Tag: painting Page 1 of 2

Personal Essay: Embracing Community, In All Its Forms

Sala Palatului, Bucharest, Enescu Festival, crowd, audience, culture, hall, auditorium, performance, music

At Sala Palatului as part of the Enescu Festival 2019, Bucharest. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Since the start of the coronavirus quarantine in March, I’ve returned drawing and painting more frequently, activities I adore but didn’t always devote the proper time or energy to in past, so-called normal times. I first explored these pursuits close to two decades ago as a natural extension of my engagements with photography, dance, theatre, and writing. At once technical, instinctual, emotional, and sensual, I think of drawing and painting as extension rather than escape, an experiment without a definitive end point. This attitude was encouraged by my instructor, a professional artist and professor at a major Canadian art school, who strongly discouraged the use of erasers in those preliminary sketching classes. “Be open to everything,” she would say in her soothing caramel tones, “don’t be so attached to one road or path, or to things being perfect.” It’s an easy credo that is hard to put into actual practise, whether in pencil or any other creative pursuit, and particularly so for those of us with those insistent perfectionist tendencies; to trust the unknown, to have faith in the journey, to loosen the desire for complete control of the final outcome, and its effects – these are big things to ask in any setting, doubly so in a new one. But what might be terrible errors outside the studio become, within it, opportunities for unexplored paths, where losing, finding, forming, shaping, and re-shaping, again and again, are part of the overall process, one that is becoming a central mode of expression.

That acceptance of the unfamiliar  is being discussed in the classical world with particular urgency as the reality of no full presentations until 2021 seeps into the overall consciousness. Pappano told The Stage recently that “(w)hat’s going on is that we’re talking about plan A, plan B, plan C, because everything is changing from week to week. I think the important thing is to make a decision that is not in any sense rash.” The current overtures toward reconfiguring presentation within the context of classical music are being greeted with a similar mix of sighs, scowls, boos, cheers, but largely (I would suspect) held breath by audiences. Navigating change is not, depending on one’s familial, cultural, and social baggage, always easy; in a forced situation it seems even more difficult and onerous. it might be done on tentative tiptoes, or it might be approached with an open-armed embrace. What with the figurative windows and doors being replaced, there’s concern if and how the view might be affected – and if that’s a good thing, a bad thing, an overdue thing, a thing that can lead to transformation within an industry perceived as being adverse to innovation. Reduced musical and theatrical presentations at Hessisches Staatstheater Wiesbaden, and a recent photo of a new seating arrangement via Berliner Ensemble, have inspired a range of responses, some reasoned, others emotional; some express horror, some curousity, while yet others say it’s a hopeful sign, a baby step in a much longer (and still largely unknown) journey. Baritone Michael Volle recently performed at Wiesbaden, playing to an audience of 189 in an auditorium that normally holds a little over 1,000, and noted to Frankfurter Allgemeine that “(d)as ist zwar für den Augenblick wunderbar, kann aber nicht die Zukunft sein.” (“this is wonderful for the moment, but cannot be the future.”)  With the present and future wrapped in uncertainty, it is impossible to predict how a  month from now might look, let alone six months, a year, three to four years – the latter being the (former) norm in future bookings for classical artists. Will auditoriums resemble what Volle saw, looking out from the stage at Wiesbaden? For how long?

Konzerthaus Berlin, Berlin, stage, performance, music, live, audience, classical

At Konzerthaus Berlin. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Sighing looks back, anxiety looks forward, restlessness shuffles the dust of the present. Every bit of news highlights our keen desire for the familiar, even as it underlines our separation from it. As Pappano noted (again in The Stage) “we have to consider the emotional toll that (the lack of events) will take on people, the need for community.” How might that look? We won’t be able to experience the breaths, the sighs, the miniscule hums and in-beat head bobs, the audible humming and tapping feet and waving hands and fingers of insistent seat-conductors, nor the resonance of instruments and voices vibrating through thighs and hips and sternum, into temples, through ear lobes, rumbling nostrils and jaw and eyelashes; pressing one’s head or face against home speakers simply does not compare. Communal cultural experience within a confined space and time is not an everyday experience, and as such is one of the few things we desire actively and will pay for, perhaps because of this direct and sensual viscerality, however irritating and unpredictable some of its expression may be; it’s precisely that sense of the unpredictable which is so treasured. Writer Charles Eisenstein writes in a lengthy and thought-provoking essay:

Our response to it sets a course for the future. Public life, communal life, the life of shared physicality has been dwindling over several generations. Instead of shopping at stores, we get things delivered to our homes. Instead of packs of kids playing outside, we have play dates and digital adventures. Instead of the public square, we have the online forum. Do we want to continue to insulate ourselves still further from each other and the world?

[…]

To reduce the risk of another pandemic, shall we choose to live in a society without hugs, handshakes, and high-fives, forever more? Shall we choose to live in a society where we no longer gather en masse? Shall the concert, the sports competition, and the festival be a thing of the past? Shall children no longer play with other children? Shall all human contact be mediated by computers and masks? No more dance classes, no more karate classes, no more conferences, no more churches? Is death reduction to be the standard by which to measure progress? Does human advancement mean separation? Is this the future?

Advancement versus preservation; this seems like the crux of the issue with relation to issues within the classical world, and there are, right now, lessons which are being learned and applied, to varying degrees, and with varying degrees of success. New (and some might argue far overdue) paths are being forged in order to both advance the possibilities of music presentation while preserving the core of its unique and individual power. Perhaps, amidst the lessons corona might be able to teach us (as Eisenstein posits), a more active idea of community might not only be understood but literally and loudly lived. I want to believe this is the case as the Salzburg Festival moves forward in an altered state, through the planned (and also altered) presentations starting next month at Musikverein Wien, and the long-awaited reopenings in Italy, happening in mid-June. The Konzerthausorchester Berlin’s planned guest performance at Konzerthaus Dortmund  is set to take place on June 7th, albeit in a modified form and with what Konzerthaus Berlin’s release terms “eines besonderen Wiedereröffnungskonzepts stattfinden” (“a special reopening concept”). The experience of community means connecting in many different ways and on many different levels with other sentient beings who carry their own unique experiences, ideas, expectations, and agendas, on as well as off the stage. How might one manifest (and indeed cultivate) the human kindness which is so often thrown away or taken for granted in so-called “normal” times within an ever-evolving paradigm of lived normalcy? Active kindness must surely factor into this paradigm somewhere (or one would wish it to), kindness holding hands with openness, patience embracing curiosity, gratitude on the same stair with discovery, and the cult of “genius” (and all its damaging effects) finally thrown out the window. Thus do the notions of advancement and preservation take on new meanings, as they should, within a new paradigm of The Normal. One can wish, but conscious action is required for manifestation, and it’s precisely conscious action which has now become part of our daily lives.

Bayerische Staatsoper, horns, backstage, Munich, Bavaria, music, culture, performance, Wednesday Strolls, series, live

Members of the Bayerische Staatsoper Orchestra perform as part of the company’s inaugural Wednesday Stroll concert series, May 2020. Photo © Wilfried Hösl

That union of ideas, between advancement and preservation, of joining the human with the experimental, the sensual and the intellectual, feeling and doing, is being manifest in a number of ways as halls, galleries, museums, and other public spaces try to negotiate and define the new normal. Bayerische Staatsoper (BSO) began its “Wednesday Strolls” presentations this week, a chamber music series (running to 24 June) bringing a maximum of twenty spectators in various “unusual locations” in the National Theatre, with each concert lasting roughly 45 minutes and featuring musicians of the Bayerische Staatsorchester. Its first presentation was given backstage. The initiative, on top of the BSO’s pre-existing Monday concerts, are gestures which complement the incredible amount of video offerings currently extant at their website, and acutely underline the ever-expanding initiatives of the many organizations, including the Enescu Festival in Romania, who are offering broadcast concerts from their considerably impressive archive of past festivals. Organizations have, over the past three months or so, recognized that various non-conventional initiatives are vital in community-building in both literal and figurative senses. Members of the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin (RSB), for example, have been performing short concerts outside hospitals and retirement residences over the past few months, thanks to the initiatives and coordinating efforts of Rudolf Döbler, longtime flautist with the orchestra, who has coordinated and organized RSB rehearsal visits and workshops for children since 2005. After one of these RSB charity concerts (held recently at a seniors residence in Pankow, an area in the northern part of the city), the orchestra’s Artistic Director and Chief Conductor (and General Music Director Designate of Bayerische Staatsoper) Vladimir Jurowski observed to Frankfurter Allgemeine that “Musik ist Menschlichkeit, und diese Menschlichkeit zählt am Ende mehr als alle Brillanz. Ich wünschte mir, wir behalten diese Erfahrung, wenn diese schwierigen Zeiten vorbei sind.“ (“Music is humanity, and in the end this humanity counts more than all brilliance. I hope we can keep this feeling when these difficult times are over.”)

Our experience of music is born anew within such experimental presentations and contexts. It’s been precisely the collective cultural saudade (for what else should we call it?) which has forced this rethink, one many argue is overdue. Community is, after all, quite possibly the only form of beauty left to us at the moment, and encouraging it in myriad forms seems like more than polite gesturing, but integral to creative, social, and spiritual health. Online conversations, voice calls, interactive viewing and listening parties, musical text exchanges, virtual classes and meetings, not to mention the rich, retro possibilities of live radio broadcast: such activities are all expressions of community, ones whose vibrant message, amidst the starkness of the technologies they employ, are worth warming hands and hearts to. 

Various live events, including a recent panel hosted by Garsington Opera about the continuing impact of Beethoven (led by music writer Jessica Duchen and featuring tenor Toby Spence) allow for a sense of community to be fostered, however virtual, along with that deeply inhaled, ever-refreshing sense of exploration and discovery. It’s a combination that clearly recalls those long-ago art classes, but more than that, the spirit they encouraged. Reading over various comments and reactions on Facebook has been a lesson in patience, for the intransigent dismissal of the virtual, remains, for me, mysterious; it is the equivalent of painting one’s self into a corner and then complaining about the view. There is only one exit, and it involves bare feet and stains, the ruination of a perceived perfection. In an excerpt from his upcoming book On Nostalgia (Coach House Books), David Berry writes that “Nostalgia can only be lived in or abandoned: it is yearning distilled to its essence, yearning not really for its own sake but because there is nothing else to be done. Maybe it resisted definition for so long because naming it doesn’t help resolve anything anyway.” We are in a time where there is no resolution, only the stains of where we have been and the blank page of tomorrow, next week, next month, sketched as we walk, without erasers, into an unknown future, seeking community once more.

Counting From One To Ten (But Not In That Order)

books collage mine

#7BooksILove (Photos: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission)

#HBD is probably the most common hashtag I use online. I use it to mark birthdays of artists, musicians, poets, and others whose work I admire. Overall though, online trends are not things I tend to engage in. I know about them, working for myself and needing to be aware of what’s popular when, but rare is the moment when I feel inspired to partake, partly out of a fierce desire to protect my non-online life , partly because the trend will fall a little too far outside my interests; also, my style simply doesn’t fit the compact style social media promotes. (My #SaturdayThoughts are here, and they are more than 280 characters.)

The pullback in personal online shares has been gradual if needed; I tend to agree with a blunt assessment on the Facebook/Instagram/Twitter triumvirate made to me last year, that their nature is essentially “vampiric.” I will only add that one can play the vampire as much as the victim here, and I have certainly drunk more than my fair share of digital blood, in the form of music, movies, history, and art, as well as an unfettered love of Mariella Frostrup columnsBBC Food, and cat pages. (A million thanks to Curious Zelda.) Curation — of what I share, what I imbibe, how I do both, when, and in what spirit — matters, and is largely a private matter.

nigella favorite books

#7BooksILove Day 3/7. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission)

So I surprised myself in choosing to partake in a recent revelation of favorite books on Twitter. Nominated by Washington Post classical journalist Anne Midgette with #7BooksILove, I shared a variety of titles from different points in my life, with no explanations and no respective personal histories. (A similar nomination took place on Facebook a while ago with music albums, and I am still mulling participation; my Instagram is full of record covers, after all. ) The photos are not perfect; I don’t care. For those wondering, “why all the legs? Don’t you ever wear pants?!” — again, the answer is spontaneity; I grabbed a book, flopped on a chair, and took the photo. (Also I largely favor dresses in my wardrobe; for days off, large shirts.) The pose was semi-planned (you have to see the covers somehow) but also intended as a simple reflection of my life and ethos — one integrating curiosity, intellect, sensuality, the vividness of living. This vividness is something I admit to currently finding difficulty in keeping and cultivating lately, perhaps an important reminder to myself, that amidst so many changes and challenges of late, it’s important to keep (nay, cultivate) the parts of my identity where beauty, wonder, and the ever-present sensuality so central to my life and being can eat, drink, dance, and also stop, embrace, and inhale, free and unencumbered.— well, as free as I choose to be online, that is, in my big shirt, on my big fancy chair, feet up.

Doing this list was ultimately a useful cosmic reminder of  accepting what was and what is, a notion applicable to method as much as to content; it took more than seven days to complete this task. It was once said about director Francis Ford Coppola that “he can count from one to ten, but not in that order.” I relate to a similarly scattershot, non-linear, non-conventional thinking and approach to living. In learning to navigate a life free from maternal influence and its concomitant harsh judgement, it is liberating to give one’s self permission to explore the unorthodox person within (the artist? I wonder this), a figure who forced into the shadows for so long. In my teaching life, lessons do go from A to B to C as they must, but they might incorporate A flat, C sharp, diminished fifth, dominant seventh (and so on) along the way, and my students might tell you (I hope?) it makes for a rather less dry learning experience. Explorations across the digital realm (and that includes my professional writing work) move in similar ways — the greatest difficulty has been in sustaining the tone. Ah, the ever-present digitally-inspired attention deficit; combine it with the weighty responsibilities and ever-expanding anxieties of older age, and one is sometimes left with impatience instead of enlightenment , impotence in place of inspiration — cracked eggs over Kandinsky, you might say. The course of any serious study requires diligence, dedication, and concentration, even (or especially) voyages within the creative realm. Clarity can emerge from chaos, but that chaos has its own kind of order and definition and schedule that can (and probably should) change with every experience.

books mine

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

That shouldn’t mean leaving spontaneity by the wayside, however. As I wrote, the photos of the books were done spontaneously, and the choices made as to which books I’d share was equally unplanned. Still, I admit relishing the mystery folded into this entire process: Here’s a little slice of my life; no, I’m not telling you more; here’s a bit of me but no more than that, hurrah! There is a great value and power to mystery, particularly in this reveal-all, tell-all age, which leaves little if anything to the imagination — notably when it comes to the lives of women. I am aware of this reality, and have learned to deal with it in different ways since my first posts on social media more than a decade ago. A mix of spontaneity and mystery seems like the best recipe I can muster when dealing with the sometimes welcome, sometimes-unwelcome nature of the digital realm. You can hit “delete” in your online life, but technology has a memory; there’s a reason the word “branding” has become so popular. Similarly, there’s no “delete” button in life. The consequences of choice can be dire, but they can also be surprising, strange, beautiful. Sometimes it’s worth the effort and the inevitable mess to apply a pure color, to scrape it off, to reveal something entirely new; to take away a note, to add a pause, to leave unsaid what escapes mere language —  each act a mystery, a prayer, a stab at grace. There are no hashtags for such moments; there is only the beautiful silence unfolding between the bleeps and bloops of new, unfolding life.

It Happens

Today marks the 104th birthday of Frida Kahlo.

I’ve expressed my love and admiration for her work in past posts. But lately I feel a particular kinship with this most incredible of painters. She was many things through her short 47 years: wife, artist, daughter, sister, rebel, political figure. She was a supremely feminine figure as she reveled in masculine archetypes, and played with gender roles, power roles, expectations of what and how a woman “should” look and express herself, and always, always, she seemed driven by love: of craft, of country, of ideals and desires and of joining the utterly ethereal with the deeply earthy.

She was a victim of ill circumstance, health problems and outright tragedy… but she was never, ever a victim. Her paintings are so alive with her life, her experiences, her… Frida-ness, they draw you into their present moment, drowning you in a gorgeous rush of blues and greens and reds and always, always black.

I thought about Kahlo and her fierce spirit recently. A few weeks ago I had my cell phone stolen. It was taken stealthily, right out of my bag. As is to be expected, I felt stupid, angry, and violated. It was the start of me looking at New York in a different way. I’ve been coming here for years, reveling in its culture and creative spirit; I’ve never once been the victim of a crime. Why now? Why did it coincide with my three-month anniversary here? What was the universe trying to tell me? As I kept telling people online and in-person, that phone (which I got my first week living here) contained over 3,000 photographs, a visual diary for all of my experiences. Maybe it was time for the gritty sheen of the city to fade; maybe it was time to wipe the ego-driven slate clean. Maybe it was time to return to Toronto.

As I looked out over the green carpet of Central Park this past July 4th (my first in the Big Apple), two thoughts came to mind: I want to drink champagne up here, and, I want to paint up here (also: why can’t I do both?). The roars to resume painting again are growing louder, and I’m not sure what to do. All my equipment’s back in Canada. Artists have relationships with the tools of their craft, and you can’t simply go and use someone else’s and have everything be just fine. It may be a kind offer, but it’s like giving me a size 0 dress and expecting me to be comfortable. Since my phone’s been stolen, the howls to get back to using my own tools have been more shrill than ever. I come to understand my experiences through both words, and, I’ve discovered, images. The act of expressing them, moment to moment – whether photographically or with paint -is what matters, not the finished product.

So the shapes, faces, moments, all theyou would“s and the street art – all the stuff I lost and can’t leave behind – isn’t what brings comfort at the end of the day. “They’re just passing fancies… and in time may go…” This sense of living squarely in the moment (is it something akin to love?) has most keenly been experienced via culture for me -in a theater, through hearing music, seeing film, staring at art -those things that have an alive “present”-ness within them. One gives so much to art, and one gets back so much in return. Not so people; sometimes people simply take, whether figuratively, or, in the case of my long-gone phone, literally. Why cry over the past? Why cling? Seems like a recipe for terrible art, if not a terrible life.

And so, I thought of Frida: a victim of a awful circumstance, but not a victim. Horrible things happen, period. Lately it feels as if they’ve been happening to me more often than not, but there’s always tiny stars of goodness to balance it out: invites to the ballet or the theater, or the gallery or museum are always met with a sense of jubilation and glee. They feel like home – a new home, an old home. This home, NYC.

New York,
you’re a drag, a dig, a drab bitch of skulduggery
and wait-for-no-one, can-do, keep-up perversity.
You’re ragged, you’re filth,
you’re falling apart and put back together in gilded thread for the billionaires in the black SUVs. You’re thunder, lightning, sunshine, wind and rain.
I think I’ll weather you just a bit longer.

Now, if only I had my paint brushes and easel, and access to that beautiful view all the time.

Show & Title

It’s hard to know where or when I first heard the name “Mark Kostabi”, but I am sure it was on television.

I recall seeing the California-born artist on both Oprah and Eye To Eye With Connie Chung in the 1980s, when the art world was buzzing over his bald, smooth figures and his Warhol-esque Kostabi World. I remember admiring both his personal style as well as his attitude; equal parts intelligence, sneer, smirk, and sulk, he was so much more of a badass than any of the music-world idols my friends liked at the time.
So it’s probably fitting that I got the chance to meet Mark Kostabi in-person at a taping of his own television show recently.
The Kostabi Show is a funny, profane, profound, and a fantastically timely comment about the nature of art and democracy. Also, it takes the piss out of the whole idea of ‘high art’ and what that means for the average individual. Intriguing? Yes. Boring? Never. Infuriating? Occasionally.
Indeed, that could sum up Mark Kostabi’s life. Having studied painting and drawing at California State University, he moved to New York in 1982 and quickly became a leading figure in the burgeoning East Village art scene. In 1987 his works were exhibited internationally and in 1988 he founded Kostabi World, where he employed numerous paintings assistants and ideas people who would contribute to (and sometimes entirely paint) Kostabi works. He’s done designs for Swatch and Bloomingdale’s bags (one of which he gave away during last week’s taping), and his work is part of the permanent collections of some big-name places: MOMA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim, the National Gallery (in Washington), and many more. He’s done a bronze portrait of Pope John Paul II and had several books written about him. Oh, and he designed the album covers for (among others) two little bands you may have heard of: Guns n Roses (yes, he did Use Your Illusion) and the final release from The Ramones, 1995’s Adios Amigos. Not too shabby.
This engaging mix of high and low (and Pop) art is reflected in The Kostabi Show. It started as a series of phone calls – literally. Bored by the business meetings he’d have to be part of as a young NY artist and inspired by the films of Andy Warhol, he began taping the conversations, and broadcasting them on public television.
“I thought, if I filmed these (conversations), they’d be more fun, like a kind of performance,” he explains. “I had a lot of business meetings on the phone, so I put up a camera and filmed me at a desk talking to real art dealers who were haggling with me. Every phone call I had, I recorded. People were getting hooked the same way I got hooked on that phone call, just knowing it was real.”
Inside Kostabi was a big hit with the art world crowd, and was, says the artist, “a precursor to reality TV.”
Part of the show involved titling sessions with a variety of Kostabi’s friends and associates, including art critic Robert C. Morgan, who inspired the idea for the first formal competitive-titling show. Name That Painting, as it was called, began in 2007 a legal threat from the Name That Tune people forced a change and it became Title This, but when people would refer to it, they’d say simply “the Kostabi show.” It stuck. Talk about branding.
Airing Wednesday nights at 8.30pm, the show features competitive titling rounds as well as musical interludes, provided by an in-house band that features a talented ensemble, including Kostabi himself on piano. (More on his musical journeys in an upcoming post.) It’s a fascinating mix of people and ideas, with one over-riding theme: paintings should have names. How and why those names are arrived on is a big part of what makes up the show. A panelist of three celebrities gather to be presented with a series of Kostabi works. Past panelists have included jazz musician Ornette Coleman, Sex Pistol Glen Matlock, and the inimitable Tommy Ramone. Once the panel has suggested titles, the assembled studio audience holds up panels, colored red on one side and green on the other, to vote on the titles. Whoever wins gets cash from the erstwhile host and wild applause from the voting public sitting in the bleachers.
Watching the show was funny, amusing, frustrating, emotional, mind-boggling, and more than a little absurd, as Kostabi, ever the showman, jumped between panelists to audience members in desperate attempts to nail down titles for his gorgeously sleek, voluptuously elegant works -which, like Kostabi himself, are still the subject of both passionate adoration and scathing criticism.

For all the fun (and free pizza at intermission!), I had to remind myself to look forwards, at the show, and not around me, where those debated works hang like so many colorful drops in a gorgeous, smooth waterfall of shape and form. This isn’t about contemplation, I told myself, this is about diversion. And yet it’s an important kind of diversion -isn’t it? Was I being conned?

Beautiful paintings came and went with breathtaking speed, and the questions kept coming: Who does art belong to? Who cares? How does originality matter (especially in the digital age)? How does a title shape a work, a painting, a TV show, or indeed, a person?

As Kostabi himself reminded me when we recently met, Picasso didn’t think titles were of any great import, while Marcel Duchamp thought they were of huge significance.
“I’m somewhere in the middle,” he said, flashing a brilliant smile.
In the middle, maybe. But never, ever mediocre.

The Power And The Glitter

There’s something deeply moving about seeing Gustav Klimt’s work in-person.

I missed that opportunity in Vienna years ago, but, thanks to the Neue Galerie here in New York, I got it lastnight. Shown as part of their current exhibition Vienna 1900: Style and Identity, the work, tastefully incorporating design, art, and various writings, is on view at the museum through June 27th.
After checking bags and jacket, I walked up the narrow, winding staircase (reminding me so much of the narrow passageway I climbed in Vienna, to see one of the flats Beethoven lived in) and, on the second floor, caught the unmistakable sight of Klimt’s signature golden swirls. I entered one gallery and immediately had to check myself. The portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (I) stood before me in all its glinting, glistening glory. I almost cried.
Klimt is, for me, one of those painters with such a singular vision and style, any amount of copying or imitation just comes off as hokey and dumb. The closest I ever saw was the costuming for Bram Stoker’s Dracula; Oscar-winner Eiko Ishioka really captured the rich, feminine, sumptuous beauty of Klimt while keeping an eye on his penchant for strong contrasts and soft shapes against strong ones. There’s a nod to outfits in the exhibit too, with dresses shown beside or near paintings -a nice nod to the role of fashion in culture. I was especially thrilled by the billowing white dress with cascading layers and complex, thick-thick textures; it reminded me so much of Ishioka’s design for Lucy’s wedding gown/shroud, that I half-expected Sadie Frost to come creeping around a corner of the wood-and-dark-rugged Galerie.
Seeing his work up-close and in-person for the first time, after having loved it for over 20 years, was a much more emotional experience than I anticipated -and the work itself flew off the canvas (or sheet) with a kind of casual ease I wasn’t expecting. Outside of a few early works that are featured, it all looks…like bleeding, breathing, blinking. Each work, whether painted in rich oil colors or drawn with pencil, looks like a vein that’s been opened. Something divine -and very powerful -pours out on those surfaces. And more often than not, it sees like it was women who inspires the most rolling, flowing, richly memorable moments.
Women play such a central role in Klimt’s work; powerful, beautiful, potent, and occasionally terrifying, they are, for me, the sun around which Klimt’s artistic output revolved. This sense of female power -and of the power of their sexuality, and his worship of the two combined -was intoxicating to behold. I was especially pleased to see a selection of his erotic drawings on display. As people shuffled by awkwardly, I stopped, and gazed. Klimt was capturing women in their most intimate moments, but there was nothing dirty or lascivious in his depiction. The mix of private and personal -and performance – is intoxicating. Hand-wringing about the line between high art and porn aside, it isn’t the guy drawing who has the power here -it’s the women with the sighing smiles. Patricia Boccadoro, writing at Culture Kiosk, correctly notes that
when one stands in front of these frankly very erotic drawings of young girls carried away by their own desire, eyes closed, lying on their backs with their legs wide apart and masturbating, they seem natural and are not at all embarrassing. …They are beautiful in their abandon, lascivious, but fragile and vulnerable, and one senses that the artist was touched by what he saw. There is nothing perverse or humiliating…
He was touched, but I sense, also turned on. And maybe, as The Economist wisely observed, that once Klimt was “(s)tripped of his wet palette and gold, it is the artist who appears naked in the images, offering a startling insight into (his) own private world.” The raw, honest vulnerability of eroticism has a power all its own, one we’ve yet to fully embrace more than a century later.
I thought about Klimt, and art, and powerful women a lot lastnight, as I walked by dozens of posters advertising Lady Gaga’s show on HBO and hundreds of push-up-bra’d-and-super-high-heeled young women, as I carefully weighed fattening dinner options and went out in a low-cut, slinky black dress, and as I pulled a sweater on and put on my flat shoes before getting on the subway. What constitutes female power? Is it bling? Boobs? Boys? On a larger level, is it okay to be perceived as purely a sexual being? Where’s the person beneath the parts? Does anyone care? Also, I keep wondering about the role of trust between an artist and muse -or, for that matter, being a man and woman. I’m not sure I’d ever be comfortable with any artist sketching me in so vulnerable a state but… that’s the power of these drawings: they betray an extraordinary level of trust that translates into a new, empowering form of male/female relating.
Seeing Klimt’s work up close gave me a whole new awareness of not only the shifting ground of artistry and the beauty of orchestrating its creation, but of the power I, as a woman, hold, and how easily, quickly, and thoughtlessly I give it away in little tidy parcels every day. I aspire to be Adele. I aspire to be as free as the women in those drawings. I want to vanish into Klimt’s beautiful, glittering world. Alas, I’m stuck with a sweater over a dress, navigating a maze of colorless subways in dirty, crazy, loud New York. At least the Neue is close by.

Artsy

I feel like a kind of “us versus them” war is happening in Toronto right now -between people who lives in different regions, who engage in different social activities, who are interested in different things. Can’t we all just get along?

Look! Hear! is a monthly cultural event that happens in the city; its last one, November 30th, was held in the historic Distillery District. The next one happens tomorrow night, in the very-same, neato spot. In the words of the people organizing Look! Hear!, it aims to promote “some of the most exciting and up and coming artists and musicians Toronto has to offer, in the unique and raw space that is the Stirling Room Catacombs.” It closes with a live art auction at midnight.

Art? Catacombs? Auction? Cool! Or at least I think so; unfortunately I wasn’t able to attend November 30th but I definitely plan on following this group. I learned about it through artist Chris Pemberton, whom I interviewed as one of the co-founders of the immensely popular Art Battle. Chris is a great artist in his own right, as the photos here attest; they’re from his super summer exhibition at the Gladstone Hotel.

Now, there are a lot of people in the city who are taking the “us vs them” approach, specifically within the political sphere as a direct result of November’s mayoral race. Chris feels like one of those people who’s trying to break that barrier; would one group of people make it to the Gladstone Hotel, or Look! Hear! if they knew about it? Does that make the groups of people who do go to such venues and events x or y (or *gasp* z)? Should any of that matter when it comes to art? Questions worth debating at any time, in any place. My exchange with Chris demonstrates the heart of connection that lies within the kind of art I like best.

How does your work fit in with the other arts happening at Look! Hear! ?

Look Hear is a special event. Elements such as visual and sound arts are combined to bring an awareness to the space for the evening. I’ve done my best to offer paintings that represent my vision and passion, and let the curator design the rest. Should it fit? Most of the time, yes. Sometimes, if done with care, disjunction is beautiful too.

What does this kind of one-night event give you, as a working artist, in both the short and long-terms?

In the short term it gives the opportunity to share my ideas with a focused community. A special event like Look! Hear! brings people together to be a part of one night, and the enthusiasm becomes a tangible part of experience and the experience of my art. In the long term, it’s an opportunity to connect with the ideas of other people, and to inform my future work or creative process, which is my living process also.

Why do you think it’s a vital event for local artists in the city?

Every artistic element at Look! Hear! is being offered as a best effort in a beautiful venue, produced by a great team. It’s the type of event that supports and creates as it becomes real. I’ve worked with (producer/curator) Morgan Booth on other projects; she has a knack for success and is delightful to work with. I believe Morgan got the artists she wanted, Sarah Eagen and Andrew Dunn Clarke have really impressed me, it’s exciting to show work together.

How does it work with your role as a co-founder of Art Battle?

I’ve really felt a sense of community involvement since we started Art Battle. We’ve met so many passionate and innovative people, it’s inspiring me to maintain my own voice. There’s a lot of work in between shows, whether that’s an Art Battle or an exhibit, it’s important to maintain confidence and creativity. Working and communicating with people who share the same efforts and excitement is how it works. It’s a great fit.

Your exhibit at the Gladstone had a lot of blues and oranges, & was very textural -how long did it take you to find your ‘voice’ artistically? How much is that an ongoing process?

It’s definitely an ongoing process, but if you are true to yourself and what you want to express, the work will always be true, although the voice changes tone over time. My paintings are the paintings that I want to live with -that is my guide.

How do you think events like Look! Hear! & Art Battle foster the culture of a city?

The culture of Toronto will be as rich as we make it. Events like Look Hear and Art Battle bring attention, experience and inspiration to the arts community and beyond. I believe culture is in constant motion, some things take longer to change, some times things shift quickly. The arts often tells us where we have been, sometimes tells us where we are, and occasionally where we are going. I hope that excitement and the connection of good people is where we are going. That’s the culture I want to be a part of.

Feel / Reveal


Watching pieces of the movie Frida recently, amidst bites of crostini, answering emails, and half-sketching, was a strange experience -and not just because of the multi-tasking.

When I saw it in the cinema in 2002 I was bowled over by the mix of images, plot, and music within Julie Taymor‘s vision of the Mexican painter’s life. My initial viewing was at an early point in my own personal explorations into drawing and painting; after years of photography, including nearly two years spent in Ireland and England with an ancient, beloved manual-forward SLR camera, I thought it might be a good idea to strip the technology away to get to the heart of art-making. And so the drawing/painting/sketching odyssey began, and photography, however slowly, fell by the wayside, paralleling the dwindling of film stock and the rise of mobile (and, for that matter, internet) technology.

It was during a recent dinner party at my home that I felt a deep twinge of nostalgia for my old snapping days. I brought out the old Minolta at the request of one of my guests, a photo enthusiast. The weight of the camera, the ka-chunk of the shutter, the cylindrical beauty of the lens, the quasi-surprise of the prints… it was all magical to behold after so long away from it. Yet spying the light meter again created a small panic, a palpable sense of, what am I doing?! It was a curious mix of panic and passion.

Aside from the heart-stopping, beautiful viuals, what I love so much about Taymor’s film is that Frida’s struggles and doubts over her own artistic voice aren’t ever glossed over; in one scene, when she and husband Diego Rivera go to New York City so the latter can complete a commission for the Rockefellers, a reporter asks her, “Are you an artist too?” She demures -and keeps on stabbing her brush at the canvas. Yes, no, maybe. I don’t know. Keep on keepin’ on. Even when bed-ridden, she continued her output, never labelling herself or her work. Just doing it.

I’m a longtime admirer of Frida’s work -“admirer”, actually, feels too mild, but “fan” feels too slavish. She takes her place, like Patti Smith, in my mental curio cabinet of beautifully imperfect heroes: shriekingly female but defying categorization, always personal but ever-cryptic, physical but very heady, hugely experimental but deeply traditional. A mass of genius in contradiction, Frida’s work, like Patti’s, has the power to bring me to tears, and frequently has.

The timing of Taymor’s movie on television was curious on a personal level (never mind Taymor’s directing Spider Man: Turn Off The Dark, opening next month on Broadway. More on that in a future post.). I’d been berating myself for not being productive enough artistically lately. I should be drawing/painting/etc is a frequent mental mantra. It’s feels like a hard thing to go off and do, and yet it shouldn’t be. That old want-to-be-doing vs should-be-doing battle is raging. The other reason productivity falls away is that I have a genuine sense of not knowing what I’m doing, that it’s all for naught, that it’s all horribly amateur and pointless and stupid. That voice of doubt is sometimes louder than the calm, quiet one that asks me to keep going.

And so, it was appropos that, looking through a bookshelf for something else entirely, Peter London’s No More Secondhand Art (Shambhala Publications, 1989) popped out at me. I opened it, as if my magic, to a page with the following header: “Am I Good Enough?” That would be my other mantra, a much older one that applies to several areas and pursuits. But I was fascinated by London’s dissection of this question to self as applied to art-making, one that works whether you love drawing, painting, photography or performance:

We can never win the encounter with such a question, because the very underlying assumption of “Am I —— enough?” is a faulty appraisal of the human condition and a false understanding of what it does take to engage in creative enterprises… Rather than paralyzing ourselves with the existential bone-crusher “Am I good enough?” we would do better to ask ourselves question that invoke no comparisons. Instead, we could become interested in describing the new terrain being uncovered or invented.

I dream of the day that voice stops -or at least softens. I dream of the day I’ll have the most precious things any artist could ask for -time, space, resources -to do what I want most to do, when my heroes smile and say, see? It wasn’t so hard after all. Because really, it’s not.


Paintings:

Top: The Two Fridas, 1939.
Bottom: Viva la vida, 1954. Frida Kahlo’s last painting.


Photo credit:

Photograph of Frida Kahlo by Lucienne Bloch, 1932.

(Re)Birth


Oh dear, oh dear… several concerts, three openings, two books, a TV appearance, and one surgery (not mine) later, and I find I’m getting guilt-pangs. Dear blog, I’ve ignored you, and I am sorry. There will be a lot more posts in the coming days and weeks, including a review of the last North American stop on Hugh Masekela’s recent tour, an audio interview with the playwright behind a new opera about boxing and women, a preview of an upcoming Robert LePage show involving gender-bending, and my own musing on tattoo artist Kat Von D’s latest book.

In the meantime, a celebration of sorts is in order. Artist Louis le Brocquy turned 94 today. To say his work was a big reason I picked up a paintbrush sounds too trite, too twee, too completely earnest. But it’s true. I remember being introduced to his work by an art professor many years ago in Dublin; the way I look at art -and the world -hasn’t been the same since. Le Brocquy‘s fierce sensuality combined with his meticulous skill have cast such a powerful spell that I’ve literally lost hours staring silently at his work. And it isn’t just a technical admiration; there’s a real sense of love that pours forth from his works -for the works themselves, the act, the subject, the materials, the very spirit of art and artistry and poetry, the whole chaotic mass of creation, of birth, of death, of living, of knowing, of being …for the sake of it.

It’s not unusual for me to get emotional looking at his work, either; the magical combination of paint and brushstrokes, light and shadow, shape and form, work a kind of alchemical magic that bounces straight from head into heart, threading the two together until there’s no distinction between me, subject, and canvas. This Irish painter’s vision is so singularly unique as to make words very, very limiting in trying to describe its power. That’s the mark of good art in my books. And I try surround and immerse myself in that kind of awesome beauty as much as I can -or at least tote around the compact version, which isn’t always successful.

Only recently have I returned in a big way to my own art-making, and while it’s been a kind of homecoming, it’s also provided an alarming awakening (more on that in a future post). Every carefully-applied brushstroke whispers a primal, messy truth -one I’m coming to recognize and embrace in every aspect of my ever-expanding world. Le Brocquy’s work feels both soothing and a call for authenticity -in art, in love, in life. I hope I can heed it.

For now, I send my heartfelt thanks, joy, and good wishes to Mr. Brocquy. Love and gratitude, always.


Top painting: Fantail, 1989
Middle painting: Back, 1997
Bottom painting: Study for Children in a Wood, 1988

There Are No Mistakes

It’s been a big step for me to share my artwork. It’s taken years, practise, contemplation, and well… just keeping at the drawing/painting/sketching. Thanks to confidence, as well as a substantial leap in technology, I’m now able to share a very-small morsel of my own artistic output.

It’s somewhat strange, as a journalist, to be sharing another aspect of my life so publicly. I definitely hold a very-precious and delicate part of myself up for scrutiny -and yet, that’s the risk of every artist: putting little shards of your own self out there for oohs or boos. For me, it’s analogous to sex-for-sex, or sex-with-big-feelings. Both are good, but one is riskier. It’s easy to get naked, but to strip away the superficial and reveal true soul -that’s hard. But it’s the call any artist worth his or her salt must heed in order to grow, and, I think, to develop spiritually as a human being. The ability to create -bodily, verbally, mechanically, culinarily, technically, virtually, with imagination, gusto, and fearlessness -is something I suspect we need to embrace in order to move forwards, personally and societally.

Thanks in no small part to one truly gifted artist I met during my time living in Dublin, I’ve felt confident enough to throw my paint-splattered hat in the ring, damning the consequences and inevitable sneers. The encouragement I’ve received since has been really, really heartening, as has every little bit of feedback.

This is a work-in-progress -both the sharing and the artwork itself -so all I ask is, look, and let me know if you have ideas, reaction, tips. I want to hear them.

Night, originally uploaded by catekustanczi.

The Art Of The Duel

Today marks the one-year anniversary of heads, the salon-style speaking event I helped to co-organize. It featured Ruth Klahsen of Monforte Dairy and Chung Wong of Givernation, as well as the first public edition of Art Battle, a competitive event that pitted two painters against one another in a timed event that the public could view and, once the pieces were complete, vote on.

While heads didn’t survive, Art Battle has rocketed into the stratosphere of popularity within Toronto’s cultural community. It’s so popular in fact, that the popular weekly Now Toronto is running a live feed of tonight’s event starting at 8pm ET.

The premise is simple: pit two painters against one another, live, for a specific amount of time (usually twenty minutes). When finished, the observers get to vote on a favorite, which is then auctioned off. The losing painting… can sometimes meet an ugly end. Or not. There are three rounds, and the public has the opportunity of being in one of those rounds. Fun? Scary? Nuts? Brilliant? All of the above.

I had the opportunity of interviewing the co-founders of Art Battle, Simon Plashkes and Chris Pemberton, about the hows and whys around pitting painters (sometimes well-known, sometimes not; sometimes not even painters) against one another in a public arena.

Toronto’s Art Battle by CateKusti

I have to admit, I’ve never been 100% sold on the idea of putting painters within a competitive arena. The very nature of it -people gawking and talking, holding cold beers and varying expectations, combined with the added pressure of an unforgiving stopwatch -means the essential nature of the artist’s output will be vastly different to what they’d produce in an actual studio. But who’s to judge which is better? That’s an interesting question worth exploring. And there is something fortifying about the level of community input and involvement Art Battle has consciously sought. I love the fact that Art Battle has encouraged those who’ve never put brush to canvas before to give it a try (both publicly and not). It’s equally heartening to see the curiosity Torontonians have shown towards Art Battle, rendering it the big success it is now.

Kudos to Simon, Chris, the entire Art Battle team -and not least of all to all the artists, past, present, and future, who continue to re-define that most contentious of words -“art” -and what our relationship to it is. Bravo.

Photo courtesy of Art Battle Toronto.

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