Sunday, January 19, 2020

Cassandra King Conroy Talks "Tell Me A Story: My Life with Pat Conroy"

With Cassandra King Conroy
It's always a treat to hear an author talk about her book. But when Cassandra King Conroy took the mic, she was there to do more than promote her memoir "Tell Me A Story: My Life with Pat Conroy." She also wanted to remind people how groundbreaking Conroy's books were and to give his readers a sense of what he was like as a person. I left with a new appreciation for his work.

The title of her memoir comes from Pat's unflagging interest in other people's lives. "Tell me your story," he'd often say, including to readers standing in line for an autograph. Both the lines -- and the time it took to get to the front -- were apparently legendary. Not surprisingly, Cassandra had a good story of her own about how the two met.

The time was the late '90s, and Cassandra had her first book coming out.  She was invited to a writers' conference at which the famous Pat Conroy -- one of her favorite authors -- was going to speak. When she checked in, she asked if he was around and was told he'd already left for the evening. She consoled herself by heading to the refreshment table. After all, she had missed dinner.

Just as she stuffed something a bit cumbersome in her mouth, a scruffy looking guy ambled over and they started talking. She was taking such delight in her makeshift meal that he asked for her recommendations on what to try. They walked around the table and she pointed out various tidbits that she'd enjoyed. One of Cassandra's friends eventually joined them, saying, "Oh, Cassandra, I see you met Pat! Have you told him about your book?" Yikes -- in so many ways.  It turns out Pat thought she was the caterer while she had mistaken him for someone's husband forced to attend the event.  From that rather inauspicious beginning came more than two decades together.

It's been a while since I read any of Conroy's books, but my vague recollection was that "The Great Santini" was autobiographical. Cassandra confirmed my memory, noting that it had taken a lot of courage for Pat to write about his relationship with his abusive father. (Remember, the novel was written in 1976, long before tell all books became the norm.)

But "The Great Santini" wasn't the first -- or last -- of Pat's books that shed light on social issues.  In 1972, he published a memoir entitled "The Water is Wide." In the book, Pat shares his experience teaching Gullah children in a two room schoolhouse on Yamacraw Island, South Carolina. The education these kids had received was woefully inadequate; many middle schoolers were reading at a first grade level. Corporal punishment was routine, and the students had grown to associate learning with pain.

Pat set out to change these children's relationship with education. He eschewed books in favor of real-world experiences, often taking the students to the mainland. His approach was not favored by school administrators. Despite support from the parents, Pat was fired for "gross neglect of duty and conduct unbecoming" and blackballed as a teacher. The students' loss became the literary world's gain.

Later books in which Pat tackled societal issues include "The Lords of Discipline," a novel about hazing rituals at Citadel. (It's one of three books Pat wrote that were inspired by his experience as a Citadel cadet.) The upshot: Pat was banned from the campus and any Citadel-related events for many years. Cassandra shared that there were times when the situation had settled down and Pat was close to being brought back into the fold. Inevitably, he would make an inflammatory comment that would reignite the battle.

After Pat died, his hometown of Beaufort wanted to do something special to commemorate his life. It was suggested that a statue would be a striking memorial. The town administrators were a bit taken aback when Cassandra summarily rejected that idea. What they didn't know was that Pat and Cassandra had discussed this very idea on a trip when they came upon a statue of a prominent local author. "Don't ever let them do that for me," Pat said. "It would just give the pigeons a chance to do what the critics have done."

Instead, the Pat Conroy Literary Center now stands proudly in Beaufort.  Its mission is to "nurture a diverse community of writers, readers, teachers and students by offering educational events that celebrate the transformative power of story..." The Center offers a variety of programs, from author readings to mentorships for writing students to professional development for English teachers. Cassandra is not alone in thinking this is a much more fitting memorial to Pat. To read more about the Center, click here.

Thanks to Copperfish Books for bringing Cassandra King Conroy to Punta Gorda. It was an afternoon everyone in attendance will long remember.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Designing "Murder on the Orient Express" at Asolo Rep

James Monaghan, Paul Tate dePoo III and Tracy Dorman
I'll admit it. I'm a theater junkie. I love sitting in a dark theater and watching a story unfold. But I also enjoy listening to people talk about the process of getting a show from the page to the stage. Whether it's a madcap comedy, a high kicking musical or an intense drama, it's the job of the designers to create the trappings of the alternative world in which the actors and the audience will immerse themselves. It's a big responsibility.

Twice a season, Asolo Repo provides avid theatergoers the opportunity to hear firsthand from designers how they make their magic happen. And so I found myself front and center when dramaturg James Monaghan chatted with scenic designer Paul Tate dePoo III and costume designer Tracy Dorman about their work on "Murder on the Orient Express." The show is a comedic adaptation by Ken Ludwig of the Agatha Christie mystery. As always, the talk was both fun and educational. 

DePoo and Dorman have clearly developed a great working relationship. Their conversation flowed easily, with each listening with interest to what the other had to say. For ease of sharing their thoughts, I'll break it down by designer. 

Dorman's work on "Murder on the Orient Express" is her seventh engagement at Asolo Rep. Most recently, she designed "The Crucible." It would be hard to imagine two more different aesthetics. The colors of the costumes in "The Crucible" were unrelenting shades of brown. Dorman explained she utilized the drab tones to convey how trapped these characters were in their small environment. 

The characters in "Murder,,,," on the other hand, are constantly in motion -- literally. The fabrics and colors and designs are luscious. Just check out these silk pajamas. As Dorman said, "Who would really wear these to bed?"  Those sleeves would be a serious nuisance. 

Dorman's favorite part of her work comes when collaborating with the actors in the fitting room. "The real joy," she said, "Is in helping them find their characters." Take, for instance, her time with Jim DeVita, who plays Hercule Poiret. The detective is a bit on the persnickety side. And so she and DeVita spent time talking about the costume details that the audience might not notice but that help build their characters' identities, like how his pocket watch should be placed and how his handkerchief would be folded. The finessing doesn't end until opening night. 

When asked about the importance of tech night, Dorman laughed and shared an incident that had taken place the previous evening. One of DeVita's wardrobe changes somehow didn't make it onto the schedule, and he ended up on the other wing of the stage from his clothes. It was pretty obvious something had gone awry when he appeared onstage half-dressed. That take is one for the blooper reel.

The Asolo's production of "Murder..." uses video to a number of ends, including providing the backstory for some of the characters. Dorman had been slightly apprehensive when she realized just how much video there would be. Her costumes are, after all, designed for the stage rather than the screen.

Having seen the final product, Dorman is a clear convert to the video component. She marveled at how much complexity it adds to the story. "I probably shouldn't say this, but the writing of the show almost doesn't deserve this level of beauty," Dorman opined. It's the perfect segue way to dePoo's scenic design. 

DePoo was just as charming as he was at the brunch when he discussed his scenic design for "The Sound of Music." When Michael Donald Edwards called him and said, "Dahling, Orient Express,,,,", dePoo had to give it some serious thought. Marked across his January and February calendar in bold print were the words "Make Sure It's Worth It." It's often difficult, he explained, for people to get back into the groove post-holidays. An opening scheduled for early January was fraught with opportunities for disaster. DePoo is very grateful he said yes. 

One factor that drove his decision was having seen the original production of Ken Ludwig's adaptation at a theater that will remain unnamed. It was terrible. The design included three separate train cars and left him feeling exhausted. He knew he could do better.

With a bit of chagrin, dePoo shared that his original idea for the scenic design was an abstract sense of a train. "If the curtain had risen and the audience just saw a bunch of lines, it would be pretty disappointing," he said with a laugh.

The final design -- more or less -- was the result of an all-nighter he pulled after the design team met with director Peter Amster back in May. While I haven't seen the show yet, word is the set is spectacular -- and about as diametrically opposed to an abstraction as you can imagine. DePoo said he had to apologize to the production team responsible for creating the train cars. They had breathed a sigh of relief when he originally told them no wood detail would be required. Oops!  And -- spoiler alert -- the elaborate set is on a turntable that allows both sides of the train car to be visible and creates a sense of motion.

DePoo is in awe of the final product created by Vic Meyrich and his team at the scenic studio. "It's insane what this company has built," he said. "It's ginormous." And let's not forget that the show will soon be in repertory with "The Lifespan of a Fact" and "Into the Breeches," so the set must be moved on and off the stage with great frequency. The logistics are daunting.

The pair were in agreement as to their favorite element of the show -- a scene that takes place on the Observation Deck of the train. In a show jam-packed with action and movement, it's a quiet moment when lights sparkle and a character turns and reveals the low-cut back of the dress shown above. Dorman said, "It's cinematic, but magic. And that's theater. That is why we go to the theater."

"Murder on the Orient Express" runs at Asolo Repertory Theatre through March 8.  Click here for more information.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin

Timing is everything. I picked up Steve Martin's "An Object of Beauty" a few years ago, and it didn't grab me. When a friend literally put a copy in my hands recently with a declaration that it was one of her all-time favorites, I didn't have the heart to tell her I'd already soundly rejected it. So I gave it another try. And...I loved it.

The novel tells the story of Lacey Yeager, a young woman whose career in the art world begins in the basement of Sotheby's where she catalogues and measures 19th century American paintings. She is dressed to the nines and always ready with a quick quip. She is supremely confident that her wit (and looks) will get her places, and she's right. Her days are spent at Sotheby's and her nights in the East Village. As our narrator explains, "The contemporary art scene was the left bank suburb to Lacey's right bank, uptown art world." The stage has been set for an exploration into all sectors of the art world from the perspective of the ambitious Lacey.

"Nude Bathers" by Milton Avery (1946)
Lacey eagerly comes into Sotheby's on Saturdays to assist with the deliveries of paintings to be put up for auction. The art handlers aren't there that day, so she can get up close and personal with all kinds of people. When an elderly couple hobbles in with a Milton Avery they paid $300 for back in 1946, Avery's work is described this way. "His pictures were always polite, but they were polite in the way that a man with a gun might be polite; there was plenty to back up his request for attention." (You might be starting to get an idea about why this book captivated me so much.)

Lacey's rise at Sotheby's began when she took on the Avery as a pet project. While the curator estimated the painting would fetch $80,000, Lacey suggested to her colleagues that it would go for $170,000. She worked to make it happen, having the painting reframed and pumping the pipeline for buyers. And it worked. Lacey was starting to get a reputation.

"November in Greenland by Rockland Kent (1932)
As the story progresses, Lacey finds herself immersed in the gallery scene, sometimes on her own and sometimes as a memorable representative of Sotheby's. Her transition to a gallerist begins when she works with gallery owner Barton Talley on a project to bring 40 Rockwell Kent paintings to the United States from Russia. Negotiations -- and machinations -- akin to that of an international summit ensue, with Lacey as part of the prize. (She is not reluctant to take full advantage of her sex appeal.)

Lacey's life is nothing short of a romp through the art world at a time (much like today) when the sky seems to be the limit. While I loved the story, it's Martin's writing that propels it forward. It's funny and fun and thought-provoking and educational. I enjoyed meeting some new artists along the way. (The pictures in the book are terrific.) Martin even managed to work in a storyline about the heist from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. It also happens to dovetail nicely with my own exploration of contemporary art. Here are a couple more passages that will give you a sense of why I didn't want to put this book down.

"La Nona Ora" by Maurizia Cattelan
(of duct-taped banana fame) (1999)
As to a Warhol that Lacey couldn't quite explain why she loved, Talley said, "Darling, I call that the perverse effect. Those things that you hate for so long are insidiously working on you, until one day you can't resist them anymore...It just takes a while to see the complications in them. It's why outsiders hate the art we love; they haven't spent time with them." (This sentiment echoed that of Anne-Marie Russell, Executive Director of the new Sarasota Art Museum, who talks about her love of art that initially made her recoil. Yes, "recoil" was her exact word.)

As to the overwhelming nature of Art Basel: "There was no way to go from start to finish without doubling back, which created an ongoing loop of deja vu, and I was surprised to see a painting for the second time yet have no recollection of the other pictures around it. It became impossible to evaluate the artworks but easy to enjoy them; they were like a steady parade of beauty queen contestants where you find yourself saying after the fiftieth lovely one, 'Next.'" (This made me feel SO much better about my own overwhelming Art Basel experiences.)

"Felt Suit" by Joseph Beuys (1970)
As to the reference to art works being "in dialogue": "'In dialogue' … meant that hanging two works next to or opposite each other produced a third thing, a dialogue, and that we were now all the better for it...It also hilariously implied that when the room was empty of viewers, the two works were still chatting." (This is precisely what everyone has been talking about with respect to the Museum of Modern Art's placement of Picasso's "Les Desmoiselles d'Avignon" adjacent to Faith Ringgold's "Die" in its new space. Click here for more on that story. Martin's description also made me think of the movie "Night at the Museum.")

The bottom line is this: "An Object of Beauty" is a perfect book for any art lover who doesn't take herself too seriously. And as a reward for reading to the end of this post, you can watch Martin analyze two paintings by clicking here to see him in a segment of the Museum of Modern Art's "The Way I See It." The entire series is outstanding. Enjoy!

Friday, January 3, 2020

The Family that Throws Together....

Suzanne, Tim, Drew, me and TJ (missing Liz -- and Jakie!) 
I wasn't really offended when my sister told me we were going axe throwing over the holidays but that it would probably be best if I just watched. After all, there was that time when I attempted to throw a softball and it landed about two feet in front of me. The mere mention of it makes my family convulse with peals of laughter. Given my clear athleticism -- and the dangers of a sharp-edged instrument -- I was content with the idea of being a bystander. Until, that is, I saw how much fun everyone was having.

Tim throwing two handed while TJ throws with one hand
Our adventure took place at the Axe Throwing Society in Pompano Beach. Two of TJ's friends joined us for the outing, rounding our group out to two teams of three so long as I stayed on the sidelines. We started off with an orientation, some training tips and a safety lecture from Kyle, our personal "axe-pert."

Two players throw at a time in an area contained on both sides by a chain link fence. There's a barrel with an assortment of axes to choose from and two targets. The most important rule: Don't collect your axe until the other person has thrown. It seems pretty self-evident, but the adrenalin can get the better of you sometimes. The second most important rule: If you're not throwing, stay out of harm's way behind the counter situated a few feet behind the competitors. And then there's the rule that visibly intoxicated people wouldn't be allowed to play. The lawyer in me was particularly happy to see that one.

One of Suzanne's early throws
You can throw one- or two-handed. Either way, you need to have your elbows up as if you were doing some tricep work with a weight.  If you elect to use both hands, you lean back a bit before you throw. It's an opportunity to engage your core. (My trainer would be proud.)

The objective in the first game was for a team to get exactly 50 points. I'm not sure how you score darts, but I suspect the systems are pretty similar. Your points increase the closer you get to the target, with the outermost circle being a one and the bullseye being a six. If you happen to hit one of those little blue circles, you get eight points. If your axe sticks outside the target or ends up on the ground (a not infrequent occurrence), you've left your team high and dry. If your team's score surpasses 50, it resets to 44. I have no idea why. Each player gets five throws per round from a distance of 12-15' from the target.

In the second competition, the teams went up against each other in a game of hangman, with the phrase being "Bad Axe." You threw against an opposing team member, with each player getting three throws. The player with the higher of the two cumulative scores for the round got a letter. By the time this game was over, I was eager to join the fun.

I went up against Suzanne in another round of the 50 point contest. I was quite proud when four out of my first five throws stuck, and I actually got a bulls-eye. Beginner's luck at its finest. (Everyone in our group got at least one bulls-eye over the course of the two hours.) Just in case you're wondering about the odd number of people, our axe-pert joined my team to even things out since the others were now highly experienced throwers. He wasn't particularly good and mentioned several times that it was the first time he was throwing that day.

Last up was a take on some cricket game. The objective was for each team to hit a particular area three times; e.g., three throws hitting the outermost circle. This was clearly a game for more experienced throwers who actually have the ability to aim. Our time ran out well before either team completed this challenge.

It was definitely a fun and unusual way to spend an evening. And while I'm not going to become an axe-pert, I'll definitely do it again. After all, Axe and Bull is just around the corner....

Monday, December 30, 2019

Favorite Reads of 2019

It's the time of year when "best of" lists are ubiquitous. This year it's even more pronounced with the "best of" extending back an entire decade. These lists often they make me a bit regretful as I realize how much I've missed. But that's not an issue with the litanies of great books, so I'm chiming in with some of my favorites of the year. A couple of the books are even yet to come out.  (Thanks, BookExpo!)

"American Dirt" by Jeanine Cummins far and away tops my list. This book tells the story of Lydia and her young son Luca who flee Acapulco after the rest of their family -- 16 members in all -- is slaughtered in one fell swoop by a drug cartel. The reason for the violence: her husband was a reporter who crossed the line in his reporting about the cartel. The plot follows Lydia and Luca's heart-stopping journey as they struggle to make it to the border and the safety of the United States. And then there's the surprising relationship between Lydia and the head of the cartel. Every aspect of "American Dirt" is remarkable, from the characters to Cummins' writing to the timeliness of the story. Marketing blurbs for the novel says it will leave readers changed. While that sounds like puffery at its finest, I do have a new perspective on the immigration crisis having read this book. "American Dirt"  will hit bookstores in late January. Put it on your list now. Better yet, pre-order a copy!

"My Dark Vanessa" by Kate Elizabeth Russell was an Editor's Buzz Book from the 2019 BookExpo, and its troubling story has stayed with me in the months since I read it. The relationship depicted between a high school student and her teacher made my skin crawl. While disturbing, it's not an unfamiliar story. What sets "My Dark Vanessa" apart from similar novels is that it's told from the woman's perspective in her later life -- and she's still obsessed with her predator. Not only that, she continues to be convinced she was in charge of the relationship the entire time. "My Dark Vanessa" will be released in March. If you do read it, Russell's website contains a playlist and visual annotations to passages from the novel. Click here to check it out.

Note: As I read "My Dark Vanessa," I thought back to Andy Pace, the cool high school teacher whom we all knew was having a relationship with a male student. Pace was arrested in 2016--nearly 40 years later--when a naked juvenile fled his home after being drugged and raped. Other victims came forward once the news broke. Could we have somehow prevented this from happening if we had spoken up at the time?

"Washington Black by Esi Edugyun tells the story of Wash, an eleven year old field slave who has lived his young life on a Barbados plantation. One day the unsuspecting Wash is chosen by his master's brother to be his manservant. Despite Wash's trepidation, it was the luckiest day of his life. Christopher Wilde, his new owner, is a naturalist, an explorer, an inventor and an abolitionist. Notwithstanding their differences in age and background, Wilde treats Wash as his equal, educating him and exposing him to a life far beyond what he ever could have imagined. But Wilde is definitely an odd duck. And Wash's life is not without its trials and tribulations. It's all part of the process of Wash ultimately finding his own path. It was quite satisfying to join Wash on his journey.

"The Giver of Stars" by Jojo Moyes was a bit of a surprise. I'm not a huge Moyes fan, but the story of these horsewomen librarians pulled me in from the first page. The fact that the book is based on an actual WPA program -- the Pack Horse Library Project of Eastern Kentucky -- makes it all the more special.

Each character has a distinct personality and her own reason for joining the program to bring books to people on the outskirts of their community. You can't help but root for them as they persuade even the most suspicious folks of the value of reading. They are plucky and progressive and determined and hardworking. I admire them and would have loved to participate in this program (except for the horseback riding part -- lol.)

Of course, not everyone was a supporter of the women rising before dawn and donning their breeches to ride treacherous trails to deliver books and magazines. To some, the behavior is highly improper.  It made me revel all the more in their victories.

"Olive Again" by Elizabeth Strout was another surprise -- to me, if not to anyone else. I vividly remember reading the first Olive book and being puzzled by its structure.  At the time, I was transitioning from a full time thriller reader to a literary reader, so Strout's book of connected stories -- some that only mentioned Olive in passing -- was beyond me. And then there was the fact that Olive was so unlikable. (I continue to struggle today with unlikable protagonists.) But I had scored a copy of "Olive Again" at BookExpo and decided to give it a try. And.... I loved it. Olive has mellowed, and I'm sure that was part of the appeal. But Strout's interweaving of stories about Olive and her family, friends and community is really quite brilliant. It's clearly time for me to give "Olive Kitteridge" another try.

"The Epiphany Machine" by David Burr Gerard.  Here's one off the beaten path. I tend to listen to a different type of book than those I physically read. Stephen King tops my list as a companion for my road trips. (I really liked "The Outsider," soon to be a miniseries with Jason Bateman.) And then there are the thrillers and novels that somehow just appear on my radar screen. "The Epiphany Machine" was one of those books, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The catch phrase summarizing the plot is "Everyone else knows the truth about you; now you can know it, too." It sounds kind of ominous, not to mention a bit magical. How, you might wonder, does this sudden self-awareness occur?  By getting a tattoo, of course.

For decades, Adam Lyons' mysterious epiphany machine has written pithy expressions on clients' forearms that sum up their nature. ("Dependent upon the opinion of others" is just one example.) Not surprisingly, the practice has raised all kinds of issues over the years. Enter Venter, a skeptical young man whose parents were believers in the epiphany machine when they were young. But a lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then. The book follows Venter's own relationship with Lyons, his supporters and opponents, and the machine. The story is unique and interesting and might even make you think about how you would sum yourself up in just a few words.

Here's to a new year filled with friends, family and more than a few good books.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Text and Light at Art Basel

"A Twilight Labyrnith (Alchemy)" by Josiah McElheny (2019)
In the hustle and bustle of Art Basel, Josiah McElheny's "A Twilight Labyrinth (Alchemy)" was an oasis of calm and beauty. Although it was installed in the wall, I kept approaching it from different angles, trying to figure out how many of his exquisite glass vases McElheny had included in this work. (I finally settled on six.) The illumination made the vases shimmer.  It was stunning.

McElheny's resume includes the Rhode Island School of Design, apprenticeships with master glassblowers such as Lino Tagliapetra and, oh yes, a MacArthur Genius grant. He often replicates objects found in Renaissance paintings and documentary photos. His mirrored works are considered an act of self-reflection and a metaphor for reflecting upon an idea. To see more of McElheny's work, click here.

"All You are is the Result of What You Have Thought"by Jesse Hein 
Now that we're in a self-reflective mood, I'll share "All You Are is the Result of What You Have Thought" by Jeppe Hein. The truth in the statement made me pull up short when I saw it. And looking right back at yourself as your brain makes a quick assessment of what you have been thinking recently adds even more power. If I were one to have a tagline at the end of my emails, I'd be tempted to use this.

Hein's work challenges viewers to be an active participant. And when I say active, I mean it.  His "Mobile Mobile" and "Light Pavilion II" only lit up when you rode a stationary bike attached to the work. Fabulous.

Then there was his recent "Breathe with Me" project. Years ago, Hein struggled with mental illness. He used simple breathing exercises to combat his panic attacks. In "Breathe with Me," Hein incorporated this concept into participatory art installations. The project was launched in connection with Climate Change Week, a symposium at the UN in which Hein participated.

The idea is simple. Standing in front of a blank canvas, the viewer is armed with a paintbrush and a bucket of blue paint. She takes a deep breath, dips the paintbrush into the bucket and paints a vertical line until all her air has been expelled. While the resulting artwork is fun, it's the process that's important. Multiple versions of "Breathe with Me" have been created, including a 600' long canvas in Central Park and a more modest version at the UN.

The connection with the issue of climate change is straightforward. As Hein said, "If you can't breathe, you can't live, the trees can't live. It's a very important thing." And while I like the political connection, I love the idea of including kids in a community art project -- and the advice he gave them. "Breathe in deep, deep, deep and roar like a lion."

To read more about "Breathe with Me," click here and here. And to see more of Hein's work, click here.

"for those who came to bear witness... 2018" 
by Ebony G. Patterson
Then there was "...for those who came to bear witness...2018" by Ebony G. Patterson. If you imposed a plaintive tone on Patterson's words (as I did), it's time for a do-over. Patterson intends the words as a demand rather than a request.

Like many artists today, Patterson works in a variety of mediums, from tapestries to sculpture to video. Her work explores issues of gender and race, often through the lens of the glitter and bling of Jamaican dance hall culture. Sometimes, as discussed in this article, you have to really look to notice what her work is saying. And that gets back to the concept of taking the time to look, rather than just see.

Patterson talked about the difference in an interview with Art Forum. "To look involves analysis," she said, "And with looking comes query. It's an active engagement...We take in so much information so quickly all the time. But we've lost a sense of what it means to just stop and look. In that stopping, the viewer might take away something, but that's entirely up to them.." Boy, am I guilty of merely seeing all too often. To read the complete interview, click here. To see all 16 fabric panels of  "for those who came to bear witness," click here. And to see more of Patterson's work, click here.

"Politicians Make Me Sick" by David Shrigley
I'll leave you with a very relatable work by David Shrigley. His simple drawings and humorous text attract me every time. (His "It's raining morons" from last year's Art Basel still makes me laugh.) Artspace Magazine likened his work to "the musings of a very wise child displaying the wit and humor of a seasoned observer of the adult world."

With only a few hours to see everything Art Basel had to offer, I didn't often spend much time in one booth. Then I was confronted with a wall of David Shrigley pieces. I'm talking at least 32 works. While it was a tad stressful to stay in one place for so long, I read every single one. And I enjoyed them all, from the dinosaur creeping up a set of stairs with the word "QUIETLY" written at the top to a bodiless head saying "My purpose has yet to become apparent. I am starting to consider the possibility that I might not have a purpose." to a group of anxious faces with the word "AUDITIONS" floating nearby.

While Shrigley's art falls much more in the realm of cartoons than fine art, he is a serious artist. He studied at the Glasgow School of Art and was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2013. His work is sometimes characterized as "outsider" art due to its naïve style. He considers himself, however, very much an artworld insider.

"Crap" by David Shrigley
The good news is that Shrigley seems to be exactly as you might expect after looking at his art. In an interview with Artspace, he was very down to earth and funny. He talked about everything from why he likes to take the occasional life drawing class to his role as an extra in "Trainspotting" to the art he and his wife have acquired in drunken moments. Click here to read the interview. And to see more of his work, click here.

I could continue on and on blogging about the art I saw at Art Basel. Reflecting on it -- and learning about the artists whose work caught my attention -- is half the fun. But the holidays are upon us, so this ends my 2019 Art Basel journey. Besides, the Sarasota Art Museum has just opened, and its two inaugural exhibits are highly blog-worthy.

Have a great holiday season. Hope you get a lot of good crap!

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Faces, Figures and Books: Favorite 2D Art from Art Basel

Recent work by Amoako Boafo (Note: The
dappling in the upper right quadrant is compliments
of the artist rather than poor photography)
From a lay person's perspective, the most buzzed about artist at Art Basel seems to have been Amoako Boafo. (Note that I said artist, not artwork. "Comedian" wins the prize for most talked about artwork hands down.)  I had read about the artist before my adventure and was eager to see his work in person.  It did not disappoint.

Ten years ago, Boafo was living in his hometown of Accra, Ghana. Art was his passion, and he wanted to make it his profession as well. While his family didn't totally discourage him from pursuing his dream, they did point out he had to make a living. Boafo was selling some of his portraits to local hotels, but only for $100 a pop. His primary income came from working as a pallbearer. He was on the verge of discouragement when Kehinde Wiley discovered the young artist and purchased one of his works. And with that, his prospects took a turn for the better.

Of course, it didn't happen overnight. Boafo went to art school in Ghana and then, somewhat serendipitously, ended up studying in Vienna at the Academy of Fine Arts. He remembers that when he arrived, people told him he had talent but needed to paint "different characters;" i.e., white people. He actually considered taking their advice, but quickly realized he had to be true to himself. In his work, Boafo explores and celebrates black identity. His patchy paint style comes from using his fingers in lieu of a brush for portions of his portraits. To read a great interview in which the 35 year old artist talks about finger painting and the influence of Egon Schiele, click here. And if you happen to be in the Miami area, don't miss the exhibit of his work at the newly opened Rubell Museum.

"A.O.: (fiona attacked by a fish) by Thomas Zipp (2019)
Thomas Zipp's paintings also caught my eye. How could they not when portions of his work literally emerge from the canvas? Sadly, I haven't been able to discover much information about the German artist. He works in a variety of media, so the addition of three dimensional components to his painting isn't wholly surprising.

Zipp's subjects are often controversial historical figures such as Otto Hahn, the father of nuclear chemistry, and Martin Luther, the person credited with the schism with the Catholic Church. But I don't think poor Fiona falls into that category. I do know things don't look good for her, with only some pencils and a rolled up piece of paper for protection from this fish. He doesn't look too dangerous, though, despite the painting's title. I'm optimistic for her chances.

I previously mentioned the Meridians section of Art Basel, located in the ballroom of the Miami Beach Convention Center. The expansive space provided room for Alexis Smith's "Fool's Gold." The work is 22' across by 10' high. This might be one reason the painting has not been exhibited since the artist's 1991 retrospective at the Whitney.

There were so many interesting things going on in this painting that I wasn't sure where to look first. Like Zipp's work, the painting included a three dimensional figure; in this case, a woman sitting atop a donkey being led by a prospector through the desert. At first glance, it seems like he's a good Samaritan type. What you can't see in this picture -- large as it is -- is that the woman is wearing what appears to be a two piece bathing suit and her "saddle" has the appearance of a coiled snake. Hmm.

Smith is known for her interest in popular fiction in general and pulp novels more specifically. The text is apparently the type of overwrought phrase you'd find in a romance novel of the era. It adds an element of danger. Would this man suddenly turn on her and attack her?  He seems much more ominous with his pick axe than Zipp's colorful fish. Then there's the heat pulsating from the sun, the skull, and what might be buzzards flying overhead.  So much to think about. I want to know the next installment of this story.

"Untitled" by Claudio Parmiggiani (2017)
You might wonder how Claudio Parmiggiani's "Untitled" got any attention in a convention center filled to the bursting point with color and noise and flash. But you show me a bookcase, and I have to check it out. It was well worth the stop.

The variety of mediums artists use to create their work never ceases to amaze me. Parmiggiani's  "Untitled" is a perfect example; the work is comprised of shadows and imprints made with soot and smoke.

In a (very dry) lecture Neil Powell gave about Parmiggiani for the Simon Lee gallery, he talked about the artist's intention in this series. The works are a reference to book burnings by the Germans in the lead-up to the Holocaust and invoke the horrific idea of cultural cleansing. Powell suggested they might also be a reminder of the aftermath of the atomic bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There one moment there, gone the next, leaving behind only dust particles from a former life. Once again, a work with power as well as beauty. To see more of Pamiggiani's work, click here.

"Eclipsed" by Hernan Bas (2019)
That was an awfully serious work, so here's something a bit more fun -- and Floridian. Hernan Bas finds his inspiration in everything from the Hardy Boys series and Oscar Wilde to fashion lay-outs to Goth. He's been incredibly successful; the Rubell Family Collection had a retrospective of his work ten years ago when he was just 29.

Bas has said of his painting, "I do like the idea that everything is contained -- the entire narrative - within the frame of the canvas. But paintings that I consider to be successful are always on the verge of falling apart. To me, that's the fun of it -- the eminent collapse, and also the challenge."

To see more of his work, click here. And if you're interested in a deeper dive, check out some of the video links. In one video he shares that photography was his initial medium. He reluctantly began to focus more on painting due to space restrictions in his studio. With an express nod to Oprah, he said he's finally "owned" the fact that he's a painter, full stop. Having said that, he moved from his native Miami to Detroit in part so he could have sufficient space for a dark room. He's definitely an artist to watch.

"Studies into the Past" by Laurent Grasso
I'll leave you with Laurent Grasso's "Studies into the Past." The work is part of a series the artist did for the Olivier Malingue Gallery entitled "The Panoptes Project."

In case you're not up on your mythology, Argos was a hundred eyed giant. His father was called Panoptes, or all seeing one, so it was kind of a family thing. (For the record, Argos apparently used his talents for good rather than evil.)

In the exhibit, Grasso's beautiful and eerie paintings were displayed with other eye-forward art from the Gallery's collection, including works by Magritte and Picabia. The Gallery explained in its description of the exhibit, "The meaning of seeing is investigated throughout different centuries following the antique beliefs that the eye is a source of light as well as the Surrealist approach to vision as a spirituality.,, The spectator feels an uncanny presence that is lyrical and disturbing at once."  It sounds a bit creepy and Big Brother-ish to me, but I'm all in on "Studies into the Past" on a stand-alone basis. To see more from the exhibit, click here. Now I'm off to find my Turkish evil eye.

Next up: Art with Text and Light

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