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Friday, September 17, 2021

All Together Now at The Hyde, the Tang, etc.

Installation view of Summer Bomb Pop at The Hyde Collection; from top, left are
works by Myron Stout, Sarah Braman, Mindy Shapero, Robert Reed, and Steve Roden
Though summer is on the wane, a constellation of shows that began to emit from Skidmore College's Tang Teaching Museum in the spring will continue well into the fall, and so could nicely serve as a buffer to the inevitable end of our warmest season.

All Together Now is a wonderfully conceived project in which Tang curators, other art venues' curators, and Skidmore students collaborated to bring elements from the Tang's collection into other spaces, where they interact with related works from those museums' collections. It's my impression that this concept was birthed by the COVID-caused closure of the Tang to non-Skidmore viewers for more than a year (it reopened to the public on July 10th), and a desire to bring some of its holdings into the community during this shutdown. It also fostered some cool collaborations, and fed fuel to the fire of those students' educations, which is a core mission of the Tang.

The resulting eight exhibitions, six of which are still on view, cover a lot of ground, from sculptural wooden hat forms, to 19th-century photographs, to contemporary abstract paintings. Among the collaborating institutions are The Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, Yaddo and The National Museum of Racing in Saratoga Springs, and the former Brookside Museum (now the Saratoga County History Center) in Ballston Spa. Two of the shows have closed - one at Saratoga Arts and one at the Tang; and two are not easily accessible - at Yaddo and the Saratoga Performing Arts Center; so I recently visited the four that remain, including one at the Tang that opened on July 10 (the prior one closed in June).

From left, works by Augustus Thompson, Bridget Riley,
Richmond Burton, and Man Ray are grouped in
Summer Bomb Pop
all Hyde photos by Arthur Evans
The grand tour, taken up with a culture-vulture friend riding shotgun, proved to be exhausting but awesome. We started at the northernmost point, where recent works of art from the Tang's holdings are blended with selections from the Hyde's Feibes & Schmitt collection of 20th-century abstraction in the museum's main gallery. (The Hyde has several other worthy shows also currently on view, but we'll focus on just this one for now.)

Summer Bomb Pop: Collections in Dialogue is rich in significant stand-alone works, or in tasty juxtapositions if you choose to view it that way, with a smattering of explanatory labels that delve into the history of some of the works and artists on view. Most of the labels are student efforts, but several are by prominent art critic Dan Cameron, and add worthwhile insights.

The show's title (taken from a 2008 painting by Chuck Webster that leads the installation) is a clear message that this should be fun - and it delivers. I was surprised after immersing myself in what seemed to be a great big show, that there are only 26 works in it, but many are both large and complex, and they powerfully command the spacious gallery with scarcely a false note.

Sarah Braman - Fall Friend
Introductory wall text states that Summer Bomb Pop intends to "stimulate compelling new conversations in American abstraction," which it has achieved by careful selection from both collections, resulting in a satisfying representation of well-known names (Man Ray, for example) and fresh discoveries (at least to me). Some of my favorites included Augustus Thompson's 2014 acrylic painting Untitled (Like a Kingsnake), Ellsworth Kelly's 1980 shaped oil painting Diagonal with Curve XII, Blue #611, and Sarah Braman's 2012 sculpture Fall Friend, which Cameron describes as "motivated by an urge to spruce up the visually drab ... Minimalist Art movement of the 1960s."

What struck me most about this show is that so many young artists today are continuing and expanding on the Modernist traditions of abstraction, even as postmodern art has long since dived into a maelstrom of other modes of expression, including video, performance, environmental art, and all manner of identity politics, along with anything else you can imagine. I had no idea minimalism and abstraction were still so alive and well, and I am delighted to find that they are, and playing so nicely at the Hyde with their estimable forebears.

Four Greens, Upper Manhattan Bay, 1957
Our next stop was the Tang itself, where we were greeted by a mind-boggling collection of well over 100 postcard collages by Ellsworth Kelly, all lovingly matted and framed in soft white. Grouped more or less chronologically (or thematically), and covering nearly 50 years of playful exploration by the artist, they are drawn from a total of 400 such works still held by Kelly's surviving spouse, Jack Shear, who has generously loaned them to the Tang.

Front Street, 1978
Simply entitled Ellsworth Kelly Postcards, this is one of the most exciting art shows I've seen in years. Not only are the images almost universally witty, visually sharp, accessible, and clearly related to Kelly's more "serious" art, they provide a window into the artist's process that few exhibitions do, which is quite a gift to contemplate.

All but a handful of the works on display retain the diminutive scale of a standard postcard (typically 3 1/2 by 5 1/2 inches), and most combine very few elements to create a powerful transformation of the mundane into the - dare I say? - transcendent. One is particularly struck by how precisely Kelly has again and again fitted two disparate elements into a cohesive whole. Simple? You try it!

Images des Antilles (Stephanie de Monaco) 1984
It may seem easy to play around with paper every day for fifty years or so but, I promise you, it's very hard work and, in my opinion, represents a triumph by the artist over the vexing problem of life itself. 

Walking through the Postcards show, I tried to imagine old Ellsworth toiling away at a little desk upstairs while everyone else was at the beach or drinking by the pool. He was a very soft-spoken guy (we met once, briefly), and modest, despite his wealth and success; these tiny creations mirror that personality.

I went away elated, and deeply impressed at Kelly's persistence. I will be going back to this one.

Working our way south, we next stopped in Saratoga Springs at the National Museum of Racing, a very expensively built and beautifully managed operation I'd never before visited (sorry, but my interest in horse racing is basically zero). We were there to view a small but significant installation of Eadweard Muybridge's photographs of animals in motion, part of the Jack Shear collection at the Tang, which were paired with three of the  Museum of Racing's horse paintings by Henry Stull.

Four photo sequences by Eadweard Muybridge are shown
with a painting by Henry Stull at the Museum of Racing
When Muybridge was commissioned by Leland Stanford in 1870 to use stop-action photography to prove that a galloping horse will have all four of its hooves off the ground at once, the expectation was that this would happen when the animal's legs were all extended in a great leap forward. Instead, the proof was achieved - but with the surprise result that the four hooves would only be off the ground while gathered under the horse's belly.

The concise installation at the Museum of Racing, entitled Muybridge and Motion, perfectly illustrates the impact of this revelation by showing a Stull painting from before 1870, in which a race horse is depicted with its four hooves extended, and two Stull paintings from after 1870, where the horses are depicted correctly with their hooves gathered underneath. All three paintings are prime examples of such art, and enjoyable to examine. While the Muybridge photographs on view do not include his original experiment, they do include a similar sequence, a nice smattering of other horse studies, a nifty sequence of fallow deer on the run, and a couple of grids that show the motion of common birds in flight (a pigeon and a red-tailed hawk).

A wooden hat form
made in New York City
Our final visit was to the Saratoga County History Center in Ballston Spa, where a very engaging display of hats and hat forms is spread onto shelves and in vitrines. The five wooden forms (also known as blocks) are from the Tang collection, while the 25 hats, covering an impressive range of styles from the newsboy cap to ladies' elegant bonnets, are from the History Center's collection.

A nice printed booklet accompanies the show, which is entitled The Social Lives of Hats, providing solid descriptions and well-founded historical notes, all of them researched and written by Skidmore students. I must comment on the hat forms as really cool objects, works of art in themselves, even if by accident. But I may be biased, as I happen to possess a couple of similar wooden forms my uncle rescued from the streets of Manhattan decades ago.

The shows I've reviewed remain open through the following dates (more details are here):
  • Summer Bomb Pop at The Hyde, through Oct. 31
  • The Social Lives of Hats at the SCHC, through Oct. 31
  • Ellsworth Kelly Postcards at the Tang, through Nov. 28
  • Muybridge & Motion at the Museum of Racing, through Jan. 2
An installer poses hats and hat forms at the Saratoga County History Center

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Keith Haring at Fenimore Art Museum

Installation view of Keith Haring: Radiant Vision at the Fenimore Art Museum
photo provided
Keith Haring was born in 1958 (one month before me) and became a defining artist of his generation before he died of AIDS in 1990 at the age of 31. Keith Haring: Radiant Vision, on view at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown through Sept. 6 Oct. 11, tells the story of how that remarkable career happened, and explores what it meant. The exhibition uses a clever graphic timeline, wall text, and ample quotes from the artist to recount Haring's history, and features a broad and deep sampling of the artist's work (including more than 100 works from a private collection, and a very impressive gigantic etching from the Fenimore's collection).

A news release about the show states that Haring "was arguably the most accomplished and prominent American artist of the 1980s," a claim I can neither fully agree with nor effectively refute. As an exact contemporary of Haring's, I can only say that he never held a lot of interest for me, partly because of the very commercial nature of his work, and partly because, though incredibly successful, he didn't have the chance to reach his full potential as an artist.

Radiant Vision offers an excellent opportunity to see for yourself what you think about a young man whose contributions included helping to bring graffiti art and hip hop into the mainstream, extending the art-for-all populism of his good friend Andy Warhol, and combining art with activism, perhaps more successfully than anyone else, before or since. The latter two achievements are, to me, the more valuable, but all of it is astonishingly impressive for a person whose career lasted just 10 years.

Keith Haring is seen at an early exhibition
of his work at Tony Shafrazi Gallery in New York
photo by Allen Tannenbaum 1982
Haring was essentially a graphic designer whose pictures relied on super-simplified line drawings of iconic symbols to communicate primal messages, just as corporate logo designers strive to do. And he was incredibly good at it. He used pure primary and secondary colors, vivid unmixed paints and inks, big shapes, and empty backgrounds, along with words and symbols, to make exuberant, bold statements about life as he saw it.

As seen in this exhibition, Haring invented his own visual vocabulary - a crawling baby, angular barking dogs, leaping stick figures, etc. - and rode it to vast global dissemination. He also used these skills in eminently worthy campaigns against AIDS, apartheid, and drug abuse, work that is well documented here, and which shows how effective simple graphic art and youthful sincerity can be. 

However, there are a few outliers scattered here and there throughout the exhibition that hint at a much more subtle artist who may have been trying to emerge from behind the public Keith Haring. That artist worked looser, with less clearly defined boundaries, used thinner lines and more shading, and employed a less bright palette to evoke deeper meanings and messier emotions. Some of those works reminded me of Miro' and Picasso and, as I walked around the exhibition, I found that I liked that version of Keith Haring a lot better than the one we all already knew.

One of the best aspects of Radiant Vision is the way it demonstrates Haring's humility and humanity, through quotes on the wall, in which he repeatedly explains how much he wants art to be accessible to all, and through a charming TV show interview in which he asserts an almost selfless modesty, alongside a crystal clear vision. These were the things in the show that did the most to convince me of Haring's significance. Though it goes without saying, it's a terrible shame that he died so young. Despite his own almost superhuman optimism, I simply couldn't shake the sadness.

Checkerboard, polychrome assemblage 2020
by Laurene Krasny Brown
Also currently on view at the Fenimore are a pair of shows that opened a couple of weeks ago and will remain there through Dec 31. Toying with the World: Works by Laurene Krasny Brown and 
Believe In Yourself: What We Learned From Arthur, which features the work of illustrator Marc Brown, stand alone in separate galleries but are closely linked, in that the two artists are a married couple.

Marc Brown is known to anybody with kids through the Arthur books and TV series, and the exhibition does a fine job of sharing the process involved in creating those products. Brown is an absolutely first-rate illustrator and, like any successful commercial artist, he clearly works his tail off. It was great fun to see the thumbnail sketches and story boards that lead to a finished book, but even better to see the exquisitely detailed paintings that are so easily taken for granted once they're on the printed page.

Laurene Krasny Brown is a much more interior artist, working with modest materials to pursue an almost mystical personal vision built around the concept of games. Where I was expecting stuff more childlike, instead I found a persistent exploration of geometric and architectural themes, characterized by a soft palette of early-American colors in paper and gouache. Brown's playfulness was apparent, but tempered by the same seriousness that I've observed in certain active toddlers.

Both shows are well worth spending some time with. By the way, admission to the Fenimore is free for those 19 and under for the duration of these exhibitions - so feel free to bring the kids.

A painting by Marc Brown from Wild About Books

Friday, August 6, 2021

Spiritual Roots: Wendy Ide Williams at Laffer Gallery

Night Blooming Riot - mixed media on paper 2019
It's been quite a while since the painter Wendy Ide Williams has been the subject of a solo exhibition, and her current tour de force at The Laffer Gallery in Schuylerville, entitled Spiritual Roots, shows just how overdue this event is.

I've been following Williams' career since the late 1970s, when we were both art students in Providence, R.I., and she was already pretty good back then - but I can easily say that she just keeps getting better. The selection of 48 paintings on paper or canvas currently at Laffer presents an artist absolutely on fire.

Bathed in Deep Water, mixed media on paper 2019
More than half the show consists of a grid of same-sized small works on paper, all of which are quickly made drawings in ink and watercolor from the last couple of years. This display alone would be worthy of a show, as it eloquently delineates the complex and heartfelt process of daily exploration that is the backbone of Williams' process. In contrast to the larger works on paper and the much more layered acrylic paintings on canvas that make up the rest of the show, these pieces have a lightness and a more visibly direct connection to nature that reveals an essential quality of Williams' otherwise persistently abstract imagery.

Flowers, mixed media on paper 2018
That tension between the abstract and the representational is at the core of Williams' painting, such that the generally non-narrative canvases read as pure shape and color, yet within them there is always a recognizable presence of natural forms, ranging from plants and paramecia to birds and (if you let your imagination go with hers) even humans. These subjects, however, are hidden in a network of patterns, chains, cells, stripes, and dots, often distributed almost evenly over the picture plane and, always, in a riot of vivid colors.

One of Williams' tricks is to cast the majority of her compositions in a vertical format, adding some square canvases to a mix that includes very few horizontals. This is one way of avoiding the confines of landscape while, in fact, often depicting natural subjects. Williams also increasingly employs intense color combinations, sometimes so busily covering the painting surface that there's no relief, but also regularly providing restful zones of white or black.

Unburdening, acrylic on canvas 2021
Some of the most recent pieces in this show veer toward a darkness that I found myself very drawn to, and in them the black areas serve to make the other colors look even richer to the eye (a technique I first observed in paintings by Matisse and Picasso). These more heavily worked paintings are among the best in the show, and the best I've seen Williams make. They show not only skill and vision, but aggressive and persistent technique that dares to take chances by going beyond the first or second solution to a problem. It's harder work - and more dangerous - than most non-painters would ever know.

In the Jewelry Box, mixed media on paper 2019
Perhaps best of all, in a certain sense, is that these paintings are selling like crazy. Gallery director Erik Laffer told me on a recent visit that it may be the most successful show commercially that he's ever had, something really striking to consider given the fact that the paintings are non-representational and not at all purely decorative. Maybe that's a sign - could it be that well over a year of living with a terrifying pandemic has caused art buyers to dig deeper? One can hope.

In any case, it's a very healthy sign for both Laffer and Williams that art lovers are lining up for challenging work from a regional favorite. Without a doubt, she has earned it.

Spiritual Roots will remain on view through Aug. 22; The Laffer Gallery's hours are from noon to 5 p.m., Thursday to Sunday, or by appointment.

Covid Gift (Previous a Caterpillar), acrylic on canvas 2021

Friday, July 16, 2021

Nikolai Astrup at The Clark

Nikolai Astrup, A Clear Night in June, 1905–07, oil on canvas: That Nordic glow

This year, the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., has taken a different tack with its big summer show. Rather than feature a blockbuster on the level of Renoir (2019), Van Gogh (2015) or Turner (2003), the region’s most venerable museum has mounted the first North American show ever of a little-known early-20th-century Norwegian painter named Nikolai Astrup.

Organized in collaboration with Norway’s KODE Art Museums, and curated by British art historian MaryAnne Stevens, Nikolai Astrup: Visions of Norway aims to convince its audience that Edvard Munch had an unjustly overlooked contemporary who – perhaps - should be regarded as his equal. It’s an intriguing and challenging argument to engage, and one that, in all honesty, can’t be concluded – but, in the process, we are given a strong show that is without a doubt well worth seeing.

The Parsonage, n.d, oil on canvas
I am delighted by the irony that, in this era of unrelenting wokeness in the arts, a leading museum is willing to stake its reputation on a dead, white, heterosexual, male painter. What nerve! What verve! What fun. Well, it could be fun, if Astrup weren’t so generally gloomy. But how can you blame him? After all, he lived in rural Norway, the son of a parson, sickly from an impoverished childhood, underappreciated.

Gloomy – yet glowing. Despite his isolated circumstances and shortened lifespan (he died in 1928 at the age of 47), Astrup burned with a passion for his chosen subjects, the Norwegian landscape primary among them - its particular light, its plants, its folk traditions, its rustic buildings, and its people. This passion led Astrup to work feverishly, not just in paint, but also extensively in Japanese-style woodblock printing (ukiyo-e), which he executed extremely well, whether in multiple colors or in monochrome.

Bird on a Stone, woodblock print
with hand coloring c. 1905–14
Fortunately, a significant portion of the expertly laid-out exhibition is devoted to the prints, including several examples of the original blocks, themselves alone worth the price of admission. But it is the paintings that dominate and best tell the story of a man in love with his rural existence and an ancient culture. This is expressed above all in the night paintings, which capture the peculiar half-light of the extreme North in summer and the opportunistic plants that explode in its short growing season.

We learn from the concise wall text that Astrup was an enthusiastic horticulturalist, and we see evidence of that in the lovingly rendered trees, bushes, and flowers that pervade his works. No shade of green escaped his searching eye, but he also exercised plenty of artistic license in his renderings, in one case featuring identical rhubarb plants in two entirely different landscape views.

Rhubarb, 1911–21, oil on canvas
We also learn that, mid-career, Astrup weathered a crisis in the form of negative criticism of his work in a Berlin exhibition, which caused him to rethink his approach and strive to modernize it. I can imagine that the comments attacked two weaknesses in his work, one of which would be equally derided today, and that is sentimentality. The other (and I’m just guessing) could have been his awkward handling of human subjects – if he’d given them half the life force he gave his plants, many of these paintings would be far better.

In any case, the later work is indeed stronger overall, as is particularly evidenced in repeated depictions of a Midsummer Eve bonfire ritual that Astrup recalls from his youth, when his strict parents forbid him to participate, as they considered it pagan. Several of these paintings and prints are presented in the final gallery of the exhibition, making a clear concluding statement about Astrup’s life, values, and skills as an artist.

Midsummer Eve Bonfire, before 1916, oil on canvas
While I’m not a huge fan of folklore, I enjoyed immersing myself in Astrup’s personal celebration of it, especially as he worked and reworked themes in paint and prints over many iterations. But I responded more viscerally, and with great pleasure, to his formal concerns, especially where color takes on its own life in certain paintings, and where otherworldly light emanates from his subjects.

This is most apparent in some of the landscapes painted at night, and in a couple of still lives made late in Astrup’s career in the interior of his home. For me, though the subject is quotidian, private, and momentary, the painter’s approach to it has taken it beyond those limits to the universal and the eternal. Perhaps, had he lived longer, Astrup would have followed this path to a place where the question of a revival would be moot.

But, whether he was truly a great modern painter, or merely a talented also-ran, Astrup’s contribution is significant enough to be worthy of the showcase he’s now receiving at the Clark and beyond.

Nikolai Astrup: Visions of Norway will remain on view in the special exhibition galleries of the Clark Center through Sept. 19; from October to May, it will travel to museums in Norway and Sweden.

Nikolai Astrup, Interior Still Life: Living Room at Sandalstrand, 1926–27
oil on canvas

Two additional exhibitions currently on view at The Clark are also of great interest. Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne: Nature Transformed is an intriguing collection of Surrealist sculptural works by a non-collaborating French couple who each innovated with materials to create striking visions inspired by nature. It will remain on view through Oct. 31 in a glass-enclosed gallery on the ground floor of the Clark Center that also affords views of several pieces by the Lalannes that are installed outdoors.

Erin Shirreff, Four-Color Café Terrace (Caro, –––––,
Moorhouse, Matisse)
 2019, dye sublimation prints
on aluminum and archival pigment print

In the café area downstairs in the Clark Center, and in the nearby Manton Research Center, are several large works by Erin Shirreff, a Canadian multimedia artist who combines sculpture and photography in unique ways. While her single long video stream and simplified photographic constructions are built with layers of references from other sources, they remain fresh, not derivative. Indeed, Shirreff's elegant abstractions are successful postmodern transformations and well worth spending some time with. The yearlong installation, entitled Erin Shirreff: Remainders, runs through Jan. 2.

Finally, Dürer & After, a new exhibition drawn from the Clark’s extensive holdings, is slated to open tomorrow (July 17) and remain on view through Oct. 3 in the Eugene V. Thaw Gallery for Works on Paper.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Go Home: Paul Akira Miyamoto at LGAP

Plank - oil on canvas 2021
A fine solo exhibition by the painter Paul Akira Miyamoto is on view through June 5 at the Lake George Arts Project's Courthouse Gallery.

Go Home presents a rare opportunity to immerse oneself in a world both real and imagined, within which Miyamoto has crafted a deeply personal tribute to his Japanese-American ancestors, while simultaneously presenting a critically important history lesson to those of us who would forget the unjust internment of generations of Americans during World War II by their own government.

Miyamoto is Sansei - third-generation Japanese-American - and his Issei grandparents, Nisei parents and older siblings lived for more than three years in the remote Poston concentration camp in Arizona, where they used their farming experience to domesticate infertile land, just as they had been forced to do when living free in California before the war.

Promise - oil on canvas 2021
Miyamoto's paintings reimagine these two scenarios as one serialized fever dream, sketching the sun-baked, clear-skied, surveilled family existence of a stoic, racially profiled people who did the best they could in nearly impossible conditions. The body of work gives voice to those people, but it is more celebration than lament. There's a quiet dignity in Miyamoto's figures, a subtle joy in his colors, and a simmering triumph in this gathering of paintings.

Miyamoto's project actually began long ago, but the majority of works in this show were made in the past year - a time in our nation's history that, unfortunately, could hold a mirror up to those terrible times and see itself fairly clearly. In addition to exploring his personal history, the artist seeks to remind us that we are in danger, even now, of such injustice being perpetrated again on American citizens if we aren't vigilant.

Shoulder - oil on canvas 2021
Along with the 14 paintings on view (ranging in size from 24"x30" to 48"x60"), there is a small selection of framed ink drawings on paper, displayed in a newly dedicated side gallery that the Arts Project has made nice use of for this show. These pieces are both more spontaneous and more specifically detailed than the paintings, featuring delicate monochrome washes of ink and tight pen renderings of camp buildings (one is shown at the bottom of this post). Made in 2018, the drawings seem like a prelude to the paintings, but stand alone as well.

Additionally, Miyamoto has created a site-specific installation in the main gallery, which is a minimalist reconstruction in tar paper and wood of a camp-type building. Stark, black, geometric, it balances the colorful paintings rather than dominating them.

Though I'm emphasizing content here, I want to point out that some of the formal and technical qualities of Miyamoto's painting are quite outstanding, with strict control of form, color, composition and, in particular, soft brushwork that makes them perhaps surprisingly sensual and seductive. His human forms are generalized, suggestive rather than specific, but crafted in such a way that their gestures speak clearly.

At a recent viewing, I noticed that several of the paintings had been sold to private collectors. This is wonderful, of course, but I hope that perhaps some of them will also end up in a museum somewhere. They're that good, and that important. Try to see the show in person if you can.

Camp #8 - ink on paper 2018

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

In Memoriam: Joel Chadabe

Joel Chadabe performs in the 1970s, using a very early PC as part of his equipment
On May 2, my dear friend Joel Chadabe died at home in Albany at the age of 82. Joel was a groundbreaking electronic musician and composer who taught for many years at the University at Albany, Bennington College and, more recently, New York University.

I first met Joel in 1987, when we each were renting studio space in a renovated factory in Albany's West Hill neighborhood, and we soon embarked on a friendship that featured many facets: Technical support, creative discussions and collaborations, countless homecooked meals, and an extended series of annual New Year's Eve and Fourth of July parties at the home he shared with Françoise and Benjamin (wife and son - for more detail, see the Times Union obituary from May 9, and the New York Times obituary, which came out on May 26).

Those parties always featured a core group of the Chadabes' friends, many of them associated with UAlbany, but also often included visitors from afar. It wasn't unusual for several languages to be spoken in those evenings, and for subjects from dance choreography to theoretical physics espoused upon by actual experts. The evenings inevitably concluded with Joel at the piano and those bold enough singing songs both familiar and exotic. It was an experience of a time nearly lost to my generation, when friendship, creativity, and love of life seemed enough to conquer the world.

Throughout, Joel worked, shuttling back and forth from college to college and from Albany to New York City, where he always had some big project going on, whether a concert series, publishing venture, or recording studio. In 1997, he published an unassuming but seminal paperback book on the history of electronic music, Electric Sound, which I enjoyed immensely, despite my nearly nonexistent musical education. Joel loved sharing his knowledge and, especially, his enthusiasm for everything creative, and that attitude shone throughout the book.

In later years, Joel and I saw less of each other. He was often in New York, the old New Year's crowd was diminishing, so the parties ended, and I got busy with my own working life away from the arts. But the connection remained, and the sadness I feel from his premature departure is acute.

Joel Chadabe was truly one of a kind, a generous soul full of childlike joy, and he will be greatly missed. May he rest in peace.

Some things never change: A recent photo of Chadabe at work with a MacBook.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

The Best Films of 2020

Luca Marinelli portrays the title character in Pietro Marcello's brilliant Martin Eden.
There are a lot of ways to be confused about the past year in movies. First, just seeing a film in a theater was impossible for much of the year. Then, with massively delayed releases, there's the question of whether a given movie counts as being from 2020 or not. Finally, there's the whole streaming thing - not that I really care what the source of a great film is, or what the Academy has to say about it, but there is still that old divide between cinema and TV ... never to be the same after Netflix, Amazon, et al.

So I will construct the following list with the knowledge that a few of the films are considered to be 2019 releases, but never made it to a local theater, and seem to have been left stranded in terms of Oscar consideration, whether last year or this year.

Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins star in The Father
As for me, despite the extraordinary challenges of 2020, and my own stubborn resistance to cable TV and all other subscription services, I managed to see a lot of great movies in the last year (five of the eight Best Picture nominees among them). This included actually going to the theater (an excellent option as venues have adopted safety guidelines and more people are vaccinated every day); paying for the occasional one-time stream at home; watching with trusted friends who have those monthly subscriptions; and borrowing DVDs from the library (due to the pandemic, some films that would otherwise have been screened at local theaters ended up being available on DVD first).

The following list is mostly non-hierarchical, and will include movies everyone has heard of as well as some more obscure titles. In the end, it turns out there were a lot of really good movies made or released in the last year or so, from all over the world. It will be interesting to see if that trend can continue, as I think it's safe to assume production schedules were completely whacked out for most of 2020 - and that the movie fare of 2021 may suffer for it. Let's hope not, but let's also celebrate the great ones we've got now.

  • Martin Eden - One of those 2019/2020 crossovers, this Italian-language film became my top pick early on, and stayed there with little serious competition for a long time. Adapted from a 1909 Jack London novel to a non-specific time in 20th-century Naples, Martin Eden tells a story of the class struggle from a very personal perspective, with superb acting by the very charismatic Luca Marinelli. It garnered a lot of praise at Cannes and elsewhere, but nothing from Oscar. Paying $12 to view it at home seemed like a great bargain.
  • Beanpole - The other nearly perfect film I saw last year that crossed over from 2019 and also was ignored by Oscar, Beanpole ("Dylda" in Russian) reveals the history of post-WWII Russia that we never learned in school, seen from the viewpoint of a shell-shocked young woman and her beloved, a traumatized female soldier. Every actor in this film is outstanding - but, even more impressive, the flawless direction and gorgeous cinematography are the product of a team of twenty-somethings. Amazing!
  • Judas and the Black Messiah - One of my two top picks among the Best Picture nominees, this is a beautifully crafted history lesson that resonates with our current turbulent times. Ensemble acting so good, they couldn't find a lead actor to nominate, though Daniel Kaluuya could have been it.
  • The Father - My other favorite among the Bests, powered by a masterful performance on the part of Anthony Hopkins, and equally great support from Olivia Colman. The film puts you inside the mind of a man with dementia, while painting a touchingly deep portrait of the life he lived before his decline. Both actors would be well served if they were to win a statuette tonight. [Note: Hopkins won.]
  • Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always - A perfect example of why I love indie films: Character-driven, non-name actors who bring the goods, original story, loose ends. It's a lot harder than you may think to make a movie about an economically and socially challenged teen seeking an abortion without sliding into melodrama or sentimentality, but Never, Sometimes makes it look like a breeze. Writer-director Eliza Hittman is worthy of Oscar attention, but hasn't gotten it - yet.
  • Orion Lee and John Magaro star in First Cow
    First Cow - An elegiac step back in time, this is the kind of film you need to allow to take its time, and then it will work its magic on you. Set in the early boom Northwest, it provides a most unusual take on the buddy movie, slowly, quietly, sadly, and beautifully. Underappreciated director Kelly Reichart deserves more notice than she's getting for this one.
  • Nomadland - Yes, it's a very good movie, and Frances McDormand is superb as always, as are the rest of the people who essentially play themselves throughout her character's odyssey. But it's also the most overrated film of the year. Try checking out the template (I've no doubt Chloe Zhao has done so multiple times), which I did by sheer coincidence on DVD the same week I caught Nomadland in the theater. That would be Agnes Varda's 1985 film Vagabond. So similar, but much better.
  • Minari - The second-most overrated film of the year. Yes, it's still very good, with excellent acting ... but it's also marred by a grotesque, unnecessary, stereotyped magical Christian character, as well as just being kinda small. Films like this can - and in the right hands do - tell the intimate story while evoking the grand; but Minari never transcends its subjects' limited lives.
  • Sasha Baron Cohen leads the ensemble in Chicago 7
    The Trial of the Chicago 7 - Brilliant ensemble acting takes this history lesson to another level. It's a perfect companion piece to Judas (and possibly to One Night in Miami as well), but stands on its own as it evokes eerie parallels to our current times. Though I lived through the Viet Nam era, I was too young to know many of the details of these events in which our justice system was manipulated by the government to demonize black people and anyone who would challenge the status quo. Sound familiar? 
  • My Octopus Teacher - Nominated Winner for Best Documentary Feature, this is so much more than a nature film, as it shares a deeply personal human story enrobed in an octopus's brief, luminous lifespan. Indeed, it is a relationship movie. You'll never see seafood the same way again.
  • The Life Ahead ("La vita davanti a se" in Italian) - Sophia Loren directed by her son, Edoardo Ponti. Need I say more? Actually received an Oscar nomination for best original song (which I don't recall) but had a lot more going for it than that. Loren pulls off a great performance in a difficult role.
As in prior years, there are films that I haven't seen yet, but intend to, that possibly would have made this list. They include Sound of Metal, One Night in Miami, and Mank (and, perhaps, Promising Young Woman). But, first, I've got to catch up with tonight's film - a retro-futuristic Brazilian Western called Bacurau. Oscar will have to wait.

Ibrahima Gueye and Sophia Loren star in The Life Ahead