Monday, October 24, 2011


2009 Ofrenda before the community's additions
Two years ago, one of our Artists-in-Residence, Lauren Raine, put together an ofrenda--a place of offering--in recognition of El Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. Traditionally celebrated on November 2, the Feast of All Souls. While originating in Mexico, the custom of celebrating the lives of those who have died with a gaily-decorated shrine filled with flowers, paper lace, salt, bread, and candles, as well as photographs of the deceased, candy skulls, and dancing skeletons has spread to many other places. Here, the community added to Lauren's basic design, adding tokens and photographs of their loved ones to create an organic, collaborative artwork.

detail of the 2011 Ofrenda
This year, our Program Administrator, Amy Gray is helping us build another ofrenda. Many of the same elements used previously are present once again, but the addition of Amy's large, bright yellow paper-lace backdrop changes the overall effect, making it even more celebratory. As in such hand-made shrines and altars in every culture, a certain similarity is preserved even as the specific details change in response to new circumstances and new ideas.

the 2011 Ofrenda a few days before Dia de los Muertos
This year, the Wesley community has been adding elements to the basic Ofrenda, making it their own. When I went to look at it this morning, I saw photographs of loved ones that I hadn't seen a few days ago as well as a few new objects. Bread, salt, water, and a bowl of coins serve as signs of hospitality to those who live in this world, as well as to those who live in the world to come. The flickering light of candles invites the passerby to stop in the midst of a busy day to reflect, to pray, perhaps to light another candle. This  kind of participatory art-making, where everyone is invited to add items as they please, anything is possible, and no one is really in charge, taps into a desire to be known in ways outside our ordinary means of communication. In its over-the-top exuberance, it reflects a deep longing for both celebration and remembrance that is at the heart of the Day of the Dead.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

In Disarray

My office, and thus my mind, is in disarray. I'd been unhappy with the arrangement of my office for some time, and today my new office furniture finally arrived. Of course, that meant taking everything out of every drawer and storage area, putting it all into boxes, and then sorting through it before taking it out of the boxes and putting into the new drawers and cupboards. It's a lot of work, and makes a big mess.

the view from the window - still in process
When I was a curator, I used to talk about designing a show as a kind of 3-dimensional collage in which the rule was that someone else got to choose what the elements look like. Reorganizing my office is not unlike curating a show, except that I don't have to please anyone but myself. As in making any artwork, what I need to do is to balance the colors, shapes, sizes, functions, and meanings of each individual element so that everything settles into a harmonious, balanced whole.

the view from the door

Now, the mess is pretty well gone, and I've re-hung most of the art. It's taken every spare corner of the day, and most of the spare corners of my mind. When something is out of balance, it's hard to ignore it and concentrate on anything else. At the moment, I'm still not convinced that I have it right. Like any other work-in-progress, I'll live with it for a while the way it is, and then decide.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Smiling at Mona

On the bulletin board over my desk, I have twelve reproductions of the Mona Lisa. They are pins, fastened four across by three down, to a rectangular piece of card stock that has been perforated so that it can separate easily, allowing them to be sold or given away one by one. Above each pin is the legend, "Fashion", and below lettering informs me that it is "imitation jewelry" -- in case I was in any doubt of their intrinsic value.

twelve Mona Lisa pins
These twelve smiling faces have been in front of me so long that I barely even notice them. Today, as I look at Mona, I see that the plastic in which the cheap, color prints are embedded is scratched. Some of the medallions are askew in their soft, metal backings. A few of the harmless, pointy prongs have bent backwards, giving them a slightly dangerous air.

These pins don't even show the whole painting, just a close-up of the woman's head and chest. The colors aren't quite right, either -- the greens of the landscape behind her are too green, the red of her bodice and lips too red. In fact, it's hard to know how many generations this image is removed from Leonardo's famous painting. Someone must have photographed the original at some point, but how many copies of copies were made before this garish imitation found its way to a factory in Hong Kong?

paintings, prints, and photographs in my office
Aside from the twelve identical Monas and some equally odd reproductions of Leonardo's equally famous Last Supper, my office walls are filled with a mixture of original prints and paintings, snapshots of my family, and postcards announcing exhibitions. These works feed my spirit, connect me with people I love, and help me to remember why art matters. In the midst of such richness, I ask myself why I keep these talismans of a painting that I don't even like all that much.

I did see the real thing, once. It was protected by bulletproof glass and velvet ropes that cordoned off the crowd of people pressing as close to it as they could. The crowd was oblivious to the other not-as-famous paintings in that large room at the Louvre. Meanwhile, I gaped in astonishment at familiar sights from my art-school days, now vividly real on the walls around me.

What I learned that day, or maybe re-learned, was that looking at a reproduction is no substitute for seeing the real thing. Paintings that I never before had understood or cared about when seen as slides or photographs in books suddenly came to life. In one painting after another, I saw the painter's hand, the sheer size of the canvas implying the physical movement of the artist. I saw how changes in thickness of paint, or changes in the angle of vision, changed how the image appeared. I saw details that had always escaped me as my eyes slid over the homogenized surfaces of prints and posters. In that company, the relatively small, over-publicized, much-admired Mona Lisa couldn't really command my attention.

The twelve, small reproductions on my bulletin board, however, manage to do just that. As the imitation jewelry twists and turns on its flimsy, cardboard support, the cheap, cheesy copies ask me to think about the value of art, the value of history, the value of fame. It often seems that Mona is smiling at me at as I work, sometimes with a smirk, sometimes with compassion, and at other times with simple amusement. I look up from the words shimmering on my computer screen, stretch my back and rub my eyes, and just smile back.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Art as Gift

I find myself bemused by people who want to assert that art is a gift, rather than an achievement. Often, these are the same people who work hard at their chosen profession, keeping up on the latest developments, honing their skills, looking for ways to be more efficient, productive, and successful. Or, if they play a sport, they know that regular practice will allow them to run faster, hit the ball with more accuracy, or stay in the game longer, no matter how much natural talent they may have been blessed with.

Somehow, though, when it comes to art, the benefits of education and practice are often unappreciated. We say that a person is gifted, talented, a genius. To paint a picture, to compose a tune, to choreograph a dance—these things seem marvelous, magical, the result not of work as it ordinarily understood but rather the product of a divine gift.

I do not, of course, deny that some people do seem to have more innate talent than others. However, it is important to recall that even those who are more gifted than most still must work hard to develop that raw talent into something that others will recognize as great. I am indebted to my friend, John Morris, for pointing me to the following story by Alan Jay Lerner, in his memoir, The Street Where I Live. Noting that every great star he had ever worked with never rested on talent alone, but worked harder, cared more, and had a greater sense of perfection than anyone else, he wrote,
I remember when I was doing a film with Fred Astaire, it was nothing for him to work three or four days on two bars of music. One evening in the dark grey hours of dusk, I was walking across the deserted MGM lot when a small, weary figure with a towel around his neck suddenly appeared out of one of the giant cube sound stages. It was Fred. He came over to me, threw a heavy arm around my shoulder and said, “Oh Alan, why doesn’t someone tell me I cannot dance?” The tormented illogic of this question made any answer sound insipid, and all I could do was walk with him in silence. Why doesn’t someone tell Fred Astaire he cannot dance? Because no one would ever ask that question but Fred Astaire. Which is why he is Fred Astaire.
Such a story might be told of any talented, disciplined artist who strives continually to move towards a vision of perfection.  The gift of talent is only a beginning, perhaps a necessary—but never a sufficient—condition of artistic achievement.