The Carlton Tavern, Maida Vale, London. Photo credit: Steve Reed.
Recent links of note:
The Mad Challenge of Translating “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”
Order, Please, Not Utopia
The lamentable loss of Britain’s pubs
Metropolitan Museum of Art breaks attendance record
From our pages:
E-mail to friend
by Daniel Grant
A courtroom drawing of Glafira Rosales, dealer in forged paintings, via
In generations past, artists would grab the attention of the world—meaning, the tiny percentage of the populace that pays attention to art—by doing something that struck people as outrageous: painting completely abstract pictures, distorting the human figure, photographing private parts, applying elephant dung to a canvas. Pick your own shock-the-bourgeoisie moment.
Artists still look to waken us from our complacency, but there is little discussion of art these days and a lot of conversation about law and the arts. Does calling something “street art” excuse graffiti done by an artist (Shepard Fairey)? Is taking someone else’s images published in a book or posted on Instagram, enlarging them and adding a comment acceptable under copyright law if done with artistic intent (Richard Prince)? May a photographer take surreptitious pictures of people in their own homes without their consent in the name of art (Arne Svenson)? Can artists disavow their own work if it doesn’t reflect their current ideas (Gerhard Richter) or if wear-and-tear over the years makes it look different than when first created (Cady Noland)? May artists refuse to complete commissioned artworks if they change their minds about those buyers (Christopher Wool, Dean Levin, Dahn Vo)? To all these questions, the answer appears to be either “kind-of/maybe” or “we’ll find out.”
Legal contests arise no less with art collectors. May collectors renege on an agreement to donate their work to a museum (Marguerite Hoffman, James Rich, Donald Bryant)?
And with dealers, as well. Is taking advantage of a trusting collector and making him pay too much acceptable (Larry Gagosian, Forum Gallery)? Is it kosher to renege on an oral agreement to sell a collector a painting (David Zwirner)? The answer to both is yes, according to the courts. The courts also have concluded the lawsuits and criminal charges against Manhattan art dealer Larry Salander, who defrauded clients of $120 million, but not yet against Knoedler Gallery, which sold dozens of fake New York School Abstract Expressionist paintings for millions of dollars apiece.
All these lawsuits boil down to money—how much the art sells for—and the amount of money being spent on certain select works of art these days by a certain select group of people around the planet is topic one. It is easier to talk about money and rich people than about art, and we can all agree that one hundred million dollars is a lot of money. Would there have been years of court hearings had Nashville’s Fisk University merely sought to sell an interest in a bequest of paintings by artists no one has heard of in years, rather than a gift from Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe of valuable artworks by major American Modernists? Probably not.
But more than just the value of the art, these lawsuits from have given risen to more (and more interesting) conversation than any displays of art over the past number of years. You may or may not care for Richard Prince’s art, but his appropriation of other people’s images raises the questions: what is originality; how does, or can an artist take the known and transform it into something new and unexpected; what does Copyright law actually protect? What is art? The scandal that led the Knoedler Gallery to close in 2011 after 165 years brings up the issues of what constitutes “due diligence” in the art trade and how authenticity is established, while the effort on the part of Fisk University to monetize an art collection asks us to consider the question of whether or not that collection—and sticking to the terms of a long-ago bequest—is more important than stabilizing a financially troubled, predominantly African American school of higher education.
These legal cases bring up legal, moral, political and theoretical issues, and one wishes that the art we see in galleries and museums might inspire such weighty thoughts. Instead, so much contemporary art seems to tell in-jokes about other art or otherwise present a highly limited worldview.
E-mail to friend
Laura Ford, Glory, Glory, 2005. Strawberry Hill, Twickenham.
The Gothic Revival reached its apogee in the public architecture of the Victorians: parliaments that resemble railway stations, and stations that resemble churches. These were tutelary buildings, cornerstones of morality as well as infrastructure: the pointed arch, Augustus Pugin declared in 1836, had been "produced by the Catholic faith." Nevertheless, it was the catholic taste of Horace Walpole, the self-styled "Abbot of Twickenham," that created the "little gothic castle" of Strawberry Hill, Britain's first comprehensive revival of the pointed arch and its medieval company.
The youngest son of the prime minister who invented the "cabinet" system, Walpole was the best kind of dilettante, an amateur who outdid the professionals. A pioneering historian of British art, he was also a playwright, the author of the first Gothic novel, the founder of Britain's first private printing press, and a peerless gossip who wrote over 4,000 witty letters. Strawberry Hill, part-artist's colony by the Thames, part-stage set for a Gothic melodrama, is his masterpiece.
Walpole bought the estate in 1749. Aided by a coterie of medievally-minded friends and a library of prints of medieval church architecture, he gothicized his house by degrees, adding battlements and arches of wood, finials of papier-maché, and acres of trompe l'oeil fretwork. "Well, I begin to be ashamed of my own magnificence," he wrote in 1761, after adding an entire wing, with a turreted tower, and a cabinet of curiosities, including Cardinal Wolsey's hat; Walpole was outbid for Cromwell's nightcap. Further expansions of magnificence ensued, and Walpole's private fantasy became a public spectacle. He issued tickets to visitors, and complained when they mishandled his curios.
Yet, just as the Gothic Revival reach its Victorian peak, Walpole's hoard was sold off. Walpole, dying childless in 1797, bequeathed the house to his niece, the animal sculptor Anne Seymour Damer, and her heirs. In 1842, the 7th Earl of Waldegrave, having brawled with the police after returning drunk from the races, avenged himself on the local judiciary by auctioning the contents. His wife, Lady Frances, made further additions, all harmonizing with Walpole's disordered theme, and turned the house into a salon for Gladstone and his Liberal friends. But her heirs could not afford its upkeep. In 1923, the Catholic Education Council bought Strawberry Hill as a training college, with further expansions by Sebastian Pugin Powell, a grandnephew of Augustus Pugin. By 1960, dry rot and German bombs had damaged the only building to represent the beginning, middle, and end of Britain's Gothic Revival.
Gothic fiction abounding in uncanny encounters and implausible resurrections, Strawberry Hill has come back from the dead. Its restoration, begun in 2002 by a small group of local aficionados, has now entered its second phase. The tower and its wing have been completely rebuilt. Twenty rooms have been restored, and the gardens are being returned to their original state. A program of activities has been launched; its Walpole-style activities include a Gothic book club, and a dining club. Some of Walpole's possessions have returned under loan; in 2017, an exhibition will gather more of them. And, this summer, Strawberry Hill has again become a living museum, a site for new art.
Strawberry Hill's first contemporary exhibition is by the sculptor Laura Ford. Her anthropomorphic animals and faceless children are perfect for Strawberry Hill. Apart from echoing Anne Damer's animal sculptures, Ford evokes the undertow of emotional disturbance that churns beneath the camp, glittery waves of Walpole's surfaces. With the curator, Stephen Feeke, she has arranged a series of strange meetings, just as in Walpole's original conception.
Walpole coined the term that describes the effect of a visit to his asymmetrical fantasy: "serendipity," the glory of a chance meeting. Ford's meetings have the quality that Freud called unheimlich, unfamiliar and indeterminately nightmarish. On the lawn, seven man-sized cats pace in metaphysical agony: the bronzes of Ford's "Days of Judgment" (2012), their postures derived from Masaccio's "Adam and Eve Banished From Paradise" (c.1477), in the Church of S. Maria del Carmine, Florence. In the Prior's Garden, a mock-monastic walk, two "Weeping Girls" (2009), hide their faces with thick cords of hair, like disgraced Alices in Wonderland.
Inside, as Walpole planned, the visitor proceeds from darkness to light, from the deliberate "gloomth" of the narrow entry hall, lit by a single candle in a massive iron lamp, to the long gallery upstairs, with its views toward the Thames, shining parquet, recessed gilt-edged portraits, and dripping white finials. Ford's characters lurk in the corners like bad memories.
In the entry hall that inspired the opening of Walpole's Castle of Otranto, Ford's painfully earnest "Sorrow Filled Cat" (2014), pines in a Victorian bonnet and hat. In the parlor, Walpole's three nieces, painted by Reynolds as "The Ladies Waldegrave" (1780), become three plaster poodles. In the recess over the stairwell, "Glory, Glory" (2005) is a composite Victorian hero, frozen in white cricket gloves and pads, a white life jacket, and a white mask, clutching a child's polar bear doll: a juvenile dream of the Scott Expedition's Arctic end.
Upstairs, miniature suits of armor are splayed across the library floor like child victims, and an exhausted donkey lays his head, dunce-like on a stack of dictionaries. Pairs of girls haunt the bedrooms, their gazes averted or crudely stitched. The hair of the "Medieval Cloud Girls" (2015) flames against red damask walls, and their feet are trapped in a puddle of lava. The words "Love" and "Hate" are tattooed on their knuckles, and one girl clutches a stone; Ford was inspired by the raining hellfire in a medieval wood relief from Dijon, and also by the 1955 film The Night of the Hunter, whose violence is narrated from a young girl's perspective.
The castle becomes a prison. The "Chattering Girls" (2015) are two-faced dolls, one sitting on a facsimile of the bed in which Walpole's father died, the other looking out of the window. In the purple Holbein Room, roots sprout from the shoes of the "Dancing Clog Girls" (2013). In the attic, a pair of elephant-headed eight year-old boys prepare for bed in flannel pajamas and plaid dressing gowns, like Victorian boarders in an unheated dormitory.
Unlike W.C. Fields or Horace Walpole, Laura Ford always works with children and animals. Both are objects of emotional projection and of adult violence, yet their interior lives remain obscure. Ford's sculptures enchant in the way of Alice in Wonderland or "Peter Pan," and disturb in the way of the Reverend Dodgson's photographs of Alice Liddell, or J.M. Barrie's pederastic cultivation of the Llewellyn Davies boys. The Victorians revived Gothic architecture as public morality; Ford's Victorian trappings, like the opening of a coffin in a Gothic novel, expose the private complement, a stink of corruption. The Gothic, like its sunlit double, the compensatory Victorian daydream, feeds on murky sexuality, traumatic memories, and repressed violence. Walpole, whose friends included the necrophiliac George Selwyn, and whose plays included the incest comedy The Mysterious Mother, would have appreciated Ford's airing of the family skeletons.
Laura Ford at Strawberry Hill opened at Strawberry Hill, Twickenham, London TW2 on June 20th, 2015, and can be seen there until November 1st, 2015. From March 19th–September 4th 2016, the exhibition will travel to the Blackwell Arts & Crafts House, Bowness-on-Windermere, Cumbria.
E-mail to friend
A scene from the show, via
In The Lady with the Lapdog, Chekhov's famous short story, a young wife named Anna meets a handsome (but married) banker, Dmitry. The two flirt by the beach and then, in Yalta's sultry summer heat, commit adultery. After the fact, Dmitry cuts a slice of watermelon and eats it "without haste." Anna doesn't say a word. When I first read the story, fumbling through Chekhov's original, this made me cry. I looked up the Russian arbus, which means watermelon, and a rush of pity almost knocked me off my chair. We went over the scene in class the next day, and my professor called it "comedy." I furrowed my brow.
This question—farce or tragedy?—is central to Chekhov's work, from his plays to his novellas. It also accounts for many poor productions of The Three Sisters and Uncle Vanya, productions that picked sides, without uniting the comic and tragic. The Russian Arts Theatre & Studio's new play, My Uncle Chekhov, is one such well-intentioned theatrical misstep.
Playing in Manhattan's West End Theater, it's a compilation of 11 Chekhov short stories, 10 of which are just one-acts, short scenes with a handful of characters. The Russian doctor wrote more than two hundred stories—perhaps more than eight hundred—and with this astonishing figure in mind, you might think a director would cherry-pick interesting tales with a common theme or motif. Instead, the Muscovite Aleksey Burago makes a strange selection, including impenetrable stories like "A Little Joke" and "Minds in Ferment."
The nine actors are another motley crew: a few hail from Russia, others from Italy, another from France. The result is a hodgepodge of accents, dialects, and theatrical styles. Delightful, in moments. (Unexpected props, like a sputtering rain machine and a red-eyed mechanical dove, complement this absurdity.) Still, some actors can't control the show's volume, and My Uncle Chekhov has too many ear-splitting shrieks and inaudible whispers.
Most scenes bear little resemblance to Chekhov's canonical plays, for obvious reasons. A story is a living thing, with organs working together: dialogue, narration, description, etc. But Burago takes a knife to these creatures, carving the dialogue out of the whole. Surgery is a delicate task, and not every tale survives the ordeal. "Minds in Ferment" lies lifeless, for instance, a corpse on the stage. The actors don't move, and the plot has no logic.
The eleventh, central story is chopped up into segments, interludes between the ten one-acts. "The Darling" is one of Chekhov's best works, and it bristles with tension, the pull between humor and pathos. Olenka (Di Zhu) is the titular "Darling," a lovely young woman who parrots her husband's beliefs. When he dies, she marries again and adopts a new rhetoric. On the one hand, Olenka's shifting convictions are comedic gold. On the other, Chekhov writes:
Burago doesn't tackle despair; instead, he grafts uncomfortable sex scenes onto the story. And while the slapstick humor is sometimes successful, it doesn't do the tale justice.
In his note to the audience, Burago writes: "Chekhov is an uncle I wish I had." (Hence the show's title.) He goes on to call him "a man who looked at the world with a sense of humor." In other words: Were I to ask Burago about the infamous watermelon, he would chuckle, not weep. And once again, I would furrow my brow. This discrepancy—between the cheery take on a text and the gloomy one—is unsettling, yes, but it's also productive. We pause for a second; we reevaluate our beliefs; we see that some were just dogma. In brief, we're all operating under faulty assumptions, with incomplete information. We're all a little like Olenka.
E-mail to friend
Gidon Kremer, the Latvian violinist, likes the seasons. He has done Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, of course, and once made an album called Eight Seasons, which combines Vivaldi and Piazzolla. He made another album called Russian Seasons, which comprises music written for him and his backup band, the Kremerata Baltica, by Leonid Desyatnikov and Alexander Raskatov. The latter based his contribution on Tchaikovsky’s Seasons.
I could go on, but you get the picture.
The latest album of Kremer and the Kremerata Baltica is called New Seasons. It offers works by four composers, all of them living. There are two long works and two little ones, which are like fillers, but very pleasant.
And, according to Kremer, in his CD note, all four pieces have something in common. They are “marked by a certain transparency, using relatively few notes,” and they “have something very simple and touching to say.”
The first work is Philip Glass’s Violin Concerto No. 2, which is nicknamed “The American Four Seasons.” It consists of a prologue, four movements, and three songs. The songs are placed—sung—between the movements. They are for violin alone, as is the prologue.
I will generalize about the music. It is minimalistic, of course, being Glass. It is pleasant and simple—maybe “deceptively simple,” as people like to say. It is pop-like, emotional, pretty. It has that rocking quality that minimalists are often good at. It is filling, which is an excellent quality for music to have.
I’ll now generalize about Kremer’s playing. He can be relied on to play with intelligence and care—with pleasure, too, for he is an appreciator of the music he selects. He brings out what’s interesting in the music, but seldom forces an issue. I noticed in a recent New York recital that he can make a very poor sound now. But he has a number of ways to compensate for this deficiency (and a recording can cover a multitude of tonal sins).
Moreover, he has the gift of imparting musical energy to his band, the Kremerata Baltica.
The first little filler on the new disc is Estonian Lullaby, for choir and strings, by Arvo Pärt. It’s a lovely ditty, harmless, simple. The words of the lullaby are not given in the CD booklet. But we generally know how mothers sing to their children, don’t we?
Next comes the second major work on the disc, Ex Contrario, or “On the Contrary,” by Giya Kancheli, the Georgian composer. It is for violin, cello, strings, bass guitar, and others. The work has no movements and lasts about a half-hour.
It is by turns anxious, fiery, mournful, intense, sweet, reflective. It has some scratchy bleakness, and some scratchy squirminess. It’s a little trippy and unpredictable. The seeming randomness of the piece, I found a bit wearying. I feel the same way about (much) modern jazz. But Kancheli’s music must make sense to him, and, by the evidence, it makes sense to Kremer and his band. They play with conviction.
The disc ends with something called “Yumeji’s Theme,” by Shigeru Umebayashi, a Japanese film composer. The theme comes from a movie called In the Mood for Love. It is a swift, fetching waltz—and Kremer plays it with style. What do I mean by “style”? Well, he plays it with a fine sense of rhythm, phrasing, dynamics, and, not least, portamento. He doesn’t slide too much or too little. He knows what to do.
Gidon Kremer is an interesting musician but not self-consciously so. He’s an eclectic musician without scrambling after eclecticism for eclecticism’s sake. He is naturally eclectic. Let me explain myself a little.
If you want to devote your life to harpsichord pieces by Rameau, fine. That’s a lovely way to spend a life. Eclecticism is not for everyone. To Kremer, it happens to come naturally. He is an honest eclecticist.
I’d like to close with something he says, in that CD booklet, about contemporary music:
That is a refreshing and candid observation from a performer. For about forty-five years now, Gidon Kremer has enriched our musical life.
E-mail to friend
by Kyle Smith
James Lecesne, via
“Leave[s] you beaming with joy,” a phrase that appeared in The New York Times in a review of The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, is, critic Charles Isherwood conceded, an odd way to describe a play concerning the murder of an innocent, indeed angelic, teen boy. Isherwood is focusing on the way the play encourages us to smile at the memory of Leonard, a delicate and beautiful soul, to appreciate, nurture and adore his eccentricity.
Yet Isherwood seems to think the play is instructive at its core, that it is a guide to a better America, an America to which we might someday aspire. Implied in this formulation is that we’re an intolerant, repressive people. Why are so many cultural elites so reluctant to release their grip on a model that is certainly false today, if it were ever true?
Leonard Pelkey was a Jersey Shore teen who glowed with life. His trademark item of attire was the rainbow-colored platform sneakers he made by gluing the soles of half a dozen different-colored flip-flops to the bottoms of his sneakers. He endeared himself to the local matrons by advising them on clothes and hairstyles, insisted on wearing fairy wings when playing Ariel in The Tempest, and wore mascara and nail polish. He stood out like a sunflower in a patch of weeds, and for being different he was murdered.
Leonard was gay, and in the off-Broadway one-man show The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, actor James Lecesne, who also wrote the play, slips easily from playing the no-nonsense detective on the case to various townsfolk including middle-aged ladies, sulky teens, and a British drama teacher. The 75-minute play (at the Westside Theatre Downstairs) is a showcase for Lecesne’s mimicry. Robin Williams-style, he instantaneously changes his voice and bearing dozens of times, often mid-sentence. As a writer, Lecesne is soulful and sometimes even gently witty.
Still, Leonard Pelkey never existed. Does that matter?
The play is an impassioned cry, but one that has little to do with 2015 America. At times the New York theater world can seem like a closed system in which each member of the choir takes a turn preaching to the whole. Do we really need to be told that gay people deserve respect instead of bullying? Is there any theatergoer in New York who needed convincing on this point?
Lecesne, who adapted the play from his own young-adult novel, would no doubt argue that though Leonard didn’t exist and didn’t have a horrifying end, he might have. No doubt that is true—there could be a Leonard Pelkey-like case tomorrow. But it would be an extremely unusual event, the kind that would merit front-page news stories from coast to coast and fuel much somber commentary about whether we have made any progress whatsoever in accepting our gay brothers and sisters. A character in Lecesne’s play who makes the ominous discovery of one of Leonard’s sneakers floating in a pond wonders about the existence of evil:
It is a fair question whether, in a post-Christian age, we risk becoming detached from our moral core, but Lecesne seems to think in terms of group guilt, a mass conspiracy of silence toward the rights of gay people to live and flourish. We all bear a degree of complicity in the wave of brutality and bullying and even murder. If you ask, “What wave of brutality and bullying and murder?” Lecesne’s response is, “Here is proof by a single example. An example that’s entirely fictitious.”
Lecesne’s vision is a dark one, one in which to be a gay teen is to exist with a target on your back. Throughout the play, there are hints that those close to Leonard told him to “tone it down,” to beware of predators such as the high-school bully who eventually kills him. It’s as if Lecesne’s contemporary Jersey Shore is not unlike Maycomb, Alabama, the setting of To Kill a Mockingbird, except gay people instead of blacks live in fear of being lynched. This seems to me sheer caricature. Was it ever, in fact, true that gay people had to live in fear of physical attack? The answer “Matthew Shepard” won’t do, both because the circumstances of the murder of that Colorado teen in 1998 turn out not to have been what we were told at the time and because a single case, or a handful of them, doesn’t prove the existence of widespread intolerance and loathing.
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s Obergefell ruling, there remain hotly contested areas pertaining to homosexuality, and we can expect dramatic court cases in which religious freedom will be challenged. But The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey sidesteps relevant conflicts and contents itself with slaying imaginary dragons.
The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey can be seen at the Westside Theatre Downstairs, New York, through October 4, 2015.
E-mail to friend
Thornton Willis, Downtown, 61 x 52 inches, oil on canvas, 2012
Sign up to receive “Critic's Notebook” in your inbox every week—it only takes a few seconds and it's completely free! “Critic's Notebook” is a weekly preview of the best to read, see, and hear in New York and beyond, compiled by the editors of The New Criterion.
This week: Cheever, C Major, and Culinary Art.
Fiction: The Stories of John Cheever, by John Cheever (Vintage): Does anyone read John Cheever anymore? It might seem like a silly question, but I wonder. Reduced in the media to a mere trope (suburban ennui), has John Cheever become simply an adjective used to evoke a certain setting? Is “Cheeveresque” the new “Dickensian”? I hope not. Every summer I find myself returning to Cheever’s short stories, which capture the indolent northeastern heat perfectly. While justifiably lauded, “The Swimmer” (his most famous story), holds up, and even exceeds its reputation, masterfully conveying the poisonous languor characteristic of poolside afternoons. Now, I suppose it’s time to fetch the gin. —BR
Nonfiction: The Art of the Con: The Most Notorious Fakes, Frauds, and Forgeries in the Art World, by Anthony Amore (St. Martin’s Press): The number of crimes being committed in the art world today is larger than it’s ever been. Creating forgeries, hoarding stolen art, and producing fake documentation are just a few, select activities of these con artists. With modern-day technology, the opportunities to achieve a successful art con are greater than ever, and Anthony Amore recounts some of the most elaborate and impressive art scams in recent history. As head of security and chief investigator at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, he is in a unique position to tell these tales. —RH
Poetry: “The Art of Poetry” in The Paris Review: For years I’ve treasured The Paris Review’s “Art of Fiction” interviews, which provide fascinating insight into the writing processes of my favorite authors. (Who can forget Evelyn Waugh’s response of “Extremely” to the interviewer’s asking whether his autobiography would be conventional in form?) So I admit, slightly bashfully, that only recently have I become aware of the attendant “Art of Poetry” feature. Ranging from Eliot (the inaugural edition) to Charles Simic, and including many more boldface names, the series promises weeks of distraction and enlightenment. —BR
Art: “Eating Painting” at 308 at 156 Artspace (Through August 15): The painting studio is sometimes referred to as a "kitchen for art," and for good reason. The creation of oil on canvas is not unlike the preparation of food. Both are designed to tempt the senses through color, form, and texture. A group exhibition called "Eating Painting" seeks to highlight this connection, not by encouraging viewers to consume the crayons, but by presenting works that "embody painting as an immersive sensory experience—the consumption of paint as color and substance.” Curated by the artists James Biederman and Lisa Taliano, who both appear, this "sensational" exhibition features works by Cora Cohen, Ben La Rocco, Gerard Mossé, Fran O’Neill, Judy Pfaff, Russell Roberts, and Thornton Willis. In the age of apartment galleries and alternative spaces, the venue, 308 at 156 Project Artspace, is also noteworthy for occupying the conference rooms of an art-forward Flatiron law firm, which has been sponsoring a recent run of excellent shows. —JP
Music: The “Great C Major Symphony,” by Franz Schubert, performed by Claudio Abbado leading the Orchestra Mozart: We think of Schubert primarily for his rich catalogue of songs, and rightly so—it is thanks to him that art song finally took a respectable place among the genres of Western music. Of his orchestral works, only a handful have entered the canon, but his "Great" Symphony No. 9 in C Major stands as one of the best examples of proto-romantic symphonic writing, a massive and masterful piece that shows the blossoming of a mature composer (only to be cut off in his prime). Deutsche Grammophon has released a glowing recording by the late Claudio Abbado, leading the Orchestra Mozart just years before his death. Listen in particular to the second movement, pitting Schubert's famously wistful lyricism against the grim determination of biting strings. —ECS
From the archive: Cheever vs. Cheever, by Stefan Beck: With Cheever top of mind, we present Stefan Beck’s 2009 assessment of the author’s collected works and Blake Bailey’s definitive biography.
From our latest issue: Brothers of invention, by Michael Taube: A review of David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers.
E-mail to friend
Patients suffering from schizophrenia, epilepsy, or simple anxiety can experience "derealization." They describe these episodes using various metaphors: a veil has fallen over the world; the world feels like cardboard; the world morphs into a movie. This last metaphor is a popular one—some patients even experience a "dolly zoom," that creepy special effect favored by Hitchcock. In sum, the outside world loses its depth.
And how do you treat this condition? Some medical professionals recommend pinching yourself, touching something cold or hot, and counting all the objects in sight. You might also go see Ada/Ava at the 3LD Art and Technology Center in downtown Manhattan. The production isn't quite theatre and it isn't quite cinema. Instead, the multimedia show involves shadow and light, actors and puppets, screens and projections.
Winner of the 2013 National Puppetry Festival, Ada/Ava was created by the Chicago-based ensemble Manual Cinema. It's the simple tale of two inseparable, elderly twins. In their cliffside abode they play chess and sip tea. When the neighboring lighthouse goes dark, they climb the rickety tower together to replace the unwieldy light bulb. They're living the dream, really, until Ava keels over, leaving Ada alone with her memories. These memories—the two girls at the beach, the two girls at the fair—float around for a bit, then condense and settle into Ava's ghost. While she's a cheery phantom, we all know the rule: the dead should stay dead.
Much like the resurrected Ava, the story is skeletal, not meaty enough to sustain your attention. Yet Ada/Ava is an enntrancing experience and the plot is a spine, supporting technical skill and visual artistry. The show's mechanics are simple: puppeteers (Drew Dir, Evan Garrett, Sarah Fornace) man a few slide projectors. They use stencils and cutouts to create stunning tableaux, which appear on a low-hanging screen. Then, standing in front of that screen, Ada (Julia Miller) and Ava (Kara Davidson) add their silhouettes to the backdrops. A second screen, higher and wider than the first, presents the final product. Three musicians (Maren Celest, Ben Kauffman, Kyle Vegter) provide lovely sound effects, from coastal splashes to a calliope's tune.
If you've already pinched yourself, touched something cold, or counted some objects to no avail, Ada/Ava might do the trick and restore depth to your world. The puppeteers don't just lay stencils on the projector's glass plate, they move the cut-outs up and down, bringing them into focus one second, out of focus the next. Sometimes their hands appear under the lens—the result is a close-up shot of Ava passing a seashell to Ada. And as things blur and blink and shift and sharpen, you can't help but remember that the world isn't a plane. Like Ada/Ava, it's a series of strata, and we spend our days adjusting the focus from layer to layer.
As its title suggests, the show deals with doubles and mirrors. Ada and Ava have identical profiles; their walls are hung with joint portraits; the carnival's mirror maze reveals horrible truths. And this spellbinding witchiness justifies the bold choice: Manual Cinema lets the audience in on the magic. We see puppeteers switch stencils, actors change costume. In other words, we keep an eye on the top screen and an eye on the lower one, an eye on the product and an eye on the process. None of this feels like a gimmick; rather, it's a particular kind of honesty. The show isn't a movie, some thriller with great special effects and dizzying verisimilitude, because the show doesn't encourage escapism. Ada/Ava lets us stay in the theater and witness talented people at work. In fact, audience members can even hop onstage, take pictures, and touch the set after the show. This is art, not artifice.
We've all had an uncle who dabbled in magic. He'd pull quarters out of thin air and then say, "A magician never reveals his secret." This enchanting shadow puppet show disproves the aphorism—the cast and crew reveal all their secrets, but the magic remains.
Ada/Ava can be seen at the 3LD Art & Technology Center in New York through July 26.
E-mail to friend
A commemorative Barack Obama t-shirt. Credit: Nichole Sobecki for the Wall Street Journal
Recent links of note:
Kenyans are Ready to Greet Obama With Open Cash Registers
Godot Was a Eurocrat
Why Are NYC Taxi Drivers Getting into the Whitney for Free?
From our pages:
E-mail to friend
It is one of the oddest works in music history—odd in its nature, structure, and performance history. It is also a work of sublimity.
I speak of Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross. It was commissioned in 1783 for the Good Friday service of a church in Cádiz. People there had the tradition of blackening the church for Good Friday—of covering the windows, walls, and so on with black cloth. Only a lamp hanging from the center of the roof provided light.
Haydn wrote the Seven Last Words for orchestra. In short order, he adapted it for string quartet. A decade after that, he fashioned an oratorio out of it. Moreover, he approved a piano version.
The orchestral version—the original version—is almost never heard. The piano version is, if anything, scarcer. The string-quartet version gets the most play, but even that is rare.
And here’s the thing: Haydn’s string-quartet adaptation is judged not very good—which is weird, because Haydn was the master of the string quartet. Perhaps this adaptation was a rush job. People have been fiddling with it for generations.
Along comes the Attacca Quartet with a new arrangement. This arrangement was done by Andrew Yee, the cellist in the quartet, with the help of his three partners. The arrangers considered Haydn’s own versions of the Seven Last Words to arrive at a kind of compilation arrangement (if you’ll excuse the ungainly phrase).
The Attacca Quartet was formed at the Juilliard School in 2003. Haydn-mad, the group is embarked on the project of performing all sixty-eight of that composer’s string quartets. And they have recorded the Seven Last Words, in their version, of course, for Azica Records, a Cleveland company.
How do you want this sublime work played? I suggest that you want it clean, purposeful, and mature. It should be both spare and majestic, both thin and lush (depending on the page, passage, or moment). Close attention must be paid to rhythm and tempo. The (ten) movements of the work have logical tempos, which cannot be rushed or slowed.
The work should not be Romantic, but should not be unfeeling either. Things ought to be seamless, but not too much so: There ought to be some bite, some crunch, along the way. Players must not smother the piece with pretty legato.
There ought to be a sense of inner balance, composure, mastery. There should of course be sublimity—but you must not approach the work with too much holy awe. You must not handle it with sugar tongs. You must play it with understanding and assurance.
So, how does the Attacca Quartet do? They do very well, filling the bill almost completely. At times they are a bit polite and tasteful for me, and I might welcome a more freewheeling attitude. But I applaud the respect they demonstrate on every page, and I look forward to hearing their disc again.
What of the new arrangement, by Mr. Yee et al.? I’ll tell you something: I didn’t notice the arrangement, for the most part. That is a high compliment. One was simply listening to the Seven Last Words, and it was natural and Haydnesque.
The big question is, Would the composer approve? In fact, I’ll quote Andrew Yee, in his program note: “I am, of course, the hugest of Haydn fans. I can only hope that he would have smiled and nodded approvingly at our version.” I feel sure he would.
The CD booklet features a photo of the group, in a blackened setting with just a lamp hanging in the middle of them—an evocation of Cádiz, as you know. The players are holding their instruments, have their eyes closed, and are bowing their heads, apparently in prayer. This picture strikes me as a little gimmicky. A display of piety, or an example of religiosity.
But in this ruthlessly secular age, I should complain?
In any case, I am grateful for this disc, and for the players’ devotion to Haydn, and in particular to this strange and wondrous composition, the Seven Last Words.
E-mail to friend
( AHR-mah wih-ROOM-kweh)
In the Aeneid, the Roman poet Virgil sang of "arms and a man" (Arma virumque cano). Month in and month out, The New Criterion expounds with great clarity and wit on the art, culture, and political controversies of our times. With postings of reviews, essays, links, recs, and news, Armavirumque seeks to continue this mission in accordance with the timetable of the digital age.
Follow us on Twitter:
To contact The New Criterion by email, write to:Contact