Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Bowery Summer Art Walk

Half Bowl, from the Available Light series, 2012.
Sarah Charlesworth's (1947—2013) work gained prominence in the late 70s and early 80s as part of the awkwardly named "pictures generation," when it fit into the prevailing zeitgeist with its sleek, polished feel and deeper questions about the nature of perception and imagery. It feels greatly in opposition to many trends in the air today, for example the work of Albert Oehlen; both artists' work is on view the New Museum.

Sarah Charlesworth: Doubleworld is broken into several groupings, each one as breathtaking as the previous—the "0 + 1" white on white series, in which the most subtle shadows and shadings reveal the subjects; "Stills," a riveting, disturbing series of falling figures taken from news photographs; "Objects of Desire," icons that either refer to desirability, or which are themselves desirable things, on brilliantly hued backgrounds or in diptychs; and "Available Light," a group of aqua-hued images which play with reflection and perception. One of that series, Half Bowl, shows a handsome silver bowl with water, in which the rear wall's reflection is mirrored. Everything looks so perfect—the palette, the object, the diffuse light—and yet the imagery on the water's surface is not real. Through Sep 20.

Untitled (2009—11)
Albert Oehlen: Home and Garden features a number of large canvases by the German artist (born 1954) showing his muddy palette and layered imagery of genres that can vary from geometric, pixellated, figurative, consumerist, and pop culture. The largest ones, from the early 2000s, are the opposite of beautiful, and often feel deliberately messy. More recent works show Oehlen breathing more space into his canvases, and using a more pleasing palette and generally lighter wispy touch, while continuing to mix in numbers and letters into his queries about the nature of painting. Through Sep 15.

Leonor Antunes installation. 

Leonor Antunes

The ground floor gallery at the New Museum, located behind the coffee bar, sometimes feels like an afterthought, but sculptor Leonor Antunes' installation, I Stand Like a Mirror Before You, is one of the more intriguing shows I've seen in that space. 

This Portuguese artist has lined the floor with geometric cork panels, giving an immediate soft feel to your step. She has created mesh curtain-like panels from gold metal links, black rubber, and leather roping. Freestanding panels are formed from wavy plexiglas. The entire installation feels burnished, textured, and strangest of all, functional. Through Sep 6.

Also worth a visit:

Detail of a watercolor by Andrew Forge.


Andrew Forge at Betty Cuningham Gallery
In this show of 10 paintings and 10 works on paper, Forge's (British, 1923—2002) graceful palette and eye for detail work with his vocabulary of dots and lines to form absorbing abstractions. 15 Rivington, through Aug 4.

JJ Peet, MAGiCSTANCE at On Stellar Rays
Peet's assemblages are small in size but have great impact. Rough-hewn ceramics, found objects, photographic, and other elements are mixed in satisfying formations, with dollops of color and pattern adding thrilling flair. 1 Rivington, through July 31.

All photos: Susan Yung

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Books on Planes

I didn't intentionally read the fascinating historical account of The Wright Brothers (David McCullough) and the novel In the Unlikely Event (Judy Blume) back to back; it was chance. But it was also kismet—these two books revolving around flight couldn't be more different, and yet a part of a continuous arc. 

McCullough's book, about the Wrights' development of the airplane, sounds pretty dry, what with its charmless title and treatment of a subject that has received a lot of coverage over the last century. But the author alights on just enough facts and tidbits of physics to move things along, rather than bog them down, which can happen in inventor biographies. He gets at the Ohio natives' curiosity, creativity, courage, and ability to work tirelessly, and without saying these traits defined some ideal American spirit, does just that. 

He follows their lives from their Dayton bicycle shop, where they designed and built bikes and then flying machines, to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, where much of the testing and development took place in relatively inhospitable conditions. A considerable time was spent abroad, primarily in France after being spurned by the US authorities, testing machines to seal a government purchase. There, Wilbur in particular evolved into an international figure, developing a taste for bespoke suits. Finally the US government came to appreciate their inventions, and they won the success they deserved. Apparently their dogged pursuit of copyright infringements helped them claim due credit for their work, and allowed them to be known widely as the inventors of flight. This litigiousness seems as much a part of American business as good old invention. Nonetheless, the book is a reminder of the incorrigible spirit of mechanical invention of a century ago.  

Blume's novel, on the other hand, is based around a series of plane crashes at Newark Airport in Elizabeth, NJ, in the early 1950s. Despite the Korean War, which loomed in the distant background, she paints a time of relative innocence in the northeast, primarily by noting lyrics of pop songs of the first half of the century. Into the midst of this typical middle to upper class suburban enclave crash three planes within a span of a few years. 

Blume structures the book by leading chapters with quotes from newspaper articles; one of the main characters is a journalist who, by default, became the chronicler of the strange time. Another organizing device Blume used is to title anecdotal sections by their subjects' names. While a bit rudimentary, it helps keep the list of players straight for the reader.

The crashes couldn't help but affect the people in the surrounding area. One young woman, an anorexic, channels one of the crash victim's thoughts and actions. A young man becomes a hero for rescuing several people. Whether by coincidence or cause and effect, the events shake up complacent relationships and induce life changes. The wide-ranging trauma seemed to catalyze the development of nascent personality traits. It explores the experience of flying from a consumer's point of view at a time when flight was becoming commonplace. And without directly stating it, the book questions the entire act of these giant metal machines defying gravity and launching into the air, carrying us. It was a comedown of sorts from the dizzying effect of the Wright brothers' story, which is nonetheless one of the great tales in American history. 

Friday, July 17, 2015

Epic Faile and Lots of Kicks

Foosball table installation with posters by, uh... oh, FAILE!. Photo: Susan Yung
Besides earning a reputation as "the shoe museum"—with its current The Rise of Sneaker Culture show and recent Killer Heels exhibition—the Brooklyn Museum is also forging a path in showcasing exciting young artists such as its current show of work by the collective FAILE, as well as its recent overview of Kehinde Wiley, among others. 

But seriously, folks... Night Bender, 2015. Acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas. Photo: Susan Yung

In FAILE: Savage/Sacred Young Minds (through October 4), the team takes what could be perceived as cliché emblems of youth culture—arcade games, day-glo colors, muscle cars, skateboards—and combines them deftly in room installations, sculptural environments, and satisfying paintings. The team's work became prominent when a major pastel-hued installation was installed in the Koch Theater mezzanine as part of New York City Ballet's art initiative in 2013. In an eerily similar vein as Wiley's recent saint-like portraits and stained glass windows, FAILE occupies the Brooklyn Museum's rotunda with a chapel-like, decaying edifice sheltering contemporary prayer wheels and a statuary. It's clearly an effective way to acknowledge the past on new terms.

FAILE's Temple installed in Lisbon. 
Photo: Jonathan Dorado
In case you forgot whose art you were looking 
at—FAILE. Photo: Jonathan Dorado
If for nothing else (although that's not the case here) FAILE deserves credit for the sheer volume of subject matter they've either quoted from or created to collage together as the collective of mass neon wallpaper, as well as in the paintings on view. All told, it's a restless graphic tableau of ideas, trends, patterns, and harmonic palettes.

If the day-glo arcade, with pinball machines, video games, and foosball tables, becomes too claustrophobic or teen-boy for you, move on to the next room, with its soothing classically-derived sculpture. Take a look at the wall of paintings, with their trompe l'oeuil torn away strips, and layered memories of Americana. And even if the artists obsessively brand everything with the collective's name, like an adolescent's notebook doodles, the serious ways in which it's done have impact—in wrought iron gates, mosaics, tucked away in paintings, or blaring in propaganda style, wall-to-wall posters. 

Evoking Roy Lichtenstein...
Photo: Susan Yung
No doubt The Rise of Sneaker Culture (also through Oct 4) will garner more attention and young visitors, but I have to confess indifference for the genre. Maybe it's because it's primarily a male pursuit whose main publicity engine is the NBA. (There are several "altars" to Nike's Air Jordan line amid the many giant-sized samples.) Or maybe it's because touring the show feels somewhat like shopping. 

However, amid the mall store style exhibition design, there are cases with examples of early 
women's shoes. Certain late-20th century models ring bells, such as a relative of my first Adidas sneakers (cheerleading shoes!) and the ubiquitous puffy Reeboks for aerobics. Although where were the canvas Tretorns that were the standard wear for at least a decade?

Releasing tomorrow at Jimmy Jazz 
But the majority trace the arc of men's sneakers as individual NBA players—mainly Michael Jordan—had shoes and entire lines custom-designed. Bling and decorative elements were added to others, and technology was applied, such as sole cushioning (even retro technology, like the recent rise of knits in sneakers). There is also the implication of the rise of hip-hop culture's importance in society, with sneakers as the most elemental statement. 

After seeing the BMA show, try hopping on the subway and strolling down Brooklyn's Fulton Mall to get a similar broad survey of the latest footwear. Just make sure you look at feet on the street in addition to Jimmy Jazz and the numerous other footwear purveyors to take in the full context of fashion.

One final observation on an artist whose influence was felt in both the FAILE and sneaker exhibitions: Roy Lichtenstein, whose primary colors outlined with black can be seen in a pair of Nikes, and the general style of FAILE's paintings, which quote pop culture and cartoon techniques. He might be proud to see the extended reach of his high-low work. 

Monday, July 13, 2015

National Ballet of China Shows Its Breadth

Yu Xuejiao and cast. Photo: Stephanie Berger 
A question recurs with regularity—why do we watch ballet? Is it for story, classical form, innovation of the genre, or musical elucidation? In the case of National Ballet of China's The Peony Pavilion, at the Koch as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, it seems to be for at least the first three reasons, which also makes the two-hour ballet a confusing mix.

This production, with adaptation and direction by Li Liuyi and choreography by Fei Bo, premiered in 2008 as a highly reduced version of what can be a 20-hour opus. We are grateful for the savings of 18 hours, but in the course of trimming it, the fragments and threads left to tell a complicated, layered tale aren't adequate. But what lingers in the memory are the striking sets and scenography by Michael Simon. A suspended square platform that raises, tilts, and transforms into a mirror. A giant fallen tree, massive crumpled peonies. Snake-like brushstrokes—ink black and neon—on the cyc. Emi Wada's gorgeous costumes—notably featuring wide-legged jumpsuits for the women, and scarf-hem dresses—are appealingly chic, although frequently obscure the expressiveness of the dancers' legs. 
Ma Xiadong, Zhu Yan, and Yu Xuejiao in The Peony Pavillion. Photo: Stephanie Berger
In a sense, Fei Bo's choreography becomes a secondary element in the ballet. His main concern seems to be an elegant line and an array of primarily feminine, never ugly gestures. In many full-length works, ballet can be both the subject and the medium. Many productions include ballroom scenes or international pageants during which the performers dance as the activity at hand. At other moments, dance conveys emotion, becoming the primary language for expressing love, anguish, camaraderie, sadness. In Peony, we see some of the latter, but it is often using standard ballet-glam vocabulary—arabesques, split lifts, a coyly poised foot. In one passage, the man embraces a woman, enfolding their arms in escalating hugging gestures. Perhaps the most literal of such expressions, it moves from evocative to sappy with each repetition.

A scene of rowdy peasants is an example of the dance-as-subject-matter ilk. The (mostly) men carouse, act jaunty, and hack around, pulling the language toward descriptive rather than metaphorical, which soon follows when shadows—silver cloak clad men—waft around the periphery, setting a supernatural aura.
The Peony Pavilion. Photo: Stephanie Berger
In the final act, the wedding scene, the corps' women—wearing red scarf dresses and pointe shoes—step and lunge into forced arches, drawing their parallel palms toward their faces, as if kissing an invisible box. The move to me conveys revolution, inexorable change, collectivism, but not necessarily a romantic gesture. They repeat the step, traveling at length, joined by bare-chested men, as the four main characters weave in and out. The music crescendoes and the lighting blazes in warm hues. After the previous frenetic and confusing panoply of scenes, it's as if the director decided that the finale would be an audience pleaser even if it took all the bombast he could muster. 

Lu Di and Zhang Jian in Red Detachment. Photo: Stephanie Berger
The NBC's second program, The Red Detachment of Women, is stylistically coherent, with its own mime system and use of ballet in a strangely logical way. This 1964 ballet, choreographed by Li Chengxiang, Jiang Zuhui, and Wang Xixian is an ideological and surprisingly feminist statement, based on a previous film, produced in the People's Republic of China. As it has been performed through the decades, political systems have come and gone, while our perception of the ballet can be ironic, even kitschy—as it is perceived now—or instructive, as it must have felt in the 60s. Either way, from the reaction of the heavily Chinese audience at the Koch, it continues to stir feelings of patriotism. (An excerpt was recently performed at Fall for Dance.)

Photo: Stephanie Berger
The ballet follows the path of Qionghua, a peasant (I saw the excellent Lu Na in the role), from slavedom to leading a female military regiment (which is given the juiciest ballet sections). This parable for the country's course is not exactly subtle, nor is the entire ballet, which allows it to be understood quite clearly. Gestures such as raised fists, or a hand pressing down, plus a firm head nod read clearly as power and affirmation. Many of the dance sequences are performed with weapons, most memorably a stunning, endless rapid-fire stage crossing of split leaps by the company, rifles held as if sighting a target. 

Zhang Jian and company. Photo: Stephanie Berger
While ballet was largely banned during the 60s in China as a Western symbol of decadence, this work was permitted since it advanced approved values. Ballet—plus a little martial arts and arms-wielding—could be interpreted as a great physical achievement, a claim to patriotism, apart from its value as a nuanced interpretive art. Also, there are no traditional male/female duets, nor tutus or other emblems of Romanticism. The women wear either silk tops and pants (the "peasants" and bourgeoisie, or grey or blue army uniforms of shorts and tunics, with leg warmers and matching toe shoes, and a standard hair bob. The lithe dancers make convincing soldiers, devoid of Romantic ballet's typical female supplicating expressions and deferential body language. The pointe shoe and the arabesque remain as the form's torch bearers.

Ma Yunhong created the stage designs, from gloomy slave prison to utopian coconut grove, complete with a projected sunrise and blue sky. The music, credited to six composers, is anthemic, bombastic, and yes, patriotic. One wonders how some of the numerous elders in the audience felt while viewing fare on which they were raised. Indeed, a nearby man began talking toward the stage during a number, as if transported to another time and place. He was perhaps acting out what some felt, and others of us could only imagine.

Monday, July 6, 2015

ABT's Abrera—Real-life Cinderella

Joseph Gorak and Stella Abrera in Cinderella. Photo: MIRA.
ABT's annual two-month Met season, was, as usual, largely about classic stories dramatized through ballet. But more so than in recent years, the season itself took on dramatic twists and turns that unfolded as the weeks passed. Injuries deprived audiences of David Hallberg (his absence months foreseen), but during the season, Polina Semionova and Natalia Osipova, among others. Strategic one-shot guest casting made viewing scheduling unusually difficult. Misty Copeland's promotion to principal marked the season's crescendo in the penultimate week, whipping into a frenzy not only ballet fans, but the popular media—sure to continue with the announcement that she will replace Megan Fairchild in On the Town on Broadway.

At last Saturday's Cinderella matinee, the other newly-minted principal, Stella Abrera, danced the lead role. Not to be overly ham-handed, but the fairy tale felt analogous to the real-life situation. Abrera has been with the company for nearly 20 years, and after working diligently in major supporting roles such as Myrtha and Lilac Fairy, emerged as the princess. The confidence that came with her promotion no doubt bolstered her strong performance, in which she seemed especially luminous. She has (as have most dancers) been through some injuries, which sap self-assurance and can imbue performances with tentativeness; hopefully healthy, she will continue to expand her confidence. She danced opposite Joseph Gorak, who is living proof of the emotional potential of technique done well, as he did a triple pirouette at a relatively slow tempo, and unfolded his raised leg in a développé that wafted in the air, weightless. In the finale, with sparkling mylar confetti raining down on the pair as they looked toward a bright future together, it felt like a version of the rags-to-riches story come true. 

It also underscored why we fans love ballet. It's not just the pretty tutus and sets, the technique, the romance and time-honored stories. It's the dancers we've followed for years, watching them grow, develop, mature, undergo hardships and injuries, and at savory moments such as these, triumph. Newly appointed soloists also proved Kevin McKenzie's wisdom in promoting, including Arron Scott, Skylar Brandt, Cassandra Trenary, and it-girl Misty Copeland dancing a fairy role, the kind of role that she'll most likely dance less and less. Soloist Devon Teuscher danced the lead fairy with a tender strength.     

Evgenia Obraztsova as Juliet. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor
Ballet fans get excited about new productions of the classics because they are the vehicles in which our favorite dancers get to shine, and (with any luck) they must withstand repeated viewings. Recently, Alex Ratmansky's The Sleeping Beauty, for ABT, became the latest major production to take flight, and it is successful enough to anticipate its return for many seasons to come, and not simply to amortize the steep production cost.
Gillian Murphy as Odile. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor

In Kenneth MacMillan's weathered but reliable version of Romeo & Juliet, one of the male stars of ABT, Herman Cornejo, danced recently with Evgenia Obraztsova, guesting from the Bolshoi. Given a ballerina with such an illustrious pedigree, but not having seen her previously, the few expectations I had were high, and she exceeded them. Of course her technique is impeccable, and she easily ranges between ingenue and wizened lover, which can be a stretch. She is a combination of delicacy and strength, and size-wise matched well with Cornejo, the most naturalistic and suave of ABT's men. I can imagine rehearsal time was minimal, which is one big drawback with the guest artist system, but they fared well no matter.

ABT's Swan Lake is another well-trod production (by Petipa/Ivanov/McKenzie), which many find moth eaten. But I have affection for it, even for the silly stuffed swan prologue stand-in for Odette. It's a compact two acts, and no scene lasts too long, not the opening birthday celebration with a pas de trois and townsfolk dance, or the later scene containing international dances. The two pas de deux between Odette/Odile and the Prince remain the tentpoles of the ballet, plus a saucy solo for the human Von Rothbart, usually parceled out to a principal male. Many of the acts are fleshed out by the mesmerizing swan corps. And as always, Tchaikovsky's sublime score supports the ballet.

At June 22's Swan Lake, starring Gillian Murphy and Marcelo Gomes, everything whirred and clicked into place. Murphy has long been perhaps the company's strongest woman technically speaking, but her persona has, oddly, contained so much confidence that expressing vulnerability can be a stretch for her. But here, she conveyed emotional fragility as Gomes enfolded her into his arms, while paying great attention to the dual role's array of delicate details. And naturally, as Odile, she was able to flash that terrific confidence, dazzling us and her prince in her fouette pirouettes, which alternated between triples and doubles with her arms in a V. Just when you thought you'd seen it all!

Marcelo Gomes in Swan Lake. Photo: Gene Schiavone
At the end of the Act 3 pas, as she and Gomes snapped into place at the precise ending beat, so did the outstanding corps of swans. It was a rare moment of complete synchrony, and you felt that the collective years of all of the dancers onstage were coming to fruition. Gomes, of course, showed again why he's so beloved. Every moment onstage he IS Siegfried, so we read even the smallest thoughts as they flicker through his mind. He elicits the most from himself, his partner, and everyone around him, including us. At this point in his career, such roles as these are in his blood, so he is ever more free to interpret their nuances, pushing ever farther the parameters of the role.