Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Greetings and 2010 highlights from Arts Without Borders!

Season's Greetings!

In the spirit of the season and annual ritual of selecting highlights from the past year, I submit a few of my favorite art experiences of 2010 in chronological order, one per month starting in April when I began Arts Without Borders. May the New Year be as filled with art and creativity!

April: Nudes at MoMA: Why are we surprised?
Marina Abramović's controversial show at the Museum of Modern Art in NY

May: The opening of the Lynden Sculpture Garden.
Public opening of the formerly private Bradley Sculpture Garden in Milwaukee

June: A day in Chicago: a 3-part series.
Matisse at the Art Institute, Bearden and others at the Cultural Center, and various shows at the Smart Museum of Art

July: A visit to the Walker in Minneapolis.
Inside and outside at the Walker Museum of Contemporary Art

August: WPCA show on refugees in Milwaukee
A documentary photography project by John Ruebartsch and Sally Kuzma

September: War: missing in action?
War: Humanity in the Crosshairs at Merge Gallery in Milwaukee

October: Day of the Dead at Chicago's National Museum of Mexican Art
Some of the best ofrendas anywhere, honoring the dead; plus a second post about Milwaukee's Day of the Dead exhibits

November: Milwaukee Art Museum is "world's sexiest building"
A provocative look at the designation by VirtualTourist

December: 100 Acres of art and nature in Indianapolis
An art and nature park next to the Indianapolis Museum of Art

And in a separate category, my favorite movie of the year, hands down: Winter's Bone.
(Runners up: Black Swan and Exit Through the Gift Shop.)

The image at the top is a contemporary version of a haiga. Haiga originated in Japan where it is a hybrid form that combines a haiku with an image, traditionally an ink drawing. My humble offering shows a frosty dawn on the Rock River in Rockford, IL.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Recommended viewing: Black Swan

Witnessing madness elicits emotions that range from compassion and fascination to revulsion and horror. It is difficult to see in real life, for various reasons, and as with a physical deformity, we are socialized not to stare. Art, of course, encourages us to stare and in Black Swan, cinematic art allows us a profound view into normally private psychological depths. But do we turn from manifestations of madness in life because it isn’t polite or do we fear the erosion of our own grip on reality? In art our horror may be the result of clever direction and filmmaking, but there also may be something more elemental in our reactions. We can watch with equanimity and distance ourselves when stories put characters in dangerous situations that we don’t expect to encounter. But what if the danger lies inside ourselves?

Black Swan opened yesterday amid overwhelmingly favorable reviews (see and I am happy to add to the applause. I think it’s great! Briefly, it is a story about a dancer who seeks to play the dual parts of the white and black queens in Swan Lake, Tchaikovsky’s famous Romantic tragedy. The white queen succumbs to a spell transforming her into a swan from which she can only be rescued by true love. The prince who comes to her rescue is seduced by the evil black queen. The two characters usually are played by different dancers but the director wants to inject the familiar ballet with new drama and symbolism by adding this dramatic twist. It puts tremendous stress on the principle dancer, for each of the parts is physically demanding. But it is the psychological stresses that threaten to overwhelm the character of Nina, played brilliantly by Natalie Portman.

Black Swan plays subtly with stereotypes as well as our expectations. The dancers are jealous and ready to do whatever it takes to make the lead, including grueling workouts with over-the-hill dance coaches who have foreign accents. The director is aloof, arbitrary, and demanding. He is also sexually provocative and intimidating. Nina’s mother is overbearing and protective. But where is the line between stereotype and archetype? A lesser cinematic achievement would’ve resulted in clichés. But they are subverted in the same moment that Nina’s grip on reality comes into question. We constantly wonder what is real and what the result of her disturbed imagination.

Don’t go to see Black Swan expecting a pleasant story about ballet (and don’t take the children.) If you’ve seen Requiem for a Dream, also by the director, Aronofsky, you will have an inkling of how dark his work can be. The movie that this most closely resembles for me, however, is one that I haven’t thought about since I saw it in the 1970’s, but which came bubbling spontaneously out of my subconscious: Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. Such is the power of art to live on even beyond conscious awareness. Both movies explore psychological tensions that result from sexual repression and loss of control. Black Swan sets this tension in the maelstrom of the backstage world of top level dancers where the struggle for artistic success is relentless. It questions the price of perfection and suggests that an overzealous pursuit of art itself might lead to madness. “Is the fault, dear Brutus, in our stars or in ourselves, that we…” will not be underlings?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Help Portrait Milwaukee at St. Ben’s meal program

How revealing a turn of phrase can be! Instead of “taking” pictures, as we so commonly say, the photographers who volunteer with Help-Portrait Milwaukee give them.

Jim Stingl’s unerring eye for the human interest stories of Milwaukee landed on this one in today’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Read Jim’s column.

Help-Portrait was started in Nashville by Jeremy Cowart and has grown into an international project. Volunteers offer their "time, gear, and expertise" to those in need who don’t normally have ready access to photography that most of us take for granted. They shoot and then they give away the prints to their subjects.
What a fabulous idea!

The Milwaukee effort was spearheaded by Matt Heltsley and includes others who are members of CoPA, Milwaukee's Coalition of Photographic Arts. It should be mentioned – without diminishing the good work that Help-Portrait is doing there – that the people who eat at St. Ben’s have had an in house photographer for years. Leroy Skalstad takes – and gives – photographs and produces a calendar each year for St. Ben’s. (Full disclosure: although I haven’t given photographs there, I have given much time over the years as a volunteer at the St. Ben’s Meal Program. I have long appreciated the unheralded work that Leroy does there. This year's calendar sits next to my computer. I'm also a CoPA member.)

ArtsWithoutBorders salutes Help-Portrait, Leroy, and St. Ben’s!

And please check out the Help-Portrait Milwaukee website to see the wonderful people featured there. It’s bound to make you smile yourself to see their bright faces.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

100 acres of art and nature in Indianapolis

One of 15 unique benches, by Jeppe Hein

Contemplate this phrase: art and nature park. Consider how that might differ from this more common phrase: sculpture garden. At the newly opened Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park – usually referred to simply as 100 Acres – the difference is both real and, more importantly, intentional. According to their mission statement, the park’s art works and programming are “designed to strengthen the public’s understanding of the unique, reciprocal relationships between contemporary art and the natural world.” If the mission is implemented as intended, this goes well beyond the placement of art in a carefully designed landscape, which is what happens in even the best of sculpture gardens. (If you’ve been following ArtsWithoutBorders for long you know I love sculpture gardens. See links below.)

Team Building (Align) by Type A (foreground) with Park of the Laments (background)

100 Acres combines aspects of the traditional sculpture garden with aspects of the traditional nature center. The result, it can be hoped, will be anything but traditional. In fact, their mission goes on to say, they expect that some visitors will come with an aesthetic eye for art and some with a scientist’s or naturalist’s eye for the landscape. But – and this is what intrigues me most – they say that while “projects in 100 Acres will accommodate and mix these agendas in surprising ways,” sometimes the revelation will be that “the categories are artificial.” (emphasis mine.)

View of the White River

In the mid-19th century, Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School took a cue from Thoreau and the Transcendentalists. Hudson River School artists didn’t choose the landscape merely because it offered a rich source of subject matter – that had been done before. They expressed a deeply held belief in a harmony of the human with the natural world. Furthermore, their concept exceeded previous notions in Western art of this relationship to include wild nature as well as the more traditional pastoral landscape. They succeeded in breaking down a few artificial categories and pointed the way, as art can do so powerfully, towards a conservation movement that was just beginning to emerge in isolated pockets like California’s Yosemite Valley. Some of these artists became standard bearers who revealed distant wonders of the American West to an astonished public and helped convince congress to establish the world’s first national park at Yellowstone.

A section of woodland

At the beginning of the 21st century we may be at a similar nexus of understanding about our relationship with the natural world. As an artist concerned about the environment, I visited 100 Acres last weekend with great anticipation, for I believe in that power of art and I believe that we must break down the divisions that result from seeing in terms of categories. If the world needed a park like Yellowstone in the 19th century to spark the preservation movement, it needs urban parks now to bring home to city dwellers the immediacy of their relationship to the earth. Art can – and should – speak to that relationship.

Another of 15 unique benches by Jeppe Hein

I arrived the day after the first significant snowfall of the season. Light flurries softened the stark, leafless scenery. I had to imagine how beautiful it would be in the full foliage of summer, but the wintry character held its own – and I had 100 acres of woodlands bordered by the White River nearly to myself. I would have been happy even without the art. In fact, if you plan to go there just for the art you might be surprised to find so little of it. The work of eight artists is currently installed, mostly clustered somewhat randomly in one corner of the park. All are described as temporary site-specific commissions (and the park intends to proceed with a regular program of such temporary works – in contrast, once again, with the traditional sculpture garden.) However, when I think of temporary installations, nothing comes to mind like this mammoth piece, entitled Park of the Laments, by Alfredo Jaar. It is as wide as a football field, solid as the monastery walls that it evokes. Inside it has the meditative stillness of a cloister, one topped, however, not by the spires of a cathedral but the black trunks and twisted branches of winter-stripped trees all around.

Park of the Laments by Alfredo Jaar

I’ve promised myself I’d keep my posts brief, and I’m trying. I hope this teaser will encourage you to check out the website and, someday, to visit 100 Acres. Oh! I would be cruelly remiss if I didn’t add that this wonderful park is located adjacent to the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA), which is definitely worth a trip in itself. They have a fairly standard, encyclopedic collection of western art – but the examples are a cut above average. I found their gallery of African art to be especially exciting. After my excursion in the park, I didn’t have time to do this collection justice, so I have two reasons to return. The other is to see what new commissions appear in 100 Acres.

Light and Space III by Robert Irwin in the escalator atrium of IMA

Related posts:

Lynden Sculpture Garden in snow – and illumination!

Good news! The Outside portions of Inside/Outside at the Lynden Sculpture Garden have been transformed by the recent snowfall and are worth a second glance (well, in my opinion!) But, there are other reasons galore to visit the gardens. The Lynden has a program this Sunday called Light Up the Garden that sounds marvelous. I plan to be there.

Oh, and Inside/Outside has been extended through January 5, so if you can’t make it this Sunday there is still time.

Click here for my previous post describing Inside/Outside.

Since I was out of town when it snowed last weekend (see my latest post on 100 Acres in Indianapolis) I had to rely on my collaborator, Phil Krejcarek, for these images.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Julien Berthier's Shipwrecked Sculpture

Have you heard the one about the sculptor who sits on his shipwrecked sailboat waiting for other boaters to come to his rescue? Only it's not a shipwrecked sailboat, but a sculpture that looks like one? It's not a joke.

Or is it?

Julien Berthier decided to make a sculpture that resembles a sailboat about to sink. As you can see from the image, it's very convincing. According to reports, when he takes his sculpture out for a ride (it is fully seaworthy and he can pilot it) he is the frequent recipient of attempts to rescue him from his distressed situation. As you can imagine.

OK, it's clever. I wonder, though, was it worth the effort? It's kind of like a very expensive and elaborate visual pun, a one-liner. Or is there something more to it that I'm missing? Is this Surrealism's postmodern offspring, something that owes a debt to Magritte? Maybe he should title it "this is not a shipwreck." Below is what it looks like in a gallery setting. Not quite the same effect.