Friday, December 31, 2010

Art Exhibitions of 2010

Reflecting on the past year, I thought I would review some of my favorite art exhibitions which I went to see. Some of these have made an appearance on bklynbiblio, but not all of them. For instance, I think I can easily say that my favorite exhibition this year was Victoria & Albert: Art & Love at the Queen's Gallery in Buckingham Palace, which I saw with RL. The exhibition was extensive with nearly 300 works on display, and showed the royal couple not only as subjects in art but as active collectors, patrons, and makers of art as well. The catalogue (the cover of which you see here) is exquisitely illustrated, but also textually makes for an excellent reference source, including for instance a complete inventory of works of art that V & A gave one another as presents for birthdays and anniversaries during their 20 years of marriage.

Praising a Victorian-themed show shouldn't be a big surprise to my readers, but you may be startled when I say that my 2nd favorite exhibition this year was Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present at the Museum of Modern Art. This retrospective of the performance artist's career so thrilled me I went back to see it (and wrote about it) not just once but twice. (Note: I think my all-time record for returning to see a special exhibition again was to see Kara Walker's incredibly provocative 2007-2008 retrospective at the Whitney--I visited that show at least 3 times; this was before my blogging days.) I was stunned that Jerry Saltz didn't even include Abramovic's exhibition on his top 10 in New York magazine. The fact that he declared Chaos & Classicism at the Guggenheim to be the best show of the year reinforces my belief that by-and-large his approach to art is about novelty and the "hm...isn't that interesting!" factor. I went to see that show a few weeks ago with PR and RL, and we all agreed that it was anti-climactic. While there were a few interesting ideas and pieces on display, in general it was actually boring, and a number of works in the show were just not high-quality pieces. The 3 of us that same day also went to see Franz Xaver Messerschmidt show at the Neue Galerie. This we all loved, not only because the expressionistic sculptural heads were so fascinating (this is an 18th-century sculptor we're talking about) but because the minimalist Rococo/Neoclassical installation worked so beautifully with the busts.

RL and I took an overnight trip to Washington, DC a few weeks ago. We went to see The Pre-Raphaelite Lens: British Photography and Painting, 1848–1875 at the National Gallery (image: Julia Margaret Cameron, The Sunflower, 1866-70, Coll. National Gallery), which we both liked because it included exquisite works, but we found ourselves questioning the inclusion of some objects without explanations (e.g. why include 3 American photographs grouped together without an explanation as to their connection with British Pre-Raphaelitism?). We popped by the Phillips Collection as well (my first time there) to see the photographic pictorialism exhibition. And of course we headed to the National Portrait Gallery to see the now controversial Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture. There has been an incredible amount of verbal and virtual ink spilled over this exhibition because some conservative Congressmen protested for religious reasons (note that in the current socio-political climate they can't protest the very idea of a 'gay'-themed exhibition) a video art piece by artist David Wojnarowicz because it showed blood and insects crawling over a statue of a crucifix. The NPG subsequently removed the work, leading to a number of activists angry at this governmental censorship of art. The artist, who died of AIDS, was protesting the government's and Church's very-real dismissal of the AIDS epidemic at that time (more than 20 years ago), so it seems rather ironic--in a sad way--that this still is going on decades later. Shermania has bookmarked a list of some of the better articles about the controversy, so I won't go into all of that here. The exhibition had some interesting points, and it led to some very engaging discussions between RL and me about art and sexuality, not to mention displays of exhibitions themselves.

This post is becoming longer than I anticipated, so let me wrap up by just mentioning a few other great shows from the past year that appeared on bklynbiblio: the American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity was beautifully installed at the Met and had its usual related Costume Institute Gala; abstract paintings by Meera Thompson and drawings by Jeff Miller at the Atlantic Gallery back in May; and the delightful Propagating Eden show on nature printing I saw with DC at Wave Hill park in July.

There were, sadly, the missed shows of 2010 also, art exhibitions around that world that I would have loved to have seen but didn't. Alas, one cannot be everywhere in the world each year (although we do try). The one exhibition held this year that I seriously regret not seeing was The Spectacular Art of Jean-Léon Gérôme which was at the Getty Center in California and subsequently went to Paris and Madrid. It's understandable how I was unable to see that show, I imagine, but there's no excuse for my having missed The Drawings of Bronzino at the Met. I'm still angry at myself for that one, even though I was quite busy then studying for exams.

As for 2011, my list has already begun. In England The Poetry of Drawing: Pre-Raphaelite Designs, Studies and Watercolours at the Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery, Modern British Sculpture at the Royal Academy, and The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900 at the Victoria & Albert Museum are all on my list. More locally there is Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power and Brilliance at the Yale Center for British Art and The Changing Face of William Shakespeare at The Morgan Library & Museum (a show that has to do with the newly discovered portrait of Shakespeare about which I blogged back in March 2009).

And there you have it, a sampling from my personal world of art. Bring on the beauty, baby!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

First Snowstorm: 2010-2011 Winter

We're having a belated white Christmas today. It started snowing around 11am this morning, and it's supposed to go on all night. The weather reporters are claiming NYC could get up to a foot of snow. This morning I took a trip to the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City to meet the nephew, the nieces, and their mother for a post-Christmas get-together. We spent a fantastic few hours together. The exhibition Skyscrapers! was interesting--would you believe the kids got me to walk on a steel I-beam 18 feet in the air!? After we said our farewells, I took the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail and then the PATH train back into the City. At about 1pm I stopped by St. Paul's Chapel just across from the World Trade Center and took the digital photo you see here. I have to say I love the way the it turned out, especially with the bare trees and snow falling on the gravestones and church. Once I got back to Brooklyn Heights, I walked down by the promenade to take more pictures, but the snow and wind was creating white out conditions, so I had no choice but to go to Starbucks for a delectable peppermint hot chocolate to warm up. Watching snow fall is so peaceful to me. You know what I'll be doing for the next few hours.

UPDATE 12/27/10: It's just after 11am as I'm writing this update, and we're still under a blizzard watch until noon. It stopped snowing a few hours ago, but we've got heavy wind gusts that are creating new piles of snow. I went outside about 7:45am to shovel the stoop and sidewalk and stepped into snow up to my knee. Traffic has been bumper-to-bumper on the BQE since yesterday afternoon--I really hated to be anyone stuck on the highway during the storm last night! All that said, the sun is now shining, the airports will be reopening soon, and for this coming New Year's weekend the weather is supposed to be an unseasonably high 50 degrees.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas 2010

The picture you see here is The Adoration of the Shepherds by the northern Italian artist Andrea Mantegna, showing the scene from Luke 2:16, "So [the shepherds] hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger." This Renaissance picture dates from just after 1450 and is part of the exquisite paintings collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Christmas this year is a bit different for me. For the first time, I decided to stay in NYC and not visit family. With all the traveling I've been doing, and just getting back into my NYC groove, I decided to spend this holiday season doing...well...nothing. Since last night I've been reading, watching movies, and gorging on Entenmann's marshmallow iced devil's food cake (it's taking all my will power not to inhale the whole thing in one sitting). In short, I'm relaxing. And enjoying every minute of it. While it would have been wonderful to see everyone and participate in all the food and presents and blissful dysfunctional chaos that has defined every Christmas in my life, I have to admit there's something spectacular about having no pressure to do anything more challenging than deciding whether I should change from my pajamas into a pair of sweat pants. A blessed holiday indeed. Merry Christmas, dear readers!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Refudiating (and Measuring Words) Since 2010

Following up on last year's "unfriend" as Word of the Year, it's time we spoke about the word "refudiate." I was a bit dismayed when I heard last month that the New Oxford American Dictionary had selected Sarah Palin's malapropism as the 2010 Word of the Year. (Note that I was just as disgruntled when I had heard "bootylicious" had been added to the Oxford English Dictionary a few years ago.) Palin's use of the word combined "refute" and "repudiate" and probably was an innocent typographical error when she Tweeted it this past July (not that the p and f are anywhere near one another on a keyboard). People attacked her almost immediately for her ignorance and for ridiculously inventing new words, especially when she discovered she had something good going on and she began using it on a regular basis. Eventually she defended herself by Tweeting that, like Shakespeare, she could invent words too because English was constantly evolving.

Now, as much as it kills me to admit this, she was right about that. In fact, it's strangely coincidental that soon after the news broke about the Word of the Year, I went to the British Library in London and visited the special exhibition Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices. Conceptually, this exhibition was fascinating, and it had on display texts from scrolls and codices to modern-day advertisements and letters. The show is about the history of the English language both in written and spoken form, covering its Anglo-Saxon and Celtic origins, the heavy influence of Norman French with William the Conqueror, Shakespeare and the evolution of modern English, all the way through the way imperialism brought new words into English. But the exhibition also had to do with issues of grammar, syntax, and spelling. In fact, one of the more interesting parts was when they pointed out that people have been worrying since the 1600s about the standardization of the language and its corruption through the introduction of new unapproved words. And just when you thought things like text message abbreviations were a new thing, with phrases like "Thx for ur msg - c u 2nite!", the exhibition showed at least examples such as a handwritten letter from the 1890s where a woman used the same type of abbreviation to write to her friend. In other words, phonetic abbreviations are nothing new.

The British of course still think their version of English is the correct form, and who are we to judge, but what is interesting is that we all accept variants of the same tongue. We spell some words differently, like "color/colour," we use different words to say the same thing, like "elevator/lift," and we even pronounce some words differently (Americans say "premiere" with the accent on the second syllable; Brits put the accent on the first syllable). But it's still English, and no one questions these variations in use. If I learned anything from the exhibition, it's that the English language has been and continues to evolve, so perhaps we shouldn't worry too much about where it's heading and how new words are introduced.

So, yes, Shakespeare did invent new words, and so did Chaucer, and literary/cultural theorists like Roland Barthes and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick did it with regularity too, but we're more willing to accept new words from them because they were great writers and thinkers. Hey, even I've made up new words at times! One of my favorites is "Britty," which I use to describe a certain type of British comedy that is dry and witty. But who is Palin to make up new words? Palin is...well...these days she's an Alaskan housewife who shoots caribou on her TLC reality television program (and who also apparently still claims she doesn't want to be President, even though Glenn Beck thinks that makes her just like George Washington, so she probably will run for President...but I digress). Does that qualify her to invent new words? But wait--actually it turns out that she didn't invent the word at all. According to this NPR report "it had appeared in literature several times more than 30 years ago." So Palin just made it popular, and it's that popularity which has earned its place in the dictionary.

In case you were wondering, though, if "refudiate" also was the top word in English in 2010, it may surprise you to discover that the Global Language Monitor claims it was only #4. The top word was "spillcam" followed by "vuvuzela" and "narrative." The Global Language Monitor records word usage on millions of websites, news articles, blogs, etc. Now, when you first think about this, it seems to suggest that the words then were the most popular words of the year, but actually they were simply the most frequently reported words. The only reason why "spillcam" became such a popular term was because of the oil spill crisis and every news agency in the world reported on it. In contrast, I have no memory of a single person I know ever actually saying the word "spillcam." So this record of top word usage is useful in telling us the most important words in a given year, but they also become dated very quickly and can disappear by the next year.

Measuring words usage is all the rage now, thanks to the digitization of books, and there are some new interesting studies that never could have been done before in the same way. True, there were concordances to the Bible and Shakespeare. A concordance counts the number of times a word has been used, so you find out how popular a word was in a given text or by a particular author. But to measure word usage in publishing over a few centuries never could have been done by a single individual in one lifetime. Digitization has made this possible. For instance, NPR had a report about Google Labs conducting studies on the words appearing in the nearly 15 million books they have digitized so far. They've generated a test system that allows you to create fascinating graphs so you can see how frequently words were used or cited at different periods in time. For instance, I searched for the names Canova and Thorvaldsen, two of the most important sculptors during the 19th century. The high spike on Canova's name in the mid-1820s must be because he had died in 1822, but the overall comparison shows us that Canova was apparently discussed more frequently than Thorvaldsen. But this isn't a perfect system either. One assumes that the popularity of particular words matched the ongoing increase in the publishing of books themselves, but we shouldn't assume that is true. Regardless, this doesn't negate the very useful and quite fascinating sense that we can now see how popular (or not) certain words or ideas were in published texts over time.

Measuring word usage also has a silly fun side too. A Facebook application now ranks for you the most popular words you used in your regular status updates, suggesting perhaps that those words have some meaning to your personality. When I did mine this week, my top word was "now," followed by "out," "tea," and "think." Are they accurate? I'll let the people who know me well make that determination for themselves. In the meantime, I think I'll make a cuppa tea and think about this topic some more.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Why We Love New York 2010

For the 6th year in a row, New York magazine has published its special "Reasons to Love New York" issue. This is one of my favorite thematic issues they publish, because while it acts as a pseudo-"best of" list, frequently citing recent socio-political-cultural happenings, it frequently also makes you realize that NYC's greatness transcends the daily lives we live here each day, tapping into aspects of globalism we may not realize at the time. And sometimes we need that reminder. After all, NYC is far from being the cleanest or cheapest city. But it is one of the most chic cities in the world, and pretty darn important socio-economically. Mind you, I don't always agree with everything on the list, and even that is what makes NYC so great, because we thrive on our differences of opinions (and boy do we all have opinions). This year's list has 59 reasons. Here are some of my favorites Why We Love New York...because...
#1. Pluralism Is Our Fundamentalism: With all the national crying over whether a mosque should be built near Ground Zero, it was the voice of many of NYC's religious leaders--many of them Jewish--who all expressed the need for tolerance and acceptance, and supported the right of Muslims to build their mosque, even if it was in a sensitive part of town.
#11, #12, #13. The 3 women on the US Supreme Court (Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan) are all from NYC.
#16. We're Home to Not Only the Publishing Industry But Also to a Woman Who Spends Her Days Smelling Books: Weird, yes, but she's an artist who's focusing our attentions back onto the experience of books and reading in an ever-increasing electronic book world...and she works at the MOMA Library!
#19. Brooklyn and Queens Are Competing to Be the Most Diverse Counties in America (and Maybe the World): Cultural diversity rocks!
#23. Our Most Famous Softhearted Morning-News Anchor Has a Secret Ninja Side: Matt Lauer is sexy AND he rocks!
#27. Last Summer 60 Pianos Magically Appeared: A public performance art spectacle that helped reintroduce music. Absolutely brilliant! Word is they're coming back next summer too.
#58. This Is a City Where, At Least Some of the Time, We Can All Go Off-Leash: Check out these awesome pictures of Moose the dog wearing his doggie cam in a dog park in Prospect Park.

All this helps make me feel glad to be back in NYC again after my sojourn abroad. Of course it helps that I feel like NYC and London have a lot in common these days, but that's another story. Here are a few of my own reasons Why We Love New York...because...
** Despite all the concrete, reinforced steel, and glass, we also happen to have some of the most beautiful parks in the world.
** Through the windows of everyone's apartments and brownstones, you will find bookcases overflowing with books.
** If I'm craving breakfast at 4am after a night of dancing, I can always stop in any one of a bunch of 24-hour diners and gorge to my heart's content on pancakes.
** Between the Met, Frick, MOMA, Morgan Library, Brooklyn Museum, Guggenheim, Asia Society, and at least a dozen more cultural institutions, you have to work really hard not to be culturally literate.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Gerald Mocarsky: Shooting in Series

I've been slowly getting settled back into my NYC life, which is why I haven't posted in 10 days, but more will be coming soon. Upon my return, I was pleased to see in the mail my copy of the November/December issue of The Gay and Lesbian Review, which includes my interview with gay NYC-based photographer Gerald Mocarsky. The image you see above is from his Men Who Dance with Men series. Some of you may recall that bklynbiblio published an interview with Mocarsky nearly 2 years ago, but this article is a new interview with him. Mocarsky is scheduled to have an exhibition of his work at Causey Contemporary gallery in Brooklyn in 2011. To see more of his work, go to his website at

Friday, December 3, 2010

50 UK Days: Week 7

Although this blog post will get published after I’m home, I’m actually writing it somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean squashed in my coach seat on a Delta flight. Despite my initial fears that the weather would cause problems, we departed only about 1 hour later than scheduled, which is surprising considering the number of delayed flights out of London. Gatwick Airport, which you can see from the BBC image above, was actually closed for 2 days. Fortunately, I was flying out of Heathrow, which had cancelled flights, but never shut down. The snow in London itself did start sticking and on Thursday morning there was a whole single inch of snow on the ground. Now, if you sense sarcasm in my tone, you’re reading this well. I have been rather stymied by the total lack of preparation the British government has displayed regarding the weather. Admittedly, this has been an early surprise, and I have been told by friends that in general UK weather is relatively temperate, that rarely do they get extreme weather conditions. In fact, the amount of snow they have been getting these past few years is actually a phenomena. More than one Londoner told me there was a period when it never snowed in almost 20 years. Is it global warming? Shifts in water currents? Ozone depletion? Who knows. But wouldn’t it seem that for a country basically an island situated in the north with a portion of it practically in the Arctic circle, that they would be better prepared for snow and cold weather? How is it that train lines are shut down for a week? How can cars be stuck on motorways for multiple days? In some areas I can understand this. For instance, in the wolds of East Yorkshire, where it’s just hills and moors and rural land, it seems completely reasonable that it’s much more difficult to plow these areas or de-ice the roads. But London? An enormous international city that’s been in existence for 2000 years? They can’t plow the streets of south London so people can get to work? It just seems bizarre to me. And before any of my British friends gets defensive, I think it’s important to note that the BBC this morning was reading the complaints and concerns of numerous British people’s emails, and they were actively grilling politicians about the failure to respond to what has amounted to a national crisis.

Related to this, however, is one amusing thing. BBC newscasters are some of the most staid individuals ever. They rarely crack a smile and when they joke it’s so subtle one doesn’t realize it was a joke until a few seconds later. In short, emotions rarely makes an appearance. Until you get to the weather. The winter blast that hit England has led to some of the most melodramatic weather reporting. The newscasters are actually animated! Consider these repeated choices words and phrases: frigid, horrendous, whipping, gale-like winds, biting cold, freezing temperatures, etc. Now say it with a young woman’s articulate English accent, emphasizing the ‘r’ and other consonant sounds, and I think you can tell what I mean. When you hear them report the temperatures you immediately agree. 0 degrees, -1 degrees, -10 degrees, even -20 in a northern Scottish town yesterday. But this is Celsius, not Fahrenheit. So while certainly -5 degrees is below freezing, in Fahrenheit that’s only about 25 degrees. Now, that still is cold, but it sounds WAY colder and WAY more horrific when they exclaim: “The blustery, frigid winds will make the already unbearable cold temperatures of nearly minus 5 below 0 seem even more horrendous than the night before!” Bloody hell, it’s flippin’ cold!

So aside from all the weather reports, and the news of student protests, I have in fact been busy. As far as my work was concerned, during the nearly 2 weeks I was in London, I spent much of my time at the Royal Academy and the National Art Library at the Victoria & Albert Museum doing research. I also spent time at the British Library and the Conway Picture Library. (The British Library had an interesting exhibition called Evolving English, that I may write about later.) I also made my usual pilgrimage to Tate Britain to see the permanent collection, which is being reinstalled due to renovations on the Edwardian building and the new mission embracing more modernism since Penelope Curtis, formerly Curator of the Henry Moore Institute, has taken over as the new head of Tate Britain. (The Art Newspaper published an interview with her just this past week about her plans for this historic museum of British art.) I also visited the Wallace Collection for the first time. The former private collection of the first 4 Marquesses of Hertford and Sir Richard Wallace (illegitimate son of the 4th Marquess), it was turned over to the state by the baronet's widow Lady Wallace upon her death in 1897. The museum is quite amazing with its focus on French art. They have some spectacular pictures by Watteau and his Rococo followers, and a decent collection of 19th-century French paintings by Delaroche, Scheffer, and others. Best of all was the opportunity finally to see what I consider to be one of the most erotic pictures ever painted, The Swing by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1767), which was a true delight. bklynbiblio readers may recall me writing about this work in connection with Yinka Shonibare.

My Thanksgiving dinner this year was Malaysian cuisine (specifically lamb with vegetables, not that lamb is a Malaysian but a nod to British taste). It was certainly an interesting twist on the traditional turkey dinner. I also ate a fantastic Lebanese dinner one night at Yalla Yalla, seriously one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten (thank you so much, AS!). My international tour also included joining friends for French food, Greek food, and Chinese food. London cuisine certainly has come of age, and you will definitely get a good meal there, so have no fear of that. I wish I could talk about fabulous desserts and cakes I had, but I’m at a loss there. I think I needed CC to encourage me to eat more sweets.

If you’ve been keeping track of my 50 UK Days, then you know that I was gone 7 weeks, so that’s 49 days. Montreal started the trip, but since Canada has long been part of the arm of British imperialism (after all Queen Liz is still on their money), it seemed fine to include it in the group. Adding in travel time, it did magically work out to be 50 days. And after all is said and done, I have to admit that these 50 UK Days have been an exciting and thoroughly fantastic adventure. I have done so much, seen so many people professionally and personally, making new friends along the way, that I really can’t complain too much, especially these last two weeks in London. Well, I could complain about the labor strike screwing up the underground Tube. I could complain about getting woken up at 6am one morning because of a fire alarm, that we all had to stand outside in the freezing cold. And I could complain about the early cold snap itself. But really, why complain? Brooklyn, here I come! It’s going to be so nice to wear different clothes.