Midnight Mass, San Marco style

Basilica di San Marco, Venezia, interior

Being in Venice on Christmas Eve, I had to attend Midnight Mass in the Basilica di San Marco. I was attending not as an active parishioner, but out of a deep sense of curiosity: how would one of the largest and most famous cathedrals in the world “do” Midnight Mass? (Catholic roots run deep!)

For those who don’t know: Midnight Mass happens just once a year, on Christmas Eve. It’s a very special occasion to usher in Christmas. Most churches, even the smallest ones, work to heighten that experience by bringing out extra candles, decorating with evergreen, maintaining a beautiful crèche (the tableau of the babe in the manger) and so forth.

We waited for some time in a line that stretched three-quarters of the way through the Piazza di San Marco, but were able to get fairly good seats inside. San Marco is dazzling, known for gold mosaics rather than frescoes like some Italian churches, because the humidity near the water wouldn’t be as kind to fresco.

The mass was delivered in Italian, German, English, and French, each taking a turn while winding through various readings and gospels. While I was listening, I was mostly looking around me at the various artworks commissioned by the Catholic Church: enormous pillars of marble, golden chandeliers encrusted with red jewels, the large baby Jesus resting on poinsettias at the altar (even from this distance, clearly the largest and most beautiful statue of this kind I’d ever seen), the various statues, the pattern in the marble floor…

But the mosaics. Oh, the mosaics. They cover the ceiling as well as the walls, showcasing important figures and moments in the church, glinting down at us in all their beautiful longevity.

I found myself considering, not for the first time, their purpose…the basic idea is this: until just 50 years ago, the Mass was said in Latin, which no one but the most highly educated people, the priests and monks, would understand. No regular churchgoer would be able to follow along; this was as true in the 1960s as it was during the Renaissance. Therefore, the Church has always used visuals to communicate. Picture yourself in 1084, when the Basilica was consecrated in its more-or-less present iteration (although it was a private chapel for Venice’s leader, the Doge, and not for the public at that time). You can’t understand what’s being said, but there is an enormous, glittering Jesus covering the entire ceiling above the altar, reaching out toward you with one hand. You can look around and identify stories from saints’ lives, and you know who is who because of their symbols (San Marco, for example, is often symbolized or accompanied by a lion).

I remember being in Monreale in Palermo, visually devouring their mosaics, the first time I realized that the Church would have had me hook, line, and sinker if I were alive back then. You had me at hello.

Even as a child, I was always looking around the various churches I attended: the niches holding statues; the bas-reliefs on the walls, called stations of the cross, that told the story of Jesus’ crucifixion; the actual crucifix – huge – that hung behind the altar, and each individual church’s emphasized a different aspect of that death (some stoic, some peaceful, some downright gory); and of course, the stained glass windows.

On the few childhood occasions when I attended a Protestant church with another family, I was immediately struck with boredom by their simplicity of decoration. Sure, the kids got to come up and actually gather on the altar (forbidden to Catholics, but sort of cool) but it did not compensate for their plain white walls.

To this day, I wonder if I’d be an artist if I hadn’t grown up Catholic, wanting to fill white walls!

So this is all going through my head during Midnight Mass, in between staring up at the ceiling and walls and following along in Italian and English. A gospel according to John is being read, which equates God with life and light:

Light that shines in the dark: light that darkness could not overcome. A man came, sent by God; his name was John. He came to bear witness, as a witness to introduce the Light so that all might believe through him. He was not the Light but a witness to introduce the Light. For the Light was coming into the world, the true Light that enlightens everyone.

Somewhere in here, someone threw a switch that turned on the interior lights in the Basilica, so that we simultaneously heard the dramatic thump of many banks of lights being awakened, and saw the entire Basilica come to golden life before our eyes. We hadn’t even realized we were in the dark until the lights came on. *Now* we were looking at mosaics! *Now* we were clear-eyed, not peering into dark corners. Everything is illuminated. Everything is full of light.

That was Midnight Mass in the Basilica di San Marco, and that is vintage Catholic Church. Welcome to the greatest performance art ever staged.

Power of Art, Part 3 (Puppets!)

The Donald puppet, January 2017

I ran across this photo on my phone recently, taken at the Women’s March in Seattle in January 2017. So much that I could say, but I feel that others are saying it better than I can, so I’ll stick to the role of art – and its power – here.

When I first saw this giant puppet, my first instinct was to laugh. Second was to admire the craft (it’s very well done in terms of likeness, but also technical ability, and lastly, standing up to the Pacific Northwest weather). From a little remove, I can also appreciate its place in a long line protest art.

This will be an abbreviated, overly simplified commentary, but here goes. Puppeteers have always been able to comment more freely on social matters because they moved around. They usually took their show on the road, and so were able to comment more or less as outsiders (and I suppose, if the heat got turned up, they could leave town pretty quickly!). Puppetry was (and is) fairly low on the totem pole of the art world (patrons and curators are rare, for example, and there is no money in it), so puppeteers weren’t dependent on keeping powers-that-be happy, or romancing wealthy collectors. Part of the entertainment is a sort of brash, anything-goes schtick that seeks out laughs based on crude jokes and physical humor…we see and expect this with the Muppets, say, and can see how this easily translates to commenting on dirty goings-on in local government.

Anyway, the best education on puppets has to be at the Bread and Puppet Museum in Vermont. NYC sanitation workers to Latin American despots are proudly represented, from a protest stance, to the left of many.

But back to the idea of power…can you imagine how this puppet would get right under the Donald’s skin?! That’s power! A picture is worth a thousand tweets!

Ginevra

Tess Martin, Ginevra

This fantastic, animated cut-paper film at Bellevue Arts Museum has very neatly intersected two trains of thought that have occupied my mind recently.

One is the issue of domestic and other violence against women. #MeToo; Harvey Weinstein and all the others who were unmasked after him, not to mention before him.

The other is, very simply: what happens after death? I’ve been thinking about the energy and physics of life quite a bit recently. As an off-and-on atheist/agnostic, I have been fairly certain (and then again, not certain at all) that nothing happens after you die. I’ve begun to change my mind recently, to consider other, energetic, possibilities. Where does the energy go? What does physics say about energy? And then with the recent death of my father-in-law, this question has recently shifted from a philosophical to a personal one.

This film by Tess Martin is based on an unfinished Percy Bysshe Shelley poem (which was based on a legend of an Italian woman of the Middle Ages, who allegedly woke up a day after she died).

I had to arrive at the end before I truly appreciated the film. At first, I was overly critical of the animation, thinking it too primitive (South Park viewers would see similarities in production values), but by the end, I came to believe that the simplicity actually enhanced the magic and feeling of the story. (Later, when I saw the set, which was approximately 18 inches square, I found myself amazed by how expansive the film actually felt. Beyond impressive).

Tess Martin, Ginevra

The action unfolds slowly, detail by quiet detail. We see a woman murdered in her bedroom, presumably by her husband, and then watch her mother pacing the quiet house with grief. These scenes aren’t played for drama, but with maximum feeling. The mother mourns with the body, which lays in state on a canopy bed, near floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook a balcony, and then, the countryside. The mother is surprised to see the body rise, cross the room, climb the balcony railing, and surprisingly, sprout feathers with which to fly away. Which she does, with a sense of utmost grace and freedom. The last we see of Ginevra, she has joined a community of owls and other large birds who slowly circle the countryside, alternately flapping their wings and resting in the draft.

A beautiful ode to mystery, and freedom.

Cut Up Cut Out

Charles Clary, Double Diddle Daddle Bereavement Movement # 1

I have a soft spot for paper. While my hand was injured, I kept sane by sewing papers together with a sewing machine, and this show at Bellevue Art Museum, about all the ways you never thought to use cut paper, really spoke to me.

I’ve been thinking about how to expand my paintings as I move forward, and this show was certainly full of options. The piece above was one of my favorites, and gave me something to think about, as I consider adding dimension and edges to my works.

Donna Ruff, 10.28.13

It took me a few moments to realize all of Ruff’s work are front pages from The New York Times.

Simone Lourenço, My Universe, Blue

Simone Lourenço uses thread (a love of mine) along with her papers. This, along with the explosion of color and edges, was one of my favorite pieces.

Adam Feibelman, Security (detail)

More sewing here (love!), with multiple sheets of paper making a detailed whole. A true depth and elegance.

Met Faves – Van Gogh and *Real* Art History

Van Gogh, La Berceuse, 1888

Visiting Arles, France made a huge impression on me. This is where Vincent Van Gogh had the most productive painting period of his life – one of the most productive of any artist’s life, in fact. Almost everything he painted at Arles is recognized as a masterpiece, and is recognizable by even casual observers: his bedroom, sunflowers, the cafes. It’s where his palette took on the bright yellows that we recognize as classic Van Gogh. It’s where he realized a dream of creating an artist residency, so to speak; Paul Gauguin came to join him to paint in the bright sunlight, and was his roommate. It’s also where Van Gogh really began to descend into madness.

Standing in this room in the Met, there were at least five van Goghs around me that were painted in Arles. It was easy to picture these, and dozens more, hanging on the walls of Vincent’s cottage, and stacking up along the wall. I was in New York, and I was in Arles at the same time.

Seeing La Berceuse was difficult. This was the painting he was working on right before his major breakdown. You’ve heard of it – he cut off a piece of his ear, possibly threatened Gauguin, who moved out, was committed to an asylum for the first time, and spent the rest of his life actively battling mental illness – while continuing to paint, of course, even if it was the hallways and grounds of his asylum.

La berceuse meant “lullaby”, literally, the woman was rocking a cradle, by means of the small rope that you see in her hands, which was tied to the cradle that lies outside of the picture frame (if you didn’t know the backstory, you might not even wonder what the string in her hands was). Van Gogh painted a series of these (he said this particular version was the best) and struggled mightily…he explained his inspiration for the painting, which was much larger than any person would divine on their own by just looking at it. He wanted something to comfort sailors who were at sea in horrible storms; he envisioned creating an entire altarpiece of multiple berceuse paintings, with sunflower paintings as candelabras scattered amongst the soothing images of lullabies and rocking cradles (albeit, invisible cradles). Vincent often used the metaphor of stormy seas to describe his own feelings of being overwhelmed and adrift, so it’s fairly obvious that he wasn’t just talking about local sailors, but also himself. So, there was much riding on this project for him personally and artistically. His various stresses converged – the stress he felt over this very high-stakes (for him) project, the stress on his body because he wasn’t taking care of himself and drinking too much, and the stress of learning that his own behavior was driving Gauguin to depart from their shared artistic experiment in Arles.

And so, he snapped. On Sunday, December 23, 1888, he cut off his ear (or at least a part of it). Gauguin, although he was at a hotel that night due to the tension in the house, has described the blood spatter evidence, so we know that Van Gogh either cut himself in front of La Berceuse, or cut himself in another room, then went to stand in front of it.

What a loaded painting. I don’t care for it, visually; I don’t think it stacks up to his best Arles work – which I was surrounded by, at least five or more in a ten-foot radius. But this is art history right in front of me.

Met Faves That Wouldn’t Let Go

Gertrude Stein, by Pablo Picasso, 1905 – 1906

The standouts for me, the ones I just stood in front of, and stood, and stood. Where crowds come, and you wait it out, and then you can be alone, just you and the painting. Then the crowd again, because everyone feels something special in front of these works; they’re famous for a reason.

Is Gertrude Stein my favorite portrait of a woman, done by a man? Maybe. Picasso really understands her. She looks cultured, and wise, and capable of taking on anything (managing artist salons, the War, living as a lesbian). Those hands are simple yet beautiful. The slight Cubism of the eyes also feels just right.

Johannes Vermeer, Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, 1660-1662

I stood in front of this painting for a very long time. I felt like this was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. (And of course, the photo doesn’t do it justice). I was in a room with four other Vermeers…in a world where only 34 are known to exist, this felt like heaven. What a privilege.

Met Faves – Paintings

Max Beckmann, The Old Actress, 1926

OK, now it’s time to get to the meat of it…you know I gravitate toward the paintings.

My goal: maximize my time at the Met, my old stomping grounds, just down the street from my apartment, see as much as I could, revisit some old favorites, but also discover something new.

As an abstract painter, it was surprising to me how affected I was by figurative work. My favorites were all figure paintings. My advisor in grad school always said that figurative painters should be looking at abstract work, and abstract painters should be looking at figurative work!

Max Beckmann’s Old Actress…
That nose. And the light coming from above, highlighting her eyelids. Was acting her profession, or did she act her way through her life? For such a caricature, Beckmann has captured something deeply sad.

Walt Kuhn, Clown with a Black Wig, 1930

This made me think of masks that queer folks often wear…by choice, or by necessity.

Chaim Soutine, Portrait of Madeleine Castaing, c. 1929

Loving her twisted-up, yet ultimately straight, posture. And her face, pursed lips. Very wry. This portrait feels juicy, colorful, and fully-formed, more so than many Soutines. I love it.

Attributed to Hans Memling, Woman with a Pink, 1494

High visual drama here, just as caricatured as Beckmann’s actress, yet in its very quiet way. Also, I’ve always loved the nomenclature of the “pink”.

Barthel Beham, Chancellor Leonhard von Eck, 1527

That red cap grabs you from 50 paces.

The Answer is Blowin’ in the Wind

The Flying Dutchman, Man Ray

I think this one is my favorite of all from my latest trip to the Met.

What is it about sheets in the wind? I remember playing underneath the clothesline, or among the rows, as a kid – nothing better. And laying on the bed while my mom made it up on top of me…I asked her to lift up the top sheet again and again because I loved the sensation of the air billowing around me, and the breathtaking beauty of the sheet turning into a dome above me…suddenly I was in a huge space, which got increasingly cozy as the sheet settled delicately around me.

I have (used to have, until my computer was stolen) a gorgeous photo of sheets on a line, very similar to this painting, that I took in Erice, Sicily years ago. And I think I remember a Caillebotte painting of sheets on a line as well.

Why do we love sheets in the wind? Is it because they make the air visible? I enjoy watching the wind playing with flags, leaves, falling rain, people’s hair…but nothing comes close to sheets.

Met Faves Part 2

The Guitar, Henri Laurens, c. 1919, painted terracotta

I don’t recall seeing a 3D rendering of a Cubist guitar before, but I love this.

Met Faves

Attic white ground vase and oil flask, c. 440 BC

I was very excited to visit the Met in NYC, after a prolonged absence of nearly five years. (Since I moved, there are now two, but I’m talking about the original). This is a museum that lies on the same street as my old apartment; if you turn left out my front door and just keep walking, after about 20 minutes, you eventually end up at those famous front steps.

With limited time, I decided I wanted to visit some old favorites, but also make some new discoveries. The only goal, really, was to find works that delighted me.

Here are two gorgeous red figure/white ground Greek vases/oil flasks. I find the red pigment on the white ground to be much more delicate than the black or red figure/ground combinations. The robes actually look soft and diaphanous and the figures look kinder and softer too.

Five minutes into my visit, and I decided this was my favorite so far. But the day is young, stay tuned!

Accumulations, Courtesy of Yayoi Kusama

Yayoi Kusama, Phalli’s Field

“Accumulations” are what Yayoi Kusama called these multiple soft sculpture phalluses that she patiently sewed and placed in rooms, in platforms mounted on floors and walls, and even in two rowboats. Kusama made these pillow-esque, polka-dotted, cartoon-like, engorged phalluses as a way to get over her fear of sex – and one vintage 1960s photo depicts her lying uncomfortably on top of a patch of them. Much of the wall text at Seattle Art Museum quaintly names them as “tubers”.

By the artist’s request, each installation room was accessible for a timed period, from about 20 – 30 seconds depending on the room. It was fairly disorienting and completely trippy to enter the room, and try to visually make sense of the lights and mirror reflections – literally, the smoke-and-mirrors of it all. The infinity-ness created by multiple mirrors, reflecting yourself in an endless field of phalluses (Phalli’s Field) was reminiscent of being at the Tulip Festival for example…phalluses as far as the eye could see. But I was more interested in the actual sculptures, rather than their reflections. These funny, bumbling things, with their red polka dots scream out as physical comedy. And there was certainly something funny about two lesbians being locked in a room with many dozens of them…

I knew someone once who also made soft sculptures of phalluses. Those were bigger, and more obvious, and clearly were stylized self-portraits of some kind. It was so personal that I was often embarrassed to hear this person talk about his work, because it was essentially like hearing him talk about his own penis. Cringe. (You too, Master of None, bringing your penis’s “gregarious” personality into conversation with women. I wanted to give up watching the show just for that). Kusama’s work was actually smaller (per each phallus), but felt bigger. As flashy as it was, it came from a humble, exploratory place, that was willing to laugh at itself, not a sling-it-around place that needs to stake some kind of claim.

Other accumulations (of memories and associations):

The demand for this exhibition exceeded the open hours of the museum, so we saw this show at about 11:00 PM one evening, when the museum extended their hours. The lines for each viewing room snaked around the larger room of the museum, and because of the wait time and repetitive nature of seeing the same people over and over again as the lines wound around, we found ourselves in lots of friendly conversations. While people had their phones out for photos, it seemed like folks were more engaged with other people in the line, not with staring at their phones. Mia wondered if this was part of the artist’s plan. Maybe it was the festive atmosphere of being in the museum at night. I don’t know why, just an observation.

Mia’s comment that maybe Kusama wanted to foster connections among the viewers as they waited to enter her environments made me think of the architect Paul Rudolph, who designed the buildings on the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth campus. They are not attractive or stately; in fact, I’d consider them visually harsh. But I felt my heart soften toward them a bit when I learned that Rudolph deliberately created hidden or off-kilter building entrances and approaches, the better to engage the then-commuter students in dialogue with each other as they tried to make their way around.

We waited in line for several hours, sitting on the floor. Some people brought special stadium chairs and food, ready to camp out for the duration. I haven’t waited in line like that since sleeping overnight in a sleeping bag on the sidewalk in Washington, DC about 20 years ago. My friend Tribs and I went to see the Van Gogh show at the National Gallery. I’ll never forget the police officers kicking us through our sleeping bags to wake us up in the morning and get us vertical again to clear the sidewalk.

It was in this Kusama line (we were about 200th, according to a count done by one of the museum staff) that Mia and I mapped out the plan to move me into my new studio. If we hadn’t had that time, surrounded by our own and others’ palpable anticipation and excitement at seeing art, we might not have arrived there. Certainly not before she left for Italy, because there were too many other things to do that seemed higher-priority.

So I left this show feeling like I’d been to Infinity, the Tulip Festival, a carnival funhouse, my grad school days, a sidewalk in Washington, DC, and moved a little closer to my wife. I visited in my mind with a couple of old friends (and foes). We made new acquaintances, not friends for life, but friends for an evening, friends we were happy to see again elsewhere in the exhibition. Were these just ultra-personal dots I was connecting, the criss-crossing of random stories that tell me I’m rambling as I’m getting older? Was there something more going on that I was tapping into?

In one of the films, Kusama discussed her desire to add peace and love to the world, saying that each day is a “test for how much I can contribute to society”. If that’s the measuring stick, I believe that all these connections forged that night embody that desire, and prove it true.

The Homely Protestant

Robert Motherwell, The Homely Protestant

I love Robert Motherwell because of his smarts. While so many of his (male) contemporaries were making fools of themselves in bars, he was making poetic work – about poetry – and other big themes, and writing intelligently about it too. I read the wall text for this painting at the Met and was reminded again of why I love him.

To paraphrase, Motherwell was struggling with naming this painting, and finally remembered a Surrealist technique of engaging with chance. He opened a book (Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce), blindly pointed his finger at the text, and upon opening his eyes, saw that his finger was resting on the phrase “the homely protestant”. “Of course!” Motherwell said. “It is a self-portrait”.

It’s amusing to me to imagine the emphasis on different words. Of course, it is a self-portrait. Of course, it is a self-portrait.

Interesting musical footnote #1:

I believe the Beatles used this same technique for “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, but they did it the other way around by choosing the phrase first, and constructing the song around it.

Interesting musical footnote #2:

I just learned that Motherwell was from Aberdeen, Washington. Safe to say that he was the most famous native until Kurt Cobain came along?

Physicians, Heal Thyselves – with Art!

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, my old stomping grounds, is hosting art workshops for local medical students – dermatology students from Harvard and med students from Brigham and Women’s Hospital. The former group is learning to hone their clinical observation skills while studying art, while the latter is learning to bring humanity to their bedside manner. And who doesn’t want more of that in a doctor? This means, among other things, developing their empathy by studying Egyptian sarcophagi and pondering the meaning of death and its implications for their patients and their loved ones. It also means learning about coping skills for themselves, such as studying Buddhist art and learning about meditation to calm their minds.

What a novel concept. Everything is connected. Everything intertwines. Hooray for these programs and for the museum.

Pride Project #25 – Sylvia Rivera

Sylvia Rivera, Mixed media on board, 5" x 5"
Sylvia Rivera, Mixed media on board, 5″ x 5″

Sylvia, like many queer kids, became homeless as a kid because her family (in this case, her grandmother who was raising her) didn’t approve of her queer identity. The queer community, especially drag queens, took her under their wing and christened her “Sylvia”.

Her experiences hustling in Times Square and living at the Christopher Street piers in NYC fueled her later advocacy for homeless queer youth and trans women of color. She always maintained that she was there at the Stonewall Inn during the riots in 1969 (though some, including her best friend, say that she wasn’t).

In 2015, the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery included her portrait in its collection, making her the first trans person represented there.

You’ve been treating us like shit all these years? Uh-uh. Now it’s our turn!… It was one of the greatest moments in my life.

Sylvia Rivera, on the Stonewall Riots

365 Days of Art: December 26 – Diego Conquers NY

Diego Rivera, Agrarian Leader Zapata, 1931
Diego Rivera, Agrarian Leader Zapata, 1931

December 26, 1931

New York art critic Henry McBride describes Diego Rivera as “the most talked-about man on this side of the Atlantic”.

At this point, he’s installed as artist-in-residence at special studio space within MoMA, creating a total of eight “portable murals” that are exhibited for five weeks from December to January. The exhibition, only MoMA’s second to feature just one artist, is setting exhibition records. Diego is working around the clock with two assistants to depict Mexican subject matter, and for the final three murals, turns his attention to New York’s working class during the Great Depression. He loves the attention and publicity he’s getting, and the painting above, Agrarian Leader Zapata, is one of MoMA’s most prized works.