Sunday, May 11, 2014

Gorey at LUMA

Of course it goes without saying that the Edward Gorey exhibition at LUMA was going to be good. After all, if you're a fan of Edward Gorey (as I most certainly am) you know you're going to enjoy seeing the artwork. So, on a sunny Sunday afternoon, fighting through the throngs of tourists littering Chicago's Gold Coast, I found my way into LUMA for the first time. The courteously quiet museum provided the perfect environment to wander through the five-room exhibit. The exhibit was extremely well designed, sparing no detail. Indeed, even the walls were painted Gorey-style.

I, of course, immediately recognized Edward Gorey's Thoughtful Alphabets and imagery from The Doubtful Guest. However, I had completely forgotten that Edward Gorey illustrated my childhood favorite, T.S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. Additionally, I was unaware of Gorey's interest in Dracula. I learned that he was commissioned to do the costumes and set design for a theatre production of Dracula in the early 1970s, which in turn inspired a series of Dracula-themed drawings. LUMA's exhibit highlights the diversity and range of Edward Gorey's career making it a "can't miss" exhibit for anyone that enjoys his work. And if, like me, you find yourself wanting to take a piece of Gorey home with you, the gift shop features some very nice Edward Gorey mugs.

The Edward Gorey exhibit runs until June 15, 2014. Loyola University Museum of Art is located at 820 N. Michigan avenue in Chicago, Illinois. 

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Book of Spectres at Chicago Dramatists

Two of my favorite things are Romanticism and ghost stories, so when I heard about Grey Ghost Theatre's production of The Book of Spectres, I could not miss it. A modest turnout in the Chicago Dramatists' intimate theatre, I settled in for what would turn out to be a pleasant Saturday evening's entertainment.

The story begins with some rather notorious figures: Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and the lesser known Claire Clairmont and John William Polidori. The group is forced to stay inside due to infamously bad weather and, no doubt inspired in part by the Romantic inclination towards the mysterious, start reading ghost stories. This coincides with a sudden and mysterious stranger that appears at their door with little recollection of who she is or how she got there. She appears quite mad and the audience can't help but suspect she may herself be an apparition.

The beautifully costumed performers do an impeccable job of not only playing the main characters, but also acting out the various ghost stories. As some of the ghost stories have stories within the stories, this is no small feat. The mark of a thespian's skill is in her ability to believably play radically different roles and the entire cast does this skillfully. Hilary Holbrook brings a vibrant energy to the stage as Claire Clairmont while Maggie McCally is able to seamlessly slip into a wide variety of roles. The talented cast works hard at overcoming the consistently neutral set design. Still, at points, a few more props might help focus the audience as they act out the more multi-layered ghost stories.

The overall ambience is haunting and surreal, often making good use of lighting and sound effects. This is most pronounced whenever an apparition appears. Given the brightness of the default lighting, the transitions are nothing short of dramatic. It almost makes up for the lack of props in the second ghost story. The ghost stories were intriguing and the actors were at their best when performing the more dark and dramatic of these pieces.

Somewhat out of place was the story of the peacock king. Between the slapstick acting and the fairy tale quality of the narrative, I couldn't help but wonder why they chose to include it. The play could have been strengthened by cutting the peacock king story out and developing more of the historical elements of the featured Romantic writers. The intellectualism of these figures was nearly absent, as was their decadence. I think if the literary backdrop were more developed and the peacock story cut, it would be a truly phenomenal work.

That said, I would recommend it to anyone that enjoys ghost stories or is simply in the mood for a Halloween-themed play. It's a good production that they obviously put a lot of effort into, and their passion for the project was obvious. I enjoyed the show and would gladly see any future productions by Grey Ghost Theatre.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Hypocrites' Production of Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher."

On the evening of September 17th, hurrying to get out of the rain, I found my way into the maze-like structure that was Chopin Theatre. Wandering downstairs and finding the theatre seating not yet open, I lingered in the waiting area as the crowd poured into the sparsely seated lobby. Finally, a few minutes after the play was due to begin, a booming voice called out "Seating is now open!" In a manner more often found in airports than theatres, the crowd clamored to get into the small stage area as they competed to find decent seats for the sold out show. I took my seat and eagerly awaited the start of theater troupe The Hypocrites' rendition of Edgar Allen Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher.

Within moments of the show starting, it became apparent that the most frightening scene I would get to experience that evening would be the nighttime rain I fought through on the way in. In the opening scene, the maid greeted a visitor--Usher's childhood friend. Neither the maid nor The Visitor delivered their lines in the atmospheric fashion one might expect from a production of Poe, but rather assaulted the audience with exaggerated, even slapstick, exclamations. One was equally taken aback by The Visitor's zombie-like makeup, whose whiteness was far more dramatic than the supposedly pale Usher. With a fisherman-like accent, the chambermaid delivered her lines with manic ferocity, and one thing was communicated to the audience: this was not a play to be taken seriously.

As the play progressed, the trademark Poe subtlety was apparent. The tragic end was alluded to by the dripping faucet, first noticed by the maid and then shown to The Visitor by Usher. As The Visitor began to go mad with an unnamed fear, the maid foreshadowed what was to come through cryptic utterances which she would then distance herself from by stating, "Oh, I'm just talking about the weather." The bad weather intensified with the tension, a metaphor for all that was going wrong. The Visitor's deteriorating appearance created a profound mood of Angst and despair. Unfortunately, each well executed moment was compromised by the near-constant attempt to make the work cliched and comedic. Just when the suspense might draw you in with a few choice somber moments and a startling clap of thunder, the three central characters would scream in cartoonish fashion, often followed by childlike quips from the maid. We weren't so much seeing a rendition of Poe as a parody of him.

If one knows only two things about Poe it should be this: Poe was terrified of being buried alive and Poe made the ordinary frightening. Sean Graney's The Fall of the House of Usher, by contrast, made the frightening ordinary, even banal. This was most obvious in the final scene, when Lady Madeleine came back for vengeance. In this scene, it became apparent that Usher not only had an incestuous relationship with his ailing sister prior to The Visitor's arrival, but that when he declared her dead, he had actually buried her alive. There are two ways that Graney could have gone with this scene to make it powerful. One way would have been by not restricting the dark and ominous ambience to setting but expand it into the acting as well. Had he done this, by the time the great revelation came, we would have been in such suspense that the final scene could not fail to generate awe. The other way Graney could have gone would have been to tease out the final scene some more, giving a more thorough unfolding of events, to demonstrate the importance this no doubt held for Poe--and the importance it ought to have for us, as viewers. Graney, however, did neither of these things, making the ending seem rushed. By the time the production concluded, I couldn't help but wonder if Graney was giving an alternate interpretation of Poe or if he simply had failed to understand him.

*"His" here refers to the character, not the actress.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Ai Weiwei and China's Art World

In a typically bold move, Ai Weiwei has declared that "China's art world does not exist." What he appears to mean is that when the government prevents artists from expressing dissenting views, that it is not possible to have any true art, as this hinders all but the most commercial, sanitized, non-controversial works. Efforts by the western world to present Chinese artists are therefore inauthentic, as the work that is presented fails to address the serious issues in Chinese society today. Ai Weiwei states:

I am very familiar with the work of most of the artists in the show. Their work is certainly Chinese but, overall, the show casts no critical eye. It is like a restaurant in Chinatown that sells all the standard dishes, such as kung pao chicken and sweet and sour pork. People will eat it and say it is Chinese, but it is simply a consumerist offering, providing little in the way of a genuine experience of life in China today.

Is the problem that the work itself is artificial or is the problem that the work fails to address political issues? It appears that Ai Weiwei sees the two as interdependent. It is by failing to address political issues that the art is rendered inauthentic. That these artists are billed as representative of the Chinese art world no doubt plays a role in this assessment. He states,

 But any show curated without respect for the people's struggle, without concern for an artist's need for honest self-expression, will inevitably lead to the wrong conclusion. Anything that calls itself a cultural exchange is artificial when it lacks any critical content. What's needed is open discussion, a platform for argument. Art needs to stand for something.

Ai Weiwei, having experienced considerable persecution in trying to express his own criticisms of the Chinese government, clearly has first hand experience with having his own self-expression restricted. It is hard to deny that a repressive regime greatly hinders artistic (as well as intellectual) advancement, but can we go so far as to say that there is no art world? This rests on a fundamental belief, one which has always made me a tad squeamish, that "all art is political." Here, it seems, that it's not just that art is restricted, but rather that it is impossible, since art robbed of political content is mere consumerism.

It's not my intention to deny the influence of repression on art, but rather to question the thought-provoking and admittedly controversial claim that the art world of China can't exist due to repression. If it's the case that art is inexorably linked to its political context (which the politicizing of art appears to do) then all art is fundamentally historical. I don't mean historical in the broad sense (as all art is, to some extent) but tied to the most significant political events and conditions of the time and can't be appreciated or remembered outside of the political conditions existing at that point in time.

Yet, while that seems to be the case in some situations, do we want to say that work that doesn't reflect this political orientation is consumerism? Can a sharp line between politics and consumerism in art ever truly be drawn? For example, Diego Rivera's work was overtly political and he is still seen as an icon for the working man, due to his depiction of laborers. Edvard Munch (as Jay A. Clarke points out in his book, Becoming Edvard Munch: Influence, Anxiety and Myth) can be traced to having capitalized on the popularity of paintings portraying anxiety and melancholy, and his work had a striking similarity to similar works of art from that time. Even if we wanted to attribute a lesser status of artistic expression for Munch, can we really rob him of status entirely?

 First, the line between commercial artist and artist/activist will thin with enough time and notoriety. It is an admittedly small consolation price that the artist persecuted under a repressive regime inadvertently attracts international art world attention, not just to their political situation, but to themselves as significant artists. At the same time, even the artist with commercial aspirations cannot be entirely separate from the influence of the collective. This is not asserting the impossibility of originality (a position I abhor) nor is it asserting that the collective is explicitly or exclusively political. Rather, that there are certain influences in the over-arching society that the artist can not help but be influenced by, and that these influences can be personal and subjective or they can be overtly political or both.

Let's return to Munch for a moment. Okay, so let's say that Munch really was heavily influenced by the art world and was not seeking cathartic self-expression so much as commercial success. Even if that's true, we must ask ourselves: why this theme? Why was it that emotional states such as anxiety and melancholy were popular and why was it that Munch sought to capitalize upon them? At the time when Munch began the various versions of The Scream, it was roughly half a decade after the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard wrote The Concept of Anxiety yet still a few decades before the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, introduced Angst in Being and Time. The very themes that Munch latched onto had risen to collective status, a fundamental part of artistic, philosophical and literary movements at the time. His intent aside, his work was a unique part of his era and his location.

I would argue that artistic movements are not inherently political, but they are inherently collective. In other words, while political expression ought to be allowed and supported, they are only one manifestation of creative expression and that underneath all forms of artistic expression--be they political, commercial or self-referential--lies a collective spirit unique to geographic and temporal locations which molds the manner of expression and gives it a distinctive quality. We can criticize the Chinese government on ethical grounds but we can't deny the validity of the Chinese art world since every form of self-expression is uniquely tied to the distinct era in which the artist finds herself. Distinctions between "critical" and "commercial" works miss the underlying current which is a fundamental part of the artists' psyches and which, decades from now, will make itself apparent exactly what everyone was trying to say. 

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Alibi Fine Art 2011 Summer Group Exhibition

On July 9, 2011 I had the distinct pleasure of attending Alibi Fine Art's summer exhibition, which featured the works of such talented photographers as Sebrina Fassbender, Jacqueline Langelier, Jessie Seib and Sigri Strand. It was a well attended show, in an atmosphere that was classy yet cordial and appropriately understated.

Sigri Strand's stunning cinematic-style photographs evoke an ominous sense of mystery remnant of such horror giants as Dario Argento. Whether it's a stretched out hand in the red-drenched Answer the Telephone or a tentative step into some lurking danger in The Stairs, a sense of foreboding accompanies each image. Strand's artist statement expresses an interest in archetypes of film and a subsequent interest in horror. The goal has been effectively achieved, as Strand's photographs capture the aesthetics of film in a manner that is poignant, subtle and refined.

Jacqueline Langelier's work aims to challenge the nostalgia of childhood and draw attention to its often frustrating and solitary nature by exposing the darker side of those early years. In one of her Untitled works, a sullen and dissatisfied child sits to the side of a table with haphazardly strewn and seemingly abandoned candy, as if to reject this particular childhood icon. In another Untitled work, the often-daunting experience of the child's world is exemplified by a tall, spiral staircase that seems to go into infinity.

Jessie Seib's striking images of rooms immediately drew me in. Mostly black and white with select and well-placed splashes of color, the images of the rooms are sliced and  pieced together in a  manner remnant of a jigsaw puzzle. Seib's work evokes a lonely and austere environment. In Within, the blurred image of the child's face commands attention as she sits in a run-down and nearly abandoned room. The child appears to exemplify the existential crisis to which Seib referrs in her artist's statement when she speaks of the difficulty realizing selfhood. Exceedingly intricate, upon closer examination of the photgraph, the shadowy figure of a woman by the window becomes apparent. This Place is dreamlike with its saran wrap-like overlay and its lurking, mysterious figure in the far corner of the photograph. The In-Between is equally stunning and evocative.

Last but far from being the least is the work of Sebrina Fassbender. Her work documents sex workers, many who were sexually abused and all of whom she is personally close to. She gives a stark look inside the women's lives that transcends the all-too-frequent dichotomized picture of sex workers as either completely idealized or helpless victims. To be sure, the trauma (and subsequent attempts at escapism) of her subjects is palpable, but so is their depth and beauty. The subjects are depicted in a manner that is both intimate and individual: Yolanda is stark, yet pensive and contemplative. Black fishnet juxtaposed against a vintage flower bedspread, Nicolette portrays a woman that looks both porcelain and concealed. Allegra, with her hair dripping into the photograph and her dress straps half-down on her arms conveys a figure that looks worn and weary. This compelling subject nonetheless communicates a sense of quiet desperation. Sabrina 1 and Sabrina 2 show a sharp contrast, between an anguished character surrounded by the poverty and dissolution that often accompanies life on the fringes and a more narcotized state, peering from behind a shower curtain, that looks half-sensual. Fassbender's work appears both artistic and documentary, capturing the most raw moments of her subjects in a way that is as aesthetically rich as it is emotionally expressive.

In conclusion, I highly recommend a visit to Alibi while these artists are featured. In a time when style and sensationalism often trump substance, it is a joy to see the work of four excellent artists who not only are mature in technique, but exhibit depth and authenticity in their message.

Alibi's summer exhibition will run until August 28, 2011. Alibi is located at 1966 W. Montrose in Chicago, Illinois.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Newberry Library: Illuminated Manuscripts

Illuminated manuscripts have been largely overlooked in the history of art. Playful, frequently contained in the margins of texts, illuminated manuscripts range from playful images of cats and monkeys to more traditional religious imagery.

I was fortunate enough to catch The Newberry Library's exhibit, Illuminated Manuscripts and Printed Books: French Renaissance Gems of the Newberry. Primarily focused on French manuscripts from the Renaissance era, the beautiful exhibit was contained within a small, quiet room not far from the information desk. As my husband and I were the only visitors at the time we attended, we were afforded the luxury of a slow and detailed viewing. The texts encompassed a broad range of sizes, from small pocketbooks to large tomes. The books were elegantly displayed, protected by glass and resting on a rich blue base that served to complement the fine aesthetics of the works themselves.

One of the first pieces I viewed was The Pocket Book of Hours and Breviary. This small book from 15th century France had belonged to Louis XI and Charlotte of Savoy. I was surprised by both by the smallness of the book and the intricacy of the work. Artists creating these tiny pieces were often referred to as "miniaturists" due to their ability to craft finely detailed drawings within such a limited amount of space.

Equally inspiring was Jacques Le Grand's Le livre de bonnes moeurs. Estimated as being created some time prior to 1478 in Flanders, the piece tells the story, from God's point of view, of the fallen angels. This piece was much larger in size than the one I previously viewed. It depicted an austere God watching as descending angels became demonic in appearance. The rainbow above God at the top of the image contrasted sharply with the stark gloom of hell at the bottom of the page. The image evoked sentiments of awe and mystery that one might expect to see in a painting by such figures as Rubens or Hieronymus Bosch.

Most compelling was Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso. Upon looking at the image, my gaze was immediately drawn to the centerpiece: a black bird sharply contrasted by the bright blue background. It was only after observing the piece for a few moments that the surrounding frame of faces were observed. Intricate imagery of cherubs interspersed with a horned, yet God-like, old man. The more the image is studied, the more faces become apparent; even the columns had faces etched into them. With its subtle yet finely detailed background, the piece is a fine exemplar of work from this era.

One cannot fail to get a thorough appreciation for illuminated manuscripts at this well-designed and intimate exhibit. If you're already familiar with the art form, visiting the exhibit will be a distinct pleasure. If you are new to illuminated manuscripts, then a visit to the Newberry Library will give you a newfound understanding of the artistry that was so popular in Medieval and Renaissance texts.

The Newberry Library is at 60 W. Walton in Chicago's Gold Coast. "Illuminated Manuscripts and Printed Books: French Renaissance Gems of the Newberry" closes May 27th, 2011. 

Friday, November 19, 2010

Introductory Post

This blog has been created for the purpose of reviewing art exhibits. Most (but not all) of the reviews will center around activities in Milwaukee and Chicago. I may also periodically post articles relating to the Philosophy of Art.