Get Visual is the grateful recipient of a grant from The Christos N. Apostle Charitable Trust

Saturday, February 28, 2015

The John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art

A detail of the Ringlings' home
If you find yourself within striking distance of Sarasota, Fla., any time soon, be sure to check out the Ringling Museum. Originally built as a lavish estate by John Ringling (of circus fame and robber-baron fortune) and his wife Mable, it was then donated to the local municipality in 1936 by the childless couple. The gorgeously lavish seaside site offers changing shows of contemporary art; a significant permanent collection of both circus art and fine art; free and guided tours of the Ringlings’ jazz-age, neo-Venetian villa; parklike gardens; and more.

My friend (and Florida native) John and I went there to see two shows in particular: One was a traveling collection of cutting-edge Chinese photography and video, titled Seeing the Unseen, which we found disappointing; the other is a new Ringling-curated contemporary group show titled Re:Purposed that was outstanding.

Li Wei, Mirror
Why were we disappointed by the Chinese contemporary work? Well, disappointment hinges on expectations, and I admit mine were a bit higher for this conglomeration that featured eight artists but was so narrow in scope as to seem almost a solo show. I’ll blame the curators, not the artists, for that, but it is certain that out of the vastness of the Chinese art scene there had to be more to work with that would have captured our attention. Instead, we moved on fairly quickly, our appreciation for the contemporary Chinese art world somewhat diminished.

Re:Purposed, on the other hand, provided a delightful overall experience and featured, for me, both old friends and new discoveries. The two best-known (and oldest) artists in the mix, Nick Cave and El Anatsui, do carry the show with conceptually sound, brilliantly colorful, exquisitely crafted pieces. But they also have some fine company, especially in the case of Aurora Robson, a Canadian collage assemblist with delicate sensibilities, wry wit, and 21st-century wisdom.

Robson’s pair of works on paper with magazine cuttings and deftly drawn curlicues cleverly celebrates and subverts our ubiquitous advertising media and its unsubtle consumerist messages, while offering playful and meaningful alternatives. Another artist with a message, Alyce Santoro, presents tapestries and dresses made from woven magnetic tape (pulled out of old cassettes), working not just with the shiny material but with the vestiges of sound that they contain and which can still be pulled up by a tape head. I found this aspect of the weavings equally intriguing and creepy – visually, though, the work fell a little flat.

A Nick Cave Soundsuit
Daniel Rozin’s moving wall of fragmentary detritus is probably the most innovative piece in Re:Purposed – via computer technology and little mechanical motors, the work looks back at the viewers and makes a shadow image of the figures it sees. The interaction is a valid way of communicating that we are directly connected to the trash he’s tricked us into looking at.

Ringling curator Matthew McClendon gave a big space to Jill Sigman for a site-specific installation of a hut constructed out of stuff culled from local Sarasota trash (including some discarded Ringling signage). Colorful and unsurprisingly chaotic, the hut felt forced – too artificial to be truly engaging. Visitors showed their discomfort by hesitating to enter it (despite a clear entrance and no prohibitive warnings) until I broke the barrier and walked in. This lack of audience interaction is symptomatic of the sterile, churchlike environment that museums have cultivated, but it also speaks to an absence of excitement about the Sigman work presented here.

The other artists in the show (Matt Eskuche, Vanessa German, Emily Noelle Lambert, and Mac Premo) all are well represented by a good sampling of work that ranges from elegant glass reproductions of crushed cans to mechanical constructs. The show is augmented by a few items from the Ringling’s permanent collection, including a first-rate wall relief by Robert Rauschenberg and several Marcel Duchamp readymades.

Also on view at the Ringling is a permanent installation by James Turrell titled Joseph's Coat that is a super-flat 24-foot-square aperture in the ceiling of a courtyard, through which viewers can see the ever-changing sky above. Periodic nighttime LED shows designed by Turrell are the real event, but just to stand under the opening during the day and look up through it is a transcendent art experience well worth the effort.

Seeing the Unseen ended on Feb. 28; Re:Purposed will be on view daily through May 17.

Liu Bolin, Hiding in the City - Bird's Nest

Sunday, February 8, 2015

The best films of 2014

Patricia Arquette and Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood
With the awards season in full swing, I'm ready to weigh in on my favorite films of the past year. 2014 was an excellent year for movies, and that shows in the truly tough-to-handicap Oscar races. Luckily, I have so far seen six of the eight Best Picture nominees, and they are all worth the time. I've missed American Sniper and Selma, but plan to see the former very soon. As for the latter, I'm just not that interested in a dramatic alteration of Civil Rights history, so I'm skipping it.

1. Boyhood - How anybody can not be completely blown away by the achievement of this 12-year project by Richard Linklater is beyond me. It's a drama about a kid growing up, in which all the actors actually age in real time through the course of the filming. More than that - it's a really great life story, beautifully performed. Patricia Arquette will win the Oscar for this one, and if Linklater doesn't, it's simply wrong.

Agata Trzebuchovska in Ida
2. Ida - Gorgeously shot in black and white, this Polish production was rightly nominated for Best Foreign Language Film. It is heartbreakingly beautiful, deep, original and refreshingly unresolved. Your local library probably has a copy you can borrow for free.

Michael Keaton in Birdman
3. Birdman - I expect this to win Best Picture, but who knows? From the opening credits, the solo improvisational drum soundtrack is just plain brilliant. The film's immersive shooting style draws you immediately into the has-been main character's desperation and never lets you go. Keaton has a shot at Best Actor, except the competition is brutal. I have one quibble with the movie, which is that I can't understand why they felt it necessary to tack on a blow-job for social media in the midst of an existential struggle. Sorry, the rest of this movie is just not so superficial as the message it pushes that you don't matter if you're not being re-tweeted, and that brought it down - unnecessarily, in my estimation.

4. The Imitation Game - This was the film that was recommended to me more than anything else this season, and it does not disappoint. Benedict Cumberbatch deserves the Oscar for  his highly nuanced portrayal of a conflicted gay autistic savant who paid as dearly for his sexual proclivities as for his OCD pursuit of a machine that can think. Keira Knightley is tolerable but not on the same level as her co-star. Daunting British accents for the hard-of-hearing; otherwise very enjoyable and extremely moving.

5. Force Majeure - A Swedish film shot in French Switzerland will never do well in the US market - however, this is exactly the sort of movie that shows what Europe does so much better than Hollywood (and apparently, always will). Force Majeure is a Hitchcockian thriller about a bad marriage that makes you very uncomfortable about life, civilization, humanity, and child-rearing without showing you anything shocking or truly negative. The actors in it are amazing. Borrow this one from the library, too.

6. The Grand Budapest Hotel - Super-quirky, especially when it goes (literally) off the rails into a sledding fantasy. Anything this original that gets an Oscar nod should stand very proud. Will not win, however.

Mark Ruffalo (center) and
Channing Tatum in Foxcatcher
7. Foxcatcher - Classic Indie film - quasi-major actors, a true story that's stranger than fiction, topics nobody thought they could be interested in (wrestling, disapproving mothers). Steve Carell's performance as nut-job billionaire John DuPont is career-making; Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo are terrific (as always). A real downer, but vividly great.

Jones and Redmayne in The Theory of Everything
8. The Theory of Everything - I'll admit, this one disappointed me, though it is still a very good movie. The problem is, it's about Stephen Hawking's first marriage - not about his work in physics. It's a romance. Which is fine, once you accept that it will not get cosmic in any real way. On the other hand, Eddie Redmayne (who is generally expected to win Best Actor) does bring the extremely fascinating younger Hawking startlingly back to life (the older Hawking is still with us), and Felicity Jones is completely irresistible as his first love, Jane.

9. Whiplash - Who knew music school could be like boot camp, only worse? I'm a huge fan of jazz drumming, but this is not the way to form a great artist. Another Indie-style film featuring terrific performances, especially by the Oscar-nominated and likely to win Best Supporting Actor J.K. Simmons as the brutal taskmaster.

10. Big Eyes - I have a bias in the case of this film, because it almost impossibly combines the three extremely disparate pursuits that are at the core of my three careers: art, newspapering, and fraud. The story of con man Walter Keane, as told by a gossip columnist nicely voiced by Danny Huston, is not shocking. Keane's fraudulent pose as the artist behind his wife's kitschy paintings is fairly well known now - but it is shocking to learn, via a tour-de-force, Oscar-nominated performance by Amy Adams, that Margaret Keane believed completely in her art as the true expression of her soul. An unexpected delight, with director Tim Burton's usual surreal flourishes.

Special Mention: The Lunchbox is a 2013 film out of Bollywood that was missing at last year's Oscars because India refused to nominate it. Still, it earned my top rating of four stars for its combination of charming romance and rare entry into the day-to-day life of working and middle-class Indians. The plot focuses around an unlikely glitch in the Six-Sigma perfection of India's system of "dabba wallas" - the largely illiterate deliverymen who transport millions of home-made lunches to office-bound workers' desks every day. The delivery error leads, naturally, to quite unexpected love. A must-see movie for anyone with a heart or an interest in everyday India.

Irrfan Khan in The Lunchbox