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Friday, August 29, 2014

Are Billboards the Right Place to Show Art?

Are Billboards Right for Showing Artwork?

BY STEVEN ROSEN · CINCINNATI CITYBEAT AUGUST 27TH, 2014 · THE BIG PICTURE
ac_big_pictures_july_cwynarA Sara Cwynar photo in Big Pictures - Photo: Rob Deslongchamps
Unlike other exhibitions, the Cincinnati Art Museum isn’t using billboard advertisements to lure visitors to come see its currentBig Pictures photography show. That’s because Big Pictures occurs on billboards, not in a gallery at the museum’s brick-and-mortar Eden Park site. 

Every six weeks, two different contemporary photographers display their digitally repurposed or reformatted work — two images each — on leased billboards around the area.

If that sounds like an abstract, obtuse distinction, it means everything to Brian Sholis, the museum’s associate curator of photography. The yearlong Big Pictures show, which began on June 1 and is now in its second rotation of presenters, is his idea.

“This is an exhibition and is being treated as an exhibition,” says Sholis, who was appointed to his position last fall. “The money for it is coming from the people we usually seek money from for exhibitions.” (Sholis chooses the photographers, who receive an honorarium.) 

To emphasize the difference, Sholis does not plan to use billboards to market his upcoming FotoFocus-related exhibition at the museum, Eyes on the Street. (It opens Oct. 11.) “I don’t want confusion,” he says. 

The two young photographers currently featured on Big Pictures billboards are Sara Cwynar, a Brooklyn-based Canadian, and Lorenzo Vitturi, a London-based Italian. Both artists create work that is collage-like, but in different ways. Vitturi pieces together bright, surreal still lifes using unusual objects — like desiccated fruit and plastic; Cwynar starts with a found image, digitally enlarges and prints it out in sections, and then sticks on other images or bits of other objects (Post-It notes) to those prints as part of the “analog/digital”(Sholis’ term) process of getting to a final work.

Of the four photographs on display now, my favorite is her “Gold – NYT April 22, 1979 (Alphabet Stickers),” which adds some glitter to its site in Newtown. (Visit bigpicturescincy.org for more information and to find billboard locations.)

To some, the very notion of billboards (or outdoor signage in general) being artwork or hosting artful images instead of give-us-your-money advertising is confusing. But it’s getting more common. Sholis based his idea on programs in New York and Los Angeles and along Interstate 10. (His project and others were featured recently in The New York Times’ T magazine.)

Sholis, like so many people, sees billboards in general as blight. “My natural inclination is to wish them away, a little bit,” he says. “But if you can’t beat them, you can put them to better and more appropriate purposes — to show something that’s not necessarily a fattening, processed food or that lawyer with boxing gloves that’s everywhere. If there’s a way to use them to add a little bit of serendipity to people’s lives, that’s a good a thing.”

And at the very time Sholis has launched Big Pictures here, the Outdoor Advertising Association of America has included Cincinnati in its nationwide Art Everywhere: A Very, Very Big Art Show. 

Based on a similar project in Great Britain, online voters selected their favorite works from the collections of five major art museums — Art Institute of Chicago, Dallas Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art and the Whitney Museum. Some 58 images are being reproduced on static and digital billboards and other advertising media around the country. (Visit arteverywhereus.org for information.)

You should now be able to see the work of Edward Hopper, John Singer Sargent, George Bellows, Mary Cassatt, Willem de Kooning and more driving around the Cincinnati area. 

Art Everywhere has a drawback — of the billboards I saw, only about two-thirds of the space was given over to the image while the rest promoted the program. And it has its ironies — one of the selected artworks for national exposure is a Margaret Bourke-White 1937 photograph that is less than complimentary to the billboard industry. It shows black victims of an Ohio River flood lined up at a bread line, under a billboard of a happy white family in a car that proclaims, “World’s Highest Standard of Living.” 

“When I first saw the article in The Times announcing (Art Everywhere), I thought, ‘Competition,’” Sholis says. “But the more the merrier. I think there’s enough distinction between what they’re doing — reproducing art history — and what I’m doing, asking contemporary artists to reimagine art for public spaces, that there’s not that much overlap.”

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Film Review from the Archives: The U.S. vs. John Lennon




The U.S. vs. John Lennon
Steven Rosen in Los Angeles
August 23, 2006
Dir: David Leaf and John Scheinfeld
1 hour, 39 minutes
(previously published in a film journal)

Despite its provocative title, David Leaf and John Scheinfeld’s documentary “The U.S. vs. John Lennon” is as much a friendly portrait of the late Beatle as political activist as an expose of Nixon White House efforts to deport him in the early 1970s for that activism. But the film fails to clearly delineate where Lennon affected his times politically from where he was just responding to them. As a result, the film undercuts the drama in Lennon’s immigration struggle and overstates his prescience as a political figure.

Distributor Lionsgate Films believes there’s enough contemporary relevance to Lennon’s anti-Vietnam War views and deportation battles to merit theatrical release. That’s made especially clear in an interview with Gore Vidal, who says, “Lennon represented life, Mr. Nixon and Mr. Bush represent death.” It’s doubtful this angle will propel the movie to healthy theatrical grosses, however.  Lennon was many things to many people, but Michael Moore he isn’t. (It’s slated for U.S. release on Sept. 15, after appearances at Venice and Toronto film festivals.)

Its best prospects would seem to be TV and/or the DVD market, both in the U.S. and Britain, as a companion to such other past Lennon-related video product as “The Beatles Anthology,” “John and Yoko’s Year of Peace,” “The Dick Cavett Show: John Lennon and Yoko Ono” and the VHS release of Lennon and Ono as guest hosts on Mike Douglas’ American talk show. That’s where Leaf and Scheinfeld’s recent past work – “Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of ‘Smile’” and “Ricky Nelson Sings” – has gone. And VH1 Rock Docs is a producer on this.

The directors are strong at compiling nostalgic archival footage, such as material from Lennon and Ono’s famous 1969 Bed-In for Peace in Montreal, which grows more charmingly eccentric and sweet with each passing year. As does, it should be added, Ono’s beauty.

There also are snippets from their appearance on Douglas’ show, a nasty row between a churlish Lennon and a New York Times reporter who dares criticize him, and footage from his appearance at a 1971 University of Michigan concert to free radical activist John Sinclair. (The last, presumably, from Steve Gebhardt’s documentary “Ten for Two,” which could use a DVD release.) The directors also have conducted new interviews with various figures from the time, including Vidal, Angela Davis, Walter Cronkite and George McGovern.


As explained in the film by Lennon’s widow Yoko Ono, his immigration attorney Leon Wildes and others, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and the Nixon White House began trying to deport the ex-Beatle back to Britain because they feared he would be a political threat to Republicans in 1972. The battle to get rid of him went on until 1975, into Gerald Ford’s presidency, when a court finally supported Lennon’s attempt to stay.

The film does hit the salient points of this struggle, but the directors lack the journalistic background to know when what’s clear to them isn’t so clear to the audience. This writer, for instance, had to go home after the screening and consult the Internet to figure out exactly when and on what grounds Lennon won his battle.

Or if, for that matter, President Ford – who met George Harrison in the White House in 1974 – was more sympathetic to Lennon than Nixon. To be a first-rate documentary, ‘U.S. vs. John Lennon” really needs to explore angles like that. It also needs to explore the motivation and impact of Lennon’s most political album, 1972’s “Some Time in New York City,” which it hardly mentions.


By the time Lennon won his immigration battle, he had moved through his radical phase and went five years completely out of the public eye. Just days before his and Ono’s album “Double Fantasy” came out, he was shot to death on Dec. 8, 1980, by an unbalanced fan. This film doesn’t address those missing years – nor should it – but it does timidly reach for an improbable connection between his murder and his politics. That should have been left out.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Art Shook Up: Elvis Has Entered the Art Gallery

Art Shook Up

Elvis has entered the art gallery with new Paul Laffoley exhibit

BY STEVE ROSEN · CINCINNATI CITYBEAT. WWW.CITYBEAT.COM. JULY 29TH, 2014 · VISUAL ART
aclead_paullaffoleyart_providedPaul Laffoley Art - provided
The strange ways we remember Elvis Presley are best summed up by the lyrics of the late Warren Zevon’s “Jesus Mentioned,” in which he imagines traveling to Memphis to see the dead King: “He went walking on the water … with his pills.” 

Zevon thus concisely explains how our culture both deifies Presley, who died in 1977, and views his life’s course as sadly, perhaps pathetically, tragic. 

Paul Laffoley’s artwork The Life and Death of Elvis Presley: A Suite could someday have the same kind of impact. It is a lot more complex that Zevon’s sparse and simple song, but it covers the same sort of dichotomous territory. It’s also very strange in itself — surrealist even. 

It’s at the Carl Solway Gallery in the West End through Sept. 6 for its first public showing ever. And how it got to Solway is equally strange.

One might call it visionary art — it has that kind of obsessive detailing. But its mystical intellectualism and its carefully ordered achievement marks the ambitious vision of a well-trained artist.

The Elvis Suite gets a whole gallery at Solway and needs it. On one wall are the eight paintings that comprise the work. On the other is the photocopied correspondence from Laffoley to Russ Barnard, the collector who commissioned the work in 1988.

Each painting is 55-by-35-inches and is jam-packed (that might be an understatement) with pictures and meticulously lettered text related to Presley’s life. Each also has a brass rod and velvet drape — the colors vary — that can be drawn to cover it up. There are six paintings whose central images depict Presley at step-by-step seven-year life stages (he died at age 42). 

“Son of ‘Sattnin’” comes first, followed by “Captain Marvel the Third,” “Frankenpelvis,” “The Prime Elvis,” “The Comeback Kid” and “The Remains of the Voice.” (That first title refers to the way Presley as a child pronounced the word “satin,” because his mother worked as a seamstress.)

The actual portraits of Presley are moodily black and white with his irises a startling blue. He passes from a sweet child to the puffy, bloated, downright monstrous Presley of his last year.

Dropping down below the portraits, in color-compatible columns crammed with enough information to seemingly fill an encyclopedia, are important events during the years covered. And below those are horizontal strips with smaller images — precious miniatures — pertaining to Presley’s life and the greater world around him. 

You might recognize the source material of some — “The Narc — Nixon” relates to his famous visit and photograph with President Nixon. But how Laffoley gets from, say, “Hitler in Berlin” to “Elvis Sees a UFO” is mysterious.

The first and last paintings in Elvis Suite are more like multi-bordered mandalas or horoscopic charts. One is titled “Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has entered the world” and the other, fittingly, “Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has left the world.” 

The overall information included is incredible — including discussion of Presley being cryogenically frozen. 

“I think I’ve done the definitive work on Elvis,” Laffoley says in a phone interview.

Laffoley, 73, has an impressive resume and a website that’s very entertaining to read. Here’s a taste: (In the 1960s), “Laffoley began to organize his ideas in a format related to eastern mandalas, partially inspired by the late night patterns he watched for Warhol on sixties late night television.” 

He studied classics at Brown University and architecture at Harvard, and decided to focus on painting in the Boston-Cambridge area after a spell in New York. Since 1971, his studio has been known as Boston Visionary Cell.

Michael Solway, Carl’s son and the gallery director, has a long relationship with Laffoley. He’s also a music lover, so the subject appealed to him. 

“I’ve been a long fan of art that deals with issues of mysticism and spirituality — psychedelic art,” he says. 

Elvis Suite was completed in 1995, yet this is its first showing. Owner Russ Barnard has kept it stored in crates. 

He’d like to see important visitors, such as museum curators, view it for possible institutional display and/or sale, in the process establishing value. He also said Laffoley referred him to Solway.

Barnard commissioned Elvis Suite when he published a New York-based magazine called Country Music. He had already hired Laffoley to do a portrait of Hank Williams to accompany a well-received article by the art critic Dave Hickey. Barnard was a Country music fan who first saw Presley perform in Amarillo, Texas, in 1955.

He and an associate noticed magazine readers were placing ads for Presley memorabilia, and he thought a magazine-commissioned artwork might appeal to them. Perhaps it could be sold as a limited-edition print portfolio. 

“Something classy rather than the crap people were advertising in the magazine,” Barnard says. But soon he thought of Laffoley and knew that wouldn’t work. 

“I realized it was much too serious for that idea,” he says. “It had to stand alone as a one-time work of art.” 
And the long letter Laffoley soon sent him reinforced that. A copy is on the wall at Solway — the gallery will provide magnifying glasses — and it’s fascinating. It reveals Laffoley wasn’t especially a Presley fan — he tells his patron he has so far heard 192 of his songs and is “beginning to really appreciate his operatic voice.” 

He also explains he will be trying to “take calendar art and turn it into a meditation series in which the fans attempt to recreate Elvis’ existence as a thought-form or a tulpa (from the Hindu concept).”

Barnard, who sold the magazine in 1999, has thought off-and-on about what to do with the crated Elvis Suite. “I deliberately decided not to put these on sale until I could get a proper exhibition in a fine-art environment, because there is so much crap associated with Elvis,” he says.

“I’m glad it’s being shown,” Laffoley says. “I love people to see my work.” ©

THE LIFE AND DEATH OF ELVIS PRESLEY: A SUITE continues at Carl Solway Gallery through Sept. 6. More info:solwaygallery.com

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Mothman Prophesies: Vacationing in Point Pleasant, W. Va.




Attending the Mothman Festival in Point Pleasant, W. Va.
By Steven Rosen
Cincinnati Enquirer, Sept. 2009

(note -- With the 13th annual Mothman Festival coming up on Sept. 20-21, 2014 in Point Pleasant, here's a look back at the 2009 edition, which probably isn't all that different from what this will be like.)

Nothing helps the tourism industry of a small river city like a monster.

Or so it seems in usually quiet Point Pleasant, W. Va., a bit less than three hours east of Cincinnati. It has a population of roughly 5,000 and its downtown lies comfortably, quietly nestled behind an Ohio River floodwall painted with attractive murals.

But on Sept. 19-20, downtown’s Main Street will explode with the bizarre activities of the 8th Annual Mothman Festival, which along with the Mothman Museum has made the city the focus of monster-based tourism. Both the museum and festival are promoted by a good-humored local resident with a love for pop culture and the supernatural, Jeff Wamsley.


The mythic Mothman of West Virginia is supposedly a humanoid creature with huge wings and piercing red eyes, capable of standing or flying. It was first seen by two young couples on a November 15, 1966 evening in a ruggedly mysterious outlying area called TNT, where it chased their car to the edge of the city. Other sightings followed and Mothman became like the Pacific Northwest’s Sasquatch, only mothier.

During World War II, the TNT Area was a classified, 8,000-acre area used for the manufacture of dynamite. It contained some 100 camouflaged concrete igloos for storage. There were two power plants and the first Mothman sighting was made near the now-demolished North Plant. Today, a portion of the area is a wildlife preserve, but it still contains three hidden and abandoned – and very dark! – igloos that can be entered by tourists. The other igloos are still out there, but sealed and reportedly leased to private concerns.

The Mothman Museum, which stays open all year although hours vary by season, runs bus/walking tours of the area throughout the summer and also during the festival, often with Wamsley as guide. Before a recent one, he made guests sign a disclaimer. “It states if we get chased by a creature, we don’t get sued,” he jokes.

The free festival has become the city’s biggest event, drawing an estimated 4,500 people last year. Visitors this year will be able to tour the museum, have their pictures taken by a lifesize (?) Mothman statue, hear eyewitness accounts of Mothman encounters, buy a “Mothman frappachino” at local souvenir shop The Point, watch the premiere of a new Mothman movie called “Dark Wings” at the historic State Theater, admire Miss Mothman contestants, hear the Mothman Band and other musical acts, and take TNT Area tours. (The bus tours, which cost $19.95 for adults, were supposed to be booked and paid for by Sept. 12; call 304/812-5211 from noon-5 p.m. daily for any late vacancies. There will also be evening hayrides offered on both nights, with tickets – $5 adults and $3 children – sold at the festival.)

Legend and popular culture have pegged the monster’s appearance as a harbinger of the December 15, 1967, collapse of the Silver Bridge between Point Pleasant and Gallipolis, Ohio, which killed 46 people. It was the subject of a 2002 Hollywood movie, “The Mothman Prophecies,” starring Richard Gere and Laura Linney and based upon a book by John A. Keel.

At the storefront museum, visitors not only can read various accounts of the sightings, but also see many movie props, such as a blanket used by Gere and actress Debra Messing.


“Of all the history we’ve got, it’s that darn old Mothman that brings in the business,” says Carolin Harris, whose old-fashioned Harris Steakhouse diner on Main has its best days during the festival. “People want to see what they don’t know. So we say Point Pleasant has history and mystery.”

That history is pretty interesting, too. Downtown, near the confluence of the Ohio and Kanawha rivers, is Tu-Endie-Wei Point Pleasant Battle Monument State Park, with its 84-foot granite obelisk and other memorials marking what locals call the first battle of the American Revolution. There is also an excellent Point Pleasant River Museum across Main from the park, which has artifacts related to the town’s history, including the bridge collapse.

“The Mothman brings a lot of folks to town,” says Martha Fout, the River Museum’s projects coordinator. “We try to help tell them a little bit of everything else about our history.”


IF YOU GO: It’s an easy drive to Point Pleasant from Cincinnati along SR 32 east to US 35, and then south across the new Bridge of Honor into West Virginia. The Mothman Festival maintains a site at www.mothmanfestival.com. You can find information about dining, lodgings and other activities at www.masoncountytourism.org, or by calling 304/675-6788. For specific information about the Mothman Museum at 411 Main St., where admission is $3 for adults and $1 for children 10 and under, visit www.mothmanmuseum.com or call 304/812-5211.

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