Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Horst: Photographs - Fashion and Surrealism at the Dali

"Dali" by Horst

The special exhibits at the Dali Museum in St. Pete are always interesting. I kicked up my appreciation of the Museum's current exhibit -- Horst: Photographs - Fashion and Surrealism -- by sitting in on the monthly coffee with a curator.  The insights shared by Joan Kropf, curator of collection, were fascinating.

The show is a streamlined version of an exhibit at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London that included 400 photos by Horst. Susanna Brown from the V&A came over to help install the show at the Dali and train the docents. It's the only opportunity to see the exhibit in the United States.

Horst is best known for creating 94 gorgeous and innovative covers for "Vogue." I loved hearing about the relationships between Horst and his models. Russian model Lud was delivering packages when Horst discovered her.  Her exotic look was different from that of European and American models of the day. She was rumored--quite scandalously--to have had plastic surgery to reduce the size of her breasts and thighs to create the perfect silhouette for Horst. Her modeling years were cut short when she fell in love with a lion trainer and ran away with the circus.

While this image shows off the beautiful dress Lud is wearing, the set is equally captivating. Having apprenticed with LeCorbusier, Horst had a great appreciation for architecture.  A fan of Greco-Roman architecture in particular, he often created the sets himself that served as backdrops for the models.
"Lisa with Harp"

Dancer-turned-model Lisa Fonssagrives credited her career to Horst.  "I became a model because he made me one," she said. (Fonssagrives might be best known for her collaboration with Irving Penn, whom she married after they met on a shoot.)

Carmen Dell'Orefice also sang Horst's praises. "He saw me as a living sculpture to be projected through his photographs," she said. She lauded his understanding of how light falls upon an object.

The Mainbocher Corset
Horst's most famous photograph is probably "The Mainbocher Corset."  (Coincidentally, this photo was recreated by Sandro Miller with John Malkovich in the exhibit I recent saw at Yancey Richardson gallery in New York. John's back is more muscular.)  I learned two interesting tidbits about this photo during the talk. First, the designer's name is properly pronounced "Maine-Bocker" rather than "Man-bo-shay."  (Not surprisingly, he was a proponent of the incorrect pronunciation.) Second, when the photo ran in "Vogue," it was airbrushed to close the gap between the corset and the model on the left hand side of the image.  That small amount of space was apparently just too scandalous in 1939.

One of the fun things about the show is seeing actual pages from "Vogue" from the era. The 1940 discussion of corsets was particularly laughable (yet terrifying). "That smooth long torso line. Perhaps you have it, and merely smile a dreamy smile at the mention. Or perhaps you are one of the ones who are tired of hearing the sound of those words. If you are, what you probably need is a new corset."   

To see more online images by Horst, click here. But there's really nothing like seeing the photos in person, especially his platinum paladium prints. If you're interested in learning more about the techniques Horst used in his work, there's a free lecture at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 18th. Either way, it's definitely worth a trip to St. Pete to see the exhibit before it closes on September 6th.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Reading away the lazy days of summer

Summer in Florida is a great time to catch up on my reading.  It's too hot and humid to be out and about. The entertainment of the Republican National Convention aside, TV offerings are sparse. And most theaters are dark. Read on for two books that kept me happily occupied.

Anna and the Swallow Man by Gavriel Savit is a YA (young adult) book with more than enough power to speak to adults. The book tells the story of Anna, a seven year old girl whose father is a linguistics professor. He's taught her to speak several languages and introduced her to friends with whom she practices her language skills. "Anna had thought that each of the languages her father spoke had been tailored, like a bespoke suit of clothes, to the individual person with whom he conversed. French was not French; it was Monsieur Bouchard. Yiddish was not Yiddish, it was Reb Shmulik. Every word and phrase of Armenian that Anna had ever heard reminded her of the face of the little old tatik who always greeted her and her father with small cups of strong, bitter coffee."  It is 1939 in Poland, though, and Anna's father is taken away by the Gestapo for being an intellectual.  Her mother is long dead, leaving Anna to fend for herself.

She meets a mysterious man who, like herself, speaks multiple languages, including the language of the Road. He cryptically tells her to follow him, but to make an effort to stay out of sight. And so begins the journey of this man and girl who spend years walking across Poland in an attempt to survive the war. "The world as it exists is a very dangerous place," he tells her. Anna immediately realizes the extent to which her life has changed. "Usually when adults spoke of danger in her presence, they were quick to reassure that everything would be all right, that she would be safe. This man did none of this, and his omission rang out as true in the night as his words had."

Anna and the Swallow Man is a beautiful book about two people alone in a frightening world. In some ways, it's a very simple story with a fairy tale quality to it. In other ways, it's complex in the way that relationships often are. Don't let the YA label discourage you from reading a book the Wall Street Journal calls "exquisite" and the New York Times applauds as "masterful storytelling." 

The Namesake was the first novel by Pulitzer Prize winning author Jhumpa Lahiri. (The prize was awarded to her for "The Interpreter of Maladies," a collection of short stories.)  The book tells the story of an Indian family transplanted from Calcutta to Massachusetts.

When we first meets Ashima, she is about to give birth to their son Gogol. Between contractions, Ashima thinks back to her introduction to her husband Ashoke (whose name she didn't learn until a week after their marriage had been arranged). She had stood outside the living room in her family's Calcutta home where the visitors had left their shoes. In a shocking act of intimacy, she stepped into the shoes of the man she would marry. "Lingering sweat from the owner's feet mingled with hers, causing her heart to race; it was the closest thing she had ever experienced to the touch of a man."

While readers learn about each member of the family, Gogol is the focal point of the story as we follow his life from infancy to his 30s. Once old enough to have a real opinion, his name is a source of dissatisfaction. Gogol's discomfort with his name is representative of his discomfort with his identity. He is caught between the Bengali world of his parents and the American world which he's always known.

One reason The Namesake  is so captivating is Lahiri's insights into Bengali traditions. The genesis of Gogol's name is just one example. It was intended by his parents to be his "pet name" (the name used by family and friends), with his "good name" (the name used for work and legal purposes) being bestowed by Ashima's grandmother. But the letter from India with this important information was lost in transit, leaving the young couple floundering. They chose to call him Gogol, a name linked to an important event in Ashoke's life. It had no meaning to Gogol, though, and he grew up feeling burdened by a name neither Bengali nor American.

Authors are often told to write what they know, and Lahiri has done just that. Born in London to Bengali parents, she moved to the United States at the age of 2.  Like Gogol, she had a pet name--Jhumpa--and a proper name--Nilanjan. Her kindergarten teacher took it upon herself to call the little girl by her pet name because it was easier to pronounce. 

Like Anna and the Swallow Man, The Namesake took me to a world wholly different from my own. And that, after all, is one of the many joys of reading.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Rallying for a Cause

Alex Well, Eliza Grisanti and
"their" NYPD Officer

The world is an increasingly dark place. Terrorist attacks, conflicts between the police and civilians, and unappealing Presidential candidates make the desire to cocoon ourselves away seem more than reasonable.  What, after all, can a single voice do to change the course of current events?

Happily, my instinct to stick my head in the sand isn't shared by everyone.

The family that protests together - Suzanne, Eliza, Tori & Tonie
Eliza Grisanti is the 15 year-old daughter of my long-time friends Suzanne Fawbush and Chris Grisanti.  I was surprised to get a Facebook friend request from Eliza and even more surprised to receive an invite from her to participate in an assault weapons protest that coincided with my visit to New York. When I hit the City, I learned Eliza and her friend Alex were the planners-in-chief of the event, which was envisioned as a rally during which petitions seeking reinstatement of the federal ban on assault weapons would be signed followed by a march down the sidewalks of Fifth Avenue. When I asked Eliza why they were organizing the rally (which took place two weeks after the Orlando massacre), she simply said, "We were tired of just talking about the issue."

I mentioned the event to our mutual friend Andrea over dinner. "I hate to ask this," she said, "But do they have a permit?"  Hmmm.  That wouldn't have crossed my mind, so what were the chances they were on top of it?  But when I raised the question with Eliza, she assured me it had all been taken care of.  Not only had the City confirmed that their plans did not necessitate a permit, but two cops had been assigned to them for the day.  I was impressed. 

The girls had been busy making posters to alert people to the reason for the rally. Petitions to Paul Ryan and the entire U.S. Congress had been drafted. Local media had been contacted, as well as their classmates and teachers at Spence. They were ready to go.

The morning of the protest dawned sunny and bright. As high noon approached, a group gathered on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 91st St. It was a fascinating study in activism.

I loved watching the enthusiasm and earnestness of the girls as they approached people with a request to sign their petitions. (They actually had four separate petitions to be signed; two quickly fell by the wayside as they figured out getting all of them signed was too cumbersome.)  Some protesters hung back, uncomfortable with getting up close and personal. Everyone intuitively understood that a polite "ask" was the way to go rather than any kind of hard sell.

Passersby responded much more favorably than I would have anticipated. Of course there were lots of people who brushed them off saying, "Not today" or "maybe later." (This is my own favored response when approached. When you're the one making the request, you realize how lame these replies sound. Maybe tomorrow you'll be opposed to assault weapons in the hands of every Joe on the street?)  Several people passed by only to come back once they processed what was being said.

At one point I noticed Suzanne deep in conversation with a man who'd stopped to talk. I assumed they were mutually bemoaning the proliferation of assault weapons in our country. Instead, he wanted to share that he has a semi-automatic weapon locked and loaded at the ready in his closet for when "they come for us."  Who, she asked, is they?  The government, of course.  After a few minutes, they agreed they weren't going to see eye-to-eye on the issue, and he went on his way.

Eventually, Eliza and Alex decided to forego the march and focus on getting signatures for the petitions. By the end of the day, more than 300 people had signed in support of the ban. They will use what they learned from their experience when they stage another rally once school is back in session. They are optimistic about their ability to raise awareness and spur others to join their fight. 

As we move into the heart of the election season, let the passion and commitment of these young women inspire us all. 

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

I read both a fair amount of books and a fair amount about books.  Perhaps not surprisingly, there's a significant amount of overlap in the books being lauded. It's too bad my taste doesn't always parallel that of the critics.

Chris Cleave"s "Everyone Brave is Forgiven" received a fair amount of press before it hit bookshelves in May. Having loved  "Little Bee" and "Gold," I couldn't wait.  But the tone was totally different than that of his prior works. For me, the characters' incessant wisecracking detracted from the intensity of the WWII story. (I suspect the fact that the book is based on his grandparents' own wartime romance has a lot to do with the change.)  

Noah Hawley's popularity stems in part from his status as creator and writer of the "Fargo" TV series. His "Before the Fall"--a book about the investigation into who's responsible for a plane crash--is a page turner, but Hawley could stand to watch a few more episodes of "Law and Order." I set aside his "The Good Father" when the defendant's counsel noted they bore responsibility for proving his innocence beyond a reasonable doubt. "Before the Fall" similarly suffers from a basic legal error -- in this case a ridiculous search and seizure without the slightest whiff of probable cause.

But the third new release to make it into my hands was the charm -- Yaa Gyasi's debut novel "Homegoing." Gyasi starts her book with an Akan (Ghanese) proverb that reads: "The family is like the forest: if you are outside it is dense; if you are inside you see that each tree has its own position." The proverb seems to have been created for use as this book's epigraph.

"Homegoing" tells the story of eight generations of a Ghanese family. The chapters alternate between the family's two lines, each focusing on a different person. (I found myself not only referring frequently to the family tree but annotating it to keep track of what had happened.)

The book begins in the 1770s with the birth of Effia in Fanteland. It is a time when the Fante and Asante tribes are rivals for power. The British trade goods with the Fante, sometimes in exchange for a young bride. Effia hopes to be wed to Abeeku, the new chief of the village. But her mother is determined to marry her off to a white man. She warns Abeeku, "She has the body of a woman, but something evil lurks in her spirit...If you marry her, she will never bear you children. If the white man marries her, he will think of this village fondly, and your trade will prosper from it." And so Effia is forced to leave her village to take up residence in the Cape Coast Castle with her British husband.

We then meet Esi, a 15 year-old being held captive in the dungeon of the Castle. She sometimes escapes into her past, a place where her father was an Asante warrior and men brought offerings for her hand in marriage. "When she wanted to forget the Castle, she thought of these things, but she did not expect joy. Hell was a place of remembering, each beautiful moment passed through the mind's eye until it fell to the ground like a rotten mango, perfectly useless, uselessly perfect." Eventually, Esi is forced onto a slave ship headed to America.

Esi and Effia are sisters, although they never meet. From one chapter to the next, we learn about the lives of their progreny in Ghana and the United States. The brutality portrayed is shocking. H, for instance, is a descendant of Esi who is a slave, then a free man, then a convict forced to work in the coal mines. His "crime" was looking at a white woman. Any prisoner who didn't shovel his quota of ten tons of coal per day was beaten. After many years of hard labor, H is released. "The day the elevator shaft took him up into the light and the prison warden unshackled his feet, H looked straight up at the sun, storing up the rays, just in case some cruel trick sent him back to the city underground. He didn't stop staring until the sun turned into a dozen yellow spots in his eyes."

I found myself sitting with each person's story before moving on to the next chapter. What happens is often horrific. But Gyasi's characters retain a sense of self and pride and determination that elevates their stories well above a sad history lesson. Ultimately, Gyasi leaves the reader with a glimmer of hope.

"Homegoing" is nothing short of remarkable. It's a book that will stay with you long after you've finished the last page. Read it.  

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Gallery Hopping in Chelsea, Part 2

The Diagonal of May 25, 1963 by Flavin
I've found that I need to leave my preconceived notions about art behind when I venture into the Chelsea gallery scene. I still remember seeing my first Dan Flavin work -- a single fluorescent light in the corner of a room.  (The work here is not what I saw but is somewhat similar.)  I embarrassingly couldn't help but blurt out, "Who in the world would buy something like that?"  I understand commercialism and art don't always go hand in hand, but I just couldn't wrap my head around this one despite Wendi's explanations of Flavin's place in the minimalist genre.

Nora Schultz's  Venetian Blinds

Our recent Chelsea exploration also yielded some works that left me scratching my head. I definitely didn't get Nora Schultz's oversized Venetian blinds at an exhibit entitled "See sun and think shadow" at the Gladstone Gallery. Having taken contemporary art classes for years, Wendi was able to go into a riff about the artist's possible intentions. Perhaps it was a comment on how sculptural forms have evolved since the classical tradition. Maybe it was a gender piece -- the blinds are a household item and the string and yarn that make up the pulls are associated with sewing. The gallery's description only said that the blinds "while functional, negate their purpose without a light source to block." Time to move on.

Thoughts unsaid then forgotten by Bas Jan Ader

I sort of liked Bas Jan Ader's installations at Metro Pictures. The artist's personal story, which includes a father who was executed while in the German resistance, imbues his work with a sense of loss. (Click here to read more about Ader's work and background.)  One of the practical questions I had  is how the installations are done since it's unlikely the artist was onsite to supervise. The gallery's gatekeeper explained that works like this come with detailed directions from the artist. In addition to instructions about height and spacing of the verbiage and distance of the light from the wall, the flowers are intended to bloom, die and be replaced at the end of each week. (This time frame corresponds with the duration of the original showing of the work.)  We also learned that Ader died mysteriously at sea in 1975 on a voyage that was part of a trilogy he was in the process of creating. There have apparently been rumors that the disappearance was a stunt; if so, it was a very successful one.

Recreation of Gordon Parks' American Gothic
Other than the Serra installations, my favorite exhibit by far was at the Yancy Richardson Gallery.  When we entered the gallery, I looked around with a bit of confusion. John Malkovich seemed to have morphed into every photograph in the exhibit.  What was going on???? 

Malkovich, of course, is known for being quirky.  So I can imagine he was easily persuaded to sign on for friend Sandro Miller's recreation of iconic photographs by the likes of Richard Avedon, Diane Arbus, Irving Penn and Dorothea Lang. Malkovich reportedly said, "I had always heard the camera doesn't lie. I looked at this as a chance to explore that."

Recreation of Dorothea Lang's Migrant Mother
While one might initially think of Sandro Miller's "Homage: Malkovich and the Masters" as a joke of sorts, Miller truly does intend it as an homage to fellow photographers. He conducted extensive research into the way each photograph was originally produced. To the extent possible, Miller recreated both the style of the picture  and the printing method used.  He even interviewed the original photographers who are still living. (I would have loved to have heard their reactions to the project.)  To my untrained eye, he did a terrific job of capturing everything from the whimsy of Herb Ritts' pictures of Jack Nicholson as the Joker to the gravity of Edward Curtis' "Three Horses, 1905."

To view more of the exhibit alongside the original photographs, click here. And go here for a great article by Christopher Borelli in the Chicago Tribune that includes commentary from both Miller and Malkovich.

If there's one thing I can say with certainty, it's that I never know what to expect when gallery hopping in Chelsea. I'm already looking forward to my next visit.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Gallery Hopping in Chelsea, Part 1

Inside Serra's "Every Which Way"
I've lived in Punta Gorda long enough that my trips to New York feel a bit like Dorothy's visit to Oz. The city is technicolor with all the people and noise and traffic and smells (especially in the summer). My visits give me a chance to catch up with friends while enjoying an arts scene unlike that of Southwest Florida. (I'm not just talking about the desnudos in Times Square, although I suppose they are an art of their own. Click here to check them out.)  

Wendi and I headed to Chelsea, home to galleries galore. Once you get past the slight intimidation of walking into galleries manned by people who are mysteriously too busy to welcome you, it's a wonderful area to explore what's happening in the art world.

I fell in love with the large steel installation works by Richard Serra on display at two different Gagosian Galleries. The exhibition was Gagosian's 30th major showing of Serra's works since 1983. In fact, the Gagosian Gallery on West 24th Street was built with reinforced floors specifically to accommodate the weight of Serra's work. (His "Silence (for John Cage)," for instance, is a single 80 ton slab of forged steel lying flat on the floor of its own room.) 

Serra has said he only moves forward with a work once he has determined that "walking in and through and around the piece will be something that startles him." Both "Every Which Way" and "NJ-1" more than meet this goal.

"Every Which Way" consists of 16 slabs of rectangular steel of differing heights. Wandering through the installation was an immersive experience. Although many liken the work to a giant graveyard, it felt to me more like a beautiful forest. The colors of each slab are nuanced with different tones of rust and peach and gray (a bit of which Wendi took away with her after she brushed up against one).

Wendi inside Serra's "NJ-1"
Serra's "NJ-1" is an example of the mazes for which he is best known. The sculpture is comprised of six ochre-colored plates of steel that stand on their own volition. Walking through the work's 14' walls feels like being deep inside a Sedona canyon. The structure has so many different angles and curves that its ability to support itself is a bit mind-boggling.  Many of Serra's works were inspired by his viewing of a ship being launched when he was just four years old. He has said that he still remembers the awe with which he watched something so massive become almost weightless. He captures this duality in works such as "NJ-1."

 There were a couple of additional surprises at this exhibit. First, multiple security guards were on duty. It was curious both because none of the other galleries had guards and because "NJ-1" isn't a delicate work that one could easily harm. Nonetheless, the guards were asking people to be careful not to touch the structure. Perhaps they were there to protect against people's instinct to test the sturdiness of the structure by throwing themselves against the walls.

The second surprise was the consideration visitors gave to others' experience. We all allowed other art lovers the chance to take pictures and explore the work's nooks and crannies at their own pace. (If people proceeded through with the speed and single-mindedness displayed on New York's streets, it would be a quite different experience.)  Sharing others' respect for and appreciation of the work made my discovery of Serra's work even more special.

To get a sense of what visiting one of Serra's creations is like, watch the first few minutes of this PBS special about the artist.  Or if you happen to be in Spain, visit the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao where eight of his works are on permanent display.

While I would have been happy spending the entire afternoon enjoying Serra's art, there were many more galleries to explore. My next installment will share more of this exploration.  And here's a teaser: John Malkovich will be prominently displayed. 

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Something Old and Something New

The theater scene in Southwest Florida definitely quiets down over the summer. But there is some still some theater to be had. Urbanite Theatre is opening "Dry Land" next week, and Florida Studio Theatre has an entire summer series.  And, of course, there's the upcoming season to get busy scheduling.

Playwright Lillian Hellman
Asolo Repertory Theatre is heading into the fifth and final year of its exploration of the American Character.  While most of the season sounds great, I was on the fence about "The Little Foxes," a play written by Lillian Hellman in 1939. My lack of enthusiasm wasn't for any reason other than the fact that I'm not a huge fan of revivals. There are so many worthy contemporary plays available for production, why look to the past?  (FYI, Asolo Rep isn't the only theater that believes "The Little Foxes" warrants further attention. Manhattan Theatre Club is also mounting a revival this fall, with Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon alternately taking on the role of Regina.)

While Asolo Rep is dark for much of the summer, its Guild gives its members a chance to get their theater fix with get-togethers to discuss plays being produced in the upcoming season. Next week's meeting will focus on "The Little Foxes." Always eager for an opportunity to talk about theater, I signed up, ordered a copy of the script, and got reading.  For those of you who haven't seen the play (or the movie), I won't give too much away. Suffice it to say that the Hubbard family is not warm and fuzzy. In fact, Gordon Gekko in "Wall Street" took his cue from the Hubbard siblings when he declared that "Greed is good." Though the Hubbards have money, they want more. When a lucrative business opportunity presents itself, the siblings are willing to go to great lengths to line their (individual) pockets. Regina sums up the family attitude when she says. "You know what I've always said when people told me we were rich? I said I think you should either be a [Negro] or a millionaire. In between, like us, what for?"

Taylor as Regina
The play is melodramatic, and I can understand why the character of Regina would be appealing to play. The role, first performed by Tallulah Bankhead, has been taken on by Bette Davis, Anne Bancroft, and Stockard Channing.  Elizabeth Taylor made her stage debut as Regina in a 1981 revival.  Interestingly--and sadly--Hellman based the story on her own family, with Regina being modeled on her grandmother.

I typically like to go into a play cold and let the plot unfold before me. In the case of "The Little Foxes," though, reading the play and thinking about its themes in advance has made me more interested in seeing it. All things being equal, I prefer to experience new writing. But classics have earned their stature for a reason, and I have no doubt that Asolo Rep's take on the show will be well-done.

Playwright Mark St. Germain
And now for something brand spanking new -- "Relativity" by Mark St. Germain at Florida Studio Theatre.  FST is a core member of the National New Play Network, an alliance of nonprofit theaters that "champions the development, production, and continued life of new plays."

One way NNPN accomplishes its mission is through its Rolling World Premieres. Each new play in the program is mounted by at least three theaters within a 12-month period. This provides the playwright the opportunity to collaborate with different creative teams to bring his work to the stage. Participating theaters receive $7500 towards the costs of the production. Since its inception in 1998, NNPN has introduced theatergoers to more than 50 new plays.

St. Germain's "Relativity" is part of this year's Rolling World Premiere program and will be produced as well at theaters in Skokie, Illinois, Seattle and Iowa City. I jumped at the chance to sit in on a rehearsal of the show and can now count myself among the handful of people comprising the play's very first audience. (How cool is that?)

The foundation for the show is a little known fact about Albert Einstein and first wife Mileva Maric. In 1902, before the couple married, they had a daughter Lieserl. No mention of the child can be found after 1903. In "Relativity," St. Germain envisions one possible explanation of what happened to Lieserl. The scenario enables him to explore the differences between Einstein's public and private personas.

Actors Robert Zukerman, Ginger Lee McDermott and Sally Bondi made the play come alive without costumes or a real set. Their performance was engrossing, and I found myself wondering which parts were fact and which were derived from St. Germain's imagination. I was particularly interested in a reference to a contract written by Einstein outlining the conditions on which he would stay married to Mileva. The agreement included mandates that she would expect no affection from him and that she would stop talking to him upon request.  (A Google search revealed that such a contract did in fact exist. Click here to read the agreement in its entirety. The document, along with a motherlode of other Einstein correspondence, was auctioned off at Christies in 1996.)

"Relativity" will run at FST from June 22 - July 2. If you want an immersive Mark St. Germain theater experience, you can see a matinee of "Relativity" and an evening performance of his "The Fabulous Lipitones" on June 25 only. Thanks to FST for providing a place for theatergoers who brave the Florida summers to sit back and enjoy the show.