MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Reframing the Image: A Contemporary Lens on Robert Mapplethorpe’s Provocative Art


Later this month, Cal Performances will present Triptych — a meditation on the legacy of Robert Mapplethorpe 30 years after his death that was composed by Bryce Dessner to a libretto by korde arrington tuttle. Here’s the article on this hybrid theatrical work I wrote for Cal Performances:

In this age of selfies, promiscuously disseminated Snapchat sexting, and Instagram—the omnipresent reflection of our image-saturated, disposable culture—it almost defies belief that an exhibition of photographs was once the flashpoint for the culture wars that continue to divide America…



Filed under: art exhibition, Bryce Dessner, Cal Performances, Patti Smith, photography

Underworld: Imagining the Afterlife


Funerary Vessel with Dionysos in the Underworld (detail), South Italian, made in Apulia, 350–325 BC, terracotta. Red-figure volute krater attributed to the Darius Painter. Toledo Museum of Art. Gift of Edward Drummond Libbey, Florence Scott Libbey, and the Egypt Exploration Society, by exchange, 1994.19

Brilliant exhibition at the Getty Villa: Underworld: Imagining the Afterlife

The Underworld was a shadowy prospect for most ancient Greeks, characterized primarily by the absence of life’s pleasures. Perpetual torment awaited only the most exceptional sinners, while just a select few—heroes related to the Olympian gods—enjoyed an eternal paradise. Yet as this exhibition explores, individuals did seek ways to secure a blessed afterlife. Initiation in the Eleusinian Mysteries, an annual festival in Greece, promised good fortune in both this world and the next. Outside of mainstream religious practice, devotion to the mythical singer Orpheus and the god Dionysos also offered paths to achieving a better lot after death.

Some of the richest evidence for ancient beliefs about the afterlife comes from southern Italy, particularly indigenous sites in Apulia and the Greek settlement of Taras (present-day Taranto). Monumental funerary vessels are painted with elaborate depictions of Hades’s realm, and rare gold plaques that were buried with the dead bear directions for where to go in the Underworld. These works, alongside funerary offerings, grave monuments, and representations of everlasting banquets, convey some of the ways in which the hereafter was imagined in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE.

Filed under: art exhibition, classical art, Getty Villa

Heavenly Bodies


From the Met’s show Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.

Filed under: art exhibition, photography

Protest: The Aesthetics of Resistance


This year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1968 student protests. One of my recent projects was to translate the collection of essays Protest: The Aesthetics of Resistance, which was conceived and edited by the remarkable Basil Rogger, together with colleagues Jonas Voegeli and Ruedi Widmer, as an undertaking with students at the Zurich University of the Arts and in conjunction with the exhibit Protest: Resistance Posters hosted by the Museum für Gestaltung in Zurich.

Published by Lars Müller in separate German and English editions, Protest “presents and reflects on present and past forms of protest and looks at marginalized communities’ practices of resistance from a wide variety of perspectives” and “considers social, culture-historical, sociological, and political perspectives as well as approaches that draw on visual theory, popular culture, and cultural studies.”

The list of contributors includes: Michelle Akanji, Friedrich von Borries, Delphine Chapuis, Teju Cole, Hans-Christian Dani, Steven Duncombe, Anna Feigenbaum, Philipp Felsch, Marleen Fitterer, Meret Fischli, Corinne Gisel, Johannes Hedinger, Knut Henkel, Henriette Herm, Larissa Holaschke, Ines Kleesattel, Wolfgang Kraushaar, Wong Chi Lui, Elisio Macamo, Eva Mackensen, Franziska Meierhofer, Tine Melzer, Rabih Mroué, Pedro Oliveira, Dominique Raemy, Maybelle Eequay Reiter, Bettina Richter, Basil Rogger, Pascal Ronc, Allan Sekula, Jörg Scheller, Joana Schertenleib, Klaus Schönberger, Alankrita Shrivastava, Viktoria Tiedeke, Zeynep Tufekci, Marius Wenger, Rosamund van der Westhuizen, Max Wild, Dominik Wolfinger, Kacey Wong, Suzanne Zahnd, and Michel Zai.

Here’s a soundtrack of “Songs of Resistance: 1942-2018” that accompanies the book.

Filed under: art exhibition, book recs, translation

All the World’s a Reflected Dot

IMG_6658Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors is this year’s big blockbuster exhibit at Seattle Museum of Art. (Kusama moved to Seattle in 1957 for a year before heading to New York. In Seattle she had her first important American show at the legendary Zoë Dusanne Gallery.)

I’m still processing my contradictory reactions to Infinity Mirrors. Here, the usual inflated hype is actually more germane than usual, since it ironically underscores aspects of Kusama’s aesthetic.

T.S. Flock gets it in this piece for the Seattle Weekly, one of the most incisive critiques I’ve seen so far of the show.

This notion is what ties the Infinity Room format to Kusama’s other calling card: dots. The earth itself is a dot. Everything is a dot. In Kusama’s worldview, everything is atomized into dots in an incomprehensibly large universe, and the sense of a singular continuity (i.e., ego, monument, institution) is “obliterated” by her dots. …

After all, the Infinity Rooms are simultaneously self-negating and self-centering, just as Kusama’s dot motif sees a unified whole among discrete particles. Isn’t that a fine definition of love between humans?

Margo Vansynghel offers another insightful take:

 Framing the story as the “artist-in-mental-hospital-who-makes-art-as-therapy” robs her of nuance and due credit. …

Maybe Kusama, intentionally or not, has been mirroring back to us what we created, a world of endless reflections of the same thing. She plays the leading role in this society of the spectacle. In November, wax museum Madame Tussauds Hong Kong opened up a polka-dotted “artistic themed” Kusama “zone.” One wonders where the art ends and her life, and the spectacle, begins. Critics have argued that she turned her mental illness into a spectacle, too. I don’t agree. The more interesting question though: If your antidote is turned into an art-world or Instagram commodity, how effective is it? And if you place the visitor in front of the mirror and it spins out of control, who’s to blame? In this uncertainty the show becomes truly interesting.



Filed under: aesthetics, art exhibition, Uncategorized

Joshua Sofaer’s Rubbish Collection

As a foretaste of the upcoming Seattle Art Fair, Seattle Art Museum is currently hosting a series of talks by contemporary artists about their practice. The first one took place this week.

In it Joshua Sofaer, who focuses on projects involving collaboration and participation, talked about his recent effort at the Science Museum in London: The Rubbish Collection.

During the first phase, visitors to the Science Museum last summer were invited to participate by “sorting and documenting of one month’s worth of rubbish generated by the Science Museum’s visitors, staff, contractors, and exhibition projects to create a growing visual archive of the things we throw away from day to day… With a focus on sustainability and reuse, The Rubbish Collection confronts the materiality of rubbish and highlights that the things we throw away do not disappear but are transformed.”

Says the versatile British artist Sofaer: “Museums generally display items that have some special status, that are rare, or valuable. But in this project, I want to give the ‘museum treatment’ to the stuff it would normally throw away.”

I was intrigued to learn that Sofaer had also recently directed a staging of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion at the Folkoperan in Stockholm:

In this production the recitative which carries the biblical text has been replaced by filmed interviews that are projected on a screen which covers the wall behind the stage. In the interviews, singers and musicians share personal stories which concern the big themes of the passion: forgiveness, guilt, pain, fear, loneliness, and love.

The staging is kept simple, with the ensemble, including the orchestra, on stage all the time. As one body of people, they act as collective witnesses, with soloists emerging from the amongst them in a series of tableaux.

At the start of his talk, Sofaer quoted this famous statement by French Fluxus artist Robert Filliou as his own “rallying cry”: “‘Art is what makes life more interesting than art.”

Filed under: aesthetics, art, art exhibition

À la Recherche de l’Espace Perdu: Leo Saul Berk at the Frye

Wind Jangle, 2015 Aluminum, fishing line, weights; courtesy of Leo Saul Berk

Leo Saul Berk: Wind Jangle, 2015
Aluminum, fishing line, weights; courtesy of Leo Saul Berk

There’s a house west of architecture-rich Chicago, in Aurora, that was scorned by other residents when it was built back around the middle of the last century: the so-called Ford House, designed for Albert and Ruth Van Sickle Ford by the maverick architect, painter, and composer Bruce Goff. With its dramatic geometrical accents and manipulation of light and space, along with its use of recycled World War II materials like Quonset huts, Ford House is a testament to the idiosyncratic, visionary imagination of the Kansas-born Goff.

Ford House also happens to be the dwelling in which the Seattle-based artist Leo Saul Berk spent part of his childhood. Structure and Ornament, Berk’s first major solo museum show, distills his memories of the wondrously unconventional environment in which he grew up. The resulting works, now on view at the Frye Museum, take the form of sculpture, video, and photography, along with two site-specific installations.

Leo Saul Berk: Clinkers, 2012. Duratrans, sculptural light box. 76 x 64 5/8 x 3 3/4 in. Frye Art Museum, 2013.002.

Leo Saul Berk: Clinkers, 2012. Duratrans, sculptural light box. 76 x 64 5/8 x 3 3/4 in. Frye Art Museum, 2013.002.

Some of Berk’s pieces involve fanciful recreations of particular details from Ford House: “recreations” in the sense of attempts to recapture the visual poetry, say, of the setting sun as perceived through the semitransparent glass cullet windows positioned in Goff’s walls of coal masonry, which cause it to cast a green glow. (Berk’s backlit true-to-scale photograph is titled Clinkers.)

Other pieces are more tangentially related riffs on the impressions the house made on Berk growing up — impressions he’s been contemplating again over the last few years. This reengagement with Ford House led Berk to strike up a friendship with its current owner, the architectural historian Sidney K. Robinson. “Going back” to it both physically and in emotional terms has intensified Berk’s curiosity about the enduring impact his former home left on his artistic development.

My favorite among the loosely related fantasies is a video piece inspired by Berk’s visit to re-explore these roots. He was initially grossed out by a film of calcium deposits lining the bathtub, but when he filled it with water and then pulled the plug, a dancing cosmos of starlike detritus emerged, spotlit by the skylight directly overhead, before vanishing down the drain’s black hole.

Less effective is a sculpture in which Berk uses modern technology to try to “update” Goff’s vision, creating a miniature model of the central dome that had been the architect’s original plan. (The original specs proved too complex to execute.)

One piece, Berk’s homage to Goff’s organizing concept of a birdcage dome, gives the exhibit its title: the plywood-and-acrylic Structure and Ornament is both spikily abstract and mesmerizingly quirky — and in fact remarkably fragile, says Berk, for all its defiant severity.

Leo Saul Berk: Structure and Ornament (installation view), 2014. Plywood and Acrylic. 120 x 213 x 59 in. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Mark Woods

Leo Saul Berk: Structure and Ornament (installation view), 2014. Plywood and Acrylic. 120 x 213 x 59 in. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Mark Woods

And the concept of structure and ornament — construed by some modernists as at odds or even incompatible — feeds into larger concerns, according to Frye director Jo-Anne Birnie Dansker.

Berk’s responses to Ford House, she writes, “propose a modernity that honors visionary, utopian dreams of the past in which light, color, structure, material, ornament, poetry, and music could ignite a spiritual force that would unify the arts in harmony with nature and transform individuals and the social and cultural life of a nation.”

Structure and Ornament continues at the Frye Museum until 6 September, along with a series of exhibits on Andy Warhol and ideas of portraiture. Admission is free.

(c) 2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: architecture, art exhibition, Frye Museum, preview

Portrait Portrayals

There’s a feast of exhibits that have just opened at Seattle’s Frye Museum for the summer. I’ve just posted on the Structure and Ornament show from local artist Leo Saul Berk. Meanwhile, a series of small-scale exhibits explores the concept of the portrait, of self-portrayal and presentation.

Two of these exhibits represent polar opposites from the image-obsessed Andy Warhol. In an alcove-like room you can see the contents of Warhol’s Little Red Book #178 — examples from the tens of thousands of Polaroids he snapped to document his work and life in the 1970s. #178 is one of the collections Warhol organized into red Holson Polaroid albums. It contains nineteen pictures featuring such friends and collaborators as Jane Forth and Michael Sklar. Each is displayed in a separate frame.

These ephemera sometimes capture a revealing moment, sometimes seem too posed, and at times are even outright failures. But Warhol wanted to document it all. They emanate a ghostly presence that’s fascinating to compare to the glib instant-click instant gratification of our smartphone selfies.

Andy Warhol. Andy Warhol and Unidentified Woman, 1970. Polacolor Type 108. 4 1/2 x 3 3/8 in. Gift of The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc., 2014.002.18. © 2015 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Richard Nicol

Andy Warhol. Andy Warhol and Unidentified Woman, 1970. Polacolor Type 108. 4 1/2 x 3 3/8 in. Gift of The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc., 2014.002.18. © 2015 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Richard Nicol

Snapshots of fleeting moments versus the studied gaze of the Screen Tests: the Frye is showing a collection of 12 of the latter, made between 1964 and 1966 at the Factory. The reference to Hollywood auditions to check out an actor/actress’s potential motion picture charisma is tongue in cheek.

Warhol’s rolls of 16mm black and white film (using an entire 100-foot roll for each subject) are intended as a goal in themselves, their slow motion prolonging the self-conscious projections of self chosen by each subject. Notes the Frye’s description:

During the 1960s, these films were rarely shown in public, but were often screened at The Factory. Some of the Screen Tests were used by Warhol in projects such as “Thirteen Most Beautiful Women” and “Thirteen Most Beautiful Boys.” Programs of individual Screen Tests were also projected as part of the light show for “Up-Tight” and the “Exploding Plastic Inevitable,” Warhol’s 1966–67 multi-media happenings. For these events, The Velvet Underground and Nico provided live accompaniment; the Screen Tests were filmed without a soundtrack.

Along with the young Bob Dylan, the screen tests gathered here are of personalities like Susan Sontag, Dennis Hopper, Lou Reed, and Edie Sedgwick (transferred to digital files). See them in succession and try to decide who’s more self-conscious at trying to seem unselfconscious…

Maybelle, Thomas Eakins (1898); oil on canvas

Maybelle, Thomas Eakins (1898); oil on canvas

Work your way through this Warholiana and then head to American Portraits: 1880-1915, an intriguing selection from the Frye’s original collection of art focused on that turning-point era.

The angle here is one of Frye Director Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker’s specialties: the influence of developments by German artists in particular in the late 19th/early 20th centuries on their American peers. The selection here considers works by John White Alexander, William Merritt Chase, George Luks, and Frank Duveneck, all of whom studied and spent time in Germany. Also included are portraits by ex-patriate artists Charles Sprague Pearce and John Singer Sargent and the “Ashcan School” maverick Robert Henri.

Birnie Danzker has placed Eakins’ strikingly naturalistic portrait of Maybelle Schlichter (wife of the boxing referee he painted in his famous Taking the Count) in a position that immediately catches the eye as you cross over from the Warhol Screen Tests. She notes that the subject portrayed by Eakins uncannily anticipates the unguarded character found in some of Warhol’s work — the glamour of the real.

Filed under: Andy Warhol, art exhibition, Frye Museum

World War One Installation at The Tower


Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, Paul Cummins

The ongoing installation/memorial in honor of the 888,246 soldiers (from the UK and its colonies) who were slaughtered in the Great War is spreading across the Tower of London’s long-dry moat. The installation is the work of ceramic artist Paul Cummins and stage designer Tom Piper (associate designer with the Royal Shakespeare Company).

Why The Tower of London? According to the installation’s website:

During the First World War, the Tower’s moat was used to swear in over 1,600 men who had enlisted by the end of August 1914 at the recruitment station in the City to form the 10th Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers — the so called “stock brokers battalion” who fought for the duration of the war.

The source of the installation’s title:

“The Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red”
by Anonymous (Unknown Soldier)

The blood swept lands and seas of red,
Where angels dare to tread.
As I put my hand to reach,
As God cried a tear of pain as the angels fell,
Again and again.

As the tears of mine fell to the ground
To sleep with the flowers of red
As any be dead

My children see and work through fields of my
Own with corn and wheat,
Blessed by love so far from pain of my resting
Fields so far from my love.

It be time to put my hand up and end this pain
Of living hell, to see the people around me
Fall someone angel as the mist falls around
And the rain so thick with black thunder I hear
Over the clouds, to sleep forever and kiss
The flower of my people gone before time
To sleep and cry no more

I put my hand up and see the land of red,
This is my time to go over,
I may not come back
So sleep, kiss the boys for me.

The famous poppy poem from WWI:

“In Flanders Fields”
by John McCrae

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Filed under: art exhibition, poetry

Koonsian Therapy

Jeff Koons, Tulips, 1995–98; private collection © Jeff Koons

Jeff Koons, Tulips, 1995–98; private collection © Jeff Koons

Reviewing the current Jeff Koons retrospective at the Whitney, Hal Foster observes that “his readymades have as much to do with display, advertising and publicity as with the commodity per se.”

Notwithstanding Koons’s declaration that “my work is meant to liberate people from judgment,” Foster points to the “kitschy curios of the ‘Banality’ series,” finding that “we are not released from judgment so much as invited to entertain a campy distance from lowbrow desires or even a snobbish contempt for them.”

Ultimately, though, the Pop-infused aesthetic credo that drives Koons

fits in well with the therapy culture long dominant in American society (the only good ego is a strong ego, one that can beat back any unhappy neurosis), but it also suits a neoliberal ideology that seeks to promote our “self-confidence” and “self-worth” as human capital –- that is, as skill-sets we are compelled to develop as we shift from one precarious job to another. When the perfectly presented boy in “The New Jeff Koons” looks into the future, perhaps what he sees is us.

Jerry Saltz reflects:

We live in an art world of excess, hubris, turbocharged markets, overexposed artists, and the eventocracy, where art fairs are the new biennials. Shows like this cost millions of dollars to mount; once they’re up, mass audiences will gawk at the “one of the world’s most expensive living artists.” It becomes a giant ad, and the spectacle of more of Koons’s work up at auction awaits.
As perfectly executed as “A Retrospective” is, it’s also a culmination, a last hurrah of this era —- even as the era keeps going. It is the perfect final show for the Whitney’s building.


Filed under: aesthetics, art exhibition

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