Tuesday, March 30, 2010


Monday, March 29, 2010

Art exhibits

In the richly red and beautiful Sidney R. Yates gallery of the Chicago Cultural Center, two modern art exhibits are just coming to the end of their run.

One is called "Expect the Unexpected," and is a collection of paintings -- plus one delightful set piece that the viewer walks into as if he were entering a painting -- by Hollis Sigler (1948-2001). These paintings first caught my eye from outside the gallery's glass doors because they looked so pretty and colorful, so unlike modern art. I walked in.

The paintings are pretty and colorful, and they have interesting and poetic titles. Some Days You Feel So Alive. One of the best is It keeps her going, a beautiful imaginary scene of a table set for two on what seems a tropic beach, under an incongruously huge splashing fountain, all seen through a curtained window. Before the window lies assembled all the accoutrements of daily life: stove, washing machine, a little electric mixer here, an ironing board there. It's all done in a childlike, firm, skewed-perspective style called "faux naive" I gather, and this one especially is witty, light, and if not profound, at least pleasing.

It didn't take too long, however, to figure out that all the paintings in Expect the Unexpected, scores of them in total, are about breast cancer. Hollis Sigler suffered it and died of it while just in her early fifties. Her mother and great-grandmother had also had it, and knowing this from the accompanying brochure helped lay the foundations of a foreboding which otherwise the gallery patron might not have looked for in any Sigler works before 1985 (the year of diagnosis).

As I walked about looking at all the paintings, and reading the descriptions beside them -- she wrote long explanations of cancer research, or of her own treatment at the time of a particular work, on the frames, explanations which are hard to read and whose prose has therefore had to be posted neatly under plexiglass alongside -- it struck me that this isn't so much an art exhibit as it is a voyeuristic plunge into Everywoman's nightmare. After a while, the motifs of little birds, chairs, skewed-perspective rooms, dead trees, cracked mirrors, and bloodstained women's clothing become emptied. As art, it's not much beyond the level of greeting cards. The heavy reliance on text seems almost a cheat, or for a painter a crutch at any rate.

But as chilling, vicarious descent into illness and death, woman's death, the exhibit is fascinating, the moreso to women. Brochure in hand and plexiglass addenda well digested, I found myself looking for signs that the sufferer's, the patient's, painting changed in 1985. I found them. Her paintings turned red. Just before the fateful year, she could still paint a bright picture of a woman in the shower, her bathroom filled little hairdryers and stockings and lots of other stuff pertaining to beauty and grooming. There is still foreboding here, because we know that many women inadvertently find the lump in their breast while showering. But the picture itself is still a picture filled with normalcy and a future, and all the colors of a spring garden.

Then, 1985. Lump. Family fate. Diagnosis. Change Doesn't Come Easy for Her shows a volcano spewing rocks, snakes, birds, and lizards into a room; a television set is cracked and a chair and coffee cup bounce and spill. Yes, that is illness: what was normal yesterday, and what you felt you were entitled to because of course everybody lives normally and you are normal just like everybody, is no longer yours. (A later work in fact is titled something like "This is no longer yours," and copes with another effect of illness. No, you can't walk, run, or garden now. My lord Sickness has shaken His royal Head, and said you are unable.) Another red 1985 painting, another grappling with "it's happened it's happened," shows a Greek statue (the famed bronze Poseidon Soter, I think) with broken arms in a little shrine on a hill, and a river of lava flowing down from it to busy, bright, modern Everywoman's world. There are chairs and wine bottles and clothes and green trees and shoes. It's More Than the Loss of My Breast shows another skewed-perspective room, full of womanly things, a pretty dress, high heeled shoes, a broken pearl necklace, a chair and a vanity with a broken mirror. All the things that don't matter anymore when you've had your mastectomy.

Or maybe they can still matter. Some women survive breast cancer. Maybe a lot of women do, which is why we hear so much about it. I recall reading this once -- it was the opinion of a doctor I think -- who also pointed out that there's a painful reason why society bothers to designate a color "for" breast cancer ribbons, but not, say, for pancreatic cancer ribbons. (Gray? Black?) Not too many survivors to hold fundraisers for there.

But is Hollis Sigler's breast cancer journal art? We read the frames: "now the cancer is in my bones, my pelvis, and my spine." We shudder vicariously. In small later paintings, she raised up, in thick applications of paint the same color as the scene, single words that physically loom: Heredity, or Organochlorides. We shudder again: imagine having to come to terms with sheer stupid bad luck. Why did it have to be me, and my great grandmothers? But at last, that raising up of paint, a physical sensuous thing -- not prose, not explanations -- struck me as art. Art: communicate something to me in some other way than explanatory prose and illustrations. Make me "see" in some other way (which is a gift that explanatory art gallery brochures are always claiming artists have), a way I also can't necessarily put into explanatory prose.

Seeing so little of that in Expect the Unexpected is why I could turn to the neighboring, much smaller exhibit and learn with surprise that even though it didn't look nearly as colorful or pretty, it showed the work of a far better artist. Angel Ortero (Touch with Your Eyes) lays on to canvas or wood little squares of gold paint, silicone, and what looks like mesh and foil, and creates an elegant, monochrome mosaic picture of a vase of flowers on a tabletop covered by a carelessly flowing cloth -- or is it a woman holding the flowers in her lap, and is that perfectly molded gold mosaic shape her breast in profile? He puts up a piece of gorgeous stuffed, ripped purple floral upholstery, and a mess of more thick paint, mesh, and silicone, calls it My Grandmother's Couch -- and makes you laugh. One of my favorites was a piece called Untitled -- dear me, when will artists stop indulging themselves? -- in which a beautiful lump of blue and white porcelain drips off a table and lands and rolls to a stop on the floor. The table is spattered with another mess of colorful paint, mesh, and twists of foil and silicone. It was simply lovely, refreshing, and interesting to look at. Words and explanations would be beside the point. The artist has communicated something pleasurable in some other way.

Downstairs, in the Cultural Center's Michigan Avenue galleries, was another exhibit, this one of photographs of the interiors of some mausoleums in the Midwest. The photographer is John Allan Faier, the collection Queen of Heaven. The photographs were beautiful, they could almost have been "interior design porn" except of course that they had a posed, spotlit stillness that no art editor for Southern Living or Real Simple wants to see. Looking at them, I was struck by the effort that mausoleum designers must put into making these places as sumptuous and vibrantly colored as possible. Clearly, the object here is comfort, not mourning. Hospitals, where there is still hope of life, are dismal prisons of white and olive in comparison. Here in these photos, chairs, carpets, walls, and stained glass all shone in jewel tones of red, fuschia, purple, raspberry, green, and blue; lamps and lampshades were tasteful old gold. Everything was spotless; there were simple, sleek wooden statues of obscure saints (Elizabeth of Hungary) standing in quiet corners amid the walls of names on black-gray marble.

Alas, I seem to have taken all the wrong lessons from this exhibit. Would you like to bet a nickel that the explanatory brochure accompanying Queen of Heaven included the words "loneliness," "alienation" and "kitsch"? How about "suburban entrapment" and "rage at society's treatment of"? Oh wait -- that was the breast cancer collection.

Have you laid your nickel down? Good show. You win.

Friday, March 26, 2010


The Chicago Cultural Center, formerly the Chicago Public Library building, Randolph St. and Michigan Ave. Built in 1896.

If ever you listen to radio station WFMT's Wednesday "Dame Myra Hess" concerts broadcast live from Preston Bradley Hall, why, you might enjoy knowing that this is where they are performed. The arches and domed ceilings are a glittering Renaissance fantasy of verdant, coiling green mosaics on white marble, and of sublime quotes, carved in gold, about learning and wisdom in a dozen languages, including Chinese, Arabic, and Egyptian hieroglyphics.

The lamps are from a maharajah's palace; the names of the great stud the arches; the Tiffany dome is the largest such in the world.

Even the carpets are beautiful.

The work of master mosaicists, and master woodcarvers, circa 1896.

Shall we decorate the underside of a staircase? Yes, let's.

Shall we also carve the ceiling, deeply? Yes.

The Hall of the Grand Army of the Republic on the second floor. No photograph can do justice to the scale of the two rooms -- the second lies beyond the open doors to the far right -- nor the size of those massive wooden doors. Alas, the room beyond was closed for a theatrical rehearsal, so I can offer no photos of opulent, martial swords-and-bunting wood carvings all around its ceiling, nor of the names of the Grand Army's Civil War battles, stamped somberly six apiece over the doorways. Fort Sumter, Gettysburg, the March to the Sea, Cold Harbor -- in 1896, all were only thirty years gone.

Visions of Escher?

Mosaic work and marble.

Part of the Sidney Yates gallery, where we saw two modern art exhibitions. One was better than the other.

Lions guard the outdoors.

We forget, it was a library.

Vale, until next time.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Points for prescience

A long time ago I had the idea of writing a short story about a future time in America when everyone's grocery store purchases would be instantly fed into a state-managed computer database, so that the government could keep track of the nutritional quality of citizens' food choices. And even while you were standing in line at the checkout, the conveyor belt could stop and your transaction could be suspended if the computer noticed that you had already bought your quota of fat or sweets for the week.

It may not be in the health care bill, but then again, who knows? Can I get points for prescience?

Monday, March 8, 2010

Learning to love winter?

Writing project ideas sometimes come from the most ridiculous sources. Years ago while reading aloud to my children in the Madeline series of books by Ludwig Bemelmans, I encountered the phrase "she loved winter, snow, and ice...."

There's an arresting thought. You don't often find, in life or books, people who love winter. By late February, say, people are sick of it, especially in a year like this when the snow has fallen thick and fast -- what a cliche -- and the days have been gray and gray and more gray, and the trees have looked dead for four months and the cold and the ice underfoot and the tiresome dangerous driving conditions just go on and on. The season does occupy, or seems to, such an inordinately large part of the year. To which brilliant observation the clever reader replies "Well, duh!" But wait, I have a point: what a pity to hate half the year, if only there were some way we could train ourselves not to.

I suppose the most straightforward way to do it would be to develop, or be born with, a love for winter sports. Imagine speaking on Madeline's behalf: "She loved skiing, and ice fishing, and coming in to the fireside for hot chocolate and sandwiches afterward...." But even people who love winter sports can't do them all the time, and anyway, does the love for the sport translate into a love for the weather and the season, all the time? And what about the rest of us, who aren't interested in athletics but don't want to hate half the year?

When I settled into some research on this topic -- researching winter, no kidding -- I see by my old notes that I found myself starting out by exploring ancient writers to learn what they thought winter was. Why did it occur, -- did they wonder? And I wanted to know what farm work people did during the season, how they survived, what they ate, what holidays they enjoyed. It seems Herodotus thought winter came because the cold north winds blew the sun far down south in the sky. "During winter," he wrote, "the sun is driven out of his course by storms toward the upper parts of Libya" (The Histories, translated by Aubrey de Selincourt, 1954). And, centuries later, Tacitus claimed that the barbarian German tribes "had only winter, spring and summer" because they produced only one crop. They did not "know" autumn because they did no particular autumn work in orchard or garden (the Agricola and the Germania, translated by Harold Mattingly, 1948). Isn't it funny to think of the seasons as abstractions that people haven't always known alike.

I envisioned carrying on with this, arranging chapters and topics and someday holding a delightful little work of belles lettres in my hand, Learning to Love Winter. It would make no pretensions to scholarly depth or world importance but would still be unique, entertaining, and who knows? possibly even help a few quirky readers to not hate half the year.

Ah, but how, how does one go about such a project as efficiently as possible? Although writing shop talk is dull, let me indulge myself just for a moment. Every writer faces the three-pronged problem, a sort of vicious triangle of opportunity costs: what shall I do today? Shall I research more, write more, or query editors more? Good research gives you a good case to present to an editor. Stopping research to turn to writing gets the actual job done. Querying editors lets you know whether or not there may be the slightest chance whatsoever for your project to be remotely worth all those opportunity costs. If they all say no, or if you can be almost certain that they will, do you pursue your project anyway, because you are such an artiste?

And how do you answer the question that undergraduates are told to grapple with in their writing classes? -- "So what?" Of course that's a good and challenging question. But I've always liked information for its own sake, too -- show me to the Trivial Pursuit board, and stand back -- an attitude which seems to be frowned upon now. Now academics and everybody want information that is actionable, that tells the reader why he needs to know this. I doff my cap to those who can always write actionable things, but I should think, often times, that is merely the icing on the writing-cake. Why do you need to learn to love winter? Well, really, I -- . And can I make you do it?

I don't know. But if neither is possible, is the whole thing therefore better left undone?