Saturday, January 29, 2011

Frank Rich on True Grit, The Social Network

I get the NY Times on Sunday and generally spend all week reading it. At some point during the week I always turn to the editorials page for my favorite columnist, Frank Rich. He usually dices up whatever political shenanigans are current, spicing his astute observations with widely varied references to the arts and pop culture. I didn't get to it until today this week.

Last Sunday Rich chose to focus on two very popular movies, True Grit and The Social Network. I enjoyed both very much. I saw The Social Network as commentary on power, greed, and moral turpitude. True Grit had all of that under its veneer of historical distance, which can create the illusion that none of it need be taken too seriously. But the longer I consider it, the more I see True Grit as belonging to a higher order of filmmaking than the typical old fashion Western. It is art and allegory and worth a second viewing. What appears to be heroism turns out to be the opposite when justice devolves into revenge. In the end, both stories wallow in an amorality that may resonate uncomfortably throughout our contemporary culture.

Rich's analysis deepened my appreciation. He not only compares and contrasts two movies that at first glance seem to have nothing in common but also adds political and social commentary, which I find adds pithy and welcome depth. Art and life are inseparable, after all!

Read Frank Rich's column:  The One-Eyed Man is King.

Barry Blitt, NY Times

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Haggerty scores twice with Soth lecture and "The Truth is not in the Mirror"

Alec Soth began his talk in Marquette University’s lush new Eckstein Hall Wednesday night by quoting David Hockney: "photography is great if you're a paralyzed cyclops." Succinct and dramatic, that describes a common limitation of photography, which traditionally assumes a static viewpoint with a single lens. Many photographers have employed a variety of strategies to overcome this limitation, including Hockney himself who famously fragments his subjects with multiple images, evoking the analytic cubism of Picasso and Braque. Soth creates a body of work with a narrative arc that ties individual images together, albeit often rather tenuously.

David Hockney
Mother 1, Yorkshire Moors
Hockney and Soth are just two of the many photographers featured in the Haggerty's outstanding exhibit, "The Truth is not in the Mirror." The title of the exhibit refers to its theme of portraiture in contemporary photography and its thesis that many portraits today involve "highly constructed artifice." Formal portraiture, in which the gaze is direct and the pose deliberate, has always had to deal with artificiality, but, according to the catalogue essay, these photographers "challenge or trick the viewer into looking deeper into issues of identity, with those portrayed serving as ciphers for the photographer's point of view."

In his talk, Soth took up that last point directly, expressing his personal preference for situations in which he knows little about the subject he is photographing. He likes to project his own imagination onto them. This flies in the face of a conventional wisdom practiced by many photographers who often go to great lengths to know their subjects as intimately as possible. A personal favorite practitioner of this latter style is Mary Ellen Mark, who, for example, once spent three weeks living inside the maximum security section of a psychiatric hospital in order to establish personal relationships with the patients in Ward 81. Soth, by contrast, relishes brief interactions. The image below, which is in the exhibit, took 15 minutes, he said, and he knew nothing about the woman, except that on Ash Wednesday the mark on her forehead was made with cigarette ashes. Soth likes to create narratives, but he wants them to be his own ("artificially constructed") narratives. His subject is indeed a cipher for his point of view.
Alec Soth: Adelyn, Ash Wednesday
The complete title of Soth's talk was "The Paralyzed Cyclops in the Democratic Jungle." Showing a screen capture of the 2 billionth photo uploaded to flickr, he made a compelling case for the obsolescence of the idea of the "democratic jungle" explored by William Eggleston and since then countless people with cell phone cameras. In a book called "The Democratic Forest" Eggleston pointed his camera at anything and everything, the ordinary and the familiar, democratically. But, Soth says, it's been taken too far. If everything is interesting then nothing is. His solution is to cut through the democratic jungle with "the narrative machete," or images that point to a larger story. That his narratives are fabricated rather than journalistic is the reason his work fits so well into "The Truth is not in the Mirror."

The title of the show recalls "Mirrors and Windows," the legendary 1978 exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art by John Szarkowski (which I still remember seeing when it came to what was then called the Milwaukee Art Center!) Szarkowski identified two strains of photography: it can be a mirror, reflecting the mind of the photographer, or a window, through which one sees the external world. The exemplary collection of images in this exhibit seem to take a more nuanced position, to challenge the distinction between mirror and window. They are windows into a kind of reality, but one that can't be trusted to represent anything other than the artist's intentions.

Alec Soth
Patrick, Palm Sunday

"The Truth is not in the Mirror” continues through May 22. There will be a panel discussion about the exhibit next Wednesday, Feb. 2 at 6 pm. Additional programming and other information available at Haggerty Museum of Art.

With two runs already in, the lineup at the Haggerty makes it look like they will score again.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Guest review of The Green Hornet

I haven't seen The Green Hornet yet, so I have no comment, but my friend Charlie Rossiter has - and he does. I find my attitudes towards this kind of movie very much in line with his and I love the way he describes it. Charlie does his review as an audio feed and I enjoyed listening. He has an appealing, acerbic style. I may even go see the movie, though I'll probably wait until it gets to the budget theater.

To hear his review, click here.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Frigid Night makes for easy Gallery hopping in Milwaukee!

After the optimistic report Wednesday evening from the Cultural Alliance on the state of the “Creative Industries” in Southeastern Wisconsin (see previous post) it was especially rewarding to see the creative spirit alive and well among individual artists last night. Fortunately for the few of us who braved below zero wind chills, it was easy to breeze through normally crowded hubs like the Marshall Building. Unfortunately for the artists and galleries – and the missing art lovers – a plethora of diverse and worthy art went unseen. I hope you all went out on Saturday to make up for it! There was too much to see in one evening, so I went back for seconds myself.

There was so much good work on display all over that I’m going to break with my own routine and give only brief snapshots and one-liners in an attempt to provide a sense of the extraordinary diversity I managed to see. I hope to encourage y’all to extend gallery night and day into a month or two of visits! I invite you to click on the links to the galleries and artists to flesh out my brief observations.

Architecture of Necessity
I started my “gallery night” early on Friday afternoon at Inova. I was delighted to have the chance to speak one-on-one with Cuban artist Ernesto Oroza and to get a personal tour by gallery director Nicholas Frank. Oroza’s work shows how the people of Havana  adapt to social and economic realities there. I liked it all, but the surprisingly elegant goblets made out of cast off plastic beverage containers were especially stunning.

Tory Folliard has curated a show appropriately called “Color Vibrations.” Its very distinctive bodies of work include supersaturated landscapes by Harold Gregor, restrained color field abstractions by Mark Ottens, and extravagantly elaborate ceramic and mixed media sculptures by Albert Benedict some of which look like wild combinations of bird bath and baptismal font.

MIAD is showing an excellent dual exhibit. “Tiny: Art from Microscopes...” demonstrates the power of nano-photography to transcend scientific underpinnings and become aesthetic. Who knew how beautiful impossibly tiny things could be? Also “Visual Analogies…” a collaborative installation by Michiko Itatani and Bergitta Weimer.

You gotta love spunk or what’s the point of being creative? For the full gallery night experience I like to step off the beaten track. Sometimes I find unexpected gems and last night things were consistently hitting the right notes. At Atrio, jewelry store on Water St., I met photographer David Schrimpf. I found his nighttime explorations with a camera moody and captivating.

Next door, at Gallery H2O/Soup’s On I always find a nice mélange of visual arts and, of course, Mary’s great soups. (I chose Packer chili this time – yum!) Shout out to Steven Yeo and Tara Bogart, who have work there.

Reginald Baylor
End Freeway - A Love Story...
  The Marshall Building – of course! I can’t do this place justice, but don’t miss these:
The self portrait show at Elaine Erickson.
The “Winter Chapel,” an installation of ceramics by Linda Wervey Vitamvas at the Portrait Society Gallery.
Merge Gallery’s latest tour de force installation that plays off Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon: “there’s someone in my head, but it’s not me.”
Reginal Baylor is always coming up with intriguing new work in his inimitable style.
The Fine Art Gallery, Gallery 218, Light Ideas Gallery, studio pottery – there’s something for everyone at the Marshall Building!

A group show at Katie Gingrass is especially exquisite decked out in “White.” My favorite was Jeff Margolin’s ceramic sculptures.

Adolf Rosenblatt
The Oriental Pharmacy...
Portraits by Virgi Driscoll gave me a welcome reason to revisit an old favorite: the Rosenblatt Gallery. I fall in love with the old familiar (now long gone) Oriental Pharmacy counter every time I venture upstairs. At nearby Gallery 326 I finally found a lively crowd as well as a fine photography show by Jessica Kaminski called “Layered Journey.”

I finally made it out of the Third Ward to visit the Pfister where Katie Musolf has been ensconced as Artist in Residence for nearly a year. Her studio nook off their main hallway is filled with drawings and paintings in various stages of completion. It’s definitely worth a visit before she packs it all up in a couple months. The quality of Katie’s output alone creates a natural draw, but in person she is so delightful that it’s easy to see why people line up to sit for their portraits in her cozy studio.

After that I headed south. It was closing night for a nice little show of non-objective abstractions called “Bridging the Gap” at the Milwaukee Gay Arts Center Gallery on South Second St.

Kyle Talbott
at BYO Studio
I discovered an enticing venue on KK in Bayview called the BYO Studio and Lounge. This place was packed – with people and art! I will need to revisit this in daylight.

After that it was late and I beat it home, but I went back downtown today to check out the Pritzlaff Building and was glad I did. Talk about diverse! People there who I knew included Shelby Keefe, Frank Juarez, and my neighbor, Jack Lake. Plenty of unfamiliar work, mostly paintings in a wide variety of styles, made it a pleasant discovery. This temporary group exhibit called “The Best from Open Canvas” organized by Good Knight Promotions made it clear that Milwaukee is so bursting with talent that established galleries just can’t handle it all!

Sally Duback
from the Best of Open Canvas
And to think, I just picked places at random. You might have gone out and found an equally dazzling array of artists in other Milwaukee galleries.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Creativity Works! in Milwaukee

The good (and perhaps surprising) news for the arts is…
The “creative industries” in Milwaukee are alive and well.
“Creative industries” employ more people in Southeastern Wisconsin than the much touted water industries and the food/beverage industries combined.
Milwaukee is a national leader in “creative industries.”

What, you may ask, are the “creative industries?”

According to the report unveiled this evening by the Cultural Alliance of Greater Milwaukee at a gala event hosted by the Harley Davidson Museum, they are “those organizations, individuals and companies whose products and services originate in artistic, cultural, creative and/or aesthetic content.” Specific examples include the usual suspects: cultural institutions like museums, architectural and graphic design companies, media and film producers, visual and performing artists and craftspeople, etc. Other examples, perhaps less obvious, include product designers, music publishers, booksellers, technical writers, art supply businesses, and so on.

To make a long story short, it turns out…drum roll…the arts are good for business, an asset to the community, and important to “the vitality and quality of life throughout the region.”

OK, some of us (I think we’re the ones being called “creatives”) believed this all along. But bravo to the Cultural Alliance and the Greater Milwaukee Committee for bringing it front and center. Mayor Barrett was on hand because, he said, he wants to be “out in front of this parade!”

The report, issued by a consulting firm from Massachusetts, identifies four strategic initiatives. They are, in brief (and with brief commentary!):

“1. Grow the creative industries into a signature regional driver.” I like that – the arts as a signature industry, like Milwaukee’s signature Art Museum (aka “the Calatrava”).

“2. Expand the region’s creative talent base.” For me the most important single phrase in the entire report (which, we were told, totals 100 pages) is part of a subheading under this one: “…including reinstating arts as a high school graduation requirement.” A member of the audience added that education – arts education – can’t begin in high school. This received well deserved applause.

“3. Strengthen the sustainability of the creative industries….” The emphasis here was on “industries.” Again, during the question/answer period, someone observed how often artists and musicians are asked to give of their talents free of charge (I can relate to that!) By all means, we should strengthen everyone’s sustainability. It’ll be a great day when painters, actors, and musicians don’t need a day job to support their own creative industry.

“4. Establish segment councils to integrate creative industries.” There would be three overlapping councils: design, film & media, and cultural.

The bad news is that the “creative industries” are “fragmented, siloed and underresourced.” (Yeah, even MS Word underlined some of that jargon – I believe it means bunkered and underfunded.)

Let’s hope that the Cultural Alliance and the Greater Milwaukee Committee will be able to fulfill the promise of their report and implement the initiatives that they insist will overcome these problems. Better yet, let’s not hope, let’s help. I’m doing what I can.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Combat Theater rocks in Milwaukee!

Theater is the art involving live performers who depict a narrative in some performance setting, usually a stage. There are, of course, many kinds of theater experience: repertory theater, dinner theater, drama, comedy, musical, Shakespearian, summer stock, on-Broadway, off-Broadway, and experimental theater, just to pick a few at random. Then there’s Combat Theater.

Never heard of it? Combat Theater was born in 2000 right here in Milwaukee and it has been happening twice a year since then. But, as James Fletcher, the producer, told his audience at last night’s performance, it is “word of mouth theater.” Its loyal fans are its only advertising.

Combat Theater contains the essential ingredients of other kinds of theater: script writers, directors, actors, a stage, rehearsal time, performances, etc. What distinguishes this from other theater experiences is one not-so-simple factor: not one of the eight plays that are performed in an evening existed – even as a concept – 24 hours beforehand. Here’s the deal: 24 hours before the actors have to perform in front of a live audience the writers gather to draw two slips of paper from a hat. One slip provides a subject; the second provides a place. The writers then write feverishly all night in order to create a play. In the morning the cast and director receive the script and begin rehearsals. At 8 pm the fun begins.

I went last night. I had been once before a couple years ago and so knew the basic setup, but for newbies Fletcher comes out to introduce the concept before the show. An evening’s show is comprised of eight plays. We were treated to the likes of “a secret admirer at the Salem witchcraft trials,” “Rumplestiltskin at Harvard,” “Casanova on a bob sled,” “St. Patrick on the Orient Express,” and, my personal favorite, “M. Night Shyamalan in a marijuana field.” Most of the plays were very funny. Of the eight, one was written and directed as a more serious drama, but comedy reigns. The energy is infectious. The packed house of mostly Combat Theater veterans was thrilled.

But here’s the kicker: when they were finished after eight frantic performances, everyone – actors, directors, writers – all came up on stage, not simply to receive their duly deserved ovation, but to pick new slips from the hat. They are doing it all again today and will perform eight brand new plays this evening. Be there!

Yes, they know the Packers are playing tonight. Fletcher constructively acknowledged this apparent death-to-combat theater coincidence of timing with the assertion “Combat Theater cannot be DVR-ed!” The audience responded to the thinly veiled inside joke with knowing laughter.

Combat Theater takes place at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center,
325 W. Walnut St., Milwaukee
Tonight’s performance is at 8 pm.
(It’s a good deal at $16 a seat, too.)

Plan ahead: the combat returns June 3rd and 4th, 2011.

For more information, go to Bunny Gumbo. Oh, and spread the word!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Seeing the real Peru: beyond Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley

The Doors of Alto Cayma 1
In popular imagination Peru conjures up images of an ancient Incan civilization that lingers in jungles and atop mountains in noble defiance of the colonial conquest that led to its ruin. Despite a period of relative peace, contemporary Peru, like many of its South American neighbors, also suggests political unrest born of extreme social and economic stratifications. Most Peruvians, however, live simple lives from day to day, eking out a subsistence in one of the harshest landscapes on earth.

The Doors of Alto Cayma 3
The emphasis in my upcoming photo exhibit, Seeing Peru: Layered Realities, is on the contrasts I’ve witnessed in a land both mythical and humble. The terrain there rises almost vertically from the vast Pacific, reaching heights over 20,000 feet before falling just as precipitously into one of the most remote jungles in the world. Where it isn’t jungle, it is mostly desert. Amidst an arid landscape, irrigation in fertile volcanic soil makes possible the cultivation of a rich diversity of crops. Most tourists visit Cusco and the Sacred Valley of the Urubamba River, where the individual human is dwarfed by the colossal stonework of the Inca. But as impressive as these fabulous structures can be, they are themselves dwarfed by the sheer scale of the mountainous landscape.
Panoramic view of Inca ruins at Pisac 
 I went to Peru in 2009. It was my second journey there in conjunction with a cross-cultural program sponsored by Mount Mary College. We did the pilgrimage to Cusco, Machu Picchu, and other sites in the Sacred Valley and the exhibit acknowledges this important aspect of the experience. But the primary focus was on service learning, working with the poor, and cultural understanding. There is much we can learn from a place with such “layered realities.”
Paustina, weaver in the Sacred Valley
If you are familiar with my previous work, I invite you to come and be surprised. Paradox, which has long been a major theme for me, continues to excite me. But in Seeing Peru I have tried to do justice to the sheer scale of the subject as well as its layered complexity. My goal is to convey the incredible contrasts I experienced while I was there, contrasts between the barren landscape and the indomitable spirit of ordinary Peruvians, contrasts between the typical views a traveler might bring back from Peru and reality of life in a difficult place called Alto Cayma.
Zayda, community psychologist in Alto Cayma
The government of Peru permits migrants to settle on vacant land. Over the years they have come in successive waves to the outskirts of Arequipa, each moving higher up the arid, rocky mountainsides that surround the city. New arrivals mark a small plot of land by laying out a row of round stones. The row gradually becomes a fence of crudely stacked uncut stones. Little by little, tiny shelters are erected, at first with no roofs, no doors or windows. No other image of Peru – not even magnificent Machu Picchu – is so seared in my mind as my first view of these small stone structures climbing up the barren hillsides, knowing that each one represents a family that has come to live here in the dust, hoping to give their children a better life.
Beneath the Volcano
Peru is a land where reality itself is a harshly lit abstraction. If I have been successful, the photographs teeter on an edge that divides a solid narrative from an abyss of abstraction. I hope you’ll join me there.

Seeing Peru: Layered Realities runs from Jan. 16 – Feb. 12 in the Marion Gallery at Mount Mary College.

I will be present for the opening on Jan. 16, from 1-4 pm, and for a special reception on Jan. 30, from 2-4 pm.

The Marion Gallery is located in Caroline Hall, Mount Mary College,
2900 N. Menomonee River Parkway, Milwaukee
Gallery hours are M-F: 9 am – 7 pm and S/S: 1 – 4 pm.

Additional images from Peru can be seen in two sets on my flickr page.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Liberace lives again in Milwaukee!

I must confess that the little I knew about Liberace during his lifetime was the glitter, dazzle, and opulence of his public persona. I didn't grow up in Milwaukee originally, so I hope I may be excused. Nevertheless, I was entranced by the Milwaukee Rep's tribute to Liberace with its eponymous show at the Stackner Cabaret. The music is wonderful. Jack Forbes Wilson, who plays Liberace, is very entertaining.

Given the nature of Liberace's own showmanship - he called himself "Mr. Showmanship" and, according to the show, it was a deliberately self deprecating alter ego - it comes as no surprise that the show was entertaining. I also found the story unexpectedly moving. It sounds a bit schmaltzy, perhaps, out of context, but Wilson convinced me that the key to Liberace's amazing success was mutual love - to give the audience what they love and to love the audience back.

My own personality is pretty much the antithesis of Liberace's. The medium I work in, photography, doesn't have an audience in the same way such a performer does. However, I too believe that to be the best photographer I can be I have to love what I do. If that comes across as a cliché then it seems to me that there's a fine line between a cliché and an eternal truth.

Congratulations to the Rep! If you haven't seen the show already, it runs through January 16. The house was pretty full last night, so I hope you can still get tickets.

Check it out: Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

Oh, and Happy New Year from Arts Without Borders!

You haven't heard from me for a while because I was in Santa Fe last week, where the art scene is always lively. I hope to bring you highlights soon.