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Monday, May 18, 2020

My favorite musician

Corinne Bailey Rae performs on a recent tour.
If Stevie Wonder and Joni Mitchell had a baby, she would be Corinne Bailey Rae.

This British singer-songwriter is that unique, and that good.

I became an instant fan in 2006, while watching the great and too-short-lived TV series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, in which Howie Mandel, portraying himself as the guest host of a fictional Saturday Night Live-type show, introduced Bailey Rae as the episode's guest musical artist. As she launched into Like a Star, the camera only lingered on Bailey Rae for about 10 seconds before pulling back to the drama of the program's fictional characters. But, by then, I was totally hooked.

Debut album cover
Sure, I wasn't alone - that year's debut album launched two big hits (Like a Star and Put Your Records On), got a bunch of nominations, and sold millions of copies, as did her second album, The Sea, from 2010. Eventually she won a couple of Grammys, one for a Mitchell song she recorded with Herbie Hancock, and several of her songs make up the soundtrack of the film Venus, in which Peter O'Toole created a role that nearly won him the Best Actor Oscar he so richly deserved throughout his career but never won.

Album #2: The Sea
Still, she is greatly underappreciated. This may be due to the challenge of today's extremely individualized or (conversely) overgeneralized commercial music market. Wikipedia has Bailey Rae categorized in the R&B and neo soul genres - as close as you're going to get, but far from the complete picture. She is really not a soul singer, but being bi-racial (and therefore perceived as black) probably pushes that label forward; neither is she a folk singer, but you could just as easily go there.

Third album cover
Maybe uncategorizable, but I'd probably choose pop as the nearest description, because it captures the infectiousness of her every song, and it's vague enough not to exclude the variations in style she easily embraces. Her lyrics have poetry, and charm, and bite. Her tunes are often atmospheric, though more than a few are also totally danceable. What it comes down to is that nearly impossible feat: She is an original.

I think Bailey Rae's third album, 2016's The Heart Speaks in Whispers, is even better than the other two, not a surprise for an artist of great talent who takes long breaks between releases. I find myself still listening to it often, and still getting new feelings from it each time. Live, she exudes a joy that is absolutely radiant, yes, like the sun. If you want to see what I mean, check out this NPR tiny desk concert.

I'm in awe. Just wanted to share that!

Bailey Rae performs at NPR in 2016

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

A modest proposal

It's April 2020, and the top subject on just about everyone's mind is how to reopen the U.S. economy while maintaining a safe environment in relation to the novel coronavirus.

Governor Andrew Cuomo has set May 15 as the date to begin this process in New York state, with many limits sure to remain in place, and careful decisions to be made on which businesses or services should restart.

My big question is: Where will art museums and galleries fit into this plan?

I think they should be among the first businesses to reopen, for the following reasons:

  1. We are all starving for culture and entertainment, and art exhibitions are a great way to feed that need
  2. It requires very little on-site staff to open an exhibition space
  3. As with other essential businesses, such as supermarkets or hardware stores, necessary protocols like sanitizing surfaces and the wearing of masks would be simple to implement in most exhibition spaces
  4. Apart from major events, such as opening receptions, most exhibition spaces do not attract large crowds - so it would be relatively easy to enforce and maintain social distancing inside and outside these spaces (city museums that do attract large crowds would need to manage them more intensively, though the current lack of tourism would significantly reduce that load)
  5. Touching the art is generally a no-no anyway, so there would be very little opportunity for transmission of the virus via people's hands, but museum shops and coat checks may need to remain closed to minimize that risk
  6. Museums that charge admission depend on those funds to stay alive, and need to again allow visitors in order to stem the bleeding as soon as possible so they don't go belly up
  7. Nonprofit and for-profit galleries that don't charge admission need to keep their physical presence in the public eye (online just doesn't cut it) - otherwise, their sources of revenue will soon dry up and leave them insolvent

We desperately need the lift that art provides, and we can't afford to lose these vital community resources for all time. With these thoughts in mind, I propose that Gov. Cuomo seriously consider adding museums and galleries to the list of businesses that may reopen their doors when the next phase of New York on Pause is implemented.

UPDATE, 5/9/20: The New York Times reported on May 8 that upstate museums could be allowed to open sooner than those downstate, in the third phase of re-openings (along with restaurants, but still behind some retail) rather than the fourth (which includes entertainment). You can read it here.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Spookily prescient

Illustration by Matt Rota, stolen from The New York Times, and cropped (with apologies) 
Don't you just love a good coincidence? I know I do.

Though my daily routine is only lightly influenced by the current stay-at-home normality (as I stopped working a bit less than a year ago), it has still afforded me additional time to do those things I've been meaning to do but managed to avoid by going out to more pleasant experiences, like concerts, movies, and dinners, that are now impossible.

So I'm sorting through old stuff, a long-overdue project. I'm not a hoarder (really!), but I do get lazy and take too long to complete things I've started. That's why I have a terrible backlog of unread newspapers and magazines in my room, but it's also why they don't just go wholesale into the recycling bin - I want to go through them first. I started and I mean to finish.

Over the past year, the occasional fit of constructive reviewing, sorting, and tossing of these archives always produces a gem or two - and so I am encouraged in my folly. This effect was more than abundantly clear a few days ago when I randomly picked up and read (well, cherry-picked) an entire Sunday New York Times from September, 2012.

In it, there was a spookily prescient op-ed by David Quammen, whose book Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic was soon to be published. There he asked the question we all now know the answer to: What will cause the next global pandemic?

His answer included the following:
     Scientists who study this subject — virologists, molecular geneticists, epidemiologists, disease ecologists — stress its complexity but tend to agree on a few points.
     Yes, there probably will be a Next Big One, they say. It will most likely be caused by a virus, not by a bacterium or some other kind of bug. More specifically, we should expect an RNA virus (specifically, one that bears its genome as a single molecular strand), as distinct from a DNA virus (carrying its info on the reliable double helix, less prone to mutation, therefore less variable and adaptable). Finally, this RNA virus will almost certainly be zoonotic — a pathogen that emerges from some nonhuman animal to infect, and spread among, human beings.

In other words, the now universally loathed and feared COVID-19.

Quammen knew what he was talking about, but it's not like he was some sort of prophet. Indeed, as a good reporter, he cites his sources: Scientists. They knew, and we were supposed to be prepared. Oy.

Even more coincidentally, that same 2012 edition of The Times quotes Walt Whitman's famous 1855 poem Song of Myself, in which he stated "I contain multitudes." This phrase became the title of a 2016 book by the science writer Ed Yong, which beautifully and clearly explains just how ubiquitous and powerful microbes are. Those of you who know me well may remember my constant raving a couple of years ago that Yong's book had changed my worldview. Through it, I learned that the microbes have always been in charge of things on Earth, that they always will be in charge, and that we are merely their oh-so-temporary guests.

At this point, I trust that every well-informed person understands this truth, thanks to the novel coronavirus epidemic. The microbe is in control - we are completely at its mercy, now and for the foreseeable future.

That is our reality and it can't be denied (though some continue to try).

A seven-and-a-half-year-old copy of The New York Times has no consciousness or intention (neither does a virus), but it brought those qualities to life in me as I sat in my favorite chair, just reading and stirring up a little dust.

This life is temporary. We have very little control over what will happen to us from one day to the next. So, let's be smart and try to make the best of it. Be kind, be generous, be respectful. Love one another. Support the things you care about. Now is the time.

Note: Click here to read Quammen's entire op-ed.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

What will the exhibition spaces do?

When The New York Times published its seasonal special section on museums on Friday, March 13, it was already too late. That day, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the president declared a national emergency, and venues all over the country set about shutting their doors until further notice.

Browsing through those pages, I fought back tears to see brilliant shows at fabulous exhibition sites advertised in gorgeous displays, some of them two pages wide. Uncountable donor dollars spent, staff hours worked, plans made, contracts drawn up, masterpieces shipped - and now, none of it even visitable.

It's a tragedy our national media are too busy to make much comment on, though one article printed in the Daily Gazette that caught my eye was perhaps the saddest note of all: An unprecedented coming together of works by the Italian Renaissance master Raffaello, which opened on March 5 at the Scuderie del Quirinale Museum in Rome, was cloaked in darkened silence three days later, representing losses to that institution and its partners of hundreds of thousands of dollars a week in missed admissions.

Closer to home, every museum and gallery is closed indefinitely. I could barely count all the emails I've received announcing these measures, from top venues like Chesterwood, The Hyde Collection, the Albany Institute of History & Art, and MASS MoCa, as well as college and commercial galleries like the Massry at Saint Rose, the Opalka at Sage, Carrie Haddad in Hudson and Laffer Gallery in Schuylerville. And many more. Our own Albany Center Gallery (I'm the treasurer there) is lucky in a sense, as the current show was being installed at the time of the widespread shutdown and wasn't set to open until March 31 - but now it seems unlikely it will ever open to the public.

As short as this post is, I've struggled for two weeks to get it written.

Because, what can I say? How do you respond to such circumstances when your whole life and that of most of your friends has revolved around making and presenting art in physical form and three-dimensional space? It's an irrevocable loss.

To be fully realized, the visual art experience requires direct interaction between art and viewer - and we can't have that right now. Institutions the world over that give body and soul to make these experiences possible, and that barely survive even in the best of times, are now in very deep trouble.

I feel for these institutions, and I especially feel for the artists whose opportunities have suddenly transformed into obstacles. Careers will be interrupted - even derailed - by this event. Some will never recover (imagine a young musician, whose first significant gig just got canceled - will they ever get a shot like that again?). It's heartbreaking.

Many of these institutions are (naturally) seeking and finding creative ways around the problem. Most are putting their collections, past shows, or current shows online to be viewed virtually. My best suggestion is to think of the venues you like best (or have always wanted to visit) and go to their websites now. Enjoy the content they are providing with today's limited means. Go back again and again as they add to their creative offerings.

And, then - please - seriously consider making a donation. They need you now more than ever.

Monday, March 9, 2020

DEAR DAVID / HI JAN: Brickman & Galligan discuss film

In an editorial recently published at Nippertown, David and Capital Region expat Jan Galligan discuss the film 1917 through a series of emails. The piece is also being published in print in the Puerto Rican journal En Rojo (pending translation into Spanish).

Here's a taste of their discussion:

Thanks for sending your Nippertown article with your selections for The Best of 2019. We enjoyed your take on all the films being considered for the 2020 Academy Awards and agree with your selection of 1917 as one the best films of last year.

Here’s our interpretation of that Sam Mendes movie:
The first half of the film, until the main character is shot and the screen goes black (for a significantly long time) is all real, it actually happens.
The second half of the film, when he “wakes up” after that long blackout, all takes place in his imagination ... 

To read the rest, click here.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

William Stone "Apperception" at Hudson Hall

Seated and Seatless 2006
Serendipity was my friend a week ago when I was in Hudson on a Tuesday for business unrelated to art, but ended up seeing a really cool art show anyway. Galleries aren't generally open at that time of the week in weekender-centric Hudson, but Hudson Hall was, and William Stone's solo show there proved to be worth the trip by itself.

Entitled Apperception, this collection of nearly 30 works spans the past decade (with a few earlier pieces) and provides a good range of freestanding and wall-mounted examples of this very witty sculptor's output. Working mostly in wood, Stone likes to play games with our perceptions by transforming familiar objects and materials with both dry and playful attitudes.

Some of the wall pieces use found paintings as their foundation, combining respect and irreverence in equal measure to elevate such mundane objects into something more. These include Orogeny, where a mountainscape has been jigsawed so it pops off the wall, and Signatures, a favorite piece of mine in which Stone has excised and lovingly reframed a constellation of just the signatures from half-a-dozen or so garage-sale paintings.

Live Edge Out 2018
Other wall works feature unfinished bark or slabs of lumber as the picture itself, flush-mounted or framed suitably in raw wood. These sculptures were not equally successful, but they all have the quality of making the viewer see something freshly, a worthy purpose for a piece of art. The rest of Stone's work in this exhibition (all of it freestanding) accomplishes that same goal quite neatly.

I should stop for a moment here to note that Stone is not just playing - he executes each piece with consummate craftsmanship, creating cleanly finished objects that use the qualities of fine woodcraft to mimic functionality, while simultaneously undermining it.

Fall Line 1991
So when Stone transforms three nondescript wooden chairs into one extraordinary one, by slicing them apart and reassembling them, you end up with a perfect illustration of the cliché "greater than the sum of its parts." And you can still sit on it.

Other altered chairs make up a good part of the rest of the show, along with more complex pieces of furniture apparently built from scratch. Another favorite of mine shown here is among the most recent - Stair Share, from 2019, evokes an Escher illusion, but it's neither illusory nor impossible. Rather, it is both pointless and potentially handy - a clever bit of tongue-in-cheek commentary on our fascination with finely crafted objects and their uses.

I enjoy Stone for his simplicity - or directness - and for his sly sense of humor. You will, too.

Hudson Hall (aka Hudson Opera House) is in the middle of Warren Street and is open every day. The exhibition runs through March 15.

Stair Share 2019

Sunday, February 9, 2020

The best films of 2019

George McKay, center, probably deserved an Oscar nod for his lead role in 1917.
Well, I'm a little late to the party, but I have a couple of good excuses - and, anyway, at least I get to publish my list before the Oscars are announced this evening. Proud to say, this year I actually saw every Best Picture nominee (and all but one in an actual movie theater - the one being Joker, which I caught on DVD the day after it was released in that format).

Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem
star in Everybody Knows
As usual, I have a quibble or three with the Academy, but it looks like the front-runner this year is 1917, which is also my top pick, so you never know. Following right behind, however, is a film that got zero notice from the Academy (though some critics gave it due props), which is sadly ironic in that it's an all-black production that easily deserved the attention and could have helped to save the annual hue and cry about Oscars-so-white if it had been properly recognized.

Instead, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is this year's most-overlooked movie at Oscar time (see my full review here). Honestly, I'm not cynical enough to think that Academy voters disregard good material just because the people who made it are black; rather, I think they are simply too self involved to be able to appreciate a lot of fare that isn't right up their alley - hence, outstanding non-traditional or foreign material often gets overlooked.

That said, you may notice that the much-ballyhooed Korean film Parasite didn't make my short list (though its Oscar success may have helped the Academy dodge the racism bullet this year). I acknowledge that Parasite is extremely well made, but it is too brutally dehumanizing for my taste. I've gotten the impression that many people found its class-struggle story to be groundbreaking - however, 2018's Japanese production Shoplifters told a very similar story, while humanizing all its subjects, which to me was both more difficult and much more worthwhile. (Then again, a movie-savvy friend told me that Parasite was his favorite film of 2019 and Shoplifters his favorite of 2018, so maybe I'm just confused.)

Other films that the Academy liked more than I did were Ford v. Ferrari, which told a very good story, but in such a drawn-out fashion and with so much time spent inside a race car that I got bored (despite great performances by Christian Bale, Tracy Letts, and others, as well as a lot of unsubtitled but perfectly executed Italian dialogue - a surprise treat for me); and Little Women, which also featured some very good acting but was almost unbearably twee and, at times, so anachronistic as to be groan-inducing.

But the rest of Oscar's favorites made my list - so, here we go:
  1. 1917 - This is what a truly great movie is supposed to be. Advice to anyone who a) hasn't seen it and b) hasn't seen the trailer: Don't watch the trailer, it will ruin the film - just go see it. And, yes, I mean GO to a movie theater and immerse yourself in the darkness for an unforgettable experience.
  2. The Last Black Man in San Francisco - A stunning achievement by a crew of first-timers, strikingly original and deeply personal. Will hold up just fine on video, so borrow this one from your library or (if you must) stream it.
  3. The Irishman - Scorsese and his team of regulars do it again. Forget what they say - it's not too long!
  4. Once Upon a Time in ... Hollywood - Tarantino does it again, only this time with a bit more subtlety (though not too much of that, after all, it's Tarantino). Leonardo DiCaprio is really good here, but Brad Pitt is even better, and ought to win the Supporting Actor Oscar.
  5. Jojo Rabbit - Imperfect, but enhanced by extreme originality, it's gratifying to see a film this quirky get noticed by the stuffy ol' Academy. Probably won't win anything but, in this case, the nomination is the prize.
  6. The Farewell - Nominated for a bunch of less prestigious awards (and winning quite a few), this movie was inexplicably left out of the running for Oscar, despite being a near-perfect indie film by an American (albeit Asian-American) director. The story would fit any family, especially any family with recent immigrants, but ol' Hollywood apparently couldn't relate. Extra props to UAlbany product Awkwafina, who starred and earned a Golden Globe for her efforts.
  7. Transit - Similar to Jojo Rabbit, in that it re-imagines a WWII scenario with deft originality, this film takes place in the France of the present, but depicts the displacement of people there under the German Nazi invasion of the 1940s. Lyrical, beautifully filmed, heartbreaking.
  8. The White Crow - I'm no ballet critic, but I enjoyed every minute of this adaptation of the true life of Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev, probably because it so effectively shows how the passion of a great artist helped him overcome terrible odds.
  9. Joker - Much better than I expected, and not at all a comic-book movie (though based on comic-book characters), this film captured my attention and never let it go. Joaquin Phoenix will win the Best Actor Oscar for his brilliant performance as the horribly mentally ill Arthur Fleck.
  10. This is a tie. Marriage Story and Everybody Knows have significant commonalities - family relationships gone dramatically awry, superstar casts, indie vibes - but they are also starkly contrasting: One takes place between brutally competitive New York City and Los Angeles, the other in a charming Spanish village; one involves a rather superficial decision to divorce, the other a decades-old, crime-laced mystery. But they share crackling dialogue, beautifully shot scenes - many of them intensely intimate - and a couple of nice twists. While Marriage Story earned best-actor nods for Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, Everybody Knows got bupkus, though its male lead, Antonio Banderas, was nominated instead for his work in Pain and Glory. Obviously a good year for him - and for Johansson, who also was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her work in Jojo Rabbit. Impressive achievements for both.
Still to be seen: I've yet to catch up with the aforementioned Pain and Glory, and would also like to catch The Two Popes (which had each Pope interpreter get an Oscar nod), and another African-American themed movie called Waves that got an 84% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (compared to 92% for Little Women and a perplexing 68% for Joker).

In all, 2019 was a far better than average year for films, as was 2018 - a promising trend, with Amazon and Netflix deserving much of the credit.

Transit, starring Franz Rogowski, center, was one of the best films of 2019
and earned a 94% critics' rating on Rotten Tomatoes