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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

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

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 You can find information about dining, lodgings and other activities at, 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 or call 304/812-5211.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Cincinnati's FotoFocus Biennial Brings John Waters to Town

FotoFocus Is Bringing John Waters to Town

john_waters002Photo by Greg Gorman, Courtesy of John Waters
By Steven Rosen
Cincinnati CityBeat; 8-21-14.

Filmmaker/provocateur, humorist, art collector and all-around pop-cultural icon John Waters is coming to Cincinnati on Oct. 11 as part of the opening-week programming of the FotoFocus Biennial 2014. He will be at Memorial Hall, performing This Filthy World about his long, rewarding career. Additionally, Waters' photograph "Inga #3 (1994)" is part of a FotoFocus exhibition, Stills. The theme of FotoFocus is "Photography in Dialogue."
FotoFocus has released this (edited) list of other Memorial Hall events for its first week of programming:
Wednesday, October 8
Performance by Berlin-based filmmaker Martha Colburn, with a Cincinnati ensemble led by Tatiana Berman and the Constella Ensemble 
Thursday, October 9: Photography in Dialogue
Film: Gerhard Richter Painting (2011)
Featured speakers: Gallerist Deborah Bell, New York; Gallerist Howard Greenberg, New York; Director and Chief Curator Raphaela Platow, Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati; Art Critic Richard B.
Woodward, New York; and FotoFocus Artistic Director and Curator Kevin Moore.
Friday, October 10: Landscapes
Film: Somewhere to Disappear, with Alec Soth (2010)
Featured speakers: Curator and Art Dealer Damon Brandt, New York; Artist Elena Dorfman, Los Angeles; Artist Matthew Porter, New York; Artist David Benjamin Sherry, Los Angeles; Associate Curator Elizabeth Siegel, Art Institute of Chicago; Museum Director Alice Stites, 21c Museum Hotel; and FotoFocus Artistic Director and Curator Kevin Moore. 
Keynote Speaker: Jeff L. Rosenheim, Curator in Charge, Department of Photographs, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, on photography and the Civil War.
Saturday, October 11: Urbanscapes
Film: Bill Cunningham 
Featured speakers: Architect José Garcia, Cincinnati; Curator Steven Matijcio, Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati; Photography Director Ivan Shaw, Vogue, New York; Associate Curator of Photography Brian Sholis, Cincinnati Art Museum; and FotoFocus Artistic Director and Curator Kevin Moore.
Sunday, October 12: Forum
Featuring presentations and panel discussions by local participants, such as Artists Jordan Tate and Aaron Cowan.
For complete details about the FotoFocus 2014 Biennial visit here.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Cincinnati Art Museum's Silver Exhibit is a Sterling Achievement

Cincinnati Silver Exhibit Is a Strong Achievement

BY STEVEN ROSEN · AUGUST 13TH, 2014 · THE BIG PICTURE - Cincinnati Citybeat.
ac_bigpic_e. & d. kinsey toast rack_gift of mr. and mrs charles fleischmann iiiE. & D. Kinsey toast rack - Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Fleischmann III
Cincinnati Silver 1788-1940 is a sterling example of how an art exhibition can be about local history while still assuring the displayed objects are worthy of our long, concentrated gaze.

Indeed, Cincinnati Silver — at Cincinnati Art Museum through Sept. 7 — stresses that the 150-200 objects, primarily silverware, are more than just precious metal. They are immaculately gorgeous, imaginative works of fine design. It’s quite an accomplishment for this show to do that, especially when you consider that what’s on display includes, for example, something as odd as a pickle caster. 

For this success, we should thank Amy Dehan — the art museum’s curator of decorative arts and design, who provided the vision for this show — and exhibition designer Chrystal Roggenkamp, who did a wonderful job making Cincinnati Silver look so dramatic and elegant.

Drawn from the museum’s collection, it does have a story to tell about our city’s history as a manufacturer of fine crafts, especially in the 19th century when Cincinnati’s national importance was at its peak. As such, it’s a new chapter in an ongoing story that already includes ceramics and wood-carved furniture. 

Cincinnati was a center for the design, creation and sale of silver dining utensils — especially flatware but also fine-dining specialties like butter dishes, tureens, mugs — yes, even pickle casters. One firm in particular, Duhme & Co., lasted in various permutations for 80 years (1843 to about 1928) and had a downtown showroom that — on the basis of a reproduction of a drawing — looks like a world’s fair exhibition hall. 
The show tells this history effectively via easily readable text — white on gray panels.

Sometimes those words are augmented by images from old photographs and advertisements. (There is also a companion catalogue.)

The exhibit realizes its artistic ambitions impressively. It begins in the museum’s balcony area overlooking the Great Hall. There, tall black display cases with large glass panes stand in front of a contemplation-demanding black wall. The key signage is silver; the backgrounds of the display cases are black save for a deep blue one that almost glows. The lighting is subtle and allows individual pieces to sparkle. 

There is, for example, the tiny (just 5-and-7/16 inches) curved condiment ladle from 1840-1853 by John Owen, with a fiddle handle (shaped like a violin body) and a bowl-like bottom that doesn’t seem to hold much more sauce than an eyedropper would.
One other object in this area deserves special praise. It’s a toast rack from 1844-1861 by silverware manufacturers E. & D. Kinsey. It looks like a delicately balanced sprig that has floated down to the ground with its perfectly formed leaves intact. It’s magnificent as sculpture. That it holds toast is a dividend.

The main gallery partially recreates the rarified experience of entering Duhme & Co.’s showroom. The wood floor has a polish to it; the display cases spaciously highlight the choicest and most spectacular of objects.

For instance, there is that amazing pickle caster. It’s made of silver and leaded glass and dates from about 1880. It has figurehead medallions at its feet and side mounts, grapes and grape leaves along the hinged bail handle, and a winged bird atop the lid of the leaded-glass jar. 

If pickles were revered in finer 19th century homes, what about ice cream? It must have been a real delicacy in the 1860s, judging from the dozen petite ice cream spoons, lined up horizontally like sardines in a can, in a beautiful blue cloth-lined case. 

Also outstanding is a fish serving set that came in a golden lined box. The fork and serving spatula have asymmetrically shaped handles that seem a little avant-garde. The stamped floral designs and other elements on the pieces — there’s even a tiny scarab — are so fascinating a fish could get cold while you looked closely at the utensils. 

In the end, the exhibit is about more than Cincinnati and its silver. It is a lesson in art appreciation. One sees how much care and creativity are put into adding beauty and originality — decoration, nuance and meaning — to things that, at their core, are functional. In this regard, it reveals how the artistic impulse is a desire to elevate mundane things. It’s a refusal to be satisfied with superficiality. 

For us as visitors, Cincinnati Silver teaches that everything can be appreciated more. You can always go deeper into a subject and be rewarded for it. It’s true for Monet; it’s true for pickle casters.

For more information, visit

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