Sunday, July 31, 2011

Collage Credit

Atlanta's High Museum of Art is currently exhibiting water colors by American John Marin, and sculptures by Atlanta resident Radcliffe Bailey.   Both use collage in their technique, but for different purposes.  One artist creates a collage from images of his own, as a way to capture an experience.  The other uses objects and images found to tell personal stories or insights.

I find, once again, that collage is a great technique for making interesting art out of mediocre pieces.  

M. Susan Rouse used a Warhol app. on me.

Marin's earliest works on exhibit include some images of scenes in Paris and Venice drawn with meticulous detail for sale to tourists, and they do their job without conjuring atmosphere or any feeling about the objects. More interesting were some experiments with perspective, where skyscrapers or trees seem to be leaning over the path ahead. Maybe it was new with Marin; it was a cliche by the time of Looney Tunes.  

Some of Marin's watercolors at the same time, around 1912, play with multiple perspectives, and these are much more interesting.  One view of Maine's sea coast (a favorite subject of his) is a mosaic of perspectives, dizzying and disorienting to look at:  not a bad thing for a depiction of roiling waves from above.   In another watercolor, the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge seem to cut our view of the city into strips, an interesting effect leaning towards collage.  He goes too far, or not far enough, with some other pictures in which different angles on a scene are drawn in blocks that jostled each other.  These looked crowded,  blocky,and, in color, a bit dreary.  I wonder what he would have thought of layouts of frames in comic books, which play even more with close ups and angles to create a sense of action?

Bailey's work is exhibited under the title "Memory as Medicine," a neat idea.   Some of the pieces were better in the explanation than in the viewing.  But Bailey uses a collage technique that he calls "medicine boxes" or "medicine cabinets."    These are rectangular frames several feet wide, inches deep, a window into scenes composed of transparent photographic images, hanging objects (such as little African - style scluptures), and oil-painted scenes.   These suggested a lot, and they were interesting in color and composition, and the collage technique was interesting in itself.  

One artist gave us his vision of scenes from several angles in one plane, each view juxtaposed almost as if it were a collage of palm-sized sketches.  The other artist framed found objects juxtaposed to make a personal statement that, at least in some cases, remained merely personal.  "You had to be there," or you had at least to read in the program about what that hat or those piano keys mean in Bailey's personal mythology.  That's okay --- Yeats, Eliot, some greats did the same.  

Bailey was at his best when the images carried meaning that didn't have to be footnoted.  One striking collage was a painted image of a slave ship on rough sea, its deck crowded with photographs of African sculptures of Africans.  

The Queen Off-Script: The Uncommon Reader

Reflections on THE UNCOMMON READER, a novella by Alan Bennett (Picador 2007).

Queen Elizabeth is an actress, in “the role of a lifetime.”    It’s easy to make fun of her simply by imagining her dropping character for a split second, muttering “Damn!” when she spills coffee in her lap, for example.  It’s even funnier to imagine her sitting stock-still as scalding coffee burns through her yellow skirt, carrying on in a strained voice:  “Milk?”

Alan Bennett, playwright, takes full advantage of comic possibility number two in his novella THE UNCOMMON READER.  His Queen has played her role so long, suppressing her own thoughts until she doesn’t have any.   Doing all for show, she goes where her handlers direct her, she says just what will make people feel noticed during her visit.

In Bennett’s story, she borrows a book to smooth an awkward encounter with a librarian.  Then, to follow through, she reads it.  

Thus begins a royal odyssey of the mind, and Elizabeth becomes first, a voracious reader, and then, a discerning reader.   The script she has followed all her life loses its interest for her.

The comedy grows as the handlers try to get her back on script.   Suddenly, she wants to share what she has discovered. She wants to read a poem about the Titanic for her annual Christmas message, and she asks the Archbishop to let her read a lesson.   She wants the President of France to tell her more about Jean Genet (whose name and reputation are unfamiliar to Le President).  

While Bennett has fun with this character he has created, he is not unkind to her.  His targets are the non-readers among her staff, among political leaders, and among her obtuse subjects.    As Bennett imagines it, the prime minister has an Iran policy, but knows nothing of the history of Persia.  And so on.
The book seems plausible.  Maybe the People and their Leaders need less news, less business, more books, and more poetry. I get what William Carlos Williams means in “Asphodel”:   

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.
But it’s best not to take it any more seriously than Bennett himself does.  It’s a lightweight book, easy to read before dinner.   He doesn’t really suggest that, say, the late Harold Pinter would have made a good PM, only that lives are enriched by the way that reading takes us into lives outside our own, and certainly all of us, the People and their Leaders, need enrichment.

(See my other reflections on this “Good Art Makes Bad Politics” and “A Moment of Silence for Harold Pinter)

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Georgia Shakespeare's Tempest Unclouded

Photos by Bill DeLoach.  Clockwise from top left: Prospera sends Ariel on a mission; Antonio tempts Sebastian; Miranda falls in love with Ferdinand; Caliban remembers the beautiful sounds of the island.
 (reflection on THE TEMPEST, produced by the Georgia Shakespeare Festival, directed by Sharon Ott.)

 Clarity and lightness made this TEMPEST what Shakespeare intended:  a gradual emergence of warm sunshine after a violent storm.  It can make one laugh and cry to see a tangle of recrimination, resentment, loss, envy, revenge, and disappointment melt away to repentance and reconciliation.

Director Sharon Ott and her designers used Native American and South Pacific island motifs – feather headdresses, simple white robes, straw teepees and a vortex of straw to make the mouth of “Prospera’s” cell.
Sorcerer is sorceress in this production, but, as performed by Carolyn Cook,  “Prospera” was easy to accept both as powerful Duchess of Milan and affectionate parent to daughter Miranda – played by Caitlin McWethy as a self-confident teenaged girl.   Cook showed tears through anger as she dealt with the rebellion of her adopted son Caliban.  When Miranda falls in love with exuberant young Ferdinand (Casey Hoekstra), Cook earned laughs alternating quickly between stern chaperone and delighted parent.

Atlanta’s veteran actor Chris Kayser played Ariel – tall, big-voiced, and the oldest actor on stage, he seemed an odd choice to play the original airy fairy.  But then he brought out all the rich extremes in Ariel’s lines.   There’s rapid-fire imagery of, well, rapid fire.  His delight in his own power is suddenly interrupted by moments of resentment and – most tellingly – human sympathy.  Ariel utters the line that I would cite as proof the actor Shakespeare and not some upper-class poet really did write these plays:   Near play’s end, having been told that he will soon be liberated from service to Prospera, Ariel boasts how fast he will be with a list of rhymed lines that end with a plaintive question, “Dost thou love me? No?”  The line doesn't make sense for a reader, but for an actor playing a character who has ADD on a cosmic scale, it makes the moment and defines the relationship between Ariel and Prospera.

As Caliban, Neal A. Ghant seemed to draw on memories of the scents and sounds and feelings that would make up the world for this half-animal character.   Bent down and half-crawling throughout the play, Caliban gets a great moment in Ott’s staging:  when he comes to understand that he is a man, he straightens up.
For the rest of the cast, we have the arrogant younger brothers, the grieving King Alonso, and the well-intentioned chatterer Gonzalo.   Their first big scene together hit all the right notes:  Alonso in mourning, Gonzalo trying to cheer the king up and the younger brothers mocking both Gonzalo and King.  It builds to the King’s saying, “You cram these words into my ear...!”   Accepting that the blame is his for the adventure that has ended in disaster, he adds, “So is the dearest of the loss.”

Caliban's slapstick cohorts Trinculo and Stefano -- think Laurel and Hardy -- rounded out the cast.  I think eighth grader Thom McGlathery was funnier in a production I directed at St. Andrew's School in 1983, especially on the line, "I do smell all horse piss, at which my nose is in great indignation."

A cast of “islanders” sing and dance to pleasant incidental music and clear choral text-settings by “Sound Designer” Stephen LeGrand.   A high point was the musical presentation of a banquet that has to disappear suddenly.   Shakespeare doesn’t tell how that’s to be done, directing that it disappears “by a quaint device.”  In Ott’s version, the table appeared, disappeared and reappeared (tilted towards us – a nice, odd, magical touch) – all in seconds, using nothing more than some candelabras, plates, goblets, and a single table cloth.  Simple, brilliant.

More than entertainment, this play should be included among the texts revered in the Anglican Communion.  Written within decades of the first revised Book of Common Prayer, THE TEMPEST dramatizes theology.  Sin is viewed as more than an act or a crime, but as a sickness that poisons relationships and the sinner’s own thinking.   The bad guys are called to a banquet which is then taken away until they acknowledge their sins and ask forgiveness.  Isn’t that communion?  Beautifully, when reconciliation comes at the end, Gonzalo observes that “we have all come back to ourselves” who were “Lost.”  And of course, there’s the theology of creation that’s at the heart of Anglican theology.  This island is “very good,” and Miranda exclaims that famous line, seeing humans for the first time, “O Brave New World that hath such creatures in it!”  

One last note:  I loved the way Caitlin McWethy delightedly tapped the lens of Gonzalo’s glasses when she examined the “creatures.”