Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Random Musings 12

What do you think when hear the names Don, Betty, Peggy, Joan, and Roger? If you're thinking Mad Men, then you're as excited as I am to see the 2-hour season 5 premiere on March 25 (image: Frank Ockenfels, AMC). I wasn't so sure about this show at first and didn't watch the first two seasons right away, but once I caught on, I was hooked. Matt Zoller Seitz has some interesting thoughts about why the show is so great in the latest issue of New York magazine. Last season had some great moments, like Don's elderly Jewish secretary, Ida "Are-ya-goin'-to-da-toilet?" Blankenship, who was so popular she got her own Facebook page. Tragically, even her death was a hoot. And of course there was episode #7 from last season, "The Suitcase," which ranks up there as one of the all-time best hours of television ever written and acted. The synergy between Don (Jon Hamm) and Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) was simply brilliant. Let's see if they can top it this season.

Last month, I posted about New York Public Library's disastrous plans to gut the main historic building and research library and make it mostly a circulating library and Internet computer zone. The project is going to cost upwards of $350 million. Meanwhile more than 80 branch libraries throughout NYC are completely falling into ruin and need to be completely overhauled. Yesterday, Leonard Lopate on WNYC radio interviewed Scott Sherman, who wrote the exposé published in The Nation this past December, and Caleb Crain, a former research fellow at NYPL. The radio program addresses both the potential positive and negative sides of this controversy, but truly drives home the nightmare of what is being planned.

In the world of art, the Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci has never gone out of style, so Dan Brown really had no need to try to make him more titillating than he already was. Over the past 2 months, the Mona Lisa (La Gioconda) has come back into the spotlight, not in her world-famous portrait at the Louvre in Paris, but in a copy made at the same time that belongs to the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid (their image). Having recently conserved and cleaned their copy of the Gioconda, the Prado's conservators have determined that it probably was painted about the same as the original. They're also claiming that the restored copy is closer to what the picture actually looked like when Leonardo painted it. Dirt, varnish, and aging have darkened the Louvre's original. I think it's rather interesting too that the copy artist probably was Andrea Salai, Leonardo's lover. You can read more about the painting in articles published in The Art Newspaper here, here, and here. And just when you thought that was big Leonardo news, yesterday it was announced that scholars believe they may have "found" his long-missing mural of The Battle of Anghiari beneath another painting.

I'm heading back to Florida this week. The Pater's mental health is degrading some more as Alzheimer's disease continues to affect him. I'll be doing a few more things to help make his life comfortable and manageable, including following up some doctor appointments. Our dear friend RM has been simply amazing in helping with so many things. I owe her a tremendous debt of gratitude and, knowing she reads these posts, I'm publicly making it known how much I appreciate all of her help. With managing health problems such as Alzheimer's in our lives, I've often found the British World War II slogan "Keep Calm and Carry On" to be quite useful at times, so I'll leave you with this delightful video of the story behind the slogan, the iconic posters, and a charming bookshop in the UK that I would love to go visit one day soon. Watch the video here if you can't see it below. You'll appreciate the message.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Review: Cindy Sherman

Last May, I had written about Cindy Sherman hitting the all-time record for the most money paid for a photograph at auction, a record which 6 months later was surpassed by Andreas Gursky. Growing up during the 1970s feminist movement, Sherman inevitably made her career with what is now her best-known work, her untitled film series from 1977-80. The work you see here is #13 in the series from 1978 (image: SFMOMA), a less frequently reproduced image, but one which drew me among those on display at the retrospective exhibition of her work currently on at the Museum of Modern Art, which I saw on Friday with my friend JM. Sherman's series of black-and-white film stills are self-portraits posed in seemingly iconic roles from 1950s/60s films. Think Kim Novak in Vertigo or Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest. (The Hitchcock reference is tacit.) You're positive you recognize the character being portrayed, but in fact there is no such character except in Sherman's mind. So ingrained in us are these character tropes that Sherman's photographs upend our expectations of how women are supposed to be and behave. In #13, a school girl blond reaches up to pull a book off the shelf, a seemingly innocent act, but her look back upward and over her shoulder, away from the book, suggests a back story. Is she in the library or bookstore alone and becomes anxious hearing someone approaching? Is that someone already behind her but out of the frame of the photograph, inciting sexual provocation or possibly even rape? Is there something about the book that makes her feel guilty, like she's doing something she shouldn't? Is she just an innocent school girl or is she really a secret undercover agent about to find the hidden plans for a weapon of mass destruction? Sherman's simple photograph speaks to us in a way that suggests much about womanhood. Indeed, what I liked about this image in particular is that the book she is pulling down is entitled The __cal Dialogue. I have no idea what book that is (I did try to look this up), but the word "dialogue" reveals what her photography is about: the communicative link between the viewer and Sherman as photographer and model.

Feminist art historians have had much to say about how this film series was about the male gaze and the subjugation of women. She has denied that ever was on her mind. Nevertheless, the dialogue that her photographs incite allows for what one "hears" to be as valid as what is being "said." This current retrospective at MOMA explores her photographic dialogue with selections from a number of her series since the 1970s. The exhibition easily could have fallen into the same old category of historical development over time, but the curators cleverly have integrated chronology with themes and series, so that as you move from gallery to gallery you're given an opportunity to reappreciate her work based on how it's been arranged and images across the room speak to one another as a result. I was less familiar with the rest of Sherman's oeuvre, so for me and others this show is a great opportunity to see her whole body of work. Because every photograph is Sherman as some character, you would think it would get boring after a while. After all, how many "self-portraits" can one take in a career? Even JM said that he wondered if part of her work was consciously beginning to parody itself, i.e. photographs of herself posing as herself posing as a character. But her images, at least for the first few rooms, seem to be more about being a woman, about beauty, about the male gaze, about theatricality and showmanship, and so on. And then you enter the room with her large-scale photographs of post-apocalyptic detritus or pornographically arranged mannequin body parts, and you want to vomit. You suddenly realize her work has been about ugliness and the darkness of life, the backside of all the questions of beauty and womanhood that you just spent the previous 15 to 30 minutes pondering.

Her history portraits (1989-90) are grotesque but fascinating. Modeled on actual and imaginary masterworks from art history, they are arranged here in one space with rich red walls, conjuring old Salon-style hangings from before the 20th century. The artificiality of the subjects (a Virgin Mary bearing a fake breast that feeds a plastic infant Jesus) calls into question our ideas about what defines a masterwork when its subject matter (religion, parenting, breastfeeding) represents for us topics that are ripe for socio-political debates. Her clown series absolutely freaks me out, but that has to do with my own coulrophobia. Her series of high society women (2008), however, is simply divine (image: #465, MOMA). Showcasing anonymous social matriarchs posing for their portraits, their caked-on make-up, faux backdrops, and stuffed props inevitably ridicule the very idea of what high society prizes in its own standing. At the same time, these photographs are regal, larger than life, and rich in color, leaving you with a vibrancy and sense of drama more delectable than any episode of the Real Housewives of Whatever-City. They are a fitting ending to the retrospective.

You can tell from my review that I enjoyed the show. I appreciated it as an excellent opportunity to see more of Sherman's work in person and to learn more about her beyond the film stills. No one can "like" everything in the exhibition, and I don't think that's the point, although there are some gems in the show. The reproductions I've seen don't do the original works justice, so it is worth seeing them in person to better appreciate them. What struck me most about her body of work, however, is that Sherman is a photographer's photographer. She understands how photography works in its broadest sense as an extension of time-based performances such as theater and film. Her images aren't just about the photographic image on the wall, but all the work that goes into scripting the scenes, finding the costumes, creating the sets, applying the make-up and wigs, and modeling the characters. In the ever-rising debates over how digital cameras are leading to the demise of photography are thrown out here as well, because from early on Sherman has worked to figure out how technology could enhance her finished product, Photoshop just being the latest technological gadget. Indeed, the more I looked at her images, I cared less that they were chromogenic or silver gelatin prints and wanted to know more about her techniques, how she used lighting or staging or even took the pictures without any evidence of the camera in the shot. MOMA could have done a better job explicating her techniques instead of keeping the wall labels so generic. After all, every single one of her works are entitled Untitled, so was it necessary to repeat that over and over throughout the room? Still, the show was interesting and thought-provoking, and I'm glad to have seen it. I wouldn't necessarily say Sherman is my new favorite artist (sorry, Cindy, I'm still stuck on Kara Walker), but this show has helped elevate my respect for her accomplishments in the history of contemporary photography and expand my notions about what defines the self-portrait.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

MWA I: Cézanne's Tulips

For a long time now, I've been wanting to introduce a segment on bklynbiblio showcasing works of art with some commentary. If I were ambitious, I would do this once a week, but I could never keep up with that. So I'm going to strive for a monthly contribution, hereby calling this the MWA: Monthly Work of Art. In keeping up with the recent (and still disturbing) news that a painting by Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) had sold for $250 million, and in memory of my recent trip to the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, CA with my friend MP, I thought I would start off with this gem: Tulips in a Vase, 1888-90. I was immediately struck by its minimalist beauty and its rich color tones. (MP loves this painting too!) For some viewers, still life painting can seem boring, but painters (so I've been told) find them to be challenging exercises in attempting to capture the essence of living-but-inanimate objects carefully arranged before them. There's something also to the fact that, although in English we call these paintings "still lifes," the rest of the Latinate world calls them "natura morta," literally "dead nature." This of course conjures up a completely different idea about what the paintings shows. It brings vitality to a subject that one realizes already has expired, showing a single moment in time in which an artist stood before a canvas such as this one capturing the short life of flowers and fruit. Of course, that isn't actually true, as Cézanne painted this over a two-year period. In fact, what makes this picture so fascinating isn't even its still life quality, but that  it skillfully demonstrates two of Cézanne's practices. The first was his belief that all forms could be geometrically reduced to the cylinder, sphere, and cone. In short, he was interested in abstracting nature so as to make a painting first a painting and second a representation of something. To do this, he worked up layers of color and paint to create volume and used black outlines to enhance their three-dimensionality. His second practice was his interest in demonstrating binocular vision on the canvas, i.e. showing multiple viewpoints at once. Looking here, you see the vase frontally, but then you notice the table beneath it has been elevated and that you're looking at it from about a 45-degree angle, which should mean you're looking into the vase slightly, but you're not. In considering just these two ideas and this picture, you can see why Cézanne was considered by most to be a bit eccentric in his day (even by some of the Impressionists, with whom he exhibited). However, he proved to be highly influential on Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and other painters associated with Cubism because of his interest in geometric forms and the flattening of perspective. You can read more about this picture on the Norton Simon Museum's website.