Sunday, August 28, 2011

New Work and Immortality

Centerfold 1, mixed media with encaustic, oil paint and cold wax, 30"x30"x1.5", 2011

Centerfold 2, mixed media with encaustic, oil paint and cold wax, 30"x30"x1.5", 2011

Here are some other new pieces that I have been working on. The center rectangles are patinated copper and my usual horizontal elements have been overpainted with oil and cold wax medium. (Yes the encaustic was fused before the oil paint mixture was added.)

These pieces are related to the Building Blocks series (see my website) but take it a couple of steps beyond.

Notes on Immortality
Today, because of the enforced couch time brought on by Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene, I actually got to read the Sunday NY Times. I haven't done that for quite a while. One of the articles, by Stephen Cave, contained excerpts from his forthcoming book, Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization. His premise is that the quest for immortality is "the motor of civilization" and that without our constant striving to be immortal, civilization would cease to function. This, he claims, has been proven by scientific research.

William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

The original research study that he cites records the difference in subsequent actions by two groups: one group reminded of their mortality before the subsequent test (Hey, dumbo, you're gonna die) and the other given the same test but without the warning. (They didn't really say the "Hey, dumbo" part.) The two groups were composed of "court judges" (to distinguish them from Judge Judies?) from Tucson. So the test was that they had to rule on a hypothetical case of prostitution, and the result was that the group who had been reminded set a higher bond on the prostitutes than those who hadn't.

The results of this study, and the subsequent "more than 400" other experiments aimed to test the "worldview" of participants, claim to support the "Terror Management Theory" which holds that we (humans) attempt to manage our fear of death by adhering to "cultural, philosophical and religious systems" that offer immortality [if followed] - my brackets.

My Take On This Thesis
Personally, I think this all sounds totally dubious. Now, it may be true that I do not subscribe to any system which purports to offer me immortality, but if I had just been reminded that I was going to die, why would I care about some poor working girl trying to make a living? Haven't I got bigger things to think about? Although I try not to think about dying because it kinda adds a bad taste to the moment, if cruelly reminded that it's bound to happen one day, I think about those near and dear to me, my giant collection of stuff that will have to find a home, and how glad I am that my body will not go to the Fisher & Sons Funeral Home (Six Feet Under for those who don't recognize the name). Wouldn't that make you more lenient instead of more strict - or am I just out of step with the test subjects? (I would like to have your comments on this.)

Death as the Engine of Life
Continuing with the article, the author claims that if there were no death, civilization would grind to a halt because our drive to seek immortality propels all our actions. Therefore, with the achievement of immortality, "We would have no need for progress or art, faith or fame." We would all wander around aimlessly for eternity, purposeless and timeless.

My assessment: first, I think he's been reading too much Anne Rice. This sounds an awful lot like that vampire series. Secondly, I think that many of us are more concerned with improving our life here and now on this planet and in this time than we are with making ourselves ready for some illusionistic future life with halos, clouds and harps. Do most people really believe that if they follow all the rules and don't step on the cracks, they will be guaranteed entry into the promised land? And is that why they make the choices and lead the lives they do? Does anyone really want immortality? Is that why we make art - to become immortal?

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Pace of Life and Art

Sometimes I feel that my life is racing by and I can hardly keep up. Other times, it seems to crawl or be stuck in a Groundhog Day mode. This past month has been a slow period in which I seem to be picking up that boulder for the long trudge up the hill again and again. And, of course, my work in the studio is what guides all the sensations. It feels like the work has been coming together at a snail's pace. In the end, I'm happy with the result so I guess it just took as long as it took to make.

As Sweet As Honey, mixed media with dominoes and encaustic on panel,
36"x36"x1.5" (click on picture to enlarge)

As Sweet As Honey is one of three pieces I made that use dominoes to comment on the theme of pollination. They will be shown in Pollination:Beyond the Garden at the Brush Gallery in Lowell, Mass. in the fall. That show has been curated by Greg Wright and will include work interpreting pollination by eleven artists who work in encaustic. Below is an ad for the show designed by Lynette Haggard that appeared in Art New England this month.

In addition to the art, the cultural importance of the theme will be broadened by inclusion of the film by Laura Tyler, Sister Bee, and a talk by Tony Lulek, President of the Norfolk County Beekeepers Association. There will also be a catalog of the show available.

My piece As Sweet As Honey will be shown with Dark Companion, a piece of the same size that I had finished some months ago. I have been using it as the opening page for my website. Somehow the first piece that I made, before As Sweet As Honey, was not working for me. When I had it hanging up and it didn't look any better to me over time, I finally tried to improve it. That didn't work either, so I just started over. Sometimes a dog painting is just a dog and remains that way no matter what you do. The trick is to recognize that before you spend hours trying to make it into something it will never be.

A Facebook comment on this piece by Joanne Mattera:

I love the rhythms going on, the underlayer of lyrical line overlaid with the tap-tap-tap of the nails, and the purposeful meander of the dominoes, their dots an echo of the nail's staccato. That yellow grid is very "sweet" compared to your usual palette, and a lovely counterpoint to the black and white.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

TV Recommendations From the Studio

Busy, busy in the studio. I'll have some images of new work to post early next week. In the meantime, I thought I would recommend a couple of things I've seen on TV recently.

The first is a new HBO documentary, Gloria Steinem, in her own words.  This is an hour-long program that sums up Gloria's life and career with lots of clips, interviews, images and commentary. She has had a full life and been a leader in the so-called second wave of feminism. (I don't really get why feminism has to be divided into waves, but from today's perspective, waves differentiate various efforts and timelines in the movement.)

It's surprising how much I had forgotten about what Gloria had done to work for women's political progress and about the women's liberation movement itself. The gains that women have made have been of very recent history and I guess we all tend to forget unless we are looking back. I guess I focus more on the lack of progress, rather than the gains. For example, one interview showed Gloria with Bella Abzug where they were both saying that they fully expected women candidates for president and vice president to be totally the norm in thirty years. What a disappointment that has been, as has the minimal number of women in Congress, in high-level jobs in business and achieving parity of pay - to name just a few areas where quantifiable inequality still persists.

Seeing women of many ages marching to achieve abortion rights really brought home to me how important that achievement was because previously abortion was dangerously illegal. Gloria herself had an abortion and publicly admitted that as part of the abortion rights movement. That fact was thought to be a shameful admission for a young, unmarried woman at the time.

The current war on women by the Republican Party is trying to put us back to that era where unmarried girls don't have (or don't admit to having) sex, where birth control is denied or unavailable, where abortion is murder and therefore illegal, where women are subordinate to men, where only hetero sex is acceptable, where the bible is literal truth and science is just another wrinkle in the political game.

Gloria, we need legions of you to fight the same fights over and over again! Can't we ever just move beyond patriarchy and get real for once?

Fair Game: 2010 movie about Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame starring Sean Penn and Naomi Watts

Next is Fair Game, a movie we saw on demand about the outing of Valerie Plame's identity as an undercover CIA agent by the Bush administration. This was a fast-paced story with good acting and a plot that rang true, although movies always take some liberties for dramatic effect. In actuality, Cheney's righthand guy, Scooter Libby, took the fall for his disclosure of Plame's name and its subsequent publication in the Washington Post. (Of course his pardon was nearly instantaneous.)

As much as I hate recalling anything about the Bush administration, I do remember this happening. It was part of the inexorable march to war on Iraq that Bush-Cheney undertook. Now the odd thing is that if you Google this movie, up will pop a number of websites that debunk this movie and claim that it's all a load of crap, that the movie exaggerates Plame's and Wilson's stories and that even deny that Bush-Cheney lied about the reasons for going to war. But wait a minute, I was there. I know they lied about the invisible Weapons of Mass Destruction, they invented suspicious actions and imports of supposed tubes and uranium and scientists and whatever else it took to make it seem plausible that Saddam (the Madman) was about to bomb us off the face of the earth (or if not us, at least Israel).

So I say that those websites that debunk this movie are still spinning the lies on behalf of Bush-Cheney. I believe the movie (with allowances for glamour, simplicity and dramatic impact) and I enjoyed the hell out of seeing Cheney depicted as a devious Dr. Strangelove-type and Bush (in actual clips) as the dumbass that he was. Besides, you usually cannot go wrong with a Sean Penn movie and Naomi Watts is both beautiful and a good actor. Here's a review by Roger Ebert that has a realistic take on it.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Alexander McQueen and The Cone Sisters

Now there's an odd trio for you - two elderly Victorian ladies and a contemporary avant garde designer - but all three were actually quite ahead of their time.

Ever so long ago, in mid-July, this was the way we spent our Saturday in New York - visiting the McQueen show at the Metropolitan Museum and the Cone Sisters exhibition at the Jewish Museum. I have to hand it to myself for having the persistence to continue with posting about this trip because I've dragged it out so long. Nevertheless, I'm determined to finish. (click pix to enlarge)

Metropolitan Museum
We (Binnie Birstein, Greg Wright and I) started off the day with an early train to NYC from Connecticut. When the cab dropped us off in front of the Met, there was a long line waiting to get into the museum. We raced upstairs to the McQueen line as soon as we entered, but the crowd behind the ropes waiting to get in was already in the hundreds. Greg and I were dismayed (to put it politely) and would have given it up, but the Binster was determined.

Crowd waiting for entry to McQueen show (image from the internet)

She decided that she would wait in line while Greg and I looked at exhibits downstairs and she would call us when she reached the doorway. Although we didn't really agree, she was not to be moved, so Greg and I went about our business.

Greg with the Ancient Greek krater showing a painter applying encaustic to a statue
of Herakles

The first stop, but of course, was the krater of the encaustic painter that Greg had not seen in person before. He was so happy to be there. You can see that he is beaming.

Greg with the Fayumn portrait of the boy  Eutyches

In this photo, Greg seems to have turned into a Fayum portrait himself

Anyway, we happily visited several galleries in the antiquities wing for an hour or so while Binnie waited upstairs in line. Then we went to an information desk to ask where the exhibition of Richard Serra drawings was located. While we were standing there waiting, I noticed a sign that said if you joined the museum, you and all the members of your party could be admitted to the McQueen exhibit without waiting. I was incredulous and made sure that I was reading it correctly. Why hadn't we known about this before? Membership was $70 and Greg and I agreed to split the cost. We stood in another longish line to get a membership and with our temporary pass, we texted Binnie. She met us upstairs and we went into the exhibition with the membership pass.

Alexander McQueen, "Savage Beauty"
“You’ve got to know the rules to break them. That’s what I’m here for, to demolish the rules but to keep the tradition.”  - Alexander McQueen

Was it worth the wait and the $70 is probably what you're wondering? Overall, I would say yes, it was. I am certainly no fashionista and Project Runway is the closest I come to being concerned with fashion, however, I do think that McQueen was an artist who was closer to a sculptor than a designer. His mastery of tailoring was superb, but more than that, his imaginative innovation in conception and use of materials was quite incredible. Following are some examples.

Dress made from shellacked razor clam shells he first found on a beach.

Dress made from medical slides stained to look like blood on top and
dyed ostrich feathers feathers on the bottom

Coiled corset made from aluminum 1999-2000

Dress of woven leather, neckpiece of pheasant feathers with resin vulture skulls

Leather shaped corset with horsehair skirt

Spine corset made of cast silver

Here is an 8-minute video narrated by Andrew Bolton of The Costume Institute, curator of the exhibition. This will show you the exhibition gallery by gallery. (For more photos of each gallery and info on the designs, here's the link to the Met's blog on the exhibition.)

Seeing the exhibition was not a great experience in that it was so crowded that it was hard to get close to the pieces and see the detail. It was also much darker than in the video and I found the soundtrack annoying. But despite all that, I am glad I saw it. I had no idea of who he was or what he had accomplished in his short, rather sad life.

Isabella Blow with Alexander McQueen early in the fashion game

One blog (which apparently is stronger on fashion than punctuation) gives his story as follows: "Son of a taxi cab driver he dropped out of school at age 16 and went to work on Savile Row as a cutter and tailor at : Anderson & Sheppar, Gieves & Hakes and then Romeo Gigli. McQueen finished his education and graduated in 1994 with a Master’s degree in fashion design from London’s Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. Isabella Blow legendary fashion guru discovered Alexander and purchased his entire graduating collection, which helped him make industry connections."

By 2006, he had markedly changed his appearance and was dressing and
hobnobbing with fashion icon Sarah Jessica at a Met gala

When I saw the shoes and hair from his spring 2010 collection (image below), I couldn't believe it and actually wrote a blog post about how horrifying I found it. However, seeing everything in context makes me understand it better, even though I still think those shoes are pretty devastating.

Spring 2010 collection on the runway. The lobster claw shoes horrified me.

Greg and I went through the exhibition together and looked pretty closely at things. We noticed that the first dress in the shot above was called the "bee dress" and I found an image of it by itself (this gallery was about the influence of Nature on McQueen).

The gold-colored hexagons on the hips are separate paillettes 

Alexander McQueen committed suicide at age 40 on February 11, 2010, shortly after the death of his mother. R.I. P.

Read the NY Times story about the final few hours of the show here.

“Fashion should be a form of escapism, and not a form of imprisonment, I wasn’t born to give you a twin set and pearls.” - Alexander McQueen

Claribel, the eldest and one of the first female doctors, and Etta Cone

The Cone Sisters at the Jewish Museum: Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters
After a visit to the sculpture show on the Met's roof (underwhelming), a brief rest and then an incredibly expensive but tiny lunch in the Met's restaurant, we hiked it up to the Jewish Museum to see an exhibition about the Cone sisters' collection.

Etta bought the first five paintings in 1898 to decorate their apartment, but after the sisters met Gertrude and Leo Stein, they discovered Matisse in Paris in 1905, began collecting his work, and eventually owned 500 of his works, making theirs the largest and most comprehensive collection of Matisse's works in the world. On their death, the collection was donated to the Baltimore Museum and that museum has put together the loan of 50 pieces for the show at the Jewish Museum.

Matisse: Interior, Flowers and Parakeets, 1924, part of the Cone collection

Matisse: Large Reclining Nude, 1935

The Cones also collected about 100 works by Picasso and had extensive collections of lace, textiles and jewelry. This was another very crowded exhibition and it was difficult to see the works. The most interesting part to me was not the paintings but the jewelry and the handwritten letters between the sisters and with Matisse and Picasso. There was also a short film about the sisters, their relationship with Matisse and their collection. This show runs until September 25th so there is still time to see it. Here's another good link.

The Cone sisters' apartment showing their extensive collection of art

Maira Kalman
After looking around the rather compact Cone exhibition and seeing the film, we went upstairs to an exhibition of works by Maira Kalman. I like her witty drawings and ironic commentary but I have to say that I was about done in by the time I got there.

Maira and Pete by Maira Kalman

Maira has done many covers for The New Yorker and writes a blog for the magazine

Viewing her work and the collection of objects she put together required some intimate looking, ironic interpretation and a lot more attention than I was capable of giving, so I'm afraid I really couldn't do it justice, but if you are a fan of Maira's, you probably would have loved it because there are many small works to look at. Unfortunately, it ended July 31st.

And so, dragging ourselves slowly and reluctantly in the heat, we made our way to a coffee shop where Greg and I told Binnie we wanted to cut our plans short and go home to Connecticut. We are just not the troopers that the Binster is, and that's all there is to it. Luckily, we revived enough after the train ride to have dinner in Binnie's favorite Chinese restaurant before we called it a day.