Saturday, May 29, 2010

Brooklyn Museum

Last weekend, Katie, Patty and I went to the Brooklyn Museum to see the costume show, American High Style. It was excellent, but then exhibitions of old clothes almost always are. There is something innately fascinating about costumes from another period; they are so familiar, yet so other.

While we were there, I dragged them into the newly installed Egyptian galleries for a quick look around and to see Melvin the Mummy, who had gotten a write-up in The New York Times. I was underwhelmed by Melvin, but pretty intrigued by the galleries because of my work on the Tut exhibition. It was nice to finally have some context for the objects I blow by on a weekly basis as I chase down errant cameramen.

This afternoon, I went back to the BM to look around and read the wall text in the Egyptian galleries at my leisure. I didn't find the the layout of the galleries intuitive and wasn't quite sure how to move through them to move through time and read the interpretation in chronological order. So, I abandoned that and just did a lot of looking and read a lot of object labels--I became most interested in the materials the objects were made of. Most of Tut's stuff is gold, wood, or some form of alabaster. The objects at the BM were more work-a-day with many being some type of ceramic or carved stone. Not surprisingly the craftsmanship of objects made for non-royals wasn't as fine either. It must have been nice to being a living God on earth and have a God's send-off into the afterlife.

While I was at the Museum today, I also went and paid a visit to my favorite work of art in the collection, Martinque Woman by Malvina Hoffman. It's an arresting black marble sculpture of a larger-than-life woman's head. The interplay of textures and color--her smooth, flawless, dark black skin juxtaposed against the rough, stippled carving of her grayish white hair--is delicious. She gazes at the entrance of the gallery, pulling the viewer in and demanding their consideration. It's a powerful piece in a gallery of exceptional artwork.

In fact, I had forgotten how much I liked her gallery, a sort of hodge podge of late 19th/20th century paintings and sculptures located in front of the American Wing's Luce Center. It's the eclectic, thoughtfully curated nature of the gallery that makes it so gratifying. At the front of the gallery, are folk-art sculpture of animals--a giraffe's painted head, and two fierce lions, carved from salvaged railroad ties and whose whiskers are made of wires. Beyond them is a marble statue of a woman, a late-19th century interpretation of classic Greek statuary. It's not very good (actually), but it's juxtaposition against the untrained folk art carver and across from Hoffman's statue, shows the range of sculptural work happening in America within a 60 year period.

Rounding at the gallery's look at sculpture is John Koch's homoerotic painting The Sculptor. The foreground depicts a naked, male model lighting the cigarette of the sculpture who is taking measurements of his calves and thighs with calipers. In the background stands a monumental sculpture, depicting a Grecian figure (perhaps Hercules?) battling some sort of monster. The focus of the painting is the finely rendered model's back, with it's rippling back. The figure is more sculptural than the sculpture in the background, which acts almost as a mere placeholder.

I'm pretty darn lucky that I'm only a 10 minute walk from the Brooklyn Museum. It's become my defacto hangout when I have a spare hour or two. Every time I am delighted and charmed. It's, honestly, a privilege to become familiar with a collection through repeat viewings.

Monday, May 17, 2010

"Restoration" at NYTW

I’m tickled when theatre looks at the art world. It’s no surprise then that (after I got over my opening scene heart attack) I enjoyed “Restoration” at New York Theatre Workshop on Friday.

As a prelude to my heart attack: the play is about an art conservator who has fallen out of favor with the “establishment”. Forced to the sidelines of the conservation field, Giulia practices in a garage in Brooklyn and teaches at the maligned Brooklyn College. She labors in near obscurity, but due to her commitment to research and the support of a persuasive old mentor, she is given the career-changing opportunity to clean Michaelangelo’s David in honor of his 500th birthday.

So, my chest clutching: Let’s not ignore the fact that Giulia works in what looks like a space without temperature control. When Giulia was done doing work for the day, she pulled down her large magnifying glass until it was only 6 inches above the painting. UGH. AGH. No conservator worth her salt leaves any sort of instrument hanging over a painting. Conservators envision disaster. They know that a magnifying glass could topple over a painting at any instance. Until the scene ended I squirmed in my seat and wondered if this was a first indication of lazy research during the play’s conception.

Happily, things swiftly improved, including the lead actress’s performance. The playwright, Claudia Shear, plays Giulia, a brash, whip smart, Italian-American art conservator. The first scene opens with Giulia alone in her studio addressing the audience as she explains how was she drawn to the field. It’s not a badly written monologue, but Shear is not a subtle actress and she has not written her character in a nuanced way. The play might have been better served by an actress who did not know the character intimately, was not her creator, and who needed to find ways to connect to her. To be fair, the character does go through a transformation and Shear does do a fine job of portraying that arc. She is softened during her time working on the David and by the joshing friendship she forms with Max, the macho, yet sensitively cultured head guard at the museum (played by the excellent Jonathan Cake). She learns that no woman is an island and only statues can stand apart from humanity forever.

Still, despite my above quibbles there is something oddly charismatic about Giulia. She cares about him vengefully and idealistically. She recognizes that this is her opportunity to blow raspberries at the academic conservation world that rejected her (something about a confusing slander case involving another conservator), but she also cares deeply about cleaning the David well and ensuring his survival for future generations. There is a moving scene at a press conference, where the director and PR manager try and coerce her into reading a press release about repairing the holes in the David’s back. Giulia deviates from the script to forcefully and eloquently defend the importance of preserving a piece of art’s history—in this case the holes from the stones thrown at the David as he was carted to the Palazzo del Signoria.

The audience never actually sees those holes, nor do they see the entire David until the end of the play. For most of the play, the statue is hidden behind scaffolding with only an assortment of visible body parts. The set designer, Scott Pask, plays with scale so that a foot is uncomfortably close to the tushy. The sculpture’s penis is at chest level and prominently displayed, leading to the compulsory awkward (well, the playwright couldn’t not go there) and hilarious cleaning session.

There are a lot of wonderfully funny moments in the play, tempered by poignant moments where the characters reflect on the David’s role in their lives and art in general. The audience members are the beneficiaries of their considered and heartfelt insights. It’s a play worth seeing and it’s a play worth mounting again, now that New York Theatre Workshop has given it its first legs.

Photo Courtesy of Ticket courtesy of Annette.