August 28, 2013

Whence Whitney, Wherefore MONA?

By Jim Welke


The Whitney, by Bauhaus-trained architect Marcel Breuer

In 1929, after the Metropolitan Museum of Art refused a donation of artworks, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney founded the Whitney Museum of American Art. (These days, to acquire a memorable acronym, she might have named it WAAM.) In 1931, the museum sprang into existence in three converted row houses in Greenwich Village, NYC, one of which previously housed the Whitney Studio Club, a gallery Whitney opened in 1918. Whitney, a sculptor and art collector, financed the row house conversion. In 1954, the museum relocated to more expansive quarters, and then in 1966 moved yet again. With a collection that continued to outgrow its confines, the Whitney opened a branch at 55 Water Street, leased to the museum by building owner Harold Uris for $1, and then another satellite at Philip Morris in their Park Avenue lobby. In 2010, construction began on a new home for the Whitney in the Meatpacking District of NYC. Renzo Piano designed it, and the museum plans to move there in 2015.

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney

One might say the Whitney lived a peripatetic life, and continues to, at least until it settles into its new digs down by the High Line. In another fifty years, another move? Who knows? Art collections grow, neighborhoods change. Change is good, right?


With that prologue in mind, direct your attention to Armada Michigan (Ar-may-da). There, on a sublime summer evening (Saturday, 24-Aug-2013), the Museum of New Art (MONA) opened a satellite location with their “Art of the Auction” event. Nearly a hundred artists donated works to the auction, a benefit to fund the growing museum. And likely twice as many art fans turned out for the countryside bash. Most of the works sold, and most received multiple bids penned on sheets pinned up beside each.

MONA NORTH: the approach

MONA NORTH: the approach

The gallery occupies one and half floors of a three-story structure. The third floor offers an apartment for an artist-in-residence, along with a glass-floored work studio that will insure perpetually spectacular lighting for the gallery below. Curator Jessica Hopkins placed the paintings — along with assistant Nicole Batchik, and artist Jef Bourgeau — in a manner that allowed each member of the disparate assortment to complement its neighbor, or generate sparks, depending on the content.

MONA NORTH: first floor gallery and atrium

MONA NORTH: first floor gallery and atrium

MONA NORTH: view from 2nd floor

MONA NORTH: view from 2nd floor

MONA NORTH: 2nd floor gallery

MONA NORTH: 2nd floor gallery

MONA NORTH: 2nd floor gallery

MONA NORTH: 2nd floor gallery

MONA NORTH: 2nd floor gallery

MONA NORTH: 2nd floor gallery

MONA NORTH: 2nd floor gallery

MONA NORTH: 2nd floor gallery

In the center of the downstairs gallery floor (visible from the open second floor), a vast laser cut MONA logo captures the attention of visitors. That graceful touch, along with the sumptuous grounds and the building renovation, represent the ideals and the vision of Dr. Paul Smith, an art collector and now fully committed patron of the arts in the most old school sense of the term. Together with Jef Bourgeau, Dr. Smith envisioned, planned, and executed this first class artistic annex to MONA’s Pontiac site (an institution conceived and launched by Jef Bourgeau). Aside from the material attributes of the new venue, the organizers staffed the event with folks –all volunteer — who knew what they were doing (not least of whom would be Hanne Skaarup, MONA Operations Manager, who makes all the wheels turn). As visitors arrived, placed bids, and then waited for the closing bell of the auction, trays of hors d’oeuvres floated past at regular intervals and affable bar tenders served cool drinks with easy efficiency. A guitarist drizzled melodies down on the brick patio outside the gallery. In one corner, a fire danced in a round pit.

To any objective observer, the auction signaled an auspicious moment for the non-profit MONA’s ambitious and ongoing expansion and outreach program.

The Whitney, while peripatetic, scraped through to establish a museum dear to the hearts of patrons and recognized as essential for their preservation and presentation of American contemporary art. Without such preservation and presentation, without the critical gaze of onlookers, without non-commercial documentation of the timeline, the progress of art slows and ossifies. Museums, if well-curated, participate and reveal themselves as integral to that progress; progress that enlightens and inspires artists and observers alike, adds froth to an otherwise workaday existence, and provokes the imagination of children to envision futures we can scarcely imagine. Art plays a sustaining role in society, just as commerce, medicine, and education do. Remove art from the mix, and an inexorable gray pall descends like a curtain. The more benighted may not immediately notice, but with time all will sense the absence of art — the air of civilization grows bitter without the refreshing churn of sights, sounds, thoughts and emotions engendered by art. If you doubt, witness the oppressive destruction of art by the Taliban, the rise of Mao and the Cultural Revolution, or the crush of Stalinist Soviet Union on free-expression. All of these events stand out for their abject oppression of human spirit and ensuing darkness. When regimes crush art, so too do they crush aspiration. Nor is it reasonable to think that bureaucrats or casual observers can define such a thing as “enough” art. The art landscape levels itself. Bad art forms the subterranean strata that great art rests on. Great art reveals itself by weathering storms of critique from interested and disinterested parties alike.

Led by inspired, committed, preferably obsessive nurturers, art institutions exist as essential internal organs of society. They offer mirrors to ourselves in which we can see the past, present, and future all at a glance. They distill our collective hopes, ambitions, and fears. They form our collective emotional nervous system. The need for museums to hold that mirror up, to remind us of the past and reassure us of the future looms greater in Detroit and its environs than any other place in the US. We face perils to both prosperity and justice led by crass, craven, self-interested, shadowy back room denizens cutting deals in favor of corporations at the expense of citizens. In Detroit Metro, several essential institutions play the role of cultural seer and speak truth to power: The Detroit Institute of Arts; The Museum of Contemporary Art, Detroit; Cranbrook Art Museum; The Flint Institute of Arts (not really Detroit Metro, but close, and notable for its persistence in a city currently ruled by a state-appointed emergency manager). If you think these institutions that grew from the blood, sweat, and tears of their founders do not matter, that we could toss one aside and be none the poorer, consider North Korea as your model.

If past is prologue, MONA will be around for a while. Sometimes, when sustained by unseen devotion, a thing will seem to pop into existence like a mushroom. But MONA — extant since 1996, and like the Whitney repeatedly reincarnating — stands more as a resilient sapling than a fragile fungus. Let’s hope they bring us a perpetual stream of inspiration and wonder, as they have in the past and did at their northern auction.

The next event at MONA NORTH, DOCUMENTA USA: Artist Materials Show, occurs on September 28th, and will likely be worth a look. Even a second look since the show rolls out new materials every 100 minutes for visitors to play with.

One last thing: Hearty cheers for the artists who donated their hard wrought work. This is about them, after all.

MONA NORTH: founders Jef Bourgeau and Paul Smith

MONA NORTH: founders Jef Bourgeau and Paul Smith

MONA NORTH: Curator Jessica Hopkins

MONA NORTH: Curator Jessica Hopkins

MONA NORTH: assistant to the directors, Nicole Batchik (behind desk)

MONA NORTH: Assistant to the Directors, Nicole Batchik (behind desk)


Jef Bourgeau and Hanne Skaarup, MONA Operations Manager

Jef Bourgeau and Hanne Skaarup, MONA Operations Manager / photo: Xiang Cclc

More photos of the event: MONA NORTH ART AUCTION

More photos of the art: MONA NORTH Art Auction — the work

To learn more about MONA, read our previous story: Museum of New Art Gains New Ground

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August 1, 2013

Review: Simply Separate People… Simply Separate People, Two

by Jim Welke

crawford-simply-separate-96x150     crawford__Simply Separate People, Two


One’s self I sing, a simple, separate person

Walt Whitman


Lynn Crawford wrote two novels premised on this line of poetry — partly premised at least. You gotta be impressed with a poet that effects that sort of reaction.

No. Action.

Both of her books elucidate the lives of characters through action: big action, and small action. These stories are not defined by the thoughts of characters, by the daydreams and esprit d’escalier of a protagonist as Jean Paul Sartre might give you in the Age of Reason, or Albert Camus might deliver in The Stranger.

That is not to say Ms. Crawford’s characters are thoughtless puppets either. They are not. In fact, her characters reveal more and more depth as you read them; the way an acquaintance reveals facets as passing familiarity becomes friendship. The initial infatuation might diminish, but empathy and admiration replace infatuation. Her characters appear with a wide spectrum of shifting attributes, just as humans you meet do. Her characters, while compelling, do not appear as monochromatic archetypes. For contrast, Hemingway was a specialist in creating monochromatic archetypes. (Note: this writer is an unapologetic, eternal fan of Hemingway and has read “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” at least dozen times and “A Sun Also Rises” at least four.) But he wrote in reaction to what came before him; refining technique that came before him. And he was a fanatic about purity. Each of his characters carried the burden of symbolizing something immutable and discrete. Jake Barnes represented the cool, competent, distant observer; Brett Ashley symbolized tragic, goddess-like capriciousness borne of an infinity of influence and security — but only in the realm of trivial things. Robert Cohn represents the striver, the seeker of light who fails to see that he is blind. But Hemingway’s characters never wavered from the slot they traveled in, and that steadfastness guaranteed they would meet tragedy. They could never adapt. And Hemingway would not want them to, because that would drain energy from the forces that propel his story; centrifugal forces that spin his characters away from one another in the end.

Simply Separate People nominally describes four lives of four characters — Physh, Pumper, Seamstress, Bry — that intertwine as their stories progress, like vines that climb a tree trunk, crossing and weaving together. You could argue that Ms. Crawford devotes nearly as much effort rounding out her secondary characters, DR, DR’s sister, the mayor, Rhulera, Trowt, Euge, and Jorge, but those first four define the nucleus of the story, and largely it is their “simply separate” existences that form the nucleus of the narrative. The others orbit, like energetic particles that distinguish the elemental natures of the main four.

We see lives shattered in Simply Separate People, but only in recollections, and then through oblique references. For Physh, the character who appears at the opening of the book, we never find out the details of the tragedy that befell her, only that her once close family died — with the exception of her. The person she seems closest too (but not intimate with), a man called DR, suffered a similar tragedy except his sister survives. We learn quite a bit about this sister, but always through second hand accounts by Physh, which may or may not be reliable.

After the introduction of Physh, Ms. Crawford devotes subsequent chapters to characters whose lives intertwine with Physh’s — Pumper, Seamstress, and Bry — each of whom describe their existence in the first person. Seamstress and Pumper are each assigned two chapters, Bry one, and Physh three (she gets the last word). First person telling enhances the apparent psychological revelations of these characters, or so you might think, except these soliloquies appear as journal entries or “documentation” as Bry calls it. The passages are generously detailed, but as they progress the reader begins to think that anything committed to a journal passes through a filter of self-conscious editing by the super-ego. Hence the intertwining of these simply separate lives.

If the story were told by an omniscient third person narrator, we likely would not question the reliability of the telling; redundant but slightly divergent telling would be eliminated; and we would see more of how the lives progressed in parallel (how events affected the lives), rather than how the characters minutely influence one another, and thus influence events.

In both Simply Separate People and Simply Separate People, Two, Ms. Crawford uses a subtle tactic to amplify the apparent veracity of her characters’ disquisitions: she allows each to speak in their own vernacular, such that the tone, vocabulary, and punctuation change with each change of first person narration. This might seem obvious, but Ms. Crawford devotes each chapter to a unique voice, not merely dialog bracketed in quotes with a bit of sloppy slang, liaisons, and contractions thrown in as local color. As you move along, you become accustomed to one voice as that of the author. You think, “Oh, this is how she writes; how she constructs sentences, punctuates, chooses words, adds adjectives.” And then you begin another chapter and think, “This could have been written by an entirely different author.” That’s not the same as mixing up tone and dialect in a stretch of dialog. It’s almost like the author self-induced schizophrenia, at least in terms of writing voice. And writing voice — finding your voice as they say — is something writers strive to do (without overtly striving, one hopes) to stand out amongst authors and be recognizable to readers. Once attained, they don’t often toss that voice aside for a new one. In Simply Separate People, we witness mental gymnastics by Ms. Crawford, but like all great performers she makes it look so easy we hardly notice.

As the narrative in Simply Separate People unfolds, some strange things happen: Physh house-sits in a co-op apartment owned by the sister of her confidant, DR. The apartment “sits at the edge of a huge, dirty city with narrow streets, unsanitary rivers, and earsplitting traffic… held together with a decoration theme: country. Complex flower, ivy and other plant arrangements; weave rugs, gingham-checked cushions.” The sister keeps her telescopes on the balcony of the apartment, which she describes as her “observatory.” The sister explains, “Without telescopes you can’t separate figures individually.” And with that we inspect Ms. Crawford’s world through a telescope.

Following that initial introductory meeting between Physh and the sister, the sister never again appears directly but communicates mostly by fax with Physh, or through DR via phone. The sister goes off on “global business” and does not return. Clearly, this sister of DR possesses some rare qualities. But it’s not just the sister, Ms. Crawford slips in anecdotes throughout the book that could only be described as magical realism; magical realism worthy of Gabriel Garcia Marquez:

Trowt had developed a chocolate in his well-equipped kitchen using double boilers, beaters, rubber spatulas. The homemade sweet became a hit with dinner guests. Many rallied around him, convincing him to make and package batches to sell in stores specializing in coffee and confections. A designer friend helped make eye-catching wrapping and lettering which the Pumper and I had probably seen.

One week several people in the city died, all attacked by domestic animals — pets with no violence in their history. Most attackers were dogs but there were a few cats, one snake and a bird. Traces of Trowt’s chocolates were found in all victims’ digestive systems. One personal trainer had traces on her teeth; she had eaten the candy that recently. More recent was the restaurant owner who had a small, ½ melted square in his mouth under his tongue.

Simply Separate People II continues the story of Bry begun in Simply Separate People. Except Physh, Pumper, and Seamstress slip into the background as expositional elements. Bry and her husband, Euge, raised their first set of twins in the country but now they move to the city where Euge takes on a new job. Bry gives birth to a second set of twins. Jorge, Euge’s father, joins them in the move to the city. Jorge appears in the first Simply Separate People, and plays a mystical role in both stories (and makes one wonder if Jorge is a reference to Jorge Luis Borges), but read the books if you hope to grasp that role.

Bry says of her husband and their move to the city:

He likes it here, in this urban expanse, though he frequently visits our land, stables and house back home. I, too, visit home, but not as frequently as he does.

Navigating this big, dirty city requires feeling lonesome and brave. Maybe this is what cowboys or pioneers experienced as they plotted their courses through empty western spaces.

Euge is an outdoorsman back home. However, he enjoys this urban center, especially his job here, I am sure, because he is able to incorporate his knowledge of the outdoors in his life here. He is the head guide at an immense indoor activities association. The club has horses, lakes, stables, rivers, cliffs, ski areas, and offers classes on cabin building, stargazing, astronomy, rafting, fishing, and hunting. Euge is the only guide certified to teach members to train, ride, and whisper to horses. The management relies on him to keep activities and classes realistic.

With her husband off at work, Bry takes up creative writing while her three-year-old twins nap or are otherwise engaged. Prior to writing she tried triathlon training, but found her female peers too demanding and judgmental — they were urban super-moms who insist on strict compliance with their training and child-rearing regimen. Bry compares them to vicious pit bulls. With writing, Bry finds a solitary outlet for innate talent and creativity. And here, Simply Separate People II takes a twist not present in the first book: Ms. Crawford incorporates Bry’s creative writing as chapters, forcing an abrupt transition to a new set of characters, a new voice, in a new vernacular. In the first such transition, Bry retraces the plot of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, but updates the characters with modern sensibilities, and relocates them from Pamplona to a “yoga conference” entitled “SACRED FLOW = TRANSFORMATION.” You might think this impossible; too far out to sea from Hemingway’s literary island. But Ms. Crawford pulls it off; creates characters with vastly different world view, but similar monochromatic intensity to those in The Sun Also Rises.

In the second and last chapter of Bry’s writing experiments, the story derives from The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James. Bry’s version takes place in northern Michigan, out in the woods. She mimics the structural pattern of the James novella — the building suspense, the ambiguity of character intent — but with modern tropes and dialect, and with those magical elements that tip the reader off balance:

I walk out to the sandy beach, sit down in the large deck chair facing the lake, wait. I have a feeling that I know what is going to happen. It is that time of day, the sky turns a sort of gold, and I expect to see the brothers run out of the woods and into the water. Sure enough, within moments, they come running out of the woods, arms linked running into the freezing cold Lake Huron. They stop at the water’s edge and scream, “YES” as icy waves lap over their shins and thighs and torsos. They dive into the water, swim out far. I see them do jumping jacks, handstands, flips in the water. After awhile they return to the beach, do some more calisthenics. I believe that they do the same routine Sue and I did the other morning. They take one last plunge in the lake. I cannot stop watching them. I notice they have muscular arms, wear tight, short sleeve shirts, have erect nipples. They walk toward me on the reclining beach chair. I stand up, wonder if Sue and Dan are going to see any of this from the house, and ask the brothers if they want to come inside and join us for a beer.

“We don’t drink,” they both answer at once.

“Well,” I answer, “I mean, you can have other things besides beer to drink: water or something warm…”

“You misunderstand. We do not drink. Anything. Liquid turns solid in our mouths,” says Chris.

“How do you hydrate?”

“We absorb liquids through our skin. This is one reason why swimming is so important,” says Chris.

“And the rain, the snow,” says Dave.

After awhile I ask, “Well, do you want to come in for a visit?”

“Another time. We have some fruit to rinse, some mushrooms to fry,” says Chris.

They turn around, jog back into the woods.

The use of stories within stories reminds one of Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, a postmodern ramble with alternating narrators and narratives. Postmodern tendencies exist in Ms. Crawford’s work: multiple points of view with loosely connected narratives; solipsistic, individualistic characters veering toward nihilism; the borrowing of plots (from Hemingway and James); the dismissal of social and cultural conventions (in the big dirty city, at least).

You can read Simply Separate People and Simply Separate People, Two superficially and find engaging stories with interesting, often startling plots, and characters with sufficient depth to believably support those plots. Or, you can dig deeper and delight in the fine tuned writing craft of Ms. Crawford. Either way, these books are worth a read. On second read they give the reader even more gifts.


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