Friday, September 30, 2011

The song remains the same

Any accurate review of Laurie Anderson's Delusion (above, at ArtsEmerson, straight from BAM, through this weekend only), could, I think, be read as either a rave or a pan. Because the bottom line is that the performance is precisely - and I mean precisely - what you'd expect. Or rather what you'd remember.

For me, this made it a sweet exercise in nostalgia.  Like a lot of artsy people my age, I listened to Big Science, Anderson's breakthrough album, nonstop in my dorm room in the spring of 1982 - or rather in rotation with albums by people like Brian Eno and David Byrne.  At the time it seemed some new kind of serious artistic consciousness was becoming possible in pop - I remember that "O Superman" was actually on the charts (briefly), and I think it broke the Top 10 in the UK, where, you know, people are smarter than they are here.  I was quite sure that for Anderson, Big Science would only lead to bigger things.

But it turned out that the album wasn't so much a debut as a kind of greatest hits retrospective from the last few years of her career (I eventually saw United States Live, from which it was drawn, a production which proved disappointing); despite a sudden boom in popularity and resources, Anderson would never again equal Big Science.  I lost track of her - I think I last saw her in like 1987 - but she settled into a comfortable niche as a sweet if slightly spooky, post-punk pixie.

And now she's back at ArtsEmerson, and frankly, watching her you'd swear it was still 1982.  Or rather that it's still 1982 for her; the projections and electronics are more sophisticated than they were back in the 80's, but she's still wearing the same white shirt and skinny New-Wave tie (!), the hair is still in little spikes, her articulation is still as drolly clipped as her 'do, and she's still fluttering like a melancholy butterfly through a field of alienated observations and witty questions that never really cohere into a point.

When I was 21, of course, I didn't really need a point; her technique seemed to open up so many possibilities that it alone was enough.  But now, thirty years on, I kind of need a point; her vision is no longer the future - it's the past. And weirdly enough, at first Anderson implies she needs one, too. Delusion opens, in fact, with the sad admission that recently her work ethic has collapsed - and we watch as chalk-boarded plans and ideas collapse before us, too; the internal "donkey and a carrot" mentality that always drove her process has broken down; the donkey no longer cares about the carrot she's dangling before it.

You'd think from this creative crisis that some new, desperate form of inspiration might be in the offing.  But you'd be wrong.  Anderson instead meditates on her creative breakdown in precisely the same way she always has.  Now I won't go into that old saw about doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results, but it does run through your mind while you're watching the possibly-ironically-titled Delusion.  Throwing up your hands in exasperation also occurs to you, particularly when her "male" alter ego takes over (a gambit at least a decade past its fresh date).

But at the same time, I admit a certain nostalgic affection sneaks its way into your heart.  Anderson has become a cliché, it's true, but watching her I began to understand why my parents used to tune in to Lawrence Welk.  The familiarity of her mode of alienation is somehow comforting, and of course she's as witty and amusing as ever.  That minimal diction teasing out those subliminal double entendres, it's still mordantly hilarious.  I realized I still liked her; I just wanted to like her more. I wanted her to really be the artist I once thought she was going to be.

But I'm afraid the old formlessness and lack of discipline are there, too.  Something about the recent death of her mother (and their loveless relationship) is tugging at Anderson - could that milestone be the source of her new ennui? Was her internal donkey really being spurred by Mom rather than some conceptual carrot?  And so at first Delusion sort of circles, in a quizzical fashion, the painful episode of her mother's passing.  But slowly the piece devolves into a ramble through Anderson's personal history instead, punctuated by bursts of grinding, okay-but-not-great techno.  Connections to mother-love keep floating by in one way or another, like drifting satellites; Anderson dreams of giving birth to her dog (and we also see a dog sniffing anxiously at a dying woman); the moon - a classic metaphor for dead love - is dryly rhapsodized as a junkyard for NASA, etc.  But alas, "Mother didn't love me" hardly counts these days as a fresh artistic insight, poignant as that realization may be; and at any rate, the question at hand is the connection between that lack of love and Anderson's own artistic drive - a question which she seems unable to ponder, or even formulate.

And if Anderson hasn't made much progress in content, it's worth pointing out she hasn't progressed much in technique, either.  The fusion of spoken word, music, and electronic imagery that her career always seemed to promise still feels out of reach - or at least it does in Delusion. But a few images faintly resonate here and there. A central love-seat covered in a funeral shroud flickers occasionally with an eye, or some other ghost of human anatomy; memorial candles evocatively dot the stage, although whether they're there for Anderson's mother or her own motivation, you're never sure. Still, you could feel connections winking on and off between the text and the visuals. The music was less integrated, beyond being generically mournful. But then again, I don't think Anderson's fans really expect her shows to cohere; that wandering quality, with its perpetual sense of unfulfilled promise, is part of her appeal. And given those expectations, I have to admit I think that Delusion will satisfy her fan base. And at least it's a hell of a lot more sophisticated than Lawrence Welk.
The Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art.

This week Greg Cook of the New England Journal of Aesthetic Research and I have been engaged in an extended conversation on the newly opened Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art at the MFA.  Below is the third and final part of our discussion:

Thomas Garvey (TG): So, Greg . . . we've spent two articles diagnosing the many issues with the new Linde Family Wing at the MFA. What's our prescription?

Greg Cook (GC): Well, I think the MFA should look at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. They’ve done a great job of mixing high art from around the world, with fashion, folk art, design and so on. They’ve done this in group exhibitions as well as in their mix of programming. They’ve also been able to do a bunch of sharp shows of Mayan art, 17th century Dutch masters, 20th century Surrealism, Joseph Cornell (!) without having hardly any examples of this stuff in their collection. But still dovetailing with the museum’s idiosyncratic past.

TG: I totally agree about the Peabody Essex; they rock. In fact I’ve been meaning to write about their current Man Ray/Lee Miller survey; it’s one of the best shows in town.

GC: Agreed. In contrast, I think the MFA has decided that its unique brand is that it’s encyclopedic. What they mean by that is that they’re comprehensive, they’ve got everything from all time. It’s not about a special vision, or highlighting your institution’s idiosyncratic strengths. It’s about acting like you’ve got everything. So maybe the contemporary collection is based on the standard history because to do otherwise would somehow say that the MFA is not truly comprehensive, not truly encyclopedic.

Donald Judd, Untitled
TG: Good point. But at the same time – the collection obviously isn’t encyclopedic, is it, so the curatorial cart is before the horse. But why not just own up to that fact? And devote yourself to filling the gaps in your backstory before spending big bucks on the latest trend? Or, if the MFA does want to compete in that arena, as you point out, the Peabody Essex and the ICA offer great lessons in how you can pull together a hot, up-to-the-minute show without having to invest in a collection to back it up.  Although personally, I think it's fine to leave the very latest fashion to others; I'd be happy with more of a coherent version of the last fifty years.

Of course, in a way the Linde Wing often feels like a first, if un-admitted, step toward that curatorial project. And as a sketch of a developing collection within that framework, it's not bad; there are striking pictures and objects on display, and it’s wrong to pretend otherwise. The Tansey actually isn't great, but the Richter and the Nevelson are very good, and the Warhol, Red Disaster, as we've mentioned, is among his most powerful. The El Anatsui is likewise terrific; meanwhile the Ellsworth Kelly is nice (below), lovely and pure, but like most Kelly, is it much more than that? The Donald Judd (at left) is better - pleasingly sleek and mysterious. But neither addresses the path from minimalism to post-minimalism, which to my mind should be key to any ongoing survey leading up to the present day.  As with the pretty-good Morris Louis on display, we can't quite feel how the Judd and the Kelly might fit together as pieces in a larger history.  So part of the back-fill project would involve a systematic curatorial approach and installation philosophy.  No more muddying the waters with pap like "Art Can Be Anything"!

Ellsworth Kelly, Blue Green Yellow Orange Red - pretty, pure, but . . .

GC: When the MFA opened the Americas Wing last November, they had a little lunch for the press in a back room in there. My recollection is that there was an even better Morris Louis painting hiding in there than the one they’ve put on the wall in the contemporary wing. I've never much cared for his art, but when I saw it, I thought: "Oh, wow, THIS is why people thought he was great." The MFA seems embarrassed by the institution's past devotion to Louis. But the museum’s online collection archive says they’ve got 34 works by him, a majority of them paintings, enough to do a decent retrospective of his work any time they feel like it. And one could make a case that it’s time for him to be rediscovered—particularly with the revival of striped abstraction and poured paint these days.

TG: Yes, I know the MFA invested heavily in color field painting - which is now thought of as an embarrassing dead end.  Which only means it will come back!  There's no reason why the focus of these galleries shouldn't shift over time.

GC: So instead of all the contemporary galleries basically being the same size, why not put in a few small rooms for single artist focuses? The Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago have used this technique well. Here, one could be a micro Louis survey, including wall text summarizing the formalist art theories and influence of Louis’s champion, critic Clement Greenberg. It would help explain how we came to minimalism and a good amount of other art since 1960. And done right, it would immediately be the definitive place to see Louis.

TG:  In other words, fashions do change, so play to your strengths.  And why ignore so much of what you spent so much time collecting?

GC: In general, I keep wanting to re-curate the galleries with additional or different works from the MFA's vaults. I’d incorporate more fashion and design. Why not fill another small focus gallery with all the MFA’s significant Warhols (mourning Jackie O, a Mick Jagger, a piss painting) plus its rich trove of ‘60s rock posters and Richard Avedon’s psychedelic photos of the Beatles? It would indicate the span of Warhol’s work, and suggest his prescience or influence. And put him into a historical context in a way that people could recognize without having to talk down to them. And it would just look cool.

Michael Eden, Blue Bloom
TG: I’m not sure about Avedon and the urine samples, but I have to admit, that kind of gallery would pull in the public.  And I agree that one of the museum's major strengths - which should be more often noted of the MFA - is its collection of crafts and decorative arts. Honestly, sometimes I think MFA Director Malcolm Rogers is a decorator at heart – the museum’s installations always kick things up a notch when they juxtapose the art of a period with its décor.

There’s one little "decorated" nook of the Linde Wing, for instance, (with wall paper by the “Timorous Beasties”) that comes together for that very reason – it even includes a porcelain tea set by Cindy Sherman that’s quite a bit better than the photo by her on a nearby wall. And elsewhere there are equally intriguing objets d'art by Michael Eden, Brent Kee Young, and many others. I'd like to see more prime gallery space given over to whoever has been collecting this stuff; at the very least, they have a sensual power that conceptual art struggles to match. Indeed, elsewhere there's a placidity to the place that almost makes you wish for something more irritating, like a Shepard Fairey album cover or a Jeff Koons balloon dog. And would Banksy please spray paint something on the exterior of this gray-on-gray barn? Or maybe on one of the flying Borofskys?

GC: Um, well, how about saying instead: The MFA could use a more idiosyncratic vision, and it might help to turn to outside help? I’d like to believe that the Linde Wing, despite its flaws, is the beginning of something, an opportunity.

TG: You’re right. Even when you’re looking a gift horse in the mouth, you should remember it IS a gift horse! The Linde Wing is a good thing, with many good things in it.  The glass could be half full.

GC: I guess I can’t tell how much the flaws of the wing are indicators of where the MFA wants to go. Are the status quo version of history and the Art for Dummies signs positions the MFA is staking out and plans to stick to? Or are they a way to get this thing off the ground, and the Linde Wing will get more interesting as the curators develop it? During the era covered in the Linde Wing, which corresponds almost exactly with the founding of the MFA’s contemporary department 40 years ago, the MFA has trumpeted with each new contemporary curator that now it’s finally committed itself to contemporary art, only to have the program fizzle. I’m really hoping that the MFA is following through this time, now that they’ve got a contemporary curator who seems to be a decent fit with Malcolm, and they’ve re-done this building, and there seems to be some money behind the project, and new donations of art too (like the Tuttle).

TG: I know, I know! A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step; hope springs eternal, etc. And when you’re looking at the best of the Linde Family Wing, it’s easy to believe in the thing with feathers . . .

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Last weekend brought the season opener for the Handel and Haydn Society, and the return to our fair city of artistic director Harry Christophers. By now the success that I predicted for Christophers upon his appointment has become a foregone conclusion - ticket sales are at their highest level in a decade, new recordings have been met with lavish praise, and Christophers' contract has been extended through 2016 (meaning he will guide the Society through the entirety of its bicentennial celebration).

At the center of this story have been the spectacular results Christophers quickly achieved with the H&H chorus; but that success has been shadowed by a slower, more complicated process with the orchestra - particularly the string section.  Much-loved (and well-connected) musicians have been asked to step aside, and local favorites have been passed over in promotions; I myself wondered at some (but hardly all) of these decisions.  At any rate, by now the re-alignment is complete: Canadian Aisslinn Nosky (at left) now leads a re-ordered violin section, while Guy Fishman has assumed the role of principal cellist.

And while I think Christophers has clearly had to pay a political price for these decisions, artistically I have to admit they're already paying off. Nosky's playing is as striking as her hair, and at last Friday's concert, the H&H strings sang with a clean, vibrant fluency they've never quite had before.

But then I sometimes got the sneaky feeling that Christophers had selected his program with the express purpose of showing off his new toy (as it were).  The centerpiece was Mozart's Symphony No. 40, which of course depends utterly upon the strings - and even the fortepiano concerti the conductor had chosen for the first half (Haydn's F-Major Concertino, and Mozart's Concerto No. 22, both essayed by the brilliant Kristian Bezuidenhout) aren't merely showcases for the piano but also extended conversations between keyboard and orchestra.

And then there were the two overtures (to "Autumn," and "Winter") from Haydn's The Seasons, both of which spotlight the strings.  "Autumn" is sweet, but brief as Indian summer - "Winter," however, is a starkly dramatic tour de force, and the orchestra simply played the hell out of it.  The always-welcome Bezuidenhout, meanwhile, was far more sparkling and spontaneous here than when I saw him last spring.  When this pianist is at his best (and he mostly was in this program) everything feels as if it's being improvised by a genius on the fly; Bezuidenhout sounds almost intoxicated by his own talent, and yet always keeps his touch under exquisite control - it's like listening to a kind of pure, baroque jazz, as a friend of mine once put it.  But then perhaps Bezuidenhout was as drunk on his instrument as he was on his music; he had chosen (with a lot of defensive excuse-making), a fortepiano built by Rod Regier after Viennese originals from almost fifty years after Mozart's heyday.   I suppose an early-music specialist would quibble at that, but the moment I heard this instrument's tone I confess I didn't give a damn about its provenance!

Then, after a solid turn through another worthy, if slightly obscure, overture (from Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf's oratorio Esther) came Mozart's familiar 40th, which was more richly rendered here than I think H&H might ever have managed before.  I wouldn't argue that Christophers charted an emotional arc through the whole symphony - which extends from a hauntingly anxious opening to a passionate resolution in which nothing feels at all resolved. Here the separate movements felt like fully-rounded, slightly-disconnected classical entities (which is where attention to detail can sometimes lead).  But minute to minute, the performance was nonetheless ravishing.  The strings sounded sublime, vibrant and evocative yet with a precise sense of balance, and the winds and horns responded with superb grace.  Clearly Mr. Christophers has successfully completed the next step in his artistic mission at Handel and Haydn.  We can't wait for the rest of the journey.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Yesterday, Greg Cook of the New England Journal of Aesthetic Research and I began an extended conversation on the newly opened Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art at the MFA. What follows is the second part of our discussion:

Thomas Garvey (TG): At the close of the first part of this series, Greg and I had just begun to talk about our favorite pieces within the new Linde Family Wing; I'd like to continue that debate now. But I have to say right up front that as I toured the galleries, I was slightly startled to realize that in the past fifty years or so the MFA hasn't picked up a single masterpiece, and only a few truly major works. They certainly have major artists on the walls, but those artists are rarely represented by their best stuff . . .

Greg Cook (GC): I’m with you that the contemporary collection does give off the feeling that the MFA hasn’t been able to recognize and acquire masterpieces over the past couple of generations. But I’d argue that the Warhol electric chair painting, Kara Walker’s cut-paper silhouette mural, and Kiki Smith’s bronze spiderwoman are among the best things these artists ever made.

TG: Ok, I agree on the Warhol - it may well be a masterpiece - but less so on the Walker and the Smith. I love Walker’s central idea of subverting the silhouette to critique stereotype, but the execution of the racially-charged poop and sex jokes in The Rich Soil Down There (below) seems rather ironic and academic to me; it reads a bit more as a lecture than a painting.  To be fair to Walker, the work is actually a second-generation image from her original cut-outs - which may be why the enormous canvas seems slightly unfocused (I agree with you that it couldn't hold its own in the hall where it was previously hung).  So while it's certainly a worthy (and long overdue!) political statement, is it really a masterpiece? I wish it were, but I doubt it is.

Kara Walker, The Rich Soil Down There

And why be ironic or academic about racism, anyway?  Sometimes I confess I’d like to see a little unbridled horror on the walls of the MFA - American history is full of terrible things, after all.  But where’s the American Goya to honestly document our racial history? Of course Walker has earned her place in any serious contemporary collection - as I said, her concept is brilliant, and The Rich Soil Down There is certainly a solid introduction to her work . . .

Robert Freeman, Black Tie
But by way of contrast, I want to mention Robert Freeman’s Black Tie (at left), on the first floor. It's not as conceptually sophisticated as the Walker, but it's punchier - it does halt you. Plus it has a local provenance; it’s not some sardonic, ambiguous argument on how racism is constructed but rather a view of the thing itself, as it was (and is) lived in Boston. Freeman's wary faces tell you everything you need to know about the injustices his subjects have suffered; there's no theory or exegesis required.

As for Kiki Smith, I confess she often leaves me a little cold - her stuff is too psychologically in-bred for my taste; but I admit some of it is indelible. Still, you only get a hint of her bristling weirdness from the piece in the Linde Wing.  So even though I'm not crazy about her, I also simply don't agree that the MFA has a major Smith.

GC: But I’d also say the MFA’s selections from Mark Bradford, El Anatsui, Matthew Day Jackson, Doris Salcedo, Fred Wilson, Ellsworth Kelly, Anne Truitt, Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Lynda Benglis and Morris Louis are all strong works for these artists. Though we can debate whether these artists are worth paying attention to.

El Anatsui, Black River
TG: I'm certainly with you on the El Anatsui; I thought Black River (at right) was great - really gorgeous and exciting - and the Richter (below) was quite strong;  but the others, less so. The Nevelson is very good, the Kelly and Louis are solid, representative choices - but the Starn Twins piece is only so-so, and the Jackson and the Polke are blunt and obvious; as for the rest, well, I suppose they might feel stronger in a more cohesively curated setting . .

GC: Which leads me to another topic—it’s curious that despite the MFA’s talk of trying to link the contemporary collection to its historical, international collections, these galleries pretty much tell the conventional New York-centric version of the past five decades of art history. This decision makes apparent many of the collection’s limitations. But it’s also a sort of daring declaration that the MFA wants to compete in the contemporary art big leagues (and backfill gaps) despite the collection’s present weaknesses.

TG: I know what you mean about the installation being New York-centric; this is most obvious in its political content. We get Auschwitz, Nagasaki, capital punishment, the antebellum South, all in quick succession - the perspective is always progressive, but it's also so provincial that it’s like that New Yorker cartoon of the world seen from Manhattan, only this time with "Nagasaki" and "Nazis" replacing "Jersey" and "Japan" . . .  
As for back-filling gaps, well, that's the key issue, isn't it – but will the MFA do it?  Perhaps. But in the meantime, the collection’s lacunae make it feel scrambled, and the Linde Wing installation doesn’t help the problem.

Because I'm afraid I disagree with you about the gallery "themes;” their Sesame-Street-level articulation (with wall text like "Art can be . . ." and "What's it about?") turned me off, way off. Is the MFA aiming for the philistine pandering of, say, PBS or Harvard’s A.R.T.? We need less of that around here, not more. Or - to put your point another way, Greg - are the dumbed-down questions deliberately designed to camouflage the fact that a sustained, thoughtful program has been missing from the museum's collecting? (Hence, perhaps, the persistent sense of an imported New York rationale pock-marked with curatorial holes?) At any rate, with both timelines and chronology of influence thrown out the window - and the very definition of "contemporary" seeming to stretch back fifty years - the galleries feel over-familiar yet conceptually messy.

Gerhard Richter, Vase
Which is frustrating given that what could truly differentiate the MFA from the contemporary-art pack is the chronological connection between art of the present day and the art that has come before. Right now the MFA seems to be making the statement that “contemporary” art begins around 1960 (I’d agree), and you can half-discern in the collection the rough outlines of two or three major (and, yes, NY-centric) streams in artistic thinking since then: minimalism and then post-minimalism, and – well, whatever you want to call the ironic pop mode that Warhol introduced. Under minimalism you could group artists like Kelly, Judd and Richard Tuttle; under the Warhol banner people like Richter, Cindy Sherman, and the “appropriation” crowd.

The cross currents between these modes are of course complex, and no installation could limn them completely. Still, the MFA doesn’t even try. Indeed, the Linde Wing's "themes" may give such connections lip service, but at the same time actually obscure the dialogue that has played out between these artists.  By hanging a Morris Louis near a Lynda Benglis, for instance, the museum seems to be saying, "See?  They're both poured," which I guess they are, but surely that's where the similarity between Louis and Benglis ends.  Elsewhere, the real aesthetic issues behind various works are left hanging.  What does Gerhard Richter's deconstruction of abstraction (above left) "mean," for instance? You can't tell from these galleries that it’s a dead-pan application of Warholian style to a “heroic” mode. And what exactly was Mark Tansey parodying about Marcel Duchamp in The Enunciation? Again, the satiric riposte of a pictorial tradition to a conceptual one simply feels opaque. Instead of being illuminated on these issues, you get to ask yourself over and over, "What does art mean to ME?" It’s like listening to Marlo Thomas lecture on The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even.

GC: Well, yeah, the MFA is making a mistake by underestimating its audience with its "Art for Dummies" wall texts and gallery themes. This stuff even underestimates philistines.

And I think the MFA’s talk of contemporary art set in the context of the museum’s historic, encyclopedic collection remains — to be generous — aspirational at this point. It’s much like the MFA calling the other new wing the "Art of the Americas" wing, but presenting hardly any art from outside the U.S. One of the few historical connections the contemporary curators make is pairing Louise Lawler’s photo of an MFA gallery with a lousy Monet painting from that gallery. Can you be more literal and simplistic? As an aside, Monet was a great painter, but why keep emphasizing his lousy painting of his wife pretending to be Japanese, which has sour racial overtones and has nothing to do with his genius?

TG: Man, I hate that Monet, too, I’m glad to hear you call it out. I guess the MFA thinks its little “kimono samurai” counts as an early instance of “appropriation” or something. But today it’s burdened by a cutesiness that reads as colonialist – and makes you feel the curators don’t really understand the Kara Walker they’ve hung only twenty feet away! And the Lawler photograph is just funny. Frankly, anything titled “Is She Ours?” plays like an in-joke at a museum that has recently had to return so much art with a dubious provenance to its country of origin. That these two misfired gambits should occupy prime real estate in the Linde Wing speaks volumes, I think, about the issues besetting the museum's new initiative in contemporary art. Greg and I will talk more about possible paths out of those conceptual straits in the final part of this conversation.

Louise Lawler's Is She Ours?  Uh . . . . given the MFA's recent track record, maybe not!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

After Greg Cook of the New England Journal of Aesthetic Research and I bumped into each other at the opening of the new Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art at the MFA, we began talking about it, both in person and online. The following three-part series is a distillation of that conversation. Discursive, circuitous, at time repetitious, we feel it nevertheless serves as an accurate introduction to the MFA's latest addition and the issues it both raises and addresses.  Below is the first part of our discussion:

Thomas Garvey (TG): The opening of the Linde Wing is big news for contemporary art in Boston - in one fell swoop, the MFA has opened up a new exhibition space for contemporary art that's actually larger than the current galleries at the ICA. And as many local critics have pointed out, the renovated wing operates as both a kind of riposte to the ICA, as well as the potential kick-off to a high-stakes local competition in the arena of contemporary art.

Which is all to the good, of course. But the success of any competition depends on the talent of the competitors, doesn’t it; and so far I haven’t seen much actual great new art arrive in town as a result of this supposed curatorial cage battle.

 In fact, I felt a slightly sinking feeling as I toured the new Linde Family Wing at the MFA last week  . . . and I think I'll start with the architecture.

If ever there was a local piece of design crying out for some sort of transformative violation, it was I.M. Pei's elegantly dull West Wing (Pei himself didn’t like it that much). But the MFA hasn't made any such architectural gesture, and so much of the space now awkwardly maps to its new program. And the changes they HAVE made are sometimes puzzling - or don't feel like much of a change at all.

They've taken out the escalator, for instance - yet replaced it with a ceremonial stair (below) that hogs space and feels like a fifth wheel. This seems to have been their way of acknowledging the museum’s former front door as a new entry for school groups (a programming decision that makes sense) – and of course the loss of the escalator makes the space quieter (a bit). But the flow here is clumsy, the scale off, and the resulting spaces exist in some sort of limbo between gallery and mall.

The MFA has transformed a ceremonial stair into . . . a ceremonial stair.
Greg Cook (GC): Yeah, it strikes me as dull shopping mall architecture too. Partly I think it’s the glass galleria (the MFA’s term), and the way the middle of the building becomes a long, awkward hall taking you past the bookstore and, uh, food court. Which is why Michael Phelan’s 2009 neon “Bless You Taco Bell,” installed above the MFA’s Bravo restaurant, is amusing. Perhaps unintentionally, it teases this mall-ness that aspires to something more classy.

TG: Yes!! “Bless You Taco Bell” is funny – somebody at the MFA does have a sense of humor . . .

GC: I keep thinking of the idea of chi—or energy—in feng shui. There’s lots of bad chi here. As you note, the stairway sits awkwardly at the end of the hall — too tight at the top and bottom (the MFA doesn’t help things by shoehorning in art at both ends), and too big of a lobby around it. Which made more sense on the first floor when it actually was the building lobby. Meanwhile the extra space on the second floor was useful as a staging ground for the Gund Gallery special exhibits. But now these spaces feel baggy. And the renovation doesn’t fix the fact that the “flow” of the second floor encourages you to pass on through and not stop to look at the walls. It became really apparent to me when I saw the Kara Walker piece in the new main second floor galleries. Now it holds the wall, but when it previously was in the second floor lobby, it didn’t halt you.

TG: The new pieces up there halt you even less, I’d argue. The whole thing actually feels a little more amorphous than it did before, and the museum has chosen NOT to do what I think any talented architect would have been itching to do - that is, ditch the stacked double circulation and smash through the existing shop for direct contact with the courtyard next door. For some reason there's also a glass classroom set in the middle of everything instead. And if anything, the new finishes – save the welcome hardwood on the first floor - are perhaps even blander than they were before (barring, of course, the occasional retro-60's furnishing). To be fair, nothing feels positively bad; it just doesn't feel enhanced; the overwhelming impression is of a new program shoe-horned into an existing space - a huge missed opportunity.

GC: Let’s talk about the art. I’d argue the curators do manage to make something out of the limited resources of the MFA’s contemporary collection. To me, presenting the art by theme is an elegant solution that allows them to conceal some of the collection’s significant flaws. If only the themes were fresher, sharper.

It's a bird, it's a plane . . . it's Jonathan Borofsky!
TG: Okay, I’m half with you there; but I’d like to start with the art that’s integrated with the architecture – which is - well . . . . let's just say I really hope someday they take down those banal, flying Borofsky dudes (left), and while I chuckled at the “Taco Bell” piece, some of the neon and flashing signs really should read "GREETINGS FROM THE MILLENNIUM!” I know the works are more recent than that, but the technique feels dated. And the Cerith Wyn Evans blinking chandelier (below right) just looks too baroquely gay now that it has gone solo . . .

GC: Yeah, those terrible Borofsky sculptures definitely heighten the mall effect. The MFA says he’s based in Ogunquit, Maine. As someone who’d like to see more locally made art in the MFA’s mix, it’s galling when curators seem determined to find lousy local art. The wall label says they were “made especially for the wide open spaces for the Linde Family Wing.” So the problem may be that the MFA commissioned these, and got the Foster family to pay for it, and so can’t back away from the bad decision.

TG: Yikes, if they were indeed a commission, then I guess we’re stuck with them! Thank God the collection in the new galleries is better - and certainly better than the ICA's - but isn't that rather a low bar?

Is Marie Antoinette sending us messages through this chandelier?
GC: It’s hard to fairly compare the MFA contemporary collection to the ICA’s because the ICA only began collecting in the past several years. It’s a bit apples-and-oranges. The ICA has picked up two strong Louise Bourgeois sculptures, the MFA seems to have none. The ICA’s Paul Chan “1st Light” projection is considered one of the major artworks of the past decade—and one of the most thoughtful high art elegies to Sept. 11. Though personally, right now, I’d put it more in the quite good category. The MFA doesn’t have anything by him—or pretty much by anyone who does tech art beyond basic video and neon. Well, after Chan, the ICA doesn’t really either. The MFA’s collection may pull ahead, though, with its works from the past decade by Walker, Mark Bradford, El Anatsui and the like, none of whom are in the ICA collection.

As an aside, you can’t help noting that the new MFA wing presents a number of artists who’ve been featured at the ICA in recent years—Bradford, Charles LeDray, Roni Horn, Kader Attia. But except for Attia, the MFA acquired these works before their ICA surveys. I mean, the MFA got the Horn in 1992 and LeDray in 1994, more than a decade and a half before their 2010 ICA surveys.

But I’d say the more telling comparisons are with Harvard or Andover or the Rose. The other day I paged through the 2009 catalogue of the Rose Art Museum collection. Look at any handful of pages and it’s apparent how terrific the Rose’s post-War collection is, and how thin the MFA’s is. If you compare what the Rose has by each artist with what the MFA has, there’s about one time the MFA bests the Rose: that Warhol electric chair painting.

TG: Well, maybe I’m just not all that crazy about the ICA collection, or its ethos, either; to me the ICA relies too often on a kind of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” quality (to be fair, a lot of contemporary art, does too). What people seem to remember about the ICA’s art is how the cube was made entirely of pins, or that the whole room was filled with scotch tape, or the yellow powder formed a perfect cone! Uh-huh. I’m not against quirky technical perfection, but people never seem to have any opinions about the content beyond the quirk. As for Louise Bourgeois, I’m not a fan, so I’m fine with the MFA not having anything by her! And like you, I think the Paul Chan is quite strong, but hardly one of the major works of the last decade (something tells me Chan got 9/11 completely wrong); and at any rate, the MFA’s haunting new video by Sigalit Landau is nearly as good.

But I agree with you about that Warhol – it may be the most striking thing in the whole wing. And I do admit it’s unfair to compare the ICA with the MFA, because the ICA hasn’t been collecting for very long, and with nothing like the MFA’s resources. You’re also right about the gap between the MFA and the Rose – which is why I always used to forlornly wonder why the MFA couldn’t just buy the Rose collection - or at least show some of it on loan! But that’s a discussion for another day . . . literally; Greg and I will continue our chat on the Linde Family Wing over the coming week here at the Hub Review.

The MFA's one postmodern masterpiece?  Warhol's Red Disaster

Friday, September 23, 2011

Urbanity Dance has a new home

Here at the Hub Review we're fans of the up-and-coming troupe Urbanity Dance, which has been growing by leaps and bounds since its founding just a few years ago.  Led by the intrepid and (almost scarily) organized Betsi Graves, Urbanity has consistently impressed with both their artistic program and their savvy approach to building a new company.  Hot off a successful appearance at Jacob's Pillow this summer, the troupe has just now announced another landmark in its development: Urbanity is opening a new home.  No photos of the new studio are yet available, but you can check it out this Sunday, Sept. 25, when Urbanity cuts the ribbon on the space at 280 Shawmut Avenue in the South End.  There's a day-long program of free activities planned, from yoga to kids' classes to funk improvisation. And you can even nab some discounts on dancewear. Full details here.

The best of all possible Candides

Geoff Packard and Lauren Molina in a touching reunion from Candide.

Sometimes the theatrical gods smile upon folly, and they're all but beaming right now at the Huntington, where Mary Zimmerman's improbable renovation of Candide is unfurling in a surprising burst of glory.  For the history of this musical has, in fact, been almost a mirror of the tale it tells; the adaptation of Voltaire's classic for the Broadway stage has been a long peregrination beset by disaster more often than triumph.

In its first incarnation, this spry satire of faith in "the best of all possible worlds" was sunk by Lillian Hellman's leaden book, although Leonard Bernstein's music (and Richard Wilbur's lyrics) were immediately acclaimed; indeed, the score was soon legend, and "fixing" Candide became an ongoing project of the Broadway smart set (even Stephen Sondheim lent a hand at one point).  Hugh Wheeler and Harold Prince condensed the musical by half in the 70's, and gave the whole thing a carnival spin that made it a hit (something like this version is still in the City Opera repertory, if the City Opera still exists, that is).  Bernstein wasn't so thrilled by this truncation, however - even after Prince and Wheeler later expanded it - and countered with a "definitive" symphonic version that attempted to recall from the bathos of farce the sense of romantic satire that had been his original aim.

Since then, Candide has bounced about in form and format, with everyone usually agreeing that the score hadn't yet been done justice (the crass New York concert revival in 2005 was a particular low).   But how to adapt Voltaire's rambling pamphlet without condensing it into farce remained a mystery - as did a method for reconciling the script's singularly skeptical tone with the lush panoply provided by its musical genius, Bernstein.  At its core, Candide was a contradiction.  Yet rather like Voltaire's deluded characters, people remained stubbornly optimistic that somehow, someday, the dream of uniting its two creative pole-stars could come true.

Well, now the Midwestern MacArthur "genius" Mary Zimmerman has turned her prodigious talents to this long-standing challenge.  And to my mind, she has indeed come up with the best of all possible Candides.  Or at least the best one we are likely to see in our lifetimes.  Yet suitably enough, the path of her production has been a wayward one.  It endured mysteriously mixed reviews at its Chicago opening, but as it has toured the country it has garnered awards, and its reputation has steadily built; I hear it has been tightened slightly, and surely the lead performances (Geoff Packard, Lauren Molina, and Larry Yando have been with it from the start) have all deepened.  Still, those initial notices seem bizarre at this point; this is one of those productions whose greatness you feel in your bones; and I don't think I'm alone in feeling that way - at the curtain call some of the people around me were all but screaming their approval, and my partner shouted himself hoarse.  The last time I felt this way at the Huntington was at All My Sons; and as I did with that production, I'm telling you if you miss this one, you will be missing a legend.

Packard and Molina  - one great performance, and one for the history books.  Photos: T. Charles Erickson
But musical purists, take note: the score may be the reason Candide has lasted, but ironically enough, Zimmerman has structured her version around Voltaire, not Bernstein (and she has cut one or two songs, while emphasizing others); the original orchestral forces have been reduced, and she has pulled the vocals back from the opera house and into the music hall (her leads have great pop voices, but they're not opera singers - not even Cunegonde).  So this Candide is no longer a great score with a musical attached; it's now back to being a musical with a great score attached.

Perhaps that new emphasis was the key to unlocking the tricky heart of the script; I don't know - but the irony is that while Zimmerman has put the spotlight back on Voltaire, she has found a supple emotional tone that matches Bernstein's score, too.  The book is still credited to Hugh Wheeler, but Zimmerman lists herself as adapter - and while this version has something of Wheeler's circusy touch, and more than a few broad jokes, Zimmerman's take is nevertheless deeper, longer, and richer than Wheeler's.  And her script no longer ridicules poor Candide and Cunegonde for their folly - a good choice, I think, for Voltaire's ultimate aim was to hold the mirror up to us all, not just Liebniz; thus Zimmerman has dispensed with a single, Voltairian narrator (instead the whole cast fills us in on background), and the musical's famously arch last line ("Any questions?") has gone missing.  Perhaps as a result, this is the only Candide I've ever seen that brought me close to tears (Molina and Packard had a lot to do with this, too).  Zimmerman even pulls off the novel trick of hanging onto some sense of unity as the action wanders back and forth across the globe.  Perhaps most importantly, she taps into the feeling, as one character puts it, that despite everything, we nevertheless "love life!"  That strange optimism which survives the death of "optimism" is, in the end, what powers the buoyant Candide.

And Zimmerman's direction, if anything, is even more inspired than her adaptation.  This Candide is studded with images that you'll never forget - chief among them the shocking moment when the comforting canvas of the ancien régime collapses, and poor Candide is left in a giant, empty room: Voltaire's godless universe in a paneled nutshell (the endlessly inventive scenic design is by Daniel Ostling). Elsewhere clever story-theatre tricks convey an earthquake, a battle at sea, and even the Seven Years' War (done up in a slow-motion ballet, with cannonballs whizzing by on fishing poles).  There are other wonders - the re-discovery of Cunegonde, for instance, (at top) is a small marvel of emotional choreography, and the final tableau of "Make Our Garden Grow" - with flowers pushing their way up from the stage floor - is a masterstroke.

Cheryl Stern, in a classic phrase, is "easily assimilated" as the Old Lady in Candide.

Still, none of this could work without a startlingly strong ensemble.  Again, Zimmerman's central trio - Geoff Packard (Candide), Lauren Molina (Cunegonde), and Larry Yando (Pangloss) - are all triple threats who have been perfectly cast.  Perhaps musical purists will note Molina isn't utterly secure pitch-wise at the top of her (enormous) range - but it's impossible to remember that when you're faced with the triumph of her portrayal; "Glitter and Be Gay" (again with brilliant help from Zimmerman) is a comic masterpiece, yet Molina also leaves the goofiness behind to bring off Cunegonde's ruin with the nuanced assurance of a tragedian; this is a performance for the history books.  And the handsome Packard, who has not only the looks for the part but also a beautifully light, fluid tenor, is convincingly sweet and undefiled to the end - while subtly insinuating a deepening world-weariness into Candide's picaresque profile.

Meanwhile Larry Yando makes a delightful Pangloss - again, the vocals are strong if not distinctive, but I could just watch this crafty talent all day, he tickles me so.  And I also can't forget Erik Lochtefeld's hilariously too-gay Maximilian, or Cheryl Stern's battered but worldly-wise Old Lady (Stern wasn't in strong voice on opening night, but made up for it with smoldering attitude).  Other stand-outs in the wide cast were Tom Aulino, Jesse J. Perez, Rebecca Finnegan, and our own McCaela Donovan and Timothy John Smith (who perhaps via his Huntington performances may be about to jump onto a larger theatrical wheel, as Nancy Carroll did before him).  But then praise is due to the entire cast, who all but leap through the many set-pieces Zimmerman and choreographer Daniel Pelzig have dreamt up for them, singing their hearts out all the while.

A few more musical caveats.  I wasn't always sold on music director Doug Peck's tempi, and the woodwinds' entrances were occasionally ragged during the brilliant overture on opening night.  They warmed up, though, and once I got used to the instrumental reduction here (the strings sounded slightly boosted by amplification to even things out), I appreciated its resourcefulness; you leave the production feeling you have indeed heard Candide.  I only sighed, I confess, at the a cappella finale of "Make Our Garden Grow," which can only be done full justice, I think, by a full chorus.  But perhaps even in the best of all possible productions you can't have absolutely everything.

(This animation to the famous overture isn't in the Huntington production, but it's so great I had to share it with you.)

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Rumi with a view

Imprisoned in history in The Persian Quarter.  Photos: Megan Moore

There's a lot wrong with Kathleen Cahill's The Persian Quarter (at the Merrimack Rep through October 9).  Its structure is unwieldy, and it doesn't always have a forceful dramatic engine; and sometimes its timeline shifts simply so some political point or other can be made (and then, alas, too quickly dropped).  It also never really integrates its action with the philosophy of the mystic poet Rumi, which it often references. It even closes with a cloying piece of sentimental uplift.

So why did I like it so much?  Why did its emotional resonances linger for so long?  I've been wondering that for a day or two now.  Perhaps because Cahill's central project - the treatment of the Middle Eastern "character" as, indeed, a "character" that can be understood by the West - is a pressing and unfinished business of our current theatre.  And perhaps for the same reason I forgive many of the masterpieces of our culture for their own all-too-apparent flaws; playwriting is a patchwork game, even for the greats - and when a play reaches something deep and moving, you forgive it the wayward path it took to get there.

Surprisingly. The Persian Quarter is, indeed, deep and moving at its best; and when I hear the tremble of genuine tragedy echoing beneath a text, I always listen, and try to puzzle it out.  Plus the playwright's aims are worthy ones: to limn the parallel wounds that echo through the recent history of two cultures and two countries, both with much wrong and some right on their respective sides, that have been locked in a Cold-War-style battle for the past three decades.  

The countries, of course, are our own United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran.

A long time ago, a famous poet (but not Rumi) noted that those to whom evil are done, do evil in return, and such an evil is the thematic starting point of The Persian Quarter.  It opens with two Americans flirting poolside (below) in the American quarter of Tehran during the Carter years.  They seem cockily indifferent to their nation's checkered involvement with their hosts, and imagine - as most Americans do even now - that they are democratic masters of the universe, free to play spy in their bathing suits and toy with other nations' destinies, indemnified by American power from any consequences of their actions.  Indeed, one of them, Mike (Jason Kolotouros) is actually a descendant of the diplomat who maneuvered the Shah into power a generation earlier.

Swimming toward danger - Beth Wittig and Jason Kolotouros.
History, of course, has other ideas; and the wound that has been festering since that notorious coup snaps shut on Cahill's characters like a fated trap: soon they have both been taken prisoner in the American embassy.  And they'll spend 444 days in captivity there before, in effect, being ransomed in a deal with the incoming Reagan administration.

At this juncture in her story, however, Cahill's play suddenly shifts into a second narrative, and a new set of themes.  She abandons her male lead (and never successfully re-integrates him into the play) to ponder a new duo, this time female - one of her Americans, Emily (Beth Wittig), and her captor/attendant, Shirin (Christina Pumariega), an articulate Iranian woman dressed in the traditional hijab.  At once the playwright seems less interested in the causes of the conflict between the U.S. and Iran than in its effects: both Emily and Shirin imagine themselves idealists, perhaps even zealots; yet their political positions are steeped in unknowing irony, and neither seems aware of how false or secret histories have shaped her own assumptions and prejudices.  As the long scene draws near its end, in fact, we slowly realize that Shirin's deepest wish is that Emily understand why she has been imprisoned - but of course that is the last thing Emily wants to do.

Most interestingly of all, Cahill begins to make a case for the co-existence of Islamic belief and a kind of feminism.  Shirin is hardly a crushed violet, and she feels strongly that the hijab - along with its general connotations of modesty and privacy - empowers her, as it frees her in her dealings with men from the exploitation of her sex.  Intriguingly, we learn that Emily herself was once a nun - and nuns, of course, long wore the Catholic version of the hijab, and for something like the same reasons.

Cahill doesn't force (or even directly state) the irony of this counterpoint, however; nor do the characters pick up on their own hidden similarities.  Which may be where the Sufi poet Rumi comes in - in various incarnations (all played by Barzin Akhavan), he drifts through the entire play.  And central to Rumi's vision was the notion that we have all been cleft from our unity with the universe, and that alienation is the very basis of the human condition; we must always search to reconnect with the divine, and with each other.  Cahill's mission, then, seems to be to render Rumi's vision through the prism of U.S.-Iranian relations, and the various sets of thematic doubles and twins she has sprinkled throughout her play.

But this is a tall  order, surely, particularly for a fledgling playwright; for dramatizing the pain of disconnection - especially unconscious disconnection - is a tricky business; hence Cahill's awkward structure, and scenes that spin, rather like a whirling Sufi dancer, around the wounds of history without ever actually revealing them.  She even takes her sense of historical alienation through a second generation, when the daughters of Emily and Shirin (again, Wittig and Pumariega) connect by chance in the present day.

If all this sounds like a lot of poetic theory without much dramatic drive, well, at times that's a problem with The Persian Quarter.  But Cahill has been blessed with a miraculous cast up at Merrimack Rep; Beth Wittig and Christina Pumariega are both luminously compelling as the two sets of women at the center of the playwright's design, and Jason Kolotouros is astonishingly nimble as their multi-foliate male foil.  Only Barzin Akhavan can't quite triumph over the heavy symbolism of his wandering-Rumi persona; but this is probably because in the end, Cahill can think of little for him to actually do.  Pumariega is wonderful throughout, but Wittig deserves special mention, I think, if only because the daughter she plays in Act II is so convincingly derived from the mother she plays in Act I; a startling feat of acting right there.  None of these great performances would be possible, however, without consummately subtle direction from Kyle Fabel; the production also boasts an evocative set from Campbell Baird.

Still, in the end I felt that playwright Cahill has perhaps bitten off a bit more than she can chew. But I also know true talent and true seriousness when I see it; at times The Persian Quarter is frustrating, but at other times a mysterious sense of the tragic rises unexpectedly from its dialogue and strikes you to the heart. Which is why I'm convinced Ms. Cahill is a talent to watch, and why I hope to be seeing all of these actors on the Merrimack stage again, sometime quite soon.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Huntington opens a classic Candide

It doesn't get much better than this.
Expectations were high for the Huntington Theatre's 30th season opener, Mary Zimmerman's production of Bernstein's Candide.  This is just a quick note to let you know that those expectations were met, actually more than met, tonight; I'm still on a post-show high, in fact.  Zimmerman's Candide may not be a transformative production, but it's a classic one - maybe even a definitive one for this eternally shape-shifting musical.  The score - one of the best of the past century, and the reason people keep trying to work out the kinks in the surrounding book - is handled well here (in a reduced version), and the leading trio - Geoff Packard, Lauren Molina, and Larry Yando - are each absolutely perfect for their roles; meanwhile the supporting musical ensemble is one of the strongest we've seen in Boston since the Huntington's own She Loves Me a few years back.  The design is consistently striking, and Zimmerman's action, often studded with memorable tableaux, is always imaginative - and melds seamlessly with Daniel Pelzig's clever choreography.  Even more importantly, the director brings the musical to a more moving close than I would have thought possible.  I think I can promise you that you will never see a stronger version of this brilliant show, and it will loom over the coming season, and maybe even the coming years.  I'll have caveats and the fine print in a later review, but don't wait for the reviews to come out, get the good seats while you can.

The state-sanctioned murder show grinds on . . .

Word arrives from Georgia that now the state won't even allow Troy Davis a polygraph test prior to his execution (Davis had hoped to make one last statement of his innocence, perhaps to sway his killers).  By this point, the government's bloodlust has gotten quite frightening.  I wouldn't argue that Troy Davis is a saint - nor would I argue for freeing him without a substantial and thorough investigation - but the doubts cast over his trial process and conviction now make any kind of moral case for his execution impossible.  Indeed, discovery since the trial has consistently implicated another man - unsurprisingly, the state's key witness against Davis.  It's quite possible - some say probable - that the state is now acting as an accomplice in that suspect's second murder.  This kind of story is precisely why I oppose the death penalty on principle - but time is running out on any hope that the justice system will reconsider its cruel course.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The best audience in town

Photo(s): Megan Moore
I'm still pondering The Persian Quarter (at left and at top), Kathleen Cahill's play about the Iranian hostage crisis and its aftermath, which is currently on the boards at the Merrimack Rep. The production itself is superb, with two Broadway-worthy performances from Beth Wittig and Christina Pumaiega, and a crafty turn from Jason Kolotouros that's not too far behind the two leads. The play itself is a bit more problematic, though - even if it's one of the best new plays I've seen recently. What's startling about it is that it daringly attempts to find common ground with the Iranians who "took America hostage" back at the end of the Carter administration.  Cahill doesn't always provide enough of a dramatic engine to power her ruminations on that tragic episode, but she does convey its tragedy, on both sides of the conflict - and a sense of tragedy is a rarity on the new-play landscape these days.

One of the things that struck me most about the production, however, was its audience.  Cahill plays with political dynamite here and there, but the crowd at Merrimack never seemed to pull back in a xenophobic way from what they were watching.  Instead they remained attentive and sympathetic throughout, even to characters who calmly mouthed anti-American clichés. Indeed, I felt during the performance an open-mindedness that I rarely feel in Boston, an open-mindedness that allows one to actually consider history as more than a Billy Joel pop song, as more than a kind of decades-long "show," as more than a demonstration of this or that academic perspective. I was also struck by the sense of trust that's evident in the audience at Merrimack (I get the same feeling at the Stratford and Shaw Festivals in Canada); the theatregoers in Merrimack don't jump to conclusions because they know that even what shocks or offends them will eventually be limned by the artists on stage in a subtle and humane fashion.  So in a way the audience is itself a product of the theatre that they support.  There's probably no greater tribute you can make to a theatre than that, frankly.  And I wonder, when will a company in Boston proper achieve the same thing - an audience that is not necessarily aligned with the institution politically, or as part of their alumni community, or because of their ethnicity or sexual orientation, but simply supports the theatre because they trust the artists?  That's the dream, everyone.  That's the dream.

Monday, September 19, 2011

MFA to sell 8 paintings for 1 big fat gay Caillebotte

Gustave Caillebotte's Man at His Bath (1884)
News broke today that the MFA will de-accession some eight works (including a Monet, Degas, and Gauguin) to purchase Man at His Bath, by Gustave Caillebotte (at left), for a price of around $17 million.

I suppose the purchase will be controversial (the Monet that's being sold is a nice one, although the MFA has another much like it) - partly, I think, because the Caillebotte is still a slightly shocking image: a rudely vigorous male plunked down into what's structured as a Degas-style reverie.  Actually, I'll go a little further - the image is shocking because it's so gay.  It presents male nakedness as a precise equivalent to the softcore tease at the heart of a zillion French domestic scenes (and so slyly destabilizes the hetero-centrist context of a good chunk of Impressionism).  The guy is practically rough trade, his butt is center stage, and Caillebotte even teases us with the silhouette of his scrotum.  It's all gayer than Cher's mascara, but at the same time it's as masculine as a Bruins game - a combination that, frankly, the straight population struggles with much more than it does with queeny types like Michele Bachmann's husband.

So, as I'm sure you have guessed, I think it's pretty cool that the MFA is purchasing it, and to my mind the price is justified (if such prices are ever justified, that is).  The museum already has a half-dozen sun-splashed Monets, after all, but Man at His Bath is nearly unique in the Impressionist catalog, and it's of high sociological interest as well.

Was he gay?  Obviously.
For gay men have long thought of Caillebotte (at right, a self-portrait) as the "gay Impressionist" - many straight art connoisseurs might quibble with that "gay" appellation, because of course we have no definitive proof of which way the life-long bachelor swung (if he swung at all); but frankly I'd quibble more with the "Impressionist" part of "gay Impressionist;"  I know Caillebotte initially was shown with Monet and the gang, but to me he floats in some sphere of his own, between Monet, Degas - and photography (his signature view is a panorama in which perspective falls away vertiginously).  But as for being gay - yeah, he always seemed delicately alienated to me in a way that the rest of the Impressionists aren't, and which always read to me as queer.  And it's nice to see a queer edge make itself known at the MFA - at least implicitly - after decades and decades of quiet suppression. So here's to our $17 million piece of rough trade!  It's a lot to pay, but he's worth it.

Brustein's mortal error

Just a few months ago, Robert Brustein was busy insisting in a panel discussion on The Merchant of Venice that Shakespeare was not only anti-Semitic, but sexist and racist, too (don't worry, I tore apart his arguments handily enough, to applause from the audience).

So I was surprised to discover he'd written a play about the old villain (actually, an entire trilogy!), and that he was quoted in the pages of the Globe as "loving above all writers" the poet he considers a racist, sexist anti-Semite.

Hmmmm.  Well, I suppose consistency was never Brustein's strongest suit.  But consider this: another playwright whom Brustein has long disparaged is Tom Stoppard - who's hardly Shakespeare, granted, but whom many of us have enjoyed and applauded over the years.   (Brustein's case here was aesthetic, rather than political - he always found Stoppard superficial, even "cute.")

So imagine my even greater surprise when I discovered that Brustein's play about Shakespeare, Mortal Terror (now playing at Suffolk's Modern Theatre) was often a transparent imitation of Stoppard's screenplay for Hollywood's Shakespeare in Love.  This time the play in question is Macbeth rather than Romeo and Juliet, but the dramatic method is much the same - indeed, some scenes are such close echoes you're tempted to call them plagiarism.

So let's recap!

What we have in Mortal Terror, then, is a play written in tribute to a man whose politics Brustein has always despised, in the manner of a playwright he has always derided.

I'm not sure irony gets much sweeter than this.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Okay, it's official: Ron Paul kind of DID let someone die because they didn't have health insurance

Now I know you were shocked by my little attempt at emulating Jonathan Swift, "Here's to more dead Republicans (a modest proposal)," which I published a few days ago - but consider this latest, my hyper-sensitive hublings! Gawker has reported that Ron Paul's former campaign manager, Kent Snyder, died of complications from pneumonia in 2008. He had actually brought in $19.5 million to the Paul campaign, according to the Wall Street Journal - but he didn't have health insurance. A sister has explained that a pre-existing condition made insurance "too expensive" for him - but as a result, by the time of his death, he had run up $400,000 in hospital bills (no, the emergency room didn't turn him away), a bill which his family was then saddled with.

The ironies here are just too devastating, frankly.  You really can't make this stuff up.  I suppose no one will know whether Snyder put off treatment because he lacked insurance - but it seems probable, doesn't it?  I mean - not many 49-year-olds die of pneumonia without some sort of complicating factor.  And honestly - he was running a $35 million campaign, but the people working for it didn't have health insurance?

And more importantly, Ron Paul could watch the man who put him on the political map die without insurance, and still the obvious message couldn't get through his thick skull?  I mean, sometimes life's ironies and sad coincidences almost make you think that God is, indeed, some sort of sick satirist . . .

Does Values really add value?

Erwin E.A. Thomas does some moral accounting.
There's an odd moment early in the Foundry Theatre's How Much is Enough? Questions of Value (now playing at ArtsEmerson) which inadvertently touches on a central problem with the production. The entire evening, as you may have heard, is comprised of audience participation - actually, a series of probing questions asked by the performers, who are themselves on script (or something like a script, by Kirk Lynn of the Rude Mechs, in consult with Foundry director Melanie Joseph).

As you might imagine, these queries are offered in a soothing voice, so they don't scare anybody - and at first seemed gently anodyne, as in "Tell me your best childhood memory . . ."  (That's literally the opening gambit, from the evening's cutest actor.)

And why not tell us your favorite color, while you're at it?  I thought to myself wickedly.

Then suddenly the conversation took a surprising turn. The audience member in question - gray, poised, with a voice you might expect to hear on NPR - had been confidently opining in Garrison Keillor mode about the joys of growing up, when that cute actor told him that his girlfriend was expecting a child - congratulations! - but was now considering aborting the fetus.

"What advice should I give her?" he wanted to know.

You could feel the entire crowd pull back as one man (or woman); this was about as loaded as a question can get; indeed, it seemed to literally glimmer like a conceptual handgun in the theatrical air; who would dare to pull its trigger?  And yet  - what other question (save, perhaps, the question of suicide) could more eloquently encapsulate the thorny problem of one's "values"?  But on second thought, was the actor playing "fair"?  He was asking for honesty - but was he himself on script?  Did he have a pregnant girlfriend?  With all these very raw questions in play, the audience member stared into space for what seemed like minutes, blinking, looking as if he couldn't believe he could have been trapped like this; was this really what he - and we - had signed on for?

Of course you know me - I was suddenly leaning forward expectantly, thinking: Could this show really be about to get this interesting?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Swimming upstream with Trout Stanley

The exquisite cast - photo: Alison Luntz.
Okay, we've been veering more toward the bluntly political of late at the Hub Review (and in the process anticipating posts by Andrew Sullivan and Paul Krugman) - largely because I wasn't all that interested in several of our local season premieres (or rather the shows, rather than the productions themselves, which I'm sure are fine).

So I thought I was safe from any heavy-duty pans (at least until I squeeze my way into Porgy and Bess, if I can), but here I've got the same problem with a fringe show, Claudia Dey's Trout Stanley from Exquisite Corps Theatre.  Actually, this is one of those times I wish I could target separate reviews to separate readerships. One such audience might be composed entirely of casting directors, for instance, and to them I would say -

Calling all casting directors! High-tail it immediately to Trout Stanley, from Exquisite Corps at the Factory Theater, where you will discover not one but three exciting new comic talents you will want to audition immediately!  (I'm not kidding!!)

But then there's the play itself.  And I'm afraid to my audience of script readers and play development types, I'd have to say: - oh well, let's not even go there.  Why not just write the pan yourself, in the inimitably vicious style of Thomas Garvey?  It should include the words "utterly derivative," "John Guare," "Christopher Durang," and "in a broken blender."  Also "too long by half," and other irritated, over-articulate stuff.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Here's to more dead Republicans (a modest proposal)

The clip above from the recent Republican debate has been getting a lot of play on the Intertubes - and it is, indeed, pretty creepy; the Republican Party is now, you could credibly argue, the party of death. (A round of applause also greeted the announcement that Governor Rick Perry had executed 234 people - one or two of whom most people are convinced were innocent.)

But I ask you - is that such a bad thing?  I mean, as long as it's the Republicans who end up dead?

Because I admit I found the above exchange refreshing; I just didn't think it went far enough.

For a key hypocrisy in the Republican/Tea Party opposition to Obama's healthcare reform is buried in that exchange between Wolf Blitzer and Ron Paul.

What's the hypocrisy? In short: if you feel that a requirement to join a healthcare plan is an infringement of your constitutional rights, then you should also be prepared to forswear your right to emergency room care.

Right?  Of course right.  In fact, far right.

Because let's talk a minute about the form of "socialized medicine" that the Tea Partiers are all unconsciously depending on: the emergency room. They seem to think that it's un-American to require folks to buy health insurance - but that somehow it's not un-American to show up at the ER with a broken bone, and get it fixed, whether or not you can pay the bill.

They seem to think it's fine that the rest of us - the ones with insurance - should pay for that treatment!

And that's socialism, my friends. Texas socialism, I should say.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Which one is the real America?

Former Vice President Dick Cheney and fallen FDNY chaplain Mychal Judge.
Well, the long weekend of 9/11 remembrance is now officially over. And one deep question lingers over all the coverage:

Who represents the "real" America?

On the one hand stand the first responders to the disaster - heroes to the last man and woman. Unbelievable in their bravery; America at its best. My partner and I both fought tears as we watched the firemen of New York  - and many other emergency personnel and even ordinary citizens - race into the burning buildings, or the toxic cloud that billowed from their collapse.  And I almost cracked up, as I always do, when the coverage came to the terrible death of the gay FDNY chaplain, Mychal Judge (above, contrasted with Dick Cheney).  (Another gay hero of 9/11, Mark Bingham of United Flight 93, also always deserves mention.)

What motivates such selflessness, I wondered once again?  From what unseen sources does true sacrifice spring?

And why is it so rare?

Because on the other side of the 9/11 equation stands the American government.  And while the first responders are unquestionably heroic, it is very hard not to see the government they served as villainous.  Some, like Dick Cheney, even look the part - but all participated (even those basically in the dark, like George W. Bush, or those with qualms, like Colin Powell and Condi Rice) in a campaign of fear, and a war based on lies, and a program of torture,  and a ruthless security state.  Yes, they kept America safe, I know - but let's be honest: they did it to stay in power. Because unlike the first responders, all that the majority of Americans cared about was being kept safe.

So tellingly, there was almost nothing about the political response to 9/11 on TV this weekend. Instead, there was a glaring, damning silence.

But let's (at least once) be honest about ourselves, too.  As a whole, we are not like those first responders.  The first responders were brave, but most of the rest of us were cowardly.  The first responders were selfless, but most of the rest of us were cheap.  The first responders were true to America's ideals, but most of the rest of us allowed them to be trampled and perverted before our very eyes.  We admire the hell out of the first responders, sure, but at the same time we sent them into harm's way without protective equipment or proper training (as we would our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan a few years later).  We love to tear up about their sacrifices, but at the same time we've ignored their traumas and disabilities and diseases for years - until the tenth anniversary of the calamity all but shamed us into paying up (and even now we're quibbling over their cancers).

How does one bridge that yawning chasm between what we claim to admire and what we actually do? How should one assess the morals of the second responders? I'd like to say that America's second responders were led astray by the villains in Washington.  I'd like to believe that. But the struggle continues, doesn't it, long after Cheney and his puppet president have left the White House. Perhaps the best way for America to commemorate 9/11 would be to look in the mirror.

But we'd rather look at the first responders.  And can you blame us?