Wednesday, December 13, 2017

LIVE AND LET BUILD!

I’m a design snob - I admit it but it sounds worse than it is (or am I rationalizing again?)

I appreciate objects and places imbued with history and memory.  I admire objects and places that surprise with their unexpected ingenuity -  the expressions of some makers’ peculiar insights. I love being startled wide awake by the everyday raised to heights of fine art. 

It isn’t the labels or the makers' names that get me and certainly not the price tags. And like cataracts, jadedness lowers a curtain over mature eyes - all the more reason to appreciate those experiences of discovery. And so, to head my list of Things I am Grateful For, 2017, I list “Thoughtful Design” -  timeless surprises.

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In my next life - right after becoming a worldwide sensation as a nightclub singer - I plan to practice architecture - building, planning spaces, solving problems. Architecture can enhance lives in the most intimate ways or orchestrate the movement of entire populations. Architecture can endure for generations to tell stories of what cultures valued most - it writes history with “bricks and mortar.” 

Like other professions, architecture can serve as a gateway to another career path and often trained architects become full-time sculptors and painters.  Two exhibits now on view - one in Chicago and the other in New York City - attest to that professional switch.

"First Responders," Amanda Williams
Amanda Williams is an architect-turned-artist whose eye turned to commentary on the social implications of how and why buildings are destroyed. Her collages and photographs are on view at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art in a show titled “First Responders.”

A big red X marks the ceiling at the top of the stairway entrance at the museum - a reference to city markings on condemned buildings slated for demolition. A suite of photographs called “Color(ed) Theory” document houses to be torn down in predominantly distressed African-American neighborhoods where aggressive marketing techniques target this population. One condemned house was painted fiery orange - the color of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Another is Crown Royal bag purple.

The Cheetos House
I’m not too sure how I feel about this interpretation of condemned housing. I flinch at a possible too-easy, stereotypical perception that African-Americans somehow partner in the demise of these neighborhoods. 
The exhibit is up through New Year’s Eve.
The Crown Royal Bag House

On the other hand, I have no such reservations about the 270 photographs on view at the Architectural League of New York - “All the Queens Houses.” Houses in Queens, a borough of New York City, were photographed during a five year span beginning in 2012 by Spanish born architect Rafael Herrin-Ferri. 

"Three Musicians" homage to Picasso's work of same name
Queens is as multicultural as any community in America and the result is a laissez-faire attitude about building: Live and let build!  How different from the homogenized zoning restrictions in most of our cities and especially, suburban subdivisions.  The richness and quirkiness of individual style demands an embrace of multiculturalism and challenge those of us who are “design snobs” to set aside preconceptions of “beauty, balance, and good taste” and dive head first into joyful celebration of otherness. Re-read my second paragraph.  This is what it’s all about.

City Rustic Entries
View All the Queens Houses on its own web site.

The Wedding Cake Condos"
Happy Holidays everybody! 

Three Townhomes










Thursday, November 30, 2017

'TIS THE SEASON" (ALMOST)


The family crowd into my dad’s 1949 black Ford for the ride into downtown Tulsa.

Outside! In the City! At night! A HAMBURGER DINNER - chili dogs and hamburgers at White Castle for a dime each - a once a year extravagance!

Crowds of people on Tulsa sidewalks hug themselves to stay warm while glittery floats featuring pretty ladies wearing beautiful bare-shouldered gowns and tiaras crawl down center streets.

Homage to the NY Philharmic, BG Christmas window
High school band members strut and play Noel and school fight songs in spite of freezing fingers and numb multi-stockinged feet.

Finally, the main event, Santa Claus riding behind a team of earth-bound horses - the kids (me included) are riled to a state of ecstasy. 

At the end of the parade, we walk back to my dad’s insurance office to warm ourselves before heading home. By then, our hands are so cold that putting them near radiator heat bring tears to our eyes.

But along the way, we slow to check out major department store windows  lighted up like full-screen movie sets, in each one a unique depiction of happy families, cute elves, Victorian streetscapes complete with moving carolers and music spilling onto the sidewalks.

One year - I was about 9 years old - on the walk, I found a wallet on the sidewalk full of dollar bills - over a hundred! A fortune! Nothing inside identified the owner and so my parents handed me $20 to spend anyway I wanted as reward. I bought velvet ribbon, packets of sequins and tiny pins to cover cork balls and produce bastardly necklace/scarf/tie thingies that I was positive my older sisters would adore.  They didn’t but I never lost the sensation - the joy -  of “making” something on my own for someone else. I carry that gene to my grave.

Christmas memories of my youth.  Is it any wonder that many of us feel inadequate, depressed, disappointed no matter how much $$ we spend, how much shopping and how many twinkle lights we drape?  We can’t quite match for our own family - our own children and grandkids - the thrill we experienced back in those days when we knew nothing of politics, when newspapers meant no more to us than looking for the comic strips, when we never worried about retirement accounts or health. 
Was it as simple for the grown ups? They aren’t around now to ask.

And so, with a sigh, I put cash in envelopes for each grandchild. I ask my talented grown-up daughter if she will host Christmas dinner this year and what should I bring? the wine maybe? My other daughter regrets that her family will be too busy this year to join us for dinner - hockey games and part time jobs for the college student - but they’ll get over sometime soon.

I just saw these photographs of Bergdorf Goodman windows in New York. They celebrate different aspects of cultural organizations in the City.


I swear I can smell White Castle hamburgers and chili dogs.




Friday, November 10, 2017

CONGRATULATIONS, MR. BINSTOCK

Painting in Motion - Bill Viola
I don’t understand video art. I’ve seen too many art videos featuring fruit being shot or otherwise maimed or some obscure act or sound repeated ad infinitum and wondered “what was THAT ABOUT? Why should I care? Who cares?! Who pays for this nonsense?”

But every now and then, something beautiful changes my mind.

Bill Viola is nearly one of our own. He’s a New York State native who graduated with a BFA from Syracuse University in 1973, and stayed around Upstate New York for nearly a decade working as the video technician for the Everson Museum in Syracuse and presumably honing his craft and his eye.  

Earth, Wind, Fire, Water = "Martrys"
Several jobs, geography changes and decades later, Viola was the United States representative in the 1995 Venice Biennial and was proclaimed a major “pioneer of new media art.” He’s produced some seriously creative and unique projects with live performance rock groups (Nine Inch Nails), opera (Tristan and Isolde).  He’s won a roomful of international awards, been the subject of books and major news articles here and abroad and was invited back to the prestigious Venice Biennial ten years after his debut there. 

After the 9/11 New York City mass murder, Viola set out to produce a major piece built around the theme of suffering. His challenge: to answer the huge question we must all ask at one time or another “what are you willing to die for?”  His inquiry looked at faith, conscience and love of others. Part of the resulting video (Martyrs) is on view now at Memorial Art Gallery; the Museum prologue tells us that the Greek root meaning of ‘martyr’ is ‘witness’ but I haven’t sorted out who is “witness" - we the viewers or the figures in each of the four panels?

“Martyrs” is a separated, four screen video; in each video, the lens is trained on one central human withstanding an onslaught by one of the four classic elements: fire, water, wind and earth. The figures are filmed  (in a rectangular format like paintings - not horizontal as with most film) against stark black (the video lasts 7 minutes). They look like paintings that have moving parts and (insight!) is that the purpose of video art? 

If I understand correctly, “Martyrs” and its second part “Mary” are owned by St. Paul’s Cathedral (London) but are either on long term loan to the Tate or gifted to the Tate and in either case, I’m unsure how Viola’s work happened to find its way to Rochester but I’m glad it did. I have scoffed at the inclusion of video in our little provincial art space and wondered why we were spending money on the physical needs of that medium.  Frankly, I still wonder why the George Eastman Museum didn’t jump big time early on into the video art arena and suck up the air from any nearby art film wannabes and I can only conclude “uh-oh, another lack of forward thinking by a Rochester Eastman.”  (Cornell’s Johnson Museum launched big-time space for video art a few years back.)

And so here I am again…swallowing my words along with my morning coffee.  Congratulations, Mr Binstock. You are making a difference.




Monday, November 6, 2017

DEATH OF AN ORGANIZATION

Private Garden from 2017 Tour
The Rochester Civic Garden Club died last week.

Some of its members are stunned.  Others are pissed.  Still others say “who?”

This was an organization chartered by New York State 70 years ago to help home gardeners, property owners and non-professionals answer questions, find solutions to horticulture problems and inspire the pursuit of all gardening. RCGC was ensconced in “The Castle,” a property near Highland Park on Mt. Hope, owned by Monroe County. 

I think RCGC was first to arrange tours of private gardens, a fund raising strategy that’s since been adopted by many not-for-profit organizations.  Both the Spring all day symposium and Summer Tour of Gardens saw upwards of 600 participants in its best years.  Those numbers trailed off to slightly more than 175 last year.

Private Spring Garden
So what went wrong? It’s easy to say “falling membership/dwindling interest in programs/elusive funds/poor Board and leadership decisions.”  All those things would be true. Organizations such as Girl and Boy Scouts, Elks, Rotary, University Women’s Associations, and League of Women Voters are all facing similar increased pressures.

People are busy, they have more free-time options, they have increased stimulation from technology and don’t need the same social encounters, and more women - the backbone of many of these organizations - have careers now.

I guess all that’s true. But I see two other glaring reasons.  

Siberian Irises
One is that civic participation and public service aren’t valued and passed down by anybody. We are a much more selfish, egocentric society and distrustful of anyone who isn’t!  We are jealous and miserly and mean spirited. (Am I being too harsh?) I include all those people unwilling to shoulder aid for children, the poor, veterans, elderly, sick and disabled. Also anyone unwilling to pick up trash - even if it isn’t theirs, tell parents next door when they see kids misbehaving or in danger, and regularly visit elderly neighbors.  It’s the rarity of empathy that’s contributed to this state. 

Next!  Lack of risk taking, imagination, creativity and enterprise is ripping through the land - Rochester particularly. “This is the way it’s always been done.” “Don’t rock the boat.” “Where will we get the money?” (That one is always front and center!)  “What if we try and fail?”  We are horrified of failure, so afraid that we are paralyzed. With no new direction, organizations atrophy. Elected leaders - and board members -  don’t speak up. In Rochester: “Remember the Fast Ferry!” stops ideas in their tracks.

RIP Rochester Civic Garden Center. Who’s next?


  

Thursday, October 12, 2017

NOBODY PROMISED YOU A ROSE GARDEN: Old Age Isn't For Sissies


Wendell Castle at Memorial Art Gallery



“The reward of merit is not life’s business.” 

This is a quote from Julian Barnes’ novel “The Sense of An Ending.”  Before that line he writes “later on in life, you expect a bit of rest, don’t you? You think you deserve it.”

Uh-oh, its’ that “deserve” part that sticks.  The concept of deserving - for good behavior, for hard work, for obeying the rules, for being a good citizen - seems to be front and center of conversations these days  -  the subject of essays, editorials, and novels.

The theory goes “I did all the correct, required things - I played by the rules - I followed the path and look what’s happened? They cut in the line ahead of me!  My job went to brown people and all the consumer goods that somebody convinced me I needed are somewhere else. It isn’t fair! When do I get mine?”

I have no idea. Armies of high-minded others seem to know.  Not me. Life deals some people crap that they can’t escape while other people convert the same crap into compost and build rewarding - even great! - lives. 

Nobody keeps a rule book and counts the gold stars but old age prompts a good look at the roads not taken, the “what ifs,” the questions of how did this happen and not that and what role does plain, dumb luck play in all this. I know because I’m there.  So is Wendell Castle (See how I sneaked that in?) I just came home from Memorial Art Gallery where his one man show opened Friday.

Wendell is a national treasure, a wood worker who pushed ideas and shapes of wood into unimaginable territory.  He’s managed to challenge the limits of both materials and tools.  And now he is near the end of his life. The current solo exhibit is probably his last. What to make of this? What are his “what ifs?”

Blanket Chest, 1965, Collection of Memorial Art Gallery
No guess work, they are spelled out for us in the two videos that accompany the show. In them, Wendell talks about his middle-America upbringing, his total ignorance - growing up - of art and of being an outsider among his school mates.  He had an art class in college and the professor sent him straight to another college that had a stronger art and design program. From there, Wendell made furniture. A piece entered in a group show in New York at the American Craft Museum brought him a job offer at Rochester Institute of Technology in the city where he spent the bulk of his life. A blanket chest he made and entered in Memorial Art Gallery’s Annual Finger Lakes Exhibit,1965, won Best of Show and the opportunity for a one-person show at the museum.

Connect the dots…an unexplained distinct sense of style and self as a youngster = a chance class in college with an astute professor = one music stand shown in a New York show that led to a lifetime professional partnership = an award at the hometown museum that determined his emphasis on sculptural design. 
Installation/New and Old Benches

“Regrets…(he’s) had a few….but then again, too few to mention…”

Me too. Increasingly, it feels like I was struck by a lucky star to find myself in my own skin  - deserved or not - and I am thankful.  I think Wendell feels pretty much the same way. 

I hope the same for you, dear reader. 

(PS:  The show…I didn’t much care. Some pieces I like; some pieces I don’t.  Frankly - in case you haven’t guessed by now -  it’s the man - the artist -  I thought was more interesting.)


Sunday, September 24, 2017

A LITTLE OF THIS, A LITTLE OF THAT


Joseph Albers, 1975
Joseph Albers was born in Germany and taught elementary school for more than ten years. Along the way, he also studied art. He left teaching children to lead the famous German Bauhaus faculty in stained glass design. (Isn’t that interesting? Think about stained glass, its blocks of color and defining seams. Now superimpose that on Albers’ famous color block paintings. See? During our lives, we may jump - or crash! - from one branch to another but we take along the memory of the limb we left behind.)
When Nazi Germany shut down the Bauhaus, talented faculty scattered throughout the world. Albers was invited to head a new art school near Asheville, North Carolina - Black Mountain College. He molded the curriculum there from 1933 until he left in 1950 to head the design program at Yale.  Albers died in 1976.

Here are his four basic art exercises - from elementary classes to Yale:

  1. Take 3 colors and turn them into 4.
  2. Draw your name backwards and upside down.
  3. Use your fingers to make newspaper sculptures.
  4. Draw the spaces between chair legs.

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Illustration by Maurice Sendak
Not-for-profit fund raising events became the topic of conversation in my car twice this week. Here’s why that seems important: the conversations took place among some high-power talent - smart, competent women who have terrific organization skills and a mother lode of experience. If someone computed a bottom line, the accumulated amount of money raised by these ladies over their lifetimes probably would astound most of us!

But every single one was expressing frustration, questioning the energy expended. The questions boiled down to these:

What is the clear, consistent goal?  Is it to raise money for an organization? Bring prestige? Add to a useful - otherwise, hidden - catalog of assets? Is the event primarily educational? Is it structured primarily to aid or assist either professionally or monetarily another group, i.e. artists, writers,musicians, gardeners, small business owners? What is the true cost? (This is a tricky part. How do you put value on volunteers’ hours? infinite car trips?) What about hidden costs (facility wear and tear, security if not part of the overhead charge)? Do patrons or underwriters take most of the burden of overhead? Would they pledge to the organization without the expenditure of an event? In other words, are we merely shifting money from one hand to the other? Is this event mostly a community building exercise?

Times have changed.  “Just because we’ve always done it this way” is not good enough. Volunteers burn out.  Smart women are looking for places where their skills are both appreciated and used wisely.  Otherwise, we walk!

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I subscribe to “Brain Pickings”, an on line magazine (thank you, Kathleen).  Mostly, it’s literary with a ton of philosophy but one of the things I like most:  the editor uses wonderful illustrations throughout - primarily artists who publish for children’s literature.  Above are two favorites from today.







Wednesday, September 13, 2017

THE POLITICAL CORRECTNESS OF ART

I am confounded these days by the controversy over appropriateness of expression - verbal, musical, visual. ‘Politically Correct” is a term from the 1960s when it seemed especially necessary to correct a culture steeped in white male domination. Today the term is uttered in scorn, a javelin raised by arch-conservatives and aimed at liberals and intellectuals.

I resent the hijacking of historically appropriate intention but I confess that I see signs of hypersensitivity among minority groups and I can’t always find my own line between total agreement with the aggrieved  versus a disbelieving “are you kidding me?” reaction. 

“Showboat,” the landmark play written by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein and staged in 1927 was converted to film in 1951. The original lyrics were “cleaned up” to fit racial sensitivity of the times. “Old Man River” originally written as “n…….s all work on the Mississippi..” became “negroes all work…” then “colored folk work…” and finally in a contemporary version we saw just a year or two ago, the line sung was “some folks work…” Obviously, the “n” word is so emotionally loaded that except in contemporary rap, no one dare utter it.

Civil war monuments are the latest target in the effort to scrub history. I am on the side of sending them all to the “Closet of Shame."  As a pacifist, I balk at any glorification of war - no matter what side anybody comes down on - and view all such statuary as little more than the promise the rest of society makes to young men: “go get yourself killed or maimed and we will put your name on a piece of marble or metal and  thereby guarantee the eternal memory of a grateful nation.” Better that we promise money to the surviving family and seven virgins in the afterlife.

But what to say about art created by an African-American depicting important historic characters of the same race but protested by another African-American?  

From the "Joy Cometh in the Morning" Suite
Black painter Stephen Towns created a series of paintings and multi-media “quilts” re-telling the story of Nat Turner.  Turner led the only significant uprising of slaves (1831). 55 - 65 whites were killed. Turner was caught and his hanged body dismembered as a warning to slaves to stay in their place. Traditional white history books depicts this leader as a traitor and butcher. In light of the facts of slavery, Turner must be given merits of leadership and bravery in mounting such a challenge. 

Towns’ suite is titled “Joy Cometh In the Morning” and was installed this August in the art gallery at Goucher College in Baltimore. The first few paintings are beautiful, textural narratives; the darkness of the Nat Turner Uprising intensifies throughout the progressive pieces culminating in full-on portraits of six black revolt participants with nooses around necks staring eye to eye with the viewers.

"the Revolt"
One employee at the Gallery complained that she simply could not carry on her work after walking past these paintings every day.  The employee is an African-American woman.  Rather than have the college and gallery director become embroiled in what could become a public “to-do”, Towns removed the six portraits himself, taping out blank spaces on the wall where the work originally hung.

Questions: should the gallery and college have allowed one employee to dictate what is displayed in the gallery? what if the images had been white? distasteful to a white employee? would the outcome have been different or any more or less justified?  This was not the first viewing of this body of work so the director fully understood the power of the artist’ work. Should he/she have insisted that the paintings remain in place? After all, isn’t one of the roles of art holding a mirror of truth up for clear inspection?  Was Towns’ action right or wrong? I believe he had a “teaching agenda” when he created this series. Should he be willing to stand behind (or in front of) and defend his art?


We live in complicated times.  Art is smack in the middle of the cultural cow pie! 

one of 6 portraits of "martyrs" of uprising, the protested paintings 

Exhibition of the 6 portraits removed by artist Stephen Towns