Friday, January 19, 2007


In November, I visited the Milwaukee Art Museum to examine its Santiago Calatrava-designed addition, which opened in 2001, and see how it compared to Boston’s new ICA. The Milwaukee building is a bright, airy space, a cross between a cruise ship and “2001: A Space Odyssey.” It feels like the future circa 1968. It’s charming, goofy, fun.

Another great thing about the museum – an idea other museums (ICA? MFA?) should steal – was a series of free pamphlet guides to the institution. The “Naughty Bits” collection tour directs visitors to art featuring, well, naughty bits. Introducing a 1605 painting of “Adam and Eve” it says: “What a better place to start than Adam and Eve on the brink of sin? … Look how soft and feminine Eve is compared to Adam – so tan and muscular. He is quite the macho man. Nice tush, too.”

The “You Think You’re Having a Bad Day” tour recommends Roy Lichtenstein’s 1964 “Crying Girl,” an Audubon painting of an otter caught in a trap, and one of Tony Oursler’s signature talking dolls pinned under an overturned folding chair. “Seeing how tough these folks had it,” the guide explains, “might just make you feel better.”

The “I’m in a Hurry!” guide suggests a quick dash through collection highlights for the busy visitor. “Impress the Out-of-Towners” directs you to a painting featuring the first reference to Louis XIV of France, a gold Tiffany tea service and a major Caillebotte painting of men boating. One guide lists the favorite artworks of Milwaukee Brewers ballplayers – mostly predictably conservative realistic stuff, except for infielder J.J. Hardy’s pick: an untitled boxy steel and Plexiglas sculpture by Donald Judd.

These pamphlets are evidence of a museum smart and confident enough to have a sense of humor about itself. But these aren’t just jokes. These guides engage people with the collection, informing and entertaining, by acknowledging the range of the audience’s interests.

Workshops on state health care for artists

The Massachusetts Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts and Cultural Development, in partnership with the new Arts Health Care Coalition, is launching a series of workshops to help art-types figure out Massachusetts’ impressive but bewildering new state health care system.

The first one will be held from 3 to 5 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 28, at Cape Cod Community College, Science Building, Lecture Hall A, Parking Lot 7, 2240 Iyannough Road, West Barnstable. Other workshops are planned for around the state, but dates have yet to be announced.

Just in case you were wondering, the Joint Committee is an arm of the state legislature and the Arts Health Care Coalition includes the Massachusetts Cultural Council; Massachusetts Advocates for the Arts, Sciences, and Humanities; the Artist Foundation and ArtistLink. If you want more info try contacting the office of State Senator Jack Hart of South Boston at 617-722-1150 or the Massachusetts Advocates for the Arts, Sciences, and Humanities folks at 617-725-0155.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The new ICA

Here’s my cranky critique of the new ICA. Key passage:

“The architects forgot that just about every visitor will approach the building from the land side. Or did they intend the ICA to turn its back on Boston? The building’s profile resembles a folded-up laptop computer (wow?), but the street facade could be any drab office building. At street level, the right half is a gray wall with a staff entrance and a loading dock, which I think in architect lingo is the building’s anus.”

I seem to be nearly alone in my disappointment at the building's design, but...

“While I was seated in the café, a loud thud was heard as someone smacked full force into a glass wall beside the confusingly designed exit. While the victim iced his forehead outside, Mr. Renfro assured me that this fault would be corrected by affixing stickers.” – Lee Rosenbaum in The Wall Street Journal

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

‘PRC P.O.V.’ at BU’s Photographic Resource Center

Where is photography now and where is it headed? Those are the mammoth questions that the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University takes on in “PRC P.O.V.: Photography Now and the Next 30 Years.” To mark the center’s 30th anniversary, the institution invited current and former staff, board members and other “luminaries” to pick 31 artists and art entities “that are just getting attention (or deserve more) as well as those that will make a significant contribution over the next 30 years."

The most intriguing selection is Turbulence, an outfit based in Roslindale and Staten Island, N.Y., that commissions original Web art. Actually, it’s a work Turbulence commissioned that was chosen to represent Turbulence that’s most intriguing. In "Self-Portrait" (excerpt above), New York artist Ethan Ham deploys facial-recognition software to search for his likeness among the millions of photos posted to There’s a whole – and growing – genre of art that could be called Searching for Signs of Human Life on the Internet. Often this involves artists trawling the net like cockeyed librarians, collecting raw material that they then gussy up for presentation to the non-virtual world. But Ham turns Flickr into his medium. His search program finds resemblances to him in men, women, people of different ages and races. There’s something wonderful and funny, and then forlorn and maybe desperate in this Internet quest for kinship. Often art about the Internet ends up being about the Web as a lonely, alien place. And Ham’s piece has some of that, but it also speaks to how the Web – where we come together in all our random unedited democracy – creates community.

This art points to a new branch of work where artists begin to make sense of the delirious chaos of Flickr, eBay and Adobe Photoshop (three other P.O.V. picks) – that artists will help us find meaning there, not just reflect the bewilderment many feel in our interconnected-disaffected world. The rest of “PRC P.O.V.” suggests that the future of photography will mostly be polished art photos and airy conceptual work, and very little photojournalism. On the whole, this future looks pretty familiar.

Finnish photographer Miklos Gaál’s “Sunday Afternoon” (2003) is a large unframed color print (left) of tiny beachgoers under teensy blankets and umbrellas on a vast, sunny curve of shore. The scene is shot from high above (echoes of Andreas Gursky) and only a vertical strip to the right of center is in focus, making the place seem magical, and cute, like a dollhouse or model railroad layout. His soft-focus beautiful world photos are terribly charming (in the way that soft photo food photos in a Martha Stewart magazine are terribly charming) – though I’m not sure if they’re much more than that. Perhaps there’s something worthwhile in making the world seem so lovey, small, distant, toylike, because maybe it makes this crazy mixed-up world seem manageable, fixable, improvable – and worth fixing.

Providence native Karina Aguilera Skvirsky, who’s now based in New York, makes photos by restaging newspaper shots of the Iraq war in her 2006 series “Backyards.” In “Lord & Taylor Parking Lot, NJ” (left) she has a woman in a suburban mall parking lot assume a costume and pose from a New York Times shot of a woman apparently distraught over an Iraq bombing. Skvirsky’s method could help us feel the original images more deeply, or question why many news photos of people facing horrors feel so distant and unmoving – but this image doesn’t resonate.

Toronto artist Susana Reisman’s “Photo-sculpture, Rust” (2004-05), winds long strip photographs of some rusty brown thing into an intriguingly weird stone- or breast-shaped sculpture (above). Methuen artist Claudia Saimbert’s 2005 series “Daughters of Eve,” portraits of young African-American women like "Jenny" (below), is familiar way-up-close portrait photography. But it's accomplished work for a college senior (she’s still studying at Montserrat in Beverly). Her subject seems to be how black women’s skin tone affects how they see themselves and how others treat them – an idea with potential, but with only one image here it’s hard to know for sure.

Other New Englanders here include Martha Buskirk of Cambridge; John Chervinsky of Somerville; Chehalis Hegner of Campton, N.H.; the In-Sight Photography Project of Brattleboro, Vt.; Jaclyn Kain of Jamaica Plain; and Scott Peterman of Hollis, Maine. Boston-based journals Aspect; Big Red & Shiny; and Publio Magazine also make the cut.

“PRC P.O.V.: Photography Now and the Next 30 Years,” Photographic Resource Center at Boston University, 832 Commonwealth Ave., Boston, Nov. 3, 2006, to Jan. 28, 2007.

Bennett Simpson leaving ICA

Bennett Simpson, associate curator at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, is leaving to become an associate curator at The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, beginning April 3. According to LA MOCA (the ICA has been, uh, unresponsive), during Simpson’s three years at the ICA he curated four “Momentum” exhibits, including the current Sergio Vega show and Paul Chan’s 2005 digital animation installation "1st Light," which was subsequently included in the 2006 Whitney Biennial and is now part of the ICA’s budding permanent collection. And he’s been organizing the major mid-career survey of photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia that the ICA has scheduled to open on June 1.

Here’s video of Simpson leading a tour of the new ICA. (Photo above by Jen Mergel.)

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Ernest Morin

Gloucester photographer Ernest Morin (a pal of mine) presents his stunning slideshow portrait of Gloucester, “At the Crossroads: A City in Transition,” at 3 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 27, 2007, at the Cape Ann Historical Museum in Gloucester. Morin has spent five years photographing the people and streets of Gloucester, producing what I’ve called a “comprehensive – and often seething – document of what happens when work drains out of a gentrifying working class city.” I raved about it when he first presented the collected results at Gloucester City Hall last October. This presentation is free. Check it out.

Umberto Romano

During World War II, Gloucester artist Umberto Romano painted a merchant marine adrift on a raft after Axis forces sunk his ship. In "Cargo" (left), the nearly naked fellow is contorted under a relentless sun, resembling a pieta or one of the poor wretches in Theodore Gericault’s early 19th century masterpiece “The Raft of the Medusa”

“Can one go on painting serene, calm, undisturbed, unemotional paintings, in such turbulent, intensely chaotic times?” Romano lamented in the forward to an 1944 exhibition catalogue. “Turn on your radio. Glance at the screaming headlines. Throw open your windows and the air is dense, seething, throbbing with pain, sorrow, hatred; full of black, hateful passion.”

The Cape Ann Historical Museum’s survey, “Man Sings of Man: Umberto Romano, 1906-1982” through Jan. 31 shows that his work had long been dark and melancholic, but during the war and after it grew ever moreso.

Romano was born outside Naples, Italy, in 1906, and immigrated to western Massachusetts as a boy. He studied at the National Academy of Design in New York during his teenage years before moving to Gloucester in 1933. There he offered art classes on a boat, before buying the Gallery–on-the-Moors, where he ran the Romano School of Art. During the ‘30s, he also taught art at the Worcester Art Museum school. He was commissioned to paint a mural at the Springfield post office in 1935 and a portrait of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s mom Sara.

During the first half of the 20th century, a number of major American artists summered in Gloucester – Milton Avery, Stuart Davis, Marsden Hartley, Edward Hopper, Aaron Siskind, John Sloan, Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb. But of the ones who lived on Cape Ann, the most significant are Paul Manship, Walker Hancock and children’s book illustrator Virginia Lee Burton, who founded Gloucester’s Folly Cove Designers fabric printing cooperative. Romano’s earliest oil paintings recall the blend of art deco and American regionalist styles of these neighbors.

“Him” (above), from about 1928, features a flapper-style Madonna in a cloche hat wrapping the dead body of her crucified son in a sheet. In a sultry self-portrait “Psyche and the Sculptor” (left), from about 1929, Romano paints himself in a skin-tight shirt, weight-lifter’s belt, scarf and beret. He holds a hammer near his crotch, a cocky symbol of his artistic and sexual prowess.

Romano adopts a cubist-flavored blocky style, with heavy black outlines, for his “New England Tragedy,” from about 1934. A guitarist serenades his lady friend over drinks in a cemetery, which has the vibe, if not quite the look , of the cemetery overlooking Lane’s Cove in Gloucester’s Lanesville neighborhood. Three women – apparently the Fates – loiter, watching in the background. The lady friend reclines among the tombstones, a bit of sexy bare thigh revealed between the top of her stocking and the hem of her skirt. You don’t need the fates to see where this is headed.

In “Man Sings of Man” (left), from around 1937, a sad-eyed fellow (seemingly another self-portrait) sits strumming a guitar behind a table with two empty bottles of booze and a lady’s garter. The clues suggest he’s all broken up over a burlesque dancer, maybe the girl in the poster on the back wall. It’s an overwrought melodrama.

The 1940s and the war bring a painting and drawing of a crucified woman-Christ and the drifting merchant marine. His 1950s “Great Men” series features a melting portrait of Picasso, a ghostly Rembrandt (below), a turbulent Van Gogh. “Lincoln Weeps” (c. 1950) is a black-outlined portrait of the great president feeling your pain. “Behold Man” (c. 1951) depicts a gaunt, scourged Christ holding a staff topped with a jester’s head. Romano renders the figure in jagged black, like a woodcut, with an abstract color background. It's a parade of tormented souls.

These aren’t great paintings, but they have a campy charm, like the illustrated covers of pulp novels. The style of Romano's work from, say, the mid-1930s onward falls under the general umbrella of Boston Expressionism – or the mass of artists across the country who stuck with realism seasoned by expressionist stylings despite the American modernist avant-garde’s headlong rush into abstraction. Here is the sidetrack so many local artists took. Now at the end of modernism and freed from its with-us-or-against-us ideology, we can look back at the other side with fondness and bemusement.

When Roman does go more abstract though, around the time that he left Gloucester for Provincetown in 1965, with ‘60s loopy line drawings of naked ladies and ‘70s disintegrating bodies, it feels forced.

“Man Sings of Man: Umberto Romano, 1906-1982” at the Cape Ann Historical Museum, 27 Pleasant St., Gloucester, Oct. 7, 2006, to Jan. 31, 2007.