Art is Comfort Food in the Age of Ebola

Richard Estes, Central Savings (1975)
Richard Estes, Central Savings (1975)

It was time to hug our East Coast kids and see some fall art. Husband Dave and I flew to DC for a weekend of soccer starring our grands, Tess (8) and Kai (6). Late October in Alaska is not conducive to outdoor activities but soccer fields adjacent to George Washington’s Potomac home were still verdant with parents decked out in polar fleece cheered for their toddling players who often put the ball into the wrong goal—to grandparents it’s all love.

Needing adult time, Dave and I subway’d to the Smithsonian American Art Museum to see Richard Estes’ Realism (thru February 8, 2015). Estes is considered a founder of post-war photo-realism. Back in the early-twentieth century, paint began to seriously compete with photographic techniques as media for aesthetic communication. Estes blends camera work and painting skills so the viewer is forced to see the comradery and conflicts when juxtaposing both methods. Urban grit becomes beautiful when seen through storefront glass reflections that seem more real than what they are mirroring. Estes’ paintings are huge and mind boggling as observers try to absorb detailed city signage or search for the eyelets on pedestrian shoes.

It is interesting to compare Estes to eighteenth century Canaletto who painted Venice with similar minute details, probably using early optical devices. Estes offers up daytime street scenes without the meteorological disturbances of Caillebotte’s Paris Street, Rainy Day (1877).

Winston Churchill, Coast Scene Near Marseilles (1935)
Winston Churchill, Coast Scene Near Marseilles (1935)

Estes’ recent works move back from the curb into hyper-realistic landscaping. He poses contrast to the moodiness of 19th century Hudson River’s Thomas Cole who cautioned viewers about the effects of industrialization. And then there’s Thomas Moran who made the independent pioneer cower when seeing Yellowstone’s grandeur. Estes’ landscapes make no apologies and his viewers don’t need to shy away either. Curiously, figures appear to have doll-like plastic skin tones which seem neither photo-realistic nor painterly.

Before spending a weekend in New York City, we flew to the Millennium Gate Museum, Atlanta for a rare look at the Art of Diplomacy, Winston Churchill and the Pursuit of Painting (thru February 1, 2015). The Millennium, which resembles the Arc de Triomphe, is situated rather precariously on a traffic island in the Atlantic Station district. Its small museum space is not easily found and seemed to discourage potential guests who gave up the chance to look into the psyche of Churchill by scrutinizing his paintings. As one of the twentieth century’s greatest leaders, he sought solace by rendering his England in paint—his work is a legacy for us to contemplate. Churchill, who professed distaste for Picasso’s Cubism, nonetheless turned up the volume on drab palettes used in traditional English landscapes. His bold colors and shapes suggest keen scrutiny into Cezanne’s Southern French geometrics, ironically also an abstractionist.

The Millennium had decent lighting but no café for art lovers desiring a contemplative break along with tea and a crumpet. The management seemed uninspired about Churchill’s aesthetic jewels that offer clues into the frustrations of a giant who was constantly bursting to find an outlet for his robust personality. Wall tags were acceptable and the looping home movies were dear, but viewers puzzled at whose bronze hand and whose revolver, while the listening devices didn’t work well. A bus load of attendees who had driven seven hours from Kentucky seemed disappointed to only be told about Churchill’s incessant drinking and smoking. Churchill’s only painting done during WWII while in Marrakesh was sadly the highlight of these folks’ short look-see probably because it belongs to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Bored, their leader shortened the visit, sadly overlooking Churchill’s traveling easel still containing blobs of cadmium red and cobalt blue, good as new.

Matisse, Two Masks (The Tomato) (1947)
Matisse, Two Masks (The Tomato) (1947)

Dave and I needed lunch so we drove a few blocks to the High Museum, Atlanta’s art center. It’s easy to buy a sandwich and sit outside surrounded by Richard Meier and Renzo Piano’s stark white architecture, contrasted with Roy Lichtenstein’s House III (2002)– a yellow red and black suburban home painted on aluminum panel that’s off square and scale.

Janet Cardiff’s Forty Part Motet (thru January 18, 2015) seemed the highlight although the guards appeared tired of the looping polyphony written by Tudor composer Thomas Tallis. Forty black speakers sit atop tripods forming a circle, a chorus of robots, each blasting a single voice at appropriate intervals. Visitors can walk around the speakers and listen for the singular sound or stand in the middle, thus hearing the total effect of the a cappella forty, as voices take their turn while occasionally chorusing in unison. Recorded at Britain’s Salisbury Cathedral, the richness made us imagine Gothic arches and ceiling tracery in the boxy gallery space. If you can’t catch Ms. Cardiff’s Motet at a museum, YouTube has several versions.

Before heading North to Gotham, we dined in Bucktown’s Maggiano’s Little Italy. Their reduced calorie pasta del mar, less butter and cream, was delicious, saving room for vanilla ice cream profiteroles dripping with fudge.

Comfort food in the form of canonized art not only surfaced in DC and Georgia but was apparent in New York as locals and out-of-towners crowded into the Met and MoMa’s galleries in spite of Ebola concerns heard over the evening news. Henri Matisse: the Cut-Outs (thru February 8, 2015) at the Museum of Modern Art was so crowded, buying the catalogue became the only way to enjoy the graceful works. His mid-range colors of reds, yellows, greens and blues depicting floral and geometric shapes engulfed every wall. Cruising onlookers in their multicolored clothing jockeyed like players in an electronic game to get up-close to these dancing shapes. Matisse wanted his art to have ‘a soothing, calming influence on the mind,’ he would have been pleased.

These cut-outs are a testament to the power of art as Matisse painted with scissors when cancer had prevented him from easel work. His assistants would paint hues onto paper. Often reclining in bed or a chair Matisse would snip these painted papers. His helpers pinned the cut shapes to studio walls so Matisse could maneuver the designs before a final gluing.

Smoke by Kim Davies
Smoke by Kim Davies

If you’re not in a hurry, a bus ride up Madison Avenue to the Metropolitan Museum is a great way to experience the shapes, colors and sensuality that make up midtown Manhattan while catching down-time between these giants—MoMA and Met.

The new Koch Brothers Plaza in front of the Metropolitan Museum has outdoor seating for eating from food trucks or people watching. Inside the exhibition Cubism, The Leonard A. Lauder Collection (thru February 16, 2015) was just as packed as MoMA’s Matisse. Think what all those lipsticks and face powders bought—ART. Often not as colorful as Matisse, cubistic fractured, faceted abstracts and collages with socialist verbiage enticed passing viewers even if little thought seemed given to subtle themes about war-torn, dictatored, twentieth century Europe. Making ‘selfies’ was more entertaining to some.

Surprisingly overlooked was the Met’s acquisition of Thomas Hart Benton’s, America Today (thru April 19, 2015). Benton originally rendered this ten-panel mural about urban/rural America of the twenties for the New School for Social Research. Benton paints as though he first drank ten cups of coffee as his figures have a frenetic feel. Wheat fields, corner bars, factory workers and locomotives exist in harmony, occasionally spotlighted by a fragment of framer’s molding (jointed to, and hangs down from, the perimeter framing)—no trompe l’oeil. It’s nice to see Benton getting some notice; his role as Jackson Pollock’s teacher eclipsed talents. However, adjacent to the Benton mural is an early Pollock abstract, Pasiphae (1943) which resembles the line frenzy of Benton’s mural without the representation. Viewers can see the Benton/Pollock connection and look for Pollock’s physique in America Today.

My interest in New York’s fall’s art scene normally doesn’t include our daughter; this season it did. Maddy was appearing in Smoke, a modern adaption of Strindberg’s Miss Julie by Kim Davies. Originally Dave and I hadn’t planned on attending as the explicit sex made Maddy uncomfortable when it came to involving parents. After the play was reviewed in the New York Times (September 8, 2014), my email went ballistic. Friends and family started going on-line for tickets. Happily, we got a green-light from Maddy. Dave and I would eventually go twice, but first I had to sort out hats I’d wear–mom versus art critic.

Backstory about mom to drama queen: Some twenty years ago, I had taken my BFA finals a week after giving birth to Maddy by C-section. Maybe those nine months of art history did sink in. Since age four, Dave and I had driven our youngest to dance recitals. And when I attended grad school at the University of Chicago, Maddy had gone to the local elementary where they told her she could sing—we gasped. I’d flown with her to summer drama camps in the after years of 9/11 when airports were insecure about children flying solo. Faithfully, Dave and I had cheered at all her high school performances from the tiger in Aladdin on to the lead in Annie. We resisted becoming chaperones when her high school performed Moby Dick the Musical at Scotland’s Fringe; Maddy played Ishmael. And, we’d been there with the Kleenex box when the mean girls got really mean.

Backstory 2 about art critic to drama queen: I have loved writing about art since my junior year in high school. My job was to push beyond Smoke’s kinky sex, and forget Maddy was my daughter—she was just another actor stretching her career boundaries.

The play, Smoke, is like watching a tennis match, only there is no ball, just words rallied across a metaphorical net of polluted air between John (Stephen Stout) and Julie (Madeleine Bundy). Julie is the unloved daughter of a celebrity artist who attends a party and finds her dad’s studio assistant, John, smoking in the kitchen. Their verbal sparring which is the raw meat of the performance, goes too far leaving the audience to ponder is John a pervert or is Julie just a spoiled brat trying to ruin John’s professional career?

“Good job art critic,” I told myself. OK, I’m still the mom who dropped everything to mail-order Maddy a new Mr. Coffee when hers broke last week.

Richard Estes’ Realism, Matisse The Cut-outs, Cubism The Leonard A. Lauder Collection are available from Amazon. Thomas Hart Benton’s America Today catalogue will come out spring 2015. Kim Davies’ Smoke at New York’s Flea Theater has been extended thru November 16th.