Retrospectives

Are you an artist?  How will your art reflect you long after you are gone?

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This past week I had the pleasure of thinking deeply about this when I attended the retrospective of a major regional artist in the Mid-Hudson area. The walls of both exhibits were hung in salon style, because literally there would not be enough wall space to show the hundreds of paintings.  Nothing in Margaret Crenson’s world was ordinary – she painted the mundane items of a kitchen in full swing canning tomatoes to the ethereal Hudson Valley landscape with the same brilliant artist’s eye.  The work utilizes a good amount of palette knife painting, which shows off her sure placement of the paint.  This prompted my thinking about how a body of work can reflect back on the life of the artist, as well as stories from collectors, neighbors and family.

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I felt fortunate to be included among the group of those that knew Margaret Crenson as a person, which helped me makes sense of the artworks surrounding me.  She seemed to have a keen wit, and a close connection with nature and animals. All of the signals coming out from her art, from the sly placement of the unexpected animal in the picture frame, to crenson-retro3the elevation of the industrial building as an object of portraiture, makes me understand that she was an artist that lived her life to the fullest – loving the world that she was a part of and leaving a world with her artistic interpretation of all that she touched.

What could be better than that?

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Lou Reed

A Sherpa in my music life – he went onward to his next destination yesterday. I am grateful for his creativity, a voice that spoke out about the American life interwoven in music.

lou-reedThank you Lou – your music wove a constant thread throughout my life.

Travels and Public Art

Recent travels took me through the Denver Airport to transfer to another flight. The first flight was delayed and feeling stressed that I would not make the connection, I was annoyed to find that I had to board a train to transfer to the next terminal. The train left and entered a tunnel where my grumpy outlook was immediately changed to delight.  Inside the tunnel were tiny shiny propellers mounted on the walls that twirled as the train moved through the tunnel.  The electric blue lighting inside the train reflected onto the propellers, adding color to a fantastic public art installation.

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Kinetic Light Curtain – photo courtesy Denver Airport

The “Kinetic Air Light Curtain” was designed by husband and wife team, Antonette Rosato and William Maxwell in 1995.  Although both artists have died in the past decade, their artwork is still fresh and continues to engage passengers. Both artists lived and worked in Denver and their design has meaning to the place:  there are 5,280 propellers in the tunnel, which signifies the altitude of Denver, known as the ‘mile high city.’

Frequently we forget to savor the moment in time when we are amazed, delighted, intrigued or mystified by art.  After I got on my connecting plane, I kept seeing those reflecting propellers around me on the runway, and thought of the power that artists have to elevate the mundane through art.

Meeting the Past – Artists Envision the Future

For the past three years, artist-curator Bibiana Huang Matheis invites the Hudson Valley regional artists to participate in the exhibit, “Meeting Past,” at the Akin Library and Museum.  There are many unique qualities about this exhibit, beginning with the site – an elegant late Victorian stone structure sited on Pawling’s Quaker Hill. The building contains historical and natural history collections year round, and the invitation to 82 contemporary artists to install their artworks among these collections energizes the space with new meaning.

Entering the building, look up and see Amy Manso’s vessels created from recyclable papers and plastics floating above your head. Her sculptural pieces are normally mounted as sculptural wall pieces, and the curator decided to suspend them at the same height as the period chandeliers.

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photo: Bibiana Huang Matheis

Directly ahead through double pocket doors, the library awaits – artworks are discretely displayed on the shelves next to the collection. On the wall, Dick Crenson’s “The First Heist,” an installation of copper wire reminiscent of a delicate line drawing, complete with Adam giving Eve a boost up to reach the apple. The library also has blue velvet tufted sofas:  a felted fabric piece by Pawling resident, Pat Corrigan is displayed as a casual throw across the back of the sofa, just like at grandma’s house.

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photo: Bibiana Huang Matheis
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photo: Bibiana Huang Matheis

After exploring the main floor, head upstairs to the local history collections of the Historical Society Museum. Here we see photos of the people who lived here 100 years ago, alongside their treasured possessions, such as the engraved gold thimble from the Akin family.  Look closely inside the glass vitrines, though, because you will be on the treasure hunt of your life as you explore the artifacts alongside the artist’s work; for instance, Jeep Johnson’s melted glass and iron sculptures fit compatibly aside the rusted rail road spikes and branding irons.  Saddles on display from 1888 now have a backdrop of Joan Blazis Levitt’s luscious horse paintings, and Elisa Pritzker’s painted antlers sit side-by-side with China pieces owned by Harriet Taber Akin. Even the windows offer a view into the past, with Cindy Snow’s “Through Grandma’s Window” casually placed on the windowsill.  As you move down to the lower floor, don’t miss Rosalind Schneider’s shimmering tree paintings placed in an alcove, appearing like an altar in a sacred space.

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photo: Bibiana Huang Matheis

Head downstairs to the lower level, which houses the Olive Gunnison Natural History Museum.  The overwhelming displays of minerals, vitrines with taxidermy animals, birds, butterflies and rocks now share space with specimen jars filled with meaningful items to Bibiana Huang Matheis, curator of this exhibit.  The jars entitled the “Soul of an Artist” contain Chinese porcelain and Virgin Mary statuettes bound together with golden thread. Placement of the objects into a bell jar creates a sense of precious preservation, causing the observer to stop and ponder why this particular object holds meaning.

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photo: Scott Marston-Reid

The opening reception had a one-time opportunity to see the performance piece presented by Jeff Johnson – an enormous bell jar with a live human woman folded neatly inside the glass.  Her 10-minute performance stints during the evening stopped the crowds with a variety of comments, from brilliant to misogynistic. Ultimately, it may have been the horror of seeing another human relegated to the aging collections of unborn animals floating in brine, stuffed birds placed in glass cases that triggered the emotional response.

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Anonymous photo by bathroom exhibit participant

Look for the music room, also located in the lower level, and step inside to hear Riva Weinstein’s installation of sounds collected from local places as you inspect the anthropological assortment of musical instruments.  This floor holds many beautiful pieces of art that speak with the objects that have been in this collection for decades, such as Leigh Williams’ honeycomb monoprints, and Liliana Washburn’s delicate paintings on Yupo Paper displayed behind glass, like much of the formerly living things now on display. While you are downstairs, don’t forget to visit the bathroom and see the “Three Mens” mini-gallery of bathroom photos featuring several decades of “Bathroom Photography” by Jeep Johnson, a sound installation by Dick Crenson, and featuring emerging documentary bathroom photographer, Scott Marston-Reid. During the opening, a camera was left in the bathroom for participants to take their own bathroom photograph – documenting their own creative vision of the bathroom.

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The Akin Free Library and Museum is located at 378 Old Quaker Hill Road, Pawling.  Hours: Friday, Saturday and Sunday – 1 to 4PM. The exhibit runs through October 27.

Pop-UP anyone?

Recent pop-up gallery - photo by Eric Townsend Photography for Queen City Arts
Recent pop-up gallery – photo by Eric Townsend Photography for Queen City Arts

Pop-Up is more than an annoying ad that jumps in front of the image that you are watching on your computer screen.  Lately the pop-up has morphed into an opportunistic entrepreneur opening a shop in an empty store for a short period of time.  Artists have also embraced this idea by bringing their artwork and creating an instant gallery exhibit with the “pop-up gallery.”  This is an exciting concept since it bypasses gatekeepers that turn away emerging artists, or artists that are experimenting with a new medium or series.

There are many empty commercial buildings in the town where I live and few places for artists to exhibit their work.  It only seemed natural to ask the owners of these spaces to borrow them for a weekend and invite artists to bring their work to create an instant art exhibit.  The instantaneous nature of the pop-up exhibits assumes that all of the artworks will somehow fit into the space, even when hanging the work salon style.  For the past year a small team of artists and arts activists have created pop-up galleries in this town – the artists have sold some work, gotten exhibition experience and local residents are cognizant of the community of artists that live here.  For a brief time, artists shared their fresh artworks, and an unfinished commercial space was filled with people. All of these outcomes are positive – any activity  that encourages  the community to recognize the value that artists bring to the community sounds great to me.

Murals and Public Opinion

Boston has a reputation for being considered conservative, and this is usually reflected in their public artworks.  Not surprisingly, when the 5,000 square foot mural of a figure in colorful print pants and jacket with a hood was installed over a year ago, there was much public discussion and worry about what it meant – something tied to terrorism?  Why was there a hood over the head and why were the feet bare?  Os Gemeos, a world-renowned group of Brazilian artists were commissioned to paint the mural by the

Photo by Eric Townsend Photography for Queen City Arts
Photo by Eric Townsend Photography for Queen City Arts

in conjunction with the ICA exhibit.  ICA director, Jill Medvedow commented about the work, “Good art gets people talking.”  This is certainly the case when Fox 25 news did a news piece on the mural and a passerby told a reporter that “the painting resembles a terrorist.”  Fox 25 then posted a photo on Facebook and asked for public comments, which turned into an ugly stream of fear and racism.

Os Gemeos painted the mural in spray paint, the typical medium of most graffiti murals and this mural featured a “giant, yellow-colored character in brightly mismatched clothes who appears to have squeezed himself in between the towering buildings that surround him.” Looking at other Os Gemeos murals and artworks it is apparent that the yellow-colored cartoon inspired character is a recurring figure in their work.

A mural was painted in Poughkeepsie, NY during the spring of 2013.  Painted in spray paint, the mural replaced a grey, crumbling boarded-up building on Main Street.  The concept for the mural was a collaboration between four artists.  Rez Ones, also known as TC, was the architect and wanted to ensure that passerby could see a universal message that everyone could connect with.  The message is hard to miss – the middle of the artwork has written, “Style is the message.” Rez Ones commented, “Style is what defines everyone – it is a positive representation of who we all are.”   It is also a reference to Poughkeepsie style – a place of pride that those living in Poughkeepsie can proudly call home. This public art was received with joy by the majority of people living in the immediate vicinity, but there have also been many strong opinions that the mural should be removed.  If good art gets people talking, then this is good art indeed. 

Looking north to Boston, once again, Boston has commissioned a new mural by Matthew Ritchie to replace the Os Gemeos art.  The mural will be installed in September, and this time the work will be abstract – wait, isn’t that the stuff your kid could do?

http://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/theater-art/2013/08/02/matthew-ritchie-named-newest-dewey-square-mural/T8i0AdDMQUlyCJL8CiFTSJ/story.html

Another public art controversy

Murals have long been public art that engages with the local population, usually with a message. Looking back at the Mexican Muralist movement, National Mexican treasure, Diego Rivera, painted the history of the Mestizos onto the walls of government buildings, raising their status by linking their culture and traditions to all things that Mexicans had pride. This honor assisted Diego Rivera in being invited to NYC to paint a mural by Nelson Rockefeller at the newly built Rockefeller Center. The theme was to be “Man at the Crossroads Looking with Hope and High Vision to the Choosing of a New and Better Future.” History reports that Nelson Rockefeller approved the sketches and Diego Rivera completed the mural. When Nelson Rockefeller spotted an image of Lenin in the mural, he demanded Rivera paint out the image – when Rivera refused, the mural was covered up and eventually chipped off the wall of the building.
Even today public art can turn controversial – just recently the Weinstein Co. commissioned murals to commemorate “Fruitvale Station,” about the 2009 fatal shooting of Oakland’s Oscar Grant in preparation of promoting a movie about the incident. Thinking it would be a great way to promote the movie to a forward thinking audience, they had problems when it came to reviewing the sketches and requesting artists to make changes in imagery.
Public art is just that – art out in and for the public, however, artists should continue to hold onto their artistic integrity. Murals provoke public commentary and provide a voice for those that frequently are not heard. Are we all listening?

http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/culture/la-et-cm-ca-lahoda-sidebar-fruitvale-20130707,0,852784.story

photo below: Ron English’s “Abraham Obama” mural that went up in Boston on July 4th 2008. Daniel Lahoda is dressed as Lincoln. (Ron English)Image