Sunday, May 29, 2011

Leonora Carrington: Viva la reina!

The grande dame of Surrealism, Leonora Carrington, died last week at age 94. One of modernism's greatest (if under appreciated) minds leaves us with a vibrant legacy of dream landscapes, obscured figures, hybrid animals, the eye of mythos.

Carrington was one of the pioneering women who broke into the new old boy's club of modernist art (why was the "anxiety of influence" primarily a revolt of sons against fathers?). Her life-story was dramatic, her friends and rivals included Kahlo, Ernst, Dali, Miro, Picasso. For more, click here and here .

Lobster & Canary think we see her subterranean influence on many writers (Angela Carter perhaps) and artists (Marina Abramovic, Rebecca Horn) since. What a study that would be! And most intriguing: Carrington's putative, if unrealized, impact on many popular musicians of the past few decades. Think Madonna, Patti LaBelle, Annie Lennox, Grace Jones ("Slave to the Rhythm" reads like a Carrington painting come to life), Bjork, Missy Elliott.

Right down to relative newcomers such as Rihanna ("Disturbia," "Party Like A Rockstar"), Janelle Monae, Lady Gaga, and the Katy Perry of her Kanye West collaboration on "E.T."

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Long Island City Open Studio Tour: "An Alien with Extraordinary Abilities" (Jose Carlos Casado); "A Numerical Family Portrait" (Tania Alvarez); "Numbers" (David Ferris)

Yesterday afternoon the Lobster & Canary visited dozens of artists in their open studios as part of the first-ever Long Island City Arts Open Festival (click here for more).

Long Island City (on the westernmost edge of Queens, with spectacular views of midtown Manhattan right across the East River) has a long-standing community of artists and the community is growing. LIC is-- along with Mott Haven in the Bronx, and Gowanus, Red Hook, Greenpoint and Bushwick in Brooklyn-- becoming what Soho and East Village were in the 1980s and DUMBO and Williamsburg were at the turn of the century: a hotbed of eclectic artistic innovation.

We saw many finely wrought, beautiful and thought-spurring works by established artists, e.g., Elliott Lloyd, Marilee Cooper, Janya Barlow, Gustavo Schmidt. We'll feature them in future posts, but want today to highlight three up-and-coming talents to watch: Jose Carlos Casado, Tania Alvarez, and David Ferris.

Casado (his site is here) is a surrealist of the first order. We loved his 3-D film-- part of his "An Alien with Extraordinary Abilities" series-- of an ostrich (slightly Looney Toon-ish) running in slow motion and in place, in the foreground of a very pedestrian, slightly smudged, greyish village scene. (You can watch this, and other of his mystifying short films, on his website). He inserts elephants in domestic settings, entices viewers with sly-looking dragons, merges bodies in his "Matrix" and "New Bodies" series and more.

Alvarez (her site is here) is developing a vocabulary of memory, loss, and the passage of time with her multi-media works. We were enthralled with two of her pieces in particular, paintings with ticking clocks embedded in a canvas carefully strewn with letters and numbers. When we asked the title of the larger piece, Alvarez smiled and said that she had not yet found a suitable title, but that the painting was a "numerical family portrait." (Her disregard for title, at least for the moment, reminds me of the Baziotes quote: "One can begin a picture and carry it through and stop it and do nothing about the title at all"; indeed, though her style differs greatly from that of Baziotes, Alvarez's oblique narratives share something of Baziotes's sensibility). Alvarez reminds us of Twombly with her calligraphic elements, and of Stephen Hannock's miniscule, half-hidden textual contours to his Oxbow paintings. Alvarez's sense of composition also brings to mind Guston. In short, Alvarez has much to say and an intriguing way to say her closely.

Ferris also has a thing for numbers and letters, in his case creating almost Platonic ideal versions of them in exquisitely hand-carved and finished wood. Ferris is thinking about space and form in ways that echo Brancusi and Lewitt, combining a keen artisanal hand with the fractionating eye of a logician. His walls are covered floor to ceiling with supple drawings that both are and document the evolution of the form that Ferris then calls out of the wood. Click here for more of his beauty.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Design Week in New York City: Cowardly Lion Mirror at Wanted Design

It's international Design Week in Gotham, with shows large (the International Contemporary Furniture Fair and the National Stationery Show at the Javits Center) and small (pop-ups and individual boutique & gallery appearances) all over Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Lobster & Canary was at the Friday opening of a new show, Wanted Design, at the refitted Terminal Warehouse show space at 28th & 11th in Chelsea. Sponsors include Dwell magazine, the Institut Francais, and Bang & Olufsen, with exhibitors including Ligne Roset, Objeto Brasil, Voos Furniture, Normann Copenhagen, Triode Design, Les Heritiers...and Brooklyn's own rising stars Colleen & Eric.

Colleen & Eric featured prominently the "Cowardly Lion Mirror," whose signature paws were carved by our very own Deborah A. Mills. In this case, the Lobster & Canary make no pretense of impartiality: those paws rock, and so does their creator!

For more information click here:

Deborah A. Mills Woodcarving

Colleen & Eric

Wanted Design

International Contemporary Furniture Fair

National Stationery Show

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Alchemically Yours (Pam Grossman; The Observatory; Visions of Golden Moons, Antimony and the Nix Alba)

[Robert M. Place "Caduceus" detail 2011]

Lobster & Canary attended last night's thronged opening at The Observatory in Gowanus (Brooklyn) of the Pam Grossman-curated art show, Alchemically Yours. Pam-- who is also the author of Phantasmaphile (a must-read blog; if you like L & C, you will like Phantasmaphile)-- has a luscious and graceful approach, with an unswerving ability to find and juxtapose "the beautiful detail" around a common theme. We especially like her talent for calling forth depths of emotion and mystical understanding from within a small ambit: the exhibit space at The Observatory is intimate, and the works selected by Pam are like narrow apertures into half-dark worlds where suns are twinned and manticores slide silently through thickets of silver-leafed trees.

This etching-- "Abraxas" by Marina Korenfeld (2004)-- called to me from across the room. Korenfeld is a relative newcomer, most definitely a talent to watch. Her early training included puppetry, which shows in the balanced, floating quality of her figures, in their lines and ranginess (she has a series of fish drifting above people and landscapes that epitomizes her "aeriality"). She calls on East European folklore and the works of Klee, she points to Eco, Borges, Hesse and Marquez as literary influences. She says on her website: "I deeply believe that only by delving into the enigmas of the self and moving the boundaries of your knowledge, can an individual truly engage with the world and bring about change in a profound, meaningful way. These are the principles my paintings are about, symbolized in my mystical blue bird, imaginary fishes, and flying women."

Other highlights included catching up in person with Adela Leibowitz, whom L & C interviewed February 10, 2010 ("Luminous Dreamscapes"). Adela's two paintings in this show are a departure for her, being close-ups of individuals, but they glow with the same force as her more expansive work.

Molly Crabapple has a piece in the show (a sort of Elvis character with devil horns crooning to a theater full of pigs in hats), likewise Sarah Antoinette Martin (whose work always feels alchemical to me). "Old Mistress" Ann McCoy has several stunning variations on her rose-bird themes-- I love her Pfauinsel installation from 2005, the story for which begins "In the reign of the endless winter the sun was a pale memory in the heavens and dark clouds covered the palaces of the East and the West."

Alchemically Yours is self-assured, vibrant, evocative. Much good to see and feel, plus a library of works on alchemy, and the usual eccentricity of The Observatory space (Oulipo "writhing" cheek by jowl with neo-Cornellian boxes, Victorian morbidity, odd taxidermy, specimens in jars, etc.).

Runs through June 12th-- highly recommended.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

"Sleep No More": The Memory of Sinful Loss; The Terrible Presence of Absence

"He asked me if in fact I had not found some of the movements of the puppets (especially the smaller ones) very graceful during their dance. This conclusion I could not deny."

---Heinrich von Kleist, "On the Marionette Theater" (1810; Lobster & Canary trans.)

On Wednesday evening, we saw Sleep No More, the sold-out hit play by the U.K. troupe Punchdrunk (it opened in March this year--its initial six-week run has been extended into June). This is only the second appearance in the U.S.A. by Punchdrunk; they presented a smaller version of Sleep No More in 2009 in Boston.

Click here and here for more information.

Sleep No More is an adaptation of MacBeth. True enough, but that is like saying the Empire State Building is an adaptation of Cleopatra's Needle. Sleep No More is a brilliant, interstitial phantasmagoria, an explicit homage to Hitchcock (including use of Bernard Herrman's scores), a chimera combining elements of the haunted house on the midway, the Theater of Cruelty, Man Ray's juxtapositions, The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, Cocteau's Beauty & The Beast, a designer showroom, Ernst's Une Semaine de Bonte, an experimental sound concert (think DJ Spooky or John Zorn), film noir, a film by Bunuel, a novel by Sebald, a passion play, a pantomime, Alice, medieval bestiaries and Renaissance theories of the grotesque, an art installation (by Anselm Kiefer, for instance, or Leonardo Drew, or Louise Nevelson), the old Catholic Tenebrae Mass, a touch of Tim Burton and a dash of Edward Gorey, an interactive video game (Silent Hill comes to mind), a graphic novel drawn by Moebius, cabaret, a music box, a museum of the damned, a cabinet of curiosities.

The set is an entire building in NYC's Chelsea district, six floors with c. 90 rooms, each room meticulously and elaborately dressed, encrusted with details that are clues to the mystery of Macbeth. The audience-- each member donning a white, beaked mask as if on the Rialto, and sworn to silence-- participates in the unfolding event, with the actors embracing Grotowski's direct-engagement principles. Sleep No More is utterly immersive, in essence a massive LARP (live-action role-playing game) where the script is plastic and no one knows for certain what comes next.

We chose to wander at will through the rooms, creating multiple narratives from the mass of things presented, which were periodically pierced by the arc of Macbeth (the sudden eruption of a fight in front of our faces, wails and cries in the distance, a tailor or a detective sitting focused on his or her inscrutable work, the banquet scene viewed from the railing of an amphitheater). Here is what we experienced:

Time compressed and collapsed upon itself.  2011 became 1933 (Sleep No More's central conceit is having the action occur in a hotel and nightclub in that year),  became c. 1605 when Shakespeare wrote MacBeth, which relates events from the Middle Ages and themes that stem from ancient Greek tragedy, all interleaved with motifs from the Renaissance, the Baroque and the Victorian periods.  Like Woolf's Orlando, we lived in all and none of these eras simultaneously.

Space distorted and elongated itself.  We wandered through a labyrinth, Borgesian circular ruins, Benjamin's Passagenwerke come to life, the decrepit, ominous streets of Lovecraft's Innsmouth, a Joseph Cornell box grown monstrously large.  Tangled, imbricated space, washed in sepia and the color of soot.  We were in October Country, taken into the fairy howe. 

We lost our sense of scale.  Were we giants observing the details of small lives, or were we ourselves become miniatures surveyed by a demiurge unseen?  We were grotesques viewing grotesqueries, such that reality merged with unreality to become hyper-reality.  As Joyce Carol Oates says:  "...we should sense immediately, in the presence of the grotesque, that it is both 'real' and 'unreal' simultaneously, as states of mind are real enough--emotions, moods, shifting obsessions, beliefs--though immeasurable."

Space took on a life of its own, like the fugitive, predatory streets in China Mieville's story "Reports of Certain Events in London" (2004) or the oppressive, endless, self-referential corridors in Peake's world-castle Gormenghast (1946).  Like the living architecture in the Hypnerotomachia Poliphilli (1499) and Piranesi's Imaginary Prisons (1745-1761).  Or the Theater of Memories built by Giulio Camillo in the sixteenth century, of which a correspondent with Erasmus wrote "the beholder may at once perceive with his eyes everything that is otherwise hidden in the depths of the human mind."  Like the scene-changing, wish-fulfillment rooms in the vampiric Holiday House, in Clive Barker's The Thief of Always (1992), or the lair of The Other Mother in Coraline by Neil Gaiman (2002).   Like the ballroom in the house of the gentleman with the thistle-down hair, where the guests dance all night every night while their true selves languish elsewhere, in Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (2004).

We walked a queer street of shops, dimly lit by candles that seemed to make the cornered darkness deeper.  A grisaille scene, with cloudy windows full of obscure items.   Inside, dusty vitrines--trollish-- presented ill-defined artifacts.  A candy store with rows of back-lighted candy jars, but what floats in the large smoky-ruby-red jars on the topmost shelf?  An herbarium with sheaves and sheaves of dried plants hanging, witch bottles suspended from branches, bones (animal, we think) crossed in boxes of dirt on the tables, a sickle lies athwart, alchemical signs chalked on the walls.

Rooms and rooms.  A nursery, with an empty antique crib, above which float-- like dozens of balloons-- stuffed, headless baby clothes, an enormous dangle-toy for the missing infant.  Next door is a room with a bed empty save for a teddy bear, but, wait, in the misty mirror there is a pool of blood on that bed, spin round to examine the bed and it is once more pristine.  A room with nothing but ranks of deep tubs, each with a scrub brush and a weighing scale neatly set beside it.  A room naked except for twenty suitcases hanging from the ceiling.  A room with crumpled clothes, in the midst of which sits a stuffed dog, silently howling.  A vast chamber containing a blue-lit forest, a path within winding to a spindly, wrought-iron gate and fence enclosing a stuffed goat.  Hecate's land.

Nestled and jumbled within the rooms, all manner of cabinets, garderobes, chests, more cabinets, drawers and drawers and drawers, wardrobe drawers, some half-open, revealing the leavings of a lifetime.  (As Bachelard puts it, "Does there exist a single dreamer of words who does not respond to the word 'wardrobe'?").  Involute, the endless fractioning of space, ever more intimate, ever more secret, for the holding and treasuring and ordering of things.

Above all, a multiplicity, a surfeit of things.  Every surface, vertical or horizontal, smothered by things.  Realia, archived and indexed in accordance with enigmatic systems, a slantwise abecedarium, a cryptic reliquary, "from wonder to insight; uncommon arrangements and smart things" (to use a phrase by Barbara Stafford).  But, in Sleep No More's MacBeth,  insights into what?  Framed pictures covering the walls from floor to ceiling (sometimes turned to face the wall), walls reticulated with mysterious notes, cuttings, empty envelopes pinned up.  Here sprung into mute and eerie life are the over-stuffed interiors described by Wharton and James, by Proust, the "queerest of rooms" in Our Mutual Friend, the dining room at the opening of Buddenbrooks, the dismal parlor Balzac describes at the very start of Pere Goriot.  Chandeliers shrouded in white muslin, acres of plush carpet, flocked wallpaper.  Crumbling surfaces and detritus, like the images staged and preserved by Rosamund Purcell. 

Things, as Susan Stewart notes, can open themselves to "reveal a secret life--indeed, to reveal a set of actions and hence narrativity and history outside the given field of perception."

Things:  inkwells, keys, manual typewriters, carefully bundled samples of human hair, playing cards, braces of dead pheasants hanging from the ceiling, killing jars, stuffed and mounted birds and animals by the score, rotary phones, apothecary jars, dental tools, rows and rows of moldering books (hymnals, Wilhelmine scientific treatises, forgotten poetry), spools of thread, bell jars, papers, mirrors, many packages and boxes bound and tied, musical scores, crucifixes and statues of the Virgin Mary in myriad small alcoves, knives and forks set upright as crosses in tiny plots of sand, bibelots of every description, clocks, ledgers, anatomical specimens, memento mori. 

What then finally to make of (in Marianne Moore's words) "this dried bone of arrangement...the vast indestructible necropolis"?  Under the mortmain of its huge array of things and beneath its pervasive musical accompaniment (the hiss and pop of 1930s records crooning, interspersed with the rush of wind and roll of thunder), Sleep No More presents the spectator/participant with a hollow at its core.  A moth-silence, a stillness.  A congealed impasto of memory, the residue of the murder and torment that has taken place in these rooms.  In every room an empty tableaux but there is fresh hair in the hairbrush, human warmth on the piano keys, today's date on the half-finished letter...the inhabitants seem only to have just stepped out, perhaps mere minutes before we arrived.  They might return.

Or they might not.  Sleep No More's hotel for us appears as a cenotaph, filled with ghosts and shadows clinging to the possessions of both the murderers and the victims, and all those who (like us) just stood and watched.  Encyclopedic memory embalmed; in Pierre Nora's words, "remembrance within the sacred."  A submerged and crimson version of the house described by Woolf in her "Lady in the Looking Glass: A Reflection" (1929):  "The house was empty.....The room that afternoon was full of ...lights and shadows, curtains blowing, petals falling - things that never happen, so it seems, if someone is looking. The quiet old country room with its rugs and stone chimney pieces, its sunken book-cases and red and gold lacquer cabinets, was full of such nocturnal creatures. ...And there were obscure flushes and darkenings too, as if a cuttlefish had suddenly suffused the air with purple; and the room had its passions and rages and envies and sorrows coming over it and touting it, like a human being."

This then is Punchdrunk's remarkable achievement with Sleep No More: they conjure forth "passions and rages and envies and sorrows" by embedding (entombing?) the theater-goer into a world of memory.  Their nautilus-chambered set and profusion of props create story-- a singular and praiseworthy feat.  By insisting that we seek for understanding in things as they are possessed and ordered by people rather than interrogating the people themselves, Punchdrunk enables and simultaneously forces us to live vicariously through a sinful loss and abide with the painful presence of absence.  

Suggestions for Further Reading

Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (Beacon, 1994; orig. French, 1958).

Philipp Blom, To Have and to Hold: An Intimate History of Collectors and Collecting (Overlook, 2002).

Pierre Nora, "Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Memoire," Representations 26 (Spring, 1989).

Joyce Carol Oates, "Reflections on the Grotesque" (afterword to Oates, Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque, 1994).

Rosamund Purcell, Bookworm: The Art of Rosamund Purcell (Quantuck Lane, 2006)

Purcell et al., Egg and Nest (Belknap/Harvard, 2008).

Barbara Stafford, Good Looking: Essays on the Virtues of Images (MIT, 1996).

Stafford & Frances Terpak, Devices of Wonder: From the World in a Box to Images on a Screen (Getty Research Institute, 2001).

Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Duke, 1993).