Monday, June 20, 2022

Wynwood Walls in Miami

I've wanted to see the Wynwood Walls murals from the moment I heard about them. So I was thrilled when our Algonquin adventure included a stop there. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised that there's a Wynwood Walls Museum, yet somehow I was. And so we started our visit with a tour of the "official" walls. The murals, however, extend far beyond the gates of the Museum. I can't wait to go back (preferably when it's not so blazing hot). 

The Wynwood Walls project was established in 2009 by real estate developer Tony Goldman. Goldman didn't like the moniker "developer," though. Instead, he saw his investments as the engine to revitalize historic neighborhoods, like SoHo in New York and the South Beach and Wynwood areas of Miami. While this might sound like a typical real estate developer conceit, Goldman was the real deal. In 2010 he received a lifetime achievement award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation for his endeavors. 

"A Love Supreme (Wynwood Saints)" by EL MAC
Goldman's vision for the revitalization of the Wynwood area through a mural program has been wildly successful. Wynwood Walls is the most visited tourist site in Florida after Disney World. I suspect the partnership between a businessman and a bunch of graffiti artists used to looking over the shoulder for the law wasn't always an easy alliance. But the graffiti "crews" have become an integral part of the program, with Miami Style Gods (MSG) taking the lead. Today MSG and other crews have offices and budgets. It's practically blasphemous. 

MSG is led by Miami "graffiti god" Crome, an artist who's been on the Miami scene for 30+ years. In 1999, Crome and his fellow tagger Crook engaged in a massive undertaking to make their names known up and down the I-95 corridor. Drivers' morning commute suddenly included large murals blaring the artists' names. How could the police ignore such hubris? Crook and Crome were eventually found, and the mural materials found in the apartment they shared led to their arrest. Wanting to make an example of them, the prosecutor requested that bail be set at $1M. (The judge essentially laughed at this recommendation and set bail at $50K.) The police didn't have a warrant, though, so the evidence was eventually thrown out and the case dismissed. (Click here for an article about the case and to see one of their works.) 

One of four multicultural murals by Kobra
Graffiti artists who create works on public or private buildings without permission continue to be at risk of indictment for vandalism. Wynwood is essentially a safe haven, though. Street artists can "claim" a blank wall by tagging it and waiting a couple of days to see if their mark remains. If it does, the wall is available and they can paint it. In addition, approximately 200 walls are "given away" each year for the creation of murals that run the gamut in terms of style and content. Not surprisingly, you can find many of these artists at work during Art Basel in Miami. (In case you're wondering, there's not an endless supply of walls. Murals are often painted over to provide a new canvas on which an artist will work.) 

Judy, Stephenie and I were excited to find the work of Kobra featured at the Museum. Kobra is a Brazilian street artist who started painting murals at the age of 12. Today he's created more than 3,000 murals on five continents. In 2018, Kobra painted 18 murals on NYC buildings during his 2018 residency with HG Contemporary. To see some of that work and a video of the artist in process, click here and here. I particularly like his take on Mount Rushmore, with Andy Warhol, Frida Kahlo, Keith Haring and Basquiat taking the place of those dusty old Presidents. And just a note that Sarasota has its own Kobra murals, thanks to Denise Kowal bringing him to town for the 2011 Chalk Festival. In addition to the street paintings done at the Festival itself, Kobra painted two murals, including an atypical grayscale work you can see by clicking here. (Marketing alert: The downtown public art walking tour that Judy, Stephenie and I give includes Kobra's other mural. Join us!)   

If you're getting the sense that street art has evolved to include everything from straight up tagging to fine art, you're right. It's exciting. I can't wait to see more, including on the streets of Sarasota. But that's a topic for another day.  For more on Wynwood Walls, click here for the official website. Better yet, make a trek of your own. 

Next up: Art from the Rubell Museum



Tuesday, June 14, 2022

"Lux et Veritas" at the NSU Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale

"Another Fight for Remembrance" 
by Titus Kaphar (2014) 
"Lux et Veritas" is the motto of Yale University. For those of us not conversant in Latin, it means light and truth. It is also the name of an exhibit now running at the NSU Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale. The show features the work of artists of color who attended Yale's School of Art for graduate studies in the years 2000-2010. The curators focused on this timeframe because it was a "transformative period in contemporary art." Students of color were in a distinct minority and created informal affiliations to support one another as they explored new artistic mediums and styles. The exhibit is both exciting and challenging. I loved (most of) it.   

While the show primarily features artists with whom I was not familiar, a couple of names jumped out at me. Titus Kaphar is an artist I "discovered" at Art Basel last year, and I quickly became a fan. 

"Another Fight for Remembrance" is from a series of paintings Kaphar did in the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown and the Ferguson protests. His related work -- entitled "Yet Another Fight for Remembrance" -- was commissioned by Time magazine for its cover recognizing the Ferguson Protesters, the runners-up to Ebola Fighters for Time's Person of the Year. In the works in this series, Kaphar splashes white paint across the canvas to signify the erasure of Michael Brown, Black men more generally and the members of the public protesting against police violence. To see "Yet Another Fight for Remembrance," click here

Kaphar was again commissioned by Time to create a painting for the June 15, 2020 cover following the murder of George Floyd. The work features a Black woman holding a silhouette of a child. The silhouette is physically cut into the canvas. Click here to see "Analgous Colors." For Kaphar's website, click here. Take a few moments to watch the short film that introduces you to his work. It is brilliant and chilling.  

"Mirror Faced II" and "Mirror Faced I" by Wangechi Mutu (2020)
The art of Wangechi Mutu was a new discovery for me but not to the art world. In 2019 the Kenyan-American artist was commissioned to create sculptures that would "animate the Met's historic facade." When the Met was renovated in 1902, the architect envisioned sculptures of the four most important moments in art history in the building's four niches. For 107 years those niches have remained empty. Mutu was tapped to be the first artist to fill them. 

Her "The New Ones, will free Us" series was inspired by caryatids, or sculpted female figures that provide architectural support. They take the place of columns or pillars. As she looked at the Met's collection of caryatids, she considered the physical and emotional role of women as load bearers. Her thoughts went to African sculptures in which women are depicted carrying the seat of the king on their heads or children in their arms. Mutu's women have become independent of those obligations. In "Mirror Faced I" and "Mirror Faced II," Mutu continues to explore these ideas.

You may be wondering, as I was, what the meaning of the mirrored discs is. The discs reference the circular lip plates women in some African cultures wear as a status symbol. The mirrors flash and summon the viewer's attention while reflecting the world back at her. They make Mutu's creations unsettling and otherworldly. Evoking those feelings is intentional, a reference to the superhuman powers of women.  

For more on Mutu's creations for her Facade Commission, click here. If you're in the New York area, Mutu is a featured artist at Storm King Art Center until November. Click here to read about that exhibit. And for more on Mutu's work in general, click here.

"I Belong to the Distance (#2)" by Torkwase Dson (2022)
Torkwase Dyson's "I Belong to the Distance (#2)" greets museumgoers when they enter the lobby of the NSU Museum of Art. The monumental work was commissioned by the Museum for the exhibit, although I suspect it will stay in place for years to come. 

The wall card explained that Dyson's work "investigates how our built and natural environment defines our conditions of movement." I have to admit that I did not find that description particularly clarifying. But when I read on, I learned that the shapes in her work reference the ways in which slaves escaped to freedom. Squares and rectangles, for instance, are a nod to the wooden crate in which slave Henry "Box" Brown shipped himself  from Virginia to freedom with some Philadelphia abolitionists in 1849. To read an interview with Dyson, click here. And to see more of her work, including the first "I Belong to the Distance," click here.

"The Apostle Peter" by Kehinde Wiley (2006)
I'll leave you with "The Apostle Peter" by Kehinde Wiley. Wiley has become wildly famous for his work featuring African-Americans in updated versions of Old Master paintings (and his portrait of President Obama). He's known for his "street casting" -- randomly approaching people on the street to see if they'd be willing to sit for him. (I suspect it's much easier to find models these days than when he was starting out.) And here's a fun fact: His backgrounds are typically covered with botanical patterns inspired by the work of British textile designer William Morris. For more on that little tidibit, click here

In Wiley's paintings, viewers are invited to consider the way history is shaped through works of art. Whose story is being told, and from what perspective? How does the insertion of young Black figures into these classical paintings affect our perceptions of the world? In "The Apostle Peter," Wiley references a painting of Peter done by Hans Holbein the Younger in 1527. (Click here to see that work.) The gold key represents the spiritual authority given to Peter by Christ. I'll leave you to consider the significance of replacing Peter with an African-American youth. For more about Kehinde Wiley's Christian-themed portraits, click here. And to explore Wiley's website, click here.

"Lux et Veritas" runs through October 23 at the NSU Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale. It's definitely worth a visit if you're in the area. Click here for more about the exhibit and images of other works in the show. Also on display through October 2 is an interesting exhibit that explores the relationships between the art of Keith Haring and Pierre Alechinsky. For information on that show, click here

Next up: The murals of Wynwood Walls. 

Saturday, June 11, 2022

Art of the Hollywood Backdrop at Boca Raton Museum of Art

Stephenie with a backdrop from North by Northwest (1959)
For a movie to be successful, the audience has to collectively engage in a willing suspension of disbelief. Scenic designers and painters play a crucial role in making that happen. Their work, however, has often gone unrecognized. "Art of the Hollywood Backdrop" is the first museum show to celebrate the talent of the people who brought some of the most iconic movie settings -- circa 1938 to 1968 -- to life. 

The show made its world premiere at the Boca Raton Museum of Art in April. Appropriately, film critic Leonard Maltin got a sneak peek. He said of the exhibit: "These monumental paintings were essential to moviemaking for almost a century and were never meant to be seen by the public with the naked eye. Having this rare opportunity to experience these American masterpieces up close is long overdue." How could we resist?  

Our gang (plus one) on the set of Singin' in the Rain (1959)
The exhibit was inspired by a segment on the CBS Sunday Morning show with Jane Pauley that aired in 2020. The piece highlighted the craft of creating backdrops and the Backdrop Recovery Project, an ongoing effort to preserve historic backdrops otherwise destined for the dump. The segment featured Karen L. Maness, an artist and educator who co-authored a beautiful coffee table book entitled "The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop." Also included were Thomas Walsh from the Backdrop Recovery Project and Lynne Coakley, the latest generation in a family that's long made its living in the backdrop business. Maness, Walsh and Coakley were all involved in the creation of the exhibit. It's no wonder it's so glorious. 

The backdrops -- or backings -- in the exhibit were often paired with video from the related movie. We gleefully watched a scene from Singin' in the Rain in which Donald O'Connor engaged in his acrobatics with our new pal. (Click here to watch "Make 'Em Laugh." The entire number is a joy; O'Connor's encounter with the dummy appears approximately two minutes in.) The reason movie clips weren't included for all the backdrops is because the history of some of the backings has been lost. It's kind of sad. 

From The Sound of Music
The exhibit included multiple backings from one of my family's favorite movies -- The Sound of Music. The scene pictured here was a recreation of a movie location to be viewed through a window of the Von Trapp home. All of the backdrops for this classic were painted by Lynne Coakley's father and grandfather. Her great grandfather was also a scenic artist who made his living in the 1930s working for MGM. In the CBS Morning Show segment, Coakley noted that many people have a painting done by a family member hanging on a wall; her family heirloom just happens to be 90' wide. Coakley is making her own contributions to the industry as President of JC Backings, a company that rents painted and digital backdrops. Some of the works created by Lynne's family are included in the company's inventory. Very cool.   

Linda and Judy show off the backdrop from an unknown film 
The exhibit introduces museumgoers to the work of George Gibson, a scenic designer who worked for MGM for more than 30 years. Gibson created the backdrops for many beloved movies, including The Wizard of Oz, An American in Paris and North by Northwest. Despite his contributions, Gibson was never mentioned when the credits rolled. That was just the practice of the day. Backdrop artists were considered mere technicians and, as such, were invisible. In this regard, they are likened to the nameless apprentices of Renaissance masters who had a hand in painting some of the world's greatest masterpieces. 

Judy on the street of an unknown film
Notwithstanding the lack of public acknowledgement, Gibson's talent was recognized at the highest levels within MGM. When the studio decided to expand its footprint, Gibson successfully lobbied for a new building to be dedicated to scenic design. For the artists to have their own workspace instead of creating in the midst of the chaos of a soundstage was a great advance. But the real kicker was Gibson's innovations to the way the backdrops were physically painted. Historically, canvases were hung on walls and painted by artists from their perch on a scaffold. In the new facility, the canvases were stretched and mounted in frames 100' wide by 40' tall. Slots in the floor allowed the works in progress to be raised and lowered so artists could work on different sections while standing in a more traditional painterly position. 

"The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop" will be on display at the Boca Raton Museum of Art through January 22, 2023. If you're in the area, don't miss it. It is seriously fun. For more information, click here. To watch the CBS Morning Show segment that provided the spark for the exhibit, click here. And click here to check out the beautiful tome of a coffee table book "The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop" by Richard Isackes and Karen Maness. If you go to the preview feature, you can scroll through pages and pages of images of backdrops. They are sure to make you recall some time sitting in a dark theater (or on your couch!) immersed in a bit of movie magic. Enjoy! 

Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Bonnie Lautenberg: Art Meets Hollywood at the Boca Raton Museum of Art

"1989: When Harry Met Sally/ Alex Katz Roof"
Here's the downside of any kind of tour -- there are inevitably things you want to see that aren't on the schedule. Case in point: "Bonnie Lautenberg: Art Meets Hollywood" and "The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop" at the Boca Raton Museum of Art. Our Algonquin adventure had us in the area, but without a planned stop at this Museum. I know, I know -- you can't do it all. But in this instance, the stars aligned. Our itinerary had us settling into our hotel in Boca at 5 pm, and the Museum just happened to be open late that night. My friends and I ordered Ubers and headed over to the Museum to check out the exhibits. We had a ridiculous amount of fun. 

Bonnie Lautenberg is the widow of Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey. But she was more than just a political wife standing by her man. Long interested in photography, Lautenberg was in the room with her camera at the ready when Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin and Chairman Yassir Arafat signed the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Accord in 1993. Her creative spark was ignited, and she's never looked back. 

"1928 The Mysterious Lady/Rene Magritte The Lovers"
In her ARTISTICA! series, Lautenberg pairs images from movies and paintings created the same year. She's been at work on this series since 2017, and I can only imagine how satisfying it must be when she finds a match. Sometimes Lautenberg starts with a work of art and searches for a visually similar scene or costume from a movie. Other times the process is reversed. As she puts the two together, she thinks about the way the two images speak to one another. Perhaps the filmmaker influenced the artist or vice verse -- consciously or unconsciously. It's fun to consider. especially with pairings so in synch, like the shot from The Mysterious Lady and Magritte's "The Lovers."

A surprising (to me) amount has been written about the influence of paintings on movies. My favorite finds are three short videos by Vugar Efendi that show movie clips adjacent to the paintings that inspired the shot. Click here to watch them. They are seriously stunning. For static images of the pairings, click here. Efendi is a young Azerbaijani filmmaker who put together these videos in 2016. As long as we’re talking about possible influences, perhaps Lautenberg stumbled upon Efendi's work and decided to embark on her own project. 

"1932 Grand Hotel/Georgia O'Keeffe
Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1"
Whatever the impetus, Lautenberg's pairings are inspired. And limiting herself to paintings and movies made the same year makes the task infinitely more challenging than identifying the pairings shown in Efendi's wonderful videos and the articles to which I've provided links. This constraint -- combined with the fact that the digital age only dawned in the late 20th century -- would seem to make the conversation between the art and the film coincidental more often than not. And so Lautenberg's work is different from spotting a clearly deliberate reference to an iconic painting in a movie filmed many years after the artwork was created. (The homage Quentin Tarantino pays to Thomas Gainsborough's "The Blue Boy" in his costume for Jamie Foxx in Django Unchained is one example of an intentional reference. Click here for a link that shows that pairing and other direct nods to paintings in film.) 

And then there's the creativity Lautenberg employs in creating her pairings. For Lautenberg to watch this scene in Grand Hotel and summon O'Keeffe's "Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1" is pretty amazing. It requires a whole different level of knowledge of art history, patience, and scrutiny. Kudos are definitely in order.

"Bonnie Lautenberg: Art Meets Hollywood" runs through August 21 at the Boca Raton Museum of Art. For more info, click here. To see more of Lautenberg's pairings, click here for the ARTISTICA! section of her website. And for a couple more articles showing stills of movie scenes inspired by paintings, click here and here. Enjoy!

Next up: "Art of the Hollywood Backdrop" at the Boca Raton Museum of Art. 


Friday, June 3, 2022

Touring the Norton Museum of Art

"Noir, Sacatra, Griffe, Marabou, Mulatre, Mamelouque,
Quarteronnee, Sang-Melee, Blanche) by Leah Gordon (2012)
The recently expanded Norton Museum is a gorgeous space that features a large "living room" with comfy chairs where visitors can relax and contemplate what they've seen. But we were on a schedule, and with 50,000 square feet of galleries to explore, there was little time for relaxation. 

"Noir, Sacatra, Griffe, Marabou, Mulatre, Mamelouque, Quarteronnee, Sang-Melee, Blanche" might have been my favorite work of the day. In the work, photographer Leah Gordon turns the caste system of 18th century colonial Haiti on its head. To French colonists, white skin was superior to the black color of the native Haitians. Here, the premier spot is occupied by the darkest of the sitters and labeled "Noir." A white skinned woman labeled "Blanche" can be found in the most lowly position. The artist included herself as the woman and her partner, sculptor Andre Eugene, as the man in those anchor positions. The other models are artists and artisans from Port-au-Prince. 

Gordon references Renaissance paintings and styles in her portraits. The elaborate costumes were created by Haitian craftspeople, as were the signs identifying the color of each individual. The very pregnant Mamelouque in Gordon's work recalls Jan Van Eyck's "Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife." In addition to a nod to Renaissance mores, this choice provides a sly allusion to the reason for the changing composition of bloodlines over time. To see a better image of Gordon's work, click here

"Strange Fruit" by Noah Purifoy (2022)
While on the topic of racism, Noah Purifoy's "Strange Fruit" provides a stark commentary. It's hard to see in the picture, but the top of the work is made from feathers. The shape is reminiscent of a human torso. The can hanging down from the work contains not paint but tar. I'm thinking you can see where this is going. 

Purifoy didn't become a part of the art world until after his 40th birthday; he was 50 when he began making the assemblages for which he is best known. The Watts Riots provided Purifoy with the inspiration for nearly 50 sculptures. The riots also provided him with the materials from which his assemblages would be made. Fellow educator and activist Judson Powell joined him in scavenging through the detritus after the fires had ebbed and things had settled down. Together, they collected nearly three tons of found objects for use in the creation of artwork. The "junk art" produced by Purifoy, Powell and several other artists from these materials were exhibited at an installation entitled "66 Signs of Neon." For more on that project, click here.

Although created decades later, "Strange Fruit" bears a relationship to Purifoy's post-Watts sculptures. The mixed media work was made after 9/11 when mob violence was once again on his mind. The title is taken from the Billy Holiday song that goes, in part, "Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze/Strange Fruit hanging from the poplar trees..."  For more on Purifoy, including info about his Museum of Assemblage in Joshua Tree National Park, click here

"Naomi Looking Forward #2" by Mickalene Thomas (2016)
Mickalene Thomas' work always catches my eye, and "Naomi Looking Forward #2" was no exception. The "Naomi" in the painting is, of course, supermodel Naomi Campbell. Thomas employs her trademark collage style (which includes rhinestones) in her portrayal of Naomi. This approach allows her to reference both Naomi's status as a supermodel and her more humble beginnings. Features like the linoleum and wood veneer paneling recall Campbell's childhood home while the zebra fabrics reflect Campbell's more modern sense of style. But then there's the awkward way in which Campbell is sitting and the white legs protruding from her dress. What's that all about? Thomas is referencing the famous painting "Grand Odalisque" by Ingres. Instead of portraying a captive woman, though, Thomas depicts a strong female in charge of her own life.  

You might have noticed this work is identified as #2. Thomas frequently creates multiple versions of the same image. To see her first "Naomi Looking Forward," click here. And for the Norton's educator guide on "Naomi Looking Forward #2," click here. What a great resource for thinking about a work of art for kids and adults alike! To explore more of Thomas' work, click here

"From a Close Distance" by Marc Dennis (2021)
Speaking of references to famous paintings, there was also Marc Dennis' "From a Close Distance." There's no hiding the fact that this work features a famous painting. Dennis' faithful reproduction of "The Princesse de Broglie" by Ingres is front and center. 

"From a Close Distance" was one of a series of hyperrealistic paintings included in a show entitled "Love in the Time of Corona." As you've probably surmised, Dennis created this series during his time of pandemic isolation. The sad background story to "The Princesse de Broglie" makes the painting a relevant choice. The Princesse died of tuberculosis when she was just 35. Her husband was so saddened by her death that he kept the portrait draped in fabric and hidden behind a velvet curtain. I can imagine him periodically drawing back the curtain in moments of contemplation as he thought about his wife and the life they might have had. 

Recreating the work of masters has long been a means of study for artists. In this series, Dennis gives viewers a peek into what his studio might have looked like while his paintings are in process. I especially like the brushstrokes as he seeks just the right color for what he's working on at the moment. Click here to see more of Dennis' work from that exhibit. Trust me -- they will make you smile. 

I also encourage you to visit Dennis' website by clicking here. His home page features a wonderful work called "The Joy of Painting." And if you go to the drop down you'll find an unusual heading for a series of ink drawings called "A$$holes on Cellphones." I am liking this artist more by the minute. 

While there's more I'd like to share from the Norton, our stop there was just the first of several during our three day art adventure in South Florida. The bus trip (gasp!) was organized by The Algonquin Club, an informal group of art lovers who've been enjoying twice yearly art trips for more than 20 years. ("Algonquin" is an acronym for art lovers going on new quests using intellectual networking. I'm not sure about the "intellectual" part, but the rest is pretty accurate.) You can probably tell that I loved it. 

Next up: Fun and games at the Boca Raton Museum of Art. 


Monday, May 30, 2022

Enjoying the Norton Museum's Sculpture Garden

"Breaking Away" by Joseph McDonnell (1986)(painted steel)
Timing is everything. A few years back, I tried to visit the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach. Sadly, I was turned away at the door because the Museum was undergoing a major renovation and expansion. But if at first you don't succeed... The Norton has now reopened its doors and is beautiful. And I'm pleased to report the expansion included the conversion of what was a parking lot into a sculpture garden. So. Much. Fun. 

The "museum in a garden" is home to 17 sculptures. Each one is set back from the walkway to create the sense of entering a room when you approach a work. "Breaking Away" by Joseph McDonnell was one of our first stops. McDonnell works in a variety of mediums and styles, including bronze, granite, steel and glass. This geometric sculpture is part of a series inspired by a broken picture frame with various forms sticking through the shattered object. You never know when that lightbulb will go off. To see the rest of the series, click here. And to explore more of McDonnell's work, click here. I particularly like his glass ice cube sculptures. 

Stephenie with Rondinone's sculptures (painted aluminum) 
Stephenie and I broke into broad smiles when we saw Ugo Rondinone's "Moonrise. east. november" and "Moonrise. east. july." It would have been rude not to since the works are so welcoming! The sculptures are from a series of 12 works, one for each month of the year. In the series, Rondinone references the cycles of the moon, with the various expressions on the "faces" reflecting the moon as it waxes and wanes. While the two sculptures at the Norton seem to be smiling, others appear to be grimacing or surprised. That's how it goes over the course of a year. To see images of the entire "Moonrise" series, click here and scroll. (Oddly, I couldn't find them all in one place.) For more about Rondinone and his extremely varied oeuvre, click here

"Total Strangers IV, V and VI" by Antony Gormley (1997)
Sir Antony Gormley's "Total Strangers IV, V and VI" called to mind the disconnect between people in today's world. The complete series is comprised of six sculptures, each of which was made from a mold of the artist's own body. 

The sculptures have been displayed both individually and together. In one iteration -- curated by Gormley himself -- a lone "man" stood outside a gallery window looking in. Four other figures were placed where they could be seen when the museumgoer looked out the window (if, that is, she hadn't run out of the room after encountering a strange person peering in). One figure was at a bus stop. A third was lying on its back next to a lamp post. The final two were on the opposite side of the street in the middle of the sidewalk. I would have loved to experience that work. To see it in situ, click here and scroll through the pictures.  

"Total Strangers" is not Gormley's only series featuring bodies. As Nicholas Stephens of The Guardian noted in one review, "The human body has been Gormley's calling card and a siren call to his creativity." Yes, indeed. I am particularly amazed and intrigued by images from Gormley's solo survey show at the Royal Academy of Arts in 2019. Click here to see his "Lost Horizons I." And for more about that show, click here. I've quickly become a huge fan. 

One last note on Gormley. You may have noticed the "Sir" in front of Gormley's name in my lead-in. The Turner Prize winning artist received his Knighthood for service to the Arts in 2014. Click here to see "Angel of the North," the work for which he won the Turner in 1994 and which, presumably, was a factor in his receive of the honor. 

"Foot" by Tom Otterness (1988)
I'll leave you with an artist whose work always makes me smile -- Tom Otterness. His aptly named "Foot" cried out for me to sit on it. (Does "sitting" constitute "touching?" I only saw the sign after I nearly scalded myself while perching on the bronze work.)  

Otterness is best known for creating public art. I first saw his work on a visit to Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester where you can find two oversized and 17 Lilliputian-sized bronze figures. While his work is whimsical, it often has political meaning as well. His figures frequently reference class, money and race. Take, for instance, "Life Underground," an installation that can be found at the NYC subway station at 8th Avenue and 14th Street. If you take more than a passing look at his figures, you'll see a policeman rousting a sleeping homeless person. Another policeman guards a big bag of money. And a businessman has so many coins that he can't carry them all. I suspect the fact that the coins are oversized is another indication of his great wealth. (Click here and here to see these images.) And to check out Otterness' website, click here

Our three day South Florida art adventure was off to a great start. Next up: Art inside the Norton Museum of Art. 

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Dragging Through the Ages: The History of Drag

I'm not a betting woman, but I suspect the odds would have been pretty high that not one, but two, of Sarasota's theatres would present shows about drag queens this season. (I know that might sound wrong, but "high" odds means unlikely. Think about the odds being 80-1 that Rich Strike would win the Kentucky Derby. But I digress.)  

Urbanite Theatre opened its season with "At the Wake of a Dead Drag Queen" by Terry Guest. The show is a flashback to the life of a drag queen who recently died from complications due to AIDS. There were somber moments of course, as Courtney/Anthony comes to terms with his diagnosis and recalls his complicated life. But the show was a celebration of life as well, with its over-the-top costumes and performances. It was a night of theatre no patron will ever forget. (Click here for a video with interviews with the director and actors and, yes, some of the fabulous costumes.) 

Florida Studio Theatre just closed its winter season with "The Legend of Georgia McBride" by Matthew Lopez. The play tells the story of an Elvis impersonator who reluctantly -- and hilariously -- pivots to drag when his own show fails to find an audience. It's a story of a straight white man embracing his inner queen in a big way. Again, the costumes and performances were fabulous. And did I mention the play was set in my hometown of Panama City (well, PC Beach)? The show was written by Matthew Lopez, who grew up in Panama City, and drew upon his experiences sneaking into drag shows at The Fiesta, the only gay bar in town for 40 years. Cue the music for "It's a Small World." 

This is all background for a terrific panel discussion hosted by FST entitled "Dragging Through the Ages: The History of Drag." Director Kate Alexander was joined by Kraig Swartz, who played Miss Tracy Mills in "Georgia McBride," and Billyd Hart, choreographer and understudy for three roles in the show. Also on stage were certified sex therapist Dr. Mary Davenport and Ken Shelin, businessman turned gay rights advocate. 

Hart, Shelin and Swartz 
The conversation started with a simple comment that all clothing is a costume. It's how you present yourself to the world. But when clothing choices become "gender transgressive," people's eyebrows might start to rise.  In fact, transvestism -- or cross-dressing -- is still included in the Merck manual chronicling mental disorders (although it appears to only be applicable when the practice is for sexual satisfaction and substantially disrupts the individual's ability to function). 
Flip Wilson as Geraldine
Americans have been watching female impersonators from the comfort of their homes for decades as performers like Flip Wilson, Jonathan Winters and Milton Berle assumed the personas of women on national TV.  Some male comedians adopted female persons to mock women. Wilson has said he did so in order to "relate to women without putting them down" and that he wanted Geraldine to be a heroine. (For a peek at Geraldine in action, click here.)  

But doing drag is something different than being an impersonator. Yes, in a typical drag performance a man adopts the persona of a woman to entertain an audience. But drag also allows the performers to express themselves in a way they might not be able to in their day to day lives. It's an emotional outlet. Perhaps this is why drag isn't intended to fool audiences. (Having said that, drag queens can be quite persuasive, particularly to the uninitiated. One audience member at the talk confessed she didn't realize that Miss Tracy Mills was being played by a man until two-thirds of the way through "Georgia McBride." Swartz got a good laugh out of that comment.) 

Live drag has historically been performed in gay bars. These venues were safe spaces where straight people didn't venture and performers could express themselves without fear of mockery or reprisal. Today, of course, drag has become mainstream, with drag queen bingo and 14 seasons of "Rupaul's Drag Race" on network television. (Click here to read about my own drag queen bingo adventure.) Locally, Matthew McGee has made a cottage industry of his own drag performances at freeFall Theatre in St. Pete and its environs. Even institutions you might expect to be pretty conservative have jumped on the bandwagon. Ringling Museum hosted a walk and talk back in 2018 with Sarasota's own Beneva Fruitville. It was not the most educational walk and talk I've been on there, but it was original. 

The Herald Tribune's Jay Handelman was in the audience at FST and asked an excellent -- if unanswerable -- question. If the purpose of drag is to subvert gender norms, how does drag evolve in a time when those norms are being diluted? Many people today consider themselves nonbinary; i.e., neither male nor female. Panelist Billyd Hart is one such person and shared that their outfit for opening night of "Georgia McBride" featured a corset. Billyd wasn't dressed in drag, but in clothing that expressed their identity at that moment. How liberating that must feel. 

Thanks to FST for providing a forum for this discussion and to the panelists for sharing their lives and experiences. And here's to the future of drag, whatever it might be. 

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