Friday, January 18, 2019

"Little" by Edward Carey

Most likely, you've come across a Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum at some point in your travels. If you're like me, you were initially intrigued/impressed, but quickly began to view the wax sculptures as kitsch. But think back to the 18th century, a time before photography -- much less the internet -- existed. This is the world Edward Carey drops us into in "Little," his novelization of the life of the girl who became Madame Tussaud.

Truthfully, I didn't realize the book was about Madame Tussaud when I purchased it. It was Carey's wonderful (and sometimes gruesome) illustrations that led me to pick up his novel. I was all in from the preface, which promises "lost children, lost parents, ghosts of monkeys, tailor's dummies...the man who was shop dolls, his mother a mogul, the man who collected murderers...scenes of historical import...massacres of innocents, murders witnessed, bodies taken apart, blood on the streets, misery, prison, loss of everything, marriage, memories captured and contained, calamity daily exhibited, history owned."  It's all in there -- and then some.

"I have cast a wood pigeon to play the
role of my mother." 
Each chapter sets out a timeframe and Marie's age during the period. She is a charming narrator and helpfully highlights key events in the upcoming chapter. The real story gets under way in Book One -- 1767-1769 (A One-Way Street -- "Until I am eight years old.") Marie describes the action in Chapter Three as "in which my mother and I are introduced to many wonderful things, some of them in rosewood cases, and I come to witness my second death."

Sadly, the deaths that she witnessed were those of her parents. After her father died, young Marie (known as "Little" due to her diminuitive stature) and her mother headed to Berne to housekeep for Doctor Curtius. His home and occupation so freaked out Marie's mother that she hung herself.

What, you might ask, could be that dreadful? Curtius was fascinated with the human body. His atelier was overflowing with body parts. The fact they were made of wax did not assuage the horror Marie's mother felt.  But to Marie, a new and exciting world had opened its doors.

Edmond, the widow's son
Curtius takes Marie under his wing and teaches her his trade. Marie learns that Curtius' work extends beyond creating wax sculptures of organs. He also crafts waxen sculptures of clients' heads. When Curtius decides to leave Berne for Paris, Marie begs to come. She reminds him of her unusual resume. "I can smooth people's faces down, I can put straws up nostrils."

"Something has happened," Curtius responds. "Something extraordinary. Just as the smaller radius bone is fused to the taller ulna, just as the fibula is to the tibia: we are connected. You and I....I shall not do without you."  (Yes, this is a man who has a somewhat limited frame of reference.)

Former residents of the Monkey House
So the pair head off to Paris where a ridiculous number of adventures await them. They move in with a widow and her extremely strange son Edmond (with whom Little becomes enamored). Curtius' waxen portraits are new to Parisian society and are a great hit.

But all businesses must evolve. Curtius lands upon the somewhat grisly idea of sculpting the heads of murderers. Keep in mind that in order to do this, the actual head must be obtained. Conveniently, the guillotine was the instrument of choice for putting criminals to death.

The widow, whose husband was a tailor, decides to put the wax heads on mannequins and costume them. The exhibit becomes so popular the group move to a much larger space (that happened to be the previous home of a bunch of monkeys). The precursor to Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum had come into existence.

The Royal Family enjoying a meal
The story of Little is so crazy that it's hard to believe even a portion of it is true. It's thought, for instance, that Marie may have lived at Versailles and served as the art tutor to a young Elisabeth of France, sister to Louis XVI. Carey embraces this possibility in "Little," sending Marie off to live with the Royal Family. And who not? It gives readers a peek into their lifestyles and customs.

Frankly, I don't care how closely Carey's story aligns with history, as he's written an original, creative and thoroughly enjoyable book. But "Little" is more than a fun ride. It's the story of  a girl who is called upon to muster her inner resources time and time again. While Marie may have been small in stature, she is large in heart, mind and commitment to survive and thrive. I couldn't recommend "Little" more highly.

For more about Tussaud and the book, click here to read an article Carey wrote for The Guardian about Tussaud and his work at one of her musuems.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Art at the Van Wezel

The World Within by Humberto Calzada
I suspect I'm not the only person guilty of rushing into a theater without taking the time to enjoy my surroundings. Sure, I'll notice the architectural elements of the performance space, but it's unlikely I'll walk the building to check out the art. And when it comes to the Van Wezel, there's definitely some art worth enjoying. Happily, the Fine Arts Society of Sarasota conducts free monthly tours during the season. It was an hour well-spent.

The Van Wezel was built in 1969, the same year the Fine Arts Society was founded. From the beginning, the Society has used the Van Wezel as gallery space to showcase its Florida-inspired art collection. Our tour guide was quick to note that despite the Florida theme, the artwork is not created by "sell your art on the beach" artists. Instead, the collection includes paintings--and a few sculptures-- by accomplished artists who either have a strong Florida connection or whose work features water.

Humberto Calzada is known for his paintings inspired by the architecture of his hometown of Havana. It's hard to turn down the invitation to enter Calzada's The World Within. The light is handled so beautifully, and the Caribbean awaits you. Calzada signed each portal into his dream-like world, a detail our guide helpfully noted.

Thunder on the Beach by Ben Stahl (1976)
I would put money on the fact that most Van Wezel patrons haven't noticed Ben Stahl's Thunder on the Beach. Although it's located only two paintings down from The World Within, the lighting is so poor that our docent had to use a flashlight to illuminate it for our group. And that's a shame, because it's an interesting painting depicting America's sudden foreboding about the coming of WWII. "Wait," you can almost hear people say. "Is that a storm on the horizon?" Stahl's portrayal of the beachgoers in various states of undress represents the country's lack of preparedness for the war. And then there's the one fat cat sitting happily on the beach smoking a cigar. Is he a profiteer?

Our Angel by Craig Rubadoux
Stahl himself was quite an interesting character. He won a scholarship to the Art Institute of Chicago at age 12. In addition to being a painter, Stahl was an illustrator whose work graced the pages of The Saturday Evening Post. He created the poster for Ben-Hur and the illustrations for the 25th anniversary edition of Gone with the Wind. He had his own TV series entitled Journey into Art with Ben Stahl. And he was an artist in the Air Force, which brings us full circle to Thunder on the Beach. 

From across the room, Craig Rubadoux' Our Angel has the look of an Art Nouveau painting. But as you approach, you realize the work is much more free flowing. The angel seems to float in a sea of color. How else could her golden hair mimic the shape her budding wings will eventually take? "Exuberant" is the adjective most typically used to describe Rubadoux' work.

Rubadoux is Sarasota born and bred and now works from his home on Englewood beach. His artwork can frequently be seen at Allyn Gallup Contemporary Art Gallery. Click here to read an article from The Observer about this charming artist.

Pressing Leaves by Lynn Davison (1996)
Lynn Davison is another Florida-based artist whose work can be found at Allyn Gallup. Davison also shares her alma mater of Ringling College of Art + Design with many artists whose work is in the collection.

Davison's interest lies in the human figure. Davison's depiction of her subject's bodies is impressively realistic, from the tension in the woman's knee and calf to the toes of her companion's feet. She said in an interview in Gulfshore Life, "I want my figures to provoke introspection. While they're essentially revelations of self, I hope they also portray universal truths about what it means to be exposed, disconnected, vulnerable and human."

Pressing Leaves was painted at a time when Davison took a somewhat surrealistic approach to her work. The figures and setting are classical, but what are this doorframe, Japanese style screens and spotlight doing out in the middle of nowhere? Not to mention the obvious question -- why is this naked guy sitting on these books? Today her work is more personal. To read the Gulfshore Life article and see more of Davison's work, click here.

Stravinksy by Syd Solomon (1971)
And what would a collection of work featuring Florida artists be without a painting by Syd Solomon? Solomon is probably the most acclaimed artist to have come out of Southwest Florida. He and his wife moved to Sarasota when he was still a budding artist in his late 20s. He had found his home. The Ringling Museum was the first of many museums to display Solomon's work. Solomon was a first for Ringling as well, as he was the first contemporary artist to have a painting displayed there.

Stravinsky is the perfect choice of Solomon's artwork to be on display at the Van Wezel. It is, after all, the home of the Sarasota Orchestra.  Solomon began this painting while listening to one of the composer's works on the day of his death. The loss was more than that of a fellow creative soul. He was friends with Stravinsky's son Soulima, who also lived in Sarasota.

I learned from our docent that Solomon served during WWI in the First Camouflage Battalion, where he worked to conceal potential enemy targets located on the California coast and London. (To see pictures of the camouflage of California, click here.)  But Solomon's primary job during the war was conducting aerial reconnaissance, a job that inspired his abstract art.  Knowing this background does put a new spin on his work.

If you want to see more of Solomon's painting, the timing couldn't be better. Allyn Gallup has an exhibit on now through January 28. To read more about Solomon and the exhibit, click here and  here.

The next time you're in the Van Wezel, take a few extra minutes to enjoy the art. There will no doubt be works that leave you cold. Art is personal after all. But there will likely be a few that draw you in. Thanks to the Fine Arts Society for sharing its collection with the public. For information on upcoming tours, click here.

Monday, January 7, 2019

The Art of Banksy - An Unauthorized Exhibit

Stop and Search (2007) Screen print on paper
There's more than a bit of irony in The Art of Banksy -- Unauthorized/Private Collection exhibit. First, of course, is the fact that Banksy's street art itself is unauthorized. His trademark stenciled work magically appears overnight on buildings. This can be either a boon or a bane to building owners, depending upon the location. 

Then there's the fact that Banksy is all about making art available to the masses free of charge. Wasn't the shredding of his painting "Girl with a Red Balloon" as the gavel dropped on the $1.4MM bid a protest against its private ownership? (This, of course, is the matter of some debate. Did the mechanism really malfunction halfway through the shredding? And was Banksy actually surprised that his stunt increased the value of the painting?)

In any event, curator Steve Lazarides' traveling exhibit is making a mint, which seems somewhat contrary to Banksy's artistic intentions. Nonetheless, I put my money on the table and headed to Miami to see the show over the holidays.  When else would I have the chance to see such a quantity of Banksy's work? 

Wild Style Cow (photograph) 
Lazarides had a front row seat to the Banksy phenomenon for many years, first as the artist's documentarian and then as his dealer. (The pair parted ways in 2008 after a decade of work together.) As a result of their relationship, Lazarides has unique access to Banksy's work held in private collections. The exhibit included a representative sampling across mediums, from canvases and screen prints to sculpture and photographs.

I particularly enjoyed seeing work with which I wasn't previously familiar. I laughed out loud when I read about this photograph. Banksy apparently had asked a farmer if he could paint his cows. Sure, the farmer replied, envisioning his cattle becoming the equivalent of Monet's gardens. But instead of setting up an easel and creating a picturesque landscape, Banksy actually painted the cows. (Don't worry -- no animals were harmed in the creation of this artwork.)

Di Faced Tenners (paper)
I also enjoyed these Di Faced Tenners, some of which actually made their way into the British monetary system.  You can't see from this photo, but the typical "Bank of England" imprimateur now says  "Banksy of England." Under the banner is the somewhat ominous promise to "pay the bearer on demand the ultimate price." Queen Elizabeth II has been replaced by Princess Di. And the back of the note bears Charles Darwin's somber face with the message "Trust No One" under his visage.

Banksy first "exhibited" the Tenners when two pedestrians carrying suitcases full of the notes dropped them at a London tube station and a book festival. I can only imagine the resulting chaos as the currency spilled across the floor. And that, apparently, was part of Banksy's intention -- to see whether ordinarily polite and orderly people would elbow one another out of the way for a shot at some free cash. (The answer was "yes.") Today, the Di Faced Tenners can be purchased on eBay. To read more about the Tenners, click here.

I was surprised to learn that Banksy has designed album covers and created images inspired by some of his (presumably) favorite songs. (I wasn't surprised to learn they were for bands unknown to me.)  I particularly liked this one, which could have been a scene from the play "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change."  It was actually inspired by a song called "Out of Time" from Think Tank's album entitled Blur.

Flag Wall
Interspersed throughout the exhibit were some quotes by the artist. These two comments made me both laugh and think.

"I like to think I have the guts to stand up anonymously in a western democracy and call for things no-one else believes in -- like peace and justice and freedom."

"Graffiti ultimately wins out over proper art because it becomes part of your city. It's a tool. 'I'll meet you in that pub, you know, the one opposite that wall with a picture of a monkey holding a chainsaw.' I mean, how much more useful can a painting be than that?"

Morons (the canvas reads: 
I can't believe you morons actually buy this shit) 

Overall, though, the show had much less impact than I had anticipated. Sure, it was fun to see Banksy's work, but it wasn't the same as unexpectedly coming across one of his  paintings on a random building. But don't let my reaction dissuade you from checking it out. The Art of Banksy runs through February 28th. For more about the show, click here.  If you're planning to go, check Groupon for tickets before paying full price. 

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Favorite Books of 2018

It seems a bit ridiculous to share my favorite books of the year given that there are more than 1200 such lists. The blogger Largehearted Boy put together a compilation for the 11th year running that includes all the usual suspects plus specialized and offbeat lists like Book Page's Best Book Covers, the Environment Award for Children's Literature (ecological books that inspire Australian children), It's a Hill, Get Over It (best running books) and Notable Books for a Global Society (best books that promote understanding of and appreciation for the world's full range of diverse cultures and ethnic and racial groups). Click here to get to Largehearted Boy. Thanks to the fabulous -- and hilarious -- Ron Charles, book critic for the Washington Post, for directing readers to this rabbit hole.

Despite the recognition that I have nothing revelatory to offer, I'm going to pile on. This blog is, after all, essentially my online diary. Please post your own favorites as a comment!

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje -- "In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals." Seriously, how can you top that as a first sentence? As the story unfolds, the masterful Ondaatje introduces readers to a truly memorable cast of characters. This is not your typical World War II book about spies and resisters, although there's plenty of that world to satisfy espionage buffs. It's a tale of family and choices and love and commitment to country. I am highly tempted to quit typing right now and dive back into this book for a re-read. I loved every moment of it. I have nothing more to say except READ IT!

Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart -- I have yet to decide how much my background as a capital markets lawyer influenced my reaction to this book, which I found absolutely and utterly hilarious. I am talking laugh out loud funny. Our protagonist is Barry Cohen, a man with 2.4 billion dollars of assets under management who also happens to be the subject of a criminal investigation. In the opening pages, we join Cohen as he leaves his family and heads off on a Greyhound bus in search of his college girlfriend. He is drunk, bleeding and has left his credit cards at home. He--and the readers--are in for quite a journey.

"The air here [in the bus station] was different. He could say with certainty that he had not in recent memory, or any memory, really, breathed air of this quality. The easy way to describe it would be to say that it smelled like a foot. But whose foot? The man was not in the habit of smelling feet, except perhaps in the locker room at Equinox where his own feet smelled of chlorine, because he swam. His wife's feet, he was sure, smelled of honeysuckle, like the rest of her, but he was not going to think of her now."

Cohen is an easy man to hate. He is the epitome of a self-important, entitled Wall Street asshole. (There's really no other word for him.) And he's left behind not only his wife but his son, who is on the lower end of the spectrum. But Shteyngart somehow makes Cohen not likable, but enjoyable to follow as he experiences the real world with a childlike sense of wonder. And the comedy is deftly offset by the heart-breaking reality of the struggle of his son's life.

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez --  The winner of the 2018 National Book Award for Fiction might be the most emotionally devastating book I have ever read. The novel opens with the true story of a group of female Cambodian war refugees who have lost their sight. They were all witnesses to/subjects of the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. Doctors who examined the women said the blindness was psychosomatic. "In other words," Nunez writes, "The women's minds, forced to take in so much horror and unable to take more, had managed to turn out the lights."

This news story was the last thing our unnamed protagonist discussed with her best friend and longtime mentor before he committed suicide.  Yes, this is one intense book.

The actual plotline of the novel deals with our protagonist taking on the care of her deceased friend's Great Dane. Like our storyteller, the dog is grief-stricken. In an almost stream of consciousness style, we travel with the pair as they work to come to terms with their loss.  

The Friend is not an easy read. If you're like me, you will have to put the slim novel down frequently to absorb the words and the pain. But Nunez' writing is so gorgeous and compelling that the thought of abandoning the book never crossed my mind.

Florida by Lauren Goff -- I am generally not a reader of short stories. I like to dig into a book and its characters and always fear that a short story will leave me unsatisfied. But when my favorite bookseller literally put a signed copy of Florida in my hands, what choice did I have? Thank you, Cathy Graham of Copperfish Books!

Readers of Groff's Fates and Furies will not be surprised that these stories take a hard look at the psychological make-up of her characters.

"I have become a woman who yells," the protagonist in Ghosts and Empties tells us. "And because I do not want to be a woman who yells, whose little children walk around with frozen, watchful faces, I have taken to lacing on my running shoes after dinner and going out into the twilit streets for a walk, leaving the undressing and sluicing and reading and singing and tucking in of the boys to my husband, a man who does not yell." As she walks, she observes the world around her and contemplates its meaning. Spoiler alert: There's no neat ending of the story in which she magically loses her anger and happily resumes her parental duties.

Each story is a self-contained nugget that was surprisingly satisfying. Groff's writing is just so good. FYI, Florida was also in contention for this year's National Book Award.

Virgil Wander by Leif Enger -- Like Lake Success, I picked up an advanced reader's copy of Virgil Wander at this year's Book Expo. These books often end up in the hands of others. But there was something about this novel that made me reluctant to let it go.

The novel tells the story of Virgil Wander, who Enger describes as "a Midwestern male cruising at medium altitude, aspiring vaguely to decency, contributing to PBS, moderate in all things including romantic forays, and doing unto others more or less reciprocally." When we meet Virgil, he's recently been rescued after his car went over a cliff into Lake Superior. He would have died but for the quick action of a fellow resident who was beachcombing.

Amazingly, Virgil is more or less intact, although his memory--both of people and language--is coming back in fits and starts. I took particular pleasure in Virgil's recovery of his words.  "Brusque appeared all by itself, which seemed apt; merry and boisterous arrived together."

Virgil is a charming guy who is surrounded by people you would call characters even if they weren't in a novel. But what really makes this book is its story of a community's residents pulling together to help each other achieve their goals as individuals and a town. It's a lovely message in this time of divisiveness.

Here's to a new year filled with whatever your heart desires. For me, that's time with friends and family enjoying cultural offerings that expand my world -- and, of course, a few good books.  

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Favorite Text Art from Art Basel

Large Fancy Room Filled with Cray
by David Shrigley (2018)
I can already hear you saying, "Is that art???"  I get it.  A lot of modern/contemporary art leaves me scratching my head (not to mention wondering who would buy these works). But there's a method to these artists' apparent madness.

Back in the 1960s, conceptual artists rebelled against the idea that a painting had to contain forms. Why couldn't language take the place of an image? Why couldn't a concept itself be art?

I learned from the Museum of Modern Art's website that Joseph Kosuth was one of the first artists to employ language in his work. His One and Three Chairs included a photograph of a chair, an actual chair and a canvas on which the definition of the word "chair" had been printed. (To see One and Three Chairs, click here.) I like it. It makes me smile. But MOMA explains that Kosuth's idea wasn't to make viewers feel happy, but to raise the philosophical question of which representation is most accurate. Yes, it can make your head spin.

Untitled (It's Raining Morons) by David Shrigley

Fast forward 50 some years to the text-inclusive artwork at Art Basel. I love David Shrigley's Large Fancy Room Filled with Crap. It's the truth of the statement that makes it work -- and makes me laugh. And unlike Kosuth, that's exactly Shrigley's intention. His work takes a satirical look at today's world, a sensibility that serves him well as a cartoonist for The Guardian newspaper.

 In 2016, Shrigley created a monumental work for Central Park -- a 17' tall shopping list. (Click here to see it.)  It might seem silly, but it's definitely a work to which every passerby could relate.

If you relate to the work of this Turner Prize-winning artist, you can purchase a "room filled with crap" dish towel by clicking here. To see more of Shrigley's work, click here. The more I look at it, the more I appreciate it.

EAT FAT by Regina Vater (1974)
Not all of the work at Art Basel was created recently. Take, for instance, EAT FAT by Brazilian artist Regina Vater, a piece of sculptural text art made nearly 45 years ago. With the food frenzy of the holidays upon us, the work took on heightened meaning.

Vater's work was in a Survey space, defined by Art Basel as "16 precise art historical projects...representing a range of cultures, generations and artistic approaches." Vater's body of work has a distinctly political/feminist slant. She has worked in an astonishing number of mediums, including performance art, painting, sculpture, video and mail art. Click here to read a fascinating interview with the artist in which she talks about her five decades of work.

Masquerade Nurse by
Richard Prince (2000s)
Then there was the work of Richard Prince. Prince is, well, the king of appropriation art, a genre popularized in the 1970s. The difference between straight out stealing and inspiration depends upon the amount of "transformation" of the original image. (Trust me, the rabbit hole on this one is quite deep.)

Prince began his artistic practice of re-photography while working at Time-Life. At the end of each day, some tear sheet images he's seen cried out to be used in his own work. Perhaps the best known of these series depicted the Marlboro Man.

Prince's first step was to re-photograph ads featuring the hyper-masculine cowboy. He then blew up the pictures, cropped out the text, and framed the remaining images. Voila!  An ad became art.

One of the many interesting aspects of Prince's work is his acknowledgment of his lack of skill.  "I had limited technical skills. Actually I had no skills. I played the camera. I used a cheap commercial lab to blow up the pictures. I never went into a darkroom," Prince told Artforum in 2003.

Prince's Nurse Paintings were inspired by the covers of pulp romance novels that would have been available at every corner store in their day. For this series, Prince took pictures of the covers of novels in his own extensive book collection, blew them up and began "editing" them. He came upon the concept of the mask when he completely painted over one image with white paint. Not liking the result, he wiped some of the paint off and was left with something akin to a surgical mask. The lightbulb went off. The concept seemed to resonate, with these works frequently selling for $50-60,000. To see more of Prince's Nurse Paintings, click here. (They really are quite intriguing.) And to read more about Prince and his work, click here.

We Are the Ones We've Been Waiting For
by Sam Durant (2018)
I'll leave you with the work of Sam Durant. His We Are the Ones We've Been Waiting For was literally the first work I saw upon entering Art Basel. Hello! The message felt like a wake-up call.

Durant works in a variety of mediums, including electric signs like the one here. (The text is vinyl.)  Durant often uses historical events--typically protests--as the basis of his work. In describing his electric signs, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art noted his intention to "encourage critical reevaluation" by adopting language employed in a different context. The message of this work struck me as fresh and timely. To read this article and see more of Durant's text-based work, click here and here.

While I was introduced to Sam Durant through his text art, his work extends to other mediums. I would be remiss not to mention the controversy surrounding one of Durant's installation works -- Scaffold. The political work was intended to raise awareness about the U.S. government's historic use of gallows in public executions.

Scaffold by Sam Durant
The installation was displayed in Germany and Scotland without any backlash. But when the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis proposed including the work in its sculpture garden, a hue and cry arose from the local Dakota Indians. Thirty-eight members of their tribe had been hung in Minnesota in 1862. What right did Durant have to use this tragedy as a basis for his art?

If you're reminded of the Dana Schutz' Open Casket controversy at the Whitney, you're right on point. But unlike Schutz, Durant apologized for his cultural insensitivity and agreed that the sculpture would be burned.  Durant's response to the Dakota community eloquently talks about his feeling that, as a white artist, it's his responsibility to highlight white supremacy and privilege and that he has been caught in the "zone of discomfort" he intended to create for other whites. To read his statement in its entirety, click here. To read more about the controversy, click here and here.

I'll end my recap of my Art Basel experience by answering my own question. Yes, my friends, this is art.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Favorite Sculptures from Art Basel

Bus Passengers by George Segal (1997) 
With 500,000 square feet of exhibit space, it should come as no surprise that Art Basel was overflowing with exciting creations. But being on my own meant a lot of missed photo opps. Take, for instance, George Segal's Bus Passengers. My aching feet definitely would have appreciated having the chance to slip into the seat between Segal's own weary passengers.

The now-deceased Segal began creating his unique style of plaster sculpture in the 1960s. Traditional casting involves pouring the material--be it metal, plaster or concrete--into a mold. Segal's process involved wetting plaster bandages and applying them directly to his models. Segal experimented on himself first, with the plaster created from his body becoming Man at a Table, his first of these style works. "For me to decide to make a cast of a human being broke all the rules of fine art," Segal is quoted as having said. To read more about Segal and his work, click here.

By Sarah Lucas
While on the topic of ways to get around, how about these boots by Sarah Lucas?????  (I bet you're singing "these boots are made for walking" right about now.)  Her concrete creations stand about six feet tall. Another pair currently on display at the New Museum rises to 11 feet. This is the art of a woman making a statement.

Lucas' work often involves--and is sometimes made of-- everyday objects. The New Museum's description calls her art "a distinctive and provocative body of work that subverts traditional notions of gender, sexuality and identity." While you might not get that sense from the boots, you definitely would if you took in the exhibit. There's a lot to make a viewer uncomfortable in the show. In fact, the Museum's description of the exhibit contains a disclaimer that "This exhibition contains images of genitalia, which may not be appropriate for all audiences." I've heard of disclaimers/trigger warnings for theater productions, but for an art exhibit?

Lucas is one of the YBAs, or Young British Artists, who were collected by Saatchi in the late 1980s. (Damien Hirst is also a member of this group and has purchased a number of Lucas' works from Saatchi.)  To read more about Lucas and see some of her other work from the New Museum exhibit, click here.

Pomegranate by Aleksandra Domanovic (2018)
Although it didn't strike me that way in the moment,  Aleksandra Domanovic's Pomegranate reminds me of the creepy trees in The Wizard of Oz. Happily, I had the chance to talk with the gallerist about Domanovic's work. What she's created is much more interesting than a talking tree.

Domanovic is known for her votive figures, a sculptural style that dates back to ancient Greece. Like its distant counterparts, Domanovic's sculpture is making an offering to the gods -- in this case, a pomegranate  The fruit was not chosen arbitrarily. Culturally, pomegranates are considered symbols of life and death, fertility and abundance.

But while Domanovic appreciates the past, she's also interested in technology and its impact on our lives. The arms of this sculpture--which are cast from the artist's own appendages--are covered in Kevlar, a distinctly 20th century creation. The hands are a take on the Belgrade Hand, an artificial hand with the capacity to articulate and to feel. It was originally developed following the end of WWII as a prosthetic device for soldiers who had lost their hands during the war. To see more of Domanovic's work, click here.

Female on Bed by Atelier Van Lieshout (2007) with
Body landscape dance I by Daniel Silver (2018) 
The curation of the space exhibiting Atelier van Lieshout's Female on Bed was truly stunning. Seriously, could you find a more perfect piece of art to display beside this sculpture?

According to its website, "Atelier van Lieshout was founded by enfant terrible and sculptor Joep van Lieshout." Like Sarah Lucas' boots, you probably don't see the shock value in this sculpture. Trust me when I say it's even more beautiful in person. But the Atelier does create some art that's pretty out there as its artists work in the "borders between art, design and architecture." Click here to visit the Atelier's website. Note: The website contains images of genitalia.

Untitled (Football Helmet) by Jean-Michel Basquiat (1981-1984)
Last up is an object that might not be strictly construed as sculpture. (As I noted in my first Art Basel blog, some works are hard to categorize.) This helmet was featured in a space with walls covered with drawings evoking the work of Keith Haring and artwork by Haring, Basquiat, Andy Warhol and Richard Prince. I happened to be looking at this work when a docent came by with a tour. Needless to say, I listened in.

Basquiat affixed clippings from his own hair to the exterior of this football helmet. The docent shared that Basquiat told his friend Warhol that he was welcome to wear the helmet if he ever wanted to feel what it was like to be him. (I don't know if Warhol took Basquiat up on this offer.) She also noted the significance of football to the African-American community. Sports are a way out of poverty, and this headgear can be viewed as the equivalent of a crown. Of course we now all know the cost many professional football players pay for living the dream.

Next up: Favorite Text Art from Art Basel

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Favorite Paintings from Art Basel 2018

Rosemary, Still by Brian
Calvin (2018)
My head is still spinning from my whirlwind visit to Art Basel 2018. Despite having spent seven hours at the Miami Convention Center, I feel like I didn't get the chance to really take in the art. Nearly every one of the 268 booths had works I wanted to study, but then my FOMO (fear of missing out) would kick in and I'd move along, satisfied if not satiated.

It's ridiculously difficult to decide what to share here, so I've decided to categorize the works that most struck me in a series of posts. But that's actually not so easy. Should fiber art be considered painting? What about text-focused art? How about prints? I'm just going with the flow here and hope you'll come along on the ride.

First up is Rosemary, Still by Brian Calvin. As I roamed the aisles, I felt a little surge of happiness every time I captured a glimpse of this painting. Rosemary is just so striking and beautiful in an untraditional way.

I learned that Calvin specifically does not want to convey a story in his work. ("[A narrative] is just not compelling to me," he said in an interview with Muse magazine.) But how can you not construct a story around this woman?

I'm a Feminist. What's Your 
Superpower? (Excelsior! Leonard Raven-
Hill for Punch Magazine, 1910) 
by Andrea Bowers (2018)
I fell in love with the work of Andrea Bowers, whose paintings were on display in at least three different galleries. In this series, Bowers has taken old feminist/suffragette posters or advertisements and added her own commentary. In the drawing from which this work was taken, the words "Women's Suffrage" and "Parliament" are written on the rock and the hill, respectively. (Click here to see the original.)  Bowers has added her own text -- "I'm a Feminist. What's Your Superpower?" on the bottom right hand corner.

Another of Bowers' works features a bonneted woman standing on a barrel in front of an image of a lion with a sign that reads "Hear Me Roar." That work was inspired by an image from the Suffragette Postcard Project. Click here to see the original.

Self Portrait after Henry Taylor by
Vincent Namatjira (2018) 
While we're on political art, I also was taken with the series by Vincent Namatjira entitled "This is No Fantasy." Namatjira takes a look at the world from his perch in South Australia and provides commentary through works incorporating satire and political caricature. His work often takes a poke at the Queen given Australia's relationship with the British Empire. I particularly liked this self-portrait of Namatjira with Kim Jung Un because (1) the guy desperately needs a new hairstyle and (2) I love Henry Taylor's art and appreciate the homage. To see more of Namatjira's work, click here or here.

Physichoromie Panam 309 by Carlos Cruz-Diez (2018)

This painting by Carlos Cruz-Diez kind of blew my mind. The colors shimmer off the canvas and seem to change depending upon where you stand. You can get a sense of this phenomenon even by looking at this image from different vantage points.

It makes sense now that I know Cruz-Diez is considered one of the founders of kinetic and op art ("op" being short for optical illusion). Cruz-Diez' website describes the genre as creating "an awareness of the instability of reality." The website also explains that "a physichoromie acts as a 'light trap' in a space where a series of color frames interact [and] transform each other, generating new ranges of color not present." Cruz-Diez has been working in this field since the late 1950s. Click here to explore his website. His architectural integrations and interventions in public space are particularly exciting.

Work by Tschabalala Self
I was intrigued by what was happening in this Thierry Goldberg gallery in the "Positions" sector of Art Basel, an area that showcases projects by a single artist. In this case, the artist was Tschabalala Self.

I wandered in to take a look at this painting, which features a guy wearing a racing team shirt with a Tide detergent logo surveying a shelf filled with bottles of Tide. I like the painting, but I was baffled by the plastic crates. I swallowed my pride to ask what the story was.  (Nobody else was around, so I only had to confess my ignorance to an audience of one.) The gallerist was quite nice as she explained that the space was intended to evoke a bodega; hence, the crates. I then understood the round security mirror on the wall was art rather than, well, security. And the whole "Tide" theme suddenly made sense as well, although I suspect there's deeper meaning than, "Oh, bodegas carry laundry detergent." [Note: My friend Deb just shared an article with me about thieves stealing Tide from bodegas to trade for crack. My wildest imagination never would have gone there. Click here to read about this surprising phenomenon, which sheds probable light on Self's intentions.]

Gazing Ball (de Vos Europa) by Jeff Koons (2018)
Not all of the artists at Art Basel were new to me. But I was a little surprised to learn this work was by Jeff Koons. Koons first landed on my radar back in the 1990s with the Cicciolina controversy. (If you don't know about Cicciolina, click here.)  Koons' penchant for controversy hasn't abated over the years, with works like his Balloon Dog sculptures (a steel version of which sold for $58MM) and his porcelain sculpture of Michael Jackson with his monkey Bubbles continuing to raise eyebrows.

In his latest series, Koons has added gazing balls to painted copies of 35 masterpieces, from Manet's Luncheon on the Grass to DaVinci's Mona Lisa. (This work is a reproduction of Martin de Vos' The Rape of Europa.) Handblown gazing balls have been inserted into the paintings and enable the viewer to interact with the painting in a visible way. In an interview with The Guardian, Koons said of the concept, "This experience is about you, your desires, your interests, your participation, your relationship with this image." I love it. To read the interview, click here.

Nicole 2 by Alex Katz (2018) 
I could go on and on, but I'll wrap this post with a beautiful painting by Alex Katz. Nicole 2 reminded me of a Grecian statue and emitted a sense of calm in the midst of the chaos of Art Basel.

I have long been a fan of Katz' portraiture, which has a graphic feel. He is known for his paintings of closely cropped faces. Although he's been working in this style since the 1960s, his work always feels fresh. Interestingly, Katz has used his wife Ada as his model for at least 250 of his paintings. (For a fun interview with Ada, click here.) 

Next up: Favorite Sculptures from Art Basel 2018.

"Little" by Edward Carey

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