Saturday, August 2, 2014

Studio Visit: The Morgan Conservatory

Papers handmade at the Morgan Conservatory
In anticipation of my next post, I stopped by the Morgan Conservatory in Cleveland last week, wishing to get the lay of the land before I review their current show. Many years ago, I learned letterpress printing at the Annis Press in the Wellesley College Library, which has a well-known rare books department and a book arts program as well. Setting type by hand and printing on hand-made papers was stimulating to the senses and the intellect in a unified way I hadn't experienced before. Such a labor of strategy, technique, and imagination! 

My introduction to paper and printing was in the vernacular of fine printing—limited edition books, each copy of which is a work of art in itself, bound with expensive, elegant materials.

Fine printing: Bible page by Eric Gill, type designer,
typographer and illustrator

The constant tension is whether these books may even be handled let alone read, for even the most beloved texts are tantamount to art prints in such exalted forms. If Rembrandt made a book of many plates, would you be allowed to sit back and read it? It's status as fine art outweighs its content as material for your mind to wander over. Oily fingers must not touch.

When I became a fine artist myself, I made books by drawing and hand writing on whatever paper came to hand, insisting on the democracy of the book. 

The idea of book arts lives in a much more expanded world, though, than the exquisite sphere of fine printing in which I was lucky to learn the the traditions. It is with gratitude and joy that I've followed the career of Melissa Jay Craig , who so radically interprets the idea of the book—form and content—that it's a minor occupation in itself to follow her. She is showing in the exhibition that will be the topic of my next post.

I visited the Morgan Conservatory in Craig's hometown, expecting it to be rather like the Annis Press at Wellesley. My mind was filled with an image of a stately building with Ionic columns. A Morgan Library.

Ann Starr, 1999, "The Man Who Invented Genius," artist's
book. 12 of 23 pages, ink on note paper, 2 x 3"
I quickly recognized that it's not that Morgan. The building is functional, industrial, workmanly, backed up across vacant lots to the former May Company's warehouse. Founded in 2009, it is a 15,000-square-foot former machining plant.

The Morgan Conservatory doesn't contain any library of rare books. Rather, it preserves the practices of paper making, letterpress printing, and all the resources that encourage their advancement from antique into every conception of the future. There's no sense here of Don't-Touch, but of experimentation and growth amidst watery slops and the intoxicating scent of printer's ink.

I was invited to wander around and to investigate freely. People were working or pausing to eat a mid-day sandwich, and all happy to answer a question. This is a social sort of studio with few enclosed spaces, where people are happy to work collaboratively and, in fact, often need an extra hand. I'll try to show you what I saw in my meandering around this wonderful place. I hope it entices you to go, and to keep up with their active schedule of shows.
The neighborhood is light industrial mixed with working class homes; the interior of the Conservatory is industrial space subdivided into areas for gallery, administration, paper making, and printing. None is entirely blocked from any other; a sense of collegiality and cooperation prevails.

The exterior of the building has been incorporated as an important part of the paper making facility. It has a large, lovely garden planted mainly with kozo, the paper mulberry tree. They grow kozo to favor the desired stems, which are stripped of bark, its fibers eventually being softened and pulped to become the basis for various forms of Oriental papers. 

The Conservatory's kozo garden is being expanded with the launch of an Eastern Papers Studio. The garden isn't just a farm, though, but a wonderful sylvan experience in the city. Pots of hibiscus, marigolds, and short, red dahlias decorate the patio. Their brightness will linger on past the summer when their petals will be used to dye the studio's handmade papers.

A walkway into the garden's  meditative space is marked by an ancient-looking archway, surely the sacred survivor of fire in an important building. Or, perhaps it was part of a very old ceramics kiln. 

But no, I learned that this is a construction made entirely of paper, relinquished to the Morgan from a sister institution. Here it stands in the kozo garden all year, through everything the lake effect weather can hurl on it, enduring like the brick and stone that it is not. Ah, the book arts! Artists at the Morgan Conservatory see paper not necessarily as sheets.

Inside, there's an exciting sense of possibilities delivered by the openness: It's bright, high, decorated by new work, and very utilitarian. Works of paper art destined for "Contemporary Artists & Eastern Papers" are temporarily draped, hung, or laid out around the area like a casual abundance of precious materials, contrasting with the exposed pipes and beams of the working space. One feels invigorated by the sense that all energy expended here must be productive: There are no closets, no hidden spaces, nothing but loss of concentration to get between an artist and her work.

One is constantly reminded that individuals are part of a working community here. Interdependency is highlighted by safety reminders and notes about maintenance of shared facilities. 

paper on drying racks
moulds for making paper by the sheet
The paper making area is a wet world filled with mechanical beaters for pulping fibers, basins in which the fiber is lifted onto the screens of moulds to form sheets, and felts onto which they are laid out once formed. The room is full of drying racks on which individual sheets rest while the air circulates around them. It's a wonderful room of specialized equipment that most people never experience.

At the Morgan, while one can purchase by the sheet handmade papers made to specification not only of size, but of fiber content, much of the paper work taking place is not for printers, calligraphers, or bookbinders, but for sculptors or conceptual artists. They are not necessarily making papers that are sheer, even, and meant to take ink without bleeding. They may be more like industrial workers, making papers stout enough to hold shapes, not to crack, warp, or shrink.

A large and crowded area of the Morgan is devoted to letterpress printing. Letterpresses use "cold type," or type that is set by hand from metal punches, each with one letter of the alphabet, upper or lower case, in a particular font. The artist "sets" the type with metal or wooden spacers that secure the distances between each letter, word, and line of the text. All the text and spaces are made tight in a form that is inked. Paper is pressed against it to gain the impression. Depending on the age of the technology, the press may require manual re-inking with a roller between every impression, or it may be mechanically self-inking. 

Typesetting is painstaking. Texts are set from right to left. Once the job is done, the printer must disassemble the many tiny elements and return letters and spaces  correctly to their places in type drawers, "minding their p's and q's" (not to mention their b's and d's) so the next printer will not end up in a disheartening, dyslexic alphabet soup.
Typecases and printed broadsheets
The space of a letterpress always  smells pungently of ink and the solvent that washes it away. Fans are always on the keep the noxious fumes from collecting. In a period when this work is artisanal rather than industrial, there's no doubt that the odor is a kind of perfume, or an indulgence like absinthe, to be enjoyed in sips, in knowledge of what you're doing.
Sorted type for distribution
into drawers

Monday, July 28, 2014

Why Ask Why? Waiting Patiently with Marc Ross

Marc Ross, FISCAL HEART, 55 x 53," acrylic on canvas. 2013.
 There it is, above, as big as I can present it: Marc Ross's Fiscal Heart, recently shown among a large body of his paintings and drawings at the Art Access Gallery in Bexley, Ohio.

To tell the truth, it's only the pressure of my admiration for Ross's works that forces me to break silence and find words for it. His art is so far beyond the verbal that it tests all the ways I know of communicating about it. This photograph seems simply silly to anyone who has looked into the depth, saturated ripeness, and calm discipline of this painting. 

Smack a snapshot of the night sky on your ceiling and say, "There's the firmament." It's rather the same thing as trying to represent these works. Your body responds dumbly: You wish to move forward and into the event, to merge, or to respond in kind. With Ross's work, you want somehow to make a statement of equal measure from whatever materials could compel your mind as profoundly as paint, pencil, and watercolor do his.

Marc Ross, detail, Fiscal Heart. 2013.
Ross's paintings stop me in my tracks for the reason that they exert equal impulses to come closer and to move farther away. Every angle is the right one to view these. Every spot reveals yet another aspect of their uncanny force.

Stand across the room and you'll see in all of them that the center is luminous in comparison to a denser, darker surround of color. But in none of Ross's works do the dark, framing edges guide the eye, as a simple drama, into the "heart" of the image.

In fact, from a distance, the relationship between lighter center and denser border pulses slowly in and out. The light sometimes seems to emerge, then the darkness appears  to close in. 

The view from very close range is similarly surprising.The countless layers of colors and transparent mediums laid down, sanded away, revised and removed again achieve the illusion of a profound depth that the viewer could swoon and fall into. Yet lying on top are well-defined  ribbed lines of color—like girders on a skyscraper construction, high above the abyss. These forms are material, palpable, and detailed. From these shapes—as from the central criss-crossing of lines, we know that there is purpose here—enough to give us the confidence to find or to make meaning.

Marc Ross Sentiment, 2013
Marc Ross, SENTIMENT, 2013. Acrylic on canvas, 72 x 48."
I briefly met Ross at the Art Access opening, and we did indeed speak of great painters whose work is similarly difficult to represent because of the depth of its layering (like his) the subtlety of mark (like his) and the enormity of time's defining presence that inheres in the physical work—but never in its reproduction. Jules Olitski, Mark Rothko, Agnes Martin.

Ross's work imitates none of theirs, though.

Marc Ross, TRAIN OF NO IMAGE, #5. 23 X 15,"
mixed media on paper, 2013.
Work like isn't possible unless it comes directly from an individual's own mind-body collaboration. Making work so deep and, contemplative, and large, is laborious. Covering the surface evenly time after time; once committed to an action, repeating it for hours across an enormous surface: these require steadiness few can muster. Reversing a decision can be the work of days—if one can find the courage to make such a decision. Such labor consumes whole (not fractional) months, days, hours, minutes and seconds of—call it what you will: commitment, trance, physical labor, dedicated idleness… to stay, continue, and to realize the impulse that creates the painting and must run its course. 

The metaphor of child labor is nearly always a good one for art-making. In Ross's case, it is exceptionally apt because it highlights the aspect so many women know of having to wait, struggle, and bear the tension simultaneously with a process that will not be rushed, explained, or ever rationally understood. When it's over, there's a phenomenal, forever mysterious outcome. 

The kind of creativity that produces work like Ross's may remind us of others who have worked in such a vein, the Rothko's and Martin's. But, as anyone who has labored will agree, a long process requiring so much work and trust is by definition always  unique. Viewers who spend more than glancing time with the art instantly perceive the pure DNA.

Marc Ross, detail, drawing, TRAIN OF
NO IMAGE #7, 2014
As in the drawing, left, "Train of No Image #5," Ross's works have histories of discipline that are both on the surface and far below it. Grids with lines of varying densities, colors, and patterns occupy the centers of the paintings, and cover the entire surfaces of his print-like drawings. Using watercolors in several forms, colored pencils, graphite, the occasional paste, and various means of subtraction, he produces these mesmerizing images which, like the paintings, cycle through relationships of space, color, light and dark, presence and absence. Even one's perception of the materials used, however searchingly one observes, never settle on what only the artist can confirm.

I could write for pages and still feel that I've said nothing of any real significance about this artist and his work. Ultimately, Ross's work has to do with trust and patience; with reliance on the positive core of indecision and the way it makes you refuse haste. The more time you spend with any of this work, the more time you want with it. It gently pulls you into a place of contemplation or imagination. I find myself going back and being where I am, making up my lovely, saturated present from my buried and boxed past.

You have to see it to believe it.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Sounding Our Depths: The Music of Morgan Powell. Order now.

Sounding Our Depths: The Music of Morgan Powell by Ann Starr has just been listed by Upper Hand Press.

Pre-orders are being taken immediately for the mid-August release of the 118-page book. A 72-minute compact disc of Powell's music accompanies the volume. Each track was selected for its immediate relevance to Starr's discussions. 

Powell is a composer whose unique oeuvre defies category, even within the world of contemporary music. His writing doesn't require technical musical background for the listener to participate in its depths and heart. The listener doesn't have to dig for lessons from past music appreciation classes to be guided by the sounds, pauses and paces of Powell's writing. It's a music that requires only ears, attention, and a listener's imagination. All Powell's music is performed by a circle of virtuosos who know the composer and his intentions well.

Powell understands the potency of his music, and that to comprehend it is to approach it like a child.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

"Cruzamentos: Contemporary Art in Brazil" at the Wexner Center for the Arts

Cruzamentos: "Crossings," we're told it means, literally and metaphorically in Portuguese. Brazil is a country stuck together by a resilient filament of crossed races and cultures and here, in contemporary fine arts, by mingling of media, genres, and ideas that find names like inspiration, lack of inhibition, and necessity's inventions.

Cruzamentos is not a show to expect to see in a few hours. It's an event, an environment, a trip to a kinetic city whose life-blood runs in brilliant colors on the surface; where popular and high cultures mingle and reflect each other; where distinctions are important only until you cross thresholds. There prejudices drop and the strange becomes Carnival. Hey: It's the State Fair—common yet thrilling, with ordinary life compressed into a electrifying city of eros, manure, ambition, gaiety, private intrigues, and public fireworks. Cruzamentos closes on April 20, so start seeing it now.

Only a few works from among the many in the vast, multi-faceted show are approved for use by the press. The pieces I focus on here are among the quieter works that create pools of reverie in a show that is often defiant or ebullient.

Rodrigo Braga Tônus, 2012. Still from video 8’53,’’ Color and sound.
 Courtesy of the artist and Galeria Vermelho 
Three loop videos by Rodrigo Braga—Tonus 1, 2, and 3—play simultaneously on three walls of a darkened room, each bringing the viewer painfully and pruriently close to struggles for…survival? against the absurd? The longer you watch, the less clear, the more fascinating, brutal, and touching each becomes.

I find that the Portuguese word tonus means vitality, vigor, or energy. These English words describe not only the stirring content of the films, but the manner of their making. In two of the films, a man—for reasons that we don't know and quickly lose any concern with—is bound to an animal by rope in a way that creates a peculiarly equal relationship. In the still to the left, a man is tied by the wrist to a large crab about the same size as his hand. The rope's length is such that the two can't touch without an effort to shorten the distance. When we see the man finally clutch the crab, the result is thrilling because of the equality of the confrontation: The crab clutches him back. We think that the man will pry the crab's claw off, but what we see is almost a handshake, fierce, raw and muddy; an equal manipulation in which the grapplers are equal—they are "tied."

The tight frame shown in the clip is consistent throughout the brief film. The cinematography is so superior that the texture of the mud, the surfaces of hand and shell are real enough to make us shiver, cold and wet. 
Rodrigo Braga, Tônus, 2012. Still from video 8’53,’’ Color and sound.
 Courtesy of the artist and Galeria Vermelho 

In the two other films that surround us in the hall, a man's hand is bound to the hind leg of a goat, leaving neither able to rise nor even to fight nor to succor one another. Where the hands of man and crab mud-wrestled, these two are doomed to a rocky, scraping plain. 

In the third film, a man lies on his in total passivity in a pirogue that's filling with water, a large, rosy and shining fish on his belly. The two of them are unconnected, and the film cuts often to images of the fish flopping alone in a boat "freed" of the man, but also freed of the water that he is incapable of moving himself into, despite his beautiful vitality.
Rodrigo Braga Tônus 1, 2012. Still from video 8’53,’’ Color and sound.
 Courtesy of the artist and Galeria Vermelho 

There is even more content to the films. But on the broadest level, they provide an extraordinarily deep and rich experience. They are perfection of filming and editing. They rock the viewer through rough currents of emotion created by the subtle synchronization of three films of different lengths and a gentle soundtrack behind the jagged and poignant action. Best of all, Braga has found a medium for communicating profound ideas about mankind's situation in life and in nature. He creates powerful metaphors for how we live vis-a-vis nature. He looks clearly at the importance and the efficacy of our wills and at the meaning of action. I greatly admire the Tonus series and the mind behind it.

The elevation of the ordinary to magnificence is what attracted me powerfully to Luiza Baldan's Sem Titulo (one of two "Untitled" works in the series "Little Paintings"). This is a work which, even more than most, needs to be seen in person to be appreciated, it's surfaces are so delicately presented  

 Luiza Baldan Untitled (from the Pinturinhas series), 2009. Inkjet on cotton print 33.5 x 43” Courtesy of the artist .

on its massive geometry. It's a charwoman's Vermeer, a mechanically-created print with the delicacy of an oil painting in color and texture—that caressing attention to the smallest detail that betrays a passionate heart within the maker. The green plastic bucket aside, all the colors are given and natural, just like the daylight that glows in a Dutch window. The stairway of some coarse building of industrial design is humanized by the blushing color of the tiled floor reflected, rouge-like on the wall. The deep blue panel at the base of the opposite wall warms the concrete structures in such a way that they become ocean to the sienna and ochre of the tiled floors: a warm Mediterranean landscape stirs beneath the otherwise cold and threateningly depopulated zone, making it a place to return to.

It's the contrast between the lover's attention to the surface, the embrace of the raw structure, and the appreciation for the marriage of might and delicacy that make this "painting" work so well for me. A scene like this is of course a powerhouse of design. It doesn't have to be more than that, but it is, communicating a passion for human qualities where even the memories of their weary passage remains.

Luchia Koch's Rusticchella occupies an entire gallery wall. Its great size; its illusion of deep space; the overwhelming sense of softness that makes you want to touch the surface and break through it, into the half-lit room—all these things contribute to a truly enveloping experience. It's a work that transports the viewer almost literally, mind and body.

Lucia Koch, Rusticchella, 2013. MEDIA. 
Courtesy of the artist and Christopher Grimes Gallery, Santa Monica 

The nature of the space is ambiguous in ways that create an effect similar to the one Baldan creates, above: A common space and materials are elevated to provide the viewer with a spiritual experience. 

The enclosure we look into appears to be a paper bag laid on its side, the expansion pleats on the roof and the floor. The hole cut in the right side turns it into a room; the bottom of the literal bag becomes a door, and the shape of its folds take on possible significance as a result. A portcullis? A sacred sign? 

The surfaces of the space appear to be glazed: the floor and the walls shine as enamel or tile would. On the ceiling and left wall are small, elaborate red writings in a language that I cannot decipher—is anyone supposed to? Light softly filters in from three directions, creating a dreamy quality, but enhancing the fragility of the ambiguously-sized structure. Are we indeed looking inside the ephemeral, a paper bag toy house that the rain or an errant footstep will destroy? Or have we entered an ages-old religious monument, its sandstone carved away by time and the elements?

It may be neither, it may be both. What I love about this is the sublime integration of all the possibilities in the great size and the soft surface of the work. Rusticchella is mesmerizing; you can move between and through its many ideas without having to make decisions. Its beauty and integrity remind us vividly that a work of art is an experience, one we can extend for as long as we like.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Power Gardener: Sarah Fairchild's Lush Plot

"Just close your eyes," I'd like to say, "and imagine the paintings I will describe to you." 

"They are very large, with backgrounds of metallic paints that shimmer and change colors as you approach from different directions. Gigantic floral forms are painted in hot magenta on top of the iridescent backgrounds. These huge pink plants are meticulously detailed, rendered with every vein and shadow. Their stems, stalks, and leaves, though, are made of fuzzy blue flocking." 

Where would you expect to find art fitting that description? In
 a head shop? In a bordello? In a bridal supply warehouse? 

Or at the Farmer's Exchange? For all of those meticulously executed, exotic and erotic forms are representations of truck farm produce. Corn stalks and brussels sprouts are the points of departure into Fairchild's splendid phantasmagoria. 
Sarah Fairchild, Zucchini and Nut Grass. Acrylic and nylon flocking on paper. 51 x 67 inches. Courtesy, 
Hammond Harkins Galleries.
Fairchild's solo show, Lush, is currently at Hammond Harkins Galleries in Bexley, Ohio. I have every hope that pieces from this show will be on display long after the gallery closing, ending up in one of our regions' excellent art museums. It would be very strange were their contemporary curators not looking seriously at this work and arranging their budgets for purchase.

This is the most gutsy and accomplished show of painting I've ever seen in Columbus. It is an uncanny balance of beauty, ferocity, and restraint. To see this work is to be mesmerized; to fall under the influence of an irresistible presence.
Flocking on top of iridescent paint.

Zucchini and Nut Grass, above, like all this work, is hard to photograph, for the colors and the holographic shine of the metallic background cannot be truly captured. Unique to Fairchild's painting is the creation of three layers with distinct surface properties. Yet she's able to integrate iridescent shine with completely light-absorbent flocking laid atop matte acrylic paint. How she came to conceive of this combination is the sort of genius that is either deeply intuitive or outrageously daring. In either event, it reveals that bravura confidence of an artist absorbed in her vision to the exclusion of everything else.

Fairchild acknowledges her love of Charles Burchfield's wallpapers and it's easy to see why she relates to them: the large-scale natural forms in asymmetrical repetition, plus the highly decorative elements of her paintings certainly tip their hat in that direction. Fairchild's paintings assert themselves far beyond design alone, however. The size of most of these is wall-consuming. The thought of repetition at such grand size only underscores how singularly her images are poised on the edge of science fiction or fantasy without stretching our sensibilities to the breaking point.
Detail of acrylic painting

Either close up or from across the room, the viewer has to be mesmerized by the intricacy of Fairchild's paintings. The meticulous workmanship is not a token of fastidiousness, but it's the history of the painter's absorption. The commitment to such a high level of realism in the context of a surreal forcefield of color and texture is an index of Fairchild's comfort with her extraordinary vision.

Zucchini blossoms
Those shiny, decorative backgrounds revealed between the foliage add psychological edge, emotional depth, and spatial ambiguity to the paintings. In Zucchini and Nut Grass, the title tames the sprawling pink form that might otherwise be read as a menacing, invasive super species—the stuff of science fiction. Once we've reassured ourselves however, that, "it's only zucchini," we are still left with the repeated shining concentric circles, blinkless, in the background. Are they eyes looking through the organism? Are they lights that throw the forms into this simplified relief? Or, are they merely visual echoes of the interiors of squash blossoms, there to reinforce the reality of the subject? This is Fairchild's special zone, between literality and the far shores of suggestion.

It's not only in Zucchini and Nut Grass, but in other paintings too that I find Fairchild's vision of Nature less related to Charles Burchfield's (see Starr Review, March 23, 2013) than to Henri Rousseau's. In design, she shares much with Burchfield; in feeling and power, she communicates the managed potential for ferocity found in Rousseau's mysterious, alluring jungles. 
Sarah Fairchild, Brussels Sprouts and Sweetcorn. Acrylic and nylon flocking on paper, 51 x 80 inches.
Courtesy, Hammond Harkins Galleries.
Brussels Sprouts and Sweetcorn lies, like most of Fairchild's work, somewhere between a landscape and a still life. Scrutiny of the left side reveals a tall stalk of brussels sprouts ready for harvest growing among the corn. On the right side, overblown sprouts fall forward toward us, like roses past their prime in an elegiac interior. The cornstalks form a row of consistent measure across the painting, while the sprouts change scale dramatically, moving from distant ("outdoors") to present (close enough to touch).     
Henri Rousseau, Tiger in a Tropical Storm, 1891.

Among this painting's details and transformations of scale are many secret hiding places—where Rousseau's big cats would lurk. On Fairchild's surface, we find ourselves investigating not the variegations of the color palette, though, but the holes that the bright, "negative" background space punch out among the pink and blue foliage. The silver under-layer almost literally tears its way toward the surface. Both the contrast of high and low values and the intricacy of the spaces carved out by those contrasts gives visual hints of some elusive, dynamic form among the layers. We may not be able to pin down a hiding tiger, but there's definitely a sense that we could be taken unawares by a sudden, unanticipated emergence from the complex scene.

Sarah Fairchild, Chinese Cabbage. Acrylic, silkscreen and
nylon flocking on paper, 
52 x 36 inches.
Courtesy, Hammond Harkins Galleries.

When we catch our breath in awe, seeing a queen in her gown, robes and jewels, the reaction can be attributed to the beauty and carriage of the person herself, or to the awe imparted by the fineness of the regalia. The combination, though, leaves no room for doubt that we are in the presence of the most magnificent and admirable of women. 

Chinese Cabbage must be the name of royalty, for this painting elicits that kind of response. Is the cabbage so beautiful, or is it her raiment that induces so worshipful a response? Fairchild has made a portrait so close-up that the edges are cropped and even the "age spots"—the holes bitten through by insects—are meticulously detailed along with every fold and flourish. Weeds are the lace around this face, and they are set off against the opalescent, blue to violet background. 

Georgia O'Keeffe, Pink Sweet Peas,1927.
Pastel on paper, 28 x 21."
It's hard not to connect the image with Georgia
O'Keeffe's close-ups of irises, sweet-peas, and other flowers with vaginal and vulvar forms. The most robust of O'Keeffe's, though, are feminine in a way that is softer and more sensual than Fairchild's. They are indeed lush, but in a way that is smooth, fresh, with every implication of youthful virginity. The flower is not separated from a background by any weedy, stubbly imperfections, as Fairchild's chinese cabbage is. But then, a vegetable is in a post-floral stage of life. A vegetable is about seeds, not seduction. 

Fairchild's painting is indeed deeply sensual, and some would say that all of her work is very sexy. To call it "sexy" is, I think, too reductive and simplistic. 

Sarah Fairchild, Red Cabbage. Acrylic and nylon
 flocking on paper. 
72 x 54 inches. Courtesy,
Harkins Gallery.
The difference does indeed seem to lie between the flower and the fruit. Fairchild never particularly valorizes blossoms over other parts of a plant. Cornstalks; corn silk; brussels sprouts on the stem; worm-eaten leaves; nosegays of field weeds: She does not fetishize the obvious botanical symbols of feminine beauty or ripeness. While she emphasizes the lush, the attention-getting, and the artful, the feminine element of her work lies in its ageless confidence and comfort, its "warts-and-all" self-display on its own terms. 

The unlikely mixture of elements from which Fairchild creates her paintings tells us from the beginning that she is not invested in a unitary aesthetic or theory about beauty or power. If anything is genuinely feminine about her work in a sexy way, it is her womanly confidence in her choices of matter, materials, and methods. Fairchild turns her tenacious, time-consuming process into a luxury: She knows what she wants to do; she doesn't ask permission; her love and her will show in the power of the work. 

Fairchild's sensual work is clearly the product of a woman with no use for rules that she hasn't made herself, and with a conception of femininity untrammeled by the ideas that maturity must be touched up, or that ripeness, intuition, and definition are beyond desire.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Wood Sculptures at a Senegalese Market: Art, Value, and the Tourist's Eye

On a recent trip to Dakar, Senegal, I visited the artisanal market at Pointe des Almadies, where authentic regional art and crafts are to be had. 

Not that these cannot be found in shops (i.e., the kind with lighting, doors that lock at night, and discreet sales ladies). But in shops, arts and crafts items are carefully vetted, and they are marked up to high, commercial prices. Foreigners with experience or coaching know that similar or identical items can be found in local markets. 

But to visit the marketplace (open stalls, no amenities, proprietors who are hell-bent on sales) if you are to enjoy the advantage of better prices. You must be prepared to stand up against those badgering, aggressive vendors. You have to be willing to bargain staunchly for that better price. You should assume automatically that any item is worth half or less than  the stall-keeper's asking price. Even the price asked, however, is probably a quarter of what would be asked in the swell boutique with doors. 

In the stalls at the artisanal market, one can find many beautiful and fascinating things: djembes and talking drums; jewelry made of seeds, shells, beach glass, ceramic beads, wax cloth; paintings of village scenes; leather sandals and bags; and, above all, carved wooden items from tiny trinkets to large, free-standing sculpture.

Most of the stalls offered small carved wood objects, whatever the real focus of its inventory was. Everyone had small, rough-hewn wooden turtles: Even at "full price" they'd cost very little. Their ubiquitousness suggested that they, like a few other items, may have been made entirely as tourist trinkets. 

I discovered once I got home that several rare kinds of turtles (marine and desert) live in Senegal, and that there are companies that even take tourists out to watch loggerhead turtles lay eggs in the sand. Turtles are likely to mean more even than tourist dollars to the Senegalese. Where was the line between made-for-tourists, and shared culture?

In the shop that carried wooden sculpture exclusively, the proprietor spoke pretty good English and was willing to spend some time actually discussing his merchandise with me. He did in fact have some stunning sculptures, like a sinuous, gleaming alligator carved of ebony that hung on the wall, five feet long in its curled state. No one would consider it other than a work of art, so well made, so well designed, so spirited a piece it was. Clearly it was made by an artist—whoever that person is, living under whatever circumstances, with who knows what expectations for the sale of his/her work. The alligator was what a small museum would be happy to collect for its African Art wing. It was a carving that was wonderful on aesthetic grounds alone. Its local significance could be made as relevant or irrelevant as curators and viewers wished.

Alike but different; faces or masks?
On the other hand, there were a great many modest objects that fell into a zone between the crude turtles and the magnificent alligator—for example, carved faces that were, as far as I could tell, masks of some sort. That they were incomprehensible to me was a block to my appreciation on even a basic aesthetic level. Were they the result of any particular local need or impulse? Or were these tourist bait, designed to look like Western ideas of African carvings? 

Here I was in an artisanal market, but I was confused by a blurring of several values. What was I looking for? Authenticity in terms of tradition, culture, or use: Yes. Aesthetic appeal and craftsmanship: Of course. Yet wasn't I quick to judge anything for appearing in a stall that I thought "too touristy? Wasn't I hasty to dismiss items I considered (for arbitrary reasons) kitsch, despite their being local and hand-made? How could I know the intrinsic value of anything there, knowing nothing of its significance?

Friday, Saturday, Sunday
If it hadn't been for the obliging shopkeeper whose English was a little better than my French, I think I'd have made no purchase. I think that these seven little teak carvings opposite would have remained impenetrable to me. I'd probably have examined them one by one, tried to decide which I liked best, and decided that none was all that compelling.

The shopkeeper brought all of them down at once, then he laid them out side by side, arranging and rearranging them carefully as if he were beginning a game of solitaire. They were not individuals, but a set of seven carvings.

They are, he explained, a calendar for the illiterate of their Muslim country, each indicating one of the seven days of the week. Each day, the appropriate carving is placed vertically to insure that the household proceeds in orderly step within the community.

In the photograph above, the carvings are laid out in order, beginning with Monday. Monday has one point at the top of the head. Tuesday has two. Wednesday's more elaborate, dual pairing (two straight up, the middle two coming together) indicates the day of the week traditional for marrying. 

Thursday has four points and a clipped beard as well. The four points are not only for the fourth day, but together with the trimmed beard indicate the day for the barber, where one is neatened up for Friday—the day a man wears a hat and combs his beard to go to the mosque.

Saturday and Sunday are days to be lazy about personal appearance. The points on top are "disheveled" and by Sunday the man is wearing leisure clothes and ornaments that are represented by the folds and forms surrounding the face.

I am very happy that I bought the calendar (in teak; a similar calendar in ebony was more than I wanted to pay). I am fascinated that it is so full of ideas and that looking at it takes me to a world I wouldn't have imagined without it. It's already served what I consider one of the functions of art just by opening a door that takes me past the thing itself.

Now that I know its significance, it is more appealing to my eye than it was before. The fact that it is not finely wrought makes sense and completes its story in a satisfying way. Was it made to be used? Or was it made to sell to tourists? Should I know? Should I care? Would knowing increase or decrease its authenticity and appeal for me?

I had been given the figure on the right as a gift in
the past. Now I know it to be a Sunday
figure from an ebony calendar set.
When I visit collections of African art, I'm always amazed by the forms, colors, and ideas of representation or symbol so different from those I'm familiar with. In museums, African art is often staged in a position closely bordering on anthropology, and the work of a vast continent with myriad cultures is of necessity, though unhappily, all clumped together. 

At the artisanal market, though, I felt that I gained some minor insight into the process of collecting artifacts from a far-away culture. What is art, what is tool, and are such distinctions useful? If it's made for trade, is it less valuable? If it's common, is it less valuable, or if it's rough rather than perfected? None of the distinctions I'm used to working with—even if only to challenge—made any sense in that Senegalese market. It's a place that either requires a set of questions I haven't discovered yet, or one that I haven't learned to put away.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Magnificent Terry Waldo: This is Ragtime

November annually brings home to Columbus, Ohio the greatest living interpreter of ragtime and early jazz piano, Terry Waldo. Waldo grew up here and graduated from Ohio State. Waldo's many friends celebrate his birthday on Thanksgiving eve at Becky Ogden's Bungalow Jazz concert series. It's a tradition held as dear as the feast day itself, especially since the guests get the gifts at the honoree's expense of effort. The consummate entertainer, Waldo plays, sings, tells bawdy jokes, and even takes requests (within limits: Not Take the A Train: "It would be wasted on my talents," he suggests.) A one-man guardian of the vaudeville flame, Waldo declares himself willing to let the superficial reign, to make people happy, to have fun. 

Terry Waldo at his birthday concert, November
2013, Bungalow Jazz, Columbus, Ohio.
Photo by James Loeffler.
A Waldo performance is the delight that a sunburn must be to a Laplander in December. But tap your toes and laugh your head off, if you're paying attention to the music, you'll be astounded to find that he plays ragtime with a power one rarely ascribes to what we think of a merely a cheerful music. Waldo interprets and improvises from a depth of understanding few access. Protege of Eubie Blake for the last fifteen years of the great composer's life, Waldo began even in his teens to pursue this music and to sit in with the generation that invented it. He's become the world's premier performer and scholar of the music on the basis of experience-based understanding.

Here's Waldo's opening from November's birthday concert, "The Pearl," by Jelly Roll Morton:                  

Acute timing, articulation, and improvisation all leap out from this and all Waldo's performances, the latter being central to his understanding of the music. Over the years, he reports, he's been dragged into "pissing contests" with musicians for whom playing ragtime is a matter of copying old records. "It's not jazz," says Waldo. "You're always doomed to failure. If you're copying records note-for-note, musicians on the stand aren't listening to each other: It's not alive. I get into a lot of shit about that," he confesses. "My recordings are originals. Jelly Roll Morton wouldn't have done a tune the same way twice." How many ways has Waldo played Eubie Blake's "Troublesome Ivories?"

Waldo's education in ragtime and traditional jazz is the result of curiosity and the opportunities of a great scene in Columbus and Dayton. When he was in high school and college in the early '60s, he benefited from the legacy of the '40s traditional revival. He knew the great Johnny Ulrich, who played piano with one hand and trumpet with the other, who had played with Bobby Hackett and did Jackie Gleason's arrangements. He heard and learned from Gene Mayle and the Dixieland Rhythm Kings, the Gin Bottle Seven, and trombonist Pee Wee Hunt, who taught him banjo. He founded his own band, the Fungus Five, in 1963, as a high school student, and a star was born. Or, at least, an indomitable artist was.
Selection of Waldo's releases, including 26-hour Public
Radio series, "This is Ragtime." Photo by James Loeffler.

During his student summers, Waldo played in a banjo band at the Red Garter in the French Quarter of New Orleans and got to know musicians still living from the original days of ragtime and New Orleans jazz. He worked in San Francisco during the '70s Dixieland revival, this time as a tuba player at Turk Murphy's club as a member of Earthquake McGoon's band.

In short, Waldo learned his art from the ground up as a young man, playing with and learning from the first generation men (and women—Alberta Hunter) who made his music. 

Although Waldo was both a band member and leader (his bands included the Ralph Emerson Waldo Jazz Band, Waldo's Ragtime Orchestra, and his Gutbucket Syncopators, which recorded several great CDs), he reminds us that ragtime is principally piano music. It was offered as sheet music; it's longer form than jazz; and compared to jazz band music of the Dixieland era, it's very complex harmonically. 
Illustration from This is Ragtime by Terry Waldo, Jazz at Lincoln
Center Library Editions, 2009. Wlado's High Society Stompers
with Sandra Day O'Connor on washboard.

Many casual listeners enjoy ragtime thinking it essentially uniform and predictable. But hearing Waldo play James P. Johnson's "Carolina Shout," you can hear how the music veers among keys in both hands, changing colors crazily, rushing tempos, and making the listener stagger to keep up. We can tap our feet to it, but ultimately we have to just surrender to the exciting succession of tremblers that mark its irregular course. This goes back to interpretation and improvisation. While lots of sheet music exists for Ragtime tunes, as Wynton Marsalis points out in the introduction to Waldo's book, This is Ragtime, "Many times what you write is so much less than you can play."

During our evening with Waldo, it was interesting to hear him distinguish between band and piano music when a request was made for him to play the Lil Hardin delight, "Struttin' with Some Barbecue," a Dixieland band favorite. The music is from his period, but he's a ragtime pianist, something quite different: Hear Waldo's reaction to this request. His brief performance could convince someone unacquainted with the tune that it had been a piano rag all along. 

Waldo greets fans at Bungalow Jazz. Photo by James Loeffler.
Waldo's first real encounter with Eubie Blake  was at the 1970 St. Louis Ragtime Festival. he played Blake's formidable "Charleston Rag." Afterwards, when Blake took the stage, he declared to the crowd, "This man Terry Waldo played my 'Charleston Rag;' if he'd have been a woman, I'd have married him." 

A friendship was formed that resulted first in Waldo's arranging a tour for Blake of colleges in central Ohio (Ohio State declined the pleasure). Eventually, Waldo transcribed most of Blake's music and resided with Eubie and Marion for several years as student and assistant. Waldo takes amused—but very sincere—pleasure in Blake's having referred to him as his "ofay son."

In this video of Eubie Blake himself playing "Charleston Rag," one is reminded of two aspects of ragtime that are always shine from Waldo's performances. First is that, for all the fun, it is cerebral music. The rhythmic and harmonic intricacies—What work it must be to transcribe a performance!—are great. Glad as it makes us feel, there is nothing simple about it, certainly in conception. The other thing is that despite its musical demands, ragtime is always presented lightly, as an amusement for the performer and audience alike. Eubie Blake puts himself through his paces, but not without intermittent jokes about his ability to recollect the tune.

Waldo's material is accessible and engaging: "I see it as show biz." He sees himself as actively in the vaudeville tradition because even Dixieland jazz bands played vaudeville. When they did, they played no more than fifteen-minute sets with maybe five tunes per set, including drumstick showmanship and visual gags. It would be part of a larger entertainment with "singers, jugglers, comedians, an unnatural sex act—whatever made it work." 

Terry Waldo's history of ragtime and early jazz piano.
So while he is the consummate interpreter and teacher about ragtime and early jazz piano, Waldo also does television and, radio, produces musicals and is, of course, a composer in the ragtime and vaudeville veins. No show is without his own songs, always bawdy or satirical with a stinging political or social edge. After performing on request Tom Lehrer's "Vatican Rag" last month, he followed up with his own, "Let's Pray Against Someone." It's fun, but fun is also essential to the tradition.

"I do know vaudeville, and I act in my shows. Eubie was a great actor and performer," Waldo told me. "As a Black actor, he was like a boxer: You go out and give 'em everything you've got—Bam bam, no apologies, you don't be messing around! You have to have a sense of humor: Give them comedy; give them novelty songs: 'I like bananas because the have no bones.'"

For these reasons, Waldo the entertainer, the vaudevillian, takes exception to many existing presentations of ragtime, especially to people who record hour-long "archival" CDs with no breaks, simply one tune after another without suffusing any essential levity to keep it various and interesting.

Terry Waldo's knowledge about ragtime is the result of unbridled, lifelong curiosity, pursued since his 'teens. He's plunged into any opportunity he could find or create for his whole life. His book about ragtime is only one form in which he has transmitted his knowledge about early jazz. His National Public Radio series is available through his website. He has also recorded lectures for Jazz at Lincoln Center, which are available on YouTube. In these videos we can appreciate the entertainer, but we primarily see the excellent pedagogue who knows his material so deeply that he needs no recourse to academic or obfuscatory language to impart either facts or enthusiasm to his audience. He assumes we are interested and listening: He makes it fun: Terry Waldo Discusses Ragtime.  Here you can hear his own performance of the "Charleston Rag" as well as Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag." 

Terry Waldo's an artist I admire because the depth of his knowledge is based on his experience of his art—he understands it from the ground up, through his ears and muscle memory, through observation and conversation, trial and error. I also respect Waldo's lover-like commitment to what he knows and does. "I'm a dinosaur," he once told me. The revival of the '70s is long gone and the people who are interested in playing traditional jazz come through academic historical interest to a music of guts and laughter. I'll show up to his party, though, as long as it lasts, just to "come and hear."