Friday, August 23, 2013

Hale Woodruff: Talladega Murals

The Mutiny on the Amistad, 1939. Oil on canvas Overall: 71 1/4 x 125 3/8 x 2 1/8in. Collection of  Savery Library, 
Talladega College, Talladega, Alabama 
Hale Woodruff's exhibition, Talledega Murals, are a bright spot in the late summer art season. The recently refurbished works, and several ancillary works by the underheralded artist, hang in NYU's 80WSE Gallery (that's 80 Washington Square East) through Oct 13. Don't miss the show.

The murals were commissioned by Talladega College in 1938 by President Buell Gallagher to commemorate the end of slavery. The intent was no doubt noble, but Woodruff's lively sculpting, eye for detail, and vibrant palette transformed the elegiac exercise into something far greater. Woodruff (1900—1980) went to Paris in 1927 to study, absorbing influences of Cubism that are felt in works such as Two Figures in a Mexican Landscape. And in 1936, he studied in Mexico with the great muralist Diego Rivera. When he returned, he taught for a couple of decades at NYU.

Opening Day at Talladega College, 1942Oil on canvas. Overall: 70 1/8 x 243 7/8 x 2 1/16in. Collection of Savery Library, Talladega College, Talladega, Alabama 
Historical murals such as Rivera's and Woodruff's are rarities for most New York art viewers, unless you happen to work in a building that emerged during the Gilded Era or WPA; I have seen a handful of them. But when I saw Woodruff's Talladega series, I felt I had been ignorant of a concise education in both art and history. Every part of the paintings contains a piece of information that contributes to a greater dramatic story. The type of footwear (or lack thereof), a book, a clothing detail—all serve to flesh out the main characters. 

The Mutiny on the Amistad conveys the unbridled anger of the rebels, who had been enslaved in Sierra Leone and rebelled en route to Cuba, ultimately obtaining their freedom in Connecticut courts, and subsequent return to Sierra Leone. Hardwick does not soften the depiction; instead he captures the coiled violence and abject desperation of the moment. In Opening Day at Talladega College, you see the moment of transition between lives based on farming and formal education, and the American promise of a brighter future.  

Also on view are a selection of charming, strikingly graphic woodcuts, depictions of a rural Southern black homestead, and comparative studies: The Results of Poor Housing and The Results of Good Housing, perhaps the strongest reminders of the underlying social messages that provide the spine of the exhibition.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Swiss Institute's A Sunday in the Mountains—Beware!

SPECTRE, beware! Left: Carron's Death Race 2000. Right: Mosset's Toblerones.
A Sunday in the Mountains, at the Swiss Institute (through August 25) puts a subversive spin on the travelogue image of Switzerland as a placid, lake and mountain-filled refuge for peaceniks and billionaires. Curated by Gianni Jetzer, the show puts forth examples of anarchy or menace. They range from the hilariously disturbing video, Je Suis un Bombe by Elodie Pong, showing a panda costumed pole dancer, to Jean Tinguely's video, Study for the End of the World no. 2, documenting an explosion in the Nevada desert meant to simulate nuclear annihilation.

The main gallery is filled with Olivier Mosset's cardboard, life-sized Toblerones, which directly points to the anti-tank Toblerone lines used in WWII, shaped like the chocolate bars. They are reminders that even while remaining neutral, all of Europe was a theater of war that threatened every patch of the continent. Valentin Carron's Death Race 2000 combines whimsy and menace in a delivery tricycle equipped with comical James Bond-style blades on its axles. And Karlheinz Weinberger photographed a Rolling Stones concert in Zurich on April 14, 1967, the first arena-scale concert in the nation, concurrent with the onset of violent riots. Exhibited are works by a total of 15 artists, including bold names Thomas Hirschhorn and Fischli/Weiss.

The show, in the gallery space previously occupied by Deitch Gallery, is also a reminder of the thoughtful curation and installations done by the Swiss Institute—itself a welcome subversive presence, and anything but a chamber of commerce outpost in the contemporary art world.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Ballet, Rebooting

Whim W'him's Ty Chen & Kylie Lewallen in Monster. Photo: Bamberg Fine Art
What do we want from contemporary ballet? What do new small companies do that the big companies don't? The Ballet V6.0 Festival at the Joyce cleverly presents six companies over two weeks, letting us ponder these questions.

Contemporary, non-ballet dance can be irksome because it often seeks to reinvent the wheel. Apart from a few established modern choreographers, many cobble together their own vernacular, which is part of the fascination, but can be frustrating to watch. More energy can go toward creating a language than expressing anything with that language, given time constraints. 

On the other hand, ballet is the most universal language in dance, a true vocabulary. Entire dances can be dictated verbally with the existing canon of French-described movements and mimetic gestures. Even most contemporary choreographers who never incorporate ballet into their creations have had ballet training, if not follow a regular class regimen. The cumulative structure of a traditional ballet class provides a sensible, gradual warm-up, leading to the powerful, explosive moves that garner oohs at ABT. So it stands to reason that with this standard curriculum, there are thousands of ballet-trained dancers ready to go. It flatters the human body, often defies the cruel laws of physics, and is a highly advanced skillset that took years of time and money. But is it enough to want to put into use this advanced skill?

On Monday August 12, we got a chance to Seattle's Whim W'him company at work, with choreography by its director, Olivier Wevers. He began the troupe in 2009 after a tenure as a principal with Pacific Northwest Ballet. The three dances performed at the Joyce each had a specific point of view. Monster (2011) comprised three sections marked by intros of spoken word by RA Scion, different pieces of music (Max Richter, Alva Noto, Ludovico Einuadi), and multi-hued trunks and contemporary ballet's requisite socks (thank you, Bill Forsythe!) paired with grey t-shirts, designed by Wevers.

It also felt the freshest of the evening's fare, perhaps because the vocabulary was new to me and hadn't yet been repeated ad infinitum. Wevers favors the softened yet striking lines of extended bent legs that evoke Kylian. He'll occasionally toss in a visual joke, such as a fanning arm emerging from under a leg. Frequent partnering reworked a clockwise revolution—the woman suspended waist high, legs knifing sideways, or flung by her arms in a circle on the floor, around and around. A humorous male duet, purportedly reinventing the pas de deux from Bournonville's Flower Festival in Genzano, employed first suits, which the men stripped off to reveal underwear-as-boxing attire, to more intimately continue their battle for power or love. 

The final work, The Sofa, revolved around a purple, velvet guess-what that served alternately as a safe haven, a community bed, a lookout, a cave, and finally a cloud. A central couple (Yuka Oba and Nicholas Schultz) seemed to be the royalty or celebrities; her peplumed, parachute silk skirt was a dramatic highlight, ballooning and trailing her like an obedient servant. The humor eventually felt forced and shticky, but the dance did serve well a quirky point of view.
Taylor Stanley in BalletCollective's Epistasis. Phtoo: Lora Robertson
Troy Schumacher has gathered an accomplished group of young dancers now or once affiliated with New York City Ballet (soloists or corps members, as is he) into BalletCollective, which I saw on Aug. 14. Schumacher's choreography, in the premiere of The Impulse Wants Company and Epistatis (2011—13), shows spatial invention, if not revolution. He has created for his peers movement that shows off their particular gifts without feeling too braggy or overly dramatic at such a close proximity, as can happen with dancers used to a grander scale. David Prottas and Taylor Stanley are already true standouts among NYCB's ranks, both dancing fiercely and possessing strong, magnetic personalities to go along with their formidable technique. 

It's sometimes hard to distinguish the women in NYCB's corps, if only because their hair is usually identically styled in sleek buns, their costumes are often the same, and their petite features can be hard to read from outer space in the Koch Theater. But here, it was gratifying to read Lauren King's unaffected, but moving facial expressions, and Ashley Laracey's flexible, whip-smart movement. We could appreciate Kaitlyn Gilliland's long limbs forming architectural arabesques; she is appealingly grounded, and turns like a top.  

Costumes were, smartly, casual rehearsal-style t-shirts and shorts (Impulse's credited to Aritzia, the retail chain); the women were on pointe. The general atmosphere recalled some of Jerome Robbins' playfulness, his conviviality within a group of friends, and their mutual observation and enjoyment. The women unpinned their hair partway through Epistasis, which I know is supposed to symbolize freedom and individuality, but often is irksome as their hair drapes over their faces at inopportune moments. The Impulse Wants Company took its framework from Cynthia Zarin's same-titled poem, full of sea imagery, companionship, and loss. The result was just enough gestural impulse without leaning on a superfluous story. The collaboration of choreographer, poet, and resident composer Ellis Ludwig-Leone, who led the ACME ensemble in a live performance of his atmospheric, filmic music, form the conceptual foundation of BalletCollective.  

Schumacher also doesn't attempt to stage a ballet revolution, but works within its universe of elegant lines and logically flowing steps. He favors certain steps—kicking or extending legs, flexed feet, bent leg leaps—but can create a memorable new pose, as when two dancers spiral around one another protectively. His salon-style approach feels about right for this group of gifted artists at this moment.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

More Mets Bright Spots

Matt Harvey pitched his first shutout, beating Colorado 5-0.
It's hard to believe he's been pitching so briefly that this is his first shutout. Harvey, now 9-3 with a 2.06 ERA, looked really sharp, getting just six Ks but hitting his spots, walking none, with a total of 106 pitches in under 2.5 hours. He also got hit by a line drive on his knee late in the game, but wild horses couldn't have dragged him off the field by then. Shutout, check. Complete game, check!

Wilmer Flores went 2-4 and got his first major league hit and RBIs.
The replacement third baseman's feats ease some of the pain from Wright's DL stint. John Buck also had 2 hits.

The Mets are in 3rd in the NL East.
Big deal, right? They're still 10.5 games behind Atlanta, but only 1.5 behind the Nats. And most snarkily, the Yanks are in 4th in their division, 11.5 games back. Small victories.

Oh, and, they just won again!
Gee gets the V. 2-1 over Colorado.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Pity the Yanks Not Named A-Rod

The media focused on A-Rod, whose face shall never grace this blog.
As a Mets fan genetically programmed to despise the Yankees, I never thought I'd say this, but I feel sorry for all Bronx bombers not named Alex Rodriguez. More specifically Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, and manager Joe Girardi, who seem like decent, hardworking men and who now, decades in, have been taken reluctant hostage to an absurd spectacle.

As if being a major league baseball player isn't enough of a daily circus, they now have to abide A-Rod's presence in the locker room, the horde of journalists, and all the attendant booing with each of his at-bats. Of course no one could anticipate this happening, and it's not as if he's alone in admitting to using PEDs. But he makes almost $150,000 A GAME, so if he cheated to gain that ludicrous amount of money (with the help of the evil agent Scott Boras), then he doesn't deserve it, beyond the usual conversation of: how in god's name can any human be paid that much for doing so little?

I know, as a fan, I guess I'm part of the problem. I watch many games, and take odd delight in the nuances and quirks of the sport, the languorous pace, the well-managed tedium of GaryKeithRon (especially Keith's ad hockery), the occasional, fleeting moment of delight. But I have to wonder if hitting a few more home runs than the next five guys really merits earning, oh, a Bentley's-worth more per game. That is, if you're not a cheater. Right — Alex cheated! So how about all the money he was paid? Does he return it, like Lance has been asked to? The wins? The rings? All scratched out, like Armstrong's seven Tour de France wins?

Meanwhile, back in Queens...

The Mets struggle. It's part of who they are. But this season's already been much more fun than I expected, mostly due to the emergence of the team's young pitching aces, Matt Harvey (his debut with a nosebleed sums it up, plus his "Who is Matt Harvey" gig for Jimmy Fallon), Zack Wheeler (flashes of brilliance in an otherwise steep learning curve), and Jenrry Mejía (ditto). Myth has finally merged with reality to produce some real optimism, and not the quaint kind that comes with Pedro Feliciano returning to the pen after not pitching for two years. 

Coach Wright?
David Wright has finally earned, legitimately, all the respect we all suspected he deserved, even in his fledgling years. Officially The Captain, coming off his Captain America performance in the All-Star game (okay, that moniker was a little much, even if it does fit his squeaky clean image), he has performed consistently all season, even though he essentially matched his career batting average. It's been less hot & cold this year. His defense has been relaxed, reflexive, spot-on, at times, yes, balletic. He has showed angry fire in the dugout (this is good, in contrast with his usual puppy-like demeanor), and he's always the first to high-five a teammate for a homer or good play. 

Has he ever misspoken in public? Not that I can recall. Yes, he can reel off cliches, but he's never put himself in a position where he needs to defend any questionable behavior or situation. He seems very nice, and very boring, and that's fine, if it keeps him consistent in the ballpark. He signed a longterm contract that just about guarantees he'll retire as a Met, making that #5 jersey a great investment.

However, he's injured. It's not as scary as when he was hit with a pitch two years ago and had a concussion. His hamstring is tweaked, which is concerning as one of the larger muscles. Going on the DL was the nightmare scenario that no one wanted to think about, both offensively and defensively. He cannot be replaced. The upsides are that Wright will get a bit of a rest, and opportunity knocks for third-base candidates Murphy, Wilmer Flores, or whoever. Wright is still in the dugout, cheering, giving notes, being an all-around optmistic presence. The day after he was injured, while the rest of us dragged our chins on the ground, he was smiling, popping sunflower seeds, wacking guys on the shoulder. In fact, he looked a bit like a manager in that short-sleeved windbreaker. Hmm...

Mercifully, the Mets don't really have a player who's, how shall I say this, an A-Rod type. Jordany Valdespin, one of the dozen suspended for 50 games for using PEDs, was sent down to AAA a while back, and threw a tantrum in the locker room when he heard. You can't blame him, because by all reports, it's depressing and you're surrounded by guys who hate being there, just on the brink of the big show. But apparently Valdespin's maturity has always been an issue, plus he wasn't able to outperform these shortcomings. (As A-Rod attests, put up the numbers and your teammates will put up with you, if begrudgingly.) But nowhere near the jerkery of A-Rod.

This season's Mets' goats are led by Ike Davis, who is scorned but not disliked. You always feel like he's just an at-bat away from hitting .320. One thing: we haven't seen him go over the dugout rail for a catch, like he seemed to do every week last year. Daniel Murphy has become seasoned at second, looking by all rights a pro, and hitting pretty consistently. His self-loathing isn't apparent this year; I've even seen him crack a smile. (It looks weird.)  Quintanilla is sort of a cipher at short, but he's getting the job done without much flair or controversy and let's face it, no one will erase the memory of José Reyes, ever. Byrd has become well-liked, and aside from his problems with the sun on Sunday, has done fine in right. Eric Young is on the brink of good, getting a timely hit (hello, walk-off!) and looking pretty fast around the bases until he gets caught off. Josh Satin's cooled down since Davis returned and pushed him off first, but he's still hitting .295. Looks like Flores was called up, so we'll see how he looks tonight. 

Just relish the fact that the circus is in Chicago for now, but will be back in the Bronx in short order, and not in Queens.