Advice for The Lucas

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Image showing how Ma Yansong’s design for The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art will look in Exhibition Park, Los Angeles.

The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, which now has a site in Los Angeles after a long search, will house George Lucas’s art collection and more. Here are my unsolicited bits of advice for Don Bacigalupi, founding President, Judy Kim, Deputy Director, and anyone else who will listen. The Lucas (let’s deal with that whole “narrative art” thing in a moment – doubtless it will be known far and wide by the simpler name) has the cards stacked against it in some ways, and I’d rather offer help than join the naysayers.

Okay, now to “narrative art.” As Mr. Bacigalupi writes “Narrative art is visual art that tells a story. It manifests itself in every kind of medium, in every culture, in every form that you can imagine.” In short, this museum is about everything but abstraction, and even that could be slipped in with a bit of clever sleight-of-hand. It’s a broad category encompassed in a clunky term. “Representational art” might have come closer – Lucas’s collection includes things like costume designs for movies, which only tell stories tangentially. Still, the name seems set, so let’s move on to more important things.

Perhaps the most important part of the museum’s mission is its intention to continue collecting art. Say what you will about George Lucas, he is no curator, and his collection has been built around personal taste rather than the intent to tell a story – sorry, a narrative. The samples from the collection featured on the website immediately reveal the Lucas collection’s limitations:

It consists overwhelmingly of European and American art from the 1800s on. Vast swatches of history are missing, going back to when narrative art was pretty much all there was.

The collection is also predominantly male and white. Try to convey 2oth century art without the likes of Jacob Lawrence, for example, or Betye Saar. A lot of work is needed to round out the collection.

The art is overwhelmingly secular, whereas art history is dominated for centuries at a time by religious imagery.

Lucas’s collection of photographs is more documentary than narrative – that is, the stories already exist, as opposed to photographers like Cindy Sherman or Gregory Crewdson, who use photos to make up their own stories. It’s odd that a museum that will feature movies, children’s book illustrations, and comics has nothing make-believe in photography.

And while we’re here, how about Surrealism? Narrative doesn’t end with the limits of reality; your children’s book illustrations show that. Show some of the notable women surrealists, such as Leonora Carrington or Remedios Varo. I could go on.

Regarding movies: a certain amount of Star Wars is inevitable, but keep it to a minimum. Without giving too much offense, they are not the immortal artworks George might imagine them to be. Again, a lot more needs to be done outside of Hollywood. Start with the Quay Brothers and go from there. Alexandro Jodorowsky, Jiri Barta, perhaps Germaine Dulac.

And let’s discuss integration – not in the racial sense, but in the sense of breaking the boundaries between mediums. Photography, illustration, and “fine art” fed off each other continuously, and still do. When movies came along, they were added to the mix. Too many times museums hang their collections by medium, and downplay the ongoing synergies. Hang drawings, photos, paintings, together by theme. Make it clear that art doesn’t content itself with boundaries.

Los Angeles is a hard market for a new museum. It has a plethora to choose from, and the Lucas will have to present top-flight exhibitions as well as its permanent collection. The museum has deep pockets, but people will only come if there’s something worth looking at. I’d suggest they look to the Norman Rockwell Museum, which presents a rich schedule of special exhibits as well as its permanent collection, and thrives a long way from any metropolitan center.

One little quibble: museums ought to strive for accuracy. As a lifelong Oz fan, I can’t help but notice that one of the John R. Neill drawings in the collection (this one) is listed as being from “The Patchwork God of Oz.” Not quite. Try “Patchwork Girl” instead.

To everyone at the Lucas, good luck! Here’s hoping you won’t need it.

Art Strike

 

 

 

 

 

 

Above: the wild and herbaceous art strike in its natural habitat.

The recent call for an Art Strike on January 20, the day of the Presidential Inauguration, leaves me conflicted. I am all for refusing to normalize the Trump administration: the incoming government seems to me to embody far too many of humanity’s worst instincts. As I have written elsewhere, symbolic acts are useful in their limited contexts. But this call, it seems to me, is misguided.

The art world has engaged in symbolic actions before. A Day Without Art, an annual event commemorating the AIDS epidemic, continues in museums and galleries to this day. But I would argue that art that refers to AIDS – I might start with Felix Gonzalez-Torres and David Wojnarowicz and go on from there – is more powerful and long-lasting than any symbolic closure. Institutions are limited by their role as interpreters rather than creators, and the repercussions from wealthy, politically-connected supporters*

, so the strike makes sense to me in that context. But, if the strike is, as the announcement states, “…an occasion for public accountability, an opportunity to affirm and enact the values that our cultural institutions claim to embody” I do not see how closure of entire facilities achieves that effect.

There is little reason to assume that the incoming Trump Administration would care about the shuttering of art schools and museums for a day. I am not hopeful that there will be continued support for the arts from the federal government, even at current levels. The Strike announcement acknowledges that “Those who work at the institutions are divided in multiple and unequal ways, and any action taken must prioritize the voices, needs and concerns of those with the most to lose.” How then does this strike achieve anything toward those ends? It is understandable why most of the signees of this declaration are artists and critics, not museum workers.

It’s a little over a week as of this writing, but institutions have had months to think about the issues involved, and prepare (albeit hastily) displays and programs addressing social and sociopolitical issues. The Whitney Museum is planning a pay-what-you-wish day, with appropriate programming – a far better course of action that closure. The arts have been long seen as bastions of tolerance, and while that reputation is not wholly deserved, there’s nothing to keep aiming for that goal. The strike organizer’s slogan, “Hit The Streets. Bring Your Friends. Fight Back,” while catchy, suggests that this strike will somehow affect the forces of misogyny, fascism, etc., as embodied by the Trump administration. I think those affected will be art lovers who look for safe spaces and inspiration. “Hit Your Friends,” doesn’t work as a slogan or a plan for dissent.

I plan to skip the inaugural and spend the day writing and painting. Making art is a form of rebellion, especially when the powers-that-be imply that art does not matter except in financial terms. To those of you who work in the arts I say: get on stage, open the gallery, start that diptych you’ve been waiting to do. Write that poem, that novel. Make good art#. (The alarmist in me whispers “…while you still can.”)

UPDATE: LA MoCA will be offering free admission on Inauguration Day.

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*An important exception could be made for institutions that are primarily controlled by one person – how about it, Eli Broad? Got any plans for the museum that bears your name?

#Thank you, Neil Gaiman, for that phrase.

Lovecraftian Comics

I’m a longtime fan of H.P. Lovecraft, and the chance to see some of his works adapted as comics was intriguing. Most horror fiction leaves me unmoved, but Lovecraft’s byzantine prose and trendsetting stories straddle horror and science fiction and bridge the 19th and 20th centuries in terms of style, moving from the verbose, Dunsanian style to one closer to popular fiction of the 1920s-30s. There is nothing quite like him, despite myriads of imitators. I thought this week I’d look at a couple of Lovecraft adaptations, and throw in (or throw out) an original in a Lovecraftian vein.

First, two Lovecraft stories adapted by artists:

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At The Mountains Of Madness, adapted by I.N.J. Culbard, Sterling Publishing, NY, 2010, 124 pages.

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Culbard stylizes facial features with only a little loss of expression. His use of color is wise; muted, cold colors, greyed and evocative of the frozen landscapes the characters traverse. Red barely appears, and emphasizes how Culbard has underplayed the story’s bloodshed – a PG ATMoM, proving to Guillermo del Toro (who has tried to adapt the story for the movies, but insists it must be R-rated) that it is possible. Culbard has adapted the story well, presenting the horrors encountered in the frozen north while skirting the final revelation, as Lovecraft himself did.

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Pickman’s Model adapted by Kim Holm, self-published. unpaginated, 2012.

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Holm’s stark black and white work – some of it scratchboard, I think – adds to the sense of terror and unease. His more comic-esque style simplifies facial features in much the same fashion as Culbard, which takes a moment getting used to when places opposite the harsh shadows of his more expressionistic drawings. Expressionism works well with Lovecraft, and Holm’s decision to leave the book uncolored works to its advantage. The short story form allows Holm to cover every facet of the plot at his own pace; where he wisely turns his eyes away is from making explicit what Lovecraft – a master of suggesting without spelling out – only hints at. That’s an essential when adapting HPL, one that movies in particular are bad at: not being too literal.

Now a well-known, and controversial, original:

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Neonomicon, by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows, 2010-2011 color by Juanmar, 176 pages. Avatar Press

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Alan Moore is one of the foremost comic book writers of the present day, but his work is maddeningly uneven and prone to pastiche and misogyny. It’s hardly a surprise that I disliked Neonomicon, Moore’s 4-part take on Lovecraftian themes. While Lovecraft eschewed the explicit, Moore brings it front and center, never to the story’s benefit. For those of you benighted enough to find rape sexy, most of one issue – a quarter of the whole story! – is devoted to what one character suffers at the hands of a Lovecraftian monster. The famously puritanical Lovecraft would have been appalled; all I can say is that It would have been easy to make it much worse. Burrows is given limited opportunity to create mood, and makes only adequate use of the opportunities. For a story that relies so much on sex, Burrows doesn’t render the human physique particularly well. Juanmar’s coloring is okay, nothing more. The final twist is hardly unexpected, or original. Moore simply spells out the obvious as though it was new. You can safely skip Neonomicon and be none the worse, which is a pretty damning indictment. If you’re going to follow in the footsteps of giants, an attempt should be made to blaze some new ground, not just set things in the present day.

Expressing horror purely through visual terms is difficult. Fears age and fade with time, and the monsters of the past become fodder for parody and condescension. After almost 100 years – Lovecraft’s first professionally published story appeared in 1922 – the Lovecraftian horror genre shows no signs of stopping. Ian Culbard has adapted several other Lovecraft works (which I have not yet read) and I expect many other such adaptations will appear from other hands. For lesser talents, simply showing what HPL only implied is an obvious route, one that leads almost inevitably to failure. What we see is not what we fear most – it is what we might see, and can only partially imagine.

Afterword: John Berger

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Portrait of John Berger by Maggi Hambling, 2000. Ink and watercolor on paper. Collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG 6643

In memoriam John Berger, 1926-2017

Of course I had to write about him. There is no other writer on art who has made a greater impact on me; among writers in general, he shares a place of honor with others. But in art he stands alone. I thought I would quote him, and comment on those quotes. It’s a hard task. I would reprint whole essays, if permutable. I feel inadequate to the task not only because of the wealth of his writings, but because I have two recently published books of his yet to read. But, then, as he wrote:

Necessity produces both tragedy and comedy. It’s what you kiss or bang your head against.

I don’t feel qualified to comment on his Marxism, cultural or otherwise, but to say that I rarely disagreed with him to any great degree. He understood that politics and art are simply elements of life, and therefore inseparable, entwined to the discomfort of some and the joy of others:

The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich. Consequently, the modern poor are not pitied … but written off as trash. The twentieth-century consumer economy has produced the first culture for which a beggar is a reminder of nothing.

Consider the attention given to the art market, as though an artists efforts were solely commercial goods to be exploited – and the reverse, that artworks are somehow removed from the taloned grip of capitalism. Both seek to exist outside the continuity of time and culture, and both fail:

The past is the one thing we are not prisoners of. We can do with the past exactly what we wish. What we can’t do is to change its consequences.

Yet his warnings, ever increasing in later decades, never sank into helplessness. Through art he always saw something greater, a connection to God perhaps, whom he, despite his politics, believed in:

We are near to chaos. But through the chaos come prophecies of an order. Is “order” the right word? I would slightly prefer “justice.” And I would much prefer “love.” Prophecies of a love.
     An example of such a prophecy. Precisely. The prophetic creation of the visible, several billion years ago in a blind universe; the visible which is attendant today upon being seen and read.

Capturing the world – Berger preferred representational art to abstraction, though not to excess – became an act of hope or revolution, or both. He saw that art defied simple definitions, and so was hard for politicians to use. Art served us, and yet participated in our inner life as most inanimate objects do not:

We all feel better when we think of Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo represents the heights of human aspiration clouded in mystery (or other words to that effect). Rembrandt serves us contrariwise. Rembrandt represents the dark suffering of genius. We all become forgiving about those who have misunderstood us, when we think of Rembrandt. Thus we force art to console us, and repay it by calling it beautiful.

Every event which has been really painted – so that the pictorial language opens – joins the community of everything that has been painted. Potatoes on a plate join the community of a loved woman, a mountain, or a man on a cross. This – and this only – is the redemption which painting offers. This mystery is the nearest painting can offer to catharsis.

He also understood the changeable nature of art itself, the flux and flow that allowed artists to return to topics or modes of expression long past with new eyes. See his comment above about the past, and this:

The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. Each evening we see the sun set. We know that the earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight.

Only when the knowledge and explanation fit the sight – which they never will – will art begin dying. There’s always more to be said. More hope to be passed, covertly or overtly:

Hope today is a contraband passed from hand to hand and from story to story.

John Berger left us at a time when many are questioning their hopes, their assumptions, and finding that they were not what we had believed or been led to believed. A failing of both leaders and followers. A while back I offered the open hand as a symbol of today’s political resistance, a symbol which can encompass sorrow, anger, joy. Art and stories, for Berger was always a storyteller, and continued to tell stories and draw the whole of his life, are the lifeblood of culture. Control the story and you control the people. Control the art…well, that never works, does it?

 

Book Review: The Matisse Stories by A. S. Byatt

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Random House, New York, 1993. Perhaps I am late in reviewing this book, but I just read it for the first time, and, like a good Matisse, it has not lost anything with the passage of time.

The three stories contained therein show Byatt’s great sense of detail, as she defines the lives of the women at the center of each, and uses Matisse’s art and life as inspiration. Each story is illustrated (but not really) with a Matisse drawing, their spare, fluid lines moving with the same gracefulness as Byatt’s sentences. But these drawings are meant to evoke, rather than directly illustrate; works directly referenced in the stories are not shown.

A word or two about each story:

Medusa’s Ankles: A woman and her hairdresser enter an uneasy partnership, with a surprising turn at the end. This is the least connected to Matisse, though a reproduction of one of his paintings hanging in the hair salon is the reason the woman goes there to start with.

Art Work: another uncertain relationship, this time between an artist’s wife, her husband, and their stolid cleaning woman. There is a lot about art here, though not always linkable to Matisse. The twist late in the story, unlike the first story’s, is no surprise, and I won’t spoil it here, but makes for good reading regardless.

The Chinese Lobster: Here Matisse is front and center. A university Dean (a woman) must sit down with a visiting Professor (a man) and discuss a complaint brought against him by a female student. He is an expert on Matisse, and even met him, while the student’s work seeks to reinterpret Matisse through her own mental turmoil. At first it isn’t clear if the Professor is to be villain, hero, orI t what – his impolitic use of the word “bitch” casts doubt. However, by the end his status, as well as that of the Dean and the student, has become clear. This is the only story in the book written in one scene, and all in the present tense. It brings an immediacy to the end of the book, and their conversation brings closure to the story.

It’s not necessary to know anything about Matisse, or Byatt, for that matter, to enjoy these stories. They move efficiently, picking out detail where needed, skipping forward as the plot demands – the way a good painter does. I think it wise of Byatt to have stopped with three stories, though I would like to see her tackle other artists and see what inspiration they might bring her.

The Elf Himself

This is not about that twee “elf on the shelf” which has become a seasonal tradition nearly (but not quite) as omnipresent and annoying as Pumpkin Spice Season, but about the “right jolly old elf,” Santa Claus. I’ve outgrown Santa long since, though he serves as a symbol of the secular end of the season (despite being inspired by a saint or two), but that doesn’t mean I want him to go away. A little visual history of Santa, or Father Christmas, as the English call him. Perhaps they are not identical, but have a kindred relationship, like Zeus and Jupiter, having grown from related but not identical sources.

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I particularly like this version (above) of Old Father Christmas by the British artist Robert Seymour, from 1836. There’s more than a little Bacchus or Dionysus in it, and precious little of our commercialized Santa.  His smile is not reassuring, and what modern parents would want a goat-riding old man carrying their child away?

(I have to do more research at my source; that child in his arms appears to have five o’clock shadow. This just gets stranger with every look.)

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Clement Clarke Moore cemented the image of Santa Claus with his famous poem, A Visit From St. Nicholas (1823), with Thomas Nast giving a definitive look to the old gent starting in the 1860s (above). Illustrators favored the elfin quality of Moore’s Santa, depicting him as a small figure, scarcely larger than the children he brought toys for. Father Christmas was generally a large man, on the order of the Ghost of Christmas Present in Charles DickensA Christmas Carol. The incongruity of a giant fitting down a chimney would have been too much for even children to bear.

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Santa’s choice of tipple has changed since the old days.

Over time this elf returned to greater stature, as the Coca-Cola company refined Nast’s vision into something suited to soft drink advertising in the 20th Century. Since then there has been precious little change. What might be called “anti-Santas” have emerged, the most successful of which being the Grinch in Dr. Seuss‘s How The Grinch Stole Christmas! (1957). Even there the Grinch adopts the red, fur-trimmed suit of the conventional American Santa Claus.

So what is 21st Century Santa Claus to be like? Not the Russian-inflected Santa of William Joyce‘s The Guardians of Childhood, played on film (entitled Rise of the Guardians) by Alec Baldwin. Not the shallow, gag-oriented anti-Santa of Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa (2003 and, God help us, a sequel), but there might be a smidgen of something – a really thin smidgen – to draw on. It’s time for a Santa with a more adult sensibility – while keeping the Santa of childhood intact. There are occasional cartoons, mostly in Playboy, about what Santa really does when visiting nubile maidens (but no gay Santas, so far as I know), but those are one-track, simple jokes. Santa Claus should embody the richness and diversity of the Christmas experience, good and bad.

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Orson Welles as Falstaff

My nominee for our next Santa role model is Orson Welles as Sir John Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight (1965). Falstaff is a blustering, boozing, wenching rogue, unreliable, but deep in his devotion to those he loves. Santa has a bit of that erratic quality – haven’t you ever gotten socks at Christmas when you really wanted something else, or failed to get the socks you needed? That round belly Clement Moore spoke of could be called Falstaffian, and the wink of an eye that says “that’s life. Might as well enjoy what you can, and don’t let the rest get to you.” Perhaps adults don’t need an adult Santa – it’s never been proven that children need the children’s Santa – but having one, to adopt or not, is to leave open space for a little bit of wonder in the midst of grown-up worry. Like a sweater that is trotted out for special occasions, a luxury with no special use, but enjoyed just the same, Santa Claus should be there when we want him, however old we are.