American Impressionist

Come summer, as temperatures rise and my patience for enduring them wears thin, the cool blues of an impressionist seascape can almost refresh as effectively as a cooling sea breeze itself, if I’m desperate and imaginative enough.

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Childe Hassam The Laurel in the Ledges, Appledore 1905 Oil on canvas 25 × 30 in. (63.5 × 76.2 cm) North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, Promised gift of Ann and Jim Goodnight

This summer, if you haven’t escaped to some upper New England seaside locale, you too can can wallow in those metonymic blues at Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum where more than 40 of the American impressionist Childe Hassam’s greatest oil paintings and watercolors of the coves, inlets, ledges and expansive seascapes of his beloved Appledore Island, will be on view through Nov 16. [There’s also of course the undeniable cool of industrial air conditioning.]

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Childe Hassam 1859 – 1935, United States Poppies, Isles of Shoals, 1891 Oil on canvas overall: 50.2 x 61 cm (19 3/4 x 24 in.) framed: 73.5 x 83.8 x 6.7 cm (28 15/16 x 33 x 2 5/8 in.) Gift of Margaret and Raymond Horowitz 1997.135.1 Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

For thirty years, beginning in 1886, Hassam, the earliest American champion of the Impressionist movement, regularly visited Appledore, the largest island of the Isles of Shoals located off the coasts of southern New Hampshire and Maine.
There, year after year, inspired by the Atlantic breeze as well as the garden of poet and local celebrity Celia Thaxter, Hassam created painting after painting, often depicting the same locations, altering the perspective or framing, with the same commitment and imagination as Monet and his haystacks.

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Childe Hassam Sylph’s Rock, Appledore 1907 Oil on canvas 25 × 30 in. (63.5 × 76.2 cm) Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts, Gift of Charlotte E.W. Buffington in memory of her husband, 1908.5 © Worcester Art Museum. Photograph by Frank E. Graham

For this exhibition, an innovative, interdisciplinary team of art historians, marine scientists, and geologists teamed up to interpret and map Hassam’s island as expressed in his paintings. I assume the team’s findings are useful to their individual scholarly communities. But, as a lay visitor, I’ll confess to not really understanding how all that mapping and naming enhances my understanding of American impressionism or the artful, imaginative experience I expect to have when visiting an exhibition of the same.
In the same way, while 12 contemporary black-and-white photographs of Appledore today by Alexandra de Steiguer offer a different perspective of the island at a different time in a different medium, their relevance to my experience seems secondary. I understand why they’re there, but they’re not why I’m there.

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Childe Hassam Sunset at Sea 1911 Oil on canvas 34 3/4 × 34 1/2 in. (99.3× 87.6 cm) Private collection, Courtesy of Brock & Co., Concord, Massachusetts Photography by Clements/Howcroft

My favorite section of the show was the last, where we see Hassam himself altering his perspective and medium. Late in his career, after a visit to Paris, Hassam returned to Appledore and sought out new locations to paint in watercolor rather than oil. I found these works to be more emotionally adventurous and aesthetically moodier than the earlier more stereotypically impressionist work.

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Childe Hassam The Cove 1912 Watercolor on paper 14 × 20 in. (36.5 × 51 cm) Wichita Art Museum, Wichita, Kansas, John W. and Mildred L. Graves Collection, 1986.15

They raise questions for me: what changed? Why? And whether those changes were carried into other parts of his life.
By extension I can’t help ask the follow-up questions: are there locations just adjacent to those I tend to return to that have the potential to radically alter my perspective and experience? Are there unused tools that extend my current skill-set and open up new possibilities and opportunities?
I’ll confess to not really knowing who Childe Hassam was before previewing this show. Nevertheless, I can imagine we’re going to enjoy a number of hot summer days together.

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American Impressionist: Childe Hassam and the Isles of Shoals
through Nov 16, 2016
pem.org

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Faith in Food

The following was offered as a meditation at Grace Church, Salem’s Celtic Service on Sunday, June 26.

Those of you who know me well, might find it surprising to hear that as a child I was an extremely picky eater.

This is not to say I had allergies, or dietary restrictions or even that I was uncomfortable with extreme textures or flavors.

No, my issues, in hindsight weren’t gustatory at all. They were spiritual. I was afraid and proud.

In all honesty, there were more things I wouldn’t eat than I would. Every sandwich had to be deconstructed into its constituent parts for individual inspection, every menu parsed for offending ingredients. It was virtually impossible to eat at someone else’s home.

We all deal with food everyday. Whether we’re rich or poor, strong or struggling, good or bad, or more likely negotiating the spaces in between, we’re all making choices about what and how we feed ourselves.

And I believe these choices reflect our values, our aspirations, the communities we identify with and by omission the communities we do not.

All our hopes and fears are right there on our dinner tables, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

I don’t want to draw too broad or literal a stroke on this point, but as the circumstances of my life broadened. As I crossed borders – both literal and figurative – made myself vulnerable to the hospitality of strangers, and found myself in the position of offering hospitality to proverbial friends not yet made, my personal preferences ceased to be relevant.

If this thing has been called good by another, and is being offered to me as the same, who am I to reject it and call it unacceptable?

There are any number of extreme meals I could draw upon at this point to illustrate my meaning – goat’s head in Mongolia, elaborate feasts in France, simple suppers in Salem, a sip of water on the way to Santiago.

The meal, instead, I want to talk about is a fairly common one. In fact, it’s the one we’re all about to share together: the great thanksgiving, holy communion, the Lord’s Supper.

For a long time this was a meal I was not comfortable with. I did not understand its appeal. I did not view it as my own. I worried about the propriety of its execution. I feared its effectiveness even as I doubted its authority.

From my seat as disengaged voyeur, these were easy judgments to make. I hardly needed knowledge or experience, only preference and argument.

Once I removed myself from that self-imposed place of isolation and scarcity, though and finally accepted the invitation to come to the table itself and taste and see, my judgments, differentiations, “pickiness” ceased to be relevant.

And what I’ve found is true in this sacred space is also true out there in the “real world.”

When we accept the invitation to get up and go, to try something new, to make a stranger, a neighbor, a friend. Transformation is inevitable. In ourselves, in the world, in the elements that brings us together and sustain us.

Indeed, transformation is fundamentally what food does and how we relate to it; we change it and it changes us.

Through claiming and sometimes simply renaming the fruits of the earth as “food”, we make ourselves vulnerable to creation’s transforming power: chemically, relationally, spiritually.

To close I’d like to read a poem by the 17th century Anglican priest and poet, George Herbert, whose work was influential in my own journey away from pickiness. Officially, the poem’s called “Love III,” but I like to think of it as the reluctant dinner guest.

LOVE bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.

‘A guest,’ I answer’d, ‘worthy to be here:’
Love said, ‘You shall be he.’
‘I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on Thee.’
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
‘Who made the eyes but I?’

‘Truth, Lord; but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.’
‘And know you not,’ says Love, ‘Who bore the blame?’
‘My dear, then I will serve.’
‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’
So I did sit and eat.

Food is analogue?

There’s a problem I’ve noticed when foodie folks start talking about the future of healthy sustainable eating.

We’re not always using consistent language.

The conversation usually starts with food in the context of a fundamental element as necessary for life as air, water or sex.

But then the discussion quickly moves to policy or health benefits or social identity and the meaning of the word “food” seems shifts too. No longer is it simply an essential and life-giving thing that all of humanity shares, but a highly marketable thing that all of humanity can be sold.

We often call out the big multinationals making big investments in food science for transforming our most popular comfort foods into cost-effective edible chemicals, but I’m noticing the same thing is true for the kale and quinoa set.

Instagramming foodies lobbying for listicle placement to fill their restaurant, get a book deal, or perform an aspirational identity for the whole wide world are using the universal, humane appeal of food for their own financial/social benefit as well.

There’s of course nothing essentially wrong with that, especially in the context of a capitalist society like ours.

Except perhaps when one considers that our society is now starting to confront the consequences of some pretty serious food-related issues: chronic obesity, food insecurity, skyrocketing health costs.

Our relationship to food culture, I believe, both reflects and affects the most significant issues facing our species: income inequality, social solidarity, the very future of the species. . .

What if when we started talking about how to eat healthier we didn’t immediately shift the conversation to name-brand diets or rare so-called super foods? What if when we talked about the pleasures of food we didn’t just talk about extreme taste or expense?

What if food that is good for you was also just simply good and impossible to avoid?

I’d like to think 2016 is the year we start to make some headway in shifting this conversation, and I’d like to think it’s going to have a lot to do with the United Nations naming 2016 the year of the pulse (e.g. lentils, beans, legumes etc.)
http://www.fao.org/pulses-2016/en/

Imagine if all those Instagrammers got inspired to capture the diverse beauty and possibility of lentils in all their varied forms.

And if big multinationals put all their supply channel planning behind making sure thousands of legume varieties are  available to us wherever and however we shop.

The only possible problem I foresee with this transformational moment is that pulses are cheap and therefore useless for social differentiation or profit engineering.

That’s not going to stop me from eating as many meals of beautifully nutritious and delicious pulses as high-priced tasting menus or value-priced convenience meals.

Maybe you’ll join me?

 

 

 

Asia in Amsterdam (Us in the World)

Culture

: the beliefs, customs, arts, etc., of a particular society, group, place, or time

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Plaque. Delft, The Netherlands, 1670–1690. Tin-glazed earthenware (faience). 25 × 36 1/4 inches (63.5 × 92 cm). Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Purchased with the support of the Stichting tot Bevordering van de Belangen van het Rijksmuseum, BK-1971-117 Courtesy of Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

For many years now, around kitchen tables and cocktail tables, I’ve been hearing about the Dutch in Asia and how and what to present to modern audiences of the far-reaching influence of that luxurious golden age.

Luxury

: something that is helpful or welcome and that is not usually or always available

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Cat. 22 Sweetmeat set with the coat of arms of Johannes Camphuys. Jingdezhen, China, 1671–1690. Porcelain. 14 1/4 inches (36.19 cm) diameter. Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Museum purchase with funds donated by the Asian Export Art Visiting Committee, AE85686.A-I. © 2010 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Dennis Helmar

I even went to Amsterdam over the holidays in part to see installed at the Dutch national museum the nearly 200 superlative works of art – paintings, ceramics, silver, lacquerware, furniture, jewelry and books – eventually collected in “Asia in Amsterdam: The Culture of Luxury in the Golden Age” that reveal the transformative impact of Asian luxuries on Dutch art and life in the 17th century.

Golden

: very happy and successful

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Pieter Claesz (1596 /1597–1660). Still Life with Peacock Pie, 1627. Oil on panel. National Gallery of Art, Washington, The Lee and Juliet Folger Fund, 2013.141.1. Courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Founded less than a year apart – in 1798 and 1799 – the Rijksmuseum and the Peabody Essex Museum are caretakers of superlative collections inextricably linked to early international trade. They also now serve themselves as personal ports for my own engagement with our wide and fascinating world. 

Age

: the time of life when a person does something or becomes legally able to do something

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Cat. 26 Cradle. Coromandel Coast, India, 1650–1700. Ebony and ivory. 35 × 53 1/8 × 24 3/4 inches (89 × 135 × 63 cm). Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, BK-1966-48.

Ostensibly, the objects collected in this exhibition show us how the dutch perceived and valued imported luxuries from Asia, the lengths to which they would go to acquire them, and how they incorporated them into their lives, but they also challenge all of us to imagine how far into the Other we can journey and to what extent we might allow the Other to change our daily lives.

It’s interesting to think about our own personal golden ages. To what ends we might go to cultivate them, and what affects those efforts might have on ourselves and others.

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“Asia in Amsterdam: The Culture of Luxury in the Golden Age”
on vies at PEM February 27 – June 5
pem.org

 

 

All at Once upon a Time

allonc022

The subject of the email read “immersive experience in an historic house” and went on in the body to quote “‘this ‘aesthetically visceral, intellectually challenging and emotionally unafraid original work’ sounds right up your alley.”

Indeed, over the past years I’ve had opportunity to experience a number of these immersive performances, where the action takes place all around, often unexpectedly, in non-traditional performance spaces and involves/requires a certain level of audience participation.

Researching the background of “All at Once upon a Time” the new work in question to be staged in the Peabody Essex Museum’s historic Gardner-Pingree House, I learned that some of these experiences even shared a pedigree, tracing their origins to New York based stage director Giselle Ty.

Upon reflection, I’ve come to think that much of the appeal of these happenings [to appropriate the newly voguish 60s euphemism] lies in the anticipation of the unknown. What will it be like to experience a dramatic performance in a domestic space? What will be required of me?

Once you’ve been there and done that though, then, well, there’s not a great deal of mystery to anticipate, except perhaps the particular narrative into which we’ll be thrust.

I happen to always enjoy time spent in new and interesting domestic spaces, and all the better if those spaces are grand and/or historic. After all, a home is our first and most frequent stage, the place where we first learn to perform the roles of family, gender and social hierarchy. Imagining the rich and varied propagation and subversion of those performances over time in a space is a beloved personal past-time.

So, I’m embarrassed to admit I’d never before been to the Gardner-Pingree House, [Yes, I know there are regular guided tours] but was delighted to have an immersive happening as excuse to do so.

I had no idea the narrative I was committing my evening to, but after affirming some house rules (e.g. “I promise not to stroke or steal other human beings, but I understand that gently nudging and physical contact might be part of the experience.”) and depositing my mobile in a PEM-branded muslin bag,  I eagerly and knowingly followed our expectedly mute guide’s wan directing hand to a seat on the floor of the grand house’s front parlor, transformed for our theatrical purposes by moody lighting and an impressionistic forest of trees constructed of raw lumber.

A school girl runs in and begins telling us in dense and scholarly language about the Northwest Coast, forests, and totems [reminding me that I really need to finish writing up those notes from PEM’s new contemporary native fashion show].

Before I have a chance to create context for this uncontextualized avalanche of images and multi-syllabics [post-performance research suggests the text comes from photographer William Reid’s 1968 exploration of decaying totems in British Columbia, “Out of the Silence”], that familiar wan hand guides me mid-soliloquy to an adjoining room where I’m eventually joined by four more of our party of 15.  

This room too has been unrecognizably transformed. Papers are everywhere: clothes-pinned to strings strung across the ceiling, scattered across the expansive table. Some are handwritten; some have been typed on a typewriter; some printed in familiar fonts. Some are in English, others are not. A handwritten card invites us to find a text that speaks to us, copy it, and share it with someone later. We’re here for awhile — no words are spoken though lots of words are read and written, and I struggle to make connections among them, hardly a discrete image let alone narrative of any complexity, so much stimulation! so hard to commit to focusing — until eventually our familiar guide returns with another note inviting us to meet her upstairs.

Totally and blindly committed to the guidance of our mysterious leader, we follow to an upstairs bedroom where another note placed upon a pile of strips of toile invites us to “unravel me,” revealing a ballerina in fetal position who begins to come alive with a violinist’s playing. Taking the ends of organza(?) tied to her wrists, we each are given the power/influence to manipulate her actions. A quick shake or graceful swing is reflected in the kick of a leg or wave of an arm. That sense of “control” or even co-creation is a misdirection though as it must be acknowledged our ballerina chooses and interprets each action at her will regardless of our action or desire.  

Eventually the violin player stops playing and therefore the dancer can no longer dance, and it’s time for us to be guided into another room.

Here we find proper seats, and a portable stage curtain, and a man running a soundboard. It’s almost like a traditional performance space, except of course we’re in the upstairs room of an historic house. We also discover that our presumed singular guide comes in multiples. She’s a twin! And then the curtain moves revealing more of our original group twinning us on the other side of the room. Now newly rejoined in an approximation of what we once we were, we together watch our guides dress as monkey and bear and perform an interpretive dance with bananas to a ragtime recording, the significance of which is honestly wholly lost on me. Are these archetypes? stereotypes? simply an absurdity? Definitely racial overtones. . .

The rest of the groups that splintered from our formative forest in the front room, rejoin us in this newly appropriated theatre. The ballerina and violinst are there. A lute player too. And others I don’t recognize. There’s a dance party! (I worry about the bouncing of the historic floor) and balloons!

And then a return to the room in the back of the house where we started for hot cider and snacks and conversation.

How different all of our experiences were! And so many questions about what we just experienced, where it came from and what it meant.

I suspect it’s this post-performance conversation that is intended to be the substance of “All at Once Upon a Time…(or Variations on the Theme of Disappearing)”. A time for us to make meaning from the rich material that’s been collected for us and presented to us.

Perhaps not much different the meaning-making that’s been being performed in the Gardner-Pingree’s dining room and parlor for centuries?

 

Thank You for Coming/Wear Clean Socks

My calendar reminder read, “Wear Clean Socks.”

I don’t remember typing those words, though I do remember agreeing to attend at the same time an immersive dance performance at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art,  “Thank You for Coming: Attendance.” Assuming these events must be one in the same, I went ahead and made sure my feet were shod with store-new crimson stockings, just in case.

“Thank You for Coming” is a series of new works by the choreographer Faye Driscoll, heralded by the New York Times as a “startlingly original talent,” which explores the question: “How do we perceive ourselves as participants in the co-creation of our reality?”

Performance notes read:

“Performed in the round, Attendance [the first in the Driscoll’s three part series] opens with a tangle of five dancers communally bound by their reliance on one another.  [. . .] Taking place on stage with a limited-capacity audience, the work also invites viewers into the “weird” and wonderful universe of this “postmillenium, postmodern wild woman” (critic Deborah Jowitt), as they become participants by wearing or holding the offbeat objects that also serve as the dancers’ props. Throughout the performance, the joyful intimacy mounting on stage envelops the audience as well, creating a beautiful shared identity.”

Interesting. . .

Indeed, upon entering the theatre we’re asked to prepare ourselves for a new kind of experience.

“Please remove your shoes and jackets before going on stage and sit as close to the platform as you can.”

Thus liberated of our constraining affectations of humanity (or cunningly stripped of our protective armor?) 120 of us sit on the stage, some on risers, some on the floor, circling a bare raised platform, the unused seats of the audience before or behind us, and wait, school assembly style, wondering who and what and how and why and when. . .

The performers, recognizable not so much by their bare feet or comfortable street wear but their fluid movement and toned muscles, circle and observe.  I suspect they go unnoticed by most, until they file into a row of empty seats in the darkened audience space and sing to us about the fire exits.

Attention then moves to that central platform, where the performers construct with their bodies complex, grotesque, beautiful, unexpected, interconnected forms. Twisting and straining from one structure to the next, feet serve as platforms and handholds and crowns; mouths are by turns sensual and violent.

Photo by Maria Baranova.
Photo by Maria Baranova.

My seatmate says it reminds her of the immigration crisis raging across Europe: connections formed, strained, broken, and reformed with force, regret, fear and ecstasy.

And just like the arbitrary national borders of Europe, the arbitrary borders of the performance space are no match for the writhing life within. Eventually the performers, connected in a human rope hand to foot, roll off that dedicated performance space and literally into our laps. Even my new clean red socks become part of that living form, as a performer reaches to grab my foot, pulling me in with his outward looking motion.

And while I and others are pulled in, and the boundaries of us and them and this and that are being transgressed, the now unnecessary platform as performance space is disassembled from underneath, revealing benches, on which various portions of the audience are encouraged to rearrange themselves, jockeying for position, heightened only by the distribution of props (plastic flowers, golden shower caps, black lace). By the time I’m contemplating what heroic act the mysterious, no doubt phallic?, wooden mace I’ve been handed will  indict me to, I realize the performers have changed clothes before our eyes are now gasping for breath. Dying little deaths their once insatiable virility never suggested possible.

But then there’s more.

The strains of a guitar resurrect a new act. The “stroboscopic” stepping of the dancers suggest a club? They greet each other with joy, intrigue, disgust and fear. And what are the words the guitarist/sound technician is singing? Adam, Puna, Heather, Jon a tha aa n. Chris. Chris. Chris. Our names! One hundred and twenty of them forming the lyrics of the song, animating and enlivening not just the performative action at the center, but our own reaction to its substance as we are it.

Then a new act making use of those pre-distributed props. There’s chaos and confusion. Rushing and grabbing. Are those veils and formal formations of humanity representations of ritual? “I need the flute” a performer asks my section of the audience. A few beats until I realize she’s asking for my mis-identified wooden phallus. Whew! It’s only a flute.

Ropes are threaded from this side to that, separating the golden shower caps from the plastic flowers. Dividing space, creating boundaries and structure where once there was only freedom and connection.

Then darkness as action moves to the ground and the performers act individually from the margins of the space, straining towards the middle their clothing falling way, their stockings stretched from here to over her head.

A nucleus forms. There’s a lightening of a kind. That intersections of ropes once used to divide begin to rise from the floor, creating a canopy under which the dancers begin circling in a simplified contra style. In and out and round about, with each opening of the circle an unarticulated invitation to join, until, of course, a hand is extended in an explicit invitation, and members of the audience join one by one and then more and more, until, is it true?, the performers have removed themselves completely, standing to the side, as those who started the night thinking themselves members of the audience inhabit and perform the central creative act.

I think I’m going to start wearing clean red socks everyday.


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Thank You for Coming: Attendance
Oct 9-10
8 pm
icaboston.org

Strandbeests

Animaris Percipiere (2005). Courtesy of Theo Jansen. Photo by Loek van der Klis
Animaris Percipiere (2005). Courtesy of Theo Jansen. Photo by Loek van der Klis

Reluctantly, I made my way to the press opening for Theo Jansen’s Strandbeest at Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum.

I had grown skeptical of the hype that brought an estimated 15,000 gawkers to a preview of Theo’s kinetic “dream machines” at Crane’s Beach and the shallow awe that so often accompanies adjacency to unexpected functionality (i.e. “It Moves!” a la Frankensein’s “It’s Alive!”).  

Assuming I was girding myself for the apotheosis of the equivalent of an engineering dissertation by a grand old institution desperate for adjacency to techie cool, I sated my intellectual curiosity in advance with the recently arrived fall issue of Cowley Magazine, dedicated to the theme of Creation.

Theo Jansen & Animaris Siamesis (2009), Scheveningen beach, The Netherlands . Photo by Lena Herzog.
Theo Jansen & Animaris Siamesis (2009), Scheveningen beach, The Netherlands . Photo by Lena Herzog.

And so it was, that as I took my first sips of press-sating wine in the Asian Garden I was thinking of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins (“The world is charged with the grandeur of God”), and pondering anew what it means to be created, to create, and for creation and creator to be in relationship with each other.

This would be the first time I’d hear the artist speak for himself. The first time I’d see the beests move. The first time to see the creator in relationship with his creation.

Animaris Umerus, Scheveningen beach, The Netherlands (2009). Courtesy of Theo Jansen. Photo by Loek van der Klis
Animaris Umerus, Scheveningen beach, The Netherlands (2009). Courtesy of Theo Jansen. Photo by Loek van der Klis

And lo it came to be that it was good!

If Hopkins’ world is charged with the grandeur of God, Jansen’s is charged with compressed air held in “lungs” of Belgian sparkling “SPA” water bottles, also imagination, a lot of math, and unapologetic hubris.

Jansen’s goal is nothing short of creating an entirely new species, and the vocabulary he uses to describe his creations reinforces this premise. The beests on display at PEM are “fossils,” extinct specimens from the beest’s long evolution which is chronicled in a family tree occupying an entire wall of the gallery.

Photo by Federico Davoine. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Photo by Federico Davoine. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Over time the beests have developed various kinds of feet, even “sweat glands” (a means of lubricating joints while in motion), but most striking of all, they’re now procreating! as Jansen has made available online their mathematical “DNA” and encouraged engineering students the world over to tinker, adapt, and 3-d print.

The natural world is more than the sum of its parts and so too the Strandbeests are more than PVC piping and zip ties. Though the beests move without will or even necessarily power of their own, they strut and swagger with such personality one can’t help but smile in that way a toddler learning to walk reminds us of the joy of discovering where our legs might take us.

Theo Jansen’s hands & plastic pipes (2010), Scheveningen beach, The Netherlands . Photo by Lena Herzog.
Theo Jansen’s hands & plastic pipes (2010), Scheveningen beach, The Netherlands . Photo by Lena Herzog.

The Franciscan monastic Richard Rohr has written regarding creative output: “We don’t need a reason for art. Beauty is for beauty’s sake. Art and music are not simply objects, but an experience of opening to mystical awareness. “

Indeed, Theo Jansen’s Strandbeests are more than simply beautiful objects. They remind us of the power of the creative impulse, the joy of creation, and the complexity of life.

But can their creator ever give them life?
Or is their power, like Frankenstein’s, to remind us of what it means to be created to create.

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Strandbeest: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen
On view at PEM through January 3, 2016
Exhibition travels to Chicago and San Francisco
pem.org/sites/strandbeest

Animaris Umerus (2009), Scheveningen beach, The Netherlands. Photo by Lena Herzog.
Animaris Umerus (2009), Scheveningen beach, The Netherlands. Photo by Lena Herzog.

An American Epic

It’s rare, wandering Salem’s world-class Peabody Essex Museum, for me to have a feeling of familiarity. Indeed, becoming familiar with the far away and/or long-ago is part of the reason I wander those halls in the first place.

So, it was especially strange to encounter references to my hometown in the labels for “American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood,” the first major exhibition of the Kansas City artist in 25 years.

Thomas Hart Benton Self Portrait With Rita, 1922 Oil on canvas 49 × 39 3⁄8 in. (124.5 × 99.9 cm) National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Jack H. Mooney, NPG.75.30 Photo courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution/Art Resource, NY. Art © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Thomas Hart Benton
Self Portrait With Rita, 1922
Oil on canvas
49 × 39 3⁄8 in. (124.5 × 99.9 cm)
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Jack H. Mooney,
NPG.75.30
Photo courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution/Art Resource, NY. Art © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

In my childhood, I had known Benton as an epic muralist, prominent in downtown banks and department stores, but his World War II propaganda, representations of the American West, and commercial work for Hollywood were all new to me.

At the press opening, when I’m usually thinking about what intellectual connections I can create to make the faraway and/or long ago nearer and clearer, I was drawn instead to the social connections that might be possible, bringing together in the faraway, communities once known to me by their nearness.

I also have a special affinity for extending invitations, seeing in that vulnerable act of generosity the seed of creation, and in the acceptance of said invitation the assumption of the risk imperative to its possibility.

So, after the press opening, instead of typing up notes and thinking deep thoughts in anticipation of writing a “review,” I took steps towards planning an “event:” Benton and Missourians in Salem.

Thomas Hart Benton New England Editor, 1946 Oil and tempera on gessoed panel 30 × 37 in. (76.2 × 94 cm) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Hayden Collection— Charles Henry Hayden Fund, 46.1456 Art © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Thomas Hart Benton
New England Editor, 1946
Oil and tempera on gessoed panel
30 × 37 in. (76.2 × 94 cm)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Hayden Collection—
Charles Henry Hayden Fund, 46.1456
Art © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Myth-making is a central theme of the show, with multiple explorations of stories we create for ourselves about where we come from and where we’re going. Epics are, after all, about journeys, expanding one’s home turf, interacting with the other. There’s risk, and possibility, and attempts to make sense of difference. 

I see this active myth-making most acutely in the propaganda work, where caricatures of Japanese and African Americans eschew any beauty or humanity, focusing instead on dangerous threats of an unknown outside.

When confronted with the otherness of the landscape of the American West, however, Benton seems to exaggerate the beauty of its foreignness; opportunity outweighing threat.

Thomas Hart Benton Lewis and Clark at Eagle Creek, 1967 Polymer and tempera on Masonite panel 30 1/2 x 38 in. (77.5 x 96.5 cm) Courtesy of the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, Indianapolis, Indiana, 1989.2.10. Art © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Thomas Hart Benton
Lewis and Clark at Eagle Creek, 1967
Polymer and tempera on Masonite panel
30 1/2 x 38 in. (77.5 x 96.5 cm)
Courtesy of the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, Indianapolis, Indiana, 1989.2.10. Art © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

And Hollywood? Other than Delphi and its oracle, has there been a more successful mythmaker in the history humankind?

“Benton developed a modern cinematic painting style to communicate epic narratives as memorably as the movies of his day,” says Austen Barron Bailly, PEM’s George Putnam Curator of American Art. “He wanted to capture the feel of motion pictures on canvas: the illusion of three-dimensional space, rhythmic motion and the glow of projected light.”

Thomas Hart Benton Hollywood, 1937–38 Oil on canvas 56 × 84 in. (142.2 × 213.4 cm) The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, Bequest of the artist, F75-21/12 Photo by Jamison Miller. Art © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, N
Thomas Hart Benton
Hollywood, 1937–38
Oil on canvas
56 × 84 in. (142.2 × 213.4 cm)
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, Bequest of the artist, F75-21/12
Photo by Jamison Miller. Art © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, N

I too had grand dreams for my “event,” harnessing the movement of people across a land, capturing affinities of nearness in the land of the other.

And yet despite extending far-reaching invitations, I fear, in the end, fear won. We were a mere handful of classmates and cousins, risking little more than sharing a morning filled with beauty and opportunity.

Perhaps when “American Epics” opens at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City on October 10 some of you based there will extend an invitation to an-other to explore a beautiful epic?

Thomas Hart Benton The Lost Hunting Ground, 1927–28 From the mural series American Historical Epic, 1920–28 Oil on canvas 60 1⁄4 × 42 1⁄8 in. (153 × 107 cm) The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, Bequest of the Artist, F75-21/10 Photo by Jamison Miller. Art © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Thomas Hart Benton
The Lost Hunting Ground, 1927–28
From the mural series American Historical Epic, 1920–28
Oil on canvas
60 1⁄4 × 42 1⁄8 in. (153 × 107 cm)
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, Bequest of the Artist, F75-21/10
Photo by Jamison Miller. Art © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

A writer’s life

As frustrating as it seems, especially in the moment, life must have challenge, especially if you, like me, like to tell stories about it.

Most often we hear about the challenge of the writer’s block, the fear of failing to improve with our primitive markings the purity of the blank page (cave wall), or committing to a story that might not turn out to be ideally suited to achieving our dreams.

I haven’t written anything for a long time, though I don’t think the reasons for this are the above. Instead, the trouble’s been, I’ve been so busy accumulating stories I just haven’t had a chance to write any of them down!

The backlog goes back at least to the humanistic seder I hosted on Good Friday. It includes dinner parties featuring peking duck, Dutch poffertjes and a banquet inspired by a soundtrack of pre-Khmer Cambodian rock and roll. I attended an extraordinary world premier by the classical music world’s current wunderkind, Matt Aucoin, and made a cross country culinary pilgrimage to dine at the trailblazing Chez Panisse. I was inducted into the Fellowship of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist and spent a weekend in rural Vermont leaving cocktail parties in chicken coops in my wake.

Indeed, I’m writing this paragraph from a shady Montreal garden where an immigrant DJ is ensuring my Fourth of July has more French EDM than yours. Shouldn’t I engage someone in conversation? Make a story, rather than privately muse on the challenges of storytelling?

It’s a long-held writer’s creed, that a story doesn’t count if you don’t write it down. Eat everything you kill. By this estimation the past several months have been pretty indulgent? Self-serving? Profligate?

By choosing not to write for whatever reasons, I am in some sense diminishing these experiences value.

And that’s not because I’m failing to publish them, and personally benefit from dozens of you being convinced of my very unique life.  The problem is I’m not honoring these stories nee experiences, failing to reflect upon and draw connections among people and happenings, imbued with the potential of radical change.

In this way, the accumulation of stories for the purpose of personal entertainment is akin to accumulating hats, or magic tricks, or rabbits: a wasteful illusion.

A story, on the contrary, should not be a mere gimmick but an innately honorable repository of meaning and a vehicle for revelation and revolution.

And so, on this day celebrating a revelation of independence, I choose to break from the chase and do the work.

Vive la revolution!

Reflections on Pilgrimage

[Notes for my reflection on Pilgrimage presented Sunday, June 14, 2015 at Salem’s Grace Episcopal Church’s Celtic meditation.]

21 And continuing on Jesus saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.

Matthew 4:21-22English Standard Version (ESV)

The ancient and living El camino de Santiago, the way of St James (or St. Iago as he’s known in Spanish), is I like to think a continuation of St James’s story which begins in the gospel of Matthew when Jesus calls Zebedee’s son from his worldly work at home, to a heretofore unknown holy work in the world.

Church legend tells us James continued on very far from this getting up and going from the banks of the Sea of Galilee. Even beyond sharing in Jesus’s provincial ministry in Paelstine, James ventured to the very ends of the earth to share with the world what Jesus had shown him. In the first century, that meant going as far as spain and portugal on the Iberian peninsula.

Eventually, through many trials and tribulations – historic, legendary and universally disputed – James’s relics became safely ensconced in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, some 20 miles from the Coast of the Atlantic Ocean and 3000 miles from the shores of the Sea of Galilee where Jesus first called James to the Way.

The site too eventually joined Rome and Jerusalem as one of the three major pilgrimages of the nascent Christian World. At its height in the 11th and 12th centuries more than a million people a year left their homes to walk to the end of the world, by some estimates that means a fifth of Europe’s entire population walked the way each year.

They did so in the words of the Catholic Encyclopedia as it defines pilgrimage, to visit some place with the purpose of venerating it, or in order to ask there for supernatural aid, or to discharge some religious obligation.

These pilgrims were very often in desperate search of hope and healing, abandoning homes, fleeing pasts, working for a tangible and literal salvation.

The black death and protestant reformation disrupted many systems and mindsets that had contributed to the popularity of pilgrimages to the extent that by the 1980s only a few dozen pilgrims were trickling into the pilgrim’s office in Santiago each year.

But then something changed. In every year, since 1989 more pilgrims have walked the way than the year before. In 2011, the year I made my pilgrimage for nebulous, unarticulated reasons, nearly 180,000 other modern pilgrims did the same. Walking at least the last 100km into Santiago, checking in with the Pilgrim’s office, and recording their journey as “religious” or “religious and other”. Last year, 237k did so.

Practically this increasing popularity means that when walking the Camino today, very much I imagine like our medieval forebears, you’re never alone. There are pilgrims literally and figuratively before you and behind you, beside you, and when staying in a fully booked pilgrim’s hostel, or albergue on bunk beds above and below. Pilgrimage is never a solo venture.

These modern pilgrims come from all over the world [I met several Koreans] for all sorts of reasons. Young and old, as individuals and as families and as families of choice, religious but predominately not.

Indeed, virtually no one I met was interested in venerating relics or discharging religious obligations as many prevailing but now perhaps archaic definitions of pilgrimage would suggest is a pilgrim’s motivation. Rather, even the most secular holiday-maker couldn’t help but acknowledge the transformative potential of a far-reaching journey made with intention and faith.

As I walked the 500 miles from St. Jean Pied de Port at the base of the French Pyrenees, where most modern pilgrims begin their journey, through the Rioja, across the Meseta and into verdant Galicia, I found myself singing to myself that 1988 song by the Scottish duo the Proclaimers, “I would walk 500 hundred miles.”

In the song, 500 hundred miles is a statement of hyperbole. i.e “It’s ridiculous to think I’d ever walk 500 miles, but for the sake of argument I would if I had to because I’m gonna be. . .”

The grammarian in me recognizes these are conditional, future statements. They express desire and expectation, but not a presence or action. They’re figurative; no one has any intention of going anywhere .

As a pilgrim literally walking 500 miles, though, I had little mental patience for the future or conditional. With each step of each days journey adding up to those 500 miles I could not help but be present in my presence of being, not just a pilgrim, but more fully myself.

And it’s this active beingness that I’ve come to believe is the great revelation of pilgrimage. It’s not about reaching a destination, or achieving a benchmark, getting a certificate, or ticking some epic journey off a bucket list. Rather, it’s the willingness to go in the first place, to be sensitive to that subtle often nonsensical call to leave behind your fish nets and then to have the faith and will to keep going, especially when it’s hard or painful or you question why you even decided to go in the first place. . .

Indeed, now that I have a couple capital P pilgrimages in my history, I’m coming to realize they’re really more like retreats, rest days on the great pilgrimage of life, times to reflect and renew before going back to the far-reaching work of life, ever more sensitive to the inevitable call to get up and go.

Each evening all across northern Spain, in chapels and cathedrals, campgrounds and restaurant terraces, pilgrims pray together an ancient prayer linking their journey with those past and future. I’ve slightly modified it for us and would like to conclude my reflection with this Pilgrim’s Blessing circa Salem, Mass, 2015.

Oh God, who brought your servant Abraham out of the land of the Chaldeans, who guided the Hebrew people across the desert, and who sent your son Jesus to call Zebedee’s son James and all our sisters and brothers to go into the world to do your work, we ask that you watch over us your servants, as we make our own pilgrimages .

Be for us our companion on the walk,
Our guide at the crossroads,
Our breath in our weariness,
Our protection in danger,
Our albergue on the Camino,
Our shade in the heat,
Our light in the darkness,
Our consolation in our discouragements,
And our strength in our intentions.

So that with your guidance we may arrive safely at the end of the Road and enriched with grace and virtue return safely to our homes filled with joy.

In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.