Storm King

Although it sounds like some kind of supervillain or maybe a kind of hurricane-recovery clean-up service, Storm King is actually a very high profile outdoor sculpture museum featuring some significant works from the 40s-90s.

Beau and I dropped in during our recent trip to NY, and we had the good fortune to visit with his art history teacher, who filled in a lot of context about the different works and artists we saw.

The museum, which I think is about 500 acres, featured this long, snakey stone wall, hand-built, which wound around trees, dove into a small pond, and emerged from the other side to climb a hill and run right up to the edge of the highway at the museum’s edge. The craftsmanship was remarkable, but so was the wall’s meditation on shape, space, and scale.

I was pretty excited to encounter a Roy Lichtenstein piece in the museum. I love pop art, especially pop art inspired by cartoons and comics, and this piece, called “Mermaid,” uses one of Lichtenstein’s core iconographies and places it in a context I’d never encountered before. Although it’s “just a canoe,” it evokes images of ships with sculpted prows.

The most interesting installations were from Maya Lin, who, in her early twenties, became famous when her MIT thesis project, rejected by her faculty, became the accepted design for the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC. At the time, Lin suffered the vitriol associated with the memorial’s construction, including the ridiculous criticism that such a monument should not have been designed by an Asian American. If you’ve ever visited the memorial, you know it is among the most powerful monuments in the nation’s capital for its stark simplicity and meditative use of space.

“Wavefield,” one of her projects at Storm King, is a large plain of sculpted dunes growing over now with grass and wildflowers. Throughout the year, the installation looks different, but from high vantage points it does replicate the rhythm and scale of waves (the “waves” crest at about 10′ high at their highest point and about 6′ at their lowest). Currently, you can walk through the valleys between crests, but due to the soil’s fragility, guests are asked not to walk along the tops of the dunes until they’ve had a chance to become more firmly rooted with flora. It’s an interesting piece–one I found myself thinking about over the entire weekend.

Lin had a few really spectacular installations in Storm King’s only gallery building, including a scaled-down version of a another wave-related project that used shorn 2′ x 4’s to make wave shapes on a gallery floor. There was also a plaster model of an iceberg and a map of the Hudson River constructed onto a blank wall using lines and groups of pins. Upstairs, I saw this, which I loved:

A series of glass “drops,” which seem to be holding their shape at the preicse moment of impact before the meniscus explodes and the water flattens.

There were many significant modern pieces there, including “Black Flag”–my favorite in the museum (Beau has the photo of me under it) and a remarkable vertically-cantilevered piece that I didn’t realize was held off the ground until we drove by it (too late to get a snapshot!). It’s probably the best sculpture garden I’ve been to, although I will always love Klaes Oldenberg’s Cherry-and-spoon fountain in the Walker Arts Center Sculpture Garden in Minneapolis.

For those keeping track of such factoids:
Total miles driven so far in August: 2,000.
Total miles driven in my entire first year of living in DC: 6,000.

Upcoming DC Events

come hear poets
artomatic solo stage
june 17, 19, 26

three big readings at dc’s
all-free, all action, artomatic,
by artists, for everyone
get the latest here:

wednesday, june 17, 7-8:30 pm
Richard Peabody (Gargoyle, Last of the Red Hot Magnetos)
Maria Padhila (Capitol Cougar blog)
Dallas Corsair (Z-Spot)

friday, june 19, 9-10:30 pm
Rose Solari (Orpheus in the Park)
Charles Jensen (Living Things, The Strange Case of Maribel Dixon)
plus performance poets isee
and Brewster von Thyme Thackeray with musical accompaniment

friday, june 26, 9-10:30 pm
Reb Livingston (No Tell Motel, Your Ten Favorite Words)
Reuben Jackson (fingering the keys)
David Beaudouin (THE PEARL, Human Nature)
Pamela Murray Winters (Once Daily As Directed blog)

…and you
open mic signup starts 30 minutes before each reading

books for sale, surprise guests,
homemade cookies
55 M Street, SE

What We Mean When We Talk About "The Arts"

Again and again I feel disappointed in and embittered by the national and local dialogues about art these days.

First, the bright side (whic is still pretty dim): when the NEA cut all of its fellowships to individual artists after the “culture wars” of the 1990s, the only two disciplines who continued to receive this prestigious funding were jazz musicians and writers. An interesting choice, when you think about it. The other disciplines were cut after artists like Robert Mapplethorpe photographed African American men in the nude, in various ways, some with fetish gear. The photographs are stunning and unapologetically sexual in nature. Then there was Piss Christ, the sculpture in which a crucifix was placed in a jar of urine, and the performance artist who, while HIV-positive, engaged in acts of cutting on a stage and then floated blood-soaked cloths out over the audience.

The NEA’s decision to retain jazz and literature fellowships in this context seems to imply that the least controversial/most palatable artists work these disciplines.

I will return to this point shortly.

I attended a grant panel discussion involving the disbursement of some tax funds to arts organizations in support of specific projects or performances. I had the good fortune to listen to the panel discuss ballet organizations, a society dedicated to the preservation of barbershop quartet music, and a local cutting-edge theatre group as well as a literary organization.

None of the arts groups were as criticized or reviled as the literary group. “I searched for these poets on the New York Review of Books website,” one panelist said, “and I didn’t get any results. They must not be well known.” The artists in question included a Guggenheim/NEA fellow with 13 books. Another was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Another panelist doubted the choice of venues. “I’ve heard beautiful words spoken in a warehouse,” she noted. “I don’t know why they have to pay for a venue like this for just a reading.” Finally, a panelist concluded, “I got out my calculator and realized that the investment here is $30 per person even though the event itself is free. That just seems really unreasonable for an event that only features a reading and a Q&A session.”

These comments were only the tip of the iceberg. I have a whole slew of zingers tossed out by the panel, but I’ll reserve them because they might reveal the identities of the granting organization and the applicant organization.

Contrast this with their discussion of the ballet, for example, where tickets cost individuals more then $30 and performances consist of—well, they just consist of performances, don’t they? Without context for the art, discussions with the artists, etc. Or the fact that the barbershop quartet group was made up entirely of white senior citizen men—and, by extension, implied the artform was a tradition of white culture—sparked not a single comment at all.

I feel strongly that most Americans perceive literature as something created by dead people. That somehow, these little artifacts pop up in our bookstores and become classics. People don’t believe important literature is still being written in their lifetime because for some reason, the assessment of literary merit, by the wider culture, is posthumous or, at the most optimistic, gray-haired.

That’s why the NEA felt okay continuing to fund artists. Because we don’t rock boats, we don’t push boundaries. Both untrue. And books that do push boundaries? Easily banned by school boards, libraries, etc. We don’t ban other arts as frequently as we ban books. Why is that?

Literature suffers from the same dichotomy that polarizes film audiences—that the majority of publications, like blockbusters, are published based on their ability to sell enormously. Since the most people have the greatest degree of contact with “popular” literature and cinema, it eclipses the rest of the products out there. Art film, like literary fiction and poetry, exists in shadows and alleyways, shunned by masses and harbored like persecuted fugitives by a small contingent of believers. (Please note that something popular can also be literary, although this is exceptional.)

I don’t know how to correct this except by direct advocacy. I know that many writers out there are loathe to discuss their artistic life with strangers (often with good reason!), but isn’t it critical we let the world know that writers are alive and well, publishing books and shaping new generations of writers? We need to get writers out of the office and into the community where people can interact with them, be enriched by them, and understand that literary art isn’t historical by nature—it’s ultimately one of the most contemporary forms of art there is, that it crosses lines between performance and object, that it can be both public and private, that it appeals broadly and narrowly.

Because no one will do it for us.

Sealed with a Commission (SWAC)

Today I’ll spend the day in Glendale attending the 31st Southwest Arts Conference (SWAC), a gathering of artists, arts leaders, and arts administrators from across the state.

SWAC always has an interesting agenda; last year, Cheech Marin provided the keynote and discussed pieces in his collection of Latino/Latina art, the largest collection in America.

This year the conference will feature a reading by Eva Valencia, ASU MFA Alum and wonderful person, and Frances Sjoberg, Literature Director for the University of Arizona Poetry Center and wonderful person. I’m eager to hear their work!

As conference season begins, this is a nice home-spun way to begin.

See you in NYC.

Can you separate the poet from the Anti-Semitism, the racist from the reaction?

When Mr. Hollander was considered for the award three years ago, some members raised comments he had made in interviews, reviews and elsewhere that they felt should be examined when judging his candidacy. In one example, Mr. Hollander, writing a rave review in The New York Times Book Review of the collected poems of Jay Wright, an African-American poet, referred to “cultures without literatures — West African, Mexican and Central American.” And in an interview on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” a reporter paraphrased Mr. Hollander as contending “there isn’t much quality work coming from nonwhite poets today.”

Other board members said they felt that such comments were not characteristic of Mr. Hollander’s views or had been misinterpreted. Mr. Louis-Dreyfus said that even if the comments were representative, they were irrelevant criteria for judging the Frost Medal, just as he would argue that Ezra Pound’s anti-Semitism should not detract from the literary appreciation of his work.

I’m curious about what other people think of this response. Personally, I can’t think of Ezra Pound without thinking about fascism, his support of Mussolini’s political regime and his reluctance to admit error in his old age. Pound is an interesting case study to consider in terms of separating oppression from art.

Should we? And if so, why?

When it comes to the politics of oppression and art, is there a separation between what we can appreciate and what we must condemn?

Vegas, More

I was in Vegas last weekend to attend the annual Americans for the Arts (AFTA) convention. It was my first time attending and it wasn’t quite what I expected it to be. There were sessions on Leadership, Community Development, and Economic Development that were of interest to me, and I attended a few things every day. It was so unlike AWP—which, I have to admit, I enjoyed much more this year.

Unfortunately, I didn’t feel like I took much away from many of the sessions. I did attend a really nice discussion of issues surrounding revenue-generating programs in nonprofits, and I also attended the absolute worst leadership session I’ve ever encountered in my whole entire life. Those were the highs and lows, aside from what I mentioned yesterday.

There were two parts that were of great value to me, though. The first was meeting and listening to the other members of the “Emerging Leaders” group (professionals in the nonprofit arts industry who have only a few years of experience or are new leaders in their organizations). They are an amazing, dynamic, smart, and interesting group of people, all so invested in what they are doing and why they’re doing it.

I also got to spend time with some other arts professionals from Arizona, and they were dreamy. Thanks, all!

As someone who organizes a conference, it is so interesting to attend other conferences. I routinely found myself thinking, “Oh, I would not have done it that way at all,” and “What a great idea!” depending on the situation. It’s helpful to experience–as an attendee–other approaches to conference structure and planning. I got some good ideas from them this year.

Airport Art

Last week, I had occasion to drop in to the Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport’s Art Museum Gallery. A small space on the retail level of the terminal, the Gallery currently houses a striking show of photographs by students at South Mountain High School.

The Phoenix Airport Art Museum is one of the largest in the nation. The collection ranges from murals to paintings to sculptures and is house in six different buildings in the Valley’s three airports. The airport is funded by a policy called “Percent for Art,” in which up to one percent of all Phoenix capital improvement funds must be allocated to public art projects.

Anyway, the photos at the Gallery were amazing, both in their complexity of subject and in the technical skill involved in the photographs. The students at South Mountain who participate in the photography program (I believe it’s over twenty years old now) are trained on elements of composition, lighting, and production. At the end of the term, they produce a portfolio of work—one copy is given over to the Phoenix Airport Art Museum and the other is retained in South Mountain’s archives.

The students who attend South Mountain are part of a diverse student body and many of them live in lower income neighborhoods in that part of town. Their photography explores the world around them—most of the collection featured portraits of people in the students’ lives, including friends, sisters, boyfriends, and grandparents shot in their homes or in a studio setting—while others give little peeks into the vibrant social neighborhoods in which they live. A few pieces in the collection demonstrated a real concern for pattern—with so much sun in Phoenix, the play of light and shadow among various structures becomes something truly beautiful.

The lighting design in these photographs was especially memorable to me. The degree to which these young photographers demonstrated a talent for innovative light sources and shadow was nearly haunting. In the Gallery, twenty years of faces stare back at you, most without smiling. It was a real pleasure to participate in their work, and I hope the project continues to be successful