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

Monday, February 29, 2016

Post-Oscar comments

Jacob Tremblay, left, and Brie Larson star in Room.
This year I did not run a "best films" post before the Academy Awards because I hadn't seen enough of the contending movies (yet) to offer much in the way of useful commentary. Sorry about that!

But I did honor my personal tradition of going to see a nominated film on Oscar night by catching the early show of Room, which received four nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actress, and for which its star, Brie Larson, took home the golden statuette.

So I missed Chris Rock's opening monologue completely, which I understand did not disappoint in skewering the players on all sides of the black-artists-matter controversy. This discussion is far from over, but I'm glad at least this phase of it is behind us. Adding a lot of politics into a public process that is, still, primarily about two things - art and business - just doesn't really help. 

In the end, for whatever reason, ABC got lousy ratings (no thanks to me!), and several films, especially Mad Max: Fury Road got a boost to their bottom line. And that's what Oscar's really all about. 

Room is, in a word, harrowing. I assume the critics have been enthusiastic about the film (though I'm waiting to read reviews until after I've fully processed my own reactions), but I can see why it did not win Best Picture.

The film that did win Best Picture, Spotlight, remains my own pick as the best of 2015 (as noted here in early January), so it is gratifying to share in the surprise of its come-from-behind victory over The Revenant (which I still haven't had the strength to face). I loved two basic things about Spotlight - terrific ensemble acting and the perfect fulfillment of the old-fashioned simple formula for a great movie: A good story, well told.

I also loved the fact that Spotlight got the newsroom details right, which is the sort of thing that done wrong can very easily ruin even a really good movie for me. Having worked for years at a daily newspaper, I was anxiously scanning every scene in Spotlight for a wrong note - and it passed with a perfect grade.

Not so Room. This film also involves a depiction of journalism, as a sidebar to the main focus of the story, but with very significant impact on the arc of the film and all its characters.

What happens is that an apparently top professional television news interviewer is shown asking leading, accusatory, and inflammatory questions of the extremely fragile subject Ma, and the people supposedly there to protect her do nothing. To describe what happens next would be a spoiler, but suffice it to say things don't exactly get better for Ma.

I reacted to this scene like any audience member was supposed to - feeling angry at the bad media exploiter who used this poor young woman for ratings. Then I stepped back and realized it was the filmmaker actually doing the manipulating here - so I'll redirect that anger. I don't think this was a fair depiction of a working journalist or fair treatment of an audience that has allowed you to take them this far into the world you've created. Not OK.

Maybe this is the essential difference between working with a true story (as in Spotlight) and embarking on a dramatic foray into fiction. In the true story, the drama is what it is - you can try to present it in a ramped-up fashion or not, but you can't change the facts. And it will be the facts - the story - that ultimately convince the audience of the experience they are having. In the fictional Room, I found myself retreating from the story because it did not add up to seeming true. (There's also a throwaway performance by William H. Macy as Ma's father, who disappears with nary an explanation.)

Playing with the audience's emotions may create an effect - but, ultimately, it doesn't win them over. To accomplish that, I think you need to be better than the writer and director of Room have proven to be. As for Larson winning the Oscar - it was a brave performance by a very promising young actress. But I think Cate Blanchett was far better in Carol - and, no doubt, many others already agree.

Cate Blanchett, left, and Rooney Mara star in Carol.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

A new direction for Get Visual

When Get Visual began in late 2008, I purposely included the words "and beyond" in the tagline, so its mission would not be unnecessarily restricted - I wanted to retain for myself the possibility of writing outside the lines of Capital Region visual arts.

Until now, I have used that freedom sparingly - most often to address something in the arts realm beyond our regional geography or, even more rarely, to venture into a topic area not focused on art at all. This is about to change. The reason? I'm questioning the worth of art criticism in a time of economic, political, and social changes so vast (and fast) that it is simply impossible to keep track of it all, much less keep up.

So, in addition to the usual art criticism, I will use the pages of GV to explore my voice as a social critic. There are a lot of things on my mind - no doubt they are on your minds, too. Let's talk about them.

Here's some of what to look for in this space in the near future:

Gripes, complaints - and questions

We're living in a culture of complaint. Is there any way to stop the growing tendency of entitled young Americans to try to whine their way to the top? (Example - today's Academy Awards boycott effort by frustrated black actors and their supporters.)

Enough screen time already!

This is my dilemma (definition: a difficult or persistent problem). How to address the issue of too many eyes and brains spending too much time staring at little screens without using the little screens as a way to reach those eyes and brains?

Why can't we all just get along?

A  lot of smart, talented, well-meaning people (including myself) put a huge amount of effort into creating the current version of the Honest Weight Food Co-op, a beautiful grocery store and community pillar that employs more than 200 people and has over 12,000 members - yet, a few months ago, the Co-op was subjected to a hostile takeover of its board by an insurgent group representing a few hundred voting members. This group now behaves like the Soviet Politburo. WTF?

You call that disenfranchised?

In Albany recently there was a second vote on whether to approve bond funding for improvements to the high school. It passed, narrowly, amid some confusion at the polls - apparently, the organizers of the vote underestimated the turnout and were caught shorthanded on ballots, a situation that was eventually corrected, but not before a bunch of impatient brats decided they were being purposely "disenfranchised" of their right to vote. Inconvenienced, yes, but to think there was actually a conspiracy to manipulate the outcome of the referendum? Puh-leeeze! Yet, Albany County Comptroller Mike Connors won't let it go.

Photo Regional comes full circle

The 38th Annual Photography Regional reminds me a lot of the first ones. Are we making any progress? Does it matter? Review to come.

Cut to the video

OK, so it appears some people started a fight on a CDTA bus, then decided to report it as a racial assault on themselves, and eventually ended up getting charged with assault and false reporting to police. So many ways stupid - but the part I can't wrap my head around is how in 2016 did three collegiate 20-year-olds not know this was all being captured on video?

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Kate Teale: The Housed at Opalka Gallery

Kate Teale: left, Raft 2009; right Floating World 2010
oil on mulberry paper on canvas and board
While lovers will be enjoying flowers and chocolates this Valentine's weekend, I've got a different suggestion for lovers of art: good ol' drawing and painting. In a world overstuffed with postmodernist theorists, it's a tonic to walk into Sage College of Albany's Opalka Gallery and see graphite on paper and oils on board by the extremely talented Kate Teale, an English artist now established in New York City, who should be a household name, but was a new discovery for me.

Outside There is Raging Chaos 2014
oil on mulberry paper on canvas and board
Teale's exhibition of six graphite drawings and 18 oil paintings, titled The Housed, was curated by Don Desmett at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, and is on tour. It also includes a couple of extremely long (about 30-foot) digital prints from original drawings and a large direct wall drawing that was executed on-site with student help. The installation suits the high, open space of the Opalka perfectly, allowing the larger works and groupings to breathe, while melding into a cohesive whole that the viewer can digest in reasonable bites.

Teale's style and technique border on photo-realism; however, she also flirts with formal abstraction, as she explores her subjects of rumpled beds, seascapes, windows, and the human form nearly as dispassionately as a scientist studies a lab rat. Not that the work is cold - in fact, it feels intensely personal - but that Teale takes the position of an outsider looking in at herself and her intimate surroundings.

All In #13 2013, graphite on paper
Conceptually, the title of the show is almost a tease. The artist is making a reference to a term the homeless use for the rest of us - to them, we are "the housed" - yet she takes her statement no further, leaving us to muse on the political or social implications of this quiet, contemplative, largely self-referential body of work. Actually, it's several bodies of work, which many would view as distinct, yet they do hold together, in part due to Teale's meticulous technique, in part due to the reduced palette that largely removes the separation between painting and drawing.

Through the Night 2006-2010
oil on mulberry paper on canvas and board
A series of eight unframed paintings titled Through the Night, all vertical compositions 32" by 38", dominates the show, with its detailed representation of the artist asleep in bed with her husband, as captured at half-hour intervals by an automatic camera. The series is characterized by detailed rendering and extremely muted shades of a limited range of pinks, greens and greys, with large areas left white. Each example selects different centers of interest: Pillows, or faces, or hands and arms - leaving the painting looking not so much unfinished as properly underdone - like a delicious steak or grilled vegetables.

These quasi-landscapes of domesticity tie in to three unpopulated bedscapes also on view (including the two shown at the top of this post, which in the exhibition are presented one above the other, rather than side by side), those in turn tie in to several graphite seascapes, and those tie in to a couple of very large striped landscapes that return our thoughts to the mattress.

Ghost 2013oil on mulberry paper
on canvas and board
Continuing the connections, those mattress-ticking stripes appear drawn directly from the Venetian blinds in a small, perfectly rendered window frame (titled Ghost) and it in turn ties to a group of four larger external views of brownstone windows that introduce a bright yellow into the mix, one of which carries the same title as the show itself (another, with the evocative title, Outside There is Raging Chaos, is reproduced above right).

Altogether, Teale's show holds our interest in an understated way that is as compelling as louder statements' grip, and the extended time and attention that the work demanded of its maker - and earns from its viewers - leads to equally longer-lasting impacts.

Kate Teale: The Housed is accompanied by a beautifully produced catalog (attractively priced at $10) that features an essay by Lucy Lippard. The show continues through April 10.

Landfall 2014, oil on mulberry paper on canvas and board