Thursday, September 22, 2011

Random Musings 8

This week the New Orleans Museum of Art (pictured here) made the official announcement that my friend and colleague Russell Lord has been named their new Freeman Family Curator of Photographs. In their press release, they noted that in his position he "will be responsible for the care, interpretation, and presentation of NOMA's wide-ranging photography holdings. In addition to developing exhibition programming that expands scholarship in photography and actively engages audiences, Lord will continue to acquire works that enrich the museum's collection." You can read the full press release here and be very impressed by his credentials and experience, but the announcement also made it into The Art Newspaper, Houston Chronicle, Washington Examiner, and other national newspapers. bklynbiblio readers may recall SVH and I attending Russell and Dana's wedding two years ago, but he and I also have been at the Met and school together, and we've taken a few art trips together too. I'm absolutely thrilled for him, but I am seriously going to miss the two of them when they leave Brooklyn in a couple of weeks. I am comforted by the fact that SVH and I are now planning a spring trip to the Big Easy.

Speaking of SVH, recently she sent me this link to a news post and short video about what is being called America's smallest library. Open 24 hours, 7 days a week, with 150 books housed in an old phone booth, this library in upstate NY has been a great success within the community. Check out the short video about it when you're on the site. And people think no one reads printed books anymore...

Have you watched the miniseries Downton Abbey yet? If not, you have no idea what you're missing. It is one of the best things to come out of the UK since high tea and Ewan McGregor. The show takes place from 1912 to the breakout of World War I and captures the lives of the Earl of Grantham's family and his servants below stairs. The writing and acting is top-notch, with bouts of drama and humor that hook you in so much that you don't want to stop watching it. Not only has it now this past week won 6 Emmy awards, including best screenplay for Julian Fellowes and best supporting actress for the perpetually brilliant Maggie Smith (pictured here as the Dowager Countess), the miniseries also now ranks in the Guinness Book as the most critically acclaimed show in television history. The New York Times also recently had an interesting interview with Fellowes about the success of the show. Don't rent it, just buy the DVDs, it's that good. I own a set and I am looking forward to watching it again soon...because the sequel has premiered in the UK this past week and will be on TV in the US in January!

Finally, you must watch this very cool video that recently came across my Google Reader from the blog How to be a Retronaut.  In 1784 German designers made an android that resembled Marie-Antoinette and presented it to the Queen of France. Working in ways akin to a music box, when wound with the key to play the android performs a musical composition by striking on the strings with hammers. It's incredible to watch the figure come to life, admittedly even creepy at times. But the talent and ingenuity it took to make this truly is a testament to the Enlightenment and the interest of men and women who wanted to explore new ideas about science and technology. The video has subtitles for those who don't understand French, but really the android "speaks" for herself.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

World Alzheimer's Day 2011

Wednesday is World Alzheimer's Day, commemorating those who have died and those who continue to suffer from this dreaded disease that erodes the brain, stripping away the life force that makes each one of us the people who we are. My mother died in 2006 from early onset Alzheimer's, and now my father is in the early stages of the disease. Alzheimer's is the sixth leading cause of death in the US, and the only disease in the top ten that cannot be prevented, cured, or even slowed. For the past three years, I have advocated on this blog to support the Alzheimer's Association in its vision: a world without Alzheimer's disease. The organization not only helps provide support in diagnosing and treating the disease, but their website is an incredible resource of valuable information for caregivers, who often lose themselves in their ongoing efforts to help their loved ones with the disease. In January of this year, President Obama signed into action the National Alzheimer's Project Act (NAPA) to help provide funding and support to help eradicate the disease. His brief public service message is below. Make a donation today to help support the Alzheimer's Association.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Fall Exhibitions 2011

New York magazine recently published their Fall preview issue and highlighted some of their favorite upcoming art exhibitions in the City. I'm not keen on their choices, although two are on my list of shows to see. As bklynbiblio readers know, I love Autumn in New York. The past few days have been glorious, with daytime temperatures about 70 degrees. I've had my windows open for days now it's been so delightful, with a slight chill in the air at night. It's invigorating after the brutally hot and humid summer we've had. In fact, I think I hear my sweaters waking up from their slumber... Autumn is the major kick-off season for exhibitions at museums, so it's not surprising that there are a few goodies I want to see:
  • High on my list of late Summer exhibitions here in NYC is The Buddhist Heritage of Pakistan: Art of Gandhara at the Asia Society. This is a major loan show that almost didn't happen because of political relations, and showcases important ancient Buddhist art that has never been shown in the US before. They've also just opened a show commemorating the 150th birthday of Rabindranath Tagore, the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for literature, focusing on his accomplishments as an artist.
  • Another major Asian art show, "Wonder of the Age": Master Painters of India, 1100–1900, is opening at the Met and promises to be quite an event with a number of beautiful works infrequently seen or appreciated in the US. The Islamic Art galleries are also reopening to the public after an extensive overhaul and redesign. The Met also just opened Infinite Jest: Caricature and Satire from Leonardo to Levine, which focuses on cartoons and comics and will leave you laughing out loud.
  • The Brooklyn Museum has some interesting shows opening. Sanford Biggers: Sweet Funk--An Introspective looks like it will break the boundaries of objective sculpture in this contemporary artist's first museum exhibition. Youth and Beauty: Art of the American Twenties should be delightful, celebrating America's Jazz Age. At the top of this post you see the 1928 portrait of gay artist Paul Cadmus by Luigi Lucioni that is part of the show (image: Brooklyn Museum). Speaking of gay art, I'm thrilled that Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, the controversial National Portrait Gallery-organized exhibition on gay and lesbian art that I went to see in Washington, D.C. with RL last December, is opening here on November 18.
  • MOMA's retrospective on Willem de Kooning has been getting good reviews, so I may venture over to see that, even though I'm not a big fan of his work. I always feel like a strain of über-masculine misogyny bleeds through his pictures.
  • Contemporary photographer and conceptual artist Hiroshi Sugimoto has a show opening at the Pace Gallery.  Sugimoto is fantastic, one of my favorite contemporary artists. He merges Western and Eastern ideas together in ways that make you rethink what you understand about life, nature, and religion. His monochromatic seascape photographs are evocatively beautiful and eerie at the same time.
  • I'll be at the Yale Center for British Art later this Fall, where I'm looking forward to seeing their exhibition on the 18th-century painter Johan Zoffany.
  • I'm also heading to London soon and will be seeing a few exhibitions there too, such as Art for the Nation: Sir Charles Eastlake at the National Gallery. Hardly anyone knows who he is today, but in his day Eastlake and his wife Lady Elizabeth Rigby defined artistic taste in mid-Victorian England.  He was President of the Royal Academy and the first Director of the National Gallery. The exhibition on apocalyptic 19th-century painter John Martin at Tate Britain should be great, but at £14 to get in, I'm hesitating with that one. The V&A also has a delightful show on the career and costumes of Annie Lennox, which I confess I really cannot wait to see (love her!).  So in the spirit of celebrating Ms. Lennox and the Eurythmics, we'll close with the 1983 video that started it all, "Sweet Dreams Are Made of This," a song which oddly enough my mother absolutely loved.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

9/11 Memorial

I've had a busy week, so it's only now that I'm able to talk about the 9/11 Memorial, which I was very fortunate to have visited with my friend JF this past Tuesday evening, two days after the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.  When the memorial first opened this past Sunday, it was for family members of the victims, but it is now open to the public with time-reserved tickets for which one makes a donation.  You can click here to reserve your ticket, but right now as I'm writing this post there are no tickets available until the evening of November 28.  I won't go into details here about all the information you would want to know about the the project itself because all of that is discussed on the 9/11 Memorial website.

The memorial encompasses eight acres of the World Trade Center site and was designed by architect Michael Arad and landscape architect Peter Walker, who were selected after an international design competition was held.  You enter the site through a circuitous route that includes an airport-like security checkpoint, employees and NYPD officers continuously monitoring the activity of those waiting to enter and checking tickets frequently along the way.  Once you enter the site, it strikes you as being largely an urban green space.  The ground is laid with stone and there are swamp white oak trees everywhere.  As of right now, they are still young trees, but as they grow they will create a beautiful canopy of leaves that will provide a lot of shade and rustle in the wind in a way that adds to the overall serenity of the plaza.  Framing the two pools are bronze plaques on which appear the names of all of the victims.  The names are stenciled through the bronze rather than engraved into the surface.  Their names themselves commemorate their memory, but the empty space in the letters of their names also suggests their eternal spectral presence at the place where they died. As night falls the names glow from an interior light source that makes their absence more uncannily present.

The North and South Pools themselves are nearly 1 acre each in size and are situated where the actual twin towers themselves stood.  They are enormous in size.  Pictures such as these that I took do not begin to do the pools justice in terms of understanding how large they are.  You truly do have to experience them first-hand.  They are the largest man-made waterfalls in the U.S., and they are quite beautiful.  We're so used to memorials being statues or monuments that occupy our space, objects at which we look up and around, that to see these as waterfalls reaching downward into the Earth is disconcerting at first.  And yet the invisible presence of the towers themselves remains before you, since you cannot enter the space itself, and they still become a three-dimensional object occupying the visitor's space.  Indeed, the entire 9/11 Memorial reflects presence and absence, in the names stenciled into the bronze, and in the way the waterfalls work.  The waterfalls are simply beautiful.  The sound of water truly has the power to soothe, and to watch the water fall is relaxing.  Like with the stenciled names, as night falls the waterfalls are illuminated and they take on a new sensibility in how they are appear.  The water itself pools toward the center, where an empty crater sucks in the water like a vortex.  Your eye cannot help but be dragged to that central point, and it's quite painful to look at it, because you cannot see where the water goes, and you know in your mind and heart what lies there and what it represents.  It is depressing, to say the least.  But at the same time, I said to JF that perhaps part of what we're meant to realize as well is that the emptiness, like in the Taoist/Zen Buddhist tradition, also can be seen as the source of life and new beginnings.  The air we breathe and the space between each one of us is incapable of being comprehended by our five senses, and yet without air/space, we cannot exist.  It is the pith of our vitality.  The craters then do represent the sense of loss and can be seen as death, but in much the same way that the towers still stand before us as invisible presence, so too are what they represent, symbols of healing and rebirth that reach heavenward like the towers of light that have been projected each year over the past decade.

Because the entire area surrounding the 9/11 Memorial is still under construction, there is a lot of noise surrounding the plaza, which unfortunately interferes with the serenity the memorial is meant to suggest.  Once the construction stops, however, it will be the place of peace it is meant to be.  Surrounded by office towers, including the so-called Freedom Tower that will be 1776 feet high when complete, the plaza runs the risk of turning into a picnic spot for workers at lunchtime.  It seems unlikely that they will be able to monitor the memorial plaza with timed tickets forever.  At some point it probably will open completely to the public, but that may be many years from now.  JF and I were also concerned that the ridiculous red, white, and blue lights and the gargantuan American flag on the under-construction tower put too much emphasis on the memorial as a patriotic space and thus detract from the true meaning of the memorial, which is spiritual, not nationalistic, in nature.

The most incongruous part of the memorial, however, has to be the museum they are constructing on the site.  The building itself is dynamic in its design (the picture here shows a view from the South Pool looking toward the museum), but as you get closer, looking through the glass-plate windows you can see remnants of the steel girders from the towers, calling out to the viewer like the guardians of a shrine.  Even worse, a 9/11 "gift shop" (I'm not sure what else you can call it) already has opened up outside the exit.  We walked in just to see what it was about, and I'm not joking when I tell you that I wanted to vomit.  I'm not sure what repulsed me more: the actual commercialization of this tragedy into a money-making opportunity, or the line of people waiting to purchase t-shirts and souvenir books. While I imagine people think they're supporting the memorial itself, the entire shopping experience--and by extension the museum itself when it opens--simply cheapens the entire sense of peace and serenity that the pools and plaza are meant to convey.  (Just reading about some parts of the design for the museum makes my skin crawl.)  As JF and I both said, it's simply too soon for a museum.  The memory of the events are too raw and too recent for everyone.  They should have waited a generation before embarking on a museum.

When all is said, however, the 9/11 Memorial itself truly is a beautiful, serene place.  Living in a concrete/steel/glass environment like we do here, having such a large space devoted to the memory of the victims of the attack, but also providing a place for rest and contemplation about life, is a progressive testament to the heart of NYC.  Like the tree leaves that will change color in the fall, die in the winter, and return in the spring, life does go on here in NYC, but now we have a spot where we can stop every once and awhile and think not only about life but how we want to live it.

(To see more of my pictures of the 9/11 Memorial, click here.  Note that I own copyright on these photos. You may use them for personal interest or educational purposes, but please credit me, Roberto C. Ferrari, as the photographer and provide a link back to bklynbiblio or the Picasa collection itself.  Thanks.)

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Passing of Jeanne Pepe

On September 12, 2001, the photograph you see here appeared in the St. Petersburg Times accompanying an article entitled “Show of Faith Rises Amid Fear.”  The photo was taken by staff photographer James Borchuck and shows my aunt, Jeanne Marie Pepe, mourning the victims of the 9/11 attacks.  According to writer Stephen Buckley, my aunt “stood at the back of a dark empty Holy Family Catholic Church in St. Petersburg Tuesday afternoon.  The 68-year-old great-grandmother stared at electric candles.  She had spent the morning sobbing and was relieved to hear that she didn’t have to go into the clothing store where she works.  She grabbed her straw purse and went to church instead.  ‘I just don’t know what’s happening in this world, to this world,’ she said.  ‘I think God must be trying to tell us something with all this tragedy.’” Her story was but one of millions that would be published in the days following the tragedy, and it seems appropriate to share this story today, the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.  But for our family this image is also bittersweet, as my aunt died 10 days ago on 9/1/11.  This odd series of numbers and her death taking place so close to the 9/11 anniversary may be merely coincidental, but somehow it seems appropriate to her psyche.  She was, after all, born on 3/3/33.

Her name was Jeanne (pronounced with 2 syllables), but to me she was always Aunt Gigs (pronounced with 2 hard G’s).  The story goes that when I was a child I couldn’t say her name and somehow came up with Aunt Gigi (same 2 hard G’s).  This was endearing to both her and me, but by the time I was a teenager “Gigi” just seemed childish so I started to modify it.  “Gigster” and “Gigalicious” were possibilities, but somehow Aunt Gigs suited her well.  Her creative sensibility and humor were a joy to me as a child.  She wore a homemade pink bunny outfit one Halloween to complement my outfit as a panda bear.  One time she wanted to read me the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, but I told her I knew it already.  Undeterred, she decided instead to tell me the story of Silverlocks and the Three Bears, Silverlocks being Goldie’s sister, and much more feisty young lady at that!  Then there was the time she decided to read me a “new” story, then proceeded to read a fairy tale backwards, which left me howling with laughter.

Aunt Gigs could respond to any remark with the lyrics from some appropriate song.  Bring up dancing, she’s break out with “I won’t dance, don’t ask me!”—an absolute myth of course, since she loved to dance.  Tell her it’s raining outside, she’d break out into a verse of either “Stormy Weather” or “It’s Raining Men.”  Ever the merry widow, the latter was probably her personal favorite.  Indeed, with her good friend and fellow merry widow Joanie, the duo used to go out for cocktails and dancing all the time like a couple of teenagers.  Eventually they took their partying on regular trips to Freeport and soon became known as the Bahama Mamas.  I always had admired the fact that she went back to school later in life and became a nurse, recognizing the importance of finding something to fulfill her.  But of course there was a dark side too.  Don’t mess with the Gigster, or she’d rearrange your face.  The family remembers well how she almost jumped over the counter at the fast food restaurant Gino’s because the girl gave her attitude and dumped the French fries upside down in the bag of food.  As her granddaughter pointed out in her lovely talk during the funeral services, one of her favorite phrases was “Freak you and twice on Sunday.”  But we also will never forget her other classic line, “Kiss my grits!”—spoken by a New Yorker and not a Texan though, somehow it took on a more ferocious tone that implied “Come on…I dare you.”  This explosive anger that could come out of nowhere was part of her urban Bronx upbringing.  My mother had it too.  But it was in truth a defense mechanism.  In the long run she cared about protecting her loved ones, never wanting them to be hurt or taken advantage of.

The women on my mother’s side of the family always have been a force of nature unto themselves.  Nana was the matriarch, and her daughters Florence, Jeanne, and Kathleen were a triumvirate of power.  Their influence on the family was intense (for good and bad!) and resonates through all of us to this day.  The picture you see here shows the triumvirate looking sweet and innocent ca. 1960, dressed in their Easter Sunday best.  The fact that all 3 have died within the past 5 years is absolutely shocking.  These were, after all, the women who raised us, creating our own familial village of support, and to think they are gone physically from us is like a gaping hole torn through the fabric of our lives.  (Here are the links to my posts about Aunt Florence and my mother.)  Florence was the strong one to whom everyone turned for guidance.  Jeanne was the party girl who showed you how to enjoy your life.  And Kathleen was the dreamer, always looking for the next adventure, always on the hunt for a bargain.  They were in fact the only women in the world who could enter a Salvation Army thrift shop and walk out with designer dresses they would wear to a wedding or some other function looking quite fashionable, and having spent a grand total of $10 for all 3 outfits.  Perhaps there is something to be said for being raised a working-class Bronx girl.

These past few years, Aunt Gigs had been suffering from the effects of Parkinson’s disease, and like my mother with her early onset Alzheimer's it eroded her vitality.  As sad as it is to have lost her, we can rest assured knowing that like my mother she is no longer in pain.  So as we say farewell to the last third of the triumvirate, we can take comfort in knowing that Florence has the cappuccino and shortbread ready, and that Kathleen is planning a full day of shopping.  And once that is done, Joanie is mixing up the piña coladas so they can all go dancing in Paradise.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Torchwood: Miracle Day

For the past 10 weeks, I've been tuned in to my computer on Friday nights in order to watch the latest episode of Torchwood: Miracle Day.  While I had lamented more than once that it was going to be shown on Starz, which I had never heard of before, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I had access to the live channel through my Netflix account over the Internet (modern technology is cool). Tonight was the season finale, and it was most satisfactory.  The premise for season four was that all of a sudden, without any warning, one day all human death stops on Earth.  People think it's a miracle because no one is dying.  But soon people realize the implications of what this means.  The population continues to grow and within months the planet will be unable to support human life.  And no one has been graced with everlasting youth, so people are still aging. Worse yet, diseases aren't fading with death as they are supposed to; instead they are beginning to spread, making more people sick, the diseases mutating and becoming immune to antibiotics.  The "miracle" quickly turns into a curse. Enter immortal Capt. Jack Harkness (the ever-sexy and dashing John Barrowman) and his Welsh kick-ass partner Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles), the last surviving members of Torchwood, the institute set up by Queen Victoria to combat alien invasions (if you're lost, chalk it all up to Doctor Who mythology, which is how Jack became immortal in the first place...ya gotta love this stuff!).  This time around Jack and Gwen have to deal not with aliens but the human race as they work with C.I.A. operatives Rex Matheson (Mekhi Phifer) and Esther Drummond (Alexa Havins) to figure out how to stop the "miracle."  Riding on the tails of this is convicted murderer Oswald Danes (Bill Pullman) who's discovered the miracle has given him a new lease on life.

All in all, the series itself was good, but I didn't find it as thrilling or as intense as the three previous seasons of Torchwood.  I still think Children of the Earth (season 3) was one of the creepiest and unnerving sci-fi shows ever.  This season was too episodic, meaning it felt like it was filmed as a series of one-off shows, not a full-arc movie, which is what I was expecting since the entire season was one ongoing storyline.  Jack wasn't nearly as dynamic or as charismatic as in the past, but they sure gave him ample opportunity to show him his naked butt and have some hot gay sex scenes.  This is one of the great things about Torchwood: it's the only television show that has been willing to make its hero not just gay but actively gay.  Gwen was an absolutely ferocious agent in this show and definitely carried the weight of the show.  I have to say though that Lauren Ambrose's character Jilly Kitzinger (seen here), as a pharmaceutical company public relations representative, was superb.  Ambrose deserves an Emmy nod for playing a neurotic bitch willing to do anything to get something out of the insanity of the so-called miracle.  Ambrose was amazing in Six Feet Under, so it's no surprise that she was such a strong character here as well.

In general I often found myself frustrated by many of the episodes, but I stuck with it because the premise was so interesting (usually it's an epidemic wiping us out, not the end of death destroying civilization as we know it).  The last episode tonight, however, did a fantastic job wrapping things up and leaving you with a few surprises.  Because this is Torchwood, they're not afraid to "kill off" important characters, but they also managed to come up with a few plot twists that made this final episode very satisfactory.  It also leaves the viewer wondering if another season will be coming.  As for Capt. Jack, I can't help but wonder if he'll ever return to Doctor Who for another guest stint.  Can you just imagine River Song and him in action together?!  Lordy, the universe would never be the same.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Solomon's Shame-Free Art

The September/October issue of The Gay and Lesbian Review features an article co-authored by me and my friend/colleague Carolyn Conroy entitled "Simeon Solomon's Shame-Free Art."  I wrote the first part, encompassing his early life and career from 1840-1873, while Carolyn wrote the second half covering his arrest for attempted sodomy, and subsequent life and career until his death in 1905.  If you have a subscription to the Review, you can read the article online; otherwise, check your local library or bookstore, or order a copy online.  As bklynbiblio readers know, I've been working on the art of this Jewish Victorian painter since the 1990s and have published a few articles about him, including most recently an account of his first trip to Italy in 1866.  Carolyn and I also manage the Simeon Solomon Research Archive

The work you see here is one of my favorite paintings by him: A Deacon, 1863 (image: Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery).  Solomon was fascinated by the mysticism of religion, and here he captures a beautiful youth entranced by the ritual of the Mass.  One can read pictures like these as his exploration of same-sex desire as the (implied male) viewer gazes at the youth and shares in the rapture that the youth himself feels about God and/or the priest before him.  The myrtle in the background is a recurring motif in his pictures and represents love in both its carnal and spiritual forms, so the picture can be seen as a paean to the sacred and sexual.  Solomon arguably was one of the most innovative painters of his day.  His arrest for homosexual crimes may have ended his public career, but as Carolyn and I show in our article it did not temper his interest in pursuing a life and art that celebrated alternative love and identity.