Saturday, December 27, 2014

Art at MASS MoCA: Size matters.

I knew little about the place before we drove into the parking lot on a dreary, wet December day. I had read that it specialized in contemporary art and it was big. I had no idea how big.

The entrance was nowhere to be seen. After asking directions we made our way under a bridge connecting two massive brick buildings, then along a spacious paved yard bounded by more of the same. It all looked very much like what it once had been: a mill dating from the Revolutionary War period.

Turning a corner towards a courtyard surrounded by similar structures it suddenly became obvious that this was no longer a mill and in fact not any kind of ordinary place. A series of six contorted trees were growing from the bottoms of inverted stainless steel planters trussed up on telephone poles. Alice, the White Rabbit and the Red Queen might have felt at home amid what I later learned was an enormous work of art called “Tree Logic,” created by Natalie Jeremijenko. Even though defoliated by winter the trees clearly had been straining to correct the illogical orientation of their planting.

I soon learned that “enormous” could describe without hyperbole much of MASS MoCA. The former mill is a complex of many large, interconnected buildings that cover 13 acres in downtown North Adams, Massachusetts. As an electronics factory that served the military and space industries from 1942-1985 it employed over 4,000 people in a town of 18,000. The mill turned factory has again been repurposed as an interdisciplinary arts center.

Inside, the galleries sprawled from one enormous building to the next. I’ve never been convinced that size alone confers value on art, but moving throughout the MASS MoCA complex and seeing the variety of intriguing installations, the significance of the scale of the place was striking. Considering the history of the place, the scale and interactivity of the art it now contains was made more poignant. The mill, so long so central to the life of this community has once again come alive, this time through the arts. The power of the artworks is imbued with the power resonating within the place.

I can provide little more than a teaser, not only because of the scope of works on exhibit but because so many of them require immersion in the physicality of their presence.

The work of Brooklyn artist Teresita Fernández filled several galleries on an entire floor of the first building we entered.

This site specific installation called Sfumato (Epic) is made up of over 40,000 small chunks of graphite that flowed throughout the long, narrow space like an asteroid belt or a swarm of flying insects.

Black Sun fills a three-story tall space with “thousands of translucent tubes” that create cloud-like formations in colors ranging from amber to black.

An exhibit entitled The Dying of the Light: Film as Medium and Metaphor features the work of 6 artists — Rosa Barba, Matthew Buckingham, Tacita Dean, Rodney Graham, Lisa Oppenheim, and Simon Starling — all of whom favor traditional light-sensitive film over newer digital technologies. None of these can be rendered satisfactorily in a still image, as you can imagine. My favorite was a film projector similar to this one that was dangling from the ceiling by the looping film itself. The machine gently bounced and swayed as it projected a wavering rectangle of white light onto the adjacent wall.

An exhibit by Lee Boroson called Plastic Fantastic filled an entire building with a variety of forms all made of the ubiquitous material. One low-ceilinged room resembling a multi-chambered cavern was far too dark to photograph adequately.

This complex and whimsical installation, called Deep Current, rains ping pong balls from a hole in the ceiling, which then get noisily sucked back up before they fall again.

This piece, entitled Moisture Content, is colossal in scale as well as suggestive of planetary spheres, galaxies and other celestial phenomena.

It’s Only Human, by two British artists named Nick Veasey and Marilene Oliver, is in a gallery called “Kidspace,” although you certainly don’t have to be a kid to be impressed by the work.

I could have spent far more time than we had available in Mark Dion’s Octagon Room. Austere and bunker-like outside, on the inside it resembles a cross between a Victorian cabinet of curiosities and a peculiarly tidy basement. There are jars of pickled animals, carefully tagged sets of keys, shelves full of books and strange juxtapositions of objects. A wall of portraits depicts many famous scientists in odd frames.

Here we see framed compositions of randomly collected pottery fragments from riverside beaches as far apart as the Thames in London and the Seekonk in Providence, RI.

My favorite detail strikes me as a bit of personal catharsis. Jars full of ashes atop a cabinet are labeled “Burnt Archives” containing the likes of “correspondence,” “gallery announcements,” and “press releases.”

The most moving piece for me was quite impossible to photograph. A projected video depicted a leafless tree in graphic white on a stark black background two stories high. White shapes that at first appeared to be leaves accumulated until the tree was full to bursting and did in fact burst upwards as the leaves turned out to be birds that rose and flew en masse down a long, narrow ceiling. The space, called an atrium, must once have been a narrow alley between two buildings. The birds are passenger pigeons. The piece by the artist duo Susannah Sayler and Edward Morris and writer Elizabeth Kolbert is called Eclipse. It mourns the infamous extinction exactly 100 years ago of what is widely believed to have been the most abundant bird species on the planet. You can get a sense of it as well as a thorough description on the MASS MoCA website.

Last, but hardly least, all three floors of an entire building are devoted to a Wall Drawing Retrospective of Sol Lewitt.

The three floors proceed chronologically, beginning with the early linear, monochromatic works on the first floor.

North Adams, in the far northwest corner of Massachusetts, is a little off the beaten track. But if you’re a Lewitt fan you have plenty of time to plan a trip there to see this show. MASS MoCA literature proudly announces that it will remain on view for “an unprecedented” 25-year period.

Stay tuned. After visiting North Adams we travelled the entire length of Massachusetts to Boston (states are smaller in New England than they are out here in the Midwest) where we managed to catch more excellent art. 

Okay, I'm back and here's the link to Boston: Order and Disorder.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

In gratitude from the Menomonee Valley

Season’s Greetings from the Menomonee Valley!

As my 2014 Artist in Residency in the Menomonee Valley draws to a close I would like to thank the Menomonee Valley Partners and Zimmerman Architectural Studios for their sponsorship, support, and faith in this project.

I am also grateful for the many people I have met in the Valley during the year and in particular those who agreed to be the subjects of my photographs and stories.

It has been a privilege and honor to document the exciting developments in the Valley and to share the story of its revitalization. My images, essays and narratives now are available on a website dedicated specifically for the purpose of archiving them and sharing them with the public. My thanks also go out to Erin, my MIAD intern, who helped create this website.

I invite you to check it out: click here.

Although my term as resident is near closing I remain dedicated to the ongoing story of the Valley. Look for a at least a couple more posts to wrap up the year.

In closing, I’m happy to announce that I will be an Artist in Residence at the Lynden Sculpture Garden in 2015. More on that later!

Have a happy New Year!

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Birdman soars!

Went to see Birdman at the Oriental Theater last night. The house was packed. The word is out: Birdman is worth watching. And it was! Not only did I enjoy its mixture of real and surreal, psychological and emotional, but it was textured with such complexity that I felt like seeing it again right away.

The story revolves around an aging actor once famous for playing the eponymous comic book character in blockbuster movies but now trying to make a comeback in theater on broadway. Tortured by doubt, feelings of inadequacy, the desire to succeed and a dysfunctional personal history, he finds himself also besieged by the rigors of the theatrical production. He is surrounded by characters--other actors, stage manager, family members, theater critics and the general public--who can be supportive but often are volatile, sometimes abusive.

My favorite movie ratings site,, indicates that the critics like it somewhat more (94%) than audiences (87%), though still a respectable rating. The difference is understandable. If you went to it expecting more of the action hero comic character that lurks behind all that the real, fragile human actor does, then you might be disappointed.

The acting is superb. Keaton is outstanding in the lead role. Ed Norton deserves a nomination for best supporting actor, playing an overbearing, self-absorbed celebrity genius actor who drops into the cast at the last moment. The story is based on the literary work of Raymond Carver, whose influence goes beyond providing a vehicle for the theatrical production in the middle of the movie. The tensions and twists characteristic of Carver's short stories are present in the movie from beginning to end.

I don't think it will spoil anything to suggest that one gets the feeling that a Broadway theatrical production is a study in controlled chaos. This fine movie is about pushing the edge between the control and the chaos. I recommend it.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Fund for Lake Michigan: supporting environmental restoration and innovation


It didn’t take much persuasion. When Vicki Elkin suggested that we go to Three Bridges Park for our photo session I jumped at it eagerly. The park is one of several projects in the Menomonee Valley that have been made possible in part by grants from the Fund for Lake Michigan, which Elkin administers. As regular followers of this blog know, it is also one my favorite places in the Valley.

We stroll between the contoured slopes of park hills that rise from a formerly flat rail yard. Fresh green grasses and newly planted seedlings emerge from burlap staked down to prevent erosion during this fragile stage in the process of vegetating the park. A row of boxcars sits idle on one of the remaining tracks adjacent to the park. The human hand in creating what eventually will become natural-seeming habitat is everywhere apparent. It’s an example of what I like to think of as “intelligent design” and an appropriate setting to talk about Elkin’s role as Executive Director of the Fund for Lake Michigan as well as the variety of environmental, scientific and technological projects it has enabled. (A photo essay of 3 Bridges Park development follows.)

The Fund’s mission is to provide financial support for efforts to improve the health of our Great Lake, which includes both the shoreline and tributary watersheds. The Fund focuses primarily on projects in Southeastern Wisconsin and the Menomonee Valley has particular appeal. “So much is happening in the Valley that generates interest in projects here,” Elkin tells me. “There’s a lot of buzz and we have great partners like the Urban Ecology Center, the Water Council, MMSD and the Menomonee Valley Partners.”

Moreover, she says, “the Valley projects are a microcosm of the types of projects we like to fund where you’re making improvements to water quality and supporting demonstration projects, but also having an economic impact. The fact that we’ve been able to support both habitat restoration and innovative stormwater projects is perfect for us.”

In addition to Three Bridges Park the Fund has contributed to several other Valley projects and plans for more in the future. Elkin describes some of them for me.

The green roof at the Global Water Center “isn’t just any ordinary green roof,” she assures me, “it’s a research lab monitored by the UWM School of Freshwater Sciences to test what works best under what conditions.”

Two industrial-sized rain barrels have been installed under the 35th Street viaduct that will capture and filter 68,000 gallons of rainwater a year, reducing the amount of polluted runoff flowing into the Menomonee River.

At the Reed Street Yards a number of innovative stormwater initiatives are “pushing the envelope of systems for capturing rain and filtering stormwater.” One of the goals of the Reed Street Yards development, as in other parts of the Valley, is to capture all stormwater on site. (A photo essay of the Reed Street Yards development follows.)

Upstream on the Menomonee River Milwaukee Riverkeeper and MMSD are working to remove impediments to fish, such as concrete weirs and low dams. This will not only improve the river for fish habitat but also for the human visitors that already have made the Valley a popular destination for fishing.

Finally, the project that has me as excited as it does Elkin is the proposed Burnham Canal restoration. This disused canal is one of few remaining that once provided barges and other watercraft access to businesses throughout the Valley. Currently “it’s an eyesore and a liability,” as Elkin puts it. The project is intended to restore the concrete-lined, polluted canal to sustainable wetland wildlife habitat. “I think it has the potential to be transformative,” says Elkin, “and could be an example for other parts of the Great Lakes of how to do restoration in a highly urbanized, industrial area.”

The Burnham Canal project also exemplifies visionary leadership as well as the momentum of revitalization in the Menomonee Valley. “It’s a Superfund site now,” Elkin tells me. “The canal could just be capped and otherwise left as is, but there’s so much happening throughout the Valley that it seems right for this to be the next area for revitalization.  I really commend MMSD for putting forward a bold vision for restoration of the site.” Building upon the success of Three Bridges Park, “we can bring nature to the east end of the Valley, turn liability into an asset.”

I ask about the Global Water Center, which is where the Fund’s office is located at the downtown edge of the Menomonee Valley. “I love it!” is her enthusiastic reply. “Watching the Water Council and water cluster develop first hand is inspiring. There’s a lot of interaction and positive energy, creativity and people excited to work together. It’s refreshing for me to work in such a strong community.” She finds it exciting to work with the people who “are at the cutting edge of the types of projects and innovative water quality technologies we’re funding.”

As we wrap up our session at Three Bridges Park Elkin points across the Menomonee River. There, in contrast with the newly refurbished riverfront of the park, the north bank stands in wild abandon. Thickets of buckthorn and other invasive species create a dense snarl. Clearing the bank of invasives and extending the park trail along the north bank is a planned future project, she says, and the Fund for Lake Michigan is ready to make a contribution.

Elkin grew up in Chicago and identifies with Milwaukee and particularly the Menomonee Valley. Her father, an urban planner, worked on redevelopment of Chicago’s inner city neighborhoods. “I like Milwaukee’s mix of cultures, having industrial and residential neighborhoods near each other and seeing that what’s happening here really makes a difference in people’s lives. We’ve got it all here in the Valley.”

Two short photo essays of Fund for Lake Michigan projects:

Three Bridges Park

Reed Street Yards

View from Sixth Street 2006
March 2014


For more information go to the Fund for Lake Michigan website.

This post is one in a series that relates to my Menomonee Valley Artist in Residency. For more information about the residency and links to previous posts and photographs, go to MV AiR.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Ofrendas: Art and offering

We all die. I was reminded of that in church today. As undeniable as that truism is, it isn’t a popular message in our culture in or out of a religious setting. Other cultures don’t have the same aversion to death, however. We are reminded of this each autumn around this time when the over-commercialized holiday of Halloween is accompanied, as it increasingly is, by the Day of the Dead.

Alverno College Ofrenda, detail (UCC)
The traditional Mexican observance of Día de los Muertos was a family affair held in the home or at a cemetery where ancestors were buried. Altars called Ofrendas ("offerings" in Spanish) often were lovingly created to honor the dead. Over the years this reverential folk tradition has been expanded and Ofrendas have become more diverse. Today in Milwaukee you can find contemporary versions of Ofrendas in several local art galleries. Many of them hew closely to the time-honored conventions that feature skull motifs, skeletal figures, flower arrangements and foodstuffs, along with photographs and other images of the deceased.

Others take the themes of the occasion as a point of departure to make artistic, societal and even political statements. Over the past week I visited three galleries that have chosen to recognize the Day of the Dead by inviting artists and others to create Ofrendas on site in their spaces. I’ve taken some photographs (which should be no surprise.) In most cases I didn’t capture the whole Ofrenda, choosing instead to focus in on a detail that caught my attention.

My hope is to encourage you to visit these places and spend some time with the Ofrendas in their intended context. Their meanings cannot be taken in at a glance in any case and they deserve to be experienced in the reverential spirit with which they were created.

Thoughtful descriptions or artists’ statements accompany many of the Ofrendas. I have included excerpts from some of them.

The Alfons Gallery is a bit off the beaten track, located on the second floor of the imposing main building of the School Sisters of St. Francis campus on South 27th St. The gallery invited artists, interns, staff, and volunteers at Redline Milwaukee to collaborate in a single large altar. I particularly enjoyed seeing this Ofrenda within its religious context, among the permanent collection of sacred artworks.

Leann Wooten: “It was very healing for me to work on this piece with my father in mind. I felt a spiritual connection to him on this artistic journey….” 

Sue Vliet: “Beautiful, laughing brown eyes, my paternal grandmother had kind eyes, always full of mirth and mischief. My memories of her are clear and happy…. She allowed me to eat cake for breakfast, kept an can of ‘spray’ whipped cream in her refrigerator for special snacks, took walks with me, listened to my stories, and laughed at my jokes.”

Gary Niebuhr: “I am not comfortable…thinking about my own mortality. I would rather think about someone else’s mortality…. I never practiced the witchcraft of art until after the passing of my father. I often wonder if his death was a freeing experience or if it is the shadow of guilt that follows me. “

Sally Kuzma: “This ofrenda is in memory of my mother Ellie….  The word for bellybutton—a tangible connection to our mothers—hangs in the air, contributed by friends, colleagues, and students of mine who have ties to dozens of different languages.”

United Community Center

“Remembrance Altar” (detail) by the UCC’s art therapist and selected clients in honor the memories of loved ones who have passed away.

Jeanette Arellano: “This altar is dedicated to our loved ones who have lived with mental illness…. I wanted to make this piece interactive because all of us have at some point in our lives lived with a mental illness or know someone who has, however we keep it hidden as though it doesn’t exist, which is something I can personally attest to.” [Visitors are invited to inflate balloons in remembrance of loved ones with mental illnesses and to think about moments they share with them.]

Ximena Soza: “Nidos Vacíos is dedicated to the sons and daughters that have been lost to violence. Whether it is in Palestine, Ferguson, Milwaukee, or Mapuche land in Chile, the loss of sons or daughters speaks the same language of pain…. My ofrenda is a piece of fabric with a dress and a nest in the center representing the grieving process of mothers and families, the emptiness of death lives in those who are alive.”

Clay relief sculptures with acrylic paint by second grade students at Bruce-Guadalupe Elementary School based on discussions about community wishes.

What do George Washington and Vince Lombardi have in common? How are these and other well known historical and pop cultural figures related to deceased parents, grandparents, and family pets? They are all well represented in the wall-sized, multidisciplinary and collaborative ofrenda created by fifth graders at University School of Milwaukee.

This was a lovely experience, clearly a crowd favorite at the opening reception Friday evening. I witnessed many people carefully viewing each of what seemed like hundreds of tiny individual memorials that make up this ofrenda. 

On Saturday, November 1 there was a Día de los Muertos parade in Milwaukee. If you missed my earlier post and photo essay about that, click here to see it.