Ashland, OR, where my family lives, is mourning the passing of a beloved community member and Oregon Shakespeare Festival actor, Catherine Coulson.
Although she played an astonishing array of characters on stage, she will forever be identified with the iconic role of the “Log Lady” on David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. It’s a pretty awesome legacy, in my opinion (as you might tell by my pen and ink drawing of her in the role), and one that Catherine embraced wholeheartedly. When my dad told her it was my birthday and that I was a fan of Twin Peaks she sent me a signed postcard and reminded me that “the Owls are not what they seem.” It was just one small example of the generosity and benevolence she was known for in the Ashland community. I’m deeply saddened I won’t be able to see her on the boards at the OSF or revel in her resuming her role as the Log Lady for the Showtime reboot of the series, but I know that she’s reunited with her log in the White Lodge.
The journal Contemporaneity has published my review of Regina Mamou’s haunting series of photographs, “Unfortunately, It Was Paradise” (Chicago, IL — City Gallery in the Historic Water Tower, 2013-2014). Using various Midwest utopian communities as her subject allowed Mamou to explore the relationship between geography and ideology — how certain utopian ideals and convictions become embedded in physical spaces . I admired the way she put pressure on photography to elicit psychological and spiritual states, something she is continuing to investigate in her new work (check out her website). It was a pleasure to reflect on her thoughtful, fascinating series.
Mist shrouds an open field; the softness suffocates. In Fieldwork (Blue) Regina Mamou stages the paradox of immanence and imminence—God always and everywhere on the verge of appearing: a stifling remoteness, an intimate distance. The “field” could be visual, physical, conceptual; The “work” is the visual object, the photograph, or the physical work of agriculture, or the conceptual realm of the divine: God in the godliness of good works, of work accomplished in the service of collective wellbeing.
The review is available as a PDF for download through Contemporaneity’s website.
The charming, sly, and irrepressible movie sorcerer Orson Welles cast his last spell with the little seen and arguably less understood F for Fake (1973). It’s one of those strange and enchanting movies that still feel ahead of their time — a fiendishly clever pseudo-documentary that is like the hall-of-mirrors sequence in Lady from Shanghai extended to 90 minutes. Ostensibly the movie is about an art forger, Elmyr de Hory (seen in the film signing a painting “Orson Welles”), and his biographer, Clifford Irving, who turns out be a fraud himself. Down the rabbit hole we go, meeting Howard Hughes and Pablo Picasso along the way.
Towards the end of the film there’s a (seemingly — since nothing is quite as it seems in this movie) heartfelt paean to Chartres cathedral as the premiere human achievement (made, Welles notes, by anonymous craftsmen not celebrity artists) that is worth the price of admission alone. Welles’ lyrical language in this passage owes something I think to John Ruskin’s The Nature of Gothic.
The discourse of craftsmanship deals heavily in questions of authenticity versus artificiality, honesty versus deception, natural versus synthetic. F for Fake is Welles’ own meditation (if that’s the right word for a movie so dizzying and rapid-fire) on Picasso’s old adage that art is a “lie to tell the truth.” As his own star dimmed, Welles showed young upstarts like Jean Luc Godard how the cinematic essay should be done — intoxicating, intelligent, breezy, adventurous and fun.
Mr. Turner is a handsome film with a complex and charismatic performance by Timothy Spall as the irascible British Romantic painter, JMW Turner. Not since Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire has an actor used inarticulate grunts and mumbles so effectively and expressively. While the portrayal of Turner is sympathetic without being sycophantic, the quality of the film is marred, in my view, by a bizarre characterization of art and social critic, John Ruskin (played by Joshua McGuire, who is certainly having fun), as a lisping, foppish nitwit. An otherwise powerful and affecting film does itself a disservice by treating one of the towering intellects of the nineteenth century—not to mention Turner’s most articulate and ardent admirer—with such contempt. There is no doubt that Ruskin could be a strange and pathetic figure, but to portray him as a simpering nincompoop is just historically wrong. (To give just one clue to Ruskin’s influence, George Bernard Shaw once said that Ruskin’s Unto This Last converted more of the English working class to socialism than Karl Marx.) In trying to contrast Turner’s earthy potency to Ruskin’s critical grandstanding, the filmmakers have to overlook the fact that Ruskin (in addition to being one of the Victorian era’s great prose stylists) was a brilliant draftsman and watercolorist in his own right.
I sat down to pen a lengthy defense of Ruskin in light of this character assassination but discovered to my relief that a writer over at The Guardian had already done the work:
On behalf of John Ruskin, I would like to sue Mike Leigh for defamation of character. In Mr Turner, Leigh’s astonishing and sweepingly beautiful new film, the painter’s greatest champion has been traduced. Ruskin, played by Joshua McGuire, is a simpering Blackadderish caricature of an art intellectual: a lisping, red-headed, salon fop.
I almost felt physically sick when I saw him onscreen…This posthumous portrait is unconscionable.
Read the rest of the article here.
Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home
Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si, has generated a massive amount of press coverage, commentary and controversy. I really appreciate a Pope who short-circuits the easy and predigested categories of “red” and “blue” politics: he is too liberal for conservatives and too conservative for liberals (meaning, I guess, that he’s an orthodox Catholic). This has caused mass confusion bordering on hysteria among the culture warriors bent on “us vs. them” logic. “Laudato Si” is a plea for a rapid and holistic response to the environmental crisis, and the terms in which Pope Francis couches his argument are familiar to anyone interested in the Arts and Crafts movement. “The post-industrial period may well be remembered as the most irresponsible in history,” Pope Francis writes, decrying the evil effects of economic industrialization on the poor and the environment. There is a suspicion of so-called “progress” and the way technology “tends to absorb everything into its ironclad logic” and sacrifices the economically and ecologically vulnerable along the way. There is an aesthetic as well as moral and spiritual dimension to the Pope’s plea for urgent action: ““The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth. In many parts of the planet, the elderly lament that once beautiful landscapes are now covered with rubbish.”
For William Morris, the beauty of the natural world was the source and summit of artistic expression. His socialism was in no small measure a response to how capitalism degraded and exploited the environment for profit. An active member of early environmental and conservation organizations, Morris understood that a vital aspect of restoring joy and dignity to labor would be reintegrating workers with their environment. Labor should belong to the natural cycle of things, not to a system of exploitation and destruction for profit or gain. No one, he wrote, should be “allowed to cut down, for mere profit, trees whose loss would spoil a landscape: neither on any pretext should people be allowed to darken the daylight with smoke, to befoul rivers, or to degrade any spot of earth with squalid litter and brutal wasteful disorder.” Morris would have approved, I think, of Pope Francis’ simple assertion that “everything is connected,” and the implications that follow for how to “care for our common home.”
Henry Simon – Industrial Frankenstein, 1934
Thomas Seely of Art Uncovered was kind of enough to host me and Jill Bugajski on his podcast to discuss The Left Front. Thomas asked interesting, relevant questions and it was a pleasure to discuss with him some of the exhibition’s central themes and ideas. One of the most abiding pleasures of working on The Left Front was giving interviews and gallery talks with my co-curator, Jill, whose intellectual curiosity and articulate enthusiasm never ceased to inspire and educate me. At this point we’ve done television, print and podcast interviews, and I’ve appreciated every opportunity to promote an exhibition I feel really passionate about, and get the word out about artists I consider wrongly neglected or overlooked. (I’m also pleased that people keep bringing up Henry Simon’s Industrial Frankenstein, since it’s one of my personal favorites from the show, but one that had a precarious life on the checklist until we finally installed.) Check out The Left Front interview and other Art Uncovered podcasts here.