The Casual Blog

Tag: art

Getting overheated, and looking around New York

Our air conditioning was out again for several days, and it was a tough, with temperatures in the 90s.  Our first repair guy said our unit was dead, and proposed to sell us a new one he had in stock. We finally got a second AC guy out late this week for a second opinion, and he got it going in twenty minutes, and advised us we could either do a pricey repair or buy a new unit — for about $10,000 less.  We concluded with sadness that the first guy was a scam artist. He seemed really nice. But he may have figured we would get so hot and desperate that we’d go for his story — which we nearly did.

We escaped to New York  last weekend (Labor Day), where we stayed on the lower east side, a short walk from Jocelyn and Kyle’s place.  It’s a lively, funky neighborhood, with colorful graffiti. I got up early to walk along the East River, where there were good views of the bridges, and people fishing and doing exercises.  I also poked around Chinatown, Little Italy, and nearby areas. There were guys working hard unloading trucks full of carrots, potatoes, and onions.

I’d planned to look in the lower east side and Chelsea galleries, but most were closed for vacation.  I got the Guggenheim to see the Alberto Giacometti exhibit and One Hand Clapping, an exhibit of mostly Chinese artists.  At some point I’d formed the view that a little Giacometti went a long way, but I found more than I expected to think about in his work.  And I particularly liked the video work of Cao Fei about automation and artificial intelligence in Chinese factories. 

 I made a stop at the Neue Galerie to look at their collection of German Expressionism, and a joint exhibit of Gustav Klimt and Egon Shiele.   I also got over to the Whitney to see retrospective of the work of David Wajnarowicz.  

Jocelyn found us some fun bars and restaurants.  She also organized a brunch for us with Kyle and his mom, Debbie, and we really enjoyed getting to know her.  Joc also got us tickets to The Band’s Visit, a Broadway show about a small Israeli town that gets visited by mistake by a group of Egyptian musicians.  The musicians could really play! We liked the show.

Seeing a bit of Barcelona and Madrid

Antoni Gaudi's Casa Batllo

Antoni Gaudi’s Casa Batllo

Last week I went to Barcelona for the legal workshop of the Free Software Foundation Europe. The annual event attracts the leading legal thinkers on free and open source software from across Europe, as well as a good many from the US and Asia. This was my third year at the conference, and it was good to see friends and discuss FOSS issues. Before and after the conference I explored some of Barcelona and Madrid.

On the roof of Gaudi's La Pedrera

On the roof of Gaudi’s La Pedrera

The conference hotel was on Passeig de Gracia, one of Barcelona’s busy, broad, tree-lines avenues, in the area of some of Antoni Gaudi’s strange and compelling buildings. The FSFE group had a guided tour of Casa Batllo, a row house that Gaudi transformed early in the twentieth century with themes of St. George and the dragon and forms of nature. I also visited La Pedrera, his famous apartment house with undulating walls and sculpted chimneys, and La Sagrada Familia, his still unfinished soaring and dripping cathedral. I still can’t say I really love Gaudi, but I respect his refusal to compromise his vision, and I find it cheering that the city embraces it.

La Sagrada Familia

La Sagrada Familia


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On Saturday I went to Madrid to look about. This was ambitious — something like deciding after a visit to D.C. to have a day to see New York City. I got off to a rough start. The cab driver loaded my bag in the back of his hatch back vehicle, and as I stepped forward to hand him my backpack, he forcefully slammed the back gate down and hit my head. I noticed I was dripping blood as he guided me back to the hotel.

The desk clerks looked shocked to see me, and when I got to the bathroom I saw why: I looked like Carrie after the prom went bad. I thought I might need to go to the hospital for some stitches, but decided to try holding a dressing on it to get the bleeding stopped as we went to the airport. This worked, though I got blood on my shirt, and the front of my hair had a distinctive red cast.

Casa Batllo

Casa Batllo

My flight went smoothly, and after checking into a hotel near the airport and cleaning up, I took a shuttle into Madrid, arriving at the Puerta de Alcala around noon. The weather was clear and breezy, with temperatures in the mid sixties. I bought a cheap guide with a map and went into power tourist mode.

My first impressions were: Madrid is magnificent! The big public squares have impressive sculptures, fountains, and buildings, including many ornate baroque and classical facades. It seemed energized, like New York, but also stately, like Rome.

My primary objective was to see some of the great art there. I made my way to the Prado via the impressive Plaza de Cibeles. There was a line to get into the museum, but it moved quickly, and although it was crowded at first, the crowds quickly thinned. I’d expected a fusty museum, but it was not that at all. The art was given plenty of space and helpful labeling both in Spanish and English. It did not seem as comprehensive as the Met, but was more digestible.

Inside La Sagrada Familia

Inside La Sagrada Familia

The particular strength of the collection is Spanish art, and I decided to focus on that. There are powerful collections of the iconic masters (El Greco, Valezquez, Goya), but good arguments for less well-known ones. None of these styles were new to me, but I tried to enter into the time and culture of some of the master works. There were some rooms that worked well as time machines, to scenes of battle, religious devotion, or daily life. I also looked at some of the works analytically, considering how the artist used the elements of line, form, texture, and, color to draw attention.

I’d planned to spend an hour or so at the Prado, but ended up staying for almost three. After a quick lunch, I took the short walk to the Reina Sofia museum, which is devoted mostly to twentieth century art. Here again, I found the works well displayed, though there was not much in the way of explanations. I was a bit puzzled by the organization, but there was a lot of great art, including particularly important works by Picasso, Gris, Leger, Braque, and an interesting collection of Surrealism.

In front of the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art

In front of the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art

There were also some good examples of more recent movements, including conceptualism. So many of these schools, such as Cubism, began as a challenge to conventional thought, but have become assimilated, with their primary perceived purpose now being to serve as status symbols. But it’s still possible to approach them as expressive statements, and confront their challenges — to be affected or even discombobulated by them.

I’d planned to visit the Royal Botanical Gardens, and also to visit Thyssen-Bornemisza museum, but it was after 6:00 when I left Reina Sofia — not enough time. I decided to do a walk across the downtown area with looks at the major thoroughfares and public squares. I went up Calle de Atocha to Plaza Mayor, where there were hundreds of people out to see other people. From there I went to Puerta del Sol, with more hundreds of pedestrians, and up Gran Via, which reminded me of the tourist frenzy on New York’s Broadway.

I was relieved to exit that and make my way to the peaceful and elegant garden at Plaza de Oriente. Heading back to the west, I went through little side streets looking for a place for dinner. I was tired of vegetarian tapas, and had trouble finding a good alternative. My Android device battery was almost dead, but I ultimately had enough juice to call on Yelp to help me find an Indian restaurant for dinner. I had some comfort food — vegetable somosas and palak paneer. It was good.

Art, technology, and our bedroom v. 2.0

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I saw a story this week about the predictions of various tech company execs as to developments in 2013. The most interesting one to me was that 2013 would be the year of art. The prediction was that the coming year should bring a shift in which technology begins to enable a new creativity.

It struck me as unlikely that we’d see such a major cultural shift this year, but I liked the idea of focusing on how technology might advance creativity. Clearly, it sometimes does the opposite. Television, for example, has on balance surely made us duller, and I worry that Facebook may be no better. But the internet opens a vast number of possibilities, and the tools and portals keep improving.

A case in point: one of my 2012 projects was to learn to draw on my iPad. I found the tools I tried awkward and glitchy. The line would be flowing fine and then for no apparent reason stop working, and need to be reset. Frustrating. I put that endeavor aside for the time being. But the prospect of an amazingly convenient and flexible drawing tool with all the convenience of a tablet is close, if it’s not here already.

As regular readers have heard, I’ve been experimenting with digital photography in recent months. My hope was that with my entry-level DSLR (a Nikon D3200), I might find expressive possibilities that exceeded those of my trusty-but-inflexible Canon point-and-shoot. In any event, getting new equipment tends to inspire new efforts. This is, of course, a slippery slope — it’s possible to shovel a lot of money out the door on fantastic lenses and other equipment without realizing much of an artistic ROI — but so far I’ve kept equipment urges under control, and I’ve made some images I liked.

Lately I’ve been focusing more on what to do with those images Again, technology is expanding the possibilities. I’ve been experimenting with Photoshop Elements to tweak them, and with Flickr and Dropbox for storing and sharing them. Some I’ve shared in this blog. Sally gave me my first digital photo display frame for Christmas, and I set it up with a slide show of my images from our Christmas diving trip to the Turks and Caicos. I’ve been turning it on when I sit down for breakfast, and getting a quick taste of the remarkable beauty of the reefs.

Rita Tiller in bedroom v. 2.0

Rita Tiller in bedroom v. 2.0

Last week I took on a bit of a retro project. In the fall, we engaged Blair Sutton, an interior designer, to help us re-do our bedroom, which had a traditional look that didn’t work with the rest of the space. Blair somehow took our vague concepts and came up with a design that was contemporary but also relaxed and calming. She is truly an artist. One of her ideas concerned the space on the wall over the bed.

She proposed three frames from Pottery Barn hung side by side to be filled with small images of our creation. I’d been thinking for a while about getting some of my own images on our walls, but it never got high enough in the priority queue until Blair’s directive. I took the triptych as a challenge, and though it took a while, it finally got me focussed.

Eventually I picked three images from the Turks and Caicos set (two of which I previously published here) and took them to Rite Aid drugstore to print. (There turned out to be a small learning curve on this. I actually had to take them in twice, because I didn’t get them in an acceptable format the first time.) Anyhow, the prints turned out fine, and Sally volunteered to do the framing. We were both happy with the results, and enjoyed the collaborative process.
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Taxis and Vermeer

When I first arrived in New York right after college, it didn’t bother me that I had barely enough money to share a tenement apartment and eat.  It was just so great to be in the city.  I loved epic scale   — all that glass, all that steel, all that concrete.  All those details — sooty buildings with gargoyles.  The contrasts —  suspension bridges, Central Park.  The super charged energy of New Yorkers, with many ethnicities, languages, accents, customs, gestures, styles.   So many, so much.

I continued to feel that way about New York, and still do.  But by the time I left to go to law school five years later, I’d grown tired of being (relatively speaking) poor.  It wasn’t that I desired any particular worldly goods.  My ambitions involved freedom of movement.  I was tired of running for and missing the subway, and waiting on a lonely platform, or squeezing into a crowded car.  My great fantasy was to take a cab whenever I wanted, and never to look at the meter with anxiety.

Last week I had some great cab rides when I was in the city for two nights.  Catching them was as easy as in a dream:  one appeared almost every time I got ready to raise an arm.   Going up Broadway and down Fifth, up Madison and over on 59th.  The teeming pedestrians —  all ages, colors, and clothing styles.  I was briefly fascinated, then annoyed, by televisions in the cabs, and learned how to turn them off.    Many cabs, wonderfully, now take credit cards.

I was tightly scheduled with meetings, but managed to carve one hour free to see the Vermeer exhibit at the Met.  The centerpiece is The Milkmaid, loaned for the exhibit by the Rijksmuseum.  It was a subtle and powerful work.  The subject is as common as possible — a servant pouring milk into a bowl.  As in other great Vermeer portraits, the light seems natural at first; the impossible vividness of it becomes noticeable only gradually.  There is a hyper realism to the scene, and at the same time a dreamlike quality.

I disagreed with some of  Peter Schjehdahl’s review in the New Yorker, who argued that The Milkmaid did not deserve to be placed in such a position of honor in Vermeer’s oeuvre.  For me, it was worth much more than a cab ride, and perhaps even a trans-Atlantic flight.  But Schjehdahl reminded me that Vermeer, perhaps more than any of the Dutch masters, changes our perceptions of ordinary life.  After gazing at The Milkmaid, I was reminded that there was much more to see in everyday life than we normally notice.  Even within the commonplace, hiding in plain sight, is otherworldly beauty.  Thanks, V.