Sunday, October 29, 2017

Spiders from Sand to Sea

At the Palm Springs Art Museum, there is a witty juxtaposition in the permanent collection gallery of Enrique Martin Celaya's 1996 painting Bird which consists of a blank canvas and a tiny bird in the center being flanked by one of sculptor Louise Bourgeois' spider sculptures.

At SFMOMA, on the fifth floor, there is currently an exhibit of close to a dozen of these simultaneously alluring and repelling objects.

The spider was not a figure of fear for the sculptor, but meant to represent her beloved French mother who sheltered her from an autocratic monster of a father.

Still, if you have any trace of arachnophobia, this is not the exhibit for you.

Like virtually every other woman artist in history, Bourgeois had a career that was mostly ignored, except for the fact that she outlived her relative obscurity by surviving so long. She died in 2010 in New York City at the age of 98, a few decades after she had become officially celebrated worldwide.

Part of that fame came from her instantly recognizable series of spider sculptures which she began creating in the 1990s, copies of which seem to exist in every modern art museum in the country if not the world.

While roaming the large gallery of arachnids, I marveled once again at how many people these days go to a museum and spend most of their time looking at their mobile phones. Why bother going to a museum in the first place if all you can focus on is a glowing little screen?

This was most painfully displayed by a young couple with a daughter in a princess costume on Saturday who plopped themselves on the floor in front of the large screen above at The Visitors, and proceeded to whip out their mobiles, making it impossible for people behind them to ignore. After about 10 minutes, I became irritated enough to tell them to shut off their damned devices, and the husband became very belligerent, shoving his face into mine and saying, "This exhibit is not just for YOU!" After telling him to fuck off, I went for a guard and the trio soon stomped out of the dark room noisily, allowing the rest of us to bliss out in peace.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Synchronicity of Steven

I met Steven Wibben in a Palm Springs gay bar called the Tool Shed six years ago. He was having an afternoon beer after seeing a live Metropolitan Opera broadcast of John Adams' Nixon in China. I told him about being a supernumerary at the San Francisco Opera over the decades, and he said that he used to go to the San Francisco Opera frequently when he worked in Silicon Valley. "I went to a drag bar in the Hayes Valley called Marlena's about 15 or 20 years ago and met a guy who was a supernumerary there, and he invited me over to his apartment a block from the Opera House because he said I had to listen to Nixon in China." After a long pause, I raised my hand and replied, "There's basically only one person in the world that could have been. Me." (Steve is posing above with a painting by the Oakland artist Hung Liu at the Palm Springs Art Museum.)

Though neither of us recognized each other from that afternoon a couple of decades ago, it seemed an obvious sign that we were fated to know each other, and we have been fast friends ever since, joining each other for many amusing adventures. (Steven is crawling like Jesus below a painting by Enrique Chagoya.)

Though Steve is smart about all kinds of things, occasionally even wise, he is also an authentic goofball, as you can see from this photo of his clowning behind my favorite Anselm Kiefer sculpture.

He's also something of an amateur, genius performance artist, and treats Halloween as part of the High Holy Gay Holidays of Palm Springs.

On his way to a doll themed costume party, he showed up last Sunday at my neighbor Sammy's house dressed as Murderous Barbie with Ken's severed head in tow. He later said the real joy of the party was meeting strangers who were loving Palm Springs as much as him over the last 15 years. I am starting to feel similarly about the place.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Kinetic Art in Palm Springs

The Palm Springs Art Museum is hosting an eye-opening, mind blowing exhibit called Kinesthesia: Latin American Kinetic Art 1954-1969.

The cautionary signage is not exaggerating, and the longer you spend in the exhibit, the more likely you will come away feeling fabulously discombobulated.

There were an array of electrically controlled light sculptures by Gregorio Vardanega, an Argentinian who lived in Paris for the second half of his life.

You can walk through one dark room between suspended plastic spaceships facing psychedelic galaxies on the wall which feels as if one has just taken off on a rocket ship in the 1960s from the futuristic new city of Brasilia.

I am uncertain if the other moving light sculptures were also by Gregorio Vardanega...

...but they were all terrific...

...and surprising...

...looking as if Alexander Calder got to play with plastic and electricity.

The kinetic art movement was based in Paris in the 1950s, which is where many South Americans went to study and live after World War Two...

...including the Venezuelan Jesus Rafael Soto who created the two wonderful sculptural paintings pictured above.

The most startling work was the 1965 Chromosaturation, adapted for this exhibit by the 94-year-old Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Diez.

You have to put on a pair of plastic covers over your shoes in order not to scuff the perfectly white floors, while walking slowly from one color field to another, and the effect is like nothing I have ever experienced.

Signage explained, "The spectator is invited to enter every room and stay there until the colors seem to fade. At this point, one can discover their own capacity to do and undo color with their own perceptive means, as well as their own emotional resonance."

As we were leaving, a young couple entered and started modeling their way through color, in an ineffable moment of beauty.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Leaving The Smoke Behind

Friday night the SFO airport was packed with passengers and a few dogs waiting for planes delayed by the smokey air conditions caused by a week of fires in the North Bay.

Like many others, I started to have breathing problems by the end of the week and a coincidental holiday scheduled for Palm Springs turned out to be a salvation.

If you have the luxury of time and/or money, I would suggest a sabbatical away from the crappy Bay Area air as soon as possible. Your lungs will thank you.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

A Wild Night at the SF Symphony

A loud heckler during Penderecki, a vibrating mobile Amber Alert chorus accompanying Mendelssohn, and a stupendous Shostakovich 10th Symphony made for a wild night Saturday evening at Davies Hall with the San Francisco Symphony.

The brilliant young Polish conductor Krzysztof Urbański started the concert with Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, a short, iconic avant-garde composition from 1960 for 52 strings by Krzysztof Penderecki (click here for a recording by the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra). Though excerpts have been used in everything from Wes Craven's 1991 film The People Under The Stairs to David Lynch's recent Twin Peaks reboot, I had never heard the amazing piece live. About halfway into the 10-minute atonal, aleatory, incantory composition, a woman's loud voice could be heard throughout the huge auditorium shouting something which sounded like "THIS IS CRAP!" Everyone looked around in the orchestra section but we couldn't see where the voice was coming from. A couple of minutes later, the same lady was shouting, "REALLY?" in a way that implied the phrase should be, "Like, are you serious, really?" There were a couple more outbursts before the piece ended, and in a demonstraton of solidarity with the conductor and the musicians, the audience gave them a standing ovation. The ladies sitting in front of us thought that the crazy shouting was possibly a part of the score, a 1960s "happening," but it turned out that it was a patron in the expensive Loge section who decided she needed to have her opinion heard.

The Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, with soloist Augustin Hadelich, was evidently more her style since there was no more yelling, but her clamor was replaced by intermittent moments of what sounded like feedback from the amplification system used for announcements at Davies Hall. It turns out the noise was caused by an incessant, public Amber Alert, and everyone who had set their mobile phones to vibrate caused a weird electronic chorus that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. Hadelich and the orchestra gave a sweetly soulful performance of the warhorse concerto, while the audience kept looking around to figure out what was up with the sonic sabotage.

After intermission, Urbański gave a lecture/demonstration on Shostakovich's 1953 Tenth Symphony, having sections of the orchestra perform various themes, while demonstrating how they were transformed over the course of the hour-long work. He also tossed off a few amusing biographical asides, such as "Shostakovich had just gotten married for the second time, and they didn't even like each other!" This kind of patter and music appreciation demos usually annoy me, but this symphony is long and dense and the musical examples were useful signposts for everyone in the audience.

The orchestra then proceeded to give one of the greatest performances of any music I have ever heard in Davies Hall with Urbański dancing ecstatically around the podium. The latter also could have been annoying except it was obvious he worshiped the music and the the sound coming from the orchestra was breathtaking. In two weeks, Urbański will be conducting another program with the SF Symphony at Davies Hall that includes Dvorak's Cello Concerto and another modernist Polish work, Lutoslawski's 1954 Concerto for Orchestra. The Lady Heckler of the Loge might want to sit this one out, but everyone else should buy a ticket now. Urbański is a rare talent and he clicks with this orchestra.

Friday, October 06, 2017

Live Personal Soundtrack with Giacomo Fiore

Chris Kallmyer and Mark Allen's Live Personal Soundtrack, a conceptual art piece from the Soundtracks exhibit at SFMOMA, involves an individual patron being serenaded by an electronic guitarist as they wander the permanent collection on the second floor of the museum.

The duo are sonically connected via headphones which feels oddly intimate since they are sharing a musical experience that nobody around them can hear.

Different musicians are in residence on different days, Thursday through Sunday from 12 to 3 PM, and last Saturday my friend Louisa Spier and I were treated to the luxury musicianship of Giacomo Fiore, a classical guitarist who teaches at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

The museumgoer leads the guitarist to various works of art who then improvises a musical reaction, and it is a strange, slightly telepathic experience, where I found myself noticing new details in familiar paintings on account of the sonic mind meld.

For some reason, the guitarist has been hidden in a stairwell in an unpopulated section of the second floor, but ask around and you will eventually find the place to sign up. Highly recommended, and if you happen to stumble across an afternoon featuring Giacomo Fiore, you are very lucky.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Bartok and Berlioz at the SF Symphony

Last week's SF Symphony program featured two eccentric masterpieces, Bartok's Second Piano Concerto from 1931 and Berlioz's first symphony, the 1832 Symphonie Fantastique. The Bartok soloist was Jeremy Denk above, who did a magnificent job in one of the most difficult pieces of piano music in the repertory. The concerto bounces back and forth between quick, percussive, astringent melodies and strange, delicate, moody night music, with Denk making sense of the disparate elements which is not always the case. For an encore he played a delicate, simple Mozart adagio which was spellbinding, partly because Denk has such an unusual affinity for the composer's music. I discovered Denk at a 2007 Summer in the City pops concert, where he and the young conductor James Gaffigan created totally unexpected Mozartean magic, and have been following him ever since. It's nice to report that he can also play Bartok at his most fiendish with aplomb.

The Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique after intermission did not make me as happy. The wildly bizarre early 19th century symphony that smashed open the doors of Romanticism was written by a lovesick composer in his 20s who sets the second half of the hour-long piece in a bad trip opium nightmare, marching with a famous earworm to the gallows before falling into the middle of a witches' sabbath. The orchestra under Michael Tilson Thomas sounded great, like a sleek machine, with all imperfections smoothed out, but I wanted the feeling of being inside the crazy opium visions of the young Berlioz. This was a minority opinion, by the way, since my friend Patrick enjoyed himself as did Joshua Kosman at the SF Chronicle and a gentleman across the aisle from me at Davies Hall whose entire body was rocking with the music in an amusingly spastic, slightly off-the-beat way.