Updated: Aug 14, 2020
Just some of the art I have consumed lately. . .
Earlier this summer I watched the Netflix documentary John & Yoko: Above Us Only Sky which tells the story behind the making of their seminal and iconic 1971 album Imagine. Besides the obvious impact that the album made on musical history (didn't everything the Beatles touch do that?) what I found the most interesting, was the relationship between John and Yoko the artists. Usually, when we talk about John and Yoko, it's around their status as a famous couple, and that lingering storyline that blames Yoko for breaking up the Beatles. Which, by this point is the same worn out old misogynistic trope in which the women in the scenario is always blamed for the negative outcomes in any situation. Right?!
It was refreshing to see a different story unfold here. John and Yoko the artists deeply influenced and supported each other on a creative level. Through their artistic collaborations--which culminated in the creation of the album--they were able to use their collective creative resources and social capital (i.e., fame) towards shining a light on social injustices and a hope for world peace. This seems really simplistic in this day and age, but sounds sort of lovely to me at the moment.
Out of all of the arts, I think that music can truly unite people from all perspectives, cultural backgrounds, and walks of life, because it's an art form that is able to evoke emotions and nostalgia in a universal and visceral way. There is probably not a historical ballad which does that more deeply than the title track from the album Imagine. Even if John Lennon got all the credit for it, it's clear from this documentary that Yoko had a lot to do with the process.
Imagine there's no heaven It's easy if you try No hell below us Above us only sky
Imagine all the people Living for today
Imagine there's no countries It isn't hard to do Nothing to kill or die for And no religion, too
Imagine all the people Living life in peace
You may say that I'm a dreamer But I'm not the only one I hope someday you'll join us And the world will be as one
Imagine no possessions I wonder if you can No need for greed or hunger A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people Sharing all the world
You may say that I'm a dreamer But I'm not the only one I hope someday you'll join us And the world will live as one
September is always such a busy month! There were almost too many interesting arts related events to attend, but I did my best. . .
I started off the month by going to my old undergrad stomping grounds at George Washington University to see a live taping of the NPR podcast It's Been a Minute Live with Sam Sanders in which he interviewed the author Malcolm Gladwell about his book Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About The People We Don't Know.
In this newly published book Gladwell takes a look at stories such as the Sandra Bland case, the trial of Amanda Knox and the Stanford rape case to explain why interactions with strangers often go wrong. Through these stories he explores how the "tools and strategies we use to make sense of people we don't know" are deeply flawed and how we "are inviting conflict and misunderstanding in ways that have profound effect on our lives and our world." Indeed, as a graphic designer I am adamantly aware of how important it is to communicate clearly. To know your audience and to not make assumptions about them. We got a copy of the book at the event and I look forward to reading it.
Later that same week I was able to attend a second live taping for another podcast, but this time at the National Gallery of Art where they hold monthly after hours events called NGA Nights. I have wanted to check out one of these evenings for a while, and was glad that I was finally able to fit one into my schedule. The tickets are free and on the night I attended there were pop-up stations where you could answer art related trivia to win prizes; attend Art:101 drawing and color theory demos; participate in guided tours; and watch the live taping for the podcast Stuff You Missed in History Class hosted by Holly Frey and Tracy V. Wilson, in which they talked about the fascinating history behind the color blue. There was also a DJ and cash bars setup in the East Building, and all the cafes and museum shops were open as well. It was a fun, inexpensive night and is an easy walk from my house!
Mid-month I went to the National Museum of Women in the Arts to attend the Fresh Talk: Women, Arts and Social Change event that was held in conjunction with the opening of iconic feminist artist Judy Chicago's new exhibit The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction (on display from September 19, 2019 through January 20, 2020), as well as the release of her new book Judy Chicago: New Views, published jointly by the National Museum of Women in the Arts and Scala Arts Publishers, Inc.
It was a busy night that included an artist talk by Judy Chicago in which she was "in conversation" with Martha Nussbaum, who is a preeminent American philosopher, professor at the University of Chicago, and scholar who writes about feminist philosophy and the arts (among many topics). Chicago was very forthcoming about her decades long career as a feminist artist, how much work we still need to do when it comes to gender equity in the arts, and after her research for the Extinction series in the current exhibit, her commitment to the environment. Which brought to mind an obscure branch of feminism that I didn't even realize existed--Ecofeminism--until I read the obituary a few weeks ago for Annette Kolodny, a leading scholar on the topic.
During the talk, Chicago was very engaging and seems to have the energy of a women 20 years younger. My theory is that being active creativity and an artist keeps both your body and mind young. Or at least, that is what I'm hoping for : )
Before the talk, I was able to tour Chicago's thought provoking and at times emotional exhibit. (One of the few that I have attended lately that did not allow photography.) The three distinctive series in the show are a meditation on the 80 year old artist's anxieties around death and her own mortality, as well as on a global level through an exploration of our treatment of animals and the environment. Chicago explored these themes with her characteristic feminist critical eye and through it "extends her commitment to challenging the status quo and grappling with all facets of the human condition." The mediums she employs are traditionally categorized as craft and therefore historically associated with women. This trademark materiality is how Chicago directly challenges the "gendered binary of high art versus decorative art."
Many of the pieces were small, intimate works of kiln fired black glass or porcelain onto which Chicago painted graphic scenes that included: Stages of Dying in which she illustrates the five stages of grief; Mortality which have nude images of herself in scenes that depict the various ways in which she answered the question "How will I die?"; and Extinction where she explores some of the horrific ways in which humans brutalize animals and the earth for profit. The artworks small size requires you to move in and look closely at them in a strangely intimate or maybe even uncomfortable way, with the work in the extinction category especially, resembling children's book illustrations until you take a look more closely at what they actually depict. The overall effect being delicately beautiful while at the same time unsettling.
After the talk, there was a cocktail reception and we were able to get our books signed by the artist. I have been to a few of the events at the NMWA over the last few years, and I have to say that they do a really lovely job of creating stimulating and intellectually challenging content, in conjunction with putting on a really nice party! The event space in the building is especially conducive to a lovely evening. #freshtalk4change
Finally, in a last but not least art related event for September, I was able to take a quick overnight trip up to New York City to catch the Artistic License: Six Takes on the Guggenheim Collection exhibition, as well as an artist talk by one of the six curators of the show Julie Mehretu.
This exhibit is the first-ever artist-curated exhibition mounted at the Guggenheim and it celebrates the museum’s extensive collection of modern and contemporary art. Curated by Cai Guo-Qiang, Paul Chan, Jenny Holzer, Julie Mehretu, Richard Prince, and Carrie Mae Weems—artists who each have had influential solo shows at the museum—Artistic License brings together both well-known and rarely seen works from the museum's 9,000 object collection (which incidentally is rather small compared to the Guggenheim's peer institutions).
Each of the six artist/curators was given one ramp of the museum's space to fill and free rein over what they chose from the collection to display. The only parameter being that they had to choose works that were created from the turn of the century through 1980.
During the talk with Julie Mehretu we got to hear her speak not only about her own work, but also about her experience curating one "ramp" of the museum's space for the show and how she narrowed down her selections.
When asked about her thoughts on being a women abstract painter, a status that also includes being a person of color and a member of the LGBTQ+ community, she said, "In abstraction there is a place of ambiguity and invention that resonates. Abstraction is a way to avoid explanation. It offers a place to exist, to occupy and to be opaque and that allows for freedom." (Full disclosure, I was taking notes on my phone so this might not be an exact quote. But as a women abstract painter myself, this sounds just about right to me!)
The title of Mehretu's curated collection is Cry Gold and See Black, which is an amalgamation of the names of various artworks that she chose. The wall text states that the collection presented "contemplates how individual artists have responded to times of great conflict, giving form to catastrophe, and reflects upon the insistence of creative production and the imagining of other futures. Art witnesses and demands accountability, but it also envisions the possible." So true!
But in her talk, Mehretu elaborated in much more detail about her selection process and said that originally she had set out to populate her collection with choices that included only artists she had never heard of or with minority artists (i.e., women and people of color), but she quickly found out that due to the limitations of the Guggenheim's collection within the date parameters, this was going to be virtually impossible to do. (Actually she didn't say it quite that succinctly, she glossed over it a little because I suspect it was a sensitive point for the museum. But it became clear as the conversation continued that this was part of the issue.)
Consequently, I found it extremely interesting that in order to diversify what Mehretu chose: she had the Guggenheim borrow one painting from another institution; she lent one painting from her own collection to the series; and the museum expedited the purchase of a third piece (already in the works before the conception for this exhibit) that she wanted to use in this show. Yet still, her choices included many of the good old boys of the modern art world--Rauschenberg, Bacon, Giacometti, Sierra. Now, I'm not saying that their art wasn't deserving to be in the show, on the contrary, it was cool to be able to see the artworks because they are all unique and rarely seen pieces; but this situation just so thoroughly illustrates a persistent theme that is dogging the institutional art world; the one where women and people of color are so woefully underrepresented.
You could just see the two curators, who were on stage interviewing Mehretu, squirming with discomfort over this fact. (For the record, both of them were too young to have been around when the Guggenheim was created and the original collection was established, but still, this equity problem hasn't exactly been a big secret for like at least 30 years or anything. . .)
The following pictures are of a few of the works Julie Mehretu picked and that I thought were particularly interesting choices.
This Simon Hantai is one of my favorites from the collection. The etched, scratch-like marks, bold color palette and the primitive animal like figure are entrancing.
One last interesting factoid. The Guggenheim was originally conceived as the first major art institution dedicated to purely abstract art.
And then there was one more book related event that I attended on October 1st. After reading this thoroughly charming review in Brainpickings a while back about the newly released book, A Dream About Lightning Bugs: A Life of Music and Cheap Lessons written by the musician Ben Folds, I decided that I wanted to get the book. And when I noticed that he was giving an author talk at The Reach (the newly finished annex to the Kennedy Center where they plan to hold smaller and alternative arts related events) I jumped at the chance to get the book, hear Ben Folds talk about it and perform some music, as well as to check out the new arts space!
And the bonus was that the host chatting with Ben Folds was the president of the Kennedy Center, Deborah F. Rutter, who seemed like a lovely person and was a fun interviewer. Plus, the new space is really nice and a welcome addition to the DC arts scene.