Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The city that gives a DAM.

The last time I was in Denver, I paid a visit to the Denver Art Museum (DAM) and it made me realize that the mile high city is a lot more sophisticated that Salt Lake City. I was pissed.  This trip to DAM did nothing to make me feel any different.

I skipped the blockbuster King Tut exhibit (saw it in San Francisco and it was just OK) and headed straight for the contemporary galleries.  And DAM didn't disappoint.  A lot has changed since the last time I was there.  If MCA Denver is all about ignoring the permanent collection, DAM is about creating an unbelievable permanent collection, much of it modern.  And the museum delivers some mighty fine new art.

Much of the contemporary galleries are currently filled with works that explore the human form.  It was great to see so many surprising takes on the body, many by some of my favorite artists.  Take Marc Quinn's 1999 marble titled Jamie Gillespie.  By reminding us of ancient Roman and Greek sculptures missing appendages and yet revered for their physical perfection, Quinn asks us to question our attitudes about those with disabilities.

Tom Friedman wants us to keep our egos in check.  His diminutive form crafted from Styrofoam beads  reminds us of our insignificance in the grand scheme of the universe.

Exploring our dreams and nightmares are several works by Pia Stadtbaumer including this work, Max, Raven and Scissors (1999, Zellan, scissors and stuffed animal).

Fred Wilson offers his take on the Greek god atlas.  Instead of holding up the planet, this version of the god  holds up the classic books that define the world's greatest art even though they ignore almost everything outside of Europe and America.  To add insult to injury, Atlas stomps on a book about African art.  This is Untitled (Atlas), (1992, plaster and books).

It's not just sculpture that explores humanity at the Denver Art Museum.  There are some lovely paintings.  Take Wes Hempel's Fatherhood (1996, oil on canvas), which is mind blowing for its stunning beauty and art-historical references.

While most of the art is displayed beautifully, there are some questionable decisions.  I've been visiting museums for years hoping to see a Marylin Minter painting up close and personal.  And for the first time, I encountered one of Minter's strange, realist paintings, Tough Guy (1999, enamel on metal).  But it was hung so high on the wall it was impossible to get a good look at Minter's technique.  And that's what I've always wanted to get a better look at.

But the contemporary galleries at DAM weren't just about humanity.  There was plenty more to explore.  I loved Richard Patterson's massive painting Minotaur with Brush Strokes (1998, oil on canvas).

And Sandy Skoglund stops the show with her installation, Fox Games (1989, mixed media).  This takes fairy tales and turns them on their heads. It seems the foxes have won.  I couldn't help thinking that this says something about our current world; that we've somehow lost control and the foxes and wolves have taken over.  Little Red Riding Hood is in big trouble.

At most museums, I hit the contemporary galleries and head to my next adventure.  But Felix suggested we visit the photography galleries. Who knew, there's a lot of stuff to see in art museums outside of the contemporary galleries.  There's a brilliant photography show currently up at DAM called Exposure: Photos from the Vault. There are some amazing photographs including a brilliant self portrait of Chuck Close.  But my pick of the show was Berenice Abbott's strange and dreamy Designer's Window, Bleeker Street (1947, gelatin silver print).

And in the galleries devoted to Mexican art we ran across this stunning bit of old-world painting designed to help define the classes.  Franisco Clapera's Castas Paintings (about 1775, oil on canvas) were part of a supposedly common practice.  These types of painting attempted to showcase and categorize the various racial mixes occurring at the time.  Artists usually made these paintings in sets that showed fourteen to sixteen possible combinations, helping to define social distinctions. 

Saturday, September 25, 2010

An art marathon at the Salt Lake Art Center.

For 48 hours this weekend you can view and even participate in a performance art piece created by Salt Lake City style maven and artist, Gary Vlasic.  The work is called Dark Horse/Fallen Shadows and is an homage to the dance marathons that were popular in the early part of the 20th Century.

Art marathons are all the rage these days.  In fact, this performance reminded me of recent performances in New York City.  The idea of keeping a museum space open for 24 hours a day was reminiscent of Michael Asher's proposal for the recent Whitney Biennial which called for the museum to remain open 24 hours a day for seven days.  (Budget restrictions meant they were only able to do it for three).  And Dark Horse/Fallen Shadows is very reminiscent of Marina Abromovic's The Artist is Present, recently on view at MoMA.  The set ups for both are striking for their similarity, each with a defined square space lit with four large light stands, one in each corner.  There was also similarity in the desire of the artists to encourage interaction with the audience; Abromovic asking visitors to sit and stare at her every day for over two months; Vlasic inviting the audience to join the dance, even inviting them to dance with him. 

I spent about two hours at Dark Horse/Fallen Shadows. The first hour was a more formal performance which was to take place Friday and Saturday nights at about 8:45.  The second hour was part of the marathon in which the professional dancers and museum goers are set loose to perform hour after hour.  There was a lot to like.  The choreography is ingenious with a mix of light, balletic movements that defy the demands of a 48-hour performance mixed with more angry and stern movements.  During the unstructured performance, the professional dancers could take individual choreographic lines and perform them at will, sometimes joined by another dancer, which gave the performance a dreamy air of reoccurring memory.  

Adding to the dream-like quality was a line of metronome's set at different tempos and allowed to wind down at their own pace.  The constant tic of the time keepers created an iconic image that will be hard to forget. Plus, it was just cool.

The dancers were good.  It was particularly fun to see Todd Allen who was responsible for the choreography and also performed as a dancer.  Allen was one Repertory Dance Theatre's best dancers but abandoned his Salt Lake City fans to dance in New York City.  For this performance he brought the physical dichotomies for which I remember him; a surprising ability to balance opposites like power and softness or ego and vulnerability.

Performance art is an unpleasant affair, at least if you judge from the facial expressions of its practitioners.  And Dark Horse/Fallen Shadows is no different.  You won't find any smiles in this performance.  It's all stern, somber faces that look pissed at the thought of having to carry on with these shenanigans for an endless 48 hours.  But why all the gloom.  There were moments that were charming, amusing, even silly.  And I wish that expression had shown itself in the performance.

In the program Vlasic notes, "I have always dreamed of the [Salt Lake Art Center] Main Gallery as a performing arena for my visual world and dreamscapes."  This prompted a wonderful memory.  Working nearly two decades ago for the Utah Symphony, we were planning a 50th anniversary celebration, one party of which was to be held at the Salt Lake Art Center.  We asked Vlasic to give us a proposal for the party.  And if my memory serves, Mr. Vlasic suggested an entire chorus line of tap dancers descending the Salt Lake Art Center's wooden staircase carrying flaming desserts.  Ultimately, the idea was deemed a little too flashy for the symphony crowd.  That wooden stair case is now gone, replaced with a cheap metal affair.  And there were no tap dancers.  But somehow, I felt like Gary Vlasic may have just achieved a dream, a grand spectacle that momentarily invades a beautiful space and our minds. 

You can still experience Dark Horse/Fallen Shadows this weekend.  It ends Sunday, September 26 at 6:00 p.m.  Doors are open all day and all night.  Here are a few more photos:

DJ Jesse Walker and Gary Vlasic

The program drew a large, hip crowd.

One of the Dark Horse/Fallen Shadows performers

DJ Jesse Walker

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Books twenty-six and twenty seven: Catching Fire and Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

I've decided to write about Suzanne Collins last two books in the Hunger Games series (Catching Fire and Mockingjay) in a single post.  I read them back-to-back and it seems easier to talk about them together.  I also need to start this post with a giant SPOILER ALERT!  In this post, I will talk about plot points that will spoil not just the endings but much of the books if you haven't read them and you intend to.

I wasn't sure I wanted to read these two books because I had some misgivings about the first novel in the series.  But my book club decided to read the entire series, which gave me ample encouragement.  And I'm glad I read the full series.

From a pure reading enjoyment experience, I think the first book is the best with its thrilling action sequences and hyper-fast pace.  But the second book offered a more nuanced story with some genuine plot surprises and more insight into characters.  My least favorite of the three is the last book which loses it's focus and offers a plot that sometimes feels haphazard. However all these books are delightfully readable and I can see why they are so popular.

That said, I do have issues with the books.  While I liked the plot of Catching Fire better than the others, there is one twist so obvious and forced that I can't help but call it out.  In this book, we learn that the rules of the game (once a child has survived the games, she never has to compete again) can easily change.  The changing of the rules felt like little more than a ploy to put Katniss Everdean back into the arena to fight it out to the death with other kids.  A more interesting plot would have made Katniss the mentor to another child forced to fight for his or her life. Although, I'll admit that this forced plot point sets up the second half of the book which is filled with fantastic plot twists and turns and some damn fine character development.  So maybe I should leave the storyline to Collins.

I've also complained that I don't like the first person voice of these books.  But now I'm not so sure.  I think what I may not like is teenage-girl angst.  There's an endless attitude of "woe is me" and "I'm such a terrible person" and "how can I ever live up to the goodness of Peeta" and "why do I have to constantly be such a disappointment to family" and " . . . "  This constant drone starts in book two and carries right on through book three.  For me, it's like Chinese water torture; a constant drip, drip, drip of negativity and self loathing that belies the powerful girl that is Katniss Everdean.

These books also treat some pretty serious stuff with surprising frivolity:

On teenage pregnancy: Let's tell everyone that Katniss is pregnant with Peeta's baby. Isn't that romantic?

On underage drinking: Yes you've had a really bad day.  Go knock back a few with Haymitch.

On prescription drug abuse:  Life is better when shrouded in a drug-y haze

On suicide: Yes, your teen life sucks.  Why not consider ending it all?

On revenge killing: What a great idea!

It's this last point, that made me ultimately not like Katniss Everdean as a literary character.  In book three, Katniss is obsessed with executing President Snow.  In the end, she doesn't directly kill him.  Instead, with no thought or moral conflict and in front of a blood thirsty crowd, Katniss coldly shoots District 13's President Coin through the heart because she may or may not have been responsible for the death of Katniss's sister. Yes, a lot of people would call me a weak, spineless liberal.  But I think execution demands a more careful consideration.

This post risks coming off as too negative.  So let me end with a bit a praise for Suzanne Collins.  I heard an interview with her on the New York Times Book Review podcast and she was brilliant.  I particularly liked how much credit she gives her audience of young readers.  She talked about how my generation is creating massive social and ecological problems that I won't have to deal with in my life.  Instead, it's the kids reading her books that will have to face some monumental problems. And that's why her books ask kids to face some pretty serious issues and ideas.  She confronts these issues in her books brilliantly.  Issues like the morality of reality TV. Or ecological degradation. War. Poverty. Economic disparity.  Tackling tough issues like these with honesty (yet written with such excitement) is what makes these books so powerful.

A look at what's new.

Here's a great idea.  Let's create a museum dedicated to contemporary art.  In fact let's be so dedicated to contemporary art, that we're not going to have a permanent collection.  Once a year, we'll change out everything in the museum with completely new stuff that we don't own.

The egos of most museums would prevent them from taking such a position.  But that's exactly the idea behind Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA).  In fact, if you talk to the gallery attendants or the super-friendly woman at the gift shop, they can tell you by name the entire permanent collection of the museum which includes a total of three works. (OK, there are technically more than three since the work in the cafe includes a number of ceramic sculptures by the same artist.)

One of the works in the permanent collection is brilliant and by a duo of my favorite artists.  Tim Noble and Sue Webster are most notorious for their chaotic sculptures that create simplified silhouettes when lit with a spotlight. A perfect example is the penis sculpture I recently saw at the New Museum.  In Denver, they've created a spectacular lighted bleeding heart called Toxic Schizophrenia (Hyper Version) that resides outside the museum.  I'll definitely be visiting this sculpture at night on my next visit to Denver. I love it. Can I please get a giant, lighted bleeding heart in front of my house.

But we're not here to talk about the permanent collection because that's not what this museum is about.  Before I get to the exhibit, I have to make a quick comment about the entrance to the museum.  I seriously couldn't figure out how to get in.  There isn't a door.  Fortunately, I walked far enough into the walkway that I triggered the motion sensors.  And suddenly a massive metal wall glided open to let me in.  That alone made me love MCA Denver.

The exhibit that was on display (unfortunately it closed shortly after my visit so you can't see it) was Energy Effects: Art and Artifacts from the Landscape of Glorious Excess.  This was a great show that tries to tackle our endless appetite for energy and power, and how that desire has led to an orgy of excess. 

I loved Jeff Shore and Jon Fisher's Cliff Hanger (2009; 5 mins. 20 secs.; wood, wire, plastic aluminum, cameras, motors, guitar strings, drawer glide, light bulbs, custom electronics, computer, monitor, speakers and button).  You press a button and set in motion a unique movie that is created from the strange, Rube-Golbergian contraption that reminds us how complex our lives have become.

On the other side of complex, there's Viviane le Courtois's Chaussures (1991 - present; fiber).  Viviane hand makes her own flip-flops from natural fibers.  She wears them until they begin to disintegrate.  The whole time she writes about what happened while wearing her rustic sandals.  At MCA, hundreds of her worn-out footwear are on display. It's a reminder that energy and power are fueled by real people, not by oil or gas or wind. 

One of the surprises of this show was it's willingness to embrace objects some wouldn't call art.  Take the B61 Thermonuclear Bomb (1968 - present; two of an estimated 3,155 original models) from the Los Alamos National Laboratory.  Seriously, anytime I can go to an art museum and confront real, live nuclear bombs, I'm thrilled.  This is scary stuff.  Shouldn't we be taking this more seriously.  It was a perfect reminder that we're intent on wiping out our own species.

If the whole idea behind this museum wasn't intoxicating enough, they have one other surprise.  In the library, many of the artists who have shown works at the museum have left a souvenir behind; a reminder of their time at the museum.  It's a wonderful bit of contemporary art-world love.  Tiny, strange items that say more about the experience of art than the commercialism of art. It's a wonderful idea. 

Here's Felix wandering the library:


And here are two doll-like self portraits left behind by Tim Noble and Sue Webster. This makes me want to invite artist friends over in hopes that they'll leave a little something behind in my home.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

No one's asking. But I'm telling.

With an upcoming senate vote on "don't ask, don't tell," the controversial policy is back in the news in a big way.  Even Lady Gaga is in on the act bringing gay veterans as her guests to the VMAs and calling on all her little monsters to contact their senators.

This bit of pop political culture has inspired me to do something I never really planned on doing: Posting pictures of objects I've created.  I'm even calling them art. Which begs the question, "Am I an artist?" I can't answer that question. I suppose you and the art world will have the final say.

Here are four small sculptures that are part of a series called Military Secrets.  (Three more are currently in production.)

Classified, 2008-2010 (3" x 3 " x 5.5", reconfigured plastic army men, aluminum)

Security Clearance Required, 2008-2010 (2" x 2" x 4.5", reconfigured plastic army men, aluminum)

Don't Tell, 2008 - 2010 (2" x 2" x 4.5", reconfigured plastic army men, aluminum)

Top Secret, 2008 - 2010 (2.5" x 2.5" x 5", reconfigured plastic army men, aluminum)

Friday, September 17, 2010

This is not your grandmother's garden.

I've visited enough botanical and historical gardens that I feel I'm qualified to have an informed opinion. And I like to joke, that it's my old-lady alter ego (Gertrude) who encourages me to visit gardens.  But I recently experienced a botanical garden so different, that it appeals to a lot more people than Gertrude and her friends.

The Denver Botanic Gardens approaches the idea of nature in a completely different way.  Sure there are the naturalized vistas so popular in many gardens.  But what sets Denver apart is its willingness to embrace an architectural view of gardening.  This gives the garden an angular edge that I've not seen in other places.  The result is pure cool.  It's so cool that it draws big crowds.  I've never been to a botanic garden this crowded.  And it's not just the old ladies.  The gays were out in full force.  And there were plenty of young, hip families enjoying the views.

An example of the coolness is the Conservatory.  I've been to plenty of conservatories that have better interior exhibitions.  But the glass and concrete exterior of Denver's conservatory is magical modern.

And now is a a great time to visit the Denver Botanic Garden, particularly if you're a fan of the sculptor Henry Moore.  I'm not sure there's another place on the planet where you can see more of Moore's monolithic sculptures.  Seeing so much of his work in one place gave me a new appreciation of his talent.  Even at his most abstract, Moore's sculptures are human, with their soft shapes turning sensual, even sexual.  This is a spectacular show, installed so beautifully that it seems like the gardens were created just to house these massive shapes.  Talking about the scultpures won't do them justice.  So here are few photos.

If you're in Denver between now and January 31, 2011 I'd definitely put a visit to the Denver Botanic Gardens on your list of things to do.  And I'd love to see these sculptures on a snowy, Colorado day.  

(In order of appearance, the photos above feature the following sculptures: Hill Arches; Goslar Warrior; Large Reclining Figure; Knife Edge Two Piece; Oval with Points.)

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Don't slip on the art work.

During a 2009 trip to NYC I paid a visit to The New Museum for a show called Younger Than Jesus. One of the works at that show was by Mexican artist Adriana Lara.  It consisted of a banana peel left each day somewhere in the museum by a museum employee.  Well now, that work of art has made its way to Salt Lake City.

In conjunction with the current show Las Artes des Mexico, the Utah Museum of Fine Arts launched a new series of semiannual exhibits called Salt.  These exhibits are designed to showcase art by emerging artists from around the world.  Adriana Lara is the featured artist for Salt 1. And that means there's a banana peel loose in the museum.

I liked Installation (Banana Peel), 2008 for its silliness when I saw it in New York and I like it in Utah as well.  Although, here in Salt Lake City the placement is significantly more deliberate than in NYC.  And I think it works better when it's more random.

Seeing this goofiness again made me think back to Steve Martin's art-museum antics in L.A. Story where he roller skates through museums while a friend video tapes him. I'm thinking maybe I should start photographing banana peels near famous works of art in the world's greatest museums.  I just wish I liked bananas better.

It would be unfair if the only piece I talk about from Salt 1 is a discarded banana peel.  So let's discuss the rest of Adriana Lara's show.  First, let me comment on the presentation.  Salt 1 felt like an afterthought with a half dozen or so works of art crammed into a tiny portion of a gallery.  Lara's work would be more effective if it were given more space.  Her work continues Duchamp's tradition of the ready made. Throw in references to Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Robert Smithson and you have a pretty good idea of Lara's work.

While I enjoy the humor of the banana peel (and the subversive, slapstick danger it brings to a museum setting), many of Lara's other works were less successful.  Probably my favorite of the other works was Plastic Snake.  This reminds of the works of Gonzalez-Torres where a stack of printed posters designed by the artist is left in a museum and visitors are invited to take the posters.  Here however, the plastic snake seems to warn visitors to leave the art alone.

Like Duchamp, Lara seems intent on forcing us to question what really constitutes art.  And I guess if Duchamp's urinal qualifies, why not a roll of toilet paper sitting on top of an empty display case.  It's like you can decorate your bathroom with museum-quality art.  Here's a photo of Installation (Toilet Paper), 2010.

Salt 1: Adriana Lara did little to inspire me.  I was largely left wondering why it mattered.  I'm sad I was out of town when the artist was here to talk about her work.  Maybe it would have made the show more engaging.  But while this show isn't one of the better contemporary exhibits I've seen in Utah, I'm just glad that UMFA is paying attention to new art that challenges viewers, even viewers like me who tend to give contemporary art the benefit of the doubt.

You can still see Salt 1: Adriana Lara but not for long.  The show runs through September 26, 2010.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Casey Spooner: The new Hollywood heartthrob.

I keep asking people if they've heard of the band Fischerspooner.  And I keep getting blank looks.  I follow them more from the art world perspective than from the music perspective.  Somehow, they've been able to make their mark in the fine art world with elaborately staged performance-art-like presentations in galleries, museums, and at art events around the world.  But I think most people might remember the band better from their pop music efforts like those in this trippy video.

Half of the act, Casey Spooner, is the opening act for the current Scissor Sisters tour.  Asked to go on tour at the last minute, he didn't have the financial backing to make it happen so he put out a plea on and his fans (including me) helped finance the tour.  And I'm glad we did.

With just a few simple ideas (a shiny suit, a soft backdrop, and a couple of spotlights), he took old Hollywood glamor and made it all new.   He was charming, his music was winning even though his album isn't out yet and no one knew any of the songs, and he made for a perfect introduction to the Scissor Sisters.  Here are a few photos from the show.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Ladies and gentlement, the Scissor Sisters: World's greatest party band.

Some of you Salt Lake City old timers might remember heading to the Zephyr on a late summer night to see a great party band like the Disco Drippers.  You might remember feeling like the entire club was dancing in sync to the endless, danceable tunes.  You might remember feeling like the band members were a bunch of friends who had invited you to a party in their living room. Well if it's been too long since you've been to a concert like that, then get to a performance by the Scissors Sisters, because they take all those great feelings and multiply them by a factor of ten.

I like to complain about how the Scissor Sisters are a big act in Europe playing to stadium-size crowds and that they don't get the respect they deserve here in the states. But I'm not going to complain any more.  Because here, we get to see the Sisters in smallish, delightfully dingy venues like Denver's Ogden Theater, which goes a long way toward making you feel like you're just hanging out with a thousand or so of your closest friends. 

What really makes a Scissor Sisters' show great is the music and the people performing it.  Jake Shears is so amped up  you can't help but be infected with his love for the band's music.  And Ana Matronic gets better every time I see her with powerhouse vocals and a dark sense of humor that plays perfectly to the crowd ("Baby Daddy's parents are in the crowd tonight. That's Baby Mommy and Baby Daddy . . . Daddy").  Add the strangely charming, reassuring Baby Daddy and the quirky Del Marquis and you've got a group that delivers a better live performance than any band I've seen. I've now seen them live three times and they just get better every time.

Of course, the fact that they write such great songs doesn't hurt.  I can't think of another band working today that writes lyrics as complex and interesting as those of the Scissor Sisters.  Their lyrics are often Cole-Porteresque, telling innocent stories tinged with sexuality and melancholy.  And the music that accompanies them is an amazing, swirling mass of pop culture references mashed up into totally new, infectious tunes.  The result is songs from their current album like Fire with Fire, a new kind of rock anthem.  Or Any Which Way, a sexy (even smutty) tune that invades your brain and refuses to leave.  Or how about a tune from their last album like I Don't Feel Like Dancing, a grumpy song about not wanting to dance (and featuring the brilliant line, "you think that I could muster up a little soft-shoe gentle sway") wrapped in happy music that almost forces you to dance.

Word on the street is that the Scissor Sisters will join Lady Gaga on her tour in the early part of 2011.  Which means your chances to see them in smaller venues may be drawing to a close.  If you can't make it to one of their upcoming dates, then enjoy some of these photos from the Denver show.

Ana Matronic and Del Marquis.

The perfectly lovable Babe Daddy.

Ana and Jake Shears.

The view from the back of the Odgen Theater.