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Thursday, December 29, 2011

Sisters of Mercy

A couple of years ago at a friend’s house, I spied a sepia photograph of a bride on her wall. From the 1920s, it was very elegant; the bride wore a stylish dress and elaborate veil and was holding a large bouquet of flowers. It looked like an ordinary, if rather grand, professional wedding portrait and so I was taken aback when my friend told me it was a photograph of her great-aunt dressed for her final vows to become a nun. Now I had heard of the whole Bride of Christ notion, but I didn’t realize such extraordinary lengths were gone to with wedding portraits and tulle and such (the distinctly bridal First Communion get-ups I used to see in my New York neighborhood, notwithstanding). If I thought about it at all, I would have envisioned a simple white dress and veil.

I was convinced that if this family had such a portrait, others must exist and thought what an amazing collection it would make if one could assemble them. The exhibition and book possibilities made my mouth water. All these women…what were they thinking as they sat in their finery contemplating their futures? It seems incredibly poignant and I’m sure the photographs would reveal a rich mine of human emotion. Of course, trying to locate any photos has proved to be a challenge. Searches on the Internet have come up empty and I haven't even bothered with the Catholic Church knowing they wouldn’t be inclined to provide any assistance.

In recent years it seems the church has toned the fuss accompanying the ceremonies down considerably. But you can see how making such a to-do had been a brilliant move on its part, playing on every girl’s fascination with weddings. That a wedding (and most important, a dress) was still in the cards made becoming a nun so much more appealing and the bitter pill of entering a convent so much easier to swallow for everyone involved. It also helped secure the involvement of wealthy girls whom the church was known to target, since they’d have to sign over their inheritance. Members of this group and their families, in particular, were accustomed to marking life’s milestones with extravagant displays. The dress and ceremony would satisfy this requirement and the photograph would provide a lasting memento of the daughter who, in many cases, the family would never see again.

I still have hopes of finding a treasure trove of these portraits in the archives of some old photography studio. I would love to shine a light on them again for all to see.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Pick Up Sticks

Jonathan Brilliant’s an artist after my own heart, elevating ordinary, everyday humble objects into the realm of the sublime. His Stick Stack Show is currently on view at the Visual Arts Center in Richmond, Virginia where Brilliant is 2011 Artist in Residence. The show is an offshoot of the Have Sticks Will Travel World Tour that began in 2009 eventually expanding into a series of site-specific installations recreated over an 18-month period in 13 different galleries. The current iteration in Richmond took two weeks for the artist to install.

Composed of items (stirrers, cup sleeves and lids, etc.) readily available at what Brilliant refers to as “his natural environment,” namely the corner coffee shop, he transforms them into wondrous sculptures. I particularly loved the monumental, The Richmond Piece, an undulating wall of 70,000 interwoven wooden coffee stirrers held together by tension and compression alone. It has a pleasing organic quality thanks to the material and amorphous shape. Well lit, it casts dramatic, twiggy shadows that extend the piece well beyond its physical borders, creating a negative image that splashes against the wall and floor.

I also loved Brilliant’s works on paper, which are elegant and retrained. The stir stick impressions are fresh and serendipitous and the lithograph, The GR Haze and laser cut, 18 Rabbit were just plain beautiful.

Brilliant may be making a comment on the caffeinated culture we live in, but I like to think he’s just working with the materials at hand. Certainly, the labor-intense, almost OCD nature of the work suggests a practice that is caffeine fueled, or at the very least Brilliant is tipping his hat to the jag and jolt that’s found within a cup o’ joe.

White as Wool...

I love it when you stumble upon an artwork by someone you’ve never heard of before that just blows your socks off. A couple of weeks ago this happened at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts when I came across Tristin Lowe’s incredible life-sized whale sculpture, Mocha Dick. 52 feet long and constructed of creamy industrial felt, the sculpture features an inflated interior frame, which imparts a lifelike tautness to the form, suggesting skin covering flesh and bone. A venerable beast, this whale is battle-scared from a life spent roaming unfriendly seas and features clusters of finely detailed, appliqué barnacles across its surface and two soulful eyes that gaze out from within puckered lids. It's a work of real power that conveys both awe and empathy for the animal.

I liked the yin and yang dialogue between the exceedingly realistic details and the medium, which is pure artifice with its exposed stitches and zippers crisscrossing the wooly surface. The piece took six-months to create in collaboration with the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia and involved a team of technicians and apprentices overseen by Lowe.

Exhibited alongside the sculpture are a whale oil lamp, a Robert Salmon painting of whaling ships in a harbor and a Rockwell Kent of a sailor on a ship’s rigging, I gather they are present to anchor the piece within the whaling narrative, but they seemed anemic—completely de trop, in fact—against the backdrop of such a show stopper.

At first I thought Mocha Dick was the artist’s play on Moby Dick, but I read in the exhibition dialectic that Mocha Dick was a real albino sperm whale that inhabited the waters off Mocha Island in the South Pacific. Mocha Dick was legendary, reputedly having attacked 20 whaling vessels. He was described in Knickerbocker magazine in 1839 as “white as wool . . . as white as a snow drift . . . white as the surf around him.” The account appeared in the magazine again in 1846, five years before Moby-Dick was published and while it's widely accepted that Melville was inspired by the events surrounding the sinking of the ship, Essex by a whale, given the similarity in Mocha Dick's name and the fact he was also albino, it’s clear he played a part in Melville’s inspiration.

Lowe acknowledges a longtime fascination with both Moby-Dick and maritime history, but he says the work's also about something more: “This project was like the story of Moby-Dick—embarking on a journey, transfixed by the call of the sea. It is not about Ahab’s quest for revenge, and not even about the whale itself, but more about Ishmael’s search for the unattainable.” 

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Park Avenue Haversham

For a number of years my mother was president of the Chapin-Brearley Exchange, the wonderful now-defunct consignment shop that benefited the scholarship funds of those two New York City girls’ schools. The Exchange originated as a swap meet of sorts for school uniforms, morphing over the years to include party dresses and sporting equipage, and eventually women’s, men’s and boys’ clothing. Drawing from a pool of crème de la crème New York closets, including, after her daughter, Caroline, started going to Brearley, Jackie O’s, the Exchange was a treasure-trove of incredible finds. 

Years before Patricia Field was dressing Sarah Jessica Parker in vintage, my sister and I, on our limited allowances, were combing the Exchange’s racks for bits of finery with which to adorn ourselves. You never knew what you’d find there and it was the source of many divine articles of clothing that are still in my closet 35 years later: a beautiful gold silk 1940’s kimono jacket that looked like it could have been worn by Katharine Hepburn, a pair of sealskin Lapland boots with turned up toes and an ivory bangle carved from (I’m sorry to say) an elephant tusk, to name just three. What I liked best were the things that seemed to have been picked up on a whim during someone’s far-flung travels, only to be jettisoned later on when they returned to their homes...and reality.

The Exchange set the stage for one of the most unusual New York stories I know. The year must have been 1969 because my sister was still at home (she graduated from Brearley in 1970). My mother had received a call from the lawyer of an alumna—I forget from which school—who’d recently died and had left all her personal effects to the Exchange. There was such a quantity of belongings, and I suspect, in addition to space constraints, my mother feared the potential feeding frenzy that might occur among the Exchange volunteers when confronted with such booty, she had everything brought to our house for sorting and pricing. 

This is how our living room came to be transformed temporarily into Ali Baba’s cave. There were boxes and boxes of unopened Caron perfume, silk scarves, Indian saris, beaded evening bags and cashmere twin sets, most of them never worn and in their original wrapping. In addition to these items, there were several exotic robes, including a magnificent Chinese brocade tunic. It was a special piece and my mother arranged for a curator from the Metropolitan Museum to examine it. He was bowled over by the beauty of the thing, noting that the number of digits (eight I think?) in the claws of the dragons featured in the design signified the rank of emperor. (The robe was donated to the museum on behalf of the estate.)

Though this was all very exciting to a 12-year old girl, the really interesting part occurred before the things arrived at our house. My mother had met the woman’s lawyer at her apartment on Fifth Avenue to see what was what. After they finished, the lawyer explained to my mother that his client had another apartment that might contain additional items. 

The second one, which she’d used as her office, was a few blocks away on Park Avenue. Upon entering the apartment, it appeared to consist of only one study-like room with desks for her and her secretary. But the lawyer opened a jib door in the wall to reveal the rest of the apartment, which had been closed off for over forty years. 

It clearly had once been a very elegant space, but was now completely derelict. My mother described how the paint was hanging in sheets off the walls and sun-bleached draperies in tatters. The windows were filthy and everything was covered in a film of dust including the breakfast dishes still on the table. In the bedroom closet, beaded flapper gowns, probably Chanel and Lanvin, hung in shreds, and in the bathroom and kitchen was evidence of long ago quotidian life suddenly interrupted. To say my mother was floored, is not an exaggeration. On an ordinary day in the middle of New York, she’d run up against a real-life, 20th century Mrs. Haversham.

As it turned out, the woman’s husband had had a heart attack while they were having breakfast sometime in the 1920s. Devastated, she’d walked away, shutting the door on apartment and her life there, only to return once it had been altered into her office space. All these years later I am still astounded by the person who would make such an extravagant gesture in terms of grief and wealth, holding onto that valuable piece of real estate for all those years. 

I wonder if it worked. Wouldn’t being in the same city/neighborhood/building, have been only less painful by a matter of degrees than in the apartment itself. Of course, I have no way of knowing the particulars. She may well have left New York for a period of time and returned after the pain was somewhat less. But all that aside, the story stands as an amazing tale in the annals of New York (and beyond) and it always makes me wonder at all the other stories that might be out there.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011


Last week I went to see Hugo, Martin Scorsese’s charming valentine to Paris, his daughter and the "cinemagician," Georges Méliès. We got there early only to be subjected to a barrage of ads for Coke and cars and, worst of all, a faux movie trailer for Activision's new toy/video-game hybrid: Skylanders, which features Spyro, the fire-breathing purple dragon along with 32 other characters. Watching it, I felt like I might have an epileptic fit and my niece who at 19 has been subjected to way more technology than I, said she couldn’t follow it—just the ticket for the ADHD crowd! The cutsey animal figures are designed to hook small children, but their bratty attitude, special effects and heavy metal soundtrack will ensure they stick around through puberty. I can picture them with their jaws hanging open as they stare wide-eyed at the screen and pity the parents who will be badgered into buying the crap. My niece and I both thought the trailer/ad was horrendous: violent, smart-alecky and just plain obnoxious. No wonder society is going to Hell in a hand-basket if this is what our junior citizens cut their teeth on.
I happen to be a fan of animation. I used to regularly attend an animated film festival when I lived in New York, which featured short films made by people like Gary Larsen. I find I can return to an animated film again and again, I think because, in a very real sense, it is a piece of art. I am captivated by the visuals that transcend whatever narrative is going on. My favorite animated film is The Triplets of Belleville. I think I could write a dissertation on it. It is so visually rich with so many wonderful touches that evoke France and the French. The Triplets radiates humanity. I love how the characters look, how the dog ages as the film progresses and his film-length grudge against the train. Sylvan Chomet employs live action film within the animation, which makes for a really interesting effect. There are also several different animation styles used throughout from retro looking black and white employed to render the wonderful Django Reinhardt, Josephine Baker and Fred Astaire-like personages, to hard-edged lines and rich color, to areas which use a light, delicate hand and pale hues. There's very little dialogue; when it is used (with one exception), it almost sounds like French gibberish: conveying the language without really saying anything. The soundtrack is simply marvelous with a swingey '30s sound. I recently viewed Sylvain Chomet's newest film The Illusionist which I am happy to say is on a par with The Triplets. The film's protagonist is based on Jacques Tati's Monsieur Hulot. The animated film includes a snippet from Tati's brillaint, Mon Oncle. Tati is someone I liked mildly when I first saw his films years ago, but now I think is brilliant. His social commentary, made primarily through the use of sight gags, is spot on.
Other animated films I admire are Waking Life, The Secret of Kells (beautiful soundtrack) and Waltz with Bashir, which uses animation brilliantly to tell the story of the Sabra and Shatila massacre, an event almost too horrific to relate using ordinary means.
While I was watching the abysmal Skylanders’ ad, I was thinking specifically about a relatively new film to me, Paprika, an anime confection by the highly regarded Satoshi Kon. Its bright colors and zippy vibe can compete with Skylanders, but Paprika is so imaginative and visually stunning, you don’t feel like watching it is going to burn out your eyes and rot your brain. On the contrary, you are simply dazzled.


In case you hadn’t noticed, weddings are bigger than ever. There are three Say Yes to the Dress franchises on TV, the original at Kleinfeld’s (which is actually pretty good, providing little vignettes of people’s lives (the saleswomen, classic New York characters and the clients) along with some lip smacking style voyeurism) followed by ones from an Atlanta and a Beverly Hills store and a fascinating Reality TV offering from the UK that tracks over-the-top gypsy weddings.

Recently, my attention was directed to a couple of wedding planners’ websites which each feature slideshows of some of the weddings they have planned. It’s an amazing window into 21st century American civilization. It speaks volumes about our society. The weddings are beautiful, no question about it, with even the smallest detail whipped into shape. Each wedding is unique, boasting imaginative touches specifically tailored to a bride’s style. Yet, despite the beauty, something seems to be missing. The absolute perfection is suffocating and ironically, though the goal is hyper personalization, the weddings come across as incredibly impersonal.

Now I confess I am a little cynical about marriage even though my parents were happily wed for 64 years and were parted only by death. But, from where I sit with, apparently, a front row seat to Kim Kardashian’s shenanigans not to mention all the “Family Values” hypocrites (Newt, Vitter, Sanford, etc. You know who you are!) I have a right to be cynical. Personally, I think more people should focus on the marriage part rather than the wedding part, which as Kim K. and many others before her have demonstrated has become an opportunity for young women to play Queen for the Day.

Not so long ago before we all got so entitled, brides and their mother’s did their own planning, now, even the middle class hires wedding planners. Is it really that complicated? Isn’t it just like throwing a big party? It all seems a little spoiled and princessey to me.

I went to a wonderful wedding a couple of years ago, which was a haute WASP bohemian affair if you can imagine such a thing. It was at the bride’s family’s beautiful farm in Upstate New York. Exuberant controlled chaos is how I would best describe the affair. India played a big role in the festivities including the fabric for the dress and the bride’s jewelry; her family is in the textile business and all of them have spent a lot of time in India. The aisle for the ceremony, held in a field under an oak tree, was delineated using pots of dahlias, obviously just purchased at the local co-op. To keep the heavy blooms upright someone had lashed them to PVC pipe. They’d begun to disguise, the pipes, but time must have run out because not all of them had been camouflaged and the pots were mis-matched. There must have been 300 guests. To accommodate them all three non-matching tents had been set up haphazardly on the lawn, which was on two different levels. The tents were decorated with yards and yards of Indian fabric. Let me tell you they looked fabulous, large pink paper lanterns were suspended from the main one, which glowed with lovely, warm light. At the reception there was an attempt at a Virginia Reel accompanied (not very well) by the bride’s uncle on the bagpipes, the food on grills was unevenly cooked. But the band was great, the wine (private label) flowed and the colorful guests whooped it up. It was one of the best weddings I’ve been to I think because it wasn’t a hermetic ideal, nor was it an event that’s ultimately about reliving the past (through the glamorous photographs) in the future and gaining an edge with your peer group. No indeed, this wedding was relaxed, joyful, in-the-moment and exceedingly personal. And that my friends, is the definition of real class.