Posts Tagged ‘review’

museums: Fahrelnissa Zeid

27 August 2017

Tapestry, carpet, stained glass window, mosaic, kaleidoscope are some of the metaphors that come to mind in viewing the work of the Ottoman-born artist Fahrelnissa Zeid. Her dominant tones were modulations of primary colors – tomato red, denim blue, Girl Scout green. A lover of great cities, especially Paris, she preferred a big, crowded canvas, with some geometric and tonal regularity. She varied the way she wrote her name, on her work and off, through her career: Fahrünissa, Fahr-El-Nissa, Fahrelnissa Z, FZ. Most of her work lives in private collections, including those of her family, and in the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art.

Works to spend time with include Third Class Passengers, which seems to layer dancers, subway straphangers, prostrate prayergivers, and families lounging on their rugs; Loch Lomond, where revelers and boats form a net of 45 and 60-degree triangles that melt into abstraction at the top; the rippling, Escheresque panorama of My Hell and the beaded city map of The Octopus of Triton. Abstract Parrot is the culmination of her stained-glass type. The three open page spreads from her sketchbooks tantalized with a bright watercolor-and-ink mountain landscape, writing (“pourquoi la mort m’appelait …”), and a stunning self-portrait. Her portraits of others, displayed in the last room, were deliberately naive, if not actually bad.

There were a few callouts to England. London (“The Firework”) is a blurred futuristic cityscape filtered through yellow-red light and then through a network of orthogonal brushstrokes that recall latticed window screens. Someone from the Past is a self portrait with, Zeid wrote, Persian hand attitudes, Byzantine dress, Cretan face and “Oriental” eyes. What it also resembles is formal portraits of Elizabeth I, if she had posed crownless wearing kohl and earrings.

This Tate Modern retrospective, supported by Deutsche Bank, moves to Berlin after 8 October. Zeid lived there in the mid-1930s while her husband was the Iraqi ambassador, and even took tea with Hitler. Fifty years later she asked Donald Trump if she could paint his portrait, and did so from a photograph, according to the exhibition catalog. The result is not to be seen here.

museums: David Hockney

13 May 2017
Is that … the Ladybird Book of David Hockney?

A few things about David Hockney, based on the exhibition now closing at the Tate:

1. His palette resembles the acrylic paints we used in school – those saturated hues that came in squeeze bottles, like condiments. The blues were especially intense, including the bright turquoise color of the squeeze bottles themselves. Hockney likes that blue spectrum, a bit more to the purple and less to the green side. Most of his works have at least one patch of intense blue, like a ground socket. Some of them work through the blue obsession more subtly; for example, pictures of modern window-walled buildings and tiled bathrooms in which the blue/grey patches vary systematically like Pantone samplers.

2. Hockney loves to vary techniques and treatments event within the same work. A single painting may have faces with their features resting lightly on the skin in the Alex Katz style, wireframe representations of furniture, deep fluffy fur, solid and shaded Platonic shapes of Russian constructivists, the depth of pool water, and the occasional patch of realism just to show he can do it. Sometimes the same object gets a double treatment, as in Rubber Ring Floating in a Swimming Pool where the ring flickers between Rothko style abstract with extra layers, and photorealism.

3. Some favorite paintings:

– A landscape of the Pacific Coast Highway, showing the variegation of terrain with different paint treatment techniques – layering, swirling, scratching – and another of the Colorado River in rich reds.
Breakfast at Malibu Wednesday 89 and Sunday 89, with the background of deep blue and teal ocean, zen-combed like a Japanese print, looming over the willow pattern pieces on the table in the foreground. He uses the broadest of brushstrokes to suggest the willow pattern, blue in one canvas and deep pink in the other.
– And of course Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy. The basic story of the love quadrangle comes through even in reproductions, but what you get extra in the painting is the textures of the objects ringing it: cool copper frame, elegant vase of flowers, supertufty rug, and oddly flat lamp. All these are not enough to fill the void at the center.

4. He experimented with mosaic photographs, which split the field of vision into hundreds of white-edged panes like an old window. The three early portraits and double portraits assembled from SX-70 Polaroids are especially fine. The overlapping and repetition, especially of the central human features in the portraits, gives the cubist effect of multiple perspective. There was also a large oblong assemblage of a pool with a swimmer. The swimmer appears in successive frames like a graphic novel, several chains of them in different parts of the pool. All of the mosaics feel cognitively real in that the field of vision is not even and the glance must dart around.

5. David Hockney can work in any medium including crayons, mostly with exquisite control though some of his portrait sketches are a bit distorted. His video installation The Four Seasons gives a sense of layered, simultaneous time by surrounding visitors with massive, pinpoint sharp slow zooms of the same Yorkshire forest in winter, spring, summer and fall. It is the same forest but not quite the same view, exclusive of the seasons, as if he wanted to make the point that you can’t walk into the same forest twice. His pictures on the iPhone and iPad, in streaky Warhol brights that appear through time lapse video, are astonishing. It’s like watching someone paint a Gauguin on a blackboard using only the eraser. Part of the pitch of Apple devices is that they make everyone a creative. It takes more. David Hockney is still streets ahead.

a most violent year: review

1 March 2015

A Most Violent Year was mostly passed over for awards, yet it is a better film about business ethics than anything Martin Scorsese has done lately. Oscar Isaac plays Abel Morales, the self-made chief executive of a heating oil business, as he teeters on the edge of a deal that should give him a dominating edge over competitors. Not coincidentally, men with guns have started menacing him and his employees. Isaac shows the intensity of a real movie star as he weighs his options; as with Clooney and Pacino, you could happily sit all day watching him stare at things and maybe tighten one involuntary muscle. This was not predictable from Inside Llewyn Davis. (more…)

art: goya: order and disorder

2 January 2015

Before visiting the latest blockbuster MFA show I had little sense of Francisco Goya except a vague and incorrect association with Maja soap. I came away flattened by his reach and versatility: portraitist, cartoonist, war artist, realist, imaginer, storyteller; in oils, watercolor, half a dozen forms of printmaking, and patterns for tapestry. His life began before the Enlightenment revolutions – basically in feudal times – and ended after the Napoleonic Wars, almost but not quite into the age of photography.

Goya’s most memeworthy image is The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, which created logjams when people saw how small and intricate it was – or wanted to comment on the cats, like these two patrons:

“I like the upside-down head.”
“Look at the kitty in the bottom corner. That’s a strong kitty.”
“I’ve always liked the dark kitty, above his waist, watching, looking out.”
“And we’ve seen that kitty before, in the painting in the Met, of the little boy in the red suit.”
“Well, there’s only one black cat.”


“You know, El sueño de la razón produce monstruos has two meanings – it can be that when reason sleeps, monsters come out, or that the dream of reason produces monsters. Very Spanish.”

In the next room, there was the the Met painting of the little boy in the red suit (Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuñiga). Same feline fans:

“I love the foreshortened hand.”
“I love the magpie with Goya’s card in its beak.”
“The cats look a little friendlier.”
“That cat on the left reminds me of Amelia.”
“You don’t think.”
“That’s a pretty fat cat.”

The curation was exceptionally good, organizing the spaces around themes including self-portraits, life studies, play and prey, buoyancy, witchcraft and disasters. Two remarkable aspects were the giant video wall showing works and details to patrons standing in line to get in – as my father said, it was like looking at the paintings with a magnifying glass, which they don’t let you do – and the quality of the texts on the walls. These were erudite without being obscure, informative without being condescending. The text for The Sleep of Reason ended, “Watch for this image again, in a later state with more bats, later in the exhibition.” That for the Manuel Zuñiga portrait observed that he “seems to rule over his own small domain of natural enemies who coexist in harmony – for the moment … Manuel died only four years after this portrait was painted.” That’s the stuff we can’t see for ourselves, or can’t work out right away with a hundred people jostling behind us. More, please.

Goya: Order and Disorder closes 19 January. Free with museum admission. Lines are long but worth it. Thanks to Lisa G. whose member guest I was, and to K. who even found free parking.

film: interstellar

23 December 2014

It has been said that all 20th century novels are about the historical progress of the 20th century; they refer, however subtly, to ideologies and great wars and seismic shifts in material and prosperity. Exceptions that seem “timeless,” like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, are noticeable in their exceptionalism and vulnerable to accusations of insensitivity.

Similarly, films of the long 21st century, beginning with The Matrix, frequently concern themselves with the new cognitive conditions of this century and the difficulty of making further historical progress while we struggle with them. That is certainly true of Interstellar, the new three-and-a-half hour space opera by Christopher Nolan. Characters are always shouting incomprehensible things at each other over engine noise and tornado winds. You soon give up listening.

In any case, it is obvious from the storylines what kind of thing is being shouted. These storylines include family drama, a shipboard yarn, a race against the clock (measured in years), and a ghost tale. All are subordinate to the main drama of a space mission to find a new home for the human race after Earth is ruined by climate change, signified as crop failures and dust storms. The choice is a Grapes of Wrath style death or a Northwest Passage through a black hole. No other options are presented.

To save the world, the crew must follow trails of lost predecessor explorers and develop a theory of physics integrating classical mechanics, relativity, string theory, and love. Yes, that’s what they said. Extraordinarily, scientists seem to have praised the physics in the film and slated the climate science. Interstellar is incoherent in a coherent way, and watchable in an all-out Bollywood way, with Matrix-style infinite landscapes and cyberscapes taking the place of musical spectaculars. The effects are reminiscent of Nolan’s earlier marathon exploration of inner space, Inception.

It also unexpectedly recalls the Wizard of Oz. This tornado picks up Uncle Henry and leaves Dorothy behind. He marches off to explore new worlds with a set of doughty but flawed companions, one made of metal, and one of whom personalizes failure in no-win situations. He receives a message from a wizard that there is no man behind the curtain, and adjusts his understanding of the maxim that there is no place like home. Unlike Baum’s Oz, however, all the aliens encountered on the yellow brick road come from the same midwestern branch of NASA. Colonialism and multiculturalism in space? That belongs to an age without boundaries. These days, wherever you go, there you are – a little older, a little more confused.

an unmatched seam (rsc love’s labour’s lost and found): review

27 October 2014

The Royal Shakespeare Company have a genuine hit on their hands with Love’s Labour’s Lost. The acting is natural yet marvelous, with every scene-carrying performance balanced with a scene-stealing one. The musical interludes are delightful, with an unexpected edge of Sondheim. And then there is the extraordinary mechanics of the set, which slides around now in two dimensions like the 15 puzzle, now in three dimensions like a Rubik’s cube. This lesser-known play starts as a comedy and ends as something else, not quite a tragedy but a somber memento mori. Director Christopher Luscombe and the RSC have, like many others this year, used the World War I centenary as a hook, and the guns of August mesh well with the mordant turn.

Love’s Labour’s Won, or Much Ado About Nothing, which is paired with LLL in the company’s repertoire, does not fare as well, though same actors appear and the line delivery and staging still make it a fine performance. As always with this play, the problem is in the script and the problem is Claudio/Hero.


television: kennedy center honors 2013

30 December 2013
The Kennedy Center Honors are where power briefly pays homage to talent, especially unpolitical, upbeat, pretty talent. Britain has its Queen’s Birthday and New Year honors, Finland has its Independence Day medals and gala, and this what we have. Every year in early December five veterans of the performing arts are garlanded with rainbow striped ribbon and made to sit at the Kennedy Center next to the President watching a variety show about themselves. They don’t get to make an acceptance speech, but can mug and mime from their seats. The 20-minute segment for each laureate consists of an introductory speech by another celebrity; a short documentary film with mellow voiceovers like, “He grew up poor in Chicago,” and “She was chasing the American dream”; and live performances by others of the laureate’s signature works, or if this is impractical, testimonials. Recurring categories include:
  • The national treasure who never left our screens: Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Bruce Springsteen
  • The formerly famous performer of the narrowcast arts who is now nearly forgotten: Sondheim muse Barbara Cook, opera singer Martina Arroyo, Natalia Makarova, exponents of bebop and free jazz
  • The funny person you wish could give an acceptance speech: Neil Simon
  • The person who seems heavily sedated, watching it all from a high altitude, and really ought not to give an acceptance speech: Brian Wilson
  • The adopted American: Sir Paul McCartney, Mikhail Baryshnikov (“He grew up poor in Riga”)
It is a show of performers performing emotion: “I’m so honored by this honor!” “I’m so honored to be here honoring you!” “I’m so moved by your homage!” “America loves you!” “I love America!” “Overcome!” “Humbled!” The politicians act too, laughing at jokes, singing along: “I too am a human being who likes a good show.” Most of the time emotional exchange at this scale is comically rote: Meryl Streep scrunching up her face and inclining her head and making praying-hands gestures. But sometimes you get a moment: Arroyo looked genuinely shocked this year as four of her former students came out to sing.


film: still the boss (springsteen and i)

23 August 2013

Springsteen and I is a brilliantly unusual rock documentary made from films taken by fans of themselves talking about themselves and Bruce. They include a Danish groundskeeper who speaks with the twang of the American South, suburban mums, factory workers, former teenyboppers, musicians, a girl graduate truck driver, and one long-suffering man who turns out to be a fan’s husband. As they speak, it becomes apparent that Springsteen attracts the nicest fans. Or perhaps he creates the fans, with his perfect pitch for the stories of working people, his image of flawed but striving decency, his random acts of generosity and his readiness to pierce the big-music bubble and touch people, hug them, jam with them? The Grateful Dead could be argued to have created their fans, and Lady Gaga is obviously trying to create hers.

The historical concert footage is riveting, particularly the long chronological montage of “Born to Run,” his signature song, which comes across like “63 Up.” At the release of the album of the same name in 1975, Springsteen was acclaimed as the next Dylan and the resemblance is clear in the earliest clips. He went more wholeheartedly than Dylan into guitar rock, blues, country and soul, though he still drinks at the well of the archival American folk sound to refresh himself. Rather than trying to come up with all the bits and pieces himself, he assembled rock’s premier big band, the E Street Band, who embellished the songs with superior riffs and solos, particularly for keyboard and saxophone. Springsteen also learned to sing. Next to Paul McCartney, who gamely joined him for a three-set of oldies in his Hyde Park concert last year (included in the showing as a “Cinema Only Extra”), he seemed tanned, rested and ready to run a doomed Democratic campaign for President, with Max Weinberg as campaign manager. And he could get the votes. Those of us who’d never seen him live left the cinema thinking: Where have I been all his life? It is the nature of rockumentaries to promote and they succeed, as this one does, when you aren’t conscious of it till after the credits. (July 21, IFTT)

british open

5 August 2013


Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, June 10 to August 18 (hurry!), London

A few weeks ago I went to the RA Summer Exhibition, guided by Liz Z, who was going for the fourth time. I had never heard of it. Apparently anybody at all can submit one or two pieces of work (for a small fee), which if chosen will be shown alongside contributions from the 80 Royal Academy members.

Isn’t Britain a great country?

More than 10,000 entries were received this year and more than 1,000 works were on display, many so high up on the lofty walls that I regretted not bringing a periscope. Most were for sale, with bids indicated with red dots. (One ironic picture consisted entirely of red dots.) Liz has a game where she doesn’t look at the catalog but tries to guess the artist and the price, based on the quality, size, medium, price of materials, difficulty of technique and prevailing trends. I gave up about halfway through and just concentrated on the trends.


to tweet or not to tweet

11 July 2013


This flyer comes from the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Hamlet. The quality of the production is not at issue here; Hamlet isn’t one of my favorite plays but I thought this was amazing and would see it again. I particularly enjoyed Jonathan Slinger’s performance – he starts out looking like a young banker who’s having a bad day on the markets, and then progressively goes nuts – as well as the masque at the end of the first act and the stormy supermarket lighting.

The point is the Twitter blurbs.


theater: pulse fringe report

30 May 2013

When I Was Old / When I Get Young, Lucy Ellinson: A dozen Ipswichers representing most of the healthy age groups presented monologues, all interesting enough and some brilliant. The staging looked easy, reproducible – in a word, franchisable – and at 30 minutes of variety, suitable for children, of whom there were some in the audience. The themes were universal and age-typical: a husband told his Harry-met-Sally story, a schoolboy raved about his Pokémon, a white-haired woman found comfort in her rosary in the night, listing the holy presences that she felt were there with her much as the younger generation review their friends lists. This genericity is perhaps inevitable since not everyone in a representative group will have the same sensitivity to place, but it would be interesting to see a more site-specific version as well.

The Bullet and the Bass Trombone, Sleepdogs: The story of a touring orchestra caught in a banana republic coup is told inventively with copious use of recorded segments and sound effects. It starts as a young depressive’s guide to the symphony which modulates into a post-9/11 chaos narrative, and that’s just the first movement. The details of the setting, including a misnamed city and a presidential assassination, satirize stereotypical European views of the post-colonial, but lightly. Timothy X Atack’s acting is worth seeing, though he’s restricted himself here to mostly minor keys, and the musical score aptly dramatizes the heteroglossia and approach-avoidance of the narrative.

music: mama’s chicken gumbo

12 February 2013

The Yiddish Twist Orchestra is not klezmer, though you might think so from the name. It’s hard to say exactly what it is, other than a topnotch band that delighted its audience by fluently quoting everything from the Dayenu to West Side Story to the Benny Hill theme during a Monday night show at the Apex in Bury St. Edmund. The rings in its Venn diagram include swing, jazz, Latin, cabaret, Middle Eastern, Vegas lounge, early rock’n’roll, Eurovision, trance, and okay, klezmer (though in a brighter key than usual [1]).

The group led by guitarist Ben Mandelson and Nord keyboardist Robin Harris project confidence from the first notes – even if you don’t know what they’re going to do, they do and so you can relax, except for the mental reference engine. (Los Lobos. Dizzy Gillespie. Pulp Fiction soundtrack. Jerry Lee Lewis. Nat Newborn and Lounge Lions.) Visually, they’re an ironic retro act, a callback to LP sleeves with guys in sharp suits plying their shiny horns in front of a richly colored drape.


Singer Natty Bo, the man in the leopardskin cap, delivered mambo and Yiddish themed songs like “Mazel” in a voice that channeled Louis Prima. He got the audience on their feet and, in the climax of the show, threw bagels at them. A little of that kind of humor goes a long way (see: Red Elvises) and his appearances were judiciously metered. The horn and rhythm players varied in their appetite for solos and improvisation, but the sound was tight and the music on their stands was the main clue that some may have been sitting in for absent regulars.

The promotional flyer claims the London-based band is reviving “der shvitz,” a relic of Britain’s postwar globalization that “crossed the Atlantic in diluted form as the Twist.” Is this a hoax? Probably. Does it matter? No. Yiddish Twist are good enough to do without genre as justification for their music.

Full disclosure: My ticket was free from the promoter as I took the place of a student reviewer. I would have considered the £12.50 entry a bargain anyway. Also, I got a bagel.

Car-free in Suffolk: You can get to Bury about 40 minutes from Ipswich by train and the schedule runs until 10:19 pm going north and 11:30 pm or midnight going south. Cost is £8.10 in each direction. The X14-X15 bus may be cheaper, but runs seldom. Taxi from station to Apex was £3.50.

[1] A confession: I don’t like klezmer. I feel guilty about this, as if I’m failing to do my part for my own endangered species. Every couple of years I try again, find it too mournful and put on something more upbeat, like Billie Holiday.