Beauty and the Gray

For most people conceptual or “modern” art is either hit or miss. Some find the subtleties and minimalism of this style to be fascinating; others see it as simply uninspired or lacking true art aesthetics. Whatever your feelings may be there are certain figures in the contemporary art arena whose work and unique style and technique stands strong with the best. 

The Art Institute of Chicago, in collaboration with New York’s Metropolitan Museum of art, is currently hostingGray, a major exhibition chronicling the work of American multi-faceted artist, Jasper Johns from some of his selected periods. Focusing solely on the artist’s work with gray tones, the exposition is an extremely comprehensive overview of John’s fascination with the simplicities of the neutral color over five decades of his career.

Johns has been labeled many things–abstract expressionist, pop artist, and neo-Dadaist–none of which truly define his work. His fascination with the range and tonality of color (and with his gray work, the definition and neutrality of color) has always been present. Similar to pop artists of past and present, Johns has always utilized familiar images and themes (his two most famous pieces, Map and Flag, both focus on visual everyday emblems that we are familiar with thus forcing the viewer to look past the subject). Finally he sees his canvases and works as objects, often utilizing sensations such as texture as well as three-dimensional found objects (usually everyday items such as balls or clothes hangers). 

This exhibit is divided into the different themes and epochs of his gray pieces, beginning with early abstract oil paintings circa the 1950s, which focus on the shades between the monochromatic polars, black and white. The final room is devoted to Johns’ most recent pieces, theCatenary series (1997-2003), which marked a return to his gray form and focused on line and plane utilizing string and other fully dimensional objects that jump off the canvases. While these early and coda works are important to the exhibit’s overall theme and evolution, the work during the middle years, particularly his gray drafts and re-workings of some of his most famous pieces, truly make the strongest lasting impression. 

In the same vein as Map and Flag, both of which have whole series and studies devoted to gray, Johns fascination with numbers and letters are some of the exhibits finest specimens.  Focusing again on everyday iconography (the letters A-Z; numbers 0-9), Johns takes something the eye is familiar with and strips it down to a raw form. 

The bulk middle years, including the MapFlagLettersNumbers and Target series, also illustrate Johns fascination with multiple mediums for the canvas, everything from drawings and sketches, oil paintings, printmaking and stenciling, to the most fascinating; the encaustic paintings and collages. The encaustic technique, which Johns used throughout his career and brought to the forefront of modern art, involves the blending of color pigments with hot wax, which, when layered, creates a one of the kind texture to the canvases. In regards to his use of the canvas as an object and entity of the work Johns has said, “The canvas is object, the paint is object, and object is object. Once the canvas can be taken to have any kind of spatial meaning, then the object can be taken to have that meaning within the canvas.” 

Also featured heavily throughout the exhibit are Johns ink on plastic works, which pair up perfectly with his gray themes and create a one of a kind effect, particularly his re-workings of his Target series (large scale bulls-eye forms) in this unique medium. Similar to the encaustic technique, the ink on plastic pieces create a finish and an allusion to texture that jumps off the white walls, which they are hung. 

The most curious and bizarre part of the exhibit (also the easiest to miss) is the tucked away room containing some of John’s early ventures into sculpture. The handful of gray painted bronze busts also focus on common icons such as household objects like light bulbs, which, despite their minimalism, are fascinating illustrations of his talents outside the canvas. His bronze sculpture, The Critic Sees, a scathing critique of scathing art critics (Johns had his share of negative reviews) is one of the more underappreciated highlights of the exhibition that should not be missed. 

Featuring roughly 130 different works covering a range of different mediums Gray may seem a bit daunting at first but as you flow through the various rooms and watch the evolution of the artist’s work unfold, it’s difficult not to find a certain level of beauty beneath such a stale, achromatic color. For spectators not familiar with the work of Jasper Johns, Gray may appear as a bit of a specific introduction since much of his work is vibrant with color. That said, Gray encompasses themes of Johns work that he has explored all throughout his career and since the exhibit spans five different decades it’s a perfect way to witness an artist’s transformation and maturation. 

Jasper Johns: Gray will be at The Art Institute of Chicago’s Regenstein Hall until January 6, 2008 and will run at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art from February 5 to May 4, 2008. For more information visit

Cinema For the Holidays

Festive string lights are going up all over town, Christmas trees are hanging off the roofs of cars and consumers are lining up ready to be hearded into various retail giants like sheep. Yes it’s safe to say that the Holiday season is officially in full swing. Normally I get turned off of all the post Thanksgiving holiday mayhem, however, one part of this season that is consistently a high point for me are holiday movies, particularly holiday comedies. Just as Thanksgiving marks the beginning of shopping nightmares or the eating of foods with words like nog and log, the television waves are chock full of holiday films of present and yesteryears. Some are good, others not so good (anyone know why the savvy individuals in the DVD industry decided we needed a reissued special “Family Fun” edition of Gov Schwarzenegger’s Jingle All the Way) but one thing is for sure, certain holiday films can be revisited and enjoyed year after year. The following is a short-list of some of my favorite holiday flick picks. 

A Christmas StoryOkay so this one goes without saying. Maybe it’s the fact that I grew up watching this film and have seen it more times than I can remember but for me this is the best Christmas film out there. Where to begin: Ovaltine, the little orphan Annie’s secret decoder ring, the furnace fighter, the luminescent leg lamp, Skut Farkus’ red eyes and yellow teeth, the Chinese Christmas, and of course the Red Rider bee-bee gun. This is a classic that actually spawned a sequel, the lighthearted, “It Runs in the Family.” Please seek this movie out if you haven’t had the pleasure yet. Standout scene: the creepy department store Santa Claus and his posse of nasty elves..

The RefReleased when Kevin Spacey was still a great character actor, this Holiday dark horse about a fast talking burglar (the always good Denis Leary) who takes a highly dysfunctional family hostage on Christmas eve is one of the most honest looks at the stress of the holidays on the modern marriage. The film is also a wonderfully scathing look at life in suburbia made long before CAmerican Beauty. Standout performance: Glynis Johns as one of the vilest mother in-laws ever brought home for the holidays. 

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles—Remember when John Hughes was a master of the family and teen comedies of the great 80s? Remember how funny, charming, and warm the late great John Candy was? This may be one of the funniest films ever and is without a doubt the best comedy about the horrors of holiday travel. Set right before Thanksgiving, this odd couple story of a family man (Steve Martin) who partners up with a highly obnoxious shower curtain ring salesman (Candy) with hopes of getting home for the holidays by any means of transportation possible. Made long before Tommy Boy, a somewhat similar travel comedy, this situational comedy is a classic that has aged well. Standout performance: Character actor Dylan Baker’s brilliant bit role as Owen, the tobacco-chewing hillbilly who drives the duo to Wichita. 

Home For the Holidays—Paired with the above mentioned, this is another classic Thanksgiving film that also shows the stress and horrors of large family gatherings. Directed by Jodie Foster (weird huh), this film is about how even in the most dysfunctional, chaotic reunions families can come together and embrace what they have. While this film is a dark comedy it is also a very mature and realistic look at what goes into dealing with a family and the love that is often overshadowed. Holly Hunter, Anne Bancroft and Claire Danes all shine still the one standout performance has to go to the always great Robert Downey Jr. who was apparently struggling with his addiction to drugs during the filming. 

Scrooged—Richard Donner’s brilliant 80s comedy starring Bill Murray in his prime is a modern retelling of Dickens. While the film deals with greed and bah humbug Christmas spirit, it is the film’s portrayal of absurd commercialized televised Christmas specials that really makes this film a gem. Murray’s Frank Cross, a wretched network exec out to milk as much money from the holidays by commercializing/butchering Dickens’ classic Christmas Carol is priceless. Besides the extremely funny casting of spry gymnast Mary Lou Retton (remember her) as Tiny Tim, Cross’ Carol for the modern age is an intense big budget disaster with the tagline, “acid rain, drug addiction, international terrorism, freeway killers. Now more than ever it is important to remember the true meaning of Christmas. Don’t miss Charles Dickens’ immortal classic, Scrooge. You’re life just may depend on it.” The network also has a TV spot for Robert Goulet’s Old Style Cajun Christmas. Priceless. Standout performance: 80s comedy icon, Carol Kane as the Ghost of Christmas Present.

There you have it. All of these films are on DVD and most will no doubt be littering the cable networks during the upcoming weeks before Christmas.

Malick’s America

“In this world, a man, himself, ain’t nothing. And there ain’t no world but this one.”
“You’re wrong there, I’ve seen another world.”
—The Thin Red Line

There are a number of master filmmakers working today, untouchables you might call them, who continue to make the crème of the crop and whose films are judged not in terms of good or bad but rather by levels of brilliance. Scorsese, the Coen Brothers, Spielberg, possibly Tarantino, at one point Francis Ford Coppola, are just a couple names that come to mind. Then there is Terrence Malick who, despite having only four films under his belt and lacking the notoriety of the latter names, is one of the finest, critically acclaimed, and most mysterious American filmmakers alive today.

It’s hard to warrant calling someone a master with such a limited film canon; still few filmmakers are as unique and majestic in their craft as Malick. Jumping in the spotlight with 1973’s Badlands, a Bonnie and Clyde-esque epic starring a young Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, Malick quickly established himself as an up and coming visionary due to his unique visual style, passion for natural settings, and a harsh but honest portrayal of the America way of life, the country’s history, and the stark realities of the “American dream,” a theme that carries on through all his films.

Badlands, which was based on a real life murder account set in the Midwest, is a film that deals with two characters’ boredom with the social realities of the America they live in–the normality of Sheen’s character’s dead-end job, the unfair class infrastructure and finally the desire to escape to the vast open spaces of our country. 

I was recently reminded of Malick, whose movies I revisit at least once a year–his films are a sort of mesmerizing experience that only seem to improve with age–after renting Malick’s recently re-released sophomore film, Days of Heaven. Beautifully restored with time and care by the brilliant people over at the Criterion Collection, the only true bastion of the preservation of cinematic classics on DVD, Heaven is one of the most beautifully photographed films of all time. 

Arguably Malick’s most eye opening motion picture to date, Heaven is a film that deals with the American frontier dreams as seen through the eyes of some young, ambitious laborers circa the early 20th century. Richard Gere (quite possibly his only substantial role) stars as a young troublemaker who is forced to flee Chicago after a tussle at his factory job, and moves with his girlfriend and her sister to the Texas panhandle to find work as a farm laborer. While the story involves a vicious love triangle and deals with people who try to take the easy road to fortune and prosperity, it is the film’s visuals, particularly the wide angle shots of the American plains set on a backdrop of dawn/dusk half-light that truly makes this film a masterpiece. Watching the film is like witnessing a Walker Evans, Dorthea Lange, or Ansel Adams photograph come alive in brilliant color, accompanied by a moving score.

Few filmmakers rely so heavily on stunning cinematography and the use of au natural setting as a major entity of their work as Malick does time after time. He has been labeled a frontier filmmaker for his fascination with the evolution of this country. His work is often riddled with metaphors and underlying philosophical meanings, a facet of his films that often deters viewers who are quick to label him pretentious. Above all though, his films are visually breathtaking, often working with the finest cinematographers and scouting the most picturesque locations.

By capturing the natural beauty of this country and later with the rest of the world (as seen through the South Pacific Islands of The Thin Red Line), Malick is able to showcase the clashing of people and the environment in a way that few filmmakers have ever done. Days of Heaven is a film about frontier Westward expansion and the greed and corruption that came along with it. The scenes of the laborers working in unity as a sort of machine are visually beautiful thanks to Malick’s unique eye but are also saddening because it shows the fast pace of change and expansion that transformed and in many ways destroyed this country’s natural order.

After Days of Heaven, which was well received, even garnering a controversial Academy Award for cinematography (two notable cinematographers, only one recognized); Malick became a J.D. Salinger-esque recluse, vanishing out of the public’s eye for twenty years. Many speculated that Malick was working on the great American novel; others believed he was writing an epic screenplay, some even speculated that he had died. It wasn’t until 1997 that he made his highly anticipated return in the form of The Thin Red Line, an epic Asia-Pacific theatre World War II film with a brilliant cast of notable and up and coming actors. Loosely based on the novel of the same name (supposedly a much longer, “true to the book” cut of the film is out there with narration by Billy Bob Thornton), Line chronicles the U.S. army’s takeover of Guadalcanal in the South Pacific during the war with Japan. Paired with Spielberg’s brutal but mesmerizing Saving Private Ryan (released curiously enough around the same time), this is the finest World War II film ever made. 
While not set on U.S. soil like his two prior films, Line is as much a film about America as it is about ‘the War.’ The many characters featured in the film each cling to the memories of the comfortable America they have in the back of their minds while the realities and chaos of the war around them provide a harsh wakeup call to the fact that the world is lot bigger than the their innocent small town life they’ve come to know. A couple soldiers, particularly Private Witt (played wonderfully by future Jesus Christ superstar, Jim Caviezel), see the grandeur and beauty of the world that they are helping to destroy but are slowly sucked back into their mission. Like all his films, Malick uses images of the vast natural surroundings to show serenity, beauty and the pulsing lifeline of our planet and then depicts its vulnerability through the mayhem of war and man’s devastating footprints. Few films are as affective at showing the absurd, chaotic, and futile nature of war than The Thin Red Line

In 2005 Malick returned to a script that he had been working on since the 70s (possibly what he was toying with during his twenty-year hiatus) about the landing at Jamestown and America’s “unofficial” conception. People were quick to label The New World a retelling of the Pocahontas and John Smith story, sans talking raccoons and boisterous river canoe songs, when in reality (again like all Malick films) there was more to the film than just the love story. 

The New World is in many ways an extension of all of Malick’s previous works and is also a precursor to the American theme he’s worked with throughout his career. The film chronicles America’s first hour and the slow, inevitable downward spiral that followed. It deals with expansion and the birth of modern civilization paired with the slow destruction of the preexistent natural order. The film’s gorgeous opening five minutes set to the stirring string and horn crescendo of Wagner’s beautiful “Vorspiel Prelude” from Das Rheingold is a scene that, in the same vein of 2001: A Space Odyssey, is the perfect pairing of imagery and sound. 

The films of Terrence Malick are not for everyone. His use of long shots, voice-over narration, and scripts that dabble in philosophical prose often leave viewers befuddled. Despite casting big names like Colin Farrell, Christian Bale, Sean Penn, George Clooney etc, his movies are not your average popcorn epics. I remember attending an opening night screening of The New World with a group of college friends and being the only one to leave the theater even remotely satisfied (they hated it that much). Still he is an important filmmaker who continues to create unique movies that stand alone, and with a new project, the mysterious The Tree of Life, on the horizon, it’s evident that Malick is eager to contribute more to the world of cinema.

Art Rock

Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) is currently hosting Sympathy for the Devil: Art and Rock and Roll Since 1967, a comprehensive and at times fascinating look at the meshing of visual art and rock and roll over the years. The exhibit, which runs until January 6, chronicles the relationship between artists and rock music across the globe while also tapping into a number of subgenres. 

Named after the Rolling Stones hit single offBeggar’s Banquet, a curious choice since the Stones are featured sparingly, the exhibition is broken up into several different wings, each paying homage to a different significant rock and roll hub. From New York, Detroit, Los Angeles, London and Manchester in the U.K., Cologne, Germany, the multi platform art displayed represents certain elements from the cities and their unique sounds. Album cover art, promotional poster sheets, music videos and video art, rock and roll photography, traditional 2D paintings and drawings, and even sonic art soaked in via headphones, surround sound loudspeaker rooms and even a makeshift sound recording booth that can be reserved by anyone out to make a demo tape. 

While true art snobs may find the exhibit to be underwhelming, rock purists may be unforgiving for the lack of attention given to certain genres and equally important music scenes, and casual rock listeners may become jaded after the first couple rooms, the exposition is affective at examining how art was once a major influence on the music world and vise versa. The one troubling aspect of the exhibit is how little there is about the use of art in recent rock and hip-hop movements.

Sure the exposition covers obvious art-house favorites such as avant-garde guitar shoe gazers Sonic Youth (band member Kim Gordon is featured heavily throughout the exhibit) but little more is covered post the early 90s alt rock and punk epoch. While this lack of attention given to my generation left me a bit baffled I began to realize that in many ways art is no longer as significant to rock music as it once was. 

I remember as a kid discovering my parent’s massive record collection and immediately being drawn to the dazzling visuals that were featured on the LP covers. From the famous Andy Warhol crotch zipper on the Stones’ Sticky Fingers, the mysterious naked children figures perched on the sea of rocks on Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy LP, the washed out distorted faces of Talking Heads on Remain in Light, the Dalí inspired surrealism of Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, to the Beatles, an art conscious band that released some of the most noteworthy cover art in history. The use of art in rock albums was at one point as big a focus as the fine-tuning of sound, the poetry of the lyrics and appearance/persona of the band or musician. Lately though I think it’s safe to say that the link between rock music and the art world is growing thin. 

It could be said that the death of vinyl and the slow but steady demise of CDs are to blame for a downfall of album art, with more attention spent on the marketing and methods of selling and distributing music there is less attention or care given to the art (I mean iTunes packages albums with “digital booklets,” but I can’t help but think it is a noble but poor replacement for liner notes). 

This argument goes well beyond merely cover art, which, as far as I’m concerned, is the best place to look for a band’s visual art influences. One of the most fascinating parts of the MCA exhibit dealt with underground punk bands of the 80s and their use of cheaply made and distributed promotional posters, many of which were artistically and politically creative. While the “do it yourself” underground music mentality is still alive today we rarely see promotional poster art, the kind that made you stop on a street corner, since we now have Myspace pages and websites (don’t get me wrong, one could make a strong argument for the advantages of the internet and the many artistically designed sites out there.)

Then there are music videos, which during the 80s and 90s became a controversial yet extremely popular way of mixing art with music. Some people argued that spoon feeding listeners images to go along with the lyrics of a song was a poor replacement for your imagination, however, there were many conceptual artists who used these shorts in creative and fascinating ways. 

Most people know about the handful of unique film directors working today who got their starts in music videos and commercials. There were certain videos that we as music lovers actually looked forward to watching, videos that took our favorite songs in extremely unique directions. I remember watching Michael Jackson’s “Black and White” song premiere after The Simpsons (corny I know) as a young lad, waiting in my friends basement for Nirvana’s “Heart Shape Box” video to come on, crossing my fingers for the VJ to play Beastie Boys’ hilarious “Sabotage” video or yearning for that next Beck video to come out, a musician who overlooked/visualized the majority of his highly stylized and brilliant videos.

Today it’s hard for me to remember the last truly great video I saw (Mark Romanek’s ultra bizarre but extremely wicked modern art museum inspired video for the Chili Peppers’ “Can’t Stop” song may take the cake). Sure artists like Radiohead, Bjork, Muse, Missy Elliott, Beck, Franz Ferdinand or Jay-Z still put out fairly unique, eye opening videos and certain artists still take great album cover art seriously (I may be the only one who dug Pearl Jam’s minimalist avocado cover on their last album), but for the most part music these days seems more concerned with the “to steal or not to steal” debate than extending their creativity past simply the music. 

What struck me as interesting about the MCA exhibit was how important the use of art once was. To have your photograph taken by someone like Robert Mapplethorpe (he did Patti Smith’s Horses album) or be sponsored by a visionary like Andy Warhol (who himself was idolized by musicians and artists) was something to aspire to. Bands like New Order (there is a fascinating look at the design of Order’s Power, Corruption, & Lies floral still-life album cover on display at the MCA), Funkadelic, 70s era Miles Davis Frank Zappa, or the slew of progressive rockers from the 70s (ELO, Yes, Asia, Genesis, Pink Floyd, King Crimson, almost all these groups relied heavily on visual art often using up and coming surrealist portrait artists like Roger Dean or ahead of their time graphic designers like Storm Storgerson) had a passion for art that went beyond the notes they played. Today though it seems like the biggest aspirations a musician can have is to work with a hotshot producer (uh hum, Glen Ballard) or have there song featured on whatever ridiculous “Laguna Whore” reality show is the fad that week (note that this statement does not cover every musician working today because there are some keeping the marriage of sound and vision alive. Just the majority).

Walking around the MCA I was curious as to what a similar exhibit might look like 20 years from now. How will future generations view the current state of music we’re in? Sure there have been advents in technology and I fully support the internet’s role in distributing music but I can’t help but think that we’re losing something with this change. There was something aesthetically pleasing about walking around the Sympathy exhibition. Seeing the full size carefully drawn posters, seeing how certain album covers were designed or walking over the room of vinyl records (you’ll see). The MCA exhibit is worth checking out (Tuesday is a free day so how can you not!) for anyone interested in learning about a fascinating piece of rock and roll history.