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The Peabody Essex Museum’s exhibit Ripple Effect, the Art of H2O is targeted for the children and families crowd and is installed in the Art & Nature Center. But this is a show I would recommend to anyone with an interest in Earth Art, Land Art, Eco-Art, Art in Nature, Environmental Art. Both visual and experiential, this exhibit is worthy of several visits. I’m definitely going back. It is up through April 30, 2012.

A few artist highlights:

Jim Deneven

Denevan and a crew are videotaped while creating a large scale work on the frozen surface of Lake Baikal in Siberia. A spiral of Fibonaci curve circles exapnd out from an origin of 18″ to several miles in diameter.

Deneven has worked with sand, earth, water/ice and food. The obvious comparison is Andy Goldsworthy, but Denevan has his own take on large scaled works. It is a bit more cerebral and linear but also very compelling and mesmerizing.

Denevan’s website is here.

Shinichi Maruyama

A suite of Maruyama’s Water Sculptures are on exhibit. Large scaled and hauntingly beautiful.

Maruyama’s website is here.

Simon Christen

Christen’s time lapse view of fog moving over the Bay Area, Unseen Sea, is a loop you will want to watch repeatedly. I have had a long relationship with fog (having grown up in the Bay Area) but I have never seen it or felt it quite like this.

Christen’s website is here. (You can watch Unseen Sea from his site.)

Georgie Friedman

From Friedman’s Flight Series

Friedman has done a full series that captures images taken from high-altitude balloon flights. The matrix of photographs offers a surprisingly compelling variety of color, abstraction, dark and light, dimensionality.

Friedman’s website is full of images.

The work on display in the show is a smaller scale approach reminiscent of Spencer Finch’s well known homage to the colors of the Hudson River, permanently installed on the High Line in New York.

Finch’s installation on the High Line


Man Ray, Observatory Time, The Lovers

Peabody Essex Museum’s current show, Man Ray and Lee Miller, Partners in Surrealism, is part art exhibit and part psychological portrait of a relationship between two artists. While they were only together as a couple (in a very loosely defined sense) for a few years—from 1929 to 1932—the ramifications of that connection influence both of their work going forward.

The circumstances are a familiar trope: Beautiful young American model moves to Paris and wants to become a photographer. American expat artist, 17 years her senior, first her teacher and then her primary lover. Miller is talented and serious, but she is also distractingly gorgeous—one quote in the show describes how Paris high society argued who was more the beauty, Lee Miller or Greta Garbo—so we are not surprised to discover a relationship between the two that is stormy and difficult. It initially ends badly but the connection between them is strong. They do have a reconciliation a few years later and settle into a friendship that seems to have lasted for the rest of their lives.

But there is a strong smell of obsession in this show. Letters written by Ray to Miller during their few years together portray Miller as his muse, lover, acolyte, student, adversary, collaborator and agent provocateur. He is consumed by her, controlling and domineering. (How gender skewed this kind of obsessive love can be. Had a woman had written those letters we would view her unbalanced, over emotional and self-destructive.) While there are no revelatory letters from Miller included in the show, the curatorial drift suggests that Ray’s fixation on Miller is ongoing and impacts his work for years to come. Pages from Ray’s journals where he has obsessively written Elizabeth (Lee’s real name) over and over are blown up and included in the show. Miller went on to marry artist Roland Penrose, achieving attention and kudos for her photography during World War II, a project that left her severely depressed after the war. In the view of their relationship presented here, Miller lives on as a force in Ray’s work more than the other way around.

Certainly Miller’s presence can be traced in later signatory Man Ray works such as the lips (AKA Observatory Time, The Lovers, 1936) and his famous eyeball metronome (Indestructible Object, 1933 then again in 1965.)

Indestructible Object

The description of the Indestructible Object in the Tate catalog captures this well:

Man Ray made the first version of this object shortly after his companion, the American photographer and model Lee Miller, left him. Attaching a photograph of Miller’s eye to the metronome, he linked his memory of her to the idea of an insistent beat or pulse that was both irksome and unending – a metaphor, perhaps, for human desire. He smashed the original, which he had titled Object to be Destroyed. This later version, produced in an edition of 100, was called Indestructible Object because, he suggested, ’it would be very difficult to destroy all hundred.’

On the back of one of his photos of Miller’s eye which he gave to her, Ray hand wrote this note:

With an eye always in reserve
material indestructible…
forever being put away
Taken for a ride…
put on the spot…
The racket must go on
I am always in reserve


Art making is full of obsessions and obsessional people. There’s no way to know what will become that powerful force that pulls you in, thrusts you forward, speaks to you so insistently that you have to let it have you. Many male artists have had similar obsessions with young beautiful women (several books have been written on this topic such as The Lives of the Muses: Nine Women & the Artists They Inspired which I would recommend) so the Ray/Miller relationship is a form we are familiar with. My fixations are of a different nature, not focused on other humans. But mine have been consuming and overwhelming as well. To each his own.

One more note: The art historian and former director of the Rose Art Museum, Carl Belz, did his doctoral dissertation on Man Ray. You can read his very personal account of his encounters with Man Ray here.

18th century lacquer work from Quianlong Garden

Currently at the Peabody Essex Museum: The Emperor’s Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City, on view through January 9 before it moves to the Metropolitan Museum in New York. This collection of artifacts, never before seen by the public, is taken from a sanctuary built in the Forbidden City. Quianlong Garden was constructed in the 18th century in a remote corner of the massive complex. Closed up for many years, it is now undergoing an extensive renovation.

Among the furnishings (which generally are of less interest to me) there are a few objects that were quite conversant with our modern sensibilities. Some of the lacquer work suggests the fluidity that was so signatory of late 19th century European Art Nouveau (as seen above). And the found rock sculptures (scholar’s stones), long treasured in Chinese culture, feel right at home with the minimalist tradition in contemporary western art.

Charles Sandison’s re-envisioned East India Marine Hall

Other installations worth seeing: First, the East India Marine Hall, part of the museum before it its major facelift a few years ago, is festooned with wooden figureheads from 18th and 19th century seagoing vessels. Artist Charles Sandison has taken the words of ship captains’ logs and turned an otherwise stodgy room into a lively hive of flashing digitalia referencing the trade routes, politics and personalities that led to the founding of the museum in the seaport of Salem. The play of contrast is engaging and fun.

Purgatoire River, by Mark Ruwedel (Photo: PEM)

Second, unforgettable photographs by Mark Ruwedel. “Imprint” features the tracks of both humans and dinosaurs in remote locations throughout the western US. The photographs make no reference to human life, just the trails that were worn into the stone or desert surface by our ancestors in prehistoric times. The silence and stillness in this body of work is extraordinary. (I wrote about Ruwedel’s show in more detail a few months back here.)

Dinosaur tracks along the Purgatoire River, one of many photographs in Mark Ruwedel’s exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem Massachusetts

Reasons to stop in at the Peabody Essex Museum are many, but here’s my favorite from my latest trip: “Imprints—Photographs by Mark Ruwedel.”

At first glance I assumed these 41 images were an Olafur Eliasson-inspired conceptual/installation piece on landscape. The photographs have a reduced tonality and a barren understatedness that could lead to that assumption. But once I took a step closer I was disabused of that idea, caught quickly and willingly in the dynamic silence of Ruwedel’s portraits of place—haunted and emptied of a previous existence during an ancient earth eon.

Mark Feeney’s review in the Boston Globe describes it well:

Mark Ruwedel[‘s}…West is riotously austere and beautifully desolate: a Beckett landscape so empty of human life that even Beckett’s lost souls would feel out of place there…As much archeology as art, his images explicitly remind us that the West has a past, one immensely longer in duration than the past of cowboys and Indians we see in westerns. “California is west of the West,’’ Theodore Roosevelt once said. The parts of Texas, Colorado, Utah, and California that Ruwedel photographs aren’t west of the West. They’re so desolate they almost seem underneath the West…

Time is an abstraction, of course, and these pictures have a stripped-down, abstract quality. Looking at them, one thinks not so much of other Western photographers as of Minimalist sculpture, Robert Smithson and earth art, or even Zen mysticism. Look closely, though, and notice how concrete the abstractions are.

Ruwedel lugged a large-format camera across a variety of these exquisitely remote Western terrains, and the payoff is a level of detail in these photographs that would be impossible to achieve without this cumbersome tool. The textures and depth of complexity are mesmerizing. Included in this show are images of the dinosaur tracks along the Purgatoire River in the Comanche National Grassland in Colorado, the ancient Indian trails that lace through the Chocolate Mountains of California, and other uncommonly traveled spots.

The show is up until January 1. I’ll definitely be back.

Chocolate Mountains

For more of a sense of Ruwedel and his approach to photography, here a great clip of him talking about a recent show at LACMA called “The New Topographics”: Mark Ruwedel


Joseph Cornell: Navigating the Imagination by Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, was reviewed by Leah Hager Cohen in the New York Times on Sunday. (I have an excerpt from this excellent review on my filter blog, Slow Painting, if you didn’t catch it.) Hartigan’s book is the catalog for the show that just closed at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and was previously at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem Massachusetts (and which I wrote about on this blog last summer.) This is the first volume about Cornell that captures some of the magic that happens in the presence of a real life, breathing Cornell. Hartigan keeps a respectful distance from Cornell’s quirky, complex internal life and avoids the proclivity to psychoanalyze, a tendency in hagiography I find particularly irritating.

Hartigan’s closing paragraph is a strong statement of Cornell’s unique approach to art:

During a lifetime that coincided with an emphasis on change for the sake of change, theory and art as ends unto themselves, and upheavals in technology, science, and international relations, Cornell deliberately chose to make art as a life-affirming act of communication and educational outreach. In describing his purpose as “making people ‘at home’ with things generally considered aesthetic,” he sought beauty, wonder, spirituality, and humanity as the outcomes of his invitation to journey with him into diverse arenas. First and foremost, Cornell–navigator of the imagination–was idealistic, radical and contemporary in embracing the prospect of endless transformation while honoring the thread of history and the revolutionary strength of objects.