Sunday, February 21, 2010

Hey MCA, Why so serious?

by Stephen Cummings

Rodney Graham

Currently at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago is a show called The Artist's Studio (or something like that). It's a collection of, um, contemporary work that deals with — surprise! — artists' studios. So, points for straightforwardness. A decently interesting sampling, the media ranges from painting to a galleryfull of laser-etched glass. Also prominent are a performance (now the remnants of a performance) by Indian artist Nikhil Chopra, and a room of videos by William Kentridge. It's definitely the best work I've seen by Kentridge; a little lighter, not quite so Oh, this is so profound. Not quite. That self conscious gravity is by no means absent. Chopra's performance, likewise, while potentially funny, was pretty heavy, and created a rather imposing space. And given the way he talks about the work, I doubt if he means to wink in our direction.

Actually the whole show is pretty serious. But unnecessarily. The driving force behind the insistently sober intellectualizing of every element seems to be more the museum than the work on display. To illustrate this point, I'll take as examples the two artists who bookend the exhibition.

At one end — the end end — there plays a video piece by Justin Cooper. It's not the only work in the room, nor the biggest, but its ferocity ensures that it is absolutely the focal point, overpowering the artist's large-scale drawings. Produced at Skowhegan, Cooper's video begins outdoors, a hand-held shot that soon moves into the studio where what can most closely be described as a tantrum ensues. The camera, or the cameraman, perhaps the viewer, proceeds, after examining and struggling with the place a bit, to tear apart the space with all the savagery of a Scottish terrier, furiously flailing about the room in an effort to displace the contents of seemingly every surface, small-animal grunts and snorts included. The point comes across pretty quickly, and it's silly. (Yep, sometimes people come into your studio, and yep, sometimes they rip you a new one.) This kind of poor-me artwork is the height of self absorption. Nobody cares. It's possible this piece is meant to be ironic, but the heavy-handedness of the snarling destruction produces a bizarre earnestness. And the museum presents it straight-faced, as if this is a profound statement about studio experience, as opposed to simplistic whining. A similar video might feature a group of painters talking about how they can't keep the pigments off their clothes. Nauseating.

Better work is to be found at the entrance to the show. There, a couple of photographs by Canadian artist Rodney Graham strike an undeniably humorous note — a note the museum utterly fails to acknowledge. Let's first consider Artist's Model Posing for "The Old Bugler, Among The Fallen, Battle of Beaune-la-Roland, 1870" in the Studio of An Unknown Military Painter, Paris 1885. Now one might suppose that with a title like that the jig would be pretty much up. But loathe to admit the absurdity of such a thing, MCA's analysis has Graham "propos[ing] the artist's studio as a site where history is perpetually restaged and reconsidered." Then there's Artist in His Studio (which appears above in the context of book cover). Says MCA: "Artist in His Studio alludes to Graham's other role as a musician, with a subtly offensive hand gesture perhaps betraying a conflicted sense of the kind of studio artist he would prefer to be."

Or it's a joke. "Subtly offensive hand gesture"? Where I'm from we call it the finger. Graham's work — as well as that of some others in the show — is funny, and for MCA to just ignore that fact, seems to me to be missing out on a large part of what's there. Plus, it perpetuates the problem of alienating a lay audience by insisting that there's something they're not seeing. Sometimes work is just funny. Why don't we embrace it already?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

A New Face in Los Angeles

by Forrest Jones

Classical music is a tough sell these days. To meet someone who regularly buys and listens to classical music is a rare event, and it is even stranger if that person is under 50. In today’s world of instant information and entertainment on demand, people just don’t have the patience to sit and listen to a beautiful 45-minute piece of music. If we all just set aside a few hours to really listen to some classical music, it might bring a little peace and focus into our overloaded, fast-paced lives.

Right now, classical music needs someone to bring the younger generation back, and that person could be the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s new conductor, Gustavo Dudamel. Dudamel is a young (29 years old), energetic, charismatic conductor from Venezuela. In his concerts conducting the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra in his home country, he has led the orchestra in exciting performances of varied literature, from Mozart to Mahler to West Side Story. Any good orchestra can play music well, but he knows how to make an orchestra sound exciting and fresh. Hopefully, this new sense of creativity and energy will lure in some new fans who didn’t consider classical music before.

Dudamel is a product of the excellent music education system that is in place in Venezuela, which provides music classes to poor children throughout the country. This system has been so effective, that Dudamel might merely be the first spark in an explosion of Venezuelan talent that could potentially land on the international classical music scene.

Since a conductor is also an ambassador to the public, this background could play an important role in his philosophy. As a music educator myself, I hope that Dudamel spreads a renewed sense of the importance of music in public schools. The popularity of standardized testing combined with the budget problems of many school districts has led to reductions and elimination of music programs, and the hardest hit places are the low socio-economic areas. With his experience in the Venezuelan system, hopefully he can be a catalyst for a renaissance in music education.

Of course, he also has to be a good conductor. If he can’t lead a major orchestra, then it doesn’t matter what he says. To find out, I listened to his recording of Gustav Mahler’s First Symphony with the L.A. Phil (Deutsche Grammaphon). The first great thing about this recording is that it is taken from several live concerts spliced together. It is edited, for sure, but it is still a more accurate representation of an orchestra’s prowess than a studio session, in my opinion. In listening to this recording, you get a sense of this live feeling with applause at the end and coughing in between movements. It adds to the feeling a little bit, and reminds you that this is a living, breathing orchestra that you are listening to.

As for the music, the orchestra not only plays beautifully, but with some style. Some sections are a little slower than I expected, but I really like the casual pace. It allows you to soak in the melodies a little more, and I found myself listening to them more closely than before because you really can hear every note.

This symphony is so dense and thick, that it is difficult for orchestras to play with great balance. Under Dudamel’s leadership, however, every background detail is very clear without overpowering the melody. It isn’t just a muddy wall of sound, like many recordings before this one. This means that I have heard things in this work that I never really noticed before, and I am quite familiar with the First Symphony.

What really stands out to me, though, is how the conductor does a wonderful job of portraying the elements of Mahler’s young, somewhat sarcastic personality in this work. For example, the second movement almost sounds like an 1890s dance party, and as a result, Dudamel has some fun with it. It starts with a simple but heavy bass line, moving at an absurdly slow tempo. When the rest of the “band” comes in, they try to get things back up to speed, but the basses, of course, slow it back down every chance they get. The horns, then, want to take it ever faster, so the entire movement seems like a battle between sections. At one point, the movement seemingly ends with a big bang, but the horns start to play again, as if to say “We aren’t done yet!” You can almost imagine a drunk and incompetent chamber orchestra playing for a crowded tavern, in which they can barely keep the music going. It is a fun movement.

The third movement, though, is a strange play on the song “Frere Jacques”. The melody is familiar, but it is actually in a minor key, and quite slow. The first instrument playing the tune is a rare solo string bass. This gives it the feeling of a funeral march, but why such a familiar tune? It is weird, but still intriguing.

The finale is a bombastic one with lots of fast notes in the violins and flutes, and brass and percussion playing loudly. It is exciting music, and the orchestra doesn’t disappoint. The beauty, drama, and humor of Gustav Mahler’s work is outstanding, and Gustavo Dudamel really takes advantage of it. This is a very good beginning for this young conductor. Remember the name and keep an eye out for him. Hopefully he can put classical music back on the map.