Questions over Supper

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Giampetrino and/or Giovanni Boltraffio, The Last Supper (after Leonardo da Vinci), c. 1515-1520. Oil on canvas. ( © Photo: Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photograph by Prudence Cuming Associates Limited)

The news that you could now study a copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous and sadly deteriorated Last Supper set me thinking. This excellently preserved work, by Leonardo’s students Giampetrino (possibly Giovanni Pietro Rizzoli, active 1495-1549) and/or Giovanni Boltraffio (c. 1466-1516) allows us to see detail well beyond the misty ruin that is Leonardo’s original. Giovanni Boltraffio is one of the most successful of Leonardo’s pupils, and is often mentioned as the true creator of the Salvator Mundi that aroused so much comment a while back (I blogged about it a couple of times – though the jury remains out on its true attribution, and will be out until we can get another look at it.)

While the Boltraffio’s have done a fine job recreating the fresco on canvas, their use of color is too limited, their skill in depicting fabrics is below the Master’s standard. However, they had the blessed luck in seeing the work when it was relatively new, and it allows us to gain a little more insight – or, in my case, raise a few questions as to Leonardo’s composition.

I’m also posting this painting below, another copy, this time possibly made with Leonardo’s own input – it appears to have been made from the Leonardo’s original cartoon, and was likely overseen by Leonardo’s pupil Andrea Solari, with the assistance of others, perhaps even Leonardo himself.

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Andrea Solari (and others?), The Last Supper (after Leonardo da Vinci), c. 1520, collection Tongerlo Abbey, Belgium

I know my images are not all that great, but you can find the Boltraffio online now, in high resolution.

Let’s set the scene: from left to right, Bartholomew, James, son of Alphaeus, Andrew, Judas Iscariot, Peter, John, Jesus, Thomas, James the Greater, Philip, Matthew, Jude Thaddeus, and Simon the Zealot. Jesus has announced his impending betrayal, and the others are expression shock, dismay, doubt, and more.

Looking at these images, I kept stopping to wonder why Leonardo made certain choices. Yes, Judas (fourth from right, with his face in shadow) is clutching what might be a bag, perhaps containing his 30 pieces of silver – that is clear enough. He is also knocking over a salt cellar, something hard to see in the fresco, but evident in the copies. What I wonder about is Judas’s left hand, which is reaching out, across the table. I thought at first he was reaching toward the bread roll in front of St. John (sixth from left, just before Jesus), but the angle of his hand and arm are wrong. He seems to be reaching for Jesus’s glass of wine, which Jesus himself is doing also.

Jesus, it seems, is not reaching for the bread roll by his plate, but is gesturing toward St. James the Greater’s roll.

Bartholomew, on the left edge, is clutching something white in his right hand, a piece of fabric, perhaps. The tablecloth shows no sign of disturbance, and none of Bartholomew’s clothes are that color. Is he the only person at this table with a napkin?

It’s hard not to notice that not only is Judas’s face in shadow, but his skin is noticeably darker than anyone else’s. This is especially evident as he is placed close by John, whose pale skin and marked feminine features make him stand out. Were John sitting up straight, instead of examining Peter’s hand (why?) he would challenge Jesus for the viewer’s attention.

Thomas looks like an afterthought, popping his head around James the Greater to make sure he gets in the picture. Thomas makes an emphatic gesture with his right hand, the index finger straight up, but Leonardo chose to slip Thomas’s left hand into the shadows between James and Philip. There isn’t really any need to put that hand in; the whole composition is peppered with gesturing hands (silent movie acting long predates silent movies). Why then put in this passive, shadowy hand?

While I’m speaking of hands, let’s move down to the right, to the next-to-last figure, St. Jude Thaddeus. He raises his right hand in a gesture of surprise, responding as much to Jesus’s words as to the reaction by Simon the Zealot beside him. But look at Jude Thaddeus’s left hand. It lies on the table like something dead, his open fingers echoing similar poses by Simon and Matthew, but there is no energy there. Is Leonardo suggesting that Jude Thaddeus (scholars debate over whether Jude Thaddeus is one or two people) had a crippled hand? I don’t know of any legend that says this, but, then, I was raised Episcopalian, and the lives of the saints is more a Catholic discipline.

Jesus gestures toward bread and reaches for wine; appropriately enough, there are no flaws in his design. These copies allow us to see his feet, which were destroyed in the fresco when the monks cut a door through the wall in the 1600s.

Leonardo’s original is still there, despite centuries of weather and war, in the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan. As to my questions, only Leonardo could say for sure.

 

Ashes, ashes, (they) all fall down

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Sebastiano del Piombo, 1485-1547, Portrait of a Man (possibly Christopher Columbus), 1519

Symbols can outlast their belief systems, or perpetuate them. Despite their catastrophic losses, the Confederate battle flag and the swastika continue to represent their hateful ideologies, long after surrender and the deaths of the original participants. Neo-Nazis and neo-Confederates still walk among us. Though rehabilitating the swastika has proved impossible (has it even been tried?) the Stars and Bars has been adopted as part of the myth of the “noble South,” that somehow was not based in slavery, despite statements to the contrary. Here’s Alexander Stephens, Vice-President of the Confederacy, in a speech he gave in Savannah, Georgia, on March 21, 1861, weeks before the attack on Fort Sumter:

“[I]ts foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

History, it is often said, is written by the victors, a sentiment attributed to everyone from Winston Churchill to Herman Goering, but is older than either man. My own version, “History is written by the survivors” pointed to Confederate monuments on Union soil as evidence. Now those monuments are rightly under siege, and I might have to come up with a better aphorism. As Martin Luther King, Jr., said. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” (In fact, Dr. King did not write this, but only quoted it. Unitarian minister Theodore Parker is the likely author, as it appears in a collection of his sermons from 1853.)

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Hungarians survey a downed statue of Stalin, 1956

The toppling of statues has a long history. Today’s iteration is largely a welcome one, a far better precedent than, say, the Taliban destroying the Buddhas of Bamiyan, in Afghanistan, in March, 2001. History cannot be erased by being destroyed, neither can it be rewritten by images alone – the neo-Confederates are discovering that now.

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Holographic recreation of the Buddha of Bamiyan, Afghanistan, after the original was destroyed by the Taliban

For those decrying the destruction, I have a few questions. Monuments are, in large part, ordinary, unremarkable artworks. I noticed that many of the news stories covering yesterday’s toppling of a statue of Jefferson Davis in Richmond, Virginia (photo below), made no mention of who sculpted it. Perhaps just as well, as no artist would find their reputation boosted by being tagged with that routine bit of sculpture. Suggestions have been made that statues could be taken off their plinth and moved to museums. Question 1: have you ever seen a commemorative statue worth saving for artistic reasons, and do you know who made it?

I make no apologies for Christopher Columbus; even in his own time, he was jailed for his barbarous treatment of New World peoples, and he was considered a poor manager of those territories. Ordinary statues of him are easily disposable, and probably should be, to be replaced by more historically uplifting people. I would balk if someone suggested destroying Sebastiano del Piombo‘s painting (at top) showing a man who might be Columbus. It is one of Piombo’s best portraits (did he use a live model, though Columbus died 13 years before?) and has become iconic as the accepted likeness. Though the painting has an inscription identifying the man as Columbus, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, which owns the painting, notes in its commentary that “the writing is not entirely trustworthy.” Historians are nodding in agreement.

Toppling statues is cathartic, and why spend money removing one when angry protesters will do it for you? The empty parks and plinths lead to my next question: what or who would you put in place of that Confederate general or politician?

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Toppled statue of Jefferson Davis, Richmond, Virginia, June 10, 2020

A final note, on the title of this post. I drew it, of course, from the children’s rhyme, known in its oldest form as “Ring a ring o’ Roses,” which originated before the 19th century. 20th century interpretations tried to link it to the plague of 1665, citing the line “a-tishoo, a-tishoo, we all fall down” as children imitating falling ill and dying. The version “ashes, ashes, we all fall down” have been said to refer to cremation. These are theories only, and have no supporting evidence. I thought that in these days of Covid-19, when statues are toppled and sometimes burnt, a new version was called for. The plague of untruth spread by these Confederate monuments is being pulled down and purified by fire, and the myth of the noble South is burning (again) along with it.

My last question: when the falsehoods are torn down, where will you be – helping, or mourning the death of lies?

 

“How to be an Artist” by Jerry Saltz

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the dust jacket to the book

Let’s start by saying I read Pulitzer Prize-winner Jerry Saltz quite regularly, which does not mean I always, or even often, agree with him on art. However, knowing that he tried to be a visual artist before turning his skills to words made me eager to read his new book. That, and I could get a blog post out of it – so much for purely noble ambition on my part. What follows are my notes scribbled down as I read the book.

A note on usage: I’ve never met Jerry Saltz, but I call him Jerry here as that’s what feels right. Andy Warhol always seems to be Andy; Picasso is never Pablo to me. John Berger, who I quote further down, is always John Berger. I wear my quirks on my sleeve, next to my heart.

The book consists of 63 short observations on becoming an artist, both from personal and professional angles. A number of these are followed by exercises to spark or maintain creativity. To me these exercises feel like an afterthought, superfluous though potentially useful. I am looking forward to reading Sarah Urist Green’s You are an Artist, in which such exercises are the book’s raison d’être.

Some chapters drew very short reactions from me: chapters 24, 27, 39, 55, and 59 all have variations on “Hard yes” or “Amen.” These alone should make the book required reading for anyone wanting to make more of their art.

I read Chapter 25 aloud in its entirety: “Know what you hate…it’s probably you.”
My girlfriend Heather, a mental health counselor: “Um, no.”

Chapter 37, “Make Art for Now, Not the Future.”
I once met an artist who produced beautiful pencil drawings in the manner of Michelangelo, all musculature and contrapposto – but that’s all they were. Nudes without any present context, skill with subject matter but no content – Jerry clarifies the distinction in chapter 33. Reading this book reminded me of that artist’s drawings, and reminded me why I had not thought of them in many years.

But is making art for the present enough? It’s unavoidable; as the punk folk singer Dan Bern once sang in his song “God Said No“, “…now is all I have.” The past is memory told by the survivors, colored by their experience; the future is fiction, most of it unlikely to come true. Yet I cannot help but feel that there’s something more. Making art just for the present is no better than making it for the past. As often happens with me, a John Berger quote came to mind, from his book “Bento’s Sketchbook“: “We who draw do so not only to make something observed visible to others, but also to accompany something invisible to its incalculable destination.”
The pragmatist and the mystic must cohabit the same psyche, in my opinion.

From Chapter 43: “Nor have I ever met an artist who regretted being an artist, as difficult as the life can be.”
Neither have I. Art is something beyond compulsion or obsession, it is something at the core of being human.

Chapter 44 includes a terrible pun, which I loved.

Chapter 56 is entitled with a quote from Picasso: “Art is a lie that tells the truth.”
I would offer a D. H. Lawrence quote in response: “Never trust the artist. Trust the tale. The proper function of the critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it.” I’m not sure if he’s right about the last part – what do you think, Jerry? – but the first rings somewhat true. Any time someone, including myself, tries to lump all people in a single group my hackles go up. Truthful artists, lying art is just as easy to find as their opposites.

In case I haven’t been clear, I enjoyed the book, though I had learned many of its lessons years ago. It will be especially valuable to artists suffering one of the many crises, internal or external, that they will face in their career. Suffering is a part of life, say the Buddhists; you must suffer for your art, says folk wisdom. Well, some suffering is unavoidable, but you don’t have to look for it. It will find you. Books like this will help you meet it head-on.

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One question: why, Jerry, why did you pick (or approve someone else’s choice) of an instantly recognizable color scheme for the cover (not the dust jacket) of your book? Yes, the image above is a hint. Your love, if not addiction, to coffee is well known, as is your impish humor. But this – why?

Letter to Gene Deitch

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Cover art for The Record Changer magazine by Gene Deitch

Dear Gene,

This is not the letter I had planned to write.

I bought your book, The Cat on a Hot Thin Groove, to lighten the stresses of this pandemic-riddled world. It arrived and I dove in. (P.S. I like it a lot.) Halfway through I decided to take a break and check social media. There I saw the announcement of your death. The letter I meant to write you changed.

The Cat is a document from another time, when jazz was king, and the hardcore fan a butt of loving jokes. You tossed in commentary on racial and political issues, and slipped references to modern art into your drawing – look at the figure at far right, second row from the top, in the image above. There’s Picasso in that figure. Do I also see hints of your cartoonist contemporaries, like Virgil Partch? I think so.

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Like so many, I was introduced to your work via Captain Kangaroo, where you crowned your brief tenure as head of Terrytoons by producing Tom Terrific. This innocent, enthusiastic superhero, and his perfect counterpart, Mighty Manfred the Wonder Dog, was a catalyst for the young imagination. Look at the two of them above, and feel the energy and personality in their poses! I enjoyed, many years later, reading your short-lived comic strip Terr’ble Thompson, which served as a first try. The book of Terr’ble’s adventures sits next to The Cat on my shelves.

You see why I can no longer write the letter I had intended to? I’m telling you things you already know, mindful that this letter will be read by a different, still-living, audience. Your Oscars, your years of supervising animated adaptations of children’s books, your audiophile (were you really the first person to record John Lee Hooker?), all these are things you know about. Whoever is reading this now, though, might not.

Speaking of your book adaptations, I remember you writing to me after the death of Maurice Sendak, whose Where The Wild Things Are you directed so faithfully. I had unwittingly been the first person to tell you of Maurice’s death (I never knew Maurice, but the living and the dead are on a first-name basis) and you followed up by writing about your friendship. You said that in later years Maurice suffered from depression, but you didn’t use that word – “melancholia” was what you wrote. I decided that my own depression sounded much more manageable, more capital-R Romantic, when called melancholia. I adopted the term.

By the way, I am doing very well. My melancholia has ebbed and rarely rears its ugly head these days.

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You said you based Nudnik, the hapless (to put it mildly) hero of a cartoon series in the 1960s, on yourself, but that is hard to fathom. Nudnik cannot do anything right, while you had a string of successes, and seemed to bounce back from every failure. Just look at the first Nudnik short (an Oscar nominee for 1965) and tell me he’s you!

Since I am no longer solely writing to you, I’ll throw in a few more references. You wrote extensively about your career, your move to Prague in 1959, your happy life with your Czech wife, Zdenka, through all the years of the Soviet occupation os Czechoslovaki and beyond. My favorite is genedeitchcredits, which contains writings and video from throughout your career. You ultra-low-budget, fascinating yet slightly horrifying, version of The Hobbit, is explained here – andthe film itself now has a larger audience than it ever had or was meant to have!

Who would have thought?

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Gene Deitch by Gene Deitch

This was supposed to be a fan letter, my observations on The Cat and well-wishes to you and Zdenka during the pandemic. Now it’s an obituary. When you first wrote me, thanking me for comments I had made about your Facebook posts, a wish was born with me that I might someday get to meet you. After all, you were not quite yet 90 then. Now, at 95, you are gone and that chance has passed for the rest of this life. But you have left so much behind that I cannot begrudge time for taking you from us. 95 years is a good run.

Thank you, Gene.

Sincerely,
Stephen

Required non-reading

Although I am not self-isolating, through a combination of a meager social life and an “essential” day job, my life has not been affected by the coronavirus in any profound way. I am very grateful for this, though being at risk in my job is a constant source of worry. Like many, many others, I have tried to find a topic that is pandemic-relevant without being repetitive. I failed.

What I have done is to provide my own little insight on a common resource: books. Yes, they’re fun to read, but did you know they are also art supplies? Here are a few artists who have used books in their work, without cutting them up – for that I would suggest you start with this post by Avi Abrams on Dark Roasted Blend, and then search for yourself.

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My inspiration was artist Nina Katchadourian’s Sorted Books project, which was introduced to me in this video from The Art Assignment – the image above is the cover of her book about the project. Stacking books with the idea of making an evocative set of titles – a poem, perhaps – can be done anywhere there are books. Her photographs of books are themselves good art, and preserve the juxtaposition long after the books have gone back on the shelf.

In my last post (almost a month ago – yikes) I mentioned the work of Mary Ellen Bartley, who has photographed books from a different angle, using the colored edges as building blocks towards near-abstraction. Her work stood out in my Albuquerque trip, and I’m still thinking about it. Here’s another example:

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Summer Reading #4, 2019

Speaking of yikes, it was about 10 years ago that I donated some paperback books to the Wadsworth Atheneum, my former employer, to be used by artist Justin Lowe in his MATRIX installation, Werewolf Karaoke. The books were not photographed or read. Rather, they were the floor in one part of the installation: books set spine-down, packed together until they formed wall-to-wall paper carpeting. Full disclosure: I’m listed in the Thanks section at the end of the brochure, along with other donors. Walking on them was a peculiar experience: being paperbacks, you would expect them to bend and collapse, but they were so securely packed that the surface was firm. In a way, they were no longer books: no part of them could be read, and the colors suggested patterns without any explanation. Here’s an installation view, photographed by Atheneum photographer Allen Phillips; the distorting mirrors and the window make this view especially surreal:

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Let’s face it: I’m a bibliophile. I prefer physical books, which can be hefted in the hand, arranged on shelves for logical or illogical reasons, and even doodled in – though I’d never do that. Perhaps not every book is worth saving to read, sacrilegious though that sounds. Folded book sculpture is not so rare; a simple online search will not only show you examples, but how to do it yourself. Whether you are respectful toward books or otherwise, being cooped up at home is a good way to

I’ll leave you with one more image: a book sculpture by Canadian artist Guy Laramee:

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Stay safe, stay well. Read books.

 

Albuquerque wrap-up

There were a few art venues I visited during my Albuquerque/Santa Fe trip that I didn’t cover in my previous post, so here are a few brief notes.

Albuquerque’s Arts District runs along Central Avenue and, while not quite what I hoped for, still has a few places to see art. Here are the two most prominent:

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516 Arts is a non-collecting museum, so it is able to show exhibitions which do not lend themselves easily to commerce. Tania Candiani: Cromática is a show about traditional Mexican methods of preparing and weaving fabric Richly colored skeins of yarn are supplemented with the methods of making dye and preparing the loom. Though this is heavily sociological and anthropological, all is not serious scientific study. Candiani had an antique loom altered into a musical instrument, and had a selection of large ocarinas made and colored various shades of yellow. She links these interconnections to synthesia, hearing colors and seeing sounds; it gives an extra depth and an almost playful undertone to a show that is otherwise about hard work.

There is a video of a performance from the Contemporary Art Museum in Oaxaca, Mexico, where the show originated, wherein two lines of women kneel and grind pigments with traditional tools. It’s somewhat hypnotic to watch them work and then, one by one, rise and leave the scene. Does it have more meaning beyond the grinding of ingredients? I don’t know.

Having gone from 516 Arts to Meow Wolf (with a few days in-between) I been reminded that I like both art that is based in science and history, and art that is pure entertainment.

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Installation view. Photo from 516 Arts Facebook page.

From there it was a quick step next door to the Richard Levy Gallery, which was showing a photography group show entitled 2020 Vision. The works were good, but the show’s loose curatorial construction gave little guidance. It’s just a collection of photographers. However, aesthetically there was plenty to check out, from Jason DeMarte’s photocollaged plants to Jocelyn Lee’s Edward Hopper-esque portrait of a woman seated on a bed (the gallery compared Lee’s work to 17th-Century Dutch painting, which I contest; Hopper is the closer equivalent)

Rnd 2 but Original HA!

Tricia Capello, Blue Palm, 2018

Tricia Capello’s Blue Palm (above) grabbed my eye at once. The vital slash of the pain trunk across the dark, slightly forbidding backdrop, appealed to me, as well as the way the image walks in the grey area between realism and abstraction.

Mary Ellen Bartley‘s Reading In Color series had several works included (below), which were witty, deceptively simple, and, again, toyed with abstraction. I guess I wear my heart on my sleeve, and anything that hints at the transformation of ordinary objects into the basic blocks of shape and color appeals to me.

In toto I found the Arts District of Albuquerque a disappointment; it was more restaurants than arts, but a vibrant neighborhood regardless. I will visit again, see the small gallery spaces with eccentric hours I missed before. But not until this virus has passed.

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Mary Ellen Bartley, Summer Reading #12, from the Reading In Color series, 2019

A digression

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Poster by Milton Glaser, 2016

I’m interrupting my posts about the Albuquerque/Santa Fe art scene to let a pet peeve off the leash.

The term “politics” is bandied about a lot, used and misused especially in election years. Nine out of ten people who use it don’t understand what it means, and sometimes the tenth person has gone out with friends and isn’t there to correct the rest. Now is the time to understand what it means, and what misuse of it means.

The word comes out of the Greek word politikos, which means “of, or relating to, citizens.” In other words, what relates to people is political. My own definition goes as follows: politics is the energy of a society in action. What happens to people, what happens to us, is political. The air we breathe is political, as it connects to environmental policy, pollution chemical or noise; the clothes we wear connect to labor laws, international trade, the growing of crops to make fabric.

In short, everything is politics, because everything we do is interconnected. You think you are so isolated that politics doesn’t reach you? Your isolation is mental, not political. And that isolation itself, put into practice, is a form of politics.

One of the great victories of the powerful, and I’ll include liberals and conservatives alike, is in demonizing politics. “Keep politics out of this,” people say in response to events that are, at heart, deeply if not totally political. It’s a simple, and astonishingly effective, tactic. If fifty people vote as a community, the power is shared among those people; if you can convince ten or even twenty to forgo voting due to a distaste for politics, that power becomes vested in the remaining voters. The closet dictator in all of us (c’mon, start humming Everybody Wants To Rule The World) knows that the less opposition there is, the more powerful those in charge are. Disenfranchisement is one obvious method, but can be challenged in the court. So, make politics something no one would want to take part in. “Look at the politicians, they’re all crooks, power corrupts, why would you want to be a part of that?”

I for one do not want someone else holding my share of political power. So I will vote, and stand against powers that try to tell me not to get involved. Aristotle said that Man is a political animal, and though his meaning is not quite the same as mine it holds up in both interpretations.

I know, I know, this is an art blog. If you go back and read my earlier posts, from the Warren Kanders controversy at the Whitney to the Obama portraits (I’m not going to link to the specific posts – go back and read them all!) to Shakespeare, politics is there, subtly or explicitly. As Buddha said “Do not simply believe what you are told…”

Oh, and vote, in case I didn’t make that clear, or someone else will be voting with political power that should belong to you.

Meow Wolf Santa Fe

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The author, posing awkwardly as usual, before Meow Wolf’s facade. Photo by Heather Hyland

I went to Meow Wolf in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and lived to tell the tale. Hearken, you artlings, “creatives” (awful term, IMO), and anyone not covered by those categories.

Perhaps you know the story: a collective of artists who felt they were outsiders in the market-driven art world joined together and began holding group shows. Their desire for a permanent space was answered when, like a large, hairy angel, George R. R. Martin learned about them and helped them buy a bowling alley to make over into an immersive environment that would showcase their work. The space was carved up into a myriad of areas (let’s call them galleries), more than you would think possible in a building that size, and different artists worked their magicks in different spaces.

The concept has proved a great success, and new Meow Wolf spaces are scheduled to open in Las Vegas (in 2020), Denver (in 2021) and Washington D.C. and Phoenix yet to come. Their commitment to working with local artists and giving back to the community is admirable.

What to call the result? A funhouse made by artists? An escape room you might not want to escape from? A Disney attraction with street cred? Of course I had to find out.

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Not a Louise Bourgeois. Photo by Heather Hyland

Although there is no uniformity among the artists involved, there is one unfortunate thing they all share: a lack of credit. You can learn about some of the artists on Meow Wolf’s website, but don’t expect labels or anything redolent of a traditional museum. I hate to keep bringing up Disney, but a great many talented artists worked on their animated classics, not all of whom got credit. If you research hard enough, you can sometimes find out who animated a particular scene or designed a certain character, but for obvious reasons they can’t sign their work.

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The House of Eternal Return. Photo by Lindsey Kennedy from Meow Wolf’s website.

Meow Wolf Santa Fe is entitled The House of Eternal Return, and you can follow the storyline contained in these galleries, or just absorb it as a sensory experience. I did the latter, being more interested in what it looked like rather than as a support for a rather X-Files meets…well, I’d have to have paid more attention to the story to finish that phrase. Once you are past the ticket counter, the shop and cafe, you come to the house itself (above).

In some ways the house is the masterpiece of Meow Wolf, in that it feels very much like a real house, in sharp contrast to everything that comes after. I looked to see if there was a pair of Wicked Witch’s feet sticking out from beneath it, but in the interest of not spoiling the story, I won’t tell you if I found anything.

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The story manifests itself.

There are numerous ways you can leave the house and enter the spaces beyond, some of which feature so regularly in discussions of Meow Wolf (the refrigerator, the dryer) I don’t feel I’m spoiling by mentioning them. Besides, Meow Wolf is a huge success, and that means crowds. Secret entrances aren’t secret if there’s a line of people taking photos and waiting to go through. There was one secret entrance I did not find until much later, and was pleasantly surprised that such a public area held a bit of mystery.

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I have a feeling we’re not in New Mexico anymore, Toto…

When they offer you 3D glasses, take them. There is extensive, but not constant, use of 3D effects, which is trippy and occasionally disconcerting. In the psychedelic forest above (there’s a secret about that I won’t reveal here) the carpeting seemed to shift as I watched the blue and pink dots, leaving me momentarily uncertain just where the floor was. This was one of my favorite areas, simple though it is. It has no pretensions.

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The tremor in my right hand sabotaged this shot of a small niche, which I thought had a Quay Brother-like feel to it, but I’m including it anyway.

The spaces vary wildly, as you can see below, where black and white gives way to riotous color, or a homey kitchen leads to a science fiction-like corridor in light silver (two photos down). The science fiction area is my least favorite, seemingly not thought through and too dependent on the story to stand by itself.

This brings me to a criticism. Meow Wolf celebrates the interactive nature of its spaces, where you not only walk through them, you open doors, pull handles – there’s even an arcade with vintage games to play – another space I felt was not so well done. But I felt the need for more interactivity. Some videos show you people involved in the story, even in oblique ways, but there is never any physical presence – no actors or cosplayers, and I missed that. Perhaps that would be too Disney. There is a phone with a video screen, with which you can communicate with someone else in another part of the exhibit, but it’s just another tourist on the far end, if there’s anyone at all. Could someone march through in costume, ignoring the paying public, in order to (another term I hate) “activate the space”?

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The striped walls paired with a grid of blocks with various designs made me imagine Sol LeWitt designing an elementary school. Unknown tourists at right.

I can understand one reason Meow Wolf might not want to further clutter up the galleries with actors: overcrowding. Though it doesn’t reach Louvre-like degrees of cheek-by-jowl claustrophobia, some of the spaces are quite small, and you are often bound to the way the traffic is moving. Throwing actors into it might just create traffic jams. They stage concerts in the galleries, with a stage specially for the purpose, and I can only imagine what that must be like. I wonder about the acoustics, too.

While I enjoyed my time there, it was a lot, bordering on sensory overload. There is some audio from occasional videos, music from a piano and a percussion instrument of sorts that I won’t describe, and always the sound of tourists commenting, exclaiming, sometimes even explicating. I began to long for a quiet room full of academic paintings that people barely paused in on their way to the van Goghs or Warhols.

Also I began to wonder what established artists would fit in with the Meow Wolf concept. A few names popped up at once:

Yayoi Kusama, whose Infinity Room I wrote about when I visited the Phoenix Art Museum. Her shortcomings in terms of intellectual content and her colorful, fun aesthetic would fit right in.
Pipilotti Rist, whose videos and installations are haunting, colorful, and baffling.
The Surrealists – as a group I think they could do an immersive environment better than anyone, and gleefully abandon narrative whenever it suited them.
Leonard Knight, whose Salvation Mountain is not quite interactive, but is an environment with its own message, and the DIY approach acclaimed by Meow Wolf is obvious.

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Having just seen the Jim Henson show at the Albuquerque Museum (see previous post) this fellow gave me flashbacks. He blinks, but seems to do nothing else.

Meow Wolf might be called a populist kunsthalle, a space with a permanent collection that cannot be loaned (I assume) but is not a museum, as it has no educational mandate of any kind. It is not dependent on big names drawing in crowds. I kept hearing John Lennon singing in my ear “Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream…”

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In a display of crudely altered cereal boxes, I was especially amused by Tantrum. The impasto on the “milk” is a nice touch.

There are many other artists I could name who would float downstream nicely with the artists of Meow Wolf. What separates Meow Wolf from these, aside from Leonard Knight, is that the others have the backing and resources of major museums and galleries. They do not make street art. What they have created is an artistic version of Off-Off-Broadway, where odd plays are presented outside, with greater freedom and lower cost. More about that in a moment.

Their intent to shake up the art world is still up for grabs; my little list of artists serves only to point out that immersive environments are not a new thing. Meow Wolf’s business model, a permanent space for under-represented artists making largely unpolished work, is new. Is it sustainable? Financially, the answer seems to be yes. But there are perils ahead for Meow Wolf: these artists joined together to present their work the way they wanted it, not breaking out (as they were not “in”) but being honest to their own visions. What happens, then, if one of them does break out, and gain acclaim outside of Meow Wolf? Do they move on, or will there be a juggling act between the star and their former equals, now just supporting players?

Other perils are already here. Two lawsuits, alleging gender discrimination and pay inequities, have been settled between Meow Wolf and artists involved in the Santa Fe and Denver locations, though neither side will discuss the suits or their resolutions. There have been reports that Meow Wolf has employees sign nondisclosure agreements. That is very bad; unless you are a “vague but menacing goverment agency” (a phrase I stole from the Welcome to Night Vale podcast), NDAs are a bad idea. The major result of the suits was the resignation of CEO and co-founder Vince Kadlubek, and the hiring of outside executives to fill top positions: Chief Creative Officer Ali Rubinstein, Chief Financial Officer Carl Christensen, and Chief of Content Jim Ward. Rubinstein worked at Walt Disney Imagineering, Ward at LucasArts and Lucasfilm, so they could bring a more professional approach to administration; Christensen has worked at Goldman Sachs and elsewhere.

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Indoor trees, with a peek at the arcade in the back. Photo by Lindsey Kennedy from Meow Wolf’s website.

My Off-Off-Broadway comparison is flawed, I know. Meow Wolf’s ticket price ($30 per adult in Santa Fe; Las Vegas is expected to cost $35) is more than major art museums cost. I skipped buying a tee shirt at the shop ($25) though that’s not more than museum shops charge. If you price people out, the term populist, which I used earlier, is questionable.

I liked Meow Wolf. I went in without expectations or requirements, allowing it to tell its story in its own way. I will probably go again, and visit at least some of the other locations as they open. Success in art is best judged by throwing finance out the window, so let’s forget about Meow Wolf’s profits or its grand expansion plans. If people come out of Meow Wolf inspired, whether to make art themselves or just see more art, that is the most honest kind of success. The challenge for Meow Wolf is to grow without becoming rigid (god save us from an official Meow Wolf style) and continue to seek out and encourage artists who are underserved by the gallery/museum system.

 

The Albuquerque Museum

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I spent part of this morning continuing my exploration of Albuquerque, New Mexico’s art scene – in Merlin-fashion, I will be blogging backward, writing later about things I did earlier.

As regular readers know, I grew up on the East Coast, surrounded by museums of huge size and significance, institutions which had expanded multiple times, at times becoming unwieldy in the process. Coming to the Southwest I have had one regular experience: museums aren’t big enough. The Albuquerque Museum is one such example. Architecturally, it seems a bit at a loss, its main entrance neither grandly obvious nor too hidden. It’s just there, and the sculpture garden at the entrance is distinctly underwhelming.

Inside the limited size makes navigation easy. A few galleries are devoted to the history of the area, and they’re fine, but I came for the art – the special exhibitions in particular. But first, Common Ground: Art in New Mexico, selections from the museums permanent collection.

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Raymond Jonson, Casein Tempera No. 1, 1939

This survey covers a lot of ground, from formal portraits, post-Impressionism, big names like Elaine de Kooning, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Peter Hurd. It does not forget modernity, presenting a poem by Carlos Contreras is written on the gallery wall – you can decide yourself if it’s graffiti or calligraphy (graffiti is usually done without permission, so you know where my vote goes.)

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Installation view, Veterano Sanctuary by Carlos Contreras, 2016

I’ll also throw in a gorgeous Larry Bell, because I want to, and because I like the way my photo came out.

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Larry Bell, Corner Lamp, 1987

Now on to the special exhibitions. I have long been a Muppet fan (Sesame Street debuted before I turned 5) and The Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited appealed to me from the start. It covers many aspects of Jim’s creativity: cartoons he drew as a teenager, scripts, behind-the-scenes video, and Muppets right there in the galleries. I knew a great deal about the material already, so I can’t report any revelations, but it brought me a lot of joy.

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My clutch of museum handouts after seeing the Jim Henson show

My favorite part was the interactive niche, wherein you could put a Muppet on your hand (the other hand works a rod connected to one of the puppet’s arms) and try to lip-synch along to a video clip, while a camera films you and then plays back your puppeteering. This is how Jim Henson’s earliest shows were done, all the sound pre-recorded. Luckily, I knew one of the clips available (the first part of this video) and I did a credible but amateur job. The display is intended for all ages, so the monitor and camera are positioned low: imagine me (6-feet-2) kneeling, my head bent down to watch the monitor, leaning just slightly to the left to keep out of the shot, holding the puppet up and manipulating it along with Kermit. I haven’t had so much fun in ages.

But I do have an objection: the museum store’s collection of Muppet merch was woeful. After holding a Muppet in my hands I would have doled out real money (not the kind I usually pay with [joke]) to own a puppet of my own. No dice.

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Rick Griffin, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Sons of Champlin, Taj Mahal and the Blue Flames, Avalon Ballroom, October 27-29, 1967

Dreams Unreal: The Genesis of the Psychedelic Rock Poster is pretty self-explanatory. Interspersed with gorgeous examples of the art, including two artists who have died this year (Wes Wilson, who died in January, and Bonnie MacLean, who died in February) and a smattering of works to lend art-historical context, such as a Toulouse-Lautrec poster of Jane Avril (an obvious choice) and an Andy Warhol Mao painting (less obvious). A small number of LP covers were presented, mostly from the mid-60s. I missed Rick Griffin’s work for Quicksilver Messenger Service’s first album, which not only showcases his extraordinary calligraphy, but is just plain cool. So I’ll include it below. Still, there were plenty of Griffins there.

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There is an accompanying book (which I have not yet read) that should provide even more context. When I was there I passed a group of middle-aged women who were obviously in reminiscent mode: I could hear one say “…and I’d heard she had done acid…” If it is not a deep dive into design and psychedelia, the show is a feast for the eyes.

Yet, again, inadequate merch. Gotta get those bucks from the visitors!

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I will close with this shirt once worn by Jimi Hendrix. It is not known who made it. I rather wish I could have tried it on myself. Maybe in another life, a more psychedelic one.

The Albuquerque Museum has a lot going for it and, if it can grow responsibly and gradually, should enjoy a long prosperous life. It should grow some shows of its own, and increase its permanent collection. Meanwhile, I’ll keep an eye on what it shows in the future.