Archive for the Contains Video Elements Category

VR Film Review: “The Art of the Steal”

Posted in Contains Video Elements, Film & Video, Liz Hager with tags , , , , on August 28, 2010 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Anyone who thinks that art makes a dull film subject should see “The Art of the Steal.”  Last February, I was lucky enough to be at a screening at SF’s Roxy Theater with the Director Don Argott and one of his producers to field questions after the screening.  In addition to a piece of enthralling storytelling, the film raises a range of moral issues that effect (and afflict) our contemporary art world. Thankfully, its release on DVD insures that it will be available to many more viewers, and hopefully not just those interested in art.

An epic story propels “The Art of the Steal.”  The film chronicles a long and acrimonious battle to move the Barnes Foundation collection to downtown Philadelphia from its home in the suburban Merion. The battle took on a David & Goliath  Governmental, business and some non-profits (the Pew Charitable Trust most egregiously) interests threw their considerable weight behind the effort to move the collection. A small, but vocal, group of locals mounted a grass-roots effort to block the move. Though none of the players is entirely sympathetic, by the end of the film, it’s difficult not to have taken sides, depending on where your sympathies lie in the matter of public access to art.  It won’t be giving much away to say that the film itself has a considerable bias. (In the wake of Michael Moore, who thinks even-handed documentaries make for good entertainment?)

The tale begins with Alfred C. Barnes. In the first decades of the 20th century Barnes, a quirky, wealthy and largely antisocial business man (with a medical degree), assembled what is now considered to be the most important collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist art (with Renaissance and African pieces to boot) anywhere. Some have estimated the current value of this collection at $25 billion.

A self-made man (and millionaire at 35), Barnes educated himself assiduously about art. During the 1910-20 period he was a passionate and energetic collector of “modern art.”  No body in the film seems to dispute that Barnes truly appreciated the works for their aesthetic qualities, rather than their potential value as a financial assets.

In 1922 Barnes established his foundation in suburban Merion, PA.  It was conceived as a holistic enterprise, comprised of his collection, a school (with educational program) and later an arboretum.  The design of the new structure built to house the collection was very much in keeping with a mansion, the suburban equivalent of the Frick or the Morgan Library or the Gardner.

The Barnes was not conceived as a public museum (although it has always been open to the public), but as a permanent educational facility attached to a collection. The film makes it clear that Barnes located it outside of Philadelphia, in large part due to the antagonism between him and the city’s elite establishment.  The collection was not hung as it would have been in a museum —i.e. chronologically or by school—but as a collector might, according to aesthetic preferences.

Barnes died in a car accident in 1951. His will stipulated that the Foundation remain intact with a Board of Trustees at its helm.  Most irritatingly to the Philadelphia establishment it seems, the will was clear in its intent that the collection could not be removed from the Foundation, either temporarily (i.e. on loan for exhibitions) or permanently.  For a long time under the watchful eye of his protegé, the provisions of Barnes’ will were steadfastly upheld.

At this chronological point “The Art of the Steal” kicks into overdrive, treating viewers to the devious, diabolical, and morally ambiguous ways in which the Philadelphia “oligarchy” (which included Barnes Board Trustees) began chipping away at Alfred Barnes’ will in the 1990s.  The stakes were huge. As then-Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell states succinctly on camera: “There isn’t a couple in the U.S., or Europe, or Asia who’s interested in arts and culture, who wouldn’t come to Philadelphia for at least a long weekend [if only the Barnes collection came to the city].”  One shouldn’t be surprised that pro-move interests deployed every Machiavellian tactic at their disposal.

It won’t be giving any of the viewing pleasure away to say that the opening of a new museum on Benjamin Franklin Parkway in downtown Philadelphia is imminent. According to the press releases, the Barnes’ new home will be a two-story, 93,000-square-foot building, with an additional level below grade. The collection will be displayed in 12,000 square feet of exhibition space that replicates the scale, proportion and configuration of the original galleries in Merion. There will be a 150-seat auditorium on the lower level. 

In the end, it may be that the true hero of the story is the art collection itself.  Although tossed around in a long game of political ping pong, they will survive the move, their beauty as individual objets d’art intact. Still, for all of us who love the private home museums, the viewing experience just won’t be quite the same.

One last disturbing element of the film remained with me after the screening. No matter where one stands on the issues involving private collections and public museums, the indisputable and heartbreaking fact is that Barnes ultimately could not control the legacy he worked so carefully to build. Let that be the real lesson to all of us mortals—wills can be broken.

Weigh in if you have seen the movie; if not, go directly to Netflix and rent it!

Wider Connections

NPR—” ‘Art of the Steal: Actual Heist or Conspiracy Theory?”

The Barnes Foundation

Richard J. Wattenmaker—Great French Paintings From The Barnes Foundation: Impressionist, Post-impressionist, and Early Modern

The Barnes Files

VR Sees RED

Posted in Artists Speak, Christine Cariati, Contains Video Elements, Fine & Decorative Arts, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 18, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

Red, a two-character play by John Logan, is about Mark Rothko and his young studio assistant (a fictional amalgam of various actual Rothko assistants) that pivots on the often-told story about the commission that Rothko undertook, and then ultimately rejected, to paint a set of murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building.

At the time, around 1958, Rothko and his generation of abstract expressionist painters—Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline—were beginning to be eclipsed by pop artists like Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Through Rothko’s often-heated dialogue with his young assistant, we get to eavesdrop on his ideas about art in general and his own work in particular—and to understand how he came to reject the commission and return what was then the enormous fee of $35,000. (The paintings are now at the Tate Modern in London.)

Mark Rothko, Black on Maroon Sketch (for Mural #6), 1958

The play attempts the near-impossible task of conveying something truthful about the thought and emotion that propels the creative process—and more often than not, it succeeds. Yes, the arc of the story is predictable, as is the evolution of the father/son, mentor/student relationship between Rothko and the assistant, Ken—but I thought that Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne transcended those limitations and often seemed to be having a real conversation.

As you take your seat in the theater, the stage, which reeks of turpentine, presents a believable recreation of Rothko’s New York studio at 222 Bowery. You then notice that Alfred Molina, as Rothko, is already on stage, sitting in a chair, studying the painting in front of him. Throughout the play, Rothko and his assistant are stretching canvases, mixing paints—and in one particularly moving scene, priming a huge canvas a brilliant red.

Mark Rothko, c. 1953
Photo courtesy Henry Elkan

Venetian Red particularly enjoyed Rothko’s violent outburst when he addresses the question: what do you see? to his assistant standing in front of a blood-red canvas. When the assistant tentatively responds: red, Rothko flies into a rage at this reductive answer, and begins to passionately enumerate the dozens of possible complex colors that the word “red” could represent.

Mark Rothko, Untitled Mural for End Wall, 1959

While Rothko is accurately portrayed as monstrously egotistical, pontificating and self-involved, that doesn’t mean that he’s not right or that he doesn’t have a lot of interesting and true things to say. Going in, I was not particularly a fan of Rothko’s work, but watching the play I got a better grasp of the intellectual and spiritual motivation for his work and its underlying sense of tragedy. And, yes, since seeing the play I’ve taken the time to look at his work more carefully.

What was important to me about the play was Rothko’s passionate insistence that art matters—that the artist must believe deeply in what he is doing. He also insisted that the viewer cannot be passive, but has to bring something to looking at a work art, not merely consume. When  Rothko badgers his young assistant that he must educate himself, read philosophy, great literature, look at all the art he possibly can—before he deserves to have an opinion—he makes a strong case. Rothko’s ego is enormous, but so is his passion. It was actually thrilling to hear someone talk with such fury about their work and the importance of making art, all with a complete lack of irony.

The only thing I care about is the expression of man’s basic emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, destiny  — Mark Rothko

Crucial to the effectiveness of the play is the lighting. The canvases—all saturated blacks and reds—are luminous. They are lit so that they glow, morph and radiate energy before your eyes, which fast-forwards the experience that unfolds more slowly when you sit for a while with Rothko’s work.

Red is playing in New York through June 27th. If you’ve seen it, let us know what you think.

Wider connections:
Joanne Mattera’s thoughts on Red.
Roberta Smith, New York Times

Et in Arcadia Ego: Still-Life with Strawberries

Posted in Christine Cariati, Contains Video Elements, Drawing, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Flora & Fauna, Painting with tags , , , , , , , on April 27, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

Jean-Siméon Chardin, Wicker Basket with Wild Strawberries, 1761
Oil on canvas
Private collection

Recently, while looking at Chardin’s Wicker Basket with Wild Stawberries, a beautiful, elegiac passage from Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited crossed my mind:

At Swindon we turned off the main road and, as the sun mounted high, we were among dry-stone walls and ashlar houses. It was about eleven when Sebastian, without warning, turned the car into a car track and stopped. It was hot enough now to make us seek the shade. On a sheep-cropped knoll under a clump of elms we ate the strawberries and drank the wine—as Sebastian promised, they were delicious together—and we lit fat Turkish cigarettes and lay on our backs, Sebastian’s eyes on the leaves above him, mine on his profile, while the blue-grey smoke rose, untroubled by any wind, to the blue-green shadows of foliage, and the sweet scent of the tobacco merged with the sweet summer scents around us and the fumes of the sweet, golden wine seemed to lift us a finger’s breadth above the turf and hold us suspended.

—Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited, Book I, Et in Arcadia Ego

It was Chardin’s strawberries, luxuriating in their rich atmosphere of air and light, glowing with ripeness and warmth from the sun, that I imagined Sebastian Flyte and Charles Ryder feasting on in their summer idyll—not the bloated, tasteless behemoths that pass for strawberries these days.

So, here is a visual ode to the strawberry, as brought to vivid life in a handful of favorite still-life paintings. I apologize, dear reader, that I cannot deliver a basket to your door—but, by all means, open a bottle of Château Peyraguey, and feast your eyes.

Georg Flegel (1566-1638) Still Life with Pygmy Parrot, n.d.
Water color drawing
Staatliche Museum, Berlin

Adriaen Coorte, Still Life with Strawberries in a Wan-Li Bowl, detail, 1704
Oil on canvas
Private collection

Eloise Harriet Stannard (1829-1915) Birds and Strawberries, c. 1852-93
Oil on canvas

Pierre-August Renoir, Strawberries, 1905
Oil on canvas
Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris

Édouard Manet, Strawberries, 1882
Oil on canvas
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Notes from the Studio: The Iconic Face of Liberty

Posted in Christine Cariati, Contains Video Elements, Fine & Decorative Arts, Public Art, Sculpture with tags , , , , on April 13, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

This striking black and white picture, shot by an unknown photographer, is the face of the Statue of Liberty. It was taken in 1885 when the statue was uncrated and waiting to be assembled at Bedloe’s Island. I’ve had this picture tacked up on one studio wall or another for more than 30 years. During that time, hundreds of other pictures—inspiration, sketches and notes—have come and gone, but this one remains a constant. The scale (note the man standing frame right), the shadows and the intense gaze, create a dramatic image that has never lost it’s impact.

Model for plaster mock-up in Bartholdi’s studio, c. 1880

Stripped of all her symbolism, including the radiant crown, the torch, the  broken chains underfoot—and all of our many associations with the assembled statue and its abiding presence on Liberty Island in New York Harbor—what remains in this photograph is the powerfully haunting face, strong and beautiful. No one knows exactly who served as model for this statue by French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi. It is said to either be a likeness of Bartholdi’s mother, Charlotte, or Isabella Eugenie Boyer, the French-born widow of American industrialist Isaac Singer.

Whatever Bartholdi’s inspiration, it is always instructive to step back from an overly-familiar image and think about the meaning and depth behind it. This statue, originally entitled Enlightening the World, has a face worth taking a second look at.

Death and the Maiden: The Execution of Lady Jane Grey

Posted in Christine Cariati, Contains Video Elements, Fine & Decorative Arts, Painting with tags , , , , , , on April 6, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

Hippolyte Paul Delaroche, The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, 1833
Oil on canvas
The National Gallery, London

When Hippolyte (Paul) Delaroche (1797-1856) exhibited The Execution of Lady Jane Grey at the Paris Salon of 1834, it was a sensation. In the early 19th century, Delaroche was among the most popular French historical painters—during his lifetime his work met with greater acclaim than that of his contemporaries Ingres and Delacroix. Delaroche’s reputation languished in the twentieth century, and this powerful work—which in its day was lavishly praised and widely reproduced in lithography and popular prints—was believed lost, until it was rediscovered in 1974.

Magdalena and Willem van de Passe, Lady Jane Grey, 1620
Engraving
Private collection

Like others in post-revolutionary France, Delaroche had monarchist sympathies, and, seeing parallels to recent French history, developed a romanticized interest in English history and literature—particularly the works of Shakespeare, Byron and Sir Walter Scott.

Delaroche, who also painted portraits and religious subjects, was very interested in theater, which is evident in his large-scale, very literary, theatrical and often tragic-themed history paintings. The Execution of Lady Jane Grey is no exception—it is filled with drama. Jane, blindfolded, on her knees in a light-saturated white dress, is gently led to the block by the Lieutenant of the Tower, Sir John Brydges. The executioner stands by, unmoved, while her ladies in waiting are overcome with grief. The straw surrounded the block where she is to lose her head will soak up her blood.

Lady Jane Grey’s brief life is yet another chapter in the bloody history of the Tudors. After only nine (or thirteen, accounts vary) days as Queen of England, Lady Jane Grey was removed from the throne and taken to the Tower of London to await execution. When she was beheaded six months later at Tower Green, on February 12, 1554, she was only 16 years old, and has since been mythologized as an innocent martyr to Catholic tyranny.

Anonymous, Edward VI and the Pope, c. 1570
Oil on panel
National Portrait Gallery, London

Jane’s cousin, Edward VI, died unexpectedly at age sixteen. Jane, a devout Protestant, and considered by Edward to be his lawful heir, was installed on the throne in an attempt to ward off the rising influence of the Catholic Church, an attempt which failed. Edward’s half sister, Mary Tudor, a Catholic (and illegitimate), had greater public support, and took her place as Queen. The painting above, celebrates Edward VI’s anti-papal stance and the successful re-establishment of Protestant rule. In the painting, Henry VIII lies on his deathbed, pointing to his successor, Edward VI—at whose feet the Pope lies crushed, under a book that says: “the worde of the Lord.”

Jane Grey’s short life was filled with difficulty. Her parents were cold and cruel and she took refuge in scholarship and her Protestant faith. She was very well-read and mastered Greek, Latin and Hebrew. Jane, pictured below in what is perhaps the only contemporary portrait of her, confided to her Cambridge tutor, Roger Ascham:

When I am in the presence of either Father or Mother, whether I speak, keep silence, sit, stand or go, eat, drink, be merry or sad, be sewing, playing, dancing, or doing anything else, I must do it as it were in such weight, measure and number, even so perfectly as God made the world; or else I am so sharply taunted, so cruelly threatened, yes presently sometimes with pinches, nips and bobs and other ways … that I think myself in hell.

The Streatham Portrait, Lady Jayne, n.d., c. 1550?
Private collection

Beautiful, intelligent and well-educated, Jane nevertheless met a tragic end—but she lives on in Delaroche’s theatrical and evocative masterpiece. The painting is currently the centerpiece of the exhibition, Painting History: Delaroche and Lady Jane Grey, at the National Gallery, London, through May 23rd, 2010.

The Play’s the Thing: A History of Toy Theater in Three Acts

Posted in Christine Cariati, Contains Video Elements, Fine & Decorative Arts, Illustration, Paper, XC with tags , , , , , , on June 15, 2009 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

FireworkstheaterOmbres Chinoise, A Toy Theater
Fireworks on the Seine during the Exhibition Universelle, Paris 1900
Mauclair-Dacier, French, colored lithograph, 13 7/8 x 18 1/4in.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Lincoln Kirstein

Act One: “A Penny Plain, Twopence Coloured”
The history of miniature theater, once a very popular form of domestic entertainment, is fascinating and engaging. Toy theaters flourished in 19th-century England where it was known as Juvenile or Toy Theatre. It was also popular throughout Europe—Papiertheater in Germany, Teatrini di Carta in Italy, Kindertheater in Austria, Imagerie Francais in France, El Teatro de los Ninos in Spain and the Dukketeater in Denmark. With some variations, the format was essentially the same—characters and scenery (complete with back drops, side wings, top drops and prosceniums) were printed on paper. Children then colored these sets and figures, cut them out, mounting some pieces on cardboard or light wood. The characters in the dramas were sometimes attached to flat wooden sticks that were moved across the the stage from side to side. On these tiny stages, large dramas were enacted.

GuignolGuignol, France, 1900s

In England, the early theaters were printed from copper-plate engravings and could be purchased colored or uncolored—hence the catchphrase “a penny plain and twopence coloured.” Because these theaters were exact reproductions of sets and scenery being presented on the contemporary stage, these theaters often provide the only visual record of the history of the London stage of that period. The toy theaters in England were predominantly melodramas and pantomimes, and plays by Shakespeare and Sir Walter Scott.

ToytheaterToy Theatre by A. How Mathews, England, c1900
courtesy Peter Baldwin

In Germany, they were often plays by Goethe, Schiller and their contemporaries; and operas by Wagner, Mozart and Rossini as well as popular comic operas of the day. In Denmark, beginning in around 1880, the firm of Jacobsen  printed colored lithographs for theaters largely depicting plays about Danish history and the fairy tales of Hans Christian Anderson. Many of these are still published today by the firm of Prior, in Copenhagen.

dukketeater-mogensDukketeater, Prior, Copenhagen

In England, paper theater began with William West, who first sold sheets of characters for the popular pantomime, Mother Goose, in 1811, and soon went on to publish sets and characters for a number of plays then enjoying success in London. These were very popular and other publishers joined in. Eventually, the style of theater productions changed and became less suitable for toy theater production—after 1860 only a couple of publishers continued to produce and hand-color the old plays up until the 1930s. One of these publishers was Benjamin Pollock. After the war, production was revived, and Pollock’s plays and theaters, now printed in color, can still be purchased today at Pollock’s Toy Museum in London.

ep-pollock-interiorInterior of Pollock’s Toy Museum

WestPirate

The fascinating history of toy theaters, lavishly illustrated and discussed in great detail, can be found in Toy Theatre, edited by Kenneth Fawdry, (published by Pollock’s Toy Theatres Ltd., London) and Peter Baldwin’s excellent Toy Theatres of the World (Zwemmer, London, 1992.)

pollocksToy Theatre display, Pollock’s Toy Museum, London

Act Two: Not For Pleasure Alone
One of the most fascinating things about toy theaters is that while adults enjoyed them as well, they were intended for children. Imagine the dexterity, concentration, imagination and thoughtfulness required to assemble and produce these performances. Quite a far cry from the offerings of today’s dumbed-down children’s entertainment industry. These miniature impresarios took their work very seriously—sets were constructed, speaking parts rehearsed, musical accompaniment (usually piano, perhaps a small ensemble) organized. The footlights were tiny candles with metal reflectors. Often tickets were sold at the door. This was a total performance experience.

For a wonderful glimpse of the magic of toy theater, watch the opening scene from Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece, Fanny and Alexander. About 35 seconds in, you will see Alexander playing with his toy theater. Notice that his theater has the motto of the Royal Theater in Copenhagen inscribed on the proscenium: “Ej Blot Til Lyst”—Danish for Not for Pleasure Alone.

However, toy theater also had its adult enthusiasts—Goethe was inspired to write for the theater by home performances he saw as a child. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote lovingly of stopping in the street and peering into the window of a shop in Edinburgh that displayed a working miniature theater. G.K. Chesterton was a life-long aficionado of toy theater. Here he is, cutting out characters for his miniature theater play, George and the Dragon:

GKCtoytheater

Chesterton wrote: “Has not everyone noticed how sweet and startling any landscape looks when seen through an arch? This strong, square shape, this shutting off of everything else, is not only an assistance to beauty; it is the essential of beauty…
This is especially true of toy theatre, that by reducing the scale of events it can introduce much larger events…Because it is small it could easily represent the Day of Judgement. Exactly in so far as it is limited, so far it could play easily with falling cities or with falling stars.”

The artist Jack Butler Yeats, son of painter John B. Yeats and brother of poet William B. Yeats, loved toy theater, and wrote and performed plays every Christmas for local children. Included in Jack B. Yeats, Collected Plays, is Yeats’ introduction to his plays for toy theater, My Miniature Theatre. In it Yeats says: “As to the plays, I write them myself. So what shall I say of them but that I like the piratical ones best.”

JBYplayadPhoto courtesy The Collected Plays of Jack B. Yeats by Robin Skelton
Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1971

Yeats designed sets for the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, which also produced three of his own plays. This watercolor, of a performance at the Old Mechanics’ Theatre (later the Abbey) wonderfully invokes his enthusiasm for the theater—both large and small.

Jack Yeats

Jack B. Yeats, Willy Reilly at the Old Mechanics’ Theatre
Watercolor, Courtesy of the Abbey Theatre

Another toy theater aficionado, the writer Jean Cocteau, said: “When I had scarlet fever or German measles and was kept in bed…I would design scenery for my toy theater…I think that was when I caught the red and gold disease of the theater, from which I never recovered.”

jcferdessins2-1

Act Three: Toy Theater today

greatsmallworksjpgStephen Kaplin, banner for Great Small Works’ Travelling Toy Theater Festival, 1997
photo by Jeff Becker

Traditional toy theaters, now understandably difficult to find, are avidly collected by antiquarians and Pollock’s produces 20,000 reproduction toy theaters a year. However, the love of miniature theater is not just an exercise in nostalgia, there is a thriving international community of toy theater enthusiasts who create wonderful contemporary works of wildly varying content and complexity.

Great Small Works has produced seven Toy Theater Festivals that have featured the work of hundreds of theater and visual artists from around the world. I invite you to take a minute to peruse their web site and find links to information about upcoming performances and festivals.

In closing, here is a wonderful newsreel from the 1920s which shows Mr. Pollock printing and constructing a toy theater. Feel free to try this at home!


William Kentridge: Last Days in San Francisco

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Contains Video Elements, Drawing, Film & Video, Fine & Decorative Arts, Installation, Liz Hager with tags , , , , , on May 29, 2009 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Only two more viewing days remain before “William Kentridge: Five Themes” at SFMoMA moves on to its next venue.

It has taken me 6 weeks and 4 viewings of the show to feel as if I’ve even begun to appreciate this artist’s profound and wondrous imagination. It’s not that Kendridge’s work is hard to access; it’s that there is so very much to absorb. (The performances of The Magic Flute and Black Box, not to be missed under any circumstances, require 50 minutes alone.) More important, because Kentridge deals with non-trivial topics—tyranny, suffering, our notions of the heroic, seeing and perceiving the world, the destructiveness of modernity—it’s necessary to dive deeper into the work than one session permits.  Though the process of discovery takes time, ultimately reaching ever-deeper layers of meaning in this show has been supremely nourishing to the soul. This is art of the best kind; it has caused me to think about not only how the world is, but how it could be.

Kentridge’s exquisite drawings are ends in themselves, rather than means to an end in another medium.  Charcoal (the burnt stick so emblematic of Africa), black gouache and ink are his dominant tools. Black & white fits his subject matter well, and not just in terms of darkness and light, evil and hope. In their use, one sees an evocation of apartheid, a topic which has inhabited Kentridge’s artistic life for decades. Or the apposition of everything (black) with the reflection of everything (white), which speaks to the nature of perception, another Kentridge’s signature themes.

True, the drawings are exceptional works in their own right. But theater is embedded in Kentridge’s DNA, so it’s films and theatrical pieces that really make this exhibition sing. (Kentridge refers to his film as “drawings in four dimensions.”) Most of them are conceived as cells for his animated films or projections for his performed pieces.  Kentridge has no allegiance to the work; drawings are constantly erased and images re-invented. It’s a refreshing departure from the contemporary practice of holding every scribble sacred. (Picasso famously said: “Who am I to destroy what God’s gift has allowed me to create?”)

The emotional content of the installations covers broad ground. On the one hand, merriment is much in evidence (amidst angst) in the films of Kentridge at work that run in endless loops in the room designated “Artist in the Studio.” Papers fly through the air with the greatest of ease; creator melds seamlessly with his drawing; landscapes fall to the bottom of the page in heaps; the artist tries to leave his studio on a voyage to the moon. These films are simple (though not simplistic) and mesmerizing. We meditate on the joys and tribulations of making art.

On the other hand, Black Box is a dense and disturbing darkness. The artist has conjured up a multi-media interpretation of the German conquest and subjugation of present-day Namibia. Paired with The Magic Flute installation, Black Box is the dark side of the Enlightenment; it brings to life the 19th century Euro-centric (racist) view of non-Europeans as undeveloped in need of colonial oversight. It’s a view that hasn’t entirely disappeared from the world.

Elegant mechanized figures perform their lament to animation and music. If you have been through the rest of the exhibition before arriving at Black Box, many of the characters and images here will be reassuringly familiar. They are Kentridge’s icons, windows into his complex cosmos.

Though the subject matter is dark, Black Box is not all darkness. There’s a small measure of comfort in the hand-drawn animation; against the backdrop of anonymous history, the artist (an individual) is ever present.  Further, in its execution Black Box evokes what modern eyes have come to see in silent movies, a naiveté all but occluded by 20th c. technology—edited sound, special effects and computer animation.

Kentridge

William Kentridge, What Will Come (has already come), 2007,  steel table, cylindrical steel mirror, 35mm animated film transferred to video, 8:40 min, 41 1/4 x 48 x 48″ (courtesy Norton Museum of Art).

What Will Come (has already come) contains its own thematic darkness. Kentridge conceived it as a response to the Italian Fascist invasion of Abyssinia (Ethiopia), a conflict notable for the failure of the League of Nations to protect member state Ethiopia against aggression, the Italian’s illegal use of mustard gas, and the Ethiopians’ opposition despite the most primitive munitions (including spears). Though about a specific conflict, this piece recreates the horror of every war.

Animated drawings have been projected from the ceiling onto a circular disk. The first images emerge from drafted primordial soup. As the disk picks up speed, images fly around its core: birds morph into planes, figures explode only to be reconstituted in the next revolution, a gas mask floats above the ground like an elephant dirigible. The cyclical nature of the projection is reinforced by the title, and one is reminded of George Santayana’s oft-quoted phrase: “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

In an inventive twist, the drawings are anamorphic—that is, they appear in a conventional manner only when viewed through the mirrored cylinder in the middle of the disk. The anamorphic technique, which dates back to the 16th century and has been widely used in motion picture lenses, has long been an interest of Kentridge’s, playing as it does into his fascination with machines and our modes of seeing. The two image planes, conventional and distorted, make the viewing experience chaotic. That’s only fitting for this subject matter.

“William Kentridge: Five Themes” is the most exciting display of imagination in recent memory.  Do not delay, run to MoMA before Sunday’s close.

From San Francisco, “Five Themes” travels extensively:
Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth—July 11-Sept 27, 2009
Norton Museum of Art (West Palm Beach)—Nov. 7, 2009-Jan.17, 2010
Museum of Modern Art (New York)—Feb.28-May 17, 2010
Jeu de Paume (Paris)—dates TBD
Stedelijk Museum (Amsterdam)—dates TBD
Albertina (Vienna)—dates TBD
Israel Museum (Jerusalem)—dates TBD

Wider Connections

You Tube—William Kentridge videos

John Coleman—Art as it Really Is

Richard Lacayo —Artist William Kentridge: Man of Constant Sorrow

The Art of Anamorphosis

Kipling “Take Up the White Man’s Burden

Bay Area FAV—George Rickey at the Main Library

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Contains Video Elements, Liz Hager, Public Art, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 22, 2009 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

We’ve hunkered down into an indeterminately long recession. We’re tightening our belts, in the process shifting our discretionary dollars to less expensive entertainment options or forgoing some culture/entertainment items altogether.

Currently, most Bay Area art museums charge entrance fees in the double digits (the Oakland Museum is a notable exception). Not more than the climbing prices of movie tickets, to be sure, and still a deal, when you consider the amount of content that is available for the price.  And yet, with scores of art galleries closed or closing, the opportunities to consume art are shrinking. These are exactly the kind of times that ought to make art lovers appreciate San Francisco’s commitment to art in public spaces.

Venetian Red has covered some pieces in the “public domain,”  both permanent works (such as Michael Stutz’s Peplos Kore at SF Airport) and temporary installations (such as Patrick Dougherty’s Upper Crust resident in the Civic Center plaza until November). Today we initiate a more formal round up, periodically posting on the many of our Bay Area FAVs (aka Free Art Views).

George Rickey’s Double L Eccentric Gyratory sculpture (one of several versions he created) is located rather inauspiciously on the northwest corner of Larkin and Fulton at the edge of the Main Library’s footprint. Given the crowd of street habitués usually in residence on that corner, one might be forgiven for passing that point as quickly as possible, head down, etc. Still, we say, brave the crowd, pause and watch, Double L will make you forget (at least temporarily) its less beauteous surroundings.

One of two major American sculptors to make movement an integral part of his works (the other was Alexander Calder), Rickey produced kinetic sculptures as early as the 1950s and was the first to move his sculptures into outdoor environments. The stylistic influence of his early teachers Fernand Léger and Amédée Ozenfant on Rickey’s later sculptural work seems self-evident; Rickey was heavily  interested in the geometric minimalism practiced by the Constructivists (e.g. Malevich, Tatlin, Gabo, et al.). He wanted to make public art that could be appreciated by people who understood the beauty of machines, although his machines don’t have a work purpose.

Double L is executed in Rickey’s signature style—braised and polished stainless steel geometric forms, whose movement is facilitated by a system of pendulums, fulcrums, rotors, gyros and pivots. Propelled only by the action of gravity and wind (lots of that in SF), the two giant heavy “L”s twirl almost inconceivably in effortless synchronicity, appearing to come close to, but never once colliding. (Of course this adds a lot of drama to the experience of viewing.)  After a few minutes in front of this sculpture,  you will realize that the pair is engaged in an ancient human rite, the courtship ritual.  It’s hard to believe that two large beams of steel could generate such a profound and ethereal experience.

Wider Connections

My SA Entertainment—“George Rickey’s moving sculptures make a stir in McNay retrospective”

Flickr—McNay retrospective

George Rickey in Indianapolis

Pink Martini—La Soledad

Programming the Cosmos: Leo Villareal at the National Gallery

Posted in Contains Video Elements, Contemporary Art, Film & Video, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , , , on January 29, 2009 by Liz Hager

Hypnotic, mysterious, mesmerizing, cosmic, soothing, ephemeral. . . enlightening. These are some of the sensations that wash over viewers as they encounter Leo Villareal’s Multiverse in the underground concourse between the East and West Buildings of the National Gallery. A computer geek from teen-hood, Villareal harnesses one of the fundamental attributes of the computer—simple rules, complex patterns—to create unique and kenetic light sculptures.

With 41,000 LED bulbs Multiverse is by far Villareal’s most complex work to date.  The software he developed for this project generates several different layers of synchronized patterns (Villareal likens what he does to composing music) that alternately shoot in straight lines down the length of the tube, explode in a big bang-like effect, bounce along in ball-shaped clusters, or just pulse.  The concourse is a transitional space; its ceiling is oppressively low, the space claustrophobic. Normally it must make for a rather prosaic journey. But whisked along the moving sidewalk under the twinkling stars, one is liberated into the cosmos, living a brief  StarTrekian moment.  The universe talks to us; we try to decipher its meaning.

While Villareal’s art acknowledges artistic forbearers in Dan Flavin and James Turrell, the underlying concept of his light pieces relates more to Sol LeWitt‘s wall drawings, Agnes Martin‘s grids, and even Peter Halley‘s paintings.

Comments Villareal: “I’m very interested in rules and underlying structures, which all tie in with the code I’m writing. There are things in nature that inspire me, like wave patterns or natural systems that at first glance appear to be very complex, but when I study them further there are simple rules that govern them. That’s what I try to get at in my code—building simple rules that refer to some of these ideas. Laws are another thing I’ve been working on lately. I’m not a physicist, but I use rules to create software and in the software I’m able to play with parameters like gravity, velocity, friction. I’m able to use these parameters and access them as an artist and see what compelling things result.”

Not everyone has been wildly enthusiastic about the project. Some critics feel that Villareal didn’t have enough mature work to warrant membership in the National Gallery club with Picasso, Titian, Rothko and Sol LeWitt.  The lack of critical thought surrounding Villareal’s work and the superficiality of the work (technology for technology’s sake, not art’s sake) are other criticisms.  Programmers have gone on record as saying that Villareal’s software is pretty basic stuff.

Multiverse may not embody a BIG ART IDEA, but what’s wrong with a little Sybaritic pleasure now and again?

Wider Connections

Multiverse

More Leo Villareal

Other light artists

Cool Hunting

Mighty Impermanence in the Presidio—Andy Goldsworthy’s “Spire”

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Contains Video Elements, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Public Art, Sculpture, Site Work with tags , , on December 3, 2008 by Liz Hager

In medieval times, a spire announced from afar the location of a church and, more important, its connection to heaven.  It’s not hard to grasp the ecclesiastical association in Andy Goldsworthy’s new piece in the Presidio; after all, it’s sited on a hill above the road and the pinnacle rises visually unobstructed some 90 feet above an open field of dirt.

Spire comes from the Anglo Saxon spir—spike or blade. Predominantly Gothic in architectural origin, the church spire became a symbol of the temporal power and wealth of its religious order (which undoubtedly preached resistance to these kind of earthly temptations). Spires communicated the arrogance of man, who audaciously taunted an Almighty God with the suggestion that human-made structures had mighty permanence. Of course it won’t be lost on many that The Presidio, once a seat of temporal might, is a most fitting locale for Goldsworthy’s iconic piece.

Visit “Spire” on a foggy afternoon as the wind has picked up. If you have the luck to be all alone on the site, you may find yourself thinking about ancient tribal rights. But as your gaze follows the poles to their receding point in the fog, you’ll probably be contemplating your absolute insignificance in the universe. Back down at ground level, however, there is something emotionally comforting in the fortress-like circle of trunks and deep furrows of their bark.

True to Goldsworthy’s artistic principal, “Spire” will not be permanent. With the passage of time the maturing fir and cypress forest planted around it will conceal the tower until it virtually disappears from view. At some point later in this century, the work may cease to exist altogether, as the wood rots, chunks fall off, and Presidio officials step in and disassemble it (government agencies being attuned to libel).

In “Spire, ” Goldsworthy has created the paradox of powerful impermanence. To paraphrase Somerset Maugham: let’s take delight in it while we have it.

Note: Don’t forget to see the free accompanying exhibit Goldsworthy at the Presidio, located in Bldg. 49, next door to the Officer’s Club.

Wider Connections:

Goldsworthy image round up

Venetian Red—”No River Runs Through It: Andy Goldsworthy’s “Stone River” at Stanford”

What others are saying about “Spire”—

ChezNamasteNancy

Bay Area Art Quake

Echovar

Kenneth Baker

Philips Garden Blog

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