Take Me to Art 11/16/19: Postwar Women at the Art Students’ League

What is the case for exhibiting women artists as women artists?  Postwar Women, at the Art Students’ League through December 1st, unites the visions of women artists in the later twentieth century in such a way as to both pose and answer questions of how women artists see, and to make a case for collecting these visions in one space that tells a story across painting, sculpture, and mixed media.

Elizabeth Catlett and Faith Ringgold both look into the past, in some cases the very distant past.  Catlett’s “Standing Mother and Child” and “The Door of Justice” both recall African mask traditions (I am not an expert, but for me they evoke the Dean gle of the Dan people of Liberia) in the stylized but steady faces…

“Standing Mother and Child” and “The Door of Justice,” Elizabeth Catlett

…while Faith Ringgold recontextualizes the famous remains of “Lucy” as those of a beloved ancestor by placing a miniature skeleton in a gold coffin, surrounded by flowers and colorful fabric.  The scale is intimate and familiar, the notes in block printing on plain white paper, bringing Lucy out of the museum and into a setting that feels funereal, reverent, and joyous all at once.

“Lucy, the 3.5 Million Year Old Lady,” Faith Ringgold

Catlett and Ringgold both look behind to look forward, reaching into the past to bring dignity and tenderness to depictions of people of African heritage.  The explicit embrace of African history and artistic traditions reminds me of El Anatsui or Yinka Shonibare; the affection the artists radiate towards their subjects brings to mind Kehinde Wiley.  But ultimately, the modest dimensions lead to a different interpretation, distinct from Shonibare’s irony or Wiley’s grandeur: Catlett and Ringgold, by way of the familial and fond, draw the viewer’s attention to the ways in which people of color have been dehumanized and embrace them with seriousness and profundity.

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Take Me to Church/Art 6/23/19: Heaven Is a Place on Earth

Panel on the AIDS Quilt was made Lisa Heft in memory of Marvin Feldman. Photo by me.

Heaven?  I’m in heaven?
Prior Walter in Act V of Angels in America: Perestroika, Tony Kushner

We sang Vaughan Williams’s “O how amiable” surrounded by dozens of panels of the AIDS Quilt, we noshed on Keen’s oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, we contemplated Paul’s cryptic “I heard it from a cousin who told his friend” commentary on “the third heaven,” whatever that is—that is to say, I was back at church for the first time in a month, my longest stretch without church proper in years, and it was as good and jarring of a homecoming as I could have wanted.

I had actually been in the courts of the Lord already the previous evening for Quilt: A Musical Celebration, Judsonite Mark Perry’s benefit show for the Callen-Lorde Health Center and Frontline AIDS.  Mark had arranged for a sizable showing of the quilt itself, conceived by Cleve Jones and the NAMES Project, which I’d never seen in person.  I texted a picture of Freddie Mercury’s panel to MaryBeth; I shuddered with a sort of bilious grief at Roy Cohn’s, emblazoned with the legend “BULLY-COWARD-VICTIM.”  But the panel I won’t be able to forget is one made by Lisa Heft in honor of Marvin Feldman (pictured above). In the panel, Feldman is slight and serious, with round glasses and a moustache; he is surrounded by a Keith Haring-esque corona of bold dashed gray lines; and he holds a small gray tabby cat.

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Take Me to Art 5/15/19: Undiscovered Countries (Judson Arts Wednesdays)

Screenshot 2019-05-19 at 9.05.04 PM
Undiscovered Countries on Facebook

On Wednesday nights, when Judson becomes an arts venue (always free for both artists and audience, always live, always uncensored), the Meeting Room looks different.  The LaFarge windows only suggest the saints and angels within themselves; there are more shadows, the Vignette on the Instagram turned all the way up; more ways to be ambiguous, more ways to hide and then emerge.

In the dimmed room, as the Judson staff and the artists of Undiscovered Countries worked together to set the stage for the show, I was reminded of why Judson Arts Wednesdays are so important, both for us as a faith community and for the artists who come to work and perform there.  There was the lighting, the sound system, the microphones carefully placed and adjusted; the infrastructure often barely visible to an audience, but so important for artists to be able to access as they grow their art and the audience for it.  Before the show even started, I was grateful just for that, for the columns holding up our aging building, for the people who take such good care of both it and the people who take spiritual, artistic, and religious shelter within it.

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Take Me to Art 5/9/19: Mavis and Friends (Mavis Staples’ 80th Birthday Show!)

Mavis Staples, Valerie June, and her wonderful band!  (As always, not-great concert photo by yours truly.)

After we saw Amazing Grace, we decided we’d be total fools if we didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to see national treasure, living history, wildly talented musician Mavis Staples perform live for her 80th birthday at the Apollo Theatre. And we weren’t disappointed, of course; in addition to Mavis herself, she was joined by a coterie of other terrific musicians (like Valerie June in that fabulous lime-green number at left).  And it was more than a show; in both the songs and the stories Mavis shared, the evening was a testament to the power of music to change hearts, sustain social movements, and bring meaning and purpose to life over eras and generations.

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Take Me to Art 4/13/19: Amazing Grace

Aretha_Franklin_1968Matt said we should see Amazing Grace, the long-hidden documentary film about the making of Aretha Franklin’s gospel album of the same name, in the movie theatre, which turned out to be exactly the right call.  A film that’s billed at eighty-seven minutes, but feels, in the best way, much longer, Amazing Grace is transporting musically, spiritually, and politically.

No one has to explain Aretha Franklin’s talent as a singer, and I won’t even try to do it here.  I will say that it’s thrilling to see her in the context of an actual church, playing and singing church music, and the ways in which she attends to that context with such reverence and in a spirit of community with the other musicians and congregants.  Technically all the artists are incredible, and the common purpose with which they imbue both of the concerts depicted in the film is palpable.

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Take Me to Art 4/6/19: Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving at Brooklyn Museum

Untitled collage
Lightboxes and paraphernalia.  Yup, mine.

Soy una mezcla (I am a mixture).
–Frida Kahlo

A few days after seeing Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving at the Brooklyn Museum, I keep coming back to one of the smaller works on display, one I didn’t know before I saw the show.  Both its size and its black-and-white palette made it easy to overlook.  Entitled Frida y el aborto (Frida and the Miscarriage), it’s a simple lithograph of which only three copies remain, Frida having destroyed the rest.  She commented about her miscarriages, “Many things prevented the fulfillment of the desire all consider normal, and nothing seemed more normal to me than to paint what I had not achieved…I lost three children…Painting replaced all of that.”

As with Kahlo’s body of work itself, color is a defining element of much of the rest of the exhibition.  It includes clothing both from her personal wardrobe and similar pieces, down to the plaster casts she wore on her torso after a streetcar accident left her permanently disabled; photographs from all stages of her life, including the brilliant color photos by her lover Nickolas Muray; and some of her best-loved paintings, including one of my favorites, Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico), Myself, Diego, and Señor Xolotl.  The lightboxes at the front of the exhibit (pictured above) pop in cerulean and peach; the walls inside are emerald and maize.

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Take Me to Art 3/23/19: The Divine Feminine in Antiquities at the Morgan Library


Top: Worshipper Led by a Goddess to an Enthroned God; bottom: Male Figure Before a Goddess Drawing Aside Her Mantle; both from the Ancient Near Eastern Seals and Tablets Collection at the Morgan.

I’ve been to the Morgan Library maybe half a dozen times now; it’s one of my favorite New York museums because of its small scale (see also: the Frick Collection and the Tenement Museum) juxtaposed with its vast collection of books and antiquities held in a space that was once the home of J.P. Morgan.  You can tour his private study and wonder what it must have been like to own everything he did, to consider your immense holdings from a room wallpapered in red damask and hung with a giant portrait of yourself wearing a red cape.  (All real details from the Morgan.)  We had gone to see the Tolkien exhibit, which consists of many of his personal photographs, letters, notes, and artwork from The Lord of the Rings and beyond, but I wanted to write a bit about the motif of the divine feminine in the Ancient Near Eastern Seals and Tablets collection.

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Take Me to Art 3/21/19: Hozier in Orlando

Hozier performs in Orlando, 3/21/19.  I don’t take great photos during shows, but I thought this one was aight.

This __________ will change your life!

Will it, though?  Probably not.  At least not the way you think.  Change is hard and slow, and it usually isn’t a single process.  To really change your life, you need to rewrite your programming, and if you operate on Shame.0 (there are no other versions; Shame.0 is a primitive, miserable program upon which improvement is not possible), coming out about who you really are and what matters to you is especially difficult.  But I’m becoming convinced that it’s the only real project, I who do love a good project, at the same time that it’s dawning on me what a long project it has been and will continue to be.

This (***waves hand vaguely***) is part of the project.  About a year ago, I realized I couldn’t last much longer pretending I didn’t write, pretending it wasn’t still so important to me.  I couldn’t let my words sit unread and unremembered in my journal anymore.  I had to try to put them out in the world.  I prayed about it (and still do); I read The Artist’s Way and started doing morning pages; I took time off from work specifically to finish a book I started writing in 2013; I finished a 50k first draft of a new book during NaNoWriMo; I asked Dakota to help me set up the domain name he bought for me a few years ago so I could have a website.  And when I wondered how in God’s name I could get into the spirit of publishing something cohesive with regularity and rhythm and accountability, I figured I could start blogging about church (and cheekily name my church posts after a Hozier song fairly critical of organized religion), since I had been taking notes on church services for years, and share poems from time to time.  At the beginning of the year I also started to make a concerted effort to write about art.  And here it is: an occasionally awkward project, still a fairly small project with a fairly small audience (thanks everyone), but a project nonetheless.

So: I’m not going to tell you that the Hozier show in Orlando changed my life.  And I’m not going to write about it like a music journalist; this isn’t a “review” of the show, per se.  But it still felt like a cairn along the path of change that told me I was going the right way.

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Take Me to Church/Art 3/10/19: Lenten Altar

William Corwin, Lenten Altar (2019).  Photo by Michelle Thompson.

Mercury is in retrograde for the better part of March, which I guess a certain kind of Christian and/or intellectual doesn’t care about.  I’m not even entirely sure what it means.  Still, though, I swear I felt that planet moving into its hideous state of discontent and disinformation on Tuesday morning as the 1 train rumbled towards the Bronx.  It was my fifth day of a…diet, I guess, although I don’t think I’m supposed to call it that.  I was supposed to eliminate meat, dairy, sugar, alcohol, and caffeine from my diet.  (For those of you who know me well, guess which one of those I didn’t eliminate right off the bat, and for those of you don’t, it was caffeine.)  I thought it would help me move into a prayerful attitude slightly ahead of Lent and also take off a few pounds in advance of my trip to Florida in a few weeks, in which I’ll likely bare some portion of my arms and legs that have been wrapped in layers of tights and goose down for the past four months.  Win-win, right?  Well, it turns out ketosis makes me…pretty depressed.  I had a priest at the Church of St. Ann and the Holy Trinity (thanks for the conveniently timed impositions of ashes, Episcopalians!) praying for my therapist after I broke down crying while getting my forehead dirtied. I can now honestly say I’ve been advised by that same therapist not to undertake such a diet again the next time someone tells me how great paleo is.  I had some nachos and I’m getting my life back together.

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