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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Fascinating Cultural Critic Visits UC for a Radical Confab

Fascinating Cultural Critic Visits UC for a Radical Confab

ac_bigpic_slavojzizek_photo_tonyyanickSlavoj Žižek at UC - Photo: Tony Yanick
I came across the Slovenian theorist/writer Slavoj Žižek in the recent movie The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, in which he passionately used scenes from Hollywood movies to spotlight his observations about the humanist struggle against repression and totalitarianism in oppressive capitalist systems.

His actual ideas were so densely intellectual, and delivered in such a rapid-fire manner, that I truthfully understood very little. But god (if I may use that word in reference to Žižek, an atheist), was he ever a fascinating cultural critic and film buff! In Pervert, he claims that one of John Carpenter’s more obscure horror movies — 1988’s They Live, in which aliens use subliminal advertising to control humans — is one of Hollywood’s most radically leftist movies ever.

Wanting to learn more about Žižek (pronounced Zhi-zheck), I discovered University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning was hosting the second-ever International Žižek Studies Conference and Exhibition. And it was going to focus on “parallax future(s) in art and design, ideology and philosophy.” Not only was it going to have a strong visual-art component, but Žižek himself was going to give a keynote lecture. So I attended last weekend.

It attracted around 100 or so Žižek scholars, students, artists and others from around the world — someone came from China. With panel discussions and workshops bearing titles like “Visualizing Metalepsis in Sites of Exception,” it wasn’t easygoing.  
Struggling to understand the concept of “parallax futures,” an important one in Žižek studies, I asked the DAAP coordinator of the conference, assistant professor Kristopher Holland, what that meant. 

“We’re trying to figure it out,” he said. He also explained, as an example, that F.
Scott Fitzgerald had first written and published Tender Is the Night one way, with flashbacks, in 1934, to poor reception. He then authorized a reconstructed version that was published posthumously in 1948. “So when we talk about Tender Is the Night, what are we talking about? Both exist. There are two ways of looking at things,” he said. 

The art for the most part was quite interesting. At the conference site, the mazelike DAAP building, several artists either had installations or did performances. Sue Wrbican from George Mason University encased a 1960s-era sail inside a 20-foot-high open bamboo construction to suggest the difficulty of navigating “between reality/fiction and male/female.” 

Nearby, Mira Gerard of East Tennessee State University intermittently reclined on a homey fainting couch and quietly read aloud from journals about her ongoing Lacanian psychoanalysis. 

In conjunction with the conference, DAAP’s Noel Anderson worked with Hebrew Union College’s interim museum director Abby Schwartz to curate a small but choice art exhibit called Parallax Futured: Transtemporal Subjectivities at HUC’s Skirball Museum. (It’s up through May 14.) 

The pieces tend toward minimalism and conceptualism with a twist. For instance, Tyler Hamilton’s “Untitled” features a concrete cube on which three metal legs have been attached, making it a kind of faux camera and tripod. And a beautiful small oil painting called “Mattress” by Zoran Starcevic is a close-up of gray-white mattresses seams, the repetition interrupted by a black diagonal slash. Is it, too, painted…or real? You want to touch it to find out. 

But the art — and everything else — took a backseat to Žižek’s own appearance Saturday afternoon. The DAAP auditorium attracted a couple hundred people who were enthralled by a rambling but fiery lecture (with Q&A) that went past two hours. 

Talking excitedly while compulsively tugging at his sweater or his face, the 65-year-old Žižek touched on so many topics so fast, good luck keeping track — Jacques Lacan to Ayn Rand, Marx to Edward Snowden, post-Colonial Africa to the Holocaust, the pending failure of global capitalism and so on.

But it wasn’t a dry dissertation by any means — the talk was peppered with non-academic words like “bullshit,” “stupid” and “blahblahblah.” And also with more of his fascinating, contrarian film references — he prefers Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter to Spielberg’s Lincoln because it shows the violence of the fight against slavery. 

He believes Bela Lugosi’s 1932 horror classic White Zombie is vividly about class struggle. And he highly recommended the DVD of thriller The Butterfly Effect — “with the great American artist Ashton Kutcher,” he said sarcastically — for the atheist aesthetics of its “much more radical” non-theatrical-release ending.

As the applause finally ended, like at a Rock concert, I thought whatever else, he needs his own TV show. Maybe At the Movies With Slavoj Žižek

(From Cincinnati CityBeat, 4-9-14)

Friday, April 11, 2014

Report From the 2014 Big Ears Festival in Knoxville


Big Ears poster
(Editor's note from Fred Mills, Blurt Online, where this story was published 4-8-14)
After a three-year hiatus, the adventurous—iconoclastic, even—three day event returned to Knoxville, TN, for March 28-30. Among the artists performing were  Steve Reich, Dean Wareham, John Cale, Television and Colin Stetson. Our own Prof. Rosen was in attendance, and he’s rumored to have returned home raving and drooling but otherwise intact.
 2014 Big Ears Festival 3/28-30/14, Knoxville TN
 As the years passed since the 2010 Big Ears music festival in Knoxville, with no announcement of a new one, it looked like maybe it had been too progressive and eclectic for its own good. Or for the land between the coasts.
 In its two-year existence, it had been devoted to that area of New Music where brainy rock/post-rock meets contemporary classical – especially where both use noise, minimalism, repetition, droning and other forms of sonic experimentation. It also honored alt-rock and New Music “elders” – composer Terry Riley had been 2010’s artist-in-residence – and outsiders who defied easy categorization.
 Ashley Capps, whose AC Entertainment produced Big Ears, quickly declared after the 2010 event that planning would start for 2011, but it never happened. Nor did 2012 or 2013.  He had other things to work on, true – Bonnaroo, Louisville’s Forecastle, and two festival ventures in nearby Asheville, N.C., that explored the area where serious-minded electronic music met synth-pop and EDM – Moogfest and Mountain Oasis. Even while a similar but smaller festival, MusicNow, thrived in Cincinnati and proved a heartland audience existed for barrier-breaking music, there was no new Big Ears. (MusicNow’s founder is Bryce Dessner, the classically trained guitarist with The National.
 Still, Knoxville – AC Entertainment’s home – seemed a wonderful place for a thoughtfully programmed indoor festival for serious music listeners. So this year, with support from the city government and the mayor, he brought it back.
 Knoxville is a great place for such a festival. The two main concert venues are treasures. The bejeweled 1,600-seat Tennessee Theatre was built in 1928 and painstakingly restored; the 700-seat Bijou (also restored) was built in 1909 and has a Victorian feel.
 Market Square, site of two clubs used as Big Ears venues, is a model of a human-scale public space, ringed with good restaurants and shops. And the giant golden Sunsphere, a relic from the 1982 World’s Fair that awaits revival, looms over the city like a prop from a dream-state Sun Ra concert, setting a perfect standard for Big Ears’ ambitious musicians.
 Steve Reich was this year’s artist-in-residence. Reich, at 77, long has been accepted (and feted with a Pulitzer Prize) as a composer who reinvigorated classical music with his use of subtle variations in persistent percussion and electronic sampling/looping. He made minimalism as popular in classical music as it is in art. But his impact on (and borrowing from) rock has only lately been recognized. His music has parallels with the Velvet Underground, funk, Kraftwerk and today’s many younger musicians who use electronic sampling and repetition. (Should Steve Reich be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?)
 That contribution was recognized at Big Ears’ closing event, during which Ensemble Signal flawlessly, breathtakingly performed his nearly-hour-long “Music for 18 Musicians.” Vibes, piano, string and brass instruments and voices developed the hypnotic, repetitive melody lines with quietly controlled precision and delicacy.  It rocked.
 When it was over, the crowd at the Tennessee Theater offered Reich, who was present, and Ensemble Signal a long standing-ovation. The piece dates from the mid-1970s, but it was received by many of the theater’s younger attendees as if it was a revelatory contemporary breakthrough. Reich’s audience is growing and widening.
 With acts at up to five venues (including workshops and discussions at the Knoxville Art Museum), there was too much for any one person to take everything in. I tried but missed some. But here are observations about some of the notable others (besides Reich and his interpreters) that I saw:
 Dean Wareham with band: The Velvet Underground side of New Music was well-represented by Wareham, who spotlighted the loping, melancholy melodies and affectingly droll deadpan vocals of his recently issued debut solo album. His guitar solos were particularly fluid and controlled. Wife Britta Phillips played bass in his band.
Dean Britta
 Dean and Britta’s 13 Most Beautiful: Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screentests:Meanwhile the duo’s Andy Warhol project, which they have been touring with for several years now, continues to grow in popularity along with Warhol’s legacy. Indeed, Dean & Britta bear considerable responsibility for the increasing importance of the screen tests as part of Warhol’s work.
 They were black-and-white silent films – unedited close-up portraits of several minutes’ duration in which the subjects are left to their own devices to do something interesting – that Warhol shot of visitors to his Factory. This was during the mid-1960s, Warhol’s “underground” and most avant-garde phase that Lou Reed wrote about in the songs “Chelsea Girls” and “Walk on the Wild Side.”
 On stage at the Bijou, Dean and Britta told stories about the subjects and then played their suitably downbeat, transfixing songs, some purely instrumental, as the films play on a big screen. 
 With time, fewer and fewer of the filmed subjects – so many looking young, vibrant and impossibly cool – are still alive, adding to the solemnly elegiac nature of the presentation.
 That also adds to contemporary appreciation of the subjects. Applause broke out, for instance, at the screen image of the now-departed Lou Reed, drinking Coke from a bottle and wearing shades. (Dean and Britta played the Velvets track “You’re Not a Young Man Anymore” during this.)
 John Cale: One living link to that era, Cale, was actually something of a disappointment at his Friday night show at the Tennessee.  Now white-haired at 72, but still gifted with a powerfully clear voice – capable of soothing melancholy and screaming grittiness – he should have used his set to make a statement about the worth of his six-decade career. What really mattered the most to him, and what would most endure? His Velvet Underground material? His solo albums from the 1970s? The 1980s? All of the above?
 Instead, he used his set primarily to showcase material from 2012’s Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood, a good but not great contemporary alt-rock, fusion-y album that – when performed live, at least – shows Cale trying to fit in with today’s music rather than tower above it. (He did have an excellent guitarist, Dustin Boyer, to offer dazzling playing as Cale mostly was on keyboard.)  Strangest of all, he did a few of his older songs, like “Fear Is a Man’s Best Friend,” “Ship of Fools” and the Velvets’ “Waiting for My Man,” in an odd, choppy style as if he was in Devo. Some songs after better left unreinvented.
 There were exceptions – his beautiful tribute to the Beach Boys, Nookie Woodouttake “All Summer Long,” sounded gorgeous. With him on acoustic guitar and several female back-up singers offering harmonies, Cale sang Fear ballad “You Know More Than I Know” with introspective mournfulness. And he can rip the heart out of  “Heartbreak Hotel.”
Television: On the other hand, compared to Cale, Tom Verlaine knew exactly what Television’s showcase Saturday night set at the Tennessee should be about – a statement that the band’s vision of punk as a music where smart, dark lyrics coexist with long guitar solos than build and then soar off from minimalist, repetitive chording is every bit as relevant as the Ramones’ or Talking Heads’ take.
 And is he right! The show featured epic takes on “Marquee Moon,” “Little Johnny Jewel,” “Torn Curtain” and other enduring mid-1970s classics, with Verlaine taking many of the solos but leaving room for second lead guitarist Jimmy Rip (who has replaced Richard Lloyd) to add textured interplay. The second encore, in which Verlaine took “Psychotic Reaction” from its 1960s-garage-rock roots into a strange, slow fade-out that replaced the song’s original bravado with sadness, was unforgettable. Television has a future to match its proud, underappreciated past.
 Colin Stetson: This muscular, polite saxophonist is becoming a sensation – a music hero – with his literally breathtaking playing. Using disciplined circular breathing, he plays long solos primarily on an oversized bass saxophone, and sometimes on tenor and alto. He forcefully plays and hums through the reeds, and the results are cosmic – part Anthony Braxton and part Tuvan throat-singer.
 The surprise is his following, considering the esoteric nature of his work. The bar where he played his Big Ears set, Scruffy City Hall, was jammed for his Friday night show. Air, let alone sight lines, was at a premium. And people talked about Stetson all weekend. Could he become the most popular saxophonist since Kenny G? The thought is as mind-blowing as his music.
 Lonnie Holley
 Lonnie Holley: This 64-year-old African-American “outsider” artist, who uses found material to put together phantasmagorical yet poignant sculpture, has also been recording his improvised, free-flowing songs full of poetic yearning – last year’sKeeping a Record of It was outstanding.  At Scruffy City Hall on Sunday afternoon, where there at least was some room to move, he enchanted as he played keyboard and sang with plaintive gruffness. Vocalist Jenny Hval and members of Julia Holter’s band carefully offered support.  Holley’s humor mixed well with his wisdom – dedicating a song to Big Ears, he observed “What big ears you have” to audience members and then confided – perhaps a nod to the frailty that comes with aging – “I just hope in a year/I can still hear/With my big ears.”
 Time and space doesn’t permit detailed descriptions of all the other highlights as well as the very few disappointments (Jonny Greenwood’s performance of Reich’s “Electric Counterpoint”). But Julia Holter’s hushed, slowed-down version of Barbara Lewis’ dreamy “Hello Stranger” was mesmerizing and belongs in the next David Lynch movie; multi-keyboardist Nils Frahm (below) displayed his talents without for a second appearing to be a show-off; acoustic trio Dawn of Midi featured an equally inventive pianist in Qasim Naqvi; and guitarist Marc Ribot’s constantly inventive playing during a screening of Chaplin’s silent movie The Kid was a treat at the Bijou, which probably showed silent movies when they were new.
Nils Frahm
 It left one eagerly awaiting the next Big Ears. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait four long years for it.
 Photos by Steven Rosen.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Most Promising Cincinnati Art Exhibits for 2014

(Photo is  from Buildering at Contemporary Arts Center)

By Steven Rosen
Cincinnati CityBeat

With a winter like this, there’s only one thing you can do — put aside all thoughts about the cold cruelty of brutal nature and look toward something better and more caring: human-made art. 

Below is a list of some of the more promising art shows of 2014 — both home and away.

Here are some local shows to see this year, in chronological order of their opening dates:

Hal Lasko: The Pixel Painter, Meyers Gallery/DAAP Galleries, Feb. 3-March 30: DAAP Galleries Director Aaron Cowan presents the first solo exhibition by Ohio-born Lasko, a career commercial artist who, after getting a computer in the late 1990s and being diagnosed with Wet Macular Degeneration, learned to use new technology to make art. He is now 98 and plans to attend the opening.   

Threads of Heaven: Silken Legacy of China’s Last Dynasty, Taft Museum of Art, Feb. 7-May 18: This exhibit of spectacularly beautiful silk clothing from China’s Qing Dynasty comes from the Denver Art Museum. The collection was assembled in the 1920s and 1930s. 

Hollis Hammonds: Worthless Matter, Reed Gallery/DAAP Galleries, Feb. 10-April 6: This artist, who is from Independence, Ky., and is now chair of the visual studies department at Austin, Texas’ St. Edward’s University, uses material that has been discarded or hoarded to create pieces that reference disasters and debris. 

From the Village to Vogue: The Modernist Jewelry of Art Smith, Cincinnati Art Museum, Feb. 22-May 18: When one thinks of the arts in New York’s Greenwich Village, the music, literature and abstract-expressionist painting usually get first attention.

 But that spirit of avant-garde progressivism also extended to fashion. This traveling show presents 24 sculpted pieces of jewelry by African-American artist Smith, along with 40 pieces by his contemporaries, including Alexander Calder. 
Buildering: Misbehaving the City, Contemporary Arts Center, Feb. 28-Aug. 24: Recently hired curator Steven Matijcio gets a chance to show his aesthetic in this exhibit that sees unsanctioned use of architecture around the world as a hopeful metaphor for the quest for freedom. Artists come from Colombia, France, Spain, Lithuania, Egypt, Mexico/Brazil, U.S.A. and elsewhere.

Crown, Cincinnati Art Museum, March 15-June 15: For this piece, Todd Pavlisko had a sharpshooter fire bullets down the museum’s Icons gallery while their path toward a brass cube was filmed. The finished work is a hybrid of installation/conceptual art, video and sculpture. 

Charles Woodman: Passages and Anita Douthat: Under the Sun, Weston Art Gallery, March 28-June 8: Two experienced, talented Cincinnati artists get the chance to showcase recent work. Woodman, who teaches electronic art at DAAP, presents new video installations. Douthat, who specializes in eerily beautiful photograms, offers work from a series she began in 2007.

Rejoice!: A Retrospective of Avtar Gill, the Cincinnati Hat-Man, Thunder-Sky. Inc., April 25-June 13: This gallery, which is both devoted to and actively questions the very notion of “outsider art,” makes the case for the work of Gill, the beloved eccentric who wore handmade signs on his hat and who died last year.

Eyes on the Street, Cincinnati Art Museum, Oct. 11-Jan. 4, 2015: FotoFocus ’14 will be presenting multiple shows and events in venues all over town this fall, but this group exhibition seems — at this stage — to be the most eagerly awaited since it’s from the museum’s new photography associate curator, Brian Sholis.

Beyond Pop Art: A Tom Wesselmann Retrospective, Cincinnati Art Museum, Oct. 31-Jan. 18, 2015: Since shortly after the Cincinnati-born Pop artist Tom Wesselmann — creator of the iconic Great American Nude series — died in 2004, there has been talk of a retrospective coming here. Shows were in Montreal in 2012 and Richmond in 2013, but finally this version — which is also coming to Denver — is en route.  

Those are in Cincinnati, but two within a day’s drive look really special: 

Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art is presenting David Bowie Is — an examination of his impact on progressive visual culture as well as music — from Sept. 23 to Jan. 4, 2015. The retrospective was organized by London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. There will be debate as to whether this show belongs at this museum, but the place will be packed. 

From May 17 to Aug. 3, Columbus’ Wexner Center for the Arts presents the first major retrospective for one of the best of the contemporary graphic artists — Modern Cartoonist: The Best of Daniel Clowes. The traveling show is co-presented by Ohio State’s Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum — itself a growing force among the state’s arts institutions.

(Cincinnati Hat-Man retrospective at Thunder-Sky)

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

New CD Set Remembers Michael Bloomfield

Michael Bloomfield

By Steven Rosen
(American Songwriter,  2-4-14)

 Michael Bloomfield From His Head to His Heart to His Hands
4 out of 5 stars

Michael Bloomfield, probably the most underappreciated of rock’s guitar gods of the 1960s, liked to call the music he played “sweet blues” because it sounded like singing – like tenderness – compared to the harsher “shouting” of his contemporaries.

And he really could put lyricism and sweetness, along with sumptuous variations of tone and effortless tempo shifts, into his solos. Moving between jet-speed chord changes, contemplative modal playing, single-note explorations and groove-cutting slides, he wasn’t so much showing off his prowess as showing his love for caressing his guitar. It was sweet, indeed.

He did as much to create blues-rock and make the electric guitar the focus of a band as anyone. His towering achievement, Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s 13-minute “East-West” (recorded in 1966), was a great leap forward for rock.

He died way, way too soon – at age 37 in 1981 from a drug overdose – and stopped being relevant to what was happening in rock about a decade before that. That wasn’t entirely his fault – he kept believing electric blues-rock could be a thing of beauty, played as inventively and thoughtfully as jazz, after the original audience for it tired of all the self-indulgent players.

There have been quite a few posthumous releases of his material, but on From His Head to His Heart to His Hands his friend Al Kooper – whose musical career and background as an urban Jewish lad taken with American roots music mirrored Bloomfield’s – tries to deliver the definitive retrospective. He spent years curating this project, which features three discs of music and a DVD documentary, and delivers the equivalent of the Ten Commandments of Bloomfield.

“East-West” certainly is here. One can wonder why Kooper chose not to include anything from Bloomfield’s high-profile but indifferently received 1970s collaborations Triumvirate (with John Hammond Jr. and Dr. John) and KGB (with Ray Kennedy, Rik Grech, Barry Goldberg and Carmine Appice). But one also must accept this as a statement by Kooper about the best of Bloomfield’s work. Indeed, it happens much of Bloomfield’s best work came in collaboration with keyboardist Kooper.

Bloomfield’s life poses riddles. How could anyone pick up guitar at age 13 and by 16 – still underage – be guesting with the greatest blues musicians alive in his hometown Chicago’s South Side clubs? By accounts presented in the liner notes, he was an enthusiastic polymath. Yet he was restless and got lost in the 1970s. There may or may not have been a connection between his tortuous insomnia and his drug use, which included heroin.

The film included in this package, Bob Saries’ long-in-the-works Sweet Blues, gets into Bloomfield’s motivations as best it can and is frequently riveting, but at just 60 minutes leaves questions unanswered.
He was signed by Columbia Records’ John Hammond as a solo act in 1964, but not much came of that, though Kooper includes several of the audition tracks. Columbia labelmate/admirer Bob Dylan chose him to play those fantastically punchy guitar licks that lift up the end of lyric lines in 1965’s “Like a Rolling Stone” and carry you, feeling a little higher each time, forward.

An early highlight of this package is the previously unreleased instrumental take of that song (with Kooper on organ), emphasizing not only Bloomfield’s contribution but also pianist Paul Griffin and drummer Bobby Gregg. Who needs singing with playing this good? And it’s followed with a version of “Tombstone Blues,” not only with Dylan singing but the Chambers Brothers joining him on choruses. This offers Bloomfield’s precise, piercing guitar solos and shows that his work is one reason Dylan was so easily accepted into the rock ‘n’ roll world in 1965.

Dylan certainly thought so. Included on the final disc is a previously unreleased track, from San Francisco’s Warfield Theater in 1980, where Dylan warmly introduces Bloomfield and then lets him play with eruptive force on “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar.”

Kooper on the first disc also includes a good sampling of music from Bloomfield’s short-lived psychedelic-blues-band-with-horns Electric Flag (with Buddy Miles), including some unreleased live tracks that really throw sparks. The explosively liberating cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor,” which begins with a snippet of an LBJ speech about “speaking tonight for the dignity of man” that then fades to laughter, is mandatory listening for anyone wanting to know what the late 1960s were about.

Bloomfield recorded actively in this late 1960s period, both under his own name and with others, and the package’s third disc rounds up some of the more driving cuts from miscellaneous sources, including “It’s About Time” (with Flag lead singer Nick Gravenites) from Live at Bill Graham’s Fillmore West; “One Good Man” from Janis Joplin’s I’ve Got Dem Old’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!, and “Can’t Lose What You Never Had” from Muddy Waters’ Fathers and Sons.

The second disc is completely devoted to work that Kooper and Bloomfield (with others) made together. This is the heart and soul of the project. Kooper has chosen material from the two albums they released back in the day like the easy-going but swinging “Albert’s Blues” from 1968’s Super Session and the beatific, Coltrane-inspired “Her Holy Modal Highness (Live)” from the follow-up Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper.

But he also has gathered tracks of them together from various posthumous and expanded-edition releases put out since Bloomfield’s death. The inclusion of a Super Session version of “His Holy Modal Majesty,” which was added to a 2003 re-release of the album, features Bloomfield playing to Kooper’s exotic ondioline electronic keyboard. Also included here are two passages of Bloomfield explaining to audiences – in a charmingly spacey way – the origins of the performances they’re about to hear. It’s a nice touch.

And that brings up Bloomfield’s voice. Early on, producer Hammond discouraged him from singing and he took it too heart. One wonders if that was such good advice. Later in the 1970s, Bloomfield did sing in intimate club settings where he could play acoustic and electric blues, solo and with supporting musicians. On this package’s third disc, 

Kooper provides a generous sampling of ones recorded in 1977 at McCabe’s, a Santa Monica folk club, and released much later in America on an album called I’m With You Always.

The music is excellent, and he displays great comic flair with the short monologue “Men’s Room,” about the teenage girl who cleans up the bathroom, and with the hilarious self-penned blues tune “I’m Glad I’m Jewish.” He easily could have found a large audience in later years, had he lived, applying his rugged but expressive voice and incisive wit to acoustic blues, as David Bromberg has done.

But that was not to be. Still, From His Head to His Heart to His Hands shows that what Bloomfield did accomplish in his short life was not just sizeable but downright seismic.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

'Allegro' Is an Older Modernist Cincinnati Wall Mural that Deserves Preservation

allegro barron krody(photo by Steven Rose)

By Steven Rosen
Cincinnati CityBeat

Downtown, Over-the-Rhine and other city neighborhoods are being colorfully transformed by the mural program shepherded by ArtWorks. But a forgotten Downtown mural called “Allegro” — a ghost of murals past — deserves recognition as not just one of Cincinnati’s finest, but also as an enduring piece of public art, period.

ArtWorks, a nonprofit arts organization, began its mural program in response to a request from former mayor Mark Mallory. The location — as well as the effectiveness — of individual murals varies, but there are some particularly strong ones Downtown: John Ruthven’s “Martha, the Last Passenger Pigeon,” “Homecoming” (an adaptation of one of the late Charley Harper’s stylized nature images) and narrative painter Jonathan Queen’s overflowing bounty of fruits and vegetables, “Fresh Harvest,” on the Kroger Building. 

Yet within short walking distance of these, near the southeast corner of Race and Seventh streets, is a large mural that I like just as much. It is a little timeworn, but still very visible and very striking. Abstractly geometric but vaguely figurative, it consists of a group of yellow bent bars — boomerang-like — separated by earthy green space. 

Their square ends jut out from the mural’s bottom, as if breaking out from the wall’s flatness. In their glowing orangeness, they almost give off heat. The painted wall that hosts the mural, because of its materials, offers a slightly textural background. 

Looking at the fine print in the mural’s right-hand corner, it’s amazing to see it was created in 1972. It looks so modern. The artist, Barron Krody, was an Art Academy of Cincinnati teacher at the time. 

It is one of the last remaining of the nine original Urban Walls: Cincinnati, a project launched by gallerist Carl Solway and his assistant, Jack Boulton. (Preston McClanahan’s Urban Walls mural of eyes staring out from the rear wall of an old parking garage on Race, between Third and Fourth streets, is still there but hard to see from the street.)

 Their idea at the time was to bring to Cincinnati what they had seen happening in New York, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles — buildings used as “canvases” for large-scale abstract graphics. 

In its heyday, the Urban Walls project was justly celebrated, especially Krody’s mural. As it evolved, some muralists did paint figures and objects. Also, Boulton — who died in 1987 — had to depart from day-to-day activity to become director of Contemporary Arts Center. 

A 1976 book that Solway’s gallery published about Urban Walls (with text written by John A. Chewning) recalls the challenges finding a wall for Krody’s design. Boulton met with executive Fred Lazarus of Federated Department Stores (now Macy’s) to seek money. Lazarus was willing, but wanted to see something painted on a wall that overlooked a small park near his department store, Shillito’s. But the building in question, at 37 W. Seventh St., wasn’t his — it belonged to Willis Music Co. (Willis no longer is there.)

In the book, Boulton recalls the negotiations with a Willis official: “He thought and wanted and assumed we were going to do a 10-story seascape on the side of his building. I had to point out to him that it wasn’t in the realm of our technology to execute a seascape and, besides, that the artists we were working with really weren’t interested in that kind of imagery.”

Even though Willis would not have to pay anything, the company had second thoughts. So Boulton explained that the mural would be called “Allegro” and have a musical theme. 

“For several minutes they scrutinized the design and saw in the four yellow bands the spaces on music manuscript paper, and in the orange shape saw notes and rests and other symbols,” Boulton says in the book. “Everyone was finally satisfied, including Barron Krody, with the name and the readability of the design. The Willis people, in fact, were so satisfied that they had the design printed on all their shopping bags.”

Krody, giving his account in a short video chronicling the project that University of Cincinnati College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning students created a couple years ago (, said that the fast-thinking Boulton came up with “Allegro” on the spot. But he went with it — and it worked. 

Speaking today, Solway says he’s a fan of the ArtWorks’ mural program. “I think what [it] has done is remarkable,” he says. “[It] has a different point of view — more figurative — which is fine.”

It would be nice to see ArtWorks adopt Krody’s mural into its collection, preserving and celebrating it.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Painter Martin Tucker Loved the Supermarket and Consumer Goods

ac_bigpic_roundingthirdbymartintucker (Tucker's 1996 Painting "Rounding Third"; courtesy DAAP Galleries)

By Steven Rosen
Cincinnati CityBeat, 9-25-13

The current Martin Tucker: Remembered exhibit at the DAAP Galleries on the University of Cincinnati campus spotlights a local artist — a retired art professor who died this year — whose work showed a keen eye for the seductive, colorful quality of American consumer culture.

The show, curated by DAAP Galleries Director Aaron Cowan from works lent by Tucker’s widow, Ruth, is eminently worthwhile. There are 22 oil paintings and 10 drawings. It’s up through Oct. 13 at the Reed Gallery inside DAAP; check for hours and directions.

As a topic for art, consumer goods have been around at least since Andy Warhol introduced his soup cans of the early 1960s. But Warhol’s work also introduced deadpan and irony to contemporary art — a critique on the banality of post-war American materialism. That became a hallmark of Pop.

Tucker’s work in this show, done in the 1980s and 1990s, doesn’t exude that kind of dryly clinical, distancing quality. But neither was it celebratory or sentimental. 

Virtually devoid of people, these oil canvases look at their mildly abstracted subjects/objects close-up and in isolation of their larger environment.  

His subject was often the fresh products sold at a supermarket — fruits, vegetables, fish — and it’s unusual to see them depicted in art in such an artificial environment. But the color makes them appealing and cheerful. Yet there is also weirdness present — as if the world they inhabit is not quite “normal.” In that regard, at his best his work is reminiscent of Wayne Thiebaud. 

One painting that encompasses all of these contradictions is “Toilet Paper” from 1997. Wrapped, soft rolls are stacked and pressed together in a sumptuous display, although the perspective is compressed. They have individual beauty — predominately white but with streaks of color implying decorative packaging. 
It exudes pleasure from its lines, colors and shapes, until one thinks about the values of a society that so cherishes and fetishizes such a commodity. Is it capitalist excess … or do we just really like toilet paper? 

“Rounding Third” from 1996 stakes out a dizzyingly clever point-of-view inside a television showroom. The sets are pure, spare products — just black boxes (save for one that is reddish-brown). But each conventional screen has the same image, a Reds player at third base as a ball approaches.

The repetition of imagery is fascinating, because television price tags and triangular decals obscure the action in different places on individual screens. Is this a celebration of baseball (and the Reds) or a commentary on the “sellebration” of major-league sports in our society? This painting (a still life?) is as alienating as it is alluring. It also was a very neat way for Tucker to bring human beings into his work.

A 1992 painting called “Self Portrait with Hat” also tried to sneak a figure into the work but is too cute. The canvas is dominated by a large soft cap with all sorts of pins stuck in it, with a bit of a man’s forehead and eyeglasses at the bottom. 

It took a certain courage to make dark green plastic garbage bags your subject, as the artist did with 1996’s “Garbage Bags with Red Ties.” But the painting shows us that our eye — freed from our learned attitudes toward the “worth” of objects — is as attracted to the fascinating red bows of the ties atop the lumpy, shadowy green bags as it would be to a Christmas tree with ornaments. There are also empty paint cans and other artistic detritus depicted in this canvas.

Tucker must have loved the supermarket — he seems to have spent his time there staring at the goods the way others sit still to watch a movie. The results are paintings devoted to (and titled) “Broccoli,” “Pears,” “Eggplant,” “Potatoes and Onions,” “Strawberries,” “Asparagus” and “Crablegs.” 

Some of the works from the early 1980s, like “Eggplant,” have distracting decorative borders, but Tucker seems to have been wrestling with the proper way to present his favored objects from the start. He moved away from that framing crutch to just depict the food up-close-and-personal, with eerie blackness hovering in adjoining spaces. That’s a blackness one would never find in a real, brightly lit grocery.  

The result can be surreal. Large broccoli spears, bundled together with red ties, look both phallic and like an exceptionally dense forest on a dark night. And the long-tailed, orange, red and white “Crablegs” from 1983 appear to have flashlight beams and be floating somewhere in outer space. In the Crab Nebula?

It’s good to have Tucker so nicely remembered

Sunday, February 16, 2014

EPs Proving a Way for Music Acts to Sell a Physical Record in a Digital Age

drivn(Drivin' N Cryin', one of  many  music acts turning to EPs as a sales took. Photo provided)

By Steven Rosen
From Cincinnati CityBeat;  11-26-13)

At independent record stores across North America, this week’s “Black Friday” shopping event is when labels and musicians offer all sorts of unusual, collector-minded gimmicks to draw customers: picture discs, special singles, remixed tracks, unique reissues and more.

Also popular are EP (“extended play”) releases that are longer than singles but shorter (and cheaper) than LP (“long play”) albums. On vinyl, EPs can be 7-inch, 12-inch or, occasionally, 10-inch records. They are also sold as downloads or CDs and feature attractive artwork.

The EP was big in the ’50s, but largely fell out of favor once America’s Baby Boomers became teens and started buying pricier and more fashionable Rock albums. In the U.K., EPs were common through at least the ’60s British Invasion.

Among this Black Friday’s EP releases are Stripped Down at Grimey’s by Dawes, a live six-cut set on vinyl and CD; Duran Duran’s No Ordinary EP, a 10-inch vinyl release of three songs recorded in 1993 at Hollywood’s Tower Records; the Civil Wars’ 10-inch vinyl Between the Bars, featuring four cover songs; and the 7-inch, six-song Got Live If You Want It EP, originally released by the Rolling Stones in England in 1965 and featuring songs not included on the full Got Live If You Want It album issued in the U.S.  

But EPs are no longer just an eye-catching holiday sales gimmick. Recently, enough new EPs have been released or announced (outside of Black Friday) to fill a couple record store bins. Some of the acts with new or recent EPs include Blacktop Daisy, Shy Girls, Shilpa Ray, Andy Shernoff, Francis & the Lights, Bipolar Sunshine, Dean Wareham, Kurt Vile & Sore Eros and Baby Alpaca. (The band !!! will offer a special vinyl EP, R!M!X!S!, at its local Dec. 10 show at the Ballroom at the Taft Theatre).

The Recording Industry Association of America only tracks vinyl EP sales and even then combines them with vinyl album sales numbers. Vinyl, however, was a bright spot for sales of the industry’s physical products in 2012. Revenue grew 36.2 percent from 2011, as CD sales, though still larger overall, have fallen dramatically.

The reemergence of EPs shows how recording artists and labels are adapting amid the Great Recession and ongoing decline in sales of physical releases. 

“For people who come to see our band, I want them to take something to play in the car on the way home,” says Kevn Kinney, Drivin’ N Cryin’s frontman.

“A $15 album is expensive. But $5 (an EP’s approximate cost) — that’s a beer. So they’re more inclined to take a souvenir home. It’s got a cover on it, it’s cool and I can autograph it.” 

Kinney’s nearly 30-year-old Indie Rock band had a hit album in 1995 with Fly Me Courageous and has soldiered on with a loyal, though not huge, fan base. Since 2012, Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ has been releasing a series of EPs — there have been three to date, with a fourth, Songs for the Turntable, due Jan. 14. 

Besides having affordable product to sell at concerts, Kinney says he has also been favoring EPs for creative reasons. 

“One of those things you do as a young band … is you think more is more,” he says. “‘Wow, we can put 15 songs on an LP.’ As you mature, you learn more isn’t really better and longer really wasn’t better.” 

Modern Roots music label Bloodshot Records has just released an EP called Boy Crazy by Lydia Loveless, an energetic Ohio AltCountry singer whose first Bloodshot album, Indestructible Machine, established her nationally. Some 2,000 copies of the EP were pressed on CD and priced at $6.95 each (it also can be purchased as a download). 

Bloodshot co-founder Nan Warshaw says Loveless is on a songwriting roll and had more material than would fit on her upcoming album. The label also thought the EP would help keep Loveless’ name out there in 2013 by showcasing new material.

But there’s another, newer reason to release EPs, Warshaw says. It might be a way to combat the ongoing decline in physical product sales. 

“People consume music today in smaller bits than they used to,” she says. “I think an EP gives people a more manageable chunk of music to get into without having to invest financially or time-wise in a full album.” 

When the Indie Rock and Punk movements first emerged decades ago, there was a modest EP revival as cost-conscious DIY bands released their own product. As a result, EPs always have had a presence in those scenes. One of the first bands to go that route, way back in the late 1960s, was San Francisco’s iconoclastic Flamin’ Groovies. 

“We put out the first independent EP, Sneakers, on our own label, Snazz Records,” Groovies co-founder Cyril Jordan says. “It was a 10-inch record with seven songs — that’s how much money we had. We were lucky — Tower Records had just started (in San Francisco) and we knew the cashier who put Sneakers right next to cashbox.”  

It started selling, going through three pressings of 1,500 copies and helping the young band get signed to Epic Records for its first full album, 1969’s Supersnazz. 

Since then, the Flamin’ Groovies have had their ups and downs, with personnel changes and periods of inactivity, but are on the upswing now. Recently, Jordan reunited with singer/guitarist Chris Wilson, reviving the core of the group from the ’70s when the Groovies were at their peak, creating Power Pop classics like “Shake Some Action” and “You Tore Me Down.” 

Jordan and Wilson just wrote and recorded their first new song in 32 years, the superlative chiming rocker “End of the World,” and announced it will be on an EP scheduled for early next year.

Going back to the EP format would seem to bring the Groovies full circle. But Jordan says a creative outburst has produced more material than planned, so that EP will now likely be expanded into a longer release. 

“That idea has been changed,” Jordan says of the EP plans. “Ideas are just pouring out of us. We’ll keep recording every time we get together to tour and we’re going to be touring quite a lot. So who knows? It may be a double-record set."

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