Sculpture and Quilts at Mount Holyoke College

Mount Holyoke College Art Museum
Through May 27, 2018

Those who read my art reviews know of my fondness for well-done small exhibitions. Mount Holyoke College currently features two shows that illumine without bludgeoning.

A Very Long Engagement: Nineteenth- Century Sculpture and Its Afterlives is small in that the sculptures on display rest easily on slender pedestals and there are just fifteen of them. The sculptors represent a potpourri of American, English, and French artists. What ties them together is that each work references past traditions. Today we might label them ‘meta.’ They are displayed beside photographs of older works of which they are commenting or from which they drew inspiration. A reclining figure from Henry Moore, for example, bears remarkable similarity to a 10th century Toltec figure. Paul Jena Baptiste Gasq’s Diana is his take on Classical Roman depictions of the goddess of the hunt. 

In addition to the above pair—and you seldom see a Henry Moore this small—my favorite works are: Frederic  Leighton’s languid The Sluggard, Auguste Rodin’s Monument of Honore de Balzac, Pierre Auguste Renoir’s Dancer with a Tambourine, and Henry Rox’s whimsical Girl with Flowers, the latter a work from a former Mt. Holyoke art professor. I also greatly admired the mottled texture of Emilie Stamm’s Standing Nude.


What an inspired idea it was to run the sculpture show simultaneously with the quilts of Mary Lee Bendolph. What better way to demonstrate how old barriers between fine art and folk art have crumbled like the Berlin Wall. If Bendolph’s name doesn’t immediately resonate, perhaps you’ve heard about the Gee’s Bend quilts that took New York by storm when they went of display at the Whitney in 2002. (I saw that show. It was both exhilarating and exhausting.) Bendolph is an acknowledged queen bee of that tradition—and it’s an old one. Gee’s Bend refers to an elbow in the Alabama River southwest of Selma and the first quilts and coverlets made there came from slaves on the Pettway plantation. To this day, Gee’s Bend is largely an African American region and many of the quilters are descendents of Pettway slaves.

The end of slavery did not bring a lot of prosperity to the area, which meant that quilts were made for plebeian reasons—not with an eye toward hanging them in a gallery. That is to say, they were everyday items of use. Gee’s Bend was also the kind of country living in which things got repurposed rather than tossed away. Old shirts and feed sacks became part of bedspread, leftover scraps of material got stitched together in a crazy quilt, and it mattered little if a coverlet mixed corduroy, cotton, and linen.

Bendolph’s quilts tend to favor big pieces and bright colors and patterns of straight lines and basic geometric shapes. I love the idea of workaday items standing side by side with the output of academically trained artists. Those who has ever run their hands down the sides of a cabinetmaker’s bookcase, smiled upon seeing an eccentric weathervane, or beheld the simple elegance of a sampler knows that everyday objects often contain a beauty of their own. Also memories. I was deeply moved by one of Bendolph’s “ghost’ quilts. When her husband died, she cut up a pair of his dungarees and used the faded inside of the pockets to anchor her quilt. I defy anyone to tell me this is a less tribute than the Medici tomb.

Rob Weir


Thinking about Civility


Reflections on Civility: Another Birthday

I’ve managed to spin around the planet another whole year, an annual accomplishment that makes me ponder things. In Year Two of the Trump era I have civility on my mind—ways we can be kinder to each other within our communities. Maybe the POTUS has contempt for civil discourse, but that doesn’t mean we have to stoop that low.

Here are ten ways we can follow to Make America Nice Again.

1. Stop insisting that your own way of life is “right.”

Every time I hear someone go on an anti- [fill in your least favorite group] rant, what I really hear is, “I’m so insecure in my own identity that I’m going to criticize yours.” It’s this simple: In most cases, no one within any particular group has ever tried to tell me how to live my life, so I’m surely not going to tell them how to live theirs.

2. If it hasn’t happened to you, maybe it's not a problem.

Many things that divide us are just Straw Man debates. Do you worry that immigrants are stealing “American jobs.” Well, has that ever happened to you? Have you ever been fired so the boss could hire an illegal immigrant? Are erstwhile Silicon Valley programmers remaining unemployed because non-documented workers are doing all the coding?

3. Unless you really know, don’t assume you do.

I often overhear disdain for those using food stamps at the grocery store, especially when they walk out with a cart filled with things you’re about to pay the proverbial pretty penny to procure. I've heard people mutter that those using food stamps are unworthy and need to “work for a living.” Do you know anything about those relying on welfare? Let’s start with the fact that more than half of all families getting food stamps contain at least one member who works full time. Follow with most food stamps feed children. If you know nothing of the recipient, don’t invent a narrative; doing so merely makes you a petty gossip-monger.

4. Don’t extrapolate without data.

It’s one of the few things I recall from math classes! I’m sure each of us has seen people game the system. There are, of course, welfare cheats. Also crooked lawyers, money managers, plumbers, mechanics, professional athletes, doctors, ad infinitum. There are Muslim terrorists, but Christians are more likely to commit murderous acts within the United States. The moral is that there’s world of difference between individual cases and patterns. Confusing the two makes you a hater, not a prophet.

5. Be neither a Neanderthal nor a PC Snowflake.

 Has nuance had been abolished? It often appears that we’ve split into two camps: vitriolic misanthropes and oversensitive snowflakes. The first have no heart; the second expend more energy being offended than in making things better. The first is spiteful and mean; the second boorish and sanctimonious. The first is deluded by faith in assumed moral certainty; the second by blind belief in castles in the sky. The first needs to soften, the second to toughen. Both need to embrace the fact that few things in life are either/or.

6. There is a difference between mistakes and intentions.

You are not perfect, so why assume others are? I want to hurl every time I hear terms such as flip-flop, microaggression, extremist, mansplaining, or the suffix –tard on any word. We use insults to pigeonhole rather than hear what the person intended. Social media repeatedly demonstrates that often we express ourselves awkwardly, rashly, or obtusely. Heaven forbid you do so, because the rest of the universe becomes temporarily perfect and rushes to label you. Next time you’re tempted to label another, make damn sure you know that the other person actually intends harm. Don't forget to consider that you might be the jerk in the murk.

7. Ask the question and sit down.

Few things are as irksome as a Q and A after a talk in which someone gives a speech instead of just asking a question. Men often try to spray turf or critique before they cut to the chase; women have a tendency to over-emote by telling us how they feel or were moved. Just ask the question!

8. Stop dropping F-bombs.

There was a time when the word ‘fuck’ shocked us. Not any more. It might be the most over-used term of the 21st century. Very few will think you badass, clever, or hip when you utter it in earshot. They’ll instead think: rude, crude, and unrefined.

9. Don’t wear ignorance like a badge of honor.

Can an ill-educated nation be a great one? Not on this globalized planet. You can deny science—if you don’t care about planetary Armageddon. You can remain undereducated, unskilled, and uniformed—if you’re comfortable being unemployed, unemployable, and clueless. You can blame someone else for your troubles—as long as you know that few will care about your self-inflicted woes. Ignorance is to be combated, not celebrated.

10. You might as well be a mensch.

Thanks to an old buddy for this phrase, which is basically a Yiddish spin on being a good egg—an honorable person in the eyes of others. So much anger, tragedy, selfishness, and division would dissolve if we each understood that in the grand sweep of the Universe, no one of us is all that important. The Universe doesn’t want to hear us brag, overhear our cellphone conversations, or bow before our fame and acclaim. We don’t have the right to cut others off in traffic, or to take their lives. There is no justification for abusing; we do not elevate our esteem by demeaning others. Toys and wealth will not save us from the ultimate fate: we will die. The choice is really whether one checks out loved or unloved. In my own imperfect way, I'm trying to be a mensch. 


Lost in Paris: Goofy to a Fault?

Directed by Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon
Oscilloscope Laboratories, 83 minutes, NR
(In English and French with subtitles)
★★ 1/2     

Forget the Hollywood rating system. In the age of the Internet, users rate movies as OMG, LOL, or POS. Lost in Paris suggests we ought to add a WTF category. It may not be the campiest film ever made, but its tents are in the front row of the bivouac grounds. Its charm is that it’s quirky and strange; its weakness is that both qualities are served in gluttonous portions.

Let me set the tone by describing the opening scene. The camera looks down upon a village encased in apocalyptic amounts of snow. We gaze upon a quite obvious toy-sized set before we are taken inside a library where Fiona (Fiona Gordon) sits behind a desk looking like she is where fashion went to die. Then we are treated to a gag torn from the pages of the W.C. Fields film A Fatal Glass of Beer (1933). A door opens, fake snow flies everywhere, and the wind blasts with such force that everyone and everything is blown sideways. The door closes and all returns to normal. And by ‘normal,’ I mean absurd. Cue some Canadian accents.

The person entering the room delivers a soiled letter that was accidentally thrown into a garbage can rather than placed in the post box. It’s from Fiona’s elderly aunt Martha (Emmanuel Riva), a once-famous dancer but now 88 years old and trying to keep French authorities from squirreling her away in a nursing home. (She has a unique way of dodging authorities and it’s one of many reoccurring jokes.) So it’s off to Paris for Fiona, who apparently has never been off the tundra before.

If you plan on watching this film, surrender all logic right now, as things are about to get so absurd they would make Eugene Ionesco check into rehab. We next see Fiona in Paris, her stick-like figure crammed into a clingy green dress, a pair of cheap tennis shoes upon her feet, her face framed by glasses dubbed ugly by Geeks United, her hair crimped and curled by a mad hairdresser, and hefting an enormous orange backpack. Cut to the next visual joke—it takes a contortionist to get it through the Metro turnstile. Oh—the backpack is also flying a Canadian flag from its frame. 

The best way to describe the rest of the film is to say everything gets sillier and that its loose (as in very loose) structure is built around miscommunications, misassumptions, misfortunes, mistaken identities, misconnections, slapstick routines, and repeated jokes. Among the latter are setups involving Martha’s escapes from French authorities, a neighbor’s missing sock, chance encounters with a Mountie, a persistent dog, an even more persistent street bum (Dominique Abel), and the McGarrigle sisters singing Loudon Wainwright III’s “Swimming Song.”* That song reoccurs because people and things have a habit of falling into the Seine, with the objects resurfacing later in hands other than those that first dropped them.

Gordon plays the gal from snowy Hicksville set adrift in the City of Light with wide-eyed fascination and goofy desperation. She is literally lost when separated from her backpack, clothing, money, and passport, but gains the bum Dom, who won’t leave her alone and whom she finds alternately annoying, useful, and kinda cute. (Physically he puts one in mind of Roberto Benigni.)** Most of the action is set along the Seine, at Pont Grenelle (where there is a smaller version of Auguste Bartholdi’s Statue of Liberty), at the Père Lachaise Cemetery, and atop the Eiffel Tower.

Really, though, neither the plot nor action is much more than an excuse to string together gags and surreal situational comedy. At its best, Lost in Paris evokes the preposterousness of Jacques Tati and the nimble-footed physical routines of Harold Lloyd, though far too often it’s like a cloying old Jerry Lewis vehicle or one of those painful Saturday Night Live sketches that went on twice as long as it should have.

I probably would have walked out had I been in a theater and I contemplated switching off the DVD at least half a dozen times. So what kept me in my lounge chair? Lost in Paris is indeed a WTF film. It’s so odd that I found myself watching like a voyeur at a disaster scene. Just when I thought I couldn’t take anymore, something utterly charming occurred—like Riva chancing upon Norman (Pierre Richard), an old dance partner and lover, and doing an impromptu seated soft shoe routine, he in a hospital gown and ancient shoes, and she in cast-off clothing, wool socks, and Birkenstocks. There are also situations akin to those in the old Airplane movies that are just so dumb you can’t resist them, though you feel guilty as hell afterward. I mean, can one not watch slapstick inside a crematorium?

After a time I admired the moxie of Abel and Gordon for being able to poke so much fun at themselves. Their physicality is also impressive, as evidenced in everything from pratfalls to an impromptu tango. If you can put yourself in the mood for wall-to-wall silliness, I can give this a qualified recommendation. It’s unlikely you will view anything weirder in 2018, so score one for uniqueness. I’m glad though, that Riva got to make one film before she died in early 2017. It looks like she had fun in Lost in Paris, but I wouldn’t want this fart cushion of a movie to be the last for such an important icon of French cinema.

Rob Weir

* That makes more sense than most things in the film. Kate McGarrigle was once married to Wainwright.

** In life, Gordon and Abel are married. She’s actually Australian and he’s Belgian.