Monday, May 27, 2013

In Memoriam

Wisconsin Memorial Park, Memorial Day 2013

In memoriam: Wayne Miller, long time Magnum photographer, 1919-2013.

Hiroshima, 1945. Courtesy Magnum Photos.

To read about Miller's life in photography, go to the New York Times.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Balloons for peace in Afghanistan

"We Believe in Balloons" has launched an art & peace initiative in Afghanistan. Some say that the resources required would be better used for food and medical aid, but years of providing that have been tried and continue. So, what's the harm in a little artistic whimsy in a place that sorely needs it? 

According to an article in today's New York Times, it is very popular. I say power to the artists!

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Star Trek makes good

I love the movies and I see a lot of them. I don't usually write about them, though, largely because it's time-consuming (and movies get plenty of press.) Furthermore, when I do write up a movie, it's usually one that is seriously moving, especially artistic, or under-appreciated.

Star Trek Into Darkness is none of these. But I enjoyed it immensely. The franchise had lapsed for a while, most likely because some of the movies were lame or worse. What I liked best about this one was that it felt a lot like watching an episode of the original sixties TV version, with Shatner and Nimoy, except, of course, that the special effects are now on steroids. (I even broke my Imax-3D virginity and was duly rewarded with visual spectacle and pzazz. It was fun!)

I give the writers a lot of credit for recreating the characters, moods, and campy atmosphere of the dialogue from the sixties, something to which most of the previous Trek movies didn't aspire. I had to wonder, as I heard sporadic chuckling from around me in the audience, whether anyone who has never seen the original series would appreciate the humor injected into scene after scene.

Kirk was the cowboy congenitally disposed to break rules and disobey orders, Spock was excruciatingly inscrutable, Scotty suitably apoplectic, and Uhura both sultry and self-assured. "Bones" had many of the best lines. Some seemed lifted straight from the TV series (e.g., "Damn it, Jim; I'm a doctor, not a torpedo technician!")

If you are a hard core Trekkie I think you'll especially like the attention to details such as the incidental presence of a Tribble. (Don't worry, it's not subtle.)

Of course it wasn't all fun and games. Benedict Cumberbatch is excellent as the villainous Kahn, which he plays with thoroughly humorless intensity. And, like any action-adventure movie, you had to suspend disbelief in spades (just how many blows to the head can Kirk take without major, lasting trauma, anyway?)

But enough--if you want to read some real reviews, check them out on Rotten Tomatoes where the movie is rated at 86% / 89%. Hey, with ratings that high, they can't all be Trekkies!

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Hard Ecology: A new book in more ways than one!

Hard Ecology: Rethinking Nature in an Abstract Landscape represents a new direction for me as far as book design goes. Up to now I've been happy with the books I've done before. These include two fairly traditional books, which include a significant amount of text, as well as several photographic monographs. All of these can be seen on my website

Hard Ecology differs because I conceived it as a Fine Art Book. While the themes follow directly from work I've been doing for many years, the book design is a deliberate departure from the earlier books. The new book is now available to preview in its entirety with no obligation to purchase at

The following is my introduction (which actually appears at the end of the book.) 

Ours is a time of reckoning. Depending upon your point of view, we have either reached the “end of nature” or we are on the cusp of a new nature, one that reflects our own agency—for good or ill. Once we inhabited nature. Paradoxically, it also inhabited us. But we were always a little uncomfortable wearing nature on the inside—as if it were a disease. Exterior nature we pummeled and paved. We built our palaces on top of it and excreted our effluents into its veins. Our interior natures we psychoanalyzed and medicated. We molded our physical natures with fitness regimens, dietary supplements, liposuction and Botox. We believed all along in our dominion over nature. Some still believe. Solutions to climate change, overpopulation, mass extinction, and other seemingly intractable problems—they claim—are at hand. Salvation will come in the form of genetic modification, nanotechnology, renewable energy…

Emerson (1836): Nature, in the common sense, refers to essences unchanged by man.
McKibben (1989): Since nothing on earth remains unchanged by man, we are at the “end of nature.”

It is a time of reckoning. Understanding our place in the world that we have wrought will be a hard lesson in ecology. We have tamed the wilderness, shaped nature, tried to design it into submission. Nature has been transformed, reduced, and abstracted. Nature is increasingly compromised or redeemed by our own actions. But nature is not—never has been—separate from us, from what is human. We have always been part of nature, inseparable except in our own minds.

Ecology is the study of relationships in the natural world. There can be no complete understanding of ecology without knowing where the human fits into the web of life.

Hard Ecology: Rethinking Nature in an Abstract Landscape is a photo essay that establishes a narrative with no real beginning or end. Instead it poses a closed loop, a sequence of interrelated images derived from an abstract landscape. The locations of the images are identified, but they are irrelevant. They range from the sublime to the banal, from distant places to my home neighborhood. Individually, these photographs are metaphors. They are visual examples of synecdoche, the literary form in which the part represents the whole. They symbolize both the fragmentation we experience in our everyday environment and cultural strategies for reassimilating with nature. Collectively, they create visual and conceptual relationships that are meant to stimulate new understandings about the meaning of nature and our place within it.

Again, if you wish to preview the book - or to order it - go to

Monday, May 6, 2013

Art, Film, and Music in Milwaukee: it all rocks!

It was a good weekend for the arts here in Milwaukee. Three quick hits:

Visual art at Villa Terrace

On Friday evening the Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum opened a small mixed media group show called “Chasing Horizons.”  Guest curators Nirmal Raja and Christopher Willey, who both have ties to UWM, assembled a diverse set of Milwaukee artists whose work uses the idea of landscape as a point of departure. It’s not the kind of show one typically associates with Villa Terrace.

Most of the work is installed gallery fashion in the cleared upper rooms of the historic mansion. My favorite pieces, however, were the two site-specific installations. Kevin Giese has inserted two slender, undulating trunks of stripped buckthorn into the steeply sloping, carefully landscaped “backyard,” which sweeps dramatically down to the lakefront.

Emily Belknap, whose show at the Chazen I recently reviewed, has taken wonderful advantage of the ambiance of the building. Her installation, called “Flight Zones,” is made up of three life-size bronze sculptures of robins. A precise circle of finely sifted dirt surrounds each, indicating the distance at which a person’s approach will cause the bird to take flight. The circles of dirt echo the decorative period moldings on the ceiling and the intrusion of the “wildlife” creates a curious dialogue with the portrait paintings hung on the walls.

If you didn’t get to the opening you have plenty of time. The show will be up through August 25.

The Oriental Theater offers another great movie

Since we were in the neighborhood and it was still early my wife and I checked out the Oriental. From amongst the several interesting choices we were glad we picked “The Place Beyond the Pines.” It’s being promoted as a “crime thriller,” and there are aspects of that in it. However, it’s a much more nuanced and complicated story than that genre generally implies. It would be hard to describe much of the story without ruining the many truly surprising plot twists.

It begins with a stunt motorcycle driver played by Ryan Gosling who goes on a crime spree for an unusual motivation. Things don’t turn out as planned but that’s the only thing predictable about this provocative and sensitive narrative. Go see it before it goes away. 

Read more on the official movie website.

The Milwaukee Rep and Janis Joplin

Although we are season ticket holders for the MilwaukeeRepertory Theater, we might have missed this show because it isn’t part of the regular season. But we were very happy that we took advantage of a special Cinco de Mayo offer and went to see it last night.

It isn’t exactly a concert and it isn’t really a musical play. But I’ve never seen the Powerhouse Stage rock like it did last night. The performers were outstanding and the music was as energetic as any concert I’ve seen—and then some!
I’ve never been a particular fan of Joplin. I was just a couple years too young to have gone to see her perform live. Anyone my age has heard her most famous songs (especially “Me and Bobby McGee” and “Mercedes Benz”) repeated endlessly on the radio, of course, as well as seeing video of her performing. But those don’t hold a candle to the actual experience. The show was a visual and auditory extravaganza that seemed to represent her onstage persona pretty accurately. The only thing missing was a pall of pungent pot smoke wafting over the crowd--but I only know that from heresay!

I could quibble that the attempt to add a story line to the show was flawed by the lack of any real arc to the narrative. The implications of her famous dissolution and untimely death were quite subtle and understated. Still, it was nice to see and hear the people who influenced her, including Bessie Smith, Odetta, Nina Simone, and Aretha Franklin. Blues singer Sabrina Elayne Carten recreated all of those voices and presences and she deserves credit equal to Mary Bridget Davies, who played Joplin.

The audience was an intriguing mix and far more diverse than usual for the Milwaukee Rep. There were plenty of folks who looked old enough to have seen Joplin live—and even a few that came garbed in authentic-looking “period costumes” like dashikis, tie-dye, colorful stripped bell-bottoms, and leather vests. However, I was glad to see a wide variety of ages amongst the appreciative crowd. At first it took a bit of urging by the cast to break through the Milwaukee/Midwest reserve, but by the end of the first set the entire audience was on its feet, clapping, singing, and generally rocking the night away.

As she sings in Bobby McGee, “…feeling good was good enough for me!”

The show is called “One Night with Janis Joplin,” but you have many nights to choose from before the show closes June 2 to join in the fun.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

London's Hampstead Heath: Nature, Art, and Artifice

This is an excerpt from a post on my other blog, Urban Wilderness. To start at the beginning, click here.

I've entered Kenwood Estate, a park within a park at Hampstead Heath. A map conveniently points me in the direction of Kenwood House, a neo-Classical country estate designed by Robert Adam in the 18th Century. The guidebook tells me it now houses, along with period furniture, a remarkable collection of paintings, including—yes! Turner—and “Frans Hals, Gainsborough, Reynolds, and more.” I learn later that there is an important Rembrandt self-portrait here, too. Curious omission, Frommer!

I am thrilled by the prospect of thus discovering art amongst nature. But long before I get close to the house I can see that I am to be disappointed. From far off it is clear that the house is entirely enclosed, as if in a shroud. No part of the façade is exposed. Life inadvertently imitates art, for this shrouded monument echoes, at least for me, Christo’s wrapped Reichstag in Berlin. An exoskeleton of scaffolding doesn’t destroy the impression.

The interior is being renovated along with the exterior and so I am denied the pleasure of seeing the paintings as well as the architecture. I must satisfy myself with a solitary Henry Moore bronze. This “Two Piece Reclining Figure, No. 5” is solitary in more than one way. The only outdoor sculpture in the vicinity, “she” overlooks a vast open field identified as the “Pasture Ground.” Moore varied his treatment of the figure, of course. This figure is not recognizably female, though one can assume it based on other more representational versions. Indeed, “she” is scarcely recognizable as human, Moore accomplishing in bronze what the magician only suggests when slicing an assistant in two. The two bulky forms appear more similar to rocky outcroppings than human anatomy. The figure is objectified to the point where is to more akin to some “natural” feature of the landscape than to a human being, let alone an individual person. Kirk Varnedoe asserts, in his treatise Pictures of Nothing, “Abstract art absorbs projection and generates meaning ahead of naming.” An intriguing explanation of the power of abstraction. If true, however, then by naming it Moore forces an interpretation of his sculpture that may not match one’s first impression of it, especially when one encounters it out here in the landscape.

Similarly, where a construction contractor has erected utilitarian scaffolding, I see abstraction imposed onto the named structure of Kenwood House, which sits in uneasy alliance with its pastoral landscape.

Art and artifice derive from the same Latin root. Their meanings continue to overlap. Turning away from the shrouded, temporarily abstracted Kenwood House, I spy across the curiously named “Thousand Pound Pond” what appears to be a bridge. Two short spans flank a wider central one and the whole thing is topped with a balustrade. It is painted stark, Classical white that seems almost to glow on this gloomy day. Unaware that it is called “Sham Bridge” and for good reason, I make my way around a thicket behind it in order to take advantage of the view from the bridge. Except there is no bridge. It is a conceit, a visual folly, designed to be viewed from the terrace or lawn, creating the illusion that the pond extends farther into the wood. Artifice and abstraction.

Click here to read more.