Sunday, January 31, 2016

Is Outsider Art In?

What is Outsider Art?  Jean Dubuffet the well-known French Artist coined the term “Art Brut”, the precursor of Outsider Art.  in his words "We understand by this term works produced by persons unscathed by artistic culture, where mimicry plays little or no part (contrary to the activities of intellectuals). These artists derive everything...from their own depths, and not from the conventions of classical or fashionable art."  Putting that simply it is an artist who has had no formal training.  In 1972 the art critic Roger Cardinal wrote the first book in English championing Art Brut and titled it, “Outsider Art”.

I wrote a Missive in 2013 about the Outsider Art Fair. The fair was started 24 years ago and it seems to have become more insider than outsider.  The recent New York Times Review of the Fair by Ken Johnson brings up a good question of whether Outsider Art has gone, or should go, mainstream.   I believe just asking the question demonstrates that it already has.  If that is not enough one of the world’s major auction houses, Christie’s, just held an auction of Outsider Art showing that there is a significant audience that people might bid against each other to acquire a piece!

Christie’s called its sale in New York Liberation Through Expression: Outsider and Vernacular Art and their website even had an article and “hot list” ... dealers are not the only ones who hype their art!  But part of hype, like lobbying, is educational as well.  Going to a fair and then seeing what you like at auction gives you a chance to educate your eye.  For the most part Outsider Art will be less expensive than the established masters but, since art is not necessarily a good investment, as always you should buy only what you like.

Looking into this subject I found, books, blogs, websites, museums and galleries that focus on Outsider Art.  Sometimes these are combined with Folk Art, art of the people and usually by not formally trained artists.  To put a fine point on this, Barbara Hoffman’s headline in the New York Post for her article on the Outsider Art Fair this past month read, “The Artists at this Amazing Fair are Prisoners, Janitors and Mental Patients.”  We all try to pigeonhole everything so our brains can simplify and cope with a subject.  In my opinion, that just doesn’t work for art.  You need to take it for what it is and then you can try to define it later.

As you probably know by now over the past decades my wife and I have been collecting Native American Art.  Is it folk art? or outsider art?  Many of the artists particularly of earlier generations did not have formal art school training yet they had the best training as the old masters did as apprentices to their mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles as well as grandparents.  We have a simple definition for them… they are artists.

I did not go to the Outsider Art Fair in New York and as it turned out with their 3 feet of snow I probably would not have made it anyway but here are a few images that I found intriguing on line.  Alanna Martinez covered the fair for the  One of the pieces she featured was by Charles Vincent Sabba, a former New Jersey police officer who is best known for a series of fingerprint drawings known as “The Wall of Resistance”.  He used the same ink that he had used on duty to take fingerprints and the images relate to his cases.  Part of his series can be seen here with more of his biography. In the fair the Y Gallery also exhibited a full-fledged painting by Sabba, “After Frida: La Fuga di Actaeon e Frida”.   I find a primitive strength in it like Henri (Le Duanier) Rousseau.

Andrew Edlin took over the Outsider Art Fair from it’s founder Sanford Smith 4 years ago.  He is also an art dealer and he exhibited a sculpture by the proprietor of a New Jersey junkyard, Albert Hoffman,  a prolific wood sculptor. It is a scaly, winged “Dragon,” carved in 1976 from a piece of spruce more than four feet long.  It looks as though it’s about to leap off its pedestal.

André Robillard, is a French artist who because of mental problems was put in an institution.  He also had an outside job and would visit local junkyards where he collected guns and other found objects Thierry Goldberg Gallery exhibited Robillard’s “Pistolet” of 2012.

Obviously you cannot judge art on the basis of the training an artist has had.  Having gone to Harvard does not guarantee success any more than having gone to the Rhode Island School of Design.  What makes these artists special is that their art speaks to us no matter their training.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Food is Regional

As I do on so many Sundays I am sitting here trying to think what is left to write about.  I cannot find a story in everything I have done even if I went to a good movie or opera or saw yet another exhibition.  Here, I must admit to suffering from ADD (attention deficit disorder).  Of course, there was no name for it when I was young but I self diagnosed after we were told that is what our son’s problem in school was.   I cannot focus like my wife, the scholar, can, I am continuously distracted.  This time it was by email and discussing with friends where to go to dinner.

This, of course, made me hungry and got me thinking about food.  I realized that there are so many things that I ate in New York that I cannot get here or more likely, foods that I never ate in New York and I cannot get enough of here.  We did have a few Mexican restaurants in New York but in the Southwest it has been transformed into what is known as Tex-Mex.  I would make the comparison between having a burger at a Hamburg Heaven or Soup Burg, and having one at one of New York’s fancy eateries where they may add items such as foi gras and you cannot eat with your hands because your mouth is not large enough.  I realize that sounds like I prefer the one sans foi gras and that is generally true.  I am going to catch hell for this but Tex-Mex seems to me to be cheap Mexican food.

What we have in New Mexico that we enjoy are margaritas.  These are drinks with Tequila, Triple Sec and Lemon Juice.  Well, actually  there are over a 1,000 different tequilas that can be made with Cointreau or Grand Marnier as well.  Also, there are so many tequilas that one menu in town has over a hundred tequilas listed with as many combinations for making a margarita.  I am sure there are many in the Southwest who are saying, but everyone knows what a Margarita is ,but, no, it is as rare to see a Margarita on the menu back East as it is to see a scotch and soda on a menu in New Mexico.  Food like art is regional.   I find it Interesting that in Mexico they don’t drink margaritas, they take their tequila straight.  Margaritas are reserved for tourists. The trick is to use the cheaper tequilas for the mixed drinks and keep the better stuff for drinking straight up. Here are some margarita possibilities: CLICK HERE

Another rarity on the East coast is chile.  In the southwest we all know it as a very spicy dish that comes in red or green.  Though the two sound similar they are totally different.  Chili back east is Chili con carne, it is known as American English chili, a spicy stew containing chili peppers, meat, and often tomatoes and beans.  The southwest version is just roasted chile peppers.  The former has little spice here it can be mouth burning hot depending on the season and the individual pepper.  A standard question in the Southwest is “red, green or Christmas?”  It took me a while to figure that one out and still sometimes I find myself staring at the waiter before it dawns.  Translation: do you just want red chile, or just green chile, or both on your enchilada.

Which brings me to another issue.   A question most people ask when coming to visit Santa Fe is what’s the difference between an enchilada, quesadilla, tacos, fajitas, or a tostada.  The simple answer is they are all the same just put together and cooked a little differently.  They all include either pork, beef, fish or veggies, they all include cheese and tortillas (flat bread) either baked, fried or cold and then served flat or rolled.  It can get very confusing until you accept the premise that these are the basics that are put together differently.  A sample menu from Tomasita’s  Tex-Mex Restaurant in Santa Fe.

When I started writing a few days ago I did not expect to be ending with a plug for a Santa Fe restaurant but we just tried a new place in town, Sazón.  The chef,  originally from Mexico City is Fernando Olea who has run and started a number of restaurants in town.  Sazón is in a different class from his others, high end in every sense.  But what a treat, the comment I have heard the most is, “it’s all about the mole.” This is pronounced molé.  When I was originally introduced to mole, I was told it tastes like chocolate.  To me it tasted nothing like chocolate and it took me quite a while until I would try it again.  Chef Olea said something to us that it so true, “The enemy of the taste is the eye and the mind.”  I had thought I didn’t like mole until I dismissed the idea of chocolate.  Chocolate is only one of the many ingredients in some, but not all, moles.  Chef Fernando Olea demonstrates his mole making technique.

Photo by Steve Collins
Our dinner at Sazón started out with six small dishes with different kinds of mole in them and tiny tortillas to dip into them and try them.  Our entire meal was what the French would call “Haute Cuisine”.   One of the Mexican specialties included an hors d’oeuvre of grasshoppers, which proved to be as described, like crispy bacon. By the way, the drink menu did not include a list of margaritas but a huge list of tequilas, which you could use in flights, several small glasses of different ones.  The main dining room at Sazón.

We can’t eat high- end food all the time, it is too rich and sometimes too complicated to get our minds around the flavors after a hard day, it is just too much of an effort.  Tex-Mex could be considered what the hamburger has always been in the rest of the country.  Simple, easy, wholesome, but once in a while it is fun to indulge and go for high end Mexican.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

New Territories

My wife Penelope met a young woman in the Education Department of the Metropolitan Museum some 40 years ago.  Her name was Lowery Stokes Simms.  They ended up both working in the curatorial department of what was then known as the Department of 20th Century Art.  Lowery was particularly involved in “flatware” i.e. paintings and drawings Penelope in the decorative arts known today as design.  Lowery went on to become Director and then Chairman of the Studio Museum in Harlem.  Preferring curatorial work to administration Lowery left to become Chief Curator of the Museum of Arts and Design in New York formerly known as the American Craft Museum.

Lowery has remained a good friend over all these years and happily she has come to visit Santa Fe on various occasions.  In 2013 Lowery came at the invitation of our contemporary Kunsthalle, Site Santa Fe, to have a public conversation with Jaune Quick-to-See Smith a Native American artist, educator and activist of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Nations.  As always when visiting firemen, so to speak, travel for an event there are dinners or parties to introduce them to the movers and shakers in the community.  At one of these events for Lowery, Cathy Wright, director and Andrew Connors, chief curator of the Albuquerque Museum were invited .  Lowery took the opportunity to tell them about her project, “New Territories”.   They immediately jumped at the opportunity to ask her if she would consider having the exhibition come to Albuquerque after its run at the Museum of Arts & Design. So a first rate east coast exhibition came to the southwest.

The complete title of the show is, “New Territories:  Laboratories for Design, Craft and Art in Latin America”.  Unfortunately, Lowery was not able to make it for the opening lecture but she left the introductory remarks in the able hands of Andrew Connors who did a masterful job of explaining some of the concepts of the exhibition.  His main point was to look at the objects carefully because there was often more than immediately came to mind.

The show is broken into sections introducing subjects such as the role of the designer as opposed to the craftsperson who actually makes the work but generally get little credit.  Connors compared this to the architect who also takes the credit for the end result.  Other issues are artistic legacy, experimentation and new markets.

After walking through the show twice Penelope and I ended up discussing issues such as legitimate appropriation vs. something that in our opinion was just a rip off, and when did a concept come into its own as an original work of art.  Here are some examples of works of art where we had no qualms or need for discussion. 

Carlos Garaicoa of Havanna does trompe l’oeil floor tapestries.  Here is one that you will relate to called, “El Pensamiento” , (the Thought) in wool, mercurized cotton, trevira-cs and cotton,  lent by Galleria Continua.    We have all walked along the street and looked down and there was a shadow often deep in thought and it was ourselves.

I must say that I love the idea of Guillermo Bert who is from Chile and living in Los Angeles.  His textile called “Redemption” 2012 in wool and natural dyes has in the center a design that I did not give much thought to the first time I saw it.  After hearing the lecture I realized  it was a bar code that could be scanned.  The QR code leads you to a video about a traditional Childean craftsperson whose words are encoded into the textile.  It is lent by the Museum of Arts & Design.

Courtesy of the Albuquerque Museum

One of the most impressive objects in the show is by the artists Leo Chiachio & Daniel Giannone from Argentina who are known for their colorful embroidered work.  This one is  over 9 feet by almost 15 feet.   It is entirely hand embroidered in cotton, rayon and wool, and was recently acquired by the Museum of Arts and Design.  The artists have usurped the traditional role of women in making embroidery in order to gain access to a more contemplative world.

Courtesy of the Albuquerque Museum

It is not only beautiful in the overall but in the details. Take a look at these life-like parrots. And, surprise, although they read into the whole at first, as you get closer you find self-portraits of the artists together with their dog, not as if they were the subject of the piece but  a rather a personal signature.

One piece that may have the most international appeal is by Vik Muniz an artist from Brazil based in New York.  It is a photograph called “Marat (Sebastiao)” 2008, acquired by the Museum of Arts and Design.  It shows a man posed in a bathtub exactly as Jacques-Louis David’s, “The Death of Marat” on July 13, 1793 with the radical journalist and leader of the French Terror, lying dead in his tub.  At a massive landfill outside Rio de Janero the artist encountered the organizer of the professional garbage pickers, Sebastao Santos, reading Machiavelli’s Prince,  (no ordinary garbage picker he!).  The garbage pickers he led normally sort through garbage dumps to find salvageable and saleable material to make a meager living.

A discarded bathtub being carried by Santos gave Muniz the inspiration for the composition.  He photographed Santos posed as Marat using his shirt for the wrap on his head.  Muniz then projected the image on the floor of his studio and directed the garbage pickers to fill it in with trash. Photographing the result from a scaffold, he has sold the prints for the benefit of the trash pickers’ organization.  Here we have politics, social commentary and activism coming together in dealing with poverty and the consumer society.

Courtesy of the Albuquerque Museum

Though obviously unplanned, most appropriate for this moment considering the recent recapture of El Chapo, are works representing the drug trade and violence occurring in Mexico.  Actually, one of these is by, Marcio Kogan and Isay Weinfeld, artists from Brazil, another country plagued by violent crime.  The work “Gradil” 2004, courtesy of Studio MK27 and Isay Weinfeld. represents a fence with guns lining the top aimed outside the defended position.  The power of this work when it confronts you cannot be effectively conveyed in a photograph. Another more delicate reminder of the current situation south of our border is by Pedro Reyes who lives in Mexico City.  His “Guitarra” of 2013 is made up of confiscated guns.  The bible is updated, not turning swords into plowshares, but guns into a musical instrument.  This object is lent by Tiroche DeLeon Collection and Art Vantage PPC Limited.

When I asked Lowery what she came away with after working for four years on this exhibition, she replied, “My encounter with all the young designers I met in my travels in Latin America and in New York City reaffirmed my faith the power of creativity to effect change."

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Philosophy in Musicals

I grew up on Musicals.  My parents were opera fans and had seats at the Metropolitan Opera for many years.  While I have always liked opera my first love were musicals.  When I was younger I could still remember the lyrics to most of what I had seen.  Today bits and pieces keep coming into my head.  It is not surprising that the theater reflects our lives but in some cases touches on universal truths.  Setting these truths to music and rhyme make them all the more memorable.

In our home the other night an older person was trying to convince a younger one that the younger generation was being dumbed down by the internet and texting.  The argument was that they no longer had the vocabulary to express themselves.  Right away two songs popped into my head.  The first was the song “Initials” from “Hair”, the musical by James Rado & Gerome Ragni, music by Galt MacDermot, that had its Broadway debut in 1967.

LBJ took the IRT

Down to 4th Street USA

When he got there

What did he see?

The youth of America on LSD




Now, this is a half-century old and we were already using texting abbreviations.

Listening to the discussion continue I thought of “Bye Bye Birdie” a take off on the Elvis craze from 1963, with lyrics by Lee Adams, and music by Charles Strouse. Every generation seems to think that the next has “gone to hell in a hand basket.”  To wit, the song called “Kids”:


I don't know what's wrong with these kids today!


Who can understand anything they say?”…

“Why can't they be like we were,

Perfect in every way?

What's the matter with kids today?”

I don’t know about you but I so often think about what I could have said in a certain situation some hours or even days after the conversation took place.  “Destry Rides Again” the 1959 musical with music and lyrics by Harold Rome.  “Tomorrow Morning” hit the nail on the head with:

“Tomorrow Morning at half past three
All the wonderful things will come to me
That I could have said and should have said today.

Tomorrow morning at half past four
I’ll be thinkin up bright remarks galore
I could have made and should have made today.”

One song that I think about all the time is a serious topic today, prejudice.  It is from “South Pacific” the 1949 musical composed by Richard Rodgers, with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II.  “You’ve Got to Be Taught” is worth more than one stanza:

You've got to be taught

To hate and fear,

You've got to be taught

From year to year,

It's got to be drummed

In your dear little ear

You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught to be afraid

Of people whose eyes are oddly made,

And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,

You've got to be carefully taught.
You've got to be taught before it's too late,

Before you are six or seven or eight,

To hate all the people your relatives hate,

You've got to be carefully taught!

The United States had recently finished its experiment with interning all those of Japanese descent even though many were the staunchest patriots.  Now we are hearing exactly the same rhetoric from some of our Presidential candidates!

“Those who cannot remember the past are bound to repeat it,”  George Santayana (1863-1952). Maybe they should have listened to musicals.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Confessions of a Chocoholic

First thing I have to learn in this new year is that the year is 2016, that is 2016, not 2015.  One thing that I will never change is my love of chocolate.  I was trained from an early age to love chocolate.  It was bred into me by my father.  Every single night he ate a whole large Hershey bar.  In those days they came in a size that no longer exists with raised squares, each had a letter in the name H-E-R-S-H-E-Y and every night before I went to bed I would be given 2 squares from his bar together with my glass of Himbeernsaft (actually it was a very small bit of raspberry syrup in a large glass of water which stayed by my bed all night).  This is my excuse for having always had a sweet tooth.

In more recent times we have all been told of all the terrible diseases we can get from eating too many sweets but it is part of my DNA … of course there was no such thing when I was a kid! I have tried to limit my intake of “unhealthy food” but…  then I remember my mother saying, “I only have to live long enough until they tell me what was bad for me is good for me again.” 

Here is a souvenir from another age, the Desert Bar made to withstand the heat of the Iraq desert at the time of the Desert Storm War.   I have kept in a tin Hershey box for the past quarter century.

I never knew there was such a thing as a chocolate tour.  It seems that I am not the only Chocoholic in the world and these tours exist in many places.  My daughter, Cathy, knew her father well enough to buy Penelope and me a chocolate tour in New York.  I don’t remember it precisely but I do know that it was a downtown walking and tasting tour and we went into several chocolate shops and ended up in a shop that actually made the chocolate on site.  That is always the best, fresh chocolate.

The nice young man who gave us the tour made my day, so to speak.  Imagine my surprise and delight when he spoke about the “Dark Chocolate Diet.”  At first, of course, I was dubious but then I started to look into it.  Here are just a few of the books about chocolate dieting that I found on Amazon.

“Chocolate Diet” by Jennifer Stone
“Eat Chocolate, Lose Weight” by Will Clower
“The Chocolate Diet” by Sally Ann Vauk
“The Chocolate Lover’s Diet” by Carole Matthews

I hasten to say in the interest of full disclosure I have read none of them.  I have also seen a CBS news report saying that the Chocolate Diet was a hoax.  So I conducted my own experiment.  I haven’t had the will power to actually diet recently, that takes work.  I can tell you, however, that at least for me a couple of bites of deep dark chocolate will take the place of a cigarette, for instance.  It can be instantly satisfying while it might take an entire piece of cake to give the same feeling of having had enough.

From what I read about the diet you are supposed to have a very small piece of dark chocolate before and after a meal.  This is turn will cut down on the feeling that you need more food. I don’t believe that anyone is saying that the chocolate isn’t fattening just that it is satisfying and less is more.

Unfortunately, this will not work with my Hershey bars of old since they were milk chocolate
not the dark chocolate advocated.  There is temptation everywhere!!