Controversial curation

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I had a dream last night that I was part of a select group of Dartmouth students chosen to curate an art show. Only when we began discussing what to include in the show did I realize that I was way out of my league: several of the other students were opinionated art history majors. Two boys began a heated debate about the merits of including art that was “important” versus art that generated an emotional response. One girl wanted us to create a show that summarized the entire history of art, and started showing slides of Native American textiles. Too exhausted to remain a part of the debate, I woke up.

Curation is an art and a science, one that I profess to know almost nothing about besides what one of my best friends–an opinionated Dartmouth art history major–has told me. There are obvious ways to group paintings–by country, by time period, by artist. This all makes sense: a well-curated show should create some conversation between the works, some tension or resolution.

I was very impressed with the show that my art historian friend, M, curated as her senior project. The show was just five paintings, but they were linked by the theme of the femme fatale, and placed a seventeenth century Italian depiction of Salome at John the Baptist’s beheading next to a twentieth century Caribbean painting of Eve with the serpent. Hearing M talk about the prevalent themes that united such disparate works made me consider these paintings much more fully than if I’d been walking by them in a gallery.

Sean Scully in front of two of his stripe paintings

Just a few months earlier, I had gone to one of M’s gallery tours when the Hood, Dartmouth’s art museum, had an exhibition of painter Sean Scully’s stripes. Whenever the Hood had a new exhibition there was always an opening gala with music, appetizers, and tours. Thrilled with the prospect of free wine and cheese and jazz piano in the gallery (what is it with me and music in art galleries?) I was more than happy to go look at stripes. And, on M’s tour, I found that the stripe paintings were actually interesting. While literally every single painting was some combination of stripes, each was different; some provoked joy, others nostalgia, and others I found myself really liking.

The exhibition that came after “The Art of the Stripe” was titled “Black Womanhood: Images, Icons, and Ideologies of the African Body.” As senior intern, M was in charge of much of the publicity for the exhibition and especially the opening night gala. She and another friend held several focus groups to figure out the best way to attract attention while staying true to the goal of the show, which was to problematize the way black women have been portrayed over time and juxtapose many art forms by and about African and African American women. Similarly, they hired a DJ to play hip-hop music at the event, alternating between mainstream misogynist and feminist hip-hop. The opening gala was called “Hip-hop in the Hood.”

The slam poetry group at Dartmouth, Soul Scribes, performed at the event and I remember some latent tension bubbling over. But I also remember M’s highly thoughtful tour, asking viewers how we felt when confronted with difficult images, what we thought of certain symbolism. Attendance for the event was at least 3 times larger than it had been for the stripe gala.

The controversy on campus was immediate and almost unanimous. People who had not attended the event were outraged by the title, organizations that had participated in the focus groups and thus contributed their ideas condemned the gala, the many Dartmouth newspapers published a steady stream of editorials for two weeks. My friend was more than crushed. She was labeled a racist, a misogynist, culturally insensitive. And yet over the course of the three months that the Black Womanhood exhibit was up at the Hood, more students attended than for any other exhibit in the course of the museum’s history. It was this fact that M clung to–she had helped get people into the art museum who wouldn’t otherwise have gone, people who were primarily interested in knowing what all the fuss was about but then were riveted by the artwork (interestingly, no one was upset about the exhibit itself; if you paid an iota of attention to the art you would realize that it was trying to make the same point as all those self-righteous editorials). After all, what is art worth if it doesn’t provoke an emotional response?

Time to go back to sleep and resolve that debate.

Carrie Mae Weems's piece "From here I saw what happened and I cried"

How to be a museum curator

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What you’ll need: an art history degree

Songlist: Can’t Touch This by MC Hammer, The Art Teacher by Rufus Wainwright

Further reading: The Night at the Museum by Milan Trenc, Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code (but don’t actually read this one)

Monet's waterlilies curve around the specially designed rooms of Musee L'Orangerie in Paris

Yesterday my boyfriend and I went to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts for a family-friendly event called ¡España! I had been lured by the promise of flamenco guitar in the galleries. Since I was fairly sure I would know the guitarist(s)–the Twin Cities flamenco community is not all that big–I was more interested in the concept of looking at art with flamenco guitar as a backdrop than the music itself. After wandering around the galleries waiting to hear guitar strings vibrating in the vicinity, we finally just asked a docent where to find the guitarist. He pointed back the way we came: all the way to the end of the hall, take a left, and all the way to the end of that hall. We wound up in a bright white atrium–no art on the walls–facing an empty black chair with a microphone forlornly angled at the floor and a sign saying “Flamenco guitar: 12 pm-4pm.” I looked at my watch: 3:15 pm.

The day was not a total waste, though, because I always love wandering the Institute’s halls. We walked past old favorites–the easy to love Monet haystack and Van Gogh olive trees, the more violent Max Beckmann triptych that my mom and I discovered last April–and temporary galleries of photography and modern art.

It wasn’t always like this. When I was a kid and it was one of my parents’ birthdays or we had a visitor from out-of-town, we would invariably go to the MIA. I was not bored by the art at the time, but I always assumed beforehand that I would be; this assumption, voiced in protest to my parents, meant that I could not thereafter be seen enjoying myself at the art museum.

Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!)

Perhaps it was when I visited London with my mom at the age of 14 that I suddenly realized how much I do enjoy being at art museums. We went to the National Gallery and I fell in love with two paintings there: Henri Rousseau’s Tiger in a Tropical Storm and The Execution of Lady Jane Grey by Paul Delaroche. Because they were the first paintings I truly loved, they are still the paintings I love best.

And while I haven’t fallen quite so hard for any other painting, I have been strongly affected many times since while touring art museums: at Madrid’s Reina Sofia I stood shocked at Picasso’s Guernica and felt intensely nostalgic in front Dali’s Muchacha de Espalda. I felt awed by the gigantic water lily paintings that wrap around two ovular galleries in the Musee L’Orangerie in Paris. And I was giddy with excitement seeing Van Gogh’s Starry Night in person at the MoMA.

The best experience I had, though, was a thirty-minute jaunt through the Louvre on a Friday evening with my friend Hilary. Admission was free for those under 26 on Friday evenings, and we’d meant to get there earlier but had dallied. This also happened to be a night where musicians were scattered around the vast palaces. Hilary and I raced past a jazz trio playing in front of an Egyptian pyramid, a violinist in the Great Hall, a brass quartet by the Venus de Milo. It was this beautiful phantasmagoria of color and sound made more exciting by the fact that we were actually, literally, running through the Louvre to take it all in.

What I can’t fathom is how incredible it would be to work in these buildings, to patrol the corridors where incredible art hangs, to have meetings down the hall from John Singer Sargent or El Greco or Caravaggio. Does a curator become complacent about the scenery? It seems doubtful. I imagine that being in that setting day after day would be like a perpetual dream…flamenco guitar or not.

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey

How to be an artisan

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What you’ll need: any and all of these: glass, wood, clay, yarn, metal, beads, paint, canvas

Songlist: Broken Strings by James Morrison, Basket Case by Green Day

Further reading: The Big-Ass Book of Crafts by Mark Montano

Yesterday, I went to an art fair in Uptown, Minneapolis (one of Wikipedia’s top “hipster” areas in the USA). Strolling past booths of art, hordes of people, and mini-donut stands (you can’t have a fair in Minnesota without mini-donuts) I began to wonder how much it would cost to show my art at such a fair.

The only problem for me would be what art to focus on. As a kid I went to pottery camps, took sewing classes, made jewelry regularly for birthday presents. I often got craft kits for my own birthday, which would result in the next round of gifts for my family members. Somewhere buried in my childhood closet are: Russian nesting dolls, dreamcatchers, scented candles, hand-bound journals, woven baskets, hemp bracelets, a stone-polishing machine, a quilt for my dolls, my knit mittens, papier-mâché masks, bumpy clay mugs, and boxfuls of orphaned beads and unused yarn.

Which isn’t to say that most of these items are all that nice. I never got good, for instance, at throwing clay on a pottery wheel–I could never get it centered. My painting skills only impress on a paint-by-number canvas. And my stitches–even on a sewing machine–never seem to stay in a straight line.

But my urge to create lingers on. And it’s not just me, either. My brother made a backgammon board out of wood, leather, and polished stones this past Christmas (and I used the extra leather to make him a cover for his Kindle, which was a 3-day ordeal mostly made up of me swearing). Speaking of Christmas, every year we hang stockings sewn and cross-stitched by my two grandmothers, as well as detailed ornaments that my dad sculpted out of modeling clay. Other presents under the tree have included painted cigar boxes and photographs from my cousins, dresses made by my mom, and jewelry made by my aunt. We could probably open an entire art fair with crafts from our family.

Now those are some good-looking charcoal lines

If I had to pick one thing from my closet to sell to the public, though, I’d probably choose my charcoal drawings from college. I took Drawing I during the spring term of my senior year thinking I had no talent whatsoever for drawing. If I’d taken the class with another professor, I’d probably have been proven right. But during the first class as I was swirling my stick of charcoal around absently on a piece of paper my professor came over and peered intently at the abstract lines.

“That’s fantastic,” he said. “Now just do it…bigger.” So I took a larger sheet of paper and swirled the charcoal with more gusto. He came by a few minutes later and grabbed the sheet out from under me.

“Perfect! Incredible! That’s exactly what I was looking for!” And thus began one of the best classes I ever took at Dartmouth. I still have the hundreds of drawings I created that term up in my room, ready to be framed. Uptown Art Fair 2012, here I come.

Art in bloom

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In early spring the Minneapolis Institute of Arts puts on a three-day show called Art in Bloom, which is consistently my favorite event at the museum. Floral artists from around the Twin Cities create interpretations of paintings and sculptures in the MIA’s permanent collection, which are then displayed for one weekend next to the work of art that inspired them.

The weekend of Art in Bloom 2011 was a busy one for me, but my mom and I were able to squeeze in a thirty minute trip through the galleries. The floral creations are scattered throughout the entire museum so we raced from room to room to see as many as possible. I felt like we were on an Easter egg hunt, in that the bouquets are bright and barely camouflaged and ubiquitous.

My mom and I agreed that the best arrangements were not overly literal and beautiful independent of any association of the painting. Here are a few of our favorites:

Allegory of the Four Elements by Cornelis Jacobsz. Delff

Calypso by Karl-Ernest-Rodolphe-Heinrich-Salem Lehmann

St. Severin, Paris by Emmanuel Rudnitsky

Small Buddha statue

Chinese scroll

Butterfly art and conservationism

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Christopher Marley's beetle art

The summer I lived in Provincetown, Massachusetts, I frequently visited a store called Wa. This store features gorgeous antique furniture, often Oriental, stone fountains, intricate lamps. The first time I went in, I remember my eye being drawn to the back of the store where it looked like an artist had framed shiny beads. When I approached, I saw this was not the case at all: those shiny objects were the kaleidoscopic shells of rainforest beetles.

Wa displayed many pieces by the artist, Christopher Marley, including arrangements of exotic butterflies, gigantic stag beetles, fragile walking sticks. I was completely enthralled by this art, but also wary of its consequences. How had he collected all these lifeless bodies? Each framed insect was perfectly intact, suggesting that these creatures were not found expired on the rainforest floor.

A display of Cytheras butterflies from the Amazon

At the store and on his website Marley answers this concern. “Leading environmentalists and entomologists agree that insect collecting can actually aid in the preservation of insect species by offering an economic incentive to preserve the habitat in which this ‘sustainable rainforest crop’ thrives.” Marley’s guide in Amazonian Peru told him that indigenous tribes made enough money by collecting butterflies that they had no need to farm or ranch that land instead. Indeed, the guide asserted, they’d been collecting butterflies from the same small area for over a decade, and each year the butterfly population increased. The implication is that Marley’s art may have a stronger effect than all those “Save the Rainforest” bumper stickers–and their backing organizations–on actually saving the rainforest. In the end it always comes down to money, and Marley’s pieces sell for hundreds and even thousands of dollars (the Cytheras piece featured above retails at $1,100). And while all of the reasons seem completely valid, I have a lingering unease over killing in the name of conservation.

A beetle sunburst

DIY: Design a house like Frank Lloyd Wright

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Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater

No childhood as the offspring of an American architect is complete without a visit to Fallingwater, Taliesen, and the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Yes, our family road trips often veered off course to pay homage to one of the greatest architects of all time: Frank Lloyd Wright.

While researching FLW, I came across this design website, which gives you a few facts about Wright and some basic tips and information about the business of architecture. Then you get to do it yourself: choose a client from a group of about twenty, pick a location, and start designing! Create a floor plan, add walls, windows, and openings, and finally tour your house in 3D. If you find that you’re more of a pro than you realized, you can even submit your design for others to view and critique. I know what I’ll be doing all weekend…


Looking up in the Guggenheim museum

Oh my Gaudí


Inside the Sagrada Familia

The great thing about visiting any new place with my dad, the architect, is that his perspective is so different from my own. Check out that mansard roof! he exclaims. Is that really faience glazed clay tile? Thus, with him, I notice the architectural detail in new cities much more often than I would on my own.

Visiting Barcelona once in spring of 2009 and again in July of 2010, I was sorry he was not with me. The city is a phantasmagoria of architectural innovation; every block, it seems, holds some fantastic creation. In fact, one gets so accustomed to buildings that curve, bulge, ripple, flash, that something like this looks commonplace:

Yeah? So your exterior looks like waves. So what?

Of course, when you talk about architecture and you talk about Barcelona, there is one man so important that he overshadows everyone else: Antoni Gaudí (literally–the Sagrada Familia bristles out of a relatively flat skyline). In fact, it’s hard to think of another architect who has as completely reconfigured the nature of a city, or another city that lures tourists with the treasures of just that one architect. Without Gaudí, Barcelona would be just another European city with a nice old cathedral and street vendors willing to sell you individual beers from six-packs they store in the sewer system (don’t tell me you can’t find that in Munich).

In fact, I was skeptical about Gaudí’s style before I visited Barcelona. It just seemed so, well, gaudy. Up close, though, his work is so utterly intricate and it so perfectly combines elegance with whimsy that it’s nearly impossible to resist. I found myself gaping in awe at the heights of the Sagrada Familia, a structure that attempts to define the word “exaltation” through stone. And then there’s Parc Güell, which feels like a multi-layered underwater Disney creation.

Gaudí is one of those architects who did not base what could be done on what had been done. In his building designs, Gaudí used shapes common in nature seemingly irreconcilable with the rigid materials necessary for the buildings to stand. Yet his pillars mimic trees perfectly, his tiles take on the form of tropical fruits with ease. Balconies settle like sand dunes. I can only imagine what more my dad would point out if he were there.

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