Glasstown Arts District in Millville, New Jersey

Levoy Theater, Millville, NJ, January 2011

We heard that Millville was an arts destination in South Jersey, so we headed down there to have a look. Sure enough, the Glasstown Arts District is home to galleries and artists’ studios, as well as shopping and dining. The main street was unfortunately bare on this extremely cold winter day, but there were a few venues open and we soon found ourselves invited into the workroom of the ceramics studio of Cumberland County College. Two very friendly women took us on a private tour of the spacious studio, which is open to the public on the 3rd Friday of every month as part of the district-wide embrace of the arts.

The ceramicists also told us the sad story of the Levoy Theater, which had collapsed the week before. The theater was in the midst of renovations and clearly a cornerstone of the town’s claim as an arts district. When the collapse happened, cement was being poured as part of the foundation when something went wrong. Luckily, no one was badly hurt.

But clearly, the town had taken a hit, physically and psychically. One whole block was cordoned off from traffic. Now we knew why most of the stores and galleries were closed; everyone we spoke to said the destruction of the theater had played a part. It was dramatic and sad and yes, even beautiful in a tragic way to see the pile of crumbled brick, the pieces torn away from the building immediately adjacent, and the bits of blue sky visible through the fallen scaffolding.

How many times have we seen towns struggling to create a niche in this new economy (New Bedford and Pittsfield, Massachusetts also come to mind) only to suffer a setback like this. I remember when the brick building across the street from my first studio in New Bedford collapsed overnight. That was over six years ago now, and the hole is still there.

Good luck to Millville as they pull themselves up and carry on.

The Noyes Museum of Art

The Noyes Museum of Art
in Oceanville, New Jersey is an unexpected treat, and reminds me of The DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts. They are both small museums with nice programming, located alongside a pond, in a small town, off the beaten path.

The Noyes is tucked away, down a small, twisting lane lined with trees. When you finally come upon it, you’ll find the architecture to be unexpectedly airy and rustic.

We visited near closing time, and found ourselves to be the only patrons in the museum. Maybe it was because of this, or maybe because we bonded with the staff over some plesantries, or maybe because they are really that accessible, but two of the employees offered us access into a gallery which was closed due to installation of a new exhibit. Though the installation process was nearly complete, and most works were hanging on the walls, there was evidence of what goes into hanging a show: tape, bubble wrap, and boxes laying around; hammers and levels stacked near the doorway; notes, paperwork, and wall texts momentarily scattered about. We usually think of a museum exhibit as a finished piece, and rarely get to see the work that happens behind the scenes. This kind of access is unprecedented in my experience and another example of how charming and special this museum is, but it was also especially relevant for the show in question: Mel Leipzig: Life.

Leipzig clearly has a special place in his heart for artists. Many of his paintings depict artists in their studios, and capture their personalities through the studio layout, as well as how they present themselves to the world amongst their work. We walked around the gallery, surrounded by images of artists in their studios, picking our way among the paintings leaned against the gallery wall, seeing evidence of the many hands which worked to make this show possible: the artists (and actors) depicted on the canvases, Leipzig himself who painted them, the picture framers who created the finished presentation of the canvas, the person (perhaps the artist himself) who wrapped the framed paintings in bubble wrap and brown paper, the museum’s art handlers and preparators who measured the walls and hung the show with the tools we could see around us–the entire working process all came full circle in the gallery, and this was an added element to the show. I wish everyone could have seen the show in this way, as it made the viewer feel closer to the art and the creative process.

Leipzig works in a mostly hyper-realist style, with an often distorted perspective that resembles a fish-eye lens. Every detail is equally important in these worlds, and he has a feel for texture and surfaces, such as graffitied and postered dorm walls, tattooed skin, and wood flooring. These subjects are explored quite richly in the worlds of artists of all ages, and young adults such as college students. Paintings like Joshua’s Room or Four Painting Students allow him to dig in and show everything contained within those rooms from posters on the ceiling, to artwork on easels, to logos or wrinkles on clothing. Leipzig seems to lose interest when painting infants and young children, however; the paint handling feels slapdash and incomplete compared to the rest of the painting, and the anatomy is off (heads are too large, bodies misshapen). As a viewer, I would prefer to see him concentrate on the subjects that genuinely hold his, and our, interest. But I enjoyed this show very much.

In another gallery was a group show called Sueños: Contemporary Latin American Art. Especially notable was Alfonso Corpus who created a moving installation called La Cantuta, which references the kidnapping and “disappearing” of a university professor and students in Peru in 1992. This incident was prominently cited as an example of human rights abuses by the government under the reign of Alberto Fujimori. The back end of the gallery was devoted to this installation, with black crepe paper roses carpeting the floor, and black desks placed together.

Also notable were Rodrigez Calero, who creates icons in mixed media and acrylic,

Rodrigez Calero

Soledad Salame, who prints on aluminum thereby creating a luminous surface,

Soledad Salame

and Alex Queral who carves bas-relief portraits from phone books.

Alex Queral

Next time you’re in south Jersey, swing by The Noyes Museum; it’s well worth it.

Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same

No, that’s not my ad, it’s a film playing at Sundance right now featuring the gifted Jackie Monahan. 

We bonded on a Provincetown street corner this summer (yes, it gets better and better) as she handed out clever comments along with tickets to her comedy show.  She’s funny, and of course, she also got extra points for commenting on my rodeo girl outfit, as well as my gorgeous new rain boots.

Here’s the description of the film:

“Three lesbian aliens are sent to Earth. Their mission? To have their hearts broken by earthlings so their overactive emotions won’t destroy the ozone of their planet. As the fetching extraterrestrials search for romance on the New York lesbian dating scene, one finds love with Jane, an eager stationery store clerk who is oblivious to the fact that she’s dating an alien. The other two, discovering the neediness of earthling women, connect with each other as they reflect on the beauty of a cheesecake in a revolving dessert case.

Tightly scripted with lo-fi styling and campy DIY effects that would make Ed Wood envious, Codependent mashes up the B-movie and Men in Black and turns it into a witty, wholly original comedy. First-time feature writer/director Madeleine Olnek (her shorts Hold Up and Countertransference screened at the Festival in 2006 and 2009, respectively) embraces the intrinsic hilarity of lesbian life and DIY filmmaking to tell a story about love that transcends galaxies.”

Sounds hilarious, and as they proudly proclaim, it’s “completely 2D!”

Hope it comes to theaters soon!  Congratulations Jackie!

For more info:

A Long Overdue Thank You Letter to Sue Coe

People always ask me how I became a vegetarian. Usually this happens over a meal, after we’ve placed our orders (theirs meat, mine veggie) which makes it a bit awkward for me. It just doesn’t seem like good manners to discuss the gory details there at the table. But since this is ultimately a blog about the power of art, I’ll share a bit more today.

I remember the day I became a vegetarian like it was yesterday, though I can’t remember whether the year was 1997 or ’98. The artist Sue Coe came to the University of Connecticut to give a lecture about her political artwork, the overall theme of which could be summed up as fair and dignified treatment for all. In the 1980s, her paintings and prints dealt with issues such as apartheid in South Africa and the violent gang rape of a woman in New Bedford, Massachusetts. (This incident was also the inspiration for the movie The Accused, starring Jodie Foster and Kelly McGillis, and spurred the passage of many so-called “Good Samaritan laws”).

Eventually, Sue expanded the idea of who deserved fairness and dignity, as her artwork began exploring the meat and farming industries. Wanting to see the inside of a slaughterhouse for herself yet discovering that no executive would allow a self-described artist into the plants, she said she was a journalist, one who wanted to tell the world what really went on in the meat business. To the executives, she implied that she was on their side but in reality, I think she viewed herself as an undercover cop on a mission. She observed what was happening, and began painting what she saw.

The stories behind her artwork involved anecdotes I had heard before: about stun guns, illness, cramped conditions, sicko employees who tortured animals before killing them. Although I’d thought these tales were horrific, I hadn’t been moved to stop eating meat yet.

But that day was different; seeing Sue’s paintings blown up to 20 or 30 feet tall on the projection screen in the auditorium was extraordinarily powerful. I remember one painting in particular, about a cow who was left dangling by one leg, up in the air, howling in fear, suspended by a chain…all because the factory bell rang, and no one wanted to take the extra few seconds to put her out of her misery before taking a coffee break.

And the slides kept coming. There were many stories like that, about suffering, and about callousness toward that suffering.

A picture is worth a thousand words; that is the day I realized that I was truly a visual person. Or, maybe it’s as simple as Linda McCartney once said: “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, we’d all be vegetarians.”

I left the lecture saying that I would never eat meat again, and I haven’t.

As we make strides toward being more “green” in general, and realize the costs of factory farming (chemicals put into our bodies, girls beginning puberty earlier due to hormones in food, foodborne illness such as mad cow disease, the toll on the environment, etc etc, not to mention the morality of it), this seems like a good time to say thank you to Sue Coe. I have enjoyed every minute of being a vegetarian, and I’ve saved the lives of at least 90 animals per year since 1997 or 1998. (That’s 1,170 or 1,260 animals–wow).

I think that was also the first day I realized that art could be genuinely powerful, so in that sense Sue Coe has also been a mentor to my own move into political art. Though I don’t paint about animal rights, but rather gay rights, I think we’re both on a similar track in that we care about fair treatment and dignity for all.

Thank you, Sue.

Day Job at The Drawing Center

The Day Job exhibition, as a concept, resonated with me because I’m still in a state of exuberance-decompression-worry (it depends on the day) over recently having left my own day job, in an office.

This was a varied and interesting show, and here are some of my favorites:

Dawn Hunter, a professor of art. About to enter this world again myself, it is a tasty little look at how professors operate together (or don’t) in an art department. The circus performers here are based on her own co-workers.

Dawn Hunter, Art Department

Luis Romero, an office worker. These “Fetish Drawings” use materials from his office, such as Post-It notes, paper clips, and staples. Papers are folded and twisted on each other; fragments of ballpoint pen and professinal printing are visible before a fold turns in on itself. The resulting compact drawing is then clipped, wrapped, or otherwise attached with other elements such as the office supplies mentioned above, creating little packets of information. These objects are then organized and “filed” in rows within a glass case. The resulting installation is a visual model of much of the work that happens in an office, that is, combining relevant pieces of information and organizing them so they can be retrieved when needed.

Luis Romero, Fetish Drawing
Luis Romero, Fetish Drawing

Tom Hooper is the Master Scenic Artist on One Life to Live. Some weeks, his job will be to create the figure drawings that go on the students’ easels in an art class on the show. Some weeks, he’ll paint paintings for his assigned character. I want his job! His personal artwork involves the aggregate of what happens in a day at work: he begins each day with a fresh, white piece of paper on his work area. As he uses this “desk blotter” to test colors, as a place on which to put dripping paint cans, as a telephone message pad, as a sketchbook for doodles, he chronicles his day.

Tom Hooper

Alfred Steiner is a copyright lawyer, so it’s no surprise his work deals with intellectual property issues. This piece in the show was created by several individuals, all of whom were asked to create a drawing based on one of Popeye. Steiner smartly told them that their drawings would be combined with others’, turning each individual artwork into one, new whole, thereby safely getting around any charges of copyright infringement (by the individual artists, or the Popeye franchise).

Alfred Steiner, Substantially Similar (After Koons)

Nice show. On top of that, they’ve specifically designed programming, such as a recent tax seminar, to help artists with everyday working concerns.

Meditation Update

Many of you followed my adventures in meditation while I was at the Vermont Studio Center–my first concerted attempt to unplug my brain.

I have to confess that even though I loved the Meditation Studio there, saw the benefits of meditating, agreed in principle with how it could be helpful (especially for artists), and borrowed a book from the meditation library…I have slipped since my return to NYC. Just a couple of vague attempts, and no real commitment to carving out the time to do it. Meanwhile, life can be stressful here and I’m not quite as relaxed as I was in Johnson, VT (go figure!).

But suddenly, in recent days, meditation has been the buzzword from all corners.

It keeps coming up in conversations with friends. Dr. Oz said it should be everyone’s New Year’s resolution. I went to a tax seminar for freelancers the other day, and even the accountant urged us to meditate.

That’s when I knew the universe must be telling me something, and that I needed to make room again in my life for it.

Stay tuned; I’ll report on my progress!

Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock?

In honor of Abstract Expressionist New York at MoMA right now, I saw the documentary Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock?.

It’s the story of Teri Horton, a 73-year old trucker who purchased a painting at a thrift store for $5–bargained down from $8–and then came to believe it was painted by Jackson Pollock. The movie is about the odyssey she then embarked on to have it authenticated as a Pollock, in hopes of selling it for $50 million. As Teri says at the beginning of the film–”You ain’t gonna believe this shit!”

The movie features her driving her pink-colored truck cab around town, hauling what seem to be several bulldozers, and sorting through trash in Dumpsters. She enthusiastically and unapologetically hunts down bargains, patronizes thrift stores, and calls herself a “Dumpster-diving granny”.

Her love of a bargain led her to the thrift store in question, where she purchased an abstract painting for her friend, who needed cheering up. Both she and her friend agreed that the painting was ugly, but when it turned out to be too large to fit through the door of her friend’s trailer, something had to be done. They considered using it as a target for dart games, but ended up placing it in a garage sale instead, where a local art teacher told her that it could have been painted by Jackson Pollock.

Teri’s reply was, “Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock?”.

Priding herself on her tenacity, she educated herself about Pollock (sort of), met various art dealers, called galleries, and was generally relentless in trying to prove that Jackson Pollock may have painted this canvas.

But she ran up against a new concept: provenance, which every art dealer told her she could get nowhere without. Provenance, they told her, involved proving the list of previous owners of a work of art and how it changed hands over the years. This proof would be necessary to ascertain how a painting made by Jackson Pollock on Long Island could end up forgotten in a thrift store in Los Angeles. They predicted that no one would take her seriously without provenance, and they were right.

Teri is nothing if not resourceful. When she can’t get around the provenance issue, she makes up her own. In her new-and-improved version, the painting was given to her by a local bartender named Pops who had recently died. Pops had been present many years ago at a night of drunken revelry in Los Angeles when Pollock encouraged his friends John Wayne, Joan Crawford, James Cagney, and others to paint with him. Pops ended up with the painting, which he gave to Teri. Teri claimed that when she contacted dealers with this outlandish tale–and I’m sure she told it with flair–none disputed her claim, and one allegedly even said he himself was also acquainted with Pops.

Well, I find that hard to believe, though I can’t say I would’ve challenged Teri and her mouth either, but the sequence of photo montages of old-school Hollywood stars, and the fictional Pops’ declaration that Pollock signed the painting with his penis is one of the funnier moments in the film.

Teri continues on her quest to prove that Jackson Pollock painted her painting. At some point, the painting is moved to a climate-controlled storage facility in New York City. Frequent cut-away shots show the painting in this sterile environment, dramatically spotlit and curiously dry-looking. (I can’t imagine how Teri is paying the rent on that space, though I would bet she hauled it cross-country herself).

Various art historians, curators, even a friend of Pollock, are interviewed throughout. Most notable is Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who is a caricature of a caricature, with an upper crust accent and utter disdain for this elderly, truck-driving, Dumpster-diving granny. His poking fun at her pronunciation of “provenance” is poor sport and contributes heavily to the drama of David versus Goliath which the movie cultivates–a hard-living truck driver, and a female at that, against the rich, privileged men of the New York art world.

In my favorite line of the movie, Teri declares that “The whole art world is a bumble-frackin’ fraud”.

Unable to prove provenance, Teri hires a forensics expert named Paul Biro to try to scientifically ascertain that her painting is a Pollock. Biro’s area of expertise seems to be in fingerprinting, and he had some past success in attributing a J.M.W. Turner painting through fingerprints. Given that Pollock had never been officially fingerprinted, Biro travels to his studio on Long Island to try to lift any latent prints from the paint cans, brushes, or other surfaces in Pollock’s studio, seemingly untouched since his death more than 50 years ago.

Biro finds a partial print on the label of a paint can and subsequently matches it to a print left in paint on the back of Teri’s canvas. He alleges that these prints both belong to Pollock, and the movie says later that a match was also made to another fingerprint, on the back of another Pollock painting.

As much as I was rooting for Teri, this is where I have some quibbles with her quest–or at least with the movie’s depiction of what happened, what is sufficient proof, and what one can reasonably be expected to believe. At one point, Biro says he doesn’t want to use a particular thumbprint for comparison, because it is “too large”. He seems to think it’s a real anomaly and subsequently abandons it and moves on to a discussion of acrylic paint comparisons (more on this below). Yet, this too-large print is never mentioned again and I found myself wondering, What was up with the too-large fingerprint? How large is too large? Why was it so troubling to him at first, and why did he return to it? The print eventually seems to prove satisfactory, because there is Biro, using it in his analysis after all.

Biro also analyzes the floor of Pollock’s studio and finds microscopic acrylic residue on top of larger swaths and drips of oil/enamel paint, a finding which apparently mirrors Teri’s canvas. One of the experts disputes this finding, saying that acrylics weren’t invented during Pollock’s lifetime, though one of Teri’s experts disagree. [I don’t definitively know when acrylics went into wide distribution (sometime in the 1950s), and whether the limited work Pollock did in the years just before his death featured acrylic paint, but I’m willing to let this one go because I have other, more concrete, questions about the scientific evidence and how it was collected].

Teri receives and rejects a couple of low-ball offers for the painting from private collectors. Well, they’re low if the painting is indeed a Pollock. If it’s a $5 thrift-store knock-off, then she makes out.

Somewhere along the line, the painting becomes an albatross around Teri’s neck. Her natural tenacity, as well as a need to prove those snotty experts wrong, and I suspect money troubles, lead her to overreach. She begins to complain of exhaustion and claims she no longer cares what happens to the painting, except that it be taken off her hands.

She turns to Tod Volpe, an ex-convict art dealer who was convicted of defrauding his clients, including Jack Nicholson, of millions of dollars. In Volpe, she sees the access to the upper echelons of the art world that she will always be denied. Volpe forms an investment company whose sole purpose is to authenticate and then sell Teri’s painting.

Teri insists that it’s worth $50 million, which they can’t get, even with Volpe’s access and charm. Teri receives her most promising and lucrative offer–$9 million–and still won’t sell.

By now, the authentication and sale of the painting is the Moby Dick to her Ahab.

The movie trades heavily on the idea of the little guy against the big bad art world. I would have loved to see Teri take it on and win, but her teaming up with Volpe is one more questionable and/or desperate aspect of her quest. Maybe it made sense to throw in her lot with Volpe, so that all of the “bumble-frackin’ frauds” could work it out amongst themselves.

Although thoroughly enjoyable, after the credits rolled, I was left with some unresolved questions.

One art world expert said that Pollock was very tight-fisted with his paintings–that he was known to reject offers to buy them which he considered low, and did not part with them unless he received every penny of what he thought they were worth. Meanwhile, one of Teri’s experts said that Pollock was famous for giving away his paintings during fits of drunken generosity. The discrepancy was never explained–which version is more credible?

Regarding the fingerprint discovered on the paint can in the studio, we’re left to wonder whether that is definitive. Again, the sides differ: Teri’s experts say that Pollock never allowed visitors to his studio, so the print must be his; while the art world experts say that anyone could have come in and left it. Who’s to say? I do know that in this day and age, in a courtroom, all the reasonable doubt in the world would be created by saying that Pollock was an alcoholic, and hinting that even if he didn’t give his permission, anyone could have traipsed in and out of there, leaving fingerprints as they went. A lawyer today would also (successfully, I think) be able to question the chain of custody of physical evidence that was “discovered” over 50 years after it was supposedly deposited–in a space that has been open for years for tours and research.

The issue of the too-large fingerprint also troubled me, as mentioned above. And while we’re on the subject of fingerprints, my subsequent research (to learn whether the painting had sold since the making of the movie) revealed that the third fingerprint which Biro apparently discovered and matched to the ones on the paint can and the back of Teri’s canvas came from a Pollock from Biro’s personal art collection. Hm. While I don’t believe everything I read, especially on the internet, that sounds a bit convenient to me.

One copyist (he coyly says he is not a forger) states in Teri’s defense that forging a Pollock would be far too difficult, yet it would be naive to think that the artist who became something of a rock star after an interview by Life magazine which asked: “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?” didn’t have artistic admirers who tried to directly mimic his style.

And, how did the painting end up 3000 miles away from Pollock’s studio? I could see an amateur Pollock fan from the west coast painting an homage, which eventually was forgotten and found its way to the back of a thrift store. Hard to believe that could happen to a real Pollock, given his star wattage during his lifetime and after his death.

I promised myself I wouldn’t make too much of the fact that the director, Harry Moses, is the brother of actor William R. Moses–who played Allison Parker’s boyfriend Keith on the original Melrose Place, or that the film’s inclination toward the dramatic over full factual disclosure had anything to do with that…instead, let’s just leave it as a Fun Fact.

Great movie, lots of fun, but I’m not sure that they’ve proven their case. Or, as Volpe argues at one point, it’s not their job to prove Teri’s painting is a Pollock; it’s everyone else’s job to prove it ISN’T. If that’s the case, they’ve done their job because I’m not convinced–even though I would’ve loved to have been.

In With the New

For anyone wondering what’s been going on in the studio since I returned from the Vermont Studio Center, I do have an update. I’ve been busy moving into a new studio, which will give me more space for larger work.

As we all know, the artistic diaspora in New York City is continuing to spread (see this interesting article about how and why New York is losing its artists to more hospitable places like Cleveland)…I’m now located in the Bronx, where the rents are pretty good, and there is space to be had.

I’m still working on getting storage racks for my paintings, but everything else is coming along, and fresh new panels will arrive in the next few days to paint on!

Harvey Milk to be Commemorated on a Stamp?

The Bay Area Reporter says that Harvey Milk may get his likeness on a US stamp. If so, he would be the first openly gay person to receive this honor.

From the “tens of thousands of suggestions” for stamp ideas that The Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee receives each year, the group recommends 20 to 25 finalists each year; the postmaster general then selects five or so for production.

Nicole Murray-Ramirez, chair of the Harvey Milk National Stamp Campaign, says they are still soliciting letters of support from the public for Harvey’s stamp. “The feedback we have gotten is they are very impressed so many handwritten letters have been sent. The last couple of years or more there has been a constant flow of letters from all over the United States.”

Ira Michael Heyman (if anyone is keeping track, he was the chancellor at UC Berkeley when I was a freshman), chairs the Committee’s subject subcommittee, but did not respond to requests for comment.

The Committee has notified Milk’s family as well as the Harvey Milk National Stamp Campaign of the interest in a potential stamp, indicating that there is forward momentum to the project.

by Jim Leff
The stamp could look like this, based on artwork by Jim Leff, a friend of Harvey’s.

Letters of support can be written to:

Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee

C/O Stamp Development

U.S. Postal Service

1735 North Lynn St

Suite 5013

Arlington VA  22209-6432

As the Harvey Milk National Stamp Campaign states: “This stamp would serve to further remind Americans that by honoring Harvey Milk, you honor a true American Hero and Champion of Civil Rights for all people”.