A Lesson for Urban Cultural Centers

A new show at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art sheds light on one of America’s greatest and most artistic architects: the late Louis I. Kahn.

AUG 23, 2017 11 AM
CINCINNATI CITYBEAT

A Cbp0823Building ProvidedFort Wayne, Indiana’s Arts United CenterPHOTO: TIFFANY STREET / COURTESY OF THE FORT WAYNE MUSEUM OF ART

Cincinnati’s method toward creating state-of-the-art homes for its arts and cultural institutions has been to use historic preservation — restoring and modernizing its landmark buildings like the 19th- century Music Hall and the Art Deco Union Terminal. We’ll begin seeing the results of that soon; Music Hall reopens Oct. 6-7.

But not all cities have done it like this. Some have sought to create new multi-building campuses for the cultural arts as a statement of their growth and urban renewal. And Cincinnati has tried a smaller version of that — the Cesar Pelli-designed Aronoff Center for the Arts.

There are minuses of thinking big (and new): You have to be able to deliver. One community that thought really big was Fort Wayne, Ind. In a burst of post-war forward-thinking civic optimism, it hired one of America’s greatest and most artistic architects — the late Louis I. Kahn — to build a civic center for the city’s Fine Arts Foundation (now known as the Arts United) that would be the envy of far bigger cities.

Kahn is famous for manysuch buildings as La Jolla, Calif.’s Salk Institute, Yale University’s Center for British Art and Fort Worth, Texas’ Kimbell Art Museum, which often gets praised because of its use of natural light — and for being the subject of the an Oscar-nominated documentary My Architect.

But he’s not famous for his Fort Wayne project, which was the last one he personally completed before his death in 1974. (Some were finished posthumously). By the time it was finally done in 1973, vastly scaled down from his original proposal and the foundation’s dreams, he had been involved since 1961 and had worn the city’s patience out.

That may be one reason why the Arts United Center, as the one completed building is called, is so little known nationally or even regionally, even though it’s Kahn’s only project in the Midwest and his only theater.

Kahn originally had envisioned 12 elements of a sweeping campus, nine of which would be buildings. When he subsequently proposed an amphitheater, performing arts theater, philharmonic hall, art museum and art school, the price tag was $20 million — roughly $127 million in today’s dollars. In 1963, the foundation said it could only realistically fundraise for the performing arts center and a school; in 1967 it estimated those would cost $10-$12 million. Eventually, the school was removed from the plan.

The building as finished is not perfect but it has fascinating and lovely design features, inside and out, that show a very humane touch. The front brick façade has arched windows and an entranceway that form inviting facial features; there is an actors’ meditation balcony behind the stage; and a  graceful folding wooden partition encloses the large curved entrance to a studio. The 500-seat theater is what Kahn called a “concrete violin” (with concrete catwalks) encased by an exterior “brick violin case.” For all the problems, this wasn’t just a commission for Kahn — he saw it as a mission to further the meaning and impact of the arts in a city.

Fort Wayne seems to want to promote the Arts United Center to outsiders. There’s an excellent exhibition at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art (fwmoa.org) now through Oct. 15, On the Pursuit of Perfection: The Legacy Architecture of Louis I. Kahn in Our City. For the first time, it brings together his blueprints, drawings, newspaper stories of the time and the often-shocking correspondence from the civic leaders trying to get the project built. For instance, in 1969 — after Kahn had disregarded a plea by the foundation to scale back his plans (and costs) because of fundraising problems — the organization’s president wrote him this:

“I am at a loss to understand why you continually assume that we can and will somehow come up with the additional funds for a far more costly building.”

Best of all, the Arts United Center is adjacent to the museum (which was built in the 1980s), and its management is encouraging visitors to tour. (Reservations can be made by calling 260-424-0646 and leaving a message for Miriam Morgan). You can easily get to Fort Wayne and back in a day from Cincinnati, and it’s well worth doing for this exhibit and building. The show adds immensely to understanding Kahn — and also to understanding the ambitions of cities.


CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: srosen@citybeat.com

Advertisements

Julian Stanczak’s Contribution to Cincinnati Art

Julian Stanczak, the Polish-born American artist who lived near Cleveland and did important work in Cincinnati, had an international reputation that was only growing when he died on March 25 at age 88.

CINCINNATI CITYBEAT
 APR 19, 2017 

“Additional” is one of Cincinnati’s best examples of public art.“Additional” is one of Cincinnati’s best examples of public art.PHOTO: HAILEY BOLLINGER

Julian Stanczak, the Polish-born American artist who lived near Cleveland and did important work in Cincinnati, had an international reputation that was only growing when he died on March 25 at age 88.

The abstract art that he called “perceptual painting” — sharply delineated lines and sections of color that seemed to change or move based on the light and the viewer’s movements — made a major cultural impact when Stanczak’s first show, Optical Paintings, opened in New York in 1964. He became known as a progenitor of Op Art, which took its name from that show.

But, until recently, that was seen as a fad that had faded. The recent revival, in my opinion, is due to a realization that at its best, Op Art is capable of the same kind of spiritual, questing dimension as a Mark Rothko painting or an Agnes Martin grid.

Stanczak represented its best, especially with his exquisite choice of colors and geometric shapes and his wise handling of straight and curved lines. As was pointed out in The New York Times obituary, a major New York Gallery — Mitchell-Innes & Nash — had mounted its first Stanczak show in 2014 and has a second slated for May.

Cincinnati has had something to do with this resurgence — and Stanczak, in turn, has had something to do with the city’s improved fortunes. In 2007, he created what his wife, sculptor Barbara Stanczak, considers a mural (others call it it a sculpture) along the north side of the Fifth Third Bank’s Fountain Square above-level parking garage.

Occupying an entire block of Sixth Street, from Walnut to Vine streets, his “Additional” is among the city’s very finest public artworks of any type. Fifth Third commissioned it; gallerist Carl Solway suggested Stanczak to architect Jim Fitzgerald. The final work was fabricated to the artist’s specifications.

“It made a difference to downtown, didn’t it?” says Barbara, via telephone from the Stanczak home in Seven Hills, Ohio, near Cleveland. “It brought some life and cheer.”

It consists of 522 hollow aluminum bars in bright, rich colors. There are 325 vertical strips, each painted a similar one of three colors on its sides, so depending which way you’re walking or facing, and which sides of the bars you’re seeing, they all look green or purple — or you see a mix. That is a master lesson in manipulation of color combinations. (The effect is interrupted by a large decorative element above a passageway door.)

But giving even greater illusory depth, there are also 200 bars of different colors set at a slant to, and intersecting with, the vertical ones. The effect is to make you think they are swaying with the wind. Plenty of people, myself included, have at one time thought “Additional” is a mobile or kinetic piece, with those slanted bars moving in the wind so fast you never could see it.

CityBeat contributor Jane Durrell talked to Stanczak in August 2007 when he came to town for the dedication of his “block-long blockbuster,” as she called it, as well as for a small show at the Contemporary Arts Center that contained several of the working models. “(I’ve) always wanted to work in three dimensions,” he told Durrell.

Stanczak, who also has some major paintings and prints in Cincinnati collections, led an extraordinary life, according to published information. Born in Poland in 1928, he was sent to a Siberian labor camp after the Russians (along with the Germans) invaded to start World War II. There he lost the use of his right hand.

He escaped in 1942, made his way to exiled Polish Army soldiers in Persia and left them for a Polish refugee camp in Africa, where he learned to write and paint with his left hand. After the war, he came Cleveland, got his master’s degree in art from Yale University, studying with Josef Albers, and became a U.S. citizen.

He taught at the Art Academy of Cincinnati from 1957-64, meeting his future wife here when she became an Academy student. She had come to Cincinnati from Germany to help her elderly grandfather, an ecclesiastical painter, with his work.

That local history helped Stanczak decide to undertake the challenging “Additional.”

“We both invested a lot of love and work in Cincinnati, and I thought this was a good project for Julian to be visible,” Barbara says.

And so he will be in Cincinnati — always.

Lincoln Movie Underplays James Ashley’s Role

ashley

BY STEVEN ROSEN / HUFFINGTON POST/ FEB. 21, 2013

Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-nominated movie about the great president’s struggle to get Congressional approval for the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery, gets 53-year-old Ohio History teacher Paul LaRue’s approval for bringing American history alive.

But LaRue nonetheless is disappointed with its portrayal of James M. Ashley, a home-state U.S. Representative who led the floor fight on the amendment’s behalf. LaRue has made greater recognition of Ashley a veritable crusade in recent years.

“He’s made off to be weak or a little doltish, as if the process is going on and he’s not a part of it,” LaRue said. “He was a true believer but the movie really comes up weak on Ashley.”

As teacher at the public high school in the Buckeye State’s southwestern city of Washington Court House, LaRue is always looking for projects to inspire and educate his senior classes. And back in 2009, he thought he had a good one: Ohio, belatedly embarrassed that one of its two representatives in the U.S. Congress’ National Statuary Collection — 19th Century Governor William Allen — had racist beliefs, decided to replace him. (His statue had been on display since the 1880s.) A state legislative committee began looking for alternatives.

Ideas flowed in — the Wright brothers, the deaf Cincinnati Red star William “Dummy” Hoy, Thomas Edison, Olympian Jesse Owens, author Harriet Beecher Stowe and many more.

But LaRue was aware that objections to Allen, a Democrat of the period, centered on his opposition to President Lincoln and the Civil War, as well as to national abolition of slavery.

So he got his class to champion Allen’s mirror opposite — Ashley, a Civil War-era Republican from the Toledo area. He was such a strong Lincoln supporter that he served as the President’s floor manager for passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865. He was so committed to abolition he was a conductor on the underground railroad in the Portsmouth, Ohio, area. And in Congress, he authored legislation to emancipate slaves in the District of Columbia.

He even attended the 1859 Virginia execution of abolitionist John Brown, following his raid on Harper’s Ferry, offering consolation to his wife. The Toledo Blade newspaper has online a portion of the letter he wrote his family about the experience. Here’s an excerpt:

Now, that the old man is gone, what will be said of him? Who shall reconcile the conflicting statements? What will be the verdict of history? All concede to him courage of the highest order, and many even here admit his honesty of purpose. That he had no desire for wealth, is evident from the fact that every dollar he could control was expended in getting Slaves to Canada. Simple in his manners, and with but few wants, he lived only to help the helpless. However much I condemn and lament, as I most sincerely do, his attack on this place, I cannot but admire his heroism, his straight-forward independence, and his undoubted courage.

The presentation by LaRue’s class was so impressive that the state committee short-listed Ashley among the ten finalists for Allen’s replacement — and then let Ohio Historical Society put the list to a public vote in 2010. He then finished last with just 386 votes to Edison’s 12,132. (Edison was born in Milan, Ohio.)

“When the committee narrowed list to ten and he made it, to us that was like winning the Super Bowl,” LaRue said. “They then had Ohioans vote and he finished dead last. People just don’t know who he is.”

LaRue was hopeful Lincoln might change that. But Ashley, as played by David Costabile, is a very secondary character in the movie, coming off on the weak side of bland. It’s as if he’s following Lincoln’s orders and assembling votes without any great sense of moral purpose. Yet, as LaRue points out, “There was a certain religious zeal to his views on abolition.”

LaRue has “heavily thumbed through” Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, the book on which Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner based the film, and acknowledges her coverage of Ashley’s role is minimal. “I saw James McPherson was a consultant and David Blight a consultant. Along with Doris Kearns, those are best of the best of historians, so who am I to say? But I just can’t believe they knew that much about Ashley.”

His hope — short of getting Spielberg to film a sequel called Ashley — is to launch a website to educate people about the forgotten Ohio abolitionist. He has the material from the class project. “I would like to have The Real James M. Ashley website,” he said. “We’ve got all the pieces and parts. We’ve got all the information.”

Ohio Looks to Replace a Capitol Delegate

CINCINNATI — For more than 100 years, Gov. William Allen and President James A. Garfield have represented Ohio in the National Statuary Hall Collection in the United States Capitol in Washington.

But Mr. Allen, it seems, held beliefs about race that are now embarrassing.

“He wasn’t pro-slavery, but he was not pro-civil rights,” said Tom Reider, research archivist for the Ohio Historical Society. “He did not favor extending suffrage to African-American males through the 15th Amendment.”

So the state has begun looking for an Ohioan to replace him, and there is no shortage of nominees. They include three presidents, Ulysses S. Grant, William McKinley and William Howard Taft; the Olympic athlete Jesse Owens; and William Ellsworth Hoy, a deaf baseball player at the turn of the 20th century and a member of the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame who was known as Dummy.

Wilbur and Orville Wright have been ruled out, because the rules do not allow for two people to share a statue.

“We have a very tough decision in front of us,” said Mark Wagoner, a Republican state senator from Toledo and chairman of the State General Assembly committee charged with making the selection.

Ohio is not alone in deciding to swap out one of its two statues that each state contributes to the hall’s collection. Three states have done so since Congress authorized such changes in 2000.

Photo

The statute of William Allen is leaving the Capitol. CreditBrendan Smialowski for The New York Times

Kansas and California have selected former presidents — Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan, respectively — and Alabama recently placed Helen Keller’s statue in the collection. Three more have notified the Architect of the Capitol, who maintains the collection, of their intent: Michigan and Missouri want to include their respective native-son presidents, Gerald R. Ford and Harry S. Truman, while Arizona wants Senator Barry Goldwater.

But Ohio is different in having no specific replacement in mind.

“We’re trying to have fun with it, and really make it a celebration of Ohio history,” Mr. Wagoner said. “We’re trying to raise Ohioans’ interest in our rich history and make this a positive experience for people.”

“It was President Kennedy who said there’s high honor in the political class, and public servants ought to have their own hall of fame,” said State Representative Tyrone K. Yates, Democrat of Cincinnati and a committee member. “That should be Statuary Hall. Otherwise it would be full of inventors, businessmen and others.”

While the names of many famous Ohioans have been mentioned, the obscure have also gotten attention. Last month, in Washington Court House, a city in the southeast part of the state, students in Paul LaRue’s high school history classes tried to persuade the committee to back James M. Ashley. Little known today, he was a Civil War-era congressman from Toledo and a Lincoln ally who championed and helped write the 13th Amendment, outlawing slavery.

“We have no claim on him as favorite son,” Mr. LaRue said. “We call him an architect of freedom because he did a lot, and we feel he would be a good replacement for Governor Allen.”

Mr. Wagoner said his committee would make a recommendation in the spring, followed by a vote by the General Assembly.

The selection requires the approval of the governor and the Joint Committee on the Library of Congress in Washington. It is then up to Ohio to make the arrangements; a nonprofit foundation has been established to raise the estimated $250,000 to $500,000 needed for a new statue.

YOU’VE GOT EVEN BIGGER EARS THAN I THOUGHT: Big Ears Festival 2017

big-ears-festival-20171.jpg

 

BIG EARS 2017

(Once again Prof. Rosen makes his pilgrimage to Knoxville. Check out his 2014 report, as well as 2015, not to mention 2016.)

BY STEVEN ROSEN

Photos by Melinda Wallis-Rosen

As the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville has grown during its six installments since 2009, bringing a mind-bogglingly large mix of cross-pollinating modernist rock, classical, jazz, international and other types of music, one increasingly wonders where Ashley Capps — its founder and artistic director — got his interest in something so culturally cutting-edge.

After all, he runs Knoxville-based AC Entertainment, the company that puts on the giant summer outdoor Bonnaroo, Forecastle and other contemporary rock festivals. These are known for their innovative mixes of performers, but there are limits. One would not expect Bonnaroo, for instance, to feature the 78-year-old American New Music composer Frederic Rzewski rigorously, forcefully playing the piano for more than an hour straight in a performance of his 1975 “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!” It consists of 36 probing, exploratory variations of a Chilean folk song, and is meant to remember the murdered Salvador Allende and serve as an inspiration for resistance.

But there he was on a Friday afternoon at this year’s recently concluded Big Ears (which ran from a Thursday through Sunday), playing a Steinway & Sons grand piano in the center of a large nightclub called The Mill & Mine, as a crowd sat on the floor or stood to watch and listen to this impressive exhibition of stamina.

(Below: Matmos)

bigears20172

In the past, Capps and Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero have wisecracked that his interest in such unconventional music is related to him once owning a Knoxville club called Ella Guru’s, named after a Captain Beefheart song. That running joke continued at the Thursday-afternoon kick-off reception this year, when Rogero introduced Capps by calling him “a man who needs no trout mask replica, a man who is as safe as milk, a man who is our very own doc at the radar station.”

And that’s all well and good, but there’s something else at work here. Capps revealed some of that when introducing Rzewski (pronounced “zev-sky”) by telling about the time in 1977 he picked up him, pianist Ursula Oppens and saxophonist Lee Konitz at a New York airport to take then to Woodstock’s Creative Music Studio, where Capps was a student. There, Capps remembers, Rzewski played “The People United…,” a recent composition commissioned by Oppens, that had yet to be recorded. He knew at the time it was destined to be a major work, he says.

So Capps has a personal connection to this kind of work. (He also remembered driving Don Cherry to Woodstock.) And he definitely still has an ear for it.

When introducing the contemporary classical pianist Lisa Moore at the same venue, with the same in-the-round set-up on Saturday, he said that when he first heard her 2016 Stone People album, he knew it was one of the year’s strongest.

Imagine how many records in a year he must listen to, or at least be aware of, to stay atop of his vast festival and concert business. Yet he picks one, on the niche New Music label Cantaloupe Music, that features recordings of compositions by the likes of Rzewski, Missy Mazzoli and John Luther Adams.

But Moore did not disappoint. By turns lyrical and pounding in her choice of material and approach to the keyboard, and wearing a distinguishing white jacket, she began with one of Philip Glass’ most melodic and downright sweet compositions ever, 1979’s “Mad Rush.” There were times when Moore made it echo with snatches from “Over the Rainbow.” Her concert then featured works by other big names — Rzewski, Mazzoli, Adams, Julia Wolfe. But the standout besides “Mad Rush” was a work called “Sliabh Beagh” that she had commissioned from an Australian composer, Kate Moore, in order to explore Irish roots. Starting off like an introspective art song — Lisa Moore sang at the beginning — it evolved into a thunderously powerful work for piano that just kept building. Her concert was thrilling.

A couple years ago, the roaring, avant-garde bass saxophonist Colin Stetson played a Big Ears gig at a small bar so crowded I had to jump up and down every now and then just to catch a glimpse of his head. But there was no problem hearing then — the sound he got from that gigantic woodwind, large enough to double as a piece of public sculpture, could cut through a baseball park filled with fans cheering a grand slam.

This year, Stetson had a venue where he was easily seen — onstage at the large Mill & Mine. Believe it or not, it was reasonably hard to hear him. But it didn’t matter. With an ensemble of horn and string players, plus a singer, he was performing his reimagining of Polish composer Henryk Górecki’s 1977 3rd Symphony (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs), which became famous when a 1992 recording sold a million copies. Because one of the three songs contained within the symphony used a message found on a Gestapo cell wall, it conjures World War II and the Holocaust. Stetson calls his adaptation Sorrow, and he means for the saxophone to wail not so much in the Illinois Jacquet sense of the word, but rather in the “weeping” sense.

Amid the wave-like comings and goings of repetitive phrases from the other horns, Stetson’s playing fit in rather than stood out. And it sounded like an ominously rumbling bass. But the overall arrangement of Sorrowsucked everyone into its slowly building undertow and then cathartically brought them along. And when the music quieted to let Stetson’s sister, Megan, sing the songs, it was like Jefferson Airplane subsiding its playing for Grace Slick to solo on “Someone to Love.” Megan Stetson had a magnificently rich mezzo-soprano voice.

Stetson is a restless talent — on his new song, “Into the Clinches,” he hits his sax’s keys like he’s hammering out an electronic backbeat while blowing into the instrument. The result is as unexpectedly infectious as Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit,” and it could be a dance club hit.

While Big Ears is way too eclectic to pigeonhole its approach to booking, the rock or pop acts who played the two major venues — the luxurious 1928 Tennessee Theatre (the official state theater), and the 1909 Bijou — tend to be either experimentalist or to be using Big Ears for a conceptualist venture. (The event’s biggest act, Wilco, maybe doesn’t fit that description, but band members Glenn Kotche and Jeff Tweedy also used the festival for separate concerts.)

One such example was the toughly intellectualized Matmos, consisting of Drew Daniel and M.C. Schmidt, whose austerely theatrical take on the late Robert Ashley’s television opera Private Parts made for an invigorating noontime show at the Tennessee on Friday. Musically, it has an understated drone punctuated with electronica touches. Schmidt, in the first part looking Mr. Rogers-like in brown sweater and bowtie, provided the odd, casually upbeat recitation that Ashley himself used to do at his shows. Behind him, two women faced each other and provided an occasional encouraging “that’s right” in accompaniment. Ashley isn’t an easy composer to understand, but Matmos did make him and his music accessible — and hip.

bigears20173.jpg

But Matmos didn’t have anything on Xiu Xiu (above), who presented on Saturday at the Tennessee their tribute to David Lynch’s and Angelo Badalamenti’s music for the eerily meta Twin Peaks television series from 1990-91. Mostly instrumental but with a few vocals, like on the drifting and chilling “Into the Night,” the project allowed a fierce Jamie Stewart to play guitar or drums to Angela Seo’s keyboards and Shayna Dunkelman’s smashing, riveting percussion. She whacked mallets on vibes or slammed drums. With Twin Peaks slated to return to television on Showtime this year, Xiu Xiu has a hot concept more cutting-edge than retro, and knew it. It was a show infused with currency.

Compared to these two, the Magnetic Fields concerts at the Tennessee, presenting composer/singer Stephin Merritt’s year-by-year autobiographical songs on the band/art project’s new 50 Song Memoir, were more traditional. Merritt, after all, writes impossibly catchy pop tunes with witty lyrics that make you smile and laugh. What’s that doing at Big Ears?

But Merritt was downright subversive on stage, beginning with that low baritone/bass voice that can add such gravitas to even his lightest, loveliest songs. There was also, in new material like “Come Back as a Cockroach,” “I Think I’ll Make Another World” and “Eye Contact,” real bite and irony. He wasn’t just skimming the surface of his early years (I was only able to catch the first of his two Big Ears shows) for material, he was also humorously but resolvedly plumbing the emotional depths. He was being confessional yet novelistic.

bigears20174.jpg

(Stephin Merritt)

He also was a very conceptual performer — in that regard, a natural fit at Big Ears. The stage set-up for his concert reminded me of the Broadway musical The Drowsy Chaperone. He sat inside a fanciful room-like set, maybe based on a childhood bedroom, wearing a garishly checked sweater and a mac. He made amusingly snarky between-song patter — he was the middle-aged man looking back with mixed emotions.

The five other musicians were positioned around and behind this prop, in an arc formation. They played an array of instruments that gave the sound satisfying coloration and power. Merritt, too, played instruments or otherwise manipulated sounds, and sometimes would do something surprising, like sing the unabashedly silly but joyful tune “Hustle 76.” This brought out the “bumpity bump” (as Merritt hailed it) in the Magnetic Fields’ sound. The second set, which got Merritt through year 25 in his life, was just as strong. This is a great album, probably one of the year’s best when final polls come out, and Merritt’s performance made you realize its quality.

bigears2017-merrittset.jpg

By now, Merritt is an old pro. He’s 52, after all. But a couple truly old pros, both women, were the performers I’ll remember most.

The jazz composer and pianist Carla Bley, at age 80 looking as snazzy and stylish, with the same assured posture and black outfit as a decades-younger fashionable orchestra conductor, on Thursday night led the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra at the Tennessee Theatre through her big-band compositions. Her longtime bassist Steve Swallow and tenor saxophonist Andy Sheppard augmented the group, and the result for the most part was swinging yet prickly, as burrs and detours kept cropping up in the straight-aheadness. Her final composition, “The National Anthem,” was prefaced by her comment, “What better time?” (to play it). But despite its unorthodox yet welcome funkiness, it didn’t seem to leave as strong an impression as I desired. Maybe the times and the current president call out for the kind of state-of-emergency defiant approach Hendrix took to patriotic music at Woodstock. This wasn’t quite fiery enough — maybe Bley needs to compose an Escalator Over the Trump.

bigears2017monk.jpg

(Meredith Monk)

And the 74-year-old, pigtailed Meredith Monk (above) was spry and delightful enough a presence at the Bijou on Friday night to play Puck in a staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (as if her career and talents aren’t already varied enough). And her ever-present gracious smile could have illuminated even the top row of the theater’s otherwise-dark balcony.

Appearing with her Vocal Ensemble, her voice was in synch and in pitch with anything else on stage. She could duet with a revved-up monster truck if she wanted to. It is a marvelous instrument, whether she uses it for wordless vocalization or to comically, exaggeratingly lampoon in song a privileged older woman not prepared to die yet whose time has come.

Her concert included material from throughout her career. Her ease with “Click Song #1,” which she described as a “duet for solo voice” and which found her humming, clicking and puckering simultaneously, would make Tuvan throat singers envious.

And on “Choosing Companions” — from an opera, Atlas, that she composed in 1991 — Monk sat at the piano and sang haunting variations on the sound “day-o” by herself for a while. Then, Vocal Ensemble member Katie Geissinger came out, knocked on the piano to introduce herself, and began a short recitation of what I took to be an interpretation of Monk’s musical message. She soon joined Monk in singing, and the two communicated a call-and-response, point-and-counterpoint sensitivity to each other that elegantly pushed the song toward emotional breakthrough.

At one point, Monk told the audience about sitting in the New Mexican hot sun waiting for a musical idea, and you can see how that state’s artistic New Age exoticism could play a role in her vision. But there’s also a New Music progressivism, not unlike John Cage or Steve Reich, which incorporates Contemporary Art notions of modernism. She deserves all the recognition she can get as one of America’s singular composers and composers.

In past coverage, and at the beginning of this review, I’ve mentioned the Big Ears-Captain Beefheart connection. And also how Capps, at Big Ears, seems to be closer to someone like Rzewski than a raucous blues-rock iconoclast like Beefheart.

But another experimentalist whose name cropped up this year was Arthur Russell, an early proponent/practitioner of the kind of open-minded approach to music the festival favors.

He was a cellist drawn to experimentalism and minimalism, a friend of such other New York City classical music boundary pushers of the 1970s as Glass, Reich and Julius Eastman who also became interested in the conceptual rock of Talking Heads and Modern Lovers and the multi-rhythmic funkiness of disco. And he composed, sang and played cello on fragile, Nick Drake-like chamber-folk love songs like “A Little Lost.”

Always ahead of the curve, his death in 1992 passed with little attention. (He was just 40.) But his reputation has since grown — he was the subject of a 2008 documentary called Wild Combination. He was truly an artist with “big ears.” This festival, as it evolves, seems to be modeled on his vision of music.

 

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: srosenone@aol.com

I’m Not There: Todd Haynes’ Bob Dylan Movie: From the Archives

Cate-Blanchett_I_m-Not-There_2007

I’m Not There

Directed by Todd Haynes

W/ Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, Ben Whishaw

Cincinnati CityBeat; 2007

Grade:  A-

By Steven Rosen

Music biopics tend to be prosaic in form – a chronological recounting of a pop star’s life, highlighting the push-and-pull between personal tragedies and artistic triumphs. Usually, such films get their energy and achieve their success through the acting and music – Ray and Walk the Line being the most notable recent examples. Their narratives are clichéd.

But I’m Not There is only loosely modeled on, yet nevertheless profoundly about, Bob Dylan’s life. It is different. Director and co-writer (with Oren Moverman) Todd Haynes has structured a freewheelin’ film (with Dylan’s permission) based on the associative imagery and mystique that a great Dylan song creates when heard by a fan. You’ll like this film if you ever craned toward a radio trying to decipher and construe lyrics to “Like a Rolling Stone,” or wonder about the man behind that drawling, seductive, alluring – and radically singular – voice. And who hasn’t?

Six very different actors – including Cate Blanchett (photo above) in a turn worthy of an Oscar nomination – play Dylan-inspired characters (the name “Bob Dylan” is never mentioned). Although there is ample crosscutting to keep each one’s story moving forward simultaneously, their worlds are presented like different movies with different moods. Sometimes those separate stories are shot by cinematographer Edward Lachman with different film stock, or in black-and-white rather than color.

Haynes, who also made Velvet Goldmine and Far From Heaven, has a degree in art and semiotics – perfect for a filmmaker steeped in the resonance and historic meaning of metaphor and symbolism. But he’s not an overly intellectualized cineaste trapped inside his own head. He likes to have fun; he can be an incredibly provocative “jokerman,” to quote from a Dylan song.

In Dylan, he has a perfect subject, too – an artist who has manipulated and controlled his own mystique-cloaked persona to the point his “periods” are almost as important to us as the solstice and equinox were to the ancients.

I’m Not There is encoded with references to Dylan’s life and art, as well as to the filmmakers whose avant-garde approach to commercial movies – Jean-Luc Godard, Fellini, Richard Lester, D.A. Pennebaker, Robert Altman – did so much in Haynes’ view to free pop culture in the 1960s and 1970s. Just like Dylan. In one incredible short span, Haynes references Fellini’s 8 ½, Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night and, delightfully, the Teletubbies! In one of his boldest moves, inspired by a close reading of Greil Marcus’ writings on Dylan, Haynes connects the rifle shot-like opening of “Like a Rolling Stone” to the way Godard used rifle shot-like editing to shake up devotees of the French New Wave.

Blanchett plays the doomed Jude, closely based on the Dylan of D.A. Pennebaker’s black-and-white Don’t Look Back – a folk singer transforming into a blissed-out electric rock star during a mid-1960s London tour. Here, her Jude is alternately amused by and outraged by a British press that believes he has sold out.

Richard Gere is Billy, an aging outlaw who confronts the sheriff Pat Garrett in a circus town on the Western frontier. (Dylan had a small but influential, to him, role in Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.) Christian Bale is Jack, the folk/protest singer who took Greenwich Village by storm in the early 1960s and then dropped out to become Pastor John, a leader of a small evangelical church.

Ben Whishaw is Arthur Rimbaud, the mysterious French poet who inspired Dylan. Heath Ledger is Robbie, a Hollywood actor who once played Jack in a movie and is now breaking up with artist wife Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg).

And in a remarkable performance, African-American child actor Marcus Carl Franklin plays young Woody in late-1950s America, who runs away from home and hops a train trying to relive the adventures and lifestyle of idol Woody Guthrie. Gregarious and outspoken, he wins friends among hobos and – after he falls into a river and escapes a shark – a wealthy, middle-class family right out of Haynes’ Far From Heaven. Franklin’s joyous duet with Richie Havens on “Tombstone Blues” is a highlight.

Of these stories, only Robbie and Claire’s feels flat. It’s hard to take the time to authentically depict romantic heartbreak in a film moving as fast as this one. And Robbie seems pretty far removed from Dylan.

What unifies everything, ultimately, is the thrilling use of Dylan’s songs by music supervisors Randall Poster and Jim Dunbar both on the soundtrack and as performed on screen. That begins with “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again” during an opening montage of 1960s life in Greenwich Village, and ends with Antony and the Johnsons’ tender reading of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” during the closing credits.

The title, itself, comes from a haunting, simmering Basement Tape outtake previously unreleased but made legendary by Marcus in his book Invisible Republic. The film contains two versions – Dylan’s original and a new one by Sonic Youth.

Carl Solway Gallery’s new show rediscovers four pioneers of Psychedelic art

Distant Horizons: Pioneers of Psychedelic Art’ is a thoughtful exhibit that features mind-blowing, kaleidoscopic works.

BY STEVEN ROSEN
JUNE 14, 2017
CINCINNATI CITYBEAT
citybeat.com

Isaac Abrams’ 1965 “Hello Dali” is one of the mind-blowing artworks in Isaac Abrams’ 1965 “Hello Dali” is one of the mind-blowing artworks in “Distant Horizon.”PHOTO: CAL KOWAL // COURTESY OF THE CARL SOLWAY GALLERY

Isaac Abrams, one of the four artists featured in the Distant Horizons: Pioneers of Psychedelic Art exhibit opening Friday at Carl Solway Gallery, well remembers when he tried the hallucinogenic drug LSD. It was 1965 and he had already taken the mind-altering substances psilocybin and mescaline. But acid, as LSD was called, was stronger — it caused a radical heightening of consciousness.

“I came away with the idea that the experience was profound and had to generate an artistic response,” he says. So he started a gallery devoted to Psychedelic art, Manhattan’s Coda. He found few if any artists creating the kind of work he liked, and eventually cash ran short. 

“So I traded for a large canvas, 5-by-7 foot, and some small canvases and I spent a short time learning how to mix paint and which brushes to use and I embarked on my first serious painting,” he says. 

That work, 1965’s “Hello Dali,” is the largest of 10 paintings that Abrams has in this thoughtful show, which also features Psychedelic work by the artist collective USCO (particularly Gerd Stern), Tony Martin and Ira Cohen. (There are also films.) “Hello Dali” is, fittingly, mind-blowing — as if a kaleidoscopic camera had been installed in your brain to beautifully scramble your vision of a landscape into ornamented, segmented fragments of green, blue, yellow, red and every other color in the mind’s eye. In fact, the mind’s eye is there, itself, on the canvas, as if floating through doors of perception. 

“Hello Dali” comes to the Solway Gallery — as does some other artwork in Distant Horizons — straight from a traveling museum exhibit, Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia. That show has been hailed for taking seriously an art movement of the mid-to-late 1960s that is considered today more of a fleeting cultural trend, if it’s considered at all. 

Hippie Modernism’s artists and message appealed to Michael Solway, director of the gallery his father established. Growing up in Cincinnati in that era, he loved Psychedelic art and music — his father had a show of the music poster and underground comics artist Victor Moscoso in 1973. He also liked the musicians favored by the late Ira Cohen, who took woozy, distorted color photographs of them and others reflected on the surface of Mylar. In this show, Cohen’s 1968 “Jimi Hendrix” is a fitting portrait of the Rock star whose “Are You Experienced?” song is one of Psychedelic Rock’s greatest.

Solway asked his friend, New York-based critic and curator Carlo McCormick, to organize Distant Horizons. “It appeals to me as a way of redressing art history and also being for the underdog,” McCormick says about the task. “These guys are not the Pop artists of Psychedelia — not the Peter Maxes and stuff like that. They were innovating visual strategies really early, and they really did get the historical short shrift. They were known for a while, but the art world didn’t want their maximalism and instead went toward Minimalism. It was a way to get rid of this experiential kind of art.”

It would be simplifying things to say that LSD was the sole propellant for the work made by Psychedelic artists. It was outlawed in 1968 amid stories of “bad trips,” but by then its insights into the values of expanded consciousness had affected the arts, especially; inversely, the inherent creativity of artists became increasingly revered by those of the youthful 1960s counterculture who were newly “experienced.” 

Artist Tony Martin — who shows oil paintings, posters, drawings, ephemera and more in this exhibit — says he was never deeply into acid.

“I took a very minor amount of drugs in the ’60s,” he says via email. “I tried LSD once; it was an interesting experience. I felt it related to my own natural imagination. (So) I relied on my own natural imagination, which was fertilized by the history of art, the art around me, the wonderful natural world and human world joined together.”

In the 1960s, he created “paintings in time” — multi-projector visual presentations involving light, liquid and dry ingredients, abstract hand-painted slides and some realistic imagery — for New Music composers at the San Francisco Tape Music Center. 

“That didn’t mean I was decorating their music,” he says. “I was making my own compositions that went with their music. That’s important — some of those I (visually) scored.” 

He went on to do light shows at San Francisco Rock ballrooms. He also has made innovative sculptural installations like 1968’s “You Me We,” in Distant Horizons, which merges the images of two people looking into custom-made two-way mirrors.

USCO’s Gerd Stern goes back to the roots of the Beat Era and published a book of poetry in 1952. Distant Horizons has a variety of appealing multimedia pieces created by USCO — the artist collective that was primarily Stern, Michael Callahan and Stephen Durkee. Also in the show is Stern’s “NO OW NOW, USCO: Two Mantras” circular word collage on vinyl. A precursor of Baba Ram Dass’ admonition to Be Here Now, it repeats “Take the no out of now/then take the ow out of now/then take the then out of now/It is possible that it is possible.” 

It’s probably Abrams who best explains the impact LSD could have on an artist’s life. “I’ve had experiences incredibly attuned to the physical natural world, like digging a hole and looking at everything revealed in the leaves and the little bugs and their color,” he says. “Sometimes I’ve had very crystalline experiences, and sometimes out-of-body (ones). They reveal themselves in some of the works I’ve done. The experiences are enriching. I haven’t done psychedelics like I did at one point for quite a while, and I’ve still been growing as an artist and a painter.”


DISTANT HORIZONS: PIONEERS OF PSYCHEDELIC ART opens Friday with a 5-8 p.m. reception at Carl Solway Gallery (424 Findlay St., West End). The artists and guest curator Carlo McCormick will have a panel discussion at 12:30 p.m. Saturday, followed by a poetry reading by Gerd Stern. The show is up through Sept. 16. More info: solwaygallery.com.