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Sunday, June 19, 2016

WORDS, WORDS, WORDS 6/19/16

Drawings of Parents, charcoal/paper, 30"x22", 1981

GERHARD J. GRAUPE 1911-1993


A few months before my father died, I completed a painting titled SO HARD TO SAY GOODBYE - twenty-three years later, he still haunts my work. In the last two years of his life, he too had a hard time saying goodbye. Like a battered boxer knocked down and counted out, he kept holding on. People commented on his “quality of life” after a stroke narrowed his world, depriving him of the ability to speak or to swallow, thereby preventing him from ever eating or drinking again, and leaving him so weakened that he could  barely move. Yet, I selfishly cherished those last two years. Losing the power to “voice” his needs and desires, I became fascinated with the words that he wrote on a notepad in a spidery, shaky handwriting, scribbling all over the page, as if the ruled lines that he had always lived by, were finally flung away, strange characters landing aimlessly on the page. 

My father was an intelligent, unassuming and gentle person who was not effusive with his affection, though he loved his family deeply. In today’s world of shifting alliances his overweening devotion to my mother would be viewed as unusual. Fleeing from Nazi Germany soon after he graduated from Berlin’s Technische Hochschule at a time when other young people were beginning their careers, he escaped to Brazil and from there emigrated to America. He was barely able to “save” his future wife and her parents but tragically unable to get visas for his own mother and father who were killed in the concentration camps. He discovered at an early age that the world was chaotic so he became a “careful” man supporting his family as lead architect, designing “unglamorous,” yet much needed middle-income housing in NYC such as Co-Op City in the Bronx, Seward Park on The Lower East Side  and Penn Station South in Chelsea. 

 Shortly after retiring, my father became ill and needed by-pass surgery. During the operation he suffered a small stroke, all visible signs of which disappeared in the subsequent rehabilitation. It took another three years of TIA’s (transitory ischemic attacks) with my father finding himself on the ground wondering how he got there, before he sustained the massive stroke that landed him in the hospital for 5 months, (including a futile effort at rehabilitation.) During that time he would sit in the wheelchair and painstakingly attempt to communicate. Words were scribbled over sheets of paper, appearing in corners, running down the sides, sometimes repeating over and over the same half-completed thought, expressing the anarchy and jumble of his mind. Yet after deciphering the bizarre script, I realized that the words clearly articulated his tenuous situation in the hospital where he could not even call out or ring for assistance. He railed against the staff: THEY CHANGED MY POSITION;...FEEDING NOT CONSTANT...WHO WERE THE MURDERERS LAST NIGHT? ...THE NOSE IS CLOGGED BECAUSE OF THE BARBARIC PUNISHMENT...THERE WAS A KNOT IN THE LINE.. WHO MAKES ME SLEEPY ALL DAY? and the final denouement THE HOSPITAL IS STEALING MY LIFE. Punctuated throughout were cries of HELP! HELP! HELP! My father was also able to convey a profound awareness of his existential crisis writing: MYSELF, CRY-SELF…I CAN’T TALK - I CAN’T SMILE...AM I BEING PUNISHED?…I’M STUCK…TOO DARK...DON’T CUT ME OFF… 

The most poignant of written utterances occurred when my father was having difficulty completing a simple task in Occupational Therapy. Utterly frustrated, he scratched out on crumpled, stained paper - I USED TO BE O.K. ...I AM A RETIRED ARCHITECT. Witnessing this encounter, I felt an ineffable heartbreak,which reinforced my decision to do everything I could to facilitate his ability to express the anguish, despair, and still flickering hope of recovery. When I asked if he wanted to continue living,  he responded without equivocation - YES; that he wanted to inhale the daily scents, sounds and beauty of  the world with all its inexplicable enigma and spectacle.  Of course, that made sense to me,  since I remembered how much he enjoyed sitting on the back porch in the Bronx chuckling quietly to himself. while listening to the feisty bluejays squawking and fighting, while singing their agitated songs.
In My Father's Words, 82"x49", pastels/cutout canvas, 1991

We finally took my father home from the hospital accompanied by drugs with exotic names such as lanoxin, procardia, dilantin, clonidine and lopressor, feeding tube instructions, a wheelchair and a lift to help raise and lower him out of bed. We were frightened by the responsibility of keeping him alive, though my mother shouldered most of the burden. The anxiety level was palpable; the task over-whelming; but a routine was soon established. Slowly his spirits improved and I often caught him smiling. Every day he was given the NY Times to read, a ritual established when he first immigrated to his adopted country reading the paper cover-to-cover. When I visited, I usually found him tremulously grasping the paper, appearing to read every word even if the newspaper was upside down. In the evenings he lay in his rented hospital bed, arm outstretched, holding my mother’s hand while she rested in her bed, as they watched television. I felt that he clung to life, even in the most dire of circumstances, just to get one more glimpse of her. 

The intense need to write words gradually diminished due to his being home in familiar surroundings, and later because he was depleted by additional strokes. Eventually the paper and pencils disappeared from his bedside. It was time to say goodbye when his body with its relentless breakdowns retreated into unconsciousness. My father’s face looked the same, but his gaze no longer followed me around the room.

 I collected my father’s notations and took them home, isolating phrases and poring over the indecipherable marks. In the studio his attempts at communication were taking on a fresh presence, generating a new series of paintings. My artwork, which had always dealt with the figure, often depicting people seen as outsiders on the edge of mainstream society, now began to incorporate language. One canvas showed my father lying on his death bed with his unspoken words “tattooed” over a vitiated frame, giving voice to the pain, enigma and poetry of his dying. I subsequently imprinted those silent cries on seemingly unrelated images often dealing with political and social issues. Eventually this series came to be titled WORD PORTRAITS, the sources originating from my father’s inability to speak were now existing on their own transmuting sorrow into visual existence. 

Andromeda, 70"x69", pastels/cutout canvas, 1991

Finality, 33"x 122", pastels/cutout canvas, 1993

CLICK ON PHOTOGRAPHS TO ENLARGE THEM.



Monday, June 13, 2016

PEAKY BLINDERS - NETFLIX SERIES 6/13/16


PEAKY BLINDERS 

Definition: n. One of a class of hoodlums or hooligans in the Midlands, England: so called from their custom of wearing the peaks of their caps drawn down over their eyes when at their nefarious practices.



I love PEAKY BLINDERS, a visceral and beautifully envisaged British series on Netflix, not only for presenting the sting and stench of the brutal effects of poverty on the working poor, but giving us a sense of place - the pungent, smoke filled pavements of a post WW I metal working industrial city - fires blazing in the blackened alleys while the sunlight battles to make its way through the acrid polluted haze. In the center of town, we discern men’s bodies silhouetted by a deep yellow-orange glow from the red hot fires needed for fabrication, ovens spewing out soot and heat in the midst of the dusty, mud covered streets; torsos wet with the sweat of laboring night and day to survive in Birmingham England. 

A magnificent white horse emerging out of the darkened mist moving in slow motion, feet hitting the cobblestones with a  rhythmic clop clop clop - the only sound echoing in the stillness of the moment - an example of the stunning cinematography and the dramatic use of music that complements and completes the violent and poetic tone of the narrative. Expressive acting makes PEAKY BLINDERS not just a story about the Shelby Brothers - a violent street gang descended from Romas/Gypsies, outcasts who have taken over Birmingham through fear and intimidation, but a cautionary epic fable.

The leader of the “PEAKY BLINDERS” is Thomas Shelby ( an excellent performance by Cillian Murphy), a handsome, baby-faced young man with pellucid blue-eyes which appear to change colors along with his moods -from jet black when melancholy, to the hue of the infinite sky once he meets and falls in love with Grace (a lovely Annabelle Wallis,) an Irish barmaid who works in one of his establishments. Their deeply felt,  enduring love story, gives us a glimpse into Thomas’ interior self - the antithesis of his gang’s calculating brutality and callous actions.




Thomas has returned from World War I, a hero, bedecked with medals, but  besieged by horrific memories of what he had witnessed in the trenches in Europe, which can only be tranquilized by drugs self-injected in the privacy of his room.  Yet Thomas Shelby does not operate in a vacuum - war has given him a renewed connection to the world outside his familiar “backyard,”  and early 20th Century political history is interwoven into the plot; the  “Peaky Blinders” gang are recruited into covert operations that impact Britain’s international relationships with other countries. Behind the facade of openness and transparency,  stratagems were as twisted and covert then as they are today a hundred years later.

There are many wonderful characters In PEAKY BLINDERS, and in the course of the series, when impacted by events most of  them go through intrinsic transformations. I am partial to Aunt Polly (Helen McCrory)- the matriarch of the family, wary of “outsiders”, whose personal background is strewn with the ghosts of those who have maimed and spit upon her. She embodies a woman who survived unspeakable abuse, and her shrewd advice is respected - having a voice in deciding which stratagems should be followed, guarding her family’s interests with the ferociousness of a lioness over her frolicking yet dangerous cubs. 



Arthur Shelby (Paul Anderson) is the maniacal, oldest of the Shelby clan - the brother who should have been the titular chief of the group, but his decisions are clouded by alcohol along with an insane temper that is frequently  propelling him to search for an opportunity to use his fists to batter someone into submission. Watching him move - ambling along the streets - his long limbs awkwardly jerking by his side - head slanting forward, his lean body screams a warning to anyone who might get in his way. 

And then there is one of my favorite actors, Tom Hardy who never disappoints, playing an anomaly - Alfie Solomon, a religious Jewish gangster, a  sometime ally of Thomas Shelby and at other times a treacherous opponent. When Hardy is on the screen, his presence dominates; there is a black humor to his performance especially when he quotes from the Old Testament while wielding a lethal weapon - blood exploding all over the walls, under his feet, and blinding his eyes. 



PEAKY BLINDERS is a morality tale told without relinquishing its immorality. The most egregiously despairing scenes are filmed with a delicacy and sensitivity to the light and shadows of the existing ambience - be it malignant or sublime. Life in the slums of England are not glossed over or sentimentalized; overstepping ones class “boundaries” is not hubris, but rather a  case of uncooked ambition and dreams achieved…..at a cost.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

IT CAN (FINALLY) HAPPEN HERE - HILLARY CLINTON NOMINEE FOR PRESIDENT 6/12/16


My article on the impact on me of a woman being the Democratic Party's presumptive nominee for President is published in: Women's Voices For Change.

Click on link: http://womensvoicesforchange.org/it-can-finally-happen-here.htm
Or
http://bit.ly/1XPz0n4


Thursday, June 9, 2016

REFLECTIONS ON HOUSE OF CARDS 6/9/16

Viewed HOUSE OF CARDS on Netflix and was disappointed after all the accolades the series had received. The lead characters, Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and his wife, Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) exhibit ambitious, clawing behavior which quickly gets boring and predictable, yet I continued to binge watch all four seasons, naively searching for some humanity under their steely exteriors; even when President Frank Underwood was in the hospital waiting for a liver transplant - his hallucinations were reliably monstrous. The only person who appears to have been sporadically conscience stricken was the President's Chief of Staff, Doug Stamper played beautifully by Michael Kelly. I found him to be the series’ most complex character - one who periodically "suffered" through his deeds occasionally questioning his actions and exhibiting some doubts in the face of his clearly psychotic behavior. Otherwise I never could get past Spacey's smirky face and Wright's ice queen/straight backed demeanor; when she made love, passion was corralled and lips remained dry, fleshy softness obliterated.

I continued watching because HOUSE OF CARDS does give us some insight into the way Congress operates, cynical as that might be. Particularly evident were the public lies vs. private crimes; the labyrinthine machinations involved with dealmaking and taking a peek at the rare, lonely public official who could not be "bought." Integrity is presented as absent and deaf, slinking out of the room when someone is elected to public office; regrettably no one is immune to deceitful “horse-trading."


The ending of Season 4 is right out of film WAG THE DOG - the ultimate contemptuous solution to weakened power.

Monday, June 6, 2016

PHILIP GUSTON 1957-1967 EXHIBITION AT HAUSER & WIRTH 6/6/16

Since the mid-1960's I have had a special place in my heart for Philip Guston, even though I had not yet, ever heard of him or seen his paintings. He was a juror who awarded me a drawing fellowship at The Art Student's League, a much needed financial and ego boost.
Shortly thereafter - in 1970 I was sitting in my studio in Albuquerque, NM and was startled to read one of the worst attacks on an artist that I had ever seen - a review of Philip Guston's new body of work in The NY Times by the art critic Hilton Kramer titled “A Mandarin Pretending to be a Stumblebum.” I was confused since I really liked what I saw in the new work - it had a power that was direct, with the simplicity of a cartoon catapulted into raw and fresh invention screaming injustice and personal pain.

The exhibition at Hauser & Wirth of Guston's early 1967-67 paintings brought me back in time. This exhibition focuses on the early artworks - the abstract gestural, piling up of paint, forms hovering in the center of the canvas - never going beyond the edges - gestures not allowed to breathe despite the frenetic brushwork, but rather caged in by the framing white of the canvas. They felt old and musty - I could almost smell the mildew. It might have been the lighting which was dimmed, but I believe it was the work itself - these early pieces seemed relegated to the dustbin of history brought out to give us historical context for the great works which were to come. As we moved into the other rooms, all chronological - we could sense the difference. Grays and pinks and black appear - still floating but a change was a coming.

And then in the last room, I saw the drawings lined up in a row as they were originally seen in Guston's studio - done after the "bad" review when he went off and did what he called "pure drawing." They were a revelation - the link between the what was, and what was to become - and they were terrific. I am a sucker for evidence of the "flesh" under the shell, and his awkward line allowed me entrance into his primordial self.



Saturday, June 4, 2016

CINDY SHERMAN EXHIBITION AT METRO PICTURES GALLERY, NYC 6/2/16


Regrettably I am confused and disappointed with Cindy Sherman's new large photographs at Metro Pictures Gallery. I realize that these photographs deal with artifice and the way "women of a certain age" were portrayed by Hollywood in the 1920's - ie: Gloria Swanson - the eyebrows penciled on - thin and hard etched into one's forehead with the precision of a knife and thereby erasing their humanity. Is Sherman indicting the power of the Motion Pictures Industry to set standards and tastes of that era and relegating the older woman to an object of derision? Or is she perpetuating those earlier myths?
Focusing on the theatricality of this particular "look" and ignoring Hollywood's other cliched portrayal of older women as homemakers, nurturers and loving grandmothers Sherman chooses to portray "glamorous" older women with a feline appearance - one that depicts aging as a process that invokes ridicule. The backgrounds that are intentionally photoshopped behind the figures are selected from movies and help to accentuate the contrivance.


These are powerful images, but they are also a one-note broad brush portrait of a generation. Each character is Cindy Sherman made up by professionals with different wigs and prosthetics, her altered appearances lit by expertsfrom the Industry - yet there was a sameness to every piece that I attributed to simplistic alterations to the make up - the sensuality of the mouth reduced to changing the curves of the upper lip, morphing from heart shape to pointy triangles; the eyebrows thin - some shorter some lengthened to accentuate eyes that felt vacant and brittle.
There is a poignancy to these images but it demands a commitment to digging behind the curtain of artfulness.