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George Wingate, friend and artist, soaks in the Pat Steirs at Cheim & Read

After several recent trips to Chelsea’s ghetto of galleries that have felt empty and unsatisfying, my visit this past weekend offered up some moments worth remembering. People were everywhere, enjoying a Saturday without rain, snow or blistering cold. The High Line was a solid wave of walkers from 20th Street on down, the galleries and streets of Chelsea full of art stalkers, myself included.

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The Pat Steir show at Cheim & Read is just plain fabulous. These immense paintings (she is 70, and there is no shortage of bravado and muscularity in Ms. Steir) capture an exquisite edge between planned and chance, flow and control, intention and occurrence. The metallic paints used in this series create an understated shimmer, playing the surface while still pulling you in. Loved these works.


Close up views of two of Pat Steir’s exquisite new paintings

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A selection of Joan Mitchell pieces from the 50’s are on display at Lennon Weinberg. Many of these came out of her studio and from galleries after she passed away, so many of these works are being seen for the first time.

I can always spend time and learn from Mitchell’s work. Some of these are as compelling as her later and more prominently known work. And a nice catalog as well.


Joan Mitchell’s work in the 50’s

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New series from North Carolina painter Herb Jackson, “Firestorm in the Teahouse”, on display at Claire Oliver. These works are pushing in new directions of texture, palette and surface. Some lovely moments in this show.


Herb Jackson


Close up on Jackson surface: Lots going on

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The ubiquitous Pace Gallery Empire (how many locations now? 100?) is featuring Tara Donovan at two of them. Stripped of the painterly delights that come from rich color and viscous materiality, her work still offers up something satisfying for me.


Donovan, imaging with nails


Donovan close up

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José Parlá is having his first solo show at Bryce Wolkowitz. Lyrical but gritty, crossing over to a zone that exists between calligraphy and urban graffiti, the works are engaging, energetic, compelling. One to watch.


Two large scale works by José Parlá


Close up of painting by Parlá

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And one more to praise, this from outside the realms of Chelsea: Good friend Filiz Emma Soyak is on display at Giacobetti Paul Gallery in DUMBO. Filiz’s new work is full of remembrances from a life lived on several continents. “My paintings are my stories.” And indeed they speak evocatively and movingly. Well done Filiz.


Barbados no Arashi I, by Filiz Emma Soyak (image courtesy of Giacobetti Paul)


Fallow fields near the Great Salt Lake in Layton Utah

Friend and artist Kitty Bancroft stopped in Boston on her way to Philadelphia yesterday, and we had a few moments to share where things are in our private tinkering spaces called art making. I think of conversations like these as reminiscent of ones I had as a child inside the structures I made with my sisters and brothers out of tables, chairs and large blankets. Inside those freshly constructed child-sized rooms, I felt like I was now under life rather than in it. Cocooned and safe.

Kitty described her artistic summer as a period of intentional fallowing. I hadn’t thought about the idea for a while, and her comment has been floating on the surface of my thoughts ever since.

This passage from Fallow and Fertile, published on The Ecologist, is a point of reference:

Fallow periods were traditionally used by farmers to maintain the natural productivity of their land. The benefits of leaving land fallow for extended periods include rebalancing soil nutrients, re-establishing soil biota, breaking crop pest and disease cycles, and providing a haven for wildlife.

Like many rural skills, the technique evolved along with a sustainable model of settled agriculture that supported the UK’s population for well over 3,000 years. Up until 1939 it was estimated that 800,000 ha of British countryside was voluntarily placed under fixed or rotational fallows at any time. The idea seems bizarre now, that less than a generation ago British farmers would have had the freedom, let alone the financial security, to improve their land in this way.

The fact is farmers are no longer trusted to use their own judgement in managing the British countryside. If they were, set-aside areas would still be managed as the most effective means of building soil fertility. Inevitably, however, fallow farming has been deemed ‘uneconomic’ by the same logic that has seen agricultural imports and exports increase by 74 and 55 per cent respectively since 1962.

Lots of parallels can be drawn about a productivity focused view of everything in our culture, not just art making. As a younger artist I had no interest in employing a “set-aside” approach to my work habits. Productivity and good use of precious studio time were the measures I cared about and highly valued.

But I now see deep correlations between fallow and fertile. The strategy for the health and well being of my art making life is different for me now than it was when I was 20. I don’t believe there is one way to do anything in life, and certainly I would never proscribe the way an artist chooses to work. You may be like Charles LeDray, using every waking hour for years to obsessionally sew tiny clothes, or like Tara Donovan who can repeatedly construct unearthly landscapes out of a million stacked styrofoam cups. Or you may be like me; sometimes in the zone and unstoppably fecund, sometimes in the fallowing, just sitting and looking with no doing.

One of my art professors had a spiel about how to push a work to its farthest edge by reminding us that a great work of art almost doesn’t work—but it does. It was his way of getting his students to take risks, to push out beyond what feels safe. There’s really no other way to know just how long that plank extends over the cliff edge until you walk it, blindfolded, and fall off. And then you do that again. Many, many times.

I’ve come up against that edge several times lately, leaving me to ask why something that shouldn’t work, does. Here’s my list. Maybe you have a few of your own.

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Styrofoam cup ceiling and mylar “lumps”

Tara Donovan, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston
Donovan has transformed my ongoing relationship with scotch tape, Styrofoam cups, paper plates, mylar sheets and plastic buttons. Simple materials in the hands of someone who clearly can stay focused on the tedious tasks of creating the extraordinary out of the ordinary.

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Aurélia Thierrée threading her way across the stage; music making with alarm clocks

Aurelia’s Overture, American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge
Charlie Chaplin’s gift at the beguiling art form of silent performance seems to have been passed down, first to his daughter Victoria Thierrée Chaplin who wrote this piece and second, to his granddaughter Aurélia Thierrée who performs it. Small in scale and seductively intimate, this performance takes life and the theatrical experience and stands everything on its head. The stage curtains dance erotically with each other, and later in the show we meet their small curtain “child”; flowers are placed in vases upside down; empty coats behave as if they are wrapped around a body; a concerto is performed using the various sounds of alarm clocks. So simple, with no plot and almost no words, it is part circus, Grand Guignol, pantomime, minimalist theatre, Dadaist contrarian, Arte Povera, modern dance, improvisational. And yet these 75 minutes are a jewel box of the captivating and the whimsical. Only the hardest of hearts would not be softened and seduced by this.

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Director Danny Boyle on the set for the final scene

Slumdog Millionaire
A fairytale about modern India—Mumbai to be exact—told with gritty realism, this is a movie that shouldn’t work but does. While the cast doesn’t periodically break into the dance and song we have come to expect from most Indian films (that is until the last scene, while the credits are rolling), the energy and pace is as explosive as any of those high action Bollywood extravaganzas. And because I am a newly minted and highly zealous Indianophile who fell head over heels for sprawling, massive Mumbai, I was riveted from start to finish.

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Bonnie Horne overseeing the plethora of pizza making ingredients

Holiday Cuisine Highs
There were some stellar high points this year: The tempura-fried fresh oysters with tangerine sauce at our Christmas Day feast, Bryce’s clam chowder, Clate’s mushroom, potato and cheese medley, Barrie’s espresso chocolate flourless cake, Bonnie’s baklava, Tony Maws’ (of Craigie on Main) Macomber turnip soup, and the Barlow/Wilcox/Horne “make your own” pizza extravaganza which featured over 40 different ingredients. All these culinary exploits could have overshot that teetery edge and crashed over the cliff. But they didn’t.

I’ve been a big fan of Tara Donovan for several years, and I am very excited to see her new show at the ICA in Boston this week. I bought the catalog for the show in anticipation, and it is excellent–authored by Nicholas Baume, Jen Mergel and Lawrence Weschler (LW is a particular personal favorite.) The images captured in the book knock me out.

I’ve posted Sebastian Smee’s review from the Boston Globe on Slow Painting if you want to read the entire piece. Here is an excerpt from his review that touches on one of my ongoing aesthetic themes—the role of beauty and how it is played out in contemporary visual language.

More excerpts from the book will be forthcoming.

Of course, it’s nice to encounter almost any proposition about beauty these days – even one as potentially ironic as Donovan’s. Until a few years ago, beauty’s repression in contemporary art was almost absolute. No one talked about it, hardly anyone peddled in it. If they did, they did it furtively, guiltily, always making out that other things – more “important” things – were on their mind.

Beauty has enjoyed a bit of a comeback in recent years. But there has been something willed and strained about the revival. Most recent discussions of beauty are about as appealing as a laborious explanation of a bad joke.

Donovan’s unabashedly beautiful work is a step or two forward from all this. It is not only beautiful, it is relaxed about being so, leaving her scope to admit all kinds of subtleties and ironies into her fantastically simple, if labor-intensive, forms.