Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Gibson Exhibition and Essays

bklynbiblio readers may recall that my doctoral dissertation was on the British sculptor John Gibson (1790-1866), about whom I have blogged a few times over the years. (The image you see here is a ca. 1850 portrait of Gibson by Edwin Landseer, from the collection of the Royal Academy of Arts in London.) My dissertation was the first in the United States--and, I believe, in the United Kingdom--on the artist. Since I finished and defended, I've been working on spin-off essays. One of these was published last December, focusing on Gibson's interest in reproductive media such as prints, statuettes, and cameos as a way to disseminate the classicism for modern audiences.

Last week another essay of mine, entitled "The Sculptor, the Duke, and Queer Art Patronage: John Gibson's Mars Restrained by Cupid and Winckelmannian Aesthetics," was released in the new book Rome, Travel and the Sculpture Capital, c.1770-1825. The book was edited by my colleague Tomas Macsotay, whom I met years ago when we were both in Leeds on different fellowships. This latest essay may seem familiar to some as I have presented different versions of the subject at conferences in Montreal and Storrs, Connecticut. This is standard practice, as it allows for opportunities to "test the waters," so to speak, and see how arguments are received by peers before publishing them. I reread my essay on the subway today and, while I think it still holds up, I confess my chronic (obsessive?) need to re-edit my own work makes me wish I had changed a few things. For instance, I think that in a revised version I would likely not be so "all"-encompassing in certain parts, and qualify matters by saying things like "selective" and "most" instead. Nevertheless, I am hopeful that the essay is a valuable contribution to the literature on the homoerotics of neoclassical sculpture, and that it will add to an increased appreciation on Gibson himself.

Later this year I have another Gibson essay coming out in the book The British School of Sculpture, c.1760-1832. This forthcoming essay relies more on biography and art-historical interpretation to consider the origins of Gibson's training and career before he moved to Rome in 1817 and set up a studio where he lived the rest of his life. That essay should be released around the time I go to a planned study day on Gibson in mid-December. This meeting (details are still under wraps) will be held in association with the new exhibition John Gibson RA: A British Sculptor in Rome, which opened a few weeks ago at the Royal Academy in London. Among the works on display is this one: The Meeting of Hero and Leander, ca. 1842, plaster (Collection: Royal Academy). This exhibition commemorates the 150th anniversary of Gibson's death, but surprisingly it is also the first monographic exhibition of Gibson's work since he died in 1866. Because he had bequeathed a substantial sum of money and numerous plaster casts and drawings to the RA, perhaps there never was a need to hold an exhibition in his memory as his bequest led to the opening of the Gibson Gallery to allow visitors and students to learn directly from his classical figures from the nineteenth century. But of course no one from his day foresaw the decline of classicism and the rise of abstraction, so that by the 1960s it is not surprising to know that the Gibson Gallery was taken down and the works scattered about and kept in storage.

This new exhibition has been curated by my colleagues Annette Wickham and Anna Frasca-Rath. There is a small publication, but to date I have not seen it, or the show, so I cannot comment on them. Anna (who completed her dissertation on Gibson in Vienna about a year or so after me) also has spear-headed the beautifully-designed online digital project The Gibson Trail, which provides images of his works with short essays, as well as a map outlining a 6-mile circle in London where one can view examples of his sculptures at places such as Westminster Abbey, the Tate, Buckingham Palace, and of course the RA. It's all quite impressive. In fact, I admit I'm a little envious of what they've accomplished. When one works so hard on a project, particularly a monographic project, one often becomes possessive over their individual. As a result it is difficult to acknowledge that one doesn't "own" that artist and that others are allowed to do work on him/her as well. In fact, they likely are doing equal (or even better!) work than oneself. So, inevitably, there can be a feeling of competition among us. (Some academics relish in this competition; these same academics also need serious therapy.) That said, one hopes that we still celebrate our collective achievements, because we are all working on the belief and spirit that this artist's masterpieces deserve reexamination and his career reevaluated and triumphed for what he accomplished at a particular moment in time. I am looking forward to seeing this exhibition and participating in the upcoming programs later this year. It will be a great opportunity for all the "Gibsonites" to come together and have a collegial meeting of the classical minds.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

15 Years Later

It will go down as one of those moments everyone talks about until almost a century has passed. It falls in line with some of those other pivotal moments in our history: the attack on Pearl Harbor; the assassination of Pres. Kennedy; and now, 9/11. I was at work in my temporary office because my department was undergoing renovations. My co-worker and friend AK called me in tears from home; she had not come in because of a migraine. We all started looking up news sites on the Web, and we turned on TVs in our various departments. We watched in horror as the rest of America did, at the footage of the airplanes crashing into the Twin Towers, as well as the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania, and then watched in disbelief and in tears as we watched as the Towers fell. It was incomprehensible how any of this could have happened, and in some ways we probably all still wonder how it was even possible. 15 years later...we have moved on and we know that nothing has been the same ever since. I still feel as if there was a wave or rupture in the time-space continuum on that day. People say we lost our innocence. This is true. But we also realized our own mortality on a global scale, but both for bad and good reasons. Despite the tragedy we came together and we supported one another across the world. We got through it. Because, despite all the pain and anguish we may go through in our lives, we prevail and we move on. It is the human spirit to move on. But we do not forget and we ache again and again as we remember those who perished on that day, unwilling victims of a terrorist massacre and willing heroes who rushed to their aid knowing they themselves may not survive.

On that day all those years ago, a state of emergency was called across the nation. I was still living in Florida, and it was my job to oversee building security and related issues at the FAU Library. I announced over the PA system, calmly, that the library and campus was closing, that the governor had declared a state of emergency. People were confused, some not even aware what had happened, but we emptied the library and vacated the campus, and then with frustration sat in traffic for over two hours trying to get home. But once we were there, we sat and stared at our TVs non-stop, tears in our eyes for days to come. For us in that area the next few days and weeks held other surprises for us. The terrorists had been living in Coral Springs, less than 15 minutes away from where I lived. Even more shocking, they had used our library and our computers in Boca Raton and they may have plotted some of this attack right in front of our very eyes, and we had had no idea. Innocence indeed.

Reflecting back on those days, it seems surreal, not just because of all the events that unfolded that day and afterward, but because since then, 15 years have passed, and I am stunned into silence to think about everything that has happened in my own life since then. I have experienced great sadness and painful death more raw and more personal than I did when I grieved on September 11, 2001. But I have also experienced incredible love and true companionship, and I have accomplished many personal triumphs along the way. It is true: we do prevail, we do move on. As it should be. With death comes life; with tragedy comes hope; with destruction, rebirth.

It was five years ago that I visited the 9/11 memorial fountains that had just opened. This morning AA and I went down to the waterfront along the Hudson River in Jersey City for a walk. We knew it was 9/11 and that anniversary events would be taking place. But somehow it didn't occur to us that events would be happening here in JC as well, so we stumbled on the beginning of these events and spent time with many others commemorating this day. I took the photos you see here. The image above shows the Freedom Tower in the center distance while the memorial ceremony took place before us. We are literally right across from where the Twin Towers once stood, their presence replaced by this single tower of rebirth and renewal, their invisible presence still felt by all those who remember the old skyline. The second picture you see here was at the other end of the avenue, where two firetrucks raised their ladders to unfurl this enormous American flag, which blew in the wind and reminded us of our strength and how we have survived, rebuilt, and moved on. But still we do not forget, and as we are home now and on TV downstairs they read the names of the victims once again, we know that all of these poor souls will not be forgotten. Similarly, all the victims of other terrorist attacks around the world will not be forgotten, from the attacks in Paris to the massacre in Orlando. It is our human spirit to commemorate and remember, but it is also in their memory that we must go on.

In the end, today for me is about life and living. This is a day to honor and remember all those we have lost throughout history and time, due to warfare, hatred, anger, sickness, poverty, famine, illness, accident, and natural causes. I struggle when I hear others perpetuate anger and hatred and fear and judgment, because at my core I am a pacifist. So today I try to focus instead on remembrance and honor, a day to commemorate all those we have lost in the spirit of humanity, love, and peace.

Monday, September 5, 2016

MWA XLII: Tremblay's Raven

AA and I are back from Provincetown; as always, it was a lovely, relaxing week. The two great summer getaway spots for most NYC gays and lesbians are either Fire Island (Cherry Grove/Pines) or Provincetown. I've been to both, and I definitely prefer the latter. Even though Fire Island has the beach literally at your door, its own unique charms, and it takes less travel time (in theory) to get there, I find it too remote and too much of a pretentious scene. I prefer the quietude of the New England coast, but also the option of doing various things if desired, from shopping to tea dance. More importantly, I've always enjoyed Provincetown's local art scene. Admittedly, there are a number of galleries along Commercial Street targeted to the tourist market, with idyllic paintings and photographs of boats, the harbor, and the local streets, all of which of course attracts any visitor's attention, and they do make for lovely souvenirs. But Provincetown has a rich history for more than a century as an artist's colony, and as local artist Thomas Antonelli (who has been there for over 40 years) mentioned to JM and me a few days ago, there used to be a ferry that ran from NYC to Provincetown, which helped to create a logical and strong connection between these two art centers. Whenever I am there, I find myself regularly visiting places like the Rice Polak Gallery, where one can still find neo-realist paintings by Nick Patten, an artist about whom I wrote eight years ago and whose work I still admire for their fascinating viewpoints. Simie Maryles Gallery had an excellent group of realist artists on display, intermingling, for instance, academic studies by Brendan Johnston with luminist landscapes by John Brandon Sills. Blue Gallery showcases pottery by Paul Wisotzky; last year I purchased a bottle-neck vase by him. And the Portland Art Association and Museum organizes interesting exhibitions that focus on artists from the Cape. You can read more about this thriving art scene in Provincetown and its centenary in Brett Sokol's article from August in the New York Times.

This year a work that captured my attention every time I walked down Commercial Street was the image you see above, what I've chosen for the latest Monthly Work of Art: Raven, 2015, by Julie Tremblay. (Coincidentally my friend Shermania blogged last week about this black duck painting by Marsden Hartley that he saw at the MFA Boston and thereafter dubbed "Madam X".) I purchased a photographic print of Raven and will be hanging it in our den not far from the computer where I am writing this post right now. Tremblay runs her own gallery (and full production center, from what it seemed) right at the center of town (I can't even begin to imagine what she must be paying in rent for that space). Much of her work on display is geared toward the tourist market, with lovely scenes of solitary boats in Provincetown Harbor at sunrise and whales emerging from the Atlantic Ocean. I don't meant to suggest anything negative by this remark. The images are charming and perfectly suited for those who want this type of imagery for their homes as souvenirs. Clearly she understands her market, as she makes available reduced-cost prints of some of her works to draw customers in and will even mat and frame them (hence the production center). That said, I'm sure die-hard artists might consider her to be selling out.

Raven, however, goes beyond tourist imagery, and that is what captured my eye. bklynbiblio readers know I love animals and nature, and so of course I am a fan of animal art (e.g. my post on Landseer). Tremblay's website showcases a number of examples of animal pictures that she has captured digitally and on film, and many of these are wonderful depictions of animals in their habitats. But this particular composition profiles this particular black bird as a psychological portrait. This is different from photos of dogs or wildlife animals, presented anthropomorphically posed or in-their-habitat. This image of a bird with its head bowed down, its eyes invisible to the viewer, suggests a form of blindness, not just for the bird unaware of us, but for us as well, our inability to meet its gaze and understand what this creature is. The less one can see, the more one desires to see. Tremblay has a comparably powerful photograph called Sun Screen, 1988, of an elderly woman blocking her eyes from the sun with intertwined fingers, masking her vision and thus our own, making it impossible for us to truly see her, making us realize how much we rely on vision and our need to look into someone's eyes in order to understand who they are. Vision is a form of control and it makes us, as viewers, feel more comfortable with the lives around us. The same holds true for this bird. The less I can see into the eyes of this bird, the more I appreciate everything else I can see, and the more I lament for those who cannot see at all, physically because of blindness, or perhaps worse, psychologically because they wear blinders in support of their own prejudices and agendas.

This photograph also works as an abstract composition, a solid black entity that could just as easily be a human in a black shroud and hood as much as a bird in black feathers. In the center of all that black is a sharp linear V, the bird's beak, accentuated by white hatch-marks that are the scars of its own existence. This is an image of a life well-worn, experienced, exhausted, but not yet a figure of death, despite the association with mourning in the black-so-black you can almost feel the soft downy feathers on your fingertips. Tremblay told me that she doesn't know if the bird was a crow or a raven (I think it's likely a crow), but her titling of it as Raven inevitably conjures up images of Edgar Allan Poe, the Tower of London, and the Gothic imagination. But, contained as it is, with a blurred red-white nature background and a white rectangular photographic edge, the bird's identity and association with darkness is called into question, and one realizes this is more a depiction of solitude, a single moment in this bird's raucous life. It is a black beauty all its own.