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KC News Features / Steve Shapiro
Published 01/29/2010 - 12:07 a.m. CDT

“Mouthful of Words”

Lesley Dill at Byron Cohen Gallery

Reviewed by Steve Shapiro

Of the many words used by critics, curators and art-goers to describe contemporary art—such as angry, baffling, cryptic, daring, extravagant and exasperating—the word haunting gets little play. Perhaps it is because so much of today’s work has a mass-produced feel, or no feel at all.

Modernism was predicated in part on an industrial, almost clinical, quality; the warmth of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century paintings were overtaken by the cold porcelain of Duchamp’s urinal and the mechanical engineering of Cubism. Art since the twentieth century has come to mean anything, yet often unconnected to the idea (and the ideal) of the artist’s hand.

The sense of art that proves most haunting is art with a human touch. A Vermeer portrait, suffused with the artist’s personal intent (combined with technical prowess), can thus be linked to, say, Giacometti’s sculptures with their evidence of puttied fingerprints, and to Hannah Höch’s collages, onward to Joseph Cornell’s boxes, Richard Serra’s torqued steel arcs, and Lesley Dill’s hands-on works of copper, wire, steel, horsehair, rice paper, and thread.

Published 01/07/2010 - 9:36 p.m. CDT

Are "First Friday" crowds there to see the art or each other? (Photo: Michael McClure)

By Steve Shapiro

The novelist John Dos Passos once complained of New Year’s celebrations, “Why won’t they let a year die without bringing in a new one on the instant; can’t they use birth control on time? I want an interregnum. The stupid years patter on with unrelenting feet, never stopping—rising to little monotonous peaks in our imaginations at festivals like New Year’s and Easter and Christmas—but, goodness, why need they do it?”

Unlike other activities that run cyclically (dining out, say, or shopping or after too many dinners, out come the diet books), the arts are year-round. Creativity does not take a holiday. Yet, as the byproduct of all that inspiration and composition comes to a head with movie nominations, best-of lists and announcements of inductions into this or that arts academy, it makes sense to reflect on the arts in this tiny interregnum.

New Year’s resolutions for both the artist and the audience seem in order, perhaps now more than ever.

Each day heralds a new technological advance—right now, the seismic vibrations over Apple’s rumored “tablet” are as intense as any approaching earthquake—even if the result is not intended as a cure for cancer, but rather as a spur to eat up more of our free time.

Published 12/31/2009 - 8:40 p.m. CDT

"Stubble Fire West of Topeka" by Jeff Aeling is part of his "Looking West" exhibit at Sherry Leddy Contemporary Art through Jan. 2nd

(Images available online at www.sherryleedy.com)

Reviewed by Steve Shapiro

What do you see in a photograph? What do you notice first in a painting? The easy answer—an image, or if the work is abstract, an efflorescence of colors—is not wholly accurate.

A painting may gleam with oil on canvas; but as you look at the scene, whether figurative or abstract, you simultaneously take in the effect of the materials—whether the paint has been smoothed on or galumphed on heavily, built up like van Gogh did—as well as the artist’s touch: John Singer Sargent’s refined hand allowed for the daubs of paint to become part of the scene. A photograph may seem more straightforward; yet from its inception in eighteenth century French photography has been all about exposing technique and framing the artist’s imagination.

The recent combined painting / photography exhibition, “Jeff Aeling: Looking West” and “Carl Corey: Habitat,” at Sherry Leedy Contemporary Art settles one question as it brings up another. The two artists are quite different in approach and aesthetic.

Published 12/03/2009 - 9:20 p.m. CDT

Cast in Photo: Zachary Carter Sayle (Ralphie), Katherine McNamara (Esther Jane), Alexiya Lourdes Mendez (Mary Beth), Dakota Hoar (Schwartz)

Steve Shapiro

It is often said that the Christmas season brings out both the best and the worst in people; the same can be said of creative artists. Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol,” first published in London, in 1843 (he composed it in six weeks), was, even for one so popular and influential as him, a success of another order. Bob Dylan’s recently released album of Christmas songs, “Christmas in the Heart,” is a similar surprise, coming from a songwriter so identified with his own visions. Yet there are many artistic coals in stockings, from the multifarious “Carol” film adaptations to the treacly holiday albums by singers who evince little Christmas spirit in their work the rest of the year and the annual parade of so-called inspirational books by celebrities. Christmas, after all, is a time of celebration, even if it goes no further than the checkout line.

The idea of the Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s production of “A Christmas Story, the Musical!” (which opened November 28 and runs through January 3 at Spencer Theatre on the UMKC campus) is to offer a corollary production to its annual “A Christmas Carol.” The Dickens play has been a tradition at the Rep for twenty-nine years; Eric Rosen, the new artistic director, has been active in rethinking the Rep’s schedule, and like a painter re-hanging his canvas he was wise to look for another holiday play that might connect the theatergoer expectations of old for a holiday story with a new twist on the theme of family and giving.

Published 11/19/2009 - 4:47 p.m. CDT

Animal Skin Tobacco Bag, ca. 1820. North American Indian, Eastern Plains. Animal skin, porcupine quills, wool cloth, silk ribbon, bird claws, brass bells and buttons, glass beads, metal cones, feather and animal hair. Anonymous gift, 2002.24.

By Steve Shapiro

The continuing renovation and transformation of the Nelson-Atkins Museum, from a staid institution clad in nineteenth-century architecture and led by early twentieth-century aesthetics, to a state-of-the-art twenty-first-century media-tropolis of computer screens, sleek-looking galleries, and shopping kiosks, reinforces the notion, at once classical and modernist, that how art is exhibited is as important as the art itself. From the conceptually futuristic space that is Steven Holl’s Bloch addition and the bounteous Hallmark endowment of its photography collection, to the recently opened American Art Wing and the yet-to-be-unveiled Egyptian Wing (due for Spring, 2010), the Nelson is providing thoughtful, theoretical, and thematic contexts for its contents.

The newly-opened American Indian Galleries, on the second floor, replace the modern and contemporary works that never quite fit in within the plain white walls—the raucous paintings and Dan Flavin fluorescent light tubes seemed jumbled together, like all the artifacts squeezed together floor-to-ceiling in Charles Foster Kane’s estate Xanadu at the end of “Citizen Kane.”

Published 11/05/2009 - 8:50 p.m. CDT

Rare photo of Charles Darwin (Photo: Linda Hall Library)

.By Steve Shapiro

We know so much about Charles Darwin; yet we know so little. His visage, that balding, bearded face with a serious mien, is as iconic as the one (supposed) portrait of Shakespeare.

It would be nice to think we can guess what he is contemplating, and why he is always frowning in photographs: perhaps because he knows what the world will be like after the publication of his book “On the Origin of Species.”

Like “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “Leaves of Grass,” published respectively in 1851 and 1855, when “Origin” was finally released in England by the prestigious publisher John Murray, in 1859, after a gestation period of more than twenty years, it proved to be the bombshell that both the Civil War novel and strange American poem were perceived to be, initially.

Published 10/22/2009 - 8:19 p.m. CDT

“Palomino,” David Cale’s one-man show now running at The Kansas City Repertory Theatre (Photo: Photos by Don Ipock Photography)

Steve Shapiro

The finale of “Palomino,” David Cale’s one-man show now running at The Kansas City Repertory Theatre, is really the beginning.

In ninety minutes, on a virtually empty stage, the playwright-actor-director takes the audience back and forth in time, from Central Park to a London publishing house to the shores of Malta. Like a model pacing up and down a runway in one outfit after another, Cale—using only his voice and his body and, most importantly, both his and our imaginations—puts himself into several characters, both male and female, without ever forgetting his performing self. Theater critics write about “breaking the fourth wall,” stepping off the stage, so to speak, that traditionally separates the artifice from the audience. Here, Cale welcomes the disappearance.

Essentially a monologue, “Palomino” deepens through the use not only of a multi-character “cast” but through Cale’s fully inhabiting each of them. Monologists such as Eric Bogosian and playwrights such as Alan Bennett, in his “Talking Heads” character monologues, usually do all the heavy lifting first: the play’s the thing, as Shakespeare put it; but the writing is the play.

Published 10/08/2009 - 4:01 p.m. CDT

Andrew Wyeth, Pageboy, 1979; dry-brush on paper, 16 3/8 x 19 3/4 inches; Courtesy of Adelson Galleries and Frank E. Fowler

By Steve Shapiro

The Wyeth family has survived, much like two other American dynasties, the Kennedys and the Barrymores, through an admixture of independence and intimacy.

If Joseph P. Kennedy expected one if not all of his sons to assume the presidency, N.C., the Wyeth patriarch and illustrator of Scribner’s Classics, yearned for his children to devote themselves to the same painting style as his: naturalistic detailed scenes of man and Nature.

The Wyeths are bound together as ambitiously as the Kennedys, though their art has degraded over time from N.C. to his grandson Jamie, just as Lionel Barrymore’s thespian legend can be found in name only with his grandniece, Drew. Yet, despite its omissions and disappointments, the new show at the Kemper Museum of Art, “The Wyeths: Three Generations of Artistry” (running through November 29), makes evident that sometimes familiarity breeds contentment.

For people over fifty, N.C. Wyeth’s exciting illustrations to “Treasure Island” and “Kidnapped” are half the memories of reading—of becoming immersed in, really—novels that triggered youthful imaginations.

For those under fifty, Andrew (N.C. and his wife Carol’s youngest of five children), is known for the much reproduced and parodied “Christina’s World.” Their dominance within the family, as opposed to the art establishment that has never embraced them, feels as insular as in a Faulkner tale where the outside world endures as a threat to change.

The family traces itself back to the Battle of Concord and Bunker Hill; N.C., born in 1882, filled himself and his children up on American history: Thoreau and Robert Louis Stevenson, the Saturday afternoon matinees and “The Saturday Evening Post” (one of the many magazines that defined American life). His son, Andrew, carried forth that spirit until his death, this January, at age ninety-one; as recounted in the infrequent interviews he gave throughout his seventy-five year career and in Richard Meryman’s comprehensive 1996 biography, Wyeth growled about abstraction, critics, realism, and being misunderstood both outside and in America.

Published 09/24/2009 - 10:56 p.m. CDT

"Red Riding Hood" (Photo by Don Ipock Photography)

 By Steve Shapiro

The composer Stephen Sondheim, now seventy-nine, cut his Broadway teeth on such popular hits as “West Side Story,” “A Funny Thing Happened to Me on the Way to the Forum” and “Gypsy,” not that any of them were routine at the time; only that, on his own, his musicals—and the American musical form—became something more than for an audience of-towners or families to take in at an afternoon matinee. Sondheim’s rage of interests, from assassins to twins, from Bergman’s movie “Smiles of a Summer Night” to Aristophanes’ play “The Frogs,” from American history to Victorian barbers to the pointillist art of Seurat, all reflect an unconventional second take on customs and traditions. Sondheim gives twice as good as he gets.

Published 12/17/2009 - 11:16 p.m. CDT

Cordy Ryman's "Green Wave"

Steve Shapiro

Abstract art has not always been strictly the bane of the middle-class. Under the regimes of the former Weimar Republic and the Soviet Union as ruthlessly as the present-day Chinese Communist Party, abstraction has equaled subversive tendencies; neither fish nor fowl, abstract art demands thinking things through, rather than automatically adding things up like a math quiz. Yet, to many people—from Ayn Rand to Thomas Hart Benton (who instructed that enfant terrible Jackson Pollock) to the elderly woman I stood beside years ago at a van Gogh exhibition who declared to her companion, “My grandchildren could do better”—abstraction is all in the mind. Where are the images, the themes, the symbols and the shapes that have always been art’s foundation? Of course, when Kazimir Malevich exhibited his seminal “Black Square,” in 1913, it was pure color and shape: the rest, he felt, was superfluous.

For more than a hundred years, viewers and critics have been sorting out what abstract art should be, while artists have continued one step ahead redefining what it can be. Due to the lavish outsize canvases of the Abstract Expressionists and other painters from the turn of the century onward, abstraction has emerged as the exception to the rule—to any rule, really. It is not only in painting (Klee’s spermatozoa-like squiggles; Kandinsky’s spiritually-inspired blobs), but in film (Resnais’s puzzling “Last Year at Marienbad”; the French director Jacques Tati’s virtually silent comedies with their circular narratives) and in literature (the noveau roman of the Fifties in which plots and characters were rearranged or written out completely, as in the Robbe-Grillet novel where the description is confined to objects like a pencil rolling off a desk). Over time, abstract art has been understood by the public as a mish-mash of images (or non-images) and ideas (or non- ).

Published 11/26/2009 - 7:45 p.m. CDT

Guo Wei Ami No. 4, 2009 silkscreen, ed. 197/200 35 x 40.5 in.

By Steve Shapiro

Art in China, in the last half of the twentieth century, can be characterized in two stages: A.M. and P.M.—that is, After Mao and Post-Mao. The first phase began with Nixon’s groundbreaking trip, in 1972, as the outside world was permitted entrance and the Communist officials began, slowly, to entertain the thought of capitalism. Novelists and filmmakers, especially, took advantage of the thaw throughout the Eighties; directors such as Zhang Yimou (“Ju Dou”) developed international reputations for seeming to bring the real China to the rest of the world. Then, the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre squelched artistic freedom for many who could be easily censored by publishers or film studios. Freedom, economic and otherwise, only went so far.

Visual artists, stultified for so long, sprang into action; contemporary Chinese painters and sculptors had worked under the radar for decades without the attendant celebrity extended to American artists who came of age after Warhol, when the Western art world became an island of egos and stratospheric prices unto itself. Ironically, for the generations of Chinese artists born in the early Sixties whose forebears had been criticized (and often beaten and even killed) during the Cultural Revolution for producing non-revolutionary work such as landscapes, the art works now being produced are revolutionary in an altogether opposite sense—for example, the Gao brothers have created a sculpture called “Mao’s Guilt” in which the head is separate from the body. If the Revolution was a joke, the joke is on Mao and his legacy.

Published 11/12/2009 - 6:46 p.m. CDT

"Doris Hoyt, 1984"

By Steve Shapiro

Photographer Peter Feldstein and writer Stephen Bloom’s collaboration “The Oxford Project,” at the enterprising Belger Art Center in the Crossroads District through December 31, was twenty-one years in the making.

When Feldstein decided to photograph all 676 residents of Oxford, Iowa, in 1984, the grand idea seemed novel enough at the time. Oxford, a rural town eighteen miles west of Iowa City, looks like other such small towns: a blur in the rear-view mirror as the highway takes one past. Feldstein’s portraits—the 670 subjects who participated were given no instructions on how to dress or to pose, and everyone was democratically photographed once—were taken then put away with little fanfare. It was only in 2005, when Bloom inquired about the pictures and they decided Feldstein would re-photograph everyone he could while Bloom would interview them, that the first project developed into a second, wholly deeper vision.

At the Belger, twenty-two of the portrait-interviews are exhibited; after moving through the exhausting yet exhilarating show, the sampling selected from the larger, extensive, and beautifully produced catalogue more than manages to evoke the overall project. With text separating the 1984 and 2005 pictures, each triptych stands alone; assembled together, the town’s peoples’ stories parallel and balance out one another’s. Along the way, there is much humor and grief, a great deal of compassion, some bewilderment, religious (and secular) acceptance of the way life has turned out, mischief, even, and above all a quality of stoicism that small towns have always bestowed on their residents.

Published 10/29/2009 - 3:51 p.m. CDT

Walt and Lilly Disney on board the Rex

By Steve Shapiro

SAN FRANCISCO--Often, when the name “Disney” is invoked, it is in one-word terms like the conglomerate Apple or like a nation (say, Dubai), rather than in purely personal terms. 

Before “Walt Disney,” after all, there came Walt Disney; before the dazzling enchantments of the animated feature-length films “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and “Fantasia” there lie the hard groundwork of a young commercial artist and animator whose business card read “Walt. Disney Cartoonist”—that period announcing his artistic independence from his farming-turned-newspaper-route-salesman father, Elias. As with other one-word wonderments—Elvis, Marilyn, Picasso—it is a mystery as to how much and how possible it is to separate the one from the other.

Many biographies, favoring either the sunny Uncle Walt or the union-busting corporate Colossus, have summoned up the energy and the resources to thus characterize him as the American ideal or (in a negative sense) the American ideal. The latest effort comes in the more direct form of the multi-million-dollar family-funded Walt Disney Family Museum, in San Francisco’s former military-complex-turned-public-park The Presidio.

The museum, newly opened on October 1, is not sanctioned by the Disney Corporation. It ceases with Walt’s death, at a surprisingly young sixty-five, from lung cancer, in 1966. If the familial influence in the form of photographs and personal artifacts (like a bracelet made for Walt’s wife Lilly imitating the one standard size Oscar and seven miniature Oscars specially awarded for “Snow White” in 1937), as well as in the shaping of the personal-public narrative, hews toward the genial genius, it is impossible to deny at least the genius.

Published 10/15/2009 - 7:51 p.m. CDT

Andy Warhol, "Muhammed Ali" 1978, one in a series of four screenprints on Strathmore Bristol paper. (Photo: Courtesy of Muhammed Ali Enterprises LLC and The Banl of America collection.)

By Steve Shapiro

I have always thought the world was divided into two sides: those who love chicken and those who detest it. If so much contemporary art tastes like chicken, so to speak, one artist is guaranteed to generate opinions: Andy Warhol.

There are those who find him mesmeric in his chameleonic career moves, such as the esteemed philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto, in whose new book “Andy Warhol” Danto declares him “the nearest thing to a philosophical genius the history of art has produced.” In the opposite corner is the longtime “Time” magazine art critic the pugnacious Robert Hughes, who dubbed Warhol “a paragon of the American ‘industrial’ artist, a man diligently turning out a steady stream of product whose purpose is less to reflect on, and with difficulty articulate, the complexities of experience from image to image than to supply an expanding market with eucharistic emblems of his fame and desirability.” The joke, of course, is that Warhol—famous for his monotone maxims of the “uh, gee” depth—would agree with both. It also means he leaves it to the viewer to make up his or her own mind.

These Warhol Wars have persisted since the artist’s ascent in 1962, when he began orchestrating his silk-screen transfers onto canvas to create the repeated-image paintings of Marilyn and Jackie O and himself (fame is as fame does). Posthumously—after Warhol’s inadvertently negligent death in a hospital in 1987—the debate continues; Warhol’s practice of having his assistants do the manual labor and his merely signing his name draws the same skepticism as that attributed to Dalí signing blank pieces of paper in his declining years. Yet the exhibitions and retrospectives pile up unceasingly: in Athens, two exhibitions have opened pinpointing his three-minute “screen tests” and his fascination with celebrity icons; locally, the Spencer Museum of Art, in Lawrence, just closed its show of photographs donated by the Warhol Foundation, and an exhibition of silk screens has opened at Union Station Kansas City. So, is he the Nobel laureate of Pop or the Devil of Mayberry?

Published 09/30/2009 - 4:21 p.m. CDT

Helen Levitt, American (1913-2009). New York, ca. 1939. Gelatin silver print, image: 5 7/8 x 8 5/8 inches. Gift of Hallmark Cards, Inc., 2005.27.4240. © Courtesy Estate of Helen Levitt/Laurence Miller Gallery, N.Y.

By Steve Shapiro

There is a justly celebrated photograph taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson, on location in Spain in 1933, of a young boy seen in relief against a white wall mottled with black splotches; the youngster, his hair closely cropped and his head thrown back, appears at first glance to be blind or perhaps a patient of some sort (he is wearing a white smock). In fact, he is waiting for an incoming ball (unseen) thrown his way.

Knowing the facts of the photograph change one’s feeling toward it, some; the composition of the Motherwell-like façade in the background and the lone, mysterious figure in the foreground creates a certain balance of imbalance. Contrast that with a photograph by the great mid-twentieth-century German portraitist August Sander: entitled “Farm Children,” one of six hundred portraits, most taken in unadorned style for the enormous project “Citizens of the Twentieth Century,” a young boy and girl stand at attention, faces-front, without any sense of posing—they might well be statues. The difference is not only in the photographer; it is a difference in what a child represents at a certain age, in a certain age.

Published 09/17/2009 - 10:16 p.m. CDT

By Steve Shapiro

To paraphrase the maxim “dying is easy, comedy is hard,” one could say making history is easy; writing history is hard. The zigzags of sudden events, the long unwinding of nations, the decision-makers and the then-unknowns: history comes at us piecemeal, without warning, and often as bizarrely as anything that anyone who is not an historian could imagine. A black president? Cries of “Nazi!” in a town-hall meeting over health? A billionaire big-city mayor deciding to run for a third term in contradiction of the rules? Whether it is serious or silly (i.e., the North Carolina Governor’s search for his soul mate while he is supposedly hiking the Appalachian Trail), history never stops.