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.
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.
I got the chance to speak or correspond with three of the exhibiting artists: Sophia Ainslie, Linda Leslie Brown and Janet Kawada. Three women whose works capture Kingston Gallery’s diverse artist base – and broad audience appeal.
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.
My latest post for Lauritz.com, “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.)
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:
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‘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.)
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.
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.
They wanted to bloom
and to bloom is to be beautiful.
- Rainer Maria Rilke
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
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.
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.
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.
When I visited the ICA a few weeks ago, I saw a work that, as you approach it, resembles two smooth wooden cubes. It’s not particularly spectacular from afar: the wooden pieces are neatly, even artistically, placed together, but they could be anything: a bench, an empty display base. As you come closer, you see lights coming from within. By the time you’re standing directly above one of the cubes, you find yourself looking into a mirror and lamp-lined interior that creates an endless downward tunnel. It’s beautiful and hypnotic. And on me, it had an effect quite different from what the creator of “11 Upside Down” (2007), Ivan Navarro, described as expressive of his “psychological anxieties.”
When I was growing up with my mother in Moscow, I’d spy on her and her friends in the evening as they turned off the lights in the living room, lit candles on the mirrored table against the wall, stood another mirror in front of it and peered endlessly into the tunnel that, at its depths, promised to show their destiny. (My mother swore she saw a bearded man, clearly not Russian, who many years later became my step-father in reality.)
I learned only later that the cubes’ tunnel effect is meant to replicate a frightening endless abyss – replicating the vertigo effect of the collapsing twin towers.
These encounters with the unexpected is, I think, what makes great contemporary art great. The work elicits a reaction, you connect (or at least respond) emotionally, and then discover a totally unpredictable direction that connects you intellectually. And my first visit to the ICA today was filled with a number of these experiencing, making me wonder exactly what happened when a Boston Magazine‘s Rachel Levitt Slade visited and so unabashedly critiqued the place in her “ICA: Exhibitionists?” (For what it’s worth, a disclaimer re: my late ICA blooming: I lived in Europe from 2005 until 2009, and then in New York, or I would never have let 5 years lapse without visiting.)
True, the museum, when approached from “behind” (that is, anywhere that’s not the water) is not unlike the two wooden cubes: plain and, to be frank, unimpressive. I was nervous as I walked up. I wondered why no one had invested in trees and a walkway, some signage, some ads on the posts as you drive up from I-93 to let you know that you’re approaching something worth noticing. I wanted to write that if there was a way to close your eyes until you’re 15 feet from the entrance, you should. But then that would kill the surprise that awaited me when I entered the architectural tour de force that, like many modern buildings I’ve been in, is far more impressive from within.
While touring the galleries, I was in for another surprise: the staff. They’re not security guards. They don’t look tired and don’t avoid eye contact. On the contrary: they’re young, full of energy, and, true to their bright “Ask me” pins, really want to talk to you. After I’d spoken with the third one, I had to ask what was going on. “Most of us have an art background” she said, and explained that she’s a University of Chicago Art History grad. “The museum was hiring people with a certain background and realized this was something different, and then they had education programs for us, we got to meet with the artists and the curators.” She proceeded to give me a brief private tour of the works in her designated room, answered every question, provided unexpected details, sited what the artists themselves said when they visited. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything like it in a museum or a gallery – or learned so much in such a brief period of time. It brough the work to life in a way no curatorial note can.
A few other highlights:
Gabriel Kuri’s show, “Nobody needs to know the price of your SAAB”. Unusual, playful, at once subtle (is it social criticism or simply commentary?) – the exhibit has stuck with me for its unexpected juxtapositions (decomposing avocados, signifying the ephemeral, wrapped in newspapers announcing the first moon landing – an event permanently etched in history). Kuri’s commentary on consumerism – a sort of diary made up of a huge collection of grocery store receipts – makes you feel oddly familiar with the artist and then leads to the question of how much others could tell about us by following our consumer patterns. A very interesting artist.
Shephard Fairey’s posters. I’d never seen the Obama “Hope” poster, which Fairey designed, as anything but advertising. But the exhibit of Fairey’s work introduced a heavy dose of irony: Fairey has also mocked and parodied Soviet propaganda and juxtaposed it with American advertising. So was the “Hope” poster intended as pure promotion or could it be part of his propagandesque series? You can read the artist’s statement here.
Christian Janlowski’s “The Hunt” video. The film follows a man who enters a supermarket with bow and arrow and shoots targets like paper towels and food staples.
Mona Hatoum’s “Dormeuse.” An elegantly shaped chaise lounge you’d never want to lounge on (it’s constructed of industrial platform-type metal). The piece reminded me of a high school art class assignment that asked us to make an unusable piece of furniture. Form is everything, function is nearly forgotten – yet the incongruence of it all makes it impossible to dissociate the design from the original purpose of a chaise (the ultimate comfort piece!)