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!

Debut – Offering

Acrylic, driftwood, sea-worn tiles from 1908 earthquake-induced building collapse, hardware on panel, 12” x 12”

This painting is perhaps best seen in person, because of its sculptural quality, and because I’ll encourage you to touch this one!

It’s made entirely of found objects, one being the “shelf” which I found on a walk near my house, and the others being pieces of tile flooring, which I found during a swim in Messina, Sicily. They are worn down, like sea glass, and in fact have been in the water since 1908, when an earthquake felled all of the buildings at Messina’s shore. I found a whole bag of this tiles, and didn’t even need to search for them; they’re just there at your feet. Whole hotels’ and buildings’ worth of these artifacts, tumbled into the sea.

That sounds poetic and awful enough for my romantic imagination. But I was thinking about marriage and the sacrifices we all make to keep relationships going. This one starts with a small, yet beautiful, offering. Somehow, that’s not seen or appreciated, or enough. And when that’s the case, there’s another, bigger item that will be offered up next. And then another, that’s more intricate, more beautiful, and bigger, so much so that it’s crowding the edge of the shelf it’s displayed on.

Acrylic, driftwood, sea-worn tiles from 1908 earthquake-induced building collapse, hardware on panel, 12” x12”

For those who know that my wife is living in Italy for a year, this piece might seem like a direct and angry reflection of that “sacrifice”. In fact, this was created earlier, maybe even before we began talking about that particular adventure. For sure, there is some hopelessness and frustration that inspired this piece, but it came from a different time and place. I’m actually enjoying many aspects of being alone this year (and despairing at others, naturally) so please don’t worry about me.

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!

Invisible Cities by Terri Saulin-Frock

Invisible Cities, Terri Saulin-Frock, 2017

I love going into what I call “real places” and seeing “real art”. For example, there’s an editioned print (not a poster) in the bathroom at the mall, or a quality painting hanging permanently at a bar.

I was in the Philadelphia International Airport recently, and even though rotating art exhibitions are becoming more popular at airports, I was still struck by an exhibition called Invisible Cities by Terri Saulin Frock. Regrettably, I could spend just a few minutes perusing the work before I had to be on my way, but it was technically extremely well made (I’m becoming more and more insistent on that point), beautiful in every sense of the word, and conceptually fascinating.

Small round ceramic vessels transition into one another via a tumbling conglomeration of ceramic matchstick-like bridge structures. Others stand on their own while simultaneously sprouting and supporting an entire civilization of these matchsticks from their tops. Others tilt and bow to matchsticks sprouting from their sides and by their feet. They’re a combination of the lovely – imperfectly handmade, with fingermarks to prove it – and geometrically precise additions, which grow lives of their own as they multiply. The tension between two extremes is fascinating: organic and geometric, stable and unsteady, individual and proliferating multiples, vertical and horizontal.

Invisible Cities, Terri Saulin-Frock, 2017

The source of inspiration is a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, called “The Garden of Forking Paths” (“El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan”). I haven’t read this story, but have read Borges off and on; the last time I made a conscious effort was in grad school, and I feel it might be time again.

A synopsis of the story: a Chinese professor, Dr. Yu Tsun, living in Great Britain during World War I, is spying for the Germans and is about to be caught. He desperately needs to communicate an important bit of information – the location of a new armory – before his imminent capture. With British intelligence hot on his heels, he visits another professor, while pondering the thwarted creative life of his ancestor, Ts’ui Pên. Pên had been a respected government official but gave up this post in pursuit of two goals: to write an epic novel, and to create an epic labyrinth, “one in which all men would lose their way”. After his death, anyone who attempted to read what he wrote found it to be nonsense that circled back on itself, and no one ever found any labyrinth. So much for that. Tsun meets Dr. Stephen Albert, who has studied Pên’s seemingly meager output. Albert excitedly reveals that Pên was a genius, not a slacker after all; his life’s work was creating a novel that was a labyrinth in and of itself. The reason it read as nonsensical was because each step in the novel, each character’s decision, simultaneously led to every possible outcome of that step or decision. It was not a linear path, A to B to C, but an ever-expanding network of forking paths, each yielding a multitude of rich possibilities, which circled around each other and sometimes crisscrossed back to an earlier point. Albert illustrates his example by saying that in their current scenario, two possible circumstances are that Tsun visits his home as an enemy, yet from a different series of alternate decisions, also visits as a friend. All possibilities are simultaneously present. Tsun, extremely gratified to learn of his ancestor’s victory, sees his pursuer out the window, takes out a gun, claims he comes as a friend, and deliberately shoots Dr. Albert. He is subsequently convicted of murder and sentenced to death. But he also wins, because the Germans bomb the armory during his trial. He has successfully communicated the location of the armory to them – in a town called Albert – by murdering someone named Albert so that the Germans would read about the crime in the news and act on his planted clue.

Yeah, let that sink in.

So these invisible yet proliferating cities, with their contradictory yet completely harmonious natures take on a life of their own. What a beautiful homage to this story. And what a mindblower.

Invisible Cities, Terri Saulin-Frock, 2017

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.

365 Days of Art: December 31 – Brunelleschi Wins Competition to Top Duomo with Lantern

August 19-Duomo

December 31, 1436

Wardens for the Santa Maria Fiore cathedral meet in Florence to award the winner of a competition to top the Duomo with a lantern. There are five entries, and Brunelleschi wins. This is a like an Oscar-winner having to audition for a bit part, though: Brunelleschi has already built the duomo, inventing machinery to make it happen, engineering something many people think isn’t possible…and they didn’t trust him enough to put the cherry on top? That stings.

365 Days of Art: December 7 – Judges Consider Brunelleschi’s Proposal for Duomo

Filippo Brunelleschi, plans for lifting construction materials for Duomo, c. 1418
Filippo Brunelleschi, plans for lifting construction materials for Duomo, c. 1418

December 7, 1418

Judges consider the model that Brunelleschi submits for the competition to build a Duomo for Florence’s cathedral.

His proposal includes not only building techniques to make such a large structure possible (a self-supporting shell with a rib structure, and using brick laid in rotating herringone patterns) but also the use of machines he invents to lift the materials into position. It is an engineering first.

365 Days of Art: October 10 – Leonardo Shows Three Paintings to Possible Patron, Watts Towers Kill Stress Test

Leonardo, St. John the Baptist, 1513 - 1516
Leonardo, St. John the Baptist, 1513 – 1516

October 10, 1517

Leonardo shows three of his paintings to the Cardinal of Aragon: Portrait of a Florentine Lady commissioned by Giuliano de’ Medici, Young St. John the Baptist, and St. Anne.

Simon Rodia, Watts Towers, 1921-1955
Simon Rodia, Watts Towers, 1921-1955

October 10, 1959

Before the planned demolition of Watts Towers, a DIY art project created over 34 years by one man without the use of machines, bolts or rivets, engineers and architects perform a required structural stress test. Steel cable is attached to each tower and a crane is used to exert force. The towers do not shift at all, let alone fall, and the test eventually ends when the crane breaks down. The towers still stand.

365 Days of Art: August 27 – Michelangelo Takes 1st Commission, Krakatoa Colors Sky for The Scream, and Guernica is Displayed for 1st Time in US

Another big day in the history of art!

Michelangelo, Pieta, 1498

August 27, 1498

At age 25, Michelangelo receives his first big commission: a statue of Mary and Jesus for a cardinal. He selects the Carrera marble himself from the quarry and carves the statue from that single piece of stone. The 450 ducats he’s paid make him one of the best-paid artists of his time. The Pietá, as the statue is known, is on display at the Vatican, and is my favorite Michelangelo work.

Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1883

Aug 27, 1883

Krakatoa, an Indonesian volcano, erupts, pouring ash and debris into the atmosphere to such an extent that it wildly colors the sky around the world for months–including the sky painted by Edvard Munch in The Scream. Although this isn’t realized until the 2000s, newspaper accounts of the day are clear about the stunning evening skies in late 1883 and early 1884, even in Norway, where Munch works. Art history has always read the deeply colored and banded sky in that painting as an Expressionistic or Fauvist touch, but history says that Munch is painting what he sees.

Guernica, by Pablo Picasso, 1937
August 27, 1939

The San Francisco Museum of Art (later SFMOMA) displays Picasso’s anti-war painting, Guernica, for the first time publicly in the United States. The exhibition is eerily relevant as tensions have been mounting in Europe, and World War II will officially begin in less than a week. To the museum’s credit, the exhibition is free.

365 Days of Art: August 23 – The Little Mermaid is Unveiled

Little Mermiad, Edvard Eriksen, Copenhagen

August 23, 1913

The Little Mermaid is unveiled in Copenhagen. The patron who commissions the statue is so taken by the fairytale, specifically the ballerina who portrays the Little Mermaid in a ballet based on the fairytale, that he asks her to model for the artwork. She agrees to model her head but refuses to pose in the nude. Therefore, the final statue is a compilation of the head of the ballerina and the body of the sculptor’s wife.