Category Archives: Art

Words from the Northwest

Having a nice time here in Portlandia so far.  Got to bed at 9:00 PST last night, so dang tired after having got up at 4:00 CST to get to the plane.

Lunch was Pok Pok, a Thai (mostly) restaurant my brother recommended.  James Beard nominated even.  Had a fabulous bowl of Kuaytiaw Reus (Boat Noodles), which is a rich broth with stewed beef, poached beef, meatballs (little tiny, dense, things), spinach, chilies and bean sprouts, with noodles.  Yum!  Along side I had an order of their Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings, which my brother said were to die for, and he was right.  These are large wings, (willingly given up by their former, naturally raised owners) marinated in fish sauce and palm sugar, deep fried, and then tossed in caramelized Phu Quec fish sauce and garlic.  Wow!  Could only eat half the order, though.  So much food.

Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings - Pok Pok

Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings - Pok Pok

Then off to Portland Art Museum, which has a fairly rich collection.  Many donations from the likes of the Broad Foundation, Paul Allen Foundation, some Ayers family trusts and foundations, etc.  A lot of contemporary art, as well as the normal smattering of French schools, Impressionists, Abstract Expressionists, etc.

There was a lovely exhibition “In The Studio: Reflections on Artistic Life”, on display through May 19th.  This exhibit features multiple media representations of the artists life in his/her atelier, with models, materials, influences, mentors, gallerists, agents, etc.  All aspects of what actually goes in to being an artist.  I really loved all the Red Grooms pieces, of which there were many, including some of his 3D Lithography pieces.

Jackson in Action - Red Grooms, 1997

Jackson in Action - Red Grooms, 1997

Also, a very large collection of Asian arts.  My favorite was the soon-to-close exhibit on Noh, the ancient Japanese theatrical form of the Samurai.  This exhibit featured masks, costumes and painted depictions of Noh, both modern and historic.  A very nice 2 and a half hours of browsing after lunch.

Ayakashi (Vengeful Warrior) - Unknown Artist, Japan, 17th century

Ayakashi (Vengeful Warrior) - Unknown Artist, Japan, 17th century

I then went in search of a new power screwdriver, to replace the DeWalt 12V electric screwdriver which was confiscated by TSA agents.
No, really.  I didn’t know you couldn’t bring one in carry-on.  To be perfectly honest, I didn’t even really think about it.  When I packed, I tried to consciously pack for either checking or carrying on my bag.  When I saw how bad the weather was on the way to the airport, I decided to carry on, in case I ended up missing my (very tight) connecting flight in Denver.  After standing in the longest security line I’ve ever experienced (at MKE or anywhere) I was told I could either give up the screw driver or go back and check my bag.  Well, at that point I would have missed my flight (I ended up getting to the gate just as they made my boarding call) so I gave it up.

I started with a small, local, hardware store, but they didn’t have that model.  They sent me to the DeWalt store (yes, they have one here) or the “Home Despot”, but thanked me for trying their small store first.  I was headed to the DeWalt shop, but saw a Home Depot on the way, right next to my hotel, so stopped there, hopeful that they would still have one of last year’s models, as I still have the batteries, charger and other accessories of the lost tool, I wanted to get the same kind.

In the process, I ended up driving from NE (airport) to SW (Pok Pok) to Downtown (Art Museum) to N Central (Hardware) to NE (Hotel)  — pretty much making a circuit of the city, mostly on surface streets.  That was a treat.

Dinner took me to a nearby hotel which has a nice-enough restaurant attached, Shilo, as I didn’t want to drive after having a cocktail.  It’s not as though Portland has any want of bars, taverns, cocktail lounges, etc.  The demon alcohol lays comfortably here.  The prevailing impression I have of the city, based on what I’ve seen so far, is of a really big version of our own Riverwest community, with coops, coffee shops, bars, taverns, brewing clubs (coffee and beer), bicycle shops (and coops), skateboard and moto clubs and shops, etc.  Lots of bungalows and ranch houses, all very low and surrounded by verdure.

Anyhow, had some crab cakes, which were okay, along with Happy Hour discounted coconut shrimp and a Caesar salad.  That, along with a couple of Martinis made with the local The Rogue (hat tip to Sarah Pallin) sealed things nicely, for a manageable $42 + tip.

One observation is that it is sometimes hard to tell the upright citizenry from the large homeless population — the preferred dress is strikingly similar.  It’s not unusual to see someone in a nice establishment who you would swear you recently saw pan-handling on the street.  Maybe they are the same, who’s to say…

Words from the River – Part 1

I stopped in to a liquor store in Eagan, MN yesterday, to pick up some Scotch.  My favorite swill, Clan McGreggor.  They had liters for $12.99 or 1.75 liter for $26.99.  Say What?!?  Bought a small bottle.

Worked at the client’s last night from 6:00 – 11:30.  Drove home in wet, sloppy, snow, but safely.  Had a couple of scotches while watching TV, until suddenly all the channels went away.  Called the front desk.  “Oh, it must be because of the storm.” said the gormless twit behind the desk.  Ha, Storm?!?  This is ef-ing Minnesota, and a little teeny snow storm knocks out their satellite feed??  No excuse if you ask me.

Drove down to Kansas City today.  Currently ensconced in the Holiday Inn at the Country Club Plaza, which if you know KC you know is a tony address.  The Nelson-Atkins is just a short walk away.

Speaking of arts museums, went to the Walker yesterday.  Had to pay the $12, as I left my MAM membership at home (grrr).  Great new building — much different than the last time I was there, maybe 20 years ago.  Had a huge exhibit on Cindy Sherman.  WOW!  Did you read the profile of Lena Dunham’s mother, the artist Laurie Simmons, in the New Yorker recently?  In it, they talked about her knocking around Metro Pictures and other “in” galleries in the 70s & 80s, and she talked about learning to make good looking prints, and what a change that made to her work.  Well, the same can be said for Sherman, a regular member of the Metro Pictures stable of artists.  Her “Hollywood Film Stills” project is amazing, and the later, larger, work is simply arresting.  So glad I got to see the show.

They also have a large installation called Midnight Party, which is a sprawling conglomeration of hundreds of works by over a hundred artsists, mostly pulled from their collection, and arranged brilliantly across several galleries on 3 floors.  Some rooms are given over to curio-cabinet style displays, like a natural history museum, but all art.  Quite good.

My only complaint was that the lighting, in general, was abysmal.  Very hard to appreciate some of the work for all the glare.

I just got home from a fabulous dinner at Oklahoma Joe’s Bar-B-Que, in KC, KS.  Here’s about 1/4 of the line of people waiting to order:

Queue at Oklahoma Joe's Bar-B-Que

Queue at Oklahoma Joe's Bar-B-Que

That line twists and turns all the way to the street door.  If it weren’t Valentine’s Day, I was told, the line would be out the door and down the block.  Thank God I was dining alone on V Day, I say!

Here’s my dinner.  I ordered a full rack with a side of coleslaw.  The grill man hollered out, “Special Creamy!!”  I almost blushed. 😉

Special Creamy

Special Creamy

That’s either mighty fine eatin’, or a piece of Christopher Dorner.  You be the judge!

This nice older couple came and sat next to me.  Had a nice little conversation with them until the woman explained, “I talk to two kinds of people in this world; those who have accepted Jesus Christ Our Lord into their lives and hearts, and those who are just about ready to.  Which type are you?”

“I’m the type who doesn’t believe in discussing religion with strangers over dinner.” I replied, and turned back to my food.  What I wanted to say was something witty, like “If we’re going to discuss deeply personal and private matters, let’s talk about masturbation habits, instead.  I’m sure it’ll be way more interesting!” 😉

Now back at the hotel, after trying to navigate dense, cryptic KC traffic and roadways without GPS.  I was currently busy trying not to run down the horse drawn carriages that look like Tiffany Pumpkins festooned with garish lighting, slowly ferrying their cargo through the self-same cryptic streets.  Thank god the other drivers were so busy gawking that they ignore my severe traffic transgressions.

Art and Dreaming

After a morning jaunt up to the northern tip of the island to visit old friends and grab a bite to eat, your intrepid travelers repair to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue to take in the latest shows. On display are George Bellows, Matisse – In Search of True Painting, Extravagant Inventions – The Princely Furniture of the Roentgens and Faking It – Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop.

42 Kids - George Bellows (1907)

42 Kids - George Bellows (1907)

My favorite has to be the Bellows. His work is so American in its nature, so egalitarian, accessible, visceral, genuine. This retrospective is satisfying and complete feeling, but at 120 paintings, not too excessive. From the first, 42 Kids (1907), showing the children of immigrants swimming in the East River, to the final portraits painted before his early death, this collection shows the work of George Wesley Bellows (1881 – 1925) in its fullness. A member of the “Ashcan School” of American Realist painters, and associated with Robert Henri’s “The Eight,” Bellows expressed his leftist, populist leanings in his work, which often focused on the impoverished immigrant population of New York.

Stag At Sharkeys - George Bellows (1909)

Stag At Sharkeys - George Bellows (1909)

He is perhaps best known for his boxing paintings, including the seminal work, Stag At Sharkeys (1909), as well as Both Members Of This Club (1909) and Dempsey And Firpo (1924 – painted for Look Magazine), but Bellows also painted broadly of the scenery and characters of New York — from fishermen and dock workers to the excavation of Pennsylvania Station — and portraits of family, friends and patrons.

New York - George Bellows (1911)

New York - George Bellows (1911)

Matisse, on the other hand, never went in much for realism, but sought in abstraction and impression the truest representations of his subjects, be they people, plants or still life. In this exhibit, especially, Matisse’s explorations and experimentation with different representational forms is put before us at once. We see as he studies a subject, and tries different approaches to find the best, or some best, way to depict it. At times we may see 4 or 5 studies of the same subject, abstract, boldly impressionistic, even realistic. I have seen so many Matisse exhibitions at this point — starting with the exhaustive (and exhausting) MoMA retrospective from 1991 (440 pieces) that there is little of his work which I haven’t seen at least several times, but here, at least, we are told a different story about how he settled on the path he did. Well curated, to say the least.

Still Life with Purro I - Henri Matisse (1904)

Still Life with Purro I - Henri Matisse (1904)

Still Life with Purro II - Henri Matisse (1904-5)

Still Life with Purro II - Henri Matisse (1904-5)

The furniture of the Roentgen’s is peculiar and certainly of its time. For roughly 60 years, from 1742 in to the beginning of the 19th century, the cabinet making firm of Abraham Roentgen and his son David turned out some of the most ingenious, extravagant and beautiful desks, curious, tables and clocks. A hallmark of their work, in addition to expert joinery and unbelievable inlays, was clever mechanisms. Hidden cubbies, secret lockers, counter-balanced mechanical systems are everywhere. A desk becomes a backgammon table becomes a chess board becomes a card table. A roll top desk has dozens of secret places to store everything from papers to inks and pens. A touch of a hidden button or turn of a key reveals an entire raft of drawers and lined compartments. Astonishing!

Roentgen writing desk

Roentgen writing desk

Finally, the Pre-Photoshop days of trick photography are amply explored in Faking It. I didn’t find much new in this exhibit, but it was well laid out and accompanied by some informative text. Nowhere near as exciting as the Bellows though!

Now down to TKTS and some half-price tickets for the evening’s entertainment. Armed with a choice of three shows, we ended up with Peter And The Starcatcher at the Books Atkinson. Closing January 20th, we are glad we got into this 2011 Tony Award winner. The play, by Rick Elice, is based upon a novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, and seeks to be a prequel to the Peter Pan stories. It is a raucous production, deeply rooted in Vaudeville, and with frequent direct-to-the-audience mugging and exposition. Where to start?

Proscenium Arch by Donyale Werle

Proscenium Arch by Donyale Werle

The proscenium arch would be a good place. Before curtain, we are delighted with the elaborate assemblage upon the arch, kitchen implements and other ephemera make mermaids and all sort of curlicue and decoration. The set seems to be a dock, or is it a vessel? Once the action commences we quickly get the gist of the story: Lord Aster and his daughter Molly are to set sail on a pair of ships to spirit star dust safely away, but something goes wrong. They are separated and after a failed attempt at piracy, the star dust is set adrift with an enslaved stow away. Too much action ensues to explain it here, and you can always read the book if you’re interested, but the point of the whole enterprise is that these enslaved boys wind up as the Lost Boys, the island they all wash up on ends up as Neverland and all of the various people and events necessary to set up the Peter Pan story are more or less in place by the end of two acts.

Peter And The Starcatcher

Peter And The Starcatcher

But getting there is the fun part. The set is inventive, flexible and fun. The lighting effective, the costuming a lark. The performances are all so energized, you’d swear these folks are having the time of their lives, and it shows! After intermission we are treated to a very bawdy Vaudeville-esque song and dance performance featuring the entire cast in drag, which is just a delight!

Post-Interval song and dance

Post-Interval song and dance

Finally too the 1 down to the Village to pop into the Kettle Of Fish on Sheridan Square and a visit with the proprietors, Patrick and Adrian.  I’ve been a fan of the Kettle ever since a Green Bay Packers game back in 2001, during a visit to the city, sent me in search of a place to watch.  Patrick is a old Milwaukean, having worked selling hardware at the old Oriental Hardware Store before leaving for New York, some 30+ years ago, and the Kettle is now known far and wide as the place to watch the Packers when you’re in New York.  I watched part of the Packers’ wild-card playoff game here last Saturday, and now Patrick and Adrian invite me back to sit at the “Round Table” for the upcoming game against the San Francisco 49ers.  I’ll be there!

Art Dawdle and Odets Overwrought

visite ii, 2009 - Ann Hamilton

visite ii, 2009 - Ann Hamilton

Tuesday, already?!?

Galleries open on Tuesdays in Chelsea, even if the museums don’t.  So, off we go to the West End of 24th – 25th streets to check some out.  Ann Hamilton has a small show up at gemini g.e.l. which surveys her work from 2000 – 2012.  Held in conjunction with The Event Of A Thread, this show focuses mostly on a few portfolio of lithographs and collage, as well as some textile work.  Quite nice, and well priced, too.

Around the corner at Kent Fine Art we find the absolutely trippy exhibit, Paul Laffoley’s The Boston Visionary Cell.  Up through March 9th, this exhibit is like a walk in the mind of an obsessive lunatic.  Here we are immersed in fantasy and whimsy, time travel and immortality, aliens and philosophers, mythologies and psychotropics.  Much homage is granted here to the wild thinkers and dreamers of times gone by, specifically along the edges of most of the canvases we see “Homage to Nickolai Tesla…” sorts of inscriptions.

Paul Laffoley - Kali Yuga

Paul Laffoley - Kali Yuga

A video runs in a continuous loop with an episode of some Hard Copy style show touting the time travel acumen of Laffoley, and promising the truth behind Little Richard’s claims.  I feel sorry for the gallery staff.

Along the street we popped in on many other shows, such as a large Ed Ruscha show at Gagosian, which was utter crap in my estimation.  Jeff Muhs The Origin of Nymphs at Lyons Weir was interesting, but unfulfilling.  His gauzy oils of nymphs were a striking presentation, but hollowed out in their core — lacking in any meaning or depth.

Venus of Urbino (after Titian) - Jeff Muhs

Venus of Urbino (after Titian) - Jeff Muhs

These shared the gallery with Rock Center, an incongruously named collection of still life by Melodie Provenzano.  Her work is technically proficient, but I found the subject matter and hyper-realistic rendering to result in paintings that were too twee by half.  Honestly, I thing the original glassware assemblages would be more interesting to see than these paintings of them.  Sorry.

Rock Center - Melodie Provenzano

Rock Center - Melodie Provenzano

Much more, but none of it stuck.

The evening brought us to Broadway for the first time this trip, and a revival of the 1930’s drama, Golden Boy by Clifford Odets.  This production has generated quite the buzz, and there’s already talk of Tony awards and such.  The production, directed by Bartlett Sher, is a design tour-de-force.  Michael Yeargan’s sets, Catherine Zuber’s costumes and Donald Holder’s lights, together, provide us with perhaps the most powerful character in the play.  The sets in particular take us effortlessly from setting to setting with believability and grace.

Yvonne Strahovski as Lorna Moon & Seth Numrich as Joe Bonaparte

Yvonne Strahovski as Lorna Moon & Seth Numrich as Joe Bonaparte

The performances are almost all quite strong.  Yvonne Strahovski (of TVs Chuck) turns in a very even read of Lorna Moon, the troubled “Tramp from Newark” devoted to fight promoter Tom Moody, played with meandering force by Danny Mastogiorgio.  Seth Numrich is Joe Bonaparte, the Golden Boy of the title, who steals Lorna’s heart even as she tries to manipulate his.  Danny Burstein (Boardwalk Empire) as Tokio, Joe’s seasoned trainer, and Tony Shalhoub (Monk) as Joe’s father, and Italian immigrant fruit seller, round out the primary cast.  Aside from some overdone Italian accents and some overwrought costume/stage business, these are all good performances.  Burstein, in particular, brilliantly manages a slow simmer right up until the penultimate scene, and finally reveals a very touching side to his character.

Of the show as a whole, to use and overused phrase, “It is what it is.”  It’s a revival of a piece of work very much of its era.  Analogies within the script with the organized labor movement (in the person of Joe’s older brother Frank, a CIO organizer in the textile industry) is largely lost on today’s crowd.  Were script edits to blame?  Perhaps.  Likewise, the character of Mr. Carp, the appropriately named neighbor who occupies the Bonaparte’s parlor as he quotes (and misquotes) Schopenhauer, Wittgnestein and other dismal philosophers, but who seems to simply vanish somewhere between Acts II and III.

Filmic Wonder and Balling At The McKittrick

Monday brought us to the Museum of Modern Art for the final day of their exhibit, “Quay Brothers: On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets.” This retrospective of the twin brothers’ 40 year career creating some of the most iconic and beautiful animated films in existence. We’ve both been fans for some time, X and I, but never thought we’d get to see something like this. This exhibit was the catalyst for the trip, to be perfectly honest.

It would be impossible to explain the Quay’s work in any way that would convey the beauty and magic of it, so best to send you off to search for some of it on YouTube and the like. That’s okay, do it now, we’ll wait…

Welcome back. This exhibit was quite thorough, featuring about 20 of the miniature sets used in making the films, as well as models and sketches, 2D artworks, such as a Blood, Sweat & Tears album cover produced long ago (who’d’a thought?) and reels of the short films and commercial work, such as Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer. Some longer work was shown in its entirety, such as their most famous work, Street Of Crocodiles, based loosely on the Bruno Schultz book. There were separate screenings, in Theater I, of the new The Metamorphosis, based on the Franz Kafka work.

We spent about 2 hours in the exhibit, enjoying it greatly, and after a brief sojourn to the book store (50% off sale!) and acquiring tickets to the 4:30 showing of Metamorphosis, repaired to the flat for a well earned nap.

Back uptown for the film. It was not just a simple screening, but featured live piano accompaniment by Mikhail Rudy. Here’s the museum’s description:

…these screenings of The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka mark the North American premiere of the Quay Brothers’ newest film. Commissioned by Russian-born French pianist Mikhail Rudy in affiliation with Cité de la musique in Paris, where it premiered last March, the film is screened with live piano accompaniment by Rudy, performing the music of Czech composer Leoŝ Janáček.

The accompaniment was fabulous, and the film good (but repetitive and obtuse in places) but the entire experience was more than this, as it really delivered a sense of completeness to the exhibit and our experience of it.

We drifted across town and back down to Chelsea for our evening’s entertainment, Crescent City Stomp, a performance of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band at the McKittrick Hotel. First, though, a quick stop in at Son Cubano for a cocktail (quite good). The McKittrick is the fictional hotel which serves as host for Punchdrunk/Emursive’s production, Sleep No More. This environmental non-performance experience, based upon Shakespeare’s Macbeth, has been packing ’em in since early in 2011. Our show was in a new space, a speakeasy separate from the performance space used by SNM, on the west end of the warehouse block.

Served alongside the New Orleans riffs of PHJB was a menu of light appetizers and cocktails inspired by the Crescent City. We sampled most of the menu (having expected a proper meal here), and had wonderful corn bread, crisp muffalata croquets with tappanade, fried hominy, Brussles sprouts with pancetta and pomegranate seeds and shrimp-stuffed deviled eggs. Yum to all!

The music was stomping all right, the septet (piano, drums, tuba, saxophone, clarinet, trumpet and trombone) was tight, upbeat and having a good old time. The two sets, about 50 minutes each, were followed by a 2 song encore, by which time many of the tables had been pushed back and the floor was hopping.

The hall holds about 275 people and was full to the gills. There are an assortment of tables, from a dozen or so deuces arrayed around the stage (centered against one long wall), then 3 and 4 tops, and then larger tables and banquettes for 6 & 8. The bar fills one of the short walls of the room, and is well appointed with a good choice of liquors, liqueurs, wines and beers. Table service is fast and entertaining, the waiter and waitresses all embracing the roles of working a speakeasy.

The musicians were a treat to watch. The trumpeter, Mark Braud, looks like a more corpulent and dissolute Marsallis cousin, and belts out some grand vocals, too. The clarinetist, Charlie Gabriel, carries the aire of the old man of the troupe, while delivering some fine tunes and song. But our favorite was Clint Maedgen on tenor sax and vocals. His saxophone is painted white with fine black detailing, his hair slicked back, he could be Crispin Hellion Glover‘s louche and wayward younger brother.

Clint Maedgen & Charlie Gabriel

Clint Maedgen & Charlie Gabriel

All in all a fabulous night out!

Our Gossamer Gotham

We’re presently staying in a short-term sublet in Chelsea, which is bedecked with no end of shear curtains and faux lace. It is quite the thing, not really stunning (as I’m sure it was meant to be) but rather too, too. Not much in the way of privacy, either, when one has shears in place of walls. Cest le vie!

This afternoon X joined the visit, and off we went to Ann Hamilton’s The Event Of A Thread at Park Avenue Armory (nee Armory of the Seventh Regiment). Opening on December 5th of last year, today brought the last day of this most public of public artworks. Occupying the whole of the armory’s vast Drill Hall are a few dozen large plank swings, suspended from the ceiling high above by sturdy chains from which emanate ropes in a wild and dizzying web which spans the great expanse, but all seemingly meeting along a central axis of the room — midway between west and east — where a large fabrc sheet is hung, itself spanning the room from north to south. As people swing in the swings, this elaborate web of ropes, chains, pulleys, block and tackle are all set in motion, pulling and tugging, releasing and dropping, the top edge of this huge sheet. It billows in the breeze it creates, and bobs up and down.

Thankfully we have tickets, for there is a line of people surrounding the entire armory, which fills an area of 2 city blocks, between Park Ave. to the west, Lexington to the east, 66th to the south and 68th to the north. This is the longest queue I’ve ever seen here, for anything, but quite civil and almost even festive. It surely helps that it’s a bright sun-shiny day, and warmish for the date. Having tickets, however, we skirt the line and enter directly into the west end of the hall, at 65th & Park.

A Reader

A Reader - The Event Of A Thread

When one first enters the drill hall, one finds a large library table upon which are a dozen or so wooden cages of pigeons (all look asleep), two long scrolls of text (with what looks like a stripe down the middle) and in front of each scroll sits a reader and an old fashioned microphone. The readers, wearing coarse wool jackets, slowly and in even voices read from their scrolls. We cannot really hear what they’re saying too clearly, but nearby a paper bag, bound in twine, sits on the floor and buzzes and squawks. Upon closer examination, we find it contains a speaker through which one or the other reader may be heard. There are many of these bags around the hall, and listeners snatch them up, walk with them a bit or simply sit with one on their shoulder, and then put them back down.

Paper Bag Radio

Paper Bag Radio - The Event Of A Thread

Swingers swing on the swings, while other swingers queue on line at each swing for their turn. Some swings have very long queues, while others — even near by — may have few people, if any, waiting turns. Watchers line the periphery of the hall, either along benches against the walls, or along catwalks one storey up. Dreamers lay on the floor beneath the great curtain, like a great spine of humanity bridging the hall from north to south. Some watch intently the fabric dipping and swooning above them, others with their eyes closed, listen to the paper bags and the readers beyond them. At the eastern end of the hall, another large library table is topped by a large parabolic mirror which tilts fore and back, and beneath it, surrounded by a collection of the paper bag radios is a writer. Wearing the same coarse woollen wrap as the readers, he is transcribing their words out, in longhand, into spiral bound notebooks.

Wanderers amble amongst the watchers, readers, writer, listeners, swingers and dreamers.

Dreamers beneath the drape

Dreamers beneath the drape - The Event Of A Thread

Above all of this is that incredible, inscrutable, intricate web of chains, ropes and wires which strings this all together. Many myths and stories tell of amazing machines of time or horology, intricate mechanisms which power the world or keep the universe in check and in operation. If such things exist, this is how they look and feel; of that I am sure.

Heavenly Machinery

Heavenly Machinery - The Event Of A Thread

Is it art? Indisputably. But it is more than that. The Even of a Thread is an experience, a public, shared, magical experience of such beauty and power that it takes one’s breath away. Kids and adults, couples and friends, families and loners, all are engaged by this. A man gingerly rises from his wheelchair and mounts a swing, then his friend pushes him to and fro. A small girl in her fuchsia tutu scrambles up beside her father and sister to swing, the father pushing with his feet to get them moving — squirmy little girls and all — while a third sister, holding hands with the dancer — runs alongside.

A woman in her twenties with long braids down to her waist, bold garish makeup and a small entourage, moves about the room, seemingly trying to make her own bit of art by her mere presence here. Cameras are everywhere (no flash) trying to find some way to record this most unique experience. I do likewise with my meager camera phone. Some videos and stills are here.

If we were to end our visit now, seeing nothing else, this would be enough. Ann Hamilton has made something amazing here, and I thank her, and all involved, for it. I cannot even begin to imagine what has gone into the making of this. There is a 24 page newspaper which serves as a guide and talisman for the event, there is a small army of people wired and loosely uniformed, patrolling, there are sound and light technicians, pigeon wranglers, singers (each night ends with a song sung from the west balcony. Beneath the balcony an antique record lathe records the song, which is then played back the following morning) etc. I spent some time on the south catwalk standing near the southern end of the drape, next to me a swing cop, whose job it was to carefully monitor the floor looking for people engaging in unsafe swing behavior, and alert floor patrols.

A Bigger Crowd

A Closer Winter Tunnel - David Hockney

We stood on queue for well over an hour at the Royal Academy for David Hockney: A Bigger Picture. The show itself we saw in considerably less time. There was much to appreciate in this exhibition of Hockney’s scenes of nature, mostly from the recent past, but on a whole I believe it was oversold. The crowds were so large it was hard to manoeuvre the galleries, and, not trusting us gawkers to behave ourselves, rope barriers kept one from moving freely between otherwise connected galleries – forcing us to follow the curator’s chosen path. Boo on that! Allow me to escape an over-crowded gallery and return to it later!

Arrival Of Spring - Davind Hockney - 2011

One entire gallery was filled with The Arrival Of Spring, 51 prints and one large painting recording the transition from winter to spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire, in 2011. Each day, roughly, Hockney would venture to this or that favourite vantage point in the woods and paint the scene on his iPad with a stylus. These were later printed and painted upon, following specific notes he had made about how to properly scale them up. The effect was profound. The large prints, each about 5 feet tall, were stacked two tall, and ringed three walls of the capacious gallery. The fourth wall was covered with a 32 canvas painting depicting one scene.

Arrival Of Spring - David Hockney - 2011

In my mind, the most effective works, other than the lovely charcoal studies which seemed to be shown more for elucidation than admiration, were those in the ultimate, Recent Work gallery. This feature large iPad prints from Hockney’s 2012 visit to Yosemite Valley. These pieces are printed out in immense form, easily 10 or 12 feet tall, where Hockney’s sure and perfect capture of the majesty of these natural wonders is best able to play upon the user.

Yosemite Valley - David Hockney - 2011

For an interesting take on the exhibit, check out Elinor Olisa’s blog post about it.

Wiring For Freud

The early bird gets the worm, or in this case the tickets. Following a typically fitful first-night’s sleep in travel quarters, Pawn was first to rise and after breaky of eggy~weggs and a rasher, with croissant and pot of forgettable coffee, was off blazing trails through Jubilee Park (home of the Eye) and across the footbridge to Trafalgar Square, the National Portrait Gallery and the same-day ticket queue for Lucian Freud Portraits, the enormous show (with some enormous portraits of some enormous bodies and some enormous egos) which just opened.

Lucian Freud - Evening in the studio - 1993

“…we tried going to that yesterday too! No luck. Our first ticket is 21 March… too many people in London.” wrote CP, yesterday, when I whined about a lack of tickets via the online ticket site.

Allow me a moment to rant about crap online ticket sites. This one, for NPG, is run by Ticketmaster, who with their monopoly and all you’d think would know how to run such a thing. But you’d be wrong. Their site is crap, and not at all easy to operate if you’re looking for an available ticket to a long-term event. One must keep drilling down into a date, and then back out again, with no opportunity to simply ask, “how `bout the next day?” Crap, utter, useless crap!

So with the gallery opening at 10, and the knowledge that they hold back tickets for same-day sales on-site, I head off and get on queue. Send a message to X, back at the flat (no comment here on her early rising record…). What I wrote was “Queuing for Freud: They’re saying 30 minutes but definitely tickets for today.” but what my inaptly named “smart phone” decided I meant was “Wiring for Freud…” Gotta love technology.

That was at 10:08. Turns out they had let people start queuing at 9:00, so I wasn’t exactly at the start of the queue, but by 10:33 I wrote, “close to counter. Will ask for 12:30 entrance time.” which would leave time for lunch prior to entering massive exhibit of massive portraits of massive people and massive egos. I’d been warned, “130 works! wow. Give yourself plenty of time for that one…” D wrote, jealous of my opportunity.

Lucian Freud - Nude with leg up - 1992

A few minutes later, tickets in hand, I strolled out into the BRIGHT SUNSHINE of Trafalgar Square and took my perch near the Fourth Plinth to wait for X to arrive fresh from her restorative ablutions. Lunch in a strange little diner (“MD’s where we don’t hide our ingredients behind a second slice of bread!”) and then we’re in, in amongst some of the largest canvases of some of the largest naked bodies you’ll ever see.

Lucian Freud - Benefits supervisor sleeping - 1995

Okay, in all seriousness, it was a fantastic show. While it’s easy to joke about Freud’s willingness – hell predilection – to paint large people, that’s really quite beyond the point. What Freud has taught us, perhaps more than any other portrait artist, at least in the 20th century, is how to see the human form for what it is. Freud’s portraits are almost entirely de-eroticized, lacking any prurient aspect and though stylized, fervently true. He will worry a face or a shoulder or… anything, to the point of nearly obscuring it beneath the many layers of paint, but he will pierce through to the core of that thing, and that person whose thing that is.

Lucian Freud - Naked girl with egg - 1980-81

Take women’s breasts, for example. Many painters (and photographers, sculptors, etc.) will pose their female subjects such that their breasts, if exposed, will be flattered, if not idealized. Freud, however, seems almost to strive for poses which show the breast in its most elastic, uncontrolled form. Pressed against the arm of a sofa, or flopped to the side, or cupped atop a sleeping subject’s arm. There is no romanticizing here, “Just paint it like I see it, “ one can almost hear him saying.

But the same fervour for authenticity carries over to all aspects of his portraiture – chins have waddles; foreheads, bony promontories; dimples, unflattering asymmetries; feet, bunions. Freud’s subjects, he tells us time and again, are normal people, just like us. When The Brigadier, 2003-4, sits for 200 hours for a portrait, Freud has him wear the same uniform he wore when he retired, some twenty years earlier after a victorious military campaign. An older man now, the uniform no longer fits as comfortably as it once did. The man cannot breath for these long, repeated sittings, so Freud suggests he unbutton the tunic. The result? The Brigadier’s paunch is prominent, it draws the eye, and what we see is not the idealized heroic figure, but the relaxed, retired and all too human man who lead others into battle and was brave or skilled or lucky enough to make it back in one piece so that twenty years later he could pose for this portrait looking like the relaxed, retired and slightly corpulent man that he has become.

Lucian Freud - The Brigadier - 2003-4

Freud has made us like this man, has found that part of ourselves, our everyman, within this man.

In his early work (which the exhibitors have thoughtfully but not rigidly arranged to make the most sense of an artist who’s work has matured as he has, not linearly but with parallel tracks, echoes forward and back, ripples which reflect off the mileposts of his own life) we see an artist who is working within constraints of the form as society understands it, before he begins to find his stride and his own true path. His wide-eyed portraits of the Girl in a dark jacket posed quite artificially, with unnaturally situated objects at once show him strain against the form of pose meets still life, yet also find new figurative language which suits him. He starts to break away in earnest with some self portraits, “Reflections” which are often truly that, from mirrors.

Lucian Freud - Girl in a dark jacket - 1947

By the time we get to the large commissioned and non-commissioned work for which he is best known, we are looking at iconic and iconoclastic work. There is no more Francis Bacon here, unless he chooses to show us that, there is no more of anyone else – just Freud and his models – even when the model is his dog, Eli.

Lucian Freud with Ria Kirby upon completion of Ria Naked Portrait - 2006-7

Something which merits mention is that until witnessed in person it is hard to appreciate just how much paint Freud slathers on to the canvas in his later work. In Ria Nude Portrait, 2007, the model’s right eye bulges out from the canvas so far she appears, under close examination, disfigured. Of course one doesn’t routinely view the great canvas up close and obliquely, so it may well go unnoticed. Faces, profound musculature, and genitalia are most likely to receive this treatment. I’ve mentioned already how de-eroticized Freud’s work is, and yet genitalia receive much attention under his brush. Women’s pubic areas are almost sculptural, three dimensional, in many of his works. Not surprising, perhaps, given his well earned reputation for prolific appetites, shall we say.

One last note, and then this essay shall close. Freud painted many self portraits, but his sense of reflection seems to go beyond this. When one considers the length of his sittings, into the hundreds of hours in many cases (some canvases took years) it’s easy to understand why he would make himself the subject so often, as he developed techniques or understanding. One thing which struck Pawn, however, is how often his own work figures in his work. He painted almost always in his studio, and often the studio itself is as much a subject as his models. It is not at all unusual to see one or more earlier, or incomplete canvases in a piece. For example, Two Men in the Studio, 1987-9, prominently features Standing by the Rags, 1988-9, made more interesting by the fact that the included painting was not started when the including work was.

Lucian Freud - Two men in the Studio - 1987-89

The Rags, of the latter pieces title, are well featured in both. Freud used recycled hotel linens for his paint rags, a fact which the unobtrusive but helpful exhibit text points out to us.

Lucian Freud Portraits is a exemplary exhibition, and well worthy of the crowds and praise it is thus far receiving. National Portrait Gallery have done themselves proud, and we were much the happier for having seen it.