Culture: February 2004 Archives

Hyemi Cho Skin Shed (2004) oil on wood, 30" x 16"

Hyemi Cho Shed SuperHero (2004) oil and pen on wood, 35" x 18"

I'm following up my post describing our visit to the Riviera Gallery in Williamsburg with these images of two of Hyemi Cho's paintings in the group show. Cho is also the curator.

She's very good. Ultraman would be proud.

[images furnished by the artist]

Now I remember why I go to live performances of symphonic music! Transcendence.

Also remembered only when we got there was why we had purchased tickets weeks ago for tonight's Orchestra of St. Luke's concert. Once we saw the programs at Carnegie Hall the poetry readings listed as intervals on a schedule of very serious musical stuff quickly reminded us why we decided to sign up.

Oooh, but good, political activism in a good classical music program, is it even possible? Yes, and in great performances as well!

We have to credit the New York players and the excellent conductor, Donald Runnicles, for the performances, but I'm not sure who was/were the heroes responsible for putting the provocative program together in the midst of our own wars and political terrors. This is only my footnote, and perhaps it was only a coincidence, but the day happened to mark the anniversary of the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993.

See the Carnegie Hall site for complete program notes [absent the poetry texts] and an audio link with comments from Runnicles.

Excerpts from leftist and antiwar poetry by Wislama Szymborska, Virgil, Bertolt Brecht, W. H. Auden, Siegfried Sassoon and Seamus Heaney, all read sympathetically by our favorite Abe Lincoln stand-in, Sam Waterston [who has also appeared as himself in ads for The Nation], were placed as lyric hinges separating major pieces, equally political, by Aaron Jay Kernis, Richard Strauss, Karl Amadeus Hartmann and Dmitri Shostakovich.

The orchestra was assembled, but both it and the darkened hall remained silent for the uncompromising reminder delivered in the first of the six readings. Syzmborska's "Children of the Epoch".[here in excerpt]:

We are children of the epoch.
The epoch is political.

All my daily and nightly affairs,
all your daily and nightly affairs,
are political affairs.

Whether you want it or not,
your genes have a political past,
your skin a political tone,
your eyes a political color,
What you say resounds,
what you don't say is also
politically significant.

The Kernis, "Sarabanda in Memorium", was very “New Romanticism” pretty, but less than halfway through the sixteen-minute piece described as somehow related to September 11, my attention began to flag. Kernis is a very good composer. I'm just never sure he really has anything new to say.

The performance of "Metamorphosen", which the aged Strauss composed in the midst of the physical and cultural ruin of his beloved Germany in 1945, seemed too slow, and it never really took off, the way it always seems to in my memory, or at least in the von Karajan recording we have at home. But I have to admit that any enjoyment of the piece was compromised by the constant chatter of a couple nearby for whom the evening's august program represented more an occasion for serious foreplay than art. So maybe it was just me - or them.

Ah, but after the intermission the orchestra finally showed what it was able to do as a large ensemble.

A reading of Auden's mournful "September 1, 1939" set the tone for the second half of the evening.

Perhaps it was only coincidence, but now with the last two pieces as the number of players on the stage increased, first with Hartmann's melancholy 1939 [violin] "Concerto Funebre", and then to 60-strong, with Shostakovich's happy, end-of-the-war Ninth Symphony, the quality of music was phenomenal.

Vladimir Spivakov was the wonderful soloist in the Hartmann piece.

Waterston's last readings were Sassoon's "Everyone Sang", describing the end of the first Great War, followed by Heaney's "The Cure at Troy". These poems preceded the Shostakovich, and matched his music in its spirit of hope.

The Hartmann never sounded better, although I've only had the opportunity to hear it in recordings up until now, and the reading of the 1945 symphony in E-flat Major, with its toy soldier/circus music elements, was magnificent. Odd, that one, and especially odd to find, as Barry said, that any Shostakovich piece could be the lightest work on a program of symphonic music shared by three other composers.

My own thought as the piece made its way to its delightful conclusion? What a wonderful way to end a horrible war!

And a wonderful evening.

And for the record, and for our present times as well, this is the complete Brecht poem:


It is considered low to talk about food.
The fact is: they have
Already eaten.

The lowly must leave this earth
Without having tasted
Any good meat.

For wondering where they come from and
Where they are going
The fine evenings find them
Too exhausted.

They have not yet seen
The mountains and the great sea
When their time is already up.

If the lowly do not
Think about what's low
They will never rise.

Meat has become unknown. Useless
The pouring out of the people's sweat.
The laurel groves have been
Lopped down.
From the chimneys of the arms factories
Rises smoke.

The forests still grow.
The fields still bear
The cities still stand.
The people still breathe.

Every month, every day
Lies open still. One of those days
Is going to be marked with a cross.

The merchants cry out for markets.
The unemployed were hungry. The employed
Are hungry now.
The hands that lay folded are busy again.
They are making shells.

Teach contentment.
Those for whom the contribution is destined
Demand sacrifice.
Those who eat their fill speak to the hungry
Of wonderful times to come.
Those who lead the country into the abyss
Call ruling too difficult
For ordinary men.

The common folk know
That war is coming.
When the leaders curse war
The mobilization order is already written out.

Are of different substance.
But their peace and their war
Are like wind and storm.

War grows from their peace
Like son from his mother
He bears
Her frightful features.

Their war kills
Whatever their peace
Has left over.

They want war.
The man who wrote it
Has already fallen.

This way to glory.
Those down below say:
This way to the grave.

Is not the first one. There were
Other wars before it.
When the last one came to an end
There were conquerors and conquered.
Among the conquered the common people
Starved. Among the conquerors
The common people starved too.

Reigns in the army.
The truth of this is seen
In the cookhouse.
In their hearts should be
The selfsame courage. But
On their plates
Are two kinds of rations.

That their enemy is marching at their head.
The voice which gives them their orders
Is their enemy's voice and
The man who speaks of the enemy
Is the enemy himself.

The married couples
Lie in their beds. The young women
Will bear orphans.

It smashes down forests and crushes a hundred men.
But it has one defect:
It needs a driver.

General, your bomber is powerful.
It flies faster than a storm and carries more than an elephant.
But it has one defect:
It needs a mechanic.

General, man is very useful.
He can fly and he can kill.
But he has one defect:
He can think.

[Brecht text from the Amherst Peace Vigil]

inside the Pernice show at Storefront, Anees bandited on the left

Last night we met our friend Anees at Storefront for Art and Architecture, for the opening of an exhibition, "Small Works, 1994-2004", by Manfred Pernice. Anees is an artist and architect, and Barry and I visit a lot of galleries, so we thought it would be a good ensemble.

one of Pernice's assemblages

It was, thanks also to the interesting crowd, but above all thanks to the somewhat baffling content but intelligent aesthetic of the stuff in the vitrines, all resting on wonderful, slightly-eccentric-shaped plinths. The work was assembled from found materials (paper, tin, cardboard, tape, magazine cutouts) cut and pencil-marked, and generally resting on or beside some pseudo-instructive text or diagram, and everything seemed to be attached to the virtually untranslatable German word, "Verdosung". I'll hazard the English, "canned", or "boxed-up".

To learn more, maybe we'll have to get to Anton Kern Gallery, where another Pernice show, "COMMERZBANK", opened a week earlier.

Riviera Gallery, still unidentified except for baby blue window paint spelling out the title of the show, "PROJECTS I WANT TO START & THE ONES I CAN'T FINISH"

Leaving Anees to his colleagues, and maybe some late study, we took the L to south Williamsburg where a relatively obscure, almost-new space, Riviera Gallery, was celebrating the opening of a small group show.

I was especially interested in the richly detailed paintings of Hyemi Cho and the enigmatic icons of Alex Lee.

Cho's work seemed to represent a personal odyssey through an alien world. Because they included work created over more than a half dozen years and because of their variety, all within an idiosyncratic style, the dozen or so wood panels would have represented a good mini-retrospective were they the work of an older artist. We met Hyemi last night and we were charmed, but that was after we had attached ourselves to the paintings.

Alex Lee showed work using cut-out magazine pages on which he carefully covered predictably beautiful faces of the [mostly] male fashion models with the flat baby blue paint used for the gallery's window text I mentioned in the caption above. Only their noses and the designer costumes they were selling remained. Each was beautifully enclosed by a pristine white, generic wood frame he had made himself. Do we ever ask what is really inside the pictures we admire? We've met Alex before, and last night he related an anecdote that reminded us that even the way we approach the simplest, most familiar of images is culturally determined. But it was probably a story from which the work we saw last night should stand independent. Maybe another time.

staff and guests smooze at Relish

We ended the evening by walking around the corner to go to dinner at our favorite Williamsburg boite, Relish. Minutes after we had arrived, crowds of people passed our corner booth heading for the back, the red room, where we never go. It very quickly became obvious that something was going on, and I finally hailed the hot waiter with the black outfit and studded belt who was regularly sneaking a peek into the room - even when he had nothing to carry into the room. In spite of the roar of that crowd and the music being played in our part of the diner, we had already begun to suspect that they were broadcasting "Queer Eye For the Straight Guy" [yeah, in Williamsburg]. The waiter leaned in to us and seemed to be shy about answering.

Actually, while it turned out that our suspicion about the broadcast was confirmed, what we thought might be sheepishess was just his fumbling to explain that this particular episode was featuring the hair salon on the corner, which was called simply, "PUBLIC" [very cool, and just next door to Riviera Gallery], and that the crowd in the back room was made up of stylists, clients, neighbors and those who loved them.

It's about fame.

modernist sawhorse worktable on 8th Avenue

The glasiers have to have something to work on, but these guys from Fordham Glass opt for midcentury modern design. Form seems to follow function here. Light, strong, beautiful. The piece would look good in a stylish apartment - as is.

installation view of, among other things, a giant clown nose

The work of Fernando Carabajal has haunted me since we saw it in Mexico City late last month. Fresh, charming, quirky, and each piece a beautiful, microsmic reading by a very interesting artist.

I wanted to post something about this young Mexican from the moment in late January when we saw his work at the beautiful Galeria Nina Menocal, but at first there were no pictures available on line, and then when there were, Barry beat me to it with his post eleven days ago.

Now we've gotten a few more images from the gallery, but none of them can say as much as did our visit to his installation in the gallery's project room on the roof. Fortunately we should all be able to visit his wonderful clowns, elephants and other serious fun - the real things - at The Armory Show next month.

the Lescaze ceiling fixture in the small gallery

The 16 inch in diameter chrome-plated brass lamp was designed by William Lescaze for his 1938 Garrett A. Hobart III house, now destroyed, in Tuxedo Park, New York. See yesterday's post, "scuttling a great building".

William Lescaze's Fiterman Hall today

There were no tears shed, and no tears should have been shed, for the collapse of 7 World Trade on September 11, 2001. No one was killed or injured when it fell. We are left with the memory of a pretentious and ugly building which could only have been produced by the excesses of the 80's - that is, until the even less imaginative excesses of the aughts.

We will miss the elegant, light urban grace of Fiterman Hall however.

My office was in 7 World Trade, but I felt more at home in Fiterman Hall. I loved my brief lunch-time visits to the ground floor art gallery set up by the Borough of Manhattan community College shortly after it was given the building by its owner, Miles and Shirley Fiterman, in 1993. The work of emerging artists, and the passing student bodies, allowed me to ignore the surrounding neighborhood of empty suits, if only for a moment.

Fiterman Hall, originally built in the 50's to house the same kind of suits, specifically those in charge of some of the operations of the Guaranty Trust Company, was designed by William Lescaze, the Swiss-born, adopted American, International Style architect responsible for the groundbreaking PSFS Building in Philadelphia.

Late in the afternoon of September 11 the 47-story 7 World Trade building mysteriously succumbed to the fire raging out of control within its structure and collapsed, some of its weight landing on the side of 15-story Fiterman Hall. For two and a half years the emphasis has been upon restoring the half-century-old architectural landmark. Now it appears that the entire building will be scuttled, to be replaced by something new, although I'm not sure that decision has any element of inevitability. There's always more money to be made in building than restoring, or at least that is the case in the world we have set up in this country.

I confess to another, very tiny connection to the building and its architect. Several years ago I found a modernist chrome-plated brass light fixture for the ceiling of the one of the rooms in our apartment. It was very expensive, but I loved it and everythig that it represented. The beautiful, minimalist disc was designed by Lescaze for a daringly-modernist house, since destroyed, which he had created in Tuxedo Park outside of the city. Now it was going to grace a somewhat less bold art deco apartment built the same year in Chelsea.

In spite of its simplicity and its [misleading?] appearance of having been machine crafted, it is in fact unique. There could be no replacement.

There can also be no proper replacement for Lescaze's jewel on Barclay Street.

[image from Fred R. Conrad/NYTimes]

UPDATE See an image of the Lescaze fixture in Thursday's post.

I want my money back. No, I mean I want part of my life back. Actually, I want my civilization back, for all of us. Why did we have to endure institutionalized superstition for a thousand years? Why do we endure it again [still?] today?

I just read a short review in the NYTimes of a new theological and intellectual history of Europe, "THE CLOSING OF THE WESTERN MIND/The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason" by Charles Freeman. The book's author argues that classical rationality was deliberately destroyed by Christianity for its own political purpose. That is to say, the Dark Ages were a deliberate plan.

For at least a thousand years, from late antiquity until the Renaisance, the Church, which is to say the entire European world it controlled, shut down its minds, and for many the doors remain closed today.

Freeman's main thesis has two parts. First, that the Greek intellectual tradition did not simply fade away but was actively suppressed by the rise of Christianity, especially in the fourth and fifth centuries. Second, that the main reason this happened was political. The Emperor Constantine and some of his successors thought that by throwing the weight of the state behind Christianity, and institutionalizing it, they could turn it into a weapon of mass distraction: it would act as a unifying force, at a time when the empire was under threat from marauding invaders, and be an effective means of social control. It was, according to Freeman, because the bishops acquired political power, and were given a rich and powerful institution to operate, that dissent and the tradition of free inquiry were crushed.

. . . .

By the year 1000, all branches of science, and indeed all kinds of theoretical knowledge except theology, had pretty much disintegrated. Most classical literature was largely unknown. The best-educated people (all of them monks) knew strikingly less than many Greeks 800 years earlier. And the few mathematical writings from the time were for the most part downright stupid.

I was raised a Catholic, and in spite of some of the advantages available to me in Augustinian and Jesuit schools, my own mind was really opened only in the first weeks of graduate study in Madison. My dark age ended only then.

I am now an enemy to all superstition, but I look around and I can't help but fear that civilization may be losing the battle once again, and for the same reasons.

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