Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In

Silversun Pickups

Art Vent Letting the Fresh Air In

March 10, 2010
A friend recently experienced culture shock, coming back from a month of meditation in India and going to the Armory Show at the piers while still jet-lagged. “There’s such a contrast between the vital, natural, creative impulse that is India, and the intellectual constraint of Western art, “she said. “There the creative, intellectual, and spiritual are all of a piece, where here we tease them apart. Indian art is raw; Western European art is processed, an intellectual product.”

I haven’t been to India, but I have been to Egypt, where the soft pastels of the clothing and painted clay houses, the graceful sails of the feluccas on the Nile, were one with the sandy, palm-treed landscape, each vista more breathtaking than the last, every aspect harmonious. The way the shopkeepers in the Aswan market laid out their wares was as artful as any installation I’d ever seen. Beauty seemed as natural as breathing.

And beauty, I’m convinced, is as necessary to healthy life as clean air, water, and food, yet we in the West pretend that it’s a luxury. The only way we acknowledge beauty’s importance is by punishing criminals by depriving them of it. Prison wouldn’t be prison if cells had brightly colored walls and inmates wore attractive uniforms— “Jil Sander for Attica" would not fly.

Even the environments we create for people to live and work in (and supposedly get well in, just look at our hospitals—we won’t even speak of the food) are equally aesthetically barren. Every time I drive through mall heaven in the towns outside Boston, or on Long Island or…anywhere, I go into shock.

So back at the piers, there’s an inescapable irony in paying $30 to look at art—try to find beauty—in the most inhospitable of situations: crowded, hot, claustrophobic, everything squished in. Another friend says she likes Ikea better—“at least they give you a green line to follow.”

From the Armory Show: Keltie Ferris, He-She, 2010, oil, acrylic, oil pastel & sprayed paint on canvas, 80x60"
Horton Gallery, New York. Photo: Mark Woods

Meanwhile, a real armory on Park Avenue, intended for storing military equipment and built at a time (1861) when beauty was still a priority, makes a much better backdrop for art, which is why I prefer the ADAA (Art Dealers Association of America) Art Show, this year concurrent with the ones at the piers. Not edgy, you say? Okay with me. At least I can breathe.

…and visit with John Kelly, who’s artist-in-residence in this lavishly decorated monument to war that’s being turned into an alternative art space. Dancer, singer, actor, writer, painter (my review of his recent show at Alexander Gray was in the November Art in America), John is one of the most charismatic performers ever, the proof being that he can make even cabaret (a musical genre I loathe, right up there with musical theater) into a thrilling experience. I’m such a fan! John will be channeling Joni Mitchell in performance in Usdan Gallery at Bennington College at 9:00 this Friday evening.

John Kelly

The Armory Studio

However if the backdrop makes the art, it does not make the music. Forgoing dinner with friends, I had high hopes for Animal Collective and Danny Berger in the rotunda at the Guggenheim last Thursday, but hardly the “kinetic, psychedelic environment” promised by the press release, it turned out to be totally anemic. It’s as if they weren’t even trying. I, like others, expected a concert, but instead it was arty computerized electronic plinking that could barely be heard over the conversations of the milling crowd, who also rarely glanced up at Berger’s vapid projections. Unlike Jenny Holzer’s project last year on the exterior of the building, it was a great opportunity, piddled away. (Vanity Fair agrees.)

My desire for sound and light, however, was more than satisfied the next night, when I bought a single ticket to hear Muse and the Silversun Pickups (who you must know by now are my favorite band) at that most unaesthetic of venues, Madison Square Garden. No doubt the show cost a gazillion dollars and took months to prepare—and Muse is definitely OTT, no subtlety there—but I was primed. It wasn’t Art, so they had to deliver. At the end I was getting hugs from sweaty, 20-year-old guys (“You like Muse? Let me give you a hug!). Totally worth it

Muse at Madison Square Garden 3/5/10
November 25, 2009
While I’m waiting for my friend Richard to call so I can post the best Facebook story ever, can we talk about apps? I’m always wary of writing about this stuff because I figure half of everybody already knows it all, and those who don’t, don’t care. I won’t bore you with the long story of how music technology challenged I’ve been for three years since moving into this house, but the short story is that I had it totally wired for sound at great expense—by a very sweet guy, a coke-head who up and split town leaving a bunch of tangled wires in his wake—and no matter how many experts I’ve employed, I have not been able to get streaming radio to work properly. And as far as I’m concerned, life without streaming radio is not worth living. Well that may or may not have been fixed today, but before my latest tech guru came over, I was leafing through New York magazine at breakfast, and learned that I could circumvent my computer with a free Pandora app for my iPhone. I instantly downloaded it, plugged it into my stereo, and viola! endless wonderful music. My only complaint, and it is small, is that having ascertained my alt rock bent (Radiohead, Pixies, Silversun Pickups) it plays an excess of Death Cab for Cutie (which I don’t really mind, but enough is enough) however I’m confident that with adequate training, it will get over it. Whew!

So I’ve been happily dancing and singing along in the kitchen tonight, preparing my wild rice contribution to my friends’ annual pot luck, and hope everyone has a thankful Thanksgiving.
August 15, 2009
The other day, thrilling to the new Silversun Pickups while driving on the Mass Pike to Boston, I found myself wishing that I could get the same feeling from art—the exhilaration, the physical surge in the chest—that happens when I hear great music. Roberto and I were on our way to the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) to finally catch Shepard Fairey’s show, “Supply and Demand,” before its closing tomorrow. My attempts to attend the winter opening were foiled by the weather, the following months were filled with travel and constant precipitation, so now—rain or no rain—we were making the two–hour drive.

What did I expect? Well I was a big fan of Shepard Fairey’s graphic work, and I’ve always been captivated by the way graffiti and street art in general can add (as in this photo I recently took in Reykjavik) a layer of poetry to the gritty urban landscape.

As consultant, I was enamored enough to suggest Fairey to TIME for the 2007 “Person of the Year” cover of Putin (it ultimately ran on the inside, and he did a new image of Obama for 2008’s cover) and loved his iconic Obama poster, the way it captured the spirit of the man, the campaign and the times, and how simply beautiful it was. I also admired Fairey’s philosophy—in the ridiculous brouhaha over his appropriation of the AP image of Obama (exacerbated by a news media that insists on reproducing the AP photograph not as it originally appeared but as Fairey cropped it) hardly anyone has pointed out that Fairey never intended the image as a money-maker, but made it available for free on his Web site.

However I’d also read Peter Schjeldahl’s New Yorker review, where he described the work in the show as “formulaic,” “slick and resistible,” and Christopher Knight’s review in the LA Times that talked about Fairey’s “limited pictorial vocabulary.”

Therefore I was not prepared for Art with a capital A, or a rush similar to the one I’d just gotten from the Silversun Pickups—or to find that most everyone I talked to afterwards who’d seen the show shared my enthusiasm, including a museum administrator who put it in the top five of museum shows she’s seen…ever.

It was gorgeous.

Photographs cannot reproduce the nuance, depth and complexity of Fairey’s surfaces. Clearly his inspiration comes from the street—the way peeling posters can reveal chance fragments from earlier ones, or how signs painted on the sides of buildings often wear away to expose a jumble of previous messages—yet the result is elegant and sophisticated, as well as soft and sensual. Further, Fairey wrests all this texture and nuance from what every artist knows is the most hard-edged and unforgiving of media: silkscreen.

What I want from art is that perfect marriage of concept and execution, both so fully developed that, as viewers, we are aware of neither, but powerfully in the experience. Yet I hardly ever find it—so much of what is offered seems half-realized, as if the artist is afraid to take a stand, afraid to actually make something, afraid to commit him/her self fully to an image, an object. Execution is either overdone relative to the flimsiness of the idea, or too casually rendered, as if the idea in itself should be enough. I want to see work that holds up from afar but gives me something to look at up close. I want to see art that looks as if the artist cares.

Packed with complexity and contradiction as well as humor, Fairey’s work does all these things. We stay with his messages about money, power and war because they are embedded in a richness of visual detail, the sumptuous mélange of influences (Russian Constructivism, Middle Eastern art, Pop Art, official engravings such as paper money and stamps, advertising, to name a few) that adds up to his very singular style.

It felt like a feast.

Afterwards we gave the permanent collection a run-through, but following Fairey everything seemed tepid and flat. Then, after a delicious lunch on the windy outdoor terrace overlooking the Charles, we went through the exhibition again. I attempted to get a press kit, images for this blog and to present for reviews, and to find out if the show is traveling, but was told that the administrative, curatorial and press staff were all on vacation that Thursday afternoon and photographs, even by press, were prohibited. (Photography prohibited? In a Shepard Fairey exhibition? )

We’d intended to augment our Boston visit with a stop at the Isabella Steward Gardner Museum and some fabulous seafood dinner, but decided instead to just get back in the car and drive home.

We were full.

All Shepard Fairey images borrowed from the Web, by necessity.

Silverson Pickups' "Panic Switch"