Monday, February 24, 2014

Book Five: Art on the Block by Ann Fensterstock.

I can't remember the exact year I first traveled to New York City.  It must have been 16 or 17 years ago. What I can remember is how much I fell in love with the city. I was there for work where we were helping a client host a press event at the Equitable Tower very near Times Square. I still remember walking into the lobby of that building and being overwhelmed by the massive work, Mural with Blue Brushstroke by Roy Lichtenstein. That moment fueled an already developing love for modern and contemporary art. Just a year or two later, I set a goal to visit NYC every year for the rest of my life. Those annual visits have resulted in some amazing art experiences.

It's no surprise then, that in my let's-read-books-about-art phase I was drawn to Art on the Block: Tracking the New York Art World from SoHo to the Bowery, Bushwick and Beyond by Ann Fensterstock. This book tracks the rise and fall of art communities in and around the Big Apple. And it's a fascinating tale.

From SoHo to the Lower East Side and Alphabet City; Brooklyn to Chelsea, this book shows how the art world is almost always a step ahead of the realities of political movements and cultural trends.  Oh, and this book should be a must read for city planners everywhere. Want to rehabilitate derelict or crime-ridden neighborhoods? Bring in the artists, the musicians, the misfits. They're surprisingly adept at fueling gentrification.

Ann Fensterstock is a delightful, friendly writer who takes a subject that could be snooty and makes it accessible.  Sure, she drops names so frequently it gets a bit annoying.  You know those biblical passages where so and so begets so and so? There are plenty of those passages in this book.  I recognized a lot of the names but there were moments when I had no idea what Ann was talking about.  But I forgive her this because as an art fan, this book was super fun.  And it helped me understand why I love and respect many of the artists I do.

If you're not a fan of art, skip this book.  But if you have even a passing interest in the worlds of modern and contemporary art, this is a fantastic read.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Book Four: The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter

Thank God for historians.  I love it when historians bring to life an interesting story that seems like it should be common knowledge and yet has somehow been lost to time.  Such is the case with The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter.  I listened to the audiobook which was performed by Jeremy Davidson. This is a story I feel like I should know about and yet I'd never heard about this smart moment in American and European history.

The Monuments Men tells the story of a small band of "soldiers" (Many from the US with additional soldiers hailing from Great Britain and France) who are tasked with finding, retrieving, and protecting Europe's great monuments and works of art.  There was a reason this was important.

We all know that Adolph Hitler was evil.  This book only adds to that perceptions.  It reveals that Hitler's evil is based in greed.  And the Nazi's were greedy not only when it came to world domination, but also when it comes to their desire to steal Europe's great art treasures, particularly those owned by Jews.  It's this information that made me like this book.  I follow the art world faithfully and the return of art works stolen by the Nazis is an ongoing battle.  Even many upstanding museums have ultimately returned famous works to the people or institutions from whom they were stolen by the Nazis.  What I didn't know about is how extensive the theft by the Nazis was and that the US government put in place a team (albeit a surprisingly small team) to help combat the looting of Europe's cultural heritage.  That's a pretty great story.

I didn't like the chaotic way in which this story is told.  There are a lot of characters and places in The Monuments Men and the writers struggle to create a story that isn't confusing. At the beginning of almost every scene, I struggled to remember which characters were in play and how they related to previous stories. This difficulty is even more surprising considering the fact that I was listening to the audiobook which gave me the added benefit of Davidson's voices to help remind me of which character or place we were talking about. This chaos detracted from the fascinating information included in the book.

The most important thing I took away from this book is that we haven't learned a lesson from this moment in history.  The Monuments Men were a short-lived military group.  It seems to me that this should be a permanent group in the US military.  It might help prevent the looting that we've seen in places like Iraq.  I agree with the Monuments Men; evil wins when wars result in the destruction of our cultural heritage.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Book Three: Living and Sustaining a Creative Life by Sharon Louden

Here is the idea behind Sharon Louden's Living and Sustaining a Creative Life: Ask 40 working artists to tell, in their own words, how they live their lives of creativity.  Since I'm starting 2014 off reading books about art and artists, this seemed like the perfect book to read. And while I see the value of this book, it left me with the impression that being an artist sucks.  Maybe that's true, but as an outsider, I might prefer not to know that.

Sure this book has its place.  It's a place which strikes me as largely academic.  It might be valuable as a text book for art students planning a life-long career as an artist. For the rest of us, the book might come across as too academic.  Or maybe it's just a little redundant. Many comments from various artists were very similar. Here are the things this book will tell you about being a working artist:
  • Studio time is important and you have to protect that time.
  • Having gallery representation has it's pros and cons.
  • You can be a successful artist without having gallery representation.
  • But probably, you want gallery representation
  • Whether it's teaching, moonlighting at galleries or art moving companies, or being involved with a non-profit organization, you'll probably need to supplement your career as an artist with other paying work.
  • Support from family and friends is an important part of being a happy, working artist.
What this book doesn't explore is how artists get to a place where they are creating meaningful work. Maybe it's because I recently read Eric Fischl's Bad Boy which does a brilliant job at helping readers understand how artists develop their ideas.  Creative process may have been intentionally left out of the scope of this collection of essays.  But for me it was a glaring omission.  As I consider increasing the time I dedicate to making art, understanding how other artists develop their perspective is just as valuable as understanding how to survive life as an artist.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

A memorial trip to Nancy Holt's Sun Tunnels.

Relaxing at Nancy Holt's Sun Tunnels
On February 8, 2014 Nancy Holt died. There are lots of reasons to like Nancy Holt. There's the fact that she shunned the traditional art world and its fascination with museums and galleries, refusing to force her work to be confined by walls. There's the fact that she and her husband Robert Smithson (creator of Spiral Jetty) chose to place their most famous works in remote areas of Utah; Utah of all places! And there's the fact that in the world of Earth Art, a field dominated by powerful male perspectives, Nancy Holt not only held her own, she rose to a place of significant prominence. And God knows the art world can use more independent, powerful feminist voices.

In celebration of her life and to mark her passing, I decided a weekend trip to Holt's most famous work, Sun Tunnels, was in order. A trip to Sun Tunnels is no small effort.  It's about a four hour drive from Salt Lake City and finding it can be tricky. I recommend visiting this website for detailed driving instructions including photographs that help you navigate key turns.  Believe me, once you've left the highway and are navigating the dirt roads of Utah's West desert, it can be difficult knowing where you need to go.

While the drive is long and takes you through some fairly remote areas, it creates an experience that I think is a key part of all great Earth Art.  It forces the viewer to leave behind the noise of urban life and embrace a different canvas.  The expansiveness of the American West is a great visual release that overwhelms with its vastness. And it's a great way to prepare for the vision of an artist like Holt.

Utah's vast West Desert as dramatic back drop.

It's surprising that Nancy Holt is able to corral those big, overwhelming vistas and make them something more consumable. Sun Tunnels succeeds because it delivers on Holt's desire to capture the universe and make it personal.  By framing and organizing our views of the world around us, Holt changes our relationship to the environment and our universe. We are somehow able to understand the infinity of nature in a very personal way.

I enjoyed this trip so much, I'm considering a return for the summer solstice, when the rising and setting sun is aligned perfectly with two of the  tunnels.

Felix looking all "James Bond" wandering through the Sun Tunnels.

Smithson's Spiral Jetty gets more attention than Sun Tunnels, and certainly more visitors.  But I'm not sure that's fair.  I'm glad both works are here in Utah, making the state something of an Earth Art mecca. Holt's work has aged beautifully over the last nearly 40 years and the intent of the sculpture seems more powerful now than it did the first time I saw it over a decade ago. I'm guessing Holt is pleased with her effort to create this intriguing work.

If you're a resident of Utah and you haven't visited Sun Tunnels, the trip is well worth the effort.

But enough talk, here are a bunch more photos from my most recent visit.

Nancy Holt's Sun Tunnels framing the landscape.

Nancy Holt's Sun Tunnels framing the landscape.

Nancy Holt's Sun Tunnels framing the landscape.

Nancy Holt's Sun Tunnels framing the landscape.

The vastness of Utah's West desert juxtaposed with Holt's
Sun Tunnels. And the Jeep we rented to make the trek.
A concrete wreath we laid at the outskirts of
Sun Tunnels in memory of Nancy Holt.

Detail of the brass ribbon on the memorial wreath.

Interacting with Sun Tunnels amid the vastness of
Utah's West desert.

Interacting with Sun Tunnels amid the vastness of
Utah's West desert.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Book two: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.

Holy crap! This book lives up to the hype.

Donna Tartt's novel The Goldfinch has gotten so much attention I couldn't not read it.  Particularly when all my favorite "Best Books of 2013" lists came out and this book found itself at the top of most of them. Normally, all that hype means that when I finally get around to reading the book, it just can't live up to the expectation.  But The Goldfinch does, in spades.

I listened to the audio book.  And while the book is brilliant, it certainly didn't hurt to have it performed by David Pittu.  This audio book clocks in at over 32 hours.  The fact that Pittu was able to invent such riveting character voices and maintain their consistency over time is nothing short of miraculous. I never lost interest in the book even with its extreme length.  In fact, I frequently found myself looking for activities that would allow me to get back to the audiobook.

Spend any time reading reviews or stories about this book and the term "Dickensian" will come up repeatedly.  That's a claim that is bandied about way too often and is almost always undeserved. But Donna Tartt has delivered a novel that offers the epic sweep and cautionary morality that makes the novels of Dickens so tantalizing.  And rather than just make the claim, I'll offer a couple of examples.

The Characters
Like Dickens, Donna Tartt has created characters that are unforgettable.  They are so well crafted, that by halfway through the book, you can tell who is speaking just by the dialogue of the character.  They are also complex.  Almost every character in this book brings kindness and truth to the story as well as evil and deception.  There's Theodore "Theo" Decker, the 13-year old protagonist of the book who just happens to steal a priceless painting from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  His mother dies in the process. Over the next decade and a half, we follow Theo as he deeply disappoints with his devious actions. And yet somehow Theo always redeems himself.  There's Mrs. Barbour, a wealthy socialite who agrees to take Theo in.  Initially she seems cold and heartless despite her kind gesture.  But as you get to know her, she seems less sinister.  Boris may be my favorite character in the book.  He's helped greatly by the Russian accent given to him by David Pittu.  The kid is Trouble with a capital T.  And yet, he's a philosopher who seems hell bent on doing "the right thing."

Not every character in the book has a darker side.  I positively loved James Hobart (Hobie), the quirky old man who befriends Theo and teaches him about antiques and the art of restoration. Just as the story seems to spiral out of control, Hobie's kind and gentle confidence appears to restore a sense of calm.

The themes.
I love literature with strong, cleverly delivered themes.  It makes it easy to write an A+ term paper if you find yourself in a college literature class. But it also makes the read more rewarding.  Like most of Dickens' work, this is a moral tale.  It hits on universal themes that punch the reader right in the gut and remind us that we all might need to assess the nature of our truest intentions.  Many of the themes themselves are reminiscent of Dickens. Like Wemmick's conversations in Great Expectations, this is a story about "portable property." It's a treatise on the value of things, particularly the value of art. And it makes a strong case for our society's willingness to assign astronomical values to paintings.  But unlike Wemmick, this small, valuable object turns out to be not easily converted to currency.

Good and bad. Right and wrong. These are the central themes of The Goldfinch.  Also themes found frequently in Dickens.  Like Dickens, this book reminds us that what is legal frequently may not be what is moral.  And vice versa.  Boris may have put it best, "Because if bad can sometimes come from good actions, where does it ever say anywhere that only bad can come from bad actions. Maybe sometimes, the wrong way is the right way. You can take the wrong path and it still comes out where you want to be." I can relate to that.

The Art.
This really has nothing to do with Dickens.  But as I recently posted, for the first part of 2014 I'm focusing on books that reference or are about art. The Goldfinch is a love letter to history's great painters and craftspeople. And Tartt writes beautifully about the magic and power of art. Take this passage where through the words of Theo, Tartt gives an eloquent treatise on the true meaning and value of art: "I've come to believe that there's no truth beyond illusion. Because, between reality on the one hand and the point where the mind strikes reality, there's a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being; where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not. And this is the space where all art exists, and all magic. And I would argue as well, all love."

I recommend The Goldfinch with no hesitation.  And it easily warrants a top-notch rating of five Jeffies!

Monday, February 17, 2014

Book reviews are back. Book one: Bad Boy by Eric Fishl.

A few years ago, I wrote a post about each book I read that year.  I didn't do it the last year or so and I miss it.  It's nice to be able to go back and remember the books I've read, particularly since I frequently can't remember details of past reads.

So, for 2014, I'm going to return to writing posts about each book.  New for 2014, I'm going to also write posts about the audio books I listen to.  More and more I seem to be consuming spoken audio content, whether podcasts or audio books.  It's a great way to experience information in interesting ways.  I figure I might as well include audio books in the complete list of books I'll consume this year.

Also returning for 2014: THE JEFFIES!  That's right, the official Art Lobster rating system hasn't been used for quite sometime.  But it's about to return. And an updated look is in the works.

One last note before I talk about today's book.  I've decided to start 2014 off with a return to some of my interests that I might not have focused on as much in the past year.  One of those interests is the world of fine arts.  So for the next couple of months, I'm only reading books that have some element relating to art or artists.  Which is the perfect segue to this review.

The first book of 2014 is Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas by painter Eric Fischl.  This memoir co-written by Michael Stone tracks Fischl during his initial entrance into the art world and through his rise to prominence during the art world of the 70s and 80s.

I loved the opening of the book which finds the artist in a drug and alcohol fueled haze following the opening of a one-man show at New York's famed Whitney Museum of American Art.  It's an intense scene that leads the reader to believe he or she is in for a typical memoir about another "Bad Boy" artist who's life is consumed by addiction and vice.

But that's not what this book is about.  Although Fischl does have moments in his life where drugs, sex, and other vices seem to take over, he ultimately exercises control over those demons and moves on to explore more interesting tensions in his life.  The "Bad Boy" in this book is far more interesting.  Sure he questions his past and struggles to figure out how his artistic life fits into a larger narrative. Bad Boy transcends the tired cliches of the tortured artist consumed by abuse and insecurity.  This is an exploration of how an artist pushes the boundaries of expressing the human condition through art.

The book offers plenty of insight into what it takes to move the history of art forward.  Take this passage, "All artists have to find ways to lie to themselves, find ways to fool themselves into believing that what they're doing is good enough, the best they can do at that moment, and that's okay. Every work of art falls short of what the artist envisioned. It is precisely that gap between their intention and their execution that opens up the door for the next work."

Bad Boy is at its worst when Fischl repeatedly and bitterly berates the current generation of superstar artists including Jeff Koons and the Young British Artists (YBAs), from Damien Hirst to Marc Quinn.  The criticism seems disingenuous since these artists are are doing something very similar to what Fischl considers the secret to his success; breaking the rules of the art world. Fischl would have us believe that only painters (and maybe sculptors), working alone in their studios can truly create great works of art.  While I marvel at painters and their ability to move us emotionally, I don't agree with Fischl on this point.

Well written and unexpectedly engaging, this book is a great read for an art fan like me.  But with plenty of celebrity name dropping and a smart, emotional story structure, this book would be interesting to anyone who likes a good memoir.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Sundance movie thirteen: This movie is stupid.

I mean, it's really stupid! Hilariously, ridiculously, uproariously stupid.

If you love a good rom com, I can't decide if you'll love They Came Together from director David Wain.  Or if you'll be offended by the movie's willingness to roast the movie genre.  Although maybe this isn't a rom com.  Maybe it's a Sunromedy, a genre I created for last year's festival.

Paul Rudd plays Joel, an executive at CSR (Candy Services and Research), a mega candy store.  His company has set its sights on Molly played by Amy Poehler.  She's the owner of a mom-and-pop shop called Upper Sweet Side.  The movie opens as the two are enjoying dinner with friends.  They begin to tell the impossible story of how they met and fell in love.  They note that if it were a romantic comedy it would be the cheesiest romantic comedy ever.

What follows lives up to that promise.  It's  a relentless series of scenes that are goofy, bizarre, silly, and funny.  There's the time when they met, both dressed as Benjamin Franklin for a Halloween party.  There's Molly trying to decide what to wear when Joel shows up unexpectedly at the candy shop; in the end she goes with a suit of armor.  There's that moment, when they just can't control their passions and dive into each other, nearly destroying the apartment in the process. There's even the scene where Joel thinks all is lost and so returns to his ex-girlfriend which results in the most acrobatic make-up sex ever.  (The credits revealed the scene was choreographed and performed by Pilobolus Dance Company!)

Sure, those ideas as written here may not sound that funny.  But in the hands of bunch of goofballs, everything quickly becomes absurdly amusing.  This movie isn't going to garner any credits as an achievement in cinematic accomplishment.  But if you want to enjoy an evening at the movies (and you really want to laugh), They Came Together is pretty dang good film.

Sundance movie twelve: Rudderless

Members of the production team for Rudderless
Rudderless may be the best movie I saw at Sundance 2014. Although The Case Against 8 and To Be Takei are certainly in the running, each garnering five Jeffies.

Rudderless is the story of Sam, a big time advertising executive who waits at a bar for his son in hopes of sharing some good news. His son doesn't show and Sam sees a story on the bar's TV that there has been a shooting at his son's college.  Sam is devastated by the death of his son.

Sam loses his sleek ad-man look and becomes something of an alcoholic hermit, living in a docked boat.  After he is forced to confront a box of CDs filled with recordings of his son's songs, he ultimately decides to perform one of the songs at an open mike night.  In the audience is a young musician named Quentin.  He's emotionally taken by the song and after much effort convinces Sam to join him as a duo which ultimately becomes a band; a band that starts to experience just the tiniest bit of success.

Director William H. Macy (who has a small role in the movie) and his co-writers Casey Twenter and Jeff Robison deserve a lot of credit for crafting a startling movie that is funny, tragic, and brilliantly surprising.  This is one review that won't give any away any spoilers because the surprise in the movie is so well executed.  Few movies have delivered a twist in such a surprising and convincing way.

I also have to give a ton of credit to Mary Vernieu and Michelle Wade Byrd for some of the best casting I've seen in decades.  Billy Crudup is brilliant as Sam and his musical skills are epic.  His performance is matched scene for scene by Anton Yelchin as Quentin.  Performances by the rest of the band create a truly convincing musical drama.  Add in some adept cameos by Felicity Huffman and Selena Gomez and you have a movie that is a mighty rewarding experience.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Sundance movie eleven: If your dog and cat talk to you, be worried.

Let's say your cat talks to you. And your dog too. And this all seems normal. Let me give you a little advice. This is not normal. Get professional help immediately.

The Voices, directed by Marjane Satrapi and written by Michael R. Perry tells the story of Jerry (Ryan Reynolds) who works at the Milton Bathtub Factory. He's single and lives a life you might expect from a bachelor.  He's got a dog, Bosco and a devious cat, Mr. Whiskers.  When Jerry meets Fiona, a woman who works in accounting at the bathtub company, his conversations with his pets take a sinister turn.

If you like quirky, let's say downright weird movies that are well acted, well directed, and include bizarre scenes in which (SPOILER ALERT) people get killed in inventive ways, this movie is for you.  If like me, you find the dark comedy of strange serial-killer thrillers less than thrilling, you might want to be a little leery about seeing The Voices.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Sundance movie ten: Wow! Sundance just got really personal.

Every now and then, you attend a Sundance screening and the experience is unlike any other movie-going experience.  I've often wondered which plays a bigger role in making those experiences so rewarding.  Is it the fact that you're seeing an intriguing, inventive movie?  Or is it the fact that your seeing the movie with an audience full of movie buffs who are genuinely interested in the subject matter?

On rare occasions, it's both.  After the screening of The Case Against 8, editor Kate Amend commented on how much fun it was to watch the movie with our audience. And she was right.  The crowd laughed at all the right places and even some surprising places. We cheered and applauded at just the right moments.  And there were times when it sounded like the entire audience was in tears.

But while the audience did its part, the filmmakers gave us an amazing film that we could react to. Yes, this is a movie about gay marriage. And as many of my friends know, I support the legalization of gay marriage even though I have no intention of ever getting married; gay, straight or otherwise. This movie, however made me believe that now is the time to legalize gay marriage. And with the recent court ruling that could make Utah the 18th state to legalize gay marriage, something I didn't think would become a reality for at least another decade or two, it feels like real change is happening.

The Case Against 8 from directors Ben Cotner and Ryan White follows two california same-sex couples who challenged California's Proposition 8, a 2008 measure that repealed the right of same-sex couples to marry. Early on, the story surprises as it introduces us to one of the lead attorneys in the case, Ted Olsen.  He's the guy who represented George W. Bush when the Supreme Court awarded Bush the presidency over Al Gore.  He becomes an unlikely ally with David Boies, the lawyer who represented Gore in that same case.

This movie reminds us that we are living through an important historical moment in the civil rights history of our country. And it's exciting to see America step up and move our policies in a direction that embraces diversity and inclusion. I haven't had to hold back the tears in a movie theater this much for a long time. And yeah, I'm not getting married any time soon. But this movie made me believe that maybe, just maybe, our society is finally willing to admit that it's OK to be gay.

Sundance movie nine: Were they talking to me?

Director/writer Justin Simien and other members
of the production team and cast.
Dear White People. I guess if that's the title of your movie, I have to assume that director and writer Justin Simien was talking to me.  The movie is a rollicking satire that raises a surprisingly complex set of issues. It doesn't matter what your race is, there will be moments in this movie when the filmmakers will make you feel uncomfortable. And  that might be the reason the movie succeeds.

The story introduces us to Samantha White, a biracial student at Winchester University.  Sam opens her militant radio show with, "Dear White Poeple, the amount of black friends required not to seem racist has just been raised to two.  Sorry, your weed man, Tyrone, doesn't count." And with that, a strange tension is created as the movie pits blacks against blacks, whites against whites, blacks and whites against each other.  And yet, the movie never feels mean spirited or angry.  Well, sometimes Sam and company are angry but only in the "hey that's kind of funny" sort of a way.

The most uncomfortable moment of the movie for me involved a party.  An all-white residential hall hosts an African American-themed party.  Turns out this is a thing on college campuses across the country; white students assuming black identities for fun and frivolity.  It all comes across as extremely insensitive and out of touch. It's definitely an awkward (yet effective) moment in the movie

Dear White People revels in making fun of stereotypes.  There was only one stereotype that didn't seem like a joke.  That was the portrayal of the gay black student.  While all the straight, black men in the movie are visions of masculinity, the gay student Lionel is effeminate and mousy. That might have been interesting if it too had been played for laughs. Instead, it just seems to further a tire stereotype.

Like many of my favorite movies at Sundance, this is a story I haven't seen before at the movies. Also like many of my favorite movies it's a little rough around the edges. For its inventiveness, humor, and social commentary, this movie is definitely worth the price of admission.