Friday, February 16, 2007

Wadsworth Atheneum chief leaving

Willard Holmes, director of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, announced yesterday that he will be leaving his post after leading the museum since March 2003.

"I have accomplished much of what I had hoped to do in coming to Hartford. I have decided to step down as director and allow a successor to develop and implement the next phase of the museum's renewal: developing the program for the Atheneum's main campus," Holmes said in an Atheneum press release. "My plans now are to consult independently on exhibitions and building projects."

Holmes said he’d achieved two principal goals: (a) focusing on the museum’s collections and history and (b) developing what the press release calls “a sound strategy that secures the museum's long-term sustainability.”

Regarding “sustainability,” a plan to expand and renovate the existing Atheneum buildings was killed after Holmes arrived. So Holmes helped lead development of designs for a $15.5 million conversion of the former Hartford Times building behind the Atheneum in downtown Hartford into administrative space, rooms for meeting and educational programs, and a gallery for community art shows. Scheduled to be completed in fall 2008, this project will free up space in the Atheneum’s five linked existing buildings. Long-term plans call for renovating the old buildings, including converting galleries that had become administrative space back to galleries.

As for the focus on the collections and history, Holmes supported plans developed before he arrived for touring shows of the Atheneum’s collection. (The shelved building plan called for the collections to tour while the museum was being renovated and expanded and then return to be reinstalled in the new galleries.) The result was the good “Dalí, Picasso, and the Surrealist Vision” exhibition in 2005, which touted the museum’s pioneering role in embracing surrealist art, and the fabulous “American Splendor” in 2006, which showcased the fruits of the museum’s deep and early engagement with 19th century Hudson River School painting.

Holmes, who was chief operating officer and deputy director of New York’s Whitney Museum and director of the Vancouver Art Gallery before taking charge of the Atheneum, plans stay on as director until his successor is found.

‘Urban America’ at RISD

Here’s my review of “Urban America, 1930-1970,” at the RISD Museum, 224 Benefit St., Providence, Dec. 1, 2006, to Feb. 25, 2007. From top to bottom: Morris Engel, “Coney Island,” 1939; Paul Cadmus, “Coney Island,” 1935; and Carmel Vitullo, “Street Pose, Providence, Rhode Island,” 1969.

Wade Kramm, Alison Safford

Here’s my review of “Purpose Considered,” featuring work by Alison Safford of Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, and Wade Kramm of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, at Bristol Community College’s Grimshaw-Gudewicz Art Gallery, 777 Elsbree St., Fall River, Massachusetts. From top to bottom: Kramm’s “Janus (Self Portrait),” 2006, and “Still Life (Pears),” 2006, and Safford’s “Futility Toy,” 2007.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Peter Schumann and Bread and Puppet Theater

Vermont’s Bread and Puppet Theater is in Boston this week presenting an exhibit of founder Peter Schumann’s art, a family-friendly circus and the not-so-family-friendly pageant “The Battle of the Terrorists and the Horrorists” at the Boston Center for the Arts. Here’s a preview I wrote of the events. I called Schumann at his home in Glover, Vermont, on Jan. 21, 2007. Below are excerpts from the interview focusing on the “Terrorists and the Horrorists” show, illustrated with photos I took of a performance of the show in Glover last August.

On “The Battle of the Terrorists and the Horrorists” pageant:
It introduces to the American public a term they haven’t thought about, the Horrorists. And they are being told a hell of a lot about the terrorists and they don’t realize that terrorists are just a tiny little fraction compared to the gigantic faction of the Horrorists. The terrorists happen to be illegal and the Horrorists are totally legal and are running our lives in a fantastic way.

Who are the Horrorists?
Well, I don’t want to totally give it away. You want names? There are about 120 names available. [laughs] ... Here we are in a state after the Communists, we had to look for another big enemy to play out against and here we have them, we’re very happy about that. Possibly we created them ourselves. And we call them terrorists. And the reality is that the guys who are running this game are themselves fairly horrible and we call them Horrorists.

The shows in the first years after Sept. 11 seemed elegies. This one is much more stridently bitter or angry.
Oh, could be, yeah. It’s not only that. It’s also a funny show. You’ll see. It’s born from a big heard of deer that are roaming the landscape. ... And then in finishing up the thing it makes use of the "Popol Vuh," which is the most ancient piece of writing in the Americas. And the "Popol Vuh" is indeed talking about something that amounts to apocalyptic terminology. It’s quite amazingly sinister.

It seems the "Popol Vuh," the way you used it at least, speaks of how people’s abuse of the world curses them to apocalypse.
The role of humans in the world doesn’t look very good in the "Popol Vuh." If you think of the human as another animal, then the animals come out better, most of them, than the humans. And we are using that in this play. We are making people to be again part of that big family of creatures by using the "Popol Vuh," and not being the extraordinary historical thing that they think of themselves. That seems to me a fair assessment that is necessary to make at this point, because our human arrogance after all is maybe the biggest cause of all the harm we do on this earth. Our soloistic thinking, our thinking in terms that we are the exception to the rule, our thinking that we are the extraordinary critters and the other critters don’t count for much, they are just our food or they are just there for our usages. So we are in a very strange position of singling ourselves out from the world as we do. And we have religions that support that very strongly, and these religions have been quite disastrous to us. So at this point it’s probably a good cold water shower for American humans to think about it that way.

How does the work you’re doing now relate to your earlier work, say your Vietnam work or your work in the ‘80s?
I guess the commitment of being political has intensified over the years, to respond to the political situations. On the other hand we are puppeteers, you know, we are not politicians. We want to make fun of things. And we want to be practicing our art, which is in itself a joyful business and not a sinister business. So we make it into a play that people can take as it is and can interpret as they wish. There’s a lot of openness in there that isn’t didactically telling people how to think it. They still must make up their minds. And it’s an art form that’s forever unfinished, gigantic, like sculpture being made to dance in front of your eyes, language that isn’t anymore in gossip and imitation of everyday language but it’s just concentrated down to bare minimum narrative.

I also feel the recent shows reflect an anger that the same stuff you’ve been fighting all these years or protesting against for all these years keeps coming back again. … You look at the people in charge of the country now and it’s literally the Nixon people who’ve come back.
Oh, yeah. Much worse I think. It’s much, much more serious for the rest of us. Nixon seemed to be an episode. This isn’t an episode. This is not going to be cured by the sort of wishy-washy Democratic measures that the Democrats are now talking about, which are typically not doing anything about the war but just slapping his [Bush’s] wrists or something by making a formal statement against the widening of the war, and in actuality supporting it by giving him the money. This is the kind of horrible situation we are in now. We are destroying these states. We are threatening Iran with war, but meaning it also. Probably trying to cajole Israel into doing it. And then Israel is probably cajoling the U.S. into doing it. So it’s pretty horrible. If that’s done that sounds to me like apocalyptic. And it’s very much, it’s an area that’s possible.

What’s changed in the last few years to cause the company to make this more angry show?
The getting more serious of the situation, I think. Which is a combined seriousness of so many venues, when you think of ecologically what is happening to our earth, and America’s role in that. As well as this war now that the states are pursing. To the fact that we are now a country that actively pursues torture as a means of conducting warfare, getting so-called intelligence. This all, you know, it peaks. Not that the CIA hasn’t pursued this kind of techniques for quite some time, they did, but it wasn’t as visible as all that for us. It was left for South American dictators to do that and we would support them and teach them how to do it. But now it’s obvious that we are admittedly and actively pursuing that kind of medieval warfare. So it is a changed situation, yes.

Why a black and white palette this time?
Well black and white is the most graphic art. It’s from the early graphics which are black and white. It’s from book printing. It’s from drawing. From what you do when you do strict narrative pursuits, when you don’t fiddle around. For a poster, for broadsides, for advertising the basics. That’s where black and white comes from. And I think it is the most graphic of color schemes.

How do you not despair?
Because I’m alive. I have muscles. I jump. I run. I mean, I go up and down the hill, these beautiful black hills. I have a family. I have wonderful family members, including grandchildren. I mean, yeah, I’m lucky.

“The Battle of the Terrorists and the Horrorists,” 7 p.m. Feb. 15-18, $12, students and seniors $10; family-friendly “Everything is Fine Circus,” 2 p.m. Feb. 17-18, $10, students and seniors $5, under 3 free; Schumann’s “Independence Paintings” exhibit, Feb. 12-18; Boston Center for the Arts Cyclorama, 539 Tremont St., Boston. Tickets:, 866-811-4111. Info:, 617-426-1522.


If you’re in New York on Tuesday, consider yourself invited to the release party for volume three of the nonfiction comics anthology “Syncopated” at Drop Off Service. Editor and cartoonist Brendan Burford kindly included my comic “My Dorchester Neighbors" (at left, an excerpt).

"Syncopated" release party, 6 to 9 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2007, at Drop Off Service, Avenue A between 13th and 14th streets, Manhattan.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Sailors’ Valentines

During the Victorian era, New England sailors who made port at Barbados returned home to their loved ones bearing gifts: octagonal shadow boxes the islanders filled with shells arranged in dazzling kaleidoscopic patterns.

At least that’s what people say.

“There isn’t a lick of evidence for any of it, except that some of them were sold in Barbados,” explains Stuart Frank, who wrote the entry on sailors’ valentines for the 2004 “Encyclopedia of American Folk Art” and is a curator at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, where you can see valentines like the one above.

Occasionally the valentines bear shop labels identifying them as having been sold on Barbados. But few records have been found identifying who bought them, or why. Frank adds, “We don’t even know they were called sailors’ valentines.”

Regardless, they’re pretty awesome. And the mysterious origin is cool too.

As I reported last week, collectors have gone gaga over 19th century originals in the past 15 years, with prices now beginning around $10,000. Last August, Hyland Granby Antiques of Hyannis Port sold this one above, which Alan Granby touts for its craftsmanship and rarity, saying, “There is a similar valentine in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, having been given by Queen Victoria.”

New England artisans have revived the tradition, crafting contemporary sailor valentines. Sometimes they’re saccharine, but some rival the vintage pieces. The Whaling Museum’s store offers contemporary pieces by William Boffa and Diane Lily of New Bedford. (The one, at left, from the museum store is by the curiously named firm Authentic Models.) There’s also SVG (formerly known as the Sailor’s Valentine Gallery) on Nantucket.

Kahn Fine Antiques in Chatham offers valentines by Gregg Robert of Cotuit (left). In the 2006 book “Sailors’ Valentines: Their Journey Through Time,” the authors report that an auto accident in 1994 damaged his short-term memory, forcing him to give up a career in pharmacy, and prompting him to begin making sailors’ valentines. “I never worry about repeat patterns in my work,” he says in the book, “because I have no recollection of my past valentines.”

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Monday, February 12, 2007

Sherman wins ICA’s Foster Prize

Congratulations to Cambridge artist Kelley Sherman for being named winner today of the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art’s 2006 Foster Prize (formerly known as the ICA Prize), which honors “a Boston-area artist of exceptional promise” with $25,000.

In past years, the ICA has just exhibited the work of the winner, but when the museum opened in its new building last December it mounted a show of four finalists for the 2006 prize, hoping that taking the competition public would generate greater interest in the show. Some lament it being turned into public game show (the finalists in particular, I believe), but I think it’s fun, especially all the debating and grousing it inspires.

Since December, I’ve been trying to game out whom the ICA judges would pick for the winner – but I’ve been too chicken to share my thinking. But now that the winner has been announced, I’ll blithely blunder into public with my harebrained theories:

The previous six ICA Prize winners have split 50-50 between bright handmade painting and ultra-serious, cold, conceptual stuff. But the ICA’s taste generally leans toward the cold and conceptual, so I figured Sheila Gallagher didn’t have much of a chance for the very reason her work (flowers and waterfalls) leads the visitor polling: it’s too lovely. Jane Marsching’s arctic explorer jokes fall flat, but I thought her environmentalism and new media stuff (blog as forum) could swing judges.

If it was just about aesthetics, though, I thought the rigor and purity of Rachel Perry Welty’s twist-tie sculptures might win out. But her “Karaoke Wrong Number” video had people laughing (and second in visitor polling) – probably not a good thing.

Sherman’s print-outs of anonymous wish lists from the Internet (at top, “Wish Lists,” 2006) and floor charts documenting a divorce (at left, “The Family House,” 2006) could be seen as even more aesthetically rigorous and pure than Welty’s work, which I suspect helped her be named “Breakout artist of 2006” by Big, Red & Shiny (a marker of where the local art intelligentsia is leaning).

In retrospect, is it any wonder that the ICA's prize went to the artist who most favored words and diagrams over sensual pleasures?

The jury – featuring Williams College Museum of Art Director Lisa Corrin; 2001 ICA Prize winner Taylor Davis (a cold, conceptual sculptor whose work is included in the ICA’s new permanent collection); Billie Tsien, principal of Tod Williams Billie Tsien and Associates in New York; and New York Artists Space Director Benjamin Weil – “found the experience of Sherman’s four works to be conceptually and emotionally rewarding and admired her skillful scouring and reworking of material on the Internet to illuminate social dynamics,” the ICA’s press release reports.

“Kelly Sherman’s work is a captivating mix of the conceptual and the emotional,” ICA Director Jill Medvedow says in the press release. “Like so many exceptional artists, she helps us to see the familiar in entirely new ways. Through her eyes, anonymous wish lists and floor plans become an incredibly poignant and engaging examination of human desires and connections.”

In all the hubbub over the ICA’s new building, the Foster Prize show has been pretty much ignored by local critics. (Admittedly, I’ve not written about the show in depth yet either – but I’m getting to it.) Perhaps, the announcing of the award will give people (like me) a kick in the pants to actually engage the show. It’s up through March 11.