Sunday, December 27, 2015

THE BIG SHORT 12/27/15

I do not  grasp what Hedge Fund Managers do, or what Collateralized Debt Obligations (CODs), Credit Default Swaps, Mortgage Backed Securities  (MPS) and subprime mortgages are, and what it means to “short” something, but director Adam McCay’s THE BIG SHORT based on Michael Lewis’ book is an excellent film - both comedic and forcefully tragic with many fine actors making this a movie that is both entertaining and deceptively poignant. Surprisingly we do get to understand a lot of what was going on in the fiscal system without having to take a course in the particulars. This is accomplished through visuals - quick flashes of TV shows, cinema and pop stars, artworks, news headlines, sports figures, etc. all subliminally flashing before our eyes embedding the culture of money into our psyches. Throughout the film, there are witty respites whereby the camera exits the narrative, and various actors in wildly strange settings explain Wall Street jargon with idiosyncratic humor to make the “wheeling and dealing” more comprehensible. 

 I left the theater with an abysmal feeling of sadness, my voice cracking and tears in my eyes - not wanting to betray my emotions and my fierce anger at a capitalist system gone completely awry; rigged and fraudulent in handing the money of everyday working people whose pensions, domiciles, and livelihoods were placed into the hands of manipulative, raptor-like greedy banks and money managers. Billions - not millions - of dollars are just abstract numbers to be gambled with as the “party” keeps blasting upwards and onwards, monetary gains piling up, until it all implodes with aftershocks eventually destroying the income, employment and shuttering the homes of millions in the US and globally.

Many of the main characters are based on real people who worked for Lehman Brothers, Morgan Stanley and Bear Stearns among other firms. Christian Bale is terrific as Dr. Michael Burry, a Cassandra-like figure, an eccentric - characterized by walking around barefooted - who foresaw the mortgage collapse early on, watching banks bundle mortgages which were being given AAA ratings by Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s without proper examination of the underlying financial integrity of the lenders and borrowers. Burry decides to “short” - to bet on a future housing crisis debacle and is ultimately proven correct.

Steve Carell portrays Mark Baum, an irascible individual, who was one of the few conscience stricken players in the “money game”, trying to make participants aware of the looming future cataclysm, but also wrestling with his own hypocrisy in personally profiting from the 2008 world economic bankruptcy. He is an anguished “truth teller” antithetical to most characters engaging in this closed world of financial gains and losses, whose egos get propped up by the insubstantial glint of wealth.

The director McCay includes every type of  trader - from self-centered, sophomoric “masters of the universe” to those with some integrity and concern for their clients. The editing is quick and incredibly entertaining for a subject that could easily put many of us to sleep. In THE BIG SHORT we are made painfully aware of the collusion of institutions and governmental agencies, all profiting from the deception that the housing market was one of the best and most secure investments to be made.  We see the social and human ramifications of this delusion that brought world markets to the brink of financial collapse. 

Unlike previous  films about Wall Street, this is a true story - a tale that is still resonating in our minds and pocketbooks. Many ordinary persons were encouraged and seduced by the easy access to home ownership, low interest rates that often skyrocketed a few years later to the bewilderment of landlords and tenants who had to flee their properties. This drama showed how the Banks were “brought down“, but today we are still wondering  were they ever punished? Cynicism persists as new ploys and risky gambits continue to be placed before a gullible public by corruptible institutions functioning without legislated safeguards. THE BIG SHORT is a powerful indictment of Wall Street engineering of avarice - profiting the few and afflicting the lifestyles of the majority of Americans that they are called upon to serve.

Saturday, December 26, 2015


Saw a movie I never thought I would see and it is sticking with me. George Miller (at 70 years old) directed this last in the franchise and most probably the best - MAD MAX: FURY ROAD with one of my favorite actors - the silent Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa - the hero with a prosthetic arm who creates an incendiary revolt to save "the breeders" - the hand-picked wives - the child bearers of the all powerful horrific ruler - Immortan Joe whose "citadel" is trucked out with past and future apocalyptic adornment, including genetic mutations and the final gasp of death; physical weakness and a pasty whiteness indicating lack of hemoglobin.
Macho characters adorned with the armaments of bizarre - way over the top head gear, facial makeup, and decaying skin covered with the boils of greed.
The theme is the dead environment and the fight for drops of water and fuel. Not many people can breathe freely - oxygen masks with hissing sounds of inhaling air as if through straws contribute to the zombie like atmosphere. Women are the warriors - the old and the fecund. Hardy as "mad" Max is there for support - one of the last remaining males with a conscience still ruminating somewhere inside his gut.
Metropolis came to mind - with shaven headed worker bees in an architecture of death and putrid decay. The ruler of the corrupted land allows the starving populations left on this dry earth some water - which he turns on and off - the benevolent despot - as it cascades out of pipes like waterfalls to scrambling desperate people buckets in hand to catch the jewels of survival.

Good review by Anthony Lane in The New Yorker - worth reading:

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

REFLECTIONS ON CHRISTMAS PAST - CHRISTMAS ENVY published by Women's Voices For Change 12/21/15

I was asked by the online magazine Women's Voices For Change to write an article on Christmas. My first response was a quick "no" since I do not celebrate - and then I remembered my childhood in Washington Heights.....
Click on:

Friday, December 4, 2015



Two artists with distinctly different stylistic works dealing with their own cultural histories are exhibiting in Chelsea: Mark Bradford’s BE STRONG BOQUAN at Hauser & Wirth New York, 511 W.18th Street, November 7th – December 23rd, and Zhang Huan LET THERE BE LIGHT at Pace Gallery, 510 West 25th Street October 30th - December 5th, 2015. Both artists are making paintings that are not only incredibly ambitious, but their approaches co-opt abstract expressionism and photo realism into eloquent personal statements along with visual breadth, grandeur and the intimacy of poetry.

Mark Bradford born in 1961 in South Central Los Angeles where his mother owned a beauty salon, supporting the family. He spent many hours in that space during his formative years, even after she moved the family to Santa Monica when he was 11 years old, closer to the beach - a neighborhood less suffused with violence. After High School, Mark got his hairdresser’s license and worked in his mother’s shop, and it was not until he was 30 years old that he left to study at Cal Arts where he eventually received an MFA. His work makes use of the detritus of the streets of the city where he grew up and where he still lives and works. Supplies come from Home Depot as well as the shards of his urban environment - ripped billboard signs, ropes, wood, etc:

Calvin Tompkins in The New Yorker profile of Bradford - June 22, 2015:

“…He starts with a stretched canvas and builds up its surface with ten or fifteen layers of paper—white paper, colored paper, newsprint, reproductions, photographs, printed texts—fixing each layer with a coat of clear shellac. Sometimes he embeds lengths of string or caulking to form linear elements in the palimpsest. When the buildup reaches a certain density, he attacks it with power sanders and other tools, exposing earlier layers, flashes of color, and unexpected juxtapositions. Not until the first sanding does he begin to see where the painting is going. He works like an archeologist, rediscovering the past…Bradford refers to his work as “social abstraction”—abstract art “with a social or political context clinging to the edges…”

Bradford’s process is one of tearing down and building up - excavating and constructing - the scratched surfaces, as if clawed in desperation are contrasted with the delicacy of lightly scraped areas, as if we can see through a telescope deep into the body of the work - an exquisite poignancy punctuated with evidence of his hand and arm tossing house paint flowing over the canvas like an erupting volcano. I am moved and stand still in my tracks - unable to stir. His presence permeates the room.

From the Hauser and Wirth Press Release:

"‘Be Strong Boquan’ takes its title from Bradford’s new multimedia work ‘Spiderman’ (2015), which is presented together here with a series of new paintings, sculpture, and a second video installation. The exhibition builds upon ideas explored in the artist’s recent solo show at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles CA, referencing issues ranging from the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s and society’s misrepresentation and fear of queer identity, to the brutality and lasting outrage resulting from the race riots in Los Angeles during the early 1990s. Bradford’s latest work finds the artist returning to these themes, reaching back to the touchstone experiences of his early career and carving into his art the potent memories of youth and the political and social policies that ignited conflagrations over questions of culture, race, sexuality, and gender. "

This latest show takes time to absorb, as do the ideas embedded in the paintings many of which “draw inspiration from molecular and cellular imagery of the human body.” At first we are struck with what superficially looks like more conventional works - bombastic and sensual - but as I approach these overpowering objects,  my senses opened up to the realization that these are visceral pieces filled with both humanity and rage.

This exhibition which also includes videos - jokes, music, and voices from the street  - confirms that Mark Bradford is one of our greatest contemporary painters - I am humbled before his art.

When I walked into Zhang Huan’s exhibition, LET THERE BE LIGHT, I was overwhelmed by the pure scale of these amazing wrap-around-the-room paintings of over 1000 photo realistic images of mostly male Chinese   officials - transporting us back to1960’s China under the rule of Mao Tse -Tung  (Mao Zedong) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976.) In an excellent interview with the writer, Barbara Pollack, Zhan Huan explains how he came upon the photograph which is the source of this challenging work which took 3 years to complete:

“…About 5 or 6 years ago, when I first returned to Beijing  from NYC, I encountered this antique photograph in …flea market. I found that I was very familiar with the figures in this photo, who were all central leaders in the government when Mao Zedong ruled our country. And in June 1964 I was just about to be born [January 1965]. Therefore the sight of the photo took me back to my childhood…”

Upon closer inspection, JUNE 15, 1964, with its plethora of portraits are painted with ash on linen - a medium he began using in 2006 which he considered “…a spiritual  material for art creation…”, As I made my way around the gallery the ash background behind the seated multitudes changed imperceptibly  like the setting sun, from light to dark. Each face was distinctive - no two were alike - all strikingly observed and rendered with a tenderness that belied their roles as revolutionary bureaucrats.

The Braille Paintings which fill the second room at Pace Gallery, are very abstract with braille inscriptions - almost minimal in their quiet reserve, but the written words are precise and explicit giving clarity and the opportunity for the blind to communicate through touch, echoing  the title of the exhibition as well as Genesis and Zhang Huan the artist as creator -  LET THERE BE LIGHT.

“…What is most interesting about the Braille paintings is that I am using ash, which comes from Buddhist temples and carries the spirit of Buddhism, to express Bible stories and even the national anthem of the United States. It is a combination of cultures. Similarly the Braille paintings look like abstract paintings, but at the same time, they are not abstract because they have concrete text…” (Interview with Barbara Pollack.)

Both Mark Bradford and Zhang Huan exhume their own history and culture, generating a distinctly elegiac and elegant cosmos where the textures and materials of their personal backgrounds become the alchemy for new beginnings.