Sunday, December 29, 2013

Patrick McGrath Muñiz

Closing out the year on an enjoyable note an artist from Puerto Rico and Savannah, Georgia has opened a small exhibition here in Santa Fe.  The show is at the new incarnation of what was formerly the Jane Sauer Gallery, now called Tansey Contemporary owned by Mike and Jennifer Tansey. Jennifer comes from the world of marketing and Mike is known in the art fair world as a majority owner in Art Miami, Inc.

Last May we “discovered” Patrick McGrath Muñiz’s work at the Jane Sauer gallery and were tipped off that there would be this show in December.  Why in the world did we want to buy a contemporary work of art on Canyon Road when we have been concentrating all these years on our Native American collection with a smattering of  New Mexican Hispanic art.  Since I always look for a reason I decided that Muñiz was legitimately Hispanic working in the Spanish colonial painting tradition!  I actually checked this out with a curator in Denver who confirmed that this was correct.

When we met the artist at the exhibition opening we learned that he was born in Puerto Rico and went to college there but decided after he received his degree to visit the States to meet his father for the first time in his home in Savannah, Georgia. He then went for his Masters in Fine Arts to the Savannah College of Art and Design.

As you probably already suspect  the Hispanic and Spanish Colonial connection are not the real reason we bought a painting, just an idea I played with to justify our purchase.  Obviously, we were taken with the work.  The artist is steeped in the European painting tradition and has learned the Old Masters’ techniques.  We found a mixture of originality and social commentary on our life experiences.

The painting we own is a triptych titled “The Blessed Gamer”. The artist explains the subjects as “The power and influence of games and guns in America”. He does not depict shooters and dead bodies but rather a humorous metaphor. The center panel appears to be a Holy Family but this Mary and Joseph are a Hispanic immigrant couple praying for their son, a chubby blond boy holding up a Gameboy in one hand and a handgun in the other.  On the right wing St. Christopher carries a rifle on his shoulder ostensibly to protect the pistol-packing infant cowboy.  Do note the Pac Man symbols on the bottom and the soft drink cup which says “Super Big Gulp”.  There is so much more going on in this triptych as in all Munñiz’s paintings.  I am hoping that my gloss on a few images will tempt you to look further into the artist’s work.

The image of Saint Sebastian is called “Fire Arms Nation”. The artist describes it as “an exploration of violence and the gun culture in the United States”.  There is so much going on here that again one could devote several pages to describing the painting both as the artist does or possible alternate interpretations.  Beside the chained man to the left of St. Sebastian, the figure of Christ bearing the cross to the right, and the boy with a gun standing guard there is a television set with bullet holes in it.  The artist says this is a comment on the violence on TV, an alternate interpretation might be that the television’s owner became tired of the mediocrity of the media.

Do note the wonderful frames on the paintings.  The simplest ones the artist makes himself but he has found a master frame maker in Guatemala who does the more elaborate ones in the colonial tradition.

Muñiz’s devotion to the Old Masters is even more evident in two paintings: “El Papa”, the Pope and “La Papisa” the Popess.

Their source is found in Tarot cards.  Tarot was a card game found in France and Italy as well as other parts of Europe.  The first reference to the game is in 1391.  The study of Tarot cards is a major endeavor in its own right but suffice it to say that eventually the cards became associated with mysticism and magic. By extension the cards were used for divination, using signs to see the future and the unknown.

“El Papa” is inspired by the fifth card of Major Arcana of the Tarot representing the Pope.  Also, Muniz is looking at a painting by José Campeche’s painting of St. Clement.  José Campeche was a Puerto Rican artist who lived from 1751 to 1809.  Muñiz leaves no stone unturned when it comes to seeking knowledge of the past.  If only more artists would look to their predecessors and history then relate it to the present.  In this case the artist is commenting on a world ruled by finance.  Note the coat of arms at the top with the initials WB (World Bank) and IMF (International Monetary Fund) underneath, and on the right the scales with the chained naked man on one side and the cash on the other far outweighing him.  So it goes throughout the painting.

Underneath each of these pictures he has painted 3 small panels called a predella.   Traditionally, the predella served to show scenes from the life of the Saint depicted on the principal panel.  In “El Papa” the predella shows St. Peter’s Basilica, representing religion and wealth in the center and a begging woman and a begging man painted on the side panels.

“La Papisa”, relating to the Tarot card by this name and adapted from another colonial image, shows a female Pope as the symbol of Woman’s Lib.  To drive home this fact Muñiz includes the image of Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People” on the laptop in front of the Popess.  The predella here is devoted to women and many of their traditional depictions.

The show can be seen at Tansey Contemporary on Canyon Road through January 31. It is not a bad idea to study up first at their excellent website where you can find the images from the show as well as the artist’s detailed descriptions of his works and the symbolism therein.  Then see the show and find your own interpretation of the paintings.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Renaissance to Goya: Prints and Drawings from Spain

The exhibition has come to the New Mexico Art Museum from the British Museum in London.  This is surprising enough but that it is the only U.S. venue for the show is even more of a shocker!

The art museum business is like every other and what is most important is who you know.  The director of the museum, Mary Kershaw, worked in York, England for 20 years so she knew the players.  This is not the first old European Art show in Santa Fe but the other two that we have seen since we first came here about 25 years ago were pretty mediocre.  There was a version of Nicholas and Alexandra show which was almost laughable with lots of trivial objects and no art.  Then there was a paintings exhibition of Old Master paintings from the Medici collection which only went to prove that even the greatest collecting family of all time could have some pretty bad art!

This show is different.  It may be a bit esoteric but a good curator, Mark McDonald working with a world-class collection has brought us some high quality art.  I heard about its arrival when my wife, Penelope Hunter-Stiebel, came home quite excited.  She had been at the editorial offices of El Palacio the magazine for the Museums of New Mexico and, as one of the few scholars of European art here, had been asked to write an article for the magazine on the show.  From there she was asked to re-work the British Museum’s Press Release, which in typical British style, was rather dry.  In any case, it had been written for an European art educated audience.  This was a bit different than the South West art educated audience out here.  Also, there was a desire to attract the Hispanic community and the art students of the area.

Penelope working with the Public Relations Manager of the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs, Steve Cantrell, proved to be a formidable duo which was demonstrated when for the first time in history that all 4 television networks turned up at the press opening for a show at one of the state museums.

We went to the members opening of the exhibition on a Saturday Morning.  They had some light food and drink in the auditorium and then brief talks from the people involved with the show.  The director introduced Hugo Chapman the head of the Prints and Drawing Department of the British Museum, the BM curator for the show, Mark McDonald, who will be moving to the Metropolitan Museum in March, and Christine Mather, the museum’s retired collections curator who was hired as an in-house curator for the show and did a masterful job of installing the exhibition.  As a matter of fact Hugo Chapman said that the show looked better here than in the British Museum galleries which probably has some truth in it.  If it was in their usual drawings galleries they often feel claustrophobic to me but then the BM does have a major special exhibition space as well.  The red wall color is the same that was used when the show was at the Prado and is most effective at setting off the drawings. 

There are 132 works of art in the exhibition, which gives a great deal to choose from. (My wife wrote a 10-page article illustrating only 8 of them.) Roughly two thirds are drawings and the last third are prints. Though some are not exciting if you are not into Spanish drawings, which few are, there are many wonderful sheets.  As a matter of fact, Hugo Chapman said the British Museum did not even realize they had a collection of Spanish drawings until Mark McDonald started to delve into the collection!

The exhibition like any good exhibition can be seen on many levels.  The curator has broken it down by areas of Spain such as Madrid and Seville but it can also just be enjoyed for the riches of the material.

The drawing I find the most intriguing is due to a “discovery” that Penelope made.  Saint Isidore of Seville was recently named, by the Catholic Church, as the Patron Saint of the Internet!  That seems most odd since Saint Isidore of Seville lived from circa 560 until April 4, 636.  The drawing was done in 1655 in preparation for a large painting by Bartholomé Estaban Murillo (1617-1682), one of Spain’s most esteemed artists.  Saint Isidore was a scholar who promoted classical education in the pagan Kingdom of the Visigoths. He wrote the “Etymologies” a multi-volume compendium of all the information known to mankind.  It was the very first Encyclopedia and was deemed valid for the next 1,000 years.  Therefore, when the Church was looking for a Saint of the Internet, Saint Isidore was their man! Here he is with one of his large volumes, which today he might trade in for an iPad.

One of the drawings that has great presence is of “The Dwarf Miguelito” ca. 1680-83 by Fracisco Rizi (1614-1685).  He is dressed to the nine’s in the latest French fashion and in the painting that this drawing is for he stands very close to the king demonstrating his stature at court.

Of course, the best known artists for a contemporary audience is Francisco de Goya y Lucientes  (1746-1828) and here too we have quite a number to choose from.  Goya’s work is probably best known for several series of prints dealing with social criticism from wartime horrors to the bullring.  An etching and aquatint that I find a delight is that of the “Old Man in a Swing” of 1827-28, done right at the end of Goya’s life.  You can imagine a man of 80 getting on a swing when no one is looking and going as high as he can go just like he did when he was a child of 8.  Of course, it is not all fun because he realizes that he is flirting with death and his demons can be seen in the background.

I have just illustrated 3 images here and there are another 129 to go.  The immediacy of the works in original cannot be duplicated but if you are not going to make it to Santa Fe by  the close of the show on March 9 you can acquire the excellent catalog by Mark McDonald.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Birth of the Personal Computer

Some time ago I mentioned how I was in Albuquerque and hoped to see the semi-permanent exhibition “STARTUP: Albuquerque and the Personal Computer Revolution but the galleries were temporarily closed.  I finally saw it on a return visit and I am glad I did.

The reason the show is in Albuquerque at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science is because it all started here with Bill Gates, Paul Allen and the Ed Roberts.  Not surprisingly the idea for the exhibition was Paul Allen’s.  As a matter of fact he still has a home here  in Santa Fe.

He and his sister Joe Allen Patton and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation put up the lion’s share of the funds for the gallery.  The exhibition is amended from time to time but shows no signs of closing.  They certainly won’t close it when it is still so popular with children and their parents.

My introduction to the computer was when I was a small boy in the early 1950’s and I visited my father’s art gallery, Rosenberg & Stiebel.  Across the street on 57th Street and Madison Avenue was the IBM building.  This was long before the Edward Larrabee Barnes building opened in 1983.  The entire Madison Avenue side was devoted to large windows through which you could see ENIAC or UNIVAC, the early computers that took up most of the rooms.  They were gigantic machines with tapes spinning round and round.  That was as close as one could get to a “laptop”!

Even by the early 1970’s your home computer would cost you about $20,000 and it would be the size of a small refrigerator.  Of course, you would also need to know one of the three most common programming languages of the time, Basic, Cobol or Fortran.

The exhibition is not complicated and the labels are not in computerize.  Small children can grasp the ideas and there are many objects that anyone can relate to such as a transistor radio.  I owned one in the late 1950’s that I remember cost $300.  It was a Zenith which was then a big name in radios.  Today you can find the equivalent for as little as $15.  You can even find an iPod for $50.

I liked the fact that one of the exhibits was an erector set.  Admittedly, it looked like a rather advanced one but it was the kind of toy that could lead to exploration and invention.

I could imagine how a child with a mind like a Bill Gates, Paul Allen or Steve Jobs could go from playing with an erector set to being what Bill Gates calls a “computer nerd” He said that, “Anyone who spends their life on a computer is pretty unusual.”  Then, of course, one needs an inquisitive mind and the patience to stick with it.

Add to that a vivid imagination of what could be.  Paul Allen writes, “I was always thinking about the future as a kid.  When you’re a kid, you think anything is possible.”   “I saw the idea that combining a microprocessor with BASIC was going to be a powerful thing” and that is what Gates and Allen set out to do.  They succeeded and tried it on a computer they had never seen before, the Altair, and eventually it came together and worked.  The Altair came to public attention in 1975 when it was introduced as a kit that it’s designer, Ed Roberts, thought would only be bought by a few hundred hobbyists. Instead it caught the attention of thousands.  Ed Roberts became the third member of the original Microsoft team.

It all began in a garage in New Mexico and grew from there.  Microsoft is still very much with us but there has been a strong competitor in recent years, Apple.  As mentioned the exhibition gets amended from time to time and now there is a corner devoted to Apple.  It is a generous gesture both on the part of the Museum and the sponsors of the exhibition.

It’s less than 40 years since the PC made it’s debut and the world wide web is less than 25 years old yet they have become so much part of our lives that it is hard to remember being without them.  Steve Jobs summed it up with a quote that appears at the end of the show, “The Journey is the Reward.” 

Sunday, December 8, 2013

A Contemporary Thanksgiving

Not so long ago there was no Black Friday or Black Thursday evening, just family and friends sitting around a large turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce and gravy, veggies and sweet potatoes with a pumpkin or pecan pie for desert.  Some people even caught their own turkeys.  But it has all become much more complicated.

Even though my daughter, Cathy, managed to serve 18 without any special orders, not everyone got away that simply.  An article appeared in our newspaper from the Associated Press by Candice Choi writing about someone in Suffern, New York who had 18 people for dinner and had an experience similar to ours.

Our son, Hunter, visited us from Los Angeles with two of his friends and we made the “mistake”, which is today “de rigeur”, of asking about food allergies and preferences.  Well, one was vegan, another ate gluten free, and the third (our son) was lactose intolerant and wanted make sure that the turkey was free range and had lead a good life before being slaughtered!

We made an effort before they came having bought soymilk, a tofu turkey, known as a Tofurky and gluten free bread.  I wasn’t even entirely sure what the definition of vegan was.   At first I thought it was synonymous with vegetarian but it is a much more demanding diet.  Not only does the vegan not eat meat or fish but also nothing that is derived from an animal such as butter, eggs or milk.

What is quite incredible is that this has become so common that restaurants and food shops accommodate this diet.  In fact the subtitle of the Associate Press article is, “Food Industry being reshaped by those at the holiday table”.  Thank goodness Whole Foods was open Thanksgiving morning.  Did you know that there were three brands of Gluten Free beer?  In addition more root vegetables were purchased to go with the Tofurkey as well as Brussels sprouts that are always in order on Thanksgiving.

Of course, there are other individual food foibles.  One of our other guests does not eat onion or garlic so a separate dish of stuffing was necessary.  Then I have this sweet potato recipe that includes mashing in milk and butter with marshmallows baked on top.  Needless to say, that required one dish made with just soymilk and another dish for the person who does not like marshmallows but wanted my sweet potatoes.  The easiest person to accommodate was the one who doesn’t like sweet potatoes… no dish.

Some people celebrate Thanksgiving at lunch and some in the evening.  We have always had our Thanksgiving celebration at dinner.  Well one of our guests can’t eat dinner at too late an hour.  Sounds like a simple request except when you have a 17 lb. Turkey in a finicky oven at an altitude of 7,000 feet.  Then one must also take into account the size of the oven and that you have to accommodate the Tofurky for an hour as well as a half hour for the marshmallows to melt on the pre-prepared sweet potatoes.   Chopping the sweet potatoes to put up to boil also caused a minor mishap.  As Hunter said he loves sweet potatoes with just a touch of Dad’s finger.   The cut turned out not to be serious but it put me out of some dinner preparation.

We also were the beneficiaries of generous contributions from our guests of mushrooms cooked  with wine, and roasted Brussels sprouts brought  and cooked by guests.  Have you been counting?  How many dishes and what logistics this takes?   Thank goodness my wife forgot to make the string beans because we would have had to buy an additional table just to accommodate the food.  As it was it was spread far and wide on the table and all the counters.

We had one more vegan challenge over the weekend our vegan friend had a birthday to celebrate and that required a baker’s dozen of phone calls plus a couple of visits to bakeries.  Some bakers did not know what vegan was, and others only made vegan cake in chocolate (which was not on), and still others were not able to get us a cake in time because of the holiday.  In the end, just when we were about to give up, a bakery at a spa in town came through and it was absolutely delicious.

Today, this is all part of family and friends.  In Santa Fe you find lots of vegetarians, and those who eat gluten free, and even once in a while a vegan, but it is rare that they come together.  On the other hand it was also fun and required a different way of thinking.  I must say I was so amused by it all that I could not stop laughing, to myself.