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At KUNSTEN in Aalborg, Denmark, the Danes’ deeper, darker side gets free reign

January 17, 2014

A work by CoBrA artist Carl-Henning Pedersen – the “Scandinavian Chagall.”

So many visits to Aalborg, Denmark – so many missed museum visits. But no more. I finally made it over the holiday break, and will most certainly be going back on our next visit. KUNSTEN (“the art”) may be smaller than other world-class museums, but there is a wealth of works to explore. And best of all, what you experience walking through the rooms will be different from your experience of any other museum. The space combines a modern Danish aesthetic with works that penetrate and provoke on a level I did not expect.

Although perhaps I should have expected it. From the beginning of my three years in Denmark, I was struck by the depth and complexity of its art. Of its darkness and perception of human nature. Of Danish artists’ ability to verbalize or visualize that complexity and dig deep to uncover its roots. When I spoke about this, several people immediately pointed to the philosopher Kierkegaard. He was a Dane after all – so there you have it.

But no, there you don’t. Because an everyday Danish existence, celebrated the world over thanks to the new-ish wave of happiness surveys (have you seen Oprah’s visit to Denmark and heard that it’s the happiest place on earth?), is, in my experience, not that complex. My fellow Russians dig into the mind and philosophize as easily as they breathe and drink. The French, too, offer the world artistic oeuvres reflective of the people’s clearly introspective, analytical outlook.

Edvard Weie's "Joie de Vivre, Three Dancing Figures"  (1908).

Edvard Weie’s “Joie de Vivre, Three Dancing Figures” (1908).

But the Danes? I didn’t get the impression anyone was brooding as they cycled through Copenhagen. That they were self-analyzing as they lit candles to generate “hygge” on dark winter nights. Most people hadn’t considered, for example, the underlying nationalism in the tradition of putting flags up on birthday cakes and decorating with them on every important occasion. “That’s just how we roll,” the message seemed to be. “We are who we are – accept or take your leave.” Or as my best Danish friend said, “Skrid, pomme frite, det er en lukkede fest!” (Get out of here, little French fry – this is a closed party.”

I confess that I found the lack of introspection I experienced disappointing at best. The often superfluous conversations bored me to tears. To connect, I need to delve into the whys and hows, but those attempts met resistance. Maybe it was an in-crowd thing, maybe a cultural thing. So imagine my surprise when I began to read Danish literature and to explore Danish film. It was an escape into a different world. Pick up Christian Jungersen’s “The Exception,” and you’ll see what I mean. Exploration of the human condition. Of our darkest sides. Of how weak people can be, and how that has scarred our personal and shared histories.

Michael Kvium's "So Simple" (1995).

Michael Kvium’s “So Simple” (1995).

And that brings me back to the Aalborg art museum. The visit, in many ways, mirrored my Danish experience. Far from expanding on the clean, simple minimalism of the trendy design pieces on the gift shop’s shelves, much of the work on the walls was gritty. Some of it was very, very dark. The CoBrA artists’ avant-garde pieces were as joyous and colorful as I had expected them to be in real life, but they were also complex and inquisitive. It all forced you to think, sometimes to squirm. To examine your discomfort, and search for answers as you contemplated why faceless people sometimes make it more difficult to look away than ones endowed with all the necessary human features. Sometimes, what I saw made me too uncomfortable. I couldn’t handle the baby hanging against a black backdrop from a bloody umbilical cord, hovering above (presumably) its own skull. Life and death, yes, but in an execution so disturbing I made my two year old daughter turn away. Still, it moved something in me, and that made it matter.

And a sidenote for families visiting the museum: in true Danish, family-centered style, KUNSTEN had a large, easily accessible room set up right off the gift shop at the entrance for kids. Fun and funky materials, like colorful bits of cloth and the mesh stores wrap fruit in, were strewn over tables and there were plenty of tools allowing kids of all ages to concoct their own creations. The best museum space for kids that I’ve encountered. Helpful for keeping babes away from images of terrifying babes.

Niels Larsen Stevns' "Mary Anoints Christ's Feet"  (1907).

Niels Larsen Stevns’ “Mary Anoints Christ’s Feet” (1907).

Julie Nord. "Just Like Home" exhibit.

Julie Nord. “Just Like Home” exhibit.

Julie Nord. "Just Like Home" exhibit - accompanied by eerie sounds of crying/hurt children.

Julie Nord. “Just Like Home” exhibit – accompanied by eerie sounds of crying/hurt children.

Egill Jacobsen's "Red Object I."

Egill Jacobsen’s “Red Object I.”

Egill Jacobsen.

Egill Jacobsen.

CoBrA movement artist Egill Jacobsen's "Grasshopper" (1941).

CoBrA movement artist Egill Jacobsen’s “Grasshopper” (1941).

Niki de Saint Phalle's "Relief" (1961)

Niki de Saint Phalle’s “Relief” (1961).

CoBrA artist Henry Heerup.

CoBrA artist Henry Heerup.

Aalborg Municipality on Dwellable

Encaustic (that’s wax!) art show at Boston Center for the Arts

October 14, 2012

Last Friday’s sequence of events leading up to an ideal evening went like this: I was walking the kids to the park on Friday afternoon and spotted a bright green Honda (the boxy model) with two bumper stickers: eARTh, and “Make Art Not War.” Intrigued, I slowed down. A woman exited in a flurry, asked me if I was crossing, giving me an opportunity to compliment her bumper philosophy, and we started chatting. It turned out she was helping to organize an art show at the Boston Center for the Arts’s Mills Gallery that evening. Coincidentally, next door to where we had dinner reservations for my birthday.

The Mills Gallery show – titled The Future of the Past: Encaustic Art in the 21st Century because the encaustic medium is among the world’s oldest art forms – was the place to be in the South End that night. By the time we arrived around 8, the organizers were flustered because they’d run out of wine (a good sign, and all the more reason to visit The Butcher Shop wine bar across the street). And the great turnout wasn’t a coincidence: the show, a survey of wax art curated by MassWax (the local chapter of International Encaustic Artists), is fascinating. It was my first encounter with the encaustic medium, and Connie (of the bumper stickers) explained a bit about the complex layering process, the possibilities for incorporating so many materials into the incredibly deep (in the visual sense: you feel as if you could fall into many of the works like through glacial ice), the care with which it must be sealed in…

An explanation of the medium’s history if you, like me, aren’t so wax-savvy:

Encaustic is derived from enkaustikos (Greek) – “to burn in.” Greek painters used encaustic as early as in the 1st century BC, making it one of the oldest and most enduring of all artistic mediums. (Though as early as in the 5th century BC, the Greeks used encaustic to repair and weatherproof ships!) Encaustic paint is a blend of beeswax and color pigment – and resin, which helps harden the wax and raise its melting temperature (so this wax won’t melt – something I admit I wondered as soon as I learned what the works were made of).

The work of Karl Zerbe, who was a key figure in the revival of encaustic in the 20th century – and was also the head of Painting at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, from 1937-1955 – is featured in the show, so you know you’re looking at a curating job that serves up the best of the best. The show is fascinating not only because of the caliber of work on display, but also because the contemporary works represent a thoroughly modern take on an ancient medium, showcasing just how diverse a product a single medium can generate.

I wish I’d had my camera and taken some photos, but no camerawork of mine could translate the encaustic effect from the canvas (or wood panel, or other surface) to the web. To get the sense of depth and meticulous layering, you have to see it with your own eyes.

And until December, you can! I recommend this one highly.

Boston Center for the Arts | 539 Tremont Street, Boston, MA 02116

The Future of the Past: Encaustic Art in the 21st Century. October 5 – December 2, 2012. Curated by MassWax and International Encaustic Artists (IEA) Members Barb Cone and Harriet Chenkin. Wednesday & Sunday: 12 to 5pm. Thursday, Friday & Saturday: 12 to 9pm. Holiday hours: Mills Gallery will be closed Thursday-Friday, November 22-23.


Kingston Gallery in SoWa captures the diversity of the Boston art scene

October 10, 2012

If you want to get a broad and fairly complete sense of the type of work Boston artists are creating at this very moment, you can: visit Newbury Street’s countless galleries, spend a First Friday night at SoWa artists’ studios (SoWa = area South of Washington St. in the South End), meander around Tremont Street, and then, if you have it in you, explore a few other Boston neighborhoods scattered with galleries.

Or you can take just one trip to Kingston Gallery in SoWa: a single destination that offers up drawing, painting, prints, sculpture, photography, mixed media and installation by both member and associate member artists (Kingston Gallery has been artist-run for 30 years).

On September 30th, the show “XXX: Kingston Gallery Annual Members’ Exhibition – Thirty Years as an Artist Run Gallery” drew to a close to make room for Mary Lang‘s new photograph show, Raising the Gaze and Ann Wessman’s Close Observation. I had the chance to visit the XXX show (appropriate for all audiences) on its opening night and came away with countless impressions from the twenty represented artists’ works – and a single sense that creativity and innovative, intelligent expression are thriving in Beantown.

The XXX show presented twenty artists – and twenty completely different genres and media. Sophia Ainslie, Susan Alport, Ilona Anderson, Joan Baldwin, Judith Brassard Brown, Linda Leslie Brown, Mary Bucci McCoy, Gail Erwin, Janet Kawada, Mary Lang, Karen Meninno, Barbara Moody, Jennifer Moses, Rose Olson, Sharon Pierce, Susan Still Scott, Elif Soyer, Hilary Tolan, Ann Wessmann, and Luanne Witkowski.

It’s impossible to do all them justice in one post, but I’d like to share a few impressions to give a sense of the diversity of Kingston’s roster.

Sophia Ainslie, Fragment K, 2010. India ink, Flashe and Acrylic on Polypropylene. 6’ x 5’.

I got the chance to speak or correspond with three of the exhibiting artists: Sophia AinslieLinda Leslie Brown and Janet Kawada. Three women whose works capture Kingston Gallery’s diverse artist base – and broad audience appeal.

Linda Leslie Brown, Vehicle Array, 2011. (At the Danforth Museum of Art, but representative of the living sculpture in the XXX show.)

Sophia Ainslie‘s current works – which experiment with white space, bursts of carefully selected, arresting colors, and intricate black line drawings in India ink – are studies in harmony and contrast, steeped in playful tension between the distinct visual elements that result in dynamic yet expertly balanced compositions. It’s painterly and modern and has a graphic design feel to it. The composition on display at XXX, like the one pictured, had symmetrical elements, but the finished image, like many of Ainslie’s works, left you guessing what subject Ainslie had in mind. Is it abstract? Or on its way to becoming a recognizable sketch? Ainslie’s viewer is often left guessing – and, in this way, continuously engaged.

Linda Leslie Brown‘s gorgeous sculptural works quite literally breathe life onto walls. Among the branch-like structures you find living plants which, Brown says, are easy to take care of with an occasional dip in water. What I loved about Brown’s piece in the show: it’s original and interesting and has a life of its own (not just because of the plants, but because each work drops a unique shadow that changes over the course of the day, continually altering the overall composition) – and is the type of work I can picture in a home. It would organically fit into any decor and enhance the overall space aesthetic while creating a unique focal point and inevitable talking point.

Janet Kawada‘s piece in the show – a tower of multicolored balls of yarn – made a strong visual impact at the entrance. Its mix of modern styling – the balls of yarn are encased in a tall rectangular frame  – with materials that, to many, signal a sort of timeless representation of past generations, is what, in my opinion, makes the piece so intriguing. When I see yarn, I remember my great-grandmother knitting sweaters and scarves for the family in our Moscow apartment. But installations like this are decidedly modern and un-grandmotherly. Kawada’s elevation of the thread to a contemporary artistic installation beautifully fuses the past and present.

In November, Kawada will have a solo show at the gallery. I asked her what she will be exhibiting, and she replied that it was something completely different from what she has ever done before and a bit difficult to explain or predict. It is a performance rather than an exhibition, titled Shift in Time. Every Wednesday through Sunday, from 12-5, Kawada will be at Kingston Gallery, marking the passage of time by creating a ball of string. For Kawada, who has been working with yarn for years, this will be the last piece of a 15 year project. She wants people to join her “for conversation and creating”. Remember when Marina Abramovic did her live performance, Artist is Present, at MoMA? Kawada’s upcoming performance seems to flow in a similar vein, except that Kawada will be completely accessible and ready to engage. A note: there is no limit to how big a ball of yarn can get…

While preparing for her MoMA performance, Abramovic contemplated: “How can a performance be collected from a museum?” And concluded: “One thing you can leave, always, is a good idea, and I really want to have this good idea to leave after me.” I look forward to seeing the idea behind Kawada’s Shift in Time take shape over the course of November.

Kingston Gallery is located at 450 Harrison Ave. #43, Boston, MA 02118, 617.423.4113. Hours: Weds–Sun 12–5 pm and by appointment. Janet Kawada’s Shift in Time will be ongoing in the Kingston Gallery from October 31-December 2, 2012, Wednesday through Sunday from 12-5.

Boston on Dwellable

German and Scandinavian design in America

June 5, 2012

My latest post for, “How German design immigrated to America – and stayed” – is up on the Lauritz blog! While German design may not be on the tip of designophiles’ tongues, it’s had an impressive influence on so many areas of the American landscape, indoors and out.

A few weeks ago, I also wrote a post about Scandinavian design in the US. After living in Denmark for three years, I couldn’t help developing a soft spot for many aspects of Nordic style – the simplicity, cleanness and lightness of it all. And when I came back to the States, I couldn’t help noticing that the Scandinavian aesthetic is pretty much everywhere you look (and it’s not all IKEA and Bo Concept, folks.)


SoWa Fridays: A must for art-loving Bostonians

March 22, 2012

Having lived back in Boston for nearly a year, it was high time to venture out to a SoWa First Friday at the SoWa Artists Guild. And although one evening didn’t leave enough time to explore all the floors (or even all the studios on one floor – there was so much to see), I was very surprised by the breadth and quality of work on display. Bonus: the fact that the artists are usually present and ready to discuss amplifies the entire experience. (A sidenote: after visiting the AD20/21 event this past weekend, which fell short of most reasonable expectations, it’s comforting to know that there is a place in Boston where good art is alive and well and thriving.)

The SoWa Artists Guild building is set in a spacious, red-brick alley that, on the night I visited, was decorated with lights and looked like a transplanted bit of a charming old European city. I’d had no idea the area south of Washington Street possessed such a gem. It was bohemian and sort of posh at once. You enter at 450 Harrison, and then walk up an industrial stairwell that makes it all feel a bit invitation-only – in a good way – ending up in a long hallway with rooms the artists rent for studio space. There’s something very intimate about seeing the artists in their element, sipping tea, talking to old friends who dropped by with their cockapoos, now smeared in paint from a new canvas drying in the corner. At times I felt I’d walked in on a private party, but the generally atmosphere was relaxed and easy to enjoy.

A few artists on the floor I got to explore stood out:

Beverly Woods, Boston, Acrylic on Canvas, 36"x36"

Stephen Silver, Night Trees #9, Oil on Canvas, 9"x12"

SilverWoods Studio is a shared venture between Stephen Silver and Beverly Woods. I was very drawn to the abstract landscape pieces Woods had on view, her vibrant and highly contrasted palette, and her perfect fusion of linear and more flowing forms. And Silver’s birch trees stuck a chord – perhaps because birch trees are so integral to the Russian landscape I grew up in…but it was also the depth and sense of mystery Silver creates with just a thumbnail-style image of birch tree trunks, and the way he plays with color and light, that left a lasting impression.

Susan Gheyssari, Nine Fun Pomegranates, Oil on Panel, 16” x 16”mo

Susan Gheyssari‘s pomegranates, executed to perfection, become more than just still life when she arranges them in geometrically arranged squares or places them against an Eastern-style backdrop. The result is an intriguing combination of modern form and organic shape, often with a strong Persian aesthetic. She explained that the fruit is an ancient symbol of fertility in Iranian culture – but also of love, fitting for the romantic aura surrounding Susan’s studio. She blends traditional patterns and themes into her still life canvases, effectively framing her subject matter in a tapestry-like border. (She also happens to be really lovely, warm and easy to talk to.)

Kim Radochia, Wilma's Wrath, Aluminum, 9'x5'x4'

I saw Kim Radochia‘s studio just as the even was coming to a close – and was so glad I’d made it to the very end of the hall, but wished I’d had more time with her work. Modern, sculptural and very diverse (in shape, composition and material), it was unlike anything else I saw that night. Many of the works on display were easy to picture in a home (or outside it) -  which is not always true of such pieces: modern sculptures often seem more destined for museums than for daily enjoyment. I’ve been thinking a great deal about a corporate art rotation/placement project, and it was easy to imagine cutting-edge companies and organizations vying for her work. It’s at once abstract and symbolic, very approachable, and engaging: you wonder what inspired each unique piece and watch to see how the whole silhouette changes with any change in shadow and light. Very interesting.

The event, which is held on the first Friday of every month, is definitely worth the trip (you can park for free near the Boston Sports Club down the street and just mention First Fridays to the attendant).

Next stop on the South End itinerary (though this one will have to wait til May): foods and crafts at the SoWa Open Market at 500 Harrison Ave, Sundays 10AM-4PM, May 6, 2012 through October 28, 2012.

Boston on Dwellable

A new project: blogging for the Danish auction house

March 21, 2012

Recently, I started blogging for – Scandinavia’s leading online auction house and one of the oldest auction houses in Denmark. Lauritz sells an incredibly wide variety of goods: art, jewellery, unique home furnishings, antique toys, even Louboutin shoes! I’ve been very impressed by their art and design offerings, which often include some of the most coveted pieces of Scandinavian modern. On the other end of the spectrum, Lauritz has works with a much longer history and very different meaning. My first post focused on these: Russian icons, some of them centuries old – and their amazing story of survival through threats of extermination.

You can read the icon post here: The short, dramatic story of Russian Orthodox icons.

And another post on the renewed popularity of pearls: The return of girls with pearls.

I’ll continue posting links to new posts here (including an upcoming one about imitators – including Restoration Hardware – determined to produce their own versions of Arne Jacobsen’s classic and pretty amazing chairs.)

ArtWrap, too, will feature its own new posts after a far-too-long hiatus. Coming very soon!

Don’t miss John Blee’s “Orchard Suite” in DC!

September 26, 2011

"Appalachian Spring"

My good friend, DC-based painter John Blee (who has been featured here in the past – and who is the main reason behind my starting this art blog), has an upcoming show at The Ralls Collection in Washington, DC.  There will be an opening reception at the gallery on Wednesday October 26th, 2011 from 6:00 – 8:00pm. I wrote a piece for the show and am sharing it here to encourage readers who’ll be in the capital to check out John’s fantastic new series, titled “Orchard Suite.” Guaranteed to leave you happy.

Orchard Suite

They wanted to bloom
and to bloom is to be beautiful.

- Rainer Maria Rilke

"Orchard Paths"

"Orchard Rite"

"Orchard Moon"

In his latest series, titled “Orchard Suite,” Washington artist John Blee explores new spatial and emotional dimensions. The works vibrate with Blee’s signature palette, composed primarily of life-affirming, spring blossom hues – although several of the works dive into deeper, nocturnal shades, reflecting a darker, profoundly sensual state. Each canvas is a testament to Blee’s ability to use form and color to build perfect tension: in the end, all the actors on his stage – no matter how diverse, numerous or unexpectedly arranged – balance and create an unlikely harmony that keeps the eyes engaged, alert, amused. The compositions themselves are more geometric than Blee’s work to date, experimenting with linear forms and nearly cubist elements – yet retaining Blee’s otherwise organic foundation with its asymmetry and playfulness. In a sense: playful geometrics against a backdrop of abstract, luminous sky-and-earth-scapes.

Visually striking and magnetic, the Orchard Suite commands the viewer’s full attention. The series’ more geometric aspects and the movement from

"Orchard Mist"

smaller (and at times nearly disguised) to more dominant elements create a new level of depth and dynamism in Blee’s oeuvre, enticing the eyes to dance back and forth, delving deep into the details of the abstract landscape, then quickly zooming out again to take in

the seemingly moving whole – and guess at the artist’s vision and intent. One cannot seem to stop gazing and searching. The varied parts of each canvas tug at one another to create an unlikely balance and playfulness, leaving the viewer uplifted and fulfilled, with an unmistakable joie de vivre.

Of the process of creating the Orchard Suite and the new direction in which it has taken his work, Blee says: “I am here with the work and it ‘comes’ to me. I am the recipient as much as anyone else.” This sense of unplanned urgency and spontaneity is integral to the series. Like spring blossoms, the moment of creation is fleeting – and the result unpredictable and beautiful. Emotionally and aesthetically, Blee creates something that seems fresh and new – yet we are aware of feeling something we’ve felt before, seeing something that reminds us of what we already know.

"Persian Garden"

Not surprisingly for an artist who has always found great inspiration in the works of poets like H.D., the Orchard Suite series began with a reading of Rainer Maria Rilke’s orchard poems. Rilke wrote: “Everything is blooming most recklessly; if it were voices instead of colors, there would be an unbelievable shrieking into the heart of the night.” That sound and sense of release carries through the Orchard Suite, as the works deal with the process of transformation that occurs both in life and in art, from dormancy to flowering and ripening. Other influences on Blee’s recent work include Paul Klee’s Magic Squares, Hans Hofmann, Pierre Bonnard, as well as Helen Frankenthaler.

"Tanzt die Orange"

Blee spent a significant and formative part of his childhood in India – an experience that has permeated and defined the way he views the world around him and, in turn, how he expresses his experience through painting. The Orchard Suite’s vibrant, contrasting color composition is in part drawn from Indian miniatures.

You can read more about John in The Georgetowner or visit his website.


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