MAD arts and design

Pyramid, by Studio Job

Pyramid, by Studio Job

I confess I don’t quite know what to make of the new exhibit Studio Job MAD HOUSE  at the Museum of Arts and Design. This is the first American solo museum exhibition Studio Job, the Antwerp-based duo of Job Smeets (Belgian) and Nynke Tyagel (Dutch).

Their work –  opulent sculptures, art objects and furniture –  employs traditional crafts such as gilding, bronze casting, and faience, and is deliberately provocative and unconventional.  You will find tables, clocks, candlestick holders, teapots and such, but not too much that is actually usable, as their pieces tend to be oversized and clearly decorative. Many incorporate the theme of destruction – sinking ships, bombings, and train crashes – but the references to historical events can sometimes feel a bit forced.   I would say the best way to approach this exhibit is to be open to the humor and social commentary, while appreciating the craftsmanship.

Standouts for me include the Pyramid, a charming reinterpretation of the outsized 17th century delftware flower pyramids.  Composed of a number of stacked elements such as a pipe, a coffee pot, and an office building, as well as gilt steam clouds, it is topped with a tea kettle that seemingly defies gravity.   

Your eye will be caught by the 12-foot clock and lamp of King Kong attacking the Burj Khalifa (the tallest building in the world) which the duo have placed atop the ancient city of Petra. While clearly referencing the classic film, the wall label informs us that this piece is  also “a commentary on monuments as fleeting symbols of power…”

There’s a marquetry screen, inspired by Bavarian painted furniture, that delights the eye with bucolic images of trees, birds and farm animals … until you see the axe… 

Bench, Studio Job

Bench, Studio Job

Elsewhere in the exhibit you’ll find a wonderful wooden bench whose back extends into a wing-like triptych with drawings of skeletons of real and imagined extinct animals, a kind of momento-mori theme as found in 17th century Dutch paintings.  Also in this vein is Persian, a thoroughly delightful hand-woven rug whose colors and composition evoke those of Persian rugs.  But look a little closer, and you’ll see those motifs consist of animal and dinosaur skeletons.  The Wrecking Ball lamp that sits on the rug is great, too (think miniature solid bronze bulldozer with a light for the wrecking ball)! Speaking of lamps, the Tour Eiffel – basically a bronze miniature Eiffel Tower whose top curves like a lamp neck is worth a stop.

Detail "Symphony" hand knotted rug made by Nadus. Studio Job exhibit.

Detail “Symphony” hand knotted rug made by Nadus. Studio Job exhibit.

To go back to rugs, the exhibit also contains a charming hand-made rug entitled Symphony, which is decorated with orchestral instruments – the colors and design give it a joyful, playful feel.

Visit Pinocchio, a bronze interpretation of the fabled puppet – here his nose is a saucepan handle!

If your house is like the Addams Family’s, and you need wall sconces, look no further than Candle Man, an oversized stylized cartoony bronze torso holding two candles, and check out the Train Crash table in front of it (this piece was unveiled when the duo announced the end of their romantic partnership). 

Even though it’s really kitchy, I liked the Safe which can only be opened by turning the nose on the clown’s head that sits on top of it.

Overall, I found myself smiling when I left – I think you will too.  The exhibit runs through August 21st. 

Swag Swag Krew by Ebony G. Patterson

Swag Swag Krew by Ebony G. Patterson

If you get to the museum before April 3rd, stop by Ebony G. Patterson’s show, Dead Treez – don’t let the name put you off.  Through an imaginative combination of textiles plus ready-made, embroidered and crocheted objects, she has created elaborate depictions of murder victims that are statements about masculinity and socioeconomic status as expressed in the dance halls of her native Jamaica. Her use of adornment and mix of fabrics demand that you stop and take a closer look.  The life-size figural tableau of ten male mannequins is especially arresting. On the second floor she continues these themes with an amazing installation of poisonous plants  and selected pieces of the museum’s jewelry collection. 

More images of both these shows are on my Instagram feed.

Check out the Museum’s website for information about their other exhibits and programs.

Masonic Art

Detail, International Order of Odd Fellows Apron

Detail, International Order of Odd Fellows Apron

I had often passed the “Odd Fellows” building in Downtown Brooklyn, wondering who this building was named for.  I didn’t get that question answered, but through the new exhibit at the American Museum of Folk Art, Mystery and Benevolence:  Masonic & Odd Fellow Folk Art From the Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection, I discovered who the Odd Fellows are.  And quite a bit about the Masons, whose  Grand Lodge is on 23rd Street and Avenue of the Americas (you can take a tour.) 

Fraternal organizations have been in America since the 17th century.  Probably the best known of these, the American Masons, grew out of the medieval stone mason guilds in Scotland and England.  Early members included luminaries such as Benjamin Franklin, Paul Revere and George Washington.  The International Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF) began in the early 1800‘s, and was comprised of members from diverse trades.  Both organizations had at their center individual lodges where men (women have separate organizations) could socialize, share values, improve themselves, their communities and help others.  Elaborate rituals would mark the initiate’s advancement through the degrees or steps that would allow him to understand the mysteries of the symbols.  Even though the various fraternal societies employed many of the same rituals, regalia and symbols, they did not always have the same meaning!  So it can get confusing, but thank goodness there are very helpful wall labels.

The exhibit, composed of a wide collection of prints, banners, aprons, wooden signs, staffs and textiles, mostly from the 18th and 19th centuries, is organized around several themes, such as  Fellowship, Signs, Labor, Passage, Wisdom, Charity and Fraternal Mysteries. 

Starting in the large exhibit space, there’s a lovely silk collar embellished with gold paint and metal & glass jewels that belonged to IOOF Emblematic Lodge #169, as well as wooden axes from different societies, each decorated with their lodge’s respective symbols.  Throughout you’ll notice that several symbols are common to many of the orders:  the all-seeing eye, the three-link chain, the pair of clasped hands, the heart in the hand…

Appliquéd Quilt by the grandmother of Wane Robb

Appliquéd Quilt by the grandmother of Wane Robb

You’ll also find a tracing board of black painted canvas, on which are seven symbols in muted gold paint, giving it a mysterious and somewhat scary air (especially the skull).  Close by is a stunning black wool carpet with various Masonic symbols and an open Bible woven in bright red.  Next to that is a large Summer Spread from the late 1800’s, whose white blocks are hand appliquéd with red 3-link chains (symbolizing friendship, love and truth).  In the Labor section are a pair of wooden beehives, covered in gold paint, created for the the Daughters of Rebekah, the women’s branch of the Odd Fellows, established in 1851.  Beehives represent industry and unity in working towards a common purpose.  Next to that is a magnificent appliqué quilt made by the grand mother of a Texas Ranger named Wayne Robb, composed as a grid of 25 squares, some of which contain symbols such as a rainbow and menorah which are not commonly found in Masonic art.  Above the quilt are 5 silk banners, dating from the 19th century, with 2nd degree symbols painted or embroidered on their backgrounds. 

Fraternal Apron, 1800's

Fraternal Apron, 1800’s

In the Fraternal Symbols section, you’ll find a lovely hooked rug, several wooden staffs, carvings of a cornucopia, and a doubled headed eagle, as well as banners with symbols from the Encampment degree.  Towards the end of the exhibit are two intriguing items incorporating Native American iconography:  one is a hooked rug by the Daughters of Pocahontas, a women’s auxiliary which styled itself after the virtues of Pocahontas: kindness, love, charity and loyalty to one’s nation; the other is a fraternal apron from the 1800‘s depicting a Native American extending a pipe to a white man  (detail above). 

There’s lots more to see – the exhibit has almost 200 pieces.  I’ve posted more pictures on Instagram   The show runs through May 8th.

There will be a tour of the exhibit on March 31st from 1:00 to 2:00

The Museum also hosts jazz+Wednesday’s – on March 30th, from 2:00 – 3:00 they’ll feature Bill Wurtzel, Jay Leonhart and Sharon Fisher.  I caught them last week, and they were fabulous!

On April 25th, they’ll host a Fraternal Art Symposium.  Find out more about the Museum’s programs here  

Theatre Review – Mabel Madness

I didn’t know a lot about Mabel Mercer until I went to see Mabel Madness  at Urban Stages  last weekend.  This one-woman show, written and performed with verve by Trezana Beverly, takes us from Mabel’s childhood in the UK, to her life as a cabaret star, first in Paris and then in New York.  The play is set in Mabel’s apartment in NYC in 1983, a year before her death.  It opens with Mabel, seated in an armchair on one side of the stage, telling the audience that we’re her family, then walking to the other side of the stage where she rummages through some trunks and a bureau, trying to find an outfit to wear for dinner with her manager.  She’s very worried, as she’s been on a comeback tour, her voice just cracked, and she thinks her manager’s going to fire her. 

As she’s fretting, she recounts her life story.  Born in 1900, her parents were performers:  her mother was a white English 14-year old music hall performer, and her father  a black American jazz musician who died before she was born. Mabel was raised mainly by her grandmother; she didn’t discover that her father was black until somewhere around her teens. But Mabel didn’t let anything stop her, whether it was racial discrimination or two world wars.  She went to Paris in the 1920’s, eventually headlining at Chez Bricktop, and becoming the toast of the town.  On the eve of World War II she boarded an ocean liner for New York City with a ticket bought by Marlene Dietrich.  Mabel conquered the Big Apple in short order, performing at supper clubs such as Tony’s, the RSVP, and her own Byline Club.  Which isn’t to say that she didn’t have problems along the way… Not to be a spoiler, but this play has a happy ending. 

This piece operates on many levels.  It is first of all the extraordinary story of a woman who didn’t let life’s obstacles get her down and made it big on two continents.  On another level, this play is also about believing in yourself, and coming to terms with the imperfections in the people you love.

This is also the tale of a woman who changed the way singers performed.  Mabel Mercer took singing from the crooning style practiced by Bing Crosby, which is really all about hitting the notes, and taught singers to go for the emotion and tell the story in a song:  to understand the lyrics and convey their meaning to the audience. Frank Sinatra made no secret of how she influenced his phrasing and taught him to tell the story, saying that everything he knows, he learned from Mabel Mercer. The roster of singers she influenced include Bobby Short, Tony Bennet and Billie Holiday.  When listening to Mabel Mercer’s recordings, I get the feeling that like many cabaret singers, she came across better in person than in a recording studio, so it may take a bit of time to warm up to her style, especially the way she rolls her r’s.  But stay with it.

Mabel Madness boasts  some great songs, such as “Just One of Those Things,” “Summertime”,  “Love for Sale,” as well as original compositions by Peter Napolitano and Barry Levitt.

Ms. Beverly plays all the roles, not an easy task, and does so with the right mixture of gusto and restraint.

Mabel Mercer’s  legacy continues through the Mabel Mercer Foundation, which hosts an annual four-day Cabaret Convention in NYC, as well as workshops in schools. 

The play’s run has been extended through April 10th at Urban Stages – Catch it if you can.

UNBOUND: Narrative Art of the Plains

His Buffalo Medicine, 2012 Joel Pulliam

His Buffalo Medicine, 2012 Joel Pulliam

If the Museum of the American Indian isn’t on your radar screen, it should be.  Located in the magnificent former US Customs House at Bowling Green, it is a treasure.  The current exhibit, UNBOUND: Narrative Art of the Plains would be a good introduction.  It explores the different media, images and symbols the Native peoples of the Plains have used to tell their stories since the late 1700’s.  The curator, Emil Her Many Horses, has taken advantage of the large space to mount a comprehensive exhibit, which starts in the 18th century and continues through  the present day, showing how artists recorded ceremonies, rituals, and significant events in their communities, and how they addressed cultural upheavals during the Reservation Era (1870-1920) and the American Indian Movement of the 1970’s.  Some 50 new works by contemporary Native artists were commissioned for this exhibition.

A Warrior's Story Honoring Grandpa Blue Bird," by Lauren Good Day Giago

A Warrior’s Story Honoring Grandpa Blue Bird,” by Lauren Good Day Giago

In the first two large rooms, you’ll find works by modern day artists next to ones from the 18th and 19th centuries, linking and placing them in dialogue with each other. The side-by-side display of Winter Count calendars, tipi’s, shirts and robes allows you to see the changes in media, as artists moved from using animal hides to cloth and other materials.  One of the highlights for me was Lauren Good Day Giago’s “A Warrior’s Story Honoring Grandpa Blue Bird.”  It is paired with a  muslin Lakota dress from the 1880‘s; decorated dresses of this kind could only be worn by women whose relatives had been killed in battle. On the bottom of Ms. Giaog’s dress (also muslin) she has painted images related to her grandfather’s service in Vietnam.  One of the things that struck me in this exhibit  was that a number of the artists or their  family members served in Vietnam.

In the center of the room you’ll find an exhibit of art from Ft. Marion, in St. Augustine, Florida, where 72 Southern Plains warriors who fought in the Red River Wars  were imprisoned from 1875-78.  There’s a digitized version of two drawing books, which the prisoners used to document their experiences, especially that of being transported to Florida by means that were foreign to them:  wagon train, ship, rail…  and their regimented life at the Fort.  The original books (given to General William T. Sherman) are displayed under glass, being too fragile to be handled, the digitized version lets you see them in their entirety, and also explains each of the drawings, which I found very helpful.

Drawing of a Little Girl, by Norman Frank Sheridan, Sr.

Drawing of a Little Girl, by Norman Frank Sheridan, Sr.

The heart of the exhibit are the ledger drawings, so, called because many Native artists recorded their experiences in surplus government accounting notebooks. FYI, there’s generally not a connection between the type of ledger paper and the subject depicted.  Employing various media such colored pencils, crayons, markers, acrylics and ink, they are painted mostly on ledger paper, but also graph paper, fine art paper, and even deer skin.  Some are highly stylized, others very realistic.  Many are very detailed.  Below are some of my picks.

Norman Frank Sheridan Sr, paints more traditional subjects, such as a victory dance, a war party, a courting scene.  He uses a very bright, limited  palette (3-4 colors each drawing) with a distinctive orange.  I especially liked a lovely drawing of a little girl surrounded by dragonflies, which are a protective symbol.

Break from Tradition, by Chris Pappan

Break from Tradition, by Chris Pappan

Chris Pappan’s detailed graphite portraits often employ distortion:  “I intentionally distort portraits because people have a distorted idea of Native people.”  One of the more poignant works in the exhibit is his “Break From Tradition,”  which portrays members of an Osage delegation that traveled to Washington DC, probably to press the government to uphold their land rights;  if you look closely, you’ll see its on paper used to record  a real estate transaction.  Be sure to also look at his portrait of Chief Wahshunga, which is beautifully detailed.

Joel Pulliam employs a distinctive red color in his 2012 watercolor series of members of warrior societies and medicine societies (and one Lakota woman with a parasol); note how the subjects are all in profile. One of these works is at the beginning of this post.

There’s also a series focusing on events in women’s lives, where you’ll find the stylized, brightly colored works of Lauren Good Day Giago, such as “Making of Relatives” depicting her and her husband ceremonially adopting a relative’s daughter.

Kiowas Black Leggings Society Victory Dance by Sherman Chaddlesone

Kiowas Black Leggings Society Victory Dance by Sherman Chaddlesone

One of the more stunning pieces is a painting of a Kiowa Black Leggings Society Victory Dance by Sherman Chaddlesone.  Painted on a fringed shawl, it depicts women dressed in red and black battle dresses, carrying their male relatives’ war trophies in a ceremony honoring the veterans. 

In addition to the paintings, you’ll also find a magnificent straight up bonnet made of wool, ermine skin and eagle tail feathers, from 1890.  The Blackfoot consider these bonnets to be sacred, and the right to wear one can only be conferred in a transfer ceremony.  (Nearby is Terrance Guardapie’s drawing of a headdress transfer ceremony).  This is why the wearing of these bonnets at games and fashion show has become controversial.

In an adjacent area is a Kiowa Battle Dress by Vanessa Jennings in red and dark blue wool, decorated with imitation elk teeth (bone), German silver conchos, military patches (Vietnam vet), as well as embroidered brass sequins, encircled by a silver belt.

This is a small selection of the many magnificent works you’ll see in this exhibit.  Leave yourself time to go through and grasp the ways in which the history and culture of the Plains People have been expressed over the last few hundred years.   Unbound is on view until December 4th; don’t wait that long to see it.

I will be posting more images to my Instagram account.

Interview with Classical Pianist Fang Yuan

Fang Yuan, concert pianist in NYC (photo courtesy of JC Lee)

Fang Yuan, concert pianist in NYC (photo courtesy of JC Lee)

On Friday, February 26th, I interviewed classical pianist Fang Yuan, whose concert the previous evening I really enjoyed – I’m looking forward to a return visit! Joining our conversation was Joanna C. Lee, of Museworks.  (I had previously recorded a  podcast  with Joanna and her husband about the Pocket Chinese Almanac)  Below is a transcript of my conversation with Fang and Joanna.

What brought you to New York for the week?

I came to New York just for my solo recital at Carnegie Hall.  I arrived on Monday (4 days ago) from China, and I’ll leave this afternoon (Friday) to go to Berlin.  However, I came to the US about 7 years ago, and played in New York and Baltimore, as part of a student cultural exchange program. But this is my professional debut in the US!

You began your music studies when you were quite young – are there other musicians in your family?

I come from a musical family; my grandmother and aunts on my father’s side were all amateur musicians, playing different instruments, especially the accordion.    My mother learned piano in middle school and later on taught music at middle school.  When I was four years old, I started studying piano with my mother.  My father also loved classical music very much, and wanted me to go into the musical world.

JCL:  The accordion was very popular, as you can play both melody and harmony on it.  It’s also a portable instrument, and this was the time when Chairman Mao was sending everyone all around the country.

You’ve studied at music schools in China and Germany.  What differences did you note in their teaching style, their curricula?

One of the obvious differences is that in China, we learn Chinese music; one of our exams each semester is on a Chinese piece.  There is also a different pedagogical style;  in China, because the prestige of the school is tied to the achievements of their students, students are taught what they need to be successful, to win competitions.  In Germany, there’s more attention to what’s inside [the student and the music].  Technique is also very important -– but we studied the compositions a lot.  The teachers also tell you what they think, and teach you about life. They help you understand the connection between music and life.

What attracted you to the music of Central Europe:  Haydn, Chopin, Beethoven?

I grew up with the music of Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn,  and other classical composers.   I felt an especially strong connection with Brahms, which is why I went to Germany (most of the other students went to the USA).  I think after several years in Munich, classical music changed me, how I think, even my character and direction – it taught me to really love the music world. 

When you studied at the Munich Hochschule fuer Muzik und Theater, you were a double major in Piano and Chamber music – why these two areas of study?

Chamber music was part of our regular course work.   In my first semester, I scored high marks in my chamber music class.  I enjoy working with other people, and thought that later on I might want to be a chamber musician.  I worked with a very good group of people; one of them, Noah Bendix-Balgley, is now the first concert master at the Berlin Philharmonic.

I like to play different forms of music, and the last three years I have had more opportunities to play with orchestras. I would like to have more opportunities to play with different musicians.   I also want to continue as a solo pianist – the repertoire is so vast! 

But chamber music makes me very happy and I find it very relaxing.

You are a professor of piano at the China Central Conservatory of Music – can you tell me a bit about that?

Since I was young, I have wanted to be a teacher, to teach at the middle school level, and especially at my school.  My goal was to return to China after my studies in Europe and bring back what I had learned abroad.  I was very lucky and I am very happy I was was able to do that. 

I like teaching, but I’ve actually stopped as of this January, so I can concentrate on my playing;  there are things that I would like to do as a performer, and now, while I’m still young, is the time to do them.

People in China want to understand and learn more about classical music, and I want to help them.  Being in the classroom is not the only way to do that. 

At Carnegie Hall you premiered  your “Yellow River Rhapsody.”   Could you tell me about how you developed this piece?  Do you think you’ll be adding more Chinese music to your repertoire?  

Last year I did a lot of touring in China, performing with orchestras.  When I played the Yellow River Concerto, the audiences loved it.  When I play it, I can feel its importance, and how it brings out the good, human character of the Chinese, even when they are suffering.  But I think this piece relates to all cultures, and all people, to human suffering and struggle in general, like great literature does.  The audience as well as the musicians relate to this piece. The third movement is quite melodic; when I play it I think of the typical, modest, hard-working Chinese women.

I arranged my solo piano version (Yellow River Rhapsody) by ear; my goal was to have people hear the orchestral parts even though I’m playing solo piano.  This also lets me play it wherever I go, since I don’t always play with an orchestra.  I hope more people will hear this piece.

JCL:  This piece was composed by Xian Xinghai in 1939 as an eight-movement Yellow River Cantata, using folk songs and evoking the river as an emblem of resistance to the Japanese invasion.  Fang’s version eliminates the final movement; however it captures the concerto’s orchestration in purely pianistic terms.

Are there other styles of music you might like to play, like jazz, opera, rock’n’ roll?

I enjoy all types of music, but classical music is near to my heart.  I would like to play Pi-Huang by Zhang Zhao; it is the essence of Peking opera.  The music is very dramatic; it contains one of the most patriotic  poems from the Song Dynasty.  The music has deep ideas.

JCL:  This is a modern piece from the 1970‘s. In it are musical gestures from Peking opera, including a classic excerpt from “Night Flight of Lin Chong” (from the epic Water Margin) as well as quotations from the poem Full River Red by Song Dynasty hero Yue Fei. 

Is Peking opera still popular with the general population in China?

Not with my generation – Chinese pop is very popular.  I listen to all types of music, but classical music is my world.

You have a daughter – does she also play the piano?

She’s only 3-1/2, so she just fools around on the piano.  She is very musical, and loves to sing and dance; she’s very good. She reminds me of myself when I was the same age!  When I was about nine, I wanted to be a professional dancer, but my father wouldn’t allow me, because he thought dancers had a very short professional life.

You’ve toured extensively in China and Europe.  What other places would you like to visit?

I think music is for everybody.  I would like to go where people want to know more about the music I play.

Fang Yuan:  Now may I ask you a question?  What did you think of the concert?

Liz Daly:  I enjoyed it very much, especially the Haydn piece (Sonata in C Major, Hob XVI: No. 50);  it made me think of water, so it was a perfect piece to be on the program with the Yellow River Rhapsody, which I especially enjoyed – it captured the essence of the river.

FY:  Thank you.  The piano is a very sensitive instrument, especially the one I played last night.  When I played the Haydn piece, I could really feel the music.

JCL:  Fang is a Bösendorfer artist, which means that wherever she plays, it is on a Bösendorfer piano, which the company supplies.  After she arrived on Monday, Fang went to their studio, and picked out the piano she wanted to play.  This is a very high level of service for the artist. In fact, Fang is the only Bösendorfer artist from China!

Cathouse – One is Not Enough

Jade Sea, with Daniel Swanigan Snow

Jade Sea, with Daniel Swanigan Snow

I first encountered David Dixon at the Outsider Art Fair , where his gallery, Cathouse FUNeral, was showing work by Daniel Swanigan Snow  .  A few weeks later I found myself at the opening of an exhibit of Snow’s work at the Cathouse FUNeral in East Williamsburg (yes, it’s in a former funeral home – I didn’t ask about the Cathouse part).  There are about 10 pieces in the show, all made from found materials (antique tools, car parts, tubes, wood) which he transforms into playful sculptures.  I especially liked Jade Sea, fashioned from wood and cardboard, and possessing a working motor (but not seaworthy).  Several of his pieces have lights and wires as integral elements.  But no matter the materials, Snow’s pieces all have personality.  The show  closes this weekend, on March 13th.

Detail from Brooklyn Institute for Fashion and Curatorial Studies by Michael Ryan

Detail from Brooklyn Institute for Fashion and Curatorial Studies by Michael Ryan

At the end of February, over in Carroll Gardens, David opened Cathouse Proper  , a white cube designed to display one work of art at a time.  One very large work, that is.  I think he found the perfect inaugural piece in Michael Ryan’s   Brooklyn Institute of Fashion and Curatorial Studies.  Ryan began this piece by taking apart a pad containing 250 sheets of drawing paper.  He originally thought he would do a grid drawing, and laid out the 250 sheets in a gigantic rectangle, but over the course of nine months, it evolved into his interpretation of a group photo.  He took old, found photos of posed, arranged men in an institutional setting  (think early 20th century class photos), which he recreated, reinterpreted and scaled up, using hard and soft pencils, adding in relevant details and content of his devising.  These life-size black & white drawings are carefully rendered – he’s got great technique – the subjects are carefully arranged, but the overall effect is one of having stepped back into another era which is familiar, and yet…    Ryan’s work will be on display until April 9th at Cathouse Proper, 524 Court Street.

Tellin We Own Story – Art from the Caribbean

Hands Up by Iyaba Ibo Mandingo

Hands Up by Iyaba Ibo Mandingo

At St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights, through the end of the month, you’ll find a small but powerful, politically charged exhibit   PICTURE THIS – Visual and Verbal (Re)Imagining of the Contemporary Caribbean which explores the work of Caribbean creative writers who are also visual artists.

Next to the art works are poems and statements by the artists.  Perhaps the sparest of these is the most visceral:  Hands Up, a large canvas by Iyaba Ibo Mandigo painted entirely in black, with two white hands, whose red streams descend the canvas – the artist’s text reads:

Another Black Man

got killed by the cops today

… pass the ketchup

Next to this work are three of his brightly colored stylized semi-abstract, symbolic works, Grave Markers, each of which bears the inscription “black boys are dying”

detail from The Stroll, by Laura James 2005

detail from The Stroll, by Laura James 2005

You’ll also find Laura Jone’s four giglee prints of Caribbean domestic workers and nannies with their young charges; the bright colors and spare backgrounds are paired with statements by domestic workers from the Caribbean that illuminate the interior turmoil and isolation they feel under the surface veneer of “everything’s ok”

Opal Palmer Adisa has three pieces that are both photos and photoshopped, testifying to the indomitable spirit of the Haitians after the  2005 flood; the text on each of them speaks to life in Haiti, especially the role of women.

Jacqueline Bishop has created a series of 4 lovely, spare, line drawings in ink, made for a suite of Caribbean-themed poems based on Shakespeare’s play The Tempest.

There are just some of the works on display, and if you’re in the neighborhood, stop by the Callahan Center at St. Francis College on Remsen Street.  Unfortunately, there’s no website, but for more information, you can contact the Caribbean Cultural Theatre who organized this show at info@caribbeantheatre.org

I’ll be posting more images on Instagram

Cultural Diplomacy: Where Nordic Lights Shine

Participants at Cultural Diplomacy forum hosted by Origin Theatre

Participants at Cultural Diplomacy forum hosted by Origin Theatre

What do you get when you put together a theatre director from Ireland, one from the Netherlands, some Scandinavian diplomats, and add in artists living in NYC?  The answer is a great discussion on cultural diplomacy!  Last Saturday Origin Theatre   brought together diplomats from the Nordic countries, as well as theatre directors and actors from both the US and Scandinavia. What could have been a deadly dull affair was instead lively, informative and fun.  While this is due in no small part to the moderator, Erwin Maas and to the participants, the use of the “long table” format contributed to its success. It was the first time I had seen such a set up, and it’s name is the perfect description.  There was a long table with chairs in the center of the room, with the audience seated around them.  At the beginning it was the diplomats and artists who sat at the table and spoke.   As the discussions continued, participants left the table, and new ones from the audience – lay people, artists, students – took those seats (you could speak only if you were seated at the table).  By the end of the discussion, about 90 minutes later, almost none of the original participants were at the table.

At the beginning, the participants offered their definitions of “cultural diplomacy” but agreed with one participant’s observation that “cultural diplomacy” is rather abstract, whereas “international cultural exchange” tells you that something of value is being exchanged. For all the countries, the latter was very important; for the most part the Nordics have moved away from hosting government-organized festivals abroad to employing a more collaborative and network-based model, focusing on the exchange of people, on their conversations, on building long-term sustainable partnerships. Funding is often determined by independent bodies, and it is the diplomat’s role to support their home country artists on a strategic level, so their work can be seen in the US.

In general,  the overall goal of these efforts is to get American cultural institutions interested in what’s happening in Scandinavia;  in some cases, cultural outreach in the US is expected to yield increased tourism back home. Often artists are expected to give back, to contribute to society in return for their government funding.  Some countries also have the expressed goal of renewing and developing their national arts and cultural offerings.   Because Nordic countries are small, by exporting their cultural output (music, film theatre, dance), they can help their artists reach larger audiences and grow.  The arts can also serve as an international platform for raising and discussing political issues in ways that are more complex and open. Artists have questions and a desire to effect change – cultural exchanges are a way to find out how other countries do it.

Smaller countries depend on translation to get their works out into the wider world, with one participant noting that English is so dominant, there’s a real danger of a language like Icelandic disappearing. (I know from my own experience in French and German, that no matter how good, computer translations don’t cut it. Translation is a very, very important and under appreciated skill; we really need to value translators and pay them well.)  However, it’s also often very hard to translate certain words or feelings; humor is  especially hard to translate, not only from the perspective of language, but also because of the different ways that societies view certain issues, such as incest and violence. 

Obtaining visas for Scandinavian artists to work in the US is also a problem, especially for US theatre companies, like Origin, who can only hire green card holders.   The Nordic consulates spend time counseling their artists on how to make it in the US, trying to promote their US appearances and exhibits, as well as helping US institutions to invite and sponsor Scandinavian artists. However, for local NYC based institutions, it’s hard to maintain a relationship with any of the consulates, as the diplomats are only here for around 4 years. 

There was a very lively discussion around the effects of cultural exchange, and whether this has led to a homogenization of the arts, or whether, by collaborating with people from other cultures, you learn from each other and wind up creating a hybrid culture.

While there was no resolution to that issue, several of the participants noted that being in New York City, you meet people from every corner of the world, and art can open that up.  I say Amen to that!

Not So Tranquil Rooms

Portrait of the Artist's Wife Ida from 1890 by Vilhelm Hammershøi

Portrait of the Artist’s Wife Ida from 1890 by Vilhelm Hammershøi

Until March 23rd, Scandinavia House  is presenting “Paininting Tranquility,” featuring about two dozen works by Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916) considered to be one of the greatest Danish artists of he late 19th century.

Consisting of about two dozen works from the National Gallery of Denmark,   you’ll find portraits, cityscapes, landscapes, but mostly rooms, with and without people, primarily painted between 1888 and 1907. 

In all these paintings, Hammershøi works with a fairly limited palette of browns and grays, with the occasional yellow or green stopping by to say “hello.”  His works possess some of the austerity you’ll find in works by Edward Hopper or Winslow Homer, but overlain with distance and puzzlement, even melancholy. There are no people in his city- or land-scapes; the women in his interiors are usually alone, with their backs to us

In his portraits, Hammershøi eschewed details, giving them more a psychological than representational aspect.  You see this very strikingly in the portraits of his wife, Ida;  there are two from 1890; her attire and demeanor are the same;  yet, when she was his fiancée, she was depicted in broad lines, her hat and costume cited; yet, after their marriage, her portrait is almost full-length; her face smoother and her eyes clearer; the feather in her hat is more defined, and you can see the buttons on her jacket. In a  small portrait from 1894 we see her, head uncovered, gazing downward, and wearing a very severe dress; yet, there’s a certain tenderness conveyed here, as also in the large scale portrait from 1907 (after she had recovered from a life-threatening illness) where Ida is sitting, idly stirring a cup of tea and looking off, away from the viewer, past the frame.

In the next room you’ll find “Evening in a Drawing Room” showing Ida knitting, while her mother-in-law sits nearby, reading the paper, each engrossed in her own work, as if they were passengers in the same rail car. This is the only painting that had more than one person, but that feeling of isolation which infuses his interiors, carries over here, too.

Paintings of rooms dominate this exhibit;  even though Hammershøi was known as “the painter of tranquil rooms” and these interiors are plain you somehow feel a bit off balance.  I found myself repeatedly wondering what was going on; many of the paintings would have a lone woman who was not facing the painter, and I wanted to know what she was doing; whether she was smiling or frowning… there are windows and doors that lead to somewhere else, and I kept on wishing I could go through the paintings and see what lay beyond.

From Christianhavn's Cove, by Vilhelm Hammershøi

From Christianhavn’s Cove, by Vilhelm Hammershøi

That feeling carried though his painting of three ships”From Christianahavn’s Canal;” tied up in the dock, with their sails indicated through rough lines in an almost Cubist fashion, they are facing seaward; but there seems to be fog over the water, not letting you see what you’re sure is there..   I found the same to be true of “Buildings of the Asiatic Company” from 1902 – a baroque style building connected to its warehouse by a one story structure, looking over the harbor, which you can’t see, because of fog… but if you look closely, you’ll see the outline of a ship in between the buildings.

I would say in general that what you don’t see in Hammershøi’s pictures shapes your perception as much as what he does make visible.