4 art things from 2019

A photo of Lee Miller with her eyes closed and head flung back by Man Ray, circa 1930

Man Ray Portrait of Lee Miller – Flying Head, c. 1930. Paris Vintage gelatin silver print (Lee Miller Archives via WBUR)

In 2019, Critical Read published my article about Lee Miller, Man Ray, and Ray’s painting “Le Logis de l’Artiste” (1931). I pitched them after reading a call for “artwork biographies” and realized I had maintained some (not much, it turns out―thank God for libraries) knowledge about the story behind the painting from 2013, when I wrote and directed a short play about it in a friend’s gallery. This time, it was very special to correspond with Antony Penrose via email―and for him to say, when I sent the finished product, that it characterized his mother well.

The article will eventually go behind a $1.99 paywall (not yet, as of this publication). If it has, I encourage you to pay up―not to feed my ego, but because Critical Read pays authors 70 cents per word, fact-checks, and were wonderful editors. Here’s a bit from the intro:

As [Ray’s] apprentice, collaborator, lover, and muse, [Miller] often posed for him at the Paris studio that the two shared during their romantic relationship, which lasted from 1929 to 1932. Man Ray’s photography from this era made Miller’s face and body world famous. Yet one photograph in particular nearly didn’t survive: 1930’s Neck is a haunting view of Miller’s profile craning from the side, neck and face forming one ethereal, phallic column slanted against a void. Miller fished the negative out of the trash moments after it was discarded, and developed it in the same session, employing the bold cropping method she had learned from Man Ray to make a striking final product. Then she informed him that she was claiming it as her own work.

It was common for Miller to tease Man Ray, and even for their work to be misattributed to each other—such was the closeness of their professional and personal relationship. But on this day, a more serious quarrel than usual ensued. Man Ray threw Miller out of the studio, and when she returned, he’d slashed the print with a razor and pinned it to the wall, with red ink splashed across her neck. The following year, the same image of the neck appeared in his painting Le Logis de l’Artiste (The Artist’s Home), among other objects of the artist’s creation, in a pointed statement of ownership.

~

Portrait Seventeen - after Ingres' 'La Grande Odalisque

“Portrait Seventeen – after Ingres’ ‘La Grande Odalisque'” by Dinorá Justice, 2018 – oil and acrylic on canvas, 30×40″

I managed one art review this year―the Peabody Essex Museum’s excellent Olivia Parker retrospective―but have been losing steam on these for a few reasons. One, researching and writing the Critical Read article took up a lot of my weekend work time. Still working a full-time job over here. Two, finding shows to review in Boston takes a fair amount of effort as there is no central listing page (like Glass Tire in Houston). Three, I’m unreasonably altered after truly wanting to buy a painting I saw in a press release (above), so much that I reached out to the gallery to inquire―a new thing for me.

Learning that the painting (comparable to the one pictured above, which was no longer available) cost $10,000 was, for some reason, like a trapdoor for my will to write about art. This doesn’t exactly make sense: I knew it would probably cost around that much, given its size. And I want artists to be paid what they’re worth, especially if a work will be hoarded in a private residence instead of a public venue for all to enjoy.

But receiving a definitive answer about what I can afford―that my visceral reaction did not make me worthy―enacted a clear split between the self who felt welcomed and engaged with the art world and the reality that no matter how thoughtful a review I write, no matter how much I “get” an artist (some very encouraging feedback I received for this review and this review in 2018), I still won’t be able to live with their art. Maybe my priorities have changed. Maybe I’ve shifted too far into a capitalist dreamland wherein I find less meaning in learning about and highlighting artists and more in what I can GET, feeling subconsciously entitled to it as an educated, privileged person and super duper sad that I can’t get it. It’s not rational or fair―after all, I didn’t start writing reviews so I could someday afford paintings―but it’s a gut feeling that’s difficult to ignore, particularly as I advance in my day job and have a little more spending money. I’m grieving the fact that I have this feeling at all, when I have so much (eg. the time to see and review art). But somehow, that “exclusion” is the straw that broke the art reviewer’s back this year. That, and having limited time because reviewing art doesn’t pay a living wage.

This is all said with no ire toward the artist, Dinorá Justice, or Gallery NAGA, which represents her―I hope I will have it in me to review her work in the future. Please buy it if you can afford it.

~

The Frank case has so many polarizing elements: religious, racial, gender, class. It’s one-stop shopping for all the things your parents told you not to talk about in company. Mary Phagan was an oppressed worker, a child laborer toiling for pennies an hour in a sweatshop. Leo Frank was an oppressive capitalist industrialist. Jim Conley was a black witness against a white man living in the Jim Crow south in a time when life was hard for all blacks. Frank was a Jew and excited an anti-Semitism he didn’t know existed.

―Historian Steve Oney, quoted in an article by Aimee Levitt in The Forward (June 23, 2017)

BParade-Press-20-1000x737

The cast of the Moonbox Productions’ staging of “Parade.” (Photo: Sharman Altshuler via WBUR)

I can’t hear the word “Atlanta” without mentally pronouncing it with drunken southern drawl à la the character Britt Craig in “Parade” during his big song, “Big News.” So naturally, when I traveled to Atlanta for the first time this year I seized the plane ride as an opportunity to re-listen to the “Parade” original cast recording. I’d first heard it in college, when you had to pop in a CD and listen to the whole album, so the entire thing is pretty much imprinted on my brain for better or for worse.

The show is a hard sell, which is why it’s not often produced: a musical adaptation of the trial and eventual lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory owner in 1913 Atlanta accused of murdering his 13-year-old employee, Mary Phagan. Lucky for me, Moonbox Production staged it this month as a twisted holiday gift (read my friend Josh’s review here for more details about the show). Some issues with staging (Mary’s ever-present ghost was a huge misstep), but overall the production featured a fantastic cast, great choreography, and multiple haunting moments. I was, appropriately, a wreck at the end. Always a risk to see a production you’ve only listened to before―worth the wait.

~

A favorite tune from Esther Rose’s fantastic 2019 album (h/t the Hype Machine weekly stack newsletter, which is essentially the only way I find out about new not-mainstream music):

May we always be changing in 2020.

 

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