Strange Developments: Alternative Process Photography in the Bay Area, a panel discussion

If you can stand the sound of my speaking voice, which I cannot, here is a panel discussion I recently did with the amazing photographers Chris McCaw, John Chiara, and Niniane Kelley at SF Camerawork. This was the first (wildly successful, sold-out) event in a series I have started with Alexis Gordan of the Contemporary Jewish Museum, of discussions, studio visits, and salons focusing on the arts in the Bay Area.

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The Sibling Rivalry that Shaped Arbus’s Vision: Alexander Nemerov’s Silent Dialogues, in Hyperallergic.

Diane Arbus, “Untitled (7) 1970–71″ (1970–71) © The Estate of Diane Arbus LLC

Diane Arbus, “Untitled (7) 1970–71″ (1970–71) © The Estate of Diane Arbus LLC

The camera … may want to know, to develop, to expose, but what it can also do, if pressed, is reveal the flowered vacancy of the invisibilities, the mixed-up motivations, that only a wise author could portray.” — Alexander Nemerov, Silent Dialogues

In Silent Dialogues, art historian Alexander Nemerov, son of former US Poet Laureate Howard Nemerov and nephew of Diane Arbus, traces his father’s evolving attitudes toward photography and his sister’s work in particular. Identifying parallels between the two, Nemerov concludes that Arbus’s art ultimately surpassed that of her poet brother, and justifies the comparison by pointing out that each sought a kind of mystical revelation through their practice. Both, he writes, wanted to discover and reveal the people who “know the utmost we can know,” something beyond the explicitly documentable, close to a spiritual revelation. While this might be the natural pursuit of a certain kind of poet, it was an unprecedented quest for a photographer, for at the time, most of the art world embraced Nemerov’s limited view of the medium.

Prejudiced against photography as “part of a journalistic disenchantment with the world,” bearing “the creepiest relation to past-ness … the freezing of life,” Howard Nemerov found his sister’s images particularly ghastly, alienated as they were from his poetry of “flitting things, of dragonflies and cinnamon moths, of falling leaves and swimming koi.” Revealingly, when Nemerov was asked to show a visitor what became one of his sister’s most iconic works, “Identical Twins, Roselle, N.J. 1966,” he took the print from where it was kept loose in a drawer and held it by one corner “as if it were … a wet rag fished out of the trash.” Alexander Nemerov insinuates that it was ultimately professional rivalry that caused Howard to reevaluate his response to his sister’s work and field.

If H. Nemerov came around to Arbus’s work reluctantly, it was his initial dismissiveness that had informed her work, if only to show her the kind of photographs she did not want to take, and propelled her to “push down on this (medium’s) extraordinary literalness, until it yields something like …. ‘a hallucination that was really there.’” As Arbus sought out the mystics and prophets directly, those who “believe in the imminent end of the world” or can see when “the Messiah comes wandering out of the woods,” H. Nemerov was arriving at the realization that his own oeuvre was closer kin to that of nature poet William Wordsworththan that of the poet of mystics and prophets, William Blake — a disappointing realization, no doubt, for someone of his esoteric ambitions. He began to see that Arbus’s photographs were not “grotesque oddities but, rather … visions of the way we are,” and this revelation jettisoned his own practice into a two-year long writer’s block, while his sister’s reputation grew and photography itself enjoyed burgeoning respect as an art.

While the connections Alexander Nemerov draws between his father’s and sister’s canons are fascinating, it is his tour de force interpretation of Arbus’s School series, and his explication of its significance in demonstrating photography’s potential, that is Silent Dialogues’ revelation. It’s not necessarily an easy read, and his interpretations sometimes seem to stretch into Hineininterpretierung. For instance, in his discussion of “Untitled (62) 1970-71,” he describes the girl pictured, “Hand to head, absorbed in her own world, the girl seems to have forgotten something, or to be holding a thought inside her head before it should escape …” but then somehow lands on: “Hers is not a reverie but a dullness and a blankness. But in that vacancy the world discloses itself.” Ascribing dullness, blankness, and vacancy to the expression on the face of a mentally handicapped child reflects an attitude rather than an insight, and the same sort of attitude as those of previous eras that accepted the colloquial use of the word “retarded,” a word Arbus used in her own writings (see Chronologies, Aperture) and which he still uses in this book. But beyond that, how he finds that “the world discloses itself” in that vacancy is unclear, or at least not a persuasively objective, and therefore communicable, reading. Of “Masked woman in a wheelchair, Pa. 1970,” he says, “Although we know that the old woman is just pretending to be a witch, there is a strange sense that she is a witch.” Nemerov’s ensuing discussion of the image, incorporating Don Quixote as an example of one who (like a photographer) can “will” a fantasy (such as a witch) out of the banal, and likening the photographer’s practice to a kind of necromancy, is elegant, probing, formidably erudite. But his claim nevertheless hinges upon the conviction he starts the discussion with — that the image conveys the “sense” that the woman pictured is a witch. If one does not get that sense from the photograph, then the explication might leave one feeling cowed rather than guided, overpowered into a sort of mental submission to Nemerov’s reading not only of the photograph itself but of what it says about the photographer’s art.

More convincing, or at least more grounded in the images themselves and their elements (and therefore easier to trust) are Nemerov’s discussions of other photographs within the School series. Of the four women in masks holding fairy wands in “Untitled (49) 1970-71,” he says that they “raise those wands, like the witch does her mask, as if in sympathetic mimicry of the photographer’s stare into her camera …. Photography is a beguilement rather than a record, or only a record.” Without the photographer, they were four residents of a home for the mentally handicapped, wandering the grounds of their school in construction paper and glitter glue costumes. As the photographer raises her camera, they ready themselves to “become” what the release of the shutter will fix them as: fairies in a “weirdly light-struck world,” with fallen stars on their fairy slippers. The intimation that the act of photographing can make something come into being, rather than merely record what’s there (which was Howard Nemerov’s narrow view), points to Nemerov’s ultimate assessment of his aunt’s photography, that it was a kind of visual fiction-writing. (continue reading)

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Mapplethorpe’s Other Man: On Philip Gefter’s Wagstaff: Before and After Mapplethorpe, for Hyperallergic

Self-Portraits, Sam Wagstaff, 1973 (The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2005.M.46)

Self-Portraits, Sam Wagstaff, 1973 (The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2005.M.46)

In Wagstaff: Before and After Mapplethorpe, Philip Gefter’s new biography of collector, curator, and market force Sam Wagstaff, the author argues that it was not only his subject’s life that was transformed by his relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. Before Mapplethorpe, Gefter writes, photography was “an art world bastard, a utilitarian medium” and an inconsequentiality in the market. According to Gefter, the photography world today, its revered place within the art world, and the photography market as we know it is due at least as much to Wagstaff’s efforts as to those of his contemporary, the more known and lauded John Szarkowski, writer, curator, and Director of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art.

Before and After Mapplethorpe portrays a single love affair in a way that invites and rewards both an uplifting, romantic view of love and a cynical, near-infuriating view of the art world. Before meeting Mapplethorpe, Sam Wagstaff was already respected as a curator and collector, after tenures at the Wadsworth Atheneum and Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA). He had achieved notoriety for a groundbreaking exhibit at the former (“Black, White, and Gray,” the very first museum show of Minimalist art) and an ambitious failure at the latter (“Dragged Mass Displacement,” Michael Heizer’s 30-ton granite block installation intended to sink into the DIA’s front lawn but which merely sat atop it). But for all his prescience and independence of thought, which “Black, White, and Gray,” especially, had testified to, Wagstaff disdained photography, like most of the art world at the time. What little attention he gave to the medium — for instance, his first purchase of a photographic work of art, Andy Warhol’s “Race Riot” — was motivated by the new ways in which the medium riffed on painting and conceptual art, and not by any virtues unique to the medium itself. Indeed, Wagstaff described himself as a “loather of photography, sui generis” in his recommendation letter for Enrico Natali’s Guggenheim Fellowship (for photography) in 1971.

It was only when Wagstaff began his relationship with unknown photographer Robert Mapplethorpe that he started to regard photography as a worthy art in its own right. Wagstaff’s fascination with the young artist spread to the artist’s field, and, galvanized by passion, he applied his habitual scholarly diligence, his lordly confidence in “the essential rightness of his eye,” and his wealth not only toward the advancement of his protégé’s career but, successfully, toward the elevation of photography as an art form worthy of veneration equal to any in the canon, as well as a market force. Love, as all its platitudes have taught us, alters us, opens our eyes to new possibilities, expands our worlds, and propels us to great achievements.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Self Portrait, 1980 (courtesy of Wikipedia)

Robert Mapplethorpe, Self Portrait, 1980 (courtesy of Wikipedia)

On the one hand, Gefter seems to be saying, love is a many-splendored thing. On the other, the art world is a miasma of sexual nepotism, auction rigging, cronyism, rank-pulling, and let’s not forget, sexism. Yes, Wagstaff displayed formidable knowledge, eagerness to learn, daring, and enthusiasm in every area of art he curated or collected, and towards the end of the book when one reads that he confessed to good friend Patti Smith before his death that he had loved only three things in his life, “Robert, my mother, and art,” one believes him. Yet imagine attending Photographs from the Collection of Sam Wagstaff at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1978, an exhibit of the influential figure’s collection, deemed museum-worthy for its scope, its richness in works seminal to their respective places in the history of the medium, but most of all because it includes the chosen — curated! — favorites of a mind that has husbanded photography to a position of greater importance and visibility in the public sphere than ever before. Imagine, also, that Wagstaff has implemented two shows within the same museum in tandem with the exhibit, showcasing works by his faithless boyfriend and protégé, Mapplethorpe, and by another, largely unknown artist, who is the current object of his unrequited infatuation — Gerald Incandela, and to whom Mapplethorpe has reason to worry he might lose Wagstaff’s affection and, thereby, patronage. The powerful man at the vertex of this love triangle pits his two acolytes against each other professionally in a Cain and Abel-like fashion (author’s simile). How would you feel being asked to stroke your beard cogitatively and speak in respectful tones and Artforum words about this bald-faced personal drama of low-road power plays and petty sadism?

Equally unsettling, the Berkley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, a major institution, exhibited works from Mapplethorpe’s private collection and then, later that same year, hosted “Photographs from the Collection of Sam Wagstaff.” As if the conflict of interest weren’t outrageous enough, Wagstaff had even paid for some of the works in Mapplethorpe’s collection when the photographer couldn’t afford the pieces he desired at auction. What Gefter describes as having “an air of cronyism” about it in fact appears even more lopsided than that: Wagstaff’s money and influence basically bought out a major portion of the museum’s display that year.

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Sam in his apartment at Lafayette Towers, Detroit, c. 1970 (photo by Enrico Natali)

Of course photography’s ascendance in the art world is both propelled by and reflected in its performance in the market, particularly as several of its advancements have come in the form of museum shows driven by collectorship rather than the other way around. As Susan Sontag described in her talk at “Photography: Where We Are Now,” a symposium organized in conjunction with Wagstaff’s Corcoran show, the active role of the market in establishing photography’s place in the art world was unlikely to leave the critical discourse around it unsullied: “Would money become a determining factor in concluding a photographer’s significance?” It seemed so, though Gefter makes a persuasive case that this should not impugn Wagstaff’s taste or intentions in his collecting habits or championing of artists. The effects of the market, particularly of auctions, determine not only the monetary but the historical value of works (as well as that of works that never make it to the market), manipulating public perception of the photographic universe and its values. However one feels about that, it was Wagstaff and a small coterie of similarly moneyed and obsessive collectors and dealers who set the photography market in motion. They used unsurprisingly self-serving tactics, even the ‘auction ring,’ a way of minimizing competition at auctions which was illegal in the market at large, but which passed under the radar at a time when the rules for the photography market in particular were still unwritten. Amongst themselves, they manufactured that worldwide marketplace in which their own collections flourished and appreciated.

But Sontag’s worry that money might have an outsized role in determining a photographer’s significance seems no less relevant today. A prestige venue like Pier 24 invites the same worry: it upholds the reputations of established artists and enhances the profiles of emerging ones, but is bankrolled by a single collector — the power to influence the public’s consciousness of the state of photography today, concentrated in an aging white man’s wallet. It is one of the least defensible aspects of Wagstaff’s legacy, as is the Pier’s focus on male artists, taking after Wagstaff’s similarly narrow exhibition forty years earlier. (continue reading)

Sam with Tony Smith at the Wadsworth Atheneum, mid-1960s (Courtesy of The Wadsworth Atheneum of Art)

Sam with Tony Smith at the Wadsworth Atheneum, mid-1960s (Courtesy of The Wadsworth Atheneum of Art)

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Arnold Newman: Masterclass at the Contemporary Jewish Museum

Arnold Newman, Martha Graham, dancer, choreographer and teacher, New York, 1961, 45 1/2 x 53 1/2 in. Gelatin silver print © 1961. Arnold Newman/Getty Images.

Arnold Newman, Martha Graham, dancer, choreographer and teacher, New York, 1961, 45 1/2 x 53 1/2 in. Gelatin silver print © 1961. Arnold Newman/Getty Images.

One of my favorite photography exhibits in San Francisco last year was the Contemporary Jewish Museum’s “Arnold Newman: Masterclass.” While some of the artist’s portraits have achieved iconic status (think of the composer Igor Stravinsky. The image you have in your head is probably Newman’s), the CJM compiled over 200 photographs, including some shown publicly for the first time and lesser known works such as still lifes and architectural and geometric studies. Newman was renowned as the pioneer of “environmental portraiture,” though he resented the term, which describes a sort of “in situ” portrait made in the subject’s natural or vocational habitat. But the fruits of those geometric studies, as well as the motifs and errata of his subject’s work, is evident in the portraits. Even disregarding who the subjects are, the images are striking: Newman’s compositions are inventive and witty, he was not afraid to dwarf his subjects in darkness or set them against contrasting patterns or use lines and shapes to force the eye this way or that within the frame.

Beyond the visual trickery, yes, a bit of (what one might presume to be) his sitters’ personalities come through in each depiction, and there is a lot of challenging straight-on glaring as well as ponderous staring off-frame in this collection, a lot of sly half-smiles and mysteriously furrowed brows. I don’t think these alone would tell as much about the subjects’ personae were it not for the astute observations Newman makes about both the nature of each of their professions as well as their specific “voices” within them. How perfect to portray a sculptor, as he does Louise Nevelson, with an extra pair of hands, and to do so using collage, one way in which the two dimensional medium can subtly suggest the third dimension. A rough-edged narrow scrap of a photograph overlays the second, looking like, well, one of the rough edged narrow scraps of wood Nevelson so frequently used in her sculptures and which appear in the base photograph. Dance giant Martha Graham stands in an oversized robe that hides her instrument, her body. It seems a counterintuitive choice for a dancer, until one realizes that it in fact emphasizes how little she need do to exude her brand of monolithic gravitas, such is her formidable physical presence. Part priestess, part workman, she stands off center in the frame, dominated by the barre, the permanent workstation of the student, professional, teacher, legend, and visionary. While most of Newman’s portraits indicate a sophisticated understanding of his subjects’ work, he usually refrains from commenting on it–although it seems he sometimes cannot help himself. Pace Gallery founder Arnold Glimcher slouches louchely against a bare wall, sloppy shirt collar, fingers jammed into tight trouser pockets, sanpaku gaze. He looks like he might as soon sell you a tab of bad LSD as a piece of blue chip art. Couturier Christian Dior sits in the foreground of his portrait, holding what looks like a riding crop in his hand. In the background are his models, posing like thoroughbreds. Making rare use of color film, Newman lights and positions industrialist Alfried Krupp for maximum sinister effect, placing him front and center and flanked by columns as pockmarked and rough as the man’s cheeks. He employs the factory’s flourescent lighting to obscure Krupp’s eyes, and casts the whole scene in an unhealthy bilious green. The portrait is such an indictment of the person and system in which he thrives that it is surprising Krupp didn’t sue for defamation. It is not, however, surprising to learn that Krupp was himself tried for war crimes, including the use of slave labor.

Arnold Newman, Marilyn Monroe, actress and singer, Beverly Hills, California, 1962. Gelatin silver print © 1962, 14 ¾ x 16 ¾ in. Arnold Newman/Getty Images.

Arnold Newman, Marilyn Monroe, actress and singer, Beverly Hills, California, 1962. Gelatin silver print © 1962, 14 ¾ x 16 ¾ in. Arnold Newman/Getty Images.

The only portrait that doesn’t somehow reflect the subject’s professional persona is that of Marilyn Monroe, actually a small part of a photograph Newman cropped around after failing to get the star to sit for him, and instead resorting to photographing her at a houseparty with poet Carl Sandburg. The image conveys nothing of the erotically-charged glamour the actress was famous for; instead it hones in on the softening counterpoint to that glamour, her vulnerability. This quality is hinted at in her on-screen performances and was drawn from a well of pain and fear begat by her fraught and sometimes abusive relationships with the men in her life. But that quality has come to dominate her posthumous persona, launched by her presumed suicide. Newman saw and captured it first; in his photograph of her taken in the year of her death, it is the glamour that is only hinted at, in the sheen of frosted eyeshadow on her lids, which droop as if she is drunk or stoned, or simply exhausted.

Arnold Newman: Masterclass is at the Contemporary Jewish museum until February 1. An informative and beautiful catalogue is available in the CJM’s store.

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Tripping the Ballz Fantastic

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In case you’re wondering what I’ve been up to, amongst other things, I went to Burning Man again, and wrote about it for Art Practical:

There’s something disheartening about returning from Burning Man to resume your practice as an art critic. The “First Thursday” back, if you’ve recovered in time to attend (which I did not this year), is underwhelming. It’s not because the art on display is worse or less radical than what you’ve seen in Black Rock City. Or because you won’t find any art that you can pee or have sex or take a nap on. Or because nothing will be set on fire. Or because everyone is wearing pants.

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dawn.

As pat as it might sound, it’s because you are different. You spend a week in a physically punishing, sensorially ravishing environment where to enjoy even non-interactive art—of which there is very little—necessitates surmounting a litany of discomforts and disorienting factors. You’re hot, lashed by corrosive alkaline dust, dehydrated, underslept, and off your tits. You haven’t checked email or Facebook in days. Your breakfast was likely champagne and Emergen-C.

In such harsh, isolated conditions, anything you can’t experience in the moment is no longer important. Every performance or art installation you witness represents a sublimation of the spoiled body’s nagging, an overcoming of the niggling mundanities that usually distract and disperse your attentions. When you stand in front of one of Black Rock City’s many art projects (or crawl under it, or sleep inside it, etc.), you feel you’ve earned your place there, like you’re able to take in more of it because there is less of you in the way. The low-pitched drone of everyday concerns—career, relationships, groceries—falls silent. (continue reading)

p.s. This year I debuted a dance piece I’ve been working on at The Crossroads Live Experience stage on the Playa. I was inspired by Maurice Bejart’s ballet version of Bolero and my ongoing studies in bellydance, and I was helped with the choreo by FatChanceBellyDance pro Marsha Poulin.

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Public Intimacy: Art and Other Ordinary Acts in South Africa, Ponte City, for Art Practical

Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse, Lift Portrait, 24, Ponte City, Johannesburg, 2008; Collection, Pier 24 Photography. Courtesy of the Artists and Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg.

Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse, Lift Portrait, 24, Ponte City, Johannesburg, 2008; Collection, Pier 24 Photography. Courtesy of the Artists and Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg.

“It was a place where the wave crashed inwards upon itself, with the seething violence of delayed hope. It was Africa coming back, but with nowhere yet to go…. It was 54 floors of people in between other places.”—Denis Hirson, Perec/Ponte

In the late ’60s, designers Mannie Feldman, Manfred Hermer, and Rodney Grosskopf began work on what was to be the tallest residential building in the Southern Hemisphere. The massive Brutalist structure was intended for the white well-heeled to live closer to the center of Johannesburg, rather than their suburban retreats. But in 1976, as the building neared completion, the Soweto uprisings brought violence and opprobrium to the region and its recalcitrant apartheid-era laws and mores. The property market tanked and the developers’ dream of affluent white South Africans living in a tower of luxury flats and duplexes vanished. Throughout the late ’70s and ’80s, Ponte City’s population went from low-income and racially mixed, to predominantly black foreigners (Nigerians, Zimbabweans, and the Congolese), while the already troubled building fell further into disrepair.1 In 2007 a new pair of developers envisioned a rebirth of the iconic building as, again, housing for the affluent. Many tenants found themselves evicted, and apartments were redesigned with décor themes like “Old Money” and “Glam Rock.” When the 2008 economic crisis hit, the banks pulled their money and the remaining tenants continued to live among the empty apartments and crumbling concrete.2
Many “voices” speak for the structure. As a provocative part of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ vast Public Intimacy, a survey of work coming out of and centered on South Africa, photographers Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse have devised an impressionistic epic about the beleaguered monolith. This includes large-scale portraits, video projections, zines, and a book dummy (forthcoming from Steidl) alongside new and found photographs, essays, and newspaper articles from various stages in Ponte’s history. Articles written in tones ranging from sangfroid to near gleeful describe the more salacious or vicious events from Ponte City’s history.3 There are photographs, found in the vacated apartments: gangly boys sitting on twin beds, living-room dance parties, abandoned ID documents. Out of context, they are typical amateur snapshots, but plucked from the rubbish and set against writings that detail the unwantedness of the subjects, the pictures are haunting. Anticipatory advertising sketches of white men in smart suits lounging in the envisioned swanky lobby appear opposite of photographs of actual tenants, large black families playing in cramped rooms as the TV blares. These and Subotzky’s elevator portraits are some of the few elements of the project wherein the black populace of Ponte’s past and present is given a “voice.” Printed large, the elevator portraits add something more than human to the subjects. They appear more solid, monumental even, than the building they occupy, which this project has in turn humanized by explicating its vulnerabilities. (continue reading)

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Sarah Christianson’s “When the Landscape Is Quiet Again: North Dakota’s Oil Boom,” Art Practical

Natural gas flare, White Earth River Valley, September 2013, by Sarah Christianson

Natural gas flare, White Earth River Valley, September 2013, by Sarah Christianson

“We all wanted this oil development. We just didn’t know what we were in for. Even half of what we got would’ve been too much.”—Carole Freed, fourth-generation rancher, Watford City, ND, May 2013

No single photograph in Sarah Christianson’s When the Landscape Is Quiet Again: North Dakota’s Oil Boom gets one’s blood boiling. Her images of her home state—which has, in several booms since the early ’50s, changed from a predominantly agrarian economy to an industrial one based around oil extraction—elicit a slower-burning experience of rage. Rather than focusing on obvious signs of destruction, Christianson’s photographs (paired here with generously informative captions) collectively emphasize the insidiousness of the waste and danger that are often hiding in plain sight.

Christianson occasionally enhances the tone of a scene through dramatic framing. A well on the border of a farmstead is shown through venetian blinds from the interior of the farmhouse, like an intruder spotted by the besieged protagonists of a horror film. In another photograph, several wells perch over a cornfield like so many robotic farmhands, while in the foreground, a tiny sign along the bank of a sludge creek warns of hazardous chemicals in the area. But in most of the other photographs, the land’s exploitation and its sinister effects are depicted even more subtly, or are invisible altogether. Christianson doesn’t overlook the abandoned wells, the disturbed earth along the pipelines, or the swirls of black oil collecting at a spill site, but this is not disaster porn. Rather, by not focusing solely on these more ostentatious (and expected) pieces of evidence, Christianson’s photographs convey something scarier about the degree to which fracking, mining, and drilling have become an irrevocable part of North Dakota’s ecosystem and its inhabitants’ way of life. (continue reading)

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Alonzo King Lines Ballet Moves from Stage to Page

Michael Montgomery, photo by RJ Muna

Michael Montgomery, photo by RJ Muna

The cliché about ballet dancers is that they are “light on their feet,” that they “float” and “soar” across the stage. I’ve always felt the opposite to be more interesting: nobody reveals a more solid connection to the ground. Even if balancing only en pointe, a dancer looks more immovably earthbound than most of us would passed out on our bellies.

Yet this is not something one can really perceive in a live performance: that special solidity gets upstaged by movement, grace, the illusion of weightlessness that is the dancer’s currency. But in a photograph you can see it: the imperturbable lines that root the body to the earth, gravity visibly manifest in stony calves and meaty feet.Courtney Henry C_Book_AlonzoKing_121108 3517-14

San Francisco-based modern ballet company Lines has always had the most fascinating publicity photography, combining the talents of beloved Bay Area photographers like Marty Sohl and RJ Muna, resident designers Sandra Woodall and Robert Rosenwasser, and artistic director Alonzo King, whose eye for choreography and attitude favors the androgynous and athletic over the pretty. Its new book of photographs (interspersed with somewhat esoteric axioms by King himself) is a treasure trove of images by Muna and Sohl, many never-before published, all revealing why Lines has come to represent the most avant-garde of an essentially avant-garde artform, as well as why the two photographers’ work is so much more than commercial. In its pages, dancers grapple with each other and with their own bodies, stretching and folding in on themselves, defying the neat gender roles of classical ballet in unexpected postures. Stand-alone images are scattered amongst series of five or six images that show the progression from one movement to another, allowing us to see the subtle shadowplay of tensing and relaxing muscles as the models change position, or shift their weight from one leg to the other, or change lead. There are a few printing problems (at least in my copy), with some images appearing a bit “dusty.” Other images could benefit by being shown at a larger size within the page layout or by not being printed across the gutter, but in all, Alonzo King Lines Ballet is a visual treasure that, unlike the performance itself, one can take home, and return to again and again. It is not simply a coffeetable book for dance aficionados; it is a reflection on the human form and the vastness of its language.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post.

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The Embarrassment of Riches: Bulgari at the De Young, Huffington Post

Liz Taylor wearing the Bulgari "green set"

Liz Taylor wearing the Bulgari “green set”

In case you were wondering, the technological highlight of the De Young Museum’s “Bulgari: La Dolce Vita and Beyond,” is a clever interactive portfolio devoted to the Italian house’s queen collector, Liz Taylor. Upon turning each page, a digital image of the icon wearing her baubles rises out of the book and floats up the wall before vanishing in a silent poof. The gimmick is an apt expression of the level of gravitas the subject of the exhibit is treated with, and possibly, warrants. Also projected onto the walls on continuous loop are dozens of editorial, advertizing, and paparazzi shots of other bedecked celebrities throughout the decades. Even the first several pages of the show’s catalogue read like a laundry list of starlets and socialites who bought and wore Bulgari’s designs in its heyday of 1956-1990.

The emphasis on starry clientele is indeed distracting — what should be a part of the Bulgari story, secondary to aspects of the work that stand as exemplary regardless of its popularity with the famous at the time of production, is given a primacy that implies that a large part of what makes Bulgari’s work museum-worthy is the mere fact of famous people liking it. Of course the exhibit features pieces from the Liz Taylor collection, including the emerald brooch and collar Burton gave her as engagement and wedding gifts, respectively. Neither the catalogue nor the Bulgari reps who attended the preview stated, upon being asked, how much Burton paid for the pieces or how much Bulgari paid at the Christie’s auction to buy the pieces back upon Taylor’s death. One might wonder why they were keeping shtum about the “green set”‘s sale price; the figure is easily searchable on Christie’s website*. But that coyness, that not-at-the-dinner-table-darling silence about money, contrasts laughably with the tone of the show. Who do they think they’re kidding, implying that it is somehow inappropriate or beside the point to speak frankly of cash with regard to an exhibit plastered with celebrity faces, celebrating a commercial enterprise that caters solely to the rich? Even the catalogue itself states that Bulgari’s ascendence in the early fifties had much to do with the influx of Hollywood money, as, besides the Pope, the only people in Rome who could afford such luxuries were visiting American stars. (The Art of Bulgari, Delmonico Books, pg. 27)

Tubogas choker, 1974 Two-color gold with Greek silver coins 27 cm (top) and 41 cm (base) x 7 cm Bulgari Heritage Collection, inv. 404 N607

Tubogas choker, 1974 Two-color gold with Greek silver coins
27 cm (top) and 41 cm (base) x 7 cm Bulgari Heritage Collection, inv. 404 N607

But OK, if we take for granted that there are reasons based in artistry that justify this show, let’s examine the work and what is said about the work that supports that claim. There are two innovations cited as “revolutionary.” Bulgari broke with the French-derived tradition of separating jewelry to be worn in the daytime and that for the evening (yellow gold for day, white gold for night) by designing evening jewelry using yellow gold. It also altered the norms for gemstone pairings; tradition had dictated that gemstones of a single color be paired with white diamonds, but Bulgari introduced jewelry sparkling with many-colored gemstones as well as white diamonds.

Think of that.

Coco Chanel revolutionized fashion by designing corsetless clothing for women, forever freeing them from the oppressive, rib-cracking, liver-crushing whalebone cages that had restricted their physicality and breathing for centuries. Levi Straus revolutionized fashion by producing an inexpensive, durable pair of trousers that became the best-selling item of clothing in the history or the world. Bulgari revolutionized fashion by giving carte blanche to society ladies to wear necklaces featuring more than two colors at a time and yellow gold to dinner parties.

Of course, multi-colored jewelry has been de rigueur in tribal- and ethnic fashion-loving sets for millennia. And no one durst suggest to an middle- or upper-class Indian woman that she may only wear her yellow gold in daylight. In fact, most people, who don’t have the money to buy multiple sets of jewels for different times of day may well have felt they had no reason to consign what pieces they had to daytime- or nighttime-only. These “revolutions” are only relevant, or even noticeable, to the rarified echelon of people who feel compelled and have the funds to follow new sets of rules as are laid out for them by whomever they’ve designated as the arbiters of their taste. Bulgari’s innovations only serve to expose the hopeless hokeyness and small-mindedness of moneyed Western taste.

Necklace, 1972 Platinum with turquoise and diamonds 39.1 x 17.8 cm (with 5.1 cm extension, not shown) Collection of Jennifer Tilly

Necklace, 1972
Platinum with turquoise and diamonds
39.1 x 17.8 cm (with 5.1 cm extension, not shown) Collection of Jennifer Tilly

Some examples of Bulgari’s output over the decades reveal an insensitivity to the nature of the materials it utilized in their construction. There is a homogeneity to the treatment of stones, regardless of their unique characteristics: find a blemish-free rock, sand it into a cabochon or cut it into facets, group it with other rocks of the same substance with a minimum of the gradations or subtle differences in color as happen so often in nature. Take for example the necklace (above), bracelet, brooch, and ring from the collection of Jennifer Tilly. It’s made from turquoise, diamond, and platinum. Now, turquoise comes in as many shades of blue as the changing sky, as well as greens and yellows, and often bears considerable variation within a single rock. It is also often veined with a spiderweb matrix of iron ore. Its crevices and deep wrinkles are as much a part of its craggy face as its hue. Even polished and smoothed down with time, and deepened in color by the warmth and skin oils of the wearer, turquoise retains a rugged, boulder-like quality, its blemishes like the hard-won scars of its formation from ancient volcanic rock. It is the anti-precious gem. The cabochons Bulgari used, however, might as well have been formed from melmac. They are each perfectly uniformly pale blue, perfectly unmarked, perfectly smooth, perfectly symmetrical. Why even use turquoise at all if you’re going to reject so many of its native qualities, and what uptight, unsophisticated taste prizes such bland, regimented uniformity? It’s like photoshopping a woman’s laughlines out of her portrait: in return for a generic surface smoothness, you erase the illustrations of her character, her experience, the signs that she has lived and known joy.

Of course bits of “perfect” turquoise large enough to use in jewelry are rare; separating out unmarked specimens from the mother rock creates immense waste and yields very little. That turquoise like this is considered suitable for fine jewelry has much to do with its rarity, which translates to greater monetary worth. And as a commercial business, it makes sense that Bulgari would use only the rarest and most expensive materials.

But it doesn’t quite make sense that an art museum would host an exhibit of work that owes so much of its value to commercial, rather than artistic, virtues. And the case for the work’s artistic merit is rather weak. It’s not non-existent, it just gets lost in the glitter and movie star headshots. Even this would not be too objectionable if the work were presented in a different context, one examining the class of people who patronized the studio, or American luxury vacationing in Italy in the ’50’s — something sociological, rather than trying to shoehorn what feels like a giant advertizement into the context of an art exhibit. The presentation of the work and its place in the world of fashion is more simplistic than one should expect from an art institution.

Necklace, 1962, with pendant/brooch, 1958 Platinum with emeralds and diamonds Necklace: 37 x 2.7 cm Pendant/brooch: 4.9 x 3.4 cm Formerly in the collection of Elizabeth Taylor Bulgari Heritage Collection, inv. 6676 N2169, 347870 P393

Necklace, 1962, with pendant/brooch, 1958 Platinum with emeralds and diamonds Necklace: 37 x 2.7 cm Pendant/brooch: 4.9 x 3.4 cm Formerly in the collection of Elizabeth Taylor
Bulgari Heritage Collection, inv. 6676 N2169, 347870 P393

Consider again the Taylor jewels, specifically, that “green set,” possibly the most famous of Bulgari’s repertoire. Yes, they are glorious, and she was resplendent in them, as evidenced in the displayed photos. Indeed, images of her bedecked in this these particular pieces, or wearing them attached as one, are among the most famous of that period in her life. The catalogue even features a photograph of her wearing the brooch, with her legendary lavender eyes retouched green to match the emerald (what?!). And yes, the prices Burton paid for the gifts for his mistress and subsequent wife were, for the time, shocking. But Burton also bought her a yacht. And a plane. And disgorged his wallet for her at Pucci and Harry Winston and other top-tier couturiers and jewelers. Yet it was the green set, and the photographs of Liz adorned in it, that came to symbolize the morass of scandalous adultery, conspicuous superconsumption, press-baiting, and alcoholic overkill that marked the pair’s celebrity in the ’60’s, a decade during which said antics threatened to engulf both their careers. Liz and Dick’s stratospheric visibility gave unprecedented wattage to their money-flinging; ostentation itself blushed at the epicness of their shopping expeditions. And shimmering on the apogee of this mountain of wretched excess (for the pair managed to nearly wipe out their collective funds at times as well, necessitating that they take on certain movie projects for the money alone**) is the emerald and diamond Bulgari collar and brooch duo. If Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? represented Taylor and Burton’s most sublime artistic collaboration, the green set represented a both covetable and garish lifestyle made possible by the old Hollywood studio system juggernaut that was fast losing influence. Swanning around Europe in the most expensive baubles they could find was a bit “old world,” and put them strangely at odds with the evolving zeitgeist of the 1960’s.

None of the informational materials the museum offers talk about anything like this, that is, anything that might deliciously complicate the tone of the show from self-congratulatory (and self serving — this is yet another show to feature pieces from the personal collection of the Fine Arts Museums’ president of the board, Dede Wilsey) to something closer to objective insight. The context is kept narrow enough that you’d never know there might be anything to say about the objects other than,”Ooh, purdy.” But presenting an uncomplicated, glossy view of its subject is the advertizing agency’s job, not the museum’s. And it doesn’t matter whether the jewelry suits one’s taste; even if one loves what one sees, to be left dazzled but unchallenged is to be failed by an institution whose mission should be not only to dazzle but to enrich, educate, inform, and even disturb.

*At Christie’s auction in 2011, the green set’s necklace fetched $6,130,500, and the brooch, $6,578,500. I’ve read estimates of Burton’s original purchase price for the necklace itself at $250,000.
** This is described eloquently and hilariously by the man himself in The Richard Burton Diaries, Yale 2012)

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post.

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Nan Still Stands: “Nan Goldin: Nine Self-Portraits” at Fraenkel Gallery

Shadow of a dead bird on Simon’s window, Stockholm, September 2013 © Nan Goldin, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

Shadow of a dead bird on Simon’s window, Stockholm, September 2013
© Nan Goldin, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

Herr God, Herr Lucifer,

Beware

 Beware.

 Out of the ash

I rise with my red hair

and I eat men like air.”

 Sylvia Plath, Lady Lazarus

Though the collection is small — only 9 photographs — “Nan Goldin: Nine Self-Portraits” nevertheless invites one to compare the existence described therein with the one, the many, revealed in previous collections such as her diaristic Ballad of Sexual Dependency and I’ll Be Your Mirror, her 1996 survey exhibition at the Whitney and its catalogue. There’s an evolution apparent in the woman portrayed in Goldin’s previous works and the current show.

Tube tops and scuffed satin pumps have been replaced by blazers with shoulder pads. Where her makeup had smudged and run on skin dewy from heat or exertion, or simply from staying up all night, it is now drawn in hard, precise lines or absent altogether. Self portraits in dingy club mirrors have their equivalent in a new self-portrait in a mirror, but this one is a beautiful, time-damaged antique in a palazzo in Venice. The settings of Ballad and Mirror were often cluttered, trashed, even, and look like they smelled of  sweat, cigarettes, unwashed hair, and booze. The settings here are uniformly cleaner, and look like they smell fine or not at all. The lighting is often softer, more flattering. It’s all gone a bit middle class. There is almost no suggestion of the life that was lived and described in Goldin’s earlier works; indeed, although the premise of this exhibit is different from those, focusing on Goldin herself rather than Goldin and the various personages within in her close circles, the absence of other people lends a heaviness to these images when one considers that many of the people Goldin photographed over the decades, her close friends and the inhabitants of that bohemian world of lower Manhattan in the ’70’s and ’80’s, were felled in the AIDS epidemic or lost to drug overdoses. Here she stands “as witness to the common lot/ Survivor of that time, that place”i – alone, and in settings sanitized of the gritty theatricality of her former haunts.

Although she was clearly not a passive sitter in her earlier work, when she turned the camera on herself in those years, the “face” she gave often conveys a softness and passivity, or at least a neutrality, a quiet presence that sometimes is upstaged by her more presentational subjects — the drag queens, the more showily emotive girlfriends, her glowering ex-lover. She often appears with no expression on her face at all, even when staring out through blackened eyes after she has been beaten by her then-boyfriend. Or she listens with eyes downturned, pouting almost imperceptibly as a man sidles up to speak more closely to her. The most she expresses through her face is an occasional wan smile or the demoralized, red-nosed moment before the tears fall.

But in these self-portraits on display at Fraenkel Gallery, there has been a switch. Instead of featuring others playing their respective roles in her life, she seems to have assumed multiple roles herself. The locations and situations are more ambiguous but the experiences she reveals through her face have intensified; it’s like more of her personae have come out to play. In one, she sits at a clean marble vanity mirror, notepad in hand. In her blazer, with a calm smile and direct gaze, she looks as if she could be giving herself a pep talk before an important business meeting. In another, she stares out the frame into the hot light of a brilliant sky with the wall-eyed omniscient gaze of a visionary mystic. In Shadow of a Dead Bird on Simon’s Window, Stokholm (2013), she stands smoking by the open window where “the smudge of ashen fluffii” still marks the pane. The cold toughness in her eyes, almost a warning, wouldn’t look out of place were she flanked by a row of heads on pikes.

In my hall, Berlin, November 2013 © Nan Goldin, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.

In my hall, Berlin, November 2013
© Nan Goldin, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.

But perhaps the most provocative piece is In my hall, Berlin (2013), in which she stands in unbuttoned trousers and a bra, high-waisted panties askew over her hips, one thumb in her belt, her eyes knowing and defiant, her lips curling into a smirk. One doesn’t often see a woman of her age present herself in this way. Her body is lush but looks “lived in” in the way that women are taught to be ashamed of and hide. But she’s wearing lingerie — as opposed to underwear — made from black and blue peekaboo mesh, the kind that reveals all the bits it pretends to conceal. She looks incapable of shame, oblivious to self-doubt, invulnerable to “dependency,” hungry, and like she fully expects to get her fill. And yet in another, earlier, photograph, in bed with her lover and looking up at him tenderly, she is too timid (possibly) to have taken off her bra before the act of love commenced. The Nan of In my hall looks like she’d toss her bra over the bedframe and climb on top.

Much of Goldin’s earlier work, the work that made her name, captured the vivid atmosphere of a world of which she was a part, and which now only exists in our cultural mythology and the memories of and artistic documents created by its survivors. The world of “Nine Self Portraits,” on the other hand, is interior, and its atmospheres are psychological, transmitted through her eyes and mien. It is more like a journal than a diary, an account of her inner, rather than outer, life. This work is less showy but more complex and quiet, its subversions creep up on one rather than smack one in the face.  One hopes that this is a world she will continue to explore and share as generously as her previous ones.

i“No foreign sky protected me, /No stranger’s wing shielded my face./ I stand as witness to the common lot,/ Survivor of that time, that place.” – Anna Akhmatova, 1961

ii“I was the shadow of the waxwing slain/ By the false azure of the window pane./ I was the smudge of ashen fluff, and I/ Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky…” Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire

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