red, black & GREEN: a blues

Iam not going to write too much about red, black & GREEN: a blues, since the show has already left town after a 2-night stint at the ICA, even though I really couldn’t say enough about how remarkably good it was. That said, it’s always difficult to write about the kind of experimental performance pieces the ICA books, and although red, black & GREEN is completely free of over-intellectualized abstraction, it pulls together so many themes and stories and art forms, that I’m still digesting it three days after seeing it. It was a riveting three-ring circus of dance, song, rap, percussion, slam poetry, storytelling, and art installation. Early on, during a kind of prologue, in what seemed like a bit of self praise, the narration confidently described the ‘skills’ required for the performance: singing, dancing, architectural engineering. I rolled my eyes at this. Fifteen minutes later, I was ready to take it back. red, black & GREEN is at one level, an athletic feat, that requires so much talent, stamina, and physical and artistic dexterity, that any self praise is more than warranted.

red, black & GREEN pulls so much together in what’s clearly a very complex collaboration (the program notes list about a dozen bios), without ever coming off as muddled or overladen. The show was as seamlessly integrated as I could imagine. And what it does even better than pulling together the various forms of dance, song, poetry, etc., is layering together all its themes and stories, that run from the autobiographical to larger connections between sons and mothers, fathers and sons, food and the land, and aging and the body. We get all this, with the critical, self-reflective gaze characteristic of slam poetry. And although I was a annoyed at the mmmhmms coming from the audience, I’ll say the show communicated just the right amount of discomfort and racial tension to this white audience member, as the show traveled from Oakland’s Lil’ Bobby Hutton Park to Houston shotgun houses. Thanks to Marc Bamuthi Joseph and company for such a beautiful, smart, thought-provoking, and multi-talented performance of great sincerity. This is as close to the Truth as art gets.

“Millet and Rural France” opens at the MFA

There’s a lot of high-profile stuff happening at the MFA this fall. Famous Scaasi outfits and the much-advertised Avedon exhibit are the cornerstone of a robust Fashion Month calendar that includes a visit from Don Ed Hardy. And the titanic new Art of the Americas wing opens in November. With all the well-deserved hoopla, one might overlook Millet and Rural France, not a very big exhibit, but one that’s interesting, important, and charged with sensitive emotion.

Jean-François Millet is one of the most recognizable French artists of the nineteenth century. His techniques echo artists like Rembrandt and Vermeer while his interpretive innovations anticipate Impressionism. Millet was especially successful at depicting the beauty of the natural world. He was drawn to simplicity and rusticism, and that’s what this exhibit highlights. Verdant meadows, charming farmhouses, quaint French peasant folk, and daffodil seeds carried on the wind are among the images.

The MFA’s esteemed Millet collection is one of the finest in the world, but they haven’t devoted an exhibit to him in over twenty-five years. Millet and Rural France has forty-six works on display, many of which have been locked away for a whole generation. Millet’s characteristic scenes, such as peasants toiling in the fields, are a welcome sight.

But it’s also interesting to see his less-known portraiture, including a stunning self-portrait and a conté crayon image of his wife that the MFA considers one of the finest drawings on paper in their vast and priceless collection. The delicate portrait of his daughter, going about her business in the earliest light of day, is especially moving.

According to Helen Burnham, the assistant curator who organized the exhibition, “The exhibition offers an exceptional opportunity to view a number of the most beautiful and poignant images of rural life ever created. Millet was one of the great draftsmen and colorists of the 19th century, and he used his impressive skills to emphasize the dignity of living in harmony with nature. He influenced Van Gogh and Seurat, and his works retain an extraordinary freshness and relevance today.”

Smaller works predominate, but some of the medium-sized canvases are particularly notable. Harvesters at Rest (1850–53), a masterpiece in itself worth a trip across town to see, falls into this category.

Among the sketches, a study done in preparation for The Sower (1850) is especially intriguing. The first version of that painting, part of an iconic trio with The Gleaners (1857) and The Angelus (1857–59), is on regular display at the MFA. A later versions hangs in the Carnegie Museum of Art.

Millet and Rural France runs until May 30, 2011. The list of times when the MFA offers free admission is ever-expanding, so check for details.

"Harvesters Resting" (1850-53) (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Bequest of Mrs. Martin Brimmer. Photograph: MFA Boston)

"Man Turning over the Soil" (1847-50) (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of Quincy Adams Shaw through Quincy Adams Shaw, Jr. and Mrs. Marian Shaw Haughton. Photograph: MFA Boston)

"Madame J.‑F. Millet (Catherine Lemaire)" (1848-49) (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of Mrs. Henry Lee Higginson. & "The Sower" (1858) (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of Martin Brimmer.) (Photographs: MFA Boston)

The 66 goes past Coolidge Corner?: John Ewing’s Virtual Street Corners

Virtual Street Corners, created by Boston artist John Ewing is scheduled to go live, 24/7, on June 8 at Brookline Booksmith in Coolidge Corner and Nubian Notion in Dudley Square. Videoconferencing terminals, transplanted from well-outfitted boardrooms to storefront windows, will connect the two sociologically disparate neighborhoods with audio and video, giving residents and denizens a chance to virtually converse and interact. Ewing ran a successful pilot of the project two years ago and has since been awarded grants, including the Knight News Challenge grant in support of creative journalism, as well as in kind donations to hone the operation and better connect the two communities that are so close (2.5 miles) and well connected by the 66 bus route, yet so far apart. Over the past two years, project logistics are about the only things that have changed in Brookline and Roxbury (neither Verizon nor Comcast served Dudley Square in 2008); it will be interesting to see what direction the conversation goes and if these communities do indeed become more neighborly over the next month.

QHow did the idea for this project originate?

AI did this project Symphony of a City in 2001, actually that probably came from doing murals around the city of Boston. One thing I really loved about doing the murals was being on the street corner in different neighborhoods. I’d be there and I’d be painting over the course of two or three months usually. And people would just come up and start talking to you and I’d get to learn all about the neighborhood, I’d meet all these interesting characters and it was really interesting for me. And I liked that. But when I’d go to the next neighborhood, I’d talk about something I heard in the other neighborhood and people didn’t know what was going on in the neighborhoods that were very close to them, it just seemed kind of strange to me. So, Symphony of a City in some ways addressed that, we tried to take characters, eight different characters, from all over the city and wire them with web cams and have them go around and then put their lives up on the Internet. I think this was a similar concept of trying to find ways, using digital media, to connect these neighborhoods that seem like they’re out of touch with each other.

QWere Coolidge Corner and Dudley Square your first choices for places to install the project? Did you have any other location ideas?

AAt one point I was thinking about doing it between Tel Aviv and Ramallah and New York City. I actually got pretty far along in that process and I had folks who had suffered family deaths in each of the conflicts there and they were going to kick off the whole thing. And because of time differences, politics, a whole bunch of difficulties, in terms of logistics, it fell through. But I still thought it was a great idea. And I thought, well why don’t I do that at the local level, and like I said, it made a lot of sense from the work I’ve done before. So, I figure I’ll do it on the local level, if it’s successful, a lot of people have already come to me saying oh it’d be great if you did it here, you did it there, did it there. I think it’s a pretty easy to grasp concept and so people, when they hear about it, they immediately think of these other places because its true in all the cities around the US.

John Ewing Virtual Street Corners Map

Dudley Sqare Travelers vs. Coolidge Corner Travelers (John Ewing)

QHow did you choose the videoconferencing sites in Coolidge Corner and Dudley Square?

AWe’ve been really fortunate in Coolidge Corner in that you have the Brookline Booksmith and it’s just worked in all kinds of ways. They’re an independent bookstore, they’re very supportive of the arts, they get speakers to come there, and they’re into encouraging dialogue, so it sort of fit very much into what they’re about and they’ve been great about supporting the project. And they have this little cove in the store where it’s set back a little from the street and creates this perfect place to install it. Coolidge Corner is a place where people are out late in the evening, especially in the summer.

One of the difficulties we’re going to have in Dudley Square is there are a lot of buses going by, it’s sort of a center because of the bus depot here, but they interrupt the conversation a lot because they’re so loud. And it’s very active in the day, but after five or six it tends to clear out because there’s not a lot of restaurants and places people can hang out. It tends to be a little desolate.

QWhat are your primary objectives for the project?

AI’d like to get a dialogue going between the two communities and allow people to define for themselves how they feel about their own community and maybe how they feel about the other community and get a back and forth going. It allows people to find the issues for themselves. In addition to dialogue, I hope they’ll actually get on the bus and go visit the other community and be there physically. Once they’ve established a connection talking, then hopefully they’ll go to the other places. Additionally, another goal is to raise important issues and get other media to cover those issues. Hopefully, through this project, people will raise things from each community that haven’t been addressed by the media or have been viewed differently in the media’s eyes and try to get it from citizens’ perspectives.

QHow do you plan on engaging the audience?

AIf you introduce topics that are interesting then it stimulates more conversation, so that’s the idea here. I have community organizers in each neighborhood who are going around and trying to find people to address different topics, like education, politics, youth talking to each other and criminal justice systems, to get dialogues going everyday in hope that other people will pick up on them and continue them. I also have three citizen journalists from each neighborhood who are going to do a daily report. Their job is to go around the neighborhood, try to see it from different perspectives and come back almost the same time everyday and give that report just as a way of allowing people to get a different perspective. Then you also see their reports online so you can go and follow each reporter as they go throughout the month.

We’re also going to have an interactive smaller screen, so you can text to it from your cell phone, we’ll be able to play video clips too. So you’ll have one live screen where people are communicating, but then you also have a side screen where other things can go on, the news reporters can show videos and photographs. It can actually pull down Tweets, so if people are Twittering in the neighborhood it can pull those messages down around a particular topic. The idea is to activate the screen in as many different ways as we can.

QDo you have a goal number of people to reach?

AObviously we’d like as many people as possible to come out. The idea is to make it really accessible. One of the things this project allows is a lot of people to participate in the conversation that may not go to the museums or might not go to different lectures at universities. It feels like it’s a much more on the street, accessible medium and it’s real easy for people to participate. And so we hope to engage all types of different people.

QWas a bus route/T track essential to the camera locations?

AI liked the fact that it emphasizes that it’s so easy to get back and forth. These two communities are connected with public transit and yet they don’t go back and forth. It’s clear that its not a logistical or transportation issue, it’s obviously some kind of social issue and that’s what I wanted to address.

John Ewing Virtual Street Corners Photo

Coolidge Corner photo from the June 2008 test installation (Ewing)

John Ewing Virtual Street Corners Photo

Dudley Square photo from the June 2008 test installation (Ewing)

QThe mapping project in 2008 was very striking, tell us about it. How did you select the participants?

AI felt like there are these two communities and people don’t go back and forth between them, but how do I visualize that for people, or get people to immediately see that in a concrete way? I had this idea; I’ll ask people in each location to draw in a map their route and how they got to either Dudley Square or Coolidge Corner that day. I just asked the first 25 people that came by, or that were willing to do it, and they drew their routes and it was much more dramatic than I even would have expected. It’s almost like there’s this line and nobody crosses over that line.

QDid you have any specific influences in creating Virtual Street Corners?

AThere certainly have been other similar projects like this such as Hole in Space in the 80s using satellite TV and a project where they connected New York and London with a telescope. Those projects really focused on connecting communities over distance, so we can talk from east coast to west coast, and isn’t it great that we can do that with this technology. The thing that I think is different here is that I’m really trying to use it more to bridge a social divide rather than a distance divide. The sites that you choose to put the screens is also very important.

I think there’s this real push in the art world that you have to create these super original pieces and I really kind of work against that. I really think what’s important is: it effective? is it interesting? And certainly it’s going to be the first time in Boston, the first time for these neighborhoods. I’m sure ninety percent of the people who participate will never have heard of these other projects and that’s important for me. I think its sort of an influence of marketing or something where you have to create this product that’s brand new, and bigger and better. For me, what’s much more important is that it accomplishes something and it’s an interesting project.

For further information about Virtual Street Corners, check out the website as well as Ewing’s blog as part of the PBS MediaShift Idea Lab.

The Gardner gets a shout out on “The Simpsons”

Last night The Simpsons put Mr. Burns in possession of Vermeer’s The Concert (c. 1664), one of the paintings stolen in the 1990 Gardner Heist. Watch the clip below.

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Gardner After Hours is a festive tribute to Isabella

At Gardner After Hours, it’s crowded, but it’s not too crowded. Lighting is dim, cozy, and flattering. Music thumps but doesn’t drown out conversation. In the museum’s many rooms, guests chat and laugh unguardedly; the rules governing their elementary school field trips are forgotten.

Many old, collection-holding institutions now seek to offer a greater variety of museum experiences. Events with a festive atmosphere are a big part of this trend, and at Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum they also reflect the spirit of it founder, a bold woman who enjoyed being the life of the party.

Past the Velvet Ropes

A pastiche palazzo, standing stately but incongruously on a reedy New England rivulet, is an interesting place to gather. One evening a month, on the third Thursday, velvet ropes on the Fenway direct a crowd inside its doors. The admission is free for members and just $5 with a college ID, the latter assuring a healthy infusion of young blood. Art majors and international students are well-represented.

Other party-goers are grown-ups here after work, and generations are brought together in a cheerful atmosphere. There’s a sense of people dressing for the occasion, even among those looking casual, but bits of whimsy keep things light. There are bold feathers in a young lady’s hair. A man’s expression hints that his pied sports coat isn’t to be taken seriously.

You’ll find a bartender station stops you from getting close to El Jaleo, and your cocktails can’t come along as you wander upstairs to really start yammering about art, but certain things are understandable. Even with such restrictions, it’s easy to relax. With so much to engage the senses, boredom’s a challenge.

The Gardner Café is open for After Hours; you can either grab a snack or sit down for a full meal. The food here is superb (it’s one of my favorite places to eat in Boston) but one might more frugally find sustenance in the $1 “bites” sold at several stations around the courtyard.

At After Hours, some attendees linger downstairs with glasses of wine. Others spend more time upstairs, pointing and chatting. Guests seem happy. The latest soirée at Isabella’s house is a successful museum experience.

For Everything, a Season

There’s also a trend for museums to have more seasonal events. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum follows this trend in some cool ways, such as the café’s “edible nasturtiums menu” referencing the dramatic display of hanging nasturtiums that blooms in April.

Along a similar vine, each monthly After Hours is given a name, but these don’t fully bloom into themes for the evening. Though folks were in a palazzo drinking bellinis, February’s After Hours didn’t have much Carnevale di Venezia flavor. The upcoming March 18th “Equinox” After Hours might similarly be mostly a name. This mightn’t bother you; don’t expect much theme and you won’t miss it.

But each third Thursday here is indeed different, especially in the performance you can see with an “After Hours PLUS” ticket. Last month, it was Cirkestra , a gypsy-jazz-klezmer band assembled by former circus clown Peter Bufano. In March, Christian Wolff presents Songs from Brecht, a world premiere written for the Callithumpian Consort. The artists perform upstairs, in a cordoned area, to an attentive sit-down crowd.

After Hours Concert in the Tapestry Room

After Hours Concert in the Tapestry Room (Courtesy of the Gardner Museum)

In addition to notable entertainers, Gardner After Hour offers creative diversions that change from month to month. There are games, opportunities to sketch, and informal gallery talks that take place at different locations. If you want to get involved with any of this, be proactive and ask the helpful volunteers on hand for info. Unlike an inelegant cruiseship, the museum has no big signs or loud announcements about what is where, when.

People, music, refreshments, activities–all of these add to the festive atmosphere. But for many, the emotional highpoints of the evening will come from gazing at the precious art stuffed into room after room. It’s tough to compete against the likes of John Singer Sargent and a squadron of Italian Renaissance masters.

Fun at Fenway Court

Isabella Stewart Gardner might have enjoyed seeing us clink glasses in the house she bequeathed to the public. In Boston, our ears grow so accustomed to the elegant name of the museum’s eponymous foundress, we can forget what a pistol she was.

Married to Jack Gardner, one of Boston’s wealthiest sons, NYC-born Isabella was too ostentatious for the taste of certain Beacon Hill matrons. Their rejection didn’t much faze her. Isabella surrounded herself with a coterie of artistic bachelors who appreciated her more diva-like qualities. They all had a fabulous time in her big fancy house.

That house, “Fenway Court,” was built to look like it had been shipped in one piece from Europe. She filled it with beautiful things, including some that might be literally considered the pillages of the Old World. Although her home was purposely built to become a museum, she still entertained guests. Talented noteworthies were sometimes invited to perform, but Mrs. Gardner remained the center of attention. The press called her “Donna Isabella.”

Once, Fenway Court was a party spot for invited guests only, though the public was allowed to file through and gape at the astounding collection twice a year. Then it became the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, a charming museum where the public could gape at her astonishing collection year round.

After Hours Education in the Gothic Room (Bethany Versoy, Courtesy of the Gardner Museum)

Per Isabella’s stringent stipulations, The Gardner is a museum that changed little when it stopped being a private home. The highly-personal arrangement of the collection, the lack of identifying labels, the subdued illumination, and the idiosyncratic nature of the collection itself–all of these keep this museum in a class with very few others.

Isabella’s mandate on the preservation of Fenway Court is an attempt to freeze a bit of time and space. Reconciling both the spirit and the letter of her wishes with the desire to create better museum experiences has been a particular challenge facing this institution from the start.

They generally do this well, and the After Hours is a fine example. They’re putting the established space to new use without making any changes that aren’t undone by morning. They’re also honoring one of original uses of the property: a place for friends to relax, get animated, and socialize amid glorious objects.

The Gardner’s $118 million expansion, scheduled to be open in 2012, should allow this historic institution–so long cramped inside its original footprint–many new options for engaging the public.

Time to Go

After Hours closes at 9:30 pm, three hours after doors opened. Yeah, it would be great if it went until 2 in the morning, but do we really want tipsy shenanigans around a billionty-zillion dollars worth of our art?

If you have nowhere to be Friday morning, think of Gardner After Hours as a distinctive cocktail party to start a night on the town. Whether you grab a taxi to somewhere posh, or seek out a barstool within walking distance at Brigham Circle, the joy of having begun your evening with Botticelli and Vermeer might linger.

Gardner after Hours takes place on the third Thursday of each month; the next one is March 18th and people named Isabella really do get in free.

My high school’s drama department should talk to Punchdrunk about a production of “Sleep No More.”

Ryan Howell, a Boston lowbrow collaborator, will have his photographs of our old junior high/high school ‘annex’ featured in Quiet Omission, a small photography show at the Washington Street Art Center (321 Washington Street, Somerville) in Union Square. There’s an opening reception the 6th from 6:00-8:00, with free wine, live music, etc. Quiet Omission runs through the 28th. Gallery is regularly open from 12:00-4:00 Saturday afternoons.