Sunday, July 22, 2012

Book six: Paris, I Love You but You're Bringing Me Down by Rosecrans Baldwin.

Most major life changes are both magical and difficult.  That's the premise behind Rosencrans Baldwin's charming book Paris, I Love You but You're Bringing Me Down. After landing a job at a Paris advertising agency Baldwin and his wife pack up and move from New York to Paris. This book is the story of their adventures.

I found the title of this book a little misleading.  It's obvious Baldwin loves Paris.  The "bringing me down" part didn't really come through.  The book feels more like a quirky love letter to all things Parisian. Sure, Baldwin writes humorously about the difficulties of living in a country where you don't speak the language well enough to be completely effective. Or about the strange habits and lifestyles of the French.  Or even the weirdness of European advertising.  But all of those stories do more to reveal Baldwin's heartfelt affection for  Paris and its residents that make it feel like Paris is a downer.

The misleading title doesn't mean the book isn't enjoyable.  With its strange mix of eccentric characters and unlikely scenarios Paris, I Love You but You're Bringing Me Down is a short, delightful read; particularly if like me, you work in advertising.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Whitney Biennial

Wow!  I'm really behind on posting.  Yes, the Whitney Biennial ended weeks ago.  And I actually saw the show clear back in April.  But that's not going to stop me from posting this:

Every other year the Whitney Museum of American Art hosts it biennial. And the Art world takes note.  That's because the Whitney Biennial has an impressive track record of defining the Art world's zeitgeist.  And in doing so, they help define the history of humanity. This was my third Whitney Biennial and so far, it's been my favorite.  Here are a few of the works that inspired me.

Nick Mauss offered a lovely work titled Concern, Crush, Desire (2011, cotton applique on velvet, brass door knobs, and doorstoppers). The interactive nature of the work surprised viewers and asked us to consider the role of museums in our society.  The installation also included a number of works from the Whitney's collection, an ingenious way of looking back while propelling Art into the future.

Liz Deschenes had two works in the biennial.  Both were stunning.  I'm not sure exactly what's going on in these "photographs." The images seem more like panels of stainless steel than gelatin silver prints.  I'd definitely hang these in my home.  Here is Untitled (2011, four silver-toned gelatin silver prints).

Pipe Organ (2009 - 2011, tin, paint, speakers, wire, and Yamaha organ) by Lutz Bacher is startling. The work is a mechanical organ that plays relentlessly as you wander the galleries. With a robotic-like device that changes the slow, methodic music, this work has a charm that only an early electronic keyboard can provide.  And yet, there was a sinister aspect to the piece.  The giant pipes from a derelict organ felt more like missiles left over from a war. And the constant musical drive could easily be heard as a strange military march. I wonder if Bacher isn't reminding us that humanity seems intent on an endless need for war.

Sick, Sic, Six, Sic ((Not) Moving): Seagullssssssssssssssssssss. (2018, monofilament, wood, hardware, and textured tape) by Cameron Crawford is a response to the death of six people the artist knew. The work is dated six years in the future and is designed to always be redated to six years ahead of the current time, offering a sense of the impossibility of comprehending loss and death. Most intersting is the museum tape on the floor. Even though you can't access both sides of the almost non-existent wall.  It's as if the artist is suggesting that those on the other side of the vail are being asked to stay a few feet away from the artwork.  It makes one wonder if there are grumpy gallery attendants on the other side of the artwork chastising ghosts for getting too close to the Art.

Elaine Reichek reminds us that craft matters with a variety of works created with hand and machine embroidery.  Here is There's No Need (2011, hand embroidery on linen).

There were several walls covered with the tantalizing monotypes of Nicole Eisenman. The work is called  Untitled (2011, Forty-five mixed-media monotypes).

At this point, I have to talk about one of the weird themes that shouted loud and clear from the Whitney Biennial.  That theme? The vintage record player. Record players were surprising popular at this year's biennial. For example, Tom Thayer presented a variety of works that were so confusing (yet strangely delightful) that I couldn't tell which work was which, even with the Whitney's helpful guide.  Nonetheless, the installation featured not one, but two old record players.

Here is another record playing that was playing loudly in the gallery.  It was part of Dawn Kasper's installation, This Could Be Something If I Let It.  More on that piece later in the post.

Even video artists seem to have ditched high-tech sound for old record players as seen in this still from This Project is not Going to Stop the War/Journey to the Beginning of Time, part of an installation created by Joanna Malinowska.

Malinowska offered some of the most interesting work in show including a work constructed from replicas of mammoth and walrus tusks.  The work referenced Marcel Duchamp's work, Bottle Rack.  But my favorite work in Malinowska's installation was a wall she had the museum staff construct within the museum.  It was just another gallery wall.  But in a brilliant move to skirt the curators, Malinowska chose to hang a painting by an artist not included in the official Whitney Biennial. That painting was Horse Nation (2011, oil on canvas) by Leonard Peltier and it's not the type of painting you normally see at the Whitney.  Here's a photo:

Peltier, a Native American activist, was convicted in the 70s of killing two FBI agents during a riot on a reservation. He is still in prison. Many activists have brought forward evidence that undermines the case against Peltier. By hanging his painting as part of the Biennial, Malinowska not only short circuits curatorial traditions, she brings attention to his activist causes, and draws attention to the fact that for an institution named the Whitney Museum of American Art, very few indigenous Americans are represented within its walls.  That's a pretty bold move.

As promised, here's more information about Dawn Kasper's intriguing work, This Could Be Something If I Let It.  Kasper has been without a studio since 2009 when she lost her job and could no longer afford the space. Born in 1977, Kasper is young enough that she's part of a generation that finds itself in a world where employment can be tricky.  But rather than move back in with her parents, like many of her generation, she turned the experience into art, starting a "nomadic studio practice." Kasper began treating temporary situations as though they were her studio.  For the Whitney Biennial, she took over one gallery, and unpacked all of her belongings.  For almost all of the museum's open hours, she was in her nomadic studio or elsewhere in the museum. You could wander through her studio as she painted or created mini installations or chatted with museum goers.  She was even happy to pause for a portrait:

I also liked the textures of an artist that came alive in the gallery, showing viewers the process of how art is made:

Lastly, I can't end this post without talking about the Whitney Biennial's commitment to performance art.  The entire fourth floor was dedicated to performance with many elements changing throughout the run of the exhibit.  On the day we were there (as if the curators knew I'm a dance fan), a choreographer was rehearsing a future work to be performed at a later date.  It was so cool to be standing in the Whitney's massive fourth floor gallery and watching dancers rehearse.  I'll end with a photograph and a short video of the rehearsal.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Book five: Nightwoods by Charles Frazier

Nightwoods by Charles Frazier is a strange and lonely tale set in the Carolina backwoods of the 1960s.  Luce, the central character is a loner woman who finds herself taking care of an abandoned lodge. When her sister is murdered, she is given charge of her sister's two young children, a pair of misfits who don't talk, like to start fires, and have very odd appetites.  Luce slowly warms to a man named Stubblefield who becomes a friend and guardian when Bud, Luce's brother-in-law is acquitted (although guilty) of murdering his wife and comes to town in hopes of retrieving a small fortune he thinks his dead wife gave to the kids.

This is a bleak and sometimes scary tale that twists and turns through the Appalachian mountainside.  Frazier is an excellent writer who can make the strangest of plot lines seem sensible.  And his use of foreshadowing gave the book a much needed sense of fun. He even convinced me to like some pretty unlikable characters including Luce and the two children.  But if you're a little down and looking for something to cheer you up, I'd stay as far away from this book as you can.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Book four: A Game of Thrones: A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin.

With the popular HBO series, it seems impossible to avoid the buzz about A Game of Thrones. My book club decided if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.  That's why we chose to read George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones: A Song of Ice and Fire.  Big fantasy novels aren't my thing.  So I was hesitant to read this book.  Turns out, there is plenty to like.  The characters (and there are a lot of them) are complex, interesting, and surprising.  The story lines keep the long book from getting too boring. Martin uses a very helpful device to help readers keep the intricate plot lines straight; he titles each chapter with the name of the character that is prominently featured in the chapter.  I don't think I would have made it through the book without that bit of insight.

This book also feels relevant to issues facing the world today, from brutal regimes to political stalemates.  Additionally, I couldn't decide if this is a brilliant work of feminism with some strikingly strong female characters.  Or if it is a misogynistic orgy complete with some of the most graphic sex and rape scenes featuring violence against women that I've ever read.  Either way, the misogyny left a bad taste in my mouth.

In the end, this book annoyed me.  Like most serial fantasy novels, it was little more than a 1,000 page introduction to book two.  Nothing about the story felt like it came to an end, which doesn't make for a rewarding read.  I won't be reading book two.

Book three: The Submission by Amy Waldman.

There are a lot of post-9/11 novels around and I may have even read one or two but for the most part I shy away from what has almost become its own genre.  However The Submission by Amy Waldman had an intriguing premise that interested me. The book starts with a group of people trying to decide the winning design for a 9/11 public memorial.  Submissions for the memorial are all anonymous.  When it comes time to open the winning envelope, the panelists discover they have awarded the prize to an American Muslim.

As the architect's name is leaked to the press, the controversy heats up.  It's within this pressure-packed environment the book gets good.  Waldman crafts her characters with immense precision and care which allows you to believe the choices many of them make, even if those choices are brutal.  And the backdrop also allows Waldman to explore many of the ideas and concepts that seem to be tearing at the seams of America.  I also liked that this had references to reality considering Maya Lin (an Asian American) was anonymously awarded the design for the Vietnam Memorial, creating a similar controversy.  So while we might like to believe that issues of race and religion don't affect our current reality, this book seems remind us otherwise.

Book two: Swamplandia by Karen Russell.

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell is a book that has gotten high praise from the literary world, ending up on many "best books of 2011" lists. It was even one of the three finalists for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize.  So it would seem to be a good candidate for book club. Unfortunately, it didn't fare well with my book club.

The book tells the story of thirteen-year-old Ava Bigtree who lives on an island off the southwestern coast of Florida. The Bigtree family have long been the proprietors of Swamplandia!, an old-timey amusement park that features plenty of alligators and alligator wrestlers.  Unfortunately, the park has seen better days and tourists no longer flock to the attraction like they once did. To make ends meet, Ava's father heads to the mainland.  Ava's older brother Kiwi has already run away from home due to disagreements.  And since Ava's mother died several years ago, Ava is left alone on the island with her younger sister Osceola who discovers a book of spells that leads her and her sister on a ghostly adventure.

I get why this book is popular with the literary establishment. I could definitely write a college paper about this book that would get an A. There are literary themes that adorn the story which give it a cohesiveness identity.  For example, birds appear throughout the novel as symbols of change and as warnings.  The use of mystical elements like ghosts, spells, and potions is Shakespearean. And there are some surprising references to literature that must have had the critics squealing with joy.  Take the water slide at a competing theme park "The World of Darkness" with a number of references that would make any Dante scholar happy.

Even with all this going for it, Swamplandia! just didn't resonate with me.  The story was haphazard and at times nonsensical.  I never grew to really care about the characters with their strange behavior and aptitudes for doing things real people just wouldn't consider. And while I enjoyed learning more about Florida's Ten Thousand Islands, I finished the book with no desire to actually go there. Then again, I may just not be literary enough to enjoy this read.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Book one: The Butcher's Boy by Thomas Perry.

One of the best books I read in 2011 was Metzger's Dog by Thomas Perry.  I liked the book so much that I decided to pick up another of Perry's works; The Butcher's Boy. This is the story of a hit man who is assigned to kill Colorado's senior senator. When he goes to Las Vegas to get his payment for the killing, he discovers that he's been double-crossed.  The police become suspicious of his activities and how they might relate to other killings.  Soon Elizabeth Waring, a Justice Department analyst is sorting through all the evidence to try to get to the truth.

The Butcher's Boy is a perfectly fine suspense thriller with plenty of plot twists and turns and lots of action.  But it certainly isn't as rewarding as Metzger's Dog.  Nor is it as darkly funny.  Metzger's Dog delivered it's madcap, surprising tale with a big dose of quirky charm.  Nonetheless, if you are a fan of fast-paced, well-plotted thrillers, I can almost guarantee you'll enjoy this book.