Monday, August 24, 2009

new digs

Until a year ago, I had lived at the same address for twenty years. In fact, though well travelled, I’d lived in the same state for forty-eight years. I am now in my fourth Brooklyn domicile and have also moved into a new studio. Most of my recent moves have been √† pied, and though one was a distance of only eight floors, each move has meant packing and unpacking my possessions. I hate moving.

Fall has always been the start season for me. This sense is only amplified by my current academic situation. With one week left before classes commence, my literal and intellectual sketchbooks are jammed with ideas for new work. I am not, however, making plans. I regret the plans that didn’t come to fruition over the summer. Life, circumstance and of course current economics have a way of affecting my designs. I once observed that a worried friend was so busy looking for the miraculous, that she was missing the spectacular. I should follow my own advice. One shouldn’t plan too much.

So, with the start of this year, my only plan is to embrace what comes my direction, concentrate on the work in front of me, and try to notice the little spectaculars that occur in the now.

Who knows where I’ll be a year from now.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

josh garrett

Chicago artist and musician Josh Garrett consistently seeks perfection in his work and in the world around him. He does so with the conviction that ultimately, perfection is the sole purview of God. Josh’s work represents his earnest effort to understand God’s will in his life.

His current body of work, Providence I, is executed in his preferred materials of pigment, fire and metal. It addresses the age-old conflict between God’s will and man’s will, and does so with minimal description or narrative. Despite his emblematic iconography and the aggression implied by the materials he employs, the works are elegant and highly personal.

Josh’s work is currently on exhibit at Ossia Fine Art Space, 410 S. Michigan Avenue, Chicago. The exhibit runs through September 25, 2009.

Saturday, August 8, 2009


The twentieth-century artist who uses symbols is alienated because the system of symbols is a private one. After you have dealt with the symbols you are still private, you are still lonely, because you are not sure anyone will understand it except yourself. The ransom of privacy is that you are alone.

(Louise Bourgeois (b. 1911), U.S. sculptor. As quoted in Lives and Works, by Lynn F. Miller and Sally S. Swenson (1981).)

I recently viewed the film
Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, the Mistress and the Tangerine. The film was a thought provoking examination of the life and work of the 97-year-old artist, who continues to inspire artists and feminists, despite her own existence within and separate from almost every art movement since the mid-twentieth century. Knowledge about the work and practice of any such artist often prompts me to reexamine my own approach.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a symbol as a thing that represents or stands for something else, especially a material object representing something abstract. I have always incorporated symbols in my work. Those used are highly personal, persistent images the reoccur in my conscious and to which I assign meaning. Thus, my paintings reflect an attempt to visually organize thought using personal symbol and reference. It is through a visual vernacular that I discern, understand and communicate.

What I have only recently begun to understand is why I articulate them void of narrative or environment. I am a firm believer that we cannot escape the history in which we exist. Thus I returned to the visual source material I encountered as a child in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and that continues to attract my attention – print advertisement.

It is clear to me that I respond to any visual media that conveys meaning with a minimum of descriptive text. My mother, who is also responsible for any creative genetics I have inherited, was a magazine hoarder. I was a loner who spent long hours paging though magazines, returning over and over again to images that attracted me. Acting on this theory, I began investigating print advertisements of the aforementioned period. What I discovered seemed to confirm my theory and startled me with its precision.

Above, I have taken two print advertisements from the 1960’s, removed the text and compared them to my painting Toy Plane, Oil on Linen, 2007. While I have no recollection of these images, the visual relationship seems significant.

There are two things I have learned from this. I can confirm, at least for myself, that early visual information continues to inform my work. In addition, and most important, is the fact that the dialogues, real or fictional, I have with other artists, and the investigations they provoke, are clearly the impetus for a heightened awareness of my practice. I remain grateful for these conversations. Incidentally, if you have not already seen this film, I highly recommend it. The scene discussing her father and the tangerine will rip your heart out. Ms. Bourgeois is clearly a force of nature.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Veronika Szkudlarek

My previous post reviewed the thought provoking drama Ruined, by Lynn Nottage. I had the privilege of attending this performance with fellow painter, Veronika Szkudlarek. As there are no accidents, Veronika’s insight into the plight of African women was invaluable.

Informed by extensive travels throughout Africa, the Mid-East, Europe and North America, Veronika addresses the ignorance and cruelty of war. Through direct observation of its methods, its structure and its victims, she plants herself firmly in the center as an artist existing within and relevant to a global community.

Veronika’s mural for the Mother Theresa Missionaries of Charity orphanage in Kigali, Rwanda brought her into direct contact with the more than one- hundred women and children, survivors of the Rwandan Genocide, that are residents. It also facilitated conversations with government officials intent on building sustainable living conditions and meaningful lives for the victims of the atrocity.

Veronika’s work doesn’t depict images of the horrors of war, but rather the vestiges of those horrors. It is as though her paintings themselves weep, with surfaces of lachrymose paint, bleeding image into ground. This sensitive marriage of palette, medium and subject engenders the essentially hopeful role of the artist, as if stating that there is another way.

Veronika’s work is included at the upcoming exhibition "Skin Deep" at Kips Gallery, 511 West 25th Street, New York, NY, August 18 through September 1, 2009.

Monday, August 3, 2009


The personal compromises and self-delusions a group of Congolese brothel women are willing to employ to guarantee survival in the face of atrocity and genocide is the core theme of Lynn Nottage’s 2009 Pulitzer Prize winning drama Ruined, produced by the Manhattan Theater Club, and being performed at Stage I at the Manhattan City Center. The play is co-produced by the Goodman Theater in Chicago where it premiered in 2008.

The Manhattan Theater Club, one of the nation’s premiere not-for-profit theater producers, has provided theatergoers with contemporary dramas, musicals and comedies since its inception in 1971. The Club incorporates three theater venues: on Broadway, The Samuel J. Friedman Theater (formerly the Biltmore Theater;) and Stage I and Sage II Theatres off-Broadway at the Manhattan City Center. Ruined is the sixth Pulitzer Prize winning Drama the club has produced.

Travels to the refuge camps of Uganda, and the 1939 work Mother Courage and Her Children by Bertolt Brecht inform Nottage’s work. Initially, Nottage planned an adaptation of Brecht’s play, but her own experience interviewing Congolese women in Rwandan refugee camps prompted her own work. Unlike Brecht, the Brooklyn born, Cornell/Yale educated Nottage seeks to evoke an emotional response from the audience, rather than (in the case of Brecht) an intellectual one. “I believe in engaging people emotionally, because I think they react more out of emotion” than when they are “preached to, told how to feel. It was important that this not become a documentary, or agitprop”.[1] Nottage’s plays frequently pivot on the experience of women, and here, the brutalities they have suffered civil war-torn Africa. Indeed the title references women, who have experienced rape, sexual abuse and mutilation so brutal that that they are ruined physically, emotionally and culturally.

The play opens in the barroom of Mama Nadi’s brothel with Christian, a local customer and “supplier” delivering goods to Mama Nadi (the July 28th performance featured understudy Jamie Lincoln Smith in the role of Simon.) Along with cigarettes, liquor and various sundries, Simon, a tea-totaller, supplies fresh women for the brothel. On this particular visit, he delivers Salima (Quincy Tyler Bernstein), a simple minded woman who has been rejected by her family and village as the result of her kidnapping and subsequent servicing of a band of rebels in the bush, and Sophie (Condola Rashad), a girl of eighteen, who has been ruined. The flamboyant, emotionally detached Mama Nadi (Portia) at first refuses to take on Sophie – it’s bad for business - but agrees after Simon begs, praises Sophie’s talent for song and reveals that Sophie is his niece. He also bribes Mama Nadi with Belgian chocolates.

It is clear from the get-go that Mama Nadi plays both sides of the civil war fence and is interested in one thing, self-preservation. Mama Nadi has convinced herself and almost convinces the audience, that her prostitution of these women provides safe haven from the indecencies and rejection that they have already suffered. In addition, her ownership of the brothel represents her independence, from the brutalities of war and from Simon’s genuine romantic advances.

As the drama progresses the warring factions draw nearer the brothel and tensions mount. Christian begins drinking, the customers become more raucous. In addition, the audience gradually learns the stories of both the now pregnant Salima and another prostitute, Josephina (Victoire Charles), a tribal Chief’s daughter who has been dehumanized by similar atrocities as well as rejected from her village. Given her emotional simplicity, Salima’s story is particularly heartbreaking. Although the title references her, we never do hear Sophie’s story. What the audience begins to understand is that all of these women are the victims of Congolese Civil War. In the end, each, even the apparently hard-hearted, mercenary Mama Nadi, though damaged, have not been destroyed by the conflict. It is their courage that enables their survival.

Additional characters, all male, include rebel leader Jerome Kisimbe (Chris Chalk); Commander Osembenga (Kevin Mambo); mercenary Mr. Harari (Tim Mardirosian); and Salima’s repentant husband Pascal (Ron McBee).

In a drama, where men could easily be seen as only as monstrous perpetrators of evil and women as spiritless victims, Director Kate Whoriskey, effectively draws out the subtle personality traits of each of the characters. She evokes sympathy and distain for almost all involved. Having previously directed another of Nottage’s works, Intimate Apparel, Whoriskey carefully balances the push-pull, intense emotions that the dramatist has penned. Here, almost everyone is a victim, either of the atrocities of war, or the Western Colonialism that left countries such as the Congo bereft.

Stand out performances culled by Whoriskey include the deceptively complex Salima, enacted by the aforementioned Quincy Tyler Bernstein; the delusional Mama Nadi, flamboyantly portrayed by Portia; and the sympathetic, sweetly voiced, yet spirited, Sophie as rendered by New York newcomer Condola Rashad. Rashad premi√®red the role at the Goodman Theater. Among the men, Jaime Lincoln Smith as Simon, reveals helplessness and fear in the face of the anticipated horrors. Initially, it was difficult to hear and understand Smith as Simon. But he quickly recovered his voice either as the result of his own confidence or an adjustment in the sound system. Indeed, despite the efforts of dialect coach Charlotte Fleck, all of the actors seemed, at times, to struggle with maintaining their accent. Of final note is Kevin Mambo’s Commander Osembenga, the character most closely identified with the senselessness and evil of war, and the ego and bravado necessary to justify its leadership and proliferation.

The set, designed by Derek McLane, transitions between the barroom and the shared living quarters of Salima, Josephina and Sophie. Though it incorporates cheerful local color, it still conveys the poverty of the situation and the isolation within the density of the surrounding rain forest. Costumes designed by Paul Tazewell suggest the same local color while reflecting the rag-tag collection of characters living at Mama Nadi’s. Finally, the entire production is punctuated by music composed by Dominic Kanza with lyrics written by Nottage. Performed by Congolese guitarist Simon Shabantu Kashama and sung by members of the cast, the music transitions the narrative, and reflects the tradition of oral history and story telling indigenous to many African countries.

Ruined is a powerful drama that evokes complex emotions regarding the nature of survival, the power of evil, the evil of power and the uselessness of cultural judgments cast upon those incapable of defending themselves. What Lynn Nottage has so successfully written and the Manhattan Theater Club so powerfully staged is the experienced collapse and inevitable triumph of the human spirit in the face unimaginable evil. With so many spectacles, theatrical interpretations of animated feature films, and resuscitations of past productions populating the current theater scene in New York, it is edifying to leave a play a little sadder, a little more informed, and certainly asking a lot more questions.

[1] New York Times By Celia McGee, “Approaching Brecht, by Way of Africa,” New York Times: January 21, 2009,

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Good-Bye Dear Freak

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the New York City Council announced plans this week for the revitalization and redevelopment of Coney Island. The rejuvenation would include a new amusement park, luxury hotels, restaurants, retail stores, movie theaters and a new roller coaster. And so continues the homogenization of New York, and the eradication of that which made it unique.

Coney Island should be left alone.

I am not one for nostalgia. People tend to romanticize the past, just as they romanticize country life, their youth, family relationships, and Christmas. The nostalgic images we conjure of the past are often what we wish something had been. There is little today that reflects Coney Island’s heyday. In fact, Coney Island makes people uncomfortable, it is one of the United States’ last authentic freak shows. It is its wonderful freakishness that makes it attractive to those who don’t mind being uncomfortable and who don't mind seeing a part of our culture as it really is.

Although Mayor Bloomberg states that the plan will restore Coney Island to its grander days, he is indeed creating a simulacrum: a prepackaged, sterile and codified reproduction of something that never existed in the first place. What will be missing from Coney Island are the derelicts, carnies, and thousands of average families who, via subway, haul their beach chairs and sunscreen there each summer weekend. I find it difficult to imagine the Mermaid Parade, the hot dog eating contest, and the headless woman on view in a glass enclosed entertainment environment. Coney Island may be seedy, but its sleaze is out in the open for everyone to see and recognize. I will miss it.