Thursday, July 11, 2019

Mormons for Truth

-- By Tom Phillips

"We Are Africa!" 
Well, we finally did it. After years of my staring at the stratospheric ticket prices for "The Book of Mormon" on Broadway, the cost came down a bit, so in these latter days I splurged $300 on two tickets for our 40th wedding anniversary.

I'll refrain from a review,  because it's already been endlessly reported that this is a great show, a hilarious send-up of the Mormon religion with dazzling song and dance numbers, a tribute to the young performers from everywhere who keep Broadway bursting with theatrical talent. My favorite song was "We Are Africa!" performed by an all-white, clean-cut corps of Mormon missionaries in a fictional version of Uganda.

Still, what I really loved about the show is that it aims its sharpest satire not at religion but at the real enemy of the truth -- the evil empire of Walt Disney. Many people are not aware of the extent to which Disney has taken over Broadway theater, turning it into a kind of Disney World in Gotham. Disney's corporate creative department churns out plastic productions and formulaic sequels for the tourist trade -- reducing classics like "Mary Poppins" or "Beauty and the Beast" to the tritest of thoughts and the most obvious emotions. If this is what people are taking home, theater has lost its function of renewing the mind.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Rolling Thunder

-- By Tom Phillips

If you've ever wondered about the mysterious reverence people born in the 1940s and 50s have for their contemporary Bob Dylan, you owe it to yourself to see Martin Scorsese's Bob Dylan Story -- "The Rolling Thunder Revue." This is Dylan and his crew at their  most intense and powerful -- calling out the changes in America and actually making them happen. To see Bobby drop everything in mid-tour, visit the falsely convicted boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter in prison,  pound out the story of the Hurricane, convince CBS Records executives to put it out, and then sing it in closeup with his teeth clenched, eyes flashing, face masked in white, trading lines with the sphinx-like fiddler Scarlet Rivera, locked in to a song of howling protest -- ashamed/ to live in a land where justice is a game! --and then to see the delight on Rubin Carter's face, his amazed satisfaction with this eloquent new not-guilty plea, is to see what art in America is capable of. 

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Hub of the Universe

-- By Tom Phillips

After sixty years of puzzlement, I finally get it. The cartwheel logo of the Boston Bruins, with a capital B at the center, refers to Boston’s traditional nickname, the Hub. I talked to five Bostonians and to my surprise, none of them knew this.  This gives me the courage to analyze Boston for them.

I’ve been trying to understand this place since my first visit in 1952, when I was ten. My father brought me up from the New York suburbs to see a Red Sox game at Fenway Park. I was excited to see Kenmore Square, which I envisioned as something like Times Square. Nothing prepared us for its sepulchral drabness. After two days in Boston my father concluded -- "This is a small town."

It still is, but not like any other small town. As the Hub, it is the biggest small town of ten thousand small towns that make up New England civilization. The wheel is not geographical but conceptual – showing the place Boston occupies not on the map of New England, but in its mind.  

Monday, May 20, 2019

White Noise: Overheard at the Biennial

-- By Tom Phillips
Nicholas Galanin: "White Noise: American Prayer Rug" 
Writers who cover Art are much more glamorous than we ordinary journalists; I noticed lots of leather and leopard-skin on women at the Whitney Biennial press preview.  (Faux, naturellement, but  expensive.) Two scribes were chatting in the row behind me as we awaited the news conference.  I didn't turn around, but took these notes: 

Says the one:  You know, I skipped the War-hole (Warhol) show.  I skipped it because I just don't like him. It seems to me he represents all that's worst about us -- the commercialism, the celebrity, sensationalism. Enough of War-hole, I say, let's move on!

Her friend agrees heartily, calling Andy Warhol the "father of Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst." They move on. Says the one:   

-- Someone asked me to write an article about art collecting. I don't want to do it because I don't believe in collecting art.  

Says her friend:  But you're a collector yourself!

-- Oh no, I'm not a collector.  I inherited most of my art.  I mean, if I see something I like and there's room on my wall -- which there isn't! -- I'll buy it.  But that's not collecting.  

Her daughter is a senior at an ultra-prestigious Ivy League college, where she's working on the student newspaper. She told her mother she was thinking of going into journalism. Her mom's  reaction: 

-- I told her, I said:  Over my dead body are you going into journalism!

 Just sayin' ... 

--- Copyright 2019 by Tom Phillips
Curran Hatleberg: "Dominoes" 

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Biennial Buzz

2019 Whitney Biennial
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
May 14, 2019 
-- By Tom Phillips 
Copyright 2019 by Tom Phillips
      "Stick," by Simone Leigh, "Incoming," by Keegan Monaghan  
Neck-deep in controversy before it even started, the 79th Whitney Biennial opened this weekend, promising a “snapshot of contemporary art-making in America.” The exhibit showcases emerging young artists, and lifts up the poor and marginalized, in the art world and American society. It also exhibits the museum's own contradictions.  

Exhibit A is a film about anti-personnel weapons that are  manufactured and sold by a director of the museum. Warren B. Kanders is CEO of Safariland, which sells tear gas canisters and other weapons to police departments and governments including the US. The film by Laura Poitras unveils a technology that can track the use of these weapons – and did when they were used by US troops against asylum-seekers at the Mexican border. Safariland’s new tear-gas product “Triple Chaser” works like a cluster-bomb, breaking into three pieces when it hits the ground. The film details the effects of the gas on its victims – as well as the bloody effects of bullets the company sells to the Israeli army, which fired them against Palestinians charging the border fence at Gaza.

Kanders says he is “not the problem” and has resisted calls for his resignation or ouster. To him, the problem is rioters and demonstrators endangering the police and soldiers who “keep us safe.”  But who exactly is “us?”  The exhibit as a whole identifies with the poor, people of color, the excluded and rejected -– and artists, struggling to survive in an art world so deeply implicated in the politics of privilege and oppression.

A few impressions from a fast preview:

A symmetrical bronze sculpture by Simone Leigh: a stylized black woman atop a ballooning skirt, bristling with black metal spikes. She’s black, beautiful, permanent, fortified.

A series of back-country and inner-city photographs by Curran Hatleberg showing the resilience of the poor, comfort amid squalor. Politics be hanged, these people say, let’s play dominoes, crawl over a broke-down truck, fool with a snake, sit by the river and smoke.

An animated cartoon of NFL football scenes that shows pity for everyone -- players kneeling at the national anthem, others standing defiant or doubt-filled, soldiers venerating the flag, the band playing on, schlumpy photographers recording the historic muddle.

An old-fashioned ringing telephone, painted in old-fashioned oils by Keegan Monaghan, ambiguously titled: “Incoming.”

The biggest, loudest statement in the show is a zombie-like outdoor "Procession" by Nicole Eisenman.  Its ruined slaves and captives made me think of a Fourth of July parade in the Hell we're headed for.

But the signature piece, to me, was one with a quieter irony: a large woven rug by American Indian artist Nicholas Galanin simulating a TV screen without a signal – nothing but “snow.” He calls it “White Noise: American Prayer Rug."     

White noise, black lives, zombies on parade, and the Gordian knot of oppression paying for the art  that rails against it. It’s impossible to take a snapshot of America, the field of vision is too wide. But curators Ru Hockney and Jane Panetta combed the countryside to try to get the sweep of it. The result is broad, inclusive, gutsy, fresh, real.

It runs through September 22 at the Whitney.

-- \Photographs by Tom Phillips

"White Noise: American Prayer Rug" 

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Beatledom without the Beat

Mark Morris Dance Group 
Brooklyn Academy of Music
May 11, 2019

-- By Tom Phillips

Great artists know where they shouldn't go.
George Balanchine, for example, never choreographed to Beethoven, because he said Beethoven's works were complete in themselves, nothing to add.  Mark Morris could have used that kind of discernment when he accepted a commission for a 50th-anniversary tribute to the Beatles’ masterpiece “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” The resulting “Pepperland” is an uncharacteristically shallow work that does worse than add nothing. It subtracts much of the album's best content -- no Lucy, no Rita! -- for original segments by composer Ethan Iverson that have only fleeting connections to the Beatles. Beyond that, the whole project completely misses the spirit and style of "Sgt. Pepper."

The Morris troupe has perfected a casual, communal style of ensemble dancing that celebrates relationships, particularly those among its dancers, who typically spend many years collaborating until their movements and mannerisms meld into each others'. This is almost a Platonic ideal of society transformed by dance. Unfortunately, it is completely at odds with the content of “Sgt. Pepper,” which brings to life a gallery of misfits and loners pursuing fantastical dreams. Morris might have reached his Platonic ideal in response to Sgt. Pepper's loneliness. But to get there he would have to walk his company through descending levels of Hell, like Virgil leading Dante. And this he would not do.

“Pepperland” begins with a promising gesture: a tight circle of dancers opens out from the center of the stage, unspooling like the grooves of an LP record. But the imaginary world the Beatles created on that disk, the psychedelic trance of “Lucy in the Sky,” the stuck-in-a-groove frustration of “Getting Better,” the narcissistic self-pity in “She’s Leaving Home,” the loopy frustration of “Lovely Rita,” and most of all the thunderous moral critique of “A Day in the Life” are all absent or caramelized into playful, sentimental pas de deux.

“When I’m 64” is a three-ring clown circus, full of gawky leaps and flopping around in groups, but the comic pathos of "will you still feed me?" is unfelt. The only song this work seems to take seriously is George Harrison’s eastern meditation “Within You Without You,” lamenting the “the space between our souls.” Harrison echoes the theme of "Sgt. Pepper" but his lyrics lack the bite of Lennon and McCartney’s –- a problem the Beatles solved by isolating this cut at the beginning of Side Two, and following it with a laugh track. Morris makes it central to “Pepperland,” with a crossed-legged dancer meditating center stage.

As for the sound: One of the Beatles' great innovations in popular music was the import of classical elements, most strikingly the harpsichord and string passages composed by producer George Martin. Still the Fab Four were fundamentally a rock band, inspired by American Rhythm-and-Blues and its solid, gritty core. Composer Iverson ignores the roots and embraces the refinements. His arrangements play around with Beatle tunes but excise their soul, banishing the thumping beat of rock for a light, airy, often atonal classical-jazz. The dancing follows the music -- predominantly classic-jazzy, with character shoes and a lot of ballet steps.  Morris makes it flow with his weaving, looping moves for shifting groups of dancers. Very charming as always, but it looks more like a tribute to Balanchine than the Beatles.

“Pepperland” is a place Mark Morris should never have gone. And if you love "Sgt. Pepper" as complete in itself, neither should you.

-- Copyright 2019 by Tom Phillips

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Parable of the Plant Kingdom

"Estado Vegetal" 
Manuela Infante 
Baryshnikov Arts Center, New York 
May 3, 2019

-- By Tom Phillips 

In medical Spanish, "Estado Vegetal" means a vegetative state, where basic life functions go on but consciousness and thought are lost. Politically, a "Vegetative State" could mean rule by the plant kingdom. This intense theatrical piece, starring a young Chilean woman and an array of potted plants, suggests such a state is exactly where humanity is headed.