MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

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

At the Frye: Tobey and Teng

Mark Tobey, City Reflections, 1957. Sumi ink on paper. Collection Janet and Doug True. © 2014 Estate of Mark Tobey / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Mark Tobey, City Reflections, 1957. Sumi ink on paper. Collection Janet and Doug True. © 2014 Estate of Mark Tobey / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Currently on view as a counterpart to the Frye Museum’s Noguchi exhibit is Mark Tobey and Teng Baiye: Seattle/Shanghai. The latter, more modest in scope, also attempts to break new ground in considering cross-cultural connections and impulses shared between artists.

The American painter Mark Tobey (1890-1976) found himself at a turning point in his career when he discovered inspiration from the East. And, as with the Noguchi on display in the companion exhibition, a component of that inspiration was mediated early on by friendship with a Chinese artist. The friend in Tobey’s case, Teng Baiye (1900-1980), had moved to Seattle to study art at the University of Washington and met Tobey in the early 1920s.

Seattle was the city where Tobey had chosen to move in order to reboot his life and art after a disastrous attempt at marriage. (He eventually met his life partner, the Sweden-born Pehr Hallsten, in Ballard, according to one account.) Around three decades later, Life Magazine published its famous article hailing four “mystic painters of the Northwest,” which cemented Tobey’s image as a leading figure of the so-called “Northwest School.”

Portrait of Teng Baiye with dedication to Mark Tobey, 1926. Photograph. University of Washington Libraries.

Portrait of Teng Baiye with dedication to Mark Tobey, 1926. Photograph. University of Washington Libraries.

Tobey’s early friendship with Teng gives this glimpse into his mature work its focus. The younger Teng taught Chinese calligraphy to Tobey, who later visited his friend in Shanghai in 1934. But with the onset of the world war looming, Tobey lost contact with his friend and never heard from him again. Some very intriguing questions emerge from this juxtaposition: what interpretation of a complex traditional aesthetic did Teng mediate, and what role did this play in Tobey’s evolution of his characteristic “white writing” style?

The exhibit is also about mirroring, and the same should be asked in the other direction as well: what did Teng take away from his time in Seattle, what did he gain from his friendship with Tobey? The shocking fact is that we apparently have so little to work with. The two ink-and-paper scrolls on display represent the only works by Teng on display.

left: Teng Baiye, Bird on Rock, before 1949. Ink and paper mounted on scroll. Collection Bao Mingxin right: Teng Baiye, Cranes and Pine Tree, before 1949. Ink and paper mounted on scroll. Collection Bao Mingxin.

left: Teng Baiye, Bird on Rock, before 1949. Ink and paper mounted on scroll. Collection Bao Mingxin
right: Teng Baiye, Cranes and Pine Tree, before 1949. Ink and paper mounted on scroll. Collection Bao Mingxin.

Teng’s absorption of Western influences made him suspect back home as China struggled toward its postwar identity as a nation. Teng became a victim of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and was released from forced manual labor just a few years before his death. The vast majority of his artwork appears to have been destroyed — perhaps other works have survived in private hands, but the sparse knowledge we have is one of the points here. (Even the transliteration of Teng’s name has been maddeningly inconsistent among books in English, adding to the confusion over his legacy.)

Mark Tobey, Forest Dance, 1951. Tempera on paper. Collection Janet and Doug True. © 2014 Estate of Mark Tobey / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Mark Tobey, Forest Dance, 1951. Tempera on paper. Collection Janet and Doug True. © 2014 Estate of Mark Tobey / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Meanwhile, as Life elevated Tobey to a new level of fame, questions about the identity of American artists in the postwar years were also taking on new urgency. But from today’s post-Cold War, global perspective, are we able to discover mutual influences beyond the mutual stereotypes of “East” and “West” that prevailed in the past century? As Tobey himself wrote:

Man today is challenged to extend his mental and spiritual horizons. Geographical barriers have given way before the light of science, invention and psychology. The great inventions that have demolished the former sense of special difference must await a new man who will use them positively. But this new will have seen a great light which burns away the barriers of prejudice and religious antagonism. The art of the future cannot germinate in antagonism and national rivalry but will spring forth with a renewed growth if man in general will grow to the stature of universal citizenship.

Filed under: aesthetics, art exhibition, art history, Frye Museum

At the Frye: Noguchi in China

Isamu Noguchi. Peking Drawing (man reclining), 1930. Ink on paper. The Noguchi Museum.

Isamu Noguchi. Peking Drawing (man reclining), 1930. Ink on paper. The Noguchi Museum.

Variations on the East-meets-West meme are certainly familiar in art history, but the details really do matter. Take the case of Los Angeles-born Isamu Noguchi, the son of an “East weds West” union.

Noguchi’s hugely influential career as a sculptor, landscape architect, and furniture designer is usually examined with reference to the inspiration he found in Japan during his initial sojourn there in 1931. But the exhibition Isamu Noguchi and Qi Baishi: Beijing 1930, which just opened at Seattle’s Frye Museum, brings us fascinating insights about the impact of a very different Asian source: the fruit of Noguchi’s six-month-long visit to Beijing (then known as Peking) from July 1930 to January 1931.

Having spent some time in Paris thanks to a Guggenheim grant — where he worked as Brâncuși’s assistant — Noguchi was already developing a reputation with his abstract sculptures (and celebrity portrait busts to bring in cash). After returning to Paris for a show, he headed East but decided to make a lengthy detour from his intended destination of Japan and stopped in Beijing.

It was during this period of intense personal introspection that Noguchi was introduced to the master ink painter Qi Baishi (1864–1957). As had been the case with Brâncuși, they shared no mutual language in the conventional sense — Noguchi spoke no Mandarin, Qi no English — yet the young artist, in search of a father figure, discovered a remarkable affinity for Qi’s work. (During his deferred trip to Japan, he hoped to make a connection with his estranged real father, the writer Yone Noguchi.) They became friends, and Qi mentored Noguchi in the medium of brush ink paintings.

Qi Baishi. Lotus and Dragonfly, 20th century. Hanging scroll, ink and color on paper. Michael Gallis  Collection. Photo: Dennis Nodine

Qi Baishi. Lotus and Dragonfly, 20th century. Hanging scroll, ink and color on paper. Michael Gallis Collection. Photo: Dennis Nodine

The result was more than 100 ink paintings known as the Peking Drawings. This exhibit, curated by Natsu Oyobe, is the first time a substantial number of these have been displayed alongside the work of Qi Baishi. “I did figure drawings, because that was what I knew how to do,” wrote Noguchi. “How ashamed I was of my limitations when I visited the painter Qi Baishi, whom I adopted as a teacher.” A selection of drawings created just before this life-changing trip is also on view, allowing us to assess the impact of Qi and other Chinese artists.

Especially striking is the difference in subject matter Noguchi chose, in contrast to the traditional themes of nature in Qi’s exquisite paintings: the human body, frequently nude, and mothers nursing or cradling babies in particular. In terms of scale, with their elongated dimensions, we can already see Noguchi’s later aesthetic foreshadowed.

In an essay in the fine accompanying catalogue, Lang Shaojun observes that “the basis of Noguchi’s painting remained essentially Western… His sketches are free and uninhibited, not subject to the constraints of a plastic realism associated with fine lines. Heavy ink sketching is superimposed on precise, delicate, realistic images. A layer of abstraction deconstructs and destroys the original sketch. The conscious intertwining of these two different methods creates a form-like body and its shadow, a shapeless non-shadow, an isomorph of a tangled national identity.”

Isamu Noguchi. Mother and Child, 1930. Ink on paper. Collection Samuel and Alexandra May.

Isamu Noguchi. Mother and Child, 1930. Ink on paper. Collection Samuel and Alexandra May.

Museum director Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker pointed out during the press preview that Chinese scholars and art historians are keenly interested in this topic at present — and in the similar cultural cross-connections explored in the Frye’s adjoining new exhibit, Mark Tobey and Teng Baiye: Seattle/Shanghai (to be discussed in a separate post).

“When you come upon your own culture mirrored in art through these sorts of connections, from another culture, it makes you see things you didn’t realize were there,” she remarked. Because of the disruptions of history and political developments over the last century, “what we are learning about these relationships now is on the cutting edge of scholarship.”

Birnie Danzker’s own essay in the catalogue, “Grabbism: 1930s,” underlines the larger implications of the young Noguchi’s confident borrowings and the productive line of questioning these open up:

The debate about the true nature of Noguchi’s drawings and sculpture from the 1930s and whether his work is closer in spirit to that of his teacher Qi Baishi or to that of the Chinese modernist Lin Fengmian is a fascinating study in how, after a century of cultural exchange between modern China and the West, the phenomenon of mutual “misreadings” of Western and Western art…now constitutes an integral part of the history of art.

–Thomas May

Filed under: aesthetics, art exhibition, art history, Frye Museum

All Eternity To Rest: Mark Mitchell’s Burial

2013-09-20 19.11.05

The hot exhibit in Seattle right now is Burial by Mark Mitchell at the Frye Museum — and it’s unlike anything I’ve seen before. Mitchell is a local legend who moved from the theater world and costuming to fashion design, specializing in wedding gowns and outrageously imaginative costumes worn by burlesque performers — and, most recently, burial clothing and accessories.

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“Burial” presents a collection of these garments for the Other Side: stunningly beautiful ensembles of hand-stitched ornaments, radiant silk organza, ruffles, keepsake pockets, burial shoes and mitts lovingly adorned with knitted ribbons — all cocooning their subjects in their solemn, dignified poses. The closer you look, the more of these details become apparent, and, at the same time, mysterious and opaque. We are told that the vestments have been individualized on the inside, private messages kept secret by the deceased.

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For opening night at the Frye, live models displayed the collection as they lay supine on mirrored glass panels, playing the role of corpses lovingly prepared for burial: “Buried in the earth, incinerated, or at the bottom of the sea, these vestments are intended to degrade readily, leaving nothing behind,” as Mitchell describes his creations. Each of the individual costumes was “inspired by, and created for, the nine muse/models” who presented them. This was the only chance to see them in this “living dead” context: after opening night, until the exhibit closes at the end of October, mannequins were installed to display the “Burial” ensembles.

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Talk about aura: as the continually flowing crowd of spectators milled about, the models, also outfitted in waxy, corpse-like make-up, couldn’t help registering their awareness of these interlopers, no matter how hard they tried to keep eyelids from trembling. The tension was part of the experience — as was the setting, the restaged, busy salon-style display of paintings from the collection of the museum’s founders, Charles and Emma Frye. Cellist Lori Goldston, wearing another gown specially designed by Mitchell, improvised (?) a mournful meditation.

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Mitchell has been keeping a blog on the ongoing evolution of this project. Why devote so much attention to dressing those about to be buried? “People plan for months or years to devise the ideal wedding costume but rarely think of what they’ll wear for life’s ultimate appointment. I use traditional fine-sewing techniques to create garments that honor the deceased with a thoughtful integrity of artistry, design, materials, and workmanship that offer an alternative to the tradition of ‘Sunday Best’ or the uninspired offerings available at this time in the funeral industry.”

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Filed under: art exhibition, fashion, Frye Museum, visual art

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