Category Archives: Culture

Staging the Self

I don’t like the phrase, and perhaps that’s incidental to the several pleasures of a small but rewarding new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. “Staging the Self” focuses on six Latino artists who are all representing a sense of themselves, through painting or photography, often heavily dependent on a cast of characters from their past, their family or their community. Art Speak is full of well-worn cliches, and the sense that theater, or staging, or theatricality somehow makes things more complicated, more multivalent, more substantial is one of them. It’s fairly simple, isn’t it? To the extent that we have an identity, it is sum of many parts, drawn from our past, our friends (through imitation) and enemies (through repulsion), and of course heavily dependent on our many shifting loyalties to ethnic, religious, sexual and gender subgroups. That’s all.

But don’t think that sorting through all of this, or even “staging” it through art, is going to get you any closer to knowing who you are. At the end of my review I quote James Agee, who understands the frustration well:

…and those receive me, who quietly treat me, as one familiar and well-beloved in that home: but will not, oh, will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me who I am.

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From the Style blog

A lot more of what I write these days is shorter, and appearing on the Washington Post’s Style blog. Here’s a sampling from last week.

It was good news indeed to learn that the city of Washington will let art collector and entrepreneur Dani Levinas use the vacant Franklin School as a kunsthalle, to be known as the Institute for Contemporary Expression.

This little bit of contemporary expression, a statue of near-naked man on the campus of Wellesley College, sparked some thoughts about the gender norms we place on older men.

To accompany a review of the American Cool exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery, I published a transcript of some of the conversation I had with the curators, who explained how they determined who was in, and who was not.

The death of Philip Seymour Hoffman made me wonder about the might-have-beens, especially all the ways in which he might have influenced writers inspired by his talent.

And I turned to the subject of dogs twice: Considering the fate of what may be an American combat dog held hostage in Afghanistan, and all those puppies George Clooney saves in the execrable abomination of movie The Monuments Men. Which, by the way, I really hated.

I also had a nice chat with Mark Yoffe, head of the Counterculture Archives at George Washington University, about Sochi Olympics protest art. 

Finally, more good news: Natural Bridge in Virginia, beloved of Jefferson and painted by Frederic Edwin Church, will become a state park. Now let’s hope they don’t charge admission.

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Mies Julie at the Shakespeare Theatre

                Yael Farber’s Mies Julie is a hard but worthwhile night in the theater. Based on Strindberg’s Miss Julie, Farber’s rewrite tracks the original fairly closely, diverging in two fundamental ways: It is set in South Africa nearly two decades after the end of apartheid, and the character of Jean (or “John” in Farber’s adaptation) is more of a victim than a trickster and thus more sympathetic than the manipulative servant in Strindberg’s play. The update is often brutal and difficult to watch, but it honors its inspiration by refreshing the social context in which the thwarted love affair between the privileged Julie and the socially ambitious Jean takes place. And yet at times history overwhelms the basic trajectory of the earlier play: The violence and dead-end cultural dysfunction of contemporary South Africa becomes the subject of the drama, more than the interaction of the two characters. John and Julie are reduced to puppets in a larger narrative of hopelessness and despair.

                    Translating the drama into South African terms also makes it difficult for Farber to negotiate the occasional lyrical interludes in the Strindberg text. At the end, with everything having turned horribly bloody and sad, Julie tries to jump to the lyric plane. The effect is operatic, in a bad way. Poetry can’t be woven into this world, which is too harsh and too honest accommodate a final aria.

                And yet it’s powerful drama, and it makes one take the Strindberg more seriously. Few productions of Miss Julie will hit you as hard as Mies Julie.

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Vernacular Urbanism?

     Vernacular, in an academic or art-speak context, is a word worthy of healthy suspicion. It is used to designate populist styles, to suggest a common language that bubbles up from below rather than a discourse dictated from on high. It’s generally freighted with ideas about authenticity: vernacular styles are authentically of the people, while hierarchical or received styles are illegitimate impositions from cultural authorities. A vernacular urban design is way cool, kind of anarchic, funky, eclectic and free; as opposed to older ideas that are associated with disreputable forms of cultural or social authority. Here’s a classic usage in the catalog to a great new show (originally from the Getty in Los Angeles) at the National Building Museum:

 [Reyner] Banham upended this old-world notion of what defined true urbanity, arguing for Los Angeles’s inclusion within the canon of great cities by virtue of its democratic brand of urbanism, which rejected orthodox urban hierarchies in favor of a sprawling vernacular landscape that upheld the values of an affluent consumer society…”

 It’s worth stopping every time you see the word and asking yourself: Is the thing that is supposedly vernacular really functioning like a language? Is there a real give and take of communication? I tried to do that in my review of the fascinating and ambitious “Overdrive: LA Constructs the Future 1940-1990” exhibition. Thus:

 Calling the sprawl of cheap suburban cookie-cutter houses and trashy commercial signage a “new vernacular” misuses the term vernacular, suggesting that this was a language involving genuine back-and-forth communication. It wasn’t a language at all, or even an architectural style; rather, it was a jumble of commercially dictated architectural styles aimed at gaining and holding consumer attention. Mostly people adapted to it. If they now embrace it, it’s because it feels familiar and they have few other options.

That’s no reason not to see the show. But better to give L.A. it’s due as a great city despite its failures of urbanism, rather than attempt to elevate sprawl to something like an admirable, democratic vernacular. Ugly is ugly, and environmentally unsound, too.

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Filed under Architecture, Culture, Exhibitions, Museums, Preservation, urban design

Damage Control at the Hirshhorn

Not easy to find this review today, but it did run. The show is excellent and both a lot of fun and rather disturbing. I spend much of my review on the morality and the ethics of embracing destruction as actual artistic praxis, but there’s a lot more to the show than that. This YouTube clip shows an installation view (from another exhibition) of Pipilotti Rist’s deliciously subversive video, “Ever is Over All.” Fast forward to the 45-second mark to get a sense of the video as you’ll see it at the Hirshhorn. In a way, this work undermines much of what I say in my piece, showing destruction without moral significance, just pure fun and sexy, as if the Nike of Samothrace went out for a walk on the wild side–and who would dare to stop her? Not any old policewoman.

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The Romanian Rhapsody

George_EnescoIt’s not often I go to a concert primarily to hear the curtain raiser, but if you live with a Romanian you have to make certain accommodations. This weekend the National Symphony Orchestra opened its Barber and Rachmaninoff program with George Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody No. 1. It’s a fantastic show piece, and not played nearly often enough.

Listening to it again last night I realized that if you don’t know Romanian folk music, then Enescu’s rather literal orchestral transcription of classic folk songs will seem strangely modern. Enescu, of course, adds plenty to the mix, but the sound he’s aiming for—the busy, bright, hammered sound of the cimbalom, the slurpy portamento of the fiddle and the almost sea-sick, start-stop rhythmic profile—sounds to us as if the music is chaotic, fractured and chromatic.

Here, for example, is the composer himself performing one of the songs (“Ciocarlia,” or “The Lark”) on the violin. Enescu was an astonishingly great violinist, and a legendary pedagogue, and this clip gives you a sense of why Yehudi Menuhin, Arthur Grumiaux and Ida Haendel all studied with him.

And here is a traditional performance of “Ciocarlia,” complete with the deliciously psychedelic imitation of birdsong that is part of classic renditions.

It’s possible to over think this kind of music, to render it dutifully as “classical music” and leach all the life out of it. Here’s Benny Goodman doing just that with a piece inspired by the “hora” style of Romania folk music.

But great performances of Enescu’s confection have an infectious, semi-drunken, over-the-top spirit, and here’s one of the greatest conductor-clowns bringing down the house, Sergiu Celibadache.

Finally, and just for fun, here is Enescu whistling a “doina” melody, while playing the piano. Bartok also “discovered” doina melodies and repurposed them. But Enescu’s whistle version is just amazingly odd and haunting.

 

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Recent Stories

Last week I wrote a short piece about a carpet known as the Armenian Orphan Rug, woven by orphan refugees of the Armenian genocide, given to President Calvin Coolidge, and now too hot politically to be taken out of storage. The White House responded to my request for comment with the usual non-comment statement that answers and explains nothing. The World picked up the story and chatted with me on the Friday program.

I’ve also reviewed a couple of shows, the Byzantine art exhibition at the National Gallery (many beautiful things) and the Latino Art exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (also many beautiful things, but a poorly conceived show).

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