A Cultural Kaleidoscope

reviews, articles and musings on art, music, travel, culture, and life...

Friday, February 29, 2008

Romare Bearden's Odyssey

Unlike other renditions of Homer’s epic The Odyssey, Harlem Renaissance artist Romare Bearden’s version depicts the hero of the story as a black man. The works are reminiscent of Matisse’s jazz-influenced, abstract cut-outs and his drawings of The Odyssey, but are clearer and more exacting in context. Sixteen of the twenty images composing Bearden’s series, “A Black Odyssey” are on display together for the first time in over thirty years at the DC Moore Gallery in New York City.

Bright, whimsical pieces of cerulean and scarlet paper swirl and dance across the frames, bursting with color and re-casting a tale of sirens, lotus eaters, and one man’s journey home. The technique is meticulous. The process is delicate. Bearden executed the cut-paper collages with such precision that one wonders why he chose not to develop the figures’ characters in full detail, often portraying them as silhouettes.

The collages are flat and two-dimensional, but are highly textural – consisting of layered sheets of paper that create effects of shadowing, movement, and volume. “Battle with Cicones” reveals Bearden’s impeccable attention to detail. The figures and landscape surrounding this violent encounter convey a fluidity of curves and softness of shapes that make the piecing together of endless scraps of paper appear effortless.

However, Bearden does not develop many of his characters. Shadows appear rather than human faces. This can be seen as Bearden’s argument that Odysseus is representative of any man, any struggle, and any journey. A Black Odyssey is also a metaphor for Bearden’s own life as a struggling artist after he moved to Harlem from the south.

The series suggests the timeless idea of the human experience through suffering, exploration, and overcoming obstacles. The internal and external plights of the black man allow the vibrant colors to fade into the background. Black forms add stark contrast and richness to the colorful series, grounding the other images as the idea of any man resonates.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Bigger is Always Better - And Faster

“Ramble On” blares from the stereo as four sandwich artists, high on life (and possibly something else), belt out the lyrics to the Zeppelin tune and play air guitar in the kitchen. The employees at Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches – the latest restaurant chain to open on Marshall Street – claim to make the “World’s Greatest Gourmet Sandwiches” fast. And they do.

The staff goofs off and clearly enjoys jamming out while making subs. Irreverent quotes and clever sayings such as “We don’t care where your mouth has been. All we want to know is where your mouth is now,” are plastered on the walls around them. The good times don’t slow the place down as the sandwiches zip down the assembly line with generous helpings of meat, cheese, and veggies. Orders are wrapped up and ready to go almost before you have finished paying.

Smells of freshly baked bread fill the air as French baguettes and hearty 7-grain loaves are pulled from the oven. Jimmy John’s employees slice all of the ingredients in-house daily for the twenty-four signature deli sandwiches that comprise the straightforward menu. You have the option to make it an eight-inch sub, a giant club sandwich, or an “unwich” (lettuce wrap with no bread) and choose which meat (turkey, roast beef, tuna, ham, capicola, or salami) you want.

Clubs are often the most popular item on the menu. According to the staff, the average sandwich measures 2.5 inches tall and rings in at $5.45, a modest price since the meal is so filling that it serves as your lunch and dinner for the day. It’s difficult to get your mouth around one of these beasts, and only those with an appetite for destruction can finish it in a single sitting.

The Beach Club (#12) is one of the healthiest offerings in the giant-club department. It’s served on huge, fluffy slabs of 7-grain bread slathered with homemade avocado spread with giant helpings of turkey and provolone and fresh lettuce, tomato, cucumbers, and sprouts piled on high.

If you want a humongous, delicious sandwich made quick-to-order while you listen to classic rock and some off-color jokes, Jimmy John’s should be your next stop for lunch on The Hill.

Acoustic Shards

Acoustic Shards

3 stars ***

Sounds Like: Andy McKee, Nick Drake

Buckethead reaches to the vault from the early ‘90s for solo acoustic recordings of heavy chord progressions. Songs like “Thugs” sound experimental and unfinished while “Serape” twists into a saucy Latin tune. The album is reminiscent of a local coffee shop, with its soothing and somber tone. This softer side of Buckethead is a far cry from his usual ripping electric guitar technique with metal undertones.

Nylon's Identity Crisis

Not for girls. This bold tagline and the bright pink title instantly made me reach for a copy of Nylon Guys magazine on the newsstand. And I wondered, “Is that the point?”

After reading it cover to cover, I’m still not sure that this magazine is only for guys. And I’m also not sure that Nylon Guys knows whom it is for either.

The Fall 2007 issue of the quarterly magazine from Nylon Holding, Inc, the publishers of Nylon Magazine, features Jason Schwartzman on the cover – a solid, non-mainstream cover choice for a magazine that aims to “Celebrate independence and a pipeline to popular culture.” However, Schwartzman is holding a placard that says, “Nylon?,” which is exactly what I think to myself as I wonder who the target audience is and what the goal here actually is.

The cover story is appropriately titled, “Is Jason Schwartzman The Coolest Guy In Hollywood?” It feels like the magazine itself is trying so hard to be cool and define itself with its jargon and tone that it lacks depth and loses sight of being a credible hipster magazine for men.

This idea resonates in Marvin Scott Jarrett’s Letter from the Editor, as he writes mostly about his crush on Schwartzman and his career, mentions another upcoming movie he wants to see, and then ends with, “As usual, Nylon Guys is cool as shit.” I beg to differ. It’s as if he is trying too hard to please and the letter comes off as overkill.

The cover also boasts “144 pages of really awesome stuff!” These “awesome” pages are boring, repetitive, and lacking in design. Each page in this section has photographs of nine or more watches or pairs of pants lined up in neat rows against a white background. Too much cookie cutter design of this kind is not a good thing and the reader quickly loses focus when this drones on for too many pages. This magazine reads more like a catalogue for sneakers, hoodies, blazers, gadgets, and the like.

Nylon Guys is a prime example of nuggetization at work. Everything is broken down into small chunks that are easy for readers to digest. Including the cover story, there are only two other feature stories and about ten short half-page articles on music and movies. One of the features is about Blake Lively, the star of the new teen drama, Gossip Girl, and another spotlights a former ballerina – not for girls, huh?

The magazine also has a lot of full-page ads – 55 of them to be exact. With 55 pages of ads, 144 pages of “cool stuff” (i.e. ads), about 20 more pages that look like ads, and a few articles and text sprinkled in between, it’s hard to distinguish what this magazine is trying to achieve. The plethora of ads causes the reader to unknowingly skip over what little content there is. The magazine tries to promote so many different products that it loses sight of trying to define and promote itself. Now in its second year, Nylon Guys should celebrate its birthday with a makeover.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Paradise Not Lost...

Intricately rendered gilt bronze relief panels depicting scenes from the Old Testament were once a backdrop for famous artists and thinkers of the 15th century like Michelangelo, Donatello, and Machiavelli as they walked the streets of Florence. Now, for the first time, three of these panels are in the United States and are currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (through January 13, 2008). After a nearly seamless exhibition in Atlanta and a substandard one in Chicago, the pressure is on New York to exhibit the works successfully in true Italian style.

Italian Renaissance artist Lorenzo Ghiberti completed the East Doors of the Baptistery of Florence, also known as the “Gates of Paradise,” between 1425 and 1452. To mirror this, the Met chose to display the works in a small room inspired by Renaissance architecture with marble floors, high ceilings, and cream colored walls treated to look like marble. A second story loggia with rustic wooden beams overhead and hand-painted ceramic tiles set in a design that calls to mind a coiffered ceiling perches above the gallery on the left. And six wooden window portals surrounded by marble carvings and grotesques of vases, flowers, and leaves decorate the right wall. The Renaissance architecture inspires viewers and sets the doors and panels within a cultural context and time period.

At the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, a special octagonal green room was created to house the pieces, echoing the accent color of the marble and structure of the Baptistery in Florence. The exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago employed bear walls and did not make use of Italian design elements, nor did it receive the acclaim that the show did in Atlanta.

You may never have a chance to travel to Italy and see the original “Gates of Paradise,” but the exhibition in New York provides viewers with an intimate encounter with Ghiberti’s panels in true Italian Renaissance style.

Celebrating Hip Hops

R.I.P. Michael Jackson. No, not that Michael Jackson. The infamous King of Pop is alive and well. Instead, the lesser known of the two Jackos and king of hops, Michael Jackson (a.k.a. The Beer Hunter) has passed away.

For the past 23 years, Jackson has been a contributing writer for All About Beer, a magazine dedicated to "Celebrating the World of Beer Culture" that claims to be "the definitive source for beer information."

The magazine has been circulating for over a quarter of a century and has a well-defined niche market. Under the direction of husband and wife team Daniel Bradford (publisher) and Julie Bradford (editor), it has gained successful readership through beer importers, liquor stores, breweries, home brewers, beer enthusiasts, and "just drinkers."

The large font in the nameplate reading "Beer" and its golden pilsner coloring lured me to the cover of the November 2007 issue immediately. At first glance, I thought this magazine would have no worthwhile material. I mean, what else could there possibly be to know about beer that matters besides that it is delicious? Apparently, a lot.

With tantalizing and informative articles such as "Beer in the New South," the main cover story of the November issue (along with Jackson's passing), and the helpful "Buyer's Guide for Beer Lovers," the magazine effectively provides entertaining news in a clever writing style without losing its focus or straying away from the subject of beer.

It also includes beer reviews, buzzworthy news in the beer industry, travel information, and book reviews as well as three regular columns with each issue (one of which was called “Jackson's Journal”). Witty tidbits about keg theft or a beer released to celebrate the premiere of a play about Margaret Thatcher called "Maggie's End" (appropriately a bitter ale) adds humor and punch to the magazine.

"Pull Up A Stool!" is a section in which the writer profiles an interesting person in the industry and has a drink with him. The notes from the publisher and editor also include photographs of them raising pints of beer. Readers are left to wonder, "Do these people ever stop drinking?"

At $4.99 a pop, an issue nearly costs the same as a cold draft micro-brew. A one-year subscription includes six issues and comes with a free "The American Brew" DVD.

The layout and design are lacking (even though recently updated) and look homemade, but this is expected of a small, independently owned magazine out of Durham, NC. Design and production are outsourced to another company.

It will be interesting to see if the magazine loses readership after the passing of Jackson, as some consider him the ultimate word on beer. The staff at All About Beer says Jackson taught them everything they know, so perhaps they will be able to carry the longneck and continue his legacy by still providing the latest information on beer culture.

The Beer Hunter often wore only one glove as a nod to the celebrity he shares a name with. To quote the other MJ: "Don't stop 'til you get enough" … beer, that is.

I'm Walking a Line...Visiting Buildings in Motion

A large gray-white structure mirroring a towering wedding cake with off-kilter layers or a teetering game of Jenga emerges out of a skyline where seedy restaurant supply stores meet posh condos and upscale shops. Amidst the ongoing renovations of the Bowery, the New Museum of Contemporary Art in NYC opened the doors of its new location (on the former site of a parking lot) to the public on its 30th anniversary on December 1st.

Japanese architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa designed the museum with a contemporary-looking exterior unlike other buildings in the city. The structure consists of corrugated aluminum paneling with larger scales of aluminum mesh layered over the seven stories, which are stacked on top of one another as if they may topple at any moment. From the outside, this honeycomb effect highlights the design and gives it a light and airy look like a piece of breathable fabric; but from the inside looking out, some areas are reminiscent of a chain link fence or the inhibiting view an inmate may have of the outside world.

Upon entering the front door of the museum through the glass façade of the street level entrance, guests are enveloped by a vast open space with stark white walls, concrete floors, and a glass enclosed gallery space. The crisp, simple design focuses more on the quality and quantity of lighting rather than the square footage of the space. As the structure of the building shifts in various directions with each level, it lends itself to several diverse and column-less exhibition spaces – each with different ceiling heights, floor space, and positioning of skylights. This floor plan eases the flow of traffic and provides ample display space for freestanding exhibitions and mounted works in varying natural light.

The structure of the New Museum coveys motion and further stresses the idea of the contemporary art it houses – always moving into the future and ever-changing.

A Cultural Kaleidoscope

Bright contrasting colors, kaleidoscopic effects, morphing shapes, repetitive patterns, intense pulsating lights, and the powerful energy of music. This may sound like a trip down memory lane for those who grew up in the 1960s (and perhaps it is), but these themes and the psychedelic influences on art and music still play a large role in the artistic world today.

With its basis on the ideas of peace, community, honesty, simplicity, creativity, and spirituality, the counterculture that emerged from the ‘60s has made a re-emergence in the present day and never truly left.

The social change of the ‘60s and early ‘70s is when a new psychedelic aesthetic emerged in art, music, graphic design, and fashion. People turned to art and the psychedelic drug culture that often went along with it not only as an outlet from the Vietnam War and the civil unrest in America, but also as a way to express themselves and explore new things.

This same desire for an escape from the harsh realities of the War in Iraq, the political state of our country, crime and countless acts of hatred, and the diminishing of the world’s natural resources can be seen in the youth culture in the new millennium as well. Though, we live in a different time period in a world that has made significant social, political, economic, and technical advances, the root of this now lesser known (but still existent) sub-culture remains in the fact that many young people seek to make the world a better place and find solace in the arts.

On my journey to become an arts journalist, I have traveled throughout the United States and Europe in order to view art and listen to music. I love the thrill of travel and the open road as well as art and music and the way they inspire me. I will trek anywhere to see and hear artists that I am interested in. My love of travel, culture, other languages, music, and art as well as my love for writing inspired me to become a journalist who writes about these topics. I believe that the arts and culture are interconnected and an integral part of the world we live in that needs to be championed and become more accessible to the public.