Tuesday, March 31, 2009

On the Road!

Like true New Yorkers, Patty, Katie, and I escaped to the Berkshires this weekend. We had the most glorious time driving on the Taconic, eating good food, and seeing the sites. We really didn’t want to come back—at least not for a couple more days.

Patty and Katie stretching their legs after 3.5 hours in the car.

The Clark

The impetus for our trip was Toulouse-Lautrec and Paris at the Clark through April 26. Katie, who got her Master’s in Art History at Williams, promised her classmate who helped curate the show that she would go see it. I’m super glad she made that promise. It’s an appealing exhibition of Toulouse-Lautrec’s lithographs of life in bohemian Paris. My favorite part of the exhibition was the “Celebrities” section which juxtaposed photographs of Paris’s most famous singers and actresses with Toulouse-Lautrec’s lithographs of them. There’s something undeniably engaging about comparing a “true likeness” to an artistic, idealized rendering.


On Saturday evening, we headed over to MASS MoCA for “13 Most Beautiful… Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests,” a film with live music written and performed by Dean and Britta. From 1964 to 1966, Warhol filmed Screen Tests, silent film portraits of Factory regulars. In all, there were over 500 of these screen tests. With a commission from the Warhol Museum, Dean and Britta chose 13 of these films, edited them together, and composed a score of original music.

The concept struck me as a little hipster chic and precious (but then again, Andy Warhol, himself, often verged dangerously close to the precious). Surprisingly, parts of the evening turned out to be quite moving. And not because in between sets, Dean would say things like “and he danced out a window and fell four stories to his death, and she went for cigarettes in 1986 and never came back, and in the 70s he was standing on the side of the road and was struck by a car.” No, the evening was moving because while Warhol often simply filmed insolent girls and jaded men who flipped off the camera, sometimes he managed to capture the essence of being human, in all of its beauty and quirkiness, vividness and vulnerability. Still, the most thrilling part of the evening was discovering that Britta was the voice of JEM in Jem and the Holograms (you know the original Hannah Montana).

Smith College Museum of Art

On Sunday morning, we drove to Smith so Katie could ogle a painting for work. The Met is borrowing it for an exhibition and she and the curator needed to know what color the sky was actually painted. Somehow, they suspected that Lily Martin Spencer wouldn’t really paint a sky yellow. It turns out the photo they received was way off, the painting was a washed out blue.

While we were there, we wandered into Thin and Girl Culture. It was perhaps one of the most upsetting, chilling, thought-provoking, and socially driven exhibitions I’ve ever seen. Photographer Lauren Greenfield combined two of her prior projects, a documentary series of photographs of women at Renfrew, an eating disorder treatment facility with another documentary series which explored the image-obsession of girls in America.

This is exactly the sort of exhibition college art museums should be doing, particularly a leading women’s college like Smith. The exhibition pushes the enveloped and it forced people to think hard about the social construction of beauty and womanhood, the danger of a homogenous conception of beauty, and the overwhelming, sociological urge to fit in and be loved.

The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art

We ended our trip on a way lighter note. And, if you ask me (although Patty and Katie might disagree), we saved the best for last. We went to the Eric Carle Museum. I have been busting to get to this place for years, but every time I was thwarted by a perfect storm of circumstances. But, at long last, I made it there! It was even more magical than I expected. There was a wonderful exhibition about the making of The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Eric Carle originally named him Willy Worm! Thankfully, his editor intervened. There were mock-ups of the pages and a case which showed how Carle gouached pieces of white paper and then cut shapes from them to make his collages. There was also a fantastic exhibition about Virginia Lee Burton, the beloved illustrator of The Little House.

I cannot rave enough about the museum. I loved the physical building; it is so light and airy, yet made wonderfully inviting by huge, colorful, abstract paintings by Carle and children’s crafts hanging in the windows. I was enchanted by the adorable, child-sized library with hundred of picture books and the huge craft room. But what I really loved about the museum is that it found the perfect balance between appealing to kids and adults. There was plenty for kids to look at and great activity guides for them and adults had substantial, interesting labels to read.

I can’t wait to get back up there. There are so many places we just didn't have time to visit!

Sunday, March 22, 2009


Last night I saw my 12 year old cousin’s theatrical debut in Berner Middle School’s production of Footloose. My dad asked if I was going to blog about it. My initial response was, “Ummmm, of course not.” But, a couple of weeks ago the New York Times theatre critic, Charles Isherwood, had a cameo on “Gossip Girl.” Isherwood, as himself, attended the fictional private school’s production of “The Age of Innocence.” Isherwood was pretty stiff, but it was hilariously meta and unintentionally brought up an interesting point: what is and is not worthy of critique. Don’t worry, I’m not planning on excoriating the middle school musical, but I figure if Isherwood can see and think a high school production was “genius,” I can certainly admit to having one heck of a good time at Berner last night.

No seriously, I was incredibly impressed by the middle school’s stage craft. They had a fly crew. I remember my middle school musical—we acted on a makeshift stage in the gym. These kids has scenery flying in and out and movable set pieces that a small army of crewmembers whisked off and on stage. Those kids were mighty professional too; one boy lingered after everything was on to make sure the tablecloths at the diner were perfectly straight. But this floored me—the kids were miked. I remember when the Wellesley theater department and Upstage, the student theater group, split the cost of a set of head mikes for a production of “Blood Brothers.” It was a BIG day. Either mikes have gotten a lot cheaper or the school has money. Maybe both. Either way, I’m grateful the kids were miked. We wouldn’t have heard them otherwise.

And I finally understood why middle schools and high schools fanatically LOVE the musical (a genre of theater I really dislike). Sure, you can involve a lot more kids, but the genre is really a gift to an audience of captive family members. 13 year olds really can’t act, but a lot of them can sing and dance. And these kids sang and danced their hearts out. It was adorable and joyous and fun. The girl who sang “Lets Hear It for the Boy” was a precociously good singer and brought down the house (and not for the first time when I was attending one of my cousin’s school functions did I wonder what ‘ol Humbert Humbert would think of these child-women).

The auditorium was packed with parents, family members, friends, teachers, and staff who all beamed with pride. At the end, we rose and stood en masse to give these kids a standing ovation. And as everyone left, there were outbreaks of impromptu sashaying through the parking lot (my family among the guilty). It’s been a long time since I’ve had such an unexpected, heartwarming evening of joy and celebration. Let’s hear it for the kids at Berner!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

National Museum of the American Indian

When I visited the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in New York last weekend, I was bewildered by the unintentional ironies and puzzling juxtapositions. The building and exhibition I saw were destablizingly at odds with one another. I suspect this museum, like all museums, was created with the very best of intentions, but along the way something went terribly awry.

The NMAI is housed in the old U.S. Custom House, an imposing beaux arts building. I support repurposing buildings, but this reuse boggles the imagination. Built at the turn of the 20th century, the building is a monument to classic, Western civilization and its ideals. Massive statues of Greek goddesses flank the imposing staircase. The façade is lousy with Greco-Roman design motifs. The interior of the building glorifies the early Repulic. A series of tableaus, which border a stunning rotunda, narrate the vitality of American trade and commerce. Interspersed between the triumphant, nationalistic tableaus are portraits of famous Western explorers, including Amerigo Vespucci, Henry Hudson, and Christopher Columbus—the very people whose “discoveries” eventually wreaked havoc on the Native American way of life. Symbols matter and the museum’s very home undercuts its mission to celebrate, preserve, study, and exhibit the life, languages, literature, history, and arts of Native Americans.

It’s an unfair, but true fact that museums of ethnic/minority history can’t simply be good or great, they have to be outstanding. These museums are treated as levelers—their unstated missions: to create parity. Our nation’s flagship museums have long segregated our history, celebrating the accomplishments of the white, male majority. In turn, museums dedicated to single minority experience have emerged, creating a vast system of separate, but equal. When will museums have their Brown vs. Board of Education moment? Separate is not equal. The philosophy of parceling our history to discrete institutions creates an untenable educational burden. These museums cannot simply share objects and bring to life historic events, they must also confront stereotypes and battle the prejudices of the majority, while providing uplift and affirmation for the minority group they represent.

Embracing this need for affirmation, the current exhibition on view, Identity by Design: Tradition, Change, and Celebration in Native Women's Dresses, was visually stunning. The dresses decorated with glass beads shimmered and glowed under the gallery’s soft lights. The breathtakingly elaborate and complex patterns testified to incredible craftsmanship and skill. Individual displays within the exhibition were thought provoking, like the evolution of native dress making from one skin dresses to three skin dresses. As the tribes’ acculturated to capitalism, more and more skins were used; Native women needed more a larger surface area to decorate with the beads they acquired through trade with the Europeans. The “Ghost Dance” dresses, which were nearly hidden from view, brought me close to tears. These 19th century dresses were created for a ceremonial dance which anticipated the coming of a messiah who would restore a life without European encroachment or values. On these dresses, there was not a trade bead in sight. Rather, these dresses had their decorative motifs painted on, a conscious emulation of pre-contact decorating practices.

While the objects in the exhibition, met the burden of uplift, the labels did not. In fact, some labels came very close to cementing stereotypes and prejudices. The labels did something dangerous; they conflated the past with the present, privileging modern practice and experience as undiluted, unmediated connections to historic custom and life.

Many of the labels had quotes which discussed the art of tribal dress making. These quotations, placed in italic script underneath the tombstone, were excised from conversations with Native American dressmakers working today. These quotations ran the gambit; dressmakers commented on only having time to sew while there children were at school, learning to sew, trying to stay true to ancient designs, choosing materials, and wearing the garments they made. While these quotations were dated 2005, by placing these quotations directly on a label for an object from the 19th century, the past and the present were dizzyingly merged. It was as if, modern Native American women were speaking for the unknown makers of these dresses. But these women’s experience and those women’s experiences were not the same. These quotations romanticize Native American oral traditions and Native Americans, as mystics with unfettered access to ancient wisdom. Yes, Native American culture is strongly routed in an oral tradition and emphasizes the dissemination of tribal knowledge from one generation to another, but these oral traditions are not a Möbius strip—current practice cannot wholly inform the interpretation of historic practice. What does it mean when an institution striving to combat its culture’s stereotypes ends up reinforcing them?

Our nation’s museums, particularly the National Museum of American History, need to address how to fully present our kaleidoscopic, multicultural, multi-layered history so that our museums of ethnic and minority history can be relieved of their untenable burdens. We still need these museums—depth and specialization are important—but let’s give them the chance to really dig in deep.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Tourists in Our Own City

My museum buddies and I tend not to venture too far from “Museum Mile.” It’s not that we wouldn’t, it’s just we tend to plan our outings based on reviews that pique our interests. Luckily for us, a couple of weeks ago Crain’s New York Business published an article about tourism post-9/11 in lower Manhattan. Eight years later things still aren’t business as usual. The article “Fortress Feeling Keeps Downtown Off Beaten Path,” cited a number of reasons: construction, poor public transportation, image problems. All fair reasons, but I think it’s actually a PR problem. Until this article came out, I had no idea that there were 7 museums (8, if you count the Statue of Liberty) in lower Manhattan. Those smaller museums are overshadowed by the city’s giants—the Met, MOMA, the Guggenheim, etc.—who are getting all the reviews. And it’s a shame.

Imagine if these places got real press. Just reading the name Skyscraper Museum was enough for me to send out the rallying email to Katie and Patty that we needed to spend our Sunday afternoon at the tip of the island. Now to be fair, I had an inkling it was a cool place--I’m down at the Seaport for work about once a month--but this is the first time I really explored the area.

Patty and I got there a little bit before Katie so we moseyed around with all of the other tourists. Across from Battery Park, we stumbled upon a shrine to Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American saint (her three attributed miracles were curing three people, including a nun, of incurable diseases). Nothing in Battery Park was quite as surprising as that. Still, we enjoyed the statues of people whose names are no longer recognized in popular culture. Our favorite was John Ericsson a Swedish-born inventor who among other things significantly improved ships’ propeller design. And like all of the other tourists, we got in on the fun and snapped pictures with the Statue of Liberty in the background.

Patty with Lady Liberty

But the highlight of the day was the Skyscraper Museum. It’s pretty awesome. For a lot of reasons. It’s cheap, only $5. It has mirrored ceilings which elongate the columns in the gallery, creating this soaring sense of verticality in a small, one-story space. Their current exhibition is Vertical Cities: Hong Kong | New York. Using photographs, videos, maps, and models, it juxtaposes the two cities to illuminate one another. The two cities are roughly the same size; New York has 8 million to Hong Kong’s 7 million. Hong Kong’s density is just as high, however, because their city is packed much closer to the harbor than ours. Hong Kong also has more skyscrapers than us—these impossible-looking, futuristic, thin, narrow things. The models were pretty cool; I really liked the scale model of midtown. And standing there, picking out the buildings we recognized, I had a flash back to grad school and Bernie Herman’s theory class where we read On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. ‘Ol Susan Stewart would get a kick out of the Skyscraper Museum and its ability to make tangible and accessible the gigantic through miniaturizing. Then I remembered I was now a member of the real world and got back to thinking about how sad St. Patrick’s steeples looked dwarfed by all the high rises and whether anyone else was as ready for lunch as I was.

Coming soon, a post about our post-lunch trip to the Museum of the American Indian.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Savannah Disputation

I’m incredibly lucky that Annette, one of my nearest and dearest, is a freelance stage manager in the City. Thanks to her, since moving to New York, I’ve gotten to see a lot of theater for free or very cheap. From Broadway to Off-Broadway to Central Park, she’s taken me to see workshops, rock musicals, revivals, and new works. Some of it’s been the awful, some of it’s been amazing, and some of it is just so-so, but I’m always grateful that Annette shares these experiences with me.

Last week, she sent me to see The Savannah Disputation by Evan Smith at Playwright’s Horizon. It’s a hilarious, irreverent play, but I probably wouldn’t have gone to see it on my own. Having grown up in the heart of the Bible Belt and witnessed a 4-year-old Baptist tell my 6-year-old sister she was going burn in hell for having a Jewish father, I’m generally not too keen on watching the religious skewer each other over differences in beliefs. The play is the story of an elderly Catholic woman, Margaret, whose faith is tested by a Pentacostal missionary, Melissa, who is bent on saving Catholics from the path to hell. When Margaret’s sister, Mary, finds out what’s going on she calls in the parish priest, Father Murphy, to save her sister and put Melissa in her place.

And there were times throughout the play that I was vaguely uncomfortable with the religious histrionics, in between my uproarious laughter. You can’t help but laugh when Father Murphy at the dinner table jokes, “The catholics are lucky that Jesus wasn’t stoned to death. Instead of crossing themselves, they’d be stoning themselves” and then proceeds to playfully beat his fists against his head. Or when Mary tells Margaret not to encourage the evangelical preacher to come back to the door, “Don’t encourage her; they’re just like cats.” But ultimately the razzle dazzle fights of zealots doesn’t hold up. These Catholics don’t know their theology and neither does the Pentacostal.

Mary, played with daffy brilliance by Marylouise Burke, and Margaret, played by the pitch-perfectly sour Dana Ivey, are shocked at missionary Melissa’s assertion that the Catholics believe in the resurrection of the physical body. Margaret declares that “just plain stupid” and Father Murphy is shocked by Margaret’s pronouncement. Evidently, his parishioners aren’t really listening when they recite the profession of the catholic faith. At his request, Mary and Margaret go through the whole litany, “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord… I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body… .” Mary is dumbfounded when she gets there. And soon she too is questioning the path of righteousness.

The on-and-off path for Mary and Margaret is a tilt-a-whirl of grammatical sparring, bible searching, soul baring, and earnest converting. It’s a testament to the skill of the four actors that they manage to keep us laughing and with them, as the play flounders to provide concrete reasons for each of the character’s reversals of heart. Perhaps the most troubling of which was the mild mannered Father Murphy () who at first refuses to participate in a bible-off and then later, inexplicably enters with an almost manic glee.

I too experienced a change of heart. When I first left the theater, I was charmed and delighted by the cotton candy hilarity and the stellar acting, but just like childhood trips to the circus with an all-you-can-eats-sweets policy—I wish there had been something a little more substantial (and believable) slipped into the free-for-all.

Image courtesy of http://www.newyorktheatreguide.com.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Christine Jorgensen Reveals

Real life is rarely as compelling as theater, but when real life drama and the theatre collude, mesmerizing pieces like Christine Jorgensen Reveals are born. The play is the brain child of actor Bradford Louryk, who discovered a 1952 LP of the only recorded interview with America’s first male-to-female transsexual. After listening to the interview, Louryk realized that he needed to share this story. Instead of adapting the interview for the stage, he presents it as is, but with a twist—he lip-synchs to the recording.

The immediate effect is dissonant. Actually, the first few minutes after Louryk enters as Jorgensen are disorienting, on both a historical and theatrical level. He walked on dressed in an elegant, 1950s, skirt suit of crisp, green, satin. His jacket’s three quarter length sleeves revealed pale, soft arms. He wears a Marilyn Monroe blond wig and sports perfect, heart-shaped, red lips. Transsexuals are still rare enough even today that the dissonance is almost historic. Although this was technically only cross dressing, as an audience, we gave the same silent, appraising glances that Jorgensen’s contemporaries undoubtedly gave, asking what is feminine and what is masculine here? Where is the man underneath that chiffon, make-up, nail polish?

Louryk’s lips and fingernails were painted an indelible 1950s red. Throughout the show, I was fascinated by his thin hands which carefully punctuated the recording, giving it added depth and meaning. At first, I found the gestures disconcerting, like the lip-synching it feels like a half effort.But after a few minutes, I forget that he was mouthing the words and the gestures no longer felt restrained. It was in the hand gestures that Louryk’s interpretative skill as an actor comes through. Occasionally, he had clues to work off of—the microphone picked up the sound of nails tapping against a wooden chair arm, a finger nail scraped across satin. Those noises belie the steady measure of the voice or accent a slight hint of impatience. Other times the gestures seem purely extrapolated, but often they felt right.

If only, the interviewer could have been as subtle and as skilled as Louryk. In a bit of stage craft that doesn’t quite make sense, the interviewer is the performer Rob Grace who speaks from a reproduction 1950s television that shares the spare stage with Louryk. Grace has been filmed lip-synching the questions that the interviewer Julius Russell asked. He mugged and grimaced and furrowed his brows. He judged and queried, prodded and poked. He asked all the questions we want answers to, but somehow I ended up wishing he were polite enough not to. I found the whole thing disconcerting. So, I went looking for the recording and I found it and listened (you can too). Without the overwrought facial emoting, the questions sound sympathetic. What seems lascivious in the mouth of Grace, “If you should see a girl, an exceedingly beautiful, curvaceous girl, a beautiful, seductive woman—say of the Marilyn Monroe variety—do you ever wish you could go back and be a man” seems actually quite a serious inquiry. Particularly when one discovers that the Julius Russell in questions was not a white, one-time-frat-boy cum broadcaster as presented in this play. As Jorgenson’s autobiography reveals, the real Russell—an African American comedian—was chosen because he would be a sympathetic, non-judgmental questioner.

Despite Grace’s questionable direction (the set is a recording studio—why director Josh Hecht didn’t decide to build a glass wall at one end and pretend Russell was behind it, miked in the control room is beyond me), the audience was rapt, hanging on every syllable and hand gesture. Jorgensen is thoughtful and smart. She’s both decades ahead of her moment and indelibly part of it. Listening to her talk about the construction of gender and the expression of sexuality was to listen to a enlightened contemporary. Listening to her talk about the medical diagnosis of her “condition” was to pity the era’s doctors and psychiatrists for not knowing any better.

It’s an incredible thought-provoking night at the theater. If New Yorkers know any better, they’ll go down to the Lion Theater to experience it for themselves.

Photos courtesy of http://www.theatrerow.org/thelion.htm and http://www.theatermania.com/

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Madame X and Lady Escher

No one paints a woman like John Singer Sargent. His most famous subjects may be 19th century socialites dressed in gorgeous outfits, but in some of their gazes, he captures vibrant, unflinching spirits. There's something contemporary about Madame X's attitude--a wonderful, I-am-my-own- woman. It seemed only fitting that we used Sargent's women as the inspiration for our "It's Time We Met" photo contest. We had a great idea. Pose a women of all sizes and shapes in front of Madame X and show the indomitable spirit of young women today. Sadly, my camera and the natural light hated each other and most of the pictures turned out blurry. I'm so bummed.

The whole group.

Abby and Kate looking awesome.

Ugh, the woman in blue! She ruined the best shot in the bunch.

I really want to do this shoot again. I want women of all races and sizes, a more controlled mixture of hip and elegant clothes in black and white, I want better lighting, and a better camera. Basically I want to do a Vanity Fair coverage shoot.