Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Richard Long, finally

Most of the exhibitions we liked best in London were serendipitous: Medals of Dishonor, which we found much more interesting than the lovely Indian paintings we intended to see, or the J.W. Waterhouse show at the Royal Academy that we decided to see because of its intriguing review in the Financial Times, or the Classified exhibition at the Tate Britain, which we’re still talking about. The idea of Classification as an exhibition concept has more “legs” than the other “concept” exhibitions that were all over London and Venice this summer, and some of the objects in that show were definitely memorable.

But Richard Long was one exhibition I was determined to see. In 1996, the first time I visited Japan, there was a Richard Long exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto. I visited it on the next to last day of my trip, which had started with a visit to Ryoan-ji and had included a huge number of temples and important artistic sites, always guided by a knowledgeable graduate student, professor, or curator. I was there at the behest of my friend and host Fukushima Keido, the head abbot of the Tofuku-ji Zen sect. I hadn’t thought much of Ryoan-ji and had puzzled over why a gathering of dry rocks and raked gravel could be so important. The Richard Long exhibition included several of his circles of rocks, which looked like they must have been influenced by Zen gardens, although I didn’t really think he really was involved in Zen. The circles both fit in and had extra meaning in Kyoto and whenever I see his circles now I think of Japanese Buddhism.

Then I came upon a print, just text as I recall: “An eleven day walk through the hills north of Kyoto, starting and ending looking at the same rock at Ryoan-ji,” or something like that. My trip lasted about eleven days and, influenced by Long’s print, I decided to return to Ryoan-ji on the last day. It was overwhelming, profound, beautiful, evocative of everything Zen Buddhism was about. Somehow after being in the culture for ten days and after being nudged by Richard Long, I found that I was able to experience a Zen garden completely differently from the way I had seen it on my first visit.* So I owe Richard Long a huge art debt.

The exhibition at the Tate, Richard Long: Heaven and Earth is very large and really focuses on Long’s walks, all kinds of walks, from the first one documented with a photograph of a line trampled through tall grass to extended complicated multiple walks and sea-to-sea treks. Each was documented in some way: by a photograph of an intervention in the landscape (a row of stones, a trail, some cairns), a map marked with the journey, or just a poetic description of the walk or the things observed on the walk. Some of the descriptions were printed on paper and some were directly stenciled on the walls. Primed by that Kyoto image, I kept imagining the artist moving through the landscape, perhaps modifying it or just documenting his experience, and I was vicariously moving with him and at the same time marveling at his stamina and ability to make variations on the theme of walking. The idea of him moving through space, occupying space in a transitional way, was very exciting: walking and travel making conceptual sculpture.

The next day I took Tom to the Tate Britain to see the exhibition and discovered that there is another way to see Long’s work. “So I could go out on my tractor and mow the farm and call it art?” he asked. I tried to explain that yes he could, if he called it art and did it repeatedly, consistently, and with variations that might have meaning, but he would have none of it. Walking was no different than mowing the farm and it did not reverberate with anything in his experience.

Granted, after a while the descriptions began to be tiring and the longer, larger ones began to resemble poetry rather than sculpture, so that some of the work became possibly self-indulgent, although the videos of Long himself show someone who appears to be totally abstemious.

One large gallery of the exhibition included a few of Long’s stone circles and other geometric forms and Tom did like those. He was the one who noticed the outlines on the floor that must have guided the artist in laying out the circles (He always finds the distracting details.) He was not impressed with Long’s mud drawings, which were much more engaging to me when I learned that Long digs the mud at low tide from the river near where he lives and considers the wall images to be sculpture rather than drawing or painting. Again the images trace the movements of a person, an action painting concept, but considered from the point of view of a sculptor.

Finally, we watched the video of Long, self effacing, committed, doing what he does because it makes sense to him, and having committed himself for decades to making and documenting walks as sculpture and as art. We’re the same age. And he’s from Bristol, where our art journey this summer began.

The Tate Britain has an excellent web site for this exhibition, showing many of the works, with their labels as explanations by Long of his work and his interests.

*When I returned from Japan, I inquired about purchasing the Kyoto text piece and was stunned that it cost $20,000. It was not in the Tate exhibition, but it is on his web site.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Orchard report

Yesterday we harvested the grapes. It was a poor harvest, about half what we got last year. We think the freeze last spring might have gotten some of the grapes, and we also had quite a bit of bird damage.
It's a big year for birds; they're pecking at the apples more than usual. Of course, we feed lots of hummingbirds and seed-eating birds, but they're not the ones eating the fruit - mostly robins and mockingbirds and bluebirds, we think. We don't want to kill the birds. In fact, a couple of days ago we very carefully cut a baby mockingbird out of the grape nets. She was really caught and squawking, but while Tom went to get the scissors, I put my hand over her head and she quieted down, just like a parrot. Her mother was circling and looking like she might attack us. When we got her free, we set her on the branch of a tree and hoped for the best.

The fourth row of Rome trees seems to be particularly hospitable. We have three nests in that row and today I got pictures of all three mothers, two mourning doves and a goldfinch. They were very courageous, holding their ground while I took the pictures. Here they are:

Mourning dove holding her ground.

Female goldfinch above and her eggs. It's a really tight nest.

Second mourning dove
Rosie enjoying a Rome.

Friday, 14 August 2009

The Tate Britain – on the way to Richard Long

Oddly, many of the articles I write turn out to be about things that attract me while I’m on the way to something else, serendipitous delights in art exhibitions. While the Tate Modern is the museum to go to in London these days, I found Tate Britain to be the one with the exciting exhibitions. As usual, on the way to an exhibition on my “must see” list, I found another one that was intriguing. And fun.

At the basement entrance to the Tate Britain, there’s a BP-sponsored exhibition titled Classified. One of a series of exhibitions drawn from the permanent collection, it presents art by British artists that addresses various ideas of category. Like most thematic exhibitions, it was not completely consistent with its premise, but enough of the works fit easily and imaginatively, and the labels so clearly addressed both what the works were about and how the artists thought about categories, that the entire enterprise was great fun. When I returned the next day with Tom, we found a couple of rooms I hadn’t noticed the first time, and they really added to the exhibition’s impact to the degree that we’re still talking about them

It begins in a room filled with clicking sounds. It took me a few seconds to see that they came from metronomes set around the walls, each ticking at a different rhythm, categories of time, a work by Martin Creed, Work No. 112, 1995-2004. Toward the side was a huge beautifully constructed cabinet in which Mark Dion had carefully organized and stored artifacts (really “stuff”) he excavated (dug up) from each side of the Thames at low tide, Tate Thames Dig, 1999. Each side of the cabinet represented one side of the Thames. You could pull out the drawers and open the doors to find stones, soles of shoes, glasses frames, pipes, bricks, whatever, all carefully laid out as in a natural history storage area.

In a second room Simon Starling had categorized the process of making the aluminum of the frame for the bicycle with which he had traveled to gather the bauxite to make the aluminum.

A later room contained nothing but Damien Hirst’s Pharmacy, 1992, a very large installation of mostly shelves containing a huge variety of drug containers. While the label suggested that the work addresses issues of contemporary society and our relation to health care, I got to wondering how the Tate installs and stores the work. Are there instructions as to which boxes go where when the work is being installed, are the objects numbered or color coded, or what? Since this is part of the Tate’s permanent collection, how do they store it? Are the shelves part of it, and are they stored separately from the drug boxes? I asked the guard, but he had no idea.

The best room, though was the last, which housed The Chapman Family Collection, 2002. It looks like a typical museum installation of a collection of ethnographic masks and sculpture, each object on its own pedestal and individually lighted in a darkened room, all apparently owned by artists Jake and Dinos Chapman. It reminded me of the collection New Guinea objects that occupies much of the second floor of the new De Young Museum in San Francisco. However, each of these objects includes, or completely depicts, a McDonald’s symbol – the golden arches, Ronald McDonald, a bag of fries – all incorporated into masks or other human-based sculptures. It was amusing just to find how the symbols had been used in each object, but it was also very telling about the exploitation of other cultures by modern artists, the commodification of objects from other cultures in art museums, the appropriation of other people’s ritual objects for personal aggrandizement, the way museums recontextualize objects in their exhibits and installations, and the pervasiveness of McDonalds throughout the world. The ramifications are extensive at the same time the objects are cruelly amusing. This show had the first work by the Chapmans that really engaged my mind and my eyes.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

J.W. Waterhouse: The Modern Pre-Raphaelite

While we were in London, we read the Financial Times every morning and that’s where I saw the notice for the exhibition of paintings by J.W. Waterhouse at the Royal Academy of Arts. It illustrated the painting A Mermaid, which is owned by the Royal Academy, and talked about the artist’s focus on painting young women, from martyrs to femmes fatales. While I had seen his painting of The Lady of Shalott at the Tate, I really was not familiar with his art, and there are very few paintings by him in the United States. There are at least two comprehensive websites (one and another) devoted to his work, however, and Waterhouse posters are apparently quite common in England. Nonetheless, seeing the works in person - monumental, richly colored, and painted with skill - made me think more seriously about this artist than I would have based on the recent critical response to his work.

Waterhouse was born in 1849, the year of the birth of the pre-Raphaelite movement. He died in 1917, an anachronism in the midst of cubists, fauves, and Dada. It is not at all surprising that his reputation rapidly declined and probably not surprising that his work is now collected by Andrew Lloyd Webber, somewhat as Waterhouse’s older contemporary Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema was collected and his reputation somewhat revived by Allen Funt in the 1960s.

The exhibition includes a range of Waterhouse’s paintings, enough to give a viewer a substantial sampling of his career, but not enough to demonstrate what is widely agreed was his later focus on single images of women who, whether martyrs or temptresses, project sexual undertones. I kind of expected an exhibition of girly pictures, so was very impressed at the ambition and seriousness of Waterhouse’s work. I was surprised at his impressive painting technique, richly varied palettes, relatively obscure classical and Christian subjects, and varieties of compositional types, all within a characteristically dramatic commitment to idealized realism, if you can call it that. I did also notice how British his women’s faces are.

The Lady of Shalott is Waterhouse’s most famous painting, probably because it can usually be seen at the Tate Britain (one of the reviews of the show said that its postcard is the most popular one at the Tate Britain, which could just indicate that they don’t have postcards of enough of the works in their collection). The subject was a popular one in the 19th century, taken from a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson. She lived in a tower and was not permitted to experience the outside world directly; she could only look outside through a mirror, and she spent her days weaving. One day Sir Lancelot rode by her window and seeing him determined her that she would leave her tower, even though she knew she was cursed and leaving would result in her death. She got a boat, painted her name on the side, and rode it down the river to Camelot. She died as the boat arrived and in the last stanza Lancelot saw her and commented that she was pretty.

Several of the works refer to Homer’s Odyssey and its stories of Ulysses returning to Greece after the Trojan Wars. Two of the most dramatic are Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses and another of Ulysses and the Sirens, both scenes of temptation dramatically staged. Another image of Circe, Circe Invidiosa/Circe Poisoning the Sea , in which the intense blues are almost iridescent, comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Circe, jealous of the nymph Scylla, poisons the water in which she bathes. Scylla becomes so ugly that she throws herself into the sea, becoming a dangerous rock between Italy and Sicily.

Among the images of saints were a monumental painting of the teen-aged Saint Eulalia of Merida, Spain, martyred and lying in the snow surrounded by doves, and the lovely patron saint of music, Saint Cecilia, sleeping with an illuminated book on her lap, serenaded by angels in front of a distant seascape. While these are indeed images of women, their complex histories and monumentality attest to the seriousness of Waterhouse’s enterprise, whatever his subsequent reputation.

Toward the end of the exhibition was one of Waterhouse’s last paintings, of Tristan and Isolde, which I imagined was inspired by Wagner’s opera, but may have been a response to the original medieval legend or to the version of the story in Thomas Malory’s Le Mort d’Arthur of ca. 1469. In any event, it led me to reflect on how the protagonists fall in love as the result of drinking a magic potion and the difficulties and sad end that result, all the while admiring her rich drapery and his reflective armor.

Waterhouse’s paintings have been compared to Alma-Tadema’s, another late Victorian painter. Although the multiple later images of women lost in thought suggest that Waterhouse found a market in that genre, his paintings generally seem to me to be more seriously grounded in specific tales from history, myth, religion and drama than do Alma-Tadema’s toga-party gatherings. He expected them to call one’s attention to these stories and their morals, and his work may deserve the renewed study given by scholars to other representational/romantic/ history painters of the 19th century. I enjoyed the exhibition a lot, was inspired by it to think about the way paintings relate to history, and to spend quite a while wandering around the Web looking for information about the artist and his subjects.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Futurism in London and Venice

One of the featured exhibitions in London this summer is Futurism at the Tate Modern. For anyone going to London, the Tate Modern is a required stop. The huge revamped power station housing modern and contemporary art is an experience. Located at the end of the lovely Millennium Bridge and just a few feet from the reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, it forms the centerpiece of a substantial new tourist area.(By the way, these articles are accompanied by photographs if I could easily get permission; otherwise, I’m dependent on what I can link you to. So this article will have some links.)

The two major exhibitions there were Futurism, which had already been shown in Rome and Paris, and a retrospective of paintings by the Danish artist (b. 1938) Per Kirkeby. Since I can go free with my ICOM card, but Tom has to pay, we chose for him to go to Futurism and I would zip through Kirkeby by myself. I had just seen the ballet Romeo and Juliet in New York, with strongly colorful set and costume designs by Kirkeby, so I wanted to see a series of his paintings. It’s a fairly interesting progression through various levels of abstraction and landscape, mostly large very colorful works, but also with some from earlier periods when he used more black and brown.

I had high hopes for Futurism. This year is the 100th anniversary of the Futurist Manifesto and thus the founding of Futurism in Milan, Italy. I think I only studied Futurism as an undergraduate, but I was fascinated by the paintings of people, animals, or automobiles depicted in motion and always wanted to see more of those action paintings. One of the first paintings in the exhibition, Giacomo Balla’s Girl Running on a Balcony, satisfied that desire, but there were actually very few pictures that did. Perhaps it’s the nature of Futurism that it inspires expectations on which it can’t deliver.

The exhibition began with F.T. Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto, which he no doubt intended to be as inflammatory a statement as it is. While the poet who later became a fascist sympathizer celebrates the movement of the automobile and of modern life in general and predictably castigates museums and academies and traditional arts organizations, probably the most disturbing part of the document are his celebration of war as a virtue to be pursued, and his damning of women and feminists. There is actually little in the Futurist painters’ work that supports his more radical statements, but the painters certainly attached themselves to him and his ideas about machinery and movement. I’m not aware that Marinetti had an influential career as a writer beyond the Manifesto, although he continued to be active as a poet, activist and fascist supporter well into World War II.

After showing a relatively small selection of paintings by the Italian Futurist artists, who gathered and defined themselves in Milan and then in 1912 created a scandal via an exhibition of their work in Paris, the exhibition moves to the sources and followers of Futurism, so that it includes far more works that may have been influenced by the Futurists than actual Futurist paintings. There’s a gallery of Cubist paintings, then one of Russian Constructivists (including women Natalia Goncharova and Liubov Popova), French Orphists (including Robert and Sonia Delauney and Delauney’s American follower Stanton MacDonald Wright), and British Vorticists. One never learns what became of the Italian painters - Umberto Boccioni, Giacomo Balla, Carlo Carra, Luigi Russolo, and Gino Severini - most of whose dates indicate that they lived into the 1950s and 1960s. I was really curious about what they all did between about 1920 and their deaths, but that was not provided in the exhibition. It was somewhat frustrating. In the last gallery a label describes how Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson, one of the British vorticists, actually participates in World War I and gives up any romantic notions of battle. It’s pretty clear that the Futurist celebrations of war were romantic illusions of youth.

Nonetheless, there were some really wonderful paintings, including Boccioni’s The Forces of the Street, a tour de force of blues and purples evoking cars and street lights at night, and Luigi Russolo’s brilliantly colored The Revolt, of 1911, depicting figures rushing across a cityscape in exactly the type of formation I had hoped for. And that girl on the balcony by Balla.

When we arrived in Venice, I noticed that the Peggy Guggenheim Museum had a small exhibition of Futurist works from its own collection. This included perhaps 20 paintings, but it was strictly limited to Italian Futurists and Futurism as it developed in these artists’ work and it provided considerable satisfaction after the Tate experience. Labels articulated both how the artists came to Futurism and how they departed from it in their later careers, giving a much clearer picture of the essence of the movement, and offering several of those paintings that depict movement – including a dog running and Boccioni’s Dynamism of a Cyclist. There was also a study for the Boccioni painting The City Rises from the Museum of Modern Art, which I never could really see before I read the Guggenheim label, and which captures the energy and excitement of the growth of cities at the beginning of the last century. One of the gallery guides in the Guggenheim mentioned the major Futurism show in Paris and I thought perhaps the Tate show was so limited because all the good stuff had gone to the Centre Pompidou, but they were of course the same exhibition, perhaps with fewer paintings lent to the London showing. It still seems that Futurism is an elusive movement, promising dynamic responses to the industrialization and forward motion of the new 20th century, but somehow wandering off from its full exploration.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Apple Washer Installed!

In my other life, I help on an apple farm in Kansas with my husband Tom. Last Friday he went down to Arkansas City and picked up our new (used) apple washer and sorter and yesterday he installed it in the garage, where it will stay until we can get the barn ready for it. Here's the apple washer, which takes up pretty much the whole garage.:

We had a small crop of Earlygolds a couple of weeks ago and they all went to a nearby farm market. We have only three Earlygold trees; the apples taste good, pretty tart, but they don't last long. We expect to have Galas in about three weeks, and then new varieties every few weeks until the beginning of November. Here's the orchard today, with close ups of Rome and Gala apples. There's Rosie the Red Heeler on the right.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Tullio Lombardo at the National Gallery

When we were in Venice, we went to the Ca d’Oro Museum for the first time and I was delighted to see so much Renaissance sculpture there, especially the important bronzes reliefs by Andrea Riccio, who worked in Padua in the 16th century in a style that recreated or at least evoked sculptures of antiquity. One important work was missing however: a Tullio Lombardo relief of a couple that was on loan to the National Gallery in Washington. So it was especially exciting to realize that I would be in DC to see the exhibition to which that sculpture had been lent, An Antiquity of Imagination: Tullio Lombardo and Venetian High Renaissance Sculpture.

Tullio Lombardo (1460-1532) was a very important Venetian sculptor, whose work is difficult to see outside Italy because so much of it is in monumental tombs or extremely large marble reliefs (for example the Tomb of Doge Andrea Vendramin in SS. Giovanni e Paolo, Venice, and reliefs in the Basilica of S. Antonio, called Il Santo, in Padua). And, of course, his large figure sculpture of Adam from the Vendramin Tomb at the Metropolitan Museum has been unavailable since it crashed to the floor a few years ago when its pedestal collapsed.

It’s a very difficult thing to organize an exhibition of Renaissance sculpture, because the works are fragile, they are disbursed far and wide, often relatively little can really be said about them with confidence, and people just aren’t as interested in sculpture as they are in painting. If an exhibition will not draw a large audience, it may not be considered worth the expense. The National Gallery for several years has mounted tiny exhibitions of important works of Renaissance sculpture, mostly borrowed from Italy, making it possible to see amazing works of art never available in the United States. This Venetian sculpture display is one of those exhibitions. Photographs of all twelve sculptures and their label information are posted at the National Gallery website. One of the relief heads was from Romania and many of the others are from Venice or Vienna. Nonetheless, I was surprised that the exhibition had so few objects. Even moreso, I was surprised that the works looked so diverse, even those that appear to be
quite securely attributed to Tullio Lombardo.

For example, take the two reliefs of couples from Venice (no. 1) and Vienna (no. 2) presumably created about 15 years apart. The labels in the exhibition describe the objects and suggest that Tullio’s later work from Vienna displays how his dreamy Venetian style matured. However, in photographs and in person, they are made so dramatically differently that the “Venetian imagination” doesn’t give me enough explanation for the change. In fact, the relief from the Ca d’Oro (no. 1) is completely different from everything else in the exhibition. The carving is deeper, the figures are more in the round. The skin surface is polished, in contrast to the hair, and the faces are more rounded. The eyes are cut deeper. The woman’s hair sits on top of her head in a rough mass, while the man’s is a cluster of short curls. The format of the work is also more vertical than that of the other relief, so the two figures seem in tighter juxtaposition even though their heads do not touch. If one were to compare this relief with a Roman portrait, something not possibly in the National Gallery, it would most likely seem quite similar. I suspect that the reason the relief is considered by Tullio Lombardo is that his name is carved into it below the man, a signature.

In contrast, in the other relief the skin, hair and drapery all have the same crystalline texture, the eyes are less deeply cut as is the relief altogether, hair falls in regular rolling ringlets and the format is wider and therefore somewhat more relaxed. And the two figures share expressions and facial types. Interestingly, in both reliefs the women are differentiated from the men by their bare breasts and their unarticulated necks, as well as their hairstyles. The Vienna relief figures both look heavenward, suggesting piety, while the Venice figures look in different directions, he up to the right and she straight out to the left, as if she might engage the viewer and he direct attention to something nearby. Not knowing where the reliefs were originally makes it difficult to explain these gazes. For the general audience, perhaps it suffices to suggest relationship issues and Venetian dreaminess. I suppose we should say that Tullio was really trying to imitate Roman portraiture in the first relief and that by the later one he had developed his own signature style, but even then it’s a real stretch from the first to the others.

One of the reasons to do an exhibition like this is so that scholars can seen a group of works together, in order to refine their understanding of an artist’s style and that of his followers. It is impossible to be sure of these things through comparing photographs. Bringing objects from diverse collections together enables one to get a picture of an artist that is more rounded and complete. The effect of this show for me has been to question exactly what is characteristic of Tullio Lombardo. The relief of a single figure (no. 6) from Venice is very close in style to the Vienna relief, and has a romanticism that almost seems 19th century, while that from Romania (no. 3) seems flatter and less evocative in comparison. The Romania sculpture is displayed in a separate gallery space from the others, perhaps so as to relieve it from comparisons. But the photographs may do the works a disservice, since the Venice relief is lit from above to create dramatic shadows and the one from Romania is lit far more softly from the left front.

Going to the National Gallery website gives one the chance to see these and several other works by associates of Tullio Lombardo, several really beautifully carved or modeled. The exhibition is lovely, but I wish it had acknowledged some of these connoisseurship questions so as to engage viewers more in thinking about influence and authenticity, rather than just asking questions about who these figures might be.