildings, Tao, ZaKladka, and Cawa, where on my last night in Krakow, I sat with Polish people drinking wine under an awning watching both the setting sun beyond the Father Bernatek Footbridge (like Paris’s Pont des Artes complete with lovers’ locks) and the simultaneously pouring rain. Podgorze is also home to Schindler’s Factory and MOCAK, which currently has a fascinating, though quease-inducing show on medicine in art. Nearby, you can find the old walls of the ghetto, from which a ten-year-old Roman Polanski escaped.

My still-fresh memories of this trip continue to form, and will no doubt merge with prior memories of visits to Krakow; they will eventually solidify until I visit again. It’s a rich thing to have had such a layered experience of this city over the past 25 years. At the moment, I can say that the following experiences stood out the most: two shows at separate National Museum in Krakow locations – one about the Nobel Prize-winning poet Wyslawa Szymborska, and another highlighting the paintings of EwaKuryluk; a Max Ernst show; the Pharmacy Museum; a tour of the Stalin-era steelworks plant’s nuclear bunkers in Nowa Huta (where we begged our tour guide to show us the usually-off-limit second floor rooms filled with Soviet Social Realist art and architecture – glorious in its starkness); and a Let Me Out experience. If you haven’t tried it, you should. In fact, if you haven't tried Krakow yet, it is time.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Women of Vision and Witness

Two photography exhibitions in Chicago reinforce the power of images to tell stories: the newly-opened Witness, at  the Museum of Contemporary Art, and Women of Vision: National Geographic Photographers on Assignment at the Field Museum.

At the Field Museum, you can see the work of 11 National Geographic photographers and hear about their beginnings in a career mostly (and still) dominated by men. A key reason some of these women were able to get a foothold in this world was because they had access to women as subjects in countries where the sexes were/are strictly segregated. I especially liked the images of Afghan women, African animals, and Central Asian life. Particularly engaging was the part of the exhibition that explained how and why the photo editors chose to publish certain shots over others as an essential requirement for effective storytelling through pictures.

For me, the most remarkable piece of Witness was Alfredo Jaar's 2006 "The Sound of Silence." Here is what New York Times art critic Roberta Smith wrote. I had the same impressions when I experienced this event (it is an event and not a simple gaze-and-go). I was moved to tears, but also felt manipulated (like when we see other painful photos designed to elicit just this effect?) and then confused, and finally, just sad. Other images in this show include Walker Evans' entrancing NYC subway portraits (taken between 1938-1941), the more notable because the subjects were captured unaware. David Hockney's 1983 "Gregory Loading His Camera" depicts a Cubist-inspired portrait of the photographer's friend. Sophie Calle's 1988 "The Striptease," Cindy Sherman's disturbing 1985 "Untitled #153," and Andres Serrano's 1990 " Nomads (Payne)" also imprinted themselves on my permanent hard drive.

For the Birds

I've been thinking a lot about birds lately. I met the artist Tony Fitzpatrick on Sunday at the DePaul Art Museum, where he had dropped in with his wife to spend time with visitors to his exhibition, The Secret Birds. Fitzpatrick can best be described as a Chicago-based Renaissance man (artist, actor, playwright) whose art is collected by, among others, Helen MacDonald (author of the lovely memoir H is for Hawk) and John Cusack. Bruce Lee and Lou Reed were his friends.

We talked about the delicate balance of humans and wild creatures in urban and suburban environments. I mentioned how much I'd liked his recent post in Newcity about a peregrine falcon experience in Daley Plaza. Fitzpatrick told me about a visit to New York City, where a walking/birding tour in Central Park was led by Jonathan Franzen, another enthusiastic birder. We talked about The Genius of Birds and The Urban Bestiary.

On my long bike rides, I've gradually become attuned to the sights and sounds of a variety of birds along different parts of my route, a kind of bird map of the territory. These include cardinals, goldfinches, towhees, indigo buntings, bluebirds, red-wing blackbirds, swallows, catbirds, mockingbirds (my personal favorites), blue jays, starlings, hawks, Baltimore orioles, chickadees, robins, etc. I've even been able to distinguish slight differences among songs by the same species in separate areas, kind of a regional dialect.

Birds are all around us, but sometimes it takes a concerted effort to register their presence. I may have been the only one who noticed the following situation recently: at a Chicago train station, a man was passed out on a bench. A newly-fledged starling from a nest in the rafters above decided that the man's hip was both a good resting place and launching place to practice its flying. A nervous parent swooped down occasionally to make encouraging noises to its offspring as the man continued to sleep unaware.

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.  [Update: The Criterion Collection will be releasing their version of The Decalogue in September 2016. Very exciting and welcome news!]

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.

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?