Saturday, July 13, 2019

The First Women's March

Sally, Linda, Danita and Althea (back row); Me and Sheila 
(front row) at National Portrait Gallery courtyard
It seemed only fitting for our ladies' law school group to take in the Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery during our gathering in DC. It was illuminating -- and humbling -- to learn more about the 88 year movement to secure the right to vote for women.

But first, a quick Constitutional primer.  (Don't take offense. I did this for myself.)  The first clause of the 14th Amendment --  the equal protection clause -- ensures equal rights for all "citizens." Sounds good, right? But the second clause of the Amendment makes it clear that women are excluded from its scope. After all, those of the fairer sex were considered a mere appendage to their husbands -- or, if unmarried, their fathers. The natural consequence of this paternalism was to prohibit women from exercising all sorts of rights given to men, including the right to vote.

Caption: "Get Thee Behind me, (Mrs.) Satan." 
Wife (with heavy burden of kids and alcoholic
husband): "I'd rather travel the hardest fate of
 matrimony than follow in your footsteps."
(The "your" in question was Woodhull.) 
Of particular interest to us lawyers was the 1869 case in which Myra Bradwell, a law school graduate who had passed the Illinois bar, was denied the right to practice law. In making its decision, the Illinois Supreme Court called Bradwell, and all other women, legally "disabled." On appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the decision. One justice wrote, "The paramount destiny and mission of women are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother." (Note: This little slice of history wasn't in the exhibit, but it seems too appropriate not to share.)

We were surprised to learn that, despite not having suffrage, a woman ran for President as early as 1872.  Victoria Woodhull was nominated for the office by the Equal Rights Party that year, with Frederick Douglass as her Vice President  Although Woodhull's support of "free love" for all was not an official part of her platform, it didn't help her campaign. (For the record, her advocacy arose from the double standard in the treatment of men and women who had extramarital affairs. Case in point: Henry Ward Beecher who, according to Wikipedia, is known for "his support of the abolition of slavery, his emphasis on God's love, and his adultery trial." Click here to read more. And yes, Harriet Beecher Stowe was his sister.)

Women's Suffrage Parade in Washington D.C. on March 3, 1913
Setting aside her gender, Belva Ann Lockwood was a more traditional candidate for the Presidency in 1884 and 1888. Like Woodhull, she was nominated by the Equal Rights Party. But Lockwood had a bit more stature than Woodhull, having successfully argued for Cherokee land rights before the Supreme Court in 1880. (Obviously, the judicial system had made some progress in the 1870s on the issue of female lawyers.)  Why aren't these women an integral part of American history?

New York suffragettes who walked to DC for the protest
Fast forward to March 3, 1913, when women were still fighting for the right to vote. Between 5,000 and 8,000 women descended upon our nation's capital to march in favor of women's suffrage. Alice Paul and Lucy Burns were the masterminds behind the march, which they knew would draw media attention. The date was selected to coincide with Woodrow Wilson's inauguration the next day. Not only would media be in town for the event, but police protection would presumably be readily available. Police Chief Richard Sylvester was not, however, a supporter of the cause, and he made it clear his officers were not to be counted on. In response, Secretary of War Henry Stimson stationed members of the Army Cavalry--the equivalent of today's National Guard--in an easily reached Virginia town. When the mostly male crowd started getting a bit rough with the protesters, the Cavalry was called in to enforce order.

Hedwig Reicher as Colubmia
I am ashamed to say the logistics seemed too daunting for me to make it to DC for the 2016 women's march. Not so for "General" Rosalie Jones and her Ambassadors of Justice. These passionate women walked from New York to DC to participate in the 1913 protest. It took them 16 days to cover the 200+ miles. They took the opportunity to bring their message to people living in the small towns they traversed along the way. "The people in the small towns don't see suffrage literature," Jones commented in an interview. "We had to bring them the message in person."

Theater lover that I am, I smiled when I learned the Woman Suffrage Procession -- as the march was officially called -- had a theatrical element.  In this image, actress Hedwig Reicher portrays Columbia, an allegorical figure who personifies the United States. (Who knew?)  Columbia is sporting a Phyrgian cap, a style of headwear that had come to signify freedom and personal liberty since the French Revolution. From her vantage point in front of the Department of Treasury, Columbia reviewed the marchers -- military style -- and endorsed their cause. Other theatrical elements of the march included a procession-pageant of Liberty and her Attendants.  

The exhibit was moving and inspirational. At dinner that night, Linda suggested our group get together with more frequency and that we infuse our next reunion with a bit of activism. We've penciled in an October 2020 gathering in one of the Mid-Western swing states to provide support for whomever the Democratic might be.

A huge thanks to Althea for spearheading our reunion. I feel so fortunate to have these smart, strong, funny and caring women in my life (for more years than I like to acknowledge!) Like the suffragettes, they are an inspiration to me.

The Votes for Women exhibit runs at the National Portrait Gallery through January 5. 2020  Don't miss it if you're in the area. (As a bonus, you can see the Obama portraits by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald. They are fabulous.) For more great photos from the Woman Suffrage Procession and other early suffrage marches, compliments of The Atlantic, click here.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Exploring Glenstone

Danita and Althea with Glenstone's sun protection
Any hopes I had for leaving Florida weather behind were dashed the moment I stepped off the plane in DC. That city can do heat and humidity. Nonetheless, I was baffled by Althea's ambivalence about a visit to Glenstone due to the weather. Sure, I'd never heard of this private museum until the day before, but I was desperate to go. Tickets for a (free) visit are snapped up the moment they become available three months in advance. After all, only 400 visitors a day are permitted access. So the sudden availability of three spots for that very afternoon seemed meant to be.

"Split-Rocker" by Jeff Koons (2000) 
Although I'd laughed at Althea, I understood her concern the moment we got out of our car.  Heat waves emanated from the asphalt on our short walk to the check-in center. The grounds -- 230 acres in all -- are part of the allure of Glenstone, and a leisurely stroll around the property to check out the sculptures clearly wasn't happening. (The umbrellas provided for visitors only did so much.) Still, we did get to see Jeff Koon's "Split- Rocker" from afar on our ten minute walk to the Pavilions. Althea learned on a prior visit that Glenstone employs a gardener whose sole responsibility is to care for the flower-laden sculpture.

"When Frustration Threatens Desire" 
by Kerry James Marshall (1990)
You've probably figured out that Glenstone is not your typical museum. It is the creation of Mitchell and Emily Rales. Mitch Rales is a billionaire collector of modern and contemporary art. (He and his brother co-founded the Fortune 500 Danaher Corporation.) Emily Rei Rales is an art historian and curator. It's a match made in art heaven. The Glenstone website describes their mission by saying, "We envision Glenstone as not only a place, but a state of mind created by the energy of architecture, the power of art and the restorative qualities of nature." It's a lofty goal, but this visitor believes they've achieved it.

The little we saw of the grounds showed their dedication to the goal of making the landscape an integral part of the experience. Nothing is left to chance. The "courtyard" in the center of the Pavilions contains a lily pad-laden pond that would make Monet drool. The Viewing Gallery has a small library and an expansive bench designed by Martin Puryear and Michael Hurwitz. It's a place where visitors can rest and enjoy the scenery through a non-reflective that stretches from floor to ceiling and wall to wall. The view is as curated as the art. Wildflowers abound, and the hill that breaks up the vista was constructed for the enjoyment of museumgoers. It was hard to pull ourselves away.

"Untitled" by Lee Contecou (1962) 
The Rales' approach to the museum experience is equally unique. No volunteer docents for Glenstone. Instead, the museum employs college grads who aspire to become curators. Emily trains these young people herself to ensure they can impart their knowledge about the collection in the Glenstone way. Instead of a recitation of facts about the artist or the work, the docents engage with visitors, asking them open-ended questions about their response to the work while providing some background. And that was helpful, because while there were works by artists familiar to me -- Warhol, Kerry James Marshall, Dan Flavin -- I was being introduced to most of the artists in the collection.

As during our visit to the Life of Animals exhibit, Althea pointed out a couple of her favorite works on display. "Untitled" by Lee Contecou made the list. This sculpture commands nearly an entire wall of a Pavilion. It measures 63 1/2" by 111" by 20", with the last dimension being its protrusion into space. We all admired the steampunk feel of the work whose materials include soot. To read more about Bontecou's work in this style, click here.

"Moon Landing" by On Kawara (from his Today series)
Althea--who could be a docent herself--also filled me in about On Kawara's work when we came to a Pavilion whose walls bore three large paintings, each with a July 1969 date. The works are part of Kawara's Today series, which he began in 1966. While Kawara didn't create a Date Painting each day, he did so with great frequency until his death in 2014. The date on each painting had either personal or historical significance to Kawara. The three paintings on display were entitled "Moon Landing." To read a great article about Kawara's Date Paintings, click here.

The walk up to the Pavilions
I could go on and on, but Glenstone can really only be experienced firsthand. A visit is worth organizing a trip to DC around, even if the weather isn't at its finest. I can't wait to go back.

For a terrific article about the Rales and their concept for Glenstone, click here. For another great piece about Glenstone, click here. Both include photos that allow readers to get a better sense of the museum. And, finally, here's a link to Glenstone's own website.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Law School Ladies Head to the National Gallery

Althea and Danita with David Smith's Voltri VII
Time has a way of getting away from us. Could it possibly have been ten years since our law school ladies group got together? Thankfully, Althea took the bull by the horns to organize a gathering. It literally took less than two hours for the gang of six -- three pairs of roommates -- to pick a date for our weekend get-together. The stars were clearly aligned.

The reunion got off to a rolling start, with Althea, my roommate Danita and I getting in 24 hours of activities ahead of our full contingent. Our first cultural activity was a stop at the National Gallery of Art to take in the blockbuster exhibit The Life of Animals in Japanese Art. It was particularly apt since Danita spent a year working in Japan post-graduation.

Deer Bearing Symbols of the Kasuga Deities (14th c.) 
To say the docent tour was a whirlwind would be an understatement. The exhibit contains over 300 objects created over the course of 17 centuries and is housed in 1800+ feet of gallery space. With only one hour of tour time, the docent was moving so fast that neither my brain nor my note taking could keep up.

I did, however, catch that this deer is one of the seven objects in the exhibit that has been designated an Important Cultural Property -- or a National Treasure -- by the Japanese Government.  According to legend, a Shinto figure was seen riding a deer many centuries ago. The animal is thus considered sacred as a conduit between ordinary people and religious deities.

Detail from Naganobu's "One Hundred Monkeys" (1784)
Althea pointed out one of her favorite works in the show -- Kano Naganobu's painted scroll entitled "One Hundred Monkeys." It is seriously charming, but of course there's more to it than that. The Japanese character for "monkey" can also be read as the word for fate or luck. The abundant number 100 is likewise considered fortunate. So one hundred monkeys would be a double dip of good luck. Curiously, an essay about the exhibit mentioned that the number of monkeys in this scroll falls short of one hundred. There was, however, a nearby scroll with one hundred rabbits. (Our docent had counted them.) Hmmm.

Detail from Uedo's "Fox's Wedding Procession" (19th c.) 
One of my favorite works in the show was the screen on which artist Uedo Kocho created his "Fox's Wedding Procession." Foxes were known to be shapeshifters that could transform themselves from an animal into a human. Most often, the fox took the form of a beautiful woman who would trick a man into marrying her. In Uedo's work, though, the figures are half fox and half man with some seriously developed calves. All the better to carry the (hidden) bride in her palanquin to the festivities.

In this work, the artist is making reference to the over-the-top wedding rituals of highly ranking members of the warrior class. His political commentary seems quite thinly veiled, especially when you see the entire screen.

Yayoi Kusama Dogs
A surprising aspect of the exhibit was the inclusion of some contemporary art. Typically, the work served a comparative purpose. So, for instance, three polka dot dogs by Yayoi Kusama were found near an earthenware Hanwi dog that has survived from the 6th or 7th century.

The final room of the show, however, was dedicated to contemporary work. An enormous mural by Murakami Takashi entitled "In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow" wrapped around three walls of the gallery. Takashi created the work in response to the earthquake and tsunami that struck northern Japan in 2011. The wild and unsettling mural included images of both devastation and hope, with animals like the mythical phoenix and a rare white elephant representing the prospect for a better future.

Issey Miyake fashions with Murakami Takashi
mural in the background
Takashi's work served as a colorful backdrop for a display of Issey Miyake designs inspired by animals and their environment. Many items of clothing were created from a single piece of fabric and had names like Swallow Pleats, Colombe (Dove) and Blade of Grass Pleats. I am unclear whether this ferocious figure is adorned with anything actually intended to be worn -- perhaps the saddle bags?  It is surely striking, though.

The wall card describing Miyake's work concludes by saying, "Although Miyake's clothing results from contemporary techniques for processing fabric, it also connects to the ancient custom of humans masquerading as animals to assume their power or grace, still seen today in festivals and rituals all over the world."

The Life of Animals in Japanese Art runs through August 18 at the National Gallery of Art. If you're not in the DC area, the museum's website includes some great information about the exhibit, including an audio guide featuring descriptions and images of 20+ objects. Click here to learn more.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Frieze Sculpture Exhibit at Rockefeller Center

"Jaguar" by Pedro Reyes
I mean no disrespect to artist Pedro Reyes when I say my mind immediately went to the Rolling Stones when I saw his sculpture "Jaguar." I mean, hello. Is he not familiar with the Stones' logo? And while I wasn't intending to lead with this, I couldn't resist when I learned the Stones are out on tour with Mick Jagger (Jaguar?) front and center and full of energy despite his heart attack three months ago. (To see the logo and the Stones' tour dates, click here.) But I seriously digress from the fabulous Frieze Sculpture exhibit my nephew TJ and I took in during my recent trip to New York.

The exhibit was curated by Brett Littman, director of the Isamu Noguchi Foundation. Littman's involvement seemed a logical fit since Noguchi's "News" graces the entrance of 50 Rock. (Click here to see Noguchi's Art Deco-style depiction of five journalists vigorously vying for the same story.)

Littman's concept for the exhibit was to create an "alternative sculpture park." Instead of monumental sculptures that towered over pedestrians, he envisioned works on a more human scale.  All the better to allow for interaction with both visitors and the architecture of Rock Center itself.

TJ with "Untitled" by Nice Cave 
Happily, TJ was willing to comply with my request to do a bit of posing. Nick Cave's "Untitled" initially seems to harken back to days of old before people carried music in their pockets. But then you notice the clenched Black Power fist at the opposite end of the sculpture. To me, the disproportionality makes the fist unsettling and maybe even a bit creepy. But more knowledgeable people interpret this as a symbol of the ability of activists to make their voices heard in the world. I like it. Cave himself said of the work, "Being at the scale that it is allows you to peer inside at this vernacular void that seems endless. It's these points of entry that provoke us to think differently, or to think about space and infinity and the unknown."

With "Dry Cut [from Blacks in the Pool--
Ruby]" by Paulo Nazareth
Paulo Nazareth's "Dry Cut [from Blacks in the Pool -- Tommie]" also includes a Black Power fist. But in this case the image was recognizable as that of Tommie Smith. Smith broke the 20 second barrier for the 200 meter sprint at the 1968 Summer Olympics. When he mounted the podium to accept his gold medal, he raised his fist to protest racial injustice against African-Americans. It wasn't so different than Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the National Anthem. (Click here to see Nazareth with his sculpture.)

While I appreciated "Tommie," I preferred Nazareth's "Dry Cut [from Blacks in the Pool -- Ruby]." Again, the title clues the viewer in to what the image represents -- six year old Ruby Bridges being escorted to school on her first day integrating an all white school in the Deep South.

The exhibit included two additional commemorations by Nazareth of significant moments in the Civil Rights movement -- aluminum cut-outs depicting Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. I'm sorry I didn't find my way to the lobby of 45 Rock to check them out.
"Behind the Walls' by Jaume Plensa
My favorite sculpture in the exhibit was "Behind the Walk" by Jaume Plensa. The sculpture towers over the pedestrian walkway from Fifth Avenue into Rock Center. Despite Littman's expressed objective, it's hard to call the work anything other than monumental.

Another of Littman's goals was to introduce New Yorkers to artists whose sculptures had not been publicly displayed previously. I took some pleasure in knowing that Tampa preceded New York in this regard. Plensa's "Laura with Bun" stands on the plaza in front of the entrance to the Tampa Museum of Art. (Click here to see that work.)

Plensa's sculptures of female heads typically have closed eyes. When speaking with representatives of the Tampa Museum, he commented on this choice by saying, "Look into yourself. My piece is a mirror to reflect your image, so you can think about your own interior -- how much beauty we have inside ourselves."

Plensa's "Behind the Walls" goes a step further from a woman with closed, meditative eyes. "Sometimes our hands are the biggest walls," he said. "They can cover our eyes, and we can blind ourselves to so much of what's happening around us." It's an instinct that's hard to resist some days.

If you didn't catch the Frieze Sculpture exhibit, there's good news. The exhibit will be back at Rock Center next year, with Littman once again serving as curator. And if you happen to be in London, an entirely different Frieze Sculpture exhibit will be on display in Regent's Park from July 3 through mid-October.  Happy viewing!

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Artist Studio Visit: Gabriele Evertz

It was a short walk from Sharon Butler's studio to Gabriele Evertz' creative space. The stroll served as a palate cleanser between two enjoyable -- yet quite disparate -- parts of this artistic meal.

Evertz came to the United States from Germany at the age of 19 full of "curiosity and idealism." Her background includes training as an architect, and she brings this rigor to her art.

Evertz works in the tradition of color abstraction. As an article by Joe Houston about Evertz explains, color abstraction originated with the Bauhaus in the 1920s and came to fruition internationally with the Op Art movement of the 1960s. But it is the work of Barnett Newman that has perhaps had the strongest impact on Evertz. After seeing Newman's "Vir Heroicus Sublimus" for the first time, her reaction was so intense that she practiced fainting before her next viewing. 

Evertz spoke about different interpretations of the world "sublime" as it relates to art. The adjective is frequently used with reference to the beauty of nature found in the Hudson Valley or the expansiveness of the West found in the West. Think Albert Bierstadt, Frederick Church or Jackson Pollock (who was born in Wyoming). To Newman -- and Evertz -- the sublime is more a philosophy than something physical. It's anything awe inspiring. It's the reaction Evertz had when seeing Newman's "Vir Heroicus Sublimus." The distinction is thought-provoking.

While Evertz is passionate about color, she doesn't employ it indiscriminately. She always works from a place of logic. Her color wheel is prominently displayed in her studio, and she refers to it often. She made the wheel herself with colors directly out of the tube to ensure their greatest intensity.

Evertz believes every self-respecting
artist should have a color wheel
in her studio. 
Artist and teacher John Zinsser noted the difference between the "dirtied" colors of Sharon Butler's art and the pure colors employed by Evertz. While unfamiliar with Butler's art, Evertz likened Butler's colors to an approach to the earth and her own approach as celestial, an approach to the sky.

Evertz' earlier work is so vibrant it nearly pulses off the canvas. For ten years she used all 12 colors in every one of her paintings. She said she "couldn't bear to leave one out." While she now allows herself some editing, she has consistently employed stripes as her means of compelling the viewer to consider the juxtaposition of color.

Evertz with painting from "Icarus" series

Like Butler, Evertz considers the viewer an integral part of each painting. She titles her work as a way to direct the viewer. (Sadly, I didn't get the titles of all the works here, but I believe the first image is named "Exultation.")

Zinsser noted people tend to remember paintings with names better than "Untitled" or, better yet, "Untitled #5."  He compared creating a painting to bringing a child into the world. Who lets their child proceed through life nameless?

But this creates a dilemma for abstract artists. It's beneficial to provide viewers a "mode of entry" into the work, but titles inevitably tap into the viewers' own associations outside of the visual experience.

Evertz with painting from "Icarus" series
Case in point: Evertz' Icarus series. Following the shooting in Parkland during which 17 students were killed, Evertz turned to her art as a way of expressing her feelings about the tragedy. 

Evertz used only black and white in the early "Icarus" works. She began introducing color in the 15th painting of the series. The 38th and final work was a return to her vibrant work as she celebrated the young people turned activists as heroes. The progression was a powerful reminder of the resilience of the human spirit. 

As I looked at this portfolio, I saw what Evertz was describing. But I do wonder what I would have seen if Evertz had not provided the context for this series. And I have to acknowledge that my interest level skyrocketed when I learned she created these works in response to the Parkland shootings. (For those who don't know, my sister and her family live in Parkland and know many kids who attend Stoneman Douglas. Coincidentally, I was wearing my Stoneman Douglas "Make Art Not War" shirt on my visit to Evertz' studio. The graphic on the front of the shirt includes a rainbow of colors that received a thumbs up from Evertz.)  For others in the room without a Parkland connection, the series likely had a much lesser impact. 

All too soon, our time with Evertz ended. It had been an incredibly stimulating afternoon, both visually and mentally. A huge thanks to Wendi -- and to John Zinsser -- for letting me tag along. 

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Artist Studio Visit: Sharon Butler

Artist Sharon Butler in her studio
Visiting an artist's studio is always a treat. So when Wendi asked if I wanted to join her on an outing to two artists' spaces, I jumped at the opportunity. The tour was led by John Zinsser, an artist himself who teaches an art appreciation course at the New School that Wendi has taken for many years. (Exhibits on display in galleries and museums serve as the curriculum for the course, which I've sat in on in the past. The class is beyond fascinating -- and beyond the scope of this post.)

All of this is a slightly long-winded way of explaining how I found myself in Sharon Butler's studio in the DUMBO area of Brooklyn on a gloomy Tuesday afternoon. Competing with the sounds of the elevated trains going by her window, Zinsser introduced Butler by reference to her acclaimed blogazine Two Coats of Paint. He noted that conversations about art and culture that would have taken place in a salon in the era of Gertrude Stein happen today online through blogs like the one published by Butler. And with that, we were off.

If one were to categorize Butler's work, it would be called geometric abstraction. Think Josef Albers and Piet Mondrian. But Butler uses a tool to create her work that her predecessors could never have envisioned -- her iPhone.

Every morning, one of Butler's first tasks is to create a drawing on her iPhone. Her app of choice -- Pixart -- uses only geometric shapes, so she is always working within those confines. To Butler, each shape has a personal meaning. (She kept those meanings to herself.) Once completed, she posts each drawing on her Instagram feed.

These drawings serve as the basis for her series of works. For her "Good Morning" series, she selected drawings made on dates with personal meaning to her. Butler generously shared that one painting was created from a drawing made on the day her daughter OD'd on heroin. Butler didn't know she was using. Interestingly, the drawing was full of hard lines and jagged edges that give the viewer a sense of unease. (Note: Butler's daughter is doing fine.)

Another series is based on drawings that were the most "liked" on Instagram. (She has no idea why some drawings garner more "likes" than others, but she suspects it has to do with their colors. Curiously, once she told people the basis for the series, the overall number of "likes" of her posts declined.) Butler considers the series an exploration of the notion of popularity which, in turn, made her consider the distinction between the electoral college and the popular vote. Her current series is developed from her drawings on significant dates relating to the Mueller Report.

John Zinsser 
In all cases, her paintings are titled merely by date. Butler believes not defining the work further allows for a greater dialogue between the viewer and the artist. Ultimately, Butler said, she is interested is how we live each day not knowing how it will come out.

Butler shared her process with the group as well. Once she's decided a drawing will be the basis for a painting, she creates small sketches (like the one shown in this photo) in which she plays a bit with the image. When she's satisfied that it communicates her intention, she projects the drawing onto a canvas and recreates it free hand. The goal is to make the digital image more painterly. Her choice of color is consistent with the choice made when she created the drawing.

I enjoyed listening to Zinsser's academic discussion of Butler's work that included references to artists with whom I am not familiar. He viewed the painting with black diamonds as figurative and the pink painting next to it as barbed wire-ish. (Perhaps a reference to issues about incarceration?) He opined that a larger scale assigns more significance to a work. Moving from phone to paper to canvas makes the work somehow more important and, in turn, makes us want to feel like it's "of" something.

While Butler acknowledged Zinsser's points, she resisted any attempt to assign a specific meaning to her paintings. Her work is intended to be experiential, with the viewer creating its meaning based on her own history and emotions. (Having said that, I defy you to think of anything other than "these boots are made for walking" when looking at this purple painting.)

Needless to say (and yet I will), I loved meeting Butler and being introduced to her work. My head was abuzz from the discussion, and our day was not over yet.

To check out Butler's Two Coats of Paint, click here. And to listen to her TEDxOrlando talk about what she's learned in the blogosphere, click here. Finally, for Butler's own website, click here.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Back to the Whitney Biennial

Detail from "Labyrinth" by Maia Ruth Lee
A trip to the Whitney Biennial is a treat. It's an opportunity to see what is happening in the art scene in America right now. The work is not, however, always self-explanatory, even if you read the wall cards. Happily, the Whitney provides excellent docents to lead you through the show and give a face to the artists.

One of my favorite pieces was Maia Ruth Lee's "Labyrnith," a site-specific work created from steel glyphs made by local welders from metal Lee scavenged from across the city. The juxtaposition of the interesting shapes with the robin's egg blue wall just drew me in. But what was really interesting about the work is the symbology Lee has created.

Steel glyph chart

Thanks to Wendi's keen eye, I have a copy of the chart setting out what some of these glyphs mean. In their entirety, they are intended to provide viewers with the tools to help 2020 be the Year of Self-Defense. But when she says "self-defense," Lee isn't referring to using one of these glyphs to ward off an attacker (although that would probably work). Instead, they are reminders to defend against your own darker instincts, including stress, fear, jealousy and hate. The chart also suggests the use of these symbols to enhance your humor, communication, balance and other qualities. The title of the work -- "Labyrinth" -- is explained on the chart through this quote:  "But you know I myself am a labyrinth, where one easily gets lost."

And here's a tidbit about Lee that we learned from our docent. She might have developed the propensity to create her own language from her parents. While living in Nepal, they were tasked with creating a written translation of the Bible into Sherpa. It was more of a challenge than the typical translation since Sherpa was only a spoken language. Consequently, their project required them to create a Sherpan alphabet from the sounds of the language. It's mind-boggling to consider.

Detail from "The Farm" by Pat Phillips
Another site-specific work created for the Biennial was Pat Phillips' "The Farm." The title is a reference to the Louisiana State Prison, also known as Angola. The prisoners there create products to be sold in the community, including snake skin belts that Phillips himself wears. The parallel between slave labor and prison labor is an issue Phillips explores in his work. He also incorporates the words "Don't Tread on Me" in this work, a motto first used on the Gadsden flag during the American Revolution and more recently adopted by the Tea Party. The picket fence is a nod to, among other things, incarceration and the wall Trump so longs to install along the Mexican border.

"The Farm" also includes a tear gas cannister behind the fence. This is a reference to the controversy over the manufacturing of tear gas by Safariland, a company owned by Whitney Board member Warren B. Kanders. There is evidence that Safariland tear gas was used on migrants attempting to cross the Mexican border. Protesters have called for Kanders' removal from the Board. To date, the Whitney has taken no action. I appreciated the docent calling attention to this issue rather than dodging it.

From Nicole Eisenman's "Procession"
Then there was the, well, bizarre installation by Nicole Eisenman entitled "Procession." Sadly, our docent just said "make sure to go outside to check this out" without giving us a primer.

I had read a bit about this work before I went to the exhibit, but I only retained this salient detail: It contains a farting figure. Yes, the man being towed--who seems to have been tarred and feathered--periodically emits steam from his rear end. Hmmm. While I'm sure there's a deep meaning, my only thought was it must be a response to how stinky the New York Giants have been the last few years. (Note the socks.)

More from Nicole Eisenman's "Procession" 
The wall card describes the work as follows:  "The figures in Nicole Eisenman's sculptural ensemble Procession appear downtrodden, yet they carry on and move forward. For the artist this tension poses questions about what it looks like to be disenfranchised, but also part of a community, and about how to protest when protests feel like a constant cycle."

The Whitney Biennial runs through September 22 and is well worth a visit for any art lover. To read more about the exhibit and the participating artists, click here. Many of the artist bios have short audio interviews that allow you to hear directly from the creators of the work on display. It's almost -- but not quite -- like being there.

The First Women's March

Sally, Linda, Danita and Althea (back row); Me and Sheila  (front row) at National Portrait Gallery courtyard It seemed only fitting...