How “Surround Audience” at The New Museum Blew My Mind Twice

Oh hey. I’m going to write a blog post about the most recent mind-blowing cultural shit I’ve seen in New York because it makes me feel like I’m getting more value for my rent.

Frank Benson, "Juliana"

Frank Benson, “Juliana”

My first impression of the New Museum back in 2007 was of dismissal; it felt too conceptual, postmodern and obnoxious. The art was not accessible; it made me feel dumb for not “getting it” – for not having any emotional response to “artwork” made of children’s toys and colored planks of wood with pieces of garbage tied to a string.

Last year I gave it another shot for Chris Ofili’s “Night and Day” exhibit. Massive, colorful, collage-like paintings and intricate, obsessive pencil drawings showcased an impressive range of materials. Infamous for his elephant dung paintings, Ofili is more than shock value and envelope-pushing. He is inspired by the human experience and his contemplation of socio-economic inequality. The New Museum redeemed itself for me with that exhibit. It was edgy, modern and relevant – but was also authentic, relatable and accessible. I appreciated it.

Then I heard about this year’s Triennial. I assumed it would include more of the earlier kind of art: conceptual, postmodern…and obnoxious. I then discovered this video online by artist and comedian Casey Jane Ellison. I highly recommend watching it and her entire series, “Touching The Art”.

I had to see for myself what was going on here. I ultimately visited the exhibit twice because I couldn’t absorb it all in just one visit. I felt more inspired and connected to not only the artwork but the concepts and motivation behind the artwork, that I only made it to two out of the four floors of artwork on my first visit. The work, collected from 51 artists from 25 countries around the world, explored how digital technology is connecting and separating us as a society more than ever.

Surround Audience intro 

My Favorite Pieces

Each floor of the exhibit was introduced with a warped, enigmatic poem. A choppy yet effortless stream-of-meta-consciousness meditation. It expresses the way we communicate today, with common anxieties, typos, symbols and misspellings marked by our text-based culture. 

Ryan Trecartin, "Time Pend"

Ryan Trecartin, “Time Pend”

 These poems saved me. They made me think “OMG someone else gets how ridiculous everything is.” I smiled while reading each one.

Indian artist Shreyas Kahle’s work left the biggest impression on me after my first visit. He explores “the distorting effect of the male gaze” as seen in the marble sculpture below: are they mountains or boobs? I love his cerebral sketches and “pseudoscientific” symbolic drawings; they evoked a Magritte-esque surrealism in a more raw expression. (“Surround Audience”, New Museum Triennial, Feb-May 2015, p. 188)

Shreyas Kahle, "Kashmir Or The Alps, It Doesn't Matter"

Shreyas Karle, “Kashmir Or The Alps, It Doesn’t Matter”

The shameless honesty and self expression of artist and comedian Casey Jane Ellison made me laugh out loud while watching a video installation of her avatar performing a standup routine. (Her YouTube interview series, which got me to see this exhibit, was playing on a flat screen TV in the museum lobby.)

Casey Jane Ellison, "It's So Important To Seem Wonderful"

Casey Jane Ellison, “It’s So Important To Seem Wonderful”

These dreamy, haunting paintings by Chinese artist Firenze Lai left me breathless. These figures with warped proportions, to express the way our relationships with others (and ourselves) are often similarly warped with modern technology. We’re always available, we’re always able to connect with everyone everywhere…yet we don’t fully feel “connected” at the same time. I think this is a universal symptom of modern life and I loved every minute I felt like there are others who feel this way – and can creatively express the ennui of the digital age.

Firenze Lai, "Tennis Court"

Firenze Lai, “Tennis Court”

Firenze Lai, "Argument"

Firenze Lai, “Argument”

Firenze Lai, "Alignment"

Firenze Lai, “Alignment”

 

The perfect mix of truth, beauty and intellect.

Art that explores how disconnected we are as society has the effect of subverting that very feeling; it makes you feel connected to the brave artists who felt compelled to visually express their own dissatisfaction with the state of things. It’s all very cerebral and conceptual, but not overly so, with just the right balance of meta-consciousness and visual aesthetic.

“Surround Audience” ends today…but good news! I bought the coffee table book of the exhibition so if we’re friends IRL I’ll let you look through it if you wash your hands and tell me how cool my apartment is both before and after looking through my cultural coffee table book of cool-ass, mind-blowing artwork.

“Beauty Is Power”: How One Woman’s Entrepreneurial Taste Redefined ‘Beauty’

helena rubinstein "beauty is power"

A strange sense of familiarity welcomed me while I stood on line for the coat check. I felt obligated to internally review the reasons that fueled my visit.

I had gone to the Jewish Museum to see the exhibit “Beauty is Power”, a look at the legacy left by Helena Rubenstein (1872-1965) on the beauty industry.

I was also there to check out the aesthetic of the museum itself, which underwent a rebranding this year by the design firm Sagmeister & Walsh.

Yet waiting on the line for the coat check, I realized another layer of significance embedded in the place itself. The lobby evokes a modern, minimalist synagogue, with a list of donor names carved into the white walls. The gift shop sells Judaica, with a modernist edge. It’s a very secular space, with delicate hints of tradition, like a mosaic made of mostly white with a few specks of rich, bright colors.

This is a very special space.

A Dramatic Entrance

The cherry on top was the free iPhone app, a custom-designed exhibit audio guide. A blended experience of art, culture and technology? Let’s do this.

Rubinstein-Mosaic

I pushed open the heavy doors to the exhibit and was immediately swirled into a slow-moving current of fellow museum-visitors: heavily perfumed ladies, decked out in furs and covered in layers of makeup and jewelry. None of them was using the iPhone app…yet their presence played a role in the experience of the exhibit.

The rooms were as luxuriously designed as the crowd they contained. Lavender walls with velvet tuffets in a deep shade of crimson produced a sense of decadence. The moment you enter the exhibit it is impossible to not feel transported into a sort of parlor, where an appreciation for style and taste is celebrated.

Eclectic Taste & Multiculturalism

interior

Rubinstein left Poland and moved to Australia where she opened her first beauty salon in Melbourne in 1903. Later, she expanded her business into London and Paris and eventually New York. “Beauty Is Power” includes over 200 objects taken from Rubinstein’s personal art collection (which included work by Picasso, Matisse and Ernst) in addition to travel keepsakes, jewelry and a few garments. Her exposure to and appreciation for a diverse aesthetic led her to expand definitions of what made something “beautiful”.

She “delighted in mingling ‘western and nonwestern works’.

She appreciated African art around the same time it was inspiring Cubist artists, like Picasso and Braques. She opened salons in Paris, whose clientele included Josephine Baker, a personification of the new “beauty” and a sort of muse for Rubinstein. In Mexico she met Frida Kahlo, with whom she felt an “immediate personal connection”.

An Entrepreneurial Spirit

fini-and-me

Left: “Two Women” by Leonor Fini (1939); Right: Self-reflection in mirror owned by H.R.

In early 20th century Western society, beauty was something to “aspire” to. It wasn’t something you could capture; it was an ideal against which you would measure yourself. The wealthy and the powerful determined what was in style, and makeup was deemed appropriate only for actresses and prostitutes.

Rubinstein challenged this by championing the cosmetic use of makeup for the everyday woman – as an expression of femininity, power and individualism. She democratized beauty, celebrating it as limitless and undefined.

Rubinstein stated,

“There are no ugly women – only lazy ones”.

Rubinstein built an empire selling products and beauty advice to women everywhere. She envisioned salons as places of education, where women could study color, makeup application techniques, as well as general health and beauty advice. Her line of cosmetics, which was eventually bought by Lancôme, included the first waterproof eyeliner, and the introduction of the mascara wand.

My grandmother, who has a strong eye for the aesthetic and is herself an avid art collector, recently shared that in sixty years of marriage, “Your grandfather never saw me without my makeup on.” Nana stated this as a proud declaration, describing a daily decision she made out of a place of strength.

Rubinstein’s eclectic style and taste, cultural sensitivity and business prowess made her a key player – almost a composer – in the symphony of 20th century beauty, art and fashion.

The “Beauty Is Power” exhibit is on view at the Jewish Museum in New York City through March 22, 2015.

6 DIY Wedding Chalkboard Tips for “Bridesmaids with Neat Handwriting”

bart the shining

My college roommate asked me to design the chalkboard for her wedding this weekend. These are pretty standard at outdoor weddings and they’re all over Pinterest, so it seemed pretty straightforward. If all those Pinterest people can do it, how hard can it be? I have neat handwriting and am creatively inclined, so we figured we’d be done in an hour or so.

Dead wrong. Thinking all you need is neat handwriting to design a chalkboard for one of your best friend’s weddings is the same as thinking all you need to perform a route canal is opposable thumbs. First comes dental school, novocaine and insurance.

The following are 6 nuggets of wisdom I gleaned from what was the most stressful 6+ hours in recent history. If this list gets discovered by just one bride-to-be and/or her creatively-inclined bridesmaids with neat handwriting, this post was worth writing.

1. Chalkboard paint sucks. Use a real chalkboard. At least, don’t use chalkboard paint on scratchy, rough plywood. It sticks to the chalk so if you make a mistake and want to erase, you’re left with a cloud. You’ll try to erase the cloud with some water on a paintbrush, and it will seem like it’s working…until the water dries and there’s that damn cloud. We actually started whispering in a creepy voice to whoever thought she had succeeded in erasing something, “Wait till it dries….” and resorted to covering up the clouds with more chalkboard paint, using tiny paintbrushes to outline the final layer of chalk, as a ridiculously painstaking hack. Repeat: chalkboard paint sucks.

2. Regular chalk works well. Chalk paint is also pretty cool. You can get markers which are basically white paint in the form of a marker, which creates a smoother look than regular chalk, and is easier to control. Personally I found good, old-fashioned chalk to be easier to erase, and I like the look but it’s really whichever you feel looks better. If you opt for the markers make sure to buy enough because they can run out and then everyone loses their shit.

3. Plan the text and layout ahead of time. Make the bride send you precisely what is to be written on the board. Check to make sure all the names are spelled correctly. Check to make sure all married women have the correct last names. Even if the bride prepared this document, have her parents or the groom’s parents approve it. Even if she’s a really great elementary school teacher who has her shit together. Sketch the entire thing on paper first so you can all agree on the layout.

4. Sketch a grid. Bring rulers and draw horizontal lines to guide your writing. For the gridlines you can either use pencil or a very light-handed chalk that you can later erase. Also bring paper towels and water bottles for erasing. Small paintbrushes can be good for erasing as well.

5. Have the same person write everything on the same board. At least, the same person should write all the headers/titles, and the same person should write all the information. Otherwise the handwriting changes and it looks like someone suffered from a stroke and transitioned from flowery script to cartoony-bubble letters.

6. Remember that this doesn’t really matter and no one’s going to actually read the board besides the people whose names are written on it, and they’re already supposedly such good friends of yours anyway so they really shouldn’t be spending too much time at your wedding critiquing this damn board.

In the end our board came out great and it was a fun bonding experience . . . but for a solid chunk of time it felt like we were ruining the wedding before it even started. Don’t let that feeling happen to you. USE A REAL CHALKBOARD!

Congratulations, Laura & Jon!

diy wedding chalkboard

 

Bright, Floating Buses of Skeletons: The Paradox of the East Village

Rick Prol-1

Part of the charm of the East Village lies in the paradoxical nature of its identity. It’s defining characteristic is the struggle to maintain its 1980’s, “authentic” version of itself. There’s this angst associated with the nostalgia of the area. Veteran storekeepers and residents proclaim “…it’s not the same anymore” or “…it’s changed so much, I don’t recognize it.” This mournful description has become part of the neighborhood’s identity, and a badge of honor worn by card-carrying tasters and makers of the original neighborhood flavor. The result is an interesting mosaic of art, culture and attitudes quite distinct to the area between 1st and 14th Street, from 1st Avenue to the East River.

The Dorian Grey Gallery, a tiny space on 9th Street, is currently showing works by Rick Prol – dubbed the “Veteran of Gothic Angst” by Art in America. The exhibition presents a dark, macabre look at the neighborhood from above and within. Floating buses of skeletons amidst a Manhattan sky and cramped, decrepit one-room apartments paint a picture that’s as off-putting as it is romantically-nostalgic…and pride-inducing. The scenes are depressing yet vibrant at the same time. It’s an interesting juxtaposition and captures the old East Village brilliantly.

We’re all headed on a floating bus to death. Yet we are doing so in one of the coolest, most culturally-influential neighborhoods in one of the world’s most culturally-influential cities. Yes, there’s a 7-Eleven on 11th and Avenue A, but there’s also Empire Biscuit 2 blocks north, with its friendly husband-wife pair serving an exotic menu of sweet and savory biscuit-sandwiches, with an impressive variety of cheeses and jellies (try the Snuggaboo!). Yes, the Annual Tompkins Square Park Dog Halloween Parade now has a commercial sponsor (Purina), but it makes for an even bigger celebration of the creative and compassionate dog-lover community, that it’s hard to see a downside beyond the principle. Artists like Rick Prol preserve the paradox of the East Village, and its struggle between mourning and appreciation for the old and the new, preservation and flux. At least, that’s my interpretation. Live in the area? Would love to hear your take.


dorian2 dorian3 dorian4 dorian5

The Brooklyn Night Bazaar: Tagging Nostalgia

Brooklyn Night Bazaar

At the Brooklyn Night Bazaar the other night, I traveled to Thailand, Berlin and Israel. Three places I’ve actually visited relatively recently. You walk into this warehouse in Williamsburg, where illuminated paper lanterns on the ceiling offer a warm glow to a large, one-room space. Aisles of vendors extend back into the darkness.

A dark-light miniature golf course with celebrity cardboard cut-outs sits to your left. To the right is an art installation in another room with ping-pong tables in the middle. “Never-ending trails of color” create a 4-wall, floor-to-ceiling graffiti piece by Brazilian artist Raphael a.k.a. SLIKS. His work comes from a lifelong sense of loneliness. Puma sponsors the exhibit, and there are glass cases of brightly-colored sneakers which add a dash of corporate flavor to the site. Instagram is in full use, with iPhone users snapping photos from creative angles. They’re tagging photos of tagging. How meta.

Night Markets in Thailand

I felt pretentious telling my friends how much the place reminded me of the night markets in Thailand; in Chang Mai, where the biggest night market stretches for what feels like miles; or in Pai, where the night market is more manageable in size but not in terms of the endless variety of creative wares, produced by artisans and craftsman you hope are local. (It was a running joke, seeing the same fabric elephant coin purse at literally every market and souvenir store across 3 different South Eastern countries. The first time I encountered the elephant, the woman selling it said “I make, I sew.” My travel companion and I loved commenting on how well that woman must have been doing, to have such a robust distributor network.)

Bars in Berlin  

A beer garden shoots off the main room, where low wooden tables sit facing a white wall loosely covered in black-outline illustrations. The casual intersection of art and alcohol and the reminded me of a 5-story place in Berlin calledTachlas. The place is covered floor to ceiling in decades of graffiti, with 5 different types of music on each floor and a sand-covered outdoor beer garden on the bottom level.

Street Art in Tel Aviv

We left the bazaar and walked down a quiet street. The light of a street lamp illuminated a drawing of a crouched, girl-like figure done on the side of the 2nd story of a building – and for a second I felt like I was in Jaffa. The quiet road, the ubiquity of art in odd places, the subdued yet powerful presence of an underground art scene brought me back to the backstreets of industrial, southern Tel Aviv.

Brooklyn Street Art

These comparisons and memories and nostalgia all feel good and bad at the same time. I make these comparisons yet don’t know for what purpose, or what to do with them. My gut reaction is to share them with others, yet I instantly feel pretentious; “Have any of you ever been to Thailand?” is a question usually met with silence.

The silence echoes inside my own head as I ask myself what to do with those comparisons and memories. Tagging them – on Instagram and my blog – makes them seem captured and categorized.

 

The Art of Promoting Others’ Art

Image

Israeli multi-media artist Oum Kultuv

I’ve had an idea for about 6 months but haven’t done much about it. Now I’ll write about it on my BLOG on the INTERNET so that it comes TRUE or at least CLOSER TO TRUE. Stop yelling at you? No. Read on.

There are parts of Marketing I like: creating compelling content – both visuals and copy. Static copy (websites, ads, emails) is more rewarding and interesting than the transient channels of social media and blogging. But all of these buzzwords really blend together and you can theoretically call all of this and none of this “marketing”, “branding”, “advertising” and “business development”.

I encounter an artist with an incredible vision, body of work and voice. This person has a Facebook page, isn’t on Etsy and doesn’t know how to effectively “market” themselves. Then I appear, in a ray of sunlight wearing a black pantsuit but some edgy accessories. I’m here to make you internet famous – at least, as famous as your art allows you to be.

I want your art to speak for itself. But I want to give it a microphone.

War Memorials are Beautiful and Intense; Maybe I Should Visit More of Them

September 11th is in 3 days.

I’m doing the social media marketing for an annual charity event held each year on the anniversary of the attacks. I thought it would be a good time to visit the 9/11 Memorial, created just in the last year or two, to mentally prepare myself for the event on Wednesday and spend some time reflecting to put myself in the right headspace leading in.

I didn’t really know at all what to expect. I waited on line and “donated” a measly assortment of quarters, nickels and dimes to get in while feeling like a jackass for never having cash on me anymore. After walking in line around what felt like an entire city block, you enter a sort of enclosed courtyard, with a few small trees and some lawn and wide, cobblestone paths.

As I wondered “What did you expect here?” I thought about other memorials I’ve been to, and my thoughts went to the Killing Fields in Cambodia: sites that commemorate those massacred during the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot. I visited the best-known site, 17km south of Phnom Penh, called Choeung Ek. Very intense place, with indents in the ground where they’d have massive graves that are now covered in grass (but you still see the depression in the ground). There’s a tree where soldiers would smash the heads of babies and toss them in the air and shoot them. You listen to stories about this on a guide headset. It really leaves an impression.

A very different memorial are the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. The one outside is powerful in its simplicity. It’s in the center of the city so it makes sense to have it be relatively abstract in its connection to the Holocaust; large, rectangular slabs of gray cement form a grid, and you can walk in between the rows. Grass lines the pathways, and the slabs vary in height, some are slanted, others perpendicular to the ground.

At the 9/11 Memorial, about 200 yards in to the courtyard you encounter an enormous reflecting pool. Another one lies toward the back of the courtyard; they’re both built in the footsteps of where the Twin Towers stood. They drop inward on themselves in a way I’m not explaining well, but there are waterfalls and the names of those who perished surrounding the outside of both pools. The names are arranged according to group: First Responders, Employees of Companies in the North Tower, The South Tower, passengers on Flight 93, Flight 175, Pentagon….and within all those groups, the families of those lost requested the names of their loved ones be placed next to certain other names. I saw one that was a woman’s name with “AND HER UNBORN CHILD” next to it. My cousin is a firefighter and worked in the recovery process in the weeks and months following the attack; he was fine, after not being able to get in touch with us at all that first day, and then working 24 hour shifts for the next few weeks.

All the thought and contemplation and reflection I spent today felt good in preparation for Wednesday. I’ll let you know how it goes.