McQueen for a Day

When I was in New York last week, I was happy to be able to make some time to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Savage Beauty exhibit, which explored the work of Alexander McQueen. The retrospective has been so popular that I was encouraged to arrive at the museum before opening in order to get in line.

I got there about an hour early (I am not a subway master yet and wanted to be on the safe side) and enjoyed my morning on the steps (a la Blair Waldorf and Serena van der Woodsen). As promised, a line began to form. It grew and grew and grew until it stretched down the steps and along the sidewalk, prompting museum staff to establish a second line–which, instead of stemming the line, caused the waiting throng of people to seemingly double.

The exhibit itself was fascinating. While it draws from just a snippet of McQueen’s work, it seeks to explore the overarching themes and concerns of his designs. It moves essentially chronologically to give visitors a sense of the change in his work over time. For this reason, beginning with selections from his thesis collection, which featured exquisitely tailored pieces on rolling dress forms, situates the viewer in what might become his most conventional take on fashion.

The museum’s website for the show features some really wonderful photograph excerpts as well as the corresponding audio tour bits. You can also watch narrated video’s of McQueen’s shows to get an idea of how he turned the objective viewing of his work into a highly charged, dramatic experience for the audience.

The critics and even McQueen himself, in the quotations and commentary provided, return again and again to the importance of McQueen’s training as a Savile Row tailor. McQueen found the most inspiring part of his design work took place on the model as he fit her into the clothes. Fit was everything, and it’s clear throughout the collection that the impeccable marriage of clothing and model are at the heart of his accomplishment.

Although Project Runway has legitimized the purpose of the designer-as-tailor, it still feels like McQueen was of a different breed. In the show, he claims to work by hand, often himself, on the garments because he enjoys it, not because it’s some kind of statement on fashion. I think this love is present in the work.

The focus on craft is such a good reminder to me as a poet. Craft isn’t sexy because at its most accomplished, it becomes invisible. We strive to keep our seams from showing, to keep our reader from stepping out of the movement of the poem (at least on a first read) and down into the nuts and bolts of its language and structure. If language is our thread, the structure of our poems–as diverse among as the words we choose–are our signature stitches.

You who are getting obliterated in the dancing swarm of fireflies

I’ve been attending the Americans for the Arts’s Emerging Leader Council’s winter meeting in Phoenix for the past few days, convening in the amazing Phoenix Art Museum. Today we got a guided tour of the modern and contemporary art exhibits, with some background and explanation of several pieces.

My favorite is “You who are getting obliterated in the dancing swarm of fireflies” by Yayoi Kusama. You enter a dark space with what appears to be hundreds of small LED pendent lights hung on black cables from the ceiling, and must determine how to walk to the exit.

It is the closest thing to being removed from your body.

The lights glow and change color, then fade out intermittently. The space creates an almost nauseating vertigo because, despite your best efforts, you cannot perceive depth or distance. The walls are mirrors, multiplying the lights several times over so that it feels endless, formless. And the floor is black and polished, somewhat reflective as well. It was just so stunning.

There were many fantastic pieces we saw. One was made out of 7 tons of paper laid edge-out, color-graded from yellow to blue and pink to yellow (on opposite walls). Another featured charred beams and bits from a burned Baptist church threaded onto wires and then hung vertically from the ceiling.

I wish I had another day to go exploring. They have a significant fashion collection as well, and I heard today they were given several Halston pieces that I really would have liked to see. But, as it was, I did get to sneak through their Geoffrey Beene exhibit….

Where the body is buried.

Yesterday I got a behind-the-scenes tour of the Edgar Allen Poe exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art, courtesy of Maryland Citizens for the Arts.

The exhibit’s curator, Doreen Bolger, walked us around the gallery, describing not just the significance of the art included, but explaining the motivations behind the entire construction of the exhibit. It’s a gorgeous setting, with the perfect wall colors enlivening the works of art on the walls, and curtains and furnishings that have a transporting effect on the visitor.

Poe lived all over the East Coast, attended West Point and UVA, and generally didn’t settle anywhere too long until he dropped dead in Baltimore, which sort of gives the city bragging rights over him. This year is the bicentennial of his birth and Baltimore has been celebrating him for a while. This exhibit was one of those celebrations.

The first room, Doreen explained, was dedicated to French response to Poe’s work. As with film noir, French artists were the first to celebrate and remark upon the significance of Poe’s writings, and he remains–along with jazz–one of the few American imports that is squarely absorbed into French culture. Edouard Manet’s sketches of Poe, along with portraits of Charles Baudelaire, to whom Poe was often compared, line the walls of the room. Most surprising were the line drawings of Poe’s face by Henri Matisse that had been drawn for inclusion in an anthology of the author’s work. They are simple, evocative–capturing the true essence of Poe’s strange and compelling facial features.

In the exhibit’s larger hall, Poe’s literary work is explored by three themes–Love and Loss, Fear and Terrror, and Madness and Obsession. Throughout the exhibit, illustrated books of Poe’s work are visible under glass. “The Raven,” of course, takes center stage here–Manet’s illustrations of the poems stand out, as well as do more contemporary pieces that incorporate text from the poem. To the side of that, his short stories like “The Pit and the Pendulum” come to life, while the other wing of the exhibit is dedicated to things like “The Tell-Tale Heart.”

The exhibit really sparked my curiosity about Poe. When I was a kid, I tried memorizing one of his poems for school, but honestly I just failed miserably at doing it. But he was one of the first poets I remember reading on my own, and I read many of his short stories, totally disgusted by most of them, but oddly interested as well.

I guess now all I have to do is make a visit to his grave, which I hear is a bit of a tourist destination in town…

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