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Archive for the month “November, 2016”

Chicago, Part Two

Why go to galleries, I ask my husband? I accompany him to sports events because I love him, not them- although every once in awhile I am raised to my feet in ecstatic jubilation, surging with a crowd astounded by a great baseball play. He responded that he likes to see the famous pieces he has read about. 

Back in art history class forty years ago, that was my reason to hitchhike throughout Europe, desirous to see the originals paraded in the dark in my university classes at U of T. I sat with my friends, devouring those honey buns sold outside of Sydney Smith, knitting, chortling ,having a blast. But somehow these works – by Gauguin or Titian or Rembrandt worked their magic and my quest was to see them- for real- in their European homes.

I always drew, and maybe it was my aunt -who gifted me with oil paints that I wasted because I had no idea how to use them- who stimulated my interest. But every June, having worked two jobs to pay for my trips, I would set off in search of the originals I had glimpsed on the screen in those darkened halls, one quick flash one after another.And at night after class, during the school year I found my way to a life drawing class in pursuit of understanding line, colour” form and shape.
But recently even I ponder, as I asked my husband, why do I come ? 
I look at art differently now, not trying to ingest an entire gallery. I look and choose. For me, it is years of study, but more importantly looking. So I see connections, chronologies, resonances, echoes, symbolism, trends, themes. Maybe as Albert Barnes did in trying to educate his students so many years ago. But when I had sat in the dark, scribbling madly to record the dates of paintings to regurgitate on tests, a kid in the 60’s, one studied the slides by looking within the frame, identifying those formal elements of line, colour, shape… Years later my daughter at Queens University explained how her art profs placed the painting within the context- of a society, a movement, a place. Making so much more sense. 

In Chicago, we stand before La Grande Jatte, and all the critics flow into my head. I’m thinking about the women in Les Poseurs, the hard working models accompanied by their umbrellas and hats exhausted after a long day of posing. Now I see them in La Grande Jatte reproduced in the cylindrical figures here. There’s an exotic pet, a monkey on a leash, a dog. And in my head from parts unknown I ‘m drawn to the comment that men in the painting are not really interested in fishing for fish but finding a prostitute along the Seine. In the background the huffing industries, in the foreground the workers in their finery seeking a Sunday repose . Seurat the champion of democracy painting in dots, pointillism, each one an identical dab. Talk about form and content coalescing.I’m admiring and noting the frame made especially by Seurat for the painting. It is huge. But I also notice some very large and beautiful Maurice Denis’s and wonder about the over sized canvases. Wondering if there is a story here. So much eye candy.

And too many people taking selfies in front of the masterpieces. Been here. Done that:they must be thinking. Collecting selfies like so many baseball cards. Maybe to document a vague notion of something famous.

Later I wander over to The Museum of Contemporary art. A guide says there is a huge Tiffany lamp on the second floor, but I’m too embarrassed to ask: maybe I’vemisread or in the wrong museum. First there’s an exhibit on fugitives highlighting Angela Davis and Patty Hearst, from my past. Interesting challenging ideas, some captured in photos.Then there’s a room focusing on the theme of witness, prurient, hidden, taboo topics that include hands mangled and cut, a Parisian woman stripping in an elevator, victims of race riots…a Cindy Sherman dressup and photographer Walker Evans people watching people. So many questions to reflect upon that span time, place, gender and society

But the tickle for me is a travelling show by Los Angeles artist, Marilyn Thater in her exhibit Sympathetic Imagination that spans several halls: projected images on the wall create mini ephemeral scenes. There are daffodils, grassy molls , bee hives and I can walk into the scenes , become part of the art. Or disrupt them, creating new shapes.

Two monkeys chatter and scratch as someone leaves her seat and the theatre. Are we also the observers, or participants within someone else’s movie house. I love the temple that reminds me of Spain’s Elhambra. I notice I can be like Alice as tall as the arches or small enough to fit through the keyhole. I stretch my arms and eclipse several walls. I tuck my purse behind me and create a new boundary or barrier. I am part of this piece, changing it-just as the other viewers who stroll into the room.

I laugh out loud. I had not expected to be part of the artist’s oeuvre that day.

Maybe that is why I love art: it can demand or elicit or evoke a response, creating something unexpected , a new way of seeing or experiencing life.I’m an adult playing like a child. Serious play.

Chicago, Part one

Talk to cabbies in Chicago. It’s an insight into why America was great. Still fierce and furious about the Trump election, I felt my anger over boiling to such a point that I could not restrain myself from engaging taxi cab drivers into chatter about their reactions to the Trump victory. Not surprisingly, all drivers had been immigrants to the States, four from Africa, one from Romania.But unlike most surly or silent drivers here at home, these men were ebullient, thoughtful and critical thinkers, willing to share their thoughts on the election, and to their credit, every single one was willing to hold off judgment, hoping Trump had only manipulated political rhetoric for the sake of election. I could not be as fair in my estimation.These fellows were awaiting the actual behaviours of Trump on the world stage. I was reminded of the fact that people outside of the States and Canada who deem only graduates of colleges and universities as smart and educated are so wrong and biased in their belief that book learning and higher education solely open minds. In fact, on Meet the Press last weekend,Chuck Todd also, apologized saying , my late dad would have kicked my butt” for that arrogance when bypassing populations that were not “educated” in post secondary institutions, deriding the “ rust belt”, etc. We tend to forget that in many places in the world, people do read newspapers and think and discuss in cafes, street corners and in shops, alive and interested in politics. How many people in the US still believe Canadians live in tepees and use dog sleds in Canada, some even thinking Canada is just another state? When studying in Philadelphia, my daughter encountered that mind set continually.
Because we are a country of diversity, I warmed to the stories of these drivers, all working the American Dream. S, arriving from Ethiopian in 1983, has four daughters, one at Harvard, one at Northwestern, the other two still at home.A friendly cab driver loving and respectful of his wife Sheba also contributes to the country where his children have grown up and was very willing to express cogent views on the election.Still somewhat baffled by the results, he explained he left his country at 20 where his mum and seven siblings still reside because of the political scene. Another man from Nigeria just back from a visit home, also with a teen age son, has been driving a cab for more than twenty years. He relates that his boy believes Hillary did not win because she is a woman. Worried about the demise of Obamacare, he explains that even paying 20% of premiums for his wife’s cancer treatments has been a huge struggle. One other piloting our ride, lauded a friendship with a Syrian guy who “ was the best man” ever. The outright pride, humility but confidence of each man was visible in their speech, asserting strong values of family, church and friendships made me think they could represent the poster boys of immigration.


Another driver explained how he had supported Bernie Sanders because as he refuted his friends, “ Bernie’s not just for blacks…he’s for every one”. This particular man also imparted that a friend of his had worked on Trump’s condo, being given $30,000 to purchase materials; however, the invoice for the rest,$70,000 was unattended to. The man confronted Trump, following him into a restaurant and demanding the remainder.Trump refused, saying, “You can use my name for advertisement”. According to our driver, his friend sued and won. This was not an unfamiliar story. For the umpteenth time I pondered how could farmers and shop keepers and the poor of the country actually think that they would be treated better than the people stiffed by Trump personally. How could their lives be made better, “America made great “by someone unwilling to pay his own workmen, his taxes or shuffle wives like cards? Shouldn’t private and public be aligned? 
Only the Romanian appeared to be a Trump supporter, reading my mind , when he said, “ People ( mea culpa) who call the Trump voters ‘ stupid’ are no better than Trump calling Mexicans ‘ rapists’”. Perhaps, but I cannot accept that any thinking person ( like my Africans) would buy that a homophobe, racist, thin skinned , misogamist would make life better for them.
In blaming the press, Trump should include them in his victory, for in giving him ( too much on air ) time, taking him seriously, and even critiquing him, they put him on the airwaves and fanned people’s discontent of snobbery towards the  working classes? Had the press ignored his rants, turned down the volume, they would have helped to silence his voice and forgone elevated ratings. That Trump may refuse media access now or tone them down is in deed ironic : they built him a stage from which he pontificated and grabbed the ears of the malcontents.
The women, the blacks, the Hispanics who voted Trump: I truly don’t get it. Nor the democrats who stayed home.What can be said? All drivers were aghast that here in America, people were marching in the streets. Unbelievable.And so very tragic.


Today is Election Day in the US and by the time I publish this, the fanfare will be over. Hopefully the best of the two will have won and we will watch the inauguration of the first woman president. From the outset of this race, I,like so many, have experienced a tumble of emotions, from laughter, mocking, ridicule to amazement, disgust and revulsion for Trump of course, but also the entire election. Waves of disbelief and depression washing over me as I contemplate this world, America where a bash showman  can insult women and minorities and not be stopped for his xenophobic and demeaning attacks.And even with criticism, like a tractor cleaning a path, he has continued to arrogantly and ignorantly to plough ahead, with an incredibly huge barrages of followers. Instead of the illusion of a better, safer world for our grandkids, the possibility of this… has persisted. A petuchant little boy when events or his own words are used against him. He embodies all that is rotten: lying, insensitivity, intimidating, bullying, menacing, insulting, thin-skinned, racist, mysogenist.: absolutely everything I detest.

What do you tell kids? Its not just a difference of opinion.

Read David Remnick in The New Yorker




The Real Deal

So many family stories are passed down,  even ones we haven’t  experienced with our own eyes get changed through the telling, often exaggerating bits or softening unflattering portraits. Before I was born, I’d heard that my Uncle Syd  had been  arrested on Ellis Island for supporting the Rosenbergs who had been accused of smuggling secrets to the Russians during the cold war. How did this  occur? How he was reunited with his family, or even allowed back into  the United States as a visitor? I never knew or enquired, perhaps snippets of family stories overheard or felt unfit for the ears of children.
 There  were the classic  tales of my mother’s growing up in Europe, her fur coat and  doll with the sleeping eyes, her grandfather a rich butcher and my grandmother a beauty with roaming eyes. On my father’s side, my aunts gossiped about  how my great grandfather an accountant( perhaps the weirdest part since no one I knew in our family possessed math ability) had been so indispensable to his feudal master in Romania that when his eye sight failed, likely cataracts, that the boss arranged for an operation – but great zaida was blinded as a  result of this procedure, and dismissed. So the family immigrated to Canada to begin a new life. Were these facts or truths, or more likely something in between as no tales were verifiable, only bits  that happened to be passed on, remembered or exaggerated decanted or referenced when aunts and uncles got together to smooze, complain or converse with one another.
In books we have some similar situations. As I read Hemingway’s Moveable Feast that describes his years living in Paris, I am taken by the same events I read in Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife. Aretha van Herk in the Globe opines, “ Inspired by a real life, The Paris Wife is also constrained by that life, resulting in a thickness at its heart, a wall of factuality inhibiting McLain’s imagination. The story seems trapped by the very lives it wants to depict.” So “known and described are the writers and artists in the Paris world of early 20 th Century such as Ezra Pound, F.Scott Fitzgerald, Picasso, for instance, that it is no surprise that the reader cannot disentangle truth from tall tale . In Moveable Feast, Hemingway gives us his conversations with Hadley his first wife of four who supports “Tatie”, Hemingway’s nickname. The identical experiences : such as being treated as a mere wive ,even though Hadley is an accomplished pianist, at Gertrude Stein’s soirée; allowing Hemingway’s precious writing  to be stolen en route to Lausanne, for instance,  are shared in both memoir and novel. All events apparently real, the events retold are the basis for not just a biography but a fictionalized story. How then do we read a novel so based in reality that we  cannot know which is fact, embroidered, or completely imagined by the author?
Similarly the race riots in American Pastoral are also apparently based on lived events in Newark, but the protagonist Swede, is a creation  of Philip Roth. In Here I Am, we recognize the life of Jacob Bloch complete with Farrow & Ball paint , vitamixes and bar mitzvahs, but know he is a made up character by Jonathan Safran Foer, although we recognize the reality of the contemporary backdrop. In deed the furor over Elena Ferrante’s nom de plume and its discovery have caused her to explain that in using real people and real events from her personal life, she had hoped to provide anonymity and no doubt not betray those close to her, thus writing under an alias. Sadly, Claudio Gatti ‘s unmasking of Ferrante as Anita Raja received mixed responses to by her readers. In deed, Ferrante has replied that” She may resort to telling lies …to shield my person, feelings, pressures”( See The ‘Unmasking ‘ of Elena Ferrante by Alexandra Schwartz in Oct 3, 2016, New Yorker).
To my great surprise, Masters of  Sex, a television production keeps pretty close to the truth of Thomas Meir’s book that records the work of the two.Beginning with the pioneering work of William Masters and Virginia Masters in human sexual response , the show demonstrates- at first- the difficulty of having the medical realm accept controversial work. However as the series continues the complicated personal relationship, the sexual tensions between the two main characters makes one wonder if this not a story gone soap opera, the scientific research into sexuality a backdrop to spin out and unravel an on again off again struggle between the protagonists..Yet apparently the highly charged relationship that included using themselves as research data is correct. Even Master’s wife, Libby’s fertility treatments is verifiable. Actress Lizzie Caplan is a very sexy and promiscuous manipulative Virginia who will do anything to get her man, but throw in a lesbian couple in which one partner dies in childbirth, Libby deciding to go to law school and you wonder if you have entered into  a hodgepodge of history, inexplicable to be disentangled in the minds of viewers.Fortunately for the modern day watchers seeking truth?!, a click on the internet apparently separates fact from fiction.  But consider  how well has “ fact” been dramatized as it looks so believable in polyester fabric, small tv consuls and documentary news.Much like the people who post their entire lives, complete with singing cats, low fat recipes  and selfies of Facebook, how do we discern where the private ends and the public begins, or maybe one is merely the extension of the other, I suppose. Here science popularized for public education- and titillation!
At least in House of Cards, the Macbeth scoundrels , perhaps modelled after real people and possessing evil traits, do not pretend to be President Nixon and his First Lady- that’s for another show.  Now of course, no one purports that this is reality, even showcasing a disclaimer- although the gelling of imagined and real certainly feels believable.
Today in my Ryerson class, the lecturer discoursed on Gertrude Stein revealing, I think, great respect and even some awe at her, her role as confidant to the literary crew in  Paris in the early 20th Century. We were fascinated by her relationship with Alice B. Toklas, her concept of a new kind of writing,her soirée..For an hour and a bit, we, too were part of Woody  Allen’s flight into Midnight in Paris (2011) where the hero( Owen Wilson)hangs with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker,Cole Porter, Picasso…. But someone in the class interrupted the daydream by asking,” Did Stein stay in Paris during the Nazi occupation?”
Yes, Stein worked for the Vichy government and was affiliated with Bernard Fay, an identified collaborator. Stein even agreed to translate Marshal Philippe Petain’s anti- Semitic speeches into English.Barbara Will, a professor at Dartmouth, published a book on Stein’s complicity, especially angered that The Met in New York did not present a full picture of Gertrude Stein’s complicity in their show “The Steins Collect”. Will promulgated  how had the Steins incredible art exhibition survived during the war?but disparaged that often the “ innocence of intellectuals…( is given) a free pass to those we admire, regardless of the context…”And truthfully, we do tend to forgive TS Eliot his ant- semitism,  Degas his prurient interest in pre-pubiscient dancers offered by their mother’s to rich men( See Emily  Greenhouse in The New Yorker, May 4, 2012), forgetting the political for he sake of revelling in the beauty of the art.
The wonderful thing about media, particularly books and film, is that they recreate importance visually so that we can better know and comprehend how our society has evolved; however, it is essential to remember that every story has multiple perspectives and consider who is  the teller of the tale you are embracing for no story is totally complete, and may have slanted, amplified, downplayed or enhanced – for performance possibilities or personal predilections.
Just as history books now present students with history from the victims’ point of view where once it was the conquerors’, so too must we be stirred beyond the entertainment value, to critique, explore the stories we watch and seek behind what we are seeing or hearing in order to weigh, gauge and piece together the jigsaw of the real deal.

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