Saturday, October 29, 2011

First Snowfall: 2011-2012 Fall/Winter

It's the perfect day for me to be home writing my dissertation. The meteorologists have been predicting that today was going to be a bad day weather-wise. Everywhere from NJ up to ME we are being hit with an early Nor'easter. I didn't actually expect we would get snow in Brooklyn, but sure enough at 11:35 snowflakes started tumbling out of the sky, and it is just getting heavier by the minute. I took the picture you see here twenty minutes after it started. This is my backyard with the snow falling, already covering the fig tree you see in the foreground, and it's just getting heavier as I'm writing this. Needless to say, I never thought when I started writing about and photographing these first snowfalls each year that I'd be posting about them this early! Blizzards, a spring tornado in Brooklyn, a brutally hot summer, an earthquake, Hurricane Irene, and now an early snowfall? This has certainly been a crazy year for weather in NYC!

Friday, October 28, 2011

From Buddha to Dickens

I had to do some research at my school's library today, so I thought I would use part of the day also to catch up on a few special exhibitions here in the City. I made my way first to the Asia Society on Park Ave. & 70th St. to see The Buddhist Heritage of Pakistan: Art of Gandhara, which I had included on my list of must-see shows for the fall. The show was fantastic, and I am so glad I went. I have a weakness for Asian art like Chinese landscape paintings, Japanese prints, Chinese/Islamic calligraphy, and Buddhist sculpture. In many ways it is so different from Western art that it allows us the opportunity to look at it with fresh eyes, unadulterated by our expectations of what we assume the artist did or what we know about the school in which he/she lived because we're used to certain things. But I am actually schooled a bit in Asian art, having taken a number of classes years ago and having taught courses on Asian art, literature, and religions in my past, but I would never consider myself a specialist. So I love to see shows like this and simply appreciate the subtle beauty of these works exactly for what they are. Take the Buddha you see here, for instance, from the Lahore Museum in Pakistan. He dates from the 2nd-3rd century and stands just under 5 feet high. The figure shows the Buddha as a teacher, raising his (missing) hand in the mudra of peace, and he wears the ushnisha (knot of knowledge) on his head and the urna (third eye of spiritual awakening) in the middle of his forehead. But what makes this figure so spectacular is the way his cloak ripples down his body, carved in a way that you can sense it is translucent and you can see the contours of his body beneath it. This "classical"-style Buddha is Gandharan, and what makes the art of this period and region so amazing is that it encapsulates a global culture from two millennia ago. Located near the silk route and conquered by the Persians and Greeks, the art of this area reflects an amalgamation of cultures coming together. From the Western perspective, this Buddha looks very Greek. If it were in white marble, one might thing an ancient Greek or Roman carved it. The entire exhibition brought together works from the Lahore Museum, a feat unto itself considering the political instability in which the U.S. and Pakistan find themselves today. The Asia Society also had an exhibition of the watercolors and paintings of Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel prize-winning writer from India, celebrating his 150th birthday. Much of his visual art resembles the work of modernists popular at the time. Paul Klee and Amadeo Modigliani come to mind. It wasn't really my taste, but it was worth seeing. They also had a single-room exhibition of a kinetic sculpture by the contemporary Korean artist U-Ram Choe. The sculpture looked like the skeletal remains of a manatee with sea oats growing out of it, their tips moving in the air like grabbing peacock feathers. There is a long conceptual narrative to the piece, but you can tell I wasn't into it, although the clockwork mechanics of it were interesting.

I ventured over to the Morgan Library today as well, which had four exhibitions that interested me. I started with the show on Islamic manuscript paintings from their permanent collection, some of which were vibrant and delightful. I then moved downstairs to see David, Delacroix, and Revolutionary France: Drawings from the Louvre. Encompassing French drawings from about 1780 to 1860, the emphasis here was on the Neoclassicists and Romantics. Many of the drawings were quite good, but without contextualization of paintings for which some were studies, it is more challenging for the general viewer person to appreciate what it is you are looking at.

I love the art of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, so it was a pleasure to see works of his not only in the exhibition from the Louvre, but also in a separate small exhibition with drawings from the Morgan's permanent collection. Ingres was a skilled draftsman, and he bridged the gap in many ways between the classical and romantic. The image you see here by him is his Odalisque and Slave, 1839, and relates directly to a painting of the same subject. Depicting a fantasy Orientalist scene that exploits the beauty of the female nude and the exoticism of the Middle East, the subject is Romantic; however, the crisp line and detailed precision and balance in the picture allow it to fall neatly into the Neoclassical style. I'm essentializing all this just to keep it simple, but normally I don't like pigeon-holing artists into categories like this because it creates an unnecessary hierarchy of excellence. Regardless, what strikes me most about this work is that when I saw it, I was convinced it was an engraving. In fact, it is a drawing in pencil, chalk, and wash, which is a testament to Ingres's incredible skills as an artist.

I also had to stop in the exhibition celebrating Charles Dickens's 200th birthday as well. There were letters, manuscripts, books, photographs, caricatures, and other related items all on display in cases and hanging on the wall. Now, I confess I've never been a big fan of Dickens. I've read Hard Times and Nicholas Nickleby, and of course read more than once A Christmas Carol, but to me Dickens seemed to focus too much on sensationalizing the poor in a way that objectified them. Then again, he was a journalist and his books did get people to start thinking about social programs for the underprivileged, so it's understandable why he was and is so popular.

Now if you've read this entire post (for which you get my applause!), you may be wondering what the heck the image at the top of this post has to do with Buddha or Dickens or anything in-between. In truth, nothing. But it does relate to the end of my day in the City, for as I was heading toward the subway, I was drawn into Banana Republic like a moth to a flame. As I walked in a shop girl said, "40% off everything!", flailing a coupon in my face. "40%," said I, "off everything?" "Yes, everything!" she exclaimed. Needless to say, I couldn't resist adding a few items for my work wardrobe for the fall/winter season...but don't you just LOVE what I bought?! By the way, they're saying we may get snow flurries tomorrow...I'm pretty sure I'm ready.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Review: Grayson Perry, Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman

Last month after I posted about upcoming Fall Exhibitions 2011, I discovered another show I had to see when I was in London, Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman at the British Museum. Readers may recall Perry first making an appearance on bklynbiblio earlier this year when I wrote about his recent election to the Royal Academy as a printmaker. Perry works in different media, but is best known as an artist who makes ceramic pots and vases. He won the highly-acclaimed Turner Prize in 2003 as well. However, he's probably most notoriously known as a transvestite named Claire, and frequently shows up for events like the annual RA dinner dressed in frocks he himself designed. To me, there is something innately British about Perry, a theatricality to his persona in and out of drag that fits into the longer trajectory of British drama, reaching as far back as Shakespeare and beyond. This may seem far-fetched to some--after all, he is a 51-year-old man wearing baby-doll frocks and bonnets--but Perry sees his art as part of history, and thus Claire is more than just a put-on character but an important part of his creative personality. Because of this, I believe Perry is a more difficult sell in the U.S., where no major museum as yet has given him an exhibition (although based on its recent history of solo contemporary artists from the U.K., the Brooklyn Museum would be a perfect venue).  The fact is, Americans are uncomfortable with “trans”-anything, and in the ongoing fight for social equality in marriage and the military, even many gays and lesbians are uncomfortable with "trans" culture, preferring their own “trans”-gressive behavior not to challenge too much the easy-to-identify gay/straight sexual binary.

Perry is a queer artist. He blurs the boundaries of gender and sexuality, but then also pushes the definitions of topics like art, craft, religion, history, and the museum, and ultimately points out the foibles of personal identity as well. And yet (as my friend CC pointed out as we walked through the exhibition) unlike the White Cube commercial sensationalism that his contemporary Damien Hirst exudes, what is so striking about Perry is that you can actually understand him. He may be conceptual at times, but he works with real art objects that the masses can appreciate: ceramic pots (such as the one here, The Rosetta Vase, 2011), cast iron sculptures, prints and drawings, tapestries, and costumes. Hirst favors esoterically titled vitrines with dead sharks or large jewel-encrusted skulls. The very nature of Perry's art, with an intended focus on craft, demonstrates how real of an artist he is, even when he shows up for openings dressed as Claire.

Following the current trend in museums to host artists-as-curators, Perry was given the opportunity to rummage through the seven-million-plus holdings of the British Museum. Director Neil MacGregor has described the show as “eccentrically personal yet infinitely universal in its sense of humanity and commonality.” Rather than use his art to respond to these objects as other artists have done in the past, Perry unites them, demonstrating their commonality in the longer history of civilization. In an interview for the August 2011 issue of the British Museum Journal, he says that he sees himself as a one-man civilization, although he astutely notes that “no civilisation is an island and there’s always an interplay with other civilisations.” In this spirit, he has brought together 200 objects from the BM's collection, all representing Africa, Native America, the Pacific Islands, China, Anglo-Saxon England, and other cultures, along with 35 of his own original works, some premiering for the first time. Like all civilizations, his also has a religion and he announces to the visitor upon entering that his chief god is Alan Measles. Who is Alan Measles? Why, he's a teddy bear that Perry has had since he was a child who has come to represent Claire's alter-ego.

Now, if you're rolling your eyes and thinking this guy is a crack pot, I beg to differ. Sure, it seems a bit inane, but the fact of the matter is, you have to laugh aloud at all of this, and then you realize that Perry is laughing along with you, but in that "Britty" (i.e. British witty) sarcastic way that Americans will never be able to master. Claire/Alan Measles...this is Perry queering our understandings about civilization and religion as we (think we) know it. CC and I laughed aloud through the exhibition. We were joined by a few others in the know, people who realized not to take any of it too seriously. But it wasn't all fun and games. At the same time, we could not stop talking about his work and his ideas, how he manages to make the artifacts of past civilizations relevant to us here and now, not just as sanitized detritus of the past.

Returning to Alan Measles, however, this was really an opportunity for him to shine, for Claire is largely missing from this exhibition (probably the only disappointment with the show). Or rather it was Alan Measles himself who apparently has decided this. After all, he has his own blog where he writes that 2011 is his year to reveal himself, following the examples of Christ, Buddha, and Mohamed before him. But Alan Measles is no ordinary god: “One of my core messages is that I want people to think about what fantasies they are holding on to and to hold their beliefs lightly. If I am a God of anything, I am God of a doubt. Pretty useless for a religion I know, but I feel the world has enough zealots and people attached to being right already.” In a world where religious followers teleologically rely on texts written thousands of years ago to justify living in 2011, it is refreshing to consider that maybe doubting can be even stronger than asserting. (All hail the great Alan Measles!)

The exhibition opens with Perry telling the visitor not to think too hard. He’s not an art historian, just a craftsman, and so he introduces us to his imaginary world and invites the visitor to participate in its artifacts along with those from other world cultures. Arranged thematically, there are sections dedicated shrines, pilgrimages and badges, maps, and the spiritual dimension to sexuality. On the theme of Magick, Perry writes: “Part of my role as an artist is similar to that of a shaman or witch doctor. I dress up, I tell stories, give things meaning and make them a bit more significant. Like religion, this is not a rational process, I use my intuition. Sometimes our very human desire for meaning can get in the way of having a good experience of the world. Some people call this irrational unconscious experience spirituality. I don’t.”  In wall texts such as these, we encounter over and over succinct yet intelligent explanations for how the artist-craftsman throughout time has not only participated in the making of the visual identifiers of civilizations, but in fact has superimposed his/her supremacy on them because their handiwork is all that survives. He invites us to ponder who  these artist-craftsmen were. We will never know, and this is Perry’s point. The unknown craftsman of the show’s title elevates the importance of these unnamed masters and shows how anonymity has the power to create the most important features of a civilization.

From here the visitor begins to see that Perry actually is taking him/her on an actual pilgrimage. The very museum in which they have been viewing these cultural artifacts all this time now becomes a temple to the past and present. These objects that we see inside vitrines and raised on pedestals aren’t just representations of long-dead peoples but mirrors that show us who we are as well. The fact that so many have come from tombs now plays into the title of his show as well, for the BM (and all museums) are not only temples but also tombs in which we excavate an understanding of the past and how it relates to us.

Many of Perry’s individual art works are simply beautiful. His vases are undoubtedly my favorite works.  The first one seen upon entering is You Are Here, a vase in which Perry envisions different types of visitors to his exhibition, suggesting in bubbles over their heads the many reasons why they may have shown up, from having a free ticket or needing to write a school report, to the social critic who declares “I need to have my negative prejudices confirmed.” Perry's Shrine to Alan Measles could pass for a Tang Dynasty tomb sculpture, except for its contemporary references, dangling  pictures of Princess Diana and the Twin Towers. His cast-iron sculptures were new for me and simply exquisite with their rust-colored sheen. These included Alan Measles on Horseback, a primitivist Don Quixote-like figurine, and the pathos-driven paired figures Our Father, Our Mother, who carry the weight of all civilizations in baskets and satchels on their broken bodies. The tour de force of the exhibition itself, however, is the final piece in the last gallery, appropriately entitled The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman. A new work made for this exhibition, it is rusty cast-iron funerary ship decorated with casts of numerous objects seen throughout the exhibition itself, from African figure heads to Asian shrines. At the heart of it is a piece of 250,000-year-old flint, the very first tool that allowed an unknown craftsman to make the first product of civilization.

Perry’s exhibition is simply brilliant. I can't say it enough. There is an entrance fee, which may make some people balk, but it is absolutely worth it. Despite his warning not to think about it too much, you cannot help but ponder the associations he has made and how his own beautiful work complements and relates to the long history of artifacts that surround you. But at the same time, the absurdity of Claire/Alan Measles makes you realize you truly do need to take it all in stride, and to laugh—yes, laugh in a museum!—whenever you think it is appropriate. Perry isn't so intellectual about his art that he wants you to forgo enjoying it. On the contrary, he'd rather you simply enjoy it first and perhaps never think about it at all. That of course is almost impossible for art historians like CC and me, but fortunately we were able not only to get excited about his messages, but also laugh our way through the exhibition at his intentional queering of everything you might come to expect from art and the museum.

The exhibition is on until February 19, 2012. There is an exhibition catalogue as well. Be sure to visit the exhibition website where you can see a short video about Perry's preparations for the exhibition.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

London Exhibitions, Fall 2011

Back in May 2010, I had written about Yinka Shonibare's sculptural piece Nelson's Ship in a Bottle outside the National Gallery in London. As it turned out, I didn't get to see it then, but on this recent trip I was pleased to discover it was still resting on the fourth plinth. I took the picture above showing the ship in a bottle just overlooking Nelson's Column at the heart of Trafalgar Square. The sculpture is 3.25 meters high and 5 meters long (10 feet 7 inches by 16 feet 4 inches) and weighs 4 tons. It was great to see it, but since it was so difficult to examine closely, I admit I was a bit disappointed.

Alas, this disappointment continued elsewhere. I had been looking forward to the NG's exhibition on Sir Charles Lock Eastlake, their first Director and a President of the Royal Academy. This exhibition was a one-room show highlighting masterpieces in Renaissance art that on his art-buying trips he brought back to London. There were some archival objects in the show, but all-in-all it was a bit uninspiring. Compounding disappointment was The House of Annie Lennox installation at the Victoria & Albert Museum. CC and I ventured over to see it after doing research in the National Art Library all day. I was looking forward to this exhibition a great deal, and admittedly two highlights were some of her costumes and the array of professional photographs taken of her over the span of her career. But the exhibition itself was actually quite boring. It looked more like someone had invaded her closet and thus apotheosized aspects of her life in a way that borders on the inane...unless of course you're dead. Case in point: a pair of shoes Annie wore sometime in the 1980s while walking in London. Really? And where's the piece of gum she spat out on May 7, 1986? The "house" of Lennox was meant to be a doll's house-like recreation of some of her personal manuscripts and scores, but even this seems rather pathetic in its selection and display. Annie Lennox is a powerhouse of a singer, entertainer, and activist. She deserves more space, more room, and more interpretation that simply a tiny interactive room where you can pull out drawers and listen to her songs.

The British Museum had a lovely surprise for CC and me when we visited. This was an exhibition of German Romantic prints and drawings. Many of these works were from a private collection, and the curators noted that very few people have been active in acquiring the work of German artists, so this was a rare opportunity to showcase some of their important works. These included Philip Otto Runge's Times of the Day series of line engravings, which were delightful to finally see in person. Carl Wilhelm Kolbe's botanical prints probably impressed me the most, as his exaggerated foliage swallows humans in their explorations of the power of nature, such as in this 1801 print, Auch ich war in Arkadien (I too was in Arcadia). The BM also gave CC and I one of the best exhibition experiences: Grayson Perry. It was so damn good, I'm writing a separate review just of that exhibition.

And finally, even though it cost me £10 (student rate) to get in, I did go to Tate Britain to see John Martin: Apocalypse. An artist who made a career out of merging the sublime landscape with moralistic narrative tales of death and destruction, Martin in his paintings and prints make you aware of how much the Romantics and Victorians cherished being thrilled and frightened by melodramatic art and literature. The tour de force of the exhibition, however, was near the end, where the curators recreated a multi-sensory experience that Victorian audiences would have encountered in the 1850s. Called The Last Judgment, audiences were surrounded by his three enormous paintings (including The Great Day of His Wrath, 1851-3, below) as well as loud, dramatic music, intense flashes of light, and actors reciting texts from the Book of Revelations in booming voices. The recreated experience made me chuckle, but you could absolutely understand how in the days long before moving pictures had even been imagined participants would have been terrified and thrilled by the sensation created by these pictures and the importance of their spiritual message. It was worth paying the £10, if even just for the cinematic experience of Martin's paintings.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

A Day at the British Library

I’m in London right now on a bit of a marathon research trip for my dissertation on the sculptor John Gibson (1790-1866).  I thought bklynbiblio readers might be curious to know what exactly a typical day during one of these research trips actually means.  I arrived at Heathrow Airport on Wednesday morning, having slept about three hours on the plane, then took the Express train to Paddington Station and a taxi to my hotel, where I dropped off my bag and freshened up.  I grabbed my laptop, made the twenty-minute walk toward the British Library, stopping briefly for a large cappuccino (caffeine will be a key ingredient all day) and a sandwich at Pret a Manger.  By the time I actually crossed the plaza and entered the doors of the BL (picture left from Haiku Girl's Flickr pool), it was about 11:30am.  Now, I’m familiar with the BL to some extent, having secured a reader’s card and done research here in the past, not to mention seeing some of their excellent exhibitions.  You can bring very little into the reading rooms of the BL, so the rest of what I’m carrying goes into a locker.  I had ordered a few items days earlier, so I logged into the system and discovered most of them were ready.  Off I went to the Manuscripts Reading Room.

One of the items I had ordered was the July 1823 catalogue for the Christie’s auction of the contents of the studio of the British sculptor Joseph Nollekens.  My interest in this was based on the fact that Liverpool-raised Gibson went to London in 1817 for about six months before moving on to Rome, and I had uncovered in past research that apparently a small sculpture of Gibson’s was included in this auction, suggesting Gibson may have worked with Nollekens briefly during this stint in London.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the listing; the auction catalogue at the BL only detailed the works for the first day of the sale.  Days two and three are separate catalogues and presumably Gibson’s work was listed in those.  So unfortunately my first bit of research for the day turned out to be a bust, but ever the optimist I am hopeful I can track this down, because the National Art Library at the Victoria & Albert Museum also has a copy of the catalogue and I’ll be there on Friday.  I moved on to my second request, an enormous tome called Pictures and Drawings Selected from the Works of Edward Armitage, R.A. (1898).  What does Armitage have to do with Gibson?  Nothing actually.  I’ve been wanting to look at this rare volume of engravings after Armitage’s works because of a long-term article I’m working on related to the Anglo-Jewish Pre-Raphaelite artist Simeon Solomon, about whom bklynbiblio readers will recall I have written about in the past.  Did I find what I was looking for?  No, but again it was good to be introduced to the work of this man who was another important Victorian painter, but about whom we know very little today (although readers may recall my writing about his fabulous allegorical painting Retribution at the Leeds Art Gallery).

Fighting exhaustion, I moved on to the Rare Books Reading Room, where I immersed myself in another rare item, the 1816 sale catalogues for the collections of prints, drawings, and books owned by William Roscoe.  Roscoe was a Liverpool-based attorney who in the 1790s retired early to become a Renaissance historian, writing a biography of Lorenzo de’ Medici that is still considered by scholars today to be a foundational text on the Florentine patron.  Roscoe made a series of bad financial investments and was forced in 1816 to auction off much of his art collection and library.  Following the example of the de’ Medici, Roscoe was Gibson’s first patron in Liverpool and helped nurture him in his pursuit of becoming a sculptor.  Gibson reported in his memoirs about Roscoe allowing him to study his print collection, so I was pleased to be able to look through these catalogues and was quite successful in identifying some of the works he owned, because (as I suspected) they relate to some of Gibson’s earliest works of art, making the scholar in me happy that I had just proven I was right.

Admittedly, reading through 1816 sale catalogues was exhausting, even though I risked the humiliating gawking of other researchers when more than once I got up and started jogging in place to wake up.  By the time I was finished, I needed a break, so I headed to the outdoor café for a Coke and biscuit (that’s a cookie in America).  Reinvigorated from more caffeine and the brisk cool air, I headed back inside, this time to the Humanities Reading Room, where I had a few books waiting for me here as well.  Although Derrick Pritchard Webley’s Cast to the Winds: The Life and Work of Penry Williams (1802-1885) is a relatively recent work, hardly anyone has this book because no one knows who Penry Williams was.  He was a Welsh painter who went to Rome and became Gibson’s closest friend.  The two bachelors traveled extensively together and Williams was Gibson’s executor of his will and estate.  If you think I may be insinuating something between the two of them, you may be right, although I will admit more to speculative thinking rather than outright factual arguing about their relationship.  The book held some interesting surprises for me and did add more information about Gibson that I didn’t know, so that was definitely another success of the day.

And then the fire alarm went off!  Everyone in the BL had to evacuate, so I grabbed my laptop and we left.  Forty-five minutes later we finally were all allowed back inside, and if you could have watched the crowd of researchers herd back into the building, you would have thought we were either cattle blindly walking to our destiny, or perhaps more appropriately braindead zombie researchers dedicated to finding out that one fact everyone else has missed about X-topic, knowing the BL held it in its bowels of knowledge.  Allow me to point out I’m actually not joking about this.  The BL is ALWAYS mobbed with people.  They range from college-aged students to the elderly, and it never ceases to amaze me how sometimes it’s nearly impossible to get a seat in one of the reading rooms because all 200+ are taken…that’s per reading room, and there are about a dozen or more reading rooms!  But I digress…

Finally getting back inside again, I was able to look at my next item, volumes one and two of L’Ape Italiana delle Belle Arti Giornale Dedicato ai Loro Cultori ed Amatori, which began publication in Rome in 1835.  This is a beautiful large-format journal with short essays in Italian and exquisitely produced line engravings after past Renaissance and modern paintings and sculptures by artists working in Rome.  This journal really was for the wealthy collector.  Gibson had two works engraved (remember, at this time he was a “modern” artist!) in these first two volumes, a privilege matched only by two other contemporary sculptors, the Belgian-born Matthieu Kessels and the German artist Emil Wolff.  My reading knowledge of Italian got a workout (and this still on the three hours of sleep on the plane), so I decided to hold off on going through more issues of this journal for now and find out about two other works I had ordered.  Turns out they were housed in one of their off-site facilities and wouldn’t be available until Thursday, so I’ll have to go back to look at those.  By this point in the day (nearing 6pm), I was shattered, so I went for a lovely cuppa tea and another biscuit, and meandered back to the hotel so I could finally unpack.