Monday, August 22, 2016

I Reconsider the Necessity of Criticism

Ray Sasaki speaks trumpet

The work entailed by running a young publishing company has been so all-consuming that I concluded a few months ago that I could no longer devote time to writing Starr Review: that I was overwhelmed and responsible to my authors were sufficient reasons to give it up. I didn’t mention my growing skepticism that it made much of a difference one way or the other whether I wrote or not.

Silly me! I shall pick up my pixels once again on whatever irregular basis I can. My lapse from reviewing has allowed me to conclude that readers or none, I feel compelled to write criticism to reflect and expand the impact of artists I'm moved by—what they think and make. Who can grow without discussion? How can I enjoy art without the time that writing makes me take to consider it deeply, in proportion to the generosity and magnitude of labor that brings art to us?

This weekend past I heard and talked with the brilliant musician and musical thinker, Ray Sasaki who is, among many other things, trumpeter with the Tone Road Ramblers. Ray spoke about the fact that he’s been playing his instrument since he was eight years old. How simply he told his audience that to play his horn is to speak. In essence, he is bilingual and it’s not clear that English is the more fluent language.

This stopped me in my tracks for being so simple, primary, and universally applicable. We often want to be relieved of the work of accepting gifts of art that we have to assemble with toolboxes limited to verbal language. “Artist: Just tell me what you mean! Be your own museum label!”

When Sasaki speaks music, does it matter if I make sense of it with words? Of course it does: that’s what most of us know. Art in all forms is sent out into a verbal world. It’s in the space between musical or visual or spatial language (literary language too!) and our attempts to understand it that meaning, discovery, and love happen. That's the space where criticism helps us appreciate, question, and discuss Sasaki’s sounds, where we can thank him directly or indirectly. In writing, I can lead others to his music and the world of ideas into which he invites us. These are the reasons to write—and to read—criticism. Or “reviews” as single-subject critical pieces are called. (see The Tone Road Ramblers: Always Some Surprises)

Democracy of Book Reviews

Being a publisher now has made me all the more poignantly aware of the dilution of reviewing. In visual art, one has long seen the decline of art reviews in local papers and the brevity of those that appear. Book reviewing, on the other hand, would seem to be undergoing a renaissance, thanks to customer reviews on Amazon’s commercial site and especially reader reviews on Goodreads’ social media network.

Book reviews are central to the literary world. They inform us about meritorious titles, and give us a chance to discuss them in our minds with informed interlocutors. It’s been sad to see book reviews fall away from the weekend sections of city newspapers, or to shrink under niggardly word limits where they do survive. There are fewer than there used to be. So I thought until these days of on-line, popular reviewing.

A book review is a signed essay that describes the work, raises and expatiates upon its themes and connects the work and writer to the wider world. The genre of review flourishing on websites simply summarizes the plot or argument of a work and rates it according to the reader’s feeling of like dislike—five stars or one, thumbs up or down. This isn’t a book review. It’s a book report or, if sufficiently succinct, advertising copy.

Goodreads serves the active and enthusiastic reader as wide-ranging, democratic book club. Readers have the satisfaction of keeping booklists that serve as reading diaries. They are motivated to read more by being in the virtual midst of readers who are always “talking” about books and comparing notes. Readers enjoy the companionship of overlapping communities with similar tastes and enthusiasms, which, in turn may nudge them into broadening their tastes in authors and genres. I think Goodreads has to be a plus for adult reading generally, a club with meetings on any schedule needed and no irresistible fattening noshes.

It’s unfortunate that the posts on Goodreads get called “reviews” since they almost never rise beyond plot summary and a rating based on a personal, eccentric factor. A book receives a “1” because the reader doesn’t like books with lots of characters. Another receives a “5” because the reviewer finds beautiful (for no illustrated reason) the writing that most book critics would deplore as ponderous. In short, analysis, specificity, comparison are hard to find in this world. Authority based on other than taste is rarely present.

Goodreads reviews do reflect the world of “legit” book reviewing in one discouraging way, that being that a few “hot” books are reviewed hundreds of times while books that are less publicized (and continue that way for all the attention lavished on the best-sellers) go relatively unnoticed. The connection between criticism and marketing is as embarrassing as the emperor’s new clothes. While the publishing world is replete with titles, the marketing budget or previous sales of an author’s books are what draw reviewers both popular and professional. No one wants to be seen making a call on an “unimportant” title: Most reviewers are very conservative, and are unlikely to introduce a new title by themselves. It's also hard to turn down a free book received through a well-oiled network.

I asked a NPR host who once spoke in Columbus why all of the many shows on the network reviewed the same one or two books at a time, when there are always so many to choose from. He dodged the question with a laugh.

Is criticism about passing judgment? Rating? Thumbs up or down? Take my word for it? You’ll love it?

Hooray for readers! Hooray for sharing opinions, for reading together, for swapping books, for keeping au courant. But let’s not mistake Goodreads and Amazon book reports and opinion-posting for criticism—that deeper, time-expanding conversation that takes us farther inside a book and into the widening spirals of space, time, and idea around it.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Of Ugly Ducklings and Contemporary Art

The "swan song" brings to mind a silly image of feathered magnificence deflated into flaccid, supine tubing. Perhaps it's the logical end of a creature that begins life as a flinching ugly duckling. Still, the swan's song was originally believed to be surpassingly beautiful because swans were thought to be silent until the end. 
Matt Kish, Beavercreek, Ohio. © Feinknopf Photography

Starr Review has been loquacious for several years, so I wish all the more that I could guarantee some lyricism for my final post. I've delighted in seeing and thinking about all the shows I've written about. I've hoped that I may have inspired others to look again, to step up to contemporary art, or to know that "not getting it" at first glance is insufficient reason not to engage. Perhaps a few readers have looked with more patience and imagination and have found  their attention rewarded with new perspectives and wider horizons. To have had an effect on a viewer's outlook would mean more to me than would having persuaded anyone about what I've seen. Thank you for reading in the past. Thank you for reading my final post: This is an excellent show to go out on:

Currently installed at the Columbus Museum of Art is a show that exemplifies my wish for a relationship of curiosity and exuberance between "civilians" and contemporary art: Art 360º: Contemporary Art Hatching Across Ohio, conceived, curated, and organized by Columbus attorney, Charles Bluestone

Bluestone is neither trained in art nor connected to the art profession except by enthusiasm. But he likes to look; he is curious and stimulated by visual art. He's interested in the creative process and how ideas take concrete form in the hands of artists. 

Having collected Ohio artists since he came to Columbus in 1993, Bluestone put his personal network  to work to "hatch" a show to highlight the Ohio Art Leagueon whose board he previously served. The League has recently faced the financial challenges of an institution making a location change. The result is a show that is visiting five museums/art centers, raising funds through sales of catalogues and posters for the benefit of local arts organizations. The Columbus Museum of Art is the second stop.

Fred Fochtman, Columbus. © Feinknopf Photography
On the website, Bluestone tells an involved and funny backstory about the evolution of a show based on eggs: not only eggs, but ostrich eggs, originally ones that he had himself collected. Artistically, though, the interest for the artists involved and for viewers is great: How do artists who typically work in two-dimensional media react to the opportunity to work on a round surface? Although this challenge was in some way a lark, the great variety of results demonstrates how thoughtfully the artists considered the problem in terms of their usual practices.

Fred Fochtman is an observational landscape painter, who painted the snowscape viewed from his studio window. He didn't approach it, though, as just another landscape to curve around the egg, but he responded to the surface of the egg as well, which is shiny and smooth. He compared it to a glaze used by the famous Rookwood Pottery in southern Ohio and thought of the "ethereal subjects" that decorated their vases.

Matt Kish (above) is fascinated by Moby Dick and its world. He thought about the style of scrimshaw, the art practiced by seamen who carved intricate designs on the bones and teeth of whales during the long months at sea, and he painted the teeth of the White Whale as it attacks the Pequod.
Willard Reader, Portsmouth, Ohio, "The Artist in His Shell."
© Feinknopf Photography

Willard Reader testifies in his catalogue essay to having been rather unnerved by the task and by the egg's fragility (he never took it out of its box, but worked on it as it remained in the bubble wrap: The back is blank).

He made a leap, though, to forgo his usual practice of painting small-town landscapes and he decided to take the egg at face value. He uses its surface as a shell that functions both literally and metaphorically. The transformation is minimal and witty; he uses the support as the major element of both the composition and the message of his piece.

April Sunami, like Reader, uses the nature of her support in creating meaning in her work. Her approach is equally witty, but it comes with a different message and from a very different place. Reader's work is as closely controlled as Sunami's is elaborate, as withdrawn as Sunami's is effusive. The one didn't even remove his egg from its box…Sunami dropped hers.

April Sunami, Columbus, Ohio. "Un-whole Vision." 
© Feinknopf Photography
"I decided to paint it in its broken state and haven't looked back. In some ways the egg has become a personal metaphor for the detours that one must make in life," she writes in her catalogue notes. While she gives her work the title, "Un-whole Vision," a case can be made for its completeness: It is the only work that even suggests that there is an inside to the egg, a mind to the face, and interior to the exterior.
Audra Skudas, Oberlin, Ohio. "Broken Melodies - Discordant
Fragments - Reintegrating." 
 © Feinknopf Photography

Audra Skuodas' reference to egg lore is more subtle, but breathtaking for the care taken and the process that reveals wisdom at the heart of a common nursery rhyme.

This egg's surface is built up of painstakingly collaged scraps of printed musical notation, which the artist has in parts painted over with red ink, making Easter-egg like designs. Depending on the orientation of the egg, the design radiates out from a center, or is halved around a broad central strip, each side distinguished by its own coloration.

The collaged elements are indeed "broken melodies" and "discordant fragments"—if we are thinking only about the musical scores from which they have been snipped. How could they ever be reassembled to make sense again?

The "Reintegration" turns the music into something quite new though. In effect, Skuodas responds to the dilemma of putting Humpty-Dumpty back together again: The nursery rhyme was part of her inspiration. The score will never again be used to make the kind of music it was meant for. Its reintegration is as something new, and we can consider it either as New Music, three-dimensional art, or as an egg, hatching questions in us. 

In "Art 360º," we get to see over forty Ohio artists at the intersection of play and problem-solving, at that moment of creative suspense most of us haven't experienced since we were youngsters. This is a wonderful show for any art-goer at any level of sophistication, from children through art-historians. The whimsy, beauty, and decorative variety of the eggs give them an undeniable appeal for any eye. But the enormous range of approaches to the egg—as surface, as an object with its own meaning; as an object in space; as metaphor—give clues about artists' thinking that can always be carried over to the surrounding galleries. 
Audra Skuodas, "Broken Melodies - Discordant Fragments - Reintegrating."
 © Feinknopf Photography

Sunday, January 17, 2016

"High Style:" Couture and Attitude in Twentieth Century Fashion at the Cincinnati Art Museum

Charles James (American, born Great Britain, 
1906–1978), "Tree" Evening Dress, Brooklyn Museum 
Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 
Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009;
 Gift of Mrs. Douglas Fairbanks,Jr.,1981(2009.300.991)
 Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art
High Style: Masterpieces from the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art  remains at the Cincinnati Art Museum through January 24 and, oh, how worth seeing this show is! It traces from the turn of the century through the 1980s the progress of couture and the succession of great American and European fashion designers. Displayed are gowns, ensembles, hats, shoes, jewelry, and a special exhibit on American couturier of the midcentury, Charles James, whose phenomenally engineered clothes are de-construced for us in fascinating interactive displays that reveal the many-layered, disciplined structures of extravagant elegance.

Across the span of eighty years one sees clothing designs that run from such garments constructed of layers of bone, webbing, tulle, and bustles beneath yards of silk; to Halston's 1970s whisps of simply cut chiffon or crepe, draped with exquisite flair across the body.

One of the great advantages of a still show like this is that the viewer can examine as slowly and in all the detail merited, each of the exquisite items chosen for the show. Though some people sneer at the idea of fashion as art, I can't accept this as a tenable position for anyone who spends time and attention in a show like High Style. The materials used in any piece are of phenomenal quality—of a quality that they deliver significant aesthetic satisfaction in themselves. Nothing in the show—neither dressmaking fabrics, kidskin of shoes, beads of glass or stones—failed to attract the hand or the imagination of touch. Most of us see high fashion in the pages of Vogue or on televised red carpet events, where only silhouette and dramatic cut stand out; we derive no idea many sensuous elements or craftsmanship that compose the art of fashion. We see only the theatricality of color and cut.

Charles James (American, born Great Britain, 1906-1978), 
Clover Leaf Ball Gown, 1953, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan
 Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Josephine Abercrombie
 (1953, 2009.300.784) Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art
What is missing from a show like this is the runway. How delightful it would be to see these garments in movement on people with actual skin tones (how dismal the beiges, opals, and creams look against stark white mannequins). The Clover Leaf gown by Charles James is a unique and famous design. Ten pounds of four structured layers depend from the wearer's hips. The front hem is shorter than the back so walking will be unimpeded. Does the skirt sway from side to side, from front to back, or both? (The lace on this dress is held in place by stitches only at the top and at the bottom, where it meets the band of gold, allowing it to breath and rise during movement.) The boning in the bodice holds the wearer erect. Any woman secured into such an artwork becomes one herself. The dress shapes not only her body and her bearing, but, those adjusted, her gestures and the attitude must follow.

Mme. Eta Hentz (American, born Hungary), Evening 
Dress,1944, Brooklyn Museum Costume
 Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 
Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; 
Gift of Madame Eta Hentz, 1946 (2009.300.119)
 Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 A gown by Mme. Eta Hentz, who worked in the '40s, a generation before Charles, shows a style that depends on draping rather than construction. Her Classical Greek-inspired gown swathes the body closely, calling attention to its curves explicitly rather than by fantasy. The over-the shoulder scarf requires some technique on the wearer's part—to keep it from (or to allow its) slipping; to allow it to descend down the arm or to bunch it up for greater exposure; or to wrap it around both shoulders for comfort or coyness. In this, the woman is a liquid column and the dress's movement reflects, softens, and enhances her own. This garment does not bestow triumph on the feminine; the wearer must know, own, and display it herself. This gown drapes her preexisting regal status. It is no accident that Cinderella has never been portrayed in a gown like this.

Only Charles James is represented by enough items in High Style for us to be conscious of the important fact that the clothing in this exhibition was commissioned by clients, many of whom depended on particular designers to clothe them routinely and to craft their public personae. We are aware that certain designers are chosen by First Ladies and celebrities to outfit them for occasions. We are less aware of the many women of means (afore-mentioned included) who attend to business, luncheons, and cultural events in couture. 
Madame Alix  Grès  (French, 1903-1993),
Evening Dress, 1969, Brooklyn Museum Costume
Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art,
Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of
Mrs. William Randolph Hearst, Jr., 1988 (2009.300.1373)

 Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Unique clothing must impart or enhance the wearer's public sense of confidence. Most of us sporting ready-made can only wonder about the relationship between the dressed and the dresser, the client and the artist. A woman in the position to commission couture is an art collector, the patron of a particular creative individual she wishes to invest in, someone whose taste she admires. She is willing, moreover, to collaborate with her or him disparate ways: as a partner in the artistic process, as muse, as public face of a brand.

 Affinity must bring artist and patron together, and that bond must include social daring (enthusiasm for testing the limits of current taste and style). But that would be secondary to the taste for materials, fabrication, and ideas, of which all visual artists must be possessed. 

Even now, many would find the 1969 evening dress by Madame Alix Gres extreme, provocative for the lack of sex appeal and exposure one expects from evening wear and for the extraordinary, difficult-to-wear sleeves. The basic empire-waist sheath, ornamented not even by a collar, is maidenly to a nun-like extreme. Yet the sleeves are as voluminous and richly gathered as displaced skirts of a Charles James "Tree" ball gown, above while alluding to classical drapery. Difficult to tell in a photograph, the dress is of exquisite papery silk taffeta with a stirring sheen and lightness. 

Elsa Schiaparelli (Italian, 1890–1973); Jean Clemént 
(French, 1900–1949), Necklace, 1938, Brooklyn 
Museum Costume Collection, The Metropolitan 
Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009;
Gift of Arturo and Paul Peralta-Ramos, 1955 
(2009.300.1234) Image©The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Shown surely not to its best effect on this stiff, colorless mannequin, is Elsa Schiaparelli's "bug" necklace. Colorful tin bugs are attached to the surface of a transparent plastic (Rhodoid) ring, giving the effect that the insects march around the wearer's neck. During the 1930's, Schiaparelli collaborated with the well-known Surrealist painters, especially with Salvador Dali, to create clothing of shocking or amusing or thought-provoking content. The necklace is from her "Pagan" series of work, which emphasized natural motifs including leaves, grapes, and ivy. Her clothing was also decorated with signs of the zodiac, musical notes, seed packs, and, famously, a lobster, after Dali.

Schiaparelli represents an extreme of couture. Her genius as an artist seems so driven by her own personality and experience, that dressing in her fashions might be close to dressing in her own, peculiar persona. 

Clothing alters the person in more ways than the visual, and those of us who have the opportunity to choose our garments do so carefully. But usually
when we look in the mirror, even from several angles, we're considering whether we look fat or thin; we're not considering how our garments support the attitudes we wish to project to the world, or how to use clothing as courage to become who we wish to be. 

High Style features some of the most exquisite clothes from the most talented hands and artistic minds, for whom precious materials are available. I think that we even we who sigh over the advantages of the elite can draw inspiring conclusions from the show—about how we and our clothing choices design one another.