Monday, December 30, 2013

3 good art shows in Chicago usher in a Happy New Year!

It’s the time of year when critics wax nostalgic about what’s happened during the past 12 months, often choosing to list the “best of…” the year. I have enjoyed doing this myself in the past. However, Mary Louise Schumacher’s best of the year list was published yesterday in Art City and I can’t improve on it.

Aten Reign, James Turrell
Before I get to Chicago, I will simply add three outstanding art experiences I feel fortunate to have been able to travel to see in 2013. My favorite was the mesmerizing James Turrell exhibit at the Guggenheim in New York. I wrote about it in August. In Santa Fe I saw and wrote about a surprising and excellent installation of 3-dimensional video work by Peter Sarkisian at the New Mexico Museum of Art. And there was art galore in London (of course!)

Peter Sarkisian with one of his 3D videos
But I was in Chicago over the weekend where I saw three good shows in three distinct museums, one of which—at the Museum of Contemporary Art—could easily make it onto my top ten list.

McCormick House, detail
I’ll begin where I began, a small museum in Elmhurst, a suburb about 15 miles due west of Chicago’s loop. The centerpiece of the Elmhurst Art Museum is one of only three houses in the US designed by Mies van der Rohe. The McCormick house, built in 1952, was moved from its residential neighborhood to the park setting of the museum campus. Although the interior has mostly been repurposed for office space—except for the living room, which was renovated for the public to get a sense of the space—the exterior massing and detail is intact. It’s a gem.

The current show, coincidentally, is the first ever comprehensive viewing of the permanent collection. Entitled, appropriately enough, Inventory_The EAM Collection, the work is installed salon style throughout the museum. There are only a few familiar names, as varied as Eakins, Remington and Dalí, and a significant proportion of the work seemed to be from the local and greater Chicago vicinity. Far from being a limitation, I found that refreshing. I truly enjoyed seeing good work by artists who haven’t risen to national attention. It’s a hopeful sign, I think, that the art itself, and not the celebrity of the artist, is being valued.
Blanket Statement, Mary Dritschel (detail)
Vertigo, Mike Love
If you ever find yourself on the west side of Chicago with some time to spare, this is a worthwhile stop. The current show closes on January 5, but the next one sounds good: Spotlight opens Jan. 18 and will feature light-based sculptures, installations, and videos.

from 8 Natural Handstands, R. Kinmont
Next we went to the Smart Museum of Art at the U of Chicago in Hyde Park. Unlike EAM, I’d been to the Smart before and knew the quality of the permanent collection, which boasts an impressive number of unfamiliar works by familiar names. But we went there to see a traveling exhibit called, State of Mind: New California Art Circa 1970. The exhibit is billed as the “first in-depth survey of conceptual art in California” and it is indeed a comprehensive show. It demonstrates, as the curators intended (according to wall text), the significance of California to the conceptual art movement at this crucial moment in its development. Major players, like John Baldessari, Paul McCarthy, the Ant Farm collective and Ed Ruscha are among the over 50 artists represented.
Yellow Room (Triangular), Bruce Nauman
Pure conceptual art, with its disdain for the physical object, its quirky, often self-referential themes and anti-aesthetic stance, often leaves me cold, I must confess. When it works, it can be profoundly moving or amusing or both. The scope of this show brings together a little of everything, which I found interesting for its historical significance.

Paul Kos, Untitled (the sound of ice melting)
State of Mind is also nearing the end of its run at the Smart. It closes Jan. 12. But, again, if you’re in the vicinity before then, I recommend checking it out.

Copperheads, M. Davey (detail)
The real find and the best of this trio of fine shows is at the Museum of Contemporary Art. The Way of the Shovel: Art as Archeology explores the role of historical research in art during the past decade. Archeology, while not necessarily foremost in the minds of the artists when they created the works, has been used by curator Dieter Roelstraete as a metaphor for the ways artists examine the past.

Copperheads, Moyra Davey (detail)
Some Boarded up Houses, J. Koester
The exhibit, which sprawls throughout the entire top floor galleries of the museum, is loosely divided into themes with titles like On Narrating and Storytelling and On the Crisis of Memory. Some of the individual works are as conceptual as anything I’d just seen at the Smart. Many, as the exhibit rationale indicates, clearly required an impressive amount of historical research. A few are more straightforwardly phenomenological.

Concerning the Dig, Marc Dion
Photography, videography and sculpture are the dominant, but by no means exclusive, mediums of expression. Although much of the art has European origins, there is also a strong local component devoted specifically to Chicago and the MCA itself. The latter is a special section titled, Shifting Grounds: Block 21 and Chicago’s MCA.

Plot (still from video), Derek Brunen
In fact, in my opinion, the jewel in the crown of what is overall an excellent exhibit, is an elaborate multifaceted installation by Chicago native son Michael Rakowitz. Entitled The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist, its subject matter is derived from the looting of the National Museum of Baghdad in the aftermath of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. The installation includes drawings and a musical component as well as the centerpiece: a series of elaborately reproduced artifacts that were stolen or otherwise went missing that have never been recovered.

The sculptures are made from colorful packaging from Middle Eastern food products and Arabic language newspapers. Each is presented with identifying labels such as would have accompanied the original museum displays. However, the labels also include poignant or ironic statements made by a wide variety of experts and Iraq War players. I’ll cite just two examples. Donald Rumsfeld is quoted: “It’s untidy, and freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things. They’re also free to live their lives and do wonderful things, and that’s what’s going to happen here.” Someone named Polk, referring to the artifact that is reproduced in newsprint, says simply, “And today it is no more.”

I have good news! Unlike the other two shows, you have plenty of time to get down to Chicago to see this one, which runs through March 9. I highly recommend it. In fact, it might make your list of top ten shows of 2014.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Rev. Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping

From an article in the New York Times, I've just learned about performance artist and activist Bill Talen, who goes by the name Reverend Billy. Dressed for the part and sounding just like a gospel preacher, Talen is often backed by a rousing gospel choir as he preaches against the evils of corporate commercialism and rampant consumerism. They go at their subject with passion and with humor.
The "Church of Stop Shopping" is "a radical performance community" based in New York City. Their website describes it this way: 'We are a post religious church. We hold “services” wherever we can, in concert halls, theaters, churches, community centers, forests, fields, parking lots, mall atriums, and perhaps most importantly, inside stores, as close to the cash register as we can get, within spitting distance of the point of purchase." 

"We sing, we dance, we preach, sometimes we perform small “interventions”, invisible plays, acts of ritual resistance. We exorcise cash registers and remythologize the retail environment, we illuminate the Devil. We make media and send it out around the world. We get hassled by security guards and sometimes get arrested."

Although the Christmas season is a particularly important time for Rev. Billy, as you might well imagine, his message is timeless and universal, serious as well as tongue in cheek. I particularly enjoyed his short spiel on global warming, called The Invitation.   

You can view a number of the "Church's" videos on their website.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Warhol portraits at Milwaukee’s Jewish Museum

The exhibit of large-scale silkscreen prints by Andy Warhol that opened yesterday at Milwaukee's Jewish Museum is titled prosaically, “10 Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century.” Warhol’s subjects have familiar names if not always recognizable faces: Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, the Marx Brothers and Golda Meir are among them. Warhol himself called the suite of portraits “Jewish Geniuses.” The difference in the titles is more significant than the differences amongst the subjects of the work, something about which the exhibit takes special notice.

Gertrude Stein
These portraits and the exhibit are interesting for several reasons. The compositions and style will not surprise anyone familiar with Warhol’s work—and who isn’t? The Warhol brand as well as his distinctive use of color and line in combination with the photographic image have made him and his style not simply familiar but iconic. The most famous of his portrait images, Marilyn and Mao, have arguably become as recognizable as their original subjects, perhaps more so.

That is exactly why an exhibit like this one is valuable for anyone who wants to understand the depth of Warhol’s oeuvre. If it seems tempting to dismiss any particular body of work by Warhol as redundant, well, you know that his own answer to that charge could easily be inferred from his endless repetition of the Campbell’s soup can.

Sara Bernhardt
As it is, seen together in this fashion the compositions in this suite of 10 portraits seemed to me less repetitive than jazz-like improvisations on a theme. There is a cubist element to these that is absent from the Marilyn/Mao series, too. Most of the compositions involve the layering of abstract geometric shapes over and behind the more familiar trope of enhancing the photographic image with colorful linear effects.

The ones that I found personally most appealing didn’t merely stand out compositionally but also seemed to resonate with the character of the individual who was being depicted. This is perhaps ironic on two levels. First, Warhol was more interested in the subject’s status as a celebrity than any element of personality. Second, as the exhibit text reveals, “All of the subjects were dead…. They would not be able to contest the image that Warhol was using of them.”

Franz Kafka
That said, I found the portrait of Kafka most compelling. The fragmented visage may be interpreted as rising out of or sinking into the inky and infinite depth of the background. The colors that splinter his face do not, as might be expected, make Kafka seem tortured. Rather, his piercing gaze appears supremely confident, even prescient.

Sara Bernhardt is captivating. Her direct gaze cuts revealingly through the insistent abstraction of Warhol’s jumble of squares and lines.

Gertrude Stein, by contrast, who also looks directly towards the viewer, has become so abstract as to be completely opaque, as impenetrable perhaps as some of her own writing.

The triple portrait of the Marx Brothers is the only one that includes more than the single subject. Warhol takes advantage of this by repeating the three brothers with progressively more abstract renderings. This composition most clearly echoes the soup cans.

Marx Brothers, detail
Returning to the question of the exhibit titles, the distinction between the two is not insignificant. Although the attribution of ‘genius’ may be considered subjective, the fact is that each of the 10 subjects was particularly accomplished in their respective fields. The descriptive text provided by the museum asserts, “The group he selected is interesting for their differences,” and then takes pains to identify similarities amongst these diverse individuals.  Warhol’s “geniuses” were undoubtedly selected, as were Marilyn, Mao and many others, for their celebrity rather than their individuality, their personality or even their particular accomplishments, important as those are.

I’ve heard of Louis Brandeis, to pick just one example, but I have little doubt that I’m not alone when I admit that his biography is completely unknown to me. In fact, my enjoyment of the portraits of Kafka and Stein was clearly influenced by being at least somewhat familiar with their own creative endeavors.

The exhibition text adds the biographical context that is missing from Warhol’s treatment of his subjects and, likely, most viewers’ awareness. Warhol’s “geniuses” premiered at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1980. According to the Jewish Museum website, they were “met with both admiration and hostility.”  The same museum reprised the show in 2008 with the title, “Warhol’s Jews: Ten Portraits Reconsidered.” 

Interest in Warhol has hardly waned. One of his canvases recently set a new record at auction of $105 million. See the story.

The current exhibit continues through March 30, 2014 at Milwaukee’s Jewish Museum, 1360 N. Prospect Ave. For more information, go to Jewish Museum.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Midwest photo show at Walker’s Point opens December 6

You are invited! I hope you’ll join me there.
The 7th Annual Midwest Juried Photo Exhibition, sponsored by Milwaukee’s Coalition of Photographic Arts (CoPA) will be held at Walker’s Point Center for the Arts, 839 S. 5th St. Milwaukee.
December 6, 2013 – January 18, 2014

Opening Reception: 
Friday, December 6th,  5 – 9pm

Gallery talk and award presentations by Juror Karen Irvine at 7pm

Closing Reception:
Winter Gallery Night, Friday, January 17th, 5 – 9pm

The regional exhibition includes the work of 37 photographers from Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois, and Iowa.

I am happy to announce that I’m one of the 37 photographers and here is a sneak preview of my print.

“Horizon” is from a series called Synecdoche: the fragment that represents the whole.

Synecdoche is a literary device in which the part represents the whole. ("All hands on deck!" refers to the whole sailor, not just the hands.) My images are meant to be visual examples of synecdoche, which I use metaphorically. My subjects are the complex and often paradoxical relationships that I perceive between nature and architecture, or natural and human features in the landscape. My approach, using the part to represent the whole, symbolizes the fragmentation we experience in our everyday environment.

The juror is Karen Irvine, Curator and Associate Director of the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College, Chicago.

Her bio, from CoPA: Karen Irvine has organized over forty exhibitions of contemporary photography at the MoCP and other institutions and written essays for numerous artist monographs and magazines. Irvine is a part-time instructor of photography at Columbia College Chicago. She received an MFA in photography from FAMU, Prague, Czech Republic, and an MA in art history from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Friday, November 29, 2013

The Holy Bible reinterpreted as a photo book.

An article in LensCulture asserts that "it seems impossible to avoid confronting this difficult and provocative work." Any tampering with the Bible is bound to be provocative. It comes with the territory. The work in question is called simply "Holy Bible."

Time Magazine has called "Holy Bible" one of the best photo books of 2013. The original Holy Bible, of course, was not a photo book. This "Holy Bible" is an appropriation and reinterpretation by the artist duo of Adam Broomberg and Oliver Charnarin, who have reproduced the look and feel of the text and layout of the King James Version. They have inserted images over the biblical text and they have underlined in red some of the passages. The images, not their own, were selected from The Archive of Modern Conflict, reputed to be the largest photographic collection of its kind in the world.

Conflict is a primary theme of this work of art, which is based on the writings of Israeli philosopher Adi Ophir. Ophir's central tenet is that "God reveals himself predominantly through catastrophe and that power structures within the Bible correlate with those within modern systems of governance." (see Mack books.)

Broomberg and Charnarin are no strangers to conflict. According to a bio in Nowness, they "have frequently imperiled and enlightened themselves in the name of art, "including "by joining the British Army in Afghanistan." The artists, whose work leans toward documentary photography, have a curiously unique combination of qualifications: Broomberg has degrees in sociology and history of art and Chanarin degrees in philosophy and artificial intelligence.

The only text added to the original King James Version text is a short essay by Adi Ophir, appended as an epilogue. It's provocative title is "Divine Violence." To read the essay, click here

Sunday, November 17, 2013

A variety of arts for a gloomy day

I awoke to another dreary morning, after a thoroughly dreary yesterday, with promise of more to come for the rest of the weekend. As is my Sunday morning ritual, I perused the Sunday Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and was pleasantly surprised to find a diverse offering of arts related stories. None of which were in the Cue Section, where I usually look for them. So, in case you overlooked these, or don't get the paper, I offer a guided tour:

Mary Louise Schumacher, the paper's arts critic, is usually found in Cue. Today she has a story in the decorating department of the Entree section. True! But before you shudder and worry that she's sold out let me quickly add that it was refreshing to read an appropriately thoughtful approach to collecting art--the decorating aspect being importantly secondary.

Coincidentally, one of the things I did to escape the gloom yesterday was to go to Bed Bath & Beyond to look at stools for the kitchen we are in the midst of remodeling. I confess I'd never been to BB&B before and it was an education, I freely admit. One of the things I discovered there was the "wall decorating" department, where you can buy graphic visual objects in frames that you can hang over your couch, or wherever. Really? If this is a tempting solution to your blank walls, please read Schumacher's story. "Blank walls are...better than bad art," she says. I agree.

Key to collecting art is learning what you love

Link: Key to collecting art is learning what you love.

Of course, we don't all love the same kinds of art. And that's not only OK, it's a good thing, in my humble opinion. 

If you turn to the back page of Cue you will find the Travel section. I've found this arrangement annoying ever since the JS redesigned the paper some time ago. But that's where it is. There is a surprising feature about Waupun being a 'City of Sculpture.' The sculptural style is traditional, as illustrated below by "End of the Trail." The artist is native son Clarence Addison Shaler. I have to admit that I'm not likely to go out of my way to visit Waupun for these artworks. However, I was intrigued to discover that this particularly famous image of the tragic Indian warrior was not, as I expected to read at first glance, a copy from some other artistic antecedent. Shaler, who became a sculptor only after retirement at age 70, was the originator of the iconic image. In Waupun, WI. Who knew?

"End of the Trail" is Waupun’s most famous sculpture. Created by James Earl Fraser, the sculpture was commissioned by Waupun-area native Clarence Addison Shaler and donated to the city in 1929.

Link: Waupun's Sculpture's are Worth a Visit.

Here was a particularly surprising find. On page 2 of the paper's front section, which deals out international features and top news stories, is one reprinted from the Associated Press about NASA's next attempt to send a spacecraft to Mars. Among the various things being sent along on this unmanned (of course) scientific expedition are 1,000 haiku and 377 "student art contest entries." (The latter, one must presume, have been digitized.) The article is short on rationale for these curious additions to the spacecraft's mission.

Here are the two samples of haiku reprinted for the article:

"Amidst sand and stars / We scan a lifeless planet / To escape its fate."

"It's funny, they named / Mars after the God of War / Have a look at Earth."

Link: NASA's newest Mars spacecraft will study atmosphere, tackle puzzle of Martian climate change.

Finally, on a lighter note, I enjoyed Foxtrot today. I'm a devoted comics reader, despite the trend towards unfunny comics over the years. The fewer and fewer chestnuts are worth brushing through the chaff. Foxtrot is more reliably funny than most. (My favorites are Get Fuzzy, Zits and Dilbert.) Today Foxtrot indulged in a bit of meta-comics, a comic about the design of comics.


And so, on this "introspective morning," as WFMR radio announcer Obie Yadgar used to say (I know, I'm really dating myself there), I offer a bit of diversion. Arts without borders today. Enjoy!

p.s., in another discipline entirely, I enjoyed an excellent dance performance last night. Although it's too late to catch the one-night only Flamenco extravaganza, I recommend checking out the South Milwaukee Performing Arts Center's season. If it's not on your radar, it's worth a look. I've been a few times and the performances have been good to outstanding and the house rarely full.

Flamenco Soul

Monday, November 11, 2013

Underground in the internet age? What a snob!

There was a time when, if you ran in certain creative circles, it was cool to be "underground." David Byrne, for example, remembers fondly the anonymity of his early years with the Talking Heads. “we felt comfortable trying out different things, songs that were quickly abandoned and stage wear that proved impractical,” he is quoted in an article in yesterday's New York Times. “That’s all hugely important (the songs part anyway) as it allowed us to explore, refine our identity and go down those musical dead ends without the embarrassment of public scrutiny.”

Today everyone posts everything online, whether or not it's been tested, whether or not it's considered "cool." In fact, there can be a backlash when someone chooses to remain aloof from the mainstream of the social media dominated culture. Now, it's considered snobbish.

No one denies the allure or the vast potential of the internet for artists (musicians, visual artists, everyone) who want to get their names out in the world. "Online exposure can make for an overnight viral sensation." But “it can also destroy and eliminate that crucial period of anonymity,” again, according to Byrne. “The Internet giveth, and the Internet taketh away.” 

The article goes on to describe a small but significant segment of the creative class who desire to remain underground, to experiment out of the public eye. Today, unlike the past, that means staying offline.

Check out: Sidestepping the Digital Demimonde." It's a good read. I'll post this to facebook now.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

What do Abramovic and Banksy have in common?

One of the artists is famously present, the other famously absent.

In some respects they make an unlikely pair and the coverage in national media this week of their respective activities is a coincidence—isn’t it? 

The Artist is Present, MoMA
Marina Abramovic became famous by staging ephemeral and often controversial performances—some of which involved self-mutilation. Now she has leveraged her fame to build a physical institution, a monument devoted to performance art. Some are crying foul; others can’t wait for the 33,000 square foot Marina Abramovic Institute to open in Hudson, NY, so that they can pay to “put on white lab coats and undergo three hours of mind-and-body cleansing exercises.” That is according an article that appeared in last Sunday’s New York Times.

The article quotes Abramovic as saying “Ego is a huge obstacle to art.” It seems a curious if not contradictory turn of phrase under the circumstances.

Banksy has become famous—some say notorious—by painting and stenciling his distinctive brand of graffiti in unauthorized locations all over the world. I use the term “brand” deliberately. While his work has become commercially valuable, his identity remains elusive. Currently Banksy is spending a month operating, publicly if not visibly, in New York City. He himself (on a website) refers to it as an “artist’s residency.”

But now “banksy” has become a verb, his graffiti sought after and reviled in nearly equal measures, and some of the anonymous artist’s works have sold for six figure sums at auction.

NPR aired an interview yesterday with a Brooklyn resident whose building was “banksied.” The family has struggled with ethical as well as financial consequences. The graffiti first drew a large and appreciative crowd. Then someone spray-painted over the stencils, which the family cleaned off promptly and successfully. After that they installed a garage door over the illicit, but potentially lucrative art that had been dropped in their laps. What’s a victim to do these days?

An appreciative crowd gathers at a "Banksied" site in Chelsea
Cash in is one of the options that the beneficiaries of Banksies artistic attentions have chosen. But what happens to street art after it has been commodified? Banksy himself addresses this issue in ambiguous ways. A story aired on NPR Oct. 14 quotes him as saying, "I know street art can feel increasingly like the marketing wing of an art career, so I wanted to make some art without the price tag attached. There's no gallery show or book or film. It's pointless. Which hopefully means something."

And was it a snub of the commercial art establishment—even the very people who purchased one of his limited edition prints for $249,000—when he (anonymously, of course) set up a sidewalk kiosk in Central Park with prints priced at $60 each. The artist’s total take for the one day sale was $420. Who got taken, I wonder?

Maybe Abramovic and Banksy have more in common than it seems at first glance. Why shouldn’t they take advantage of opportunities to leverage popularity or notoriety for financial gain? Or do they, each in their own fashion, seem to want it both ways? If ego is in fact an obstacle to art, it certainly isn’t an obstacle to commercial success.

Can either performance art or street art survive commodification? Many critics are asking. The answer is elusive.


Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Art Without Reservation in Santa Fe

I made it to the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts on my last day in Santa Fe. It's one of my favorites of a number of good museums here and I try to see the current exhibitions whenever I'm in town. I have examples of two current exhibits to share.

In the main gallery is Changing Hands: Art Without Reservation 3, the concluding exhibit of a cycle that was "conceived and organized to present a comprehensive and in-depth cross section of innovative and groundbreaking work by contemporary Indigenous artists." The exhibition catalogue goes on to say, "These creative individuals express a new vitality and spirit of experimentation in Native art, often embracing tradition while moving forward and looking towards the future." For a more thorough description go to Changing Hands: Art Without Reservation 3/Contemporary Native North American Art from the Northeast and Southeast, Selected Works.

Jordan Bennett, Re:Appropriating the Wheel
Peter B. Jones, Portrait Jar-New Indian
Kent Monkman, Dreamcatcher Bra & Raccoon Jockstrap

Another compelling exhibit is called STEREOTYPE: Misconceptions of the Native American. In it Cannupa Hanska Luger uses the motif of the boom box to examine and deconstruct stereotypes imposed on indigenous Americans. For more about it, click here.

The Indian Princess
The text explains in detail that there is no such thing as an "Indian Princess" since the concept of princess is Western in origin.

The Plastic Shaman
Similar to the above, the term "shaman," which originated in Central Asia, has been inappropriately applied to Native American culture.

The Curtis
This last one, of course, refers to Edward Curtis, the photographer who set out to "document" the passing of the "noble savage" before they were all gone.

Finally, the image below is one of a pair by Debra Yepa-Pappin that were hung in the hallway and identified as "recent acquisitions." The title is "Live Long and Prosper (Spock was a Half Breed).

Sunday, October 6, 2013

The White Place

For the past week I have been staying, teaching photography, and relaxing at one of my favorite places: Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, NM. Ghost Ranch is a retreat/education/conference center owned by the Presbyterian Church but is most famous as the place where Georgia O'Keeffe lived and painted many of her striking New Mexican work. One of her subjects was this unusually pale sandstone slot canyon in Abiquiu. The gray stone can look white in the bright New Mexican sun, hence the name. The site is owned by Dar al Islam, a mosque and Islamic Education Center.

I've been in the mood to write haiku here in New Mexico, a land of contrasts and, for me, introspection. Here is the one I wrote for the White Place:

the White Place
a monk in saffron robes
raises an ipad

I am teaching a workshop in digital photography at Ghost Ranch and I took my class to the White Place for a photo shoot. As our group gathered back at the parking area after a couple hours of shooting, I saw this monk walk slowly up to the mound with the “Plaza Blanca” sign on it overlooking the site. As I watched he slowly drew an ipad out of his robes and began to raise it with both hands. Knowing the capabilities of an ipad it was obvious that he was about to shoot a photograph. However, it reminded me of a priest raising a host, or a supplicant seeking absolution, or simple praise; something sacred and holy, as befits both the symbolism of his robes and the grandeur of the site. 

The well-known form of Haiku originated in Japan and is a very short, traditionally three-line, poem. In current practice the form is flexible. The essential quality of haiku is usually a small epiphany based on the observation of two contrasting images. I was inspired by the juxtaposition of the monk’s traditional garb with the latest technology—even if upon second thought, it ought to be considered perfectly normal in today’s polyglot society. 

I had put my camera in my bag when I saw the monk raise the ipad. I would have liked to catch a shot of him raising it. Alas, that was not to be. I did introduce myself and ask if I could make a photo of him, a request to which he acceded with humility. He said his name but it was so multi-syllabic and foreign to my ears that mind unfortunately would not grasp onto it.


Monday, September 23, 2013

A poetry contest advertised on Craig's List?

There was a lovely little story in the New York Times yesterday about an odd poetry contest advertised on Craig's list. The story and the poem below, which I like a lot because I can relate to it, were both written by Esther Cohen.

And now, at this point
insane moment of age and longing
cusp and pinnacle
when my arms are different arms
when my dreams are always interrupted
longing becomes more than longing
I can no longer do this
or that as much as I still want to
I wake up wondering how
I no longer care so much about why
when a day is not just a day but right now.

To read the story go to NY Times

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Villa Terrace exhibits Afghan war rugs

On the wall in the narrow, arched second floor corridor of Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum two rugs hang side by side. At a glance the similarities are more noticeable than the differences. Three groupings of large figures run vertically down the center of a space bounded by a precisely framed and detailed border design. The rug on the left is darker overall and more earthy in coloration, while the one on the right has a brighter, light tan background. This, combined with a simpler background design makes the figures on the right pop out more emphatically. The overall composition is the same, however, and the shapes and clothing styles of the central figures are nearly identical.

They are beautiful as well as exquisitely crafted, made with hand-spun and dyed, tightly knotted wool. Admirable for their utility as well as the quality of design and workmanship, a superficial appreciation might accrue to a cursory inspection. “Nice colors,” I overheard a visitor say in passing at the exhibit opening last night.

If your examination of these two remarkable rugs ended there you would miss what is arguably the most important feature of the rugs and a telling if visually subtle contrast between the two. The figures on the left hold guitars and other musical instruments, while those on the right grip assault rifles, rocket launchers, and other weapons. Furthermore, in the background on the left are stylized flowers, birds and other animals. The right includes clearly articulated tanks and warplanes.

The exhibit is called “Afghan war rugs: the modern art of central asia.” It will be on display at Villa Terrace through January 6, 2014. The rugs vary in size. Some are no larger than a small doormat; others hang floor to ceiling. Most are figurative and contain graphic depictions of modern weapons and warfare, as suggested in the title.

For anyone familiar with the typical rugs of central Asia, reactions to these are likely to include surprise if not shock. Many are far less subtle than the ones described above. In a room nearby, for example, is one that could easily elicit a strong emotional reaction. The top half depicts the New York skyline. The twin towers of the World Trade Center stand tall against a serenely blue sky. That sky also contains a single jet airliner flying directly towards the nearer tower. In the bottom half are a precisely detailed helicopter, an M1 Abrams tank, a soldier with upraised assault rifle, a surface-to-air rocket launcher, and several warplanes. These all overlie a map of Afghanistan. Dividing the two panels is a black band containing the words “waragainst-terrorist.” The parallel design leaves little room for interpretation of the bold pronouncement.

Most of the rugs in the exhibit are fairly recent creations, the oldest ones having been made in the 1970s. Seeing modern weaponry, depictions of contemporary cityscapes, as well as obvious references to 9/11 and the familiar war in Afghanistan, it is tempting to conclude that the grim subject matter is a recent development and a reaction to the country’s wars with first Russia and then the United States. Indeed, the wall texts and the essays in an accompanying brochure examine the history of these and other conflicts and include descriptions of specific weaponry employed by the various parties involved. Many of these weapons are depicted with great accuracy in the rugs.

However, at least one of the wall panels explained that the presence of weapons and the war-related imagery in Afghanistan’s artistic output predates recent events and is attributable to a more general belligerence based on tribal culture. “The long-standing martial traditions of the Pashtun (ethnic Afghans) guaranteed their social importance. Weapons were awarded upon puberty, and were a central decorative element with a powerful aesthetic charge for men and their homes….”

This exhibit of Afghan war rugs is not only well worth a visit. I believe it presents a truly unique body of work that combines idiosyncratic themes, ethnographic depth, and aesthetic quality. Villa Terrace is the premier venue for this exhibit in the United States. Milwaukeeans are lucky to have the opportunity to see it.

For more information go to Villa Terrace.