MassMoCA Always a Showcase of New Delights


In the last post I spotlighted the Clark Institute of Art. If you're headed for Williamstown,  be sure to pop over to the adjacent town of North Adams to visit the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, better known as Mass MoCA. I visit the Clark to see old favorites, but I go to Mass MoCA see things I've never seen before. #massmoca

A word on the campus and the town of North Adams: Mass MoCA is located on the 24-acre site of what was previously Sprague Electric. At one time, Sprague employed more than 4,100 people and its 1985 closure ripped the guts out of a town that was already on the downward slope. In the first four decades of the 20th century, North Adams was home to about 22,000; today there are fewer than 14,000. Mass MoCA opened its doors in 1999, a gutsy move in a fading blue-collar town where locals much prefer lager to LeWitt. Naysayers predicted that Mass MoCA would be a taxpayer-subsidized flop. They were wrong. Mass MoCA will never replace all those lost Sprague jobs—not with a staff that's more in the order of 50, not thousands. North Adams is still pocked by empty red brick factories and substandard housing, but Mass MoCA does generate around $10 million each year for the local economy. Score one for art.

Here's the deal: You won't like everything you see there, but the stuff that does grab you is likely to be stuff you've seldom before encountered. Contemporary art differs radically from classical art in that it's more speculative. Collectors may spend a lot of money on pieces, but it's as big a gamble as Mass MoCA itself whether the investment will pay off.  Curators, critics, and collectors think they have discriminating tastes, but they are often spectacularly wrong—as evidenced by the kind of art that today hangs in conventional museums, much of which was denounced in its day as rubbish. If you see things at Mass MoCA that strike you as landfill, you might end up being right, but maybe not! 

To show my own cards, I'm not a big fan of visual word art; that is, pieces that are supposed to blow me away with the juxtaposition of words—often too small to read when on the wall—with other media. I find such works too personal to resonate broadly and, frankly, I find a lot of it nonsense dressed in pretentious explanations. I also lose patience with most video installations—mostly because I don't want to waste my time and energy on them. (I also see film as a different form of mental stimulation.) My final admission is that I can't stand the aforementioned (Sol) LeWitt. I think he' was the P.T. Barnum of art. Others love him; thereby proving art is, in the end, subjective.  

When Mass MoCA scores, it scores big. Two exhibits playing this summer fit that bill. The first, Radical Small by Elizabeth King, borrows from Walt Whitman the idea of the eidolon—projecting human likenesses onto inanimate objects. The monster in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is a form of this; ditto Pinocchio. Eidolons show up elsewhere: carnival automatons, androids, the golem of Jewish folktales, homunculi, shape-shifters, the folkloric fetch, wraiths, the White Walkers of Game of Thrones…. King serves them to us visually, through uses of film, poppets, masks, small machines, photographs, and representations of body parts like floating heads that are stripped from the overall human physique. It's at once fascinating, disturbing, visually stunning, and creepy.   

Even more fascinating is an installation by Nick Cave, an African American artist not to be confused with the Australian musician of the same name, though the two share morbid fixations. His Until appears at first a riot of pleasure: thousands of dangling glittering objects that look like a forest of scored CDs with cut-outs. Then you walk among them and revelation dawns. Those beautiful 'sunbursts' aren't at all what you thought; they are the flashes from gun muzzles, which we see in the profiles of weapons and bullets that appear when we 'see' instead of merely 'look.' Cave is also interested in representations of race and what these mean in society. His video installation is one of the few for which I did sit still. (Admittedly, the projected wave pattern upon the floor is so hypnotic and vertigo inducing that I needed to sit!)  This smart, provocative exhibit is biting social satire.

Sadly, the sculptures of Fererico Uribe are now gone, as his Here Comes the Sun was a perfect companion to Cave. Amidst his whimsical assemblages of animals are some that stop you in your tracks: a porcupine made of hypodermic needles, a sheep constructed of sharp scissors, rabbits and fawns fashioned from bullet cartridges….

But that's how it is at Mass MoCA. It's a place where you can wander in old factory corridors and then into a multi-colored tube. There are some permanent displays, such as  Michael Oatman's stunning all utopias fall, but mostly we go there to see what's new, hip, and perhaps a classic sometime in the future. A new building has just opened, nearly doubling the gallery space and featuring works by a few names you might recognize: Laurie Anderson, Louise Bourgeois, and Don Gummer (Mr. Meryl Streep). I can't wait to return to see what's new. 

 Rob Weir


Clark Art Institute: My Favorites


Among the many joys of living in Western Massachusetts is that the Clark Institute of Art is only an hour from my home. It is, simply, one of the most important repositories in the country—especially for 19th century art.  #@the_clark

New Yorkers Robert Sterling and Francine Clark were so shaken by the devastation of World War Two and the ensuing Cold War that they placed their considerable collection in a locale unlikely to be ravaged by a nuclear attack: Williamstown, in the far northwestern corner of Massachusetts, where it joins New York and Vermont. The Clark opened its doors in 1955. The next time you go, here's a baker's dozen of my favorites.

My favorite is Smoke of Ambergris from John Singer Sargent. Admittedly, it exoticizes Moroccan culture. The figure is of a woman lifting her veil to take in the scent of ambergris, incense made from whale oil (which is also non-PC). But my goodness, what a picture! Nobody does white on white (or black on black) as well as Sargent. This one transfixes me every time I see it. There are just enough splashes of other colors to make the whites pop out. I marvel at the skill of someone who can get so much depth out of white, nature's most neutral pigment. I had a poster of this for decades, but it's not even close to the experience of seeing it.

A close runner-up is Nymphs and Satyr by William-Adolphe Bouguereau. This is a "Why don't I ever get invited to parties like this?" painting. Three naked lasses dance around a randy satyr and a fourth beckons him into the woods for what we can be pretty sure is not PG-13 fun and games. The funny thing is that, even though no one in the gallery can take their eyes off of this, everybody pretends to be looking elsewhere—as if they're naughty little boys sneaking a look at a Playboy magazine. Go ahead; stare.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema was a Dutch-born British academic painter that some people loathe, but I like him, especially his The Women of Amphissa. You've probably never over indulged like these women, who are sleeping off a night of drinking and dancing in honor of Bacchus, the Greek god of wine. It looks like he was well praised! But the real fun of this picture is counting how many times you see the same model represented in slightly different ways. She's Laura, the artist's second wife. Look for the schnoz! 

I've seen so much Impressionist art that I occasionally forget why I love it. The Clark reminds me. One of my all time favorites is Monet's Street in Sainte-Adresse. It evokes the memory of the first time I walked down a European village lane such as this. All I have to do is change the clothes and it's all there: the walled path, the stone buildings, the smoke rising from a hearth, the shade trees, and the church dominating the town. Monet is an instant time warp.

Bouguereau isn't really one of my favorite painters, but his Seated Nude is glorious. It perfectly illustrates the difference between naked and nude. Although the young model wears nothing but an enigmatic expression and a lush blue cloth tumbling down her back, the adjective that springs to mind is "innocent."

If you ever need a visual spirit-lifter, Monet and Tulip Fields at Sassenheim will do the trick. The countryside, a rustic cottage, and a riot of pink, yellow, green, lavender, and red that looks like earthbound fireworks. Works for me!

I admit, though, that sometimes I OD on 'pretty' Impressionist works. That's why Camille Pissarro is probably my favorite within that august genre. Despite the shambolic lifestyles of most Impressionists, few were what you'd call working-class heroes. As Port of Rouen, Unloading Wood indicates, Pissarro was different. He actually painted working people, grit, and grime. And he made it look good.

Winslow Homer is a New England favorite, but his endless paintings of churning seas and barren rocks just don't do it for me. My favorite Homer is Sleigh Ride, a rare winter scene. What is more New England than winter? I love the way Homer used light, a reminder that our "dark" season exists more in imagined gloom than how Mother Nature actually illumines.     

Maybe I have a thing for bad-boy artists. Henri Toulouse-Lautrec is nobody's idea of a saint. He hung out in whorehouses, absinthe bars, and sketchy clubs. Yet, this portrait of Carmen intrigues because of its ambiguity. Is Carmen a harlot, or an unfortunate gypsy girl caught up in cycles of robbery, betrayal, and perhaps a dash of the occult? Lautrec's portrait is a face that is, at once, defiant but sallow. Is this Carmen beautiful, or on the downward slide to haggardness?   

I don't know much about Émile Bernard, but I really love the stolidity of Portrait of Madame Lemasson. She's a Breton woman, but she evokes my grandmother, who similarly attended to the tasks at hand with down-turned eyes. She also exuded a silent no-nonsense countenance.

The Clark's 1524 Portrait of a Man by Jan Gossaert is everything a Reformation era painting should be, and not just because it evokes the work of Hans Holbein (the Younger). It's those dark tones, the elaborate frame, the burgher's chain of authority, the handful of rings, the velvet bonete, the whiff of prosperity inherent in the figure's double chinned gaze, and the vibrant blue surrounding him like a secular halo. 

I like Perseus Rescuing Andromeda because this picture from Cavaliere d'Arpino is at once dramatic and silly. In Greek mythology, Andromeda is punished because she's more beautiful than many of the goddesses, so they chain to a rock, where she's menaced by Cetus, a sea monster. Well you would, wouldn't you? Along comes our hero, Perseus, astride his flying horse, Pegasus. He rescues Andromeda so he can go forth and do other hero stuff—like slice off Medusa's head. In this painting, though, our sea monster looks a dog plagued with reptile skin, Andromeda—her lipstick never mussed—looks more bemused than threatened, and Perseus seems to have left an Arctic lair. It's like a Terry Gilliam cartoon with a Wagnerian score.

Finally, I like Pére Fournaise by Renoir because it's jolly. I like the figure's sparkling blue eyes, his easy-going manner, and the glasses of beer on the table. I think there's one calling me right now.


The Beguiled Entertains, But Be wary of the Hyperbole


Directed by Sofia Coppola
Focus Features, 94 minutes, R (sexual situations—should be PG-13)
★★★ ½

One reviewer called The Beguiled "a sexually charged feminist psychodrama." That, my friends, is what is known as hyperbole. The Beguiled is actually an easy-on-the-eye film that sports lovely tableaux and mannered performances punctuated by harrowing pivots, but it's only feminist if you define that term as females forced by circumstance to live without the company of men. It's best not to make this film more than it is: a diverting way to spend an hour and a half—nothing less and nothing more.

The Beguiled is based upon A Painted Devil, a 1966 novel by Thomas Culllin an, previously adapted to film in 1971 with Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page in the lead roles. Sofia Coppola's remake is subtler, perhaps the reason why she recently took away the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival. The year is 1863, and the Civil War rages with unrelenting fury in Virginia, where Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) struggles to keep open an academy for young women. In those days, a female academy was a glorified finishing school in which boarding students learned French and music alongside needlework, proper posture, religion, and manners. The overall goal was refinement and mastery of domestic skills, not training for wage earning professions. The war has disrupted normal routines, but Miss Farnsworth valiantly maintains high moral standards, even though her six remaining residents must till their own gardens, forage, and get by the best they can. Farnsworth continues to act as headmistress, supervisor of in-house teacher Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst), and role model to an ill-matched group of students: maturing teen Alicia (Elle Fanning), the slightly younger Jane (Angourie Rice), and three youths: 13-year-old Marie (Addison Reicke), round-faced Emily (Emma Howard), and spunky 11-year-old Amy (Ooma Laurence).

Farnsworth succeeds in keep the war outside the academy's iron gates until Amy stumbles upon a badly wounded Union solider, Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) while collecting mushrooms in the woods. Against her better judgment, Farnsworth allows McBurney to recuperate inside the school. It is here that Coppola shows a more deft hand than either Cullinan or Don Siegel, who directed the 1971 film. Instead of making a fox-in-the-henhouse antebellum horror film, Coppola allows her Beguiled to be more ambiguous.

Is McBurney the fox, or the hunted? It's clear that he encourages the growing affections of the school's three oldest women, but is he a silver-tongued devil or just an impulsive lad with poor impulse control? Kidman is terrific as Farnsworth, whom she plays with outward ice, but with hints of a mushy core. Dunst is also impressive as Edwina, a woman torn between respectability, desire, and the realization that, by 19th century standards, she's already an Old Maid. Farrell, whose past work has been uneven and occasionally prone to pretty boy preening, does a credible job of portraying McBurney with the right balance of charm, recklessness, and smarm. It's a good thing these three performances are topnotch, or Oona Laurence would have stolen the show; though she's just 11, she's already a force of nature. Oddly, Ms. Fanning—who usually dazzles—is the weak link in the ensemble. She is alluring and flirtatious, but altogether too modern in look, attitude, and even speech. (At one point she actually asks McBurney, "How's it going?")

Strong acting carries the film because, when it's all said and done, this is actually a very slight film. Even at just 94 minutes it feels stretched out. That's because it's an interior film in which personalities and circumstances will either mesh or not, and there are really only a few ways in which matters could be resolved. Coppola engages in a little padding. It is suggested that the war is winding down, though in the summer of 1863 it has nearly two years to go. There are discussions of shortages but, though the academy table lacks meat, there's plenty of food on the fine china, and a nicely apportioned wine cabinet to accompany it. And if you want to know why Virginia looks like it's in the Deep South, it's because it was filmed in Louisiana. Still, I'm glad Coppola avoided the excesses of her Marie Antoinette (2006) or the tedium of Somewhere (2010). The Beguiled is assuredly watchable, though it looks deeper and prettier than it actually is. Best Director? That seems as hyperbolic as calling The Beguiled a feminist film. At its best, a strong ensemble cast takes over; when it lags, it's like having all that Spanish moss hanging from trees in what is supposed to be Virginia—more atmospheric than convincing.

Rob Weir