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 of 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 – Isolier as Knight

Isolier as Knight, Acrylic on wood, 8″ x 10″

This painting is inspired by the character Isolier in the opera Count Ory by Rossini (the recent production by Seattle Opera was called The Wicked Adventures of County Ory).

Isolier is what is known as a “trouser role”, meaning that the conventions of opera dictate that the audience is supposed to assume that the character is a young man, when it is in fact played by a woman. [Back in the day, the roles were played by castrati – yes, young men who were castrated before puberty to retain their higher vocal range. That practice thankfully became illegal, and the roles then went to women, usually mezzo-sopranos (not too high in the vocal range)].

In 1828, when Rossini wrote this opera, Isolier would have been understood, absolutely, as a young male. But, to our 21st century understanding, the role can perhaps best be described as “gender fluid”.

Recent productions have used costumes to suggest a rabble-rousing – and dare we say *butch* – side to the character, dressing Isolier in clothing inspired by 1970s rock androgyny (think Freddie Mercury, David Bowie, the Rolling Stones), as well as punk, and female rockers like Joan Jett and Chrissy Hynde. The costumes use tight-hugging leather and popped collars, mixed with tall boots and well-placed spikes. Isolier sports an enormous codpiece, yet the tight costumes show off female curves. Isolier’s hair is long, tending toward the layered and shaggy. In short, there is something bad-ass and butch about Isolier that is worn right there on the sleeve.

Isolier is in love with a woman, Countess Adele, and in fact ends up in bed with her. Shortly after, Isolier ends up in the same bed with both Adele and Isolier’s own boss, Count Ory. (This scene is played for comedy, and in the opera, no one cares one way or another).

This work was also inspired by my recent trip to the Met…and someone asked me if my currently bald head had anything to do with this depiction…am I Isolier???

I don’t know where this work is going…all I can say right now is that this character intrigues me.

Public Art – 2nd Avenue Subway

2nd Avenue subway mosaic

I finally got to see the new 2nd Avenue subway! I’ve been waiting for this almost as long as Peggy Olson has! This would be my subway station, if I still lived in New York. It smells new, which is the oddest thing I’ve ever said or thought about the subway. New concrete. It’s airy with a glassed entrance, unlike most other stations, and it has an elevator. I wished I had more time to poke around, but I did take a short, one-stop ride.

The art in some subway stations has fascinated me for years. Here, we have mosaic tile portraits of nearly life-size New Yorkers. I was pleased to note the diversity in the depictions – various professions and demographics. The detail is great, though I prefer the whimsy of the animal and fossil mosaics in the 81st Street station on the C line.

Am I the only one – or was it weird to notice that the closest figure to this gay couple was a nurse in uniform, who was directly looking at them? That juxtaposition struck a wrong note for me because it swooped me right back to the heyday of the AIDS epidemic. Maybe that’s generational, but I still want to say “too soon”. And, I wished a lesbian couple could have been included in addition to the lone gay male couple – if the MTA needed models, we were practically right upstairs!

Nice job on a project only a century or so in the making!

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 a lesbian 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. A companion 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.

The 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.

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 more. I visited in my mind with a couple of old friends (and foes). I made new acquaintances, not friends for life, but friends for an evening, friends I was 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.

Artist Donates 10% of Sales to OneOrlando Fund

Art for Orlando exhibition, First Covenant Church, Seattle
Art for Orlando exhibition, First Covenant Church, Seattle

On Capitol Hill, the acknowledged center of queer culture in Seattle, the Pulse Nightclub murders in Orlando on June 12 exacted a special toll. Most of Seattle’s gay clubs are located here, and rainbow flags and crosswalks dot the landscape, visually knitting together disparate businesses and corners of the neighborhood. Seattle’s generally liberal vibe may have masked any real sense of danger; although assorted hate crimes have increased in the neighborhood over the last few years, there still existed a general feeling that Seattle was safe for queers. The news from Orlando reminded everyone that anything can happen anywhere.

In the immediate aftermath, before the motive was understood or the perpetrator was known, an idea was hatched to create something positive out of this destabilizing grief. Ellie VerGowe, the Community Outreach Coordinator at First Covenant Church, decided to turn the church’s art space over to a month-long tribute to the victims, affording an opportunity for the community to process its grief. Artists, performers and church staff swung into action, hanging a show of over two dozen works that honored the victims in Orlando and celebrated the queer community there and beyond. In addition to the two dimensional works on the wall, the opening reception featured musical compositions as well as an elegiac dance and spoken word performance.

The show was a financial success too, with a robust number of sales and various proceeds marked for support of victims in Orlando. One artist who donated 10% of sales was painter Maura McGurk, who sold seven of the twelve paintings she exhibited. Her paintings were not specifically painted in reaction to the news from Orlando, but were a selection of what she calls “Pride Paintings”. She began on June 1 to honor a different queer person or moment with a commemorative painting each day of Pride Month. When the events in Orlando unfolded, the Pride Paintings took on a different character for McGurk. The collection that was growing on her wall took on a protective aspect, with each portrait looking down and seeming to watch over McGurk and her wife. McGurk’s donation goes to OneOrlando Fund.

365 Days of Art: November 12 – Art Forger Convicted, Replica of David Installed on Roof as Originally Intended, Bacon Sets Auction Record

Han van Meegeren in the witness box at his trial. One of his forgeries is behind him.
Han van Meegeren in the witness box at his trial. One of his forgeries is behind him.

November 12, 1947

Han van Meegeren, one of the most famous art forgers ever, is convicted of fraud and sentenced to a just one year in prison. He never serves any time, since he dies of a heart attack on December 30, before going to prison.

Fiberglass replica of David, installed on roof of Duomo in Florence.
Fiberglass replica of David, installed on roof of Duomo in Florence.

November 12, 2010

A fiberglass replica of David is installed on the roofline of the Duomo in Florence, so that the world can see the artwork as the original commissioners intended for it to be exhibited. This installation is for one day only.

Francis Bacon, Three Studies of Lucian Freud, 1969
Francis Bacon, Three Studies of Lucian Freud, 1969

November 12, 2013

Francis Bacon’s triptych, Three Studies of Lucian Freud, sells for $142.4M at Christie’s, the most ever paid for a work of art. In an exciting moment for live auctions, the bidding keeps pace for ten minutes. When it finally stops, the crowd bursts into applause, and two losing bidders leave the room.

365 Days of Art: November 10 – Frida and Diego Arrive in SF, NY Times Reports on Nazi Looting, Gorky Exhibits at the Whitney, Hockney Faxes an Artwork

Diego Rivera, Allegory of California mural, SF Stock Exchange Tower, image via jvsquad.us
Diego Rivera, Allegory of California mural, SF Stock Exchange Tower, image via jvsquad.us

November 10, 1930

Frida and Diego arrive in San Francisco, where he has mural commissions to work on.

Monte Cassino, destroyed by Allied bombs in February 1944.
Monte Cassino, destroyed by Allied bombs in February 1944.

November 10, 1943

The New York Times reports “Unique Collection of Art Treasures Taken Away by Germans in Italy”, referring to the trucks carrying artwork for Goring’s birthday party.

Arshile Gorky, Organization, 1933
Arshile Gorky, Organization, 1933

November 10, 1936

Arshile Gorky’s painting Organization is exhibited the Whitney’s Third Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting. From here on, he will regularly be included in the Whitney’s shows.

David Hockney, Tennis, 144 faxes, 1989.
David Hockney, Tennis, 144 faxes, 1989.

November 10, 1989

David Hockney, exploring new technology, faxes 144 sheets to the 1853 Gallery, in front of a live audience. The 144 sheet together make an image called Tennis.

I guarantee this is the most boring live event ever. And I’m sure some of you are asking “What’s a fax?”.

365 Days of Art: November 9 – Pollock’s First Solo Show Opens, John Meets Yoko at Gallery, Emma Thompson’s Journey Opens in NYC

Peggy and Pollock
Peggy and Pollock

November 9, 1943

Jackson Pollock’s first solo show opens at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery. He has not yet painted the dripping works for which he’ll be most famous.

Yoko Ono, Ceiling Painting (Yes Painting), mixed media, 1966
Yoko Ono, Ceiling Painting (Yes Painting), mixed media, 1966

November 9, 1966

John Lennon meets Yoko Ono at her art opening at Indica Gallery in London. The work above impresses Lennon; after climbing to the top of the ladder and using the magnifying glass to read the word “Yes” on the ceiling, he is sufficiently interested to stay at the exhibition, and ends up meeting Ono. He says that most artwork is “anti” instead of positive and her optimism moves him.

Emma Thompson enters one of the trailers containing Journey, the art installation she produced about sex trafficking.
Emma Thompson enters one of the trailers containing Journey, the art installation she produced about sex trafficking.

November 9, 2009

Emma Thompson’s Journey opens in NYC. It is a multi-media art installation produced by Thompson, with contributions from artists like Anish Kapoor, journalists and social workers. The exhibition is constructed in seven connecting cargo trailers and documents the typical journey a young girl takes into the world of the international sex trade.

This is an extremely moving piece, and one sensory experience that will always stay with me is the trailer made to look like a room where several girls in the trade will live and work. The trailer smells dank and contains several twin beds, which feature creaking and moving mattresses, as if someone is actively bouncing on them. There is various garbage on the ground and mantle: panties, random pens, wrappers. There is a sink, as I recall, which only drives home the idea of the need to cleanse oneself from what is happening in the room. The decorations, such as they are, are garish, with crimson walls and cloying wallpaper. The air is hot and humid, as if there are no windows to open and too many people breathing at once.

More than any other, this piece showed me the power of art installation.

365 Days of Art: July 26 – Three Events About Women in the Art World: a Suicide, a Congressional Debate, and a Job Interview

Three events today, about women in the art world:

Diane Arbus, Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967

July 26, 1971

Diane Arbus commits suicide. She is a photographer, known for her black-and-white, usually head-on photos of folks that might make other folks cringe: a man in rollers and make-up, presumably half-way through his transformation to drag queen (this photo is spat on by a MoMA visitor); a giant standing with his parents in their Bronx apartment; odd-looking twins in identical dresses and headbands (this photo is the inspiration for the eerie girl-ghosts in The Shining). Arbus says she doesn’t want to be known as a photographer of “freaks” (though that’s exactly the term that is most often used to describe her work). She initially says she sees tenderness and beauty in her photos, though later she tells a friend that she hates them.

Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1974-1979, installation

July 26, 1990

Congress debates Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, in the context of monetary support to the University of District Columbia, where she had donated the installation. To absolutely no one’s surprise, California Rep. Bob Dornan in particular comes out against the feminist work, saying: “This thing is a nightmare. This is not art, it’s pornography, 3-D ceramic pornography. This disgusting dinner party…Look at this garbage.”

The final vote removes $1.6 million from the UDC budget.

Chicago says later: “That was appalling, watching that debate on C-SPAN, the quote-unquote ‘congressional debate’. ”

You can watch the debate here: http://www.c-span.org/video/?c4044907/dinner-party.

July 26, 2006

In an interview, Marcia Tucker, former curator of the Whitney Museum of American Art, founder of the New Museum of Contemporary Art, and possible former Guerrilla Girl, discusses her job interview at the Whitney:

He [President David Solinger] wanted to know if I had a boyfriend, if I intended to get married, if I intended to have a family, really amazing stuff, how old I was. At some point I just stopped him and I said:

“Let me tell you why you don’t want to hire a woman. First, no man will ever be able to work for me. Secondly we know that women can’t do budgets and third, once a month I will go crazy and nobody will be able to get near me.”

And he actually laughed and he said, “Okay.”

They hired us both [she and James Monte], but they hired me for two thousand less a year, which at that time was considerable. It was rectified however because my colleague Jim was kind enough to tell me. So I went into to see my director and I said:

“This is what’s happening and you have to change it” and he said, “The budget, the budget, the budget.” And I said, “The New York Times, The New York Post, The Daily News.”

So it got changed, and those were very odd days because I was the first woman they had hired except for Margaret Mackellar the registrar, the first woman since Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney…

Q: And how do you think your choices influenced what they [the Whitney] were showing?

MT: Well I know that I had some. I know that I had some influence on the nature of the artists who were being shown. Because the Guerilla Girls actually did a kind of study and the years that I was there and especially the years that Elka [Solomon] and I were there together, the number of women and artists of color shot up dramatically and the year that I left [was dismissed], it just plummeted again.

365 Days of Art: July 3 – Tracey Emin is Born

Tracey Emin, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With, 1963 - 1995, 1995

July 3, 1963

Tracey Emin is born. She is known for confessionally incorporating her personal life into her work, and use of text, particularly wordplay (and spelling errors).

One of her best-known pieces is a tent that displays the stitched names of–literally–Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995. This isn’t pure exhibitionism but rather about all kinds of intimacy; Emin includes the name of her grandmother, and twin brother. Poignantly to me, she also includes two aborted fetuses that she aborted. And yes, boyfriends.

Another confessional piece is My Bed, which is displayed as-is, exactly how she lived in it for several days when she felt suicidal: yellow stained sheets on mattresses that are surrounded by garbage that she was too depressed to clean up: condoms, empty cigarette packs, dirty underwear with period stains, slippers that she kicked off.

Emin also exhibited several drawings about Princess Diana and her death, work which she called sincere and not cynical.

365 Days of Art: June 11 – Dieter Roth Exhibition Receives Humorous Review

Dieter Roth, Staple Cheese (A Race), 1970

June 11, 1970

Dieter Roth’s first US exhibition receives a tongue-in-cheek review in the International Herald Tribune, which says that the gallery owner “will sell it to anyone with $21,000 and a bad cold”.

The reason for the bad cold is that the exhibition stinks. Literally stinks. Inspired by an artist whose work Roth thinks is “cheesy”, the show features 37 suitcases of all sizes and models which are filled with cheese. One suitcase is opened every day, to expose the unwrapped cheese. In Roth’s words:

They stood there shiny and beautiful–only gradually becoming disgusting. First juice started oozing out, then the maggots came, and then, of course, flies started laying their eggs.”

Oh yes, speaking of that–the health department gets wind of it (quite literally, as all accounts state how much the air reeked) and serves a summons on the gallery owner for permitting “the breeding or harboring of flies.”

Besides the suitcases, a “cheese race” is run by pressing slabs of cheese onto the walls, and allowing them to slide down, with the goal of crossing a “finish line” at the bottom. Unfortunately for the betting crowd, most cheeses dry out and stick to the wall before completing the race, though.

Some critics are amused: “Anyhow we have a chance to test the idea that art gets better as it gets older. Pure burlesque.” writes William Wilson in the LA Times. To no one’s surprise, no pieces from the exhibition sell.

Many years later, the gallery owner’s husband throws the suitcases away in the desert. I’m guessing they still stunk!

Image credit: Staple Cheese, A Race, 1970, Dieter Roth. Cheese stuffed into over 37 suitcases. Image courtesy of Eugenia P. Butler Estate Copyright Notice: © Eugenia P. Butler Estate.

365 Days of Art: February 2 – Dada Diary Announces Formation of Cafe Voltaire

Hugo Ball Performing at Cafe Voltaire, 1916

February 2, 1916
Hugo Ball writes in his Dada Diary about the formation of Cafe Voltaire in Zurich. He includes a press notice which says:

Cabaret Voltaire.
Under this name a group of young artists and writers has been formed whose aim is to create a center for artistic entertainment. The idea of the cabaret will be that guest artists will come and give musical performances and readings at the daily meetings. The young artists of Zurich, whatever their orientation, are invited to come along with suggestions and contributions of all kinds.