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At the Guggenheim Bilbao This Summer

We are nonstop readers in our family. And although the writer,Dan Brown, is far from a fav, his use of art history and iconography In his books intrigues both Howard and me. OK, Howard has been known to follow detectives by PD James, John Le Carre, Ian Rankin, for example. A few years ago, Brown took his hero to Spain and Bilbao and as the Guggenheim art gallery there was one museum I’d always wanted to explore, we decided we would plan a trip with Bilbao as the focal point.

Here in Toronto, the AGO was reconstituted by Frank Gehry, our own local boy and if you know his work, it’s unique, distinguishable from many mundane buildings in Chicago, LA, Paris and of course Bilbao, Spain. Likely most people come to view the museum itself, but inside it, this summer we discovered exhibitions that complemented the iconic building.

At the Guggenheim, the headsets are free- in many languages-and the commentary is intelligent and helpful- although some may find the analyses of the artworks rather long. On view were shows by Anselm Keifer, Gerard Richter, Jenny Holzer, Lucio Fontana and Gorgio Morandi: likely not recognizable household names to many of the public. Perhaps and hopefully, Jenny Holzer’s is. She, like the others mentioned here, has been exhibiting for over forty years internationally, her voice calling attention to human abuses of power.

Her exhibition at the Guggenheim is entitled Thing Indescribable and contains several sections, each one taking aim at the deprivation of basic human needs. Art objects include Truisms and Inflammatory Essay posters. Her work stands beside the best of artists who have protested issues of social justice. Street art, engraved benches, posters in five languages, stone sarcophagi, metal signs, t- shirts all contain messages that proclaim a fighting stance for human rights. Videos and neon installations take aim at AIDS, rape as a weapon in war and torture. There is nothing quietly alluded to, her work stands boldly and strongly against oppressive governments. In this particular exhibition, her influences of Rosa Bonheur, Kiki Smith, Louise Bourgeois, Paul Klee among others are acknowledged. The museum’s press release states,

Visitors to this exhibition will experience the evolving scope of the artist’s practice, which addresses the fundamental themes of human existence—including power, violence, belief, memory, love, sex, and killing. Her art speaks to a broad and ever-changing public through unflinching, concise, and incisive language. Holzer’s aim is to engage the viewer by creating evocative spaces that invite a reaction, a thought, or the taking of a stand, leaving the sometimes anonymous artist in the background.

Her expose on the American government’s coverup of the Robert Mueller’s Report entitled Redacted is here, pages enlarged, the words and complete sentences blacked out. Wall after wall features the documents, words unreadable, patterns established by the consistency of marks that destroy or hide truth. Inscribed on linen, Holzer has digitally magnified the contents of the documents, meticulously tracing and faithfully reproducing both the text and the numerous examples of censorship in these paintings. Color and metal leafing have been applied to the surfaces of certain canvases in order to intensify or dull the information . Her aim is multifold as the works substantiate pictorial images in terms of their own materials and technique, but, as well, viewers cannot help but attempt to read and decipher what has substantiated evidence of Russian meddling in the presidential election of 2016. The sheer size of the art and, the notions of coverup are stunning. The exhibition is redolent of Picasso’s Guernica, Kathe Kollwitz’s wartorn subjects, abusive kingship etches by Goya, Ai Weiwei’s installations, the AIDS Quilt and so many more who employed art as a means of protest.This show is riveting , causing the viewer to reflect, mull, stand back and think: that involvement, that plea to be present and react motivates Holzer’s work.

Gerard Richter is a different kind of artist, metaphorical and his direction differs from the political stance of Holzer, for his concerns are primarily visual.In Seascapes, Richter manipulates the pictorial qualities of his paintings, addressing the viewers’ perceptions. Based on two different photographs of sea and sky in every work as others have done in the past, Richter draws on disparate realities that disorient his viewers. Suggestive of the awe one feels for the beauty of Nature along with the terror the sea can transmit, his works are vast, dislocating and overwhelming, causing one to be adrift,a bit unbalanced. In deed, one might think these are, in deed ,photographs, not realistic, but trompe- l’oeil paintings.

Comparable to Caspar David Friedrich, the German Romantic painter, Richter’s paintings suggest Wordsworth’s sense of the sublime in Nature, its expansive hugeness. However, unlike Friedrich who utilized humans in his paintings to provide scale to his landscapes, Richter does not, so we cannot know the boundaries, the breadth, the magnitude or scale of his endless seas, for we only observe breaking waves and vast skies, no trees, no foliage or people with which to gauge the size of the landscapes. Paint is thinly applied and diluted , even blurred in places like some travel snapshots.

In the Guggenheim, we also encounter Lucio Fontana’s On The Threshold. I had believed I knew the two dimensional qualities that the Abstract Impressionists championed. They had focused on stylistic elements, not pictorial ones for example, pure applied colour that eschewed figurative and landscapes that established three dimensional illusions of depth or place. Instead they worked with their boards and canvases as two dimensional surfaces that accepted or absorbed paint. But Lucio Fontana extends my understanding by cutting and slashing his canvases. Often he waits until the paint on his canvas dries and shapes the slash. Often his intent is providing a backdrop, a secret story to his monotone pieces. Often the effect is to blur sculpture and painting, veering into the theories the Abstract Expressionists had initially extolled. The surface is observed as surface and one works with it, not composing and creating an imaginary mountain or forest because the properties of stretched canvas, a manmade space, differ from that of earth or Nature from which real things can sprout. The artists did not magically transform a slab into what it could not be; however, the intrinsic qualities of canvas could speak for what they were, manipulated in their own sui generis, torn, reshaped, heaped with paint. And now pierced by scissors.

A twentieth century artist with a backdrop of Cold War, space exploration, a witness to cultural, technological and political transformations, Fontana commandeers the knife that becomes a means of “ cutting through” the traditions of years of using canvases. That idea of space behind, also around motivates his thinking. Not an atypical instrument to use in artworks, scissors do play a role in collage, Mylar, design projects, but here the strong slashes or deep holes to evoke the possibilities of depth or even three dimensions,( not illusions), as in something behind or beyond the pictorial surface is intriguing, permeating our thoughts and hurling us into a new cogitation of space. Both thoughtful and material, his works pioneer new thinking, extending how we have thought about painted surfaces. I react and giggle because, why not?

In Widewalls, reviewer Balasz Takac comments that Lucio Fontana, a leading European figure from Italy has exerted a major influence on an entire generation of artists in the 1960s and 1970s, particularly in the Arte Povera movement, and especially in Italy and Argentina. According to recent scholarly contributions, this artist can be considered one of the first European practitioners of installation art and is considered an early Conceptualist. He has influenced art movements in Futurism, and Neoclassicism. At the Guggenheim this summer, he slashes canvases, even copper, shows us ceramic, watercolour, bronze in a new light and rearranges geometrical shapes. It’s as if we can see freshly, centuries of traditional appropriation of artistic materials extended and made new.

Perhaps most traditional is A Backward Glance: Giorgio Morandi and the Old Masters for unlike themes of protest, the composition of canvases, Morandi’s pieces comprise small size vases and still life, the traditional topics the viewer has come to associate with museum painting. Although originally influenced by the early Italians, Massaccio, Uccello and Giotto, who struggled with form and folds in their religious frescoes, particularly depicting saints, and moving on to Cezanne and the later Futurists, Morandi began to seek the mystical or metaphysical nature of ordinary objects. Bottles, boxes and even humans seem to shimmer in his muted grays or off- white paintings as if he has reached beneath the surface to the inner essence of his inspiration. Shaky outlines, an awareness of an Italian light that slightly distorts in the heat, a powdery pale color scheme , a quietness that consumes but renders simple objects timeless pervades each scene of simple objects. Frayed and muted objects exude a feeling of “cherished relics”: John Berger opines that his objects as beautiful, intense, timeless and intense.

The Art Story concurs, “Although this subject is unremarkable in itself, Morandi believed it carried important potential, describing how ‘ even in as simple a subject, a great painter can achieve a majesty of vision and an intensity of feeling to which we immediately respond’. This desire to reach beneath the façade of his subject would push Morandi to focus on the development of formal qualities of line, color and composition.”

Metaphysical painting originated with the Surrealist de Chirico in Munich, Germany, where he was influenced by 19th-century German Romantic painting along with the philosophers Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche, all impacting on Morandi’s evolution. Theirs is a belief in a hidden essence that definitely evokes a disquieting response in viewers. This feeling is shared by all of the artists exhibited this summer at the Guggenheim.

What unites these remarkable artists is a desire to go beyond their object and amplify their qualities: to obscure, disorient, tantalize, provoke. Where Holzer shakes and shouts through her pieces gathered from our society, Richter magnifies his, suggesting a breadth, a power, a relationship with Nature that dwarfs us and twists our perceptions. Fontana too changes our perceptions that concern what and how we work with the materials associated with artmaking. Morandi, as well, goes deeper, casting beyond bright colour and the accepted description of the commonplace used for centuries in the pursuit of realist painting. He pierces the surface so the essence of the mundane can grab our attention and hint at the hidden, what lies beneath.

When people ask what separates run-of -the -mill artists from the great, it is these concepts of art history and a way of making the world relevant to a contemporary audience that distinguishes the ordinary from the mundane. Whether posters slapped on a wall, canvases distorted and reshaped, or the transformation of seas and bottles, these artists invite us to see more deeply, loosen our worldly perceptions and expand into fresh understanding . Just as Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp shook us to view soup cans and urinals in a new way, that tradition of revisiting old mantras in these shows crown Gehry ‘s incredible building that houses them.

I’m impressed and even 4 ½ hours of witnessing these works merely scrapes the surfaces in a place that looks to be constructed from tin cans and fish scales.

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Spain Again

Maybe fifty years ago I listed Barcelona as a must-see on my three month travel circuit. In those days, when you got off your train, purchased previously with a three month Europass, ensured your valuables such as your passport were safely tucked into your clothes , you headed for the kiosk that would direct you to a cheap hotel, especially if you were sharing the cost; otherwise it was the local hostel or nunnery.

Those years back when I first arrived in Barcelona,I was given the name of The Ritz and amazed by the cost, and of course, familiar with the name, practically jumped for joy, imagining pristine white sheets. Backpacks heavy down our backs ( before ecologically balanced), off we trod. The first look should have sent us running , and a second look for sure should have revealed that someone was laughing at poor travellers by the misappropriation of the name, but we, I and my recent traveling companion, were young and foolish so we dropped our packs and headed out to explore the sites of Barcelona.

Indulging in the local food, I soon found myself feeling mighty queasy. Sprawled uncomfortably on what I recall a bed very close to the floor, I noticed the walls were constructed of brown paper and not much more. Maybe it was bad shell fish in a greasy paella, my first by the way, ,but the next three days found me unable to move from the spot. My friend came up with bottled water and that I recall was even hard to keep down. Of my initial experience in Barcelona, I think I may have managed the Joan Miro Foundation, for I brought home posters for friends and family. As you might imagine, I swore off paella and was in no hurry to return to Barcelona.

Over the years I did retrace my steps to France and Italy, especially with my kids, my husband and one year, we visited the Alhambra, Toledo, Seville, Madrid…but not Barcelona.

But this summer, bravely, I returned and spent three wonderful, wonderful days in Barcelona which properly re-introduced me to the Spain I had missed. Our focus was on the architect, Antonio Gaudi and his marvellous architectural creations. Unable to find tours that would explore the specific buildings I wanted to see, I managed to gather together eight hours of viewing with a helpful guide.

Now it is true Gaudi’s work suggests a chaotic lively hodge podgy of features drawn from sources in Nature, diverse cultures, previous artists and movements such as Art Nouveau and books by Viollet-le-Duc. Still for his time, his work begun in 1882, his constructions are in deed unique and I must admit being surprised that his unusual oeuvre could garner support.

Our first stop, early in the morning so as to avoid massive crowds, for three million people a year visit, is his Sagrada Familia. In 1984, it was designated an UNESCO World Heritage Site. And it is impressive- connoting 15th Century Gothic-style towers that aimed to pierce the heavens and touch God. Records report it is one meter shorter at 170 meters than Montjuic, the highest mountain in Barcelona. We twisted our necks upward to follow the ascent of the towering church. As the guide points to the tomb in the basement, he explains that Gaudi on his way to the Sagrada Familia was hit by a trolley in 1926 and is buried here.

Because of the upcoming 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s death and a surge to finally complete this enormous project, there are huge industrial cranes surrounding the structure. But the first view is awesome as we notice fruits such as oranges at the tippy top of the spires,Gaudi’s reminder that to the east of Spain, those sweet treats are grown. And to the west are pomegranates, a sample of the fruits from that locale. The entrance is carved with relief and free standing sculptures of the life of Christ. These scenes once educated the parishioners of the trajectory of Christ’s life. But I noticed the fine detailing of the pieces.

Inside, each side of the cathedral glows with the colours of the day, stained glass bathing either green or orange, overspilling onto floors, warming or cooling the space with a kind of sacred light quality. Because this is Gaudi, there are numerous design elements, organically shaped as in sprouting trees, squat turtles and other animals, or alternately hard edged cubist religious sculptures, and other surprises tucked into the tiniest crannies of the soaring, dizzying heights. Some might suggest it is a cacophony of shapes, colours and designs, but everywhere your eye searches, there is a something strange or wonderful to behold. I imagine it would take days to categorize and discover both natural and human- inspired elements here, but we have more Gaudi to see, so we drive to the next spot.

We move on to Park Güell, also unfinished: Gaudi’s dream of a neighbourhood, but unfortunately never fully realized. Fantastic coloured mosaics decorate communal sitting benches reminding me of Lima’s undulating ones that face and reflect off the sea. Here at Park Guell, there is a tunnel that replicates the experience of being caught in a wave as it curves from top to bottom. A school, a few apartments, a church built into a composed landscape suggest how magical this project might have been before in- fighting among the buyers began.

Most interesting and only recently opened to the public is Gaudi’s Casa Vicens where one can begin to notice how Gaudi incorporated styles from diverse cultures and employed different materials, such as iron, glass, ceramic tiles and concrete into this fantastic summer house. Moorish influence is very strong as the house actually demonstrates male and female sections: there are decorative blinds that cool the house while sheltering women from prying eyes. There is an elaborate blue dome- shaped smoking room for men, and in one bedroom, there is a separation of ceramic ceiling decoration with different objects, the walls, too, painted and embossed with different ferns and flowers to denote the separation between the sexes. However, it is the budding styles commingled in this house considered Art Nouveau that foreshadow the artist’s attention to the possibilities of technique and material that is so exciting.As in the previous buildings, colour plays a major factor for it is not quiet, but rather strident, attracting, even riotous in the blazing sun of Spain.

La Pedrera meaning “ quarry” is a famous apartment complex where people continue to live, but also the building is an exercise on undulating shapes. The resulting layout is shaped like an asymmetrical “8” because of the different shapes and sizes of the courtyards. The balconies in wrought iron surprisingly low but twisted into vinelike structures that suggest the material has come to life augment Gaudi’s design, but are not created by him. Here the rooftop harbours bulbous whimsical forms decorated with mosaics that contrast stiff concrete columns of statute heads of helmeted Roman soldiers. As well, there are small arched tunnels and more colourful mosaic details celebrating the four seasons.The complex also known as Casa Milà was created in 1905 for wealthy investors in coffee from South America. Casa Milà was not completed to Gaudí’s specifications. Disputes with the owner’s wife were responsible for the building diverting from the architect’s original concept.Additionally, the local government ordered the demolition of elements that exceeded the height standard for the city, and fined the Milàs for many infractions of building code.

There is still Casa Batlo and Guell Palace to see.I reflect on Gaudi’s worldwide attention, linking him to another architect of the day Friedensreich Hundertwasser from Austria because of his use of biomorphic forms and fascination with tiles. In contemporary times, I’m thinking of Frank Gehry, his appropriation and transformation of fish scales, bold architectural shapes and unusual materials that make his work identifiable, unique and dazzling. In Toronto, the AGO, and in Bilbao, the Guggenheim cause the viewer to stop and react, calling them to respond to the architecture in a visceral way.

It is no doubt the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi is a treasure to Barcelona, attracting millions of tourists yearly and establishing many of his works as UNESCO sites. Our recent visit confirmed to me Gaudi’s role in the development of architectural style along with the other greats who have caused the evolutionary eruption of thinking that pertains to art in architecture. This focus on just one of Barcelona’s treasures made me wonder what else I had missed here over the years. But just as a twenty year old mellows and matures, so too does a city, relaxing and growing into itself so that it can provide venues and attractions that will attract both young and old. Well, maybe old-er.

The Sex Ed Debate

Ontario’s Education Minister, Lisa Thompson, now presently unavailable, announced that the province will revert to a previous version of its sex education curriculum when students return to school in the fall. The older curriculum will remain in effect until the government completes parental consultations for feedback. The decision follows promises made by Premier Doug Ford during his leadership campaign earlier this year.However, consultation for the one under discussion resulted from in progress discussions that lasted years, and included 4,000 parents( one from each elementary school in Ontario), 2400 educators , 700 students from grades7-12, and170 key organizations , according to Nancy Veals in today’s letters in the Toronto Star. Having written teacher guidelines myself, I decided to look at the Health and Physical Education Guideline, revised for the Ontario Curriculum, grades 1-8. Thoughtful, constructive information , attention to context, the multi- faceted development of students are all addressed in the document.

I came to understand this methodology when I worked as a Program Officer at OCT, developing both the standards and numerous Additional Qualifications courses for Ontario high school teachers. The process is very serious, the researcher combing through multiple documents – from requested to unsolicited briefs and papers, interviewing and holding interactive consulting sessions, actively listening to concerns, then working through oral and written reports and transcripts, comparing and contrasting with similar curricula, consulting more , reviewing more with colleagues, testing and requesting, omitting and adding information in order to attempt to get it right and reflect the needs and aspirations of our communities. The result is somewhat formulaic but not one taken in haste, nor without deep thoughtful considerations, sensitivity and allowance for teacher pedagogy and implementation that meets the needs of students.

With the arrival of Doug Ford’s government, his promise to do away with the sex ed has been fulfilled. And every newspaper reflects the weighing in of diverse view points. Even an article by professor Debora Soh from York university stressed the role parents play in communicating trends, values, issues of a sexual nature. On July 17 she wrote in The Globe,”..science-based sex education has been shown to be effective, leading young people to delay becoming sexually active and increasing the likelihood that they will engage in safer sex practices when they do.”

To the queries, lacuna, confusion regarding the scrum, I suggest they all cast their minds back to their own foggy years of pre adolescence and those wonderful teenage years: when teenagers either ignore, distrust or adamantly do the exact opposite of what their parents wish them to. And if we are really honest here, how many parents or guardians are even having “ the talk”, but when they do, projecting their own righteous values on their kids. “ We take the approach that the best teachers are the parents, not the special interest group,” remarked Ford.

Parents are busier. Or so they think, and so self consumed with matters of importance these days barely even joining their offspring for a meal, or rarely sitting quietly without a tablet at a meal in a restaurant, so where and when does the Premier imagine these conversations will actually take place?

These important interchanges regarding sexting, abuse, sexuality are exactly necessary when you want an educated and sensitive adult to diffuse the embarrassment, shame and diversities of becoming, particularly if the parent finds the topics awkward to approach.That is not to remove the onus on parents to have these discussions, but the reality is that they may not be occurring or maybe even happening too late. To say parents are always the best teachers is disingenuous, for parents most often communicate bias. “ Soh underlines, ‘It brings us to the question of who gets to dictate how a child is raised – should it be the responsibility of the parent or the state? Sexual education cannot be blindly outsourced to the education system. As uncomfortable as it may be, parents must be savvy about the issues their kids are contending with in 2018’.”

I absolutely concur, and admit that I decided to stay home in my children’s early years because I did not want a nanny or “ other” to ground them in values that might be inconsistent with my own. I wanted those kidlets shaped by my ideas, ideals and rules. But that is not to say I did not anticipate that eventually they would become aware of multiple perspectives, learn to weigh, judge and think for themselves too, becoming their own personal critics, arbiters, holding viewpoints arrived at after consideration.But yes, I hoped and strove to underpin this with universal standards of care, responsibility, commitment, cooperation, kindness, compassion and caring. But even by kindergarten and the early years, kids have imbibed with their mother’s milk the lay of their parents, the accepted behaviour, the boundaries set or to be breached in their homes, on the street or at the playground of the daycare.

And yet to the issue of bias, a friend retold the situation wherein a kindergarten teacher, her colleague and a student teacher were in involved in an instructional session regarding the presentation of the curriculum guideline material. Following a frank and helpful session, the student teacher firmly stated, “ That’s not what I was taught in co-op”, her instruction all ready immovable and set, her mind unwilling to be open. So it rests with teachers, to be willing to listen and find the appropriate ways to sensitively instruct their students, as in remembering Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences: that we all learn differently and concrete, theoretical, visual, oral and aesthetic understanding, particularly of personal lessons such as sexuality must be taught in a manner that makes sense to the student and the context. Sex Ed is a huge topic as it now extends way beyond sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy and developing bodies. In all situations, knowledge, reflection and wise instruction are the tools that have to be given to prepare our children for our brave, new world.

Even back almost 60 years I can remember being sent to the drugstore to buy a box of Kotex for my mother and innocently querying to the pharmacist, “Whatever that is?”I also recall a booklet handed out by Disney entitled “Personally Yours” with diagrams of our inner organs, certainly a mystery to my grade 3 or 4 self. We were certainly privy to tales of bad girls, not “going all the way,” and fear of pregnancy back then- days before the pill. To locate a paperback edition of Peyton Place or glimpse a copy of Playboy incited shivers of excitement. Sex Ed from that era of official documents was likely a paragraph, a few lines, and of course, did not even envision a world of cyberbullying, sexting, suicide, pedophilia, consent, and more, but today the rise of social media requires savvy regarding the plethora of issues that are at the toddlers’ fingertips who nonchalantly encounter tablets along with their plush toys: all ready fodder as customers, at the disposal of sellers, mindbenders and manipulators.

At the AGO, my 6 year old grandson on entering the washroom, noted a transgender sign. Without judgment or reaction, he merely observed it.I could see the symbol had been normalized, no big deal, to him. Whether his parents had presented the topic or school instruction had prompted his knowledge, it was obviously not an issue, only noted, and I marvelled and was assured by his reaction, hoping most kindergarteners were like him.

Yet in discussion with a friend this week, several thoughts shared by her friends who teach primary became clear. The elementary school teachers had been teaching values , actually the standards of care, which must always be present in whatever transpires in and out of the schoolyard, for example, during recess: that no one touches your body unless they request permission first- as in respect , responsibility. An essential baseline upon which to move outwards towards more prickly concerns.

On Friday, again I read, that new teachers are not being prepared for these topics- because the curriculum is in limbo. The Star writes,” Typically, when there is a new curriculum, there are some new resources…for school boards to support our teachers…the curriculum we were using in 2014 was the 1998 curriculum…[ which] wasn’t changed until 2015”.

Not controversial to my mind, I read the 2015 Sex Ed booklet which states, according to grade,

Grade 3: Identify the characteristics of healthy relationships, including those with friends, siblings and parents. Describe how visible differences, such as skin colour, and invisible differences, including gender identity and sexual orientation, make each person unique. Identify ways of showing respect for differences in others….

Grade 4: Describe the physical changes that occur at puberty, as well as the emotional and social impacts. Demonstrate an understanding of personal hygienic practices associated with the onset of puberty. Identify risks associated with communications technology and describe how to use them safely. Describe various types of bullying and abuse and identify appropriate ways of responding.

Do we roar against the learning of fractions or writing a coherent paragraph? By allowing our children access to public schools, we deign that we give over to the community appropriate access to the development of what it means to be a healthy, contributing member of society, and we do give away some control.

Yet there is always room for parent dissent and I certainly recall Gloria’s parents in Grade 13 arguing against Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage and so she was given another book for study, and another student’s sensitivity to animals that permitted her to forgo the watching of Out of Africa ( although at present I do not recall the harming of any animals in that film). The point is that making soup for thousands cannot meet the appetites of all, and we make provisions for those who wish to omit the peppery parts. Yet to toss it out would be a waste because the cooks have laboured hard and long to achieve the best results possible, knowing that not every single person will herald its new arrival on the menu.

My concerns leap towards a Trump world wherein women’s rights, access to abortion, new social realities and even the “ fake press” are objects for derisive scorn. We prepare for the onslaught against our selves and our babes through education, through expanding our knowledge, only returning to the past to examine and understand the mistakes of the past history, not ready to repeat them, refusing to glean information and improvement from them.

I believe this is called wisdom in learning.

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Kusama and The Happening

A happening is a performance, event, or situation meant to be considered art, usually as performance art. The term was first used by Allan Kaprow during the 1950’s to describe a range of art-related event or multiple events.( Wikipedia)

Not having booked for the Kusama event in the city, I joined the long lines that snaked around the corner of the AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario) in Toronto. Finally on my third try, I managed a ticket: interested in discovering the hype that was drawing thousands in persisting for hours in a line for daily rush tickets. I had read about Kusama, most articles focusing on her pumpkins, depression and withdrawal from society. So originally I did not have a sense of what Kusama’s art was about.

Whether the not usual attendees, particularly young folk, were just interested in joining lines or actually had a sense of Kusama ‘s installations, I do not know but about 70% of my fellow participants looked to be between 20-40, young, hip, a number with baby strollers, intent on garnering same day entrance.

Kusama’s six rooms are a mix of Alice in Wonderland and the Happenings of the 60’s, where one, (at least a Baby Boomer!), almost expects Alan Ginsberg to be reciting poetry outside the doors or a sardonic sage Andy Warhol stuck in a clutter of bell- bottomed followers lolling outside the space that becomes your own for 20-30 seconds. For the set up of Kusama’s show, for this “ happening” , the viewer follows a path and patiently waits for their own personal entry into each of the six rooms.

Beginning with the weakest room, Kosama declares that she had used her fear of sex to create an environment of soft red and white stuffed phalluses. This room is entitled Phalli’s Room and it is like standing in a garden of drooping, sad little red and white cacti, rendered harmless by their cuddly shape and decorated dotted surfaces. Yawn. Interestingly, these misshapen penises lose their identification as sexual warriors ready to attack. In stead they might decorate a mirror in a teenager’s room or be thrown by toddlers at one another amidst their other stuffed toys. Kusama appears to have overcome her fear through subjugating and transforming the texture and shape of the phalluses, rendering them impotent. I recall the work of the Surrealists such as Magritte, de Chirico, Dali who also played this game, trivializing nightmares, fantasies and neuroses through shape, size and context in their art.

The next rooms combine light and mirrors to provide that sense of infinity with which Kosama is associated. In “Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity” , her arrangements of refracted lights change from green to pink to red and you might just be caught in a kaleidoscope of fascinating glittering shapes. The end of eternity for me was fantastic, generating awe. As if on a ledge overlooking the scene ( my husband said one took on the persona of an alien from outer space), you are privy to all the fantastic shimmering lights of the world, dazzling, radiant, a subdued and changing colour spectrum . It reminded me of continual fireworks that rather than bursting above, continue to gleam from beneath your feet, engulfing and surrounding you as if you DO stand at the very edge of the world.

In stead of the lights I associate with the cast of a city emerging atop a river or lake generating an implosion or inner explosion , the scene feels calm, magical, wondrous and overpowering as Alice might have as she shape shifted. If this is the end of the world and eternity, it is a last mesmerizing grasp of beauty, somehow satisfying and ironically reassuring because of glittering golds and navy blues intermingled with the soft tingle of a radiant colour pallet, regally reminiscent of the Hiroshima Memorials to the victims of war. With dangling rectangular lights emerging from the backdrop of smaller illuminating gold and orange lights, momentarily the box within which you stand for your 20 seconds goes dark : no doubt to signal the absolute end, yet you’ve seen the demise of eternity in its magnificent glory of refracted light and steadfastly believe it will return- which it does. Or perhaps you are sated and ready to end your life with this final burst of beauty. So ironically again, you do not accept the darkness as the absolute end, only a pause in the beauty that has warmed and engulfed you.

In the following box ,” Love Forever,” you become a voyeur and through a window observe more of those fascinating lights now arranged in colourful hexagons, approximating the dizzying effect of love. From a darker beaming floor, a performer might commandeer your attention in Las Vegas to the streaming visual shower of neon sparkles on the ceiling as you can fix your gaze at your sweetheart through the two windows at either side of the box, peering as a voyeur might at your heart’s desire. In truth, it faithfully approximates that flash of magic one experiences when they catch sudden sight of their beloved. Hot pinks, lush reds , happy greens flood over the lights that continually change until all the colours converge and dazzle, creating both a confusion of depth, space and flatness, an illuminated walkway towards your beloved glimpsed and observable in the peeking windows. Being with my hubby of almost 45 years , this was my favourite. He is enclosed in the window for my eyes only, and I his in “Love Forever” in the midst of gorgeous lights that radiate into our own eternity.

Similarly,” The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away” is as well a panorama of a non ending sea of lights, most concentrated at a horizontally plane, some greens and blue, a city scale at midnight when every street light, shop light, house light is turned on, dancing against the velvety black of a night sky, but many small bright iridescent accents also shout out too in a created sky. This recalled for me the Yad Vashem Children’s Garden in Israel of the rising and descending spiral of individual candles/ lights against the darkness, both a cry out to an enduring presence but terrible disappearance of tiny flickering souls.

You have followed Kosama’s little path into this incredible place of beauty where the opposition of loss and presence combine, signalling the yin and yang of life: forever and nowhere; destruction and beauty; light and absence. And with these juxtapositions, you enter your own interaction with the mysterious, incomprehensible ebb and flow of what it means to be human- and the loss of that.

To ensure no iPhone pictures, an attendant accompanies you into “All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins”, the final box. And as the pink phalluses, this is a static composition full of interesting immobile shapes transforming a memory of homegrown gourds into a tactile form. So as we began our journey with soft art creations reminiscent of Claes Oldenberg and Jim Dine( think of the former’s huge hamburger) and her artist friends in the 60’s so we come full circle back from our lightfilled experiences.

We return to Alice’s world in a place of polka dotted stickers, chairs and tables covered with those dots applied by the participants. It is an exhibit of the visitors- making as are the best kind of artscapes wherein it is is personalized and made meaningful by the viewers’ own minds and bodies: the artist providing you the props, the means to internalize and come to grips with the elements proffered, participants organizing and making meaning through memory or suggestion -as most will by recalling an explosion of fireworks, a sudden burst or closing off of light.

The gallery has given you a set path through which you follow and enter into the rooms, but no one controls your response to what you see or feel. The arrangement of horizontals, mirrors, rectangles guides your reaction because we are programmed to think of clustered horizontal arrangements as sky or lake, the directionality of these surfaces imprinted by your own experiences of sky, land’s end, etc. or chaos wherein there is no pattern, organization or structure whatsoever . But Kusama’s intimations are merely beacons we need not accept in our personal realms, yet we do gravitate to the signposts in our experience as guiding our perceptions. That she approximates love as a kaleidoscope of colours to suggest emotions may be a common feature of love, that we cogitate that the end of eternity may be a cessation of all lights crashing from the ablaze of lights stimulates rational overlays from books, stories, our own acceptance of what we have experienced empirically. So she plays with our senses as notions of reality, subverting as she has done the phallic symbol from fear to friendly.

Although Kusama created many of these boxes in the 60’s, they are brilliantly refreshed, rendered new by the iPhone. Every person I noted entering was taking a selfie to extend and remember and record the experience, much as the infinite mirrors expanded the images bouncing from the originals. The viewer could now take the scene away, making it their own on their own mirror/ camera, they as the true subject of the exhibit, the happening, the light creations as backdrop to themselves.

Perhaps it is a sign of the times and obsession with selfies, that the younger audiences do not really come to see the art. Note how many of Van Gogh’s irises are mere decoration for a ridiculously grinning self portrait. These “new” happenings are self centred, the gaze turned inward, not out towards the works or even the world: light the most appropriate means to be used to satisfy this passion of the instantaneous, certainly a present day symbol. In the twist of this art as once a communal happening to a contemporary inner personal moment for self-aggrandizement, Kusama affords a dying yet endless vision, an evanescent one such as that caught momentarily on the iPad, that lasts a second, capturing the viewers’ fascination of themselves at a particular event, eyes turned towards superficial self, not a piercing glaze of insight.

At least Alice went down the hole in search of the white rabbit, meeting and confronting the Queen of Hearts, the Mad Hatter, but here the spectator is both Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dumber, searching not for another, but their own elusive Cheshire Cat smile. Yet pursuing the white rabbit does suggest a chase of the impossible or a dream, the white rabbit so curious, so strange that Alice cannot help following. Yet too, our sense of this exhibition is a happening that exists on multiple levels, the physical and the spiritual, enduring and singular; Kosama achieves this brilliantly.

The wait in long lumbering lines well worth the journey, a mocking Timothy Leary winking behind a light in eternity.

Last Week in Washington

Although it was freezing cold wandering the streets in Georgetown, one cannot help but be inspired by Washington, obvious in its fantastic architecture, cobbled streets, parks and historical sites. Best of all for me were the free museums on the Mall. At least the city’s poor have access to the cultural benefits, not worrying that the cost might mean less food, clothes or necessities for families. In Toronto, the AGO, Aga Khan, Science Centre and even the ROM preclude a wander after 4 pm when most parents are struggling after a long day’s work, contemplating what’s for supper or how to get the kids to do their homework. It certainly drives me crazy that the advantages of dawdling in a gallery is not available because of the prohibitive price point.

In Washington, we asked taxi cab drivers if they had noticed a change since Trump had become president, an incomprehensible affront to this great city. Most only volunteered that it was more expensive to live and work there now. So fortunately- so far- these institutions of culture and learning are still possible retreats for anyone who chooses. And in deed the fabulous newly opened National African- American Museum of Culture and History was filled with families, sitting, chatting and viewing the powerful exhibitions.

Interestingly at the Hirschhorn Museum, we were able to view Ai Weiwei’s “Trace, “an exhibition of 176 portraits of prisoners of conscience, activists and dissenters. Constructed by hundreds of volunteers in Lego bricks, the entire installation was originally housed at Alcatraz Prisoner in their New Industries Building where prisoners once worked washing off-shore laundry and making cargo nets for the navy, among other jobs for a few cents per hour or timeoff their sentences.

So, unlike Washington’s solo presentation of “Trace”, Alcatraz’s the first room of the installation at Alcatraz housed “With Wind” which contained an enormous colourful and traditional flying Chinese dragon. Formed from smaller kites, the airy sculpture loomed from the ceiling, filling the enormous space. As well, scattered throughout the room were representations of birds and flowers. Contradictions between the freedom of the art and the building that was once used for prison labor and now hosts a bird habitat are obvious. In an adjacent room “Trace” was shown. And finally, the third part of the exhibit “Refaction” was constructed to be peered at through windows.Here Weiwei located a huge wing spread structure resembling an enormous truncated bird, feathers replaced with reflective metal panels originally used on Tibetan solar cookers.

This reminded me of British Columbia’s Brian Jungen’s work in which he arranges golf bags, broken plastic chairs ,Nike running shoes and contemporary items to suggest the sacred elements of Canada’s native peoples. Like Jungen, Weiwei highlights cultures that have been used and abused by governments, and in the actual Weiwei location for ” Trace”, the impact of capitalism and slave labor to produce goods, all addressing concerns of freedom and the loss thereof.The scale of the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, the island itself being 22 miles ,has detained everyone from the Hopi to Al Capone to “hard-case” military prisoners; therefore, because of the prison’s mammoth size , it is no surprise that the Hirschhorn is representing only a segment of the entire production.

Yet, the Washington Post art critic Philip Kennicott has criticized the exhibit saying it was “ blunt and provocative”, also suggesting it could be taken in at a glance.At the Hirschhorn’s entrance is a wall of decorative design, actually wallpaper, that could easily be a print for a Hermes scarf as the clarity of objects and even the bronze colour scheme appear well drawn, nicely laid out , and well! pretty. Looking closer, the viewer recognizes these depicted symbols are instruments of oppression such as observation cameras and handcuffs that in Weiwei’s hands are refigured, overlapped and lose their menacing intent as restricting forces by authoritarian governments.The repetitive recognizable bird in the wallpaper is symbolized by the Tweet, and evenly interspersed with these other means of repression, making clear that Weiwei’s active protests, is his voice in his tweets : impossible to ignore worldwide. And much like Marcel Duchamp in 1917, his “Readymades”, in particular the urinal or “ Fountain” focus on ordinary objects that have been liberated from their commonplace surroundings, changing and neutralizing their impact on the audience, here isolating the intrusive objects that spy and pry, removing their claws. The Surrealists knew that dislocating an object from its home context did just that: rendering the ordinary extraordinary and altering the intent and purpose of the object.

Yet walking through the rooms of the Hirschhorn, if form, function and content can combine, they do so here, for the simple Lego brick, ubiquitous, stands for outrage all over the world, of the abrogation of human rights, straight forward, simple. It is not a message that requires much unpacking. The process of identifying the prisoners took six months and each Lego portrait required about 10,000 blocks, the design process also complicated by Weiwei’s being detained in China.And although one might walk through the installation in a half hour or so, the faces not realistic are the purposely blurred images associated with subjugation, mugshots for dossiers.

The grandmothers who marched daily for the release of their children and grandchildren in Argentina’s Plaza de Mayo also stood as a crowd of indistinguishable faces too, chanting with one demand. Here Weiwei gives these people in the “Trace” Lego portraits , most names previously unknown, voice. In the Alcatraz catalogue, @ Aiweialcatraz, Weiwei comments on the relationship of the individual to the collective, one person subsumed by their community, long championed by the Chinese. And so, whether in captivity or freedom, the artistic knife cuts both ways, attesting to the need for global support for the individual, and the importance of putting a single name, a separate portrait to the community of dissidents presented here who are hidden, locked away, banished or disappeared forever. The intent of the installation exhorts and communicates the importance of communicating this message to both individuals and groups, by twitter, exhibitions, social media, whatever in order to change , stop and shut down suppressive act by authoritarian governments , their spies and agencies.

I’m sensitive to Kennicott’s criticism as I think of flashing neon art by Tracy Emin, or most art that is perceived at an obvious level, but deeper analyses engages the mind further. For example Sol Le Wit, Judy Chicago, or even Rothko’s tonal paintings. As well the 48,000 handmade pieces that comprised the Aids Memorial Quilt or All Hands on Deck by activists Davis and Scolnik are stark and forthright, the message uncomplicated as art is used as protest for societal issues.That “Trace” was originally shown “ “With Wind” and “Refaction” at Alcatraz does bolster the metaphor and makes for more interesting connections to the realms of the artistic and aesthetic And similarly, Soleil Levant, Weiwei’s exhibit of 3500 salvaged life jackets of the 8,000 refuges who died or disappeared en route to the Greek Island of Lesbos speaks to the human desire to be free, the dangerous failed attempts and inclement sanctuaries. This exhibit observable from the street in Copenhagen’s Nyhavn Harbour was mounted for World Refugee day, and “Trace” continues to maintain dialogues that revolve around and are centred on loss and deprivation of human rights.The purpose is- after all- to commandeer art to attack, protest and change attitudes.

From this blog entry, it is obvious how charged I felt about Weiwei and Kennicott’s criticism. Above all, a backdrop of fantastic Washington with its strange president felt an affront to artistic sensibilities. But, in spite of the critic’s right to express his personal views,and exert his freedom of speech, at least art of protest can be displayed and shown here, even inhabiting a federal penitentiary ! Perhaps small comfort to those incarcerated around the world, but an acknowledgement of the struggle that has cost lives and an active attempt to put pressure on governments to respond. Thanks too to Amnesty International who compiled the list to Weiwei that continues to be the world’s watchdog.

But even in ” Trace”, we witness disparities, for Aung San Suu Kyi is memorialized as an advocate of human rights ( portrait created before the world knew of the Rohingya deportation) along side Nelson Mandela, Rwanda’s Agnes Uwimana Nkusi who alleged corruption in the 2010 election, Omid Kokanee , 2014 Sakharov Prize winner, whose family was threatened unless he contribute to Iran’s development of Nuclear program….and so many many more….

And I think of the interview in Washington with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who commented on her lifelong friendship with now passed Anthony Scalia, explaining they were working towards the same objective, withholding the constitution, different views but one purpose.

At least , the children of Washington are free to look and think and enter museums and cultural institutions and reflect on the stories, the history and narratives compiled by artists like Weiwei whose protests sprouted long long ago, providing artists a means to counter the workings of their systems that would strip the rights and freedoms of citizens worldwide.

From an interview with Douglas Gillies, December, 1994, he quoted Diogenes who said,

“The most beautiful thing in the world is free speech.”Gilles continued,”…for me, free speech is not a tactic, not something to win for political…free speech something that represents the very dignity of what a human being is….that’s what marks us from the stones and the stars…It is the thing that marks us as just below the angels.”

Welcoming del Toro’s Monsters

An artist’s mind is a treasure trove. One wonders why certain ideas or images alight there, hibernate, gestate and grow. Visiting Guillermo del Toro’s At Home with Monsters makes the visitor entertain these thoughts. The exhibit sounded interesting ,with more than 500 photos, movie props, art objects, costumes, sculptures and books and because my elder daughter is an affectionado, I decided we would go . Years ago, I had found del Toro’s film, Pan’s Labyrinth, magical, frightening, even beautiful, yet I had not responded to his Hellboy.

But having the opportunity to visit segments of his reconstructed house at the AGO provided an experience that went far beyond the films and explored the sources from which the filmmaker’s genius arises. This traveling exhibit that resembles an immersion into the red recesses of his brain certainly enhances the process of penetrating sources of creativity. Divided into sections entitled Victoriana, Magic, Alchemy, Outsiders, Death and Afterlife, for example, lures the viewer into a unique consciousness, inklings from where artistic inspiration has sprung.

My favourite of the dark crimson settings was the Rain Room, the perpetual sound of rain hitting the windows deepening the feeling of mystery and provoking the opening line,” It was a dark and scary night…” in which ( the Halloween I attended)a group of students huddled at the feet of their teacher and extended the feeling of being huddled in a cosy environment where outside the weather rages, secure from Heathcliffe beating on the windows, and we are held safe and dry by the fireplace. To deepen the eeriness of contributing sensations actual playing of moody sonatas on a real grand piano in another room underscored the spooky experience.

Here is a plethora of works from etchings by Goya, drawings by Ensor and paintings by Tissot as well as bronze sculptures, masks and maquettes and movie props from del Toro’s oeuvre, many beyond life size. As we enter, the amphibian man who sat before a bounteous feast in Pan’s Labyrinth , skin hanging like drapery from his limbs and eyeballs in his searching elongated palms, greets us. It is creepy. Later, Pan’s fawn stands tall and del Toro’s narrative explains how the creature has aged backwards in the movie, a combination of menacing and friendly, but I’m focused on the roots at his feet and the cloven hood that recall Narnia’s centaur.

 A Frankenstein sculpture sits besides his bride, another distorted! Frankenstein head hangs overhead. It is suspended long as if squeezed between the jaws of an anvil and , another more recognizable icon has welcomed us into this environment for the misunderstood and feared by society. In a corner are the Tod Brown’s Freaks from his 1932 film beside photographs of circus performers such as the bearded lady and snake charmer, most smiling. Del Toro speaks to society’s perception of outsiders and misfits, but identifies their audiences as the ones with ugliness within who would judge and alienate these “ freaks” from society. Del Toro’s so- called  monsters  have lost their ability to terrify or frighten here. Instead they now fascinate as they project the extent, compassion and insights of the inner workings of the filmmaker’s mind. They are as friendly as my grandson’s oh-oh  bear. As a child, an outsider himself, del Toro, comprehended the visceral loneliness, the plight of those who do not belong. He writes he hopes “ [to] find beauty in the profane. To elevate the banal”. In spite of the overload of the oddities and unusual here, one feels a kind of kinship and comfort, relaxing before the works of this horror- fantasy auteur who has shared his diverse collection of inspiration.: what he identifies as beautiful. All is normalized in this place, only the trappings of rain and moody music creating a backdrop of suspicion.

On the cell phone guide and with numerous signs, the exhibit describes the artist’s fascination with this transformation of insects and bugs,Disney’s dark side, the impact of Victorian times, especially the lacy darkness of the Gothic, the never far away impact of his grandmother’s repressive Catholicism and his Mexican ancestry that proclaims that we live with death and it is not the end. Although signs are informative, the viewer is reading rather than looking and like me, no doubt, missing the impact of some of the visual by the necessary detraction of the written word. This is always a balance for the curator, providing important information to unravel the art works while not allowing the interpretation to overtake what is being displayed. However, everywhere we look, from curiosity cabinets to shelves and walls , there are objects to contemplate and intrigue. Long knobbly legged insects find a parallel in a costume worn by a sculpture, whose sleeves suggest butterfly wings and the possibility of changing form. I’m thinking of Opelia in Pan’s Labyrinth and the fairies that emerge from her initial encounter with bits of wood that resemble flying grasshoppers.
And how Pinocchio ‘s nose grows into a twig : indicative perhaps of the possibility of an idea overtaking  essence of matter and transforming into something completely different. Even a glimmer of fear will cause a body to shake like a bowl full jello on a plate or a beam of light transform into a thesis on evolution.

My favourite , that Rain Room, room is filled with del Toro’s  well read and colourfully bound books, an unending resource that reaches from ceiling to floor,  all he has stored and read,  leaning side by side: from H.P.Lovecraft to Ruskin and HGWells to Stephen King and Edgar Allan Poe to Bald Mountain and the Nibelungen. Other walls display drawings by Arthur Rackham, Edward Gorey, Moebius, Robert Crumb, and del Toro’s own, and more : fodder for the curious mind. As well, all the versions, images and publications one might imagine of Frankenstein are displayed here , and still another wall is covered completely with comic books. The exhibit indeed proclaims the strength of these as the seeds for the artist’s imagination, for they are indispensable to del Toro’s artistic growth of o relapping visions.  

And still much of the exhibit is a tribute to childhood with memorabilia that fascinates and terrifies. Del Toro explains how formative the first six years of a child’s life are. At Disney, Bambi loses a mother, the dark foreboding castles appropriated from Europe by Disney, the dragons and scary uninvited hag who casts her spell on Sleeping Beauty are memories locked in intractable images in every child’s head. And I recall Bruno Bettelheim on Fairytales reminding us we need both the dark and the light, horrifying gremlins to reflect the darkness of our souls along with shining princesses and their magic wands of goodness and forgiveness.

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I think of the recent threat to close art schools in Toronto and the lack of understanding of the power of art on children and adolescents- and adults in technology, filmmaking, art- making, And for our developing students  at school how art invites a bridge from sad, alienated lives to acceptance of selves and delight in the creative. Eliot Eisner wrote ceaselessly on this transformation. On Friday this week too in The Globe, Russell Smith’s article ,A Picture is worth 1,000 meaningless words, dismisses artspeak as research.Think of our public spaces without art, what art communicates and how it can lighten the mind and spirit, how art teaches problem solving, how art excites the brain and the hands, how art connects with ourselves and others. But this is my old saw.
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Even the strange and wonder- ful art of Guillermo del Toro, that may initially repulse some, has the power to fascinate, to tell a story of the misunderstood other, to withstand oppression. Watch Pan’s Labyrinth and you will  understand what I mean.

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Labels and Such

Last week I met a friend at AGO with the purpose of seeing the Georgia O’Keefe Exhibition. O’Keefe has been known for her association with erotic flowers that contest the phallic imagery of towers and trees. A female Maplethorpe perhaps. Interestingly the explanations at the side of the paintings dispute those associations. Furthermore, O’Keefe balked at her art being thrown in with the Surrealists. However, with her dislocation and contrasts of size, colour and idea, it is hard not to immediately view her work as being part of the Surrealism surge of that day. 

However, as I am curious, anxious and unsupportive of words that categorize, I can understand how O’Keefe wanted to be seen as a force herself and not lumped in with a trend that categorized her as abstractionist, or realist or landscape painter. Yet, standing up close to one’s art is very different from taking a few steps back and viewing it from the context of Time as we consider artistic waves into which we slot artists, such as Manet as Impressionist or Van Gogh as Expressionist: a disservice to the education, reflection, camaraderie and individual genius of those whose work has risen to the foam at the top of Art, to be labelled the stuff of critical examination.

Although Marcel Duchamp must have shared a huge guffaw with his peers when his Readymades, especially The Urinal was elevated to the status of high art, the thinking behind it is, of course, brilliant, ridiculing the difference between high and low art, poking at the elevation and placement of simple things that have been transformed by the noughts of the critics .And besides a new way of seeing -superficially perhaps, opening the door to ordinary objects removed from their context to be viewed for their own sake in term of shape, texture, colour, design, etc. The driving force behind the Bauhaus that comprehended the intrinsic beauty of functional items that showcased design features that were not merely decorative or extraneous.

Signage at the AGO for O’Keefe showed her as part of photographer Stieglitz ‘s bunch, the brightest and bravest of the day, gathered in New York to paint. Although Stieglitz’ s photographs of O’Keefe ( Torso 1918-19, his portraits) were beautiful, she is depersonalized as long willowy hands and an exquisite body, truncated if admirable parts, not declared as an artist, but just as someone else’s muse. I barely let my eyes slide over those tonal tributes, as they were soft, evocative, rather than the strong artist that O’Keefe was portraying herself to be through her oeuvre. In fact, in five years, Stieglitz had shown over two hundred of her paintings( 1925-29), drawing attention to her talent, and making her a public figure.No doubt, fascinated by her strong separate talent, but no doubt desirous of not being overshadowed by his upstart companion. Subject, not object- this intrepid woman- no matter the subservient beauty.

At one point, again the signage has her rebuffing a quotation that she is the best female artist of the day.She bristles and responds the word ” The men liked to put me down as the best woman painter. I think I’m one of the best painters, clearly underlining, I am an artist so don’t categorize me as a woman first that downplays me in the arena of all people, men or women, who make art. Bold and beautiful as documented in her work.

The erotic and mortal associations she also refutes, explaining she painted what she wanted, whether eggplants, flowers, doors. Suddenly spying a flower that appealed, she popped it next to the elongated horse skull that caught her interest in Horse Skulls with Pink Rose, 1931, exclaiming that it “ looked pretty fine” as a spontaneous arrangement. O’Keefe continued to deny all sexual or metaphysical associations, strongly retorting she painted what she saw( See Georgia O’Keefe.: In the West by Doris Bry and  Nicholas Galloway, 1989).The Freudian theory that her flower paintings were actually close studies of the female vulva were first put forward in 1919 by hubby Stieglitz. Achim Borchardt-Hume, the Tate Modern’s director of exhibitions, said a key reason for hosting the retrospective last year was to offer O’Keeffe the “multiple readings” she had been denied in the past as a female artist.( See Hanna Ellis- Petersen,, Flowers or vaginas? Georgia O’Keeffe( sic) Tate show to challenge sexual cliches, March 2016)
As well, although Black Hills with Cedar, 1941, has been interpreted as a woman’s lower body, O’Keefe explains there were places that drew her in in New Mexico because of their “ lonely feeling” that she returned to over and over again in a range of weathers, valued for their shapes and sense of distance. This is what an artist does, inspired or challenged by something that speaks out to their sensibilities. Ironically, the titillation of sexual metaphors raised the appeal of her art, crowds intuiting something O’Keefe did not envisage in her paintings, but obviously others saw. Long before O’Keefe returned back to the Southwest to paint the siena- coloured houses and flat spaces of sand, artists and writers had been attracted to Taos and Santa Fe in New Mexico. Eventually the distinctive culture and clime would appeal to other artists such as Stuart Davis and Edward Hopper.

Very early in her career ( Music- Pink & Blue No 1, 1918) she foreshadows the pelvis bones that are associated with her painting. The 1918 ones apparently reflected sound waves for O’ Keefe, suggesting undulating forms like notes in a musical composition of tendons, bones and holes.Later Pelvis, 1944 revisits the forms, the play of what is called positive and negative space.
Her palette as well reoccurs with the soft blues and pastels one tends to think of as her colour. Yet the later abstracted doors and strong rectilinear shapes in Black Door with Red, 1954 resonate with the Color Field Artists and connote for me Kenneth Noland or Jules Olitski. But again, to pinpoint O’ Keene as representative of a particular group is to tie a butterfly down as a specimen to a particular genus as opposed to observing its flights among flowers against a dazzling sky. In the same way, Picasso’s passage through a variety of “ styles” do not pinpoint him as either this or that.

My interest in the exhibit also focused on Purple Hills, 1935 because I knew that Lawren Harris had moved close to Abiquiu, New Mexico to be near to O’Keefe and one of her paintings here in the AGO exhibit was very similar to his. This image of purple hills connotes primordial monsters ready to rise up. How wonderful it would have been to be privy to their discussions.
With thoughts to the recent AGO exhibit, I’m not sure about its overall impact as presenting OKeefe fully. Examining it from the end, later pieces, to front, her early works, helped me identify the symbols and abstraction O’Keefe used over time. Somehow the show did not hang together in the same way that Lawren Harris’s did- for me.I wasn’t moved or caught up in the artist’s mind. Perhaps like O’Keefe, who described herself as “ an outsider”, we are kept away from really knowing the artist. I suppose that surface interest of the poppies, the skulls and skies may be enough to consider O’Keefe as accomplished in her own right. The bare facts of her life, her locations described at the edge of the paintings do frame the works- which ultimately must be judged on its own merits. However, the AGO reinforces her isolation rather than expanding her beyond. For many, they will come away from their the exhibit, persisting in their thinking that Okeefes painting is about vaginas.Too bad.

I’ll take another look next month before you  the show closes- aware that the labels that have trapped her should be avoided.

Generations

En route to visit daughter# 2 several months ago, we turned on Marc Maron’s WTF and listened to two interview/ conversations. One was with Ivan Reitman of Meatballs and Ghostbusters fame and the other was with David Bronner scion of a famous German-Jewish family whose soapmaking tradition began in 1858. Each man spoke about relationships with family. Most specifically father and sons.

Ivan’s son, Jason, went on to produce less funny films than his father such as Up in the Air and Thank You for Smoking. In the conversation that highlighted Reitman’s early work with John Balushi Howard Shore ( actually a cousin on my mother’s side!), Martin Short and others, Ivan Reitman displayed a kind of humility and forthrightness about his directing career and what he suggested triggered Saturday Night Live’s emergence into comedy programming, My interest wasn’t so much on what Reitman said, but how he said it. Touching on a plethora of topics that eventually veered towards Jason, he displayed great affection and respect for his son, without being saccharine, or over the top. I flashed to a loving portrait I had seen the day previously at the AGO of the artist Henry Moore and his mother reading to him as he curled into her body. They were shown caught in a personal moment. No words, but the loving relationship was clear. Here in the podcast, it was the timbre of the words that responded to Maron’s questions and encouraged Reitman to carry on as long as he chose.

The second interview revealed that David Bronner ( whose “ magical” soaps are sold at Whole Foods) great grandfather who had had visions and was even locked away in a mental institution. On his soaps’ wrappings were printed such thoughts as “If I am not for myself, who am I for?”, from Rabbi Hillel as well as other messages to promote self-reflection into unity, collaboration and world peace. The soap business passed to David ‘s father and uncle who appeared to have followed a more conventional style of soap wrapper. Eventually David who had scorned any previous links to the business, took over: working for a year with his father who eventually passed away.

Here the conversation came alive as David Bronner presented his own mission: to wrestle from Monsanto harmful agents, and to work towards foods that are not genetically -altered as an impetus to maintain a healthier environment. He even sowed actual seeds on the White House lawn. David obviously hoping to garner attention to his causes, locked himself in a metal cage outside the White House, protesting the illegality of growing hemp, one of his soap’s main ingredients. The mantle had been passed to the grandson from his father, grandfather and great grandfather into this generation.

Bronner seems to have almost unconsciously inculcated the visionary spirit of his ancestors: towards improving the world. He spoke with such passion, explaining that only enough money to run the company is taken out and additional profits go towards charities. I was reminded of Albert Barnes, American physician, chemist, businessman, art collector, writer, educator, and founder of the company that produced Argyrol : silver nitrate antiseptic solution for the treatment of gonorrhea and a preventative of gonorrhea blindness in newborn infants. Philosophically, Barnes believed in profit-sharing with his workers and promoting diversity. His collection of mainly Impressionist art at the Barnes Collection ( a must-see for all art aficionados) is housed in Philadelphia. Mentored by John Dewey, Barnes was considered a rebel.

Both the Reitman and Bronner families had escaped oppressive regimes, Russians in Czechoslovakia, and Nazis in Austria, risking everything when they arrived in their new countries of Canada and the U.S. Perhaps having lost family or striving to establish themselves in foreign places had refocused parental energy towards demonstrating love and relationships in tangible ways, proving to their children that values live in people, not places. By the way, on September 8, the day before 2010 TIFF opened, Ivan Reitman and his sisters christened Reitman Square, the new headquarters of the Toronto festival’s year round administration on the property left to them by their own parents. Rather than parents being just a footnote or a passing comment, the interviewees revealed a real connection to the driving forces of their forbearers, paying more than just lip service.

As a parent and grandparent myself, I segued into how I and my husband will be remembered: hopefully more than our son’s lament that he was stashed with friends on his 5th birthday and pushed down hills because we were at work; or anger at being forced to share a bologna sandwich with his sisters. Hopefully it will be a memory of a trip where he consumed a delicious pizza outside Rome in an ancient castle aptly called Il Castello. Will he recall Howard and me dressed as maid and butler serving his friends at a celebratory lobster dinner for him , all of us consumed with laughter at each courteous course.

Maybe it will be our daughter’s birthday in Montebuono during Howard’s sabbatical; or perhaps a family boat cruise to Rio or watching the Cubs in Chicago all together. Maybe it will be revisiting our faces charged with pride and happiness at a graduation here or away; or Howard’s chaperoning the CCOC to Salt Spring Island. More likely it will be a resurgence of annoyance at the overwhelming deluge of toys loving bestowed to grandkids on my birthdays that riled my children into suppressing anger; or the “horrid” bulgur chicken or “healthy” spaghetti served to them as children. I hope it will be a mixture of some things good at least.

As the years go by, I actively try and make those moments with my own parents resurface, recalling more of myself; and with myself, them. Like buds from trees, we are parts of a whole, that continue to bloom and carry on, even when the branches have withered .

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