The Flying Trapeze

In my last post, I thought about how we define art, the different types of media platforms for expressing art, etc. One area that I didn’t dig into was the performing arts, in which artists use their body, voice, or objects to convey artistic expression. (This is different from performance art, which challenges orthodox art forms and cultural norms and seeks to convey meaning in a more drama-related sense, rather than serving as a simple performance for entertainment purposes).

After I spent a weekend in the throes of what felt like a Cirque du Soleil for the Average Joe – or “Jane” in this case at the DC outpost of the New York Trapeze School for my 9 year-old’s birthday, we realized this was not just your everyday performing arts. It was physical in ways I have not seen the arts to be. Not long after chalking up and learning the mechanics of how to grip a bar, they were climbing the rig and leaping off the platform to fall, arch, twist, and somersault in mid-air. The amount these girls learned in a choreographed 120-minute session was incredible. The syncopation, timing, grace, and fluidity created a complex challenge and the physical dimensions made it exciting to watch.

Sometimes it is just as exciting to watch a novice at work as it is to watch a master artist. Particularly when they are doing incredible feats 30 feet in the air!


Inspired by Design Shows

The Cleveland Institute of Art is holding its annual CIA Spring Show, and it is nothing short of inspiring. When I walked through the exhibits, glossy marketing posters shone under the white curvilinear walls in Case Western University’s Peter B. Lewis Building (designed by Frank Gehry, by the way). I snuck a peak at Industrial Design, Interior Design, Communication Design and small portions of Ceramics, Enameling, Glass, Jewelry + Metals.

In the Design Environment, there were re-styled foodmarts based on adult vs. teen preferences, an American Greetings kiosk which merged their card selection and a candy outlet, ergonomic chairs (that often looked really uncomfortable), re-thought ways to re-brand hip-hop music from illicit lyrics to clean lyrics, restyled totes/water bottles/coffee mugs, and wallpaper inspired by Viktor Schreckengost, the industrial engineer who was an instructor at the Cleveland Institute of Art. (Another aside: Schreckengost was a powerhouse. His foundation’s webpage says this about his work: “Every adult in America has ridden in, ridden on, drunk out of, stored their things in, eaten off of, been costumed in, mowed their lawn with, played on, lit the night with, viewed in a museum, cooled their room with, read about, printed with, sat on, placed a call with, enjoyed in a theater, collected, been awarded with, seen at a zoo, put their flowers in, hung on their wall, served punch from, delivered milk in, read something printed on, seen at the World’s Fair, detected enemy combatants with, written about, had an arm or leg replaced with, graduated from, protected by, or seen at the White House something created by Viktor Schreckengost”.)

All in all, it was an inspiring show. Now I’m really ready to figure out how to satisfy that 20-years-long design annoyance: how to create a nailpolish bottle and a brush long enough to scoop up that last bit at the bottom?

You never know who you’ll meet in a gallery…

This morning I downloaded all of my weekly podcasts for this week, and in the afternoon, while in the jacuzzi at the gym (which provides the perfect environment for a soak, a sweat, and a listen-to of all of my ~30 minute New Yorker Fiction podcasts) I heard something that so strikingly paralleled my novella, Degrees of Freedom, I couldn’t help but crank up the iPod. Chang-Rae Lee (author of “Daisy”) read Don DeLillo’s “Baader-Meinhof” or, in English, “Art and Terror” and discussed it with The New Yorkers fiction editor, Deborah Treisman. (Right-click here to download).

Theme, theme, theme. This is what Degrees of Freedom and “Baader-Meinhof” have in common. They both chronicle the chance meeting of a man and a woman in an art gallery; the woman sitting there staring at an art piece; the man sauntering in; both of them wondering about the other; both sizing up the other; both challenging each other to assess the paintings, and life, and everything else, even death…

But the relationships turn quite different corners.

How they vary is what really fascinated me. First, in DeLillo’s piece, the characters are staring at pieces of photography illustrating the terrors of the Holocaust and the rope burns and anguished faces of death, while in Degrees of Freedom, Pietri and Marguerite stare at the Spanish masters. Beautiful works. Works in Mannerism. Works where the artists mask every blemish. Works where creamy, buttery skin is sacrosanct. Where the subjects you’d swear have had Botox. Jewels drip. Puppies sit on laps.

The two works are also written from different points of view. Degrees of Freedom is written from the perspective of Pietri, a Maltese professor who is visiting his daughter in Seville, Spain, who meets Marguerite, a former art professor who is partially blind.  And in Delillo’s work, the two aimless protagonists have neither a job nor, it seems, much of a direction in life.

While I kept my characters largely within the art museum, in discussions that alternated between children and the merits of a Seville orange versus a Maltese fig, Delillo takes his characters out of the museum. But they take the photography with them, it seems, as they are forever changed by these horrific pieces. They seem less secure, less bounded by their relationship. In fact, once they leave the museum, their hours-old relationship falls apart. Undoubtedly, the photography in the museum changed Delillo’s characters,  shook them into walking zombies as they left the museum, rendered them unaccountable for their actions, unsure, not tethered to anything other than shock at how vile humanity can be. Pietri and Marguerite took the paintings to heart too, but they used the Spanish painters — Zurbaran, Murillo — as a connection, as a charged force that brought them together. Their relationship proved to be boundless.

You never know who you will meet in an art gallery. Regardless, it could be a while ride.

So What Type of Artist Are You?

View of Julian Schnabel’s hot-pink high-rise at 360 W. 11th

I’m in the middle of Calvin Tomkins’ book “Lives of the Artists” (2008), which is a compilation of his short artist bios in the New Yorker. He profiles the top contemporary artists (well, according to his calculations): Hirst, Sherman, Schnabel, Serra, etc. What do they all have in common? They’ve all dabbled in many types of media. And in doing so, they’ve taken heat for it.

Schnabel started off as an artist, but has since worked in film — two of which have met great acclaim: “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)” and “Before Night Falls” (2000). When someone recently asked him if he was switching to film-making, he responded, somewhat indignantly, “I’m a painter. I’m a painter. Does that answer your question?”

Cindy Sherman is another artist who has straddled the abyss of not knowing (or caring) what medium she “falls into.” More to the point, at the beginning, she was never really accepted as part of any community/medium. She takes photographs, but she is not considered a photographer — at least not in the vein of documentary or fine-art photography. But once others slapped a genre on her work — when her photographs were put up in Christie’s auctions in the “contemporary art” category (rather than photography) — they flew like hotcakes.

But this evolution is key. Artists styles are always morphing, changing, evolving, aggregating, spinning off into different directions, and this, I think, is what characterizes the best artists.

Open Your Eyes! It’s Proust on Art…

The Silver Goblet
Musee du Louvre, Paris

I’m in the midst of one of Alain de Botton’s erudite and vastly introspective essays on life — this one’s titled “How Proust Can Change Your Life“. In this barely 200-page book, de Botton relays a Proustian essay that details how Proust set out to “restore a smile on the face of a gloomy… young man”. This young man was lamenting how ugly and banal his surroundings were: the mundane scene of his mother doing her knitting, a cat curled up in the windowsill, unfolded laundry in a basket. The young man longed to visit the Louvre, where he could “feast his eyes” on gilded paintings and magnanimous sculptures to take away his gloom.

But Proust had plans for this young man.

Instead of writing into the plot that the young man finds happiness meandering through the great halls of the Louvre in the halls of richly ornamented works, Proust surrounded the young man in a tiny room with the  simple works of Jean Baptiste-Chardin.

Jean Baptiste-Chardin didn’t paint queens or palaces or riches. He painted ordinary things: milk jugs, bowls of fruit, coffeepots, loaves of bread. But, the outcome — however simplistic the subject — was extraordinary.

Chardin’s paintings succeeded in being extraordinarily beguiling and evocative. A peach by him was as pink and chubby as a cherubim; a plate of oysters or a slice of lemon were tempting symbols of gluttony and sensuality… There was a harmony, too, between objects: in one canvas, almost a friendship between the reddish colors of a hearthrug, a needle box, and a skein of wool.

With subdued colors and mellow lighting, Chardin’s work celebrates the beauty of commonplace subjects, with intimacy and domesticity.

Take that, young man! Look around you. The world is rich, wondrous, beautiful. Just open your eyes.

The Giacometti Effect

Have we just reached a turning point from financial Armageddon? An anonymous art enthusiast just paid a record $104.3 million for “Walking Man I,” a 1960 sculpture by Alberto Giacometti! Someone willing to pay that much must mean we’re out of the financial crisis. Well, what a recent New York Times article proposes is that this may mean the wealthy are over it. But will the purchase of this Giacometti by one wealthy collector signal confidence in the rest of the market (i.e., for the middle class)? In other words, a Giacometti effect? $104.3 is a lot of cash and all income brackets are familiar with widely renowned artist Giacometti.

So could art save the day?

The article discusses the Veblen appeal of art, which posits that for some commodities, appeal grows as their prices rise. I see it. It’s Exhibit A at any auction house. To get the economy going again, people must have confidence in their buying power. If they see this the art market thriving — i.e., people throwing wild amounts of money at art (which is not exactly an essential good, like bread or water), they may figure ALL must be well. Perhaps a bit of trickeration would do us all good to kick-start the economy.

However, one outcome might be that the middle class would be offended by this buying spree, considering that the article claims that “art is a social marker with which the powerful signal their power and set themselves apart from other, inferior groups. Anybody can buy stocks. Hedge fund managers can buy pickled sharks by Damien Hirst.”

So there we are. I was impressed by the Giacometti purchase, buoyed by it for a few minutes, but then realized that it’s not going to make me go out and buy another Giacometti, a new car, or even a new wardrobe. Well, maybe a new pair of tennis shoes. I’ve really been needing a pair, since I just joined the gym.

The ‘Art’ of Susan Sontag

Vesuvius Erupting During the Day

So I’m on a retro reading binge at the moment, and this moment very much revolves around Susan Sontag.

Read. Her. Again.

While “The Volcano Lover” as a title sort of trends toward bodice-ripper, this is one of the most literary of the literary fiction I’ve read. And it involves art. And it plunges to the depths and crests of character development. It is based on the life of Sir William Hamilton, the British envoy to the Neapolitan royal court in 1764 (“the Cavalier”). But it is really about his infatuation with collecting. Sculpture. Ancient Greek and Roman artifacts. Caravaggios. Anything and everything. He is driven by it. He even climbs into Mount Vesuvius and collects its lava rocks. He meets other collectors – but they are all different types of collectors than he. Some collect to show off their collections. Others collect Bellinis, golden candlesticks, reliquaries, Poussins,  but hide them from the world. Still others were more interested in the chase than staring at their newfound capture day in and day out – ”to find the xxxx!” they’d say. “On to something new!”

The Cavalier ponders the idea that art can either be temporary or eternal. War can torch the halls and massive buildings where artifacts are incinerated to dust. But other pieces live on eternally (e.g., relics from the ancient Greeks t hat have somehow survived centuries), and as humans we are just a fleeting image of life on earth. The holders, the caretakers, the admirers of these great objects have more of date with mortality than the artifacts themselves. He thinks that the reason we sometimes become beholden to certain objects is because they have no contract on life – there’s no predestined date with death like the one we have with another human.

Sontag is brilliant in “The Volcano Lover.” There’s so much more to savor. It definitely merits another read. But in a few years — I have so many other books on my list right now!