Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The right chemistry

At the press luncheon for the chameleonic new “Alchemy” show, Bruce Museum public relations director Mike Horyczun conducted an experiment in which he used a tea-colored liquid— actually red-cabbage juice —to transform four glasses filled, it seemed, with water into different colors. (Turns out the glasses contained varying levels of acidity, hence the jewel-like colors.)

“He’s a witch!” one of the luncheon guests yelled out in mock horror. “Burn him at the stake!”

Well, yes, such was the attitude toward alchemists in previous times that even the great Isaac Newton, a passionate alchemist, had to tread carefully. In our own enlightened era — OK, our somewhat more enlightened era — the Bruce can pose the titular question “Alchemy: Magic, Myth or Science?” without having to worry about torches and pitchforks.

Indeed, at various moments in history, alchemy — an ancient discipline that sought to explain how matter behaved — has been viewed as all three. Because early philosophers could not observe atomic structures that actually affect matter, they often viewed its transformation as something almost mystical. (Although the ancient Greek philosopher Democritus did prefigure the Atomic Age by theorizing that matter was composed of tiny particles.)

The exhibit’s roughly 100 paintings, prints, documents, scientific instruments and mineral specimens, handsomely offset by Anne von Stuelpnagel's forest-green design, include a vibrant red and blue-green mandala from 15th-century Tibet (below, right) that alludes to the four elements — fire, water, air and earth — then thought to make up matter. Since everything consists of these, Plato reasoned, one kind of matter could be transformed into another.

It wasn’t long before medieval Europeans, armed with Arabic alchemical texts, were vainly seeking elixirs to heal the body or turn base metals into gold. No wonder alchemists garnered a reputation for being nut jobs — or worse. The exhibit teems with 17th-century Dutch paintings, including those like Thomas Wijck’s “The Alchemist and Death” that warned contemporaries what would happen when you danced with the devil, so to speak. (The presence of these Dutch treats is no doubt due to Bruce executive director Peter C. Sutton, an expert in northern Baroque art.)

But as it turns out there is nothing magical or macabre about turning grapes into wine, grain into beer or sand into glass. It’s good old-fashioned know-how based on observations of a natural world that will ultimately reveal itself. Or so said the 16th-century alchemist and physician Paracelsus. (We owe him so much.)

For those of us who are no Paracelsus — and the Arts Muse is speaking entirely about herself here — Bruce curator of science Carolyn Rebbert has assembled a variety of Persian wine jars (at right below), pigments, porcelains and pestles to make the complex concrete.

Traditional museum-goers will savor these objets d’art. But the exhibit might have most appeal for families, who’ll enjoy its card and board games, touch screens and scent tests.

(There’s even an Alchemy-Chemistry Family Day on Oct. 18.)

Such offerings bring the sciences down-to-earth — something for which scientists and nonscientists alike are no doubt equally grateful.

“Alchemy: Magic, Myth or Science?” is at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich through Jan. 3. Upcoming shows will consider the cartoons of Charles Addams and the prints of Alexander Calder. For more, log on to brucemuseum.org or call 203-869-0376.

And don’t forget that the Bruce is part of the Fairfield/Westchester Museum Alliance. That means admission to the Bruce, the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers, the Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art in Peekskill, the Katonah Museum of Art, Purchase College’s Neuberger Museum of Art or the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Conn. entitles you to free same-day admission to any of the others. (Members of one museum are admitted to the others for free and are entitled to a 10-percent discount at any of the gift shops.)

It’s a fair deal in troubled times.

Photos, including the image of David Rijckaert's "An Alchemist Studying at Night" (1648), which appears at top, are courtesy of the Bruce Museum.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Through another prism

One of the great pleasures of being an art critic is seeing an exhibit through the eyes of friends and strangers alike. As I was wandering through the Neuberger Museum of Art’s “British Subjects: Identity and Self-Fashioning 1967-2009,” I met Jean Eisenstein, who was there for a
lecture in the new Latin-American art series. (It was a million-dollar bequest from the estate of Eisenstein’s brother, Alex Gordon, that led to the appointment of Patrice Giasson as an associate curator of Art of the Americas there and thus, to the lecture series.)

Eisenstein chuckled when she saw Sam Taylor-Wood’s delicious, dizzying, delightful C-prints “Self-Portrait Suspended I” (2004) and (at right) “Escape Artist, Pink and Green” (2008), in which the artist seems to be floating magically in space.

She was, however, perplexed by Angus Fairhurst’s “Pietà”, a 1996 C-print in which the artist casts himself as Jesus and someone in a gorilla suit as his mother, Mary. Eisenstein said she wished a docent were on hand to explain the work. No doubt a guide would’ve explained that Fairhurst often used gorillas in his work. A docent might’ve also speculated on the connection between the dead Christ and the suicidal Fairhurst, who hanged himself last year.

Then again, a guide might not have pointed out something Eisenstein picked up on immediately: The Jesus figure holds a wire in his hand, perhaps a comment on our pull-the-plug society? I might not have thought of this at all had I not run into Eisenstein, although she modestly observed that everyone sees something different in art.

As Fairhurst’s work suggests, this has not been a good moment for representations of the Virgin Mary. Apparently, Luc Bondy’s new production of “Tosca” at The Metropolitan Opera — which will be simulcast into New Rochelle and White Plains theaters Oct. 10 — features the lecherous Scarpia caressing a statue of the Virgin.

As an art critic who happens to be a Roman Catholic, I like my artistic treatments of all religions to be serious and respectful, which is not the same as being blandly reverential. Indeed, one of the more moving “Pietàs” I’ve ever seen is a short, slow-motion video by Sam Taylor-Wood, in which she casts herself as Michelangelo’s stoical Madonna and Robert Downey Jr. — one of her muses — as the Christ figure. (More about their aesthetic relationship in an upcoming post.
In the meantime, you can see this 2001 video on YouTube.)

The excrutiating movement of the actors captures all the agony of death.

And all the struggle of life.

Photo courtesy of the Neuberger Museum of Art.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Narcissism in a Good Way

It should come as no surprise that “British Subjects: Identity and Self-Fashioning 1967-2009” — the challenging new exhibit at Purchase College’s Neuberger Museum of Art — contains not one but two references to Narcissus.

Mat Collishaw’s 1990 bromide print “Narcissus” is the more traditional of the two. The graceful youth who gazes at his face in a puddle — his cascading locks obscuring the object of his desire from our view — could be a Canova sculpture or a figure in a Waterhouse painting. Whereas in Ellie Rees’ video “Beyond Narcissus” (2008), the self-obsessed youth becomes the artist herself — or rather, the artist immerses herself in the ancient myth — as she kisses her lovely reflection again and again.

Narcissus, then, is the spirit hovering over “British Subjects,” which considers self-portraiture on “this scepter’d isle” in the postwar era. But self-regard needn’t be self-absorption. The 60-some artists in this show portray themselves as other people, places and things, not in an attempt to show off but to understand themselves and thus provoke us into confronting our own lives. It’s narcissism in a good way.

With postwar Britain as her subject, curator Louise Yelin — interim dean of Purchase College’s School of the Humanities and a professor of literature there — has created a show that is at once particular and universal. Works by émigrés from the former British colonies, or their descendants, depict a nation that is less comfortable with heterogeneity than the United States, a melting pot from the get-go. (On the other hand, Britain does not bear the legacy of slavery that the United States does.)

Sokari Douglas Camp’s ravishing sculpture “Nigerian Woman Shopping” (1990) suggests not only the discomfort of a formerly homogenous country coming to grips with multiculturalism but the tension in being an immigrant with a foot in two worlds. The piece captures the distinctive textures of Africa in a winding headdress and a gown made of half-moons and stars. The eye imagines the woman wearing this outfit having pride and confidence in her native culture.

At the same time, the steel sculpture is a kind of exoskeleton. It’s as if the soul, the essence of the person, has wriggled free, and all we’re left with is this exquisite shell.

The exhibit also contains the kind of stiff-upper-lip Brits that Americans love to tweak. Michael Landy’s dryly witty “Semi-Detached: Lisa, John, Ethel, Maureen and Michael Landy, “a 2005 C-print at right, recreates the artist’s semi-detached house and equally semi-detached family. Even when standing together, they’re apart.

“British Subjects” is, however, at its best when it explores the universal longing for transcendence through playing The Other. In Ellie Rees’ video “Reader, I Married Him” (2008), she is the happily-ever-after Jane Eyre (hence the title, the first line in the last chapter of Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre”) as well as the suicidal Virginia Woolf, who understood that beyond happily ever after is a string of endless days, each like the last, and so drowned herself in a river.

There are also Satapa Biswas as the Hindu goddess Kali and Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith, avenging the members of the female sex; Cecily Brown as Fragonard’s girl on “The Swing”; Ashley Bickerton as Paul Gauguin; Gavin Turk as Jackson Pollock; Georgina Starr as the twin of her younger self; Frank Bowling as an Abstract Expressionist painting of Africa; Grayson Perry as a Grecian urn; Angus Fairhurst as the Jesus of both the Doubting Thomas and Pietà images.

The multiplicity of textures, patterns and colors in many of these works and in Chila Kumari Burman’s beautiful, psychedelic print “Autoportrait” (2007) — made up of many little self-portraits at left— reminds us that we create and recreate ourselves constantly. We do so by layering on what we borrow from others, bridging their worlds but with an eye to finding our more authentic selves. After all, the artists of “British Subjects” aren’t interested in being Jane Eyre or Jackson Pollock. They’re too edgy, too contemporary, too individual.

By making their idiosyncratic statements, the exhibit artists free us to role-play as well. So Yinka Shonibare’s C-print series “Diary of a Victorian Dandy” (1998), in which the British-Nigerian artist reinvents himself as a 19th-century gentleman, is not merely an opportunity for race reversal, as a black man becomes master of a house in which he probably would’ve been a servant. It’s also a chance to consider: What if we had been Victorian dandies? (I don’t know about you, but I would’ve enjoyed the musical soirées; the billiards-playing and late-night carousing, not so much.)

Still, the artists let us dream. Douglas Gordon’s “Self-Portrait of You and Me/Native American” replicates Andy Warhol’s portrait of Native American activist Russell Means with a difference. Cutouts of Means, placed on a mirror, enable us to glimpse ourselves in the negative space around them.

In “British Subjects,” the real subject may be you.

“British Subjects: Indentity and Self-Fashioning 1967-2009” is at Purchase College’s Neuberger Museum of Art through Dec. 13. It contains some graphic words and images that may not be suitable for young viewers. Parents are urged to preview the show first. 914-251-6100,

Photos courtesy of the Neuberger Museum.

Welcome to The Arts Muse

ArtsWestchester is thrilled to announce a new partnership with long-time Journal News arts writer Georgette Gouveia. With this blog, Georgette is going to be doing what she does best, keeping you in the know about what's hot on the arts scene. We'll be focusing on Westchester, but if there is something in the region worthy of note, it will be noted. We hope you enjoy this new way of keeping you connected to the arts!