Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Winter's Bone: worth a second viewing!

I saw Winter's Bone again last weekend (because Lynn hadn't seen it the first time). I was eager to see it again and I wasn't disappointed. This is cinematic craftsmanship at a very high level and worth studying. The quality of the acting and the overall look and mood of the movie are immediately obvious.

On second viewing I found myself seeing subtle references - or if not deliberate references at least similarities - to other films. Momentary glimpses of certain scenes reminded me of Deliverance, The Grapes of Wrath, and of Fargo, but as each instance passed seamlessly into the next scene I also found myself thinking, this is exactly right for this movie, not a play on that other movie. Like a literary reference in a poem, the visual reference enriches the movie without distracting from it.

Read my original post: click here.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Seeing portraits at the Museum of Wisconsin Art

The woman slouched in the corner of the gallery would be odd enough, wearing the mask as she is. That she’s a sculpture and not a woman makes the effect even eerier. If I hadn’t already been familiar with Marc Sijan’s super-realistic sculptures, however, I might have been turned back even before getting into the gallery. An intimidatingly stern-faced policeman greets visitors at the door. One could easily decide that you’d come into the wrong place by mistake, until you pull your gaze away from his disturbingly motionless stare and glance around to see the rest of the main gallery at the Museum of Wisconsin Art in West Bend. Yes, OK: this is art.

To See Ourselves as Others See Us: Contemporary Wisconsin Portraits closes today, so if you haven’t already been there I’m sorry to be the one to tell you how great a show you missed. A dozen artists working in a variety of media—photography, painting, drawing, sculpture—have one thing in common: they train their creative energies on the study of individuals. I didn’t make there until yesterday, but I’m glad I got the chance. Of course, portraiture is a venerable genre in art, but I think it takes an unusual talent to make portraits that have an audience beyond the subjects themselves. With little else to tie them all together, the works in this show manage to cohere because they succeed so well at this. Such a small sampling of Wisconsin artists can hardly be considered comprehensive, but it’s a fascinating sample.

Besides Sijan, I found other familiar favorites, especially David Lentz and Katie Musolf - predictable choices, but always satisfying. I particularly liked the inclusion of Musolf's preparatory drawings along with her finished paintings. That was a highlight of the show for me. The others were less familiar but no less satisfying. Thank you, MWA!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Feel the chill; see the film: Winter's Bone is brilliant.

If you think your life is hard—and who doesn’t once in a while—here’s an antidote: see Winter’s Bone, a dark tale set in the Ozark backwoods of Missouri. Briefly, the story centers on 17-year-old Ree Dolly who has to take care of two younger siblings and a mother who has been traumatized past a breaking point we are left to guess at. Ree’s father, Jessup, who makes his living cooking meth, was arrested and released on a bond. The story begins as we learn that if Jessup doesn’t appear in court, the family will lose their house. Most of the movie concerns Ree’s search for her father.

Most of us go to the movies to be entertained and, if they’re any good, most movies deliver entertainment in some measure. I’m no different usually. I saw Inception last weekend and it was entertaining. But I’m not blogging about that. Winter’s Bone is not a common movie. It doesn’t feel like a movie at all; it looks and feels too real to be fiction. Critics have even coined a new genre to describe it: “country-noir.” It’s an apt description.

The landscape we experience—“seeing” is too impersonal a word—in this film seems as foreign as the dark side of the moon. Every scene, no matter how ordinary the action, is imbued with impending violence. The acting is so realistic that it doesn’t seem like acting. Even minor characters are spot-on and, with the possible exception of the Sherriff, none come across as two dimensional. Ree and her uncle, Teardrop, are exceptional characters and complex people. The actual violence that does happen, as opposed to the constant potential for it, is kept off camera but the tension is, if anything, heightened by this.

This is a brilliant film. Don’t take my word for it. Google other reviews and check them out. It received the Grand Jury prize at the Sundance film festival. It’s playing at the Oriental Theater in Milwaukee. (Of course!)

Watch the trailer: Winter’s Bone.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel misses opportunity to mention Art Therapy.

Art Therapy is an effective therapeutic discipline that rarely gets the respect it deserves. Sometimes it isn't even mentioned when it's completely consistent with the context of a story in the news.

This is the case in Jim Stingl's column, which appeared in today's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. It's a great story about a Vietnam Vet who paints to relieve sympotions of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that linger long after his experiences in Vietnam. Stingl specializes in human interest stories like this one and I generally enjoy his column no matter who he's describing. Today's story, entitled "Vietnam vet seeks peace with painting," was especially appealing due to its art related subject.

As usual, it's a good, positive story. I just wish Stingl had taken the opportunity to mention the fact that art as therapy has a history and that, although Jim Finnerty, the subject of the story, didn't avail himself of one (or if he did it wasn't mentioned), there are professsionals in the field who can help people like vets with PTSD.

For more information about art therapy, trauma intervention, and the military, go to the Internation Art Therapy Organization website.

To read a scholarly research article about art therapy and combat related PTSD, go to the ERIC database.

Jim Finnerty, as is briefly mentioned in Stingl's column, was already an accomplished artist. (See Finnerty's website.) However, art therapy can benefit anyone, whether or not they think of themselves as an artist or have artistic skills.

Urban Underground, by Jim Finnerty

Friday, August 20, 2010

Thoreau on art and nature: a double post

Eliot Porter's cover for In Wildness...

I’ve been rereading Thoreau because I preparing to give a talk at Unitarian Universalist Church West about him and his relationship to my own Urban Wilderness pursuits. I came across the following quote in one of the seminal books that has inspired me, In Wildness is the Preservation of the World, by Eliot Porter.

"It has come to this, –that the lover of art is one, and the lover of nature another, though true art is but the expression of our love of nature. It is monstrous when one cares but little about trees and much about Corinthian columns, and yet this is exceedingly common."

It is the perfect quote for a crossover post for my two blogs. If you’ve been following one and not the other (which is exceedingly common, as far as I can tell) I now invite you to go to the introductory page on my website that explains why I have two blogs:
My blogs.

My talk is called “Faint-hearted crusader: finding Thoreau in the city.” If you’re so inclined, I also invite you to come to church and find out what I have to say about that. For more information about the service, and directions to the church, go to UUCW.

To learn more about the Urban Wilderness Project (and see lots more pictures), go to my website.

From Urban Wilderness: Exploring a Metropolitan Watershed

Monday, August 16, 2010

Rockport, Massachusetts: dispatch from an art colony.

The idea of an “art colony” sounds quaint in an age when more artists are finding virtual communities online than actual ones face-to-face. Traditionally, an art colony was a place where artists lived if not communally then at least in proximity with one another (and usually away from other people) in order to interact and practice their art. “Getting away from it all” is much harder these days, but a version of this is still happening in a corner of Massachusetts.

Last week I made a long-overdue pilgrimage back to Rockport, which, along with its more famous neighbor, Gloucester, occupies a small, rugged island at the tip of Cape Ann. (Founded in 1623, Gloucester lays claim to being the oldest seaport in Massachusetts. Always famous as a fishing and ship-building town, it gained more recent notoriety when it was pummeled by the “Perfect Storm” in 1991.) The rugged beauty of the landscape and sea, along with its proximity—a short train ride north of Boston—has attracted many famous artists. Considering how well suited the character of the place is to their work, these include some you might expect, such as Winslow Homer (above right), Edward Hopper, and John Marin. But other less predictable artists, like Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, also found here an atmosphere conducive to their creative impulses. Close knit art colonies were established in Gloucester and Rockport that continue to this day.

When I was young my family vacationed in Rockport every summer. We were there for the beach, where my grandmother had a cottage. In the evening, or on rainy days, we would go to town to visit the shops and galleries on Bearskin Neck, the epicenter of tourism. “The Neck” also was the location of the modest fishing shack known universally as “Motif #1” because it has long been considered the “most often-painted building” in the country. I loved seeing it year after year, along with all the varying representations I saw in paintings in the many galleries. Like every other tourist, I photographed it. Below left is an image I made some years ago.

As I grew older I began to realize that the unglamorous, worn character of this simple sea shanty, which initially had made it attractive to artists, now has been lost to its iconic status. I started to explore the less tourist oriented galleries up Main St., away from the crowds on the Neck. The artists I found there pursued a wider variety of subject matter and I learned to discriminate between the tourist kitsch and the accomplished art. An academic training in college and a career teaching art directed my tastes even further from the largely tradition-bound painting still to be found in Rockport where the style leans towards a painterly naturalism and conventional subject matter dominates. It’s a bit eerie, after being away from it for so long, to walk into gallery after gallery and see what looks like the same paintings I saw when I was last here—and not far different from what Homer and his contemporaries did.

But this odd déjà vu feeling is accompanied by another, more solid, comforting one. Here, still, is a place where artists gather and ply their craft, some successfully enough that their names have become familiar over the years. Today the tourist trade is Rockport’s major industry and, unfortunately, the better artists, in my experience, are a little harder to find amongst the plethora of artsy-craftsy shops that cater unabashedly to the undiscriminating crowds. As an art educator, it often feels like an uphill battle to raise my students’ aesthetic sights against an overwhelming, homogenous commercial culture. I can well imagine the artists of Rockport feeling that way, too.

At the relatively quiet far end of Main St. I found two galleries that stood out for me. Tom Nicholas works in a very traditional style with flawless technique and a lovely sensitivity to light, mood, and place. He has no website. His “Smith’s Cove, Gloucester Harbor” is to the right. Susanne White takes as her subject the familiar rocky terrain, strewn with driftwood, shells, and other flotsam. She enlarges them until their abstract qualities—color, texture, line, pattern—come to the fore. Her “Vertigo” is below left. Proving an exception to my earlier observation, my favorite photographer, Robert Lerch, runs his gallery in a surprisingly sequestered alcove in the heart of Bearskin Neck.

So, here is today’s art colony. It may not attract the contemporary equivalent of a John Marin or Mark Rothko, but I think there is a place for well done regional art. All art doesn’t have to be challenging. Art certainly doesn’t have to be inaccessible—something academia is famous for and often seems gratuitous to me. And beauty never goes out of style even when it goes out of fashion. If an artist can paint well and make a living of it, my congratulations to that! An artist could do worse than live in a beautiful place (alongside other artists) and be inspired by nature.

To see other samples of Rockport artist’s work, go to the Rockport Artist’s Association.

To see a few preliminary photos from my excursion there, go to my flickr page.

To read about my Rockport experience from another perspective, go to my Urban Wilderness blog.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Walker's Point Center for the Arts scores with photo show about refugees in Milwaukee

Here, There, and Elsewhere: Refugee Families in Milwaukee, a photo-documentary, opened on July 23 at the Walker’s Point Center for the Arts. Unfortunately, I was elsewhere myself then. But I knew I was going to like this one and made a point of going to see it recently.

I was not disappointed. This is one of the most important photography shows by local artists I’ve seen in Milwaukee in a long time. And you could even take out the “by local artists” and it still would be. The artists are John Ruebartsch and Sally Kuzma and their collaboration has produced a body of work about immigrant communities in Milwaukee that has the imprimatur of the Wisconsin Humanities Council, the Wisconsin Arts Board, and the National Endowment for the Arts, among others. (So, I’m not the only one.)

The opening of the exhibit was followed by a panel presentation (which, sadly, I also missed) by Jasmine Alinder, Assoc. Professor of History at UWM, Chia Youyee Vang, also an Assoc. Professor of History at UWM—and herself a refugee from Laos—and John Gurda, Milwaukee’s eminent historian. Here are excerpts from what each had to say about this work.

Jasmine Alinder: The photographs honor and respect subjects’ claims to self-presentation and reflect the project creators’ desires to tell the stories of these people in a manner that portrays their humanity and does not exploit their differences. The photographer, John Ruebartsch, is himself an immigrant. The Milwaukee Refugee project brings together his interest in photographic documentation, and the formal concerns of light, composition, and rich color, with his desire to examine social issues and his own status as a naturalized citizen of the U.S.

Chia Youyee Vang: Migration is as old as humankind, though the factors that prompt people to move vary. Whether pushed out by war, famine, or oppression, or pulled by the promise of economic opportunity or freedom, displaced people may take months, years, or entire lifetimes to make sense of their situation. Migration across national borders can be particularly traumatic, especially if there is little chance of returning home. The photographs in Here, There, and Elsewhere show the experiences of some of these people whose journeys away from far-off wars or conflicts have led them to Milwaukee.

John Gurda: They have come, these newest of the new Milwaukeeans, from places that most of us would have trouble finding on a map—from Burma, Somalia, Laos, Sudan, Vietnam…. As unfamiliar as they may seem to residents of longer tenure, the families pictured in Here, There, and Elsewhere mark a compelling return to one of the community’s oldest traditions. Just as the U.S. is a nation of nations, Milwaukee has long been a city of newcomers. [This exhibit] is therefore not a revelation but a return. What we see in these carefully made photographs is private lives on public view. …We see in their dark eyes…the telling blend of hope, fear, and determination that has always defined the American people.

The complete remarks from which these excerpts were taken are available in a catalogue of the exhibit at Walker’s Point Center for the Arts.

There are too many good images in this show to have a favorite, but this one is right at the top. It is a wonderful combination of staged formal wedding portrait and decisive moment. The bride, as usual, is the center of attention, but, atypically, she has no interest in the photographic proceedings. The cultural cues are also mixed, ambiguous, within a precisely framed composition.

Don’t wait too long to see this one; it closes Aug. 28.

Inside/Outside at the Lynden Sculpture Garden closes soon!

OK, so here’s the thing: you have only two days left to see the current Inside/Outside installations by Kevin Giese and Linda Wervey Vitamas. It closes Aug. 11, but since the Gardens are open only on Sunday and Wednesday, that means two days. (I am one fan who hopes that the Garden will find the means to expand its hours soon!) But the good news is: it’s definitely worth making the time and getting there.

(Not that it’s been easy for me! I was sorry to miss both the opening and the scheduled artist tours earlier in the summer, being out of town. And then the day in July that I had set aside to visit…well, I was actually on my way there when suddenly one of those all-too-frequent deluges turned me back.)

Site specific installations, when successful, are especially intriguing because they relate to their immediate surroundings in ways that go beyond normal sculpture—and I love it when art is relational and not self-absorbed. This is true under most circumstances, but when the sites for artist’s interventions include other sculptures as well as the landscape, as is the case at the Lynden Garden, the possibilities—and challenges—increase.

Fortunately, both Giese and Vitamas were up to the challenge and produced work that is subtle, thoughtful, and well integrated with the sculptures around them.

I noticed Giese’s installation of stripped buckthorn trees immediately as I strolled across the lawn. They are perfectly situated across the pond and against a backdrop of mature pines. Their reflection in the water carries and intensifies the already wavering lines of the bare wood. Buckthorn, as Giese notes, is an invasive species (as I know well – my other blog is Urban Wilderness), which is insinuated in his title for the piece: Immigrants. The stripped trees are not the whole piece, however. Giese has created beauty out of the conceptual ugliness of invasive species; he has also planted living trees (sorry, I didn’t catch the species but I assume/hope they are native!)

Walking around the pond for a closer look reveals that the siting also creates for a striking contrast with Clement Meadmore’s monumental steel sculpture, Upstart.

Vitamas, with completely different materials and methods, has assembled a piece called Indigenous Transience that is conceptually very sympathetic with Giese’s. (This is appropriate, since the charge of the invitational Inside/Outside theme was to produce collaborative work rather than two separate works.) She uses a steel beam and unfired clay to create a work that has inherent contrasts. It would have been nice to see the piece at the opening when the simple clay pinch pots were new, but if I had to choose, I’d say now is a better time to see them after all. They have been slowly crumbling ever since (maybe not so slowly in some of our summer storms!) This results in cracked earthen, almost archeological, remains atop the intact steel.

As with Giese, this piece resonates very well with the sculptures nearby. Di Suvero’s steel Lover and John Henry’s aluminum Pin Oak are both linear and metallic, which harmonizes with Vitamas’s steel beam, while their permanence is accented by the ephemeral quality of Vitamas’s dissolving clay.

Both artists have equally fascinating work in the gallery as well. You can see them and read about the artists, on the Lynden Sculpture Garden website. You can see more of their work at their own websites:
Kevin Giese
Linda Wervey Vitamas

To see my previous post on the opening of the Lynden Garden, click here.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Milwaukee's Coree Coppinger wins Julia Margaret Cameron award

Congratulations to Coree Coppinger of Milwaukee, whose image (above) called "Rock and Roll" won first prize in the "abstract and still" catagory of the Julia Margaret Cameron awards. 711 photographers from 45 countries submitted over 4000 images to this contest, which is a benefit for Save the Children.

To learn more about the awards and see the other winning entries, go to Worldwide Photography Gala Awards.

To see more of Coree's wonderful photography, go to her website.