Thursday, March 19, 2020

Not All Hospitals are Equal

In the light of today, when countries around the world are scrambling to build hospitals, virus test sites, and labs, I can’t help but reflect on the glorious façade of the Ospidale degli Innocenti. Back in the late 1400’s, the Silk Merchant Guild of Florence hired Filippo Brunelleschi, who would go on to become one of the renaissance’s greatest architects, to build the first public building to receive and house orphan babies as community service. 

Brunelleschi pulled together ideas of scale and optics that glorified human proportion and signaled the beginning of the Renaissance in Europe. 
The hospital façade is longer than tall. A colonnade of composite columns rhythmically punctuates the full front. Each column is placed apart at a distance that equals their height and the arcade behind them maintains the same measurement, creating a series of cubes. Sweeping arches fly up from each capital and leap down the length of the building, like a beating pulse. In the triangular spaces where the arches meet there are tondos, (circular framed), ceramic babies in sculptural relief. Above, on the top floor of the 2-story building, the rectangular windows have triangular caps that visually lift the weight of the horizontal building upwards. The design incorporates grey stone and white stucco to break up the space into geometric patterns. The whole building feels light and measured.

Brunelleschi was a trained goldsmith, and sculptor, but when in 1403 he only won second place in the competition to create panels for the FlorenceBaptistery doors, he seemed to quit all that and turn to architecture. He is known for designing innovative machines to help construction, and for his greatest masterpiece, a wonder of the world, the largest Dome of the time, theDome of Santa Maria del Fiore. It is more then 150 feet across and involved construction 180 feet in the air. It took 18 years to build and there were only three accidental deaths recorded! Brunelleschi, a problem-solver, patented many innovations to get the job done. Born in 1377, he died ten years after the completion in 1446 and is buried under the dome.

My son, another problem solver, is working in construction with a company proposing fast pop-up buildings for FEMA. It looks as though they will be made of extruded recycled plastic, and dome like in shape. I wonder if asking for columns and arches would be too much? Maybe some tondos framing the virus?

Monday, March 9, 2020

Poignant Art in Times of Panic

Today with all the news headlines are of crashing stock markets and shutting markets, uncertainty (and insensitivity) in political leadership and a contagious, possibly terminal, epidemic on the loose, we can look to the arts for humor, brevity, distraction or focus. Artists ideate and imagine. Ideation is the process of pulling forth solutions to a question. The role of the artist is to imagine- and that means to give form to an image, movement, or sound as a solution.

I am reminded of an artist who was able to alter a simple iconic image and make it resonate as the voice of the disenfranchised. In his best images he combined rage and tenderness. David Wojnarowicz, (1954-1992), was an American artist at the peak of his career in the 1980’s. Working under the slashing (and insensitive) government of President Reagan and amidst the scorched-earth Aids body count. He turned personal confessional expressions into powerful political activism. Wojnarowicz suffered a life of childhood abuse, homelessness, teenage prostitution, and by the time he was a young adult he was losing his friends to the Aids crisis. His art famously clashed with forces of censorship and repression. He called out, with his art serving as a social critique, the political mythmakers such as Jesse Helms and the conservative Christian’s who would insist that condoms and safe sex not be talked about in schools. Wojnarowicz most famous work, Untitled, 1988-89 is a platinum print photograph taken as a section of a natural history diorama. It is of the American buffalo jumping, one after the other, over a cliff. The image is beautifully developed and hauntingly cropped. It symbolized the hopelessness people felt within the medical crisis looking at government policies. His image brilliantly spoke to the marginalized, from the Native Americans (the diorama story) to the Aids victims.This was seen not only as the swan song of the poor, sick and politically invisible, but as the prediction for our society as a whole if we continued without a change of heart.
Untitled by Wojnarowicz

When a friend apologized for making art that was less than political, that focused on beauty, Wojnarowicz replied, “…these are so beautiful, and that’s what we’re fighting for. We’re being angry and complaining because we have to, but where we want to go is back to beauty. If you let go of that, we don’t have anywhere to go.”

self portrait by Peter Wojnarowicz
 I'm thankful for Wojnarowicz and artists like him that do the dirty work, remind us of death, and of what is valuable (and worth fighting for) about life.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Coronavirus Shadow is as Terrifying as Breugel's Triumph

Triumph of Death by Bruegel ca.1562

When I think of the Coronovirus leaping around the globe and adding to the daily death count, I think of one of the most terrifying paintings in history, the Triumph of Death, an oil-on-wood-panel painting, created in 1562. It has something, like this virus, of everyone’s worst nightmare. Set along a coast in a village with commerce, the scene looks like a premonition of hell. Flames and smoke dot the horizon. It’s an eco-horror. There isn’t a sign of any green life in the landscape. Trees are being chopped down. The land is scorched and rust colored. A bloated fish gasps on the shore. The painting is of a jumbled panicked populace surrounded by almost quaint little scenes of victims stuck in torture contraptions, and coffins sinking into the mud in the surrounding fields. It looks like the cursed forecast of what we can expect if the stores run out of medical masks, or you are stuck in an airplane full of coughing aliens.

Not enough is known about Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the artist from the Netherlands who worked in the 1500’s. No one knows his birth date, but the time he was registered in an art guild (1551) to his death (1669) he executed 40 paintings and 60 prints. This particular painting is hung at the Prado Museum in Madrid.

In The Triumph of Death, the hysteria is loud and panoramic. Men, women, babies, the rich, the poor, the laborer, the gamblers, soldiers, monks, and kings, are all tormented and terrified. Skeletons arrive in massive numbers and outnumber the living. They arrive on boats and by horseback. They interrupt meals, disrupt commerce and dismantle forts. They amass an army, creating a wall of coffin-shaped shields.  They pull wagons piled high with skulls, trampling over victims, and herding crowds into a large dark door: a death trap in the side of a hill. They wield long slivered scythes and blow on trumpets, even drumming percussion with bones. A woman, face down, cradles her baby while dogs eat it’s face. A man is hung with his pants down. A bewildered king is taunted by a skeleton holding up an empty hour-glass.

Everyone in the painting is in the throes of death except for two young lovers in the lower right corner. They are seemingly oblivious and feeling immortal as they play music and read. But, behind them, a skeleton has picked up an instrument and is playing along.
On a barren hill to the left, two skeletons ring a large black bell.

Painted during a time when northern Europe was rocked by pandemics, reeling under the ruling religious wars, and leery of the inventive fury of the Inquisition, pictures such as this were called “moral paintings” because they were warnings to live right. No one was/is immune to death. Washing hands hadn’t caught on and religion, literally, could kill.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Art Made of Matchbooks to Ignite Awareness

This article was published in the Millerton News, Compass, February 20, 2020,  page A8.

In the cool crisp air of the cavernous Wassaic Project grain elevator stand or drape 7 large quilts in a show titled, Heirloom: Quilts from Another Country Quilt Cycle.
DARNstudio, "Amplify"

Walking through at first glance they can seem silent and even severe. It takes further reading, and peaking closely, to decipher the conceptual layers and emotional heat behind the works. The labels inform of title, ingredients, dimension, and date completed, but there is so much more to share.

Quilts are the quintessential heirlooms passed down through generations. They map our stories and stitch together family and community. A friend of mine in college had a quilt on her bed sewn by her mother commemorating the send off to school with an aerial view of her ancestral home. Quilts such as that one have warmed us, aided with healing, and silently comforted us in our beliefs. Historical lore has quilts serving most famously as poetic signposts pointing black slaves to promises of freedom along the Underground Railroad. 
This show does not point to freedom.

These DARNstudio quilts have a more sinister air. The patterns and colors are comprised of units made out of souvenir matchbooks lashed together and backed by thick grey felt. The places commemorated on the books of matches are of mundane sites: a train station platform, a convenience store, a sheriff’s jail cell, a traffic-stop intersection.

Put together by the collaborative duo of DARNStudio, based in Roxbury, CT, these quilts are part of a larger series-in-process making a statement about the killing of unarmed black American men.

David Anthone and Ron Norsworthy, the DARNstudio artists, design logos for each new place where such a killing has occurred and they then print thousands of custom-designed matchbooks. 

Flipped back to front for the sake of variety and rhythm, the matchbook fronts bear letters and numbers, codifying the names and most recent dates of a death of a victim by the hands of police,  stand-your-ground policy and other traumatic events. 
Vaguely resembling the patterns of coded quilt signage, these are contemporary pictographs where crows in the sky replace flying geese. In the quilt titled Amplify, the volume symbol of our cell phones is replicated over and over. 
Pattern titles such as "Snake in the Garden", "Go High", and "Double Cross" are an update for a vehicle that explores inherited trauma, and policy bias. 
This is the new story quilt that we, as a culture, are creating as heirlooms to pass down through generations. Each quilt of 2800 matchbooks appears colorful and comforting, but in actuality they are flashpoints. Each matchbook is a spark and a part of an overall blaze of conversation that needs to be shared. 

"Heirloom: Quilts from Another Country Quilt Cycle" is at the Wassaic Project in Wassaic, NY until March 28th. The Maxon Mills Gallery is open from noon to 5pm every Saturday and Sunday; admission is free. To learn more go to

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Are you using the latest Stamp on your Love Letters?

My series of drawings and history of the USPS love stamps was printed in the February 6th, 2020  edition of the Lakeville Journal, page A3.

Because it is the week for mailing out Valentines, we can look forward to the unveiling of the new 2020 Love stamp. Every year, on and off since 1973, the US Postal service has issued a new love stamp for the purpose of sending out your cards of intimate sentiment!
Sue at the Amenia Post Office shows me the new stamps
The first official love stamp featured the iconic stacked LOVE design by Robert Indiana. It cost eight cents!
By Robert Indiana
It was created for the Museum of Modern art's Christmas card and never copyrighted, so it has popped up everywhere. Poor Robert Indiana doesn't get a penny from it. Another design, a few years later, was created by the the nun/artist/activist, Corita Kent.

Corita Kent
There used to be a water tower in Boston that featured her rainbow slashes.Wonder if it is still up?

This year's love stamp design is by Alberto Alcala. He also designed last years. He is one of 4 art directors with the post office. You have probably used his stamps many times. Last spring he made the stamp of the waving flag. It is from a photograph he took while walking along the shores of Lake Michigan. Another Forever stamp series he designed last fall was of holiday wreaths against doors.
Alcala's stamps
More about it on page A3, under "The Season for Romance"!
Lakeville Journal

Saturday, February 8, 2020

In Miami and Baltimore, Mickalene Thomas is the life of the party

One of the most exciting exhibits I recently experienced was at the Baltimore Museum of Art's Mickalene Thomas:A Moment's Pleasure exhibit. I remember first seeing her work when she was a resident at the Studio Museum of Harlem back in 2001. This was so different, and yet very much connected. Known for her large colorful, elaborate, mixed media portraits of black women, Thomas has taken the viewer right into her paintings.  By building immersive installations that mimic a party room from childhood, Thomas is bringing intimacy and a different sort of stimulation from the rest of the museum experience.

view from my comfy seat towards the bar
Born out of a desire to memorialize her mother and inspired by old Polaroids she had of her mother getting ready for parties, Thomas has been creating rooms since her "Better Days" art bar installation at Galerie Volkhaus for the Basel Art Fair of 2013. In 2016 she created the work, "Do I Look Like a Lady", an immersive video installation of singers now owned by the Portland Art Museum in Oregon. She followed up "Better Days" with Better Nights, rooms installed at Miami's Bass Museum December 2019. In the ArtNewspaper, Thomas calls the work a "manifesto experience... celebrating a marginalized group of people".
The decor is 1970's and 1980's. It is dimly lit and the music is loud. There is faux wood paneling, carpet squares, tiled ceilings, mix matched furniture, angled mirrors, bright colors, macrame plant hangers and contrasting fabric patterns. I found myself lulled into having a seat in the darkened living room and watched a few animated video shorts, while in the next room a formal bartender lined up bottles and wiped the surfaces clean. As far as I could see the other visitors were just as entranced. Included in "A Moment's Pleasure" are paintings and videos by younger Pratt artist. Thomas, a Pratt alum, has a reputation of generosity. She mentors younger artists, particularly those of color, to help them get ahead in the art world. I am sure they produced some of the colorful and mesmerizing videos on display at the end of the room.
Some books on the endtables. New to me!
The Baltimore Museum recently announced that they would spend the totality of their 2020 allocated purchasing funds to buying art by women. The focus on decolonizing the institution's collection has spread to reflecting on how they welcome and cultivate relationships with patrons and collectors of color. Mickalene Thomas is a strong artist to support. She brings with her some serious humor, a community of fans and, with installations like these, her base is only building.
The exhibit will be at the Baltimore Art Museum until May 2021. "Better Nights" at the Bass in Miami will be up until September 27, 2020.
Links to Books here: Liliane by Shange and Sister Outsider by Lourde

Friday, February 7, 2020

Gift wrapping for my subscribers

Tricky part is intuiting which goes to which home. They are all oldies but goodies, and I am so happy to share. I get inspired by having readers visit the blog. Feels good to give back.