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Sunday, February 7, 2016

Dialing In to Indianapolis' Big Thornton Dial Show: From the Archives

(Note: It was a privilege to be able to see this retrospective of the terrific artist Thornton Dial in Indianapolis in 2011. He died this January, 2016. This is edited from the version that was in print -- I rewrote a paragraph musing about the differences between self-taught and trained artists.)

Dialing In
To Indianapolis’
Big New Show

Big Picture
By Steven Rosen
Cincinnati CityBeat

While I’ve waxed positively about Cincinnati Art Museum’s recent exhibitions and programming, I’d be guilty of hometown parochialism if I failed to mention activities at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. It seems on a fast track, under director Maxwell Anderson, to becoming a museum of consistent national significance – with its Design Arts shows, its innovative 100 Acres: Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park (which I wrote about in this column last year), and its soon-to-open Miller House in Columbus, Ind.

Meanwhile, IMA has recently opened an ambitious and challenging retrospective of the southern African-American “outsider” (or self-taught) artist Thornton Dial, Hard Truths. It’s on display through Sept. 18, and is definitely worth a trip.

Dial, now in his 80s, was a welder on Pullman railroad cars in his native Alabama. He also had a gift for reusing the often-cast-off material, industrial and domestic, of everyday life. The results are sculpture, paintings and assemblages that – filled with fiery, rugged, impolite symbolism – address racial, political, economic and environmental injustices, disparities and ironies.

It can be tough stuff with a dark palette, literally and emotionally, but he developed a following in the 1990s and today is our greatest living self-taught artist. With over 70 major pieces, this is the biggest Dial show ever mounted.

Dial’s assemblages/sculpture test the value of imposed separations between self-taught and trained artists.

You can’t look at his pieces without thinking of Robert Rauschenberg’s “combines,” Ed Kienholz’s room-sized assemblages, or Robert Colescott’s wild, disorderly paintings about race relations. I think of Kienholz especially, since his work was fueled with criticism of the American way of life.

If there’s one piece de resistance in the Dial show (and there are several candidates), it would be the 2005 floor sculpture “Everybody’s Welcome in Peckerwood City.” Is there a work of art that better expresses our housing meltdown – and the lies about the attainability of the American Dream? Dial uses a doormat, cardboard, wood doors, steel, tin, a bed frame, wire fencing, cloth, wood, a towel, enamel, spray paint – I think there’s a tree trunk in there, too.

One side is a fairly benign vision – with Dial’s artistic eccentricities intact – of the façade of a house. But the door is painted green like money, and looks a little punched-in. And there’s a blood-like red stain oozing out from the bottom. Greed and violence dominate below the surface.

But then you walk around to the other side, and all hell has broken loose. The unpainted wood is splintered. Barbed wire covers the facade, and a demonic, abstracted “woodpecker” is ready to break through that front door to get out and cause havoc.

Some of the pieces feel a little forced, shaped too determinedly to conform to the big message in their titles, like “Victory in Iraq.” And one piece, using dolls to symbolize “innocent” victims trapped inside the World Trade Center, is a bad idea.

When Dial is just out to have fun, the results can be great. One example is the wall piece “Setting the Table,” which Dial was inspired to create after seeing William Merritt Chase’s “Still Life With Watermelon” at Birmingham’s art museum. He’s impishly riffing on the conservative values of  “”proper fine art, while at the same time striving to top its visual appeal with lots of lively color and forms. He uses gloves, bedding, a beaded car-seat cover, cooking utensils, artificial flowers…mismatched shoes. You could stock a Dollar Store with the contents.

That, I think, constitutes Great American Art.

(For more information, visit 

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center to Begin Free Admission Thanks to Younger Patrons

CAC to Begin Free Admission

ac_bp_1-27Amy Goodwin and Raphaela Platow - Photo: Courtesy of the Contemporary Arts Center
As important as today’s announcement is that the Contemporary Arts Center will start free admission on Feb. 13 for at least three years, the story of how the museum is underwriting it is also impressive.
Needing $250,000, mostly to make up for lost revenue and a possible membership dip, the CAC didn’t turn to a traditional source like a single wealthy benefactor. 

At first, the museum got the local Johnson Foundation to offer a $75,000 grant — $25,000 for each of three years. More was beyond the foundation’s reach, so that left a huge gap.

Amy Goodwin, Johnson Foundation president and CEO, and Raphaela Platow, the CAC’s director, started brainstorming.
“Amy and I came up with the idea of cultivating a younger group of people who really care about the CAC, and they would be the people to make free admission happen,” Platow says.

The result is that Goodwin, with Platow’s assistance, created The 50, a group of 50 patrons age 25-49 who each have agreed to give $1,000 per year for three years toward free admission. Both women are members of The 50, as are their husbands. (As of this story’s deadline, there were 45 members and several invitations outstanding.)
“For 90 percent of the people involved, this is probably the single biggest gift that any of them have given to any organization,” Goodwin says. “It wasn’t taken lightly. They believe in making Cincinnati a better, more vibrant, welcoming place.”

While this first commitment is just for three years, the intent is to offer free admission afterward.
The CAC, like so many art museums, has been looking for ways to bring in a new generation of future benefactors.
But a “young collectors” group wouldn’t work because the CAC doesn’t have a permanent collection. “And we were shying away from the notion of a YP (Young Professionals) group,” Platow says. “We had discussed it before with these people and it didn’t resonate. This was not a group interested in the typical YP things, coming together for social events. These were people who care about the city, contemporary art and contemporary culture.” 

There were two main reasons propelling the CAC’s desire to try free admission. (It currently costs non-member adults $7.50 to see the exhibition galleries.)

The Cincinnati Art Museum has had free admission for a number of years. But also, last year’s renovation of the CAC’s previously relatively stark first-floor lobby has turned it into a downtown gathering spot. 

The new Collective CAC café — operated by Collective Espresso — is open 7 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Friday and 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday and is especially popular. It’s given the place a new energy and increased traffic, especially during lunchtime. Even before it opened, the CAC noticed an attendance spike when it temporarily made admission free because of all the construction hubbub. 

“The people who are coming in to visit Collective CAC for coffee or lunch may have 20 minutes free and think about seeing the art,” Goodwin says. “But they say, ‘If I’m going to pay money to go in, I should come back when I have more time.’ But then they don’t make it back.

“This change will allow downtown office workers and folks coming in (to the café) to pop upstairs and see what they want,” Goodwin continues. “How great it would be, if they work at P&G or Fifth Third Bank, to spend 20 minutes walking through an exhibition and then walk back to their desk and feel inspired or refreshed in some way.”

In order for the CAC to keep members — it has 1,250 of them — once free admission starts, it is tweaking benefits. And it’s come up with a doozy of a perk.

The private valet service that operates outside the CAC’s front door will charge members a discount rate of $6 for the day. That’s quite a deal considering the valet service operates 7:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 7:30 a.m.-2 a.m. Friday, 9 a.m.-2 a.m. Saturday and 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday. 

“During the day, that’s amazing because most parking garages adjacent to the CAC are at least $12,” Platow says. “I just hope they will all love contemporary art and not just sign up for the perk of parking. If we find one person parks every day but never visits the galleries, we’ll have a very serious conversation with that person. That’s really not the idea.”

Monday, January 25, 2016

From the Archives: John Cale in 'Nooky Wood'

John Cale

By Steven Rosen
From; 2012

It’s amazing, really, how John Cale at age 70 can release an exciting new album – Shifty Adventures in Nooky Wood – that is as sonically cutting-edge and technologically modern, but still as firmly lyrical and melodious, as the work of far younger “alternative” musicians. And, oh yes, it rocks – the faster songs, like “Scotland Yard,” make you want to move your body while the more hypnotically slower ones, like “Sandman (Flying Dutchman),” cast intoxicating spells.

But then, what would you expect from a guy whose conversation, in the course of this recent interview, moved comfortably from Snoop Dogg and his cohort Kokane to John Cage and La Monte Young, with room for Leonard Cohen, Velvet Underground, Pharell Williams, Albert Einstein and more?

The Welsh-born and classically trained Cale, a founding member of the Velvet Underground who is in his sixth decade of making records, keeps up with what’s current – especially in hip-hop – yet doesn’t forget or disown his own avant-garde past. In fact, he sees a connection.

“I got envious when I first heard ‘Drop It Like It’s Hot’ by Pharell and Snoop Dog. It just blew me away,” Cale said by telephone. “It was outrageous and exciting. I go, ‘Dang, I wish I had done that.’ And there’s always something like that out there. A guy I listen to is Kokane, who just came out with a new album that latched onto reggae a bit. But it’s his old albums I really like, with gospel-ly, soulful stuff in them.

“Now I know my limitations and I can’t do anything like what Kokane does,” Cale continued. “But I will try to do the groove the same way. This album started out as a building-block situation – I didn’t sit down at the piano and write these songs. When you start with a groove and add instruments on top of it, the subject matter comes from that.”

 And yet, his well-chosen lyrics do resonate and haunt, as on the transfixing “Mary” where he intones “The future will come back soon/shouting at the teacher from the back of the classroom.” (He says in press notes that song was inspired by “horrific stories of bullying against gay students.”)

He recorded Nooky Wood at his new home studio in L.A., providing his own keyboard and sampler work, plus sharing guitar contributions with band member Dustin Boyer. (He also plays a wee bit of electric viola, his primary instrument with the Velvets.) One song, “I Wanna Talk 2 U,” was co-written and –produced by Danger Mouse. He experiments with vocal auto-tuning and multi-tracking, and the album is awash in synths and other treatments. But, when he chooses it, the grandeur of his piano and icy, aching purity of his natural voice – a Cale trademark – still have a very strong impact.

In 1963, a young Cale participated in a legendary moment for the post-war American avant-garde – an 18-hour performance of Erik Satie’s “Vexations.” (The full composition was repeated 840 times). John Cage organized the performance.

Afterward, Cale joined up with another avant-gardist of the era, La Monte Young, in the Theatre of Eternal Music, before departing for the Velvet Underground. “I still haven’t seen anybody come along who has surpassed Lamont’s attack on art,” Cale said. “His instructions for performing his compositions are still astounding in their ramifications. Those pieces were the beginning of performance art.”

Cale recalled how Young, after studying Einstein’s theory of space, wrote a piece instructing the performer to draw a straight line and then follow it. “The whole point was about whether space was finite or infinite,” Cale explained. “If you drew a straight line and came back the way you began, it meant it was finite. If you didn’t come back, it meant it was infinite. These (ideas) are really intellectual and archaic, but when you have a musician doing it, it really spreads the glow of it.”

Decades later, Cale helped spread the reputation of Leonard Cohen’s somewhat-obscure and lyrically difficult, but resonantly melodic, “Hallelujah,” when he recorded it for a 1991 Cohen tribute album called I’m Your Fan. Cale’s intimately direct version, memorably sung in his sonorous voice, helped the masses discover the song. Julian Schnabel used Cale’s version in his 1996 movie Basquiat and then, surprisingly, it was used in 2001’s Shrek.

“I went to see him do it at Beacon Theater and he sang it,” Cale recalled of Cohen. “I didn’t know what it was. He was doing a 15-verse version. It was cheeky – I liked the funny ones. So when they asked me to do something for Leonard, I got the lyrics. A lot I couldn’t sing – nobody would believe me singing about Yahweh.”

Cale doesn’t mind that while his version was used in the movie, a Rufus Wainwright interpretation was released on the accompanying soundtrack album. “I wasn’t signed to the label,” Cale said, matter-of-factly. (Wainwright was on the DreamWorks label.)

Cale’s done fine, anyway, and Shifty Adventures in Nooky Wood is proof.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

From the Archives: Saving a Rookwood Fireplace in West Baden, Indiana

Saving a Rookwood Fireplace


The 2007 reopening of West Baden Springs Hotel in southern Indiana ranks as one of America’s finest architectural renovations in recent memory. With its magnificent dome standing 130 feet high above a grand atrium, spanning 208 feet across that atrium’s floor and above five circular floors of hotel rooms that look into the space, it (almost) is like a built-environment equivalent of looking at the Grand Canyon.

You just sit or stand in the atrium and stare in awe, from the floor up to the skylights, and wonder how on earth this could have been created way back in 1902. For decades, it was the largest freestanding dome in the United States.

Even more remarkable was the fact this National Historic Landmark not only is still standing in the 21st century but that it is also once again open as a hotel. It was closed to the public in the early 1930s and then went through several private owners, as well as outright abandonment in the 1980s. A guide from Indiana Landmarks told me, on a recent visit, that the atrium was home to wild animals, including snakes, in that wilderness era. Small wonder, then, that it took Bloomington-based Cook Group — founded by the late Bill Cook and his wife Gayle — a fortune to restore it.

But that abandonment, while it produced some structural damage, might also have saved another of the jewels in West Baden Springs Hotel’s crown: A mammoth, one-of-a-kind ornate fireplace designed by Cincinnati’s Rookwood Pottery Co.

That fireplace is now a highlight of the restored atrium.

“I congratulate them for keeping it and bringing it back,” says Anita Ellis, Cincinnati Art Museum’s deputy director for curatorial affairs and a Rookwood authority. (The art museum collects Rookwood ceramics, and has a smaller fireplace in its Cincinnati Wing. “Being abandoned for so long is probably what saved it. That’s when others were torn down. And almost all others were torn down.”

The West Baden fireplace is 19 feet wide, 11 feet high, with a 7-foot-high opening leading into a pit that can burn 14-foot logs. It looks like a cave entrance from a distance. (Now rightly prized as an art object, it is no longer used for burning.)

The fireplace’s pottery surface, which looks like it was assembled in chunks rather than smooth tiles, depicts an idyllic, colorfully glazed pastoral scene, lorded over by a red-costumed elf sitting on a rock amid cascading waters and holding up a ram’s horn. He is Sprudel, once the mascot for the hotel and under whose name its medicinal water was bottled and sold. Across from him is a catalpa tree, and in the distance under pod-carrying limbs is visible a small depiction of the hotel.

According to Dyan Welsh Duncan, the resort’s public relations director Lillian Sinclair — daughter of the original owner — commissioned Rookwood to redesign the old brick fireplace as part of a 1917 renovations following a fire.

As word of this singular Rookwood fireplace’s survival and renewed prominence grows, research is going on to see who the actual designer might be and if it is the largest such fireplace extant. Meanwhile, try to see see it. We’re lucky it still exists.

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