Thursday, 18 November 2010

Wild animals everywhere!


This morning around 9:30 we were in the kitchen and I happened to see something strange in the back yard, near the big oak tree. Our back yard is pretty big and open except for an oak tree and a hickory tree. The thing looked like a sitting animal, but I thought maybe it was a piece of firewood. I asked Tom and he said it was a fox, but then he said, "no....." and ran to get the binoculars. It wasn't a fox; it was a bobcat.

While Tom went to get a camera, I spotted another little one on the side of the yard, and then another big one by the cedar tree at the fenceline. And a little rabbit frozen between them all. Tom got the good camera and I got one reasonable picture of the first cat before they all three ambled away, leaving the rabbit frozen there for another five minutes or so. Tom has never seen an actual bobcat out here in 32 years (he's seen tracks), and I've never seen one either. Here are my pictures:
Kitty, kitty
The rabbit kept really still until a bluejay flew down, I imagined to say that it was all clear, and then she ran, white tail in the air, into the woods.

Rabbit waiting for bobcats to wander away.


Sunday, 14 November 2010

So much can go wrong with apples


Healthy Rome apples

When I first started helping with the apple farm, I was vaguely aware that apples can get worms and something called 'scab,' which I think I knew was a dark hard spot or spots on the apple that made it unattractive and unlikely to sell. Tom told me about cedar-apple rust, which I'd never heard of, this fungus that relies on both apple and cedar trees to exist and can ruin apples. We haven't had much of this at all because Tom sprays regularly for it. But in recent  years I've spent some time on my morning walks with the dogs pulling off the smooth brown rust clumps that are attached to the cedar trees near the orchard. Apparently they die without being on a living cedar, so I hope pulling them off and throwing them in the trash is a bit of additional help for the apples.

But I had no idea of all the ways apples can be damaged, or how to identify that they were damaged. Worms seem often to get into the apple from the flower end and go straight to the core, so you need to watch for little piles of digested apple coming out the flower end. They also sometimes go in through the stem end. And, of course, there are the clear little holes they can make in the side of the apple. Mostly these are the larva of coddling moths, and we're now planning to use traps to be sure we are spraying at the appropriate time to stop them.

Then some years we've had ladybugs setting up housekeeping in the worm- or bird-holes in the apples. They don't seem to initiate damagebut they do eat apples, so it's pretty creepy to find a bunch of them living in the apple you just picked. Speaking of finding insects, I've also had some years when the yellowjackets are a bit of a danger. Either they're on the opposite side of an apple you're about to pick and they sting, or they hang out in the apples that have fallen to the ground, and they get pretty irritated when you step on them. One year I accidentally weed whacked a yellowjacket nest under one of the trees and they chased me to the house. Then a few days later Rosie decided to explore their nest and they chased the dogs AND me to the house. Fortunately, they never nest in the same place twice.

Apple with Sooty Blotch


Same apple after washing with a brush
 The first year we harvested the goldblush apples (a type that doesn't seem to have flourished in the market, but we still love them, crisp and sweet and tart and long-lasting), they had these awful black spots. It looked like they had picked up ash from a fire nearby, but there hadn't been a fire. I figured out that we could scrub the spots off with a brush, but they left the color of the apple uneven. One of my friends suggested that we could market them as a new variety, "Dalmation apples," but we decided not to. So, one day I decided to Google "black spots on apples," and after a little wandering around, I found pictures of Sooty Blotch, a fungal disease that exactly matched our apples. It doesn't damage them, but sure disfigures them. So Tom found an antifungal spray and now we have almost none of it. I still think Sooty Blotch sounds exactly like a character from Dickens, an unscrupulous bookkeeper, or maybe a chimney sweep.

In that same research project, I discovered that "fly speck" is not fly eggs, as Tom had thought, but another type of fungus that can also be eliminated by spraying. Little tiny black spots on the apple, in clusters, usually in conjunction with Sooty Blotch. So those two are out of the way.

Then there are the rots. Mostly we get bitter rot, a dispiriting rotting that starts with a small brown spot and expands to take up the entire apple. This year one of the nearby orchards lost the whole crop to bitter rot. It results from too much warmth and moisture. It's possible to spray for it, but we have not been able to control it completely, and it takes a large percentage of our Fujis each year.

The Jonagolds and some of the goldblushes started showing greenish dents a couple of years ago. Instead of being smooth, the surface of the apple has these uneven spots that are green at the edges and denting the surface. When you peel them, the apple is brown and kind of tough just under the spots, not attractive at all. So last year I went again to Google and discovered cork spot, a phenomenon that is caused by inadequate calcium in the soil. You can either spray the apples or lay limestone down under the trees to eliminate that. Tom chose to spray this year, amused that the spray he used was calcium chloride, often used for snow melt. He had to be careful because the stuff can corrode the sprayer. But the spraying eliminated most of the cork spot, making the Jonagolds much prettier this year. But they still had a lot of bitter rot, so we still have work to do.

This year was particularly wet and then especially hot in summer, encouraging all kinds of fungus growth. Another one is called fire blight. The branches of the trees look like they've been burned. When the trees are in leaf, fire blight looks like the branch has suddenly died, with the leaves brown and drooping. It's been slowly advancing in the orchard and I'm pretty worried about it. The main way to control it, if you don't want to use antibiotics (and we don't), is to cut off the damaged branches and take them away, sterilizing your clippers each time you cut off a branch. It's really time-consuming, but seems important to do this year.

Once these things have "gotten" an apple, there's nothing to do but knock it off for the deer or pick it and use the good parts. You can't repair them; you just have to try again next year.

The McIntosh trees are another matter. They get all the diseases, but it hardly matters because in the heat of Kansas, most of them fall off the tree weeks before they get ripe. Every time we decide to chop them down and plant something else, we hear or read about someone who just loves McIntosh apples.

We're not completely safe during the winter either. Last winter the rabbits ate the bark all around the bottoms of several of our small trees, and they were dead by spring. We got protective shields for them and this year the remaining trees should be safe. The shields also protect the little trees against me with the weed whacker. The deer damage trees rubbing their horns on the branches. Our dogs and cats are supposed to chase the deer and eat the rabbits, but they don't range far enough to get them all. We also spotted voles last year, but we don't think they're getting the trees yet - they eat vegetation. And the cats might actually have an effect on them.

I think I imagined that apples grow easily with little attention from anyone, but every year another threat appears for them.


Baby mourning doves in a Rome apple tree, 2009


Thursday, 11 November 2010

Beaver!

We have a 38-year old horse named Champagne, who lives on about 50 acres of fenced in land with a large pond, lots of trees, and some grass. We feed her daily. About 10 days ago we noticed that her food wasn't disappearing and we hadn't seen her for a day or so, so on the weekend we decided to look for her. It didn't take long to find her near the pond, standing in some very lush-looking grass. As long as we were there, we took a look at the pond, which we visit relatively infrequently. I noticed a few small trees that had been chopped down and then a pile of large sticks on the side of the pond with some mud and leaves on top of it.

The dogs seemed interested in the pile and we figured it was a beaver home, so we pulled some of the sticks out to encourage the dogs. Nothing happened, so we checked out the dam, found some larger trees with those distinctive beaver tooth marks (I only know about this from cartoons, actually) and figured there's got to be a beaver around. We went back to the house.
 
Then I started to hear Thunder, the huskie, barking. And barking, and barking. After maybe two hours, I decided I had to go see what was going on and found him at the edge of the pond while a very large beaver was calmly swimming back and forth in front of him. Thunder and Rosie don't know they can swim, which is probably a good thing, but Thunder really wanted this beaver for something or other. Fortunately, he stayed on or really near the shore and didn't tangle with the big thing. But we did get some pictures.
  
 
This is my Blackberry picture. The beaver is the spot in the calm water just about dead center in the picture.

 
Tom brought a better camera

We've only seen one, but can't imagine he, or she, lives there alone.

Apple season review

Apple picking  season ended last week, way later than we expected. The winesaps, which started ripening much earlier than usual (along with all the other apples), stayed small and so we had to wait for them to get big enough and picked them in phases. By now the few that are left are just tiny and the weather's too cold for them to get big enough to sell.

We had a reasonable crop this year, but not an outstanding one. Many growers in this area lost most of their crop to fungus diseases and we had our share, but we ended up with about 5 tons of good, salable apples. We've been selling them to the local discount grocery store, Checkers, which has an excellent array of local products, great produce, and more interesting gourmet items than you would expect from the look of the place, a kind of warehouse style. Late in the season, the Community Mercantile - the organic and health food store - asked for apples and we sent them some winesaps. And two local restaurants and a local pie maker have been using our apples pretty regularly. At 715 (715 Massachusetts), a fairly new restaurant in Lawrence that patronizes many local food suppliers, we were surprised and delighted to find "Beisecker Farms Apple Crumble" on the dessert menu, and I had some lovely salads there with apple slivers included. They will continue to have our apples through November, at least.
 
Here's the apple sorting room in action. We bag and weigh them on the table in the foreground. Tom's son David made the table, I think in high school. He's a philosophy professor now.

Galas, washed, but not sorted yet

Apple washing and sorting apparatus. The "seconds" are in the front bins.


We started using this equipment last year in the garage, but now it's neatly installed in the refurbished barn(notice the nice light walls). We got it second hand from Mr. and Mrs. Speer, some lovely people in Arkansas City who were retiring their orchard. Sadly, we didn't get their donut maker. The washer seems to have been manufactured around 1962, the date of the instruction booklet, and the sorter maybe 20 years later. The Speers got the equipment from Pool's Orchard in Arkansas City. Pool's purchased the sorter at an auction in 1985. All of it works beautifully and is far better than the washing, polishing and sorting that we used to do in the kitchen.

Here is a picture of the galas just after they were picked, August 20.


And here are the later season Fujis and winesaps




Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Elizabeth Turk

Elizabeth Turk got a MacArthur prize! In 2006 we saw her exhibition at Hirschl and Adler gallery of collars made of elaborately, impossibly carved white marble. We were amazed at her virtuosity. I wrote briefly about her in the August 2006 issue of Kansas City's Review magazine.


As a person with a Ph.D. in Italian Renaissance sculpture, I first connected her to the 16th-century Milanese virtuoso artist Augustino Busti, called Il Bambaia, whose extraordinarily high relief and detailed sculptures amazed me many years ago. Many of his works were vandalized by having their tiny heads pulled off.


Of course, for virtuoso marble carving, Gianlorenzo Bernini is the first name that comes to mind, but Turk's work is far more adventurous than even his. Her collars are like lace, vines, skeletons, or DNA models, all of which inspire her. Two of the collars referred to 9/11, with plan and flower forms entwined around skeletal ones. I thought the combination of fragility and strength in the same sculpture had some of the tough delicacy of Petah Coyne's wax chandeliers.

A couple of years ago, I visited Hirschl and Adler to see another exhibition of Turk's carvings. These were ribbons; while they did not have all the complex associations of the collars, they were still amazingly carved. Marble is a hard but  fragile stone and it is difficult to believe it can be carved the way Turk does without breaking. She is an artist who makes beautiful objects, pushing the limits of a most traditional medium far beyond what we thought possible.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Why is contemporary art so challenging?

When I was thinking about what to say about Ann Hamilton, I heard a discussion on the radio by arts professionals trying to guide a general audience as to how they can appreciate contemporary art. The speakers confirmed that reading about art, looking at as much art as possible, and keeping an open mind, are helpful in appreciating what we see. They also recommended reading about the artists specifically to understand their intentions. It was when the professionals started talking about the difficulties many people have appreciating performance art that I started thinking about how the idea of art has expanded so dramatically in the last, say 50 years. And I don't think the other arts, performing or literary, have taken such diverse paths as have visual arts.

You can still go into a museum or gallery and expect to see paintings on the wall and sculptures on the floor, or wall. And there are prints and drawings and photographs. These aspects of visual art continue. as do public art installations outside the museum context. But, and Tom and I often disagree about this, artists can conceive projects which have no physical components, no objects, just an idea or an action. Many of them use found objects, but also found or created sounds, words, their own bodies, actions as art. To some extent I think some artists struggle to see how far removed their creations can be from the standard media of visual art. Artist do performances; actors do not display paintings on stage. Marina Abramovic sat in a chair at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and faced visitors who chose to sit opposite her. It's unlikely that this would happen in a theater and it would not have the same impact in the context of theater. Sophie Calle asked distinguished women to respond to her boyfriend's breakup email ("Take care of yourself") in the French Pavilion of the 2006 Venice Biennale. It might have been a book, but had to be an art installation (that kept the female audience, myself included, engrossed for hours while their male companions [mine too] waited outside).

Artists do video and film and also use video and film in installations (Nam Jun Paik for example) but videographers and film makers don't replace their works with objects. You still go to the theater and usually sit and watch a play, a movie, or a music performance. But going to a museum can also involve listening to musical sounds, as at the Ann Hamilton show, reading texts, seeing documentation about Tehching Tsieh, who spent a year living in a cage as a work of art, or seeing a preserved shark in a tank of formaldehyde (or its replacement). Writers may use the internet to communicate and they may write with computers rather than a quill pen, but words are still their tools. Artists also use words, as Ann Hamilton does in many parts of her Pulitzer installation, as On Kawara has with his date paintings or as Jenny Holzer does, often using LED displays. The opportunities for visual artists to expand their media and their conceptualization of what they do seem to be limitless, while those who work in the other arts seem primarily to have remained committed to their original discipline, media and basic materials.

That the possibilities are so open for visual artists is a wonderful, exciting thing to think about. But it also makes it quite difficult for anyone - including specialists - to evaluate or understand their work, to have the patience to give it adequate attention, to suspend disbelief long enough to give it a chance to reverberate with their experience and expectations, and to question intelligently whether what the artist is doing has any real worth beyond being different. It will take decades. In the meantime visual artists continue to explore an unprecedented variety of media and methods.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Ann Hamilton "Stylus" at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, St. Louis

I still remember jokes that puzzled me in my youth and I only figured out some 10 or 20 years later. Similarly, sometimes it takes a while to grasp what is going on in an exhibition. So perhaps the Ann Hamilton exhibition we saw at the Pulitzer Foundation in St. Louis in August will suddenly be revealed to me in due time. I’ve been fascinated by Ann Hamilton and what she says about her work, the depth, thoughtfulness, and philosophical approach she takes, as well as by the respect she has earned from the art world, evidenced by the Pulitzer’s choice of her for their first artist installation exhibition.

However, the only work I’ve seen by her, her installation at the 1999 Venice Biennale, did not elicit a good response from me. I remember being fascinated and delighted by pink powder floating down the walls and piling up at the edges of the floor of the American Pavilion. But when I - and my two companions - read the label, which explained that the point of the installation was to demonstrate how difficult it is for people to communicate with each other, all three of us walked out, not just puzzled, but infuriated. I don’t know about them, but I was angry that such a lovely abstract environment was loaded with such complicated non-visual content and that the content was totally inaccessible without the label, although having read the explanation, one still didn’t really “see” the meaning she intended to convey. There was more to it: I think a recording a man reading the Declaration of Independence that had been slowed down to sound like a low growl and Braille inscriptions on the walls.

We went to the Pulitzer with curiosity and with fairly open minds, despite this previous disappointment. The Pulitzer is an eccentric institution, open only two days a week (now expanded to include Thursday evenings). So it was not unusual that the attendant at the desk explained a bit about the show and asked us to sign in. When we signed the register, we heard a discordant possibly musical sound coming from far away.

A second attendant asked us to choose a record from a file of unlabeled records. We each took one and she played them while she explained the weekly newspaper-like concordance-related publications Hamilton is producing for the exhibition. Each week she gathers from English-language newspapers around the world phrases containing a word she has chosen from a statement of purpose (we never found the statement). Our week the word was “Be.” The phrases were listed with the chosen word in a column down the center of the page. For $2 we purchased the concordance from August 6 that used “Reveal, Say, Sing, Singing, Song Speak, Speaking, State, Suggest, Tell, Utter, Voice, and World,” much more interesting than “Be,” but nonsensical nonetheless. On the wall behind the record player and the concordance is a video of an arm waving back and forth.

In the big gallery were metal staircases with projectors on top, some of which revolved. They showed fuzzy, vague images mostly of a pencil point moving on paper, sometimes with accompanying scratchy sounds. You could also heard sounds coming from microphones under the air handling system vents that run along the floor of the building. Shelves occupied one very long wall, that square shelving you often see in museum shops because it holds both books and objects well. Maybe 300 shelves, each with two or more papier maché hands, all in shades of beige and taupe. The attendant suggests that you may touch or try on the hands. I tried moving them around; I couldn’t fit my hand into them. Following the shelves down the wall you come to a small gallery with a piano inside, which you are welcome to play.

Going downstairs, we watched another attendant playing with a gadget that had four little metal balls on a small platform. She was busily rotating the platform so the balls rolled around on it. A microphone caught the sound of the balls rolling and magnified and broadcast it. If the attendant touched the microphone one of the pianos would play a few notes. She encouraged us to play with this gadget, which she was only demonstrating. She explained also that there is a second piano in the downstairs gallery and the two pianos are somehow connected so that sometimes playing one will activate the other. People signing in activate them also, as did touching her microphone.

On the top floor is a large table covered with Mexican jumping beans and microphones to catch the sound when they jump. The attendant here explained that the jumping beans are refrigerated when the gallery is closed, and that there are two sets, so one is kept cool while the other is on view, in order to give them rest and delay hatching. She also explained that we could read the concordance into a microphone in that area that I imagine would broadcast through the museum, but we didn’t try it. She said the jumping beans are the only thing in the installation that visitors may not touch.

I had noticed loudspeakers outside the building that broadcast someone saying something, just one sentence. We were given the opportunity to record something for broadcast, but chose not to. As I said to the attendant, I’m really used to not touching works of art and generally prefer not to be part of an art installation, but rather to look at it from outside. Perhaps my reticence is what the exhibition is trying to counter.

So, thinking about the installation in Venice, I figure this exhibition has something to do with communication, which Director Matthias Waschek confirms in his statement: “....the project deals with the raw material of communication. Familiar forms of interaction are de-contextualized, then stitched back together into a new, poetic entity that resonates with our most basic experience.”

O.k., I can see that the attendants speak to us, the videos are visual and depict writing, there are sounds and some fragments of music, and these elements appear randomly, without meaning. I could appreciate that the installation is subtly interactive, but none of the things I was invited to touch or play actually seemed like fun. The attendants were very friendly and talking with them was the best part of the project for me. Is it about the pervasiveness of mindless activity in our society? The videos of writing don’t show anything written or drawn, the pianos don’t play music, the concordances are random, the paper maché hands don’t fit, jumping beans are a fascinating but pointless thing to watch.

The exhibition involves extensive collaborations with other individuals and organizations in St. Louis and it may be these associated performance programs that fill out and enrich the experience. I can imagine that richness from a distance, but am limited to the physical experience of the exhibition and its booklet for my own appreciation of the project.

Looking at the beautifully produced documentation for the project, and reading the poetry Hamilton provided for the catalogue, I can’t avoid feeling that this is important, profound, evocative, emotionally fulfilling stuff. But I remain untouched, befuddled, and disappointed at the visual and experiential emptiness of the installation. On the other hand, a month later I’m still chewing on it.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Montclair Art Museum, Montclair, New Jersey

The Montclair Art Museum, like many in the U.S., specializes in American art. For many years I had read notes about its significant collection of American Indian art, and have wanted to see it for a long time. This weekend, Tom and I were in New York for a wedding and had some free time on Saturday and a car, so we drove to Montclair to see the museum. I always have some trepidation about visiting small museums because they often do not exhibit much of their best-known collections, and I was doubly concerned when the information desk person said admission was free because some of the galleries are closed.

But the museum was a fascinating surprise. Small, with only three galleries open and only a couple more closed, it really celebrates its collection of Native American works. We looked into one small closed gallery that contained a selection of Pueblo pottery, much of it contemporary. Flanking the entrance to the larger permanent collection gallery of American Indian works were two totem poles, one dating from the beginning of the 20th century and the other from the end. This juxtaposition of older work with contemporary work in similar style, format, or media, is a recurring trope in the Montclair installations. I found it instructive and compelling, giving one a chance to think about change and continuity and permitting me to focus my attention on two objects at a time. Immediately inside the American Indian Gallery was a pairing of shirts, one from the early 20th century, made of buckskin with fringes, horsehair tassles, beautifully geometric beadwork, and significant traces of paint. The other, similar in form, consisted of color photographs, plastic rings and strips, compact disks, computer chips and other manufactured media. I neglected to write down the artist's name and the website does not give a caption for the images of it. And all I can do is link to the Native American collections at the website, where images of the front and back of the shirt come up eventually.

The museum labels say the American Indian collection initially had some 2000 objects (there are 4000 now); fewer than 200 were on view, but they represent an obviously impressive collection. There were three groupings: ceremonial objects, everyday objects, and collectible objects. Each of them is a superb example of its genre and each is adequately, if briefly described in the labels. I was especially taken by some of the northwest headdresses and contemporary masks, as well as the feathered Pomo baskets, among the traditional works. Among the collector’s items is a beautiful small jar by the great Hopi potter Nampeyo with an unusual design. Marcus Amerman’s Indian in a Bottle evoked stereotypes of Indians and was a surprise as a glass sculpture by an artist primary known for his beadwork. Three pots, one by each of the Folwell family, are excellent examples of their innovative designs, and the Diego Romero bowl depicts a grisly moment in the history of the Pueblo relationship to the Spanish invaders rather than his more humorous contemporary subjects.

The surprise of the museum, and its distinguishing and distinguished characteristic, however, is the complete integration of American Indian, African American, and Anglo American painting and sculpture in the exhibitions of the permanent collection and the museum handbook, Selected Works. On view was an exhibition of landscapesEngaging with Nature: American and Native American Artists (A.D. 1200-2004)(May 16, 2010 - September 25, 2011) and we could glimpse the installation in progress of a show of portraiture. In both exhibitions my sense was of nearly equal percentages of Native American and Anglo-American works. Selected Works makes the diversity of the collections even more evident, with strong images of important works by Latino, African-American, Native American, and Anglo artists constantly interspersed in the section on American painting and sculpture and then a separate American Indian section for work in other media.

When we got back to Kansas I found a review of the show in the online New Jersey section of the New York Times. The writer rightly criticized the landscape exhibition for its repeated use of words like “spiritual” and “sublime,” and suggested that it needed a more specific and nuanced discussion of the context for the works, addressing the diverse points of view of the American Indian and non-Indian makers. On the other hand, I was most impressed that the exhibition provided some quotations from the artists about their work and addressed each work without forcing it into a stereotypical slot of interpretation. Indeed, the spectacular Shasta doctor’s basket may not exactly belong in a landscape exhibition, but it is an extraordinary object and I’m so glad I got to see it. Major paintings by Emmi Whitehorse, Kay Walkingstick, Dan Namingha and Tony Abeyta held their own with those of Hans Hofmann, early Mark Rothko and Oscar Bluemner. I read and enjoyed the labels explaining the Louise Lawler and Hiroshi Sugimoto photographs. We loved the Charles Simonds imagined tiny ancient American ruin, suspended horizontally in a vitrine and were surprised to find a drawing by our hometown Baldwin City, Kansas artist Stephen Graber displayed next to the Louise Lawler photograph. If you want to see the label texts, object list, and a few images, they are available online.

In a side gallery I loved the juxtaposition of Dan Namingha and Allan Houser sculptures with The Whirlwind by J. Scott Hartley and Harriet Frismuth’s Joy of the Waters, as I love the pairing of Allan Houser with Melvin Edwards in Selected Works. And Philip Pearlstein opposite Carrie Mae Weems.

Critics, artists, and art historians often complain about the lack of diversity in art museum collections. Many museums have exhibitions or set aside areas for works by subgroups of the American population. I cannot think of another general art museum in this country that is displaying such full diversity and integration of works of art in meaningful, engaging, and even thought-provoking ways.

Finally, the museum has a small gallery with a fine selection of paintings by George Inness (1825-1894), who lived his last eleven years in Montclair (we saw a school named after him while searching for the museum). Inness is an artist I’ve never warmed to, but Montclair’s simple explanation of his association with Barbizon painting and then with the theories of Swedenborgianism that natural forms are manifestations of the divine (Selected Works, p. 39), as well as the range and beauty of their Inness paintings, has opened my mind to his possibilities.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Marc Leuthold ceramics at the Daum Museum

The Daum Museum has been at State Fair Community College in Sedalia, Missouri, about an hour from Kansas City, since 2001. Despite its reputation for excellent collections and exhibitions, I could never remember to make a visit until we were on our way to St. Louis this past weekend. (Because of photography restrictions, I can only show the outside of the museum, but have made links to many of the works we saw.)

There we saw parts of the permanent collection and the remains of a lovely and engaging exhibition of ceramic sculpture by Marc Leuthold. The exhibition was scheduled to close in April but most of it was still on view in August. Of the large installation that had been the centerpiece of the exhibition we saw only the remains: a kind of mobile of white porcelain irregular discs installed in a large light-filled gallery with Coretta Scott King's recollection of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech stencilled in a single line of text completely around the wall. Photos of the complete installation are still at the Daum website accessed through Leuthold's website. I had never heard of this artist and find from the Daum website that the museum director was a student at the State University of New York at Potsdam, where Leuthold is an assistant professor. I have a soft spot for that place because some 33 years ago I declined to be an assistant professor of art history there, choosing to work at the Yale University Art Gallery instead. But I digress.

I was very much drawn to Leuthold's sculptures, particularly to the whole, broken, and partial disks that seemed to be made of thin leaves of porcelain but certainly were sliced rather than layered. The justapositions of the slices with the smooth centers or edges, of bulk vs. delicacy, and the polished or matte finishes of whole discs and partial discs, are both pleasing and calming. I want one. They encourage abstract contemplation at the same time their sensuality invites caressing. Other, smaller sculptures resembled flowers or appeared to consist of the slices piled together; these partially glazed and pale colored tangles also engaged  me.

The museum itself is a contemporary building with very nicely proportioned galleries with varied ceiling heights on three levels. Natural light fills the stairwell and filters into some of the galleries, in a good way. The purple Chihuly chandelier in the stairwell seems de rigeur for this part of the country (think they should trade it for the orange one at K-State). The permanent collection on display downstairs included most of the signature color field artists of the 1970s: Jules Olitski, Larry Poons, Friedel Dzubas, Gene Davis, Dan Christensen, Robert Goodnough, Walter Darby Bannard, and a gorgeously turquoise Helen Frankenthaler, Trespass, 1974. Additionally there were prints by Rauschenberg, Rosenquist, Chuck Close, and Sol Lewitt. The museum collection via Dr. Daum  also focuses on ceramic sculpture and the permanent display included a Michael Lucero and a large Ron Nagle.

Works on view on the top floor included major artists, several of them from this area, with ceramic works by Jim Leedy, Ken Ferguson and Don Reitz and two dimensional works either made or donated by Kansas City area people. In a gallery adjacent to the museum a small exhibition of 8 works created with the use of computers also included some interesting regional artists - Jim Sajovic and Larry Thomas to name two - and had very clear and informative labels.

Outside the museum Tom and I were intrigued by a large ceramic sculpture by John Balistreri, several segments fired in and reflecting the shape and use of the anagama kiln, the huge wood-fired kilns used in some traditional Japanese and Korean ceramic firing.  Not only do the segments show the shape of the kiln and the colors of anagama-fired clay, but they also contained fragments of cups and bowls that might have been fired in such a large kiln.  We took several pictures.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Auschwitz-Birkenau

An underlying theme of our Europe trip became World War II and the Holocaust, independent of any plan we may have had. From the ballet in Prague of "Faust" set in Nazi Germany, to the rebuilt Dresden, to the depopulated ghettos in Prague and Krakow we kept being reminded of what had been done and suffered in this part of Europe. Of course the culmination was our day in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Oswiecim.

I decided that there's nothing I can add to the literature on Auschwitz based on a day there. So I thought I'd just post a few pictures and mention a couple of logistical aspects. Much helpful materials is on the Auschwitz website. Although visits to Auschwitz are free and it has been possible to make a self-guided tour, it is now required that visitors in the summer take the guided tours, a way of managing the crowds. We took an English-language tour. It was our first experience with the tour in where the guide speaks normally and you hear it on headphones. This was most effective, as you could hear her no matter where you were, although I got a bit confused when I was three rooms back. Because of the guided tour, we did not get to read many of the labels or enter all the buildings, which I only discovered on the website back home.

You don't go to Auschwitz and not Birkenau; they are different, and Birkenau is much bigger..

Auschwitz:
Work Makes you Free. The sign had been recently stolen and badly damaged, so this is a copy.

No man's land.

Sign outside a barrack.

We were surprised at how solid the buildings are.

We were not permitted to photograph inside buildings at Auschwitz. We saw the piles of hair, shoes, brushes, eyeglasses, prosthetics, suitcases, the insignia, prison garb, meals, torture cells. Photographs of prisoners on the interior building walls gave their name, date of entry and date of death. Generally prisoners survived about 3 months there. In the 1970s the Khmer Rouge similarly photographed the prisoners in their death camps in Cambodia.

Birkenau:
Barracks - each bunk layer was intended to hold 6 people
Train tracks. You can barely see the camp entrance at the end of the tracks and the single boxcar on the siding where people were divided into slave laborers and those to be gassed.
Ruined barracks. Most of were torn down a long time ago, but the chimneys remain.

Entrance to the "dressing room" for the gas chamber/crematorium.
Ruin of gas chamber/crematorium'

Plan showing efficiency of gas chamber/crematorium
View of Birkenau from entrance watch tower.
View from watch tower of brick buidings.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Hotels Europe, Prague - Hotel Paris

Hotel Paris ($130 including breakfast, free wifi in lobby and bar)

For our last two nights in Prague, we splurged and booked a room in the Hotel Paris. The Paris is an old art nouveau hotel, built in 1905 or so and it retains many of its old fixtures and decorations on the exterior and interior. The rooms have dark wood trim, broadstriped padded fabric wall coverings and a settee with art nouveau patterned green upholstery. As in all the other hotels, the bathroom fixtures are new and functioned well; here they are faux marble and the sink is scalloped.















The lovely sunlit Sarah Bernhardt dining room has historic lamps, mosaic walls, some mother of pearl inlay in the wood paneling. The buffet breakfast is extraordinary among a lot of excellent morning meals – three areas of different types of food, one of meat (including herring rollups, pate, and ham), cheese, cold fruits and vegetables, yogurt and an omelet bar; one of cereals and pastries; and a third with fried and scrambled eggs,, bacon, three kinds of sausage, grilled vegetables, mushrooms, tomatoes, and fried potatoes.

Across the street is the municipal building with interiors designed by the Prague artist Alphonse Mucha, so the entire neighborhood is art nouveau. Looking out the window at breakfast I spotted the shop across the street where we purchased some lovely fabric for chair covers.

Veranakova and Bem
Ivan Stepan, Blue Dream
This last day in Prague was dedicated for the most part to making decisions about our glass purchases. We decided on three objects. The first two were among the first we had seen on our first day in Prague; a sculpture by the partners Ivana Vranakova and Stanislav Bem both of whom studied and have degrees from the glass school at Novy Bor (above), and another glass work by Ivan Stepan (below). These were at the Galerie Brehova, which we remembered from our previous visit to Prague. Many of the glass galleries we thought we would visit have closed since our last time in Prague..
 
Eva Vlckova, Blue Shape
On that first day we had also been very taken by an exhibition at the Gallery Havelka of recent work by the artist Eva Vlckova. I particularly liked a work titled Blue Shape, and Tom and I returned to see it and other works by her several times. It was only after we returned to Kansas that he figured out that we can repair our broken mower instead of getting a new one and therefore we could add Blue Shape to our collection. We did not meet the artist, but received a photo of her holding our sculpture just before it was shipped.

From the sublime to the ridiculous: We celebrated by having dinner at the lovely, and expensive Mlynec Restaurant, by the Charles Bridge. On the way back to the hotel I spied a blue glass donkey in a tchotchke shop. We had to go to the cash machine for an additional $10, but we've added it to my slowly growing collection. This relieved Tom of hearing any further rants on this trip about how all the shops have glass elephants, but never glass donkeys, and from being further concerned about our decision against buying the miniature antique silver donkey encrusted with rubies we had noticed earlier in the trip.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Hotels - Europe V, Krakow

Rezydent Hotel, Krakow ($72.06, including breakfast and wifi)

From Wrocław we continued on the highway across a region of flat farmland to Krakow, where we the Rezydent Hotel is on a one way street leading out from the main square in which traffic is strictly prohibited. There was no way to get to the hotel by car, so we finally parked in a small lot down a narrow alley and walked to it. We had fortuitously parked in the hotel’s designated lot. Parking in that lot cost 80 zlotys (about $27) a day, increasing the daily cost to $99. We brought our bags up from the car. Up two flights of stairs, out a door and across a balcony and in through another door, our room was small and plain but clean and modern, with an excellent new bathroom and a flat screen tv. The only soap was in those wall dispensers that are ecologically correct, but I prefer bar soap and shampoo. The only window opened onto the walkway, so there was no privacy when we opened the curtains. With only a fan, this made it a bit stuffy on warm nights. The front desk staff seemed sullen and not particularly helpful until our third day, when a very helpful woman appeared. Breakfast is two doors down the street, the usual meat cheese, hard boiled and scrambled eggs, sausage, bread, condiments, and juice. In the warm weather walking outside to get to the room and to breakfast was pleasant, but in winter or in rainstorms it might not be very appealing. The hotel has many rooms, some served by an elevator. We were unable to see other rooms, but were informed that we had been upgraded to a superior double. The hotel is very close to the main square and lots of good restaurants and cafes.

Our first evening we found a lovely restaurant on the square with a fine view of St. Mary's church. A few minutes after we sat down, the hour struck and the bugler who plays his plaintive melody every hour opened his window and played. It's the upper window in the left tower; I took the photograph from my seat in the restaurant. We heard the bugle several more times during our stay













The art museum in Krakow is closed for renovation. Looking for a museum, we decided to check out the one devoted to the Krakow playwright, stage designer, poet and artist Stanislaw Wyspianski (1869-1907). The museum displayed several drawings and paintings of Wyspianski, as well as designs for stained glass windows and wall decorations for the renovation of St. Mary’s church in Krakow. Upon leaving the museum, we happened on St. Francis church, whose walls are covered with Wyspianski’s floral designs and angels and which has amazing stained-glass windows by Wyspianski. These all-encompassing designs reflect both the concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk and the decorative style of art nouveau and the Arts and Crafts movement. Both St. Mary’s and this church are amazing in their rich, darkly colored overall patterned decoration.














We visited Wawel Castle and toured one section of rooms.If you’ve never seen a castle before, it’s probably great. We had. The nearby cathedral houses the tombs of the kings of Poland, and some of them are major monuments, particularly Veit Stoss's red stone tomb of Casimir IV Jagiello.


We also walked around the area of Kazimierz, the former Jewish ghetto, visited the High Synagogue, displaying photographs of pre-World War II Jewish life in Krakow, had a glass of wine on the square there and had dinner at a peculiar little Jewish restaurant, Once Upon a Time in Kazimierz (Szeroka 1), that occupies three shops whose walls have been removed but the spaces still display items that relate to the previous businesses – woodworking tools, sewing machines and clothing.. The name of the place is so obscure that the people in the restaurant next door did not know where it was.

Our second day in Krakow we spent at Auschwitz-Birkenau, not something one can just write about here. Appropriately, it was the only day we had clouds and rain.
Afterwards, we went to a concert of Bach and Chopin in a palace, then had an extravagant dinner at Restaurant Wierzynek. We ate in one of their beautiful interior rooms, where a monumental painting depicts the historic 1364 banquet the owner served to celebrate the marriage between Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV and the granddaughter of Polish King Casimir the Great.

Everywhere in the country we saw evidence of the strong commitment to Catholicism in Poland, from the many mentions of, and monuments to, the Polish Pope John Paul II to the enormous attendance at church services and the numerous extravagantly decorated medieval, baroque, and nineteenth-century churches. One reason I decided to go to Krakow was to see the Veit Stosz altarpiece of the Life of the Virgin in St. Mary’s church there. We tried a couple of times to go in, but they were always in the middle of services, so finally on the day we were leaving we paid admission to see the altarpiece closed, and then opened. A nun comes out, takes a pole with a hook on the end, and drags each wing opn. The change from exterior to interior is striking, since the huge twice life-size inside figures of the death and Assumption of the Virgin are brightly gilt. It, and the elaborately decorated church (by Wyspianski, among others) were worth the wait.
 

While we waited for the St. Mary's Church to open, we stopped by the Historical Museum of the City of Krakow, which sounded idly interesting in the guidebook. There was a special exhibition of the history of Poland from 1768 to 1815, a time during which Poland was divided among Russia, Germany and Austria. The exhibition made a  very complex subject engaging by using the metaphor of a football game, starting with a locker room with cabinets displaying important tools and historical objects, then identifying the players, the teams, and the coaches and providing a historical score chart. Of course, the exhibition was especially effective since we saw it at the time of some of the important games of the World Cup. Everywhere we went, people gathered in plazas, cafes, and restaurants to watch the games and after each game the winners' constituents would parade through the streets cheering and singing patriotic songs. On our last day, in Prague, Germans wrapped in their flag were everywhere, only to disappear after Spain defeated Germany.

Krakow is more than six hours driving from Prague. The guidebooks say to stick to the highways wherever possible because the smaller roads are full of slow traffic and congestion in the multiple towns and villages along the way. This is completely true and the scenery on the smaller roads is not interesting enough to make up for the frustrating delays. Nonetheless, we got to Prague in about 8 hours despite frequent driving rain.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Travel and Blogging

This is the first time I've written about a trip, rather than focus on reviewing the art and art exhibitions we traveled to see, and I've discovered some benefits, a sort of "Why we travel, and blog later." I'm taking a break in the sequence to mention three of the many things that have I've learned in the process, and to acknowledge the usefulness of the Internet for broadening my knowledge about anything. It's great when you can Google the name of a Polish artist you never heard of and find extensive information on his or her work, plus additional images. And it's frustrating when you get virtually nothing.

First, Augustus the Strong, the Elector of Saxony and King of Poland who was responsible for a huge portion of the amazing art collections in Dresden. I'm still learning about the political situation during his reign and about his art patronage, as well as trying to understand the complex map of northern Europe during his day (Italian Renaissance politics begins to seem simple and straightforward compared to that of the area that would become Germany.) I learned that he was called Augustus the Strong because of his great strength, illustrated by the fact that he could win at fox tossing using just his pinkie finger. Fox tossing?

We went to the ossuary in Sedlec, near Kutna Hora in Czech Republic. In graduate school my colleagues would talk about the macabre chapel in Rome on the Via Veneto, and I just now recall that there was also one in Milan. I'd never taken the time from my research focus to visit them, so Sedlec was a first. Now I'm hoping to get to some of the others. The Web provides extensive information, history, and pictures of several bone chapels.

Third, in the National Museum in Wroclaw I was attracted to a very large 19th century painting by an artist I'd never heard of, Wilhelm Leopolski (1826, 28 or 30-1892). I'll put in my snapshots here, but there are multiple images on the Web and you can buy reproductions in various sizes and styles. I was attracted by the huge size of the painting, its historical-style subject, and the very fresh paint handling, possibly visible in my detail of his hand and drapery. The title is The Death of Acernus, 1867. Thinking this must be some classical subject that I'd never heard of, I started Googling Acernus, only to find that it is the Latin pseudonym for a Polish writer and poet of the second half of the sixteenth century, Sebastian Fabian Klonowic, who was called "the Sarmation Ovid." He died in the public hospital in Lublin, Poland. Most of his works were burned by the nobles and the Jesuits and the rest are scarce. There seems to have been a significant interest in him in the mid-19th century. Not reading Polish, I haven't found more information beyond lists of the titles of his works. There are two other versions of this painting, one in the Lviv Art Gallery (Lvov), Ukraine. I've found almost nothing about Leopolski except the many reproductions of his paintings.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Hotels - Europe IV – Wrocław

Wrocław, Art Hotel ($99.53, breakfast included)

For our one night in Wrocław, mainly as a break in the drive to Krakow, we decided to try another art hotel, this one not related to the first. The Art Hotel in Wrocław is recommended in all our guidebooks and in the New York Times recent article on Wrocław. Based on that Times article, we were tempted to spend more time in Wrocław until I noticed that all the attractions it mentioned seemed to be bars and restaurants in seedy corners, rather than art museums and historic sites.

Wrocław seemed to me at first to be exactly what I’d expected of Poland, depressed and worn with poorly dressed people who rarely smile. Compared to Dresden with its new and clean buildings, it seemed depressing, especially since Wrocław was a German city till after World War II, when the Germans were driven out and replaced by east Polish people from Lvov, which is now Lviv in the Ukraine. I imagine if the Germans had it now, it would be much further restored. But it does have its significant assets, and at the restaurant Lwowska, where we had delicious food from Lvov, the waiter was cheerful and very enthusiastic about his city.

The Art Hotel has a lovely façade with a very plain lobby and a nice enough breakfast room. Our room was tiny compared to the others we had had, but with two nice windows that open, and air conditioning. The furniture is modern style, sturdy, and blond. The bed was a bit firm, but again I fell asleep before I could worry about it. A fine bathroom with a shower, good fluffy towels and washcloths, soap and shampoo provided, but no bidet. Very close to the beautiful and enormous main square that is far prettier than the larger and more popular one in Krakow, the hotel provides easy access to one of the best sights in a city that is still full of crumbling structures and in much need of repair and renewal. The buildings on the square have the fanciful facades one associates with Renaissance and baroque art, while those in Krakow are more classical and straightlined.


Another appealing area is across the Odra River, past some islands where lots of people stroll in the evening, in the cathedral region. Hung from the frame of one of the bridges we found hundreds of padlocks. It’s the Tumski Bridge and lovers lock a padlock there and throw the key in the river, symbolizing their intent on lifelong commitment. The Cathedral merits a look for its dramatic gothic architecture, exterior gothic sculpture and baroque altars and fittings indoors.

Here I should mention that although I’m referring to visiting at least one church in each town, I actually visit almost every church I see, looking for architecture, sculpture, paintings, and sometimes stained glass. We visited two other churches in Wrocław; one is looking for a new organ (the last one, the biggest one in Poland, was destroyed in a 1976 fire) and another was near the cathedral and had a quite plain gothic interior. In Prague we went to both St. Nicholas churches and both are spectacular examples of late baroque architecture and interior embellishment, with abundant elaborate altarpieces and sculpture. While I occasionally skip a church in northern Europe, I go to all of them in Italy, because there’s always something to see. This practice does not work so well in the United States, although I do love the Tiffany windows at the Presbyterian Church in Topeka.

On our second day we decided to visit the National Museum of Wrocław, the art museum - even though it was not much recommended in the guidebooks - its collection dedicated to Polish and Silesian art from the 14th century to the 19th century and contemporary Polish Art. First we looked at the medieval tombs and stone sculptures on the ground floor, where Tom would later snap a picture of a bride and groom having their wedding portrait taken in the closed courtyard.

Then, on the top floor we found a large room displaying several major works by Magdalena Abakanovicz, the important Polish fiber artist. She is known for here large groups of headless figures made of fiber, sometimes cast in bronze (There's a group of them outside the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City.) These early works by her alone would be worth the price of admission, even if the museum were not free on Wednesday.

We were overwhelmed by quality and power of other modern and contemporary Polish works on view, thinking these artists should be better known. Most notable was Wladyslaw Hasior (1928-99) an important Polish artist represented here by several dark and gripping 1960s assemblages using found objects.

Jozef Szajna (1922-2008), a renowned stage designer who was a prisoner at Auschwitz and Buchenwald during World War II, is represented by the sculpture of multiple huge boots, each with a nail driven through it, titled Drang nach Osten, Drang nach Westen (Push to the East , Push to the West), 1987.

Alina Szapocznikow (1926-1973), trained as a sculptor after spending World War II as a prisoner at Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Terezin concentration camps. She represented Poland in the Venice Biennale in 1962 and the next year began making works incorporating casts of parts of her own body and depicting tumors that referred to the breast cancer that eventually killed her.

Polish Modernism seemed comparable to the better-known European and American abstract works. While the perfectly respectable paintings in the historical galleries were somewhat less inspiring, the medieval wood sculptures and the large sculpted and painted altarpieces taken from churches gave evidence of the city’s stunningly beautiful and rich religious past.