Sunday, September 27, 2015

Cosmic letdowns

I think I am going to swear off sky-watching for good.  We had a solid week of clear skies, and then tonight when it is a supermoon lunar eclipse, the skies are so overcast I can't even tell with certainty where the moon is in the sky.  I'm so f'ing bummed and sick of this.  Everytime there was supposed to be some major meteor shower it was overcast as well.  I'm done with it.  It is just one more disappointment on what has been a pretty difficult and unpleasant weekend for me. 

I might as well turn the page and try to enjoy my upcoming trip to Halifax and Charlottetown.  In fact, if I was smart, I would go to bed right now, so that I don't oversleep and miss my early morning flight.

Abandoning Antigone

This post is more accurately titled Abandoning Anouilh's Antigone, but that is just too much.

In any case, yesterday was a hard day for me.  I simply crammed too much in.  I went and did the groceries pretty early, then biked to the mall to buy some jeans, but more importantly to have my eyes checked and get a new pair of glasses.  Then I biked to the office and put in maybe half an hour of work before heading up to Bloor to see the free concert at the Telus Centre.  (In the end I didn't care for the Weinberg piece and thought the Mozart clarinet quintet wasn't quite snappy enough, but I did like the Shostakovich piano quintet.)  Then I had to bike back down to the office to wrap up something, head back to the mall to pick up the glasses and finally grab a few more things at the grocery store.  I'm exhausted just reading about it!

I had just enough time to eat and then bike over to Alumnae Theatre to get a ticket for Antigone.  It started out pretty well with an eerie parade of masks brought on stage accompanied by unusual choral music.  However, I found myself really annoyed by the script.  I don't know if it was intentional but Anouilh seemed to be mimicking Brecht in putting so much in the mouth of the Chorus (here an actress wearing not much more than a suit jacket and bra, as if she was the MC in Cabaret!) but I found it really clumsy.  Interestingly, Brecht also tackled Antigone just a few years after Anouilh.  While I might have liked this version better, I suspect it still would feel heavy-handed.  I guess I should read it just to be sure.

Ultimately, that was my problem with the Chorus.  All of the events that would come to be were simply told to us before any of the action started.  Granted, hardly anybody now (and nobody in classical Greece) would not know the broad outline of events, but this over-mediation still felt stilted and prevented me from caring at all about action on stage.  Brecht generally had the same intent of alienating the audience from the action on stage, but he wrote interesting characters despite himself (and of course most directors go in directions that generally soften the critique of society).

I didn't care that much for Anouilh's characters even when they weren't being overshadowed by the Chorus.  I can sort of see what he is trying to do -- ground the tragic in the mundane (the guards talk about getting a bonus for catching Antigone, the nurse wonders if Antigone has taken another lover in addition to Haemon) -- but it didn't work for me.

So I left at the intermission.  I don't think I was the only one either.  I realize this is always an option (and I was surprised at how many people left at the half during Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer at Stratford), but it is not one I have exercised until now.  That in itself is pretty astonishing.  It appears I have seen close to 400 plays in my day -- and this is the very first time I have left at intermission because I simply disliked the play so much.  There was the outdoor Hamlet in Cambridge that we abandoned due to the rain, but the production itself was fine and I had hoped that the rain would stop but it never did...

Although there have been a couple of one-acts that I would gladly have left midstream (as it were) but it would have meant disturbing too many people.  And there are definitely a few that I stuck out when I probably would have been better off leaving at the intermission (with Tartuffe being way up there on that list but also most stage adaptations of novels are far too long and unwieldy and ultimately more exhausting than entertaining).

I doubt very much that this will become a habit of mine, but I am (belatedly) starting to realize that going to the theatre is supposed to be for entertainment, not self-improvement, and sticking around just to see if the second half gets better is somewhat fool-hardy.  As it happens, I read through the second half of Anouilh's Antigone, and I suspect I would have just been outraged.  Creon spends most of his time trying to convince Antigone to cover up the crime and almost begs her not to go down this path, whereas she seems determined to have herself killed when there were other options.

The Chorus made a big deal about the difference between tragedy where Fate is totally preordained and melodrama where a less tragic outcome could still occur.  So why is Anouilh writing the second half as if it was a melodrama?  It ends up seeming that a less pig-headed character than Antigone could have had a different fate.  Somehow Anouilh has (in my eyes at least) made Antigone far less noble, though I don't think that was actually what he was going for.

There is no question I think less highly of Anouilh now than I did going into the play, and I will have to think long and hard (and do some extra research) before I ever see another play by him.  So there you have it: Anouilh's Antigone -- the first play I ever walked out on.  It might be worth going just to see if your reaction is as extreme as mine, though personally I wouldn't bother.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Fall Preview (2016)

In some ways, this is simply an extension and elaboration of this list here.

From this list, I did make it to We the Family, which was quite interesting and dark (darker than most of the Walker plays I've seen).  It also featured an unbelievably annoying Jewish grandmother.  Her schtick is explained by her having developed a brain tumor.  Still, I was always glad when she was not on stage, since I didn't like that character at all.  The play started out as an exploration of a hybrid wedding (in this case Jewish-Chinese) but then went in some very different directions.  I'd recommend it overall, and it plays for one more week.  I also need to type up some thoughts on the conversation that George F. Walker had with the UT theatre community, but that will have to wait.

I am supposed to see Antigone tonight, and that plays this weekend and next.

However, this post also recommends that you pick up Now if in the Toronto area.  It is the issue with the Fall Stage Preview on the cover.  While the headline stage articles are somewhat interesting, the main feature is a 4 page listing of events (p 70-73), which is hard to replicate on-line.

I was generally aware of the plays that interested me, such as Lady Windermere's Fan and Wonder of the World.  I had just become aware that there is a student production of The Physicists, and I think I'll probably go to that in two weeks.  Tickets are only $7, which is hard to beat.

The only one that was completely new was a production of Alan Bennett's Talking Heads, which will be playing in that small living room in the Campbell House Museum, where I saw Mamet's Boston Marriage.  I think I'll go to this, assuming I can squeeze it in in November.  Actually, I just took a look at the program, and they are going to alternate between 6 of Bennett's monologues, which makes this a more substantial investment of time and money.  I hope at some point they put together a package deal for people who want to see both shows.

Anyway, there are many other interesting plays.  I tend to shy away from the really dark ones, like Edmond at the Storefront Theatre or The Ties that Bind, though some people will be interested in those.  I'll probably largely skip the plays I've already seen, like Avenue Q, though I mentioned already that I probably will see The Physicists, despite seeing it earlier in the summer at Stratford.  I am leaning towards the Watershed Festival's production of King Lear in late Nov.-early Dec., but I also just have to pace myself.  I think this is going to be a very busy fall, and I may well be burned out on theatre (and work) by that point.

Friday, September 25, 2015

9th Canadian Challenge - 5th Review - Mad Shadows

Marie-Claire Blais's Mad Shadows set off quite a bang in Quebec literature when it was published in 1959.  All the traditional platitudes about the strength of the farmers (not that far from peasants at that time if one believes Two Solitudes) are absent.  I don't believe a single priest makes an appearance, and god is conspicuously absent.  The novel is quite short, as befitting a dark fable or a fairy tale without the happy ending, though to say much about the plot goes quickly into SPOILERS, so ...


As in most fables, the cast is comparatively small.  There is the mother, Louise, who truly seems to care only about surface appearances (which is somewhat hard to believe, since she is supposedly keeping a large farm going, though you only once see her doing anything to advance the farm's conditions.  She must have a heck of an off-scene manager.)  She loves immoderately her beautiful but almost unbelievably stupid son, Patrice.  She has essentially nothing but contempt for her ugly daughter Isabelle-Marie, who does much more of the work around the farm.  Isabelle-Marie naturally hates her favoured brother and her mother.  The mother eventually brings a new lover into the mix -- Lanz, who eventually marries her.  It probably should not be a surprise that this upsets the status quo in a number of ways and the resulting nuclear family is anything but stable.

Blais does show a bit of a way out when Isabelle-Marie falls in love with a local farmer, Michael, though the only reason apparently that he can stand her is because he is blind.  When he regains his sight, he is angry at Isabelle for deceiving him about her looks and abandons her, even though they have a daughter together.  (Just how ugly has Blais made her?  And why is everyone in this village so aggressively shallow?)  This definitely feels like a fairy tale where everything goes wrong, since there really doesn't seem to be a reason to "punish" Isabelle, who has been trying to fight her spiteful nature and had achieved happiness with Michael.  After Isabelle's abandonment, Blais moves towards an even more aggressive inward turn to the narrative where the family collapses back down to the original diseased family unit (plus the totally superfluous granddaughter who doesn't figure in the story as more than a doll).  The outcome seems as predetermined as most of the Greek tragedies, though none of the characters had nearly as much nobility as Orestes or Antigone.  (Speaking of Antigone, I think I will try to catch the play this Sat. at Alumnae Theatre.)

I don't think this book will be to everyone's taste, and I don't think I would say I enjoyed it exactly, but it was fairly radical for its time in Quebec literature.  (If anyone would like to find out for themselves, there is still a week to go in the Mad Shadows give-away.  The rules are in this post.)

I think there might be a decent comparative lit. comparing this dark fable to Angela Carter's work, particularly The Bloody Chamber, which are stories that deliberately rework classic fairy tales.  I would also think a comparison to Barbara Comyns's The Juniper Tree would be worth investigating.  This draws on a specific Grimm tale, though the ending is reworked substantially.  However, what does persist in Comyns's version is the notion that some people emerge with their happiness intact (or even increased) and others suffer (perhaps unfairly).  No question it was somewhat unconventional for a Comyns's novel (the mother figure is downright nasty for the majority of the novel, but she is not feckless nor is the narrator feckless, so that is a bit of a change).  I didn't love The Juniper Tree, but it had its moments.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Back from Stratford (2nd trip)

I think it will be several days, perhaps even the weekend, before I can fully unload and put down all my impressions of the trip to Stratford and the 3 plays I saw. Sometimes you don't even know what you thought about a play (or a particular production of a play) until you have a chance to think it over in your mind. I suppose only Possible Worlds was truly thought-provoking, whereas with Love's Labor's Lost and She Stoops to Conquer, it is more about whether the production held together and if the themes were well presented.

I also ended up talking for over an hour to the co-owner of the bed and breakfast where I stayed. On the plus side, he had lots of inside knowledge. I didn't even realize that William Shatner had actually been in the first* company (he was Christopher Plummer's understudy in fact) and stayed on for another 2 seasons, which makes him Stratford royalty in the same way that Timothy Findley was. I had thought they gave him a star, just because he is such a big name and had occasionally acted here. Shows that you don't always know as much as you think you know...

The down side of the talk is that some of the ideas I had about comparing Stratford to Niagara-on-the-Lake have already been covered by Ryerson students. But maybe that is ok in its own way, as I doubt very much I ever could find the time to tackle it properly. Anyway, it was a good talk, which also covered quite a bit of dramatic theory as well as what contemporary theatre companies must do to stay viable. I'll try to put down some of the core ideas another time.

This time around, the books I picked weren't as rewarding. I really found myself uninterested in Chaudhuri's The Immortals and bailed on it within a few pages. I then turned to Clarice Lispector's Água Viva, but this is one of those plotless, internal monologues, and not nearly as interesting as Hardwick's Sleepless Nights (though I didn't really like that one that much either). I did manage to get through it, but I didn't like it at all.

I definitely like Stratford as a town, though there really is no point in imaging retiring here.  I would be too bored all the time, and then there would be seasons (like next season) where I only really want to see a handful of shows, and then I would be trying to reverse commute out to Toronto to see all the interesting plays.  But it is fun coming down for a weekend or two and trying to relax.  I suspect that is something I will do better after I retire.  (This time around I worked a bit and felt guilty for not doing more...)

Anyway, the traffic coming back was quite heavy and the bus ride was not smooth.  It probably didn't help that I was reading a fairly "heavy" book -- Marie-Claire Blais's Mad Shadows, which I'll try to review tonight.  We got back in 30 minutes late, but I'm sure I would have been even more stressed had I been the one responsible for the driving.  All in all, it was a successful weekend, though not particularly restful.

* Apparently my source was somewhat off on the dates.  Shatner was not in the inaugural season, but the 2nd through 4th seasons.  He actually had some decent parts in those years, not just spear carrier...  According to Playbill, he played Lucentio in The Taming of the Shrew, Lucius in Julius Caesar, Gratiano in The Merchant of Venice and Gloucester in Henry V (in addition to being Plummer's understudy), as well as a few other roles.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Street art vs. outdoor art festival

I had vaguely heard about the Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition, and I had had it in my head to go.  Then of course, I realized it was the same weekend as I was off to Stratford.  In the end, I managed to slip away from work before 6 pm and ran over to Nathan Phillips Square.  It was kind of interesting, but it's basically a glorified art fair, but with far more booths than one normally sees.  I do wish that I had had another 30 minutes or so, but I probably saw 70% of the artists, though there are many I didn't do justice.

Here are four artists that I found interesting at the exhibition.  I could conceivably purchase a piece of art from one of them, though I really have almost no room left in the house, aside from my daughter's room (and I certainly can't expect her to have the same taste as me!).

Elizabeth Elkin
Callie Gray
Joan McNeil
Susan June Robertson

While Sat. is looking like it will rain at least part of the day (drat), Sunday should be pretty nice if anyone is thinking of dropping by.  It runs 10:30-6:30 both days, though by 6:15, the artists start packing things in (another reason I wish I had managed to get over just a bit earlier).

On the way from City Hall over to UT, I passed this sidewalk art.  There were circles of all sizes filled with hearts.

On looking a bit closer, I realized I had seen the same artist's work on Danforth near Jones.  There he had painted the alphabet, presumably the whole thing, though I only looked at D through L.  I probably ought to go back and find the "O", so that I can put together another EHO for the blog (remember this?).  Right now, I just have EH, which is still pretty cool.

There were also some pretty neat sidewalk paintings on Queen this summer, but I generally didn't have a phone available.  If I see anything particularly noteworthy, I'll go ahead and add it below.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Double your Tremblay

Sorry, I couldn't resist the near-pun in the title.

I've mentioned that I will be seeing Michel Tremblay's Yours Forever, Marie-Lou.  It just opened at Soulpepper, and I don't think there are any reviews yet.  I was thinking about switching dates, but it looks like I will have time to make it to the matinee, get home, spend a least some time with the family, then go back out for Nuit Blanche on Oct. 3.  So it is just easier to leave as is.

Anyway, things have been sneaking up on me while TIFF is in town.  It's not that I am particularly interested in TIFF, but it sucks up a lot of media attention.  It was only totally inadvertently that I saw the Drama Centre (which has ties with UT) is staging Tremblay's Albertine in Five Times (and that I had nearly missed my window for seeing it).  The first weekend is over, but there is one more weekend to go.  This doesn't work particularly well for me, as I am in Stratford the whole weekend, but I will just try to get in tonight (Friday).  I'm not entirely sure I have reserved my seat, but I think I shouldn't have too much trouble getting in.  I have a friend who considers this the most important play that Tremblay has written, so I just can't afford to pass it up.  The Mooney review was quite positive as well.  The translation is relatively new (about 5 years old) and is the one used in the Shaw festival production (not that I was around for that -- I believe I was still living in Chicago and Shaw was just not on the radar).

Here's a very short blurb about what to expect: "Michel Tremblay’s award-winning play places Albertine, a Québécois woman living a luckless life, in Montreal’s Plateau neighbourhood. Tremblay stages five Albertine’s at once, from age 30 to 70, for each decade of her life. Led by their sister Madeleine, they try to come to grips with a life filled with abuse, love, regret and happiness."  I would say, from the trailer, that I would probably have preferred a wider range of actual ages of the actors playing Albertine (they all appear to be mid 20s to early 30s), but suspension of disbelief, y'all.  (Indeed, the make-up is pretty reasonable, with the wildly varying hair colour the biggest issue that probably would have been fixed in a more professional production.)

These will make the second and third plays I've seen by Tremblay.  I saw For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again in Vancouver a few years back.  While I will keep my eyes out, particularly for Les Belles-soeurs (the one that is about those stamps that could be traded in for merchandise -- we actually had a place like that when I was growing up and I managed to get a covered cheese plate and something else for my mom, perhaps a vase), I think I've done a reasonable job of getting up on his work.  I don't see any current productions of Les Belles-soeurs, though it looks like there will be a French-language production in Saskatoon of all places in 2016.  I think that would be too much for me to handle, but I guess never say never if I have to go back out that way for work next year...

While this is only tangentially related due to the timeframe and geographic proximity, the new George F. Walker play We the Family plays at UT's Hart House over the next three weeks, and I am looking forward to going next Wednesday (23rd).  This is quite a coup for Hart House, since it is a world premiere of a Walker play!  Perhaps I shall see some of you there.

Update: I enjoyed Albertine in Five Times.  It takes several characters and incidents that also show up in The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant, but here things generally take the darkest possible outcome, whereas the novel is far more comic and even the most disturbing events are played for laughs.  As it happens, it is certainly possible that some of darker events, such as the death of Albertine's husband during the war and the troubled young adulthood of her children, could still come to pass in the third or fourth novel of les Chroniques du Plateau Mont-Royal.  However, I have a feeling that Tremblay exaggerated these episodes from his aunt's life, though I guess the only way to find out is to go ahead and read the series one day.  I am not sure, however, if Madeleine is a kind of stand-in for Tremblay's mother, since there doesn't appear to be any space left over on the family tree, but Tremblay's mother is even more citified than Albertine (in the novels at any rate).  Perhaps Tremblay essentially created this fortunate aunt who lived out in the countryside just as a imaginative counterpoint to his very urban family.  It does look like there is only a single show left tonight (Sept 19), so this is your last chance.  One thing that is a bit different is that they have few audience members come up on stage to interact with the Albertines as a pre-show warm-up.  I somewhat reluctantly agreed, and helped the 30 year-old Albertine fill in some school forms.  It was also very weird that they all vanished at the end of the show and none of the actors came back to take their bows.  I don't think I've ever seen that in any show I've watched.  How strange.

Monday, September 14, 2015

A chill in the air

Yes, this weekend fall definitely hit Toronto.

It was a bit unfortunate as there was a street party in the area, and it would have been so much more fun had it been on the previous weekend (though too many people would have been away and it was very hot out) or the one before that.  Still there was a bouncy slide and a bouncy jousting ring and a dunk tank.

There were a few contests, including a donut eating contest and one where the kids had to try to unfold frozen t-shirts and put them on (again, this would have worked much better on a warmer day), and basically all the kids went home with a prize.

It did get a little exhausting, and at one point I was just sitting down reading Boo and keeping an eye on my daughter, but of course it started to sprinkle at that point, so I had to put the book away.  In general, the rain held off at least until 4:30, so it could have been worse.  The kids got most of their games in (not street Twister though) and didn't seem to mind doing a freeze dance game in the rain.

It's still taking a while to get used to our neighbourhood, which is filled with a lot of outgoing people with children, which means we will be interacting with them a lot.  I'm starting to get into the hang of just chatting with folks, though so far it has always been on their lawn or front porch.  I was never as outgoing as my mother, but I did take more of an interest in people when I was younger and some of that is coming back.  I found there are several people that might have similar interests in the arts, including a film-maker a couple of houses down. 

I also found that the street was a lot more run-down only 8 or 9 years ago, and that the families that have been here that long did help clean up the street (getting a crack house closed down and so forth) and that they really have earned their increased property value.

As the fall weather rolls in, it will be interesting to see what happens on the street.  Presumably more of the interaction starts moving inside, and we will have to decide just how social we really want to be.  But that has to be balanced against the various things I hope to do this fall (though many of them are only part-day or one-day events).

This next weekend I am away at Stratford.

The following weekend is a concert and a birthday party.

Then it is a matinee at Soulpepper and Nuit Blanche.

Then we might go to Ottawa for an overnight trip on Thanksgiving weekend* (right before the Greek exhibit closes)

After that there are a few other things to fit in in the late fall:
  • A copy of the Magna Carta is being displayed at Fort York 
  • I'd like to go down to Hamilton to see the Art Gallery of Hamilton and probably the art museum at McMaster as well.
  • I'd like to head over to Oshawa to see the Robert McLaughlin Gallery and perhaps see the Toronto Zoo on the way back, but that will only work if it is a particularly warm day
  • I'm getting a bit more serious about heading out to Cleveland on the one week in November the kids have a day off from school
  • Finally, we should take the train out to Kingston to get to the art gallery there and walk around Queen's University a bit.

So that is fairly long list of things to do, and of course I'll have to see how much homework the kids have to see if that makes me rethink these fall plans.

* Going to Ottawa at least doesn't involve any border crossings, but I'd still need to see if it is particularly hard to rent a car and/or book a hotel room on that holiday.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

9th Canadian Challenge - 4th review - Boo

Perhaps I should have suspected that Neil Smith was Canadian (or at least had strong Canadian roots) as his new book, Boo, had a fairly prominent review in the Toronto Star.  In any case, one I found that out,* I decided I might as put together a short review for the Canadian Challenge.

I will say that the content matter intrigued me. (It isn't giving away anything to reveal that the narrator -- a boy nicknamed Boo -- dies at school, right in front of his locker, and ends up in an afterlife populated entirely of 13 year olds who died in America,** since this is explained on the first page.)  However, I was mostly reading it to see if it was a YA novel that my son could read.  On that score, I would say probably not for a while.  Given what is going on in the novel, during its many twists and turns, I think I would probably hold off suggesting it until he is 15 or even 16, though I guess if he finds out about it on his own, he'll be allowed to read it.

Anyway, the narrative voice is very much like that from Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, while the metaphysics are kind of convoluted and off-kilter, like Brockmeier's The Brief History of the Dead.  Since I liked both those books, I basically liked this book quite a bit, though it was probably just a bit too clever for its own good.  I had a pretty good sense of how it would turn out, and in fact I was correct.  That's really probably all I want to say about it, since this is a case where if you don't like spoilers, then saying almost anything at all about the book will spoil it for someone.

* It is a bit amusing that of the books that dropped in my lap through the library hold incident, most are either by Indian authors or authors that turn out to be Canadian.  After Neil Smith, I'll be turning my attention to Confidence by Russell Smith, also a Canadian.

**  Apparently even permanent residents count, since there is a boy with a British accent whose parents had only recently moved to America.  Thankfully, the reader is not confronted with the contentious topic of whether illegal immigrants from Mexico or elsewhere, but who die on America soil, end up in the afterlife reserved for Americans ...

Minor update with a UK connection.  I try not to get too hung up about these things, but I think the UK publishers of Boo need their heads examined, since the cover (IMO) contains a major spoiler that cannot be unseen once it is seen.  Crazy.  I'm obviously not going to link to it...

9th Canadian Challenge - 3rd Review - The Night Stages

You'll have to jump down a few paragraphs to get to the actual review of Jane Urquhart's new novel The Night Stages.  If you have been following the reviews in the national papers, it is established early on that the novel kicks off fairly early with a woman (Tam -- short for Tamara) getting fogged in at Gander Airport in Newfoundland for 3 days.  She is somewhat astonished by the massive mural in the passenger lounge and this stirs up various associations to her past.  I'll get to this shortly, particularly the fact that in the end the novel is barely about Tam and far more about two brothers (with one of whom Tam is in a fairly unsatisfying love affair) but even the real-life painter of the mural, Canadian artist Kenneth Lochhead.

Still, this set me pondering about novels about airports.  As far as I know there are only a very few books set entirely in airports, though air travel itself can play a prominent role in any number of novels.  In terms of the ones I am aware of, ostensibly the closest is Rana Dasgupta's Tokyo Cancelled, which is about a number of travelers stuck in a remote airport trying to reach Narita Airport, which has been snowed in.*  The ones that can't find a hotel end up sleeping over in the passenger lounge (much like Tam) and then tell stories to each other to pass the time (though she is telling stories to herself).  The set-up is very reminiscent of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales or maybe even more precisely Boccaccio's The Decameron.  (I had extremely high hopes for Dasgupta's novel or rather collection of tales, but ultimately found it quite disappointing.  Is it giving too much away to say the pattern was repeated for The Night Stages?)

Interestingly, there is a Can-lit connection with airports when turning to Carol Shields' Departures and Arrivals.  This is a play made up of a number of episodes that are essentially overheard conversations between groups of people just arriving and just leaving the airport.  Not surprisingly, it is the pilots and stewardesses who appear multiple times, since they in some sense treat going to the airport the way the rest of us treat the daily commute.  While aspects of the play have dated, it had some interesting moments; I'd go see a production of it if it is staged in revival.

I haven't read it, but there is a fairly recent (2011) book of short stories all set at Heathrow by Tony Parsons.  I'll try to check that out relatively soon.  I suppose Walter Kirn's Up in the Air (the novel more than the movie) cheats a little in that we see the narrator in settings outside the airport, but he is a million-mile flyer and certainly does seem to spend the majority of his life in airports waiting to make all these flights.

Let me start with the mural at Gander Airport, which is at the heart of The Night Stages.  It is indeed an interesting mural.  I'm not sure it is actually worth a trip out there just to see it, but if I happen to be out that way in Newfoundland, I'll try to make a side trip.  (My upcoming trip to Halifax and Charlottetown doesn't quite get me far enough.)

As it happens, there are two airport murals that have a reasonably connection to the Lochhead mural.  One is essentially lost, but two panels (out of 10) of a mural by Arshile Gorky for the Newark Airport Administration Building were salvaged are were eventually transferred to the Newark Museum.  I've seen them a couple of times, the most recently in 2010 (or so) on a visit to Newark that coincided with their exhibit Constructive Spirit.

Archile Gorky, Aerial Map, 1936-37

Archile Gorky, Mechanics of Flying, 1936-37

It is certainly a shame that the rest of them were lost.

One mural that may be even closer in spirit and conception to Lochhead's was in danger of being lost but is now under national heritage protection.  This is Flight by James Brooks, which is in the Marine Air Terminal at LaGuardia.  I've seen it once and took my own photos, though I can't find them at the moment.  If I recall, the shuttle from New York to Boston normally leaves from this terminal, and I have to say it is almost worth taking that service just to go in and see the murals (or I guess if I had a particularly long layover I could walk between the terminals).  Anyway, it is pretty incredible, since it is a 360° panorama.

That's probably enough about murals for the moment.  On to the actual review.

There'll be SPOILERS ahead, to be sure.

In a few reviews that I have caught, there are suggestions that not is all that it seems in this book.  Mostly notably, this is an Irish novel passing itself off as Can-con.  Even Kenneth Lochhead, who is an actual Canadian painter, has most of his formative experiences in Europe or at school in Philadelphia.  But really the core story is about two Irish brothers.

I honestly cannot quite understand why Urquhart includes the passages about Lochhead, since they are so dissimilar to the rest.  I think just possibly she was going for something like Robertson Davies's Cornish Trilogy where one could argue that the life experiences of one artist go into creating a masterpiece (or maybe it was a masterful forgery -- it's a bit foggy) and then we see how others respond to that art and it evokes different reveries and connections to their own lives.  At least I think that was Urquhart's intent.  However, Lochhead's life was fairly mundane; even the way his ties with a prominent New York art critic** were severed is kind of cliched.  This review indicates that Urquhart actually knew Lochhead casually, and she might have wanted to memorialize his achievements in some way, but got started and then realized she probably there wasn't much there there.  In order to extend it to novel length, she would have had to make the novel revolve around the kind of upheaval and bad behaviour that seems to come along with the artistic temperament, seen to some extent in Maugham's Of Human Bondage and even more prominently in Cary's The Horse's Mouth, and she opted not to do that (probably wisely).  Writing about friends and family in anything but the most flattering light is a good way to lose friends and alienate readers.  (I've sort of alluded to this a bit in my posts about Sharon Olds -- here for example).  And in countries that are more aligned with English law, libel suits are always a danger, even for a novelist (this contrasts significantly from the free-for-all in the U.S. that stems from a very robust reading of the First Amendment).  Of all the insights that we receive from the Lochhead sections, the ones tied to his time in Philadelphia are probably the most interesting, and that might have made a reasonable standalone short story, but doesn't work for me in this novel.

I liken the structure of this novel to a juggler juggling three completely disparate items -- an apple, a rubber chicken and a wrench.  Yes, it can be done, but only fairly awkwardly, and it is never as elegant as a juggler keeping 3, 4, 5 or even 6 evenly matched and balanced balls in the air.  I'm not (entirely) opposed to complicated novel structures -- flashbacks and shifted perspectives and so forth -- but I like them to have some internal logic.  A novel that shifted back and forth between two brothers would make sense.  I just thought this novel was problematic in that the Lochhead sections had no relation whatsoever to the rest of the novel, aside from Tam reading her life-story in the mural, but again, she had no idea of what Kieran's life was life (even when Tam's lover Niall opened up towards the end of the novel as talked about his long-lost brother, he had only the vaguest idea of what he had been up to).  Anyway, I thought the connections between the sections were extremely tenuous and didn't work for me, though many readers were positively inspired by this unusual structure.

Again, the SPOILERS are coming, don'tcha know.

I found Tam a very uninteresting character -- a bit unpleasant in her youth and then too weak and even spineless when she kept going back to the caddish Niall.  I just didn't find anything written about her worth the reading.  Niall himself was a bit more interesting but didn't quite gel for me.  He seemed a bit too self-aware to be such a terrible person (forcing his wife to marry him even though it was clear 1) he didn't really love her and 2) she was in love with his brother), though I guess some of the characters in O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night are roughly as aware of their own weak, spoiled natures.

I thought Urquhart went a little heavy on the Irish setting, trying too self-consciously to make this into an Irish legend, i.e. an updated Gog and Magog. But I never felt she had earned this; it was sort of like throwing on someone else's (narrative) cloak and borrowing someone else's glory.

Still, watching Niall’s younger brother Kieran learn about the old Irish ways while simultaneously becoming a fierce bicycle rider was reasonably rewarding.  Where the novel strains is when Kieran falls hard for Niall's fiance.  Why is it that there is only one girl in the whole village that two brothers (or a son and a father -- pace O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms) must love?  I guess in this I am more frustrated with human nature than relying too much on narrative coincidence, since this kind of sibling rivalry has been around for thousands of years.  But what is too convenient is that the two brothers are both training (unbeknownst to each other) for the major bike race called the Ras.  I mean, Niall has a pretty consuming job as a weatherman.  How did he find the time to train for this race?  At that point, I was pretty much through with the book and did not find myself all swept up in the race (which happens to all be told second-hand through Niall's retelling of events to Tam and not switching back over to Kieran's direct perspective).  Even the coda at the end was pretty unconvincing to me.

Overall this is a book that has some nice writing in sections, particularly Kieran's middle to late childhood, but one that was constructed in a way that turned me off.  It is also a book that the more I think about it, the more I find it wanting -- a bit pretentious and predictable.  (I actually like it less now than when I finished it, which is not a good sign.)  So clearly this isn't a book I would recommend, though I recognize some people will definitely eat it up.

* I only just ran across this New Yorker cover by Adrian Tomine from Dec, 26, 2005 (roughly a year after Tokyo Cancelled was published). There is no particular reason to think it was directly inspired by Tokyo Cancelled, but it is at least possible there was a link.  (Cool cover either way.)

** I think this critic is supposed to be a stand-in for Clement Greenberg, who actually did "tutor" Jack Bush of the Painters 11 for a while, although Harold Rosenberg did promote another Canadian painter, William Ronald, for a time.

Not everyone is a fan, however, and the reviewer in the Globe and Mail is just as frustrated with the novel's structure as I am.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Omega

I know this post sounds like it is going to be full of heavy symbolic poesy, but in fact it simply is to celebrate the fact that I bought a used sewing machine.  It is an Omega 7142.  (I have no idea if I will love it as much as this happy customer, but hopefully...)  It wasn't a complete steal, but it seems to be a fair price for a decent machine that seems to have hardly ever been used.

I wouldn't say that I have had a lot of need for a sewing machine, but from time to time it would have come in handy.  Actually, I carted around my mom's sewing machine for quite some time, but left it (probably in Newark).  Actually I am far more upset that I had to abandon an old Underwood typewriter that I believe belonged to my grandfather, but there are limits to nostalgia when it is just taking up space.  The sewing machine has proven easier to replace and has more actual utility.  (I guess I sort of memorialized the typewriter by putting up a print that is in the downstairs bathroom.)

Very astute readers will remember that one of my remaining tasks at the new house is to create a set of inner curtains for the back room.  That will probably be the first thing I do with the Omega, after I make a few practice runs with some other fabrics.  (It has been a long, long time since I sewed on a machine, and never using this particular brand, though I did track down a very helpful manual on-line.)

If that goes well,  I will probably make curtains for my daughter, and then just possibly a skirt for her (I've been investigating some patterns, as well as checked out a few fabric stores on Queen St. W -- I might as well since I work nearby).

If this all goes extremely, extremely well, I've had in the back of my mind that I might make a few quilts, mostly so that I can take a few t-shirts that remind me of my mis-spent youth (mostly joking) and make them into the backing.  This machine is supposed to handle quilting relatively well.  It's so interesting that as time has gotten so tight, today you would get very high praise for doing machine quilting whereas that was sort of pooh-poohed in the 1970s and 1980s (ok, there is probably a very small circle of quilters who still do it all by hand, but I imagine they are a dying breed).  I know right now that I don't have time to invest in hand-quilting, but if the machine does a halfway decent job, I might see how it goes and ultimately make a quilt for each of the kids.  (I still have a book or two on quilting patterns (designed around the strengths of sewing machines) and can dig that out, as well as keep my eyes out for fabric sample sales, though the store I dropped in on today had hardly any cotton samples available.)

At some point I will get back to the rug in the office, but that really does have to be done all by hand, so it is not something I can really tackle now, though I should see about cleaning up the loose end a bit more.

Monday, September 7, 2015

My playlet performed tonight at Sing-for-Your-Supper (Sept. 7)

I just got the news that at tonight's Sing-for-Your-Supper, they will be putting on Wet.  I'm excited, though I don't think this is as good as some of the other pieces I have written, though this one is quirkier, which is probably why it was chosen. But I'm sure it will be a fun night, and I may meet actors who are game to do my pieces next year.

It's at the Storefront Theatre @ 955 Bloor Street West, Toronto, starting at 8.  If you are an actor looking to do one of the cold readings (they generally do 6 or 7 of these pieces), you should show up at 7.

I went back and saw that I had success back in Feb., and I have either not written, or missed the deadline, or just not made the cut since then.  That's a bit of dry spell (sorry -- inside joke regarding Wet).

It's very difficult to tell how these things play themselves out, but I am not expecting to get attached to Red One in a professional sense.  I just have a slightly different sensibility, though I do admire their can-do indy spirit.

This fall, I think my highest priority should be to clean up my two finished plays and then shop them around a bit.  After that, I will finish up the play that spawned Straying South (the piece they did back in Feb.).  Then probably The Study Group.  And finally, Lester's Last Testament.  That is a pretty massive undertaking.  If that all comes together, I will start seriously considering putting together an e-book, drawing on the best posts from this blog.  In that case it will basically just be editing, as the core of the content is already there.  Goodness knows I have plenty to choose from, since I just passed 500 posts(!), though probably all of the art-related ones will be dumped due to copyright restrictions.

Anyway, hope to see some folks there.


It was a good time.  My piece went on last.  By this time several of the actors were a bit loose, and they played it pretty broad for laughs, but that's fine.  I think one or two bits got swallowed up, but overall it went over well, especially the last bit with this woman (playing a homeless man) pretending to paddle by in a canoe.  The word I heard most often was zany, and that's sort of what I was going for.  I liked the two other comic pieces but wasn't quite as interested in the slightly more serious pieces.

I probably should try to set aside time and go more often, even if I don't have a piece on.  I was really hoping to see a few folks, including Clair, but I think the fact it was a holiday weekend meant many were out of town (or not aware that SFYS was on).  I guess if I am really trying to track down a few specific actors I will have to try to make it a few more times.  Maybe in the end I will write that piece about aliens coming to the 7-11.

It finally rained, and the heat has largely dissapated.  I guess we'll see how it is later today.  I will go ahead and claim that I have summoned it (there is a huge rain storm and the dam bursts at the end of Wet).  I have to run now though.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Lear on TV and other upcoming cultural events

I thought I had better post this tout de suite.*

CBC is showing the Stratford production of Lear at 3 pm today.

I thought this was a solid production (aside from Cordelia not being particularly memorable), and I imagine if I had the better view that the impact would have been amazing.  At any rate, I won't be able to watch the whole thing, but I will have it on PVR, for when I do have more time.

Sept. 20 they will be doing Anthony and Cleopatra (which I'll probably skip, but maybe I'll come around).

Sept. 27, they will be putting on King John, and this one does intrigue me.

If I am exceptionally lucky, then they'll put on a few others next year, especially The Alchemist, though I suspect it is more likely that they would lead with Hamlet and The Taming of the Shrew (both of which I saw in person).

On a very different note, I was poking around on the Cleveland and Detroit orchestra pages.  Both are rust belt cities in decline (though Cleveland seems to be rebounding a bit faster).  It is not a surprise that it is difficult to convince governments to support the arts when everything else is in deficit, though there are often donors who are willing to lend support now and then to the arts, which then leads to griping from others about the priorities of the rich and whether there should be more or less government support for the arts and/or more redistribution of wealth.  (Almost anything can become a lightening rod for controversy if pushed far enough.)

At any rate, given the operational expenses, it is somewhat harder to keep support going for orchestras (or large theatre organizations) compared to museums which have relatively lower staff costs.  Both orchestras have fewer concerts than before, but Cleveland seems to be making up for this in part by touring Europe, whereas the Detroit Symphony is going a more populist route, trying to engage the community more and trying to lower the ticket cost for the average Detroit resident to attend.  They also are live-streaming quite a number of their performances.  You can see those dates on the calendar here.

I'm definitely going to try to tune in on Oct. 16 to see Beethoven's 7th Symphony.  It's been quite a while** since I have seen this live.  I've decided that I will go ahead and get a ticket to see Beethoven's 3rd Symphony towards the end of the TSO's season (June 2016, I believe) and I already have a ticket for Beethoven's 5th Symphony on June 25th (when my book give-away ends, incidentally).

Back to Detroit, on Nov. 14 they have an interesting concert anchored by Debussy's La Mer.  I actually hope to be in Detroit that weekend and make the concert, though that is by no means guaranteed.  I should be able to stream the concert if I can't make the trip, however.

Nov. 21 is Dvorak's Cello Concerto and the world premiere of Tod Machover's Symphony in D (where the D stands for Detroit).

So assuming this works pretty well (and there is not too much delay and/or buffering), I will certainly be checking out a few of these webcasts down the road.

* I believe Don Marquis's Mehitabel would say "Toot Sweet."  It just occurred to me that I don't see my copy of The Lives and Times of Archy and Mehitabel.

While I don't feel like tearing through a bunch of boxes today (it's very hot out), this will have to be corrected at a moderate (not all deliberate) amount of speed

** I totally dropped the ball on the classical concerts at Casa Loma this summer and didn't go at all.  Now many of these concerts were basically just pop concerts, but July 14 they did Beethoven's 7th and Mendelssohn's Octet.  Even though this symphony is only semi-professional, I think this would have been a lot of fun.  However, that was an extremely busy week as we were getting ready to send my wife and kids off to Chicago.  Still, I will try to do a better job of following these concerts next summer.

Actually there was an opportunity to see the TSO do Beethoven's 7th last season, but it was paired with a number of things I really didn't want to see (vocal music mostly).  I probably still should have gone.  I think the real issue (aside from being quite busy) was that it had originally been announced as being paired with a violin concerto and then they switched it to a program that left me really uninspired, Beethoven aside.  I'm sure there will be more opportunities in the next few years...

Post 500 - Blais Mad Shadows give-away

If I had known just how close to post 500 I was, I probably would have arranged to make that long post covering the rest of the Chicago trip post #500.  However, I lost count.  Then I was planning on making the review of Tom Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia post #500, but I have misplaced the notebook with some notes I made at that time, so that will have to wait another day or two.  Finally, I decided on another book give-away to mark the occasion.

I have a gently used though slightly yellowed copy of Mad Shadows by Marie-Claire Blais.  This is the third reprinting of the book with the original cover design in the New Canadian Library series.  (This blog is an amazing resource for those interested in finding out more about the New Canadian Library!)  I will be giving this book away on Sept. 25 (for free).

The competition is open to residents of Canada or the U.S.  (I would consider shipping elsewhere, but the shipping would be at cost.)  To qualify for the competition, you must provide (in the comments section) a link to a review you have posted of a book by Blais or another female writer associated with Quebec: Gabrielle Roy, Judith Thompson, etc.  (Mavis Gallant is a stretch but I will allow it.)

The book will be awarded randomly from among those who qualify by Sept. 24.  I do reserve the right to amend the rules of the competition if an insufficient number of entrants are received by Sept. 20.  (Perhaps if you can build a strong case for why you want to read Mad Shadows but haven't done so yet or why your interest in Quebec writers is on the rise.)

Hope to hear from interested readers soon.  There are 18 days to respond, counting today.

Bonne chance!

Update: I will lower the bar and open the competition to anyone (in Canada or US) interested in the book.  You will still need to explain in the comments why you are interested in the book.  Also, the deadline will be extended to Oct. 2.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Chicago trip round-up

I've covered the beginning and side trips of my summer trip through the Midwest, but I should attempt to briefly cover what I actually did in Chicago.  I landed at Midway on Thurs.  I was desperately trying to get something off for work, so I stayed in the terminal for a bit working.  Then I took the Orange Line in and stopped off at the hotel.  This was a new one called the Hyatt Centric -- it was nice, and I would definitely stay again if I got a good rate.  (It's probably just as well that I didn't learn about their complimentary snack center until the last day...)  My room had a great view of Bank One Plaza with its huge Chagall mosaic.

You can't quite see it in this photo, but there is an Italian restaurant called Italian Village just across the street.  It was actually one of the first places my wife and I ate when we started dating.  I wrapped up another short project, then went off to see the kids at my mother-in-law's house on the South Side.

It was good to see them, as I had been away for something like 6 weeks.  I went through a bunch of mail and packages and we caught up a bit.  My wife turned up just as I was about ready to leave.  I had planned to see A Perfect Ganesh by Terrance McNally up at the Athenaeum.  The Red Line back north was quite dreadful as there was a Cubs game on.  I just barely squeezed out the door at Belmont.  I was running late, but fortunately I did catch the Belmont bus and it wasn't overcrowded for once.  Nonetheless, I had very little time to eat, so I ended up just getting a sandwich and wolfed it down on the way to the box office.  I was a bit startled to see what the city has done at the corner of Lincoln and Southport (you can just see the vertical red Athenaeum sign in the background).

I was surprised to find out it was almost a full house, which is quite good, considering that the Athenaeum is a bit off the path theatre-wise.  I have to admit, I didn't think A Perfect Ganesh was a very good play.  I thought the actors did a fine job, but I had a hard time imagining these two older ladies spending much time together, since they were so dissimilar and one was really a piece of work.  It just seemed endless, and indeed, it turned out that it was much closer to 3 hours than the promised 2!  I thought the plot, such as it was, was pretty mundane and even cliched: women come to India hoping for some spiritual balm and eventually receive it.  The one thing that might have given this a bit of a spark (the death of one's son at the hands of a Black street mob) was put so early in the story that it actually had little emotional force.  It would have been much better to gradually reveal it, sort of like Williams's Suddenly Last Summer.  But basically, these two women were not good enough company to want to spend 3 hours with them, and I don't think I would have felt any differently back in 1993 when the play had its initial run in Greenwich Village.  I think in the back of my mind, I had suspected that it just wasn't my thing (not all the reviews were glowing even back then), though I have enjoyed a couple of McNally plays.  So at least I found this out for much less than it would have cost me in New York...

To some extent, I am a creature of habit, and I do tend to do things in certain patterns.  When I see a play at the Athenaeum, I often go to a late night Thai place, and I did drop in.  It looked like the bus back to Belmont was going to be quite a wait, so I walked down Belmont and then up Southport, through our old neighborhood.  Quite a few things have changed, particularly near the CTA stop, and in some ways it was less appealing to me.  Of course, the bulk of the changes that really saddened me happened through the early 2000s, while we were living there as almost all the used CD stores shut down and a used bookstore/sandwich shop that I adored, though that was a bit more in the heart of Lakewood (Belmont and Clark mostly).  The 7-11 on Belmont is still open, so maybe one of these days I'll write that piece about the aliens invading...

I put in a solid day of work on Friday, though quite a bit of it was taken up with phone calls.  I did leave just a bit early so that I could hit the Chicago Cultural Center before meeting my wife for dinner and Moby Dick at Lookingglass.  (As I mentioned, I just managed to finish the book Friday morning, right before work!)  Most of the art exhibits were changing over, but they had a special exhibit on the African-American artist Archibald Motley that was quite interesting.

While the Art Institute did loan them a self-portrait, they hung onto the fairly amazing painting Nightlife (which I made sure to show the kids on our visit Saturday).  I think either they should have lent it to the exhibit, or at least put up a note in each location saying to go look at the other location for more Motley.  Most of the paintings at the Cultural Center were either from the Howard University Art Collection or still in the hands of Motley's family.

Archibald Motley, Nightlife, 1943

I have this weird feeling that I had an opportunity to buy a monograph on Motley, but I passed (though I may possibly be thinking of a Bob Thompson monograph).  The new catalog that accompanies this exhibit is a bit nicer, but seems to have gone out of print.*  I guess I'll keep my eyes open.  There is actually a copy at the Toronto Reference Library, but of course it doesn't circulate.

I thought about trying to take the kids by, but I do have to say that most of the paintings are either these wild parties or are nudes, and I guess I didn't really want them to get the wrong impression.  It also doesn't help that many of the figures are very close to stereotypes of Black men with huge lips and bulging eyes and the women are all over-sexed.  (Nightlife isn't too bad in that regard actually.)  So that was also going on in the back of my mind, and in the end I didn't take them.

Still, I was glad to stop by.  I think my favorite two in the show were Barbecue and Siesta.  The latter one is one of the paintings Motley did while on a tour of Mexico.

Archibald Motley, Barbecue, 1960

Archibald Motley, After Fiesta, Remorse, Siesta, 1959–60

While it seemed to me the bus up Michigan Avenue took forever, I made it to the Thai restaurant with a few minutes to spare.  I already mentioned that the performance of Moby Dick was quite gripping, though they did cut out a lot of characters.  I think it might have been worthwhile trying to capture a bit more of the monotony of life on a whaling ship, as well as make it more clear that there were multiple encounters with Moby Dick at the end of the novel, not a single one.  In fact, I think if you hadn't read the novel it would have been quite difficult to follow the ending as they portrayed it.  On a side note, I had forgotten just how much Melville borrowed from Shakespeare.  Not only has Pip lost his wits and become a bit of a holy fool (a bit like Lear towards the end) but Melville came up with a somewhat labored prophecy about Ahab dying only by hemp rope, which seems borrowed/stolen from the witches' prophecy for Macbeth.

Saturday we retrieved the kids and I took them to the Art Institute.  It was a fairly compressed visit, and ultimately we had to skip the Chagall windows at the back of the museum, but we saw just about everything else.  (Though one of my favorite paintings by Caillebotte was on loan to a museum in D.C., but there was plenty else to make up for it.  I've put up a somewhat distorted version to indicate I just had to rely on memories of it on this trip.)

Gustave Caillebotte, Paris Street; Rainy Day, 1877

While most of the paintings were quite familiar, and going through the galleries is like visiting old friends, the Wilfredo Lam piece caught my eye for the first time.

Wilfredo Lam, Untitled, 1947
I think the Braque below is normally on display, but it made a stronger impression on this visit than before.

George Braque, Still Life with Fruits and Stringed Instrument, 1938

This one by Max Maxy does appear to have entered the collection recently, so it probably was my first time seeing it.

Max Herman Maxy, Untitled, 1923

After looking more closely, this Cezanne is actually on loan from a private collection, but I certainly hope it is going to be bequeathed to the museum.  It compares very favorably to the ones I saw at the Cezanne show in Hamilton last year.  It is in fact possible that this was the first time I had a chance to see it, but I am not certain either way.

Paul Cezanne, Curtain, Pitcher, and Fruit Bowl, 1893-94

I dropped the kids off and went to fulfill my obligations at the ASA meeting.  I gave my talk at the round table session.  I spent just a bit of time (and only $9) at the book exhibit.  I even ran into the photography exhibit at Columbia College, but I only had about 10 minutes to look at some photos taken in North Korea.  Back at the Hilton, I met a few people, including my dissertation committee chair, and caught up with them.  It turns out that my evening plans fell through, so I stayed for the entire urban sociology reception.  But I did not attempt to join any sociologists for further revelries, since I had a long day ahead of me.  Sunday is already pretty well covered here.

Monday I was back at work.  I actually ended up shifting my bags to the Hilton, since I knew I would be out relatively late at the Jazz Showcase (another ASA event).  I had dinner with a professor that I always try to catch up with at ASA meetings, and we went over to the show.  I stayed longer than I expected.  Probably that's just as well, since it turns out that the Hilton is one of those expensive hotels that rip you off by charging for the wifi.  Boy, that burns me up.  So it was a real challenge getting some work done in the evening, as I often need a connection back to the home office to load certain software.  (Thus, being in the hotel room instead of out at the Jazz Showcase would have just meant more hours stewing about the lack of connectivity.)

In the end, on Tuesday I went back to the downtown office in the morning, then met Jacky Grimshaw at CNT right before lunch.  It was nice catching up with her and talking a bit about transportation issues in Vancouver and Toronto.  I grabbed a very good burrito right at the Damen L stop and then went out to O'Hare which is where our other, larger Chicago office is located.  I put in several solid hours of work, though I had to stop a bit early. I really wanted to see the MCA.  On top of everything else there, they have live jazz Tuesday evenings.  Unfortunately, I was very pressed for time, since the Hilton only allowed you to retrieve checked bags until 7 pm.  (I guess after that you had to wait until the next day.  I have never heard of such a policy and quite frankly don't think I will ever stay there again.)  This really did suck, since Tatsu Aoki was playing (the bass player on the left), and I definitely would have stayed longer.  (In the end, I was super stressed, struck on another slow bus down Michigan Ave.  I made it with about 5 minutes to spare!)

One thing that has changed at MCA is that they were allowing photography.  I'm quite sure that wasn't the policy before.  At any rate, I did manage to see an interesting exhibit on the intersection of jazz and art on the top floor before I had to run.  (Out of Office was a small but well-focused exhibit that took common office items as the starting point for art works.  The piece below is actually a pair of enormous wall hangings.  Unfortunately, this exhibit closes tomorrow (and the Motley already closed**), so there is not much point in my praising them.)

Gabriel Kuri, untitled tsb mini statement details, 2014

Here are a couple of pieces I found interesting from the upstairs exhibit.

Jose Williams, Ghetto, 1969

Matana Roberts, always say your name, 2014

Wed. we tried to mail off a big package and ended up just taking it with us on the plane.  That meant that we had to drive to Midway rather than taking the CTA (in two stages most likely).  While driving to O'Hare is stressful, I would say that the signage is reasonable.  The signage is very poor as you approach Midway, and from here on out, I will try to stick to taking the CTA, which is much more straight-forward.  Anyway, we made it through security very quickly and settled down to wait for our plane back to Toronto.  So that's how I spent my week off this summer...

* It may actually be on sale but only if you go to the Nasher Museum at Duke.  I've been once before, and might be able to make another trip the next time I visit my dad. Something to keep in mind, I suppose.

Edit (4/5/2016): For a while it appeared this would be reprinted, and I had an order in with Amazon that was ultimately cancelled.  As I was cleaning things up, I found my Motley monograph, which is better than I remembered but not quite as good as the new one.  I also found the Bob Thompson monograph but I sold that off, since I just don't think Thompson is a particularly good painter.

** However, the Motley exhibit is a touring exhibit organized by the Nasher Museum, and there is one more chance to catch it at the Whitney from October through mid-January.

Friday, September 4, 2015

U.S./Canadian cities to revisit

As a bit of a companion piece to the last post where I am looking at cities that I would like to get to as part of a major overseas vacation, there are quite a few cities that I wouldn't mind getting back to.  As must be obvious by now, I tend to plan visits to cities around visits to the local museums.  In fact, I managed to squeeze in a one day trip to Halifax at the end of the month (tagging it onto a conference trip to Prince Edward Island) and I should have just enough time to get to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.

So in a sense, the list is really about which museums I want to see again, particularly which are so great that I would make a special trip to see them or if I would only visit in relation to work or a conference.  (I won't bother listing Chicago, New York or D.C., since those are places I try to visit every year or two.  Same deal with Montreal, though I think it will be more like trying to get back every 5 years or so.)  It also goes without saying that I basically never schedule vacations to the back country or to a lake cabin.  Will I ever?  Perhaps, though really none of us is outdoorsy (and my wife and son have pretty terrible allergies triggered by the great outdoors).  I got enough of camping when I was a kid, though I suppose I should try to let my kids experience this at least a little.  Nonetheless, my life could easily be summed up by the title of that Ted Berrigan poetry collection: So Going Around Cities.

Unseen cities:

Kansas City (I actually was in Kansas City very briefly but had no time to visit the Nelson-Atkins Museum; it looks like there may be a work opportunity to go, and I would certainly try to make it over to the museum.  That is probably the single best Midwestern museum I have not seen.).

Pittsburgh (I have never visited.  I hear that the museums there are quite good.  Porter does occasionally have cheap flights there, so I will consider it at some point.)

Cincinnati (not sure how good the art museum is, but probably worth a visit, given that the Columbus and Cleveland museums are quite good.  Certainly the catalog makes it look impressive...)

Indianapolis (ditto)

Winnipeg (I've actually driven around Winnipeg but never been to the downtown core.  It does look like the Winnipeg Art Gallery is worth a visit.)

Cities to return to:

Cleveland (A very nice museum (as well as orchestra).  It looks like there is an interesting exhibit that starts in mid October, and we might make the drive out.  I'll have to check to see that their new Beckmann acquisition is on view!  Sadly, the orchestra is touring Europe when we would be most likely to visit.  In general, it looks like the orchestra has fallen on hard times and has cut back, though it is performing a lot of Messiaen this season, which I am sorry to have to miss...)

Detroit (We have relatives in the area, and it has been ages since I've been to the Detroit Institute of Arts.  I realize that the paintings are no longer being held hostage to the bankruptcy hearings, but it's still probably better to go to the DIA sooner than later.  The DIA doesn't have any major upcoming exhibits, but there is a small exhibit at the same time as the Cleveland exhibit.  It is at least theoretically possible that we could go through Buffalo to Cleveland, then Detroit and complete the loop.  That's a lot of driving though.)

Minneapolis-St. Paul (the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Walker Art Center.  I will seriously look into getting there next summer on the annual summer pilgrimage to Chicago.)

Newark (A surprisingly good museum.  If we do make a trip to New York this spring, I'll try to reserve a day to make a visit out to Newark.)

Boston (basically goes without saying that the museums there are incredible.  Ideally, we would go to New York on spring break, then Boston and then back.  I think that wouldn't be too expensive on Porter.)

Philadelphia (basically goes without saying that the museums there are incredible.  It looks Porter does not go there (as of yet*), but I'm sure I'll get back within the next few years.  I will probably need a second day to explore the Barnes Foundation now that it has become far more accessible to the average tourist.)

L.A. (I don't care much for L.A. as a whole, but I do like the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, as well as the Getty)

San Francisco (I probably wouldn't travel to SF until the SF MOMA reopens, which should be mid 2016.  But the Asian Art Museum is quite nice, as well as a few other great museums, including one tucked away in Golden Gate Park)

Baltimore (in addition to the Baltimore Museum of Art, they have the Walters Art Museum.  Both are worth visiting, though I probably would not schedule a trip just to visit them.)

Seattle (a good art museum, but one that I don't need to visit again right away after my time out on the West Coast)

St. Louis (a truly great art museum, but one that I don't need to visit again right away)

Milwaukee (in contrast, I am going to try to go back to Milwaukee next year with the kids, since their main collection was all in storage)

Atlanta (the High Museum is quite nice, but I probably would not go to Atlanta just for that nor for the Coca Cola Museum, though that has its good points.  For some reason, I always have visited Atlanta during the summer.)

Calgary (I'm not a huge fan of Calgary, but I will try to visit once with the kids.  I think on that future trip we would try to make a visit to Drumheller and possibly Banff.  The Glenbow is a decent museum but certainly not worth a special trip out to Calgary just to see it.  It is possible that I'll start going more often for work, so we'll just see.)

I guess that makes 5 or 6 places/museums I hope to visit in the next 2 years, but that may be pushing it.  I still don't even have the school calendar yet, so I am not really in planning mode.  It's not such a bad thing to settle in for a while either.

* It looks like in the past week or so, Porter has added flights to Philadelphia, so this is definitely something I would explore (perhaps a Philadelphia - DC trip next summer?).  Though as it happens you have to transfer through Boston and the overall trip time is too high well over 5-6 hours on average, so hopefully they will add some direct flights next year.  After that, I'll just wait for them to add service to St. Louis and the Twin Cities (though not through Boston), and I will be totally set...

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Cities remaining to visit

I managed to see a great many of the top European cities during my relatively short sojourn there (2005-7).  I think I will list the cities that I would like to see in potential linked-up tours, but then I will simply mark with an x if this would actually be a return visit.  I think we're still a minimum of 3 years away before I would consider taking the kids, since my idea of a vacation to these places is mostly to take in the cultural sites, and that simply won't work if they 1) don't have the stamina or 2) are completely resistant to the idea of spending so many hours in museums.  I can tell that Madrid, Vienna, Berlin and Munich would all be major challenges.  Paris, Amsterdam and Prague have more attractions to compensate for the museums, but that does assume we could schedule a day off from museum-going...

These aren't precisely ranked, but just trips that I would like to take before I get too old to enjoy them.

Paris(x) - London(x) - Oxford - Cambridge(x)
(The trip we would probably make first.)

Germany: Munich - Frankfurt - Cologne - Berlin(x) - Leipzig? - Dresden??

Italy: Rome(x) - Florence - Venice - Milan?

Spain: Madrid(x) - Barcelona

Amsterdam(x) - Rotterdam?


Brussels ?

Geneva ? - Zurich ?

Vienna(x) ??

Stockholm ??

Russia: St. Petersburg - Moscow
(As mentioned before, this is very low on the list, but never say never.)

(As much as I would love to see the Pyramids, I don't foresee a stable situation in Egypt anytime soon.)

Mexico City ?
(To see the great murals, particularly by Diego Rivera)

Beijing ?? - Shanghai ?? - Hong Kong ??
(Most likely I would only go in conjunction with work, just as I doubt I would visit Australia if there wasn't a work connection.)

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Shifting artistic reputations

I had plenty of opportunity to ponder just why do I spend so much time in art museums on this trip.  But that question is usually easily answered when I turn the corner and see another masterwork.  I actually find that I can identify a few dozen artists by their visual style, including quite a few of the abstract expressionists!  I know of people that can do this for jazz musicians (and there are some who claim to be able to do this for soloing classical performers), but I simply do not have that kind of ear, which certainly begs the question of why do I listen to this kind of music when my ear just does not recognize these distinctions.  Sadly, this is not an era where having a very good eye for visual arts carries many tangible rewards...

I've spent some time thinking about how I would rate artists,* basically from the Impressionist era on up.  It is a bit of a fool's errand, since it is all so personal.  There are general trends of course, and I will discuss briefly how my views do or do not align with the mainstream.  At any rate, mainstream views of art change over time (though perhaps less quickly than the literary canon), and certainly my tastes have shifted. (I don't rate Franz Kline nearly as high now as I used to, for example.)  For better or worse, this is my list of my favorite artists:
  1. Pablo Picasso
  2. Henri Matisse
  3. Paul Cezanne
  4. Vincent Van Gogh
  5. Max Beckmann
  6. Marc Chagall
  7. Wassily Kandinsky
  8. Giorgio de Chirico
  9. Georgia O'Keeffe
  10. Stuart Davis 
  11. Gustave Caillebotte
  12. Paul Klee
  13. James Rosenquist
  14. Philip Guston
  15. Edward Hopper
  16. Claude Monet
At this point, there is a cluster/tie at 17-22 with the abstract expressionists:
Franz Kline, Mark Tobey, Robert Motherwell, Clyfford Still, Helen Frankenthaler & Adolph Gottlieb

Then in a big jumble from 23-45 I have another bunch of artists that would be difficult to rank:
Joseph Cornell
Camille Pissarro
Jean-Édouard Vuillard
Romare Bearden
George Segal
Roy Lichtenstein
Lawren Harris
Jasper Johns
René Magritte
John Sloan
Jackson Pollack
Lee Krasner
Joan Mitchell
Ben Nicholson
Stanley Spencer
Tom Thomson
Max Weber
Joan Miró
Juan Gris
Georges Braque
Lee Bontecou
Louise Bourgeois
Claes Oldenburg/Red Grooms (tie)

I'm sure I'm forgetting a few, but these are generally the artists who have inspired me enough to buy one (or more) monographs on their work.  From this you can tell that I really don't care that much about art prior to the Impressionists, though I do have a soft spot for Rembrandt, Vermeer, Titian, el Greco, Goya and Hieronymus Bosch.  If I were to open up the list, they would certainly push out a few of these artists.  Nonetheless, I generally don't care much for rural landscapes (with the exception of Monet and Cezanne), so I was generally underwhelmed and even a little bored by the current AGO exhibition.  I do tend to like urban scenes (Pissarro and John Sloan and Caillebotte to a certain extent and even Stuart Davis at a certain point in his career).

I definitely favor painters, though there are a few sculptors on the list.  I decided to skip over photographers completely (perhaps another list for another day).

While I do like abstract expressionism, I tend to sort of absorb it quickly and move on.  Quite a few of the abstract expressionists are a bit interchangeable, and they kind of fall into and out of favor depending on the piece (I suppose I do tend to rank Franz Kline and Mark Tobey towards the top).  Pollock and Krasner and Mitchell are just a bit lower, whereas I am just not as interested in Rothko or de Kooning and I actively dislike Cy Twombly, who is actually more out of the Pop era, but has a style more akin to the expressionists, at least some of the time.

I generally like figurative painters who are not entirely straight-forward.  This probably explains why Chagall and Beckmann are so high (probably the one area where I depart the most from conventional wisdom).  I don't like the simple Pop artists, but I find Rosenquist's juxtapositions interesting.  If I was only looking at their early work, I probably would not have put either Lichtenstein or Jasper Johns on the list, but both came up with more interesting work as they matured.  I particularly like Johns's take on the Four Seasons (apparently if I could come up with $175,000 I could buy the set...)

Am I completely consistent?  Of course not.  There are a few artists here who are on the list mostly on the strength of a single painting, such as Max Weber's Chinese Restaurant at the Whitney.

Max Weber, Chinese Restaurant, 1915

But there are other one-hit wonders I have left off.  I think for Paul Gauguin there are just as many paintings that interest me as make my skin crawl a bit, though ultimately, it's probably just a feeling that I should not reward colonization or colonizers that truly keeps him off my list.

This is probably the most intriguing painting from the earlier part of his career (typically on display at the Albright-Knox):

Paul Gauguin, The Yellow Christ, 1889

For some reason, this doesn't rank (with me) quite as highly as Chagall's somewhat similar treatment, which is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Marc Chagall, White Crucifixion, 1938

While it is tempting, I will try to resist the temptation to put up my favorite one or two paintings by all the artists on the list.  I'm sure I'll figure out a way at some point to get my favorites on the blog one way or another.

I will end with a somewhat labored comparison between birth and death as portrayed by Beckmann and Chagall.

Again, the Chagall painting can be viewed in Chicago.

Marc Chagall, Birth, 1911-12

It is certainly arguable that death is ever-present as this peasant woman goes into labour, but it is just as interesting how there is such a jumble of activity around her, and in fact, she is somewhat off-center.

Beckmann's Birth painting is a somewhat simpler composition, though there are certainly quite a few bystanders.

Max Beckmann, Birth, 1937

Beckmann's Death is closer in spirit to Chagall, with reversed figures hugging the ceiling.

Max Beckmann, Death, 1938

(I was fortunate enough to see both of these at the 2003 MoMA show.)

To close out, I will end with Chagall's The Falling Angel, which is in a private collection, but is occasionally lent to major museums.  I have not seen it in person.

Marc Chagall, The Falling Angel, 1923-47

The color schemes are different, and Beckmann uses a much thicker line throughout, but somehow I see quite a few similarities (filling the frame with candles, skulls, musical instruments, magical birds and other animals) in the dream-like, sometimes nightmarish paintings by these two, who are both so high on my list of favorite artists.

* I suppose this is a companion piece to my ranking of art museums from the early days of this blog.  That's still a solid list though I might bump Museo Reina Sofía down several slots and move the St. Louis Museum of Art up a few.  I still haven't seen the Hermitage nor the Uffizi.  I'm far more likely to get around to the latter than the former, at least in the near future.